Life without Amazon. The quiescence of a shopper, and early adopter.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a shopper. I like to shop, to find things that are curious and interesting, and that will improve the quality of my every day life.

However, over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that I have more than I could ever possibly need. I have two bicycles, an entire home office full of all kinds of machinery, every iPhone ever made and nearly every iPad, an extra kitchen full of dishes, pots, and pans and a closet that could clothe a small army. As I do more reading about Döstädning (Swedish Death Cleaning), I recognize that recreational shopping whittles away a nest egg and re-feathers the nest with stuff. The funny thing: anyone walking into my house would say that I’m both a minimalist and well organized, both of which are true. I can’t imagine how other people must feel if I feel like I’m drowning in stuff and most people that I know have way more stuff than I do!

Regardless, the issue is multifaceted: foremost, whittling down the amount of possessions that I have and secondly, shopping responsibly.

For decades, my mantra was that if it didn’t fit in one carload, then I didn’t need it. Those were the days when I moved frequently (college, Boston, grad school, multiple apartments, new jobs, etc.) and the thought of packing, schlepping, and unpacking became less and less tenable and remaining lean and facile was far more desirable. Somewhere along the way, I lost that sensibility, and it seemed to slide into my life around the same time Amazon Prime became a thing.

You can read all about the reasons Amazon Prime is a dreadful idea all across the internet.

For some odd reason, despite my being a militant, David Horowitz-trained and Sy Syms-proud educated consumer, and decades-long Wal*Mart basher, it never occurred to me to think about Amazon. Amazon was convenient, cheap, and magically, things showed up at my door. I bought in hook, line, and sinker for years—to the point where I actually had the Amazon magic buttons all over my house—just push to replenish, and magically a few days later a new supply of whatever I needed magically showed up at my door. UPS deliveries were, for nearly a decade, a daily (and sometimes twice daily) occurrence at my house.

And then abruptly, I stopped.

I was walking down the commercial high-street in my neighborhood that has for the last fifty years been a vibrant strip of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, and realized that it had escaped my notice that about 60% of the shops were closed. About half of those that remained catered to things I would never have occasion to use: tattoos, vaping shops, cheap cell phones, eyebrow waxing. Where were all the amazing bookshops that I remember so fondly, and the t-shirt shop, and the poster shop, and the kitchen shop, and the little gift shop, and the stationery store, and the little plant shop/florist, and so many others? 

Vibrant neighborhoods like this one where my Dad grew up were once the norm all across this country.

The realization hit me like a ton of bricks (and mortar stores). While I had been lazily shopping online and having things delivered—daily—to my door, my neighborhood and my neighbors who owned businesses in it, had unraveled. And I hadn’t left the house long enough to notice. How could this be? For the past 20 years, I have never set foot in a Wal*Mart, and I go out of my way to educate friends and family about the damage Wal*Mart has done to our economy, our urban fabric, our suburban fabric. How could I have so blindly missed the damage that Amazon is doing… and how much worse the damage is.

I was ashamed, and sorry, because I realize that the economic damage will take years to remedy. While my own city angled for Amazon HQ2, it seemingly escaped us all that Amazon is not only resetting the entire economy, but also eviscerating the neighborhoods in which we live. We likely won’t take full notice (like so many things) until it is too late. All of these observations were reinforced by the evidence presented in the amazing book, Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss. The moral of his book: wake up and pay attention, because once it’s gone, it’s too late to lament its passing.

So, I made a solemn and immediate pledge: No more Amazon, I will make a concerted effort to shop at locally-owned shops. My first move was to ditch my Kindle and replace it with a Kobo Reader which allows me to borrow books from a number of local libraries. So far, the results of my life without Amazon are promising, I haven’t purchased a single item on Amazon in over six months, and I’ve met some amazingly interesting people in my neighborhood. The fellow that works at the hardware store knows a lot about replacing screens, and offered me some outstanding advice on how (and when) to replace screens to keep bugs from getting in. My friend John who owns Elmwood Pet Supplies makes deliveries, which makes buying food from him even more convenient than using Amazon. The lady who works at the gift shop, Neo, on the corner made some wonderful suggestions for a wedding gift that I needed to buy, and she wrapped it beautifully. Sunshine + Bluebirds has these amazing wraps that I’ve bought for everyone I know, and they also giftwrap beautifully. I learned that I can buy an organic, locally-raised chicken for my mom for only $4 at Stearns, which means that the only reason I need to stop by Whole Foods (also owned by Amazon) is to steal the packets of Sir Kensigntons Mustard to use in my lunch. (No, I’m not joking.)

So, all in all, I find myself buying less, making more informed buying choices, and doing more for my local economy. So far, a win-win, (except for Amazon). And when Amazon loses, we all gain. Be aware, your choices have consequences, shop wisely.

Un-bullshitting.

Over the past 10 months, I have carefully examined the role of technology and social media in my life. On the balance, I have determined that most social media—Facebook, blogging, commenting on news stories, Snapchat and legions of others—is way too much work and actually denigrates an overall quality of life. I took a long hiatus from writing this blog, because doing so makes me feel vulnerable to crazy and pathetic people that “live” through their existence on the internet, rather than actually existing in “real” life. 

One of many changes.

About a year ago, my father gave me a stack of coupons for Harbor Freight. I had never heard of the store, but apparently, their schtick is giving away merchandise. Each week, the store publishes about a dozen coupons that entice potential customers to come in to the store and grab freebies. Curiously, I took the bait. Standing in a line of about 20 customers, all with the same free merchandise in hand (a multimeter, a small Philips screwdriver set, a package of 2mil drop cloths and a package of zip ties), bored out of my mind, I began to study the fellow standing in line in front of me. He had on a hat from a local school that had his first name embroidered across the side of it.

√ First name 

√ University student or grad, and university name

√ Approximate hight and weight 

He waited patiently, free products in hand, and wallet in the other. His wallet was open, so I could see both his license and Visa debit card.

√ Last name

√ Middle name

√ Home address

√ Bank (and if he had a Visa debit, that meant that his account is likely a checking account at that bank.)

√ Visa card number

√ License Number (and NYS License restriction B, which means that he is a contact lens wearer, because he wasn’t wearing glasses at the time.)

√ Date of Birth

He approached the counter, and the kindly older cashier (who was clearly having some difficulty with the archaic computer) asked him to type his phone number into the keypad on the credit card terminal.

√ Phone Number

That didn’t work, so the cashier asked him his e-mail address.

√ e-mail address

After the cashier entered all of his merchandise, the fellow removed the Visa debit card from his wallet, and swiped it. He chose to pay as debit (as opposed to credit) and I watched him put in his PIN number. I also noticed the work ID card that was in his wallet underneath his Visa debit card.

√ Workplace

√ Occupation

√ PIN for his debit card, and likely the same number used for withdrawing cash at the ATM.

That’s a huge amount of information to garner by a casual observation over the course of about 7 minutes. I didn’t look him up online, but a cursory search online will reveal more information like the names of family members, partners, ex-partners, and neighbors, and their ages. Facebook usernames (which are plainly evident in the web address for each and every Facebook profile), and scads of other data are available through a quick Google search (a company that also captures information about what I’m searching for, how frequently, and draws conclusions about me based on my activity… I’ve switched to Duck Duck Go who pledges not to track you). It’s a scary proposition to know that that information is not only bought and sold by companies like Facebook and other “data aggregators” to compile a comprehensive profile of our consumer behaviors, our propensity to make charitable donations, and our personal habits. I’ve said many times on this blog that we are not the users of social media, we are the commodity product that is used by giant corporations to make more and more money at the expense of our privacy. These same corporations have eviscerated our economy, our communities, and are changing the social fabric of our country and the world. Yes, social media provides a means to stay connected, and that’s a great thing… but at what cost? What good is staying connected if the means of doing so makes us lazy, disassociated consumers of the lives of our family and friends rather than active participants in the vivid tapestry of life that surrounds us. Our reliance on social media is translating into a twisted trope: helicopter parenting our own social lives, insulating ourselves from dissent, debate, and dimension, padding ourselves with simplicity, similarity, and safety. Meanwhile, we’re being stalked and used by corporations collecting data about us as they use our behaviors to manipulate us, destroy the commercial fabric of our cities and towns, and fleece us into believing our lives are “easier” as a result.

After some significant reflection, none of this is something that I want to contribute to.

Life is difficult, disorderly, messy, and complex. Simplicity, convenience, and leisure come at a cost. It’s time for me to stop blindly participating, and start actively engaging.

So, moving forward, you’ll notice a few changes to this blog:

Facebook has been iced. No more commenting through Facebook, no more publishing posts to Facebook. If you’re too lazy to check this blog from time to time, then you probably don’t deserve to read what I write.

Amazon links are no more. As Amazon continues to rot our consumer economy from the inside out, I have taken a 6-month hiatus from Amazon, and I’ve never been happier (look for a separate post about this soon.) 

Privacy is key. Feel free to comment. Remember that what you post in comments is available to the world… all the people that like you, and all the people that you don’t. Moving forward, commenting on this blog requires you to sign up for a WordPress account. I find WordPress and Automattic to be a reasonably responsible company. 

So, if you’re in, you’re in, welcome back. Bookmark this site and check back periodically. You can also subscribe by adding your e-mail address to the little “subscribe” box on the left. We won’t use your e-mail (or even look at it) for anything except to send you a copy of the newest post to this blog. You’ll find some thought-provoking writing, and less bullshit, and if that’s too much work, then it’s been nice having you as a reader.

This is why I’ll never shop at OfficeMax again—even if everything is free

This sounds like:

a. Something I’d write.

b. An experience I would have.

This column is my first step toward recovering from a maddening return experience.

Source: This is why I’ll never shop at OfficeMax again—even if everything is free

Taking Aim at Target.

Yesterday, I spent the day in Canada, and driving over the border, something hit me. Not literally, but figuratively. The Canadian side of the border was bustling and vibrant, full of shops, pedestrians, successful businesses. We crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and entered the U.S. It was like we were entering a third world country. Desolate, bombed out buildings stood with weeds growing out of the windows next to shuttered factories. Poor people sold food and junk on the street corners from folding tables in front of the abandoned shopping mall. The only sign of life was the Native American-owned casino, and the vagrants propped up on street corners. It is, as Arianna Huffington has termed it, third-world America, and it’s literally at our national doorstep.

All this got me thinking… why? What has happened to our country? Why—solely on the basis of looks—does our northern neighbor seem to be so prosperous, and why do we seem to look so poor? I think the reason is what writer Bill Bishop has termed “the big sort.”

The big sort holds that conservative or liberal, we tend to gravitate toward people that think like we do.

Unfortunately, that’s creating two philosophically parallel countries that happen to physically overlap.

In one country, it’s OK to hate your neighbor because they are black, or jewish, or gay, or catholic, or educated. This is the America of Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. It’s the America that believes purple wooden stakes at the end of your driveway will prevent U.S. marshals from treading on your property. It’s the America that looks to yesteryear for inspiration and longs for the way things were. It’s the America that is afraid and suspicious and believes in the boogie man. It is the America that looks out for number one.

In the other country, tolerance is the aspirant. This is the America of far less inhabitants. Maybe Rachel Maddow, Michael Moore, and Phil Donahue. It’s the America that believes we can rule by example, and that we can make life better for others. It’s the America that is hopeful and believes in the future. It is the America that believes it is our moral responsibility to look out for those who cannot look after themselves.

Which America is the correct America?

The first country, believes they are right and everyone else is wrong.

The second believes they may be right and that everyone else is buried in the sand.

I’m going to digress for a moment: I’ve had this blog for about 5 years, and consistently, the story that gets the most traffic is over 4 years old, and ironically is about a bad experience I had purchasing a giant piece of furniture at Target. [You can read the whole post here.]

Unfortunately, despite my anger, I went back to shopping at Target. Until about 2 weeks ago.

Around my birthday this year, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel was outed for making a large donation to an organization called Forward MN. It’s a political action group that supports extreme right wing candidates for election in Minnesota.

That upset me.

What upset me more is the official Target response to the donation. Essentially, they said “we’re sorry, BUT we can do what we want” read: “we don’t care.”

Why is that upsetting. Because Forward MN has been associated with political leaders and groups that advocate violence toward gays and lesbians. So while Target has argued that they gave to Forward MN to support their “pro-business” stance, I wonder, would Target have made the donation if Forward MN publicly advocated violence toward blacks, or asians, or women, or muslims, or born-again christians, or people with brown eyes… see where I’m going with this? It’s inexcusable—in this day and age—for any group to advocate for violence against any other group. It’s unconscionable for any corporation to openly support it.

It’s unconscionable especially when companies like Target have relied on gay and lesbian designers to make their company what it is and to catapult its cool quotient… which, shamelessly, Target has. I call upon the many gay and lesbian and GLBT-friendly designers (Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi, Mossimo) to cease their support for a company that is doing such damage to the community and to our society.

Why is this acceptable? Why does the first country, in sneaky, cowardly ways support murder and violence? Is it not hypocritical that the same people that lead this country do not live by its rules? The recent revelation of former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman—who was the brainchild behind anti-gay, anti-gay marriage, and defense of marriage legislation—has admitted that he himself is gay. Why is it OK for Sarah Palin to speak about abstinence when her own daughter has a child out of wedlock?

The place that bickering about who puts what where in the bedroom has gotten the US to a place that is quite ugly. It is a place sprouted in fear and intolerance, and it is a place that is eminently un-American. It is led by religious extremism that has bastardized the meaning of christianity, and it is gobbled up by an increasingly edutained, undereducated, desperate, bored, and financially less prosperous American society. The solution to this problem is not government. In the words of Ronald Reagan. Government is the problem. It is the enabler that allows this divisiveness to prosper, because without it, we would have no political system, and with no political system, our economy would fall to the wolves.

I write this today with the hope that this will become the most read, most “hit” story on my blog. Not because I want to bitch about the state of our country, but because I hope that it gives pause to those who read it, and maybe that will help to make a difference.

When I was in 10th grade, my Social Studies teacher, Mr. Gustafson, encouraged us to “read everything you can get your hands on.” He was referring to news, and in particular, newspapers. It was the difference between being an intelligent citizen and becoming a victim of the system, he said.

All these years later, I still believe that. However, what passes as news today is considerably different than what passed as news 25 years ago. The stories on CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC hardly count as news, they’re sharply biased opinion pieces or edutainment, at best.

The problem with this is multi-fold. In the dying wake of print news, television journalism has become a bit of an oxymoron, and quickly Americans are finding themselves in a news drought. Kind of like food… we’re surrounded by it, but very little of it is of any notable quality.

The end game of this change is scary, and we’re seeing the beginnings of it now, though the tide has been shifting quickly and dramatically over the past decade. As journalism becomes increasingly scarce, and as information becomes more accessible, our collective appetite for it diminishes. (If it’s always accessible, why take the time to digest it?) So increasingly, the public has become prone to persuasive mini-soundbites, taking a cue from the page of a master marketer’s playbook. Half-truths, mistruths, distortions and outright lies pervade our political landscape. Honesty and integrity are dead.

The outcome? We have two political parties that are so horrifically unable to govern, that we are becoming victims of those that “lead” us. Republicans have learned that out of chaos comes control, and will spend every last moment undoing or unraveling any institution to create ever-more chaos. Democrats have learned that spineless government can weasel its way in to our lives in many ways, and will slither in to every corner of life.

Rhetoric has become meaningless and vocabulary has become charged with ignorance. “Canada,” “Socialist,” “European,” “Collective,” have all become swear words that enrage, incite fear, and shut down discussion rather than encourage it. The average square-state American has been lead to believe that the American way is the only way: Canada has it wrong. The U.K. has it wrong. God forbid, Sweden or Denmark, they might as well be hell on earth. Yet this same square-state American cannot reconcile this ignorant and myopic world view (made more narrow by her/his inaccessibility to actual news) with the ennui she/he feels at the state of affairs in America today, and it’s this insular stupidity that will be the undoing of this country.

Scarily, the crazy fringe—Dennis Kucinich, Sarah Palin, Jesse Ventura, Ron Paul, Lou Dobbs—seem to have a handle on this, and will continue to tap in to the ennui and confusion that the average American encounters daily. What will be the outcome of this? A multi party system like (gulp) Canada? A new enlightenment (unlikely). Or, more confusion? Probably the later, which will allow the Republicans to cultivate confusion and chaos, and allow the Democrats to slither in to every corner of our lives through tax or regulation.

I’m going to change my affiliation to Independent. Stay tuned, it can only get more interesting.

Toyota says tests cast doubts on story of runaway Prius in California – washingtonpost.com

Toyota says tests cast doubts on story of runaway Prius in California – washingtonpost.com

Phew. I’m glad that this case turned out to be questionable, and that Toyota has been successfully casting doubt on it.  Wonderful.  Now, let’s take a look at the other 1,400 cases

Articles like this insult readers intelligence, and rely upon stupid, uninformed people to sway opinion.  Clearly it works, otherwise Toyota’s PR folks wouldn’t be pushing this issue so hard.

Exxon: Corporate Hater?

15 March 2010

Dear Mr. Tillerson:

I hope this message finds you well.

I am sure that you receive many letters from angry environmentalists, angry customers, angry activists of all types. I am writing to you today not because I am angry, but because I am confused.

My family has long been a “Mobil family,” in fact, I’ve been Mobil customer for four decades. My dad, a semi-professional automobile racer, proudly displayed the Mobil logo on his car. My grandfather swore by Standard Oil. There is a Mobil on the corner of my street, and it has, for a long time, been my gas station of choice. I am proud to support my local franchise owner, and her employees. I have had both a Speedpass and a ExxonMobil MasterCard for many years and I gladly suggest Mobil to my friends, colleagues, students, and co-workers.

I write today with a request: Would you explain to me the policy of ExxonMobil with regard to its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered employees? My understanding is that your policy enshrines discrimination against this group of people. While I understand that the leaders of large corporations often have to make unpopular choices for the good of the company and its shareholders, I cannot understand your seemingly discriminatory policy. Your policy toward GLBT people, Mr. Tillerson, simply does not make sense. By offending and in effect shutting out gay and lesbian consumers, it alienates the largest market of discretionary spenders in the world. Personally, I find your policy not only absurd—a bullying bout of Texas bravado—but offensive.

I am willing to hear the reasons for your choice, Mr. Tillerson, and I look forward to your expedient reply to my request. I ask that your letter of reply actually be from you, not an assistant or a corporate communications person, as I would truly like to know your thoughts on this matter and your reasons for this decision. I know you will understand, Mr. Tillerson, that until I receive your reply, I cannot in good conscience continue to patronize any ExxonMobil outlets. With this letter, I have put my Speedpass and ExxonMobil MasterCard on hiatus until I receive your reply. Your reply will determine whether or not I continue to be a proud ExxonMobil customer for the next four decades, or whether your reply will clarify what can seemingly be construed as a choice of intolerance and hatred.

I have posted this letter (as I will with your response) on my blog, and will share it with my friends, colleagues, students, and co-workers.

I look forward to your reply, Mr. Tillerson, thank you for your time and attention to this letter.

Sincerely,

More info at: HRC | Corporate Equality Index.