Donald L. Merand

Can You Be Inspired by Objects?

tags: inspiration consumption

Inspiration comes from everywhere. Mentors and role models, movies, music. I’ve been thinking about inspiration, and I’ve realized that in addition to those standard sources of inspiration, I’m also inspired by mundane objects. Things. Stuff.

It was a surprise to realize this, because I’m not very attached to my things, even the ones that I really like. I honestly believe that if tomorrow you took away my stuff: my house, my bike and guitar collection, my computer etc., it wouldn’t change who I was as a person. It might make me uncomfortable to have no shelter, and bummed to have no internet (I’m not made of stone), but those things don’t matter in the scheme of my personhood, my actual being.

But that’s not to say that I can’t grow as a person because of a thing. Let me give a really long-winded example:

A Really Long-Winded Example

I have always ridden my bicycle for transportation. All the way back to my very first bicycle moment, it was clear to me that the bicycle was a great tool to get me from one place to another. But it was never my identity: I was never a bicycle person - I was perfectly happy to ride a creaky, half-broken, ill-sized, ugly hybrid bicycle over to my friends house, or from my dorm to my classroom.

There was a catalyst for my transition to bike person - my first road bike. It was a Univega touring frame, donated to me by a friend for whom it was completely the wrong size. It had been sitting in a garage for years. Up until that bike, I had been (like most Americans at the time) riding and preferring mountain-style bike frames. Sturdy bikes, easy to hop over a curb, but not pretty and not fast. I didn’t think I’d even like to ride road bikes. I’m from the woods! Who needs pavement? But one ride on this bicycle and it was clear to see: it was beautiful, and fast(er).

I wanted to ride that bicycle. I also wanted to clean it up, and learn how to fix it myself. I wanted to own that bicycle in a way that was completely separate from the way I had owned my other bicycles. The other bicycles were mere tools - this one was an extension of my identity, and it sent a message about who I am.

I learned how to clean that bicycle, and replace its parts when they wore out. I amassed a collection of tools. I built another 15 or 20 bicycles. Along the way I came across Sheldon Brown’s web site. Sheldon Brown was an encyclopedia of a man, whose knowledge of bicycles was so complete that he barely seemed to need any reference material. He left a great legacy to the world through his desire/compulsion to document his projects and thoughts. He was idiosyncratic (a 78-speed bicycle? really?), but he inspired legions of new bicyclists to perform their own bike maintenance because, hey, all you have to do is read his instructions. In addition to this, he was active on web fora, and at Harris Cyclery, spreading the word.

I learned about Grant Pederson at Rivendell Bicycles. Through his website, and his writings, I was inspired to try a totally new approach to bicycling - being comfortable, not (necessarily) fast. Letting things wear out instead of proactively replacing them. But Grant inspired me beyond just bicycles. Just reading the descriptions of the products he sells (and occasionally actually purchasing something) inspired me to look for quality things that are going to last a long time. Usually, those things, or the materials used to make them, have been used for decades, sometimes even centuries. Carbon fiber is great, but, you know, wood is better, because it lasts and works (and looks) great while it’s wearing out. Steel is the same way.

It’s probably more accurate to say that Grant re-inspired me to look at things this way, since he’s not the only person in my life sending that message. Perhaps it was the confluence of his industry being my main obsession and his words coming along at the right time, but he changed my whole pattern of consumption, for the better I think. Like Sheldon Brown, he was a catalyst for change in my life, simply by being himself and writing about it.

I wouldn’t have come to this place without getting that one junky, beaten-up road bicycle that had been sitting in a garage for years. It’s just a thing, but for me it became much more, and now I’m a better person for having had it.