Throwback: Stop Buying Crap

(This, again, was from my former blog 20/Infinity, which started off being about what I would do with a time machine, but quickly turned to — who would have guessed? — ranting. But I like that this one made me giggle while I was writing it, and I actually wrote the giggle into a parenthetical comment.)

Good, But Not Cheap

 

No time machine needed this week, because this one is appropriate right now. Stop throwing things away.

That’s the best advice I can give. It needs to be said to everyone in this society, including myself. Stop throwing things away.

Because whenever we throw something away and head on down to Wal*Mart to buy a new one, we encourage the culture of consumption that has been gradually built in this country since the 1950’s, and perhaps even earlier — though the scrap metal drives and paper drives and rubber drives and string drives of the WWII era, and the sheer desperation of the Depression before it, lead me to believe that it was indeed the 1950’s, still seen by Republicans across the country as the pinnacle of America, that started us down this road.

We should be able to make things that last, and we don’t do it. And the only reason we don’t do it is because we, as a people, would rather buy something cheap that will only last a short time, and then when it breaks, throw it away and buy a new one. Paper plates, for instance, and paper napkins and Starbucks cups. The only reason we use paper plates is because we can’t be bothered to wash the real ones; ditto paper napkins. Oh — and they’re cheaper. But look at what’s happened: when was the last time you saw cloth napkins outside of a fine restaurant? Does anyone have cloth napkins any more? Where would you even buy them? Maybe I’m just not paying attention, and cloth napkins abound in the linen aisles which I don’t often frequent (Word geek moment: often frequent. That’s a fun phrase. Sorry — back to what I was saying), but I do know that there are a dozen stores that I do frequent, and often (hee hee!), that carry paper napkins. They are the stores I’m in every day, so they are the stores that shape most of my daily purchasing. If they carry paper napkins, chances are good that I’m just going to get paper napkins, and not think about it. And paper plates. And sugar in little paper packets, instead of a bowl. So it goes.

We as a society shape what’s in the stores, and then what’s in the stores shapes us as a society; it’s a kind of biofeedback on a grand scale. When we are given a choice between, say, a $100 toaster that will last for twenty years, and a $30 toaster that will last for two, most of us buy the cheaper toaster, for two reasons: we don’t think that far ahead — the cheap toaster will make toast when I get it home today, and that’s as a far as I’m planning — and we are not willing to wait and save up the $100, or wait and go without the other things we would buy now with the $70 difference. Anyone who can buy the $30 toaster can save up to buy the $100 toaster, but in the interim, there will be no toast — and we can’t abide that. So we buy the cheap toaster, and then when it breaks in two years, we go back out and face the same choice — and come to the same conclusion: this one will make toast now, and I won’t have to wait to spend money elsewhere.

End result? Over twenty years, we spend $300 on toasters, rather than $100. And the landfills are nine toasters closer to overflowing. And the stores stop stocking the $100 toaster, because it doesn’t sell, and after twenty years when we lose our patience and just decide to drop the money on a toaster that lasts, we can’t find one, and we bewail the fact that nobody builds things that last any longer. Oh, yeah: and the toaster repair shop is out of business, because nobody is going to spend the money to fix a $30 toaster (they would to fix a $100 model) and Wal*Mart has built 3,000 new stores and half of the US’s GNP is in Chinese bank accounts.

All right, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and confess. This is not an arbitrary topic, culled from the massive crop of ideas neatly filed in a drawer in my home. This is really about coffee.

My coffeepot doesn’t work. There’s something wrong with the water intake, so when you turn it on it makes that gurgling noise that signals the last sips of water being sucked up, even though there is a full reservoir of water in the machine, waiting to be run through and turned into liquid gold. It’s probably hard water deposits, somewhere inside the tube, because it can be fixed by running vinegar through the Cleaning cycle — it has a cleaning cycle, which I think just makes it go slowly and maybe a little hotter than normal so as to melt away any dirt or coffee oil residue. This happened for the first time last week, and then again today.

The coffee machine is six weeks old.

Now, I admit to drinking a lot of coffee. No, scratch that; I drink an inhuman amount of coffee. It is no mistake that my online handle, for years, has been “Coffeesaint” or some permutation thereof. I invented, and celebrate, Coffee Day (February 11 — join the fun!). I drink something like 6 pints of coffee a day — that would be around 20 cups if I used a normal sized mug, the kind they serve coffee in at Denny’s or IHOP — and on days when I’m tired or crabby, I can hit the gallon mark. I started drinking coffee regularly when I was 18, and for the last 15 years, not one day has gone by that I have not had coffee. So as you can imagine, my coffee maker gets quite a lot of use, since my wife also drinks what most people would consider a lot of coffee on top of what gets poured down my own bottomless coffee-hole. I can understand that my coffee maker will break down sooner than it would in other people’s households.

But six weeks?

We have gone through three coffeepots in the last year, five in the last five years. The last four pots have all come from Wal* Mart, mainly because that is the only large retail store in town, but also because of the monetary impatience I described above. I really don’t want to wait to get a new coffeepot. I don’t want to do without coffee, and I like my morning routine of waking up, turning on the coffeepot (I grind beans and pour water the night before, so all I have to do is hit the button) and then getting in the shower, coming out to fresh coffee. I don’t want to boil water and pour it into a French press or something like that, some low-tech version of a coffeepot that would last many more years without breaking, but would take twice the time and thrice the effort to make my morning coffee. I hate that idea. I just want a coffeepot that will last for more than six weeks, or six months, or two years. I want one that will last, with some maintenance and maybe a trip to a repair shop, for twenty years. But I can’t find one. At least, I can’t find one at a price that will override the momentary temptation of a $29.99 price tag and coffee right now. So I do the same thing everyone else does: I buy that $30 coffee pot and complain.

But here’s an interesting thing. Like most people, I hate being a hypocrite. I hate telling people to do one thing and then doing something different myself. When I assign an essay to my English class, for instance, I often write the essay myself. Even though I don’t want my dog to eat too many salty snacks, if I get out the box of Cheez-its, I give him one — because I shouldn’t be eating them either, so if I can ignore my health for the sake of a happy belly, why can’t he? So now that I have written this little chunk of handy advice, I’m going to have to take it myself. See, I realize that our society is the way it is because we make it so. As I said, there are no decent coffeepots because we don’t buy them, because we’re not willing to do without, or to make do with some less efficient or easy system. We are willing, even eager, to use shoddy goods and throw them away so long as it spares us some effort, so long as it saves us time. And that’s why the goods we buy — everything from our clothes to our computers to our cars to our food — are poorly made, overly disposable, and cheap.

My father told me a maxim many years ago, and it’s amazed me ever since with how many applications it has in daily life (and he’d love that, because he loves aphorisms — I think he’s always wanted to be Ben Franklin. Or maybe Jesus.). I’m positive that it will come up several times in future columns, and I’m not surprised in the least that it has come up in the first five. The maxim is this: “There are three qualities you can have in any thing you pay for: cheap, fast, and good. You can only have two of them at once. If it’s cheap and fast it ain’t good, if it’s cheap and good it ain’t fast, and if it’s fast and good it ain’t cheap.” He told me this in reference to hiring workers, plumbers and electricians and the like, and I’ve found it to be unfailingly true; in fact, sometimes you can only have one of the three. But you certainly never get more than two. Look at my coffee makers: on the whole, machines are faster than percolators and French presses, so I’m always getting fast as one of my qualities; the only question is whether I want a good machine, or a cheap one. For the last five years, I’ve consistently made the same choice.

This is a truth that we as a society need to remember. We have spent long enough buying fast and cheap. We need to go back to good, because good things do not get thrown away, and so they do not use up our resources and they do not fill up our countryside with garbage. Of all the things we can do to improve our world, I think this is the easiest, because honestly, it would make us happier if we owned nice things, good things that worked well and didn’t need to be replaced while we still have the original receipt stuffed in the checkbook.

So my first piece of advice is this: buy good products. If it means you have to save up for the good products, then save the money; make do for a little while now, and then buy something that will actually make your life easier, and save you money, in the long run instead of just saving you money out of this paycheck and simplifying things right now. And my second piece of advice is this: if you, like me, do some things that you know you shouldn’t do, and you let yourself get away with it because it’s easier to ignore the issue than fix the problem, then start giving people advice. It’s like a nicotine patch for hypocrisy.

Now I have to buy a freaking French press.

On the Seventh Day of Blogging, Just Dusty Blogged for Me…

…A throwback to 20/Infinityyyyy!

The blog I used to have, 20/Infinity, was dedicated to the theme of time travel: I imagined having a time machine and the ability to travel back in time and change past events in order to adjust the present or the future; the title was a reference to infinite hindsight. It was a good blog while it lasted. And since this is New Year’s Eve, a time when we look back on the past, I thought that I had two options: either I could recount the events of 2016 (he says with a shudder), or I could re-post one of my essays from an old blog. And even though I agree with Cat Jones and others that 2016 was not the worst year on record — 2014 was so much shittier for me, I can’t even express it — I’d rather not rehash it right now.

So instead, here is one of the very first blogs I ever wrote, almost ten years ago today; explaining in greater detail how I feel about New Year’s Resolutions. My favorite thing about this one? The phrase “rut jump.” And it’s fun to see how I nerded out to words with two u’s together.

Enjoy! Happy New Year!

 

Resolved

Happy new year! Tak a cup o’kindness, fer the sake of auld lang syne. Gather round and watch the Bowl Games. Drink champagne, watch the ball drop, kiss someone you love at midnight.

I hope that everyone got a chance to do any or all of those things on the last night of 2007, and the first day of 2008. But I also hope that nobody made a New Year’s Resolution. In fact, that will be my first use of the time machine: I will flirt with paradox and play footsie with the space-time continuum (How cool is it that there are words that have two u’s together? Continuum! Vacuum!) by going back to the same day, over and over and over again, doubling and trebling and quadrupling myself in order to catch everyone I can on New Year’s Eve, so that I can try to convince everyone: don’t.

Don’t promise to lose weight. Don’t swear off alcohol or cigarettes or chocolate. Don’t make that champagne-infused oath to be a nicer person, to be a meaner person, to work harder, to work less, to find a lover or to lose a dozen. That is, make any, all of those promises — just don’t do it on December 31.

The New Year is one of the more artificial demarcations there is — right up there with Leap Year and Daylight Savings Time. The old year vanishes, and there is a clean slate! We start fresh! Yeah, right: you go to sleep under a cloudy/rainy/snowy/sleety sky, and wake up under the same. The nights are still long, the days are still short; the air is still cold. Public school students are (generally speaking) returning to school still in the first semester, or halfway through the second trimester; university students are only halfway through their winter break. If you were 38 when 2007 ended, you are 38 when 2008 begins (Unless January 1 is your birthday, but that puts you into a different category. So siddown, nitpicker.). Tell me, please, other than your calendar (16-month calendars are hereby discounted — vile heresies they are.), what changes between December 31 and January 1?

When you make a life-changing resolution, when you decide that things are going to be different, it needs to feel like it. You need to feel as though things really are different, as though you have changed and now you are seeing the world through different eyes: now you are a non-smoker! An exerciser! A teetotaler! Things should not feel just as they did the night before — and a January 1 champagne hangover is not enough of a shift in perception. If you make a change in your basic daily routine, then the day after you make that change needs to be a new day — otherwise you will not feel the change, and as countless diet industry millionaires can attest, if you do not feel the change, you will not change. You may change for a little while, but slowly you will shift back into your former routine.

Life is a rut in the road. Most of the time, we run along in our little ruts, moving forward, pretty much content, occasionally jumping up to get a glimpse of what is outside the rut. Sometimes, when we decide we no longer enjoy this particular rut, we can try to jump out of the rut; this is what a resolution is, a rut jump. But if all you do is jump to the top of the rut and keep running along the edge of the same old rut, sooner or later you’re going to ooze right back in, and be right back where you started — probably just in time for New Year’s Eve, 2008, and a brand new, though equally futile, champagne-fueled guilt-charged rut jump. To get out of your rut and stay out, you have to find a new rut.

What this means is just that you have to change yourself before you can change your habits, and to change yourself takes real willpower. You have to want to be different, because if you don’t really want to be different, you’re not going to change. It seems so obvious, but vast self-improvement industries have been built on resolution recidivism, the tendency to change one’s life without really changing one’s self, an attempt that is almost always doomed to be repeated, over and over again, at great personal and financial cost.

If you want to change, then don’t wait for a new calendar. Change when the time feels right to you. Listen to your own will, your own heart and mind. Take that day, whatever day it is that you wake up feeling like a new person, and count from there; that is the beginning of your New Year, of your year as the person you want to be. The day that you choose, for yourself, is always more meaningful than the one that is chosen for you. Want proof? Think of the difference between Valentine’s Day, the artificially chosen Day To Prove Your Love (also known as Hallmark Day, also known as Day the Catholic Church Wanted to Take Away From Pagans Who Had Yet Another Fertility Festival That Week [cf. Roman feast of Lupercal and read the description from Plutarch], also known as Day To Be Jealous Of All the Kids With More Cards In Their Construction Paper Letter Box Than You, Those Jerkfaces) and your anniversary. Which day seems more precious? Which has more thought behind it, the heart-shaped box of chocolates or the anniversary gift? When do you feel a greater difference in your world view, on February 15 — or the day after your wedding night?

If you are one of those people who actually feel a difference between December 31 of one year and January 1 of the next, then please: ignore what I have said. Hold up a hand for silence, and point me back to my time machine: a New Year’s Resolution is perfectly valid for you. If your birthday falls on the first day of the New Year, then perhaps you, like millions of others, feel a real difference on the morning when your age officially rolls over to the next number; you, too, are free to resolve to change with the coming of the new year of your life. But for the rest of you, forget the New Year. Celebrate it, sure; reminisce about the old year, look forward to the new year. But don’t expect to change yourself as easily as you change the calendar. Pick your own first day, and look forward to your own chosen anniversary.

And by the way: if you picked February 14 as your wedding day, you need to get a life.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

I confess: I wish I’d written this book. I’m just a little bit too young – my brother, three years my senior, was the one who rode his bike down to the corner drugstore to play the new Pac-Man game when it arrived; I remember him telling the family about it, and being confused: so you eat the ghosts? – and not quite geeky enough, especially when it comes to Japanese anime and robot/monster shows, which I never got into. I watched Voltron (Both versions – everybody remembers the lions, but does anyone else remember the Voltron made of cars? Much cooler.) and StarBlazers and G-Force, but that’s about it. Fast forward a few years to Transformers and G.I. Joe, to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which featured a light gun shaped like a jet fighter that you could shoot at the TV screen and score hits on the bad guys, and I’m all in. I did play the role-playing games, and I watched the movies – War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are also two of my favorites – but I never had an Atari 2600, so I never played Adventure seriously – just a few times at a friend’s house, where I got stomped by the dragons and opted for Pitfall or Centipede or Missile Command instead – and I never found the Easter egg in that pixellated dungeon.

So I couldn’t really have written this book, which explores geek culture from the 1980’s to a depth that I could not hope to plumb. But I am so very glad that Ernest Cline wrote this book, because I loved it. Absolutely loved it.

The book is about a video game challenge. It is set about 40 years into our future, when the internet has become a single enormous virtual reality environment, built by a Bill Gates-like figure who focused on video game design rather than operating systems and world domination. When this gaming guru dies, he creates a challenge for everyone in the system he created (which is essentially everyone around the world, in one way or another): find the secret challenges he left, conquer them, and you inherit his entire vast fortune, and control of the virtual world. And because this man grew up in the 1980’s, the entire thing is one enormous trip through the world of reminiscence: a kind of “I Love the 80’s” that focuses exclusively on geek culture and touches every part of life.

This is the first book in a long time that I actually didn’t want to put down, and at the same time, didn’t regret reading straight through: the excitement is excellent, but it isn’t constant, and so it didn’t feel exhausting. The dystopian elements were highly disturbing to me, particularly the mobile home “stacks” and the indentured servitude that came as a result of credit card debt, but they were wonderfully well done – and I especially liked that Cline also included some positive aspects: the idea of virtual school, with the improvements and limits that Cline describes, would be a dream come true for me, as an introvert who teaches high school English but would really like to spend lots of time playing video games and living through role playing adventures. I also loved that Cline managed to create realistic and genuine human interactions both within and apart from the virtual world; by the end, I wasn’t really sure if the hero would win the game, but I was really just hoping that he’d win the girl.

I identified with the characters, loved the plot and the adventure, and was completely enchanted by both the setting and the nostalgia. This is a geek masterpiece. You have my gratitude, Mr. Cline. Excelsior!