Sunday, August 26, 2012

Eggbeater Rebuild and Economic Shame


Old pedals, new innards
"A society that is seriously committed to freedom from desperate conditions faces many conceptual and practical problems. We can reasonably speak of a decent minimum--of enough food for basic nutrition and shelter from the elements. But human deprivation often involves relative rather than absolute poverty. As Amartya Sen explains, 'In a generally opulent country, more income is needed to buy enough commodities to achieve the same social functioning.' For people to 'lead a life without shame, to be able to visit and entertain ones friends, to keep track of what is going on and what others are talking about, and so on, requires a more expensive bundle of goods and services in a society that is generally richer, and in which most people have, say, means of transport, affluent clothing, radios or television sets, etc.' To participate in a community, you need the commodities that most people have, 'and this imposes a strain on a relatively poor person in a rich country even when that person is at a much higher level of income compared with people in less opulent countries.'" --from The Second Bill of Rights, by Cass R. Sunstein, p. 190. The Amartya Sen quote is from "The Standard of Living", my bolding.

This quote was something of a shocking revelation to me. It's basically a statement about fashion, in the sense of what everyone else believes they need to buy currently in order to fit in and be cool, but it adds a harsh, nasty twist: if you want to be part of community, you have to buy the same stuff everyone else has, else you won't be able to keep track of what's going on with everyone else because you won't be able to talk to them about those things without the shame of appearing unable to afford to buy them. If you want to hang with the carbon fiber kids, and want to avoid the shame of riding your lugged steel frame ten speed from 1973 that your uncle gave you for free, you best run out and drop $5000+ on a new C-frame racing bike. Nevermind the explanations or frame material preferences. They* don't want to hear about your adventures in refurbishing an old steel bike, not really, they want to discuss their invisible headsets, bulging bottom bracket stiffness, weave overlay patterns and so on, and since you won't be an invested member of those conversations, you'll be, by definition, excluded. *I know anytime "they" is used, there will be exceptions, there may be some novelty interest in an older bike that's still rolling around. But when it comes to mutual validation in rallying around justifying to one another the expenditure while confirming its coolness and speed, an outsider without the goods is just that.


Old pedal disassembled

By often riding three bikes that cost me $100, $100, and nothing, I face exclusion and shame simply because I appear to be unable to afford the stuff everyone else* in the dedicated cycling community has. *Again, I know that's an inaccurate generalization, but, for example, not far off from the truth I experienced at the Not One More Foundation ride of honor. Lacking the ability to demonstrate to the assembled cyclists (vast majority with carbon fiber racing bike shaped objects) my actual economic buying power or credit score directly, the stuff I wore and what I rode spoke for me, and said "NOT ONE OF US." Just fascinating. Anyway. On to the pedal version of this phenomenon.

Old pedal cleaned up, new parts going in

This most certainly applies to pedals, too. I ride either platforms, or Crank Bros. Eggbeaters, basically. I think I'm up to four sets of Eggbeaters at this point. My commuter fixie has platforms with Power Grip straps. The other commuter has some nice touring platforms. For a lot of the riding I do, I am more and more convinced that special shoes and clipless pedals are more trouble than they are worth. I will stick with the clipless for mountain biking, but anyway, there I go again with the reasons and explanations for why I don't posses (or don't appear to, anyway, I actually possess an alarming collection of parts on shelves) the correct stuff for "serious" riding. The casual glance by the serious rider at my platforms yields immediately the two conclusions which I've experienced many times that validate the quote: either I don't know, or can't afford them. 

Scottsdale bike shop that goes from this conclusion straight to the economic shaming, you know who you are. But possibly now I can't blame them entirely for their snobbishness, since this is apparently fundamental economic behavior. That they profit from customers who spend stupid amounts of money on the latest/lightest/stiffest in cycling technology may be beside the point: we want to belong, we can't help ourselves, we want to be able to talk about it with those who already possess it, and so to avoid the shame we buy it. Or, do often enough to make it a fundamental characteristic used to determine who's in, and who's out.

Which explains so much to me, about me, while I'm working on these pedals. The rebuild went fine, the helpful video on the Crank Bros. web site made it simple to do, and the only hitches were that the old bushings seemed better than the new ones so I left them in, and the seals didn't make complete sense either way I put them in. It all worked out well, though, and the play that was present with the old parts was completely gone with the new parts installed. With the new parts and fresh grease, they felt really good, ready to go onto one of the steel mountain bikes. See, it's bad enough that I don't have a carbon fiber frame mountain bike to be able to open with a fellow C-frame possessor conversation, I would tend to go the opposite way and ask how well the plastic mountain bike frame handles rocks getting flipped up by the tires and smashing into it, a conversation I'm certain no C-frame possessor wants to hear. Is that just my shame talking?

But I actually can afford a carbon frame mountain bike! I could buy some carbon fiber pedals if I wanted to! No, really! But it's not about that, which is why the Sunstein quote hit me right between the eyes. It's no use trying to explain to the community why you don't possess the commodities everyone else in it has. It's no use trying to overcome the assumption of economic shame with good reasons. Once the visual evidence has been adduced, once that key first impression of ignorance of what's cool, of what things your supposed to have, and/or poverty has taken root, there's no overcoming it.

This came as something of a blow to my idealism. Here I was, riding around, assuming that we have more to talk about than the stuff we buy. But it actually turns out to be the key: we spend more than we need to because we need to belong. Here I am, rebuilding ten year old pedals, which still seem perfectly good by the way, and my greasy machinations turn out to be a function of perpetuating my own economic shame. Sure, I had fun doing it. And I'm still a curmudgeon when it comes to buying stuff that lasts and can be repaired vs. the latest popular crap that will just get thrown away in a year or two.

You may already see the rub, and the conclusion, coming, but here it is anyway. Say that I find a community of cyclists who aren't driven to buy the latest/greatest/lightest carbon fiber racing shaped objects for usage other than actual racing. You're out there, I know you are, you Rivendell riders, you handmade custom frame lovers, you fellow old fixed-up ten speed riders, reuse/recyclers, bicycle commuters, utility cyclers, tourers and campers. I've met you. Hello there! What are you riding, it looks interesting! But listen to us already, talking about the stuff we've bought. Is that truly the glue that holds a community together? Commodities? Don't we have something else to talk about besides the stuff we bought and how it rides? It may be the case. I want to find out either way. Can we talk it over for ten minutes first, without checking out each other's stuff first, though? Meet on some level, neutral playing field unadorned and unbiased by economic prejudices? Or is that so core that it's who we are, living in a material world? 

The implications are staggering. Brazing up my own frame is looking more and more necessary. Yeah, it would still be stuff, but it would be stuff that I made myself, which I would consider as being imbued with and demonstrative of a value given to it by me greater than that created by pushing the BUY button on a web site. Talking about how I made it, and the challenges I faced, perhaps with others who do the same, well, that's one way out of the commodity basket community crisis I'm having. Another is to just get out the credit card, and join in. But I've never really been much of a joiner.

10 comments:

  1. Relative poverty doesn't affect me much and I say "much" because everything affects everyone. As a survivor of youth I am less affected but I see it's affects on my grandson, spouse and also on neighbor kids. I have no peers here so I cannot discuss anything with them. Those I happen to talk with generally treat me as some sort of alien because our backgrounds are so different and besides I've only been here 20 years so I am a newcomer.
    I don't covet others possessions so those that thrive on having something that others do not are at a loss and cannot wait to get away.
    You are young enough to build that community of which you speak and I wish you luck. It is too late for me and I haven't been part of a community since I moved off the boat.
    Good post. It got my juices flowing and is far above the stuff I've been exposed to lately.

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    1. An additional observation I didn't mention is that a community built around commonly owned stuff is now, and perhaps always has been, actually a community built around oneupmanship and acquiring the latest/greatest stuff. Soon as you buy this year's most awesome product, next year's comes out and you fall behind in the conversation. You no longer know what's going on because your stuff is outdated. So it turns out that all we really need to stimulate economic growth is to trigger uncoolness anxiety in greater numbers of people such that they run out to buy new stuff to replace their old stuff pronto. If the same people who market Apple gear were to turn their attentions to the rest of our products, from bicycles to breakfast cereals, this economic downturn would be over.

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  2. I guess I'm beyond being impressed by carbon...

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    1. It's possible that certain stuff-based communities would admit you to the ranks by virtue of your skills and knowledge about fibers and materials. Anyone who has destructively tested a carbon fiber fork has some credentials for entering into the conversation, even if it sets some members on edge to watch videos of bikes disintegrating as their carbon fiber steerers break off.

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  3. Great post. I don't mix with carbon fibre bike riders but sometimes feel a little self conscious on my old restored bikes for the reasOns you give, but I prefer to ride them rather than modern bikes and that is what matters isnt it? If I were tO enter a race I am not sure how I would feel.

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    1. I'm willing to mix with any riders, but would be unable to keep up with their conversations about this year's frames, or electronic shifting for that matter. Part of the self-discovery in this post was that I am clearly not above the stuff-conversation, since you can easily wrap me up in a discussion of Dura-ace downtube shifters, or lugged frame construction, or singlespeed cranksets, which means I not only am just as stuff-obsessed as the next person (although clearly also am anxiously self-conscious about it and would rather not be), but also ride old bicycles that broadcast economic shame. I wonder if that's why some people prefer to buy old-fashioned yet expensive bikes, which broadcast both purchasing power and discerning taste.

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  4. I've always been a "loner" in terms of my bicycling activity. That's entirely by preference, I enjoy riding on my own. I'm also sufficiently snobbish that the sense of not "belonging" to some group, especially related to cycling, isn't a concern.

    I did recently find it amusing when another cyclist, perusing my classic Chicago-era Schwinn Paramount commented: "Old school bike". A bit of a hoot in my opinion!

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    1. Pimadude: loners unite! Oh, wait. I too most often ride alone, and enjoy the company. Still, there's the earthbound part of me which recognizes that some bike stuff works better than others in specific applications, and sharing this knowledge with a group of likeminded riders of similar riding abilities may offer efficiencies and even delights in terms of discovering and trying what works. Also stuff does wear out, and break, and learning from others how to avoid that when you're out on the road, and what they think might be the best replacement and their reasons for thinking so, and their shortcuts/techniques for sizing and installing it, could be extremely helpful.

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  5. I don't know if this is the case with bikes, but I notice that we are excluded a lot from conversations and social events because we don't have a car. I've concluded that if that's what is required to be a part of 'Normal society' I'm not interested in normal society and I'll live the way I want to, thank you.

    But funnily enough I prefer riding the Xtracycle or the Bakfiets to a normal bike. It it because a normal bike feels like a bike for 'someone too poor for a car?' and if so, why don't I mind riding my very old, rusty Dutch 3 speed? Probably because in 'My' cycling culture a dutch 3-speed is seen as cool...

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    1. workbike the regional example where I live is expensive pickup trucks. People with managerial or other office jobs drive these luxurious gas-guzzling trucks which are used primarily to haul one person to/from work rather than for hauling cargo in their beds. I am fully excluded from their vehicular conversations, yes, but on the other hand, I think they think I mock their air conditioned XM satellite radio truck manhood by commuting by bicycle in 110F heat, or something. I do look them in the eye and laugh when they bemoan the heat. This also is not a conversation starter, or an admission to their world.

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