In praise of keeping stuff

I spent the afternoon reading multiple issues of Bicycling magazine. Why? As a member of the League of American Bicyclists, a subscription is included. It is a cold and rainy day. They were piling up next to my bed and it was time to clean up the pile. This morning I finished the book I was reading.

What did I learn? You need new stuff. The latest and greatest bike is way better than the bike you ride. Your clothes are outmoded. Short socks are out. Tall socks are in. Mostly I was reminded that magazines aren’t supported by subscriptions as much as by advertisers. Advertisers sell stuff. Therefore, magazines exist mostly to sell more stuff.

Over the years I learned that steel bikes were outmoded and everyone was riding aluminum…then titanium…then carbon fiber…and then I learned that “steel is real” and everyone should go out and buy a steel bike to go along with their fixie, areo bike, climbing bike, cyclocross bike, gravel bike, downhill bike, cross-country bike, trail bike, cargo bike, and e-bike. I’m sure I left out a couple of market segments, especially in the mountain bike world. To make it weirder, they started “Eroica” rides in Europe that require old bikes; old enough to have brake cables that route out the tops of the brake levers so you see a big loop of cable. That ended some time in the mid-1980s. In case you don’t have a bike that old, you can now buy replicas – brand new copies of 1985 technology. (So my bikes are just old, not classic. Just to be clear: the weird part, in my mind, is buying a brand-new replica of a 1985 bike; not riding an old bike.)

I’ll admit that there have been some useful changes in bike technology since I bought my Motobecane in 1974. And some of the new stuff I eschewed when I bought the Davidson in 1990 turned out to be good ideas. More gears are useful. Toe clips and straps with cleated shoes were way better than what came before, but modern pedal and cleat combinations are way better still. While I was skeptical of indexed shifting when it arrived on the scene (I know how to shift), it seems to have stuck around. Maybe electronic shifting will actually be useful (but I know how to shift). I remember the first wireless electronic shifting system. It didn’t last long. I don’t have any trouble reaching my downtube to shift, so those combination brake-and-shift levers seemed like just another way to take my money. But, by golly, I found it really helpful on the coast-to-coast ride to be able to shift without moving my hands. I realized I spent more time in the optimal gear (and it helped to have more of them to choose from). So I’m not a total Luddite, just slow.

I learned from household organizers that you should get rid of any possession that doesn’t bring you joy. Then, I suppose, you’re supposed to buy some new stuff that does. But when you talk about being green, the first step is not to buy the latest “green” product. The first step is to keep using what you have. So buy stuff that will last. Buy stuff that is of high enough quality that you won’t need to throw it away in a few years. To throw your old shit in the landfill and replace it with new “green” shit is not a net gain for the planet; just a net gain for the companies that make and sell stuff.

My dad bristled at the cost of down parkas when he took me shopping (the only time he ever did that) for my 18th birthday. We looked at cheap stuff. At the end of the day (I mean that literally), he bought the North Face parka I wanted. He paid a lot of money, but decided it was worth it. Forty nine years later I still have that parka. The cuffs are a little frayed. Granted, I only wear it when it’s really cold. It also gives me one of the few good memories I have of my dad. I bought a new Sierra Designs down vest last year. I wrote to them to complain that my old vest was leaking down and it was only 40 years old. I told them I expected this vest to last the rest of my life. I just spent too much money on a new jacket. But I bought it from the guy who made my winter bike mittens. They also cost a lot. But when it is -25 degrees, I don’t think about how much they cost. I think about the fact that my hands are warm. I plan to wear them for many more years.

I bought a tent in the 1970s. In the ’80s, the waterproof coating on the floor began to peel. I took it to the factory in Berkeley (yes, such things were made in the US in my lifetime – I’m that old). They told me that shouldn’t happen and gave me a new tent. Several years later a cow got out of its enclosure and trampled the tent, breaking a pole. Being in Nicaragua at the time, I used the repair sleeve to keep the pole together for the next month or so. Returning to the US, I took the pole to the factory to buy a replacement. He asked the circumstances of the breakage, handed me a new pole and a warranty receipt with “Contra cattle” listed as the reason for the free warranty replacement.