The Root Simple 2016 Holiday Gift Guide

history_02-20847If I had broad dictatorial powers we’d return to a pre-19th century version of Christmas: just another day on the liturgical calendar with optional drunken carousing. But that pre-commercial hope is as vain as the elimination of daylight savings time or the quest for a decent doughnut. We just have to resign ourselves to a certain amount of mutually assured destructive gift exchange. Towards that end, I thought I’d offer some suggested gifts, mostly obtainable online, for the urban homesteady types in your life. Most of the links are to Amazon, and we get a small cut of the proceeds, which helps keep our webmaster in kibble.

But First . . . Charity
Of course, rather than buying unneeded crap that will only clutter our already messy houses, we could agree to give to a charity instead. This season, due to our national “orange swan” event, Kelly is favoring the National Resources Defense Council. In addition, I suggest the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic, that provides medical care and counseling to needy folks right down the street from us here in Los Angeles. On Black Friday you can also shop at Patagonia, which is donating 100% of sales that day to environmental causes. Or you can make your own gifts. Everyone gets jam!

Incerto: Fooled by Randomness The Black Swan The Bed of Procrustes Antifragile


Speaking of orange swans, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has gathered four of his books into one mega-cranky boxed set. Taleb’s genius is in pointedly pointing out the faulty ways the “adults” in our culture deal with randomness and complex systems. In my humble opinion, if you’re into permaculuture you should also read Taleb.

The Rye Baker: Classic Breads from Europe and America

As a hopeless dabbler, I envy people who obsess and focus on just one thing. Baker Stanley Ginsberg is one such person and he spent years researching rye breads in both Europe and America. He’s gathered them all into one book, everything from Swedish flatbreads to a classic American deli rye. If you want healthy, sourdough fermented wholegrain breads, this book is for you.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes


Planting in a Post-Wild World came out last year, but I think it’s still the most interesting new book on gardening and landscape architecture. Rainer and West describe a difficult to summarize philosophy that bridges the “wild” and human constructed landscapes. Along with Taleb and Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, this book should be on the bookshelf of all gardeners and permaculturalists. 

A New History of Western Philosophy


If, like me, you managed to get through school without a shred of philosophical training, do yourself a favor and take a stab at this book. Kenny writes clearly, though I won’t say that the whole book is easy going. But just grasp a fraction of the content of this book and you’ll understand how $50 concepts like epistemology and ontology underlie assumptions about everything. Yes, such seemingly mundane things like gardening and construction work take on a whole new meaning once you dig into the preconceptions that we make about meaning and reason. I’ve come to enjoy beginning my day with a passage from Kenny’s book. 

Ship’s Cats in War and Peace


There’s no nice way to say this. I’m a crazy middle-aged cat dude. The similarly pitiful cat-lover in your life will enjoy this strange and obsessively researched book, though they will develop a lifelong hatred of Ernest Shackleton (the bastard shot the ship’s cat!). You will learn two important facts: the celebrity cat phenomenon is definitely not a new thing and sailors spend a lot of their time sewing special cat hammocks.

Vegetable Seeds

Who should you trust with your vegetable varieties? How about our friends the Italians? They know a few things about tasty vegetables. My favorite source for years has been Franchi, a family owned company that dates back to the 18th century. Franchi’s American importer is Seeds From Italy. But wait, what about climate change and drought for those of us in the arid Southwest? That’s were Native Seed/SEARCH comes in.

Silva Ranger 515 Compass

Let’s say you don’t want to end up wandering in the desert drinking your own urine, like two of my fellow LA hipsters ended up doing recently. You’re gonna want a compass. No, you can’t use it to rate the park on Yelp or Instagram yourself drinking your own urine. Kids, what the compass is useful for is figuring out where you are and/or where you’re going when that cellphone of yours has no signal. What I like about this particular compass is that it has a sighting mirror, critical when you’re getting your bearings. But don’t forget that the compass is, pretty much, useless without a map. Thankfully, you can download USGS topo maps for free.

Leatherman Rebar

Leatherman makes many different versions of their iconic multi-tool, one for each of America’s varied lifestyle categories. There’s the Leatherman Hipster, the Leatherman Accountant, the Leatherman Tech Bro and the Leatherman Internet Troll. OK, I just made all that up, but they do have the perfect tool for the person in your life, like me, who is little more than a low-grade, mostly incompetent building supervisor. Let’s say you need to do some dodgy electrical work, bad tree pruning or slice a muffin in half. The Leatherman Rebar is the tool you want. Here’s what it’s got: needlenose pliers, replaceable wire cutters, electrical crimper, knife, serrated knife, wood/metal file saw, small screwdriver. large screwdriver, phillips screwdriver, awl w/thread loop, ruler (8 inches), bottle opener, can opener, wire stripper, lanyard ring. I’m especially fond the wire stripping capability. If you need anything more than that you need to re-prioritize your life. I deploy my leatherman rebar at least once a day and wear it on my belt at all times.

Solavore Sport Solar Oven 

Consider this thing a solar-powered slow cooker. We were sent one by the company for testing and what I like about it, over other solar box cookers, is the ability to cook two pots of food at once. Civilized people need some rice with their stew.

SolSource Solar Grill

We did a video on this cool solar grill recently showing how you can use it to . . . deep fry! Looking somewhat like a James Bond villain prop from “Moonraker,” the SolSource’s mirrors focus the sun into a supremely hot point. Consider this a grill to compliment your Solavore oven. Together they form a supremely self-righteous outdoor kitchen that will function perfectly well in the post-zombie apocalypse outdoor entertaining combat theater.

Fencing lessons

Let’s say the significant other and/or the kids in your life are spending a lot of time on the couch playing the latest video game like the kid in the Ukrainian fencing studio ad above. Why get the same first person shooter experience with a little exercise thrown in? Fencing is an odd, three in one sport: foil, epee and saber. Like video games, fencing has electronic scoring and you even get multiple lives! Most adults do epee (it’s all I’ve ever done) and, traditionally, kids start with foil. Equipment costs are minimal but you will need to spring for one-on-one lessons. I dearly love running and riding a bike, but fencing has the added benefit of providing lessons in strategy. It’s a mental workout that’s often described as “physical chess.” The sport requires you to think several steps ahead of your opponent. If you’re a local, I can’t say enough good things about Fortune Fencing in Monrovia–it’s a friendly and mellow place (no yelling coaches). If not fencing consider some other lessons. Research has shown that money spent on experiences makes us more happy than money spent on things.

Want to pick up something that’s not on this list and support Root Simple? Just click through any of the links above, and a portion of your purchases will help us without costing you a cent.


How to Block Telemarketers

telemarketinghellIf you’re in possession of an AARP card, you also probably have a land line telephone. If, like me, you are taking care of an older relative it’s likely that your elder depends on a land line that rings every few minutes with offers and pleas from dubious charities, political parties and Elmer Gantry types. In my opinion, there’s a special level of Dante’s inferno for telemarketers who prey on the elderly, but I won’t be able to fix that problem in a blog post. Let’s just take care of those unwanted calls.

At my mom’s house I tested two solutions: the Sentry Call Blocker and Nomorobo.

51sxnaptccl-_sl1000_Sentry Call Blocker
The Sentry Call Blocker is a piece of hardware the goes between your phone and the wall jack. It sells for around $40 on Amazon and has no monthly charges. The way it works is that you manually enter a list of approved callers. Unknown numbers get forwarded to a recorded message (oddly, a man with a British accent–an out of work Shakespearean actor, perhaps?). You can also scroll through a list of previous incoming calls and either put them on the approved list or block them. It did a great job of blocking unwanted calls. Unfortunately, it also did a good job of blocking wanted calls. After using it for a few months I had to disconnect it. Important calls from health care agencies as well as some of my mom’s friends were not getting through. And the interface is too complicated for an older person to operate.

Nomorobo is a call blocking service for VoIP phone lines. Nomorobo maintains a large database of telemarketers that they’ve culled from the FTC, crowd-sourced reports and their own “honey traps.” When a spam call comes in the phone rings once and then, satisfyingly, automatically hangs up on the helpless boiler room employee. I’ve been using it on my own line (it comes free with Spectrum VoIP service) for around six months and in that time not a single telemarketer has made it through. Not even an election related call! Nomorobo offers a version for iPhones for $1.99 a month that I’m considering using to stop the student loan calls (I don’t even have student loans!). If you’re a Spectrum/Time Warner subscriber you can activate Nomorobo through the web interface for your account under “VoiceZone/Peace and Quiet.”

There are numerous apps for Android and iPhones that also promise to block telemarketers that I have not tested. In my experience the National Do Not Call Registry is a joke, but I’ve listed my numbers anyways. At least until the telemarketers find a workaround, Nomorobo gets my vote.

A Week Later


Photo courtesy of the ICSC

Yes, Erik and I have been pretty quiet since Election Day. We’ve been processing.

Under ordinary circumstances we try to keep our personal political and religious opinions off the blog because we like to think of Root Simple as a big tent where all sorts of people can come together around common ground. Also, partisan discussions online lead immediately to unproductive spates of bickering and trolling.

But this time, it’s different. This time, silence seems the greater crime.

This is a hard post to write. I keep ranting, then deleting.

Okay. New plan. Let me tell you a story.

Last Friday a small group of people from my church, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, stood outside the Islamic Center of Southern California and greeted the people arriving for their afternoon prayers with signs reading,”We Support Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters.”

As I stood there, I watched the same thing happen over and over again. As people approached the building they’d hesitate briefly at the sight of us, afraid of what was waiting on the steps of their mosque, but then they’d see our smiles, or read our signs, and realize we were friendly, that we were actually standing in solidarity with them. Then their faces would light up and they would smile big brilliant smiles. They came over and shook our hands and thanked us. Many wept. I wept. We touched our hearts and saluted one another. I am weeping again as I write this, just remembering.

The Islamic Center is a big place, and it serves people of many ages, colors, classes and ethnicities. I cannot count how many hands I shook, how many times I was blessed and I, in turn, blessed others. My heart is still buoyed on the love I felt that day.

And as we stood there, slowly, our group began to grow. A bunch of students and a couple of rabbis from the local Rabbinical school joined us. A woman who honked her support for us while driving by said to herself, “You know, if I spot a parking place, I will take that as a sign that I should do more than honk–I should stop and join them.” And lo! The parking place did materialize, and she came and stood by my side. She told me stories of protesting in the 60’s. A shy young woman arrived bearing a bowl of grapes and pomegranates. She had no idea what why we were all there–she’d just stopped by to give the mosque some fruit and a letter saying she was so very sorry for all the ugliness, but she joined us too. And so it went, and so our group swelled.

This being the modern world, after the handshakes and tears, we all took to social media to share the event with our friends. I have never been photographed so often! This little action may not have been a big splash in the news, but I know that our images went all over world. “Wave hello to England!” one man shouted as he took a video.

christians standing with muslims

Root Simple photo

As I stood there, I remembered a Christmas Eve night in San Diego many years ago, perhaps my favorite Christmas Eve ever. For some reason Erik and I had the night off–we weren’t traveling or at a relative’s house. We decided on the spur of the moment to join a candlelight vigil at the Mexican border. My memory is fuzzy now, but I’m pretty sure it was sponsored by The Catholic Worker. We carried stubs of candles and sang songs and heard recited all the names of those who had died trying to cross the border that year. But mostly we talked to the people on the other side of the fence. Or, because sometimes we could not speak, we touched hands through the bars, or just looked at one another–really looked, for a change. In one another we saw reflected our own sacred humanity, as we did at the mosque last week. And yes, we wept that night as well.

We need to do more weeping like that, weeping within the space of community, because it softens our hearts. We need to spend more time with people who are not like us in heart opening situations –because when we do, we realize that we are, in fact, very much alike in all the ways that matter, and our best state of being is that of being in love.

When we discuss spirit, the sacred, the holy, God, whatever you want to call it, oftentimes we make an upward gesture, as if all that is sacred hovers above us, just out of reach. This week I’ve realized it should be horizontal gesture. The sacred travels in a straight, horizontal line from heart to heart, from eye to eye. It is always with us. It binds us all together.

Peace to you all.


n.b.  I realize I should note that St. John’s did not descend on the Islamic Center out of the blue. We already have a good relationship with them, due in no small part to the efforts of the marvelous Guibord Center to promote interfaith friendship and understanding. If you live in the Los Angeles area and are interested in learning more about the great world faiths, including Islam, you should attend their free lectures. They also have collected notes and videos online for continued learning.







Tiny House Dweller as Contemporary Hermit in the Garden


One of the difficult to comprehend landscape trends of an earlier era was the garden hermitage. Real hermits disappeared with the Reformation, but the idea of a fake, picturesque hermitage lived on in English style gardens. Some just had a hermitage structure with the suggestion that someone lived there: an open book sitting on a table or sometimes even a dummy dressed as a hermit. But more wealthy land owners took the idea a step further and went so far as to pay people to act as hermits. Gordon Campbell’s book The Hermit in the Garden From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome contains the following story,

At one great house in England the accounts disclose a half-yearly payment £300 to a hermit, who had, for this commensurate salary, to remain bearded and in a state of picturesque dirtiness for six months in the year in an artificial cave at a suitable distance from the house–just far enough (but not too far) for the fashionable house-party, with its court of subservient poets and painters, to visit, walking there in the afternoon, peering into the semi-darkness with a little thrill of wonder and excitement.

The Craigslists of an earlier era sometimes carried garden hermit help wanted ads,

Mr Hamilton, once the proprietor of Payne’s Hill, near Cobham, Surrey, advertised for a person who was willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his. The conditions were, that he had to continue the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a word with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor even to stay beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas. But on breach of any of them, or if he quitted the place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited. One person attempted it, but a three weeks’ trial cured him.

I was giggling my way through Cambell’s hermit book until I realized the idea is still, very much, alive. We don’t have hermits anymore. We have tiny house dwellers. Tell me how this reality show ad is any different than the garden hermit appeals of an earlier era:


I’ve long thought the tiny house movement to be less about practicalities than about about a reaction to the spiritual malaise caused by consumer culture. The greatest expense in building a house are the kitchen and bathroom. Walls are cheap so you might as well make some extra space. Thus, in economic terms, a small house rather than a tiny house makes more sense.

But the tiny house movement is not about economics. It is, in part, an attempt to, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song to get “back to the garden.” In this way, the contemporary tiny house aspires to Adam and Eve’s pre-fall tiny house described in John Milton’s poem, The First Love of Adam and Eve,

the roof
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade,
Laurel and myrtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub,
Fenced up the verdant wall; each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, roses, and jessamine,
Rear’d high their flourished heads between, and wrought
Mosaic; under foot the violet,
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich inlay
Broidered the ground, more coloured than the stone
Of costliest emblem


But the tiny house also resembles a full embrace of melancholy that’s been unfashionable for at least 150 years. There’s a whole genre of now nearly forgotten “dark” poetry that Cambell quotes from, such as Thomas Parnell’s ‘The Hermit,’

Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
From youth to age a reverend hermit grew
The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,
His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well.

It’s not too great a step from this picturesque melancholy to full desert father style escape from the consumer matrix. Right now we’re riding high on an economic boom. Inevitably there will be another bust. No sane person knows when that bust will happen again, but when it does I predict we’ll see more garden hermits and fewer tech bros.

Full credit must go to Gordon Campbell for the quotes in this post and to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for the Joni Mitchell reference. You can also listen to a Futility Closet Podcast episode about garden hermits.


A Halloween Mouth of Truth

We are lucky to live on a block with a lot of friendly, creative people. Last year on Halloween, two of our neighbors did an elaborate Mount Olympus/Hades themed candy giveaway, while another, a professional DJ, turned on all his professional lighting equipment and smoke machines in addition to a full laser light show. This year all of these attractions returned with the addition of a new contribution from Kelly: a candy dispensing Mouth of Truth.


The original Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verità) is a first century fountain or manhole cover on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy. A folk tradition holds that if you stick your hand in the mouth you have to tell the truth or else your hand will be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth had its fifteen minutes of fame back in 1953 when it was featured in the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie Roman Holiday.


Kelly’s Mouth of Truth remix featured a puppet tongue that alternately gave candy and tugged on kid’s hands. It was a big hit. We had huge crowds and gave up around 9 pm after serving approximately 300 delighted customers (and two completely terrified toddlers).


Zeus put down his cardboard thunderbolt and took a break from handing out candy two doors down at Mount Olympus to visit the Mouth of Truth.


Our friend John donned his cat suit and acted as Mouth of Truth interpreter, explaining the the concept to the many hundreds of costumed kids.

img_1842Kelly donned a witch’s hat, in spite of the fact that she was out of view the whole evening performing the arduous task of tongue puppetry for three hours. I dispensed cheese, crackers and cocktails to visiting adults in the adjoining garage.


John suggested that, next year, we create a giant candy dispensing Zardoz head as a tribute to this nearly unwatchable “so bad it’s good” 1974 Sean Connery science fiction vehicle.

zardoz-21No, I will not to wear Sean Connery’s Zardoz costume.

Zardoz costume aside, the fun that Halloween provides really helps get to know neighbors. We need more festivals in our lives like this, where we take a break from day to day concerns and work together, on the neighborhood level, to create space for joy and unity.