On The Primal Importance Of Less Stuff

The past week's haul. Lots of paperwork and ephemera.

The past week’s haul. Lots of paperwork and ephemera. And the closet is still full.

For months I’ve been slowly purging the unbelievable amounts of crap I own, because it had started owning me. So far I’d estimate I’m down 10-15%, if that. Right now I’m only counting things in the actual house, not the skis in the garage or the rotten box of gawd-knows-what next to it. I know for a fact there is a box of 15 year old MREs, too. Don’t they last through the apocalypse? Anyone want them?

I don’t know what triggered it – likely some long-held rebellion against my own pack-rat tendencies plus some schooling from The Minimalists – but it has been snowballing and now I feel almost desperate to have a manageable footprint. It’s a little Tyler Durden creeping into my mindset.

This is not how to be human.

Fixing this does not necessarily need a business trip with the gas stove left on.

Not everything he said was crazy man talk. The idea that our consumer culture is a toxin to much of what is really human, has big resonance for me. I don’t think we’ll go to Tyler’s ideal final society where cityscapes are just barren places where people in leather clothes lay out meat to dry on the freeways.

But dear fucking god we do not need all this stuff.

Some things are unbelievably easy, though somewhat time-consuming. This would be CDs that are already ripped, weeding out paperwork from the filing cabinet, trying on clothes that I probably don’t need to see if they even still fit, that sort of thing. To get to the things ready for disposal, there is a little homework to be done. This will get more labor intensive with things that need to be archived first: photos, un-ripped CDs, the hundreds of greeting cards from friends over the years. These will all be digitally saved through ripping or photographing, then tossed.

Some things I get rid of have minor sentimental value but no real use or actual daily value. Today was a few plaques from things I’ve done: coaching a high school cross country team, and my Wasatch finisher’s plaque from 2012. I still have 2014 – guess I’ll wait until the race report is done so there’s closure.

The really sentimental things are harder. The cubic foot of heavy scrapbooks my mom deposited on me last xmas. She took decades (obviously) to make those. Hard to just toss them (not to mention digitally scanning them would take a long time, too). Gifts from close friends, like books or jewelry or kitchen dishware. But a lot of that can go, too. If the friend is important to me, THEY are important to me. Their gift has already been acknowledged and used and appreciated. That’s OK.

Gee, you think I grew this pack-rat thing? Nope, been there all along.

Age 15 bedroom: you think I grew this pack-rat thing recently? Nope, been there all along.

Julien Smith’s 16-step guide to horrifying yourself about how much crap you have is amazing. It’s one of the best, funniest, most heart-wrenching things you’ll read if you have any bit of Tyler Durden in you.

Next weekend (the 14th), I hope to be spearheading a MASSIVE yard sale at a friend’s house. She lives on one of the most busy residential streets in Albuquerque and always gets much of her yard sale offerings sold and gone. There, I’ll purge books and CDs and kitchen appliances and clothes and way more stuff that I haven’t yet been able to just give to a thrift store for fear that I might be missing out on some needed cash. (No, I’m not selling all my stuff because I can’t hack it as a freelance writer, but it’s a lean life.)

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Cage Fight: KFC’s Double Down vs. Sanity

Knock, knock! Who’s there? Nutritionists and foodies having apoplectic meltdowns!

Oh, yes, it happened. The “limited run” legendary whipping-boy sandwich from KFC called the Double Down is back after a multi-year hiatus, to the chagrin and delight of the Internets.

When first unleashed in 2010 the Double Down was the scorn of nutritionists and the bane of foodies alike – a strange alliance given that the two camps are often at odds over concepts they believe cannot exist together like “health” and “deliciousness”. The vitriol from both was rather frothy.

But perhaps in the context of our “eat less evil foods” culture, popularized by sites like Eat This, Not That and YumSugar, I can look at the Double Down within my own paradigm – that of valuing foods that are less processed as the better choice. (Note, my book proposal – no joke – to Rodale for “Eat This, Not That: Paleo” is yet unanswered….)

What does the Double Down have going for it? Let’s take a look:

  1. Low-carb option for those on the Atkins or other ketogenic diet (though not rock-bottom due to likely seasonings in the meat, for a grand total of 11 carbs vs. 35 carbs in a regular KFC fried chicken sandwich)
  2. Made from three sort-of straightfoward ingredients (if you get the grilled chicken option instead of fried and skip the sauce): chicken, cheese, bacon. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell you what kinds of awful go into making sandwich buns at fast food joints (like dough conditioners also used in yoga mats).
  3. It’s a chicken cordon bleu for $5.49. Yay.

Um, that’s about it.

How about the Double Down-sides? I can come up with a few:

  1. The cheese. Likely a frankenish creation that has mere molecules of dairy as an ingredient in order for it to use the word “cheese” in its description. Also source of part of the low-carber’s unwanted carbohydrate grams.
  2. The chicken. I won’t even go into the horrors of life as a battery chicken; here I will only talk about nutrition. There ain’t much that resembles what a real chicken should taste like after you’ve raised the birds on soy and antibiotics, injected the meat with saline, and then slathered it in a crusty spice layer (which includes wheat, according to KFC’s website). I’ll stop there.
  3. It’s a chicken cordon bleu for $5.49. Ick.

Interestingly, even with a bit of nutrition education, I (just like the rare blogger back in 2010 who said Double Downs were not the most evil thing they could imagine) would put the Double Down far ahead of many, many things recommended by the likes of Eat This, Not That and their ilk. I do give some kudos to that series’ desire to allow folks to make incremental changes from where they are now in their habit. However, I think their “evil” list is misguided, namely in their rote avoidance of saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

So where does this leave us? My dude and I (mostly him, OK) tested out a real Double Down, for science. It was breaded and weird. It was not at all like the “extra tasty crispy” stuff you expect from KFC. The cheese didn’t have time to melt, the sauce was unnecessary if they’d only use bacon with flavor…. but…. it didn’t make us throw up in our mouths. So, good job, KFC?

Three Reasons to Ditch the “Five Ingredients or Less” Rule

fast food milkshake

A Fast Food Shake, with far more than 4 ingredients. Photo Credit: yosoynuts

There are a lot of recommendations out there for what kinds of foods are good to purchase, or at least which kinds of foods are those that should be avoided, based on the ingredients list. **see NOTE at bottom before hand-wringing.

You’ll find admonishments to avoid:

Unfortunately, these rules run into some problems. Here are 3 reasons the “five ingredient” rule can be sending you down the wrong path to health.

1) Natural Flavor

You could eat a lot of questionable additives if following the “x” number of ingredients rule, even if it’s only five. One of the biggest culprits in this realm is “natural flavor” as an actual ingredient listed. Really? What, legally, can be in something called “natural flavor”? This is from the FDA’s website and is current as of 2013:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

So that means if you start with a “constituent” of a plant and then use enzymes OR heat OR roasting OR distillation OR extraction OR fermentation on it to produce something that will flavor a food, it’s “natural”. Yep. This is a massive industry, featured once in a while on investigative/hyped TV programs.

2) Food now ≠ food 50 years ago

If you follow the grandmother rule, you might eat food that LOOKS like real food but isn’t anything like it was 50 or 80 years ago. Wheat’s protein structure has changed quite a bit over the last 40 years (and that’s one of the theories about why wheat sensitivity is much higher now than ever before). Many factory farmed crops are genetically modified to grow in concert with amazingly complex biological killers (a.k.a. pesticides). And even simple ingredients, like “salt”, have been refined, processed, remolded, and stripped of their original minerals and physical form.

3) Ingredients with ingredients

In other words, five ingredients might not be five ingredients. There was a (rather reactionary oh-my-gawd-the-sky-is-falling) article several years back about the 59 ingredients in a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake that went moderately viral. The article delved into the 59 chemicals used to comprise the “strawberry flavor” part of the strawberry syrup. Each ‘ingredient’ was listed as the specific chemical compound name which, to many folks, sounds SCARY. Chemicals are not inherently scary. Everything is chemicals. If you listed all of the molecules in a banana by their chemical name you’d be freaked out. One of the chemicals that gives a banana its aroma is Amyl Acetate. If you take that chemical all by itself, it is a fruity-smelling solvent akin to nail polish remover. Eeeek! But it is in a banana, naturally. That’s why over-hyped articles like the “59 ingredients” one can be unhelpful. (**again, see NOTE at the bottom)

However, the non-molecular chemical ingredients are just as dubious. Note that when you initially see the list of ingredients for that milkshake, it is FOUR. That would be allowed under the “5 or less” rule, so what went wrong??? Here are the ingredients:

VANILLA REDUCED FAT ICE CREAM, STRAWBERRY SHAKE SYRUP, WHIPPED CREAM, MARASCHINO CHERRY

Hey, that’s not so bad . . . right? However, when you take each of those four ingredients and expand it – from the very same McDonald’s official pdf file – you end up with this:

VANILLA REDUCED FAT ICE CREAM (Milk, Sugar, Cream, Nonfat Milk Solids, Corn Syrup Solids, Mono- and Diglycerides, Guar Gum, Dextrose, Sodium Citrate, Artificial Vanilla Flavor, Sodium Phosphate, Carrageenan, Disodium Phosphate, Cellulose Gum, Vitamin A Palmitate.), STRAWBERRY SHAKE SYRUP (Sugar, Water, Corn Syrup, Strawberries, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Natural (Botanical Source) and Artificial Flavor, Pectin, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Caramel Color, Calcium Chloride, Red 40), WHIPPED CREAM (Cream, Nonfat Milk, Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Contains Less Than 1%: Mono-And Diglycerides, Carrageenan, Polysorbate 80, Beta Carotene (Color), Natural (Dairy and Plant Sources) and Artificial Flavor, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E) to Protect Flavor, and Whipping Propellant (Nitrous Oxide)), MARASCHINO CHERRY (Cherries, Water, Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Malic Acid, Citric Acid, Natural (Plant Source) and Artificial Flavors, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives), Red 40, Sulfur Dioxide as Preservative (Contains Sulfites))

**POSTSCRIPT/NOTE

Homemade strawberry milkshake

Now that’s a strawberry MILK shake! Photo Credit: A30_Tsitika

Here’s the flip side of this. Many of the “scary” sounding ingredients are simply the chemical names for compounds that could be individually present in real foods. In this case, they are also used in the artificial flavoring. Each of those chemicals is, by itself, neither good nor evil, and many of them are present in REAL fruit. HOWEVER. It does not change the fact that those ingredients were deliberately combined to make artificial flavor, as opposed to a strawberry growing on a plant and then being blended into the shake.

Stressing out about every thing you put in your mouth is also counterproductive to your health. What is important is having knowledge about real foods, and making choices in your life that are better than before, little by little. Moving from hot dogs to processed reformed deli meat to roasted sliced packaged meat to real/whole animals to organic animals to YOUR OWN animals is a process that has benefits at every step of the way, and you should feel good about each step, not just when you reach the end.

Armi Legge writes very well about this topic, especially his post called “The Myth of Clean Eating“. He straddles a nice divide between using real ingredients and not freaking out too much about straying off the path. Good job, dude!

REI Ditches Return Everything Incorporated Nickname

REI's Original Flagship Store in Seattle

REI’s Original Flagship Store (courtesy of Seattle PI)

Social media has assisted in “implementing” the tragedy of the commons – after increasing awareness and braggadocio (spurred by comments in an Outside Magazine article last fall) of a particularly liberal return policy, this summer it hit REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.).

Just when it seemed that under every social media rock I found comments about REI and their standing as the place to go buy stuff at full retail because you can always ALWAYS return it no matter what, that well-distributed knowledge has spelled the end of the policy. Now, you’ll get a year for returns – unless the item is actually defective, in which case you still have a lifetime warranty.

The internets abound with stories about customers simply no longer liking their item after many years of happy use, or waterproofing not working after a decade, or the color of a bike not matching the owner’s new car. Yes, for reals.

While the policy went into effect in June, there’s been a recent bump in media coverage from the likes of Entrepreneur and the Wall Street Journal, culminating in a Morning Edition story today on NPR. Perhaps news takes longer to sink in, especially a policy change that won’t affect customers immediately. But when folks try to return their stuff and are met with the new rules, they definitely pay attention.

Other companies still have extremely liberal return policies and do not currently have plans to change such as Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Orvis; a spokesperson for Orvis says, “We trust our customers to know where the line is,” seeming to imply that REI customers contain a bunch of freeloaders.

In recent months I’d heard from many different sources about REI’s legendary returns free-for-all, something that escaped my notice because, for one, I have a freakin’ conscience. If I took a 10 year old tent back and said it didn’t work for me anymore and got money back and a new tent, I’d feel like crap! Seriously, if the product has a defect or if it does not last as long as it should for the price, that is one thing. But REI had been suffering to some degree (profits down 4% in 2012 to $29 million – and REI is a co-op so that money goes back to the members) at the hands of those who decided it was OK to return anything because they usually paid full retail – as if their brains decided that they had built up a “buffer” of profit for REI that they are allowed to draw down upon when it suited them.

Geez, the more I write about this the more annoyed I get with those freeloaders. Therefore, let’s turn this rant OFF, and over to you. What do you think of the changes? Have you been a happy or guilty beneficiary of the old policy?

Plumpy’nut Is Not Food; Also Not Death

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plumpy’nut

500 kcalories of processed survival food

More than a decade ago, a European researcher noticed how darn tasty and fattening Nutella was, and realized that with a little tinkering, something like it could be created for famine sufferers in Africa, who needed something to get them through to better days. He used a bit of creativity and technology to create a super food. This “super food” has a two year shelf life and contains protein, carbohydrates and some fat as well as a bunch of added vitamins. As a category, this kind of food is known as a RUTF: Ready to Use Therapeutic Food.

No, it’s not Pop Tarts, it’s Plumpy’nut. (Though as you can see below, the ingredients are not that different from Pop Tarts, after all.)

Ingredients in Plumpy’nut: peanut paste, vegetable oil, powdered milk, powdered sugar, vitamins, and minerals

Manufacturer: Nutriset, in France. Plumpy’Nut was Invented in 1999 and recently more visible with articles by well known folks like Dr. Sanjay Gupta (“The Funny Sounding Nut Paste That’s Saving Children’s Lives in Somalia“) and websites as big as Huffington Post (“Just How Much Can This Peanut Paste Reduce Hunger?”). I do disagree somewhat with Dr. Gupta’s assertion that the ingredients of Plumpy, as it’s called locally, are “nearly the perfect ingredients for the starving  human body . . .”; I could come up with a better formula in a heartbeat with slight change in cost. The New York Times is similarly cautious about the future of peanut paste supplementation due to some (seemingly petty given the cause) patent and copyright concerns.

Box for Plumpy’Nut Challenge

Campaigns also exist to raise awareness like The Plumpy’Nut Challenge by the British charity Merlin, which asks otherwise well-off westerners to eat nothing but Plumpy’Nut for one day while Tweeting about their experience and pledging money for charity. Not a bad idea, and ONE DAY is easy. Really, really easy – despite what most participants say. A week or a month would be harder, but no one would sign up for that. Shockingly the success rate for this one day challenge is not 100%. People are wussies, but I digress.

For those kids that consume Plumpy’Nut as a means to NOT DIE, the situation is different, obviously. Later, when death is no longer a threat, one hopes – one REALLY hopes – that a return to traditional foods is the final step. This is a topic I will continue in another blog post – how vastly different a grain-based traditional African diet is from the grain-based stuff that is eaten every day by Westerners.

Stay tuned, and don’t worry about the stress of signing up for the Plumpy’nut Challenge – there isn’t another one until 2014.

Shredded HOKAs After 300 Miles? Part 1 of 2

wf100-post-feet-cropWhen I finished Wasatch Front 100 ultramarathon in September of 2012, my HOKA One One Bondi B shoes had 105 miles on them. They were dirty, stinky, and were showing noticeable wear on the tread. However, they’d performed surprisingly well over the dry and rugged trails of the Utah mountains.

After another 150 miles, however, they are practically dead, following another 50 mile event and a few training runs, and then the Angeles Crest 100 in August of 2013. Now, the tread is essentially gone.

This is after about 300 miles on shoes that some runners get 800 or more miles on before needing to start afresh. Are these a particularly shoddy pair?

They’ll go in a box back to HOKA headquarters for evaluation, soon. And I’ll post the results of that, here.

HOKA One One users, how goes your miles on your shoes? High, low, somewhere in between?