What the Fuck To Eat

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

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

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

No-no #1: Rich, greasy  preparations.

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

No-no #2: Excess fiber.

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

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

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

No-no #4: Too little healthy fats.

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

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

What about the ethical? The cultural? The economical?

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

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

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

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

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

You get the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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Going Analog part 8: So you’ve got yourself an opinion. Now what?

This is a follow-up to my older post on dealing with belligerent incredulity, seeing as how I’ve run into more since then. This time it has been from online talking heads, so this has given me a better look at how the psychological machine works, what without the usual mediating influence of good social etiquette getting in the way. In other words, people feel safer running their mouths online than in person, and it’s easier to build a model about how the other side works when you have better access to their thoughts.

The first thing I noticed is that most of the vitriol came from people who were constructing very obvious strawmen – you know, the kind that results from projecting your own anxieties and prejudices on others, not unlike what gay-bashing politicians do before they’re discovered to be cheating on their wives with cute college boys – and then smugly tearing them apart.

The primary form this argument takes closely resembles Just World thinking: that, at the end of the day, all of my problems with technology, and all of my problems with people who have problems with my problems with technology, are self-inflicted due to some character flaw. Usually that flaw is that I have self-control issues and “need to work on those”, or am a “jerk” and therefore prompting others into being jerks to me, respectively. I mean, barring the fact that I haven’t had bread or sugar in 3 weeks (while working in a bakery where I can technically stuff my face full of delicious organic bread and cookies all I want), I don’t overdraw my bank account, and have been in a long-distance marriage for going on 6 years now, I clearly have self-control issues. Or, barring the fact that everyone at my job likes me, that I have friends who will bend over backwards for me because I have done the same for them, or that I’m an otherwise pretty chill, mostly selfless, and extremely private person, I clearly must be a jerk.

It’s a ridiculous assumption to make about somebody you’ve never actually interacted with. But that ridiculousness is the whole point: it’s impossible to disprove without over-arguing your point, and probably proving your accuser right in the meantime. Well, almost impossible. I gave it my best a few weeks ago on the blog here after getting quite tired of such cookie-cutter response (one of which was even posted to the blog’s comment section):

There are a lot of things wrong with this assumption, and frankly it serves as a very tidy little thoughtstopper.

A thoughtstopper, as defined by John Michael Greer, is:

…exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

What you are essentially asserting, even though you don’t know anything about who I am, who I know, and what my life experiences have been, is that because I am frustrated here, in this blog post written for a specific audience with a specific goal in mind, is that I must clearly convey frustration in all of my interactions with everyone I meet, and therefore deserve the hostility I’m recounting.

That’s an incredibly lazy leap of logic, and I’m sad that I have to actually explain to you why.

First off, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on unless you’ve never spoken disparagingly of anyone in your life. Have you ever vented frustration about someone when not in their company? You have, just like everyone else on the planet? OK, then you know that such conversations have their place, that they’re perfectly normal, and moreover, they help to keep us sane when direct confrontation with the individual isn’t possible or worth anyone’s while.

Secondly, policing tone on a blog post about dealing with the recurrent rudeness of others doesn’t really make any sense. Moreover, you’re taking this post, which is only the latest installment of a multi-post series, and extrapolating an entire (false) narrative about how I’ve thus far conducted myself with people who aren’t you. I mean, I could write you an entire memoir’s worth of stories about all the bizarrely hostile encounters I’ve had with folks who had absolutely no reason to be hostile, and I could list off the names of everyone I know who genuinely find me to be good company, but seeing as how you will not take me at face value here, I doubt that you will take those accounts at face value either, and will be altogether a waste of both of our time. So like any good conspiracy theorist, you’ve made an accusation that is almost impossible to disprove. Not sure what tone policing is as defined by somebody other than tumblr? Here you go, courtesy of the RationalWiki:

The tone argument (also tone policing) is a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument is dismissed or accepted on its presentation: typically perceived crassness, hysteria or anger. Tone arguments are generally used by tone trolls (esp. concern trolls) as a method of positioning oneself as a Very Serious Person.

The fallacy relies on style over substance. It is an ad hominem attack, and thus an informal fallacy. […]

At best, it may be a way to point out rhetorical dishonesty in a formal debate, but at worst it is simply awarding victory to whoever is affected the least by what is being discussed.

Thirdly, you haven’t criticized or accepted any concrete foundation of the argument I’ve made here (nor have I see any other defender of smartphone technology do similarly either, interestingly enough), which makes this comment especially meaningless. Surely you’ve encountered rude, belligerent, and unreasonably hostile people before, ever? If so, how have you dealt with them repeatedly attacking you for the same thing? If you have, I’m all ears as to your input. Unfortunately, your gripe, again, seems to be with nothing more than the presentation of my ultimate goal with this individual blog post: how to deal with others being unduly threatened by you doing you. Irregardless of your belief and your own experiences (which is what the entire fallacy of Personal Incredulity is about, and is partly what this entire blog post is meant to address; talk about meta) these things have happened to me, and they have happened to others.

Now, with that in mind, do you have anything useful to say, or will you continue to be offended that some shmuck on the internet hates smartphones?

As far as I’m concerned, that’s that.

The problem goes deeper, though, and to no one’s surprise. It goes back, even, to that pesky Just World Hypothesis and the associated frame of mind where we assign moral values to things that maybe shouldn’t have any. It’s very easy to blame people for their own problems, I should note. It protects you from having to deal with the repercussions of accepting that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, among other tragic consequences of chance. That’s not to say that everyone is always powerless in the face of everything – this is hardly true either – but quite often we do not make our own lots in the grand scheme of things. Still, one person’s crippling debt may be a personal failure just as much as the next person’s was completely beyond their control.

In the current, progress-addicted world we live in, technology is Good. Good in the way that charity and humility and patience and honesty are Good. No decent human being would ever argue against values like those, and so it has followed that questioning the march of technology is just as appalling a notion as questioning the very idea of, say, peace on earth and good will toward men.

To this unspoken ideology, the difficulty experienced by people who refuse to adopt the latest-and-greatest, or have chosen to downgrade after the novelty of such wore off, almost approaches a kind of moralistic karmic retribution: ‘you did it to yourself’, or ‘what’d you expect?’. (Note that karma in its un-Westernized form is simply another word for good ol’ Cause and Effect, not some cosmic force of punishment and reward.)

I remember my husband and I getting into a very unnecessarily antagonistic discussion about mattresses of all things at a family xmas party one year: cousins extolled on the wondrous virtues of memory foam, talking about how they couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly sleep on anything lesser. I shrugged and chuckled: “I actually like sleeping on my $100, 3 inch thick foam pad on the floor. I get the best sleep of my life.” I’d uttered something that made no sense to them. They balked, wondered if I’d ever even tried a memory foam bed, to which I replied “yes, and it was terrible”. This was unacceptable, and my husband and I looked on with fascination as they continued to escalate the discussion in such a way that made my opinion on the matter irrelevant. I made a passing evolutionary argument: that humans had been sleeping on hard or firm surfaces since we came down from the trees, and that you’d think millions of years of bad sleep would have wiped us out long ago. (You can’t exactly hunt mammoths with hundreds of accumulated hours of sleep debt, after all.) They responded with a hand-waved, Just World-type thoughtstopper: “Yeah, and cavemen had a life expectancy of 30.”

Ignore the fact that life expectancy figures often include infant mortality (which is the largest contributor to numbers like that) and average adult life-expectancy was considerably older; ignore the fact that such a rebuttal comes from a place of valuing quantity over quality (which is another tenet of this wide-spread, unspoken ideology); ignore the sheer irrelevance to the discussion in general and my comment in particular.

This is but one of many such experiences I’ve had, and they all have one thing in common: arguing from the implicit assumption that more and more complex is, like any storied triumph of Good over Evil, righteous and inevitable. If you walk away from that dichotomy, you simply become part of the temporary adversity that the believers will surely overcome in the end.

The problem with the Just World Hypothesis, though, is that it’s not true. Murderers get away with murder. Abusers die peacefully in their sleep, surrounded by loved ones. Wall Street kleptomaniacs get bailed out with public tax money. Children die. Wives get battered. Men, women, and children alike get cancer and slowly wither away as drugs and chemo fail to stop the spread of metastases.

Likewise, the Just World Hypothesis’ technological-determinist cousin is just as untrue. Social media use is just a likely to connect you to friends and family just as much as it’s linked to skyrocketing rates of loneliness among young people. Modern medicines are just as likely to manage your symptoms as they are to kill, cripple, or give you other complications that require further medicating. Firearms are just as likely to kill innocents as they are assailants or game.

It is, as philosopher and historian Paul Virilio had once said, that “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”.

What I discovered was that I had an opinion about the whole thing. People don’t like opinions, even though everyone is up to their eyeballs in them and have no qualms about throwing theirs all over the place. It’s your opinion they just don’t care for. But I discovered that I wasn’t doing this just for frugality’s sake, or just for minimalism’s sake, or just for my sanity’s sake. I was doing this thing because I felt a deep moral obligation to opt-out, in any way I could, of what ‘gifts’ the modern world was trying to force me into receiving. I do my best not to convey that in casual discussion, but I do got out of my way as often as possible to make space and answer questions and support people who want to do what I did. Which is also a no-no, because to have two sides means having a debate, not a lecture. So unless I have negative things to say, unless downgrading ruined my life and proves the techno-optimists right, my experience doesn’t matter. It’s a court of public opinion where the verdict is decided before the trial even begins.

There’s really no way to win, is the bottom line. If it were a mere matter of weighing the pros and the cons, or looking at the numbers, or getting the facts straight, then these reactions wouldn’t happen nearly as often. There’s such virulent hostility because it is a moral issue, because there are sides, because there is loyalty, and because existential crises and entire social structures of self-identity are at stake when we talk about smartphone and modern technology in general. The importance of having the internet at our fingertips, 24/7/365, has approached levels of saturation, zealotry, and emotional dependence that the world religions only wish they had.

All you can do is keep doing what’s right for you, and others will come into it or they won’t. If you’re thinking about it, don’t get the opinions of your peers – it would be about as useful as asking your Southern Baptist preacher their opinions on leaving the church to practice Shinto. Would they weigh the pros and the cons, look at the numbers, and get their facts straight in regards to your needs as a person of faith?

No, they’d tell you to have fun burning in hell.

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.

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.

We Might Learn From the Cubans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Must be a Jeep thing.)

More on the Cuban cottage auto industry:

More on high mileage cars:

Don’t Be That Lady.

We had a lady show up at work today asking for some water. So my co-worker grabbed a plastic cup, proceeded to fill it, and handed it to her. This was when we found out that she’d wanted to fill up her ostentatiously overpriced Swell bottle.

“I don’t want a plastic cup, that’s bad for the environment.”

We explained that her ostentatiously overpriced personal drinking vessel was not allowed to touch our equipment because of health reasons. My co-worker said this came down from the health department (which is a story I hadn’t heard yet, though to be fair, I haven’t heard any explanation for the change whatsoever), and that there was nothing we could do. This poor woman, thinking of nothing but the welfare of “the environment”, refused the disposable cup and presumably went to a supervisor to find out what could be done. She returned a few minutes later with the supervisor, who explained that he’d talked to one of the assistant store managers, who said that we were allowed to fill her cup with our disposable cup, and then reuse the disposable cup for another customer.

This seemed marginally satisfactory to her, and so she proceeded to awkwardly try to pour water from a 32 oz. cup into the tiny, useless mouth of her Swell bottle, spilling water everywhere in the process.

My co-workers had since turned their attention somewhere else, and sensing that the situation was not adequately resolved, I told her that the decision had come down from corporate, and that if this was really important to her, it would do her well to write them about it. This seemed to reinvigorate her, giving her a kind of recourse she hadn’t considered until then, and she walked away from the exchange with a sense of purpose.

My co-workers laughed about it for a while, and they congratulated me on being such a good mediator. I told them that the rule was “fucking stupid”, since every other coffee bar on earth takes personal cups – we reusable types buy insulated mugs for a reason! – and they agreed.

But the encounter was still funny to them, and me too.

Because this woman is a dime a dozen: your stereotypical conscious consumer who doesn’t actually have a damned clue about what they’re supposed to be conscious of. So let’s break this moment down a little.

First off, she showed up with a ostentatiously overpriced Swell bottle. The design is meant to feel sleek and luxurious, not actually be practical in any way. Wider mouth bottles are easier to fill in all manner of situations, not just sink faucets, and they’re easier to clean. Stainless steel is also neither eco-friendly nor sustainable in any meaningful sense.

Secondly, her verbalized rationale: “That’s bad for the environment.” Nothing sets off my shelteredenvironmentalistdar like hearing words such as those spoken about disposable plastic cups in a corporate grocery store chain with very plainly dubious sustainability practices. Guess what? Her Prius is bad for the environment too – so is the sheetrock in the walls of her house, as well as the manufacturing practices that produced the clothes on her body, and as the energy that will inevitably go into sending her angry email off to Whole Foods customer service. Fixating on plastic cups as part of your strategy to save the environment is about as useful as fixating on dust bunnies in your strategy to save your already burning house. (Keeping a tidy house, however, will make it easier to get out alive when it does inevitably go up in flames.)

Thirdly, the appeal to authority: the poor supervisor she got involved. He wasn’t even our supervisor, but some leadership for what we call “front end” –  basically check-out and all the store infrastructure that concerns coming and going from the store. The woman clearly had no idea how retail businesses actually work, which is her first mistake, because then she would have known that most of us are completely powerless to do anything but obey the health department (where it’s convenient for the store to do so, of course), and make customers as happy as possible while extracting as much money from them as possible. If we tell you that we can’t do something, then know that we don’t say that lightly: one of our unspoken maxims is to never tell a customer “no”. So when we do actually have to tell them no, it’s a big deal. It came from on high. Our non-answer should have clued her into how entrenched we are in this culture of expert lip service and limited liability.

Her last mistake was trusting Whole Foods to give a damn. Let me say this in plain English: Whole Foods does not give a damn. It doesn’t give a damn about climate change, it doesn’t give a damn about waste reduction, it doesn’t give a damn about resource overshoot and depletion, it doesn’t give a damn about pollution, it doesn’t give a damn about sustainability. What Whole Foods cares about is making money, just like every other business in the country. (If Whole foods really gave a damn about any of those things, it’d declare itself a conscientious objector of industrial consumer capitalism and close its doors.) This woman didn’t even have the faintest idea that Whole Foods didn’t have her best interests at heart, wasn’t completely committed to environmental and humanitarian issues, and that money, somehow, doesn’t come first.

Please don’t be this woman. Please get your facts straight, get your environmental statistics from someplace other than Treehugger or Facebook, and stop putting blind faith in a system that only values you for the plastic in your wallet. By all means, make a stink about the ridiculousness of requiring disposable cups at a coffee bar – raise hell even – but as you do it, remember that, in the scheme of things, it’s as futile as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Book Review: Second Skin

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

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

The official blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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