Monthly Archives: October 2010

La Tienda

La Tienda means “the store” in Spanish. In Mexico, la tienda is usually a small neighborhood store that sells most of the things people need. There’s still one every few blocks in Mexico just as there were a generation ago in most cities and towns in the States.

When I was a kid growing up in New Orleans our tienda was Saladino’s just a couple of blocks from our house. It was snuffed out by mass culture before I made it into middle school. We used to buy candy there just like I see kids doing at tiendas here in Mexico. Those kids I see now probably won’t appreciate their little neighborhood tienda either until they’re older and it’s gone.

I love going to tiendas, just looking around at the wide range of objects for sale that have made it through a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” economic sieve. You find mostly grocery items; but tucked away in there you’ll see super glue, hanks of nylon cord, hair dyes, mesh shopping bags, medicines, and on and on. And it’s all shoehorned into a space the size of a McMansion’s bedroom.

Tiendas service a customer base small enough that you can still get store credit. Your tab is handwritten in a notebook; they know who you are and where you live.

My tienda is about a block from our house. It’s called El Indio, The Indian. More often tiendas are named after the owner with the English words “Super Mini” in front of the name. So it’s no surprise El Indio is usually referred to by the first name of the owner (Leo’s) by most of it’s customers.

Leo’s is open early and closes around 11 at night. If you hit it at the wrong time, checking out is like traffic in India, crazy and chaotic but some how it flows with stops and starts. Often, you’ll need to jockey for position at the checkout between a sweaty laborer buying ice cold Pacificos after work and a wobbly grandmother buying fresh cilantro for her familys’ dinner. It’s civil, but the Summer in Central Mexico in a tienda is a toasty place to be and most shoppers are keen to get somewhere cooler.

Because a tienda is usually close to your house it functions almost like a pantry – that’s a block away. You don’t really need to keep lots of supplies at home since whatever you might run out of is only  half minute away. So you wind up going to the tienda on almost a daily basis.

Which is fine by me.

What? An Electric Toothbrush?

I visited Africa once and saw Kenyans in the bush massaging their teeth with small twigs. I asked a guy about it and he said they use a twig from the olivewood tree as a toothbrush. Their teeth looked pretty good. I tried it and it seemed to work well enough. But an olivewood twig is tough to come by in these parts. Also, it could’ve just been they weren’t eating lots of sweets.

Enter the electric toothbrush.

When I first heard about it I thought what could be more bourgeois and useless. Was it like the electric carving knife of personal hygiene? I mean, how difficult could it possibly be to slice a turkey? And you only need to do it twice a year, tops.

The concept of an electric toothbrush reminded me of Canadian columnist, Heather Mallick, commenting  that “… the (increasing number of) devices have one aim: to make even the smallest movement unnecessary.”

Then I was given an electric toothbrush many years ago as a gift… Jesus, an electric toothbrush! What’s next the AAA battery-powered toothpick?

But I have to cowboy up and admit I was wrong. I tried it and it worked much better than manual brushing and I grew to enjoy using it. Plus I cut back on dentist visits since my teeth and gums became healthier.

I’m still using an electric toothbrush. As a mater of fact I’ve gone through two of ’em over the years and am now onto my third. I use it at least twice a day. It’s not because I’m too lazy to  manually brush. Actually, I used be a religious little brusher for years before switching over. And when I travel, it’s back to manual, it’s like riding a bicycle, you won’t forget how to do it.

The picture on this post is of my friend Chris who was visiting us in Mexico. After getting ready for a party he decided to brush his teeth before heading out. As you can see, he likes his electric toothbrush so much he even travels with his.

So you never know.

Bob Dylan went electric back in the Sixties and his music changed for the better. I went electric in the nineties and my teeth are whiter and stronger.

George Clooney Spans A Lot of Time

This is going to be tough, to distill “paleo” into a short pithy post, but I’ll try.

Take George Clooney. If he spread his arms out wide, they’d span about six feet. Now, imagine his outstretched  arms representing the two or so million years humans have been around. With that in mind, the time since we started farming is represented by less than the length of his middle fingernail. So most of his six foot arm span is the time we were foraging for food. We’ve been hunter-gathers for most of our time since leaving the trees.

It’s estimated we’ve changed (genetically speaking) less than one percent since farming started around ten thousand years ago. That’s not much change. During all that time before farming started our bodies became fine tuned to what was provided by living as hunter-gathers.

For food, we would have sought out but rarely found much in the way of sweets, instead we ate animals, fish, leafy vegetable, berries and some fare like bugs and grubs that grosses most of us out . We aren’t adapted yet to thrive on our current diet of simple sugars, grains and dairy.

Currently, with our incredible successes as farmers, grains and simple sugars are cheap and widespread, fueling humans around the world. We’re like diesel engines supplied by fuel tanks of gasoline. We might occasionally add a quart of oil to the gasoline to make the fuel a little more compatible, but the little diesel engines aren’t running too well.

Apparently, preagricultural humans were felled by childbirth, infection and traumatic injury. And the ones who dodged those bullets, were taller, stronger and longer lived than our more recent ancestors who became farmers. Hunter-gathers didn’t suffer much from the diseases of civilization like obesity, heart problems and the cancers affecting us now.

Every account I’ve seen of healthy native populations encountering and then embracing a western style diet soon fell prey to the same constellation of ailments associated with the more technologically advanced population who introduced the refined diet to them.

This is a broad area to look at. But there’s good reason to do so. And most people looking at how our ancestors lived come away with insights on how to improve their lives today, and not by picking up a spear and eating grubs.

This is about the clues to the environment humans adapted to over the millenia. Look at “The Black Swan” author, Nassim Taleb, he’s erudite and urbane, spending his time (away from the outdoors) in cities around the world. But by paying attention to these clues from our ancestors he’s able to better live in his modern world. Wealthy enough to do as he pleases and travel often, he says “I was able to re-create 90 percent of the benefits of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle with minimal effort, without compromising a modern lifestyle, in the aesthetics of an urban setting.”

This is a broad area for investigation. Humans are tool users and seem to not like rules. So here are a some of the take-away tools I think are useful:

Avoid sugars and grains and embrace meat, fish, leafy vegetables, berries and nuts. Skip meals sometimes. Sleep longer, in complete darkness. Become an occasional sprinter instead of jogging regularly. Get a little sun. Walk a lot. And finally, randomly do some brief but very intense exercise.

Here’re a few places to start looking if you want more information:

PaNu –  the site of a board certified MD with his thoughts about Paleolithic nutrition and modern life, a very good source to start with. He’s a busy guy, so his site is not updated very often but that’s ok.

Mark’s Daily Apple – this site serves up good solid information, but with distracting contests and self promotions.

Evfit – an old school website layout but chock full of good information.

This is a big subject I’ll revisit in later posts, I hope this was a useful introduction for you.

The New Pot

Pot’s on the way to acceptance. The momentum towards marijuana legalization continues to increase. Just recently, I saw a news article proclaiming California is reducing the penalty for pot possession to an infraction costing $100. Sort of like a speeding ticket I guess.

All the activity seems to be driven by the high costs of the failed war on drugs and a growing public nonchalance about the overblown worries about pot use. Is pot illegal because it’s bad? Or, is pot only bad because it’s illegal? More and more people are rallying behind the second question. Couple that with our government seeing an easy  source of income through taxation of pot; and legalization doesn’t seem far off.

Legalization does seem like the right thing to do. I’m not a pothead; I’d rather have a drink. For me pot leads to confused, muddled thinking compared to the relaxed thinking I associate with one or two drinks. Think about writing; there seem to be lots of successful writers who drink and not too many daily pot smokers.

Pot has changed over the years. Now, pot is what I’ll call “the new pot.” I don’t think it suddenly came on the scene. The new pot is the achievement of countless stoner Gregor Mendels combining and recombining many generations of pot plants over the years.

I have a unique perspective on the new pot. As a teen in the seventies I smoked pot sometimes, maybe four or five times a month. After a few years, I realized smoking pot made my thinking unclear; so I stopped. I stopped completely – feeling abstinence was easier than temperance.

Then much later, as I approached my 40th birthday, I reasoned that I’d proved a point. I hadn’t smoked pot in more than 20 years. Over that time I’d felt there’d been times when smoking pot might have been appropriate for social reasons (not peer pressure). It was simply an observation.

I decided to implement a new policy on my 40th birthday… to smoke pot if I felt like it in a social setting like a party.

The new plan was implemented, and what I found was a change in pot potency over my 20 year timeout. While I don’t buy pot and only encounter it at very random intervals, I’m shocked by how strong it is. More than a puff or two and you can be incapacitated.

I prefer the old unhybridized weak pot. In the same that I’d rather have a beer than a drink made with Everclear. For me, the new pot really undercuts the social aspect of smoking pot and promotes the act of smoking as merely a drug delivery method, attempting only to get the most bounce for the ounce.

The day may not be too far off when Americans will be able to buy a standardized pot product over the counter. Since we’re social animals, I suspect since their discovery, pot and alcohol used in moderation have been social lubricants and not used as a general anesthesia.

I’d like legalized pot to be closer to it’s natural strain instead of the new pot from the breeders working in clandestine greenhouses around the world. Which would you prefer, a few laughs and some Cheetos or to be sitting in an easy chair catatonic?

Useful Exercise

This is my first post about exercise. I’m only going to be presenting exercises I do and have found to be worthwhile.

But here’s the thing – the best exercise is, really, the one you like to do and that you’ll do (consistently). I’m starting out with an exercise that I think is useful and fun.

OK, there’re people exclusively doing  just this exercise and getting good results. I like it because it’s easy, quick, cheap, and leaves you prepared for real world activities like shoveling your driveway. All you really need is a sledgehammer. That’s right, a sledgehammer.

If you don’t have one, you can buy one easily enough. Better, borrow one from a neighbor who has lots of tools. A sledgehammer is a tool most people don’t use very often and so your neighbor probably won’t mind lending it to you to try this out.

Commonly, sledgehammers have heads ranging from eight to twelve pounds. Err on the light side. Eight or ten pounds is plenty. The ten pounder I use is pictured above. I painted bands on the handle so I could easily put my hands in the same position when switching sides.

Before I get to the particulars, I want to say I also like the way sledgehammers look and since they stand on their head with the handle up – they have a small footprint. So, in your office, spare bedroom, or garage it can be set in the corner when not in use; it looks cool and is easy to grab for a little workout. Of course it easily lives in a closet too.

The site shovelglove is the site I credit with putting me onto using a sledgehammer for exercise. Shovelglove’s Reinhard Engels says the genesis of using a sledgehammer workout began with this memory: “I remembered reading something in some French novel about coal shovelers having the best abdominal muscles of anyone the author had ever seen.”

His workouts consist of a 14 minute (timed) session Monday through Friday during which he uses his sledgehammer to mimic shoveling, paddling, hammering, and butter churning motions to name a few. You can make up your own motions. Do it on both right and left sides. And you’re done in less than 15 minutes which he sees as the shortest normally scheduled chunk of time. Checkout the shovelglove site to see videos.

You can listen to music, watch TV, wear whatever you like, and you’re done in a short time.

I use the sledgehammer this way too. But I enjoy other types of exercise (Engels doesn’t) so to be transparent, I want to say I use a sledgehammer workout to augment other exercises. For me, it’s part of a mix. But I think as a stand alone routine it’s great.

You might ask, what about actually beating on things with a sledgehammer, that’d be fun? You can and people do. Get an old tire and get medieval on it. But you’re going to need more room, have to do it outside and since it’s a faster motion you run a risk of injury.

And soon when the time arises that you need to shovel your driveway or drive a stake into the ground for the big top you’ll be ready.

Good Business, Bad Business

Lots of articles, blogs, and books have been written about business. I’ve read some of them and the “takeaway” message from most investigations boils down to this: cheerfully give people more than they expect. This seems to be the foundation of successful businesses large and small.

Here’s something that happened to a good friend of mine, Rick. His laptop PC was old, underpowered and overloaded – time for an upgrade. Planning on being in rural Mexico for the Winter, Rick was trying to sort out a new laptop to buy before heading South .

There’s an Apple store near his house in the States and after a few visits he became enchanted with MacBooks.

But, when he finally pulled the trigger, he reasoned a $700 PC laptop would do the trick. So he ordered one online. It showed up and he unpacked it. He studied it for a couple of minutes and putzed around on it for a few more. Then he repacked it, sent it back, ate the $70 restocking fee, and bought the MacBook he’d been eying.

He’s happy now. And as always, I’m sure quality will be remembered long after the price is forgotten. So far, he feels like he was cheerfully given more than he expected. He’ll be heading to Mexico soon and his computer is something he doesn’t have to worry about.

I use a Macbook too but am in no way associated with Apple. And I know folks who’re happy with their PC’s. I’m just trying to provide an example. Sure, Apple is known for its catchy ad campaigns and innovative products, but I think the true key to their success has been consistently providing their customers with more than promised.

Here’s an example toward the other end of the customer satisfaction spectrum. Generally speaking, when surfing the internet, we expect free content. So having to pay to look at content drives traffic away and reduces the spreading of that site’s ideas, and restricts the site’s following too.

Arthur De Vany is an accomplished academic in economics and an early proponent of a lifestyle based on an evolutionary perspective. If you go to his website you’ll be frustrated by having to pay $39/yr to see most of his site’s content. Maybe he has lots of subscribers but he’d have a much larger following if it were free. And now, from what I could see, he has a book coming out. He’d wind up selling a lot more books if his site was free because he’d have tons more traffic. I’d guess selling more books would generate more income than charging $39/yr for content on the internet.

There’re probably some people paying to see Art’s material. And maybe his site would exceed my expectations, unfortunately, my expectation is free content so I guess I’ll never know.

My Latest Time Sink

My latest time sink is a site called EDC. That stands for “everyday carry.” The site is a Tumblr style blog of photos and comments on what people carry around in their pockets. The photo above, which I put together, shows what the EDC posts generally look like. I don’t carry all that crap around but if you’re to believe EDC, some people do tote around lots of things in their pockets. I’m not sure why but I think you’ll get sucked in, voyeuristically viewing similar yet different collections of gear sent in by who knows who.

There’s a not too subtle butch overtone to the items depicted. My guess from looking at the gear displayed, is that it’s mainly a dude thing. As one commenter on the site said    “… it seems like every other contributor is a sneak-attack-ninja-catburglar.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. But I’m drawn in anyway and maybe it’s because of that element, I can’t tell.

There’s a reoccurring pattern to most of the photos – usually at least one knife, a wallet, keys of some sort, a cell phone, a wrist watch and a flashlight. Sometimes there are shockingly large knives. Judging the owners based on the photos they send in, I wouldn’t think they’d be the type to use a man-bag but I can’t imagine how else they’d move through daily life with the arsenals on display in the pictures.

I’m always fascinated by subcultures and within this one there are sub-subcultures to be found and explored. One of those seems to be an obsession with small LED flashlights bordering on fetishism. These flashlights are anodized (usually black), beautifully machined,  powerful little masterpieces. They cost between $50 and $200. But really, wouldn’t a headlight be better, leaving both hands free to engage in your “sneak-attack-ninja-catburglar” thing? To be fair, I do remember one submission that was practical showing just a knife, wristwatch, and headlight (with a night vision saving red lens!). He struck me as the real deal.

I’m not sure what it is, but my guess is the feature photo of  the EDC site is a picture looking into the reflector cone of a flashlight.

There’s also a sub-subculture revolving around pens. And of course there’s the focus on (usually folding) knives for everyday carry. Some of these “pocketknives” are so expensive it’s hard to imagine the owner using his damascus steel blade to pry out a box staple or slice into a UPS overnight envelope containing the latest mini-flashlight model. It’s a little like saying “I’m taking the Lamborgini over to pick up the kids from school.”

It turns out there are other sites covering more or less the same genre. There’s something for everybody on the internet. I prefer this one, maybe only because it’s the first one I stumbled across.

I’ve always said “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” If you’re interested, visit  http://everyday-carry.com/ but be prepared to waste some time.

Sex At Dawn

“Sex At Dawn” is a new book by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. My highest praise for a book is BTH (Buy The Hardback) and this book deserves it. It’s worth the money.

I heard about it from sex advice columnist Dan Savage. I hold his opinions in high regard and he thinks “Sex At Dawn” is the best book on human sexuality since the work of Alfred Kinsey was released.

“Understanding is a lot like sex; it’s got a practical purpose, but that’s not why people do it normally.” This is a quote by Frank Oppenheimer the authors use launch into just how much men and women enjoy sex.

The authors attempt to explain the development of human sexuality as humans evolved and the impacts this ancient hardwiring has on modern man. The case made is very convincing and well supported as well as entertaining to read. From the book: “… the percentage of our lives we  human beings spend thinking about, planning, having, and remembering sex is incomparably greater than that of any other creature on the planet.” and ” No group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied – including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death.”

It’s not really big news these days that both women and men have sex as a core interest. But only about 10,000 years ago as we began to settle down and start farming did we lose the fluidity of our sex lives. Womens’ sexuality was denied and mens’ was frustrated.

Though lost in prehistory, ancient practices are inferred from observations of present day hunter-gathers and the primates closest to humans, bonobos and chimps. Social interactions and physical similarities and differences are used to build their case.

I’ll digress for a minute. The other day I was chatting with a friend about a book called “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. It’s a good book about a couple making a go of “back to the earth” living during the thirties in rural Vermont.  Anyway, I’d read it as a teen and while it was full of interesting insights on their lives, one glaring omission was that there was no mention of sex. Not that anything juicy was expected, more that since they covered all aspects of their lives, a missing aspect stood out. I was a sexually inexperienced teen but to not cover sex in some way seemed odd. What I’m getting at with this digression is people assume sex is part of life and when it is ignored where it’s appropriate then that comes across as strange.

With the insights from “Sex At Dawn,” we can better understand many of the undercurrents and rip tides beneath the surface of our modern lives. What to do about it will probably fill more books to come.

Small Gestures

Katharine Hepburn said “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.”

I clipped out part of an article several years ago that struck home and backs up Hepburn’s idea. All I have is the clipping, the magazine and it’s author are lost in my marshy memory, sorry. The back story was about a writing program for older people. The program seemed to help them to better deal with aging. Participants ranged from violinists to bricklayers and from cowboys to doctors. The author said what struck her is what older people chose to write about.

“No one regardless of what they did for a living, ever writes about their jobs, or their weddings, or the birth of their children, or the war, things that many people would assume most older folks would write about.” She said “they write about the relationships and the very small gestures that have made them human.”

I guess this rang true to me at the time as well as now. It was just something I’d noticed and suspected was true and it was reassuring to hear it from someone with experience with a large pool of people.

About fifteen years ago I was driving across France. I didn’t speak much French and was traveling alone. I had some camping gear with me and pulled off at a nondescript rest spot to cook dinner. A French tour bus pulled in to let the passengers stretch their legs. I was cooking away on a small stove atop a picnic table.

Some of the passengers had brought along snacks for their journey. As I was cooking, a middle-aged woman walked over to my picnic table. I thought she was going to ask if she and her traveling buddies could share the picnic table since I was obviously solo. Instead she offered me a slice of the lemon tart she’d made for the trip. With my hand gestures and toddler French I accepted. She gave me a slice and I thanked her.

A few minutes passed and the break was over. Everyone reboarded their bus and motored away to where I don’t know. But that was a damn good lemon tart and a lasting memory of a small gesture.