Grumpy about life hacks

What’s up with “life hacks?” That turn of phrase makes me grumpy in a split second. All you have to say to me is “LIFE HA–” and my eyes are rolling and I’m making you-smell-like-kimchi-fart faces. You don’t even have to get to the “CK” for me to lose my shit, which means I’ve given you a life hack. You can just drop the “CK” and save your mouth an extra sound, and still make me lose my shit. Efficiency with a cap-E.

When I first started hearing the phrase, I thought it was a new way to refer to identity theft, or maybe it meant robbing someone of part of their life, like by stalking them. “That guy hacked my life after I broke up with him. He got a key to my apartment and put kitty litter in my underwear drawer and stole my cat.”

Eventually I deduced that “life hack” actually refers to some cool trick that makes a mundane task easy and fast, or a simple process that solves an intractable but common problem. Internet osmosis brought me to this understanding, but I don’t know how. Very mystifying.

After seeing some really stupid “life hack” posts on facebook recently, I decided to do some research and bring closure to this question of definition. I went to the source of all knowledge and wisdom, my guru, my sage. I started with the basics and engaged in four iterations of expanding awareness, as I tried to come to grips with LIFE HA–.

In other words, I googled four times and lo, I partook of the tree of knowledge:

“What is a hack.”
“What is a life hack.”
“Life hacks.”
“Best life hacks.”

Brilliant, I know. Three suffocating years of law school and 12 years as a litigator gave me the skills to carefully craft this small array of sophisticated google inquiries. And in case you’re wondering, yes, each question netted different (albeit overlapping) results. I browsed and read and browsed and read. More osmosis occurred. Then I sat back and realized that the banal world has hacked what used to be a nice turn of phrase.

“Life hack” apparently was first used in the computer nerd community to refer to a clever or ingenious, quick-and-dirty solution to some everyday problem, originally in the programming context and eventually in all of life. So my understanding was pretty close.

But people will call ANYTHING a life hack these days.

There are obvious and much-used ideas that float about, like sticking a fork in citrus to juice it. Can you call it a life hack if a ton of people already do it? That doesn’t seem right.

There are the silly tricks that look like cool ideas but couldn’t possibly add value to my life in a pinch. Jam a potato onto a power drill so it spins while you peel it. Awesome, if the potato is a perfect ovoid shape with no dimples, which none of mine ever are, because I buy local and organic and everyone knows local, organic produce is funny-looking. Just look at this massive (alleged) parsnip that came in my farmshare box last week:


Try sticking that on a power drill. Maybe organic farmers need a life hack to help them grow less scary vegetables.

What was I talking about… Oh, power drill, potato. Right, great idea except I’d be bringing my greasy, industrial power drill into the kitchen and applying it to ingestible food. And also if I need to peel a hundred potatoes. I guess I could spend an hour at the grocery store sorting over the potatoes for the perfect shaped ones to impale on my drill, and I could carefully clean the drill, but that would defeat the purpose of saving time, wouldn’t it. Anyway, I have a better hack for the potato-peeling-takes-too-long problem: don’t peel your potatoes. BAM. Cap-E.

How about the trick of putting cherry tomatoes between two plates and running a knife between the plates to cut them all in half at once. I saw the video. I wonder how many takes they filmed to get it right. Out of curiosity, I tried it. It took me a really long time to arrange the tomatoes properly, and also I had to sort them by size because just one oversized tomato could blow the whole thing off balance, and then anyway none of the plates I tried had the right amount of convexity or concavity (are those words?) to work right. Also my knife wasn’t sharp enough, so I tried to sharpen it on my little honing thingy but it didn’t help. Fail.

I bet I could find a cherry-tomato-life-hack-cutting-plate-and-knife-set on Amazon, but I don’t think anything that requires special equipment and has limited application should count as a life hack. I have a better hack for the cherry tomatoes: eat them whole. BAM.

I was angry about the tomato episode, because it turned out to be a life hack in my original sense of the phrase. I went through a whole pint of tomatoes, dirtied a bunch of dishes, and wasted a good hour of my precious spare time. Whoever came up with that lame idea hacked an hour of my life. Cap-A-hole.

My friend Erin texted me a couple days ago. She was watching the local news and saw this idea presented as a “life hack”: when cutting a  loaf of bread that isn’t already sliced, use a bread knife.

Oh COME ON. That’s consumerism, not a hack. Wait, no. It’s a WALLET HACK.

I checked out a variety of life hack sites. 100 life hacks that make life easier.  Life Tricks. 40 Clever Life Hacks to Simplify Your World. The 30 Best, Most Genius Life Hacks EVER. (ever, seriously. EVER.)

And so on. Sifting through web sites that offer life hacks is just exactly like waking up in a Martha Stewart nightmare. Make crumbling blacktop into Christmas tree ornaments! Collect dryer lint and use it to insulate your leaky windows! Mount your blow dryer on your camera tripod for hands-free hair styling! Some cute ideas, but very little that will actually speed up my life, solve intractable problems quickly, or otherwise make my day. And a lot of the so-called hacks aren’t even clever; they’re just common-sense ways most of us get through life already, like putting your shoes on shelves, or organizing your stuff in boxes.

Well if that’s all it’s about, here’s my critical list of the FIVE BEST LIFE HACKS EVER, which I magnanimously share with you, in the hopes that your life, like mine, will be filled with chirping little birds and smell like ripe mangos:

1. Wipe your butt with wet wipes when you poop.  Every. Time. You will smell better, and your laundry won’t be contaminated with unholy PPMs of fecal matter. Skid marks will be a thing of the past. Same goes for the kids. Until you’re sure they can keep at it until they see a clean wipe, wipe their butts for them. With wet wipes. Back in the early 90’s, at a time when I was unaware of any wet-wipe products marketed or sold for adult usage, I started buying Tidy Tykes butt wipes for my household. It really improved the funk factor in our home. Now I can buy butt wipes at Costco in bulk quantities, and the world is a better place.

2. This is for the moms with little ones: unless your kid smells bad (pull that underwear waistband out and take a sniff) or her hair is visibly greasy or she’s getting rashes, don’t bother with a bath or shower. Visible dirt can be removed with a wet washcloth or paper towel in seconds. You’ll save lots of time and water, and no one will notice.  Kids don’t sweat and smell the same way adolescents and adults do. Nb: this life ha– works best in conjunction with hack #1.

3. Just don’t do that shit. Whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do, don’t do it. You will save SO MUCH TIME, and your life really won’t be much more fu**ed up than it already is.

4. Another one for moms: smack your kids once in a while. It takes all the edges off the guilt you feel about more trivial things, like putting dirty athletic gear on them because you didn’t do laundry (see #3 above), or forgetting to send lunch to school. The head slap is stress-relieving and cheaper than therapy, and you save on commuting time to your shrink’s office. Your children can take care of their own therapy when they grow up and leave.

5. Disregard # 4. I was just kidding. The actual hack I try to implement, but it’s really hard, is to HUG my kids when they’re being little monsters. It also takes the edges off all the guilt, and it’s also cheaper than therapy. In fact, you may be able to avoid therapy altogether if you go this route. But it takes a bit of thought, planning ahead, and self control. So it’s not really a hack. Damn. But it’s still a nice idea so I’m calling it a life hack. Sue me.

Okay I admit it. I’m making this shit up. Just like all the other people who are posting up so-called life hacks.

When I get to meditating on this, I realize that the real issue I have with “life hacking” is that it suggests organic life is analogous to whatever happens in a bunch of tiny metallic circuits driven by binary code. I don’t like AI analogies for life. It gets me all metaphysical and shivery, and I don’t go in for deep thoughts. It’s not one of my strengths. I’m not well-read and it reminds me of how superfluous and shallow and redundant my soul really is.

Because what if we really are just part of a computer simulation operated by some unimaginable being, watching us unroll this scenario out to its bitter and inevitable end? Or even worse, what if we’re just background characters in a computer game, like humans who lived in the time of the Greek gods, catastrophes tumbling down on our heads as the game advances through harder and harder levels, over-sized historical characters like Hitler and Joan of Arc actually being the avatars of the players in the game, until the inevitable GAME OVER, each Big Bang nothing more than a tap of the “REPLAY” button. If that’s true, then maybe we SHOULD be trying to hack our way out of this shit hole, in which case putting swimming pool noodles in our cowboy boots to keep them from flopping or folding our sweaters correctly over hangers so the armpits don’t sag all weird is stuff that’s so trivially trivial that it’s madness to waste any attention on it. The life hacks we should be concerned with are things like stopping large asteroids before they hit earth, or turning back global warming, or solving cancer. You know, things that’ll keep the game going a while longer for Player Number 1, so that we can keep going too.

I sound like the guys who wrote The Matrix, and we all know how that spun itself down the toilet by movie three. Somebody slap me and tell me to shut the f*&# up.

Grumpy about third grade math

Jesse’s math homework last night included the following problem:


Jesse was stumped. So was I. How can it be that knowing the length of only one side of a shape, you can know its area? So Jesse and I talked, and it was a complicated affair for a 9-year-old. Unless I’m missing something, you have to make significant assumptions about the number of sides and the angles involved for Aiden’s assertion to be true. But if you’re working on the principle of right-angle four-sided arrays, which is what the kids have been doing for two months as they learn multiplication, Aiden doesn’t seem to have enough information at all with only the length of one side. I think he needs to know a width as well as a length. And there’s something goofy about answering “it can be true if it’s a square,” because then of course Aiden “knows” the length of all four sides of his garden. Or I suppose you could argue that if the adjoining sides of the rectangle are some factor of the one known side, like they’re exactly twice as long, then Aiden can use the one known length to measure the other sides and so on. It doesn’t feel right.

I asked Jesse to stretch her thinking by leaving straight lines in the dust. Boring. What if there were a shape with only one side… The only thing you have to assume then is the shape: it’s a circle garden. Then Aiden knows the “length” of the one “side” – the circumference – and then he can calculate the radius, and from that he can calculate the area. I think I remember these basic equations right, so I wrote them down for Jesse and suggested she stretch her third-grade teacher’s thinking.

Jesse officially thinks I’m crazy now, just a complete lunatic. I feel like I must be missing something really obvious, and it’s making me feel stupid today. What do you think?

Grumpy about ketchup

Why is ketchup still red? How come no one is trying to fix this vexing issue?

Someone invented Color Wonder pens, thus illustrating the amazing things corporations can accomplish when left alone to express their first amendment rights fully. Toddlers can now trash mama’s living room walls without leaving a single visible mark. That sort of anti-authoritarian behavior is incredibly liberating, just the sort of untrammeled individual expression that will help build the next generation of hard-working capitalists — and at no cost to the family’s interior paint budget.

Last month Anthony and I were relaxing at a local bar when we discovered clear bourbon. Yes, I said that: clear bourbon. Fact is, it tasted like something I’d use to strip a finish off wood, but it was clear bourbon. They should do that to ketchup. Everyone always says kids don’t care about what food looks or tastes like as long as it’s salty and sweet, so just make that condiment clear and add some sodium and sugar and call it ketchup. You can rest assured moms will buy it. Because ketchup stains.

I find the problem especially nettlesome when we reach the dregs of a bottle of ketchup. Jesse gives that bottle a mighty squeeze and the ensuing squirt practically aerosolizes the ketchup, spraying little droplets all over the table and wall and Jesse, like a blood spatter pattern from a head shot. It takes weeks before I find all the marks, and frequently her clothes are permanently stained. I wish she liked to wear red as much as she loves ketchup.

Ronald Reagan made ketchup into a vegetable. I think Heinz can usher in the next evolution by making ketchup into an invisible, non-staining vegetable. If they’re worried that people will freak out, they can offer two different products. There are already two ways to spell ketchup, so it’s just a matter of rebranding. Ketchup is clear, catsup is red. Easy peezy.

It’s easy to blame the tomatoes for the red, staining quality of ketchup, but that would be a feint. Earth-grown inputs don’t really matter that much in highly processed food-like products. Pure white marshmallows have food dyes in them. Why can’t manufacturers add some food dyes and make ketchup white too, or better yet, invisible? Just leave the tomatoes out, if that’s what it takes. After all, they make fruit snacks and fruit roll-ups without using any fruit. “Ketchup” doesn’t even have the word tomato in it, so who would miss the tomatoes?

I once had a Paleo neighbor who would go off on me about how she can make ketchup that’s consistent with the Paleo diet. It was apparently life-changing. She told me about it at least 6 different times, probably more. It was one of the things that really set me off about the Paleo craze. Why was this woman going on and on about KETCHUP? But now I see it a new way: if Paleo-phyles can make ketchup – which means they made it out of what, eggs, grass-fed beef, kale, and avocado – then surely Heinz can make clear ketchup.

Check out Heinz’s Innovation page. Whoa! There is some serious shit going down at Heinz. “Turning packaging expectations upside down—as we did literally with our Top-Down™ ketchup bottle—is a Heinz tradition. But dreaming up new ideas to make it easier to enjoy our products is just the beginning.”

I’ll tell you what, Heinz. If you could turn a bottle upside down — literally — you can make ketchup that doesn’t stain! Go for it, large corporate entity! GMO and blue dye #1 that shit. Give me ketchup that doesn’t stain my kids’ ETSY-purchased fair trade organic locally grown sustainable natural bamboo fiber wardrobe.

grumpy about the autumn leaves

This time of year, the streets in our neighborhood are lined with leaves. People rake them into long piles roadside, and then a big vacuum cleaner truck trundles by every couple of weeks to hose them up. Of course, if you do the piling prematurely, and if a big wind comes before the big truck, the leaves mostly re-scatter. In the case of the home across the street, every year they re-scatter all over my front yard. Because the universe is what it is, this invariably happens after Anthony and I have already raked our yard clean. So we get to do it again.

I’ve never understood giving leaves away to the city. We pile all our raking leaves into one big heap in the back yard for the kids to play in. You should see Madeline — our six-pound, 10-inch-tall poodle — leap into a big leaf pile. She sprints down the slope of our yard like a tiny cheetah and catapults herself into the air, legs stretched out to infinity, reaching heights of at least 4 feet and flying 6 feet forward before she dives into the leaves. It’s an amazing display of both the physical power and the playful spirit of dogs. In shrink-a-dink miniature. One of the kids is usually flying along beside Madeline, and the amount of simple joy oozing from their little bodies is enough to make even grumpy Carla laugh and laugh for sheer pleasure. At some point before snow covers everything we move all the leaves into the woods, onto a random low spot where they compost and become rich leaf mold. We let it lie to soak up rains and enrich the woods, and sometimes we dig some out to use in our gardening.

I suppose I’m not grumpy about the extra leaves blowing over from our neighbor’s yard. It just always seems to be ill-timed. Why can’t the neighbor’s leaves just get about the business of falling and getting cleaned up and then blown over to our yard before Anthony and I do our own raking? Her trees are very thoughtless.

This morning I took Madeline for a walk first thing in the morning. It was frigid and still, without a lick of wind, and frost was still decorating the world. I wandered down to the end of the street and looked up to find a magnificent, giant maple tree still wearing its foliage. The houses and road were in the shadows of early morning, but the sun had risen just high enough to light the tree’s tall limbs; its golden leaves sparkled like a queen’s crown. As I stared, I noticed leaves were falling. Falling falling falling like golden snow, without any cause except that it was their time. The yard under the tree was covered in a golden carpet of leaves. I walked over and stood on the carpet, and I looked up for a few moments to watch the leaves fall around me, trying (unsuccessfully) to catch with my eye the moment when a single leaf let go of its branch to drift down to its ending. It was magic.

But after the initial shock of beauty, I pictured the owner raking those leaves curbside so they could blow all over the neighborhood. Or better yet, the owner might hire a landscaper to use a leaf blower and triple-wide mower, polluting the air with the stench of gas and the noise of motors. That’s how they roll in my neighborhood.

Having my mind move in this grumpy direction made me feel a little irritated with myself. Good thing our neighbor Pete came by just then, walking his own dog. We chattered a bit about the beautiful leaves, and before I piped up with my own cynicism, Pete pointed out that pretty soon the owner would come out and see those leaves and just be pissed off about all the raking he needs to do now.

I felt so much better. Nobody really wants to be alone in their grumpy.