Avoiding Amazon

I’ve been working to avoid using Amazon for the last few months. There are a few reasons for this which basically boil down to the fact that I think Amazon’s business is bad for America. They continue to use labor practices that are anti-worker. They continue to pursue profits at all costs. They defensively acquire and shut down competitors in what can only be called anti-trust. They just played two major cities into giving away billions in tax revenue for a false promise of high-paying jobs and amazing growth.

An ironic smile?

This is the kind of unbridled late-stage capitalism that I cannot stomach. It’s a scorched earth approach that cannot support or countenance. I envision a world that works in a completely different way to the world that supports, empowers, and even celebrates a business like Amazon.

The first step was to stop buying books from them. I wasn’t a big book buyer from them to begin with. I tend to buy used through ThriftBooks or Better World Books. I also borrow a lot of books from the library. The first hint that this whole challenge might be harder than it seems was when I found out that AbeBooks is owned by Amazon. So, strike that option.

It’s clear to anyone who bothers to pay attention that local bookstores have suffered mightily in the world that Amazon built. Even large competitors like Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble are struggling to battle the overwhelming juggernaut of Amazon. Authors are generally cagey when it comes to talking about Amazon but many of them bemoan the rampant piracy and review-fueled sales marketing that lives within the Amazon ecosystem. As a lover of writing, books, and the conversations they germinate, I simply can’t ignore how Amazon has destroyed much of the book industry.

Next, I had to stop buying other things from Amazon. Things like wrenches, vitamins, shoes, and watches were all things I’d purchased through Amazon. I also bought a lot of gifts for others through the site because the shipping was easy given my Prime member status. To discourage myself from buying these things, I canceled my Prime account. That forced me to consider other options. This has been difficult because it means shopping from lots of other sites and doing more comparisons and bargain hunting. Still, if I need something immediately, I’ll buy locally. If I don’t need it immediately, I can wait more than two days.

Once I was out of the habit of buying from them, it made the Amazon Echo in our house easier to unplug. That had the benefit of also stopping our family from being spied on. We did miss some of these features like the Question of the Day that might my son and I had fun with and being able to shout for a timer while cooking in the kitchen.

Another avenue of Amazon getting my business is cloud computing. While I do work in the technology world building web applications, my employer doesn’t use any Amazon services. Unfortunately, avoiding using sites that do use Amazon web services is exceedingly difficult and would likely mean my stopping using the Internet altogether. This alone should frighten everyone into questioning what Amazon is doing on our world.

Lastly, and what brought all this to mind this evening, is that I am an avid user of Goodreads. The site is owned by Amazon. Today, I remembered that I have a lifetime paid membership to LibraryThing. I set about importing my collection when I decided to look up more about the history of LibraryThing. Turns out that back in 2006, AbeBooks bought about 40% of LibraryThing. That was before Amazon owned AbeBooks but it now means that Amazon owns almost half of LibraryThing.

This all leads me to ask if there is any book-related community site that isn’t owned, funded, or otherwise reliant on Amazon? I’d love to track my reading, organize my collection, meet other readers, read reviews, and get recommendations but I don’t want any of that to help Amazon make money.

What is the culture of your household?

I’ve been enjoying Alec Baldwin’s new interview show. I know he’s a polarizing figure and so I’ll leave that debate for another day. It also hasn’t gotten great reviews. I think some of that is because it is decidedly old-fashioned. But, this isn’t about the show, really. I want to write about a question Baldwin asked Ricky Gervais (another polarizing figure) on a recent episode.

Baldwin asked, “What was your household like as a child with regards to culture? What books, music, or TV was around?”

blogbooks

As an interview question, it’s a softball opening because it lets the interviewee paint the picture they want. It also allows for some grandstanding if one was so inclined. Still, it’s an interesting one to think about with regards to your own life and that of your children.

I grew up in a house that wasn’t necessarily awash in music or books. My parents both liked to listen to the radio when I was younger but that went away as I got older. It just wasn’t something I have much recollection of except in the car. My Mom often had the radio on while taking me to school. My Dad would sing old songs while I traveled with him for his work. It was around but not deemed all that important. It was something that sort of sat in the background or passed the time.

My Mom is an avid reader and so there were books around but I don’t remember her talking to me about them much. That might have been because I was too busy reading anything I could get my hands on. My Dad was not into books really. I don’t recall ever seeing him reading a book. Magazines, yes. But not books.

My Mom recently gave me a box filled with a lot of the books I had as a kid. It was a treasure and I’ve been thrilled to share them with my son. They sit on the shelves of his room which are filled with other books.

Any flat surface in our house is probably stacked with books. Since we moved into a smaller place, we have a storage rental filled with probably a thousand books. They used to line the walls of our previous house.

All that to say that I wonder about myself why I want music playing all the time and to have shelves on shelves of books. Many cynics have written about the person with shelves full of books they haven’t read. They treat it as some sort of facade or mask that the owner wants to present. I suppose that could be true and maybe in my darker moments, it’s true of me as well.

What I really like about sharing music or showing off books is that it helps to define who I am and more importantly who I want to be. It describes parts of me that are otherwise impossible to describe or so far outside what’s expected that they’d seem laughable if not limned by the possession of a book or knowledge of a singer’s provenance.

I’ve struggled in my life to coalesce around a central image of who I am and who I should be or who I could be. It’s been core to many of the issues I’ve faced with obsessive behavior, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Maybe there’s a certain dissociative side of me that sometimes loses its grip on the lifeline at the center.

Books and music help remind me on a daily basis of the things I hold true, the parts of the world I care about, and the better natures I want to discover.

If someone asks my son in 40 years what the culture was like in his house growing up, I hope he’d say something like, “We had tons of books about all kinds of things but a lot of science fiction. There was always a book to look at or a magazine to thumb through. Music was always playing. Anything from socialist reggae from the 60s to the latest pop club banger. It was all fair game.”

I know that he’ll find the bits of all of this that pluck some string inside him or maybe, like me, he’ll recognize that adding it all up into a maelstrom of input has a certain value too. I hope he doesn’t struggle in the ways I have but I do hope that he recognizes the value of surrounding yourself with the things that have meaning and whose value exist only through that meaning.

I Like the Idea of Dwarsliggers

The author John Green looks to be one of the first major, contemporary authors whose novels will be printed in a miniature flipbook format called a “dwarsligger.” According to this New York Times article, the format originated in The Netherlands 8 or 9 years ago and has been successful whenever it’s been deployed.

Dwarsligger format book
A Bible in the dwarsligger format.

I’ve yet to hold one of these but I really love this idea. Reading with one hand is…ahem…handy. It would make it easier to read while I eat, read while I walk, or just be more comfortable reading in bed or on the couch. I also like the idea of giving this a go with an author who has proven to have a strong following of readers who would be open to new ideas, namely young people.

I don’t know how the manufacturing cost compares to mass market paperbacks. If it’s reasonably close, I think that genre novels would be a great fit. Give someone like Chip Kidd free reign to design covers and layouts for this format and an author like N.K. Jemisin or Yoon Ha Lee and I think you could have a crossover blockbuster on your hands.

When I first saw one of these, I immediately thought of Mark Z. Danielewski who has long used unique layout and structure to add much to his novels. I suspect he could take this format and make it work not just for convenience but as an integral part of the story he is telling.

Running Vacations and Running While Traveling

I’ve long wanted to take a running vacation. As the only runner in my family though, it seems like something that would be hard to work out. Still, it’s an idea that I’d like to make happen.

Today, I found a website that stoked this fire even more. It’s an entire site dedicated to long-distance footpaths in Britain. There are descriptions, pictures, personal recaps of people’s walks, maps, and GPX files. It’s an amazingly complete resource for finding and planning long runs (or walks) in Britain.

Most similar sources I find about the US are all about hiking, camping, or other “outdoors” pursuits. I like that the focus of this site is on walking because it’s a perspective that makes more sense if I’m going to do multi-day runs. If you’ve read this site, you know that I love trail running. But, if I’m trying to get my family involved. Something geared a little more low-key than doing 5000ft of elevation in 5 miles is probably in order.

I’ll be taking quite a few trips soon, both vacations and work-related. That means I’ll be running in strange places. I really enjoy being a runner while traveling. It gives me a chance to see parts of the city that I might not otherwise visit as a tourist or just getting to work.

A few months ago, I was in San Francisco for work. I got up very early one day and ran from my hotel over the Golden Gate Bridge and back. It was a 13 mile run that, frankly, did me in a bit. However, I saw some amazing sites as the sun was coming up over the city.

A few weeks later, I was New York and spent a Saturday morning doing a 10k around the Central Park road loop. With all of the other runners, it felt like I was in the midst of a race. I had a few conversations with other runners. It was a great way to meet people and also get in a good run.

One thing I do when heading to a new place for work or vacation is to look at Strava’s heat maps near where I will be. It helps me spot places that other runners do a lot of miles in. I can then plan some routes and sync them to my watch for easy navigation. It makes me feel a bit more comfortable than just heading out onto the roads with no plan. I’ve done that and I ended up on a highway siding that was miserable.

So, there are two thoughts here about running while traveling. First, it’d be nice to travel just to run or primarily to do a long run or something like a staged run. Many of these longer footpaths have services that can carry your luggage to the next stop. That would help it be more comfortable for everyone. Second, making sure that I plan runs while traveling for work or with the family keeps my training in order and also lets me see parts of the city I might otherwise skip. It creates the opportunity for some great experiences.

In another post, I might share some tips about how to include runs in your travel schedule.

What ways have you planned a running vacation? How did you include family members that don’t run? How do you find places to run when visiting a new city?

Get you a Coach for Great Good

Some of you may remember that I broke my collarbone just over a year ago and had major surgery to repair it. I was able to get back to running and even ran the Promise Land 50k this Spring. I did finish the race but I was very much undertrained and it was a death march for the last half of the race. I felt bad most of the day and in the subsequent weeks started to question if I wanted to continue running.

Over the summer, I tried to get into a routine and get fit again but I kept having small injuries that would sideline me for a couple of days. I never got into a rhythm. I was inconsistent and swung the pendulum from not doing enough to overdoing it on a near weekly basis. It was frustrating and I felt like crap most of the time.

I changed jobs recently and one of the amazing benefits my new employer provides is a Wellness Benefit. Each employee has $150 per month to spend on things that improve our wellness. Do you want to take a knitting class? Paid. Do you want to join a gym? Paid. Do you need someone to cut your grass because you work odd hours? Paid. Basically, any service that helps lower your stress and/or keeps you healthy can be reimbursed by the benefit. Come work with us!

All of that means that I had $150 a month to pay for the services of a running coach and my running has been so much more fun and productive since then.

I’d long followed David Roche’s writing and social media. I appreciate his approach to training and to the sport of ultrarunning. Namely, his approach focuses on research and science but grounds all of that in the fun and adventure that is at the core of ultrarunning. However, his was full and he referred me to my now coach, Yvonne Naughton.

After a few introductory emails, Coach Yvonne and I hit it off quite well. I think she had a good sense of what I needed. I don’t need cheerleading or empty congratulatory pep talks. I need direction, consistency, information, and data. She provides that in spades. And while I like to act all spartan and hard about running, she still gives me the constructive push and cheer when I really do need it.

Regardless of your goals or current fitness, here’s what I think everyone should get out of a good coaching/athlete relationship. These are things that Coach Yvonne and I focus on to make sure our work together is productive.

Consistency. One of my favorite benefits of working with Coach Yvonne is that she does all the planning for my runs. She has a long-term plan which we talk about and she gives me week-to-week plans for workouts. If I have special demands on time or activity, she works it in to the plan and adjusts everything to keep me running and healthy. I stay on track not just in mileage but in effort and focus.

Feedback. Coach Yvonne gives me feedback on every run/ride/walk that I do. I tell her how it went and she tells me how my body might react and what to expect the next day. There are few surprises and when things go especially bad, she offers ways to work out of it.

Encouragement. Yes, I said I don’t need a cheerleader. But, anyone that’s been a runner long can tell you that the occasional nudge is important. Specifically, I have a very short memory about my progress. One bad workout where I don’t get my negative splits and I forget that two months ago, I was barely doing 12 miles a week and felt horrible the whole time. Coach Yvonne reminds me of how far we’ve come and where we are headed.

Safety. Coach Yvonne is an accomplished ultrarunner and she has the experience and training to know when soreness is more than that. She knows the signs of overtraining or fatigue. She can spot, just in the way I talk about a run, how it really went. It also helps that she’s a medical doctor. But, the important point is that an experienced second opinion is vital if you’re wondering whether you should do that speed work when your ankle hurts.

Fun. Runners love to talk about running. I’m sure my wife is happy that Coach Yvonne is around to listen to me wax on about the trail I ran last weekend. I am lucky to have a great running community around me and I see my coach as an extension of that.

I am remarkably privileged to have my coaching services paid for through my job. I am deeply grateful both for the benefit and for all the things that got me to a place where it’s possible for me to take advantage of it. I recognize that this isn’t possible for everyone because of budget constraints. I wonder if there’d be a way to have some of the outdoor/running companies do some fundraising to provide coaching services for runners who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

If it is something that your budget can absorb, I highly recommend getting a running coach and setting some lofty goals for yourself. This has been the most fun and strongest running I’ve done in years. I’m rediscovering why I fell in love with this sport and I’m so excited for what could happen during next year’s races. I’m thinking Lynchburg Ultra Series and possibly my first 100 late in the year or early 2020.

Book Review: Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Lake SuccessLake Success by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The major thing that had me stuck to this book was the cipher that is Barry Cohen. His guilelessness while also being a human capable of great harm and shallowness is perplexing but also somehow creates a gravity that is tough to escape. I found myself drawn to him in ways that the other characters in the book are.

But, there’s repulsion too that only serves to create a tension I had to explore. Ultimately, the most successful part of this book his Barry’s estranged wife, Seema. Her character shines through as touchingly human and endearingly conflicted. Much has been written about her dealing with the Cohen’s autistic three-year-old son, Shiva. I don’t have enough experience to know if it’s realistic or not. It is affecting and her struggles feel genuine. I’m not as keen to search for authenticity as I am to search for duality and paradox in the human condition and Seema is nothing if not torn.

For all the write-ups about this being a book about Trump’s America, I found it to be more a book about how fragile and unknown the human heart can be.

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Echoes of Doom

A friend recently mentioned this essay by Charles Eisenstein. It spurred the thoughts below.

So many of my thoughts lately are coalescing around a few writers and musicians. Charles Eisenstein, Wendell Berry, Peter Oren, Various leftist/agrarian reggae artists.

There’s a theme through all this that I can’t escape. I felt it profoundly when I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago. This disconnection in a world that claims to be overly connected. If there’s anywhere to feel that feeling, you’ll find it on the streets of this techno-wizard city beset with income inequality, housing madness, and unbridled greed all in the guise of progress.

When I ran through the Presidio one morning, I jogged off the path and just stood in the midst of the giant trees there. I just needed to absorb some of that energy and dispel some of my own negative energy. Even there, I was reminded that this was an Army base and I marveled at the barracks and stables where we once guarded against intrusion by the other.

I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and I watched a giant tanker pass under the bridge. I waved at a guy on the ship. I envied his impending journey out on the ocean. Meek in the face of nature but with an empty sky above him full of stars.

I considered what that tanker was carrying and it made me wonder how we have become so adept at the corruption of our own wellbeing. Here’s a marvel of engineering used not to further our wonder or knowledge but to schlep the effluence resulting from inflicting wounds on the land for the sole purpose of convenience.

I recently ran past the hotly contested Mountain Valley Pipeline construction that’s happening here in southwest Virginia. It’s a 30 yard wide scar across mountains, streams, the Appalachian Trail, vistas of wonder. I just stopped and stood in the middle of this destruction. It looked like a giant had taken its finger and smudged everything in its path into a broken, gray wasteland. It’s a rending of the Earth with no concern except the attempt to sate the hunger for commerce and the religion of more.

Some guy in a hardhat and hi-vis vest yelled at me to “get off his work site.” The use of the possessive there made me furious. I shuffled off and wondered what exactly it was that he thought he owned.

I can’t escape these echoes of the boundless pain we inflict on our world and ourselves. I get back to my desk and see that Apple has announced a new phone which is priced at $1,449. The world rejoices while Apple sits on billions in cash and we marvel at these kings of capitalism.