Sunday, January 20, 2013

the great indoors

This is the time of year for turning inward.  At least in our part of the world- the center of the North American continent.  At the 45th parallel- exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole.

This is the coldest time of year, and the weather feels much more like that of the North Pole than the equator.  

I've often thought that this is the time of year for the life of the mind.  The life of the body takes place in midsummer- when it feels so good and so right to spend as much time as you can outside, pulling up weeds, splashing in a wading pool, forking over compost -dressed only in the minimum necessary to prevent the neighbors from calling the police.  All very physical things.

Then there is this time of year, when leaving the house is cringe-inducing, and the  prospect of sitting on the couch with a book or a warm laptop is much more pleasant.

The third and fourth weeks of January are usually the coldest time of the year, so they're particularly cerebral.  Given that, I suppose I should have gotten more blogging or garden planning done, but I've had other, more important things going on.

Gita is back from her time in Nepal, refreshed and glowing.  She had a wonderful three weeks, much of that time spent with her parents on their farm in rural Nepal, eating, sleeping and making fresh saag and curry from whatever she could find in their garden or by the roadside.  She came back to Minnesota tan and cheerful, and boy was I glad to see her.

My time with the kids was wonderful and exhausting.  I didn't get a post in last Sunday, but at that point, I needed rest more than anything else.  With Gita back, now I have free time once again. 

So this week I was thinking about the quality of the things that we surround ourselves, or the lack thereof.

While Gita was gone, one of the to-do projects I had was fixing the door to our room so it would shut completely, and finding a way to lock it.  Now that the kids are school-age, or almost so, locking the door, at certain times has become something of a necessity.

I thought about putting another one of the cheap sliding locks on the door that we had had once before and which lasted for a couple of years, and thought better of it.  The doors all have keyholes and mortise locks built in.  We just didn't have keys to fit them.

So I took the doorknob off of our door, and undid the two screws that held the mortise lock in the door slab, and headed off to the architectural salvage store in our neighborhood.

Fortunately there are a lot of other old houses in our neighborhood, so there's also a couple of really good salvage stores to supply all the folks fixing up their houses.  The one I went to has fishbowls filled with a variety of old skeleton keys, costing 4 or 5 dollars each.   I was lucky enough to find another couple there with an old house, looking for keys for their locks.  They helped me take apart the lock and figure out how to find the right key to fit it.

Once I understood the mechanics of the thing, it didn't take long to find a key, and then three more that fit it just right.  Finally- I had a solution to locking our bedroom that didn't involve a chintzy tacked-on thingamabob.

What amazed me on looking at the mechanism more closely was the heft and solidity of the parts that made up this lockset.  The bolt for the lock was a solid piece of what appeared to be brass, three inches long, and having a nice heft to it.  There's no way that was going to break.  Forged, not a piece of bent or formed metal.  And the piece that the doorknob fit into was also a solid, forged piece of steel or iron.  Even the springs- surprisingly- were still very springy.  And this lockset, like our house, is 104 years old.

This was built to last.  Built for the long term.  I was left wondering how many of the things that I could buy in the big box store today would still be useable in 104 years.  I doubt there's much.  The durability has been engineered out.  This is "value engineering" as it's called at my job.  Except that the value is retained by the maker in the form of larger earnings.  It is very emphatically not a good value for the end user.

Value engineering has become one of the central values of our culture.  Making things as flimsy and as cheap as will be tolerated by the consumer.  Making things that will last for just long enough that the person will forget where they bought it from so they won't bring it back for a refund.  Or long enough that the store is able to say it's no longer under warranty.

This is fantastic for the profit margin of those selling a product, but not so great for those of us who use them, and at this point, that is pretty much all of us.

I have purchased locks for our rental property from a reputable company.  I don't know if it's a good idea to say the brand name- but they're all from Schlage- a company that I thought made good products.  What I didn't know is that they've done some serious value engineering themselves.  There are four apartments on the property, and each has at least four locks.  There are two doors, each with a deadbolt and a doorknob lock.  One apartment has an extra door.  That makes a total of eighteen locks.  I've purchased all of them in the last year and a half.   I've already had to replace more than a third of them.  I was there today, replacing another doorknob, and found out that I will probably have to replace all three deadbolt locks as well in this particular apartment soon.

Now,  I may have gotten the locks at a better price than I may have in the past, but once my time and effort in replacing the locks is figured into the equation, this is no longer a good deal.  I would have gladly paid more for good quality, had I known where to find it, and how to get it.  It's what I thought I was paying for.  But it's not what I got.  I'll have to spend much more time and money in the near future replacing all of them and hoping that I've purchased something that will last this time.

Some have called it a type of stealth inflation.  A way to charge more for less- without the end user figuring that out- and stealth is an apt way to describe it.  I don't know I'm being ripped off until long after the purchase has been made, and once I realize it, it's too late to complain.

This has happened with so many things I've purchased in the last few years.  Dress pants for work that  were worn through to almost nothing in spots, with threads hanging down for the seams- after literally only a few wearings- in an office.  A brand new refrigerator that was delivered in non-working condition, which the retailer refused to fix or replace.  A faucet with a cheap plastic push-on attachment that wouldn't stay in place, instead of a brass screw-on fitting which would have been standard only a few years ago.  There were more and I can't recall them right now.

Whether it's because manufacturers are outsourcing their production to a low-wage country, or simply making them with cheaper materials here at home, the end result is the same.  I have to buy more unrepairable stuff that quickly ends up in a landfill, and I waste more time shopping for and installing those things, then removing and replacing them again.

It makes me appreciate the quality of those old lock sets more.  Our old house- the former farm house in the middle of St. Paul- was built to last for at least 100 years.  Even with all of the abuse and neglect that it has obviously been subjected to-  it's solid, and even beautiful, in a rugged sort of way. With a little oil and some coaxing, the old locks from 1909 sprang back to life, and our new-old salvaged skeleton keys are attractive in a way that the modern keys aren't.

I'd like to believe that the less oil-rich future will see a revival in things made to last.  That things that are hand-made, or made by an artisans for people that he or she will have to see and converse with, will be made to last, and to provide the user with some measure of enjoyment.  This, I hope will be a silver lining to energy descent.  A return to lower quantity but higher quality.  Because the current high-quantity, low-quality world can't get much lower quality at this point.  At least not as far as I can see.


  1. i love the old doors in my apartment for their aesthetic value, however, these particular set of doors are so warped that maybe 2 out of 7 close correctly. the house was built in 1920-something and the doors are 4 panel would doors. the door tend to warp on top, mostly likely due to the force of being pulled open (when they have expanded and stick) by a doorknob that is more than halfway down the door (just my speculation/observation) :). the door of my living room is the worst; you have to (lightly) bang it open with your fist a la fonzie at the top of the door (we keep the door closed to keep the cats out). if you close the door from inside the room, it is possible to get nearly get stuck! I'm convinced that yanking on the door knobs will cause them to pop off someday. :-P

    my old house had better doors from the 20's that didn't stick. I guess i just got stuck with sticky doors.

    1. Hi beej,
      Sounds like you have doorframes that may be out of true. I suppose that adds to the charm of having an old house (or not). I had to do some work on our doorframe to make it close properly- screwing in the top board a bit more where it stuck, and re-setting a hinge.
      Glad to hear you haven't given up on living in old houses! When else would you get to do the Fonzie knock?