A Poem by Mary Oliver

Image: C.F.A. Voysey

Storage

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room for.

What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing– the reason they can fly.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.

A Great New Resource for Preserving Your Analog and Digital Memories

LA Central Library Octavia Lab.

If, like me, you’re feeling guilty about those boxes of photos and videos rotting in the garage, there’s a great new resource: the Memory Lab Network.

Pioneered by the Washington D.C. public library, thanks to a grant there are now seven more libraries that have a lab where anyone can come to digitize analog materials and learn how to preserve digital resources. Those libraries are: The Karuk Tribal Library, California; Houston Public Library, Texas; Pueblo City-County, Colorado; Los Angeles Public Library, California; New Ulm Public Library, Minnesota; Boyle County Public Library, Kentuky; and Broward County Public Library, Florida.

Kelly and I just attended an introductory lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library which just opened a memory lab and maker space called Octavia (named after science fiction author Octavia Butler, a frequent user of the LA Library). In addition to memory lab resources, Octavia also has maker goodies including a laser cutter, cnc router, embroidery machine, 3d printers and scanners and much more. I can’t wait to get my hands on that equipment. But first I have to archive some old family photos and video tapes.

In her lecture, librarian Suzanne Im warned of a coming “digital dark age” if we don’t collectively figure out how to preserve CDs, digital files and analog tapes. She noted the recently revealed news that Universal Music Group covered up the loss of thousands of master tapes in a 2008 fire. To prevent such losses Im recommended the Library of Congress’ “3-2-1” approach, “three copies, stored on two different media, and one copy located off-site, preferably in areas with different disaster threats.”

Im went on to describe, something I’m really bad about, how to include photo meta data in your digital photos. She also noted the Library of Congress’ guide to personal digital archiving. And she mentioned the Great Migration Home Movie Project that, if you are African-American, will digitize and preserve your family’s home movies and audio tapes for free.

If you’re in Los Angeles you really should check out the new Octavia Lab at the Central Library. Library card holders can book a 2 hour session once per week. Jump on this opportunity early as I suspect it’s going to be popular. If you’re not near one of the cities with a memory lab, I’d suggest having a conversation with your local librarian to help you get started dealing with that mountain of photos you’re hiding somewhere.

Non-Toxic Cleaning for the Home


Why Green Cleaning?

We’ve been sold a pack of lies. Professional marketers have convinced us that a good housekeeper keeps a pantry full of specialized cleaning products for every item in the house. A toilet cannot be cleaned with the same stuff you use to clean a sink, or the floors, or the shower.  This lie is merely expensive and wasteful. Far worse is the lie that the chemicals in household cleaners can’t hurt us, that we need harsh mystery cleansers in cheerful bottles to make our houses into homes to keep our children safe and well and to hold up the family pride.

In fact, we were being sold cocktails of chemicals which were and are still ill regulated and little understood, thinking all the time that they were safe, because they were on store shelves.  In Europe, a manufacturer has to prove that a product is safe before it goes to market. In the U.S., the people have to prove a product is dangerous before it can be pulled from the market.

We know for a fact that many common cleaning products are harmful to human health. Some of the best consumer protection work in this field is being done by The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan group dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Their website, www.ewg.org, is a treasure trove of consumer information. They rate the safety of everything from tap water to cosmetics to cleaning supplies. We encourage you to reference them often, and support them if you can. We’ve used their information to shape this guide.

Please see their Guide to Healthy Cleaning (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners). Look up how they rate your favorite cleaning products, and also browse their top rated cleaning products in various categories.

To quote from the EWG’s website, they made the following findings in their survey of cleaning products:

  • Some 53 percent of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.
  • Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.
  • The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.
  • Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.
  • Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents, enzyme stabilizers or for other functions. They can disrupt the hormone system.

To add to the problem, many cleaning products contribute to the pollution of our watersheds and oceans. Here in Los Angeles what you flush down the sewer ends up in the ocean, with some, but not complete treatment. Nobody really knows what will become of all of the chemicals mixing in the ocean as of now, how they will combine, or disperse, or create new chemicals.

Continue reading…

On the Safety of Cleaning Products

I had the great privilege of working with adobe yesterday while doing maintenance on our outdoor oven. While I’m terrible at plastering it was a great pleasure to work with this elemental and ancient building material that consists of just clay from the ground, sand, straw and water. There’s no need to gear up like an astronaut, with a respirator and gloves, as there is when working with concrete.

The same day I showed Kelly Christopher Schwartz’s video on the use of soap as a wood finish. Solid wood and soap are also basic, safe materials. With a soap finish on solid wood there’s no out-gassing composites and no danger to the worker applying the finish. While these materials require more maintenance and work, they aren’t going to kill you. In fact, you could argue, their use makes the world a better place.

Contrast this with our post-industrial modern life and all those toxic cleaning chemicals which promise convenience but come with significant risks to ourselves and to our environment.

How do cleaning products clean?
Most cleaning products consist of detergents that lower the surface tension of water and/or acids or bases that dissolve calcium and fatty substances. Some acids act as disinfectants and bases also inhibit the corrosion of metal. Solvents (such as alcohol) also dissolve fatty substances. Other chemicals are added to cleaning products such as water softeners, to help dissolve certain minerals, as well as fragrances and preservatives. Commercial cleaning products consist of some combination of these categories of ingredients.

Hazards
Cleaning products are harmful to human health through direct exposure and also through contributing to poor indoor air quality thanks to the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are found in cleaning products in the form of fragrances, solvents, disinfectants and softeners. Also, when used improperly at too great a concentration, some cleaning products can cause the degradation of materials resulting in the release of more VOCs. Many products can also trigger asthma.

Disinfectants are considered to be the most hazardous category of cleaning products (1). And many cleaning products contribute to the pollution of our watersheds and oceans. Here in Los Angeles what you flush down the sewer ends up in the ocean, with some, but not complete treatment.

Assessing indoor air quality as well as the adverse health effects of commercial cleaning products is difficult and involves many factors such as building ventilation, temperature and what’s being cleaned. This is not even to address new ideas about the symbiotic relationship between microorganisms and human life that are disrupted by an over-reliance on disinfectants. The complexity is so great that I have doubts that we’ll ever wrap our heads around what cleaning products are safe and which ones should be avoided.

Rather, the problem is less about science and more about economics and environmental ethics. I think we have, with cleaning products, another example of the distortion of capitalism and markets. The need to develop “new and improved” products leads to ever more and needless complexity. Previous to the dark Satanic Mills of 19th century industrialism, floors were simply swept, carpets (if you could afford them) were taken out and beaten and surfaces were washed with soap and water. It might seem like more work but even that may be a myth when you consider that you didn’t have to take a third job to afford all the gadgets and chemicals that constitute our modern life.

We seem to have distorted ideas of cleanliness dating back to the reformation and related to a strain of Calvinism that has morphed into a questionable, secular version (2). But this thoughtstyling would have to be the subject of a much longer post.

Greenwashed
I’m wary of so called “green” products because they are subject to the same rules of the marketplace that dictate novelty, brand extension (gag) and manipulative advertising. Some “eco” products are definitely better for us and the environment but there’s also a lot of deceptive marketing. Multiple trips to the massive Natural Products Expo West disabused me of any notion that so-called “eco-friendly” products lie outside the ruthless and destructive dictates of our neo-liberal hellscape. Instead, when we buy these eco cleaners, we often get a cocktail of ingredients we don’t need with a needless veneer of virtue signalling.

The Bottom Line
Here, at Root Simple headquarters, we rely on a basic set of cleaning products that includes such boring commodities as white vinegar and baking soda. We’ll publish the complete list in a separate blog post later this week.

I appreciate that commercial kitchen and medical facilities need to use disinfectants such as bleach. Most of us don’t need such powerful disinfectants in our homes unless you or another household member has a compromised immune system. If you do need to use bleach or other strong disinfectants, please use the proper dilution and open windows.

For More Information
The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive and searchable guide to cleaning products and a letter grade for safety if you’d like more information on all those silly products you can find at our overstocked and not-so-super supermarkets.