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Anna Rosling Rönnlund, co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, asked Swedish students where they thought they fell on the global income spectrum. They guessed somewhere in the middle; they were wrong. After having 264 homes photographed in 50 countries and collecting 30,000 photos, she made this tool to help everyone understand the world – and how they fit in – a little better.
Want to see how people at your income level live in other countries? Of course you do.
What follows is the most mind-altering first chapter I've read in a long time, from biomechanist Katy Bowman's latest book Movement Matters: Essays on movement science, movement ecology, and the nature of movement.
These items —an electronic car unlocker and a tea bag— are convenient. But what I've realized is, when we say or think "convenience," it's not as much about saving time as it is about reducing movement. We can grasp sedentary behaviour as it related to exercise because it's easy to see the difference between exercising one hour a day and not exercising one hour a day. My work, in the past, has been about challenging people to also be able to see the difference between exercising one hour a day and not exercising the other twenty-three. More subtle still—and what I'm asking you to do now—is to see how the choice to move is presented to you every moment of the day, but how most often we select the most sedentary choice without even realizing it.
Our daily life is composed of a lot of seemingly innocuous ways we've outsourced our body's work. One of the reasons I've begun focusing just as much on non-exercisey movements as I do on exercise-type movements is that I feel that the ten thousand outsourcing a day during the 23/24ths of your time hold the most potential for radical change. Be on the lookout for these things. To avoid the movements necessary to walk around to all the car doors, or just to avoid turning your wrist, or to avoid gathering your tea strainer and dumping the leaves and cleaning the strainer (in your dishwasher?), you have accepted a handful of garbage, plastic (future landfill), and a battery. To avoid the simplest movements, you have — without realizing it — required other humans somewhere else in the world to labor endlessly, destroy ecosystems, and wage war… for your convenience.
Sedentarism is very much linked to consumerism, materialism, colonialism, and the destruction of the planet. If you're not moving, someone else is moving for you, either directly, or indirectly by making STUFF to make not moving easier on you. You were born into a sedentary culture, so 99.9 percent of your sedentary behaviours are flying under your radar. Start paying attention. What do you see?"
If you only watch one childbirth video in your life, consider this popular one. It's completely safe for work (and for the faint of heart), featuring ping pong balls and a balloon. I've already given birth, and I learned a lot.
Photographer and 21-year playa veteran Phillippe Glade saved me about a grand for a ticket (plus expenses and brain damage) with this beautiful, cloth-covered photo book surveying the domestic and communal architecture of the annual temporary city of 60,000 souls in the Nevada desert.
I've been following Glade's blog for a few years, and bought his book, Black Rock City, NV The New Ephemeral Architecture of Burning Man ($40), because I live in the Southern California desert and have a more than casual interest in durable shade structures. However I was just as fascinated to learn about the urban planning of the city, with its fantasy-novel semi-circular grid of streets: [its designer] "Mr. Garrett was one of a short list of city planners who get to see their ideas realized in their lifetimes".
The book contains almost 200 photos spanning several years, with useful captions, interior shots of many structures and a handful of informative essays.
Glade writes about the most common types of personal shelter – tents, hexayurts, monkey huts, parachute shades, domes, etc – and discusses the pros and cons of each:
"…parachutes are tempting [but] they wear out quickly on even dull edges and balloon with the slightest breeze […] they exert tremendous wind pressure on the structures and trap heat without any UV protection".
Glade contends that the harsh conditions of the Playa have created a "vernacular architecture that rejuvenates the world of camping" and is relevant to those designing emergency shelter.
Despite favourable reviews in Wallpaper, Architectural Digest and Wired, only around 300 copies have sold. Glade is soon closing up shop and leaving the county, so get yours while you can.
This book would make a great gift for those interested in architecture, urban design, desert living, emergency shelter and/or Burning Man.
There's a scene in the movie Samsara (2001): a young monk is struggling to focus on his meditation, and an older monk shows him some erotic scrolls. When he holds the images up to the firelight, an underpainting reveals grotesque decaying skeletons in place of the lovers.
I often think of this scene when I look at plastic things. I moved to the Mojave desert of Southern California six years ago. Living here has taught me about the impermanence of plastic in a visceral way.
Most common plastic items — bags, toys, clothespins, tarps, ropes, small appliances – – will, if left outdoors, degrade from brand-new to useless over the course of one or two of our six-month-long summers, thanks to the deserts baking temperatures and relentless sunshine.
Plastic bags shred into tiny fragments and blow away on the breeze. That "bomb-proof" webbing on your backpack turns to powder and sticks to your fingers. Milk crates and five gallon buckets shatter and collect in the sand. Toys crack, cave in, leaving residues of powdered color on your hands. Elastic in clothing quickly loses the power to rebound if stored in a shed. Our harsh climate accelerates the inevitable.
Poor folks take their garbage out to the desert and dump it rather than pay fees at the landfill. It's illegal –- and reportable -– but judging by the piles of trash I find whenever I go for a walk out in the desert, it's also fairly common.
These indignities flash before my eyes as I roam the fluorescent lit aisles of big box stores, or browse Amazon. How will it look bleached by the sun?
The acre of land we live on previously hosted a backyard auto chop shop and probably other things we don't want to know about. Our sand -– full of fragments of plastic, glass, nails, sequins, beads, foam – will never be clean again. In other climates, opportunistic greenery ("weeds") quickly grow over the mess, disguising it, but here the sand hides nothing.
It isn't just plastic, of course. Broken glass and rusted metal are also common landscape pollution, but plastic is the ugliest; the terrible power of plastic is that it quickly becomes useless but never goes away.
Biomechanist Katy Bowman uses the metaphor of nutrients – and nutritious movement vs. junk food movement – to unpack what's not working for most of us about our modern lifestyle.
Turns out that even those we consider "active" spend most of their time sedentary, according to research. And our shoes, furniture, pillows and other props mean that we are not getting the full range of motion – the essential movement nutrients – out of the limited activity that we do.
This video is a decent entry point into Katy Bowman's eco-system. She's also written eight books and published piles of free content on her blog. You can even watch a video tour of her house showing the movement-hacks the family has made around their home.
Once you start thinking about movement from an ancestral point of view – what our bodies evolved to expect – you won't be able to go back to the exercise/not exercise dichotomy.
Lisa Wade is the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. Shankar Vedantam interviewed her on a recent episode of the Hidden Brain, and her assessment of the state of American feminism is, for me, a game changer:
So part of the reason we see hookup culture on college campuses can be traced back to the sexual revolution and the women's movement.
The women's movement wanted two things for women, both sexually and otherwise. They wanted women to have the opportunity to do the things that men do and to embody masculine traits and interests. And they wanted everyone to sit up and notice that the things women had been doing all along and the traits and interests that they were believed to have were also valuable.
And we really only got half of that.
Feminists succeeded in convincing America, for the most part, that women should be allowed to do what men do and even have masculine traits. But we never really got around to valuing the things that we define as feminine. So a young woman who's growing up in America today is going to – she's going to be told by most – not all parents are like this. But most parents are going to encourage their daughters to mix in masculine traits and interests into her personality.
And they're even going to encourage her to do so and perhaps reward her more so when she does that than when she incorporates feminine personality traits. So we're excited when she likes to play with engineering toys when she's a kid. And we're excited when she chooses sports over cheerleading. And we're excited that she decides to major in physics instead of education. And so women have been getting this message. If they're paying any attention at all it's very clear that, as they say, well-behaved women rarely make history.
We reward you, we think it's great when you act like we think a stereotypical man does. So then when they get to campus, that's what they try to do. And it should surprise none of us that many women on campus decide to approach sexuality the same way they've been rewarded for approaching everything else in their lives, with this idea of the thing to do, the way to be liberated is to act in the way I think a stereotypical man might.
The Longest Shortest Time is an excellent storytelling podcast about parents and kids. They've recently made two episodes aimed at helping white parents figure out how talk to kids about race, and thereby avoid "(accidentally) raising a racist."
We know that avoiding the topic ("colorblind" parenting) leaves a void in which kids are left to absorb the biases of culture at large. So what do we say? That's the territory Longest Shortest Time explores in these episodes.
My favorite of the two is #135, White Guilt and other Crazy Sh*t, with Eula Biss.
According to the episode blurb, "Eula Biss is a writer and professor who has made a career out of embracing her own discomfort when talking about race."
Biss impressed me with the subtlety and clarity of her thinking. She talks about the conversations she has with her own kid and ways she's changed her behaviour, as well as common pitfalls of white guilt. She wrote a popular New York Times article called White Debt that's also worth reading.
Image via Peakpx
This year, my family did our oh-so-secular Christmas gift exchange in an off grid log cabin in the mountains outside of Vancouver, BC. The first snow of the season had fallen a few days before, blanketing the muddy woods in several inches of magic and wonder. The cabin could only be reached on foot, hidden among the trees on an unmarked trail.
There is something exalted about stepping off the grid into nature's hush, and the very existence of this old hand-made cabin, a mere 45-minute drive from Vancouver's overblown real estate market, seemed miraculous.
We took the plastic tarp off the couch and started a fire in the big cast iron stove, stomped our feet and waited for the fire to warm first the oven and then the room. There were tea-candle powered LED lanterns for light and, to answer the call of nature, a spectacularly tall outhouse with a view over the treetops.
Everything was perfect. Our few needs had been anticipated, ritualized, over many years of cabin-stays: there were slippers so that we didn't track snow into the room, and a toilet seat that hung on a hook inside so we wouldn't freeze our butts in the outhouse.
And yet I couldn't help thinking of a half-dozen ways the cabin could be improved. I could almost see the heat escaping through the two snow-covered skylights overhead, and out the cracks around the windows and door. It only ever got up to about 50 degrees inside, though we burned wood for almost 48 hours straight. The stove smoked up the room whenever we opened the door. How much warmer might we be with the help of a tube of caulking and maybe some batts of insulation between the rafters?
But what if the persistent cold was an essential part of the cabin's effect? The cold kept us in our jackets, drinking hot tea, circled close round the fire. And then what is there to do but talk? Adversity brings us together.
How to reconcile these two reactions? How many improvements could you make before these primal pleasures would be softened into something more mundane?
Was the absence of electricity, road access and cell reception sufficient limits to maintain the cabin's enchanting atmosphere?
We humans are so good at circumventing limits; you might say it's our thing.
"I'm going to go off-grid to build a cabin in the woods… I'm going to make it with my bare hands, repurposing, recycling and reusing the best of what I can find." So begins Kevin McCloud's Man Made House, a BBC show from 2012.
"I want this bolt-hole of mine to be powered off-grid," he continues. "There'll be no power lines or 'mains gas' here." And so, with the help of friends – and eventually chainsaws – he fells a couple of oaks, splits the logs with dynamite, hires a mobile milling machine to saw the wood into planks and builds a gorgeous timber framed shed.
He sets out to make oak shingles by hand. It takes him 20 minutes to split and plane each shingle; at this rate he figures it will take him three months to make the required number. Just then, Kevin's sidekick Will pulls up in his souped-up VW bug; he's rigged a wood screw to the hub of one of the VW's rear wheels, to split the wood faster. As the wood screw tears into the oak, Kevin says, "in no way can this conceivably be called off grid."
Technically, using a gasoline engine to split wood is completely off grid – "the grid" generally refers to the electrical grid. Kevin and Will are standing in the middle of a field with no power lines in sight.
But I know what he means – it's the spirit of the thing. Calling a gas-powered engine an "off grid" technology is like "unplugging" from the internet by using cellular data instead of an ethernet cable. The outcome – having power or internet – is roughly the same, even if the method of delivery is different.
And if "the grid" is metaphorical rather than literal, aren't cell towers part of the grid? And the gas stations where we fill our tanks? The Internet is another grid, layered on top of the electrical grid. In A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan makes an argument for dimensional lumber as a kind of grid, allowing houses to be built far from the forests out of relatively light sticks. And then where does it end? Then the line between "on" and "off" becomes impossibly blurred. The grid is human society and every resource we share, every product we create.
Perhaps it's more useful to ask why we are so interested in going off grid in the first place?
There are three types of off grid impulse: prepping, environmentalism, and hedonism. A person can be motivated by one, or all three in varying proportion.
Prepping for the apocalypse will always be a poor bet statistically, like trying to time the market. Most preppers will never live to see the day. Prepping, in fact, requires a kind of optimism: that the apocalypse will go down the way you imagine it, that you will survive when the bullets and canned food run out. It also bears high opportunity costs: what else could you do with your life, time and money, if it turns out that quality of life on this planet is steadily improving?
If our faith in the grid is a proxy for our faith in civilization, going off grid may be an attempt to opt out of uncertainty, instead of engaging the problems. We evolved to fear strangers and sabre tooth tigers, and there is a direct line between that fear and prepping for, say, a zombie apocalypse. But the real threats now are environmental and social, problems we can only solve together.
Preparing to weather minor calamity, on the other hand, can bring people together, and living off grid can make knowing and relying on your neighbours a part of everyday life. A friend of mine lives with her family in a pair of conjoined yurts in the Southern California high desert, very far from the grid. In December of 2008 they got snowed in, the sandy roads impassable under five feet of snow. Even if the county maintained those roads, they don't have any snow plows. She couldn't get out for three weeks, until a neighbor came through with a rock-crawler. It was 8 weeks before the roads were passable by car. My friend is in the habit of vacuum packing large quantities of food ("I live a long way from the grocery store") so she and her husband used a 4WD quad to bring food and firewood to stranded neighbours.
If it's environmentalism that fuels your off grid impulse, you're better off moving to Manhattan than going off grid in the country, given all the driving involved in rural living. The banks of batteries required for an off grid photovoltaic system are expensive to maintain and miss out on the economies of scale offered by the grid. And you'll probably want to keep a diesel generator around for backup.
On the other hand, living off grid with limited-to-zero electricity offers engineering constraints that can produce novel solutions to universal problems (solar desalination, pedal-powered generators, permaculture farming, etc). It may also increase the cost of goods in a way that incentivizes conservation, as is the case for rural desert-dwellers who subsist on hauled water.
Thoreau built his house in the woods because it looked like a nice life. His cost of living was low, so he was able to work less, at a variety of interesting jobs, and still have time to write.
Kevin McCloud is playing the hedonist when he rhapsodizes about his off grid retreat and the pleasures of making something beautiful by hand.
I suspect the pursuit of pleasure lies under prepping and environmentalism as well. Ethan Mitchell's typology of apocalypses includes the "cozy apocalypse": an apocalypse where preparation means doing the things you already like to do, like having guns or doing permaculture. Certainly environmentalists like to be out in nature, whether it's good for nature or not.
For me, the pleasure of the off grid cabin had to do with walking, chopping wood and stoking the fire. In other words, a more direct, physical engagement with the world. My family, normally distracted from each other by our screens, instead sat close, cooked together, walked in the snow, played games and fell asleep in the flickering red shadow of the stove. It was a luxurious retreat, and when there was a chance to stay a second night I didn't have to think twice.
Obviously, the literal grid has something to do with it, but less and less, given that we can have electricity without being on the grid and internet without cables. Instead, we have to choose our level of engagement with a multitude of grids. How easy do we want our lives to be, and what do we trade for that ease?
The smell of creosote is the first premonition of rain in the Mojave. It stinks, until you learn to associate it with rain, and then it takes on a kind of magic. The leaves of the creosote bush produce the smell, a potent resin that drips onto the ground with the downpour and acts as an herbicide against competing plants. The smell is more reliable than weather reports.
We are rarely prepared when it rains. We run to collect tools laying out in the yard, close the windows, tarp something. We look for boots and umbrellas, but can't remember where we put them since the last time.
When it really rains, the water shed off a small roof can overflow a 50 gallon rain barrel in a minute. Rain events can be both ecstatic and dangerous: in the summer it's a treat to stand outside in shorts and be drenched, but every decade or so someone is killed when a wall of water barreling down a wash catches them by surprise; flash floods can flip a car or bury a house in silt.
The last rain event in our part of Joshua Tree was in July, right after my brother-in-law, Damian, finished detailing the second swale. When the first big raindrops fell, we all ran out to watch the water flow into the swales.
The swales are ditches designed to divert rainwater from the hard-packed roads. The level bottom of the swale will slow the water and give it time to sink into the sandy soil. A deep layer of mulch will keep it from evaporating, and desert-hearty trees planted in and around the swales will use the extra water to create shade and biomass, a benefit to the whole ecosystem.
Damian often digs alone by headlamp late into the summer evenings, but the second swale was a family project, most of it dug during a work party the week before.
We are halfway to Sooke, listening to crackling old-timey banjo tunes on the pickup's tape player and talking deer testicle soup when we spot a raccoonish lump on the shoulder.
My stomach goes flip-flop as I clamber from the truck.
Last weekend, Janica Comeau, 23, and Joel Barrett, 20, picked up six roadkill raccoons and a feral cat on a round-trip to Courtenay. It was Thanksgiving weekend. They made raccoon burgers, served the cat up stuffed, and tucked the rest away in the freezer.
Yes, stuffed cat.
A micro-review, in bullet points:
1. Almost 150 quilts you won't find on Pinterest.
2. The essays are good.
3. When seeking visual pleasure and inspiration, a curated and finite set (like a book) can be more useful than an infinite set (like the internet).
Slightly more detail, if you're still on the fence:
This book is not about formal, precision-pieced quilts but rather represents the growing interest in the improvisational and often surprising "everyday" quilts. Those depicted here are of the vintage (rather than antique) era. Most are by unknown makers. Collector Roderick Kiracofe has commissioned ten essays to offer context for the anonymous textiles.
Quilt historian Janneken Smucker smacks down the "myth of the scrap bag quilt." Natalie Chanin (of Alabama Chanin) describes the class messaging of whole cloth vs. patchwork quilts when she grew up in the South. Texas quiltmaker Sherry Ann Bryrd explains the distinction between "precision", "M-provisational" and "throw together" as quilting "languages" with different functions. Textile curator Amelia Peck writes about the challenge of curating anonymous work for an institutional collection. All worth reading. But mostly it's about the pictures.