September 27, 2022 Comments Off on The exoskeleton
Everybody has one. It’s the form of your life that everyone else sees, including you when you look in the mirror. The exoskeleton is formed by community, #socmed, clothing, job, family role as father, grandfather, son, daughter, mother, and it’s formed by the lattices of language and culture that harden into your external shell.
The exoskeleton is you but it is not you.
You are the internal skeleton. The actual bones and muscles, the genes, germs, neurons, memories, mores and morals, consciousness and unconsciousness, childhood experiences, gray and white matter, the cells, the mDNA, the ideas, emotions, and pattern responses to the external world. It’s this internal skeleton that we want to believe is the real us because it is the real us, but more often than not, it isn’t.
The older you get the harder and the more you the exoskeleton becomes. We ride the same loop five days a week, watch the same teevee shows, follow the same #socmed feeds, spout the same narrative about our lives, do the same mind-numbing job, swill the same alcohols, exchange the same banal pleasantries, jab the same barbs, smear the same gel over the bald spot, chimp repeatedly at the sinking or rising Fidelity balance, blink stupidly in the mirror telling ourselves that we’re not that much older, stupider, uglier, weaker, closer to death.
And we believe it because the exoskeleton has a hardness approaching HRC 70 the older we get. Nothing gets through. Nothing scratches the diamond-hard exterior, and so the inner skeleton slumps and rots. At the end there’s nothing but a mausoleum in the exact shape of you, a perfect Egyptian sarcophagus made up of your external life, with the inside nothing but dust wrapped in rags. This is a happy ending, with pallbearers and mourners weeping over a beautiful and beautifully polished shape containing all the simulacra of you.
But it is not you. It never was.
I’ve been unfortunate to die early. My exoskeleton was smashed. The outside forces holding it together were unbound and it melted away leaving a soft and exposed exterior that cut easily, bled more easily, and feels pain all the time. Like the skin on my feet, though, each abrasion hardens what’s inside.
The vast increase in pain has led to a vast increase in the ability to withstand pain. As the new adage goes, “The more you do, the more you can do.” The things that once hurt are barely even perceived, and the new failings, the real ones, are greater, vaster, more profound than you ever imagined.
It is hard to see yourself without the comforts of the exoskeleton papering over the blotches and to know that everyone sees you naked, and that everyone who wants to take a shot can, and that the only defense you have is internal. It’s hard to walk upright without the hardened shell because you have to develop muscles, tendons, ligaments, the whole inner structure to hold the meatbag together. Without the exoskeleton, though, you also stop caring about how the thing looks. You start caring about how the thing is.
Things that once marked success now mark disillusionment. Things that once heralded happiness now proclaim sorrow. Things that once looked like failure now look like bravery. And things that once looked like hopelessness now glimmer like starlight, brilliant unless you look at them directly, scintillating only if you look off to the edge.
The edge of the known, the known edge, that’s where you have to look beyond, that’s where things shine brightest, that’s where it takes all the strength you have, not the strength of the exoskeleton, but the strength that’s inside.
September 26, 2022 Comments Off on 6000-745=5255
By March of this year I had memorized 6,000 lines of the Canterbury Tales and was well into the Wife of Bath’s Tale. I’d begun this project in January, 2018, and figured it would take seven or eight years to memorize the entire 17,000+ lines. I was on track, sort of.
By March it had become an official obsession, or rather, it had been an obsession for a long time and was now bordering on madness. I’d get up at five, memorize for two hours, then spend another five or six hours reviewing everything memorized to date.
Let’s just say it made it hard to have a conversation. Or an anything.
But madness is madness and it runs its own course to its own beat. In this case I chanced on an opportunity to apply to graduate school at the University of North Dakota, where they have a medieval studies program run by an eminent scholar, and where they have one slot for a fully scholarshiped student who would also receive a teaching salary en route to a masters degree, followed by a doctorate if appropriate.
I was accepted.
I decided not to go.
I stopped memorizing Chaucer.
For six long months now I’ve not spoken or even thought a word of Middle English. It was totally liberating, as freedom from all obsessions ultimately is. I could hold a conversation. Think about other things. Pet the cat. The important things.
But at the same time it was like having lost a good friend whose relationship had become complicated but who I deeply missed. And this morning I popped open the phone to the tale I know best and first memorized almost thirty years ago, The Miller’s Tale. It was choppy at first and then droppy, as in dropped dead. I glanced at the text and restarted. In minutes it all came flowing back, well, not all, but most. It was pretty depressing when I thought that in order to get back to where I had been I’d need to re-learn 5,255 lines, and none of them were as well learned as The Miller’s Tale, not even close. If I could get them all back in a year it would be incredible. Two years is more like it.
But why? The good thing about not going to grad school is that I’d realized, somehow, that an entire life spent doing nothing but focusing on a famous but obscure poet from the 13th Century was, how should I put this? Flat fucking nuts. Especially starting out at the wrinkled and saggy age of 58.
After an hour of practice I put the phone down, having made very nice progress on the 745 lines, halfway through, in fact. Chaucer is good for me, but not too good. He is just enough good. Not good enough for eight hours a day and not good enough for 17,000 lines, but he’s good enough for the 745 lines of The Miller’s Tale. Then I had breakfast and rode up the 155 to Alta Sierra, 8.5 miles in about 1:45.
As I rode along there was a particularly nasty section, not too steep but steep enough and far enough into the ride that the end seemed a long way off and the beginning seemed so, too. I glanced up at Black Mountain and began reciting The Miller’s Tale silently. When I finished there was only a mile to go. I was almost there.
If there’s a moral, it’s this. Take your Chaucer with you. Not all of him, maybe, but don’t leave him completely behind.
September 25, 2022 Comments Off on The gift that keeps on oozing
The last time I got poison oak I was lying in a ditch naked. Two days later my legs were covered with a horrific rash that oozed pus and itches like a million torments for over a month. Even now, years later, when I am stressed my legs break out along the contours of that old rash in a raspberry shade.
This case is much milder. There I was, so proud of having done a dastardly hike off-trail, over boulders, scrambling down ravines, bushwhacking through dry creekbeds … what an amazing Daniel Boone of a guy!
Two days later the first welts popped out, followed by their eager cousins, and it was all I could do to remember The Rule of poison oak, which is Thou Shalt Not Scratch Thine Eyes or Thine Balls. Because poison oak is coated with a thick, invisible unguent that easily spreads by touch. Pretty soon I was covered in pustules, but not nearly as badly as any of the awful cases I saw on Dr. Google. Nor was I in any way comparable to the woman I once met who told me about using poison oak to wipe her butt and her parts while on a camping trip.
Thinking that a bike ride in the hot sun would dry out the sores, I learned that sweat efficiently carries the poison oak oil to other areas.
I suppose after all my nagging to get off the couch, shoot the TV and go explore, it’s fitting that I would get such a miserable and ineradicable rash. Even the cat couldn’t lick it off, but bless him, he tried, and I learned another lesson: Rough sandpaper cat’s mouth rips open the pustules and gets them infected, possibly because cat’s tongue is daily employed in extended sessions of butt licking.
I’m hoping this doesn’t lead to skin grafts, but so far the poison oak is batting 1.000, and I’m just batting the 000’s. Does anyone have a couch and TV I can borrow?
September 24, 2022 Comments Off on Are you a Quanah or a Parker?
I just finished reading “Comanches: The Destruction of a People” by notorious racist and white apologist T.R. Fehrenbach. It is a true history, however, in the purest sense of the word, “his story” of how things happened without any special regard to facts, perspective, philosophy, or time. From start to finish it is an Anglo man’s anthropological myth about why things are. As the Germans love to say, “Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte.”
The victor writes the history.
Yet it makes for brutal and unflinching reading, as do all such accounts in which old white men tell the cultural secrets and histories of races other than theirs. Within the book there is brief attention paid to the abduction and return of Cynthia Ann Parker and her Comanche son Quanah, the last of the chieftains and the only one never defeated in battle.
The Parkers ended up with a county named after them and a long line of Texas descendants who played various roles in the story of the state. Quanah’s descendants intermarried and became reservation residents in Oklahoma, or formed communities and families within white culture.
For me the story of the Comanche conquest of Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American empires and their subsequent defeat was less interesting than the dichotomy it posed for all people. Are you, like Quanah, a wanderer on the plains, content to change homes with the seasons and following the opportunities of food and shelter as the seasons provide? Or are you a Parker, holed up in your stockade, making your own future and defending yourself from the barbarians at your gate?
Are you a wanderer or a farmer?
The dichotomy isn’t simple. The Parkers were in fact wanderers who had strayed out to the very edge of the Comancheria frontier. Quanah’s band moved with the bison but essentially lived in the same encampments throughout the year. They were finally reduced in their winter stronghold at Palo Duro canyon on the high plains of Texas, where they spent every winter in a lifestyle just as sedentary as the Parkers.
Quanah and his band had every bit the sense of belonging and ownership that the Texans had. The only difference was that whites defined territory with metes, bounds, and title to land whereas the Comanches defined it as wherever they found the bison. The Comanches were wanderers only to whites. In their view, they had clear boundaries and stayed within them. No Comanche ever got up one day and decided to raid Ireland.
What separates the two mindsets is a sense of time, and you see it today. There are people who would rather live happily today and worry about tomorrow when it comes, and there are those who would rather suffer today so that they can, perhaps, enjoy happiness in the future.
Homeless and very poor people are not invariably unhappy by any means. One man I met on the Kern River bike path, in his 70’s, had been living in a tent for several years. He was tanned and fit and smiling. I asked him how he liked living on the banks of the river.
“I love it,” he said.
“No one bothers me. It’s hard but it keeps me healthy and strong. I eat well and have everything I need.”
Healthy, strong, free. He never mentioned sad, lonely, afraid.
Could be worse.
September 23, 2022 Comments Off on Big descent
One of the biggest climbs in California is right near my front door. It’s the 8-mile climb up the 155 from Wofford Heights to Alta Sierra. It is such a miserable climb that I have only done it a dozen or so times.
But the crazy part is the descent. You hit the 40’s, 50’s, and low sixties in seconds. Disc brakes overheat, and the turns, if overcooked, are lethal. As much as I dislike the up, I dislike the down even more.
The other day I descended and felt pleased that I had again failed to crash or die. Back at home I sat down on the porch and soaked in a little post-ride self-satisfaction.
That’s when I saw him, a little gray-and-white cat just barely out of his kittenhood, scrawny and stringy and hungry with the rail-like appetite that comes when you’re on the edge of starvation. He was feral and he coiled in the dirt for a minute, eyes on a pair of mourning doves pecking at the ground.
Unlike our fat housecat Pepper, who the birds completely ignore, this one had their undivided attention. He made an ineffectual pounce and they flew away. He slunk down the hill out of view while the jays and finches continued eating from the feeder. One jay sat on a branch looking towards the house.
At that moment the cat leaped up from behind the little bluff, a solid four-foot jump, lanced the jay with his claws and pulled him off the branch. It happened so quickly I barely registered it. With dinner secured the cat carried the bird down the hill to eat it.
I felt sorry for the jay and sorry for the cat. And I thought about the cunning and skill of the little feline. Failure meant no food for an animal already running on empty. My amazing descent down the hill didn’t seem so impressive anymore.
September 22, 2022 Comments Off on The retired cyclist, Part 4: The retirement swindle
The more you read about retirement, the more you understand that it is a huge rip-off.
Its recent history comes from the origins of capitalism, which was designed to extract maximal labor at minimal cost and resell it at maximal profit. Once the worker had been shorn of his efficiency through disease, injury, decrepitude, or cost, capitalism traditionally turned him out to the care of his family if he had one, or the streets if he didn’t.
Yet retirement’s earliest roots lie with the Roman empire and the stipend it paid old soldiers, or, prior to 14 BC, a plot of land. In one form or another, a few societies recognized that the people who fought for a nation somehow deserved security in old age. The U.S. enacted a pension law in 1776 for soldiers injured in service and unable to work, and in 1832 created a general pension scheme retroactive to veterans of the Revolutionary War. A new system of veterans’ benefits was begun in 1917 and consolidated at the end of World War I into the congressionally-created Veterans Bureau. The VA was created in 1930, five years before FDR signed into law the Social Security Act, America’s first expansion of retirement benefits to the general working public.
A Bloomberg Business article shows how magnificently the program has worked.
In 2019, Boston College estimated there was a $7.1 trillion retirement-savings shortfall among American households, with half of them facing a lower standard of living once they stop working. That number likely hasn’t changed much since then, despite the increase in stock and housing prices over the last three years, according to Munnell.Bloomberg US Edition, 8/16/2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-08-16/do-i-have-enough-money-to-retire-americans-face-massive-retirement-shorfall
If a $7 trillion shortfall, with a quarter of U.S. households having zero retirement savings sounds bad, rest assured that the system is working perfectly. What system? It’s called “capitalism.”
Without over-bludgeoning the obvious, retirement, which is only for the non-rich, requires a sum certain. The Internet is groaning with calculators and advisors who can tell you exactly how much you need. In fact, so can I: You need more than you have. But like most scarcities, it’s manufactured in order to keep all but the richest locked into one of three funnels, which are the tranches of work, financial services, the healthcare industry, or all three.
Let me explain.
Four of the six retirement paths available to Americans involve work. Those six paths are:
- Continue working
- Work part-time
- Work for free (volunteer)
- Start a new business
- Do nothing
It doesn’t take the sharpest analysis to see that four of the six retirement options are not retirement at all. They are options that mean you work for the same wage, or much less wages, or no wages at all. For retirement to result in a continuation of work makes sense because it keeps capitalism humming. And since very few people who continue at their job do it at the same wage/salary, retirement is simply shorthand for “massive pay reduction,” although in lower paid jobs the absence of social security taxes can mean that a part-time retiree makes almost as much as a full-timer before retirement. In either case, it’s work for less money, which is the inexorable trajectory of the relationship between capital and aging labor.
The flip side to work is of course consumption. Capitalism exists not to make sure you have a great life, but to make sure that you spend your life working in order to pay for the things that the capitalist is selling. This vicious cycle intensifies during retirement despite the imperative that retirees must “cut back” and “learn to live with less.”
However, unlike the young worker whose discretionary income is spent on gewgaws, houses, clothing, and schools, the retiree spends his income (if he’s still working) and his savings on the financial services industry and the healthcare industry. The profits from both sectors are inordinate, keep the rich getting richer, and keep the retiree from retiring in a meaningful way.
The financial services swindle began in 1978 with the passage of an amendment to the Revenue Act, adding Section 401(k), which would almost wholly subvert and replace the existing system of corporate pensions. Section 401(k) was enacted primarily because it created a huge tax benefit to corporations, and because it relieved them of funding pensions, an expensive proposition and one made untenable by poor corporate management, risky investment, and bad business decisions that left many major pensions unfunded. In other words, corporate America stole workers’ retirement funds and then turned to Congress for welfare. In order to do this, they had to use the same terms that we’re still using today to further befuddle and confuse the already ignorant masses.
On the surface, the 401(k) gave workers the power to decide how to spend their money and whether to save it or not. Many opted to save it, with a catch. Saving in a 401(k) now means that in order for the fund to grow sufficiently, it has to be invested. Pensions of old simply guaranteed a payout. And guess where the 401(k) is invested? Yep, the stock market. And guess what? The stock market goes up and down. And, equally shocking, IRAs and 401(k) accounts are not federally insured, so if you pick poorly, or your manager picks poorly, you just lost your retirement security.
Need proof that this sucks? The markets today are down 20% and falling. Will they return your lost investment by the time you retire? No one can say. Oh, well!
By giving Americans “freedom” to do what they want with their money and removing the “socialism” of “big brother” caring for their financial well-being in the form of pensions, Section 401(k) made it possible for Americans to do what Americans always do. They spent their money. A few saved, but the net result of the elimination of pensions for the freedom of private savings has meant that 25% of all working people now have nothing saved, most don’t have enough, and a few are secure as they look ahead to retirement. Of course the rich, who never retire, simply got richer, and they continue to do so.
This means that workers are now forced to become experts on investing, a sick joke of the very worst kind. And so they either take control of their 401(k) and lose it, or they put it in the hands of professional managers who, surprisingly, charge fees for making the investment decisions required to grow the account. The winner in this shell game is the financial services industry. Before pensions were stolen by corporate America, the average American worker had nothing at all to do with stocks or investing. In 1952, a paltry 4.2% of all Americans owned common stock. Since the 1978 passage of the 401(k) amendment to the Revenue Act, that number hovers around 60%.
But don’t think that anyone except the richest are making money off of it. The people profiting from workers’ forced participation in the stock market are those in the financial services industry. Once a tiny club of specialized firms devoted to the needs of the richest and the whitest, the financial services industry now has a major stake in the $7.2 trillion invested in 401(k) accounts. The number is far greater when IRAs and private retirement savings are taken into account, and it sucks money not simply from the upper middle class but from anyone who has so much as a buck in an IRA or a 401(k). Although it’s hard to get an exact number, the financial planning industry in the U.S. is currently worth about $60 billion. That’s how much money people make off of advising you what to do with the money that corporate America has stolen from you. Of course if their advice is bad, oh well, and of course losses are not insured, and of course they’ve been such a total failure that the retirement gap now exceeds $7 trillion. To paraphrase Sam Rayburn, “A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
If you’re one of those people who thinks it doesn’t matter because you’ve saved enough and invested enough and have a high likelihood of covering all your expenses through death, it doesn’t matter. At every step in the death process you will be paying into the financial services industry as they manage your money and help it grow. It’s win-win, except when it’s win-lose. The “win” is always in their column.
After making sure that post-retirement you will either still be working or funding the financial services industry, capitalism has one last surprise in store for you. It’s called healthcare, but what it really should be called is health theft. The theft comes in two forms, and in this post I’ll talk mainly about the financial theft. In short, capitalism ensures illness and immobility for virtually everyone. With 73.6% of the population qualifying as overweight or obese, a condition caused by capitalism, most people enter retirement in horrible shape, even the ones who think they are “doing great for their age.” I’ll talk about this in more detail later, but for now, all that matters is that you enter retirement fat, sedentary, and largely immobile, because that’s the condition that will radically accelerate your expenses on drugs, doctors, treatments, procedures, and surgeries.
Those health costs devour the average retiree in two ways. First, they actually cost money above and beyond any health coverage you may have. But what’s worse, they make you fear even worse health and its attendant costs, thereby frightening people from engaging in the hard and difficult work required to meaningfully change their bad habits. The sicker you get, the more fearful you become of sickness. This spiral of bad behavior and bad health results in greater and greater amounts of your retirement being siphoned off into the healthcare industry.
By the time you’re 65, the average American spends $11,500 in healthcare, almost triple what was spent in their 20’s and 30’s. My annual healthcare costs are insurance in the amount of $7,200/year. Since 2015 I’ve used it maybe three or four times and never for anything remotely major. I’m an outlier. Since 1991 the number of elderly Americans who’ve filed for bankruptcy due to medical costs has increased over 200%. Within that same period, among all bankruptcy filers, the number of elderly Americans filing bankruptcy increased more than 500%. Retirement is working great, it seems, for everyone except the retirees. And medical costs are only going to get worse because providers have no limits on fees and charges and because retirees are fatter, more sedentary, and more immobile every single year.
No matter how good your insurance, you can’t buy health and mobility, and a lifetime of work while saving for retirement ensures that by the time you punch out you will be in terrible physical shape. And just because you can ride your bike fifty or a hundred miles doesn’t mean you’re in good shape.
The best measure of your condition? Your medicine cabinet and the number of times per year you consult with a doctor or research a medical issue on the Internet. Most people by age 50 have so many drugs in their bathroom that they can’t even remember them all.
I remember staying at a guy’s house a couple of years ago and opening his medicine cabinet looking for some toothpaste. I was blown away, a supposedly healthy cyclist who appears quite fit had more drugs than I could ever have imagined. And he’s a best case compared to his obese and sedentary age cohort. By age 65 he will need twice or triple the space for his meds.
Why does it matter? Because when retirement is spent medicating yourself and flitting from doc to doc, you haven’t really retired. What you’ve done is place yourself on the financial and emotional treadmill of bad health.
In the end you have either returned to work, fallen into the maw of exploitation by the financial services industry, become a consumer of the bad health industry, or some combination of all three. Is this what the end stage of life was supposed to look like? Unlikely. You probably thought it was going to be this:
This is certainly the image that the retirement industry sells 24/7. But what about the vast number of people who represent that $7.1 trillion shortfall we mentioned earlier? There will be more people in retirement on the street than on the beach, as this unposed photo suggests:
In essence, the retirement scam only works when you begin thinking far more about the future than about the present. Delayed gratification has its uses but marketing should not be one of them. Since we’re bound by the present it makes far more sense to live there and make decisions that will improve today, and by improve I don’t mean buy more stuff. A long succession of fulfilled and contented days results in a better life than one filled with dreadful work and self-denial in the hope that at age 65 the yoke will somehow be cast off and freedom will ensue.
The happy life you hope to live at the end of the rope must be practiced today.
And every day.
September 21, 2022 Comments Off on Typical conversation
“How are you?”
“Yes. My list seems to have deserted me.”
“How listless are you on a scale of 1 to 10?”
“If 1 means having a lot of list, I’m a 9.”
“Maybe those articles I sent will perk you up.”
“The one on trophic levels and food economy of Middle Paleolithic hominids?”
“I was thinking more of the one on maternal inheritance of mitochondrial DNA and its effect on epigenetics.”
“I only got a few pages into the Middle Paleolithic one. It didn’t really restore my list.”
“Then I guess the mDNA one won’t, either. How are your sores? Are they oozing?”
“No but they itch a lot.”
“Mine too. They’ve spread all over my arms and legs.”
“You know those pants I was wearing?”
“A lady came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, but do you know you have rents and holes in your leggings all over your backside?’ I told her I didn’t.”
“At least it wasn’t the pair with the giant hole on your butt. I like that one.”
“Me, too, it’s the most comfortable one I have but I don’t wear it to work anymore.”
“Bend the wrong way in those and it would be a public viewing.”
“That’s why when I wear them I tie a shirt around my waist.”
September 20, 2022 Comments Off on Five knives
I remember coming home one day, I was in my late teens, and my mom was gushing about a set of knives that she had bought, made by Cutco. “The girl who was selling them was so wonderful! She’s working her way through college and they are the most wonderful knives!”
I knew immediately that she had bought the knives for two reasons. The girl had a great sales pitch, and the demo table was stocked with very sharp knives, something alien to my mom. I also knew that with a name like “Cutco” the knives were crap, and even if they weren’t, in my mom’s kitchen they soon would be because she’d never sharpened a knife in her life and her lazy husband’s only thoughts about what happened in the kitchen were 1) When’s my dinner ready? and 2) The maid will clean it up.
In those days the people who cleaned my mom’s kitchen were called maids.
In fact, my mom didn’t need a sharp knife. She was a tremendous cook and had more skill in the kitchen, by far, than in her chosen profession. She suffered a lifetime of dull knives, especially where men were concerned. But the lack of a sharp blade meant nothing to her. As predicted by me, the Cutco kitchen knives sank into dull uselessness. At some point she bought a carbon steel Sabatier paring knife and giant meat knife, but they died equally ignoble deaths of dullness, rust, chipped blades and broken points from being used for everything from slicing to sawing through bone to opening cans.
Although I lived in Japan for ten years, my mother-in-law never had a sharp knife and, like my mom, it mattered not. She was an amazing cook. It was only when my ex-wife, on a visit home, went to Kappabashi in Tokyo and came home with a proper carbon steel 180mm santoku that I began to take notice of knives, and that was mostly because she cut herself badly on numerous occasions. Unlike my mom, she sent it out for sharpening once every year or so, and although it too rusted and eventually became permanently dull, her constant remarking about how easy it was to cook with a sharp knife made an impression.
Once our marriage began to fail in earnest and I began making my own food, I turned to her small arsenal of knives. The hand-made knife from Tokyo was hopelessly dull, but she had discovered that for $15 you can buy a stainless steel santoku at the Japanese market that is incredibly sharp, doesn’t rust, holds an edge very well, and quickly sharpens up to its original cutting edge. Somewhere along the way I got the idea to buy a whetstone and once every couple of weeks I’d take out the knives and sharpen them.
The difference that it makes having a sharp knife, particularly when you’re not a born cook, is incalculable. That’s because cooking is a misnomer. What you mainly do in the kitchen is chop, slice, and cut. And having an extremely sharp knife makes those miserable activities totally pleasant, and in my case, very enjoyable.
It’s my opinion that people don’t cook for three reasons: Time, habit, and bad knives. The first two are incurable. Once you’ve stuffed your life with so much trivia that you actually feel busy, despite the fact that we have more leisure time, earlier retirement, more money, and longer lifespans than anyone in the history of the earth, you’ll never make time to cook. The easiest way to understand it is this way: People are lazy, or, #socmed + Domino’s > cooking.
The second obstacle, habit, is mostly incurable. Once you actually like the taste of prepared food you will never acclimate to your own cooking, and even if you acclimate, you’ll never prefer it to, say, a marvelous dinner out. It’s exactly like owning a recliner. Once you have one you’ll never revert to sitting on the ground. Ever.
Remember Blue Apron? It was supposed to revolutionize cooking because they had “identified” that the main problems with home cooking were time + habit. People didn’t have the time to shop (false premise #1) and people simply weren’t accustomed to the great taste of home cooking (false premise #2). Once people began subscribing to Blue Apron, idealistic white couples realized that they didn’t like their own food as much as they liked prepared food. Blue Apron went public, lost a couple billion, and has continued its losing ways, where it has so far lost $50 million in 2022 alone and faces a continually shrinking subscriber base. Far from revolutionizing the way people ate at home, it jacked up the price for home cooking by about 300% and reminded people that they vastly prefer to eat what somebody else made for them, even, or especially, if the person’s name is McDonald.
In case you missed reality, people like prepared food and they are never going back to cooking their own meals. Sure, two or three dinners a week, maybe pour some cereal in the morning, the occasional pancake breakfast on Mother’s Day to relieve her from cooking the food she no longer makes, but you will find a velociraptor in your garden sooner than you’ll find a working couple that prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner on anything approaching a regular basis.
Me, I cook. My divorce taught me that I was an asshole. I’d spent 32 years with a woman who was an amazing cook and homemaker and I had never bothered to learn anything about preparing my own food. And although we inveterate jerks can never be truly rehabbed, I did learn to make the food that I like, and the food that I like is amazingly easy to prepare and rich in core nutrients like butter.
It’s easy to prepare because as a selfish jerk, the primary beneficiary of my cooking routine is me. It’s easy to prepare because my tastes are simple. It’s easy to prepare because I don’t #socmed, Internet surf, enjoy the televisions, watch the YouTubes, go to the movies, have any friends, drive a car, or look after small children. It’s easy to prepare because I hate restaurants, fast food, junk food, and prepared food. It’s easy because my dad’s mom was a wonderful cook, my mom’s mom was a wonderful cook, my mom was a wonderful cook, and my ex was a wonderful cook.
I had wholesome, home-cooked food implanted early, and I had it reinforced by a conversation I’ll never forget when my friend Hamed Mekki told me that “Man kann nur zu Hause richtig essen.” You can only eat properly at home. It’s one of the truisms of human existence.
The other reason it’s easy to prepare my own food is because I don’t own anything. For the last two years my motto has been “Be ready to leave.” Everything I own that I care about can be packed in less than twenty minutes, stowed on a bicycle, and ridden away with. Everything except my five knives, and as much as I enjoy them, they are utterly dispensable.
Except in the kitchen.
Knives are fetish objects for many people, and Japanese knives enjoy a cult status. Like bicyclists, people collect Japanese kitchen knives, display them ostentatiously, and spend lots of time and lots of money acquiring more knives and keeping them sharp either with whetstones or non-use. Because the old rule my mom didn’t learn with the Cutco knives holds true with your $350 carbon steel nakiri. It’s only as good as it is sharp, and it’s only as sharp as you keep it.
I get the feeling that, like bicyclists who own lots of bikes and ride very little, kitchen knife aficionados don’t cook very much. In addition to statistics that show only 36% of Americans cook something daily, the fact is that the more you focus on equipment and its maintenance, unless you’re a professional, the less likely you are to focus on the activity for which the equipment was purchased.
Even with so many caveats, cooking all my meals is greatly enhanced, I’d even say enabled, by the knives in my kitchen. I have five of them, and even better, I have the time to keep them sharp and clean, and best of all, I get to use at least one of them every single day. The chef’s adage that you do 80% of your cooking with one knife is absolutely true.
Knives that cut brilliantly preserve flavor and enhance it. The Japanese expression “Yoku kiru, oishiku naru” is true: A good blade makes good food. A good knife will drastically reduce the labor involved in food prep and also reduce the chance that you’ll cut yourself by having to use too much force with a dull knife. Of course, the sharper the knife the more badly it will injure if you’ve had too many alcohols or aren’t paying attention.
Here’s my knife family:
- Japanese grocery store knife: This cost $15. It’s a santoku style knife, useful for cutting anything. It is stainless steel and holds an edge, requires relatively little sharpening, won’t rust, is well balanced, and if you ruin or damage it you’re only out a few bucks. If you don’t have a crazy sharp knife in your kitchen, get one of these and make your next purchase a Japanese water stone for sharpening. It takes a long time to learn how to sharpen properly, and you don’t want to learn the ropes on a $400 handmade knife.
- Large paring knife: Matsubara Blue #2 Petty 150mm: This is an extraordinarily sharp smaller knife, ideal for small, precise cuts and for slicing small items like garlic into tissue. It’s made of carbon steel and is unbelievably sharp. Holds its edge and is quickly brought up to speed with a few passes on the whetstone. But it will rust if you don’t dry it immediately, and the steel will degrade if you leave it wet with anything acidic like lemon. This is a knife for people who scrupulously care for things, or for people who just like having a razor sharp knife for display.
- All-purpose large kitchen knife: Sakai Takayuki Ginsako Santoku 180mm: Not as sharp as the paring knife because it’s stainless steel. Unlike the paring knife, you don’t have to be fastidious about keeping it dry and clean, but I do anyway. If I’d known more when I bought it, I would have opted for the carbon steel. But it’s crazy sharp and its large size makes it lethal on any kind of meat. The extra makes thinly sliced carrots easier than thinking.
- Medium vegetable knife: Sakai Takayuki Damascus Nakiri 160mm: Like the santoku, this one is also stainless, in retrospect a mistake because I don’t mind cleaning and drying my knives immediately. The shape of the nakiri, with its big squared end, adds weight on the point that makes it the perfect vegetable knife. Even though it doesn’t slice as finely as the paring knife, it can get onion so thin that it’s completely translucent. To cut any better than that you don’t need a better knife, you need better technique. Since vegetables feature prominently in almost everything I eat, this is my go-to knife. It’s also the prettiest. But since I use it all the time, I fear I will soon replace it with one made of carbon steel.
- Time trial bike: Moritaka Ishime Kiritsuke 240 mm: I call this my TT bike because I rarely if ever use it and it was bought on a bad whim. It’s huge, it’s carbon steel, and it would be useful if I were in the pineapple carving or watermelon cutting business, or if I needed to store someone in my freezer. The blade is long and heavy and razor sharp, but it’s not very practical. Maybe one day I’ll need to butcher a rhino, but until then this will stay tucked away as “Mr. Bad Purchase.” Unlike the TT bike, though, the technology never goes out of date!
Indirectly, having a couple of great knives and the ability to keep them sharp will keep you fitter and skinnier. You’ll spend more time in the kitchen, eat less, be more picky about what you eat, and enjoy the fruits of your labor exponentially more than when it’s served to you by someone else. You’ll also become an initiate into the true secret of home cooking: The only thing that’s truly hard to make is the thing you don’t want to eat.
‘Cuz you can only eat properly at home.
PS: The best way I’ve found to store my knives is as shown below. It’s cheap, it’s a great way to recycle tattered paperbacks, it won’t dull the blade, and it keeps the steel dry. What’s not to like?
September 19, 2022 Comments Off on Split Mountain
From the back yard you can see Split Mountain. It looks nasty. Craggy, jagged, strewn with huge boulders, slashed by ravines, cut by outcroppings, trail-less, stark, and pockmarked from bottom to top with “Don’t even think about it.”
But since it’s visible from most of the 360-degree viewing angle, and since it dominates all the back yard hikes that lead up into the hills, it cannot be ignored, and you can’t help but thinking, “How in the world would you ever climb that thing?”
Actually, I can help thinking that. But Kristie can’t. She made her first frontal assault over a year ago, before the fire had burned away the brush and she came back looking like she’d run into a raiding band of wild razor blades. She was pissed. “It’s so brushy and hard to climb. Let’s try it together next weekend.”
Seeing someone with giant cuts from their face to their ankles, shredded clothing, and purple bruises from the back-swing of large limbs didn’t make me want to do anything the following weekend besides take a leisurely walk and eat. Or the following weekend Or the next one.
But Kristie is persistent like a bad case of the shingles and she kept reminding me that “we” needed to climb Split Mountain, even though every single time she’d asked me if I wanted to climb it I had said, emphatically, “No.”
So we tried a second time and it was horrible. I don’t like rock climbing or bouldering or bushwhacking, but since the brush was gone lower down all I had to do was rock climb and boulder and hike. For almost eight hours. Kristie had on her climbing shoes, a tattered pair of pink, lightweight Nikes with holes in the soles and untied laces. I had on my terror and it worked flawlessly. I quit about a quarter of the way from the top, after five hours of relentless and frightening climb-scramble-hiking. She left me to drink water and eat oranges while she scouted the best route to the top. I saw her shrinking and shrinking and realized that however frightening it had been to have her leading the way, I didn’t know the way down any more than I had known the way up.
No trails of any kind, of course. We had gotten that far with her scouting, memorization of the topography, and dead reckoning. I broke out in a cold sweat atop my hot one. “What if she can’t find me? I will never make it down from here.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. The route down was filled with dead-end gorge drops that, once you were in one of the ravines, you couldn’t possibly climb back out. Make that “Seth” instead of “you.”
She reappeared. “We almost made it. Want to try for the top? I can see the route.”
“I want to try for home. Now.”
“Okay,” she said. She was disappointed but not too much. It had been dangerous and we’d gotten scuffed and scratched to hell, enough to call it a partial victory in her mind.
Many long months went by with incessant reminders that we hadn’t gotten to the top and that she thought there was a better approach.
“How could there be a worse on?” I asked, firm in my determination to never approach Split Mountain again with anything more adventurous than a pair of binoculars.
So of course two days ago I was following her on a new route, this time up the back side of the mountain which was green and not nearly as jagged. “Don’t be fooled by the brush,” she said. “It’s just covering up the same treacherous stuff that you can actually see on the other side.”
We followed a trail to its end and began more bushwhacking and bouldering and climbing. My second-favorite memory of the day was crawling on all fours along a ledge about four feet wide, with a sheer drop on the left to certain death and a giant juniper on the right with big, springy branches that tried to push you off the ledge as you passed. “Be careful,” she said. She meant it.
We got to the top of the ridge and saw that we still had another hour of climbing to get to the actual top of it, then we’d descend into a ravine and be at the base of the mountain, where the real climbing would begin. It was 11 o’clock and we’d been at it for almost three killing hours. Worse, our trajectory was towards the actual split in Split Mountain, instead of the gentler peak on its left. The split is simply two smooth granite faces about 200 feet tall.
“We can go to the right and up that ravine,” she said.
“We can’t. You can.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Go home. Now.”
“Okay.” And she started off on a different route down.
“Why aren’t we taking the way we came up?”
“It’s too steep and dangerous.”
“We went up it okay.”
“People don’t usually die going up. They die going down. And that is too gnarly for you.”
We descended quickly down a steep slope, scrambled over a small boulder field, and came to a sheer 10-foot drop down the narrowest of defiles. She threw her backpack down and climbed down the slot. “Okay,” she said. “It’s not too bad. There are tiny footholds like a ladder all the way down. Just brace your body against the walls and make sure you grab the little handholds.”
By “little” she meant “invisible.” I sat on the ledge and literally quaked. I hate rock climbing and although it was only ten feet, imagine falling off the top of a basketball goal onto the court, and the court is covered with giant rocks that will kill you or maim you. I lowered myself until I was wedged. No way up and only two ways down, one of them too terrifying to contemplate, so of course I sat there wedged and frozen, contemplating it.
Finally I made the move, the irrevocable forward motion that will either result in a successful landing or a very bad one. My foot caught the tiny step and my hand, which had anchored my body, lost its grip. I felt the momentum begin to take over, like a piano starting to slide out of control down a staircase, and with my left arm I grabbed with all the strength I owned, forcing my legs out and my shoulders up against the rock to hold the fall. I didn’t care if hands broke, shoulders cracked, knees sundered, it was the complete effort you only muster when you see your life in the balance. Fear taps a wholly different reservoir.
That’s when I felt something under my other foot. I looked down. It was Kristie’s hand. She had raised her arm and opened her hand to make a human stairstep. “I’ve got you,” she said. “You aren’t going to fall.”
I did the arithmetic. I wasn’t big but I’m not nothing. 150 pounds and 5′ 11″ of meat and bone mass aren’t going to be held in check by a girl’s palm. Then I looked again at her arm. The big muscles were taut, tying into ripped shoulders, the neck of a defensive lineman, and a tensed back that looked broad and strong enough to carry Hercules. I put my weight on her palm and it was like stepping onto an escalator. I relaxed myself out of the wedge, found a grip for my hand, and found a cleft for my other foot. In a second I was down.
My whole body shook. I wanted to vomit but I knew that I’d probably need it for the next awful thing on the menu, so I pushed it back down and stood there, twitching.
“Good job,” she said, acting like it was nothing, shouldering her pack, and stomping down the trail.
I followed until we hit a creekbed. “I was looking for this,” she said. It was choked with dead trees, giant stones, and thickets of brushy oak that scraped and cut. At times I was on my hands and knees, but most of the time I was simply cursing and trying not to trip. Even though the certain death was past, a trip or fall at any point would have broken several somethings.
“Here it is!” she said after an hour of the most painful bushwhacking. My legs were so fatigued from going into a complete squat over and over I could barely walk. But then on the trail, I could.
The whole ordeal took less than five hours, and the most pathetic thing about it is that I did it at the same time I’ve been reading “Comanches: The Destruction of a People” by T.R. Fehrenbach. What we had just done was nothing to the nth degree compared to a day in the life of a horse Indian. We had walked a few miles over rough country, THAT’S IT.
And the pathetic thing is that our bodies are made to walk a few miles like that times two every day in half the time, never get lost, and still be able to ride a horse for twelve hours at night with nothing more than water and some dried beef. Oh, and at the end of the ride you have to fight and kill other people with nothing but a bow and arrow. Then ride 500 miles home by memory in the dark with no trail to follow of any kind. However weak and lame you think you are, you’re so much worse than that.
All of the bending, crawling, squatting, reaching, and scrambling left us both scratched, cut, and wrecked. Two days later I am enjoying a training effect of sorts. I’m stronger and feel a little, just a little, more confident about death and its avoidance. And yes, I know, that’s typically the precursor to something really awful. We sat down to a marvelous dinner spiced up and flavored with the taste of having survived. I was kind of proud of myself even though she’d babyproofed the entire route, again.
“We did our best,” I said. “I guess some mountains aren’t meant to be climbed, at least by us.”
She chewed thoughtfully, looking past the yard up at the peak. “I think I finally see a route that’s doable,” she answered.
I stared at my plate. Dinner didn’t taste so good anymore.
September 18, 2022 Comments Off on The trap
At one of the campgrounds I stayed at someone had tied a fly trap to the trunk of a sequoia. It was like a roach motel for winged bugs. You pulled up on the stopper and it released some kind of fly fragrance. The flies would come to the narrow opening, crawl in to get the goodies, and then, due to the shape of the opening, be unable to get back out.
Stuck in the plastic bag, surrounded by the delectable smell of fly yummies, they would fly in a frenzy among their frenzied friends until they died from starvation or from heat, as the bag acted as a greenhouse. About one-third up from the bottom there was a dotted line that said “replace when full to here.” The bottom of the bag was packed with fly carcasses.
I spent a few minutes watching the helpless prisoners, doomed to die in the terrible ecstasy of the fly fragrance. They desperately tried to get out of the bag but could not. As horribly, outside the bag countless more flies hovered.
These flies knew something wasn’t quite right but they too were attracted by the eau d’ fly. Every few seconds a new fly would alight on the rim and hesitate. It smelled so good. But all those other flies were trying to get out and couldn’t. But maybe they were just faking it so they could keep all the goodies for themselves. And then there was the matter of all the dead ones. But perhaps they had simply overdone it, overdosed on the obviously delectable but not exactly visible manna. The pondering fly was certain that he wouldn’t make the mistake the others had, and he distrusted all the flies shouting “No! Don’t!” If it were so bad why were there so many inside?
The fly would get nearer and nearer the opening and I wanted to shout “Don’t do it! It’s certain perdition! No! No!” But the fly would hop into the slot and be trapped, like his friends, to face a most awful death.
“This,” I thought, “is absolute proof that flies don’t communicate.”
But the more I thought about it, the less certain I became. How is it any different from global warming? Scientists and people suffering its effects are screaming at the top of their lungs “No! Don’t do it! Certain death!” but we plunge madly ahead into the narrow opening from which there is no escape.
Or drugs, alcoholism, motorcycles, McDonald’s, badly fitting pants, tattoos, or subscriptions to the Times? We all know that these things are terrible and terrible for you but we cannot help ourselves. The smell is just too strong, regardless of how many stinking bodies are piled up at the bottom.
I thought about all the people I know living miserable lives in pursuit of money, success, security, and comfort. The only difference between them and the flies is that theoretically they can escape.
Yet in reality they can’t. The fragrance is simply too sweet.