Going Analog: Zen and the Art of Getting Lost Without a Phone

This past week I had myself a little adventure. A lot of moving pieces in my life were coming together that required me to cross the border back into the States so I could get a number of Very Important Things done at customs and immigration on my way back into Canada… but I had to stay out of the country for at least 72 hours before returning.

My mom had recently moved near Seattle for work – and to be closer to me and my husband – so I decided to spend the 72 hours at her new place, help her unpack and organize some things, and spend some time with her. So armed with an address, I drew a basic map of how to get to her new place and set off on the 3 hour drive alone.

Little did I know, though, that the Canadian phone plan that I have wouldn’t let me do anything once I got to the south side of the border – I couldn’t even send out a text with all the associated roaming fees. Nothing. And of course I found this out the hard way… when I started second-guessing myself in a completely unfamiliar neighborhood and reached for my phone to ask for a clue.

I think most people in my situation nowadays would panic. I was driving around a suburb in a county I was completely unfamiliar with, trying to find a place I’d never been to before, and I was without any way to contact the only person that could help me. Had she given me the right address? Was I even on the right street? I weighed my options – there was a police and fire station a ways back up the road who might’ve let me use the phone, or I could avoid backtracking and pull into the first business I saw and ask for directions. I did the latter, and wound up learning something else that I hadn’t even considered before.

I pulled into the leasing office for a large apartment complex, and proceeded to tell them that I was trying to find another complex just like theirs that was somewhere along their same road. The two secretaries I spoke to were young, about my age or a couple years younger, and were willing to help me. The problem was, I quickly realized, is that they really didn’t know how to. 

They didn’t know how to gauge a location’s approximate distance by comparing address numbers, and they definitely didn’t seem to pay much attention to what else was on the street near where they worked (otherwise they would have known that the complex I was trying to find was only just another half mile down the road). They just pulled up some directions on their computer and printed me out step-by-step directions (which were MUCH more needlessly complex than necessary to get me a few blocks away), and the fact that they didn’t take a second glance at the ridiculous instructions that Google spat out before handing them off to me was another curious thing – though I don’t doubt for a second that part was just your average rudeness.

I eventually found where I was trying to get 10 minutes later, but the two millennials’ complete incompetence at trying to help someone locate a destination a few blocks down the street from where they worked stuck with me. But in hindsight, I guess it’s kind of obvious: if someone has let their navigational and spacial skills atrophy that much, of course they’re not going to be able to help anyone else in any meaningful way. And in North America, the vast majority of people are gladly letting their navigation skills wither away to nothing. A damn shame.

At any rate, I proceeded to spend the next 72 hours in a strange town without a phone. This is what I managed to get up to:

  • Get myself from Mukilteo to the Everett train station/park-n-ride
  • Meet up with friends somewhere in the parking lot there to carpool into Seattle for the afternoon
  • Find my way to the train station in Seattle that evening, and locate the correct commuter train that would take me back to Everett
  • Get myself back to Mukilteo
  • Find the mall in the next town over, as well as a nearby Target
  • Find a place to get an oil change (couldn’t call about availability, no phone!)
  • Drive back to the border after the 72 hour waiting period was up, locate reasonably priced gas and coffee along the way
  • Navigate the ridiculous labyrinth of customs and immigration offices and processing centers at the border to do all the things I needed to do once I finally got there

The part of me that’s a modern millennial looks back on all that and says “Wow, you’re a crazy son of a gun”, while the rest of me, the highly intelligent and fully capable human animal whose genetic material has spent billions of years on this planet, wants to say “Do that more often“. Your cognition needs to eat its greens too.

I’ve picked up a regular zen meditation practice at a local zendo in the past month, and there is definitely something different about people who enjoy sitting in a room together, in complete silence, doing nothing for an hour without going nuts. In a way, that’s a lot what getting lost feels like, and how you react tells a lot about you. People who commit themselves to longer meditation sits – as opposed to the ‘5 minutes a day’ crowd, or the ‘doing something that’s not meditation is actually meditation’ people – seem to have a way about them that is more readily prepared to try taking each moment as it is, instead of wishing that it were something else, or being overcome with depression and anxiety that it’s not the moment you actually wanted, or not the moment you were promised, or not the moment that you worked so hard to make happen.

That’s not to say that people who meditate on the regular are emotionless automatons. We aren’t. We just try, using one particular technique, to better sit with our thoughts and feelings as they bubble up and recognize them for what they are, so then we might choose to feel them more fully, or choose to push them aside and make room for something else. That’s really what mindfulness is, it’s that simple. But doing it is very hard.

I always wonder what people mean when they say they hate getting lost. Is it that they hate the time they feel is being wasted? Is it some kind of base, animal fear of never being found again that they hate? Is it just a simple matter of losing face, of being wrong? It all seems to boil down to a loss of control. Knowing where you’re going and how to get there is power. Suddenly being faced with not knowing is facing your own powerlessness.

When I get lost I evaluate my options. I humble myself and ask for help, because I do not have the tools to be self-sufficient enough to avoid asking anything of anyone else I encounter. I choose to do things that way. I choose to rely on others. This bothers a lot of people – a lot of people – but I see it as an a way to stay connected to people, and to remind others that there is a whole damn world out there outside of the comforting glow of a screen. That there’s a different way to do things.

To those of you who read this and got uncomfortable, thinking about what you would have done if you were in my shoes, how badly you’d have wanted to reach for your smartphone or how stupid you think I am for not having one: what the heck are you afraid of? The worst that could have happened to me happened – I stopped and asked for directions. When my friends drove around looking for me in the parking lot of the park-n-ride, I sat tight while they circled around for 10 minutes until they found me. And if for some reason I missed them entirely, I would have driven back to my mom’s place and still had the rest of the day to do whatever I wanted, and not even done so empty-handed. I’d learned how to get to the train station. That’s something.

It makes me sad that so many people are choosing to sacrifice their natural aptitude so they can gain some false digital security. They are literally selling chunks of their brains to Google so they can be spared the inconvenience of learning things and interacting with other humans and – gasp – even being wrong sometimes.

Since when did we become so allergic to making even the smallest of mistakes?

Let me know when you find out – I’ll be over here staring out the window.

Advertisements

What the Fuck To Eat

Ever since my first terrifying encounter with GERD, food went from “things I eat that taste good and keep me full” to “things I eat to sustain me and my health”. Quite literally overnight. And ever since the gastroenterologist looked at the lab results of my poop sample and thought I would be happy with an Imodium prescription and a meaningless diagnosis of IBS, I’ve taken diet very seriously.

Nobody wants to start their journey to better eating habits like I did, but it was the kick in the ass I needed. Unfortunately, most of the landscape of dietary information out there consists of fad diets promoted by sketchy internet “doctors” and Amazon referral-powered blogs hoping to god that you buy that $60 tub of protein they claim to use every day. So I did what any reasonably neurotic person would do and started experimenting on myself.

The first thing I did was go vegetarian – almost vegan, actually, aside from the occasional piece of cheese a few times a month. It did a fine job of making me question the legitimacy of the Standard American Diet (SAD), and therefore the scores of doctors and nutritionists who upheld it as the gold standard of balanced eating. If my stomach couldn’t handle it, then clearly the problem was my stomach, and all I needed to do was take a magic pill to make it all go away. Nobody ever suggested that, hey, maybe the problem lay with my eating garbage. My GERD cleared up, though, now that I was no longer able to eat stuff like chili dogs, or buffalo wings, or Jack in the Box tacos. It wasn’t the meat that made the improvement, though. The culprit I’d eliminated was the sauces that are typically served with SAD-style meats, and the fatty ways they’re typically cooked.

No-no #1: Rich, greasy  preparations.

I did more exploring and decided to eat a low-fiber diet for a while to see what that did for my gut. By the end, I was mighty sick of eating nothing but tofu, eggs, rice, and mushy vegetables, but the results were pretty conclusive: my bowel movements were regular, I experienced no gas, and little bloating. Score.

No-no #2: Excess fiber.

Curing my GERD and mostly alleviating my IBS was good enough for a few years. I was happy, I didn’t feel like crap after eating, and I no longer dreaded going to the bathroom. But then I started having blood sugar problems: hypoglycemia, mainly, which is a symptom of metabolic inflexibility. My research told me that such symptoms were the beginning of the long road to insulin resistance, which scared the pants off me. The remedy for metabolic inflexibility? Metabolic exercise! I limited my intake of carbohydrates to a fraction of what they had been, “quitting” them cold-turkey. My blood sugar protested, but after just a few days of the low-carb flu, my hypoglycemia never reared its ugly head again.

No-no #3: Too many carbs… including sugar.

Unfortunately,  a side effect of going low-carb made me lose weight, which was never one of my goals. I dropped 10 pounds in a week, and started fielding questions from a number of folks about whether I was sick or not. I realized that, contrary to popular dietary wisdom, I needed to drastically increase the amount of fat in my diet, which returned me to my normal weight in short order. By this point my average daily carb intake was less than 60 grams, while my fat intake was nearing 100 grams. However, I still had to keep in mind no-no #1: no rich, greasy food. More research taught me the real differences between healthy and unhealthy fats, and the merits of saturated animal fats. The trick? No hydrogenated oils, no highly refined oils, and keep preparations simple – that is, no complicating the digestibility of lipids with things like acids (fruit, coffee), simple carbohydrates (white potatoes, beer), and too much spiciness. These are all things that IBS sufferers need to be keenly aware of anyways, though.

No-no #4: Too little healthy fats.

Those 4 rules have been my takeaway over the years I’ve been playing with diet, give or take a few quirks of my particular microbiome and genetic makeup: maize products, for instance, don’t bloat me nearly as much as bread does, and due to my long history of low blood pressure, I need a little more salt than the average bear. Unfortunately, some things that used to be OK to ingest are becoming increasingly intolerable to my gut as I shift away from old habits. Beer, for instance, is becoming more and more unpleasant to drink as time goes by. The heavy, malty stouts and porters I used to love so much are practically poison to me now: I can’t drink a glass of Rasputin or Victory At Sea without getting nauseous, and a pint and a half of the stuff will put me on the verge of throwing up. I can’t exactly say I’m not disappointed.

That all’s just the physical, biological relationships I have with various foods, though.

What about the ethical? The cultural? The economical?

As someone who still, for some reason, gives a damn about trying to live lightly, the rest is a veritable minefield. I could shop fair trade because I don’t want my food coming from slaves or sharecroppers or the otherwise economically destitute; I could shop local because I would prefer to keep my money circulating among producers in my bioregion, and because my food doesn’t have to travel very far to get to my plate; I could shop zero waste because I would prefer my food to not come in ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging; I could shop pastured or organic or biodynamic or whatever else, because I would prefer the producers of my food to not be actively destroying their local environment and reducing its biodiversity. Or I could shop cheaply and feed myself to my personal standards without breaking the bank.

And I have to choose wisely, because it’s a rare product that checks off more than one or two of these boxes. So what the fuck do I eat?

Price, obviously comes first. I’m no good to anyone if I’m starving and malnourished, if only to be able to say that I followed some lofty ethical ideal at the cost of my own health and personal finances. That’s a given.

The rest, as I’m sure many of you would agree with, are trade-offs. Personal negotiations. Triage. Where can I afford to do the least damage without compromising my health or sanity? This is something I’m still working out, but I feel myself getting close. Some unofficial “rules” that I’ve developed in figuring out which product should come from what source:

  • Chocolate is fair trade.
  • Meat is almost always local, as are vegetables when they’re in season.
  • Staples like cauliflower I get for cheap – most stores in my Vancouver neighborhood have bargain shelves of food that’s going south where you can pick up entire bags of produce for a buck, and there’s usually a glut of cauliflower someplace. I keep most of my “impulse” produce shopping limited to these shelves as well. In a sense, saving this sort of food from the garbage is sort of like buying zero waste. And if you’re lucky, sometimes it’s even organic.
  • Staples like vinegar, oil, and salt, I just pick one strategy based on my circumstances that day. Coconut oil must at least be organic; and as for animal fats, let’s just say we’ve got plenty of bacon grease in the fridge as well as a jar of homemade rendered fat from local product.
  • If tea isn’t fair trade, it’s either local or zero waste and package free.

You get the picture.

Health and food is such a moving target that it’s easy to either get overzealous with your favorite conscious consumer strategy, or just give up altogether. What I’m here to urge you to do is don’t give up. And don’t get overzealous either, nobody likes those. What all of these different food strategies have in common, including just plain focusing on your dietary integrity, is that they undermine the Standard American Diet. They question the reasoning (or lack thereof) that goes into eating a pound of steak and a baked potato slathered in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! purchased from Walmart, and washing it down with a liter of Coke every day. Even if you still did that, but bought organic steak and an organic potato instead, you’ve got a small leg up. You done a good thing. 

I’m getting real sick of food aesthetics to the point where I’m this close to taking pictures of my crummy little galley kitchen with its white appliances and black, “granite”-veneered countertops that I can’t ever seem to get perfectly clean and posting them. I’d open up my kitchen cabinets so you can see my hodge-podge collection of mason jars and bags of shredded coconut, the mismatched boxes of salt and emergency cans of Campbell’s soup sitting beside a 3-year old box of half-eaten pasta. Like… fuck you, man, this is real.

We buy what we need to buy and eat what we need to eat. Sometimes it’s fucking delicious. Sometimes it’s mediocre. Sometimes it’s just plain necessary and we stick it in a glass jar to make us feel a little bit better about having bought it in the first place. Sometimes we get lucky and that bottle of fair-trade, wind-powered, biodynamic, bulk olive oil didn’t cost half our life savings and that’s something to be happy about. We enjoy it and move on.

I’m getting ready to go to the store right now, actually. We need more meat for the cat, and unless I want to make a smoothie, there’s no protein to go with dinner. I would prefer to go to the co-op since all their meat is local and they pay their employees a living wage with benefits, but it’s a 20 minute walk uphill walk to get there and the only places that carry offal around here are the local Chinese markets anyways. I also have a customer loyalty card for a coffee shop nearby that’s full and I want to redeem it if I’m going that way, too.

So, choice made. I can do one good-ish thing today, and another good-ish thing some other time. C’est la vie.

Myths About Hand Laundering

Having been doing most of my laundry by hand for a while now – dang, for several years at this point –  I think I’ve earned the right to Have Opinions about the way hand laundering is often written about and depicted by folks who’ve known nothing but machine washing. So here’s a post debunking a few of the most common myths surrounding the chore of washing clothes in a tub with a little elbow grease.

1. It’s hard.

Not really. Unless, of course, you’re measuring it against the act of dumping dirty laundry into a couple of electric boxes that magically spit out clean laundry 20-30 minutes later, then yes, it’s hard. But it’s no harder than sweeping your own kitchen floor, or replacing the sheets on your bed. In fact, the difficulty of washing laundry by hand is quite often indirectly proportional to the time you have to accomplish it: that is, the longer you can afford to let your clothes soak in hot, soapy water, the less work you have to put in to agitate it. Let the “load” soak overnight, and in the morning you barely have to do any agitating at all. A few simple pumps* of your hands will do the trick to circulate the water through the fibers, and wringing them out afterward only takes as much muscle as you feel like putting in.

*Cupping your hands together, side by side, and pushing down into the clothes like you’re performing CPR is the most energy efficient way to agitate without tools of any kind. (Oh, and if you own a breathing hand washing device, it’ll take even less effort.)

2. It’s time-consuming.

See above. If you don’t have all night or all day to let your clothes soak (and odds are, you do this regularly for pre-soaking soiled clothes anyways), then expect to spend, on average, 10-20 seconds per garment in the load to wash, and half that to rinse. If you have a small/capsule wardrobe whose entire contents can fit into a 5 gallon bucket, and they’re not covered in stains, then you might spend at the most 5 minutes washing, rinsing, and wringing your clothes.

I’d like to see a washing machine do a load in 5 minutes.

The other benefit of hand-washing over machine washing is that you are constantly inspecting the clothes as you agitate them, visually and manually. You can spend less time on minimally-soiled clothes, saving time, and give more TLC to garments that need it. You’re more likely to notice the beginnings of damage like holes and fraying. And you’re more likely to avoid setting stains because you threw them in the wash without noticing them. (I catch almost all oil stains while I still have a chance to wash them out now, for instance. Before, oil stains were the #1 killer of my clothes.)

I’d like to see a machine do that too.

3. Modern front-loading washing machines are so water-efficient, though. Washing by hand probably can’t compare.

I use about an average of 2-4 gallons of water to wash, and 1-3 to rinse with. I can wash a full set of California king-sized sheets and 4 pillow cases with less than 10 total gallons of water. Once again, I’d like to a see a machine do that.

4. Washing machines are part of what helped to liberate the Western wife and mother from a life of hard, household labor.

Yes, that was the case… for maybe a decade. But as always, the consumerist hedonic treadmill was quick to crank up the speed, and suddenly that housewife had more clothes to launder per person than before, and she had higher and higher standards of cleanliness to achieve as a result. A classic example of the Jevons Paradox: efficiency gains provided by a technology are often not just squandered, but undone many times over by more intensive and sustained use of that technology.

So sure, instead of doing laundry by hand every day, the liberated Western woman now goes to work for 8+ hours daily, buys the expensive laundering appliance (probably on credit, so she winds up paying even more for it when all’s said and done), and goes home after a long day of wage work and gas-guzzling commuting to do a load of laundry every day anyways. (And probably pays for a gym membership so she can work on her arm and back strength, which is sorely lacking because of all this manual labor she’s been liberated from.) And instead of being satisfied by a sufficiently clean load of clothes, garments are now expected to be completely wrinkle free, form-fitting, spotless, and smelling like a cheap cologne store at a second-rate mall. And that’s not even mentioning that the size of our wardrobes have since disproportionately exploded in response to this so-called labor-saving device, now the average family does at least one load daily. Don’t make me laugh!

5. Jeans and towels are too hard to wash by hand.

If you have more than a few pairs of jeans, and if you wash them more than once a month, then yeah, it would be on the slightly more inconvenient side. But if that’s the case, then you probably have too many jeans, and you probably wash them too often. Moreover, plush terrycloth towels are, in my opinion, a waste of precious cotton more often than not. Get a peshtemal instead; they’re no more difficult to wash than a large t-shirt. It doesn’t soak up water like a sponge the way terrycloth does, but it’ll still get you dry before pneumonia sets in, and only gets more absorbent with use.

6. Clothes stretch out if you don’t put them in the dryer.

Putting clothes in the dryer isn’t technically what makes them shrink: agitating the fibers is what does it. (Otherwise, leaving your clothes on the clothesline to dry when it’s 120F out would shrink them.) Technically, you could agitate clothes by hand enough to accomplish this – stirring around with a stick for a few minutes and using hot water would help. But the whole phenomenon of clothes stretching out wouldn’t be such an issue if they weren’t made so cheaply – and if they were designed differently to begin with.

7. Laundry probably comes out smelly and dingy that way.

This hasn’t been my experience at all. If you rinse well and don’t wash your whites with your darks, then it’s a non-issue. Hang whites out in the sun to dry and they’ll be lightened up by UV action as well; no whitening products necessary. As for smell, they can smell like anything you want them to, depending on what detergent you use. I don’t recommend using typical laundry detergent, however: it’s very sudsy and more difficult to rinse out. I use a small squirt of Sal Suds in my laundry, no more than a tablespoon, which produces few suds and degrades quickly in water. Those cal king sheets I mentioned above? Done by hand in an 8-gallon washtub with Sal Suds, rinsed, wrung, and hung out on the clothesline. And it passed my husband’s very stringent smell test. He said if I hadn’t told him they were hand-washed, he would never have guessed.


Washing by hand is half design – buying sturdier clothes, buying clothes that fit differently than the throwaway kind you find at the likes of Target and H&M – and half outlook. Outlook? Here’s what I mean.

Reasons washing by hand is better than using a machine:

1. You control what happens to the water when the wash is done.

2. You’re more likely to catch small stains or oil spots before accidentally setting them in.

3. It’s good exercise.

4. It’s meditative.

5. Your clothes last a lot longer.

6. It’s less stressful all around.

Not a bad deal, huh? When you think of it this way, it’s clearly the superior process. It saves energy, time, sanity, and doesn’t wear out your clothes. That’s like… four ‘wins’.

In my completely biased opinion, I think it’s worthwhile to give it a go. It’ll take some getting used to, but once it becomes part of your routine, you may not want to go back. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What Environmentalists Never Told Me About Cars

It’s popular to hate cars right now. And, really, it’s not without reason. The are spectacular polluters, they decentralize infrastructure in a way that spreads fragility (as opposed to antifragilility), they guzzle fossil fuels, and each has a tremendous amount of embodied energy from the moment they roll off the assembly line. In short, cars are terrible.

But they’re also a godsend.

Growing up I hated cars and car culture. I hated speed demons and commuters who sat in stop-and-go traffic for 2 hours a day alike. I hated freeways, parking lots, gas pumps, and everything to do with them. Because I was fortunate enough growing up to be able to get rides to every place I wanted to go, and to be located in such a way that I could walk to some of them myself. When I lived in NYC, owning a car was a laughable idea – what, and own a racehorse too?

Growing up in Los Angeles, cars were both irritating and ubiquitous. I was alienated without one, so I puffed up with a superiority complex that I would later justify using green-speak. But there were things about cars that I’ve since learned on my own – things that no environmentalist worth their salt, or even the greatest automobile advocate, will ever tell you.

1. Driving is freedom.

Driving is a pain in the ass, it’s not cheap, and depending on where you live, it can really, really, not be worth it some days. But other days, when you need to go to the store and your local transit infrastructure is nonexistent, or at least so underdeveloped that not even the poor bother with it? You can just hop in your car and go. And that’s just destinations in the city. What if you want to go camping, or hiking, or someplace else off the beaten path? You think a bus or train is going to take you there? Fat chance. Hope you didn’t intend on ever “getting away from it all” again because you ditched your car for hippy points.

2. It can actually help you save money.

Because public spaces are increasingly under attack in this country, it’s almost impossible to go out daytripping around town without being bombarded by advertising, enticed by fancy eateries, and just plain surrounded by places designed to squeeze your extra dollars out of you without you barely even noticing until you you get that low balance notification from your bank. There’s not actually that much to do in many cities these days but shop and eat, and most metropolises’ downtown districts are pretty much carbon copies of each other, featuring the same chain eateries and the same stores. Couple that reality with the silent encroachment of NO LOITERING signs and uncomfortable park benches and you get a frustrating situation in which there is no place to go in the city where you don’t feel pressured to break out the credit card.

But as I said above, owning a car can get you away from all of that. It can get you to a campsite or a beach or the trail, where loitering is encouraged, the bathrooms aren’t for “paying customers only”, and where you are likely going to be packing in your own picnic – no need to be tempted by a $10 sandwich or $4 coffee to go about your day.

3. Every car is capable of getting more than its advertised MPG.

And without modifications, even. No, it’s not rocket science, but you will have to fight the urge to drive fast and hard. Basically, the trick is to drive like you’re in a big rig: slow and steady. Maintaining your car’s momentum is key, here. Keep your RPMs low, don’t accelerate quickly, and try to brake as little as possible. Keep a large distance between you and the vehicle ahead, so that you don’t have to brake every time they do, simply letting off the gas and coasting instead. If you have a small, aerodynamic car, you can afford to go a little faster, but if you’re heavier and blockier, your inertial sweet spot will be lower. For instance, on my Cherokee, it’s been said that that “sweet spot” in maximizing both speed and efficiency is about 58 MPH. Still being in Los Angeles, I go faster than this – no more than 65 – just for sheer sanity’s sake. A 1 or 2 MPG drop in fuel economy is a worthwhile trade-off if it means not being angrily tailgated and yelled at by jerks who absolutely insist on speeding in the truck lanes. But, YMMV. (Pun intended.) Finding that sweet spot is like striking gold, though. My car’s user manual lists a highway MPG of 18, while I regularly average about 20, and have gotten as much as 25 without making a single modification to my engine, ignition, or exhaust system. (In the near future, I plan on installing an upgraded ignition kit that will increase my average efficiency by about 2 MPG: a $200 upgrade that will pay for itself in less than a year.)

For the slightly more maintenance-minded, adding a detergent to your fuel at fill-up will also help to increase your mileage. There are a lot of products out there that do this – Magic Mystery Oil, Seafoam, and so forth – so you’ll have to find which one your engine likes best. Keeping gas station receipts and entering them into a spreadsheet also helps in zeroing in on the factors contributing to good or poor fuel economy. Everything from the weather to what brand of gas you use can have a larger impact than you think. Whatever you do, though, don’t trust your memory when it comes to maxing out your MPG. You need to keep track of the numbers.

For more information on this sort of thing with your  vehicle, just do a web search for “econo-modding” for your year, make and model, and you’ll surely come across forum thread after forum thread of enthusiastic owners who have experimented with everything under the sun and reported their results for anyone to learn from.

4. There is a whole world of local manufacturing still out there for you to support.

In working on my Jeep as much as I have over the past year, I’ve met a lot of mechanics. But what I didn’t expect to find were the machinists, the engineers, and the blue-collar manufacturers that keep the aftermarket parts economy going. I recently replaced my sagging, 22-year-old rear suspension with OEM replacement leaf-spring packs and bushings, but the bushings needed to be pressed. When I called my mechanic to find out what was involved, I quickly found out that this was a bigger job than I was ever expecting: I spent weeks calling around to find out who might have a multi-ton press to push the metal-encased plugs of rubber into the steel eyes of the leaf pack, and wound up driving across town to a family-owned machine shop for the job. I was summarily treated like family myself, invited into the WW2-era warehouse complete with gorgeous machining equipment that had to be almost just as old as the building itself, offered coffee, and was promptly treated to a sparknotes’ version of the proprietor’s life history. Apparently I’d stumbled into one of LA’s best shops for building, customizing, and fixing drivetrains, and I was happy to see the two men so busy. They’d been in that building since the 70’s.

If I had never owned an older car that I enjoyed working on, I would have never known that these kinds of places still existed, staffed with experienced folks with genius minds and deft hands, sometimes using low-tech equipment older than they are.

In the end, they decided they didn’t want my money in exchange for the use of their press, asking me only to leave a good Yelp review for them, which I promptly did. In the end, not a single component of the leaf pack (aside from the smelted steel itself, maybe) was made overseas. Not many components for much of anything can say that anymore.

5. Not all engines are created equal.

Some engines are terrible, most are average, and some are legendary. (Like my famous straight six, which is no longer used in new vehicles to my knowledge.) Before buying a car, do your due diligence. Really do your due diligence. Part of this is to avoid the draw of new things – don’t be an early adopter for anything, because the joke will inevitably be on you. Wait at least a few years for the recalls to start coming in, the wear and tear reports from daily drivers, to find out what the manufacturer decided to drop and decided to keep for the next year’s model. Jeep engines, for instance, are generally regarded as pretty unreliable in the current day and age (that is, since they dropped the I6!), and unless you only want to keep your stock vehicle for a few years or you have the money and gumption to modify the hell out of your machine, then it’s best to stay within a certain year range and go with older models.

The I6 is widely regarded as a “bulletproof” engine for a number of reasons: mostly it’s just a really solid design, but other things, like how low maintenance and resilient it is, make it one of the best ever made. It requires no special treatment, though it does require a little kindness: drivers that change fluids regularly and never overheat stand a decent chance of making it past the half-million mile mark on their odometer. And if you’re good to the rest of the car, then what’s an engine swap when the beast finally kicks the bucket? It’s certainly a lighter footprint to put in a used engine with low miles than to go out and buy a whole new car to run into the ground.

That said, regular maintenance is critical to a long-lived vehicle. Regular fluid changes, including those who have much longer schedules than oil (like, say, transmission or differential fluid, which need to be changed around every 30k and 100k miles, respectively) go a long way to keeping your car happy and healthy. Also, take care of your tires: getting them balanced, rotated, aligned, and properly inflated will help them last a lot longer as the tread wears evenly.

Cars are not evil. At least, not any more evil than personal computers, smartphones, or light bulbs are. For many people, they’re the only way to get around, or to get away. A lot of people depend on them for the livelihoods, and love nothing more than to see old things taken care of and used long after their supposed pull-by date. And they can last a lot longer than most people give them credit for. All it takes is a little mindful stewardship, some preventative maintenance, and research.

Oh, and some love, too.

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.