HR Stands for “Hilarious Replies”

I was ordering camping gear from Varusteleka, a Finnish company with a winning sense of humor. Typical product descriptions are “This is hands down the ugliest motherfucking hat ever made” and “smells starkly of old mould, might be incomplete/damaged and is overall very nasty. You don’t want to touch this without a full [hazmat] suit. Get yours now.”

On their order form they asked customers to consider applying for a job opening as a product manager. Me, I’ve never been headhunted before while buying East German surplus boot socks, so I was really chuffed and sent them a cover letter:

“Dear sir– I lack military/LE experience, talent for negotiation, or any gifts for business administration, and the only time I worked for a commercial enterprise, I was a failure. I am also unavailable to work in Finland and in any case would probably be considered undesirable by your government. However, I love smoked and pickled fish, deadlift a lot, and know Chinese and Sanskrit, so I believe I have what it takes to form exciting relationships with the People’s Liberation Army and ancient Indic chariot armies. I am available for interviews at your convenience.”

A month later, I have received this surprisingly earnest reply from their HR department:

“We have received your application [and] appreciate your interest … Unfortunately, you are not the person we are looking for. Thank you … we do appreciate the time that you invested in this application.”

Guileless and naive or masterfully dry?

Rhomboid Rodeo

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Volodya surveys the valley after earning his blue-and-white David Rigert tel’nyashka

To initiate Volodya the 28kg Kettlebell, I suitcase-carried him with the Backpack of Bricks up the summit. Today’s game was that I could set him down when needed, but for the whole hike I had to hold my chest and head upright. No hunched backs.

I had no idea how bad I’d be at that. Sure, in a life full of keyboards and steering wheels we’re all weak in the postural muscles of our upper backs, but I must excel at believing, “Ha, boring universal truths don’t apply to ME!!”

Of Sapogi and Sixguns

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“我不下地獄,誰下地獄?” (“If I do not descend into hell, who will?”)

During the Buddhist Backpack Pilgrimage, I acted as your personal bodhisattva, dear readers, and compassionately offered myself as a sacrifice for your welfare. How? By venturing out to do the whole 34 miles in jackboots (sapogi) and footwraps. In our previous field test we’d shown their value in wet conditions, but we still didn’t know how they would compete with hiking boots on hard, dry roads and rocky moonscapes. And who else would be lunatic enough to do so?

Hyperbole aside, I really was a little leery about this. It’s one thing to don strange footwear for a walk in the park, it’s another commit to them irrevocably for two days of hard walking.

Bundeswehr_Knobelbecher_OriginalThe boots I chose were surplus West German “Knobelbecher” (“dice-cups”). They’re heavy (1.1kg each), older than I am, and I bought them for $20.

My feet I wrapped in my homemade Russian-style portyanki. (In the world of footwraps, there is a Russian style and a very different German style called Fußlappen. Don’t worry, we’ll experiment with those too in due time!)

What did we learn? First, jackboots are awesome on roads, hardpack, and the forest floor. I’ve remarked before on how they make me walk by swinging my foot from the knee instead of from the hip. For whatever reason, on flat surfaces I sometimes felt like the jackboots were walking me or like I was a Bionic Marching Man. Not for nothing do Germans call them Marschstiefel, “marching boots!”

The jackboots also performed nearly as well as hiking boots on loose gravel and decaying roads. The only time I really wished I could change into hiking boots was on certain stretches of Mad Max-level rubble where your ankle rolled a different way with each step. With hiking boots you can plow straight over the rocks, if the ground is stable, as if you had little ATVs on your feet. With jackboots, you have to do a little extra work with your own foot and leg muscles, and I have to think that over time your knees absorb more torque.

The footwraps were positively delightful. They stayed put on every kind of terrain, and it was nice to refresh my feet by sitting down every few miles, turning the portyanki around, and rewrapping them. I also tried out wearing a pair of wool socks with the footwraps over them, something common in winter, and found that very comfortable too.

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You know how I treasure revolvers, but this is too ugly even to be Russian. And yet now I can see the genius of it.

A final thought on trail guns. I’d always wondered why someone would buy the Ruger LCRx, a misshapen 5-shot airweight .357 with a 3” barrel. It seemed like an overpowered pocket rocket that won’t even fit in your pocket! But after my close encounter with the bears, when I’d almost been too lazy to carry a gun at all, I saw the LCRx in a whole different light. It looks like a perfect “just in case” backwoods beater gun for when you’re weighing the annoyance of a real belt gun against the pathos of your family getting your remains back in a wet, 2-quart Ziploc bag.

Actually a Thing: Jackboots

Backpacking brings to life a lot of dead metaphors. When someone drives past you on a dry dirt road, you literally eat their dust, and on day two of a long hike, you really do have to tighten your belt.

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But “jackboots?” To me, “jackboot” is just a metonymy for fascists, as in “jackbooted thugs” and “Europe can go from zero to jackboot in no time.” George Orwell derided it as a hackneyed Comintern pejorative that held zero literal meaning for English speakers: “Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots.” I’d bet that Orwell was right and we got the viral “jackbooted Nazi” trope from the Russian language. But curiously, the Soviets themselves
also wore jackboots! In fact, whereas the German army traded in jackboots for laced boots halfway through the war, the Russian army wore them right up to 2008! (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the usual Russian word for boots, sapogi, specifically refers to jackboots.)

Here in America, actual jackboots are a weird sight, known mostly from black-and-white photos of our dead enemies. Even in China they were rare. I used to deal with a lot of Chinese soldiers, who were organized and equipped along Soviet lines—like the Finns, the PLA would study Soviet designs and then improve them—but instead of sapogi they wore green canvas sneakers. It was only the ceremonial detail (礼兵) who raised the flag in Tiananmen Square each morning who would goose-step across Chang’an Boulevard in actual huge gleaming jackboots.

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Friend to friend, guys, if you’re serious about image-building, we need to get you new boots. How about some Uggs? Wouldn’t those be cute?

I must be a true ‘Murican, because I am turned off by jackboots, both the word and the real thing. For me, they call to mind all the adjectives that I associate with Mussolini: “preening,” “cocksure,” “buffoonish,” “swaggering,” “ridiculous,” “vainglorious,” and so on.

So I was surprised to find that in 2018 jackboots are still being chosen for daily wear by actual, nice, non-evil people! Exhibit A is Lars Grebnev, a Danish expatriate who creates the “Survival Russia” YouTube channel from the homestead he shares with his Russian wife and daughter in BFE, Siberia. (Hmm, I guess it shouldn’t be BFE but “БФЗ.”) A woodsman and hunter, Lars prefers jackboots to lace-ups for general wear because the jackboots keep moisture out, dry quickly when wet, and keep a healthy circulation of blood and air in and around the foot.

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images-15 At most, one of these two Danes has committed crimes against humanity, and it’s not the guy in the jackboots.

I had to keep reminding myself that a considered preference for jackboots is not necessarily the same as choosing despotism over freedom. “Besides,” I assured myself, “Grebnev can’t be an evil blood-stained fascist hyena. He’s Danish, and since Viking times no Dane has visited atrocities on other countries. Unless you count the films of Lars von Trier.”

So for the sake of Science, I acquired a pair of East German jackboots from—literally—a dust-covered shelf in a dark corner of a cavernous surplus store. They were so unloved that I had to convince the store owner to charge me $20 for them. “Perhaps,” I thought, “as a true American she’s ashamed even to have them in her store and just wants them gone.”

And then (deep breath) I wore the jackboots. Yes, outside of my house. In daylight. On a long hike. Granted, I did roll my pant legs down over the distinctively mitteleuropäischen boot tops so that people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Wow, I bet that guy kills for sport.” And there is NFW I am taking a picture of myself in tall jackboots and putting it on the internet. I probably wouldn’t be crucified unless I also wore balloon-like cavalry trousers and carried a swagger stick. But these days you can’t be too careful. People get condemned as Nazis for less. Honestly, sometimes I wonder whether you people adequately appreciate the things I do for you.

When you change into a completely different kind of clothing, you change your posture and movement too. Not just because you are conscious of a different social role but because of how the clothes physically touch, cue, constrain, or free you. If you’re like me, if you wear a kilt for a few hours, you walk and stand wider just because you can. Your thighs get to do whatever they want for once and you can give more room to … whatever needs room.

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treningogrehab.no

The jackboots seem to prompt you to lock your knees when standing, because they push gently backward on your shins and coax you to put more weight on your heels. You tuck your pelvis under too—most Americans stand with our pelvises tilted forward—and then when I walk in the jackboots, I swing my feet more from the knees.

In the field, the jackboots were much more comfortable than I thought. I am pretty certain that the Russian army chose jackboots not to please the soldiers but because they made the supply officers’ job easier. One advantage to the jackboots was that correct sizes are not so important (more on this later), so your soldiers could get boots that were too big and still make do. Also, if I understand correctly, jackboots are easier to manufacture than ankle boots. Yes, they use up more leather, which is why the Germans abandoned them mid-war, but in some cases the Soviets had plenty of raw materials and labor but not enough of the specialized tooling and production experience needed for fancier items.

A classic example was the early AK-47. As originally designed, it was supposed to use light, cheap metal stampings, an emerging technology used to great effect by German engineers when they ran low on raw materials. But the Soviets found they suffered a different kind of scarcity than the Germans: their enemies had run short of steel and factory workers but they still had world-class production engineering. In contrast, the Soviets had enough steel and manufacturing capacity, but they didn’t have engineers who were experienced in the new field of metal stamping. So they purposely took a technological step backward and abandoned stampings for AK-47s, instead going back to the old-fashioned technique of carving the guns out of blocks of metal. (They also enslaved the German engineers and made them fix the metal-stamping problems. How’s that for thinking outside the box?) They chose something clunkier that used more material because that was the thing they could mass-produce using the skills they were good at. I suspect that jackboots were like that too: no eyelets or grommets or hooks, no tongue, not so much precise fitting, just a basic pattern that the Russian workforce was already good at making.

As promised, my jackboots kept my feet dry. I was pleased that for once I could clomp boldly through the stream instead of picking my way across stepping stones with a backpack and a clumsy jerry can–and maybe falling in anyway. And the jackboots were amazingly light, lighter than any boots I own, being made from some kind of imitation leather (possibly kirza).

What I worried about was footing. As noted, jackboots by themselves do not fit you very closely. Saying nothing of the ankle, which has no laces, the boots’ “lasts” (the foot-shaped part) can’t tighten around your feet. Instead they are like little boxes and your feet bang around inside fairly loosely. Even wearing two pairs of woolen socks, my feet did not feel snug enough.

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That was the whole problem. These boots are not made with socks in mind. Instead you’re assumed to be wearing footwraps (portyanki). So I did it, friends! As promised, I cut up an old flannel bedsheet into strips of 40 x 90cm (16 x 36”) and learned how to wrap my feet the Russian way. (One more item off the bucket list!)

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Let me tell you, comrades, like so much of life, there is a right way to wrap your feet and there are also lots of wrong ways. I know this because I tried all of them. Finally I got it right (thanks, Lars!), and what resulted looks like a foot that’s mummified in soft, poofy cotton cloth. Tactilely, it felt really luxurious and cozy, like a thick, sturdy sheaf of cotton candy from my calf down to my toes. And miraculously, when I slid my mummified foot deep into the boot, I got a nice, snug fit. Instead of my feet banging around the inside of loose leather cases, they were like a pair of earrings cushioned by cotton inside a gift box. Whereas laced boots tighten the boot down around the foot, the portyanki bulk the foot out to fill up the boot.

This seems to be why jackboots are forgiving of imprecise sizing. If you have a pair of boots that gives you a lot of toe room, you can tweak your wrappings slightly to fill in the empty space. Problem solved! The same thing happens at the ankle. The portyanki are super-long—a full yard!—and most of that cloth ends up wrapped around your ankle and calf. It acts as “internal boot laces,” if you will, and gives you a firm fit. When you walk, your heels get to rise and fall a little but you are held gently but firmly at your toes, instep, ankle, and calf.

On my walk, the only problem occurred when I walked down a long, steep, rough slope under heavy load. My toes were superbly cushioned, whereas hiking boots would grind them if the boots didn’t have generous toe room and the right tension in the laces. But after a time, the downward angle was slowly bunching up the footwraps in the boots’ toes, and after half a mile of that I needed to rewrap my feet so that I blister them against the wrinkles forming underneath them. I don’t yet know whether this is an inherent problem or my fault as a neophyte foot-wrapper.

In any case, at that point I had the opportunity to try out one of the virtues of portyanki that Lars and others praise the most: they make it easy to keep your feet dry of sweat because they are like several pairs of spare socks in one. Your sweaty foot is only in contact with one corner of the footwrap at a time, and the opposite end is wound around your calf or even poking out the top of your boot, where it is gradually drying. So if your foot would benefit from some dry “socks,” you just turn the portyanki around and wrap from the other side. Later you can dunk them in water, wring them out, and hang them up, and the thin cloth will air-dry in no time. I tried this out at the Pool of Heaven and it worked just as advertised.

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We are DEFINITELY trying this again, guys!

Портянки

What is archaic, rustic, cheap … and Russian?

It’s a trick question! The answer is, “Whatever it may be, you know damn well that now Jason will insist on trying it!”

Today it’s portyanki, the traditional Russian foot wrap that some hunters still prefer with heavy boots instead of socks. In fact, the Russian army only phased out foot wraps in 2008. Even though portyanki are notoriously stinky–“traditional Russian chemical weapons,” according to the old joke–loyalists insist they are better for foot health than socks because they dry very quickly.

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If you leave a wrinkle in the wrong place, you can get a nasty hot spot. Ask me how I know.

Of course, I think the army was actually more impressed that portyanki obeyed what I take to be the Prime Directive of Soviet equipment: Unburden the supply chain. Soviet industry scarcely needed to “manufacture” foot wraps–all they are is strips of cloth, and most any kind of cloth will do. The wraps bulk up the foot, so they make it less important to have boots that fit well. And they last nearly forever, unlike socks, but even if you do damage them, you can make do by wrapping them a little differently, or you can just make yourself a new pair with some discarded cloth.

Or that’s what they tell me, anyway. I aim to find out for myself. I have sacrificed an old flannel pillowcase on the altar of Soviet Gear Science and will report back. You may send any concerns about cultural appropriation to your local Communist Party branch office, where you will be sent to the gulag for re-education.

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The author consulted no Cossacks in connection with this post. He remains defiant.

Shod for Life

At last, my beautiful, homely boots are resoled. I doubt whether I’ll outlive these tough old oaks (but I’ll do my best).

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Our town’s cobbler is a master craftsman and a study in paradox: a stone-cold, tie-dyed hippie, he also has in him something of a Teddy Roosevelt or Friedrich Nietzsche, condemning successive generations’ preference for softer and softer shoe soles as a contemptible slackening of moral fiber.

D-Zazzle and other boot fetishists, they’re the Bundeswehr’s KS2000, manufactured by I know not whom and now superseded. They came to me with glued soles (another symptom of the human spirit’s enfeeblement, says the cobbler) but now are Goodyear welted. Considering what tanks they are, I think they’re pretty light at 1.5kg each and, if flooded, they drain amazingly well. I may or may not be able to wait til morning to take them out for a spin.

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The Neanderthal and the Yogi

If you were ever hectored about your posture, you were probably told to “stand up straight” and maybe to turn your chest out or pull your shoulders back. Those are good cues, but nobody mentions the most important thing: “elbow pits forward.”

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Jerry shirt, jerry can

To stand up straight up with your chest out, you only need to move your spine, but most of us have another problem too, with how our upper arms are rotated. Freeze right now and look down to see where your elbow pits are facing. (If you aren’t sure, just curl your forearm up to your bicep and back without moving anywhere except at your elbow. Whatever plane your arm is moving in, that’s where your elbow pit is facing.) Almost everyone I know has their elbow pits turned inward most of the time, toward the body’s centerline. That’s because we sit a lot and constantly use keyboards, pens, and other tools centered in front of our bodies, and to touch them we have to angle our hands inward in what’s called “internal rotation.”

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From Barbara Loomis at alignmentmonkey.nurturance.net
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Strength athletes suffer terrible internal rotation, especially in America where we fetishize the bench press, and that gives us a familiar “Neanderthal” look: thick in the pecs, wide in the lats, and short-necked and slope-shouldered. Once I was asked by a dancer I had only just met whether I’d once wrestled. My answer was, “Yes, very badly” and I was amazed at her clairvoyance. She explained that she could usually spot wrestling types by “the way they move.” I have a hunch (get it?) that she is tipped off largely by that caveman-like internal rotation.

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Contrast dancers: they are easy to spot, at least when assuming their stage presence, by that distinctive upright carriage. They are taught to imagine a string gently pulling the crown of the head upward, drawing them erect with necks long. But I think that a lot of what we recognize as “dancer posture” is that they aren’t internally rotated like the rest of us.

For us, probably the only place where we unlearn this deformity is in a yoga class. Often teachers don’t emphasize it or articulate the lesson well, but in effect they are trying to train your elbow pits forward when they cue you to “draw your shoulders down away from your ears” and “broaden the back.” (Unfortunately those aren’t great cues because you can follow them even when your elbow pits are still turned inward just by engaging your lats.) In my experience, this is the magic of a pose like downward dog or upward dog. If you follow all the directions (spread your fingers, pronate the palms fully, “lengthen” the collarbones, fire the lats hard) to “broaden the back and pull the shoulders away from the ears,” you are definitely turning those elbow pits forward.

And that is a wonderful thing. You get stronger (e.g. deadlifts, pull-ups, and all the presses), you avoid a lot of joint problems and injuries, and you look healthier too. In fact, what people see as “big pecs” or “well-defined shoulders” is largely about the shoulder joint being rotated out to a healthy position. Men and women both look fitter instantly, without gaining any muscle or losing any fat, just by turning those elbow pits forward. And for me, it even affects my mood: when I’m rotated out, I also feel more buoyant and cheerful.

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The hunched back starts with the knuckles being turned forward, and that rotates the elbow inward.

Why am I getting all didactic about elbow pits today? Because they were so hard for me to control on my walk! For some active recovery, I carried the jerry can (45#) up the Rock of Faeries and it was much harder than a kettlebell. The wider, clunkier shape tries to make you hold it farther out to your side. That’s a little more tiring and so instinctively you try to inch the can fractionally closer by turning your elbow in. And soon you’re a Neanderthal again. (Look at the picture on the right that Skadisdottir took of me carrying the archery target at my birthday party. You can see how stooped I am.)

So today I did my feeble best to treat carrying the can as a kind of yoga asana, focusing less on moving the implement than on keeping good position. On game day I won’t fuss overly much about form–the point will just be to move the f****** can, not to look like a ballerina–but on training days it’s much more important to reinforce good habits than squeeze out a little extra performance by cheating on fundamentals.

Farewell, Lenin!

I’m outgrowing my love of cheap Communist Bloc stuff as I prepare for the looooooooong all-night ruck in Carson City. I don’t want to get halfway through the event only to drop out just because the last of my skin has been rubbed off by smelly Czechoslovak canvas.

So today I surrendered, embraced the capitalist running dog in all of us, and tried a lavishly padded, wide-strapped Belgian surplus backpack. I am never going back.

The Seduction of Soviet Gear

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Old Soviet gear is often ugly, heavy, and uncomfortable. What can make it a winner is that it streamlines your life. You may get bored or sore, but you will get a lot done.

As an example, my friend and I both love exercise, but we have totally different setups. He has a membership to a beautiful, clean, abundantly equipped gym, whereas I have a hot, dirty garage full of kettlebells. My setup is Soviet in its philosophy: it looks drab and monotonous, but it makes my life simple. When I want a workout, I just (1) open the garage door and (2) exercise. I can easily do this every day, even twice a day. I don’t even have to change clothes. Heck, sometimes I bang out some pullups in my suit on the way to work. In contrast, my friend’s quintessentially American gym membership looks much more appealing, but it is logistically complicated. To work out, he must (1) pack a gym bag, (2) drive to the gym, (3) park and enter, (4) change clothes, (5) find a squat rack that is not monopolized by someone else, and finally do steps (6-10) in reverse. It takes a lot of time, it is a pain in the ass to fit into his day, and it takes a lot of discipline. Me, I’m lazy, and as a result I exercise 10 times more than my friend.

The Russian approach is not necessarily cheaper. This is a common misunderstanding. Durable goods are expensive. Contrary to myth, AK rifles are hard and expensive to make. The reason that Eastern Bloc gear is available dirt cheap to me is that it was mass-produced at huge expense to governments that no longer exist and is now surplussed off for pennies on the ruble. So the stuff in my garage cost Brezhnev and Ceausescu big money and then I snapped it up for $4 at their garage sale.

My menagerie of kettlebells would probably cost me $1000 today. Just shipping a 90# cannonball is a big deal. But it was a onetime cost. I’ve had my kettlebells for 20 years, handled them roughly with no ill effect, and a century from now they will still be used by my great-great-great-grand-dogs. Contrast my friend, who pays $1000 for his gym membership every year.

His setup is much cooler, with lots of options, but it has an over-abundance of features I don’t want to pay for. And features are another area where the Soviet designers chose simplicity. My friend’s gym has Precor treadmills that I love because they are technological marvels. You can adjust the slope and speed, choose from preset programs or customize your own, monitor time and distance and calories burned, measure your heart rate using touch sensors (!), and watch entertainment on an integrated TV screen. But most of that stuff is stupid and, aside from being hugely expensive, the treadmills have so many features that they are fragile. At any given time, 20% are broken and awaiting a service call by repair staff, who probably charge good money. In contrast, my kettlebells have only one feature: they are cannonballs with a handle and they never break.

Instead of features, the Soviet designers went for versatility, which is a little different. The kettlebell is optimized for nothing, but you can use it on a “close enough” basis for many things. Squat it? Yeah, good enough. Weighted pullups? Yeah, close enough, you just hang it off your foot. It sucks but it works. Circuit training? Absolutely. Train the deadlift? Yeah, close enough, you just swing it a lot. Cardio when you have no space to run in? Sure, it’s not optimal but it’s good enough. I have also dragged kettlebells, thrown them, carried them in many positions, juggled them, used them as doorstops, tied errant dogs to them, and pounded soybeans with them. When I was in grad school, I think all I owned was a laptop and some kettlebells. Maybe you could say the kettlebell is “strategically underspecialized.” Contrast Nautilus machines or Hammer Strength machines. The Hammer machines are brilliant designs and so durable they could almost be Russian, but they only do one thing apiece and even now that I have a salary, I don’t have money and space to buy a dozen specialized machines.

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Finally, Soviet gear is always very easy to learn. The designers did not care about ergonomic comfort. In their machines, the Soviets left out many automated or labor-saving features and instead made the end-users pick up the slack by doing those things manually. But the Soviets were design geniuses at simplifying things for the user conceptually. You can figure out a lot of Soviet gear just by watching a quick demonstration and practicing. Especially if you are spurred along by motivational beatings from the sergeant!

The Soviets were designing for teenage draftees who might be functionally illiterate and scarcely understand Russian. (Remember, the USSR had 14 major languages and 51 million citizens who did not know Russian!) They were assured only four quick training cycles under brutal conditions, and then after two years they would go home and forget all their training. But thirty years later they might be called up from the reserves suddenly, issued their old equipment, and fed into battle with no refresher training. So the designers assumed an end-user who might (a) understand nothing the trainers said and then (b) forget almost everything.

They also wanted to minimize the variety and amount of stuff traveling up and down their chronically overstressed supply chain. They wanted fewer parts, less breakage, fewer trips to repair depots, and fewer training sessions. We often say the Soviets prized “reliable” gear, but more precisely, they wanted it to be reliable for the supply officers. It was not necessarily super reliable for the operator: Mosin-Nagant rifles seize up constantly and need to be hammered open, and Soviet vehicles were not designed to be “survivable” for the crew. But their gear is ingeniously optimized for giving a mass army a reliable supply. It seldom breaks, and when it does, the soldier can patch it up in the field well enough to keep it limping along at some minimal level of effectiveness. That soldier may not survive with his patched-up equipment, but there are millions more soldiers in the army who can carry on the fight when he is gone. The designers are interested in supplying the army, not the individual.

But then why would you choose Soviet gear?! If they made it to benefit the logisticians, not the end-user (i.e. you), why would you want it? The answer is that you are also your own logistician. You are responsible for securing equipment you can afford and you are responsible for organizing training for the end-user (i.e. yourself). Since you are responsible for overseeing maintenance, if you do not trust the end-user (yourself) to be diligent about that, you want forgiving gear. You are also the repair depot, so you might want something that you can fix yourself or throw away and replace without a second thought.

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Varusteleka, Finnish purveyor of Soviet milsurp and home of the all-smashing Soviet surplus axe.

This is really huge: no one cares if they manage to break their Soviet gear. But when I have nice gear, I baby it and don’t want to risk it. Take as an example my “Tale of Two Hatchets.” On top is the hatchet I inherited from the grandfather I never met. It is gorgeous and nimble, so I would hate to hit something wrong and bend the edge. Therefore I use it a little tentatively. On bottom is a Soviet surplus hatchet. Calling it “rough-hewn” would be entirely too poetic. It is downright crude. But it hits like Thor’s own hammer, and since I only spent $20 on it, I would not weep if I somehow contrived to break it. In fact, it would be something to brag about.

#gearwhore: A Man’s Journey Into Materialism (Part I)

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Americans are (in)famously gadgety. When faced with a problem, our preferred move is to upgrade our equipment. A friend epitomized this when he told me his Golden Rule of Home Improvement: “When you start a project, either commit to getting exactly the right tools for the job or don’t do it at all. If you don’t invest in purpose-made labor-saving equipment, you’ll waste your time, energy, and patience.” 
But me, I’m an oddball who never cared much about gear. Either because of my Buddhist stoicism or what a Chinese friend called my “peasant-consciousness” (农民意识), I fear becoming reliant on anything perishable or hard to obtain. For whatever equipment I must have, I’ve instinctively taken the Russian/Chinese approach. I want the opposite of specialized, single-purpose, expensive, high-maintenance, high-tech, rare, complicated, or difficult to repair. I delight in equipment that is ingeniously simple and cheap, and if the results are crude, I probably don’t mind. If I have to sacrifice convenience or expend extra physical energy, I seem to have plenty of patience and endurance for that. But not for painstaking maintenance or “reading the f—— manual.”

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If future archaeologists excavate my garage, they will think that Varusteleka is the word for “cardboard box.”

At least I know myself–Socrates would be proud. BUT. The ground has been shifting within me. I am coming to like gear and equipment in its manifold kinds, even to spend time and money on it. (Please don’t tell the Buddha.) It started when I became a homeowner and bought up tools for pennies on the dollar from a contractor who was closing his business. Then there followed shooting and reloading supplies, which now seem to fructify and multiply in my garage with rodent-like enthusiasm, and I’ve taken to spending many hours lovingly organizing them all into carefully labeled hutches. This happy disease has spread to my closets, my shoe rack, and my car, which is now outfitted for virtually anything except flying saucers and Ebola, and unless I draw a line in the sand, the gear might also take hold in my office like kudzu.

At last, it seems, I am joining my countrymen and turning into a gearwhore. This new series will be part field notebook and part spiritual memoir of my (d)evolution into my latent American geariness.