• Penultima - Essay 3

    Remain calm. Maintain eye contact. Back away slowly. In other words: Balance, Focus, Create Space in order to allow for a fresh reponse to the responsibility of living on this planet and more specifically to redirect and fulfill the fundamental promise of the pursuit of happiness which once inspired the founding of this nation.

    As America has matured over two and a half centuries, our collective experience has diminished our respect for the resources, much less the perspective, of the past. In part, this is due to our shared heritage from frontier settlement and immigration. A society founded on migration is by nature restless and discontented. Our collective consciousness has been continually pointed toward the next horizon. This pervasive cultural attitude has accomodated both our penchant for innovations and our resulting obsessions regarding technology and the material. Something else. Something new. Right now.

    Once the American frontier formally closed in 1890 and open immigration was terminated in 1924, this attitude of more now was redirected toward mass consumer spending, which currently accounts for 3/4 of our Gross Domestic Product. Seen in this light, living modestly within one's means and creating a sustainable monetary surplus through saving are practices that can almost be considered unpatriotic in today's society.

    With regard to consumer goods; the newest model, the most recent upgrade, are considered far more valued assets for product design than durability. This is because the vast consumer economy, and the shrewd awareness of what best supports its exponential growth, has matured as well. For all their complexity and implied convenience, the recent digital technologies that infuse computers, smart phones, and small appliances conveniently defy the possibilty of either their repair or maintenance.

    Increasingly, consumers accept the notion that upon purchase of these cutting-edge consumer goods it will always prove cheaper to replace them rather than repair them. Minimal manufacturer's warranties can be slightly extended through a surcharge. The item that requires servicing will usually be replaced rather than repaired, so the minimal warranty period can begin again. Meanwhile, the larger cycle of product replacement accelerates as upgrades and competing formats are introduced on almost a monthly basis. It all encourages the average consumer to spend more often and more quickly - ideal responses to support an economy and society rooted in increasing acquisition. 

    One primary example of how the standards for sustainability and maintenance in consumer goods have deteriorated over the recent past can be found, not surprisingly, in our connection with solid ground: the shoes we wear. Accompanying the shift in footwear manufacturing from domestic to overseas over the past fifty years is a profound shift in our ability to care for these essential items.

    Through the first half of the 20th Century, shoes and boots were made of natural materials: rubber for heels, leather for uppers, metal for eyelets. Footwear was stylish, but it was also durable. Americans who spent much of their day walking, standing, and climbing demanded this. With far fewer cars, elevators, and escalators, walking in urban environments was a necessity rather than an occasional leisure activity. Middle class consumers darned socks, polished and buffed dress shoes, kept spares of laces. Shoe trees were commonly used to stretch leather and keep it supple.

    Metal taps were also used to protect heels from wearing down quickly. The popularity of these products, along with foot soaks and corn plasters were a clear indication of how much the average American walked in a day. Eventually, when soles and heels wore down, the simple yet durable construction of the shoe allowed for regular maintenance and repair. Cat's Paw and O'Sullivan rubber replacement heels were sold by storefront repair shops and affixed securely to the used shoe for a fraction of the original purchase price. These replacement and substitute parts were of high quality; manufactured and marketed apart from the shoe producers and widely available to both repair shops and their customers.

    There is pure elegant function in the fact that throughout American cities during the first half of the 20th Century, most every home within city limits was a reasonable walk from a shoe repair shop. Serious walkers proliferated; not simply because they regarded it as a leisure activity but because walking proved productive in accomplishing everyday tasks. Part of this elegant function would have been a walk along shaded sidewalks accompanied by songbirds, which have declined over 50% across America since 1950.

    Compare this sustainable response to the fact that with bonded soles and heels as the industry standards now, a vast majority of shoes for men and women sold new today cannot be repaired. Some high-end brands allow for resoling, if the original pair is shipped at customer expense to the brand manufacturer. The cost for this maintenance is percentage-wise far higher than the repairs done by independent shoe repair shops in the past.

    At its root, the commitment to maintain and repair material possessions lies at the heart of most spiritual practices. Other tenets shared across religions, cultures, and centuries include a deep respectful connection with the natural world and heightened awareness of the human senses. To take actions and embrace technologies which compromise these responses to the privilege of living on earth relegates nature, the sensory, and our very consciousness to a reduced status in everyday life.

    That present moment, that present conciousness can only be realized through balance, focus and creating space. To make the choice to back away slowly from where we are, what we have become as an acquisitive, distracted society - maps must be consulted before proceeding forward. Where have we been? What have we seen? Can our memories help us before we become completely lost?