Minimalist Footwear

I’ve been intrigued by minimalist footwear ever since I got my first pair of Oliberte shoes several years ago and found the soles to be thinner than anything else I’d worn. Being leather, they had a breaking-in period where they “learned” the contours of my feet and now fit like a glove. Even the natural rubber soles have shaped themselves to the bottoms of my feet.

At first I was skeptical about their comfort, having pronated feet and long since being a wearer of insoles to protect my (already damaged) knee. But they were an unreturnable clearance item, so I was determined to make it work.

I was sold on them after spending a month in rural Oregon while I was helping to take care of my grandmother who’d broken an ankle. She and I were staying at my uncle’s small ranch, which butted up against the BLM – public land. I’d go for long walks out in the bush when I needed a break from running errands and cooking meals, and much to my surprise, I found that the Olibertes were, by far, the most comfortable off-pavement shoe I’d ever worn. They didn’t pound the dirt like hiking boots or thick-soled running shoes; they allowed me to feel variations in the path, and my feet were given an opportunity to make decisions about which muscles to use, which bones to put weight on, which toes to flex…

It was a domino effect. Suddenly, my ankles were making decisions, and my knees, my hips, my back were making decisions too. My whole body was engaged in a way that normal shoes, apparently, weren’t allowing. A dialogue was happening between my muscles and bones that they’d been previously shut out of.

When I came back 2 hours later and found that I had no pain or feeling of compression anywhere, I was brimming with questions. Everything my doctors and physical therapists had told me was now up for debate. What else about the common wisdom of footwear might be wrong? How did we arrive at these best practices when evidence towards the contrary was right here, in these glorified leather socks walking around on real earth?

I think the answer lies in the sort of thinking that got us a lot of other supposedly necessary garbage: that more, and more complex is better. Humans have been doing just fine walking barefoot, or with little more than flimsy sandals, for millennia. So who the hell decided that Asics were a good idea?

I’ll be honest: part of my motivation here is frugality. I shouldn’t have to buy $50 insoles to go into a pair of $140 shoes every year just to keep my knees from giving out or my back from caving in. Another part of my motivation is also a striving for self-sufficiency: there’s not much in the way of repairing or repurposing an average worn-out shoe, so when it goes, you’re stuck with buying another. And lastly, of course, there’s the environmental concern: a lot of energy and labor goes into making a single damn shoe. And all of these together imply a voluntary simplicity: if I’m trying to do away with my dependence on these, then clearly the alternative will look much more like this.

The end goal? To be able to make my own shoes and be able to wear them without injuring myself.

Walkers in regular shoes, I’ve come to find out, tend to plod. It’s a lazy, inefficient way of walking that outsources what the feet were designed to do and makes the rest of our bodies do it, which is why so many of us have bad backs, knees, and ankles. Typical walkers put all their weight on their heels, which is made all the more damaging by the fact that most of us do almost all of our walking on hard surfaces. This weakens leg muscles, encourages bad posture, and relegates our toes to little more than a footnote – pun intended.

I’m not especially interested in taking up minimalist running, but I will probably benefit from reading the books that spurned that fad. However, here’s a few internet resources I’ve found on the subject, and the video that really kindled my interest.

There’s more to ‘barefoot’ running than thin soles: technique is vital, too – The Guardian

The Art and Sole of Barefoot Hiking – Redefine Progress

How to Walk Barefoot – Xero Shoes: This link is cool because it talks about the biomechanics of healthy walking. This is a long article, but here’s a neat excerpt:

If I asked you to start walking, most people would basically swing their free leg out in front of them and, at the right moment, push off the toes of the back leg to pivot over the front foot, which has landed on the heel way out in front of you.

You basically walk “behind your feet.” One interesting thing about walking behind your feet is that you’re never really off balance. We’ll come back to that idea in a moment.

Now, imagine being on one foot again. If I asked you to contract whatever muscle or muscles you can think of that would move you forward, which one(s) would you tighten. Remember I said “move you forward.” Falling forward doesn’t count, so the answer is not “ankle” (leaning) or “abs” (as in, bending forward until you fall).

The answer is the muscles that are referred to as the “prime movers” in our body: The glutes and hamstrings.

Tighten the glutes and hamstrings and you’ll actually MOVE forward.

And stronger glutes and hamstrings protect the lower back.

But after you tighten your glutes and hamstring you will eventually get off balance and fall on your face… unless… you put your other foot down to stop you.

And here’s where it gets cool.

If you simply place your foot down where it’ll stop you from falling (rather than swinging it out in front of you like you usually do), it’ll land closer to your center of mass, more flat-footed, with a slightly bent hip and knee, and with the now front leg in a biomechanically stronger position. You will have planted your foot.

If you repeat this — using your glutes and hips to move you forward, and placing your foot instead of swinging your leg forward — you’ll be supporting your lower back… and your knees, and your hips, and even your ankles.

Your foot-strike will take care of itself.

What bothers me the most, perhaps, is that we’ve created a world that actively hates the natural state of our bodies. We peddle weight-loss cures because our food system is awash in empty calories and simple carbohydrates. We coat our nails in carcinogenic enamel because our nail beds aren’t blue (or whatever is ‘in’ this season). We cover everything in pavement, which ruins our natural gait, so now we pay $86 billion dollars every year in America on spine treatments. Pretty cool.

So this is me, learning to literally walk away from all that dubious medicalizing, marketing, and flashy neon on this year’s line of running shoes. I hope my feet will thank me.

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That Moment You Realize that Secret Santas Suck

…And Not Because You Got Shafted

I’m participating in a Secret Santa gift exchange at work this year, and I’m kind of disappointed in the whole thing. I get it: giving gifts makes you feel charitable and important, and getting gifts is a dopamine rush where you feel like you get to walk away with something for nothing. It hopefully encourages you to get to know somebody that you otherwise might not have. But, depending on how the SS is conducted, it can have a lot of disappointing drawbacks as well.

The first major flaw is that you’re at risk of needing to buy something for somebody that you know nothing about (like me this year – I’m to be gifting for somebody I barely speak to and have nothing in common with). What the hell do you do in that situation? Shell out and hope it doesn’t wind up in the donation pile or garbage bin? I thought we would be writing a short list of stuff we liked, things we needed, or at least stores to go looking in, but that wasn’t the case. I protested, explaining that in 6 months everything I own will need to fit in the back of my car and I have to be really, really choosy about the things that come into my possession now. It hasn’t occurred to either of my co-workers that somebody would want to be discriminating about the stuff that they were acquiring! Both of them explained to me that they’d be happy to get anything. Really? Ok, I hope you like the selection of bottle jacks from Harbor Freight…

The other thing that pisses me off at Secret Santas is that I can’t give hand made gifts because they’re dead giveaways and defeat the purpose of a secret exchange. You also can’t be too clever, because that would reveal the way you think, a special conversation you had, or something else that would give you away too. So the more generic the gift, the better. Unfortunately, I love giving handmade gifts. Homemade food stuff, hand-decorated this or that, or a small painting of something; these are all gifts I’ve given in the past and they are always a big hit.

I think my problem is that the mainstream culture of holiday gifting makes absolutely no sense to me. Giving consumer crap for the sake of giving consumer crap is not something I can wrap my head around anymore. If it’s not expressly wanted or needed, and it wasn’t made by hand or thought through so carefully that it almost approaches a curated experience, why give it? Why not just enjoy each others’ company over some good food and drink instead?

The husband and I expect to stop celebrating Christmas full-stop once I’m moved up there. We’re not Christian and we hate everything the secular holiday has become, so why not? We’ll likely replace it with a 12 Days of Yule, and give little gifts – most of which will probably be little IOUs for things like chores and day trips, redeemable throughout the year -for the whole 12-day duration of the festive season which doesn’t end until New Year’s Day.

I was going to write a list of websites to get gift cards for me from, but I scrapped it because I sensed that I was being perceived as a buzzkill. The fact of the matter is that I’m already impossible to buy for when it comes to people who even know me well; I can only imagine the poor sucker who pulled my name from the hat and realized that the only thing I ever talk about buying is car parts (because those are the only things I seem to buy aside from food). The problem is that I don’t usually want stuff! Sure, I’ll take books… if it’s books I know I’m interested in reading. I’ll take music… if you happen to know all the tiny little indie bands I like. I’ll even take car parts… if you want to buy me an $80 differential cover or pay to have leaf spring bushings pressed. But I don’t buy clothes, I don’t buy shoes, I don’t buy makeup or phone accessories or knick-knacks or jewelry or anything that normal people love to buy for themselves and others. I have no use for a majority of the consumer-capitalist crap that takes up a good portion of the lives of others. So it’ll be interesting to see what one of them comes up with for me.

At the very least, I have talked several times about how much I love gin.

I like Secret Santas. I like giving gifts that people actually want or need. I don’t like giving for the sake of giving, which is more about me feeling important or clever as gift-giver than you, the person receiving the burden of ownership of the new thing. Can we please think of gifts in that way from now on? A burden of ownership? If gifts are burdens if nothing else, then we should work to make sure they really justify themselves in the lives of the person receiving them.

The Twin Freedoms of Choice and Habit

When I started this thing (whatever ‘this thing’ even is anymore), I was, like most zero-wasters, obsessed with numbers; hard data; measurable results. Did I make more trash this week than last week? What’s my carbon footprint this month? Is Amtrak or Greyhound more environmentally-friendly? Does my webhost power their servers with clean energy? Should I get a bidet? If I can’t afford stainless steel, does that make me a bad environmentalist?

Over the years I’ve been blogging, most of these kinds of questions have just become irrelevant, and the few that are left I answer with far less rigor. It’s less about math and more about poetry.

If the journey is a mountain-climb, and if we all eventually plateau, then at some point I stopped looking for more mountain to climb, because I realized that climbing just became an end unto itself. I took a left instead, gunning for the edge, and leapt into the open air. What I found was that I could fly, and that I didn’t need to climb anywhere at all. I could go wherever I wanted.

Let me tell you what I mean.


In a way, this whole thing started with a crisis: I admitted myself to a New York City emergency room because I’d almost fainted while on my way to a college class for symptoms that closely resembled cardiac arrest. I was 20. Only, I didn’t report all of my symptoms, because I had somehow managed to completely forget about the most glaring one: cripplingly acute pelvic pain while I was on my period. What I did was report the side-effects of that pain instead: tunnel vision, black spots, heart palpitations, chest pain, light-headedness, shortness of breath, cold sweats, an inability to keep myself upright. Because I’d failed to mention that I was on my period, and because I failed to notice that the chest pain was secondary to the pelvic pain, the doctors could find nothing wrong with me, and I was sent home.

For months I wondered what happened, and continued to suffer similar attacks without respite. I met this terrifying unknown with the only tools I had: I stopped drinking soda, cut down my sugar and junk food intake, and tried to get better sleep. Eventually someone mentioned that I might find out if a gynecologist would have any answers. Long story short, I was suffering from bad cases of simultaneous endometriosis and rupturing ovarian cysts; essentially hemorrhaging who-knows-how-much of who-knows-what into my abdominal cavity. Twice a month, it felt like a bomb would go off in my gut without any warning, leaving me crippled for hours at best and days at worst.

The problem was that gynecologists don’t really have any idea of what triggers the formation of endometriosis or “benign” ovarian cysts, and the remedies are less than stellar. My choices were essentially: a. pop out a kid, b. take hormones for the rest of my life and induce a kind of menopause, or c. surgically ablate the endometriosis and hope for the best. (The long-term success rate of surgery is less than 25%. Most suffers have to have the offending tissue removed several times throughout their life. This option doesn’t even touch the cysts, mind.) A few unsatisfactory years and one ablation surgery later, and I opted to demand my option d: hysterectomy.

What this experience did for me was plant the seed that maybe, just maybe, authority figures don’t know everything, and sometimes you know what you need better than they do.


Back in 2014 I developed GERD and IBS. It was Easter sunday,  I believe, after a full plate of baked macaroni, garlic bread slathered in butter, short ribs drenched in sauce, and a half-dozen beers, that I jolted awake in the middle of the night with the distinct sensation that I’d been choking and couldn’t breathe.

This was a problem that the medical establishment was very familiar with, though. The remedy was simple, but herculean by the expectations of the average American: eat better and drink less alcohol. Already wary of pills from my years on various medications, I was determined to avoid using chemical shortcuts around what was essentially a bad habit, and only a few days later I swore to eat even better than I had before. I adopted a “3-strikes” policy toward what I was allowed to consume within a 3 or 4-hour period*, and later that year, having avoided most meat products out of necessity, just decided to go full vegetarian.

My takeaway from this was that I had more control over what I could and couldn’t reasonably expect from myself than I’d previously thought. And that once again, maybe its worth it to not take the pills.

I’ve been acid-free for three years now.

*Out of the three main offenders for both GERD and IBS – spicy foods, rich/greasy foods, and alcohol – I could only pick two unless I wanted to be in a world of hurt later. Sometimes a consumable would be so intense that it would count as two strikes by itself. Deep fried stuff usually does it; also, micheladas.


In early 2016, I moved in with my mother when she bought a new house that didn’t come with a washer or dryer, and it would be another year before she could afford one. In the meantime, I chose to do all my laundry, including my sheets and towels, by hand in a large washbasin sink. She chose to use the laundromat most of the time. I found the process to be rewarding and calming, as well as being good exercise, and as a result I still do most of my laundry this way, even after we got a washer (but no dryer) months ago.

This has taught – and continues to teach – me that, even without a crisis, simply sticking to a seemingly difficult choice can be easy. All you need is a little push.


Two weeks ago now, I made the decision to start adopting a low-carb, high-fat diet – LCHF – to try and remedy my tendency to experience hypoglycemic episodes. I feel hypoglycemia a liability for me in the long run, and though I’m pretty thin, I want to do everything I can to avoid any later issues I might develop with insulin: diabetes is very high on my list of things that I want to do without, thankyouverymuch. To make this really work, I also decided to pair the moderate diet change (yep, still vegetarian!) with a modest first step into the world of intermittent fasting – this is the surest way to get your body to start burning lipids instead of blood glucose for fuel, thus bypassing the hour-by-hour risk of hypoglycemic crashing altogether.

So I started. I skipped breakfast on my first day, which is something I’m told to never do, and had a big cup of hot tea with half-and-half instead. No crash: no brain fog, no prickling warmth up my neck as the adrenaline response is triggered to help regulate my blood sugar and blood pressure levels, no stomach aches, and no orthostatic hypotension. When lunch came around, I still had plenty of energy and was no more hungry than I normally am. I ate a big meal, and 6 hours later, I was only just starting to think about dinner.

On the morning of day 3, I experienced crash after crash for a good 3 hours, even after snacking on low-carb foods. I was experiencing the ‘low-carb flu’; a very uncomfortable hurdle that the body goes through as it shifts away from using fast-burning glucose for fuel and switches to slow-burning lipids. I stuck to the regimen, powered through the discomfort, and came through just fine. It’s been a week and I haven’t experienced a single hypoglycemic episode since, no matter how hungry I get.

And I haven’t had much in the way of bread or sugar cravings at all.

Another takeaway: sometimes, doing things completely differently is way easier than you think it’ll be.


What do all these little stories have in common? Well, they’re the story of how many of my biggest habits have formed.

At first, most of them were in response to crises: bigger at first, then increasingly small, until they’re not crises at all anymore but just problems to be solved. Eventually, some of them aren’t in response to anything more than the desire to do something different and see how it works out.

I think what’s happened is that, over the past 5 or so years, I’ve trained myself to make decisions. Making decisions is a lot different than just deciding to want something, or setting a goal. It’s not about what’s easy or what’s difficult, it’s just a matter of doing what you set out to do. If you succeed, great. If you fail, who cares? Decide to walk away, and decide to do something else instead. The important part is that you made a decision. 


As far as habits go, conscious decisions are how I get started. We can make decisions with the help of the aforementioned numbers, hard data, and measurable results. We can also make decisions based on how we feel, but making conscious, informed decisions about our feelings requires quite a bit of skilled introspection. Not everybody has that skill.

For me, the decisions I make that lead to habituation usually start with facts: “I need a truck. I wonder which one is easy to work on, famously reliable, is good in inclement weather, and has no wifi or cell capability to speak of?” Or: “I hear the benefits of this thing I’m not doing are great, and I wonder if it’ll work for me.” The motivation to seek out the change in either case can be a crisis (“I hear the benefits of not having a uterus are great, and I wonder if it’ll work out for me.”), or something much more benignly experimental (“I wonder if I stand more on the balls of my feet than my heels, what that will do for my footstrike and posture?”).

In the case of the hysterectomy, that was a one-time decision I’ll never be able to make again. But, a big decision sometimes takes a big crisis in order to make the mental space for a drastically different status quo. In other cases, the alternatives to choosing otherwise aren’t really choices at all… more consequences, as in the example of ignoring my gastro-intestinal problems and continuing to stuff my face with ribs and macaroni and cake and beer. In still yet more cases, a choice of some sort must be made, but the options available are similar (or similar enough) in outcome, as in how I might do laundry without access to a home washing machine. But some, like with my materially unprompted decision to take up the LCHF diet alongside intermittent fasting, are a good example of pure exercise of will and whim.

At what point does decision-making become habituated? This is pretty obvious: when “temptation” is no longer a problem, and to deviate from the thing chosen requires another conscious decision to do something else.

How do we get there? Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it?

Entire books have been written on the subject, so I’m not going to go too far down that road. How I’ve done it is what this whole post has so far been about, though, so I’ll just summarize for now: use facts (or plain curiosity) to generate motivation, manipulate your emotions to steer you where you want to go (make the Mere Ownership Effect work for you) and maintain momentum, cultivate proud contrarianism where it seems the entire world wants you to go back to what you were doing, and eventually the choice begins to make itself. Rinse, repeat.

I’ve found this to be the most effective way of starting habits, and it gets me the best results. It doesn’t always work, obviously. It doesn’t work where I had no power to make a meaningful decision to begin with, and it doesn’t work where I wasn’t really motivated to do the thing anyways. Manufacturing motivation is its own kind of difficult. I touched on it a little bit with my strategy of psyching yourself out, but there’s other methods that I’m sure a lot of books have been written about. This technique is, essentially, how I do that elusive thing called willpower.

There’s another way for this whole thing to go south, too, though: it really ceases to be a useful tool when we have a hard time admitting that we’re wrong. Why is this bad, aside from the obvious? Because having a low tolerance for being wrong is a kind of cognitive inflexibility. It’s the result of one choice, already made. You can hang your hat on choices, and I highly encourage doing so because it ensures authenticity and honesty. But if a choice isn’t working out, having the capacity to switch hat pegs keeps your mind sharp, your ego humbled, and your confidence firm.  So, the other question: how do we recognize that we fucked up, accept that we fucked up, and move on?

It starts, I’ve found for me, with… well, decisions.

At some point along the way, you have to decide that making mistakes is OK, or at least part and parcel of being a messy, imperfect, human being. And while it’s worthwhile to try and not make mistakes and learn from the ones you have made, especially where relationships or other people are concerned, it’s literal insanity to try and not make any mistakes ever. 

The corollary to this is that, at some point along the way, you have to decide that you’re not here to impress hardly anyone. If the opinions of most people you encounter over the course of your day don’t actually matter, then what’s wrong with being silly? Getting openly excited about something un-cool? Wearing that thing you like so much? What’s wrong with being wrong? Everybody’s wrong about something, and most people are probably wrong about most things.

Don’t let being wrong or fear of making a mistake prevent you from trying things and being authentic. But don’t let them prevent you from being right either. If you know you’re wrong, change your stance. But if you know you’re right, don’t be afraid to be stubborn about it either! Knowing when and how to pick your cognitive battles is a very useful skill, and making the decision to jump ship from a bad idea is one that gets easier to make every time you do it. Eventually, you realize that the world doesn’t come to an end just because you decided differently when the evidence was against you. Being able to change your understanding to match the available evidence, and be confident while also acknowledging that nobody can know everything, can and eventually does become habit. And it is one of the most freeing habits I’ve ever cultivated. Don’t dig in your heels. Be nimble, stay on your toes.

NPR has an excerpt from a book called Mistakes were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Harmful Acts. It may be a good read for those who want to explore the thing further:

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.

Psychology Today asks the question “Why is it so vital to be right?”:

It’s curious how mightily our thoughts and beliefs defend their territory. Why is it so vital to be right? Well to begin with, if you’re not right, then you are indeed wrong, with all the accompanying sense of humiliation and failure. But is this a given? Does it have to be this way? Could we accept being incorrect without any loss or embarrassment?

I believe this fixation is more likely wed to highly competitive cultures than traditionally-oriented cooperative societies. In the latter, issues of right or wrong don’t equivalently inform one’s sense of self or identity. The ego may be shaped by other influences such as being honored, respected or altruistic. In first world cultures the drive to be right advances one in the competitive race. In the desire to get ahead this is utilized as a core value. I would actually suggest that this is a highly pervasive fixation attachment that ruins our relationships, derails our mindfulness and erodes our natural instinct to learn.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: your mind shouldn’t be so open that your brains fall out, as the saying goes. Cultivate that humility alongside a heaping dose of skepticism and stubbornness to carry you through situations where you don’t necessarily trust the intellectual honesty of the other party in interactions with others, or to get you through periods of temptation in interactions with yourself.


All in all, habits are easy to develop if we actually want to develop them. Most of the legwork involved is sufficiently convincing both your conscious and subconscious minds that the new habit is something you really, really want. Again, the only thing that motivates such a change most of the time is plain fear: a crisis situation like the one I related at the beginning of this post. But we can’t always afford to wait for a crisis to force our hand. Sometimes its prudent to manufacture a crisis, or something with just as much potential to make the mental space for something new and different by destroying part of our old status quo.

But I promise, as you get better at making real, deliberate decisions, and get better at forming habits, you will need crisis situations less and less to propel you in strange and interesting new directions. The limiting factor isn’t willpower – because what’s willpower but damned stubbornness, which is something we all have? – it’s whether the perceived gains of the new outweigh the perceived gains of the old – a kind of endowment effect. Use a little mental hocus pocus and you might find that your perception of those gains is as easily manipulated by you, to your ultimate benefit, than you could have ever imagined.

There is a lot in life that we are powerless to do anything about. Where we’re born, who we’re born to, and how much money was in their bank account being the situations that make the majority of our life’s decisions for us. Accepting our powerlessness in certain situations is healthy – we don’t have control over every facet of our existence, and to even come close to thinking we do is another kind of insanity. But accepting that there is still a lot we can make meaningful decisions about should have the effect of endowing us with a humble sense of responsibility for those things. And I think you’ll find, reader, that once you accept both your simultaneous inefficacy and power where it is appropriate to do so, that a big weight will be lifted: you’ll no longer be trying to change things you have no control over, and you’ll be empowered to take ownership of the things that were within your purview all along.

I dunno, to me that’s pretty freeing.

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.

 

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.

What the Whole Foods Buyout Means

Oops, looks like this got prematurely posted as I was working on it. So here it is again, all finished-like!


I pick on Whole Paycheck – I mean, Whole Foods – a lot. I did it before I started working there, and I do it even more now that I’ve seen first-hand how the proverbial sausage is made. Why? Well, first off, they make it so easy. They’re a grocery store for the clueless and self-righteous elite, for people who’ve probably never worked a service job in their life. They prey on the aforementioned elites’ desperation to buy happiness, to buy enlightenment, to buy guilt-alleviation, and to buy youth, beauty, and whatever the hell “wellness” is. And since they opened their first store back in the 80’s, they’ve done a pretty damn good job.

But not quite so much anymore.

Sales for the all-natural grocer have been in steady decline for some years now. I’ve heard stories from co-workers about the good ol’ days of gainsharing payouts – gainsharing is the store’s practice of dividing up some of a store’s excess profits over the course of the year and distributing it among employees around the holidays – which used to be in the hundreds of dollars. In the past 5 years, payouts have plummeted, and have recently been in the measly dozens of dollars. And if this is happening at the leading store in the entire region, employees at other locations probably see hardly any payout at all.

The Big Squeeze

To put the severity of this in perspective: the gainsharing board at my store, a little corner of baseless and manufactured optimism, is proud to boast month after month of surplus that will be available for the gainsharing program; one little detail, though, is that these surpluses are not from sales, but from labor. A labor surplus means that when employees are let go, or when they move on, they are not replaced, leaving the rest of the team to pick up the slack. More work is created for those remaining, so a gainsharing payout from a labor surplus is hardly an extra “bonus” at all – it’s actually hard-earned pay and it’s peanuts to boot.

This kind of cannibalization, this slow speeding up of the treadmill, I’ve begun to call The Big Squeeze. It’s happening across the board in the US economy, and hitting the retail sector hardest.

Imagine, for a moment, a toothpaste tube. It’s brand-new and filled to overflowing. At first, you only have to give the tube the slightest pinch to get some of the toothpaste out. But as more and more of the toothpaste gets used up, you have to squeeze harder. Without taking the analogy too far, imagine a fist holding the tube in the middle, and squeezing the toothpaste out that way. The middle disappears first, right? That fist, squeezing the tube empty, is what our economy looks like right now. And toothpaste, remember, rarely finds its way back in the tube, let alone worked back to the bottom.

Another way in which things resemble a Big Squeeze might be found in the metaphor of an orange being juiced. Getting the juice out is easy for the first few seconds, but quickly becomes more difficult as there is less and less to extract. The same principle can be applied to the labor situation. To use my experience as an example again: another co-worker told me that when she first started at our location about 3 or 4 years ago, the job was orders of magnitude simpler. The menu was half of its current size, we had less equipment to use and manage, and the ingredients we worked with were far fewer.

In my short 8 months there, the menu has grown by about 30%, the number and variety of ingredients used to make orders have almost doubled, and time spent making orders has increased. Adding to this is further complexity due to changes in the chemicals we use for cleaning and sanitation, and more rigorous procedures associated with their use. (Because of those wonderful labor “surpluses”, we don’t have the time to actually perform any of those procedures, and are often required to cook the log books while supervisors look the other way. Who the fuck has time to check the PPM of chemical formulas twice a day when we sometimes don’t even get the opportunity to take our legally-mandated breaks?) And yet, there’s still only ever one or two of us doing the work that three or four people should be doing.

All of this has been an effort on the part of Whole Foods to squeeze extra efficiency out of its employees. First, they gutted labor, but once you’re already running on a skeleton crew, you can’t get rid of any more people; there’s only so much fat you can trim. So the next strategy is always, invariably, to extract more efficiency out of what you have left: you try to expand the size of the ship and spread your skeleton crew thinner. You can’t make them work longer hours, but you can train people to do a wider variety of things, so that they might be more versatile employees, or just hire floaters in lieu of department-specific workers (sacrificing expertise and customer service). You introduce more and more complexity to the jobs they already do, barraging customers with a larger buffet of choices (which all cost extra, but succeeds in distracting from the dip in quality of core products; at least, for a time).

These are all tried-and-true methods of a failing business – it’s also, if you think about it, how a star goes supernova. The question is, does it collapse into a dwarf star or a singularity? Whole Foods was limping, and Amazon pounced – personally, I feel as if the company has gotten swallowed up by a supermassive black hole before we even got a chance to find out either way.

A Horseman of the Apocalypse

Amazon, along with Google, Facebook, and Walmart, are the proverbial Four Horsemen: Surveillance, Enclosure, Monopoly, and Conquest.

As the Horseman of Enclosure, Amazon would be more than happy to see the dissolution of retail and public space as we currently know it. In fact, Jeff Bezos would probably wet himself with glee if the American public didn’t ever leave the house – they’d do all their shopping and consume all their entertainment from the comfort of their armchairs, likely using Amazon to do it. A few months ago, that kind of domination would not have been complete, though. As Fortune explains, the grocery business is a notoriously tough nut to crack, and aside from the smattering of shop-for-you services that have cropped up in recent years, online companies looking for an “in” haven’t found one… until now:

“Food has been insulated from the e-commerce revolution over the last 20 years, but the reality is consumers are going online, they are expecting mobile, and they want the ultimate convenience,” said Michael Wystrach, co-founder and CEO of meal delivery service Freshly, in an interview with Fortune. “The evolution of the grocery store business is going to evolve dramatically over the next five years.”

“The reality is consumers are going online”.

I don’t think I actually buy that when it comes to food. I’m not really able to find data, but if Instacart’s Foodie Awards are any indication, it’s that higher-end, “artisan” food products are the most popular purchases its customers make. It’s not quite Blue Apron-level elite, but these kinds of products (cold brew coffee, artisan marshmallows, prosciutto, etc.) are pretty firmly outside the price range of the working class. The lower middle class, the working class, and those in even lower income brackets, then, are clearly not doing their grocery shopping online.

What’s happening here, then, is that Silicon Valley and the other bloated behemoths of e-commerce are introducing disruptive technologies and business strategies that only the monied are in a position to take advantage of, then, still propped up by venture capitalist cash and itching to get out of the red, proceed to declare that “all” consumers want the future of X industry to go in their direction, and then actualize their self-fulfilling prophecy by muscling their way into markets that don’t actually want them, or by merging with bigger players and choking off the competition, leaving the less monied with no other choice but to shell out. This is how Walmart, the Horseman of Conquest, functions in the brick-and-mortar world. Amazon simply does it in notional space – by colonizing your purchasing habits even though other alternatives are still technically available.

Instacart will not ultimately survive the Amazon buyout unless it, too, is assimilated. Me and a few of my co-workers, in fact, don’t even predict that Whole Foods will survive the buyout. It will either not exist in another 10 or 15 years, or will have been rendered completely unrecognizable. This is what companies in capitalist economies do, though: the only way to survive is to cannibalize your own long-term interests, and then prostrate yourself before the highest bidder.

In other words, the only way to get toothpaste out of the tube is to squeeze.

Where Values Don’t Really Matter

In the hallways behind the public-facing part of the store at my location, we’ve got the “Core Values” painted on the walls. They’re nothing more than bits of decoration on otherwise drab gray paint that everyone ignores; a perfect microcosm to how often anyone at the company thinks about them when making a decision, least of all the CEO. Be wary of for-profit businesses who claim to have a mission statement beyond “make as much money as possible”, because when their back is to the wall, or when a quick buck is to be made, you can bet your ass that money will always trump the “mission”.

The extent to which a large corporate entity can ignore its own mission statement at the prospect of increasing sales can’t get any more evident than with Whole Foods post-buyout. For shits and giggles, I’ll go over each tenet and explain just how, exactly, it will now cease to have any meaning. (Not that many of them ever did.)

  • We sell the highest quality natural and organic products available: This is just plain wrong – really, only somebody who literally has their head up their ass would believe this. This is, of course, if you don’t equate “high-quality” with “fancy” – ie. products that have way too much R&D invested in their packaging, or products that have been processed to heck and gone to make it more palatable to western tastebuds.
  • We satisfy, delight, and nourish our customers: This one’s tricky because none of it really means anything. However, our customers are dissatisfied and irked all the time; every day those kinds of people make my job just that much harder as I watch them cut each other in line, snap their fingers at us to get our attention, or interrupt us as we’re helping somebody else. In fact, it seems like almost half of our customers seem to be in a bad mood on any given day!
  • We support team member excellence and happiness: This has always been bullshit, but now with Amazon running the show, I can’t see it ever improving. Amazon is one of the worst employers out there, and you’d be hard pressed to get me to believe that there won’t be bleed-over in how Whole Foods will be expected to treat its workers in the future, especially if Amazon is looking to create an even tighter, leaner ship. I already explained the so-called “labor surplus” above, but also there’s the fact that raises are hard to come by, everyone who works there is constantly amped up on nigh-lethal doses of caffeine just to keep up with the hard, unpredictable hours, and perks are far and few between.
  • We serve and support our local and global communities: Aside from the small smattering of fair trade items that the store stocks (and ignoring that the Fair Trade label has problems of its own), I don’t really see how WF differs drastically from any other typical grocery store. Unfortunately, now with Amazon in the picture, this will be even more meaningless: Amazon cares nothing for anything but “free trade” – that is, the sort of free trade that makes it easier for them to muscle their way into whatever markets, wherever, and to chew people up and spit them out.
  • We practice and advance environmental stewardship: Laughable. Simply laughable. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is such a bald-faced lie. Oh wait, I sort of did.
  • We create ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers: This may be true as of right now. I’m not sure. I know that’s not always been the case, though, especially with that little scandal about WF using prison labor to source some of their products. (Prisoners, that is, who legally get paid less than a dollar per hour of work, and whose employ is not federally regulated.) Post-buyout, again, I can’t really see this improving. All I know is how Amazon treats its self-published authors and what it does (or does not do, rather) for product pricing.
  • We promote the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education: I’m guessing that “stakeholders” here means customers and employees, in which case it’s a wash. Only a couple of the stores I’ve been to actually host classes and workshops about healthy eating, and the rest is your superfood of the week bullcrap. Like the whole juice trend (and not to mention the partnership with Juicero a few of the So Cal stores have made): juice is not actually that healthy. It’s basically nature’s flat soda: sugar water. And yet, along with a lot of other over-priced “food” items making dubious promises, like probiotics, prebiotics, turmeric, bone broth, and wheatgrass, they keep pushing it on the consumer. This stuff isn’t any healthier than the boring shit like brown rice and cabbagebut it sure is for WF’s coffers!
  • We create wealth through profits and growth: I saved this one for last because it’s the only honest sentence they have in their whole portfolio of marketing copy. The problem, obviously, is wealth for whom. Certainly not employees, and it’s definitely a questionable claim regarding their supply chain, but as far as corporate goes, this is 100% true. So congratulations, Whole Foods, your mission statement isn’t all lies, at least.

The Future of the Grocery Store

Part of Whole Food’s decline is in no small part due to the wider availability of organic food now than when the company started over 30 years ago. This has forced it to respond in predictable ways: provide ever more niche goods as well as target a niche market – upscale health-conscious consumers rather than the grubbier hippy-types that started the health food store industry. Unfortunately, when you cater to the rich and well-to-do, you have to make a lot of compromises to keep them coming back. This is how we got that Juicero pilot program – the Juicero itself the epitome of Silicon Valley hubris – and other food fads, each one in turn promising, in ever more colorful language than its predecessors, health, happiness, and everlasting youth.

What Amazon might plan to do with Whole Foods should scare you, though. If it means to make a hard push for personal shoppers, then say goodbye top even more customer service jobs as the rest of the grocery industry is forced to kow-tow to the course charted by the e-commerce behemoth. Personal shoppers, not being the people for whom a good customer service experience is directed toward, won’t mind waiting in longer lines as cashiers are let go. People with experience and knowledge about certain products won’t be necessary either – a personal shopper’s job rarely involves making decisions that would require the input of an expert. They are usually hesitant to make any executive decisions on behalf of their clients at all, as a matter of fact. If nothing else, the Amazon deal will result in fewer jobs in the long run, and WF stores will likely be nothing more than the raw material to start its own warehouse chain specifically catering toward gig economy personal shoppers.

Whole Food’s share of the organic and all-natural pie will not be growing again. This is what the big picture is telling us, for those who might listen. As wealth continues to trickle up, as the middle continues to hemorrhage due to the big squeeze, the number of customers who can afford to shop at Whole Foods will only shrink. And as that customer base shrinks, the only way to stay out of the red is either downsize, or find new markets. Amazon will likely encourage, if not downright force, both. The downsizing is already happening; see above. And it’s only worked a little bit, only bought the company a little more time. So what does Amazon plan to do?

Well, Jeff Bezos has said that he wants to use WF to compete with the big warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, and that should be an indication of the future he’s imagining. This should terrify you: because what Amazon wants, Amazon usually gets. It’s obliterated the brick-and-mortar retail industry, eradicating employment at traditional stores, and introduced logistics jobs in their place. Now instead of being a full-time employee at some store, where you get a decent amount of human interaction, where you get benefits and perhaps a store discount, you can work in a sprawling, sunless warehouse complex where you rarely speak to anyone while on the clock. Or, you can ship packages for them, using your own car, your own insurance, and your own gas money.

No matter what they might try to tell you, this is the future Amazon has in mind for the grocery store:

And they’ll let nothing get in their way.

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:

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

The Sustainability Problem of Digital Currencies – No Tech Magazine
The average Bitcoin transaction uses about 4000 times as much energy as a credit card transaction, or enough to drive a Tesla for 300 miles, found the author of this short article. Yikes.

Vietnam’s Low-tech Food System Takes Advantage of Decay – Low Tech Magazine
A very interesting survey of Vietnamese food culture, and the ways that they avoid the costly use of refrigeration by various fermentation methods.

The Dutch love affair with natural gas: A cautionary tale for the United States? – Resource Insights
Kurt Cobb explains the history of natural gas harvesting and use in the Netherlands, and where it’s gone horribly awry. To make a long story short, early projections about the output of the Groningen Gas Field turned out to be far too optimistic. Unfortunately, they”re still obligated to export their rapidly shrinking reserves thanks to long-term deals, and have become a net importer just to keep their own pipes flowing.

Is Facebook a Structural Threat to a Free Society? – Truthhawk
For some time I’ve been urging readers and fellow zero wasters to think critically about their use of social media, and to ditch Facebook in particular. If you haven’t because of it’s convenience and ubiquity, then hopefully this terrifying piece will change your mind. Facebook is bad for the environment, bad for human health, and bad for the future of democracy. Not to spoil anything, but the piece ends with this:

Are we willing to trust one man with:

  • The largest share of wealth on the planet?
  • The biggest trove of private data ever assembled?
  • The greatest control over information flow ever seen?
  • The biggest psychological research facility in history?
  • The most significant influence machine ever?
  • All five?

Zuckerberg is human. As the saying goes, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Don’t forget this is the man who gave us this gem:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks