The International Writers Magazine: Don't Upgrade
Need a Fix?
Walli F. Leff
Way back when, shortly after I went to work for the New York City Department of Investigation, some staff lawyers, members of two Inspectors General offices, and I were selected to gather the data needed to serve as the basis for a report the commissioner had to submit to the mayor about the Medical Examiner's Office.
The bodies of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the beloved and the forgotten, the famous and the infamous were delivered here when an official determination of the cause of death had to be made. Accidents, murders, suicides, unknown and undiagnosed diseases; gunshot wounds, stabbings, overdoses, alcohol poisoning; young or middle-aged people in apparent good health, homeless people exposed to severe weather conditions, SIDS babies. The place evoked human beings' most profound emotions and deeply-held values Our assignment was high profile--the press was all over it. Late nights, seven day work-week
Looking like textbook professionals, the women’s somber suits lightened only by the discreet touch of their decorative jewelry, the men’s by the splash of color in their ties, we descended upon the office and plunged into our first meeting. Suddenly one of the team members cried out, “I’m sick of this tie. I want something new,” yanked off the silk fabric that offended him so, and dumped it in the wastebasket.
A mildly outlandish act that might have had dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats wondering whether, in the midst of all this seriousness, he was unstable or unfocused.
He was neither of those at all. He was very knowledgeable about the dimensions of the task ahead of us and savvy about the personnel we would have to deal with and the processes to be examined. Without his rapid-fire insights it would have taken us much longer to zero in on the ground we needed to cover and we’d have produced a far more superficial report than the one we ultimately wrote. He was that governmental rarity, an irrepressibly spontaneous person who craved entertainment and kept up with the latest trends. He wouldn’t have been caught dead driving an old car.
I can understand what drove him to toss away his tie. I’m that way myself at times. Recently, just as I was about to put on a top, I took a good look at what was on the hanger, realized it was absolutely wrong for me, and stuffed the thing into a bag of discards destined for the thrift store. I’m no fashionista, but I have my own style and that top represented an extinct chapter in my personal evolution. Never did I want to look at myself in the mirror and see it on me again.
Unlike my tie-disposing colleague, though, I’ve never felt the need for a new car. My father was immune to the American auto manufacturers’ post-World War II psychological obsolescence campaign of convincing the public to buy a new car every three years so I wasn’t inculcated with that value. When the automotive industry intensified its consumerist pressure by turning out lousy cars that required costly repairs and replacement parts after three years—functional obsolescence—I was already married to a man who drove a Peugeot.
||Since then we’ve bought one nearly-new car and a couple of used ones, but never another brand. Those cars last and last. The 1987 model we have now is in excellent shape. The company no longer exports replacement parts to the U.S., but many parts are available from on-line sellers. These days we don’t drive much. If our mechanic, the last in the area who still works on Peugeots, doesn’t retire, that car should serve us well for some time to come.
It’s not that we’ve applied conservation as our all-purpose blueprint for our material life in general. Like many other people, we throw away plenty of things. Sometimes it takes a while for us to get around to it, though. For far too long we continued to use an old land line telephone. It was hard to hear the person you were talking to, and saying, “Sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Would you mind repeating it?” got to be annoying for the people on both ends of the call. Even worse, the phone lost its charge much too fast, regardless of whether the battery was old or new.
We shopped for a replacement in the stores, but none of the new models we saw interested us. Shopping on-line was worse. Customer reviewers had written dozens and dozens of’ pro’s and con’s, keeping track of them was exhausting, and we gave up. Only after the phone went dead in the middle of a conversation for the second time did we replace it. It was dumb to have waited so long. Our new phone has a long-lived battery, useful new features, and wasn’t costly. It’s better in every way.
New doesn’t always mean better, of course. My husband upgraded his voice recognition software because his new computer’s operating system didn’t support the version he’d been using. The new version, however, was incompatible with the new bells and whistles-enhanced word processing program he had just installed. Neither software company was willing to take on the responsibility for locating the source of the incompatibility and fixing it. The voice recognition company achieved a new low in corporate commitment to customer service and satisfaction when, in callous disregard of the fact that this would be a complete waste of Sam’s time, effort, and creative energy, they proposed that he continue using the system, send them electronic copies of the bollixed-up work, and they’d see if they could figure out what was causing the glitch.
Unwilling to be their guinea pig when the companies’ experts should have been analyzing the conflicting software codes themselves, he refused. Then, in another marathon phone discussion, one of the voice recognition company technicians observed that this new version of their product was compatible with the previous version of our word processing program. Problem solved. Sam simply bought that older program and that’s what he uses now. He doesn’t remember the bells and whistles of the newer program he gave up.
Irons are another example of how new has definitely not meant better. I’ve had far more irons than anyone else I know. Each was a replacement for an iron that worked well during its guarantee period but stopped heating once the warranty expired.
It wasn’t feasible to try to save any of them. There were no longer any local appliance repair shops—planned obsolescence had caused those businesses to go under. I could have returned each iron to its manufacturer and paid the company to perform the repair, but that would have meant two-way shipping charges and being stuck wearing wrinkled clothes while the iron was halfway across the country being fixed, so new irons it was.
I don’t regret my promiscuous iron-buying. I am sorry I bought a sleek new Water-Pik instead of sending the stodgy-looking old one back to its maker for a spruce-up, though. While the new model is more appealing aesthetically and its replaceable tips last much longer than the old model’s tips, functionally it’s flawed. I live with it, but I’m not happy about it.
If only I’d known then that environmental and social activists had begun breathing new life into the concept of local repair. In New York City, The Fixers Collective (www.fixerscollective.org), a Project in Residence at Proteus Gowanus, an interdisciplinary gallery and reading room in Brooklyn dedicated to “encouraging improvisational fixing and mending and fighting planned obsolescence,” holds “fixing sessions” where experienced “Master Fixers,” apprentices, and drop-in visitors will help anybody repair a broken object or turn it into something else, including art.
Their goal, “to increase material literacy in our community by fostering an ethic of creative caring toward the objects in our lives,” has struck a receptive chord, for people certainly care about the things they own and have brought in hundreds of objects for repair, including lamps and chairs, vacuum cleaners, clocks, broken-heeled shoes, umbrellas, fans, a range of kitchen appliances, even combination locks. Not to mention cell phones, notebooks, and other electronic devices.
The Fixers Collective asks for a $5 donation for each item fixed, but if you can’t pay they don’t turn you away, so a would-be repairer has virtually nothing to lose by giving a fixing session a shot. If you and the Master Fixer instructing you succeed in reviving your old turntable so you can play those old vinyls on it again, you’ll walk away happy. If your blender can’t be made to whir again, you won’t fall into a depression, you’ll just buy another, as you may have thought you’d have to do anyway.
You don’t have to travel to the Big Apple to find a renewed use center. Active repair groups have formed in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Toronto, Calgary, and other U.S. and Canadian cities. In towns throughout the Netherlands and cities including Paris, Barcelona, Helsinki, Cologne, Berlin, São Paulo, and Melbourne you can find Repair Cafés or similar groups with different names. The Restart Project in London (therestartproject.org) provides instruction, runs clinics, and assists people in setting up local repair parties, all geared toward the repair and maintenance of electronics and electrical equipment. OFPicina in Bologna and PCOfficina in Milan focus their instruction and repair efforts on computers.
When Apple announced the arrival date for its much ballyhooed iPhone 5s, more than two million people pre-ordered the phone. On the release date, television and newspaper coverage of the hundreds of people who had waited in line for hours, determined to be among the very first to own the new technology, was one of the top stories of the day. Very few of these consumers were new to the mobile field; the overwhelming majority already owned cell phones that functioned perfectly well.
Fixers’ collectives haven’t gotten much news coverage. For now, the number of people tweaking their cold, old, unresponsive toasters and coffee makers back into operation is a microscopic dot compared to the number of eager purchasers of new goods that regularly flood the marketplace. But the movement is growing, fed by the desire of more and more people to take an active role in maintaining the physical objects they use, make excess goods available to those without the means for keeping up with essentials, and reduce the enormous amount of waste that threatens the environment. This voluntary collective learning project offers an added personal benefit, too. In learning how to rewire a lamp or clean out the garbage that slows down our computers, we may discover that we’re handier than we ever thought we could be.
© Walli Leff February 2014
Walli F. Leff’s psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, published by Sunstone Press, is available in both print and e-book editions. With Marilyn G. Haft, she co-authored Time Without Work, published by South End Press. She writes articles on psychology, science, cultural and political affairs, and travel.
About Time with Walli Leff