Sunday, February 28, 2010

Denver Flophouse

Not all hosteling experiences are warm and fuzzy. A few days ago, I stayed at a Denver "hostel" listed on that was little more than an urban flophouse.

Here are my annotated photos of the 11th Street Hotel in Denver, Colorado.

I didn't go into this blind. The reviews at HostelWorld gave me a good idea what to expect, but I didn't have many options. I was flying into Denver at 9pm and had to be in the suburbs at 7am the next day for a business engagement. All I needed was a place to sleep for about 7 hours. I had previously tried to sleep at the Denver airport, but this was less than optimal, since all seating there has armrests. (I would have to sleep on the carpeted floor, which just too hard for sustained sleep.) There was a legitimate youth hostel in Denver, but the front desk there closed at 10pm, and I preferred not to make special arrangements with them (and pay a fee) for my late arrival. Another option was to take the city bus to a Motel 6, but that would have taken me an hour more each way and eaten into my sleep time. Instead, with a sense of adventure, I tried this place.

The hotel itself could pass for a funky hostel in Europe, but instead of lodging with German and Australian tourists, I was staying in a room full of local men who were going nowhere. Since I see myself as the "up and coming" homeless, I'm not thrilled to be associated with the down-and-out homeless, who are the clientele of this place. The men staying here were working and paying rent, but "recently released from prison" could probably describe most of them.

I have never spent a night in prison, but sleeping in the windowless 12-bed basement dorm gave me a feeling for it. Men were coming and going all night, and even those who were sleeping were very loud, snoring and talking in their sleep. A man two beds away from me kept shouting out, "I wanna fucking KILL somebody!" Not a pleasant environment in which to sleep, and I didn't. I slept no more than three hours, than got up to work on my computer.

I didn't feel afraid for my safety so much as being a fish out of water. This hotel seemed relatively clean and well-run for a transient hotel, but it's not a place that I or any other literate traveler should be hanging out. It wasn't the hotel itself but the clientele who made the difference, and the clientele here was dysfunctional enough to put me on alert. You can't really relax in those circumstances.

Whenever you stay in a hostel in the USA, you have to make sure that they have a mechanism in place to keep out the local riffraff who would take advantage of the low rates. For example, some US hostels require you to have both a passport and an out-of-state ID. This keeps out the local druggies who couldn't even conceive of getting a passport.

The rent was $16 a night, and for once I got what I paid for! In retrospect, I probably should have stayed at the airport! See the photo album above for my comments and my final HostelWorld review.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bargain Food Source: Buffet by the Pound

Earlier, I talked about the buffet as an important food source for the unhomed, especially when you are driving across this great land. When you don't have a kitchen, a buffet gives you a rare opportunity for a balanced meal that you can't get from fast food or even an expensive sit-down restaurant. At a buffet, you can actually eat a lot better than most people with kitchens, because you don't have to prepare what you eat, just select from a wide variety of prepared items what you think makes the best diet. Sure, you can make bad decisions at buffets. From the girth of many of the patrons, I'd say that most people choose poorly, but the options are there for a healthy, nutritious diet if you choose to construct one.

The best nationwide buffet chain is Golden Corral, now found nearly everywhere along the Interstate highway system. Others are HomeTown/Old Country Buffet and Ryans (both owned by the same company). The price is reasonable: usually $8 or less for lunch and $12 or less for dinner (with nearly the same food at each).

I see only one problem with a buffet: I find it virtually impossible to not gorge myself! I consider myself a buffet professional from my Las Vegas years; I should be able to control my intake, but I still find it difficult. The cheapskate inside me is saying: "The food is all free now, so why not tank up?" It's hard to resist that one extra helping that pushes you into a stupor and eventually into obesity. This temptation is one reason I quit buffets for several years in Vegas. I saw my waistline slowly expanding!

Not only do find myself eating too much food at buffets, but I am not always eating the right foods, being drawn away by the richer stuff while healthier things like vegetables get neglected. Finally, I usually spend too much time in the buffet, often as much as an hour, when I could be doing other things.

But I have found a solution! There's a way to reap all the benefits of the buffet without falling prey to its temptations. Buffet by the pound!

For example, at Golden Corral, you can bypass the cashier line and get a take-away tray (as shown above). Load it up judiciously with whatever you think you should eat, then take it to the cashier to be weighed. The price is amazingly low at GC: always less than $5 a pound and often as low as $4.19 a pound....
To put this into perspective: Uncooked meat or fish that you buy at the supermarket easily costs $4 or more per pound. Here you are getting cooked and seasoned meat for only slightly more. (And you have to consider that it takes about 1-1/2 pounds of cooked meat to make 1 pound of cooked, making the deal even better.) You wonder why smart working parents don't stop by Golden Corral every evening. They could stock up on the entree, then cook the vegetable and starch at home.

What's more important to me, though, is portion control. When I fill up my tray at Golden Corral, I am making a conscious decision ahead of time about what I should be eating, rather than deciding on the fly as I gorge. Since I am paying by the pound, my internal cheapskate assures that won't buy too much, only what I think a proper meal should be. When I'm done, I essentially have a box lunch I can eat anytime. I can stop at the buffet in the morning when I am not hungry (and my choices are more rational) and then eat in the afternoon only when I am truly famished. When I am satiated, I can stop eating without feeling any pressure, knowing that I will still have the food for later. (I don't have refrigeration, but I don't see any storage safety issues in the few hours between purchase and consumption.)

Now, instead of gorging myself at one $8 buffet in early afternoon, I will go to Golden Corral when it opens around 11 am, fill up two trays with sensible food, pay about $6 for a pound and a half, and that food lasts me for the rest of the day. Pretty smart, actually!

I can even go into GC just for a snack. If I decide I want a salad, I fill my tray with just that. Since there is no minimum purchase, it ends up costing only about $2.50 for a salad I made myself, vs. twice as much at a fast food restaurant for something a lot more bland and lifeless. I can also visit the buffet on weekends and evenings, when the normal buffet price is over $10 and still pay only $4-5/pound.

When you think about it, this can be an incredible scam for the consumer. If you cherry-pick only the highest value items, you can come out with a lot more food value than you are paying for. Why spend $8 for two pounds of bacon at the supermarket, when (at the weekend breakfast buffet) you can pay $4.19 for one pound of crisp cooked bacon (equivalent to two pounds raw)? Same applies to a lot of other items: shrimp, nuts, fish, meat. I have even seen pine nuts occasionally at Golden Corral, which often retail for $20/pound.

It's not my intention to scam the restaurant, though, just get a balanced meal that's more than burritos and burgers. Since I am no cook, any buffet is going to give me far better nutrition than I could ever put together on my own, even if I had a full kitchen at my disposal.

Hometown/Old Country Buffet and Ryans also have buffet-by-the-pound options (although I haven't used them yet). If you're in a tony neighborhood, Whole Foods also has an excellent salad/hot food bar, with some more exotic (and putatively healthier) items than your common buffet (photos). The price, however, is almost double: $7.99/pound. Still, you can do a lot better there, both in value and nutrition, than at any restaurant. You can always use buffet-by-the-pound for high value items while using common supermarkets for heavier low-value items like bread.

When I tell people about my nomadic lifestyle, they say, "Oh, you poor thing! How do you eat without a kitchen?" My reply is: "Probably a lot better than you!" Furthermore, I don't have to waste time grocery shopping, preparing meals, cleaning up and maintaining all that complex kitchen infrastructure. I simply choose my food and eat it. What could be simpler, cheaper or easier?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What you don't need for sleep

In an earlier entry, I talked about the minimum requirements for sleep. Sleep is one those critical elements of life that we know little about. When you talk about where "home" is, you are really talking about where you are going to sleep tonight. If you can work out where to be safely unconscious for 7 hours, then all the other functions of a home are negotiable.

In this entry, I’d like to explore sleep in more detail by discussing the things you may think you need but really don’t. Everyone has their own perceived sleep requirements. They insist, "I can't sleep without X." Turns out, most of those sleep requirements are imaginary, and you'll do fine without them if you only have the courage to try. Over the course of my travels, I’ve slept in many contorted positions and unusual circumstances. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences where I've hardly slept at all, and many surprising ones where I slept soundly in spite of rough-seeming conditions. You don’t need a Martha Stewart-style tuck-in bed with a special mattress in a heated room. However, you do need to both listen to your body and be willing to push it a little.

To understand the requirements of sleep let’s talk about the things you don’t need:

You Don't Need: A “made” bed. The traditional bed from the Middle Ages – with sheets and blankets tucked in under the mattress – is absolutely the worst for retaining heat! In a made bed, you are trying to heat the entire surface area under the sheets. Since you are essentially a lump under two flat panels, heat is always escaping out the sides. As soon as you turn over, you encounter a new expanse of cold sheets.

A sleeping bag retains heat much better! No heat escapes out the sides, and when you turn over, your bedding stays with you. If you buy cheap sleeping bags (like the $10 one at Acme™), then you don’t even need to wash them; just throw them away when they get rank. (Not to mention the time saver of never having to make your bed in the morning.)

You Don't Need: Active heating. At night, your body generates a lot less heat than during the day; consequently, you need more insulation. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need central heating – or any fuel-burning heat at all! Anything that can be accomplished by outside heat can also be accomplished by just adding more layers of insulation, as close as possible to your skin.

Start with wearing all the warm clothes you have, including sweaters and jackets. Then you sleep in a sleeping bag, not in drafty blankets. If you are still cold at night, you can insert the first sleeping bag into a second one, maybe with a third draped on top. Finally, it helps to be sleeping in a small enclosed space, like a car or small tent. The smaller this space is, the better your body heat will keep it warm (so a car or one-man tent work better than a van or cabin tent).

In my experience, there is no low temperature that can’t be addressed at night by simply adding more insulation, provided it is dry. You don’t need to use any fuel at all! (I have done zero degrees F but can't speak with authority about temperatures lower than that.)

The situation is different during the day, when you are moving around and can’t carry all that insulation with you. To type on a keyboard, for example, the ambient temperature has to be warm enough so your fingers will work. (At this moment, I am lying in a car with the heater turned on.) When you are out of your cocoon and need to get things done, you may indeed need an active heat source, but if your body is still bundled up well you probably don’t need as much heat as you think you do. Wearing more clothes is always cheaper than turning up the thermostat.

As for having a human sleep partner to warm you up... that heat source is overrated! To begin with, your partner is a localized heat source. He/she does not heat or insulate you on the other side. Furthermore, your sleep position is rarely in sync with theirs. If you insist on sleeping naked with this person, then you’ve lost as significant layer of insulation (warm clothing). It may get complicated emotionally, but strictly in terms of heat retention, it is far more efficient to sleep alone.

You Don't Need: Special Mattresses. You can’t sleep for long on a hard, flat surface. I’ve tried many times, and it doesn’t work. The problem is that your body is bumpy, not flat, so there will be narrow pinch points where it comes in contact with the hard surface. After a while resting on these pressure points, the blood circulation gets cut off, and it begins to hurt. To sleep well, you need some minimal padding, but you don’t need Memory Foam™, a water bed or a Serta™ Sleep Number™ Bed. You just need enough padding to distribute a point of pressure onto several square inches. Then you will turn over several times throughout the night so that this wider area doesn't become sore.

You may protest: “But I have a very delicate back, and I need this special mattress to protect it.” Rubbish! For millennia, humans have been sleeping without special mattresses and have gotten by. You have to ask yourself whether your back problems aren’t caused by your cushy mattress and posh existence (not to mention your rich diet!). Like any body part, your back is going to work best if it is exercised – put through a little stress – and maybe one way to do this is to sleep with minimal padding.

In my experience, a half-inch of hard foam is sufficient, but a full inch is better. An air mattress is luxury, indeed! Car seats are fine. Sometimes the grass under the floor of a tent is sufficient. In a pinch, you can use blankets or a sleeping bag as padding underneath you. You can look around you for available materials. After sleeping on cushy Memory Foam for years, it might take a while to get used to anything else, but it is something your body can adapt to, and eventually you’ll be sleeping just as well.

You Don't Need: Lots of Space. When sleeping in cars, I have often squeeze myself into some very confined areas. It's like living in a tight space capsule. I have curled up in the fetal position in the back seat of some tiny European cars and still slept well. You don’t need a queen-size bed to toss and turn on. In fact, the smaller space might actually be better. It is certainly better for heat retention, but I also find that I go to sleep faster in a confined space.

You do need to be able to lie level, with your head at about the same level as your feet. If any body part is significantly lower than the rest, blood will pool there and it will eventually become uncomfortable. (You can sleep sitting up on occasion, like in airplanes, but it is rarely optimal sleep and it may be damaging to your cardiovascular system over time.)

When sleeping on a big flat bed, there is a preferred sleep position your body usually reverts to. Some people usually sleep on their backs, others on their stomachs, etc. If you sleep in a confined space, you may be forced into a different position. This may take a few nights to get used to, but your body will adapt. (I traditionally sleep on my stomach, and I end up that way on a hotel bed, but I can sleep just as well on my side, which is how I usually do it in a car.)

One thing you do need is the opportunity to change position during the night. It is normal to “turn over,” or change sleep position, several times throughout the night. This prevents bed sores on the part of your body that is bearing your weight. This is one reason that sleeping in a coffin wouldn’t work: You have to have enough space to turn, or your body will protest and wake you up in the middle of the night.

You don’t need an infinite number of sleep positions, however; only two! You need your "primary position", and you need a "relief position" to give the pressure points of your primary position a rest. You sleep in your primary position until it becomes uncomfortable; then you shift to a secondary position. After a few minutes in the new position, the pressure points recover, and you can turn back to your original position. So, when choosing a confined space to sleep in, you don’t just need to be able to fit; you also need to be able to turn to a second position, resting on different parts of your body.

You Don't Need: Quiet and Darkness. Your brain needs protection from sensory input to sleep well. It is hard to sleep in a noisy or brightly lit area – or when CNN is blaring at you from a screen overhead. (It is also a significant danger to your hearing to sleep in a noisy place.) There is no reason, however, that you can’t create your own quiet and darkness locally when the environment would give them to you. Quiet is created locally through use of foam earplugs (available in the firearms section of Acme). These are rolled up and insert all the way inside the ear canal, so they are barely protruding from the ear. This cuts nearly all sounds down to murmur. To create artificial darkness, you can use a $3 sleep mask (from the suitcase/travel department at Acme). If you don’t have one, you can use a wool cap or a shirt pulled down over your eyes.

Earplugs are handy accessories even when you’re not trying to sleep. Cuts down the noise of everyday life! For example, if you find yourself in a waiting room with a TV blaring, just insert your earplugs and you’re in heaven again!

You Don't Need: A Full Night's Sleep Every Night. College students learn quickly that you can get by without much sleep if you need to. Most people can pull an "all-nighter" and still be reasonably functional in the morning. The one thing you can't do is repeat all nighters several nights in a row. Eventually, the sleep deficit is going to catch up with you.

Without sleep, the first thing you lose is your creativity. Sometimes, lack of sleep is intoxicating, but like other forms of intoxication, you can't expect your judgment to be there too. After more than 24 hours without sleep, you start to go seriously insane, with effects resembling schizophrenia. You really don't want to push it.

But if life or travel circumstances present you with a sleepless night, you don't need to panic. You'll catch up on it later. You want to avoid bad sleep if you can, but if your night gets washed out, you'll make do. Sometimes just a few catnaps is enough to keep you going. You might not be good for much while awake (no creativity), but you'll survive. Knowing this, can give you some flexibility when planning ahead. "I'll get good sleep on Monday and Wednesday, but Tuesday could be rough."

One of the useful functions of sleep is just to help you pass the time in a boring location, when your brain is functioning poorly so you can't get anything done. If you are trapped in a city overnight, and the subway doesn't open until morning, sometimes the best thing to do is give up. Just walk around for six hours and try to make some use of your time. The point is, you can probably catch up on sleep later.

In the course of my normal life at present, I pass back and forth across many time zones. Like airline pilots, I have learned to get used to it. As long as I get 7 hours of sleep in each 24 hour period, I'm fine, and whenever I have a chance to catch more sleep, I take advantage of it. Sleep, I find, is something like a bank account: You can make larger withdrawls on occasion, as long as you are prepared to bank more sleep later.

You Don't Need: Privacy. When looking for a place to sleep, it is reasonable to seek privacy. After all, when you are unconscious you can’t protect yourself from thieves, predators and others who would do you harm. Privacy is the best policy whenever you can get it. For most animals, sleeping and hiding go together.

But you can get a good night’s sleep in public places if you need to. Airports are places I often find myself sleeping, and if you can do it inside security, there is very little risk. With earplugs and eye covering, I can often sleep just as soundly at Gate A19 as in any hotel. For a catnap, you can also sleep on beaches and public parks during the day. You can also in airport outside security if necessary. The enormous value of sleep often outweighs the vulnerability of it.

To sleep comfortably in a public place, you have to pass some significant emotional hurdles. Sleep is a big, dark question mark to most of us. We don’t have a clue what is going o there, so it’s frightening to do it in public. Are you going to sleepwalk or blurt out something embarrassing in your dreams? Are you going to look stupid while you sleep, so people laugh at you? Closing yourself in a private room avoids any such risk, but unfortunately, this kind of privacy can be expensive, both in money and time.

There is no easy solution here. You just have to get to know your sleeping self and be comfortable with it. Once, I set up a video camera to record myself sleeping in a normal bed. I saw that I turned about every twenty minutes and always rotated in the same direction, wrapping myself in my sheets like a mummy. It was very interesting to see myself sleeping, and it contributed to my sleeping self-confidence.

As I have become more relaxed with my waking self (no easy feat in itself), I have come to terms with my sleeping self. My dreams as a child were bizarre and terrifying, and I walked and talked in my sleep. Sleep was frightening! In middle age, however, I have no fear. My dreams today are pretty much an extension of my waking state. I dream about the same things I am thinking about during the day, making sleep a fertile extension of my thinking time. I get lots of things done during sleep, and I don’t have any nightmare unless my life really is a nightmare when I’m awake. Thus, sleeping in a public place (as long as it it safe) isn't really a problem for me.

Males do have a special problem in that during REM sleep, they—um—“expand”. In other words, sleep is nature’s Viagra, and there is a chance this non-sexual boner may be evident to the general public. (For the record, the same thing happens to females at night, but it’s not visible.) You can address this risk by covering yourself with a light airline-style blanket, which you may need anyway to keep warm

I'll always seek our privacy when it is available, but if it isn't I'll make do. The important thing is to adapt to your environment and get some sleep whatever way you can.

And Finally, Some Philosophy....

When people have difficulty sleeping, it usually has more to do with life circumstances than sleeping circumstances. Obviously, if you are under a lot of stress during the day, your problems are going to join you at night. If you are repressing things during the day—that is, refusing to deal with problems directly—then it is likely they will emerge in your nightmares.

It also appears that sleep becomes more irregular as people age. So what's the big deal? You simply sleep when you can and get up and do things when you can't. The only thing that makes irregular sleep a burden is your insistence that it take place during certain hours. Sometimes, the best guarantee of insomnia is the mantra, "I must get some sleep!"

And if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are cheating sleep. Sure, work and travel may demand an alarm occasionally, but if you can manage to sleep without it, according to your body's own rhythms, then you'll have your head screwed on straighter when you rise.

When you hit the sack and sleep doesn't come, it is easy to blame your bed. When Garrison Keillor mentions the Sleep Number™ bed, you may be duped into thinking some special product like this will solve your problems. There are no lack of marketers willing to sell you something to improve your sleep. Like any other placebo, these products may work if you think they will, but they don't address the underlying problems. They can't fix your head!

Once you get your head around something and decide you can do it, it is amazing how previous barriers get brushed aside. If you are on a mission to climb a mountain, you'll find a place to sleep, and you'll sleep well, because working toward a purpose is more effective than any sleep aid.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Psychology of Keeping Warm

In an earlier entry, I talked about How to Keep Warm. The basic strategy is simple: keep dry and keep adding layers of clothing (or sleeping bags) until you are comfortable. This certainly works, but it doesn't tell the whole story about handling cold. It turns out your state of mind has a lot to do with how cold or warm you feel.

As animals go, humans are pretty naked. We have no fur, so we rely mainly on clothing to keep us warm. That doesn't mean our body has no resources, though. Humans have been living in cold regions for millenia, most of that time without central heating and without much more than loose animal skins to throw over themselves. Think of Eskimos living in igloos or American Indians in teepees. Yes, humans had fire, but you can't stoke a fire all night and still sleep, and fire doesn't help you when you're moving about.

To have survived, our bodies must have numerous physiological adaptations to the cold, most of which we rarely call upon in the modern world. An obvious one is shivering. If your core body temperature falls below a certain level, the body automatically ramps up metabolic activity. Other adaptations are less obvious. One is the restriction of blood flow to the skin and extremities. Others are various chemical processes to produce and retain heat inside the body.

You don't really know what your body can do until you test it. Unfortunately, most of us never really do. When we get a little chilly, we cry, "I'm cold!" and rush back inside.

Yet, there are still people who push the limits. Alpinists climb mountains in harsh conditions, sleeping on the ice with only the equipment they can carry with them. In the Himalayas, monks make long winter treks in the same thin robes they wear in summer. And every winter in northern climates damn fools cut holes in the ice and insist on swimming, if only for a few minutes. Far from being pained by the cold, these people seem to revel in it! The cold certainly isn't killing them. On the contrary, it seems to make them healthier!

What makes these cold adventurers different than those who fear and hate the cold? It's probably not their bodies. It's more likely a matter of attitude.

When you are depressed, for example, you probably won't take the cold very well. You'll huddle under blankets and turn the heat way up. On the other hand, if you are well-motivated and directed toward a mission—like mountain climbers are—you'll brush the cold aside until it becomes a real obstacle.

Part of the difference may be physiological. There could be a mysterious mind-over-body thing where your body responds better when your brain thinks it can do something. But the main reason cold-haters are cold and cold-lovers are comfortable is that cold lovers take control of their situation while cold haters just let things happen.

When people are depressed, poorly directed or regard themselves as victims, they become very passive. "Woe is me!" they say, instead of taking positive actions to address their problems. It is amazing how many people will complain about the cold rather than doing something simple like putting on a damn sweater!

Seriously, when someone claims to be cold, look at what they are wearing. In most cases, you'll see that their clothing isn't suited to the weather at hand. And they would rather complain about their discomfort than actually remedy it!

If you're cold all the time, try wearing some long thermal underwear. It's not very expensive (at Acme™), and because it is close to your skin, it works wonders for raising your body temperature. If that doesn't work, try two layers of long underwear. It's not rocket science! Yet, passive, poorly directed people won't take pro-active steps like this until they have already gone through a lot of pain.

At the other end of the spectrum are strongly motivated people who take control of whatever problem they face. They realize, "I'm getting cold. What do I need to do to address this problem?" They look around their environment for solutions, and they actually implement them!

Passive people tend to fall back on conventional solutions and are reluctant to try anything hidden or unusual (like long underwear). Active people are more creative, independent and opportunistic, taking advantage of whatever tools they find in the environment, even for purposes those tools weren't originally intended for. Passive people often to try to buy their way out of their problems -- say by ordering some sort of expensive mountaineer's jacket from L.L. Bean. Active people tend to solve problems quicker, cheaper and more effectively using the materials at hand. Their ingenuity usually works better than money because they are actually listening to their own senses and figuring out what the real problem is.

Another difference between passive and active people concerns tolerance of mild discomfort. When you're depressed or don't respect yourself, every unpleasant sensation is magnified. Even a little chill seems intolerable and triggers panic. Well-directed people will brush the chill aside. They analyze it and say, "It's no big thing; my body can handle it." The important thing to the well-directed people is pursuing the mission at hand; they are not going to let the cold or any other irritating sensation get in the way of it. Only when the irritation becomes an actual obstacle will they stop and address it.

Of course, the same principle applies to managing heat. Some people insist that they can't live without air conditioning as soon as the thermometer drifts a little above room temperature. Turns out, your body has a lot of built-in adaptations to heat as well as the cold (like expanding the sweat glands), but you have to turn these systems on through actual use. Construction workers manage to get things done in all kinds of weather through a combination of pro-active adaptation and just not giving a damn about whatever irritation gets in their way.

In a wider sense, this can apply to anything. Passive people see obstacles, while active people find solutions. Often, it's just a matter of getting off your hiney and doing something!

You can't make cold or heat go away, and there are limits to what your body can safely tolerate, but no matter what circumstances you are facing, you probably have a lot more negotiating power than you think you do. You just have to get it into your head that the problem is yours, not someone else's, and that you alone are going to solve it!