I was reading a nice review of one of my bicycles on a web site this afternoon, and below the article was a rancorous debate in the comments section about how much our bikes cost. First, there’s the usual guy proclaiming that a city bicycle shouldn’t cost $3000. Then some noble soul defends the value of good componentry and craftsmanship. Six others jump into the fray, and the whole thing descends into a nasty spitting match.
I was reading this at lunch, and getting more and more depressed — when suddenly it hit me that the debate wasn’t about the price of bicycles. These people weren’t really fighting about money at all. They were arguing about self-respect.
We live in a consumer society, which sounds gross but it’s just the way it is. There are all kinds of interesting things to see, do and buy in a consumer society because a lot of our culture’s creative energy is focused on making stuff. It also means that like it or not, what we own is a reflection not only of how others see us, but of how we see ourselves.
Another way of saying this is that in America, falling in love with what we own is the same as loving ourselves, and owning cheap crap is being cheap crap.
It’s not about the money.
A few weeks ago I was biking by a small organic market in Brooklyn. A man was standing in front complaining loudly to his girlfriend about all the idiots who insist on eating organic food. I listened for a while, and realized that what this angry guy was really saying was that he eats shit because he feels like shit. And as far as he is concerned everyone else should eat shit too, so they can feel as shitty as him. By extension his girlfriend, who obviously liked to eat organic and whose desire to go into the store had prompted his outburst, was shit as well. Man, she looked miserable. I wished her a better partner someday and rode away.
In a similar way, self-DISrespect is riding a crap bike and insisting angrily that everyone else do the same.
What makes a bike a crap bike?
It’s not about the money.
You can buy a fantastic handmade bicycle from a small manufacturer like Rivendell, Beloved, or Budnitz for $3000, $5000, or more. Or you can build yourself a very nice singlespeed out of salvaged parts for about $300 (I’m a big fan of singlespeed culture). If you hunt around you might even find a lovely 1960’s Raleigh townie for $80 at a flea market. All of these bicycles are equally worth falling in love with.
On the other side of the equation, a bicycle is crap when it is made without love by crap corporations run by crappy, cynical people. A big bicycle corporation knows with precision that their brand new crap aluminum frame will creak and rattle after just a few weeks. They know that the crap derailleur will start to skip gears as soon as the new owner gets it home, and that the crap shock absorbers on the front may be dangerous in a year or two. But no worries, the bicycle is so terrible that the research department knows that it will live in the garage most of it’s life and never be ridden anyway.
I know about this kind of thing, because I make stuff for a living. And because I use the same machinery to test my bicycles that the big guys do. The tests tell you, precisely, what and when things will fall apart.
And once again, it’s not about money.
A crap bicycle can cost $350 at Wal-Mart, and it can cost $5000 at your neighborhood bicycle shop. Usually, but not always, a crap bicycle can be identified by the size of the logos printed on it. It is often, but not always, made of aluminum or even carbon fiber and usually, but not in every case, includes a shock absorber.
It’s not difficult to make a bicycle look good when it’s new!
Here’s another story:
When I was in my late 20’s in New York City I was deeply in debt — almost $250,000 in debt to a dozen credit cards. I was struggling to start a new company, and I literally had to open a new card each month to go to the grocery store.
At the same time, even though I was financially screwed and felt like a loser most of the time, I refused to buy anything unless it reflected the person I intended to myself be. So for two years I lived in a one-room apartment on Bedford Street (before it was cool) with a single Knoll chair in the middle of the room I’d found at a flea-market, a mattress in the corner — and nothing else. I spent two years eating beans on the floor until I could afford a nice table to go with the chair!
So I think I’m qualified to say — $3000 is not too much for a very good bicycle. $6000 isn’t either.
First, it depends on how long you intend to own it. If it’s a very good bicycle you’ll be surprised to find that you ride a lot more than you intended. This is what happened to me a few years ago, before I’d started my bicycle company. I spent a lot of money building a bike that was so good that I ended up selling my car — which saved me a hell of a lot more money than the cost of the bike.
A very good bicycle fits your body. The geometry is well thought-out so it’s comfortable, you don’t feel like you’re going to fall off when you pedal. It doesn’t creak or rattle. A very good bicycle is beautiful, and it makes you feel beautiful. It’s an extension of your body, just as the car is an extension of your body when you drive. And a very good bicycle will last a very long time, maybe your whole life.
And in the end, it’s not a crap bicycle if you love it. That’s the important point. Even if the bicycle you love is the exact opposite of what I’m describing, it’s a good bicycle if you love it. There’s no objective measure of good taste. Love transforms crap into wonder.
I’m typing this letter while propped up on an bed made by Double-Butter, a furniture company located in a tiny roll-up garage in Denver run by two amazing guys. I got to meet them when I ordered the bed. (If you order something from them, you’ll get to meet them, too.) They made my bed for me by hand out of oak. It is solid. It is lovely — man I love this bed! I’ll be heartbroken when something happens to it someday.
Now compare what I just wrote with your feelings about that Ikea Bully bookcase.
So here’s the punchline:
Attachment is a privilege. Just as suffering is a privilege. When we realize that loss, sadness, even death are a gift, we begin to live well.
(Buddhism is often misunderstood as being about escaping suffering through attempting not to get attached to things. But true understanding is realizing that non-attachment is also about not attaching ourselves to NOT suffering. At the same time.)
So between now and when I die I know that what’s really important is what I decide to attach myself to. Attachment, like love, is a conscious choice. Suffering, like happiness, is transformative.
Yes, I’m biased because I have a vested interest in saying that my bicycles are worth falling in love with. After all, I founded this company. And yet I really do love my bicycles! I think they’re the most beautiful, elegant, fastest — the most wonderful bicycles in the world. You may disagree, but on the other hand, you have to admit that you’re more likely to get a better bike when you buy it from someone like me, rather than the marketing department of a giant corporation.
If I see you riding your beloved $75 Schwinn, I love you too.
But if you continue insist that I ride a crap bike like you, and on a deeper level that saving and investing in something beautiful is a waste of money, well — go to hell. Or more precisely, you already have.
A well-known Polish poet once wrote, after years in a Soviet prison camp:
“The decision to become a dissident wasn’t difficult. It was just a matter of having good taste.”
This guy spent a decade in prison and liberated his country because Communism was tacky.
This is the secret gift that good art and craftsmanship brings to the world. That’s why fascism hates good art. Is there anything more tacky than war, racism, genocide?
I insist on falling in love with the things I make and the things I own, in identifying with them, and suffering when I lose them.
Just as I insist on falling in love with my good friends and family, and suffering when I lose them, too.
— Paul Budnitz, Boulder, March 29 2012