Kansha: Appreciation, or, F— You, Fossil Fuels

Kimchi.

Fermentation is really, really in right now. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is due to the mere movement of trends throughout the culinary consumer zeitgeist, and how much of it will stick around and be absorbed into an American way of life that will persist for years to come.

I, like our ancestors before us, came into fermentation as a strategy because I’m a cheap-ass.

My husband likes soda; soda is expensive; who says I can’t make my own soda? If I can make my own tonkatsu ramen, surely I can make my own soda.

My several attempts at getting a ginger bug started didn’t amount to much, but the logic was sound, and moreover, I wound up discovering a whole world out there of fermented, probiotic, and shelf-stable food that once stocked the larders of peasant households the world over. (And if it’s one thing peasants and I have in common, it’s a lack of money.) My second foray into home fermentation was kimchi, something I learned to love (and live off) in college, thanks to some Korean roommates. It was wildly successful. After that, I was a fermenting machine. Well, as much as I had the time, energy, and counter space for.

For me, fermentation isn’t about being culinarily impressive – though it often is – but rather more about being less reliant on my refrigerator.

Almost everything I do with food now I try to contextualize in our vast, sprawling, largely invisible web of fossil fuel usage. How much energy goes into making my condiments? My alcohol? How much energy goes into keeping my produce fresh? How much energy goes into making a salad?

I bought myself a used copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions for my birthday recently. Not only did it immediately find itself in heavy rotation in my small cookbook collection, but it will have a place in the kitchen, I believe, for the rest of my life. The premise of the book is basically how to cook frugally and mindfully the Japanese way. The lengthy appendices talk about how to reuse water used to cook noodles or rinse rice (make a sipping broth with leftover sauce), how to use every single part of a daikon in the same way that the subsistence hunter uses every single part of a kill. In the pickles section, there’s also a few pages dedicated to the Japanese nuka pot, a pot of pickling paste made from rice bran, beer, and vegetable scraps that is maintained not unlike a sourdough starter.

Eventually, the husband and I want to leave the city. We want to leave the grid behind; the nine-to-fives, the endless hedonic treadmill of bills and debt, the noise and light pollution, the carbon-heavy, digitized lifestyles that every single person I know claims to depend on for sanity and survival. We want to remove the countless middlemen between us and that which sustains: the earth, the plants, the animals, and the quality relationships with other people that made most pre-industrial cultures worth fighting for in the face of enclosure, capitalism, and colonialist greed. (No really: most peasants through history had to be forced off their land and into the cities at sword or gunpoint.)

And even though that goal will be years in the making, we’re doing all the mental prep work we can. Right now, that means taking a long, hard look at the refrigerator. If we break down what a refrigerator is and what it does, its workings becomes less mysterious and the prospect of going without one less terrifying.

So what is a refrigerator? A refrigerator is a heavily-insulated box that plugs into the wall which makes food cold so it lasts longer, basically. Or, to put it a slightly different way: a method of food preservation that depends entirely on unsustainable energy* and dangerous chemicals to function. Once you frame it in those terms, it suddenly becomes just one in a variety of methods of preserving the harvest. And when that happens, why, again, are we collectively choosing the most expensive, most environmentally suicidal option?

That’s where kansha and fermentation come in. The two seem to go hand in hand, really – if you have a deep love and appreciation for the bounty of the earth, then frugality should follow, no? Kansha the book is full of tricks on not only preventing food from winding up in the garbage, but from the compost bin too, even. Obviously, the recipes are Japanese in origin, but many of the ingredients, from cabbages to root vegetables, fresh greens to foraged mushrooms, are staples across much of the temperate world, and the author’s careful consideration of the daikon could be applied to almost any sort of root vegetable.

Nuka pots, if diligently kept, can last for decades, even generations. They are a common sight in many Japanese kitchens, and where food scraps that Americans would have no second thought about throwing away are given another lease on life in the form of a crisp, delicious pickle.

Nuka, the Japanese word for rice bran, needn’t be made with the stuff – I hear that wheat bran works just as well, and only needs a little tweaking in how its used. I plan on starting a nuka pot myself in the next few days, as I explore the household feasibility of fermentation as a viable alternative to refrigeration, and as I get my taste buds used to the slow introduction of more and more fermented foods in my diet. (Because someday, pickled vegetables may be the only vegetable I can eat for a good chunk of the year. I’m learning to be OK with this in practice.)

S in addition to kimchi, my list of successful ferments are steadily growing, and I’m getting better at sussing out the particulars of each kind, its strengths and weaknesses, the culinary niche that it might fill in my diet. Here’s what has stuck so far, or will absolutely need to stick before we pack up and head out, like some kind of parallel universe, anti-matter Beverly Hillbilles:

Kimchi

I love the taste of kimchi. It’s tangy, spicy, crunchy, and fantastic on a bed of warm rice. It’s also dirt cheap to make and almost impossible to screw up. (Seriously, I don’t know why anyone buys the stuff. It’s as absurd to me as buying water.) My latest batch I made with gochujang paste instead of chili flakes, because it’s all I had on-hand, but it worked really well all the same. I also replace the shrimp paste with miso in my batches, being vegetarian and all. As for its versatility, there are as many kinds of kimchi as there are vegetables in Asia – this is good news for those of us who might be growing things other than napa cabbage.

Sourdough

I’m still not great at making bread from a sourdough starter, but maybe that’s because I’ve only tried with stone-ground wheat. I can make bread that tastes good and very edible, but it’s dense. The starter, though, is also absurdly easy to cultivate, and is edible at just about every stage of the fermentation cycle.

Kvass/Sima/Cider

I don’t know what to call this stuff, to be quite honest. I’ve got a post written up about it, but the jist is this: it’s chopped fruit mixed with sugar, warm water, and whatever herbs/spices you like to taste, and left to get fizzy on the counter for a few days. It’s a little like the Finnish sima, a fermented lemonade, minus the added yeast… and all those other complicated steps.

Mead

Yes, I’m a burgeoning mead-brewer now. I’m going by a sort of eyeballed, wild-yeasted recipe that an acquaintance of mine wrote about a few months back, and it’s also easy as dirt so long as you know how to adequately sanitize your equipment. It’s one part unpasteurized (preferably local) honey to three to four parts warm water. Add fruit, aromatics, or what have you, and let sit at room temperature for a few months until the mead turns clear, making sure that your containers of choice don’t explode. Taste, rack, enjoy. It’s not cheap alcohol, but boy does it mean more when you make it yourself. And it tastes damn good too.

Nukazuke

If the magic happens in a nuka pot, then the magical result is the nukazuke, rice bran pickles. Again, I haven’t actually done this yet, but I see this being a seamless and delicious addition to my fermentation scheme, and a really good way to prevent otherwise good food scraps from winding up in the compost pail. (This is good for those of us who have a jar in the freezer specially dedicated to broth scraps, and don’t know what to do with the leftovers from cruciferous vegetables, spines from leafy greens, or other miscellany. Pickle ’em!)

Vinegar

I have also not made a vinegar yet, though I intend do as soon as I amass enough apple scraps or wine remnants. From what I’ve read, it sounds similar to making my fizzy fruit drink, except you let it turn alcoholic, then let the alcohol turn into acid. By all accounts this is also ridiculously easy.

Miso

Homemade miso paste is actually really easy to make, it just takes a long time – at least a year – and requires inoculation with a special culture found in a product called koji, where the fungus aspergillus oryzae is grown on specially prepared rice. The inoculated rice is a required ingredient in miso of any type (I’ve seen miso made from all manner of beans, not just soy, as well as barley, which is another traditional variety), though it too doesn’t take too much effort to make if you’ve got koji spores on hand, and the dried koji lasts a long time if stored properly. I love miso and use it in a lot of my cooking, so I can see myself doing a big koji/miso-making spree once a year, maybe entirely out of barley if it’s easy to grow.

With the help of a root cellar, a smoke house, and icy winters, I think we just might pull it off. One caveat: we will probably have a small deep freezer for helping store larger amounts of meat and processed game, which we will likely be able to get away with turning off when outside temperatures are below freezing.

We’ve already committed ourselves to living in a ‘dry’ house – that is, a house without plumbing – thanks to Berkey water filters, and strategically-located cisterns around/under the house and their associated hand pumps, and compost toilets. We’ve already committed ourselves to living with as little electricity as we can get away with also: a DC solar arrangement for a laptop or two, record player,  and occasional light bulb, perhaps. But it definitely won’t be enough to run appliances, let alone one that needs power 24/7.

Yeah, it’s going to be a huge change. But that’s why we’re starting here and now, with the concept of kansha. 

From the book’s dust jacket:

The celebration of Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions begins with kansha – appreciation – an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform nature’s bounty into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, encourages all cooks to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve our natural resources.

It’s not about saying “no” to the comforts of a modern Western home. It’s about saying “yes” to a different way of doing things, because if you don’t welcome it with open arms and appreciate it for what it has to offer, then… well, you’re up shit creek, aren’t you? Nothing worse than changing your life for all the wrong reasons.


*All energy that relies in any way on electricity at any point during it or its components’ sourcing, manufacture, use, upkeep, and disposal, is unsustainable in my book. My book is very strict.

BIFL Drawing and Writing Supplies

A few months ago I emailed Jetpens to suggest that they consider moving away from plastic shipping materials, or to at least give the option of using entirely paper-based shipping materials, and to also ask if they might someday put together a zero waste product guide. They kindly took my suggestions into consideration, but we’ll see if they’ll ever make them happen!

In the meantime, here’s my own product guide. I did a long suggestion list for more zero-waste friendly art supplies a while back, but didn’t get into specifics much. So based on my own experience making art, here’s the closest thing to a Buy It For Life list of drawing/writing supplies that I can think up. (Most of these are Jetpens links; I’m not an affiliate, they just happen to be the only US-based merchant that sells a lot of this stuff. I’m also a happy customer of theirs, FWIW.)

Rollerball Pens

Rollerball and other ballpoint-types, while convenient, are not the most eco-friendly option out there. Ballpoint ink is made via highly complex industrial processes, and is comprised of oil, solvents, and dye. Gel pens are worse, though, and I recommend staying away from them. Their opacity is due to many more chemical additives, gums, and other thickeners. If a ball-type pen is necessary for your use, at least try to stick with a regular ballpoint style ink.

  • The space pen:  This handy pen has been around for years and years, and was immensely popular a decade or so ago (ask around and you’ll surely find someone who still uses theirs). It’s reported to be one of the more durable ballpoint pens on the market, and AFAIK, it can take a good pounding. The refills are not especially cheap, though, and can only be bought in packs of one on a blister card. $20
  • Karas Kustoms Retrakt Pen: This pen made it onto the website’s own BIFL list, but the neat thing about it is that it’s compatible with a huge range of refills from a bunch of different manufacturers, and takes a bunch of different kinds of inks too. It comes in a brown craft box with little plastic packaging. $50-100
  • CW&T Pen Type A: “Over-engineered to crazy town”, this pen seems to be built like a tank. It uses Hi-Tec-C refills, but the pen itself comes packaged in a cardboard tube instead of plastic. $160

Fountain Pens

Ink-wise, fountain pens win the environmentally-friendly race, hands down. Fountain pen ink is, comparatively speaking, simpler to make because its water-based, and it is possible to make them with 100% natural materials (if you so choose to make your own!). A such, there is a much wider variety of inks on the market to choose from, in a wide range of colors, compositions, and amounts (for the bulk nuts among us). For a much greener, BIFL option, I wholeheartedly recommend a fountain pen.

  • Lamy Safari: Yes, this is a plastic pen. But it’s an ABS plastic pen – the same thing Legos are made from, and we all know those things last forever. This model of pen, as I understand it, is a well-loved EDC pen for many people, and may just be the cheapest BIFL fountain pen option out there. $30
  • Kaweco Brass Sport: You didn’t think you could get away without hearing about this pen again, did you? As an owner of this amazing writing and drawing tool, and someone with first-hand understanding of how durable this thing is, of course it’s going to make the grade. This Kaweco – versus the plastic Kaweco Sports – comes in a very nice metal tin. (There is also a Sport pen made with an aluminum body that runs about $80, which I imagine is just as durable.) $96
  • Kaweco Liliput: A few of these have also made it to the site’s BIFL list, and they’re all metal-bodied pens, so there’s not too much more to say here I think. $58-175

Honorary mentions: J. Herbin inks, which are purportedly made from 100% natural components, and dip pens, which are cheap, durable, and rely on even fewer industrial manufacturing processes than fountain pens.

Pencils

Pencils are a bit tricky. Because on the one hand, you’ve got your mechanical pencils/lead holders, the bodies of which could probably withstand a nuclear blast, but whose refills come overpackaged in ridiculous amounts of plastic; and on the other, you have the generic #2 pencils, which are much simpler, but will inevitably wind up a near-useless little stub of wood and graphite. What’s a green BIFLer to do? So here are a few options, depending on your needs.

  • #2 pencil, sans eraser, + pencil extender: I learned to make use of a pencil extender in art school, where sharpenable drawing tools would get used up faster than toilet paper, and throwing away 3-inch stubs every week was like throwing away money. A pencil extender is just a piece of wood or plastic or metal that clamps onto the end of your too-short pencil, and lets you use it some more. I recommend doing this with eraserless pencils, just so you don’t have a metal/rubber end to deal with afterwards.
  • 100% recycled #2 pencils: Another option is to just use pencils with 100% recycled body content. They make them out of wood pulp, newspaper, and other stuff nowadays. Unfortunately, they always come with eraser heads.
  • Carpentry pencils: You know the ones: they’re sort of oblong instead of round, chunky, eraserless, and need to be sharpened with a knife. You can get these by the handful at hardware stores, and if they’re durable enough for use at a contruction site, then they’re good enough for you!
  • Graphite stick: Also known as woodless pencils, using a graphite stick eliminates the wooden body altogether and doesn’t really need sharpening. Not so great for writing, since the larger ones are usually very chunky and not especially sharpenable, but if you really just need to draw with graphite for some reason, this is a good way to go. The other downside is that they usually need to go in their own container, otherwise they’ll get graphite on whatever they come into contact with after a while, and everything in your bag will wind up black and shiny.
  • Lead holder: A lead holder differs from your typical mechanical pencil in that they usually make use of larger lead sticks: several inches long, and at least several millimeters in diameter. These refills last a long time. (A tip on making your leads last longer: go with the lighter, harder leads, as the softer hardnesses break down faster and release more mineral particulate when scraped across paper. So when shopping for leads, be sure to pick out something with an “H” instead of a “B”. But not too hard, though, otherwise you’ll have difficulty erasing.) Here’s a selection of metal-bodied lead holders$20-112
  • Good quality drafting pencil: If you insist on mechanical pencils, then at least pick one with a thicker lead. 0.5mm pencils sure do make you feel like a sophisticated writing machine, but they’re fragile, and their leads are easily broken – and therefore wasted. I recommend at least 0.9mm simply for the robustness factor. If you have a choice of lead hardness, again, go with something on the H side of things. Here’s a selection of metal-bodied drafting pencils. $16-20

When it comes to Buying It For Life, you don’t always get what you pay for – a $30 Lamy Safari will probably prove just as trusty as my brass Kaweco over the years, let alone something well into the three (or four!) digits that was designed with the collector in mind. Meanwhile, none of the pencil options listed above will come as close to being as BIFL as a simple $3 chunk of graphite.

Either way… let’s ditch the disposable pens, yeah?

Consumer Capitalism Doesn’t Want You Going Back To Basics

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Consumer capitalism has one goal: to devour and assimilate; divide and conquer. To eliminate all markets, economies, and human relationships that function differently. Its one part of one part of one part of this thing that this guy named Fredy Perlman called Leviathan. This is a post about one part of one of those parts.

Once upon a time, we lived in a vernacular world dictated almost entirely by our bioregions. From what our houses were made from, to what colors our clothes were, to what kind of alcohol we brewed, to what our instruments sounded like. But most of us in the developed world don’t really have that, and haven’t for generations. So we grope for that sense of vernacularity wherever we think we might get it: and right now, interestingly enough, stuff that looks like it came from 1850-1950’s America is the trend du jour.

You know the look: so-called hipsters with their leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, their plaid shirts, their Edison bulbs, their galvanized steel and rustic wood. Part John Muir, part George Bailey, and part Ozark coal miner, these members of the Oregon Trail generation walk around in the costume of a lost people: those who still had access to the American Dream. I read someone someplace compare this trend to a cargo cult, and it seems apt to me. With a country gutted of its blue collar work, no longer able to afford a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, we’ve taken the old adage of dressing for the job you want and are running desperately with it.

There’s a few problems with bringing these kinds of objects and products into contemporary life, though. The first is due to that aforementioned gutting of blue collar work and increasingly impossible dream of upward mobility, or of living a life on one’s own. One in four Americans is eligible for food stamps (only half that number use them), for instance. Materials like leather and steel were never cheap, so people usually had to scrimp and save to purchase those kinds of goods, and then make them last as long as humanly possible. But we rarely have that kind of buying power anymore – dollars are stretched painfully thin across a veritable tidal wave of products and services that are required to participate in modern life. From data plans, to internet, to legally mandated health insurance, to car insurance, to HOA fees, to school supplies and exorbitantly-priced textbooks, to electronic devices that need to be upgraded every year or two due to planned obsolescence, to gadgets that protect your other gadgets, to… well, you get the idea. Complexity nickel and dimes.

And that’s all on top of the fact that real wages have barely increased since the 1980’s, which has left many Americans struggling to keep up not with the Joneses, but with the fees required to simply exist in one place or another, or the technology required to even find work. These are hidden costs to living that simply did not exist 100 years ago – or even 50.

So the simple fact of the matter is that the effects of yesteryear’s wage laborer is too expensive for today’s wage laborer. Ironic, no?

Scarcity works like that, though. When plastic was introduced to the consumer market, it was intended to provide an alternative to rare and expensive natural materials, which I talked about a little in this post. It was a material for the wealthy and wanna-be wealthy. But as it became cheaper to produce, plastic began replacing everything, and by the 1950’s, plastic’s prominent place in the household was solidified. Note how the current trend of romanticizing blue-collar and pioneer life takes no cues from post-WW2 America – our zeitgeist longs for a return to a world full of things made “the old-fashioned way”, and there is no part of plastic’s manufacturing process that can be done without chemicals and machinery that fly in the face of vernacular sensibility.

The second thing that doesn’t work when it comes to making this old stuff new again is that our current culture was, in its early inception, actively designed to abhor it. The aforementioned objects are, in essence, slow. They are the products of slow fashion, slow food, and slow manufacture. (Well, slower manufacture.) And slow things in a breakneck world are luxuries, because bottom lines wait for no one. Take clothing, for instance. The average American of 100 years ago owned two, maybe three changes of clothes: a filthy, hard-wearing set for work, and a nicer set for Sundays. The garments were likely better made than the vast majority of what passes as clothes in contemporary fashion, and they were meticulously maintained, because a new shirt could cost you maybe half of your weekly wages. It probably didn’t take you very long to realize why this scheme wouldn’t work nowadays. Even if your two sets of clothes were made from the best materials around, were diligently washed, and, too, meticulously maintained, you would face social, and likely job-related, consequences for not having a varied wardrobe.

Clothes were constructed differently then, too, and styles that were deemed “professional” were often in accordance with what a housewife could sew by hand. Not so anymore. “Business casual” is the very definition of anti-vernacular: garment construction that relies heavily on synthetic fabrics and fibers to keep their shape instead of accepting looser silhouettes; knits, a low-tech kind of stretch fabric, and the irregular quirks that gives hand-sewing its charm are both considered sloppy and inappropriate for the workplace; the garments themselves are designed with extensive sitting in mind, not manual work or ease of movement. They are aggressively apathetic to culture, bioregion, and often the physical needs of the wearer.

Where once DIY items were made at or close to home, polyester garments that fall apart after a dozen launderings are now the norm.

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It is also interesting to me to see just what sorts of people are appropriating the wardrobes and personal effects of the early 20th century blue-collar worker. More often than not, it is the pencil-pusher. Why should the WordPress programmer stuck in front of a computer screen all day want to look like a 19th century log driver? In the same way that body fat becomes attractive when food is scarce, someone that looks like they spend their days in the wilderness when we’ve got little wilderness left becomes just another consumer bid at novelty. But it’s also the “creatives” – people who are also increasingly spending long hours in the office, with fewer real art supplies at hand, and more technology. Funny that a commercial artist should romanticize the life of a laborer: someone who, for all intents and purposes, did not do very creative work.

Make no mistake, our culture is in the midst of a crisis. And thanks to generations of rule by neoliberal consumer capitalism, we’ve lost the ability to even put our state of affairs to words. It’s devoured and assimilated us; we have been divided and conquered. Our only recourse in this regime is to consume – to buy our way out of climate change, buy our way out of stagnating wages, buy our way out of an uncertain and fearful future. Individually, we know deep down that none of this will work; but collectively, there’s too much inertia behind it.

All trends of this sort are born from more than just the hand-me-downs of this season’s designer runways. They embody the collective consciousness of a culture, giving form to their hopes and dreams and expectations of the future. Look at the 1950’s again: the cultural obsession with space travel was more than just what the “cool kids” were doing. Sending rocketmen to Mars and beyond was the future on which we all hung our hats of national identity, and consumer capitalism quickly learned to feed on it. The same thing happened to the future as of 1970’s, where increasingly powerful computing technology was central to our vision of Tomorrow, and even so with the birth of the pop culture dystopia of 1980’s cyberpunk.

Even as our idea of what the future meant made a drastic turn from blind optimism to roguish pessimism, consumer capitalism remained in step, ready to appropriate whatever idea was central to the collective unconscious. Ready to sell it back to us with such aggressive insistence that it looses all meaning, and after a few years we’re forced to find a new future to bank on.

But we’re running out of futures, aren’t we? Since the twin birth of modern nationalism and industrialization, our concept of The Future has hinged on technological innovation, fossil fuels, and the conquering of nature to the betterment of all. The bitterness of the 1980’s flipped the narrative on its head, but it wasn’t something truly new: it was simply a diametric perversion of what came before, and it turned out to be just as unfulfilling. It’s left us scrambling for a new story. The 90’s, having witnessed the impotency of smug defeatism from the previous decade, thought it saw something altogether new in the internet, and we allowed ourselves to get unironically excited one last time – though that, too, failed to meet expectations when the corporations moved in like predators circling a kill.

American optimism suffered its final blow when the world trade center buildings fell at the dawn of the 21st century, and for the next decade we wandered aimlessly about our own cultural landscape, searching for pieces of ourselves among the wreckage.

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We’ve found them, alright – or at least, it feels like we have. Too terrified to look toward Tomorrow anymore, we’ve instead turned to Yesterday. What have we found? Leather wallets and waxed canvas backpacks, plaid shirts, Edison bulbs, galvanized steel and rustic wood. We know that the American dream of the 1950’s was a hollow lie, but maybe, just maybe, the American dream of the pre-industrial age still has something to offer us. Surely, log cabins and subsistence farming and bespoke goods and knitting and Mason jars are sustainable, right?

And still the business interests have us fenced in.  The log cabins have to abide by entire tomes’ worth of building codes and pass inspections cooked up by the stick-frame housing industry. The subsistence farming requires buying land (something most of “the pioneers” didn’t have to do) and navigating an entire farming industry that is still lost in the clutches of the green revolution. The bespoke goods require paying for local skill, the cost of which has skyrocketed due to the aforementioned higher cost of living and education. (We’ve also completely dismantled the old system of trade apprenticeships, so training must now be paid for by the next generation of tradesmen.) And both knitting and the Mason jar product have been co-opted by the crafting-industrial complex, which now provides an endless buffet of consumer-ready materials for us to project our wildest creative dreams onto with abandon.

Every single thing that we have tried to salvage from the past has been taken from us by business both big and small. Vernacularity once again ripped from its native context and placed in a zoo with tickets to be paid for by weekend warriors and rural tourists. While we sit and sip our $12 coffee flights, dandelion, chicory, and cassina languish in our neighborhoods. We don’t know what oilcloth is made from. We still want fresh tomatoes in winter.

When the obsession with our recent past, like the obsessions with the future before it, fail to deliver meaning or solutions for a world and planet in crisis, we’ll move on. We always do. Where do we go now, though? What story will we tell ourselves next?

I’m not sure, but it will be a reaction to all of this. Already there’s a resurgence in the old fever dreams of space travel and interplanetary manifest destiny, but whether that gains enough traction to shape our identity again is doubtful. We’ve been there, already: it gave us the cold war, and we can’t foot the bill anymore besides. The floor, as some are saying, is beginning to touch the ceiling. We’re being crushed.

One thing’s for certain, though: consumer capitalism doesn’t want you going back to basics. It doesn’t want you to buy it for life, it doesn’t want you to only own one, it doesn’t want you taking good care of it, and it absolutely, positively doesn’t want it being made sustainably.

Because odds are, that means it probably wouldn’t have been made at all.

 

#OptOutside

 

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REI started the #OptOutside campaign last year, another addition to the growing number of businesses that want no part of the Black Friday madness that’s invaded Thanksgiving. Not only that, but they’re paying every single one of their employees not to go to work, not to shop somewhere else, to say no to the consumerist mania and go enjoy some nature instead. That’s pretty freakin’ rad.

I won’t be outside, as I work for most of the day unfortunately – but I definitely won’t be doing any shopping after my shift is over. And who knows, I clock out at 3… maybe I can get an early evening walk in before the sun goes down.

At any rate, here’s hoping that we see the disappearance of Black Friday in our lifetime.

What I’m Reading: A Friday Roundup

Reflections of a Democracy In Crisis – The Archdruid Report
John Micahel Greer looks back on one of the worst elections in US history and reiterates his opinion of where we ought to go from here, how we might avoid civil war, and how, exactly, we wound up with a President Trump.

The Black Belt: How Soil Types Determined The 2008 Election in the Deep South – The Vigorous North
Analysis on how, well, soil types have determined voting patterns in the US, thanks to their historical agricultural usage.

Unprepared – Resource Insights
I’ve only been smartphone-less for about a week, and already I’m being faced with how far down this rabbit hole most of us are. Kurt Cobb describes a society that makes neither plans nor contingency plans any longer, a society that lives on-demand or “just-in-time” lives anymore. But at what cost?

The Details: An Interview with Jan Zwicky – The Dark Mountain Project
An interview with a Canadian poet, philosopher, musician, and writer on the ecology of thought and language, and how to live in a time of ecological destruction. I specifically appreciate this excerpt:

…as part of this meditative work, we recycle, and we walk or take public transit, we don’t waste water, we don’t waste heat we try to act responsibly, that is, responsivelytoward the other beings with whom we cohabit. But we don’t try to ‘fix’ the world. We adapt our desires to what respectful and thoughtful living allows, and in this find joy. Real joy, not some puritanical satisfaction at having ‘done the right thing’. The self widens.

Going Analog Sidequest: Ditching the Smartphone Part 2: Dumbphone’d and Data-Free

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I’ve had my “dumbphone” for about week, week and a half, and already I’m noticing big differences in my day-to-day. And not in the way that folks like this talk about going smartphoneless for a few days and then document their existential crisis about it for pageviews.

I have an LG Xpression 2 – a dumbphone with a QWERTY keyboard and extremely rudimentary browser, so it could be dumber. A number of the apps, like mobile email and GPS navigation, don’t work for some reason (the phone is only 2 years old, so they should still be supported) but I’m OK with this because it means that it’s only really good for a few things: calling, texting, and alarms.

I’ve had to make a few adjustments in how I do things. Once, when I missed my bus and needed to call an Uber to make it to work on time, I had to hoof it over to a Starbucks for their wifi and use the old smartphone to do it. (I use it like a tiny tablet now.) When I didn’t see where the Uber driver had parked, I couldn’t call or text him from the device that I booked him with! It was a reminder not of what I’d given up, but how fragile our reliance on smartphone technology really is. What if my smartphone had simply been dead, and it was 11 at night instead of 8 in the morning, and I’d found myself stranded in an unfamiliar part of town? You can borrow someone else’s phone to make a call or send a text, but you can’t yet borrow their phone to schedule an Uber pickup – their account is tied in with their credit card, and I doubt a stranger is going to let you do anything on their phone besides make an emergency call anyways.

So when I caught the bus on the way home, I grabbed a folded paper schedule from behind the driver, and stuck it in my bag. The first step to dealing with a missed bus is to not miss the bus. I also made a mental note to keep the number of a yellow cab company in my phone, as well as written down in my traveler’s notebook. Not that I have to worry about the dumbphone ever dying when I need it most (the thing lasts about 2.5 days on a single charge), but if I lose it, or something else happens, I don’t want to be left stranded.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is how much better at casual conversation with strangers I am – or maybe I was previously pretty good at it, but never created space for it to happen because I always had my nose buried in a screen. The fact that a mere phone could have prevented me from realizing this latent ability just proves my point about the asininity of smartphones’ ubiquity even more.

I’ve had several very pleasant conversations with strangers since this development. One of them was with a young man about the election while at the bus stop; I found out that he’d just gotten into a car accident recently, that he preferred pot to alcohol, and was looking for a job, especially now that he had to pay for a mechanic. He found out that I recently started working at Whole Foods, that my partner worked in a Walmart distribution warehouse once upon a time (which did a number on his body), that I was a conscientious objector to the entire presidential election, and that I’d missed my bus.

There are a lot more very small moments like that in my life now. I’m starting to call it “breathing room”, because it really is. I’m giving myself permission to sit and look at things – to constantly reattune myself with my sensory environment, to familiarize myself with the minutiae of its patterns and magical little details – instead of feel the need to disappear the instant my attention grows the slightest bit diffuse.

In this way I’m reclaiming my time. My days seem to last just a little bit longer than they used to, which has always been one of my biggest gripes about the encroachment of technology on our lives. Moreover, as we’re encouraged to share every little facet of our day (for what? likes and followers?), we become less active participants in our own lives and more passive spectators, like paparazzi always on the lookout for a juicy story, and our online “presences” become more like our very own curated tabloid magazines. It’s all a kind of social rat race.

So for those of you interested in ditching the smartphone, a few things I’ve re-learned in my short time using one:

  • Make plans, make contingency plans, and have necessary documentation with you. This includes written directions to where you’re going, phone numbers for things like yellow cab companies, bus maps and schedules, and so on.
  • Check the weather before you leave.
  • Carry a book with you.
  • Carry a pen and pad with you.
  • Leave early and don’t be afraid to get a little turned around.
  • Have patience.

#EverydayCarry

edc

This has been my writing/drawing/organizing #EverydayCarry arrangement for about a month now, and I love it. It’s everything I could possibly need for basic writing tasks, as well as casual drawing and professional comic-making. (Minus the brush and ink.) Moreover, it all fits into my traveler’s notebook.

My Everyday Carry consists of the following (from left to right):

Not pictured: my trusty Opinel penny knife. I left it in the notebook and the TSA had to take it last time I flew to Vancouver. Boo. I’ll be buying another one, though – they’re very handy, and still made in France.

To make your own sketchbook, just divide your sheet of paper up, leaving a little extra as possible, cut, and fold the resulting sheets in half to form your book’s pages. For slipping into a traveler’s notebook, you don’t even need to bind them together – the elastic band or rubber band or whatever you’re using to hold it in will keep the pages together also.

What’s your #EDC?

*A 25×30″ sheet of Canson paper gave me a 24-page booklet that would fit in the notebook (about 4.5×8.5″). Any decent art store should sell sheets of paper like this individually and without packaging. Sometimes without even a barcode sticker! I recommend heavier weight paper like this for writing or drawing with a fountain pen, though – normal paper will undoubtedly bleed.

Going Analog: The Fear of Missing Out

fomo

This drawing right here is mine, and I’ve resolved to make a drawing for every one of my original posts from here on out instead of hunting for a digital photo or image. It’s to keep in the spirit of my analog aspirations, and to make this blog more “mine”. So from here on out, there’ll be no more photos of my stuff if I can avoid it – if I want to show you my takeout gear, or the farmer’s market, I’ll be drawing it instead.


OK, so the Fear of Missing Out (or FoMO for short, because of course it needed an acronym) is something I’ve never experienced much of, either now or my pre- social media days. It’s a form of anxiety that I’ve never had much sympathy for, and neither for its close cousin, Oversharing. It’s sad that we live in a world where I have to explicitly voice my complete and utter disinterest in the minutiae of people’s generally boring lives, even that of some of my closest friends, wherein years past, it was more often than not assumed that this kind of useless conversation filler was just that, and not to be confused with genuine bonding.

I think it helps that I have played the role of outcast my entire life – I occupied the lowest caste in every school grade from K-8, and when I went to a specialized arts high school that didn’t have much of an hierarchy, I was more often than not simply forgotten about. On the rare occasion where somebody asked what I did that weekend, I wouldn’t have too much to say. I was a homebody who drew and wrote and read a lot, and who spent much more time with extended family than friends. I was, for all intents and purposes, the very picture of uninteresting. Which was fine, because I felt that everyone else was just as uninteresting (even though they didn’t seem to think so). But even then, this sharing was in-person, it was a real conversation between people, and less a mere exchange of information via words on a screen. I developed social anxiety at some point along the way, and living in NYC beat that out of me: it only takes a short while walking the streets of Manhattan for you to realize that no one is paying one whit of attention to you, because they’re all focused on themselves and whether or not anyone’s paying one whit of attention to them. And to me, social media is a lot like walking around Manhattan: it’s fast-paced, alienating, appearances are over-emphasized, and there are ads everywhere.

But let me back up a moment to talk about just what “FoMO” is.

The Fear of Missing out is, apparently, now a “mental health syndrome” wherein “sufferers” are worried that they won’t be able to keep up with what their friends are doing at every moment of every day, are worried that their lives aren’t exciting enough to talk about at every moment of every day, and that everyone else is having more exciting, more shareable experiences than they are at any given moment of any given day.

While results are mixed, depending on the organization funding the research, the Journal of Behavioral Addictions and Computers in Human Behavior both found strong correlations between social media use and low life satisfaction, as well as increased incidents of depression and anxiety. (It also contributed toward risky behaviors like smart phone use while driving.)

FoMO goes hand in hand with other things: the fear of failure being a big one, probably some kind of fear of being “uncool”, and another (super screwed up) thing called “surveillance gratification”, a term coined by the authors of the study published in the Journal. Other behaviorists have noted that “internet addiction” shares a lot of similarity with gambling addiction as well.

So when I said, in reference to getting rid of the smart phone, that it was like any other good drug? I wasn’t actually being hyperbolic.

Many pieces have already been written about FoMO and how to conquer it, but they all start from the assumption that technology is categorically good and social media isn’t a horrible addiction-making machine that alienates people and transforms humans into consumable brands.  Or they operate from the assumption that everyone likes everybody. None of which is true for me. I believe that if there is some societal ill that social media has claimed to remedy, then it is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

The Zero Waste Millennial Guide to Conquering the Fear of Missing Out

  1. Realize that most people are mostly boring, yourself included.
  2. Aspire to be less exciting, while also eliminating the learned social behavior of boredom.
  3. Kill the impulse to overshare – without a world of over-sharers, social media feeds become far less tantalizing to look at.
  4. Leave your gadgets at home more often. Start small, like trips to the grocery store, and work your way up to entire weekends of turning your data off. (I went almost a year without a smartphone while I was in Canada, effectively. I had no calling plan, and no data the entire time I was there, and could only use the internet at home or places that had free wifi. It was pure bliss, and that was the experience that inspired me to ditch the smart phone in the first place.)
  5. Think of all the money you’ll save on things that – be honest with yourself – you mostly only do to keep up with the Joneses: eat at fancy restaurants, drink fancy beers, go to fancy events, and so on. Simplicity is often just as, if not more than, gratifying as luxury.
  6. Learn, really learn, that the most spectacular moments in your life weren’t because you got 100 likes on your documentation of them, and that those moments won’t be diminished if the whole world isn’t there to “experience” them with you. On that note…
  7. Relearn how to have quiet, solitary moments. Relearn how to enjoy those moments. Relearn how to hold onto their specialness without feeling the need to tell anybody.
  8. Remember how to just stop interacting with people you don’t like. And stop getting surveillance gratification from them, too. You’re better than that.
  9. Know that validation is cheap, and that a little doesn’t go a long way anymore.
  10. In the words of Ran Prieur, “cultivate a more robust inner life”. Or at least in this case, private life.

As someone who once briefly experienced FoMO after getting a smart phone, realized that it was all a racket a couple years later, and then promptly quit Facebook among other things, take it from me – your brain and your spare time will thank you.

Going Analog Side Quest: Ditching the Smartphone Part 1

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Behold, ye olde smart paper.

Another goal I haven’t talked about in terms of going analog is that I eventually want to get rid of my smart phone.

It is, quite possibly, one of the greenest things the average person can do, up there with swearing off air travel: the digital and physical infrastructure required to keep the behemoth mobile market afloat is inexcusably enormous. Three years ago it was estimated that 48 million tons of electronic gadgetry is thrown out annually, and of that, about 155 million cell phones every year. (And who knows what that number is now.)

And that’s just the physical products themselves. What about all the throwaway technology required to build, market, and house the apps that make smart phones what they are? The throwaway peripherals: the plastic cases, the dongles, the portable batteries, the bluetooth products? What about the planned obsolescence involved in pushing a new model every 12-18 months, with making phones harder and harder to take apart and fix, and by sheer complexity alone, making them more fragile pieces of hardware overall? What about the infrastructure required to bring you all that stuff “in the cloud”?

Our phones are the very tip-top of an iceberg of gross unsustainability, runaway “progress”, and human suffering. (Yes, human suffering – if you’ve ever found yourself nodding in agreement at the damning assessments of the diamond industry, then you’ve no leg to stand on here. Especially since this sort of digital infrastructure is also contributing to orders of magnitude more ecosystem destruction than the diamond trade. But of course, it’s easier to hate something you can’t afford and don’t think you need.)

Are basic mobile phones an ideal solution? Of course not – but their comparative simplicity makes them more durable, their battery life much longer, and by virtue of not being every single piece of entertainment and tool we’re likely to use in our day-to-day, they’re not out of our bags or pockets nearly as often, and therefore the opportunities to break them even slimmer. They’re also not money-makers for the companies that produce them, so there’s no pusher man trying to get you to upgrade at every chance he gets.

Unfortunately, my Android phone is a major set-piece in my life right now, and like with any good drug, it’s going to take some time to wean myself off of it.


First, it might be a useful exercise to remember how I used to do things before smart phones. And it wasn’t that long ago that I started using them: in fact, I was using a regular mobile phone when I graduated college 5 years ago.

How did I navigate NYC without Google Maps? I wrote down addresses and got good at drawing tiny maps the size of post-it notes that told me everything I needed to know (and nothing more) about my destination’s location. I also didn’t worry about getting lost. Besides, it turns out that using maps is actually better for your brain than using GPS.

How did I find out good places to eat on the fly? Most of the time, I didn’t – I took more chances, asked around, or left my apartment with a plan, and had every bit as much of a good time as I do now, and discovered many little gems along the way.

How did I use social media? Well, I didn’t. Or barely did, and barely do. Personally, I’m of the opinion that most social media acts more like metastasized cancer than not, and I’m not fond of it. I avoid Twitter whenever possible, abandoned Facebook years ago, use Pinterest once in a blue moon as a Google image search substitute, and rarely directly interact with other people on Tumblr, and won’t miss it should it disappear. The only one I would miss is Instagram, but I can browse that on my computer anyway. Almost all of the meaningful connections I’ve ever made online were via forums, or other early Internet 2.0-style social websites. Instantaneous online interaction with strangers does to me what a ride in the Vomit Comet does to folks with no aptitude for space travel.

How did I keep myself entertained during long trips, or while sitting in waiting rooms? First of all, I don’t need to be “entertained” every minute of every day, and if I feel the itch to do so, then I nip it in the bud, because that’s a one-way ticket to misery. So, I take a note from the generations of playbooks that came before me: sit patiently, look at my surroundings, read a book, draw a picture, people-watch, grab a drink, strike up a conversation, listen to music, daydream, meditate, take notes, look at my calendar…

Hey, speaking of calendars, the point of this post was really to talk about ways in which I’m keeping organized without the use of any calendar or memo app:

It’s this radical new thing called an organizer.

Or technically, a traveler’s notebook.

The traveler’s notebook is an increasingly popular format of notebook, as it’s 100% customizable, and due to it’s extremely simple binding system, you’re not limited to proprietary inserts. All you need to make your own is a pair of scissors.

In fact, why not just made the whole darned thing? (Which is tempting; the only frustrating thing about mine is that it does not accomidate 8.5×11″ paper folded in half; pre-made notebooks take 210x110mm size paper, which… doesn’t correspond to any western paper sizes, no matter how you fold them.)

I’ve only had mine for a few months, and I already don’t go anywhere without it. It carries all of my drawing supplies, an insert of blank pages which I use for note-taking and as a monthly calendar, and I have another booklet in there of grid paper which I use to thumbnail comic pages. It’s not meant to go in a notebook system like this at all so it was a little awkward at first, but I can’t imagine carrying a bunch of smaller books now. Also, I tried making my own insert of grid paper, but the ends chafed at the band a lot so I’ll need to put it with a cover that’s made from a tougher paper or cardstock next time. My current booklet should last me… years, though.

As for the calendar, I’m able to fit an entire month on a single side of paper, with each day getting its own row. It looks like this:

O01F:
O02S:
O03S:
O04M:

And so on. Seeing as how most of what I need to mark down is repetitive in nature, I’ve got a lot of little codes that makes it easy to fit several tasks for a single day on one of those little rows. So, for example, Nov 1st might look like this:

N01T: C4080 PI4081, ITS | 10-4

That means on Tuesday, November 1st, I need to color (and finish) page 4080 of my comic, pencil and ink page 4080, finish a chapter of my story, of which ITS is the abbreviation, and work from 10am to 4pm at my new job. Of course that’s all way too much for me to do in one day, but it’s an example of how much information I can cram into so little real estate.

What about calendar reminders, you might be asking? Well, how about glancing at my calendar in those empty, entertainment-less moments throughout the day instead of compulsively looking at my (nonexistent) Twitter feed or checking my email?

Up next: an everyday carry post! Because I haven’t done one yet at ALL, which amazes me, seeing as how I was doing “systems” posts for a while there, and this would definitely fall under that umbrella.

Also next: probably a post on the Fear of Missing Out.