A Few of My Favorite Things: Musings on the Notion of Prized Possessions

30Sep14

Well, it’s been quite a while since I last updated this blog. It’s been a busy summer; the HMML remodeling is now complete and we’re all in our new offices, adjusting to the renovated space. The college students are back, the leaves are turning, and the days are getting shorter. For me, this time of the year always gets me in a philosophic mood.

Recently, two totally unrelated occurrences got me thinking. The first you’re not aware of. After dragging my feet for seven years, I finally got around to completing a bicycle restoration project that I had been putting off (you can read all about it here). The second thing was the launch of Apple’s iPhone 6, which you would have to be on another planet not to have heard of.

I was reassembling and putting the finishing touches on my vintage touring bike, which I’ve owned since 1985, while listening to radio reports about the hordes of Apple fanatics lining up overnight (or paying others to stand in line for them) in order to be among the first to get their hands on Apple’s latest shiny object.

During the next days, I listened to stories about customers’ angst over whether or not the iPhone 6 can be bent by carrying it around in a pants pocket. Or whether the iPhone 6 Plus is too big to use with one hand. Or whether the new IOS update is buggy. Search for any of these topics on Google; there are thousands of folks agonizing over this stuff at any given time.

As I finished taping the handlebars of of my now-restored bike, it struck me that all these fanatics acting as if this new aluminum and glass tech toy is the be-all and end-all of their terrestrial existence will be unceremoniously discarding these very possessions in two years when their mobile phone contracts are up and Apple releases the next model.

This got me to thinking about the concept of a “prized possession” in today’s world and how it contrasts with that notion as manifested in the past. To illustrate this, I gathered a few of my things that would fit the category.

Make no mistake: Apple makes beautiful, well-designed and supremely-executed tech products. For many people, it could be argued that an iPad, smartphone, or sleek notebook computer could easily qualify as the one of their most complex and sophisticated possessions. But are they on par with cherished items that are owned long enough to become part of a person’s life story? Let’s look at some examples.

1. Restored Puch Brigadier 1978 Road Bike

Restored 1978 Puch Brigadier Bicycle.

Restored 1978 Puch Brigadier Bicycle.

We’ll start with the thing that got me thinking about this stuff. When I bought this bike in 1985, it was already seven years old. I was looking for an affordable upgrade to my heavy department-store ten-speed, and my friend assured me that this Austrian-made used bicycle was a great deal for the asking price of $150. I upgraded the components and used this bike for touring, exercise riding, and even time-trialing (which I was really bad at). In 2007, I disassembled it for restoration after using it for 22 years.

The iPhone was introduced in 2007. In the seven years that the bike has been awaiting it’s restoration, eight different iPhone models have been introduced, fawned over by users, and tossed into the bin when the next one came out.

Now the old bike is a vintage beauty with its gleaming powder-coat paint and polished components. Ready for another 20 years, by which time we’ll either be on the iPhone 17S or be communicating with cellular frontal-lobe implants (from Verizon or AT&T, free with two-year contract).

2. Girard Perregaux Automatic Wristwatch

Self-Winding Swiss Wristwatch, circa 1955-60.

Self-Winding Swiss Wristwatch, circa 1955-60.

It’s always interesting to show a younger person a watch like this and explain that no, it doesn’t need batteries and that it winds itself as you wear it. Fits right in with today’s idea of “green” products.

It’s a late 1950’s Girard Perregaux “Gyromatic” with a 17-jewel rotor-automatic Caliber 21 movement. I found this at an estate auction sometime in the 1980’s. I had it cleaned and serviced by a proper watch technician, added a new lizardskin band, and have been using it ever since. With it’s 10K gold-filled case and moire-textured dial, it’s one of the most stylish watches I own.

Of course, someone else owned it before me. On the watch’s back there is an engraving, “25 YEARS OF FAITHFUL SERVICE.” This was the “gold watch” presented to someone for reaching a milestone in their employment. I don’t know if companies do this sort of thing anymore; it’s getting difficult to find people who have been at any one company for 25 years. In any case, the watch is now a prized possession of its second owner. I suspect that after I’m gone, it will find a third.

3. Penn Levelmatic Fishing Reel

Penn Levelmatic Fishing Reel.

Penn Levelmatic Fishing Reel.

I received this as a Christmas present sometime around 1974. I had been wanting to get a more “heavy duty” reel to go after bigger fish such as bass, northern pike, and the elusive muskellunge (which has remained pretty elusive for me). At the time, this American-made reel was among the better offerings at the local sporting goods store.

Today, fishing reels are sold by the thousands in blister packs hanging from displays in big-box retailers. Things were different back then. A reel of this caliber was sold in a sturdy cardboard box—this is where you kept it during the off-season. The instruction manual for the reel had a schematic diagram of all the reel’s parts, and along with the reel, you got a tube of oil, a small container of spare parts, and a small tool used to take the reel apart. It was expected that the owner of such a reel could disassemble it, lubricate the moving parts, replace worn parts, and get it back together. The spare parts provided were the ones most likely to wear out with normal use, so the idea was that the user could keep the thing working for decades.

It’s been 40 years, and I still haven’t had to use any of the spare parts, which are still in the original cardboard box. I have lots of more modern tackle than this, but can’t bring myself to retire it. I still catch bass and northern pike with it, but so far, no muskies.

4. Nikon F2 35mm Single-Lens-Reflex Camera

Nikon F2 35mm Single-Lens-Reflex Camera. One of the last "bench assembled" 35mm SLRs.

Nikon F2 35mm Single-Lens-Reflex Camera. One of the last “bench assembled” 35mm SLRs.

Another gift, this time from one of my father’s wealthy business colleagues. He was a keen amateur photographer with a taste for the very best in equipment. I sent him some prints I had made—he sent me the 1972-vintage camera (I already had lenses that would fit it).

This was 1979, and the F2 was widely regarded as the finest 35mm SLR camera in the world (sorry Leica fans). I used it throughout college and almost daily in my commercial photography business, producing color slides by the thousands. In the early 1990’s, the then-20-year-old camera received new titanium shutter curtains and soldiered on until 2004, when I got my first digital SLR. It still works flawlessly, but has seen little use. With the demise of so many 35mm film stocks, there are fewer opportunities to use such a superb instrument today, which is a shame.

Getting back to my original thought, what will the prized possessions of the 21st century be for the young people of today? People seem to love their tech toys, but none of them will have any longevity—as I’ve said before, tech is different. Will the lifespan of people’s favorite things be measured in months rather than decades? Or will folks find other types of things to cherish forever, things like musical instruments, prized jewelry, or fine antiques?

I guess we’ll find out in 20 years or so. With luck, I’ll still be riding my vintage bike. And if someone tries to call me on my AT&T cellular implant, they’re going to get my voicemail.

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