Posts Tagged Kurt Vonnegut

The Lonely States of America?

People on the T“The great American disease is loneliness,” Kurt Vonnegut once said in an interview. He was right, as he was about most things, and that loneliness seems to be facilitated by technology.

When Vonnegut was raising his family in postwar America, television was seen as an engine of antisocial behavior. Now, we have something much better: Facebook. In an article for the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche argues that social media facilitate an innate desire people have to keep each other at a distance.

Marche correlates an increase in loneliness (measured by such things as the UCLA Loneliness Scale) and the rise of social media. However, he does not blame social media for American loneliness.

“Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us,” Marche said. “We are doing it to ourselves.”

People are, after all, annoying, and Marche acknowledges this. He says Facebook and other social media apparatus could be used to bring people together, but people instead use them to sanitize all their social interactions and, ultimately, avoid all the unpleasantness of real time, face-to-face communication.

If Marche is right, then American society is about to get a whole lot lonelier.

In “The Cheapest Generation,” a more recent article in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann argue that “Millenials” are ditching automobile and home ownership for sharing schemes like Zipcar and Airbnb. They say Millenials will push America toward a more communal economy, focused on “urban light” neighborhoods instead of traditional suburbs.

That sounds pretty appealing, but I don’t think the America my generation builds will be an urban hipster version of a hippie commune. It might be even lonelier than it is today.

Car sharing programs like Zipcar give members most of the convenience of car ownership without the soul-crushing costs and perpetual need for parking spaces. Members can pick up a car from designated stations on short notice, drive it as much as they want (they get charged by the minute or hour) and drop it off when they’re done.Zipcar at Clark University

It’s a great solution for people who live in urban areas, but it also reduces the driving experience to its essence: privacy. Unless a Zipcar driver is going somewhere with no mass transit, why not take the train? It would be cheaper, and give one more free time.

Car owners need privacy because they’re going places no one else is going; they need flexibility. But if the future really is in car sharing, would anyone take the subway if they knew they could just as easily ride alone?

The “Millenial” generation might easily choose the latter. We’ve grown up accustomed to texting instead of talking, and thinking that social movements can be organized solely through social media. We control the amount of our reactions with other people in a way no previous generation has.

Thompson and Weissmann believe personal property is a concept this generation is not accustomed to. In the same vein, spontaneous everyday interactions could be something that we avoid, and don’t want to experience just because they represent a current social norm.

If people are so quick to trade the uncertainty of phone calls for Facbeook statuses, and the tedium of waiting in line for self-checkout, will they be able to resist hopping in a car instead of riding with the crowd? Or will urban transportation become one more people-free aspect of our society?

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Finding Kurt Vonnegut’s Saab dealership

Kurt VonnegutGreat minds sometimes need not-so-great jobs to pay the bills. Herman Melville worked in a customs house, Einstein in a patent office. For Kurt Vonnegut, this cruel practicality came in the form of a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. I’m a huge Vonnegut fan (this blog is named after the fictional city of Ilium, New York, where many of his stories take place), and as a writer on all things automotive, I had to know more.

Vonnegut started selling Saabs in 1957. He thought the dealership would be an easy way to make money while he concentrated on his writing. Unfortunately, the cars were difficult to sell, as Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country. 

“The Saab back then had only one model, a bug like a VW, a two door sedan, but with the engine in front, It had suicide doors opening into the slipstream. Unlike all other cars, but like your lawnmower and your outboard, it had a two-stroke rather than a four-stroke engine. So every time you filled your tank with gas, you had to pour in a can of oil as well. For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this.”

Since no one could remember to add oil to their Saabs’ fuel, the cars had limited appeal. Running the Saab store also cost more than Vonnegut expected: Saab forced him to buy his inventory and pay for ads in local newspapers. Consequently, the dealership closed the same year. Vonnegut said that he would never win a Nobel Prize because of his hatred of the cars.

Saab was still in business when I started looking for Vonnegut’s store, but there were no dealers on Cape Cod. The trail went cold, until I found this link, which shows the exact location of the former Saab of Cape Cod.

Vonnegut used to sell Swedish cars out of a small stone building with a curved roof, off Route 6A in Barnstable, the next town over from Hyannis and the Kennedy Compound. The building sits unused amid a small cluster of other buildings on a relatively quiet stretch of a road that carries thousands of tourists every year.

I made the pilgrimage to Vonnegut’s Saab dealership last year on a family trip to the Cape. After almost missing the nondescript building, my brother and I jumped out of the car, touched a copy of Player Piano to the wall, and took a few photos. We’d been coming to the Cape for years, and had probably passed the former Saab store many times, but we had finally found it.Saab of Cape Cod

If you want to visit a car dealer owned by a literary legend, find your way onto Cape Cod via the Sagamore Bridge. After crossing the bridge, you’ll be on Route 6, the main highway that runs the length of the Cape. Exit to get on 6A heading toward Barnstable and points east. As you drive through the West Barnstable, the building will be on your right, just past the intersection of 6A (Main Street) and Parker Road.

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Saabing

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

For the first post of the new year, why not begin with an ending? Kim Jon Il was not the only newsworthy death to occur in the last couple of weeks of 2011, because the automotive world lost one of its most enigmatic names: Saab.

In reality, the death of Saab wasn’t really news: Sweden’s other volume carmaker had always had a troubled existence. It started out as the automotive division of an established aircraft manufacturer, designing small cars powered by two stroke engines (the type found in dirt bikes). These early cars, including the 92 and Sonnett series, were beautifully designed, but not very practical. Kurt Vonnegut opened a Saab dealer on Cape Cod and later wrote angrily about the company’s products.

Saab finally achieved success in the 1980s with the 900. This was a small, pseudo-luxury hatchback with front wheel drive and a turbocharged engine. Everything about it, from the styling, to the turbo, to the floor-mounted ignition, was quirky. As with its earlier cars, Saab let engineering take precedence over convention, but this time it actually worked.

Sadly, it would not last. Saab was bought by General Motors in 1989, and GM decided that Saab should not design its own cars. From the Opel Vectra-based second-gen 900 to the 9-7x SUV, every Saab since the GM takeover has been a rebadged version of someone else’s car. In 2009, GM unloaded Saab onto Dutch boutique carmaker Spyker and the company struggled through various financial crises until it went bankrupt in December.

Reading it all back, it doesn’t seem like Saab was a very good car company. It was badly managed and made few genuinely good cars. Saab’s last two cars were a large sedan, the 9-5, and a rebadged Cadillac SRX, the 9-4; the world isn’t being deprived of anything amazing. Yet car fanatics everywhere, myself included, had to stand up and take notice when Saab went bankrupt.

Why? Everybody loves a good story. Saab was an underdog, an independent car company breaking away from the corporate establishment. It tried to be different and, at the very least, kept people entertained with the possibility of quirky Swedish cars that did away with convention.

That promise didn’t always come to fruition, but it was fun to dream. By objective standards, Saab probably deserved to die. But the automotive landscape will be a lot less interesting without it.

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