Don’t Feed the Machine
Why old stuff matters.
The underlying ethos of the United States, indeed, maybe the entirety of the so-called free world, is that money is tied to morality: if you or some piece of property or land is not making money, it’s a waste. Income must not only be made 24/7, the amount must be maximized or else you are failing in your moral duty to make the world a better place. This philosophy underpins, for example, the doctrine of eminent domain, which is in the US Constitution.1
Whether this is the result of Adam Smith or of the “Protestant work ethic,” or of the Enlightenment, or the deliberate excision of the sacred in all areas of life, is beyond my pay grade to discuss.2 All I know is that this is the case and we have to either live with it, change it, or live around it. American conservatism drinks deeply of this well of thought, and although many, if not most, American liberal voters and politicians pay lip service to opposing this, they sure don’t live like they do.3
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Not making money from your hobby? Moral failing. That bit of open space in your town just sitting there growing green stuff? Moral failing. You haven’t streamlined your office with the latest techniques to extract every last ounce of money from the time you spend open? Moral failing. All land must be developed. All profit must be maximized. All value must be extracted. Nice view you’ve got there. Now pay up for the privilege of feasting your eyes on nature.
Business processes and “best practices,” combined with computers have turned us humans into machines. Instead of using technology and technique to make our lives easier, to save labor, we use them to create more, squeezing maximum work into the same amount of time, mechanizing human behavior and turning us into the proverbial moist robots4 who are maximally efficient right down to the time allowed for meals and bathroom breaks. No wonder they want us all to quit smoking.5
In a financialized world of mechanized humanity, of personal branding and corporate policy, it’s nice to be reminded that places passed over by time still exist in America. I spent the long weekend up in Maine, just me and the wife and kids, at the small beachfront cottage my grandparents bought when my mother wasn’t even school-aged. The place was built in the 1950s and it shows. Though many of the houses on the road have been renovated into the new slick modern glass-and-sharp-lines aesthetic, many haven’t. Including ours.
I’ve been going there nearly every summer of my life. It feels odd, wrong, if we don’t make it up there at least once. Even my wife, who has been with me for 16 years now, feels it too. The coronavirus lockdowns kept the house closed in the summer of 2020, but we missed some summers when we briefly lived outside of New England, and I believe in 2021 the house remained closed as well.
But not this year. This year, the family opened it up and . . . nobody went. I think we were the first to go and stay all year. People get busy. The cottage lacks many modern amenities, and it’s small. Most of my family lives inland about 25-30 minutes away, so it’s more convenient just to go and park if they want to hit the beach and then drive home. But more so, since my grandparents don’t live there from May to September anymore like the used to, it doesn’t feel the same.
They’re old, you know? Both in their 90s. Now, this isn’t a problem for a quick visit, but to stay? With those narrow, twisty stairs leading to the second floor? I don’t think so. Okay, they could sleep in the couches downstairs, or bring some cots or small beds, but the only bathroom is upstairs. And renovating the place would be cost-prohibitive due to permitting requirements and beachfront property regulations. The property is grandfathered in to many of the old rules, but not all of them. And on such a valuable piece of beachfront property, the costs of even fixing up a kitchen skyrocket.
Gotta maximize that property value, you know. Otherwise you’re a bad, bad person who should be ashamed of being such a bad American. Town zoning boards and building inspectors have to eat too, you know!
I like the place being old. Being a time capsule. Being anachronistic. Being deliberately and stubbornly out-of-step with the times. I like that none of the neighbors care. I like that the place is full of bric-a-brac from when I was a little boy, and from when my mother and my aunt were little girls. Here’s their old Monopoly and Yahtzee sets from the 60s they used to play with. Here are some clay decorations my sister made when she was six. A painting of some sailing ships in the water by my grandfather. My old Super Mario Bros. 3 beach towel my mom bought for me in 1990. Old beach toys used by my brother, sister and me, then my cousin, and now my kids. Some old kitchen products and dental floss packages and bottles of shampoo that are so old they don’t even have website addresses listed on them. A bandaid stuck to the wall in one of the bedrooms we didn’t take down because we didn’t understand why it was there in the first place; maybe it was part of a long-ago inside joke. So we left it there. Chesterton’s fence in action.
As a kid, dad would take us shell-hunting in the rock field amassed on the beach’s north side, or sometimes in the tide pools farther south near the promontory, atop which sits a restaurant that is still there. We also loved our trips into town to get saltwater taffy at the 125-year-old candy store, go bowling, and play games at the old wood-floored arcade. Most of the old game remain.
One summer in my mid-20s, when I was living in Boston, I took a week off to go to the beach house and when I wasn’t hanging out with my family, I just read. That summer, I finished Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, Don Quixote, and Black House. Not all in a week, but finishing Monte Cristo and reading Moby Dickwhile the ocean roared in my ears and I could smell the salt spray was magical.
It is bittersweet though. It isn’t exactly the same as it used to be. I don’t think anybody’s slept in the bedroom my grandparents used since they last came. My Yiayia’s book remains on her bedside table. Their skin crème and toothbrushes are still there, as well as a few shirts and other garments they never brought back. Maybe we leave them there, hoping Yiayia and papou will come back for one last summer, finish that book and sit in the balcony watching the fiery sunrise.
No, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. But it still feels good. It’s different. Everything changes. Families change. People age and pass on to the next life while the rest of us grow and reproduce, bringing in more generations. We’re at the fourth now here in the United States, using this cottage.
Four generations! In my family, this is uncharted territory. We’re coping with family lineage and legacy in a way we have difficulty tracking back in the old country, where records were sparse and our ancestors decided to set sail for more prosperous shores. I pray we never sell this place. Renovate it, maybe, even that would dispel some of the magic for me. But all things change. Maybe my grandchildren will want a bigger kitchen. That’ll be fine because it’ll mean that the place is still being used and loved.
I saw more and more little ones on the beach and in town, bucking the demographic doom I often read about. I’m glad people are still having children. There are still things to hope for, to love and enjoy, to escape to. That yearly trip to the beach in the town where nothing changes despite the fresh cost of paint. The 125-year-old candy store still looks mostly the same, just lovingly tended to. Same with the old buildings and hotels and restaurants. Even the small amusement park. Nothing changes and it is glorious. Divine. When the mechanized world, the pursuit of profit and material gain in the name of morality gets to be too stressful, too depressing, too preposterous, it is important for there to still be a places time forgot they we can escape to. Enjoy them before the monster of industry scarfs it down and vomits them back up with several new surcharges and service fees attached.
If I had to guess, I’d say it’s likely all of the above.
It’s been said that American progressives speak like antiracist equalitarians but live like white supremacists. I mean that in the rich ones tell you that diversity is our strength but tend to live along only people of their same skin color and—here’s another tell—socio-economic status. Your kids have to go to shitty public schools; theirs go to tony private academies, and so on. Freedom of association for them, but not for you. You get the idea.
Thank you to Scott Adams for this, an entertaining read before he went a little cuckoo.
Smoke breaks used to be blamed for all sorts of lost productivity when I was a kid. Now they say the same about smartphones but nobody is in as much of a rush to ban them like they were smoking. It sure makes a fellow wonder.