The Return of Knickers?

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At the risk of alarming Kelly, who threatened to divorce me over my attempt to “thoughtfluence” the monocle back into common use, I think it’s time to bring back knickers. But first let me clear up some linguistic confusion: some of our English speaking readers will know this garment as knickerbockers (knickers are women’s underwear in Britain). I’m talking about pants that stop around the knee and that are worn by both men and women.

Before my annoying plantar fasciitis injury, I used to don knickers twice a week to go fencing. They are comfortable, allowing for easy movement, and more dignified and modest than shorts.

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Modern fencing knickers are white. The Victorian, black version of the fencing uniform was more stylish:

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A tangent here: please, dear fencing officials, do not attempt to “modernize” the uniform:

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Remember, the classic uniform is still sexy. Note slightly NSFW examples: 1 and 2.

Baseball, football and golf all adopted knickers for the same reasons they work in fencing: comfort, warmth, lower leg flexibility and dignity.

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The garment also played an important roll in liberating women from burdensome hoop skirts and corsets. Above is mountain guide Alice Manfield. And, of course, we can’t forget, late 19th/early 20th century women’s cycling apparel:

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These days, outside of the fencing strip, the only place you’ll see knickers in an un-ironic context is when you find yourself hunting shooting in Britain:

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UPDATE: Alas, Root Simple reader Peter informs me that this picture is fiction. Current shooting attire, Peter informs me, is “rubber boots, jeans and one of those nice Barbour waxed cotton jackets. The Queen does not wear jeans, but a tweed skirt. This uniform is accompanied by a battered, mud-splattered Land Rover and a pair of ruinously expensive, handmade shotguns. Anyone who dressed like the men in the picture would be found guilty of that most English of sins, Trying Too Hard, and sniggered at.”

At least there’s (pre-ironic?) Oktoberfest in Bavaria:

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Image: HaTe on Wikipedia.

Yes, I know, you’re too distracted by the Tyrolean hats to notice the knickers.

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Bike in Tweed, Stockholm 2013. Image: Wikipedia.

In a somewhat more ironic context, knickers have appeared at “tweed rides” in various cities around the world. Still, it’s hard to pull this off outside of an organized ride without seeming like you just stepped out of a steam punk convention.

Alas, our fashion overlords have banished knickers to the historical recreation ghetto. But maybe there’s hope. Since writing this silly post Google is now suggesting I visit this modern knicker purveyor. Nice, but could we skip the polyester?

As Marshall McLuhan used to say, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” Not ready for knickers? How about my idea for a hipster Alpine wear shop? Get ready for the Kickstarter . . .

Deep Work

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Do you find yourself unable to get work done, interrupted by incoming emails, Facebook updates and tweets? Can’t seem to get that garden planted or get that novel started because you’re too “busy?” How ironic that a computer science professor, Cal Newport, could be just the person to lead us out of our distraction with his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

The book can be boiled down to this: thou shalt schedule uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on single, important tasks. And, yes, that includes thinking about how we spend our leisure time too. If you allow incoming texts and notifications to define your day you’ll turn into a human router, pushing around frivolous emails, text messages and silly cat videos.

To give in to these temptations is to train ourselves to be distracted. Alternately, the longer we spend in periods of uninterrupted concentration the easier it becomes to focus. It was Newport’s deconstruction of the Internet Sabbath that won me over. Newport says,

If you eat healthy just one day a week, you’re unlikely to lose weight, as the majority of your time is still spent gorging. Similarly, if you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brain’s carving for these stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving in to it.

This is not to say that there aren’t other benefits to putting aside one day and making it different than all the others. But let’s not kid ourselves that an Internet sabbath is going to cure the crack-like addictiveness of social media and click-bait websites. Newport suggests, “embracing boredom” and not surfing the web even when you’re waiting in line at the post office. Rather than schedule time away from distraction Newport suggests scheduling time to give into temptation. Go ahead and surf the web, just do it in a scheduled block of time. We are, after all, human and need to view the occasional cat video (or catch up on Root Simple blog posts!). But we can’t let those cat videos define our schedules and inhibit our ability to focus on a single task.

Newport has a refreshing agnosticism towards our technological future. He’s neither anti-tech nor techno-optimist. He’s of the “right tool for the job” mindset. In a provocative chapter called “Quit Social Media” Newport compares things like Facebook and Twitter to a farmer’s tools and suggests,

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

In other words, just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you should use it. I’ve spent a lot of useless time on Facebook in recent years despite the fact that it and Twitter account for less than 5% of the traffic to this blog. Most visitors come from Google. I’d be better off spending focused time writing better how-to blog posts than chasing likes.

Now most of us have to deal with what Newport calls “shallow” tasks, such as responding to emails and going to meetings. For myself and, I suspect, most people reading this blog, we need to adopt one of the middle-ground solutions Newport recommends: scheduling large blocks of time to take on single, important and challenging tasks while not allowing shallow duties to occupy more than 50% of our days. For some, such as the novelist Neal Stephenson, that Newport offers as and example, a more radical disconnection may be necessary. Stephenson doesn’t have an email account. As Stephenson puts it,

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

Lastly I want to give a tip of my metaphysical hat to Newport for acknowledging a non-materialist justification for avoiding distraction. Usually, when the topic of our distracted age comes up, the solutions are all about brain science. Newport throws a bone to us non-reductionist types with an appeal to the sacredness of craftsmanship, honed by long periods of concentration. This craftsmanship can extend to all our work and leisure activities even to mundane tasks like doing the dishes.

Newport has an excellent blog focusing on deep work and study habits here.

Douglas Rushkoff on How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity

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In lieu of an episode of our podcast this week, (I’m still debating whether to post every week or every other week) I thought I’d point to this inspiring lecture by media thoughtstylist Douglas Rushkoff. You simply must listen to this talk, entitled “How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity,” and let us know what you think!

The lecture is an indictment of the cult of individualism, the false promises of the “sharing” economy and the extractive mentality of “platform monopolies” like Uber and Facebook. Rushkoff’s sincerity and enthusiasm is infectious. Speaking of the hyper-rich class of CEOs he says, “They’re doing evil in their companies so they can have a goat share and send their kids to Rudolf Steiner school. But why not make the world a place where you would want your kids to actually be?”

Rushkoff shows us how we can get out of this mess and into that world we want our kids to live in, though cooperation, by working on a small scale and through developing tools that use the promise of the sharing economy to lift all boats rather than make a few people in Silicon Valley rich.

Satan’s Easter Basket is Filled with Plastic Easter Grass

Easter baskets, a springtime ritual so loved by kids and adults alike should not have a dark side. So it’s more than a little ironic that this holiday, which in its secular form emphasizes rebirth and celebrates new life and baby animals of all sorts, actually causes accidental pain and suffering to many animals. The culprit is plastic Easter grass.

The day after Easter this year, I took an early morning walk down to Echo Park and found Eastermagedon waiting for me in the dawn’s soft light. The entire park was strewn with detritus of the happy day, plates and soda bottles and all the usual picnic garbage, plus the added seasonal bonus of tons of loose plastic Easter grass tangled in the real grass. I think animals may have gotten into the garbage cans overnight, making it all worse, but clearly a lot of that trash, especially the Easter grass and Silly String, was probably on the ground when the picnickers left.

One lonely, overburdened city maintenance guy was already raking up the garbage, but it was a Sisyphean task, and I doubt he’ll be so fine tuned as to focus on the Easter grass, but the Easter grass may be the most problematic of all the garbage on the ground this morning, especially because Echo Park surrounds a lovely little urban lake full of birds. Read on to find out why.

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4 Excellent Reasons to Avoid Plastic Easter Grass and use all of your influence to make sure other people avoid it, too:

  1. Domestic cats and dogs eat Easter grass and it can cause intestinal obstruction. Cats are particularly attracted to its stringy texture, but dogs might also gobble it up when they raid a kid’s Easter stash. If your pet does consume Easter grass and you see it coming out the other end, don’t try to pull it out! The other end of the string might be wrapped around something important inside your pet. Let it work its way out on its own, or visit the vet.
  2. Nesting birds pick up strands of plastic Easter grass and use it to build their nests. Sadly, this stuff is super strong, so it can tangle up baby birds, or even wrap around the feet of parent birds, tying them to their nests. People who keep bird boxes can tell us horror stories.
  3. Plastic grass left over from egg hunts in parks can blow into lakes, ponds and rivers, where it becomes both a water pollutant and a hazard to aquatic life. No kid on an egg hunt would want to know that her pretty pink Easter grass might end up choking a duckling.
  4. Like any plastic garbage, airy strands of Easter grass, whether floating out of parks or school yards or the back of garbage trucks, will make their way to the sea via wind and city gutters and rivers, where they will become part of our ongoing crisis of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Happy Substitutes for Plastic Easter Grass

The worst thing about plastic Easter grass is that it is so utterly unnecessary. We don’t need it. No one really likes the stuff–it gets everywhere in the house and is hard to clean up. Kids will not miss it–the padding is hardly the point of the basket, after all. Plastic grass is just something that was invented in a more ignorant age and marketed to us, something that we got used to using and never questioned. There are many ways, better ways, to line an Easter basket. We just have to take this plastic hell fluff off our “auto buy” list and embrace our creativity:

  1. There’s a natural, sustainable, renewable, organic form of Easter grass called real grass! (whhaaaa???) And best of all, it’s free! Just visit your nearest vacant lot. Pick long green grass and coil it in the bottom of the basket. You could also use hay or straw if you have access to it– both smell fantastic.
  2. Use green leaves, vines and short, flexible green branches from trees or bushes and flowers* to make sort of a wild fairy basket. As a Californian, I’m imagining a basket filled with a heady mix of rosemary branches and lavender leaves and buds. Or what about a nest of sweet chamomile? That would be lovely. Or maybe purple cabbage leaves? Arugula? Fennel fronds? Grape leaves?
  3. Use shredded wrapping paper–this is particularly easy if you have a paper shredder, but you can also cut or tear the paper into strips. This is a great way to re-purpose used paper, or to finish up the ends of rolls. Same goes for construction paper and other bright craft papers.
  4. Line the baskets with pretty table napkins or old scarfs, or tear fabric scraps into strips.
  5. Make little basket pillows out of scrap material. This might be a good use for old themed bed sheets or favorite clothes that kids don’t want to give up.
  6. Use moss, which you may be able to gather gently in the wild, depending on where you live, or buy sphagnum moss in a craft store or nursery.
  7. Fill the baskets with colorful mini-marshmallows–if you can deal with the resulting sugar high and possible marshmallow fights.
  8. Get ambitious and grow a pot of grass! Find a plastic pot which will fit your Easter baskets, fill it with potting soil and sprinkle a dense coating of seed on top. You can use lawn seed, if you have it, or you could buy “cat grass” seeds at the nursery–that way you can buy a small quantity instead of a big bag of seed meant to plant a lawn. All you have to do is keep it moist and you should have a pot of short grass by Easter. Check the seed pack and look for “days to maturity”–use that to figure out when you should plant. Bonus: your cats will thank you for the grass after Easter!
  9. And finally, there is commercial Easter grass made out of shredded paper instead of plastic– as easy as plastic, but sooooo much better!

See how easy it is to avoid Satan’s Grass? So spread the word. Ban it from your home. Bug your friends and relatives about it. Agitate at community egg hunts. Let’s just end this whole business as a really bad idea.

And let us know if you have any other ideas for grass substitutes!

* Okay, plant paranoiacs and nanny-staters, yes, you have to be a little bit cautious to make sure you don’t choose a noxious plant to line your Easter basket,  a plant like poison oak or yew, for instance (unless you’re having a Tim Burton Easter). The vast majority of plants are harmless, particularly if you’re not ingesting them. Just keep the babies from mouthing the greenery, to be safe.

Pesticide sprays are more of a concern than plant toxicity, frankly, so gather from your own yard, or from places you know are not sprayed. 

Or, if you remain concerned, use only food plants from your garden or a neighbor’s, or go to the farmer’s market and have fun picking out herbs, flowers and plant leaves to use in the basket–the vendors can tell you if they are safe.

Pet Peeve: Texting at the Gym

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The older I get the more time I seem to have to spend at the gym fixing dumb sports injuries. With that age also comes a crankiness about rude smartphone habits. Lately I’ve found my exercise routine lengthened by having to wait for people just sitting on equipment and texting. I know that this is a “first world problem” and I’ll acknowledge that I’ve probably been guilty of searching for just the right podcast episode between sets. But the gym should be for exercise not sending out texts.

Smartphone use on the gym floor has become an epidemic at my local YMCA. Once the New Years resolution crowd thins out in a month or so it won’t be so bad, but right now you have to wait a long time for some benches and machines due to texting millennials. The solution is simple. If you’ve just got to send that text, please step off the equipment momentarily! And maybe, just maybe, all that texting is distracting you from what you’re supposed to be doing at the gym?

I like my new smartphone and find it useful. But perhaps we all need to agree that in certain spaces and settings we all need to go into airplane mode. My short list of those settings includes sacred spaces, gyms, classrooms, lectures and at meals. And let’s not even get into driving–that should be obvious.

So how do we come to a consensus on phone etiquette? Since blocking or jamming cellphones is pretty much off the table, the only solution may be to “gamify” good behavior. Imagine an app that rewards you for not checking your phone while you’re at the gym. At the end of the month you get a small discount or prize. But that might not be enough. Here’s how the Russian military “gamifies” smartphone etiquette:

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Image via BoingBoing.

Check your phone while on duty and you have to lug around a giant wooden phone.