Meringue By Hand

Step 1: Bring egg whites to room temperature in a glass or metal bowl.

Life feels just that much more ephemeral and baffling with the internet in every square inch of my house. I often deliberately leave my phone in another room to “charge” when I’m at home, otherwise I’d be bombarded with a steady stream of texts from family members too restless to not ask me what I’m up to twice a day and too afraid to just call me already.

Sitting at the local zendo every week was, since my husband got sick, a cornerstone of my mental health, the staid rock I could moor at and around which I could arrange the rest of my otherwise unpredictable week. At least I had that. But not anymore, not since British Columbia leapt off into the realm of 2000 new COVID cases per day after everyone decided that surely the virus could make an exception for Halloween? Off we go like Rider-Waite’s Fool as he carelessly traipses his way off a cliff.

So the zendo has closed again, after only being open for a month or two. Sits over Zoom are offered several times a week, but it defeats the purpose for me. I’m not interested in depending on the internet to deliver to me an experience I explicitly sought out to get me away from it. And the synergy falls apart.

Step 2: Sprinkle a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice onto the egg whites, and begin to beat with a whisk.

I recently made the decision to really ramp up efforts to keep my mind healthy and organized, instead of sort of just slogging through the days, letting everything catch me at unawares. I need very firm organizational structures in my life – working two jobs for an especially chaotic workplace in an otherwise already chaotic (and essential) industry, and with a robust art practice on the side, I was drowning in the minutiae of things. I woke up one morning and realized that I had grown far too much surface area, that I was overstretched between too many other people, obligations, that my points of contact had fast outgrown my ability to maintain them all. It was time to trim the sails or be ripped apart.

But what is there to do when you’ve already cut down on social media, though? When most of your stress comes from showing up to work in a retail environment during a pandemic, and working less is hardly an option? I’ve discovered that there are always more and better work-life boundaries that can be enforced and negotiated. There were times earlier this year where I was the first number anyone would call when something needed taking care of at the store, or a shift needed filling, because I was one of the few people who would actually follow through to help. After a few months of running myself ragged doing favors for everyone else, I had to institute a One Good Deed policy – I’ll do one good deed a week, I told the guys in the office. Use it wisely.

Step 3: Whisk until a stiff foam forms. When tired, you may take short breaks.

Other areas of my life had become unruly without my even knowing it, also. I had started using Reddit a little too often, and because it didn’t “feel” like a social media site, I had succeeded in tricking myself into thinking that it wasn’t one. Even offline, I was “like butter scraped over too much bread”. Too, having a studio space seems to make one giddy with excitement at the prospect of furious and pointed art-making. Irons in the fire: paintings for myself, paintings for family, a painting for a client, page #502 of my graphic novel, two pieces for my home shrine which I don’t meditate at nearly enough. I’m also trying to jumpstart an art collective.

So unless I’m especially exhausted or aching from some hitherto undiagnosed chronic condition, I keep the laptops out of bed, the weed smoking to a minimum, and my phone – a very old smartphone until the Mudita Pure ships – blissfully ignorant of our home wifi connection.

Part of the anxiety that I have at home is being dogged by the constant feeling that I “should” be doing something else, that there’s an important task that’s slipped my mind, or a laundry list of slightly less important tasks that I haven’t forgotten but am putting off. In this way, my mind is constantly someplace else, and it makes it difficult to focus on the here.

“This is exactly where I need to be right now” is a summary of an affirmation spoken by one of the guiding teachers during my first visit to the zendo, and is one of the mantras I recite in my head whenever I feel myself beginning to break from the here/now and think about doing something else. My mind is a lot like a dog; if it notices something, its first inclination is to follow it at full bore. The mantra is like a leash; not an ideal technology, but it works until I get back to be able to maintain a more naturalistic order.

Part of that order is whipping my bullet journal back into shape. I used Ryder’s philosophy of organization quite effectively when I didn’t have a smartphone. The new inserts for my leather notebook are on their way from Singapore (next time I’ll order domestically, even though I’ll be paying twice as much).

The other part of that order is settling back into domesticity, which I never really got to do since my moving here so neatly coincided with my husband’s health crisis. I’m re-learning how to decompress by keeping kitchen counters clean and taking out the recycling before our little bin starts overflowing. I’ve started making staples regularly again, like mayonnaise.

Step 4: Beat in a tablespoon of powdered sugar per egg white, one at a time. Continue whisking until stiff peaks form.

This past non-Canadian Thanksgiving (because I celebrate both) I made eggnog from scratch, and it was the most decadent version of a store-bought holiday favorite I’d ever made. Even if I could find a diabetic-friendly eggnog around here, I don’t think I’d buy it.

I was left with 4 egg whites, though. I’ve never successfully used up egg whites before they go bad. Food waste is a major bummer, though, so I was determined this time. Having a mission helped propel me into the moment and keep my mind “exactly where it needed to be right now”. The result was meringue, which I had never made before, and whisked into light, fluffy perfection by hand. And as a result of the meringue, there was chocolate meringue cookies. My arm is tired. But the kitchen is still clean – because when you’re in the present you clean as you go along – and there are cookies to show for it.

I’m not as much of a fan of the lemons and lemonade aphorism – rarely are things “bad” in such a way that work needs to go into making them “good”, I think. Instead, I find myself coming back to the Stone Soup story much more often. The difference between them can be felt in the approach to the starting circumstance – what appears to be a “bad thing” versus “no-thing”. The one focuses on transforming misfortune into pleasure, while the other meditates on coaxing scarcity into plenty, or disorderliness into unity. I have everything I need, and life is mostly good; I just need to bring the scattered parts together in harmonious conviviality and trim the fat. Not everything will fit in the soup pot, least of all more stones.

There’s a Zen koan for this – what isn’t there a koan for? – and along with the stone soup parable, this one also involves food.

A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”

The monk replied: “I have eaten.”

Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

I left out the line about enlightenment because that’s the least interesting part of Buddhism to me. Everyone’s experienced enlightenment at some point in their life. And then they move away from it. And then they reach it again. And so it goes.

I just continue making meringue by hand and washing the bowl afterwards. There’s a cosm in that, and there are worse things to spend your life doing than gathering pieces together and making mayonnaise or cookies or stone soup.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe Blog is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

COVID Thoughts

A man came into work this morning and bought some kid’s toothpaste.

“You guys have the only stuff for kids with fluoride in it,” he said. A lot of customers tell me why they’re buying what they’re buying, and most of the time I’m genuinely interested because I enjoy getting little glimpses into strangers’ lives through face-to-face conversation. There’s precious few places anymore where exchanges like this are appropriate or valued, which I think is a shame.

But it quickly became apparent that this father was chewing on something – or maybe something was chewing on him  – and, working customer service in a left-leaning, politically-charged environment, my openness, I suppose, gave him permission to continue. So he went on about fluoride, and then face masks and anti-vaxxers.

“I’m just so sick of people not wanting to put on a damn mask.” His voice inched up a decibel. “I’m sick of the conspiracy theories. At this point, if you don’t like fluoride, then you’re also anti-mask and anti-vax to me, and you’re full of shit.”

As someone who has casually eliminated toothpaste (including fluoride) from my dental hygiene regimen, and someone who is also generally up-to-date on their shots, I was going to ask him how he planned to categorize people like me. But I didn’t, and a minute later he was out the door.

Anyone who tells you that leftists and progressives aren’t also just as likely to subscribe to dangerously simplistic ways of thinking as the most sinister right-wing boogeymen in our lives probably has a vote to browbeat out of you.

The number of people who have gotten angry at everyone else who doesn’t share their personal experience or interpretation of what COVID is continues to surprise me. And it’s not just that they have these feelings, it’s that they should be robbed of the right to even share them.

Fuck you if you don’t wear your mask as often as I do!

Fuck you if you don’t think this is overblown!

Fuck you if you think this is nature’s way of saying something!

Fuck you if you don’t want to forget this all even happened as soon as it’s over!

Fuck you if you believe that this is ever going to be over!

Fuck you and whatever you have to say, I don’t want to hear it!

Good to see that some things never change, and that misery demands company as loudly as ever.

That said, I can’t help but chuckle a bit to myself at witnessing the diehard minimalists (close cousins to zero wasters) unravel at the reality of having to live a life within their own four, sparsely furnished walls. I can’t imagine what one even does if the only form of entertainment and creativity they have at home is an iPad with Netflix on it. What absurd, cruel form of self-domestication is this? How could you have outsourced every thing in your life, except sleeping and showering, to someone else?

How does it feel to be a genie trapped in a lamp?

As far as hunkering down amid a medical crisis goes, the cancer prepared us for this really quite nicely.

And so did all my years of reading things that nudged me away from believing that progress is co-morbid with a linear progression of time. (Hint: it’s not.) At first, excited and empowered by my discovery, I tried engaging others with the knowledge I had gained from my time spent learning about peak oil and collapse, but I very quickly discovered that the pushback was consistent, and it was vicious.

Even as I kept things to myself more and more, as I deflected and smiled and nodded for the sake of civility, I was attacked for daring to be that person. The heretic who so much as contemplated the possibility of rain at a parade that was supposed to go on until the heat-death of the universe. Even  something as innocuous as “this won’t last forever” was met with incredulity so pointed that you might’ve thought that I’d leveled a personal insult.

But it is personal, isn’t it? You depend on that lie. You’ve shaped your life around that lie. Believing in that lie is what gave you the confidence to have children, buy a house, invest in a retirement fund. Four or five years ago my mother couldn’t fathom why I didn’t want to start thinking about a 401(k). Now I talk to her, and she’s long since changed her tune. When I casually mention that I don’t believe any of it will be there for me when I need it, I get no opposition.

My father felt similarly – still does, in many ways, and he’s the more interesting subject besides. He’s the one who got visibly and verbally angry when I asked him what he would do if he were to see a 3-foot sea level rise in his lifetime. You see, he commutes north along the 5 to Los Angeles twice a week for work, and the stretch of freeway that runs through Camp Pendleton is only a few feet above the tide line. The marine base stretches some 15 miles inland, and the only other way north is to go around it, along a smaller freeway through a little pocket of wine country.

The closest thing I got to an answer from him came recently, several years after the above telling exchange, during a conversation we had in April: “You’ve been talking about this for a while, haven’t you?”

Yes dad, yes I have. And that’s why my husband and I are keeping it together as well as we are. Honestly? COVID is easier than chemo was.

Fortunately, neither of us is out of work. He works for a company that serves the rich, who always have money to burn, and I work for a company that serves the common man’s most basic need: food. It’s never been a better time to be in the grocery business, and this didn’t happen by accident. Since giving up on a career in art, I wanted honest work in an industry that was never going out of style. (And I wanted to learn where our food really comes from.) So far, going by this criteria has paid off.

We also don’t rely nearly as heavily as everyone around us, on consumerism to provide meaning, entertainment, and identity. It was amazing to see so many overpriced, hipster watering holes, tourist traps, and lifestyle boutiques closed up during the early lockdowns. I felt as if I’d stepped back in time – or forward in time, or maybe the two are really one in the same because time is more cyclical than not – to an era where most people were forced to mill about outside and entertain themselves when they had nothing else to do. I had never before seen so many neighbors catching up with each other from separate apartment balconies. I’d never seen so many people out enjoying the city parks and green spaces, sitting in quiet contemplation or reading a book. I’d never seen so many people out walking for the sake of walking. (And aimless strolling, I was sure, was going to be the next thing discouraged or criminalized by city planners and neighborhood watch associations alike. We may void this fate just yet.)

But even as my father is finally capable of granting me a point in my prediction, he still can’t see the wider repercussions, except where they suit his personal needs. Progress is still happening, to him. This is just a temporary setback, and things will go back to normal sooner than we imagine. Or, in another conversation on the economics of the thing, he might talk about how this is simply a natural bust cycle that is going to provide fertile ground for the next generation of young homeowners… but only if they have the capitalist chops to strike while the iron is hot. And disdain is reserved for those who don’t.

Like others who share his just worldview, this is either a temporary setback in the project of progress that needs guts and wit to overcome, or its a natural period of contraction and it’s completely out of our hands. In both arguments, these folks get to win. In the first, it’s self-praise for maintaining true belief in the ideology-turned-cosmovision in the face of human error, where bolstering (someone else’s) individual action is the morally correct response. In the second, it’s self-praise for being removed from the messiness of actually living through a pandemic, detatchedly observing that all the suffering is simply unavoidable, and that the most logical thing to do is wait for it all to be over so we can get on with our lives.

There’s a lot wrong with this, but I’m not going to break down why. There’s a lot of people already out there making noise about this, and I’d prefer not to add to the clutter if I can avoid it. But I’ll say one thing: tidy answers should always raise suspicion. Even this one.

If you’re wondering, shortages in the supply chain for most industries will be continuing for the foreseeable future. Food, specifically. And prices are already going up.

If you’re taking this opportunity to live it up now that things in some places are opening back up, do 2021 you a solid and don’t, or you’ll be digging through your savings to buy organic eggnog for Christmas this year. If you don’t can or dehydrate or otherwise preserve some kind of food, start. If you’re worried about where it will go because you live in a small apartment, put it anywhere. You’re not having friends over what need impressing anyway. Stock up on essentials like “the big one” is going to hit next week: shelf-stable protein, fats, micronutrients, painkillers. Hoard vinegar. Beans. Weed. There’s no shame in looking like a prepper anymore, everyone’s doing it. It’s in.

Or before you know it, you’ll be at the grocery store with a crying toddler trying to wrap your head around how potatoes got to be $5 a pound.

Lessons Learned from Container Gardening

This is my second official season growing food and ornamentals in containers on a 130 sq/ft” deck. It’s a really nice outdoor space with a breathtaking, nearly unobstructed view of the Burrard Inlet, but it’s been tough learning the ins and outs of this little micro-climate, and has taken me the better part of 18 months of careful watching and experimental plating to begin having useful ideas about how to use the space.

A few things I have to contend with:

  • No direct sun until the late afternoon, thanks to the upstairs neighbors’ deck and our western view. This means that light is thin in winter, and blasting in summer.
  • No direct rainfall due to the above overhang. Plants not pushed up against the railing need hand-watering.
  • Glass railing. This makes it very difficult for bugs to get to our plants, who have to navigate up and over the railing to pollinate. (Or infest.)
  • Annual power washing. All containers must be moved from the deck every year for the building’s yearly cleaning, so they can’t be too big to move down a few steps to the parking lot or indoors. This means that 40-50lbs is about a heavy as a container, including plant, soil, and water, that we can manage.
  • Unobstructed view means we are extremely exposed and get the brunt of most weather. In the heat of summer, the deck bakes in the afternoon sun. In winter, frost hits us first. The temperature difference between us and the street just on the other side of the building, is enormous. (Big enough to the point where I will often go out with a jacket on, make it up the driveway, and realize that I don’t need it!)

These are difficult challenges for any gardener to overcome, let alone an amateur like me. Here are some things I’ve learned so far, though.

Sturdy Roots Are Key

I’ve had much better luck bringing home steeply discounted plants from the nursery than I’ve had in trying to start seedlings. For some plants, especially fruit and vegetables of specific heirloom varieties, I obviously need to search out and purchase as seeds because who’s going to have a Tom Thumb tomato start for me to buy? Not anyone around here!

My lavender, shade grasses, and rosemary were all salvaged from the discount shelf at a local gardening center and are doing wonderfully. (OK, so the rosemary could be doing better, but it’s not dying.) My theory is that small root systems on new plants are too fragile for the intense moisture/heat fluctuations on the deck, and that even a half-dead plant with good roots stands a much better chance.

Glass is Deadly

Or at least, damaging. The glass acts as a bit of a greenhouse insulator, but our plants grow towards it as that’s where the sun is. In this way, the leaves will usually end up pressed right up against it, trapping heat and moisture in a way that wood or another porous material wouldn’t. Leaves that grow against the glass almost always wind up unhealthy, and eventually die. So while it’s been tempting to push my box containers right up against the glass railing to give them a better chance at soaking up rainwater, I’ve had to pull them all back a few inches to avoid the glass problem.

Don’t Depend on Pollinators

After 2 years, I’ve only just seen my first honeybee poking around the deck this week. Yes, it’s taken that long to make it onto the local hive’s circuit, and I will have to plant more wildflowers to make sure they keep coming back. Until now, though I’ve had to hand-pollinate a number of my plants, including the strawberries, but I try to buy self-pollinating varieties where I can, or plants that don’t need to be pollinated to be edible, like leafy greens. My dwarf lemon tree, which will apparently live happily in a 2-4 gallon pot, is self-pollinating, as well.

Microclimates Matter

The afternoon sun we get is absolutely brutal, and combined with the lack of rainwater in spite of living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve quickly learned that this means I need to throw away everything I thought I knew about gardening in a zone 8b temperate rainforest, and think in terms of drought-tolerance and heat mitigation, since those are the most pressing concerns during my growing season. Passive watering systems, like ollas or self-watering pots, are a necessity unless I want to be out there watering 3-4x a day in the summer.  Unglazed terracotta and unlined wood is a no-go, and containers that have some kind of moisture barrier are a must.

You Can Compost Without Ground Access

Being both cheap and stubborn, everything I use on the deck gets recycled. This includes plant scraps, trimmings, and the soil itself. One of the big projects that I really wanted to see if I could tackle, though, was devising a completely earth-free composting system. I may have stumbled on one.

Bokashi seemed like a good place to start, but the bran is expensive, and didn’t like being stored in our highly exposed outdoor space. The $30 bag I’d purchased didn’t last long, but the nesting 5-gallon buckets I’d salvaged for the project were working, and half-full of half-rotted compost besides, so I continued to throw scraps in, including bamboo toothbrush handles and animal products, just to see what would happen if I left the bacteria to their own devices. I spent the better part of a year tossing the occasional organic scrap in, not turning it, not touching it, and covering tightly with a lid to see how the anaerobic process would do. (The lid went back on quickly – it stank pretty good.) In the meantime, I was treated to plenty of runoff from the bucket to use – nutrient-rich compost tea.

When the bucket was about 2/3s full, I let it sit for a while, untouched, tucked away in a shaded corner of the deck. Bokashi composting, for all its uses, still requires access to earth. At the end of the “pickling” stage, you’re to dig a hole someplace, dump the contents of your bucket, and cover with dirt for a time, after which it’s supposed to have turned into finished compost. So I thought, what if I just covered the compost with dirt (I used old potting soil) in the bucket, and left the lid off of it all winter?

Doing just that and checking again about 3 months later, the experiment was a success! All but the toughest bits of matter, like avocado pits and larger pieces of wood (the compostable heads of our dish scrubber, namely), all turned into fine, rich, finished compost.

In the future, I might get two buckets, since this process appears to take about a year, and I’d like to be able to alternate filling/finishing. I may also shell out for a bin that has a tap on the bottom, to make collecting the tea easier.

Composting isn’t the end-all be-all, though. Sometimes you have to get creative in other ways.

Be Prepared to Improvise

…or you’ll be spending a lot of money.

Container gardening isn’t cheap, unfortunately. There’s a lot more to it than just dumping seeds in a pot and watching them grow. Plants grown for food need a lot of water, a lot of nutrients, and a lot of sun. The Vegetable Gardener’s Container BIBLE says that an average summer squash plant needs more than a gallon of water every day, even under ideal growing conditions. In blazing afternoon heat, evaporation takes its toll quickly.

Large, sturdy plastic can be used to protect individual pots. I have a soft plastic washtub that I’ve encased in one such bag to create a greenhouse to grow ginger and start seeds. I have… problems starting seeds indoors, thanks to an overzealous cat that loves windows. Lots of seeds have been wasted this way.

For certain plants, such as my oak sapling, I’ve taken a page out of the book of traditional indigenous agriculture techniques, and buried a small fish below the root ball when repotting. (Small frozen fish like smelt seem to be a good size for containers, and each individual one costs pennies.)

More specific nutrient deficiencies can be managed (with time and practice), through natural means also. Coffee grounds and pine needles can be used to acidify soil, for instance, and contribute nitrogen. Burying rusty bits of scrap metal can help with iron deficiency. Unscented epsom salt can alleviate magnesium deficiency. (Learn how to properly apply salts to your plants here.) Blackstrap molasses has a whole buffet of micronutrients plants need, and it helps to feed beneficial soil bacteria too. And I’m sure we all know about egg shells already. Really, there’s not much of a reason to buy a dedicated fertilizer product unless you’re growing on a large scale or have plants that need a fast-acting nutrient to save them – and even then, noncommercial methods still work pretty well provided you’re willing to entertain alternative approaches to horticulture in general. Odds are though, your kitchen cabinets are already stocked with plant food! Even urine and pet waste can be put to use instead of tossed in the garbage or flushed down the toilet.


I experiment a lot in the garden now. I didn’t at first, because I was still getting very precious about all my plants, and I hated to see any of them die, even weeds. I had to get over this quickly, as space and nutrients are at a high premium in a container garden. A few weeds or even a single caterpillar can be the difference between success and failure for many plants.

But that small, compact scale can be a boon for horticultural tinkerers, too. If just maintaining a container garden isn’t exciting enough, playing with dwarf varieties, cuttings, and companion planting keeps things interesting on a day-by-day basis. Shuffling pots around to create super micro-climates – seeing which plants benefit being shaded by others, which ones fare better closer to the radiant heat of a wall, or more exposed on, say, some stairs, etc – is also a fun series of challenges. One of my favorite things to do is set aside a pot just for the purpose of capturing wild seeds, and paying attention to what winds up growing there, how long it lives, and what succeeds it after its life cycle ends. I wound up with a pot of beautiful wild stonecrop this way, which is something of an ornamental weed around here. It’s also how I get my moss, which I distribute around the garden as a kind of green “mulch”.

You can see what happens when you let plants go to seed, because the odds of them taking over your garden are slim. You can see how closely together you can plant certain species, or test yourself to grow something that isn’t usually thought of as a container crop, like garlic or squash. (Speaking of, my first batch of hard neck garlic should be ready in the next few weeks. I’m very excited, though I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t have given them more attention.)

For what few readers I have left, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not commenting yet on anything that’s going on. Honestly, I believe that most everything that needs to be said is being said elsewhere – that we are living in a crisis moment unprecedented in living memory, that the pandemic is a manifestation of nature’s hard limits on human activity, that there is a cowardly despot holding office of POTUS, that racism, homophobia, and transphobia are endemic to American culture, and that a riot is very much the language of the unheard.

If you’re browsing the internet and reading blogs in search of a balm for your guilt and existential worries, I don’t blame you. It’s not necessarily healthy, or right, but we all need a breather. I do hope that you’re getting out and getting your hands dirty as part of that process, though. Even when it comes to self-soothing, engaging our bodies is always a better strategy than trying to forget them. Take it from a chronic and lifelong dissociator: running away from your problems creates fewer solutions than you think.

Going Analog Part 9: Shrinking the Digital Footprint

I’ve talked at length in the deep, murky past of this blog about how shrinking your digital footprint will also shrink your carbon footprint, and how it will just make you feel better as well. (Not to mention make you a more resilient person.)

As of this writing, I think I’ve successfully dropped out of as many big tech services as is feasible for me. Most important of those, though, was kicking Google out of my life.

I’m not a fan of their surveillance, nor am I a fan of their AI research, the fruits of which always wind up being forced on us as a populace. Facial recognition, online behavior tracking, it’s all bad. All bad. So I said enough was enough, and I put my money where my mouth was.

A few years ago I successfully replaced my Chromebook with an HP Stream that I now run Elementary OS on. I stopped using Google Search, and now use DuckDuckGo. My smartphone was downgraded to a dumbphone and older MP3 player. Google Docs and Drive were replaced with Libre Office and Spideroak One.

Those movements were in a decidedly non-Google direction, but there was still plenty more for me to do. Over the past year, I’ve taken even more steps:

  • I now run Ubuntu on my primary computer, making my workflow 100% Linux. I didn’t need to pay a dime for any of my software. (Though I could, and can, if I want to donate to the freeware projects I use.)
  • Adobe products have been replaced with the likes of Krita and Gimp. Not wholly recommended if you’re a power-user creative, but it gets the job done and it disincentivises me from using digital creation methods in general, which for me is a plus. My art practice is moving toward tangibility and sustainability in a big way. More on that some other time, though.
  • After some painful trial-and-error, I’ve settled on Protonmail as my primary email service now. It’s a much more polished product now than when it was in earlier beta several years ago, and they have several good privacy-respecting offerings, such as a VPN service as well. I DO NOT recommend Startmail. Their product sucks, their customer service sucks, and it’s overpriced for how little you get. Protonmail is not cheap, but it’s secure as hell and it works perfectly.

One of the problems I’ve run into with Ubuntu so far, though, is the buggy integration with my model of Wacom tablet. I’m still waiting on a response from the people who made the compatibility software, and in the meantime I’m having to color comics with a mouse. It does take longer, I won’t lie, but it’s not as frustrating as I thought it would be due to the simplicity of my coloring style, and the fact that I do most of the heavy-lifting on paper anyways. The switch I made to hand-lettering, mind was also due to the disincentivising effect of Krita’s sorry excuse for a text editor – and now I can’t imagine myself ever going back to making digitally-lettered comics. In fact, in the future, I wouldn’t mind figuring out how to color my comics entirely by hand as well, in a reasonably quick and efficient way, so that all I need a computer for is scanning and uploading finished art!

Unfortunately, I’ve had to go back to using a smartphone since moving to Canada – my LG Xpression didn’t work with the bands up here, so I’ve been using a hand-me-down Samsung since then. It’s pretty trashed, actually, and I’ve given up on taking care of it because I just don’t care. I need access to Instagram for work, but I could use any old junker of a phone for that, and I don’t even need a data plan.

The phone I’m really interested in right now, though, is the Light Phone. It’s not cheap, but it is minimalist in a really interesting way, and the creators seem to be very passionate about the niche they’re carving out for their users. The phone is about half the size of a standard larger-format smartphone, doesn’t display images, and is fitted with a black-and-white e-ink screen. Right now, all it can do is make calls, text, and set alarms, but there’s more on the horizon as the founders of the company chip away at bugs and make good on crowd-funding promises, such as including a calculator, music player (making use of the built-in headphone jack), and turn-by-turn directions. The battery is slated to last several days on a charge, and when I asked if the company had any plans in the future to make replacement batteries and other parts available for the phone, one of the founders responded favorably. Sustainability is part of their ethos, though sourcing parts is difficult at such a small operating scale, and the logistics of making it work is something they’d like to do down the road. I just need to make sure it’ll work with Canadian cell providers!

This is also the first year that I’ve gone without getting anyone anything from Amazon for Christmas. Everything, except for a few gift cards for sites like Bandcamp, I bought in-person from a local retailer. More digital footprint shrinkage.

Sometimes, I sit and think about the facts, the statistics, the models, and wonder why I’m doing this. Why do I still care, even in the face of catastrophic climate change, of crumbling democracies, of resource depletion, of wealth distribution that hasn’t been this unequal since the roaring 20’s.

Honestly? Part of it is that it’s something to do. It’s something to stand for in the face of a planet full of deplorables and tragedies. When I scoop some package free tea out of my tin to make my morning cup, or when I score a bunch of discount produce on its way to the compost bin, it’s a reminder that I give a damn, and will continue to give a damn, and that giving a damn isn’t hard. And where it is hard, it’s fulfilling. I’m doing some semblance of the right thing when most other folks would give up and do the easy thing.

It’s often said that nothing in life will meet all three criteria of being fast, cheap, and easy. The frugal-minded will prefer to prioritize “cheap”. The convenience-minded will focus on “easy”. The workaholic or the wealthy end up gravitating towards “fast”. But “right” should be the fourth criteria for evaluation, even if you still only get to choose two.

More and more I find myself prioritizing what’s “right”, even if it’s not fast, cheap, or easy. Or glamorous.

Man, you know what else isn’t glamorous anymore? Blogging!

Why the Green Future We Want Can’t Happen

Short answer: physics.

Long answer…

I watched a movie the other day called Snowpiercer. It’s a joint Korean-American dystopian film based on an 80’s French graphic novel, and tells the story of life aboard a massive high-speed train after a botched attempt to fix climate change ushers in a sudden and catastrophic ice age. The train itself is powered by some kind of perpetual motion/zero point energy engine that hurls it in it’s desolate, 365-day journey around the Earth. It’s an entirely closed ecosystem: death by exposure for those who attempt to leave is swiftly guaranteed.

The people who live aboard the train are highly stratified. Those in the rear cars live in cramped, squalid conditions, while the people living near the front of the train are permitted to enjoy all manner of hedonistic luxuries and roomy accommodations. In the middle, separating them, is the prison and barracks for security.

The movie tells the story of an attempted uprising of the lower classes as they make their way towards the front so that demands (I’m not sure of what sort, to be honest) can be made of the mythical architect and steward of the sacred engine, who is in charge of maintaining perfect homeostasis aboard. Spoiler alert: We discover that the train, now 17 years old, requires small children to do the work of parts that have failed, explaining the abductions we see earlier in the film. And in a twist reminiscent to Animal Farm, the leader of the rebellion is told he had been chosen to succeed the aging engine-keeper in his role at the front, but it’s all a wash anyways as the train gets derailed at the last minute, killing everyone on board except for a pair of kids we’re supposed to accept has a chance at surviving the frozen wasteland simply because they happened to see a polar bear.

The train, as you have already gathered, is a metaphor for the entirety of the (industrialized) planet and its inhabitants a literal encapsulation of the (industrialized) human race. It’s where we are now: a conglomeration of the most highly stratified societies that human history has ever seen, powered by the miracle of the sacred engine we call fossil fuels.

The villains of the film give us explanation after explanation on the importance of strict hierarchy and its role in maintaining the rigid balance that keeps humanity alive aboard the confines of the train. We begin the story with the implicit understanding that the uprising is good and just, but by the end, we’re not so sure. The children we see at work under the floorboards of the engine-keeper’s sparse suite, or going willfully into the belly of the engine itself to maintain humanity’s life support, make the audience hesitate. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Of course, then, the whole thing is blown wide open, quite literally, and the laws governing the precarity of life aboard the train-as-ark cease to exist as everything is destroyed and the wild world opens up to humanity for the first time in 17 years.

Of course, those two surviving children never make it to Adam and Eve-hood: it’s pretty clear that they would die of exposure as soon as the sun went down because they had never, up until that point, even set foot on solid ground let alone possessed wilderness survival skills that would permit them to find food and shelter in a landscape closely resembling winter in the high Himalayas.

Snowpiercer is an interesting commentary on the closed ecosystem of “starship Earth”. But just as telling, to me, is the unintended meta commentary that the structure of the story itself provides. Namely that, to the progressive mind, a broken society is always a thought problem rather than a physics problem.

And this here is how I see most of us approaching our current predicament. Which is why we are largely doomed to failure.

Unlike physics, crises of thought and ideas are serviceable. They can be fixed. They can be argued into prominence or irrelevance. Loopholes can always be found, and ways around or through or to the top of them inevitably present themselves in time. While usually a final, desperate bid, the train can always be derailed.

Crises of physics don’t work this way. And for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

What we can do when presented with a physics problem, especially those on such a massive scale as climate change and resource overshoot, is pretend that it’s actually a crisis of ideas. In this way we can continue to not change much of anything about ourselves, while justifying endless talk and speculation about what we might do.

But at the end of the day, the train, and everyone in it, is subject to the laws of physics.

The Snowpiercer is, as I said, a two-fold metaphor: for both the limits that society artificially places on us as individuals, and the very real limits that the planet itself maintains without fail. The green progress movement believes that humanity can build and live aboard the proverbial train, suspended above and away from the earth on its track, continuously moving towards an ever-brighter future.

The problems with this are many. Like the train, our society is currently overbuilt given the raw materials, available labor, money, and oil that is available to maintain it, let alone replace any of it. This is why the Snowpiercer begins to rely on child labor to keep running – people are the only real “renewable resource” that can actually be made on-board with a net positive (though very low) EROEI. We might compare the perpetual motion engine to real-life technology like solar panels, wind turbines, and other devices touted as being renewable. If the engine cannot renew itself, if it cannot be used to make more parts to service it with, then it requires energy inputs outside of the system to maintain and is not truly perpetual. This is the nature of entropy, one of those pesky in-built limits to physics. The green progressive would simply suggest that we built a new, better train every time entropy catches up. The realist will eventually be forced to counter, with what?

The devil is most certainly in the details, and the laws of thermodynamics is one of those little details that makes plans for a renewable energy future full of the same kind of economic prosperity, technological progress, and modern comfort that we have now impossible. The fact is that what we have built cannot be powered by any other means than oil. Food, travel, entertainment, medicine, business, manufacturing – these sectors will shrink along with our carbon footprints, and the current technological momentum we have that might have potentially given us something more efficient than solar panels or ethanol is halting faster than we can imagine. The sacred engine is slowing.

Nothing is capable of self-renewal a la the mythological phoenix, rising from its ashes. All energy transactions result in loss: if a man is to carry a gallon of water to the top of a mountain, it’s costs more than that initial gallon of water to slake his thirst along the way. Nothing is in and of itself, nothing exists apart from its externalities. Organic cotton may be more sustainable than Tencel only because organic cotton can be grown, produced, spun, and woven with manual labor alone. Tencel on the other hand, while held to high environmental standards in a single snapshot of today, cannot sustain itself indefinitely. Eventually, the toxic solvents used to tease out the cellulose need to be replenished. The waste water can only be recycled so much (and recycling takes energy) before the remaining caustic sludge needs somewhere to go. The high-tech machines used in those processes will eventually break down and need to be repaired or replaced. Are the factories where those parts are manufactured also sustainable? When their machines break down, are the factories that built their parts sustainable? The entire system relies on inputs from externalized energy.

The myth of green progress is predicated on the hope that there is something else out there, some vast wilderness full of promise we might go when we blow up the train. The days of massive civic works projects are long behind us, or didn’t you know? US infrastructure has a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. 80 years ago we built an interstate highway system that was only designed to last 60 years, and now local governments struggle to divert funds to repair even a single bridge. Money and labor is stretched thin, while our expectations remain higher than ever before. We have come to rely on stone soup, even as we use up the last stones. This is what happens when a physics problem gets treated like a thought problem.

Of course, this is only a problem for us. Even in Snowpiercer, life for the planet continued on while humans were busy waging their tiny wars aboard a high-speed train. Something survived somewhere, even if it were just those niche creatures that eke out their lives far away from the sun. The derailed train, burnt and broken, would lay there on the mountainside for some time, oozing its inorganic toxins, but eventually it would all be reclaimed by the earth. The track itself would eventually cease to be. The artificial ice age would pass, the mountains would shift and grumble, and all record of man would be nothing but a memory of a memory. Life would go on.

Actually, life itself is a physics problem. Or to go a bit deeper, physics is a physics problem. Everything in the universe is faced with the choice to grow or die, where growth is just the scenic route to death anyways.

But it’s what we do with death that the thought problems really get exciting.

Kings of the Hills; or, A Weekend at the Lake

A little thought piece I wrote for my religious blog. I feel it would fit here too.

Nobody can say that I don’t like to hear stories and perspectives from folks of all walks of life, that I don’t manage to get something out of being with varied company. I’ve shared table with island-owning millionaires and the once homeless, with Woodstock-era crystal healers and cattle ranchers, with Elon Muskian techno-optimists and flat earthers. I’ve broken bread with murderers, pacifists, philanthropists, misanthropists, poets, contractors, foodies, farmers, and the guy who played the punk on the bus in Star Trek: The Voyage Home. (Kirk Thatcher makes for one hell of a dinner guest!)

I understand people. I don’t always like what I understand about them, and rarely do in fact, but I still go out of my way to understand. It helps me put pieces together in the endless puzzle of Where We Find Ourselves Now, and as I fit more things of that one into place, the more pieces are revealed to me about Where We’ve Tread and Where We Might Go. In this way I am able to turn over new stones in my practice, and, perhaps, catch fleeting glimpses of how my ancestors might have seen both the world and each other.

I spent the weekend at a lake in the Shuswap region, at a very small and very exclusive RV resort. My husband’s uncle maintains the grounds and helps the owners with handyman work in exchange for a free spot, and so we went with him as we were planning on visiting Kamloops for an errand anyways.

It was lovely. No, it was decidedly better than lovely. The lake was pristine, and harder to get to than its more-frequented neighbor: 45 minutes on an active logging road is quite the deterrent for casual tourists looking for a bit of water to make a mess of with beer in hand and boat deck underfoot.

I quickly noticed a few things about the other vacationers present, however, and none of them surprising. They generally fell into two types: those with so much recreational gadgetry that they spent their entire weekend maintaining it all, and those with such stunted creativity that they dedicated their waking hours to being shit-faced drunk, their feet hardly leaving their RV deck.

My husband and I went on several walks back up the road. We listened to the creek, marveled at the moss and the fungi and the flowers. We took off our shoes and smiled at the springiness of the woodland floor beneath our feet. As our path turned from the burbling water, the pressing silence of the forest turned our skin to gooseflesh and we spoke in hushed, excited voices of our awe of such a place. I collected birch bark for making a certain sort of pen the Nick Neddo way, stones for hopefully grinding into paint pigment, a piece of cedar that should make a nice bullroarer. I pried a massive fungus off a fallen pine tree to bring home in the hopes that it was medicinal. (I’ll check my foraging books tomorrow once I identify the species of tree it was munching on.) We returned, cracked open a few beers, and took refuge as a thundering squall rolled in and hammered us with rain. Praise be to the Old Man and his mountain-splitting Axe – I don’t get to witness him at his holy task along the inlet at home.

During one of our walks, I noticed a capped mushroom growing off the side of the road and paused to get a good look at it, and that’s when husband noticed a single golden Christmas ornament hanging from the tree just a few feet further in. It struck him as an uncanny coincidence, at which I smiled and said that there are few coincidences in the forest. The trees have a way of suggesting things.

Later, I took off in his uncle’s quad to do a little ripping around, but mostly I was hunting for roadkill, the fur I wanted for making more paintbrushes. What I thought had been a small carcass the day before was nowhere to be found, but turning on a small trail led me to a clearing some yards away that was all but carpeted in tufts of fur. I said words of thanks and picked up several neat hanks of hair, held together by moisture from the earlier rains. I wondered about the fur, so neatly pulled as it was from some hide, but without any sign of bones or blood or struggle. Some of it formed a trail, even, but it led me nowhere. The image of white and gray tufts of fur scattered on the ground like flower petals or breadcrumbs through a thick, mossy forest is a potent one, though. I went back out the next morning to leave one final gift in thanks for the spirits’ sheer generosity.

Coming back from the walks was disappointing. We’d round the bend, cross the cattle-guard, and be greeted by the fleet of glossy plastic RV trailers. The sound of someone leaf-blowing the dust from their deck furniture looking so fresh from the Pottery Barn catalog that you could still smell the Chinese plastic off-gassing into the storm-washed air – and then going back inside. Our host insisted that we help ourselves to another can of Kokanee and whatever else he had in the trailer, most of which turned out to be pepperoni sticks and bags of Walmart chips. My stomach needed a probiotic after all the bleached bread and gum-stabilized salad dressing on top of all that. Not that there was salad to be had; the only vegetables in the place was the relish tray. Eventually I could no longer handle the reconstituted consistency of the Kraft bacon ranch and I chose instead to eat the raw broccoli florets by themselves. Crunch crunch. Later, more beer and Walmart lasagna.

The uncle was a good host in every way he knew how to be, and I can respect that. But the man, like most men of his type, are rather quite incomplete human beings. And incomplete things turned out into the world usually cause damage.

The trip out and back cost 8 gallons of gasoline and the lives of 3 birds. The uncle insisted on burning most of the trash we made, including the plastic, and my husband, not keen on getting cancer again, quietly began diverting our plastic waste from the fire pit to our cooler so that we could dispose of it later.

Wonder was not a language the uncle knew. Emotions weren’t, either, and I learned that he was a man of few questions. As far as I could tell, he already knew everything he could want or need to know, and all that there was left to do in life was to be coldly competent at as many things as possible while avoiding at all costs that irritating period between hazarding and mastery. Before we left his wife joked about his intolerance for playing even card games. Poker is stupid, but drunkenly destroying your snowmobile out on the trail isn’t.

I’ve encountered his type before, a sort of king of the hill: confident only when he already has the upper hand, strong only when he’s safe within a fortress of possessions, and wise provided that no one ever asks him for advice.

Is this really the legacy of our North American cowboy masculinity? The driving need to hold everything in disdain, clinging to that habituated (and mindless) imperative of “freedom”, even if it means nothing more than being able to cut a tree down in your suburban front yard with the shriek of your finest Husqvarna as if to say I am man, hear my engine roar?

This special sort of stunted humanity could only have happened in a post-Industrial revolution, post-Enlightenment, and post-European exodus world. The pieces came neatly enough together: conceit and domination replaced awe and humility, labor performed by hydrocarbon fuel became confused with human labor even as it was being replaced by it, and the animal panic of living in overcrowded Londons and Munichs and Amsterdams, passed down from generation to generation, was eased by the New World’s false promise of unadulterated, unregulated space.

Never has a people prided themselves on being so ahistorical and placeless, following nothing more than their whims and ideologies of social aesthetic. It doesn’t matter where I come from, I have a boat and an RV and Razor and a truck to haul it all. I can come and go as I please. Who needs to be from anywhere, when you can go anywhere? What does place matter if the cut tree falls just the same in California as it does in Alberta? If the rock breaks just the same? If the road goes and the people bleed?

I’ve thought several times over the past few weeks about how I am an immigrant, a religious practitioner, an artist, both colonial and colonized, and part of a diaspora… not just once, but many times removed. My blood once came from Germany, from the islands of the North Sea, from deep in the deserts of Mexico. I carry with me the genes of family who saw the rise of revolutions and the heaving of borders. I am at least one-eighth Indigenous, though likely closer to one-quarter, and not all in one place. I make sure to stick my roots down into whatever soil I find myself standing on, strive to be vernacular wherever I am. I go out and introduce myself to the spirits.

My husband’s uncle is a dying breed, and his generation is perhaps the last of a long line of broken men bravely leading their broken families on into the comfort and complacency of a plastic-padded life, even as the foundering walls of this sick society close in around them. He’s worked damn hard in his career, of that I’ve no doubt, but the subtle, spiteful hedonism underpinning the entire structure of his life is no just and earned reward for 22 years of service to his industry. And while the role that the million-year-old liquid sunlight has played in making his boat and Husqvarna and heated steering wheel possible will never be apparent to him, future generations will be able to piece his wyrd together (out of necessity) and see where it all went wrong.

If the luxury RV park isn’t eventually ruined in a forest fire due to the steady onward march of arid climes, then it will surely be abandoned to squatters in a few more decades’ time once the cost of fuel becomes even too much for the lawyer and the trust fund children to bear. The kings of the hills will be caught with their pants thoroughly down, surrounded by their Midas’ gold. In 30 years, people will wonder where their parents were when BC was burning – it will be my generation, old and bitter, who will have to shrug and say, “They went up to the lake.”

One of the other site owners at the resort introduced himself to my husband and I before we packed up. He was young, maybe late 30s, and trained air traffic controllers at Vancouver International for a living. The awkward small talk seemed to simply be there to provide a safe buffer for what he’d really intended to say to us as outsiders to their little community of rural wealth: “Don’t tell anyone about this place.”

We laughed politely, but after he was gone our thoughts turned as deep and wide as the water before us. I already knew I had a lot to say about Adams Lake. If only he knew what those words would be.

via Kings of the Hills; or, A Weekend at the Lake