The De-Evolution of the Mattress – How Mattresses Became An Absolute Joke

Makes me want to try to make my own mattress.

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WF Mechanization Is Plodding Along As Predicted

Sure, the OTS implementation happened before the Amazon buyout, but Amazon is unlikely to be interested in fixing this problem, let alone know how, because Bezos has zero interest in facilitating healthy, functioning human relationships in his line of work. Whether that’s between employer and employee, or customer service representative and customer, Bezos and those of his ilk have made their billions via spreadsheet fiat – reducing everything and everyone to numbers and graphs… and brick-and-mortar stores to dolled-up warehouses.

This is something I predicted a while ago. Check out some of these recent headlines:

Whole Foods Is Datafying Its Employees To Death – Gizmodo

‘Entire aisles are empty’: Whole Foods employees reveal why stores are facing a crisis of food shortages – Business Insider

Internal documents reveal that Whole Foods is leaving some shelves empty on purpose – Business Insider

My recommendation? Taking your business elsewhere.

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.

Minimalist Footwear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art and Sole of Barefoot Hiking – Redefine Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

And stronger glutes and hamstrings protect the lower back.

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

And here’s where it gets cool.

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

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

Your foot-strike will take care of itself.

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

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

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup: Smartphones Edition

Modern Media is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will – Nautilus Magazine
An interview with James Williams, ex-Google marketing guru, who believes that modern technology platforms are subverting our ability to think, to be alone, and most importantly, to pay attention.

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel – Harvard Business Review
The study was specifically done for Facebook, but being that most other forms of social media function very similarly (clicking links, liking other people’s posts, and posting your own updates, to use the study-makers’ measurements), a lot of this data can likely be applied, at least in part, to all other social media that makes use of profiles and update feeds.

Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? – The Atlantic
The author, a researcher on generational trends, tries coming up with one good thing about Gen Z’s trends throughout this piece – “they’re safer” she says, but can you really say that with a straight face when rates of suicidal ideations and attempts are skyrocketing among young people?

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.

Going Analog part 7: Dealing with Belligerent Incredulity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The responses range from the humorous:

How old are your friends and family? 12??

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

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

To the piercingly observant:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

We Might Learn From the Cubans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Must be a Jeep thing.)

More on the Cuban cottage auto industry:

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