Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Cure for Holiday Consumerist Bloat


Do you ever feel glutted around The Holidays?   Not just by food, but by stuff?  I always do, whether I receive many gifts or not.  The sheer spectacle of all that commerce gets to me, and I know I’m part of the problem.  I try not to spoil my kids … I really do.  So does my wife.  And yet somehow, every year, the consumer habit runs away with us and we overdo it.

This year, I enjoyed a strong sense of catharsis, which came from a rather surprising source.  What was this source?  Here’s a hint.

The reluctant consumer

I hate Christmas shopping mainly because I hate shopping.  I guess it’s how I was raised.  My brothers and I never knew the value of the dollar—in the sense that we greatly overvalued it.  You know that famous L’Oréal slogan, “Because I’m Worth It”?  It would be a slight exaggeration to say my family’s version was “Because I’m Not Worth It.”  Our version (had it been verbalized) was more like “Because It’s Not Worth It.”  The “It’s” in this context meant “whatever you were considering buying.”  Nothing, it seemed, was worth its price. 

Buying gifts is, to me, the worst form of shopping because chances are you’re going to guess wrong and buy somebody something he doesn’t even want.  When I open a gift, I’m practically wincing because I can’t stand such misfires. As a kid I once bought my dad a mirror for his bike.  He tried to seem pleased with it but clearly wasn’t.  A few years later, when I was a racer, a guy on my team got a sheepskin saddle cover from his grandma, and would have to remember to put it on his bike whenever she came to visit.  And then there’s the colleague who shows up at work with his new canary yellow fleece vest, which he wears exactly one time (as a gesture toward his wife), before it disappears forever.  The whole process is so inefficient.

But that’s not even the worst part.  I can totally handle buying birthday presents for people, because then I have time to think.  In the weeks before Christmas, especially with the economy back on track, everybody is out there shopping together, clogging up the system.  My wife and I got stuck in a mall in Fremont this year (long, boring story) and when—due to gradual suffocation amidst the rest of the human cattle—we decided to bail, we were horrified to realize we couldn’t find the exit.  Honestly, I’ve had a better time getting a cavity filled.  (And don’t even get me started on the holiday-themed music.)

The next day I headed out to a local mall for stocking stuffers.  I pulled in to the parking lot and it was pure gridlock in there.  Nobody could even move, and they were just sitting in their cars, waiting for somebody to leave—but the way the cars were lined up, it seemed you could be waiting hours.  I drove out of there, parked a few blocks away, and walked.  After I got home, realized I’d been overcharged almost $20, and started to drive back.  The street traffic was completely jammed and I realized I was too angry to drive.  I drove home, got my bike, and rode there instead.  Even though the rain was coming down in sheets, I was much less miserable.

What about e-commerce?  Yeah, I did a lot of that, too.  I used to hoard boxes all year so I’d have them to wrap gifts in at Christmas time.  Now, I get so much crap mail-order, my tiny garage is overflowing with cardboard.  I feel like a cog in this runaway retail machine, or like human grist for the retail mill.  Disgusting.

A few non-solutions

Would it help if I paused for a moment and reflected on what Christmas is really all about?  No, because when I look around me, I don’t see a lot of people praying and going to mass—I see a lot of people shopping.  Practically speaking, giving and getting is what Christmas is about.  This is mainly true in the modern era, but don’t forget about the Magi who gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  As a present, gold is alive and well (in its modern configuration, the gift card), but you have to wonder how well the second two gifts were received.  (This was before gift receipts, after all.)

On a bike ride this morning I passed a church with one of those little marquees, which read, “THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE AREN’T THINGS.”  As platitudes go, this falls a bit flat.  (I don’t like it as much as “He who dies with the most toys STILL DIES.”)  And though the sentiment is probably true, it’s not really that useful.  Am I supposed to tell my kids, “Instead of exchanging gifts this year, we’re all just going to hug a bit more”?  Yeah, right.  Should I tell them their Christmas wish lists have to include at least three items that aren’t physical objects?  (They’d dodge by asking for “shopping spree” or “trip to Hawaii.”)

Life experiences are a nice counterbalance to egregious buying.  What about a lovely, sunny day, or a beautiful sunset?  I enjoyed both on Christmas day, when I went for a long, slow ride in the Berkeley hills.  Check it out:

But those still l didn’t reverse the self-disgust I felt after all that commerce.  After all, between the shopping trips, the trip to Office Depot to buy more packing tape, the parking lot incident, all the time I spent wrapping gifts, and two afternoons of braving the long line at the post office, I figure I missed out on at least three or four rides, and as many sunsets.  This one ride wasn’t a Christmas gift so much as the end of my precious time being stolen.

The catharsis

My catharsis came in the form of some Me Time, which I spend building a Me Thing:  specifically, a replacement for my dearly departed commuter bike, Full Slab.  Its frame broke last summer after five years of loyal service (and a few years as my road bike before that).  For the last five months I’ve been commuting on the Arseless, which is very cool old English 3-speed which I do love, but which I hate to ride:  not because I’m keeping it nice or something, but because it rides like crap.  It’s heavy, the bearings are pretty much shot, and it routinely slips out of second gear (not for lack of adjustment but because an internal part has rounded-off bits that are supposed to be sharp).  On top of that, the fenders rattle so loudly I can’t hear myself think.  Could I try to fix these things?  Yeah, but painful experience tells me that when a bike is fifty years old and has never been properly maintained, it’s best not to go anywhere near it with a wrench.

Why not just buy myself a nice commuting bike for Christmas?  In general I consider that a fine idea, and something I’d recommend to anybody with an income.  A good bicycle is about as virtuous a purchase as I can think of.  But as a really bike-y person with a bicycle shop background, I’m way beyond traditional retail.  Buying something stock would be polluting my pure bike experience by blending it with that same consumerist spirit I’ve been deriding throughout this essay.

You see, part of what kills me about being stuck in traffic, or in a parking lot, or at the mall, is the anonymity of the experience:  the sense of being swept up in some mob, immersed in a mindless group activity.  Within that shopping mall is a finite variety of things to buy, with a seemingly infinite number of people buying them, and each item carefully calibrated to appeal to the highest number of consumers.  (The king of that effort must be Apple, who sold 75.5 million iPhone 6 units in one quarter.)  I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that many people actually care what the most popular gifts are, and will purposefully seek them out.  American consumers start to seem so much alike, I start to forget which one of us I am.

So for me, to imagine buying a new bike at the Christmas sale is to imagine hundreds and hundreds of these bikes being churned out on an assembly line.  This train of thought brings me to “Pink Floyd The Wall” and those school kids going down the conveyor belt to the meat grinder.  I don’t want something marketed to the buying public; what I want is a bike that is not only fast and light and cheap, but unusual and cool.

Think of the new car Max gets in Mad Max.  Remember the scene in which his cop buddies are unveiling the car to him, singing its praises, to lure him back to the force?
      “You can shut the gate on this one.”  “It's the duck's guts.”  “Yeah, she's the last of the V8s.”  “Sucks nitro.”  “Phase 4 heads.”  “Twin overhead cam.”  “Tell him about the blower.  The blower, man!”  “She's meanness put to music and the bitch is born to run!”
      “How the hell did you get all this together?”
      “It just happened, Max, you know?  A piece from here and a piece from there.”
      “So easy?”
Except it’s not easy, not with my bike at least.  I procured the frame months ago (online, Chinese, about $120 which—given the biking circles I run in—is practically nothing).  The problem was, this frame wasn’t compatible with most of the components from Full Slab, so instead of a bike I had a Project.  And I just didn’t have the time or energy to fight with the thing.  Months ago, I got as far as sanding off the thick powder coat paint that, due to a programming error, some robot neglected to mask during the frame’s construction:

Finally, this week, with some time off from my job, I managed to log some serious hours out in the garage, figuring out what old parts to use (“a piece from here and a piece from there”), fighting with the wacky French steerer tube springy thingy, looking for half an hour for a cable housing ferrule I dropped on the floor (costs maybe 25 cents, but of course the bike shop’s closed for the holiday), and basically making glacial progress—until, amazingly, the whole menagerie of donor organs suddenly turned into a real bicycle, with a smooth clean look that largely belies its Frankenbike heritage:

It’s kind of the bicycle equivalent of decorator crab:  you just use what’s available, and in the process achieve total uniqueness.  The fork on this bike is from a friend who traded it for a lunch—he refused to take money for it because it flexed like crazy and gave him the willies.  (It was on my rain bike for a while before something better came along).  The bars and stem came with my older daughter’s mountain bike (it was the spare set I got when I bought the bike used from a friend).  The crankset and bottom bracket are hand-me-downs from my backup road bike (which got an upgrade due to compatibility issues with my current race frame).  The seat post is from an old (dearly departed) Orbea.  The saddle is one that I got ages ago from a friend to put on my younger daughter’s mountain bike; I reclaimed the saddle before passing the bike along to my niece.  The rear derailleur—freakin’ Dura-Ace, baby!—is from like six road bikes ago.  The brakes are from my older daughter’s new road bike (off-brand Tektro, which work fine but which on principle I had to replace right off the bat).  The shifters, bottle cage, and freewheel seem to have been spontaneously generated by The Box.  (“I can't remember where I got 'em, but I got 'em, know what I mean?”)

There’s a long tradition of recycling your old junk to make a cool, weird, serviceable bike out of it.  I believe this is the basis for the fixie culture that has become so popular.  That’s part of the joy of bikes:  they’re easy to work on (compared to a car, anyway) so almost anybody can cobble something together.  On his latest album, Eminem raps about doing this as a kid:  “I bike ride through the neighborhood of my apartment complex on a ten speed which I've acquired parts that I find in the garbage, a frame, then put tires on it.”

Of course it was only a matter of time before the bike industry rose up to capitalize on the fixie thing, offering brand new stock fixies (like these or these) which—don’t get me wrong—have a right to exist, but don’t satisfy my yearning for a bike that’s cool, weird, and cheap—like the one I just built. 

Yeah, my bike has got gears.  I’m not into fixies, because I like cogs and shifters and derailleurs, and I like being able to go up hills, and I like the basic process of shifting.  A single-speed drivetrain would give me about as much enjoyment as my car’s automatic transmission—that is, no enjoyment at all.

Check out the finishing touch:  a head badge a friend made me like ten years ago, when my kids still looked like this.  I’ve been storing this badge all this time, just waiting for a worthy bike to put it on.

To sum up, this bike is what’s given me great relief and satisfaction after the predictable, perennial, and bankable excess of The Holidays.  All that quality time in the garage, messing about with tools, solving little problems, sighing with pleasure when stumbling on cool stuff that had lain dormant in The Box for like two decades, and ending up with the flyest, dopest commuter I’ve ever had … it all gives me such a gratifying feeling of redemption.  Despite having added to my possessions, I feel I’ve thrown off the shameful mantle of passive consumer and—in this instance, anyway—become more of a designer or creator.  Ah, the goodness of bikes!
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  1. We stopped Christmas gifts when your friend Ben was 6. Since we are not religious we celebrated the Winter Solstice with a party. The kids picked a kids name out of hat and had to make a present for that person. The adults did the same. Everybody brought food and instruments. The kids got to go to a toy store in January and pick out one item.

    1. Sounds like a great approach ... thanks for sharing!