Going Analog part 6: Dealing with Belligerent Incredulity

If there’s one thing that not having a smartphone, barely using social media, and not keeping up with pop culture will earn you, it’s endless belligerence from incredulous screen addicts. Of course, doing much of anything outside of the norm will earn you much of the same, but in the spirit of documenting my slow journey into the world of slower technology, I’ll dedicate a blog post to it.

A while back I wrote about Shooting the Messenger, a related social phenomenon that happens when you encounter people struggling with guilt and cognitive dissonance who have nowhere to direct their anger but at you, the pointer-outer of some inconvenient truth. This sort of hostility is different, and likely to be encountered more often because it doesn’t hinge on having a conversation with you about an important topic: all it takes is for someone to notice that you’re doing something differently than them, by which they can pigeonhole you into a stereotype of some sort and make their accusations from there.

Recently I dealt with some run-of-the-mill belligerence with some family members who like to run their mouths – but who I love dearly, mind – and the subject of their ridicule this time was my vegetarianism. Being vegetarian, unless you get all your food from farmer’s markets, isn’t anywhere near an analog diet in any way, but the idea, to their mind, serves the same function: my choice to deprive myself of something that they couldn’t live without makes me holier-than-thou. Nevermind that I’m probably the chillest vegetarian they’re ever likely to meet – that I don’t proselytize, I don’t badmouth meat-eaters, and that I actually whole-heartedly condone small-scale livestock husbandry, hunting, and other related kinds of manual slaughter – but my live-and-let-live attitude probably makes me an easier target.

Vegetarianism, even done wrong, has a smaller carbon footprint than American-style meat-eating, and done right, can lighten the impact you have on the earth by many orders of magnitude. (Strict veganism, on the other hand, is pretty much a case of heavily diminished returns. Unless you live in a grass hut in the tropics, veganism is financially and environmentally expensive when all is said and done, and needs to be propped up by large subsidies of smug satisfaction to make it worth it.) Meat-eaters know this, which is what makes their derision so strangely obsessive.

Likewise, reducing screentime or eliminating them altogether can really do nothing but benefit the earth and in many cases, your mental health as well. It’s like quitting a hard drug. Except that everyone in our society is addicted to the drug, nobody wonders what life would be like without the drug, and nobody talks about the downsides of the drug. Given such a saturated environment, it’s no wonder that encountering someone who is not addicted to the drug, or who doesn’t use the drug at all, is such a jarring encounter.

The belligerence I’ve experienced from “downgrading” seems to have two other components: one, the sense that I’m withholding something others are entitled to have (voyeuristic glimpses into my personal life from using social media, and instant access to my attention using the same), and two, that I now need their “help” for things that I didn’t before.

These two notions together form a microcosm for much bigger trends in the way human social relationships are changing thanks to the ubiquitous use of mediating technologies. That is to say, we are becoming emotionally and materially estranged, while becoming more impersonal and fetishistic.

Someone recently posted a thread to the r/Collapse subreddit about the strange reactions friends and family were having toward his re-adoption of a landline in lieu of any cellphone at all:

I recently got rid of my cell phone and switched to a landline only. I also got rid of Facebook. Just to be clear, I am not asking or telling ANYONE else to follow in my footsteps, it is just a choice I made for myself for personal reasons. I don’t want to get into too much detail on my justification, but let’s just say the stuff I see on this subreddit doesn’t help, lol. Clearly I have not completely sworn off technology. Anyway, friends and family who are finding out all have different reactions. Some people are mild or just seem slightly annoyed that we can’t text anymore, but some people are SO angry about it. Their reaction is ridiculous and I swear it is as though they are defending their precious!!! Little golems just blinded by their need for it. One friend seemed mad cause he hates calling people but other than that people are defensive! I say I did it and they lash out as if I told them they are idiots for having phones. Which I didn’t.

Thoughts? Why do people behave this way? Is this deep attachment a sign of something to come?

The responses range from the humorous:

How old are your friends and family? 12??

I say, try not to make a “thing” of it. If you were poor enough not to be able to afford these things, your real friends wouldn’t blame you for being poor. You shouldn’t have to justify it to anyone.

But get used to the derision as you make other, more substantive changes.

To the piercingly observant:

  • You made it less convenient for them to get what they want from you.
  • Your actions telegraphed to them that you don’t fear (overall) losing access to what they think you should want from them.
  • Your rejection of your cell/Facebook causes them to question: ‘should I quit too?’

Someone else drew the same comparison with vegetarianism/veganism as well:

same effect as stopping eating meat and mentioning it to people. vegetarians / vegans get the same sort of backlash. its just because of cognitive dissonance etc in people who are living partially examined lives

The ‘partially examined life’ concept intrigues me, and I think it’s a pretty good explanation for most of this kind of behavior. Different ways of doing things is generally no real threat to the unexamined life – that sort of person takes everything for granted and doesn’t question what they or other people are doing. The examined life usually reacts in kind, because that person has likely done the mental legwork of putting themselves in somebody else’s shoes and come to the conclusion that there is possible a multiplicity of motivations, questions, and answers in life. What’s the partially examined life, though? To me, it seems like that sort of person had come into questioning, gone looking for answers, and then stopped when the answers threatened to upend what they held to be true. They are the most keenly reactive to the whims of their ego and identity, because they’ve caught a glimpse at the shaky foundations they’re built on and have chosen to ignore the truth. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too – this is cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, making someone aware of their cognitive dissonance is almost always a dangerous, losing game.

I’m thinking also of the couple behind This Victorian Life, who have routinely received hate mail and even death threats over the years for choosing to live the way they do.

Of course its a threat response: when you see others happily choosing to do without that which you’ve deemed a bare necessity, what does that say about you? Moreover, while marketing buzzwords like “luxe”, “designer” and “chic” dominate our consumer-driven lives, nobody wants to be accused of being extravagant. It is, I suppose, the modern loophole around our culturally-learned sense of Protestant ethics, without actually having to live up to those ethics. For workers of yesteryear, for example, it was more socially acceptable to brag about how little you had to work for your high salary, but not anymore. (In spite of steadily declining rates of office worker productivity, as well.) It’s a competition to appear that everything you have has been hard-earned, well-deserved, and morally justified. Yes, even that $50 water bottle. Because you worked so hard for it, and it does its job of holding water so well, right? And besides, we all need to “treat ourselves” sometimes. Even if “sometimes” actually means “every day”.

The question, though, is simple: how to deal with others’ cognitive dissonance? In the wake of the 2016 election, it seems that all options have been rendered moot. There are no discussions now, only arguments; no arguments, only ad hominems and death threats.

My method of dealing is to just try and avoid such conversations in the first place. Just as I now avoid giving unwarranted advice (nobody wants it), and avoid pointing out major flaws in someone’s reasoning, I generally just avoid pointing out hypocrisy for the simple fact that everyone’s a hypocrite in some way, and that, again, those conversations never end well. I figure that if someone is open enough to the idea that they might be wrong about something, then they’ll find out sooner or later on their own.

That’s not to say that you can’t defend yourself, though. It takes having a thick skin, but so does doing anything that goes against mainstream values. Other ways to avoid heated confrontation:

  • Say your choices are purely personal and have improved the quality of your life: “I just don’t like ____.”
  • Say that your choices are financially motivated. Playing the frugality card is often a safe bet.
  • Among the somewhat-environmentally-informed, you can frame it in terms of your carbon footprint.
  • Turn the awkward moment into a joke. Play dumb, misanthropic, or elusive. I’ve done all three.

At the end of the day, dealing with incredulity at doing things differently than ‘everyone else’ is just going to be par for the course. And when it does happen, it helps to keep a level head: nobody wants to be preached at, told that they’re stupid, or hypocritical. And ultimately nothing comes of those kinds of heated discussions except a bad mood at best, or a ruined friendship at worst.

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Book Review: The Organic Artist

I didn’t know what to expect when I bought this book, honestly. The cover makes it seem a little cutsey, and some of the pictures seem, in the tradition of craft a la Hobby Lobby, to be more novelty than anything genuinely useful.

Boy was I wrong.

First off, the author is described in the back as (more or less) equal parts artist, survivalist, and caveman. Or, to put it more accurately, stone age technology aficionado. What this should have told me is that the man takes his work seriously, and that his breadth of very real knowledge is to be found in this book. He lives this stuff, he works in these media, and he’s been doing it for years.

Most of what he shows you how to do will not be of any real interest to most folks, though I suspect zero wasters will find some of the projects immensely useful. For instance, his paper-making guide is much more thorough, and results in a much more useful finished product than Bea’s instructions in Zero Waste Home. He shows you how to make crayons out of nothing more than beeswax and pigment; he shows you how to source your pigment from the landscape around you; he shows you how to make felt-tip pens out of little more than sticks, twine, and a bit of hide; he shows you how to make glue; he shows you how to make charcoal.

And the list goes on. Those beautiful little paint pots featured on the cover? Those are all handmade by him as well, and he shows you how to make them too: every step from finding and tempering natural clay, to shaping and firing.

There’s even recipes in here for the zero waste, organic printmaker: he has instructions on how to make an all-natural brayer, and suggests an ink recipe thickened with honey to use with your woodcuts. And for painters, he shows how to make animal hair brush bristles, complete with quill ferrule. (Guides for which are difficult to come by, I’ve found.)

Nick Neddo is a monster. And I mean that in the best possible way: he’s a person who knows his craft so thoroughly that you can’t help but let your jaw drop at the sheer absurdity of his knowledge, talent, and dedication. Included also are examples of his work made with the relevant tool or medium, and these proof of concept are not only astoundingly beautiful, but with no noticeable difference in quality compared to the plastic, commercially-produced equivalent that he is recreating. Most of these tools are so easy to make, so beautiful, and so personal, that in showing us how to make them Neddo almost asks, between the lines, why don’t more people do this? After all, up until very recently in human history (a period that can be measured in mere decades), most artists had to make their own materials.

Do I recommend this book? For artists looking to turn away from high-impact, toxic, and fossil-fueled-sourced tools and media, this is an absolute must-have. For zero wasters or organic households looking to replace a few of their casual art supplies, this is also a must-have. (Just about everything in here isn’t just non-toxic, but free of synthetic ingredients entirely, and probably also safe in the case of accidental ingestion, for those of you with children.)

For everyone else, this book is probably just a novelty – but get it anyway. It might inspire you take up doing even just one thing the Nick Neddo way.

I Will Never Leave North America

And I’m OK with this. (Cheakamus Lake. Wikipedia.)

My husband and I recently came to the slow, quiet realization that we will never travel outside of North America. He did, once, over 20 years ago now – the furthest I ever got was Hawaii.

Closing the door on overseas travel is a strange thing when you’re raised in a middle class family, and surrounded by middle class people. You tell them that you’ll never make it to Europe or Asia or South America, and they suddenly start looking at you like you’ve told them the prognosis of your terminal illness.

It’s a death knell for your obligatory personal acculturation, the common wisdom goes. Being entertained and enraptured by exotic peoples has been a longtime hobby of the privileged westerner, and it’s supposedly part and parcel of what makes someone a well-rounded member of society. What are some words we associate with the non-traveler? Sheltered; close-minded; boring; pitiable, maybe? I know there are worse.

It was a harsh conclusion for us to come to, that’s for sure. I had hopes of visiting Japanese Shinto shrines or 300-year old Irish pubs; he had similar. But they’re just not meant to be, and we’ve come to terms with that.

An interesting thing happens when you suddenly find yourself limited to seeing and knowing the things in your “backyard” – you wind up with a desire to know it all more intimately, in greater detail. We want to get to know British Columbia as much as humanly possible, as it turns out. From its unnamed bays to its most remote mountain wildernesses, we know that this single province will provide us with lifetimes of sightseeing, adventure, and inspiration. And if we somehow get tired of these breath-taking vistas, there’s always the Yukon, or the states further south.

The fact of the matter is that there’s other places we’d prefer to dump our money. Investments are the name of the game, now: land, a house, durable equipment to make self-sufficiency just that much more of a reality. These are material gifts that keep on materially giving. Travel? Not so much.

Air travel, too, has become rather indefensible. The airline industry spews obscene amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and in recent years its become the accepted battlefield where nation-states are permitted to wage wars against their own law abiding citizens, to speak nothing of foreign visitors.

While my husband is not quite done requiring the use of airlines, I believe I’ve already boarded my last plane. It feels strange to say that I’m done with flying, but really, I’m looking forward to what slower, easier, and cheaper modes of transport can do for me. It doesn’t close off opportunities from my perspective. In fact, it opens the way for so many more; smaller and closer as the case may be.

This is actually a well-worn path. Many naturalists and nature writers over the centuries have wondered aloud about that peculiar desire for foreign travel. (Such sentiment is different from ‘wanderlust’, which is no more than the impulse to explore a place – how far afield that is from one’s home is not implicated by the definition of the word.) In the book I’m reading now, Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, he, too, wonders aloud about this in the tradition of his predecessors:

We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape onto [John Boroughs’] ‘far side of the moon’, into [W. H. Hudson’s] ‘new country’, into [Wendell Berry’s] ‘another world’; somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. I have for some time been imagining such transitions as ‘border crossings’. These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them. Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and outlines. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm, or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.

What might we call such incidents and instances – or, rather, how to describe the lands that are found beyond these frontiers? ‘Xenotopias’, perhaps, meaning ‘foreign places’ or ‘out-of-place places’, a term to compliment our ‘utopias’ and out ‘dystopias’. Martin Martin, the traveller and writer who in the 1690’s set sail to explore the Scottish coastline, knew that one does not need to displace oneself vastly in space in order to find difference. ‘It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of their distance from the place where we are born,’ he wrote in 1697, ‘this men have travelled far enough in the search of foreign plants and animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural climate’. So did Roger Deakin: ‘Why would anyone want to go live abroad when they can live in several countries at once just by being in England?’ he wondered in his journal. Likewise, Henry David Thoreau: ‘An aboslutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect to ever see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.’

And so my husband and I have begun to view our much smaller world.

Sgair Gaoith. Wikipedia.

It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt, but I don’t believe someone with truly open ears and a healthy capacity for wonder experiences this phenomenon to any great extent. In The Living Mountain (which I have not yet read), Nan Shepherd talks about her lifelong, almost ritualistic explorations of the Cairngorm mountains in her native Scotland, and how, after decades of repeated travels through the mountains on foot, their mystery and beauty only looms larger, and her own human understanding looms much, much less.

Once we leave the loud, hurried, money-sucking tumult of the city, we will be in a place where we can walk and breathe and experience land that has not been beaten down by the harsh logic of human extraction. We’ll get to know the trees and the rocks and the movements of animals on their terms.

I had a heated discussion about this with some friends of mine a month or so ago, while we were visiting Joshua Tree for the weekend. My friend, having spent time in India as part of his undergraduate program, had no philosophical ontology with which to begin appreciating my lack of desire to visit exotic places. He was incredulous – as he often is when confronted with my politically-motivated personal decisions and the expectations I hold based on my knowledge of environmental issues and of the associated history, politics, and technological developments – even as I explained the depth with which one can come to know and love a very small geographical area.

“See that tree there?” I said, pointing to a particularly old and stunningly sculptural specimen of Yucca brevifolia, “If this were my house, then I would love nothing more than to spend time with that tree every day for the rest of my life, to get to know every inch of that tree, every creature that visits it.”

We were still at odds, but his wife, my best friend of 16 years, understood me: I don’t want to experience someone or something for just one hour, one day; I want to build a relationship with the things in my life. I want to bear witness to their existence, and hold them in my memory.

MacFarlane talks about finding ‘continents within counties’, and this is an important image to have to understand the mind of the non-traveler. You put anything under a microscope and it suddenly becomes an entire universe unto itself; this is the lens through which we experience our environment. Or perhaps more smugly, what sets us apart is that we understand that we have an environment, and that we are fully present and participatory in it.

The pursuit of the novel and exotic is really a colonial notion, too. Unfamiliarity becomes a resource to extract from other people and places; a resource that can be depleted: boredom. If this is the relationship we have with otherness, then it’s no wonder that contempt spreads when the well of excitement runs dry.

Maintaining. Settling. These are very uninspiring words according to the popular lexicon of consumption and affluence. There’s a much bigger, much subtler beauty behind such notions as “make do and mend”, and unlearning that want for newness, whether in socks or spouses or countries is part of the picture.

 

Starting Simplefit: Week 1

I started a simplefit exercise routine today, and I think I’m really going to like it.

Simplefit is probably the simplest exercise program in existence: there are only three exercises to do, you do them three times a week, and the only equipment you need is a pull-up bar. No fancy gym equipment, no membership fees, and unless you’re a real dunce, no way to seriously injure yourself. My kind of minimalist exercise.

Unfortunately, I do not have a pull-up bar or any suitable anchor point to do the recommended substitutes, so I’ve been using a 15lb kettle bell weight and doing front raises with nearly-locked elbows. Not the same thing at all, but it’ll have to do for now. And in either case, it’s kicking my ass!

I’ve started off today at Level 3, and managed to get 4 rounds done in 20 minutes. I probably could have done 5 if I hadn’t just spent 45 minutes gardening!

I went to the gym regularly for a few months, and while it was fun to try out all the fancy machines, I ultimately came away from the experience feeling weirded out. A gym is a place full of high-tech gadgetry that western adults feel obligated to throw money at because they no longer use their bodies for anything else in life. We go to the gym because we don’t want to take the stairs. We go to the gym because we don’t want to wash our dishes by hand. We go to the gym because we don’t want to walk to the store two blocks away. We go to the gym because we don’t do anything ourselves anymore. So we pay for the convenience of having a machine do manual labor for us in the home, and then we pay the gym to go do manual labor over there instead, which doesn’t even accomplish anything but use up electricity. It’s all very silly to me.

At any rate, I’m trying out this Simplefit thing. I’ve been somehow inspired to be a physically stronger person lately, and with all the adventuring and off-grid living I see in my future, it’ll be a good foundation to build on.

Going Analog Part 6: Goodbye, Nexus

Goodbye.

My first few smartphones were second-hand iPhones; my favorite was the iPhone 3, which was built, as far as smartphones go, like a tank. I had it for about 3 years, I believe, before an “update” killed the wifi antenna and all but bricked it. (Apple is into the planned obsolescence thing to the point of belligerence.) It wasn’t a slow death marked by intermittent hardware failure; it was working one day, then my phone forced an update, and it stopped working thence. A lot of other 3 users experienced the same “update”, which appeared to be rolling out in waves. After all, Apple couldn’t just remotely disable the wifi on all iPhone 3s at the same time, could they? It would have been easy pickings for a good lawyer and a class action suit, and terrible press. But disable one mostly vital piece of hardware for a user here and there, and tell them their only option is to upgrade? At a glance, the strings being pulled are invisible. Either way, Apple really wanted us stubborn iPhone 3 users to hurry up and shell out for the iPhone 6 already. Our preference for tech that works and works well was getting in the way of their profit margins. Fortunately, with smartphones, carriers and OS developers can pretty much do whatever they damn well please with your devices – without their continuous, second-by-second permission, you don’t have a device.

I didn’t really think that deeply about it at the time; I knew that Apple was an obsolescence plannin’ fool, and that Android was greener pastures in the user autonomy department. So I switched platforms. I really prefer platforms that are transparent; platforms that let me know exactly what’s going on at any given moment, and platforms where I can diagnose and fix my own problems. That’s why I bought the car that I did, and it’s why I’m typing this up on a Linux netbook. (Unfortunately, I’m still forced to run a Windoze machine for the sake of Photoshop – GIMP and Krita have not, after months of forcing myself to use them, been suitable substitutes for my rather meager needs. I will sooner move to traditional media than use them to continue making digital art with their maddening and poorly designed interfaces. Anyways, that’ll be a later development in my long and slow Going Analog series.)

So, after much research, I found the Google Nexus phone. Specifically, the Nexus 5, which gave me everything I wanted in a smaller package; I bought one gently used out of pocket for a reasonable price (how many people can even say they own their phones outright anymore?) and it even came rooted. Over the next few years I wound up with two, and swapped parts between them as each of their performance slowly started to decline from regular use. Eventually, I cracked the glass on my then-better one, and once the screen started to discolor, I switched their batteries and set it aside to be used for Skype calls, using the other as my daily. More recently, the glass finally cracked on the other – I dropped it at such an angle that the screen underneath my Gorilla Glass protector shattered – and the body dented in just the right way to keep the back plate from ever being securely snapped in place again. About a week later, and the thing began to shut off at random, no matter how much battery life was left. It’s dead, Jim.

While I still technically have a backup smartphone, I’ll never use it for such. I have exactly three apps on it – a music player, Slack, and Skype – and the battery lasts me for days because it only ever gets used for a single daily Skype call. The screen is just too broken and battery drain for typical use too rapid for anything else. I’ll probably install a single other app, though: Uber, for when I need to take the train.  (My town is so pathetic that it doesn’t even have a bus stop at our lightrail station, and on weekdays, the parking lot is full by 7am.)

As soon as I find a place to recycle the Nexus, I will. Though I’ll probably still keep the battery as a backup.

While I’ve talked about ditching the smartphone before, it wasn’t all told, a complete transition. I still had the devices in my possession, and they still had wifi capability, so I’d use them like tiny tablets here and there. Mostly to read articles I’d saved to Pocket, or to check traffic, or to call that Uber ride. I also used it extensively as a music player. So what the heck do I do now?

At the end of the day, the Nexus allowed me to do three important things that I need to work out other arrangements for. In my previous Going Analog post, I talked about overcoming the fear of having to navigate without the use of GPS, and I’m improving my navigation abilities by leaps and bounds by no longer relying on technology to do that kind of thinking for me. I’ve since done dozens of drive-by comp shoots for my father, who’s a residential appraiser, with nothing more than a printed map and a list of address numbers. I’m confident that I could find my way anywhere without GPS at this point.

The first problem though, the music player, is not really that much of a problem at all – or rather, it was, until I remembered that I still have my old Zune MP3 player from circa 2008. Microsoft discontinued the Zune product line many moons ago, even though it was an arguably better product than the iPod, had better internet browsing capabilities than most of other pre-iPhone smartphones of the time, and its touchscreen keyboard was better designed than that of the early iPhones as well. I’m currently waiting for my new sync cable to arrive in the mail, at which point I’ll fire up the Zune for the first time in at least 6 years. (And then see about stocking up on spare batteries from ebay.) And when I’m in the car, I’ll probably be listening to my growing CD collection (though CDs are hardly “analog”; however, they are not ephemeral like digital files are). So that’s one problem dealt with.

The secondproblem is Uber, though I rarely use it. In the past few months I’ve learned that it is illegal to hail cabs in Los Angeles, and that in order to get a ride, you have to call a central dispatch to schedule a pickup. My research has left me a little skeptical of LA’s cab industry; no company seems to have more than a 3-star rating, and many of them only have 2. On yelp I’ve read a lot of horror stories about taxis arriving an hour late, or not showing up at all, and drivers trying to inflate their fare by not taking the fastest route. If I’m taking Uber to the train station and need to make it to work on time, I need to know that my cab ride will arrive when its supposed to arrive. Likewise, if I’m stranded someplace late at night, then I don’t want to wait around for an hour then either.

Of course, these fears are a little overblown – the telltale mark of a convenience being taken away from somebody who’s long since taken it for granted. Being a car-owner now, I don’t take the train as often as I used to, and therefore I don’t often find myself needing an Uber much at all. My fears about getting stranded too, that typical “what if” scenario that is never likely to happen, are also needless: there’s nowhere I’d be where I could call an Uber but not be able to have a family member to come get me. In in truly exceptional situations, like my last year’s solo trip to Olypmia, WA, which left me stuck at the train station after the last bus had come and gone, I could always call somebody and have them arrange a ride for me.

The final problem is photos. I will probably get a point-and-shoot to solve that problem. Remember point-and-shoots? Battery lasted forever, they could more or less withstand being dropped, and they took great photos to boot. Smartphones have completely gutted the low-end market, though, so most of the worthwhile ones nowadays cost at least several hundred dollars. Thankfully, I bought my husband and I a pair just before the aforementioned gutting happened, and he is more than happy to give me his. (I, of course, managed to smash mine a year after I bought it. And I mean smash: accidentally positioned a chair leg on it and proceeded to sit down.) Point-and-shoots require more diligence than the ubiquitous smartphone, though. They require more planning, more thinking, more process than simply pushing a button and uploading the thing to Instagram. A while ago I realized that I no longer wanted to take pictures of things willy-nilly like everyone else; we are drowning in cheap images, and I didn’t really want to contribute to that cognitive fog. And I definitely didn’t want to take selfies anymore. (Especially knowing what Facebook was doing with them without my permission.) So now, every time I want to share a photo with the world, I’ll have to take it with a disconnected, specialized device, upload it to the computer later, sort through them, and then decide if any of them are worth sharing. Just my kind of tedious.

More broadly, though, there’s still a finality to all this. I had the emotional support of at least wifi-powered devices that could fit in my pocket, but that too is on the way out. I’m channeling a frame of mind I had for the first 22 years of my life: being disconnected is natural. And, arguably, it’s good.

The whole smartphone thing seemed like such an amazing leap forward. Internet communication and digital entertainment wherever there was a cell signal. It promised an end to boredom, to inefficiency, to loneliness, but it really did nothing but make us allergic to spare time, addicted to mindless “productivity”, and terrified of solitude. In reality, all we got was that famous line from the chorus of an Eagles’ song: Everything, all the time.

My other problem is that I read too much now. I go through a book a week, it seems like, what with all these extra little moments I find myself with these days. But there’s an old school cure for that too: a library card.

California Grown

I’ve made a soft resolution recently to eat as locally as possible. I didn’t wake up one morning and go “I’m gonna be a locavore from now on”; it’s just that I found myself making the decision to buy local produce more often than not in recent weeks, and I encouraged myself to continue doing so.

I live in the easiest place to do this in the entire US, though: California. A huge portion of the nation’s food comes from here, and we’re the #1 exporter for a number of crops for the whole planet. Things are in-season for a long time around here, too.

So I thought, why not give it a go? Or at least, pay attention to where and when it becomes a difficult decision. This means I’ll probably be giving up things like chia seeds, quinoa, and a number of varieties of rice. I’ll have to do my research. I won’t be giving up spices – I rarely use them anyway – and I will pretty much be forced to limit my sweeteners to… honey. (I don’t think there is any agave production in CA.) I’d use dates, which we do grow fairly close by, but they have a high glycemic load and aren’t great if you’ve got iffy blood sugar like I do. Plus, they’re not all that useful where liquid sweeteners are concerned.

I’ll also be limiting my purchases of bananas. I probably won’t be able to eliminate them, but I can personally avoid buying them. The banana industry is… pretty ugly on the whole. More on that in a later post that’ll rip into veganism again and paleo, though.

I probably won’t be following up on this too much; it doesn’t feel like that big of a change, being fortunate enough to be where I am, and aside from a few take-for-grantedables, there probably won’t be much to write home about. There is no grain or legume that can’t be substituted with another, banana substitute suggestions are one google search away, and the more exotic stuff that I only just in recent years got used to eating aren’t non-negotiable in any real way. Not to mention the fact that, I’m so used to making sudden changes to my life that most of them don’t feel particularly special anymore. I became vegetarian; so what? I stopped wearing makeup; big deal. I haven’t bought shampoo or paper towels in two years; yawn.

Anyways, that’s happening now. If there’s any noteworthy developments, I’ll keep you posted.

Remove Lint with Water

I have a white cat, a wardrobe that almost entirely consists of the color black, and I don’t own a lint removal tool. I mostly just… never got around to getting one. Thoroughly shaking clothes out does an OK job, but sometimes I have to pick him up and my black shirt is suddenly heather gray.

So in a pinch, I’ve discovered that a hand moistened with water does the trick just fine.

You want the palm of your hand just went enough to be damp, but not wet enough to drip: it seems like this has something to do with the surface tension of the water creating friction, therefore clinging to your skin as well as whatever else comes into contact with it. Once you’ve got your palm and fingers wet, pull your shirt (or whatever) taught, and drag the flat of your hand down the length of the fabric like you would a lint brush. Your skin will be dry after doing this a couple times, but re-moisten and repeat as necessary. Once all the hair/lint is bunched up in one spot, just pick it off.

Easy peasy.

Going Analog Part 5: Navigation

Since ditching the smartphone, I’ve only put my sim card back in for the purpose of using GPS navigation on one single occasion. This was a multi-legged, complex series of trips in a part of town I was completely unfamiliar with, and my timing was important.

I went from the San Gabriel Valley to Irvine to pick my dad up from the train station – whose location I didn’t know – and then we drove to where I was checking out a Cherokee I saw on Craigslist near the beach. The Jeep was in abysmal condition, so I passed on it, and we found ourselves at a used car lot about a mile up the road, where I wound up buying my current Cherokee. My dad, who was also in the area to test drive a used car, needed to make his appointment a few miles away while they put a fresh battery in the Jeep at the used dealer. An hour later, and the two of us suddenly had three vehicles in our possession. So, with the Jeep still at the dealer, we dropped the car I drove over with at the nearest Amtrak station, which I felt comfortable leaving overnight, and drove back to pick up the Jeep. From there my dad and I parted ways, each of us in a “new” car. I promptly took off and headed for a birthday dinner in Long Beach, deciding to take side streets since the Saturday afternoon traffic had all but turned the local freeways into parking lots. After dinner, we drove someplace else for drinks, and at the end of the evening, someone decided to help me get both cars back that night instead of me taking the train to pick it up the following day.

Whew, I’m tired just from remembering all that!

Situations like aren’t regular occurrences for most people. For me, that kind of logistical nightmare happens only once or twice a year, at best. Without addresses for any of my destinations, I would have been almost completely lost. (Though drive in a straight line long enough in this town, and you’re bound to run into something you’re familiar with.) If I’d had an hour to prepare and plot my trips on paper, I probably could have done it. But the fact of the matter was that I hadn’t quite built up my psychological tolerance to getting lost as much as I have now.

I have gotten lost since then, and somewhat majorly. Only a couple weeks after that, I was supposed to meet a friend in another (albeit closer) part of town I wasn’t so familiar with. The freeways around the border between Glendale and Los Angeles get pretty messy also, and apparently major streets change names when you’re not expecting them to: for instance, the northbound offramp for the street I wanted went by a different name than the southbound! My neatly memorized planogram of what sequence of freeways I needed, the offramp to look out for, and the general direction to make my way in after that went out the window when I realized that I was no longer in Glendale at all. To make matters worse, due to all the junctions in that area, getting off the freeway to get back on in the other direction was more complicated than I was expecting. Two more things added insult to injury: not only was I running the heater in that 90F weather to help the shot radiator do its job, but I was running on fumes to boot!

But I kept my cool. In fact, keeping your cool is probably the most important thing about using analog navigation tools – or in my case, an imperfect mental snapshot of Google maps and a 12-year-old memory of that one time I visited somebody who used to live there I think?

I got there, I didn’t run out of gas, and I learned a lot about getting around the Atwater Village area, which I am never, ever going to forget now. Did I wish I had a GPS to help me navigate that fiasco? No. It was kind of fun actually, in the way that taking something apart and putting it back together as you figure out how its works is fun. Because that’s what navigation is, really: mentally taking apart a roadmap, street by street, turn by turn, and figuring out how a neighborhood or a landscape works. Navigation is a skill; if you do this enough, it’ll soon become intuitive, and the muscle memory you develop, the resilience to irrational anxiety, will help you navigate places you’ve never even been to. Or places that don’t even have roads.

Getting lost doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to even just a few years ago, and I fear what this is doing to our collective tolerance for spontaneity, our fortitude in the face of the unknown, and our own propensity to fear the worst. If we can’t handle not knowing where we are in a grid full of people whom we can ask directions from, then how will we be able to get ourselves out of stickier situations? What happens when the car breaks down in an area with no cell service? Or when you get turned around on the hiking trail? How we respond when the familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar is important, and being able to assess the situation while keeping calm is no less than a life skill.

I once saw a 70 year old man on a forum complaining about young people being too dependent on complex technology to save them from bad situations, and said that if a person didn’t know how to read a map and compass, then they deserved to get lost. I’m inclined to agree, to be honest. Or rather, that they ought to get lost, and get lost repeatedly, until they realize that there’s nothing to be scared of, and nothing to be inconvenienced by if you’re worth your salt.

Remember Thomas Guides? Let’s bring those back. They’re sure as hell cheaper than a data plan.

We Might Learn From the Cubans

At 28, 5 years after moving back to LA from my college days in New York City, I’ve bought my first car. He’s all steel, with a curb weight of about 3800 pounds and an engine, I keep hearing, that just won’t quit. “Bulletproof” is a descriptor I’ve heard and read about the inline 6 countless times now. People get into accidents with them and are able to drive away in their totaled cars, unharmed.

If my car was a person, though, he’d be old enough to drink. Born in 1996 with three previous owners and 193,000 miles under his belt, the relationship I plan on having with this car is going to be one that not many Americans will be able to relate to. Jeepers will, obviously: It’s a Jeep thing. But the people I hope to take inspiration from in the years ahead will be the Cubans and their “yank tanks”.

Zero wasters and other low-impact folk really need to look at how Cuba has survived the 60 years since President Kennedy signed the order that choked off all resources to the small, harmless, communist nation in an attempt at attrition. The islanders didn’t succumb to US bullying, though: things were very hard, but they made do with what they had to work with. They are agriculturally self-sufficient, they’ve perfected the art of preventative medicine, and they’ve succeeded in keeping the nation’s fleet of 1950’s-era cars running in spite of sanctions and the complete collapse of a replacement parts market.  Motor Trend magazine sent a writer there to experience the Cuban car culture and this is the sight he was greeted with:

…strolling the busy streets of Havana today is like teleporting back into a 1950s Hollywood movie. You half expect Jimmy Stewart to drive past tailing Kim Novak in his DeSoto. We came here knowing we’d see a few classic American rides, but, in fact, amid a sprinkling of Russian Ladas and the occasional Korean compact, the grand old iron is everywhere. At a nearby curb sits a ’52 Ford Crestliner. There on the Malecón, the broad artery that sweeps along Havana’s waterfront, glides a ’57 Buick Century, followed quickly by a ’58 Chevy Impala and a ’57 Plymouth Fury. Few and far between are the cream puffs, true, but most of the passing museum pieces look amazingly good considering they’re well past retirement age and have never stopped working fulltime.

Most of these vehicles, as the author calls them though, are “zombies” and “mutants”. Many of them don’t even have the original motors anymore, and some of them don’t even have car motors. But is that so bad?

Dimitrio lifts the massive hood [of his 1953 Oldsmobile]. “This engine? Soviet. But not normal car engine. They use this to power welding machine.” Indeed, much of Dimitrio’s Oldsmobile runs on similarly ingenious life support. He points to the driver’s door. “That car is 60 years old. Where you can find a door for that piece of shit? If someone smashes your car, they have to make a new one.” Dimitrio moves to the back of the work yard, picks up a finished rectangle of “new” floorpan. “These guys, they make the pieces by hand — with a hammer.” He runs his fingers over the symmetrical square indentations in the metal, each one hand-beaten into shape. “This isn’t work,” says Dimitrio. “This…is art.”

A sustainable automobile culture and industry could never have looked like anything but this. They would have to be treated as heirlooms, driven by careful owners and maintained by guilds of car-wrights. But instead we’ve built the entire apparatus of automobile construction and maintenance around the rapidly fading mirage of cheap energy. Instead, we live in a culture where people upgrade cars faster than they upgrade mattresses. And like everything else in our failing world of consumer goods, even our cars are increasingly designed to be disposable.

I mean, let’s face the facts here: my 1996 Jeep Cherokee that gets 20 MPG under the best of conditions is, in a number of ways, more sustainable than a brand new Tesla or Prius. The most obvious reason is due to the reality of embodied energy – the carbon footprint of simply manufacturing a new vehicle and getting it to the show floor. If you take a look at the numbers for a Tesla vehicle – or even the new Tesla battery pack “Gigafactory”, the plant that’s due to be responsible for manufacturing the very backbone of its vehicles – it just doesn’t work out. However, it’s more than that: it’s the hidden maintenance costs of flimsy vehicles riddled with computer chips, cameras, and other “smart” technology. Who can fix a Tesla when it breaks down? Not you, that’s for sure – the learning curve for performing maintenance on a Tesla vehicle is so steep that you have currently have no choice but to take it to a dealership for repairs. You can’t just be a mechanic anymore; you apparently have to be a computer engineer as well.

There are other questions too: how easy is it to total? What is the carbon footprint of every individual component under the hood? How many miles will each component last? How easy are the parts to make and what is the embodied energy of the tools required to make them? How long can the workhorse keep running with a simple preventative maintenance routine, or does it need kid glove treatment and witches brews of exotic fluids?

I highly doubt that a Tesla battery can even theoretically last as long as a well-maintained straight 6: I’ve heard from guys who’ve put over 500,000 miles on their Jeeps, and their engines are still going strong. Moreover, when the engine does finally die (and it’s not just a cracked head or broken rod), the block is iron. It can be retooled, rebuilt, and hopefully, reused for another 500k miles. Of course, rebuilding even a basic engine like this costs a few grand and several dozens of hours of work, and most people – most people in the States – would rather just get another car. But I don’t want to be most people if I can avoid it.

Voluntary simplicity doesn’t just apply to wardrobes and kitchen cabinets. In Cuba’s case, the simplicity was quite involuntary, but the things they’ve created due to the strict limitations put on their day-to-day lives forced some amazing things to happen. That’s not to say that the average Cuban wouldn’t trade their 1950’s jalopy with a 4-cylinder Kia motor for something newer; they’re simply a people forced into mind-blowing creative solutions in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. But that sort of convenience that we’ve come to expect from things like “progress” and “growth” hasn’t gotten us anywhere good lately.

I like to joke that the only “power” feature I’ve got in my car is steering. Aside from the 10-year-old aftermarket stereo, the only buttons I’ve got in the Jeep are for the headlights, defroster, and climate control. He’s about as bare-bones as a 90’s car is going to get (aside, of course, from the coveted 4×4 transfer case), which means that performing my own maintenance is going to be about as easy it gets. The DIY ethic among Jeepers, I should note, is generally about as strong as their love for the brand, and community support is phenomenal.

Every make has its group of aficionados, but aside from hot rodders and vintage muscle car guys, the level of dedication just doesn’t compare in the wider car-loving culture. We just don’t need to give a damn about our cars so long as they get us where we need to go. How many folks read their owner’s manuals cover to cover? (did. And I’ll probably be doing it again for a refresher soon enough.)

I won’t lie: the simplest thing to do would be to not have a car at all. In fact, since buying the Jeep, my life has gotten about twice as complex as it was before. If I’m to learn to fix the Jeep, then I need to know the Jeep: I’ve already spent dozens of hours researching parts, model year quirks, potential upgrades, problems, noises, wiring diagrams, octane ratings, maintenance schedules, best practices, and even etiquette. I know how to begin diagnosing problems that I had no idea existed before, or check the integrity of parts that I ever knew needed checking. The Jeep is not a low-maintenance vehicle; he requires a level of vigilance that most other car owners could never be bothered with. I glance at my gauges as often as I glance at the rearview mirror while driving. I keep a notebook in the glove compartment with a list of every single little thing I’ve done to him, who did it, and how many miles was on the odometer when it was done. I keep a towel in the back for when I need to pop the hood and get my hands dirty.

But I need a car now, and I refused to get one that I didn’t love enough to be in it for the long haul. Just as I don’t want my life riddled with disposable clothes, disposable plates, or disposable bags. And the old wartime adage of “make do and mend” extends to so much more than just socks. We don’t get rid of our homes as soon as they show signs of wear and tear, as soon as the plumbing goes out, or the roof leaks, or a fire levels the garage. We do so much living in our vehicles, that the same should be said of them too.

So, I’m going to learn from the Cubans as much as I can. Such a way of doing things is laborious, sometimes not especially cost-effective, and within the unimpressive rigidity of our convenience-driven consumer culture, it’s probably even just plain lunacy. But so long as I can afford parts and can tackle the relatively modest learning curve of car maintenance, then by all means: call me crazy.

(Must be a Jeep thing.)

More on the Cuban cottage auto industry:

More on high mileage cars:

Book Review: Second Skin

Second Skin: Choosing and Caring for Textiles and Clothing is part how-to, part manifesto, and part memoir by lifelong seamstress, dyer, and textile artist India Flint, made famous by her contributions to the world of environmentally-friendly dyeing and surface design. (I took a class last year to learn her ecoprinting technique from a local Vancouver artist.)

India Flint is a staunch and powerful, though still gentle, voice in the slow fashion movement. And by slow, I mean slow. She is unrelenting in her dislike of synthetic fibers, high-impact dyes, and consumer culture’s influence on design and wastefulness.

The official blurb:

Almost from the moment of our birth, clothing acts as our second skin, yet we rarely consider where our clothes have come from and the effects they might have on the environment and ourselves. This beautifully photographed and illustrated book is about easily achievable ways to care for the planet by living simpler lives and using fewer resources, specifically those to do with cloth and clothing. It discusses the role of cloth in how consumption affects the ecology; looks at what textiles are made from and examines their properties, with an emphasis on those derived from natural sources; and talks about how to make informed choices regarding clothing-including deciding how much clothing one really needs. It also covers how to mend and maintain clothing, repurpose fashion, dyeing, and when all else fails, instructions for patching, piecing, felting, and twining. One ‘gallery’ chapter is dedicated to clothing designers and artists who have made a practice of working with salvaged materials, including Natalie Chanin (Alabama), Jude Hill (Long Island), Christine Mauersberger (Cleveland), and Dorothy Caldwell (Hastings, Ontario).

Honestly? This book is a must-have for people interested in lowering the carbon footprint of their wardrobes. And I don’t use that term lightly. Flint is thorough in her explanations of even the fibers themselves, their histories, and their contemporary processing methods; everything from how to choose the fabric your clothes are made from, to what to do when they start breaking down is under her slow, careful purview. She leaves no stone unturned.

Some reviewers are put-off by her reverence for textiles, and many pick up her books looking for simple step-by-step instruction. But that’s not what India Flint is about – she will not allow herself to abandon the whole picture of the textile industry to focus on some little technical detail, and she won’t let you forget the big picture either. I don’t find this off-putting, actually. I find it refreshing and necessary, and as a low-impact zero-waster (the two are not one in the same!), this provides an important piece often missing from the dialogue we have concerning what, exactly, goes into making our wardrobes.

The book itself is beautifully designed, too, and as a hardback, should last for years to come. Flint’s writing can get a little precious at times, but it really does fit with her slower way of life, and if you take the time to read her stories, you’ll find yourself rewarded with relatable anecdotes and inspiration from where her own life has taken her.

It’s not just about technical know-how for making our clothes last longer. It’s about asking ourselves how many clothes we have, why our clothes look the way they do, why they’re made from the materials that they are, why we wear them how we do, and why we can’t put more care and effort into making them last until there’s barely little more than threadbare scraps left before returning them to the earth.

Second Skin is a book that concerns itself with philosophy and ethics as much as it does with tricks of the trade, chemistry, and why wool felts when you wash it in hot water. If that bothers you, then you might ask yourself why that is. And if not, if you’re looking for a text packed with environmentally-conscious knowledge about textiles as well as one that asks harder questions, then this is definitely the book for you.