New ‘Resources’ Page

I’ve just put up a new page for you all to take a gander at – it’s the best of everything I’ve ever read and watched regarding the state of the world. I’ve organized it into something resembling a syllabus or course outline… which I guess makes it a “class” on how I’ve arrived at my current frame of mind regarding said state of the world. In other words, if you want to know how my opinions work at this point in time, this is the best way to do it.

Because I’m not done learning myself (and I never will be), material will get added as I see appropriate.

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Book Review: The Organic Artist

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

Boy was I wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Will Never Leave North America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sgair Gaoith. Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting Simplefit: Week 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Analog Part 6.5

Welp, both Nexus phones are officially gone. In my last post about it my battery on the one died, but about 2 weeks after that, the screen on the second completely gave out, leaving me with nothing but cracked glass and unintelligible lines of color. They’ve both been sent for recycling (not that the whole e-waste recycling industry isn’t a scam anyways), and I’m now left with a phone that can do no more than call, text, and set my morning alarm.

really get lost now: I was driving north on the 405 the other day, missed the junction with the 134 (because it’s actually the 101), and wound up in Sylmar, a mistake that cost me 45 minutes. But I’m never going to make that mistake again, because I learned. I’m constructing maps in my head now, improving my spacial understanding of Los Angeles, exercising an ancient mental muscle for navigation we are all born with and that most of us are letting atrophy. Or should say, a muscle that most of us are happy to let atrophy.

Music is a non-issue. My Zune player is working wonderfully, and as a result of its simpler, lighter technology, I only need to charge it twice a week, even with leaving it on 24/7. I’m now orders of magnitude freer from that electronic umbilical cord that ties the rest of you to wall outlets for an hour or two every day.

My social media presence is just about altogether toast: without a smartphone, I’m not allowed to participate on Instagram, which was the last way I could keep electronically up-to-date with the goings on of friends and family. I now have to speak to them in person or hear second-hand about what’s happening in my loved ones’ lives, which is fine by me. Getting news like this has a way of drastically cutting down on the meaningless noise that we’ve come to believe is so important in communication these days. I now no longer have to read endless conversations about my friends’ Pokemon Go tribulations or look at what a baby 2000 miles away is eating for dinner tonight. I really don’t care, and I never did.

I’m still on Twitter, but I don’t really know anyone else who is. I basically use it to tweet at my husband once or twice a month, or to rant about the state of the world about as often. Nobody responds because I have hardly any followers, so there’s that.

I’m also journaling again, because I’m learning the importance of cultivating private thoughts and feelings. Having an inner life that doesn’t depend the constant chorus of approval from others to survive itself is important. I’m thinking before I speak more often now – and sometimes I don’t speak at all.

Going completely smartphoneless – or more generally, not having access to a portable internet-enabled device – has also had the curious (though unsurprising) effect of making me less interested in the internet in general. There are only about 5 websites that I check on a daily basis, and most of them only need checking once. So aside from writing or making art, I don’t actually need to be on the computer for longer than 30 minutes a day. As someone who spent most of my spare time on computers from the age of 11, and then on the internet from the age of 13, this is a strange thing to be doing. I have feelings about it. But they’re good feelings.

A last, and related, side-effect is that I am more deeply invested in my time spent with other people now. I’m not regurgitating memes with my friends, or turning to other distractions to make up for the fact that we have nothing to talk about because we talked about it all already before meeting up; I’m engaging in conversations now. Real ones. I’m asking how people are doing, what they’ve been up to, and not only am I getting answers I haven’t heard before, but I’m getting answers from the source, without that cloying showmanship inherent to all information broadcasted on social media.

Have I thought about going back? Am I ever tempted by the conveniences of having the world at my fingertips, in my pocket?

Not at all. Every time someone complains about their short battery life, or their cracked screen, or the $800 they’ve had to part with to pay for a new device, or every time I see someone partake in the vapid forms of communication that occupies most of their social life, or every time I see yet another headline talking about hacked phones, government and corporate surveillance, and the increasing un-freedoms associated with owning a smartphone, I’m reminded that I made the right damn choice.

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.

California Grown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove Lint with Water

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

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

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

Easy peasy.

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

Salon.com

Our Plastic Oceans – Counterpunch
The world’s oceans are predicted to have more plastic than fish by 2050. This is of course, using current numbers – nevermind that plastic usage will only increase in the coming years. So expect this milestone to be reached sooner than that.

What in the World is Causing the Retail Meltdown of 2017? – The Atlantic
It should be pretty evident to most of us why this is happening. But if it’s not, this article from the Atlantic sheds a little light on the situation. If course, it makes the mistake of thinking that the current epicurean foodie boom is different from previous consumer materialism – it’s only different in that your status symbols are now comestible, not usable.

Inconvenient energy fact: It takes 79 solar workers to produce same amount of electric power as one coal worker – AEI
Both this piece and the NYT article that its responding to miss the point in a pretty spectacular way: that energy production itself, to meet even a fraction of current global demands, is environmentally and economically unsustainable. However, I do have a soft spot for journalists who take the piss out of renewables, simply because it’s verboten to do so and not because the miracle of wind and solar has any basis in reality. The faux-sustainability liberals of the NYT-reading sort see “jobs” and get excited – clearly, solar is a boon, right? – however, that many workers producing only a tiny fraction of fossil fuel energy does point to massive structural inefficiencies: inefficient technology, and inefficient distribution of funds. Because where is all that money coming from? Most of it, to be frank, isn’t coming from direct profits, it’s coming from government subsidies. And eventually, all subsidies must come to an end. We know what slashed subsidies do to industries: look no further than the fate of nuclear. Solar is, indeed, a bubble waiting to burst. All cheap energy is a bubble waiting to burst.

The trouble with infrastructure – Resource Insights
Kurt Cobb explains, pretty succinctly, why complex systems (in this case, physical infrastructure) either grow or fail, and why there’s no in-between.

It’s the end of the world and we know it: Scientists in many disciplines see apocalypse, soon – Salon
Until zero wasters can get their heads out of their asses and start talking about the bigger picture, the zero waste movement will be remembered as nothing more than a self-indulgent fad that left its believers just as unprepared for the harsh future ahead of us as any climate change denialism:

It is considerations like these that have led risk scholars — some at top universities around the world — to specify disturbingly high probabilities of global disaster in the future. For example, the philosopher John Leslie claims that humanity has a 30 percent chance of extinction in the next five centuries. Less optimistically, an “informal” survey of experts at a conference hosted by Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute puts the probability of human extinction before 2100 at 19 percent. And Lord Martin Rees, co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, argues that civilization has no better than a 50-50 likelihood of enduring into the next century.
To put this number in perspective, it means that the average American is about 4,000 times more likely to witness civilization implode than to die in an “air and space transport accident.” A child born today has a good chance of living to see the collapse of civilization, according to our best estimates.