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.

Myths About Hand Laundering

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

1. It’s hard.

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

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

2. It’s time-consuming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reasons washing by hand is better than using a machine:

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

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

3. It’s good exercise.

4. It’s meditative.

5. Your clothes last a lot longer.

6. It’s less stressful all around.

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

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

What Environmentalists Never Told Me About Cars

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

But they’re also a godsend.

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

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

1. Driving is freedom.

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

2. It can actually help you save money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Not all engines are created equal.

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

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

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

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

Oh, and some love, too.

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.

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.

LCHF: Week 3

I’ve been doing this whole Low-Carb, High-Fat thing for just over 2 weeks now, and I’m into week 3. Just in time for Thanksgiving. Yikes.

I’ve noticed a lot of changes so far, and mostly for the better. The benefits have been: no more postural/orthostatic hypotension, no more brain fog, no more hypoglycemic jitters/cold sweats/nausea/headaches, and more sustained energy from fat burning instead of glucose burning.

So far, so good! But, there are a few downsides as well: my insulin sensitivity has skyrocketed, for instance. A large single bite of a sugary dessert or even a tablespoon of maple syrup in coffee now makes me feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. So far in the few times I’ve been tempted by something I Should No Longer Eat, like clockwork I soon get woozy, foggy, and experience a really intense rush of heat up my neck and around my head, almost like a niacin flush or jolt of caffeine. It’s the most uncomfortable, sickly feeling, and you can bet that I’m quickly learning to associate dessert with misery. Sugary “foods” will be completely unpalatable and uninteresting to me in no time.

The other downside is that I’m shedding pounds like crazy, even while consuming about 100% of my day’s supposed fat requirements for breakfast. For the past year I’ve been stable at around 135lbs, and have, as of a week ago, dropped to 125. (I don’t own a scale, but if I happen to be visiting somebody who does, I like to “check in”.) This is a big deal for me – the last time I lost so much weight so quickly was when I was bed-ridden with a particularly nasty strain of the flu back in high school. I’m reading a number of accounts from LCHF eaters who dropped a lot of weight at first, but whose bodies normalized themselves, so I’m hoping that’s what happens for me otherwise I’ll quickly wind up in underweight territory.

The other benefit to this is that I’ve unintentionally eliminated almost all processed, packaged foods from my diet, and the only staples I buy now that come in sizeable containers are tofu and pastured dairy. The rest is all produce. The rule of thumb is really, if bacteria won’t eat it, you probably shouldn’t either. Or, if it lists more than a couple ingredients, then pass. This has had the unsurprising effect of forcing me to take most of my own lunches to work now, and to avoid eating out as much as I used to.

Animal products and produce shipped in from far-off lands have inexcusable carbon footprints, so the more proximal your food, the better it is for everybody. But processed foods – and this includes bread – usually has a lot of embodied energy as well. For every ingredient, you have an entire mining/growing/harvesting process, and an entire supply chain to truck those ingredients around before they’re even turned into the thing you’re buying. (This is also why I wish food labels listed the country of origin for every ingredient, and not just the country where it was packaged. Your humble loaf of multigrain bread may have come from several different continents, for instance.)

I will say this, though: this way of eating isn’t exactly cheap. Which, of course, is because grass-fed animal products and fresh produce aren’t heavily subsidized like CAFO’d meat and cereal crops are, so consumers are usually shouldering the full cost – the real cost – of their meals when they eat like this. The 20% employee discount I get at my job certainly helps offsets those costs, however.

So what do I eat, exactly?

Well, I eat a lot of eggs. I estimate that I go through at least a dozen pastured eggs every week – a box of 18 costs me $7 off the shelf. I also go through a lot of grass-fed plain yogurt, a large container every week too that’s about $6. I used to drink a lot of half and half, but I’m probably going to make the switch to heavy whipping cream, because I can’t seem to find the former in grass-fed form, and calorie per calorie, it comes out to be more or less the same price. I only ever use cream in cooking and in my tea anyways, so drinkability isn’t a concern. It also takes up less room in the fridge. Grass-fed butter runs about $6 for two sticks, which last me around a month. I recently bought my first jar of grass-fed ghee, which was a whopping $11, but that might last me a month or two also.

I also eat quite a bit more cheese than I used to, but it’s still not really a daily thing. It’s a go-to snack if I’m feeling hungry, though, and if the next meal is still a ways away. Being that I don’t really do grain anymore, quesadillas and grilled cheeses are off the menu (I’ll have a small quesadilla made from sprouted corn maybe once a week), so there’s really not a lot of opportunities to eat cheese, except for gnawing on a chunk of it by itself, or maybe throwing it into soup. Which I will probably do today because I’m craving clam chowder.

Being that I’m vegetarian, a lot of my protein still comes from soy products: tofu and tempeh, mostly. I buy organic tofu, usually made from sprouted beans I guess. The most important part here is that it’s got a good density of protein. (The specialty ‘high-protein’ tofu is weird and gross so I don’t buy it.) Gram for gram, it’s cheaper than grass-fed meats, the price of which is now the primary thing keeping me from reverting back to omnivorism. Because at the end of the day, organic, sprouted tofu is still healthier (and probably more ecologically sound? idk) than animal tissue that’s been grown from nothing but GMO corn feed, a cocktail of medications, and a heaping dose of the poor creature’s own shit. You wouldn’t eat meat that came from an animal that was fed plastic, right? Then why would you eat meat from an animal that was fed almost nothing but the same crap that gets made into gasoline additives and whiskey? You are what you eat, and you are what your meal ate too. In my case, I’m trying to avoid eating plants that grew fat on nitrogen made from natural gas.

All in all, the results I’m seeing from LCHF eating is exciting to me. I’m reclaiming my metabolic flexibility, and I’ve been able to prove to the husband (who has always been rightly skeptical of diets’ claims to weight loss) that this can and will work for losing weight, and in record time too, even though that was not one of my personal goals.

Tonight, I’m taking my mother out for dinner before she has to fast for a surgery, and she chose a build-your-own pizza joint. Now to figure out if there’s anything there I’ll be able to eat! Thankfully, I think they have salads…

The Twin Freedoms of Choice and Habit

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

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

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

Let me tell you what I mean.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I dunno, to me that’s pretty freeing.