Archives for the month of: May, 2015

A tough old bastard with a crew cut taught 8th grade wood shop. The class was mandatory or I would have avoided it like the plague. I was more interested in reading at the time so I much more preferred Mrs. Say’s English Lit class to Mr. Splan’s any day.

And it wasn’t like we learned anything useful in wood shop. Our first project was using a hand plane to put a square edge on a board. Your work was disingenuously graded with a wood square. I think I got a D on that one. My final output if I remember correctly was a sloppily built birdhouse. I probably got a D on that one too.

Consequently Mr. Splan didn’t take me any more seriously than I took him. He thought I was a miserable pissant of a thirteen year old and I thought he was a loutish prick. But one day things kind of changed when he gave me a much deserved albeit grudgingly delivered reverse backhanded compliment.

By the by, it is interesting to note that two of the same old buzzards who taught my dad in middle school were still around to make my life miserable. That was Mr. Woodruff who taught history and Mrs. Cole who taught math. Woodruff was another mean old bastard. And I remember one time I got him so pissed off that pulled me out of my chair, drug me to the front of the classroom, and threw me into a full wrestling nelson in front of the entire class. Mrs. Cole on the other hand was entering her dotage so she was mostly shrewish and her biggest crime against students was an emphatic zero talking in class policy. I think my old man early on must have set the stage somehow as both Woodruff and Mrs. Cole always seemed to have their eye on me.

And just so you know, in public schools back in the 60’s, severe corporal punishment still existed. Beatings were meted out using ingeniously designed planks modestly called paddles. Getting a paddling – or a couple of swats as it was otherwise called – was tantamount to taking a beating.

The paddle I remember most was the one owned by the gym teacher; although it was probably made by some other sadistic bastard who had access to good power tools. It was a solid piece of hardwood a full 3 feet in length and at least an inch thick.

The first foot of it was the handle; rounded, the length of which allowed for a two-handed grip much like a baseball bat. The remaining two feet was the business end. And every two inches there was a drilled hole – the wood shop teacher, anyone? – with one side covered with leather. The holes reduced the weight factor allowing for the maximum possible swing velocity while the leather was whetted to make for that perfect red polka dot raised welt.

So anyway, one fine morning I was in the school foyer chatting with my girlfriend when out of nowhere Craig Wormell tackles me to the floor and proceeds to start a fight. We somehow got extricated and to save face in front of my girlfriend and all those kids who had witnessed the attack I told Wormell that I’d see him after school.

Word spread like wildfire. The fifteen or twenty kids that were there each told a couple of other kids and by second period even my teachers knew I was going to be in a fight. Mrs. Say liked me probably because I liked reading and enjoyed her class. And I remember her asking me not to fight.

And believe me I didn’t want to fight. Especially not that kid. Wormell was a strong farm boy who had 4 inches and thirty pounds on me. So I spent the entire day sweating it out, most certain that I was going to take a pretty serious ass-beating.

Finally the bell rang and I and my two main buddies at the time made our way across the street to the railroad tracks behind the local newspaper plant.

I about wet myself. Half the school was already there. Probably two or three hundred kids parted the way to where I found Wormell waiting for me with his fists bunched up.

I was so scared I smiled. That fight was the first time that I discovered that sheer terror makes me smile. Probably more of a rictus than an actual smile, but go figure because it’s the absolute truth.

So smiling, I walked up to him and hit him as hard as I could right in the face. And then again. And again. And again. I jabbed with my right and then nailed him with my left. Over and over again. I must have hit him fifty or sixty times in the first 2-3 minutes of the fight. And in that time he hadn’t landed a single punch.

But he wasn’t going down. He was just bleeding. My older 9th grade buddy, Horniman yelled at me to quit fucking around and end it already. Kids were thinking that because I was smiling that I was deliberately tormenting the guy when in reality I lacked the power to knock him on his ass. I was after all just a skinny, twitchy, fast white boy.

Finally out of the middle of nowhere he nails me with a powerful roundhouse to the side of the head and for an indeterminate period of time the world went dark. I didn’t feel the punch – there was no pain – but I was knocked out, yet was somehow still on my feet.
Just as remarkably as me still standing, he didn’t immediately follow up with another punch.

And then just like angels from heaven, the police arrived and broke it up.

So I ended up winning a fight that I had no right to win.

The next day in school just about everyone came by and shook my hand or pounded me on the back. Even Wormell stopped by my locker and apologized. And he looked like shit. Both eyes were swollen, one completely shut and his entire face was one massive reddish-purple bruise.

And Mr. Splan? On my way out the door after woodshop he wryly looked at me and said (and I quote), “Clark, I didn’t think you could lick your own lips.”

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I deleted the acerbic (read, nasty) bit that I posted last night and decided this morning to post something more civil to state that sahara sandals will no longer offer a retail opportunity to purchase our sandals from us online.

Why?

Three reasons.

First, Trying to build and sell quality sandals on a onesy-twosy basis in a direct to the customer retail operation has become such a major pain in the ass that I am sick to death of trying anymore.

For example, take the case of fat women with fat feet. Why in the world would someone with abnormal sized feet buy a pair of sandals online? As in something they couldn’t try on first to see if they fit? And then want to return them? I can’t deal with that anymore. And it’s more common than you might think.

Dea's foot

Ankles like a Clydesdale horse.

Second, We are not generating enough sales volume to keep my people even part-time busy so now my home support base has been eroding.

Third – and most importantly – these sandals were something that I wanted to share. And I thought that there were a certain spectrum of consumers who would identify with our quality products. Indestructible recycled airplane tire soles double lock stitched onto quality leather uppers? What’s not to like about that?

But it appears that I was wrong. For the record, I never intended to get into the retail sandal business. I just wanted to make some beautiful sandals. Which is something I am still going to continue to do.

So we’re still open for business. But only wholesale (and at wholesale prices).

synthetics mass produced

Because I still tenaciously cling to the whole value proposition argument. That buying quality – economically speaking – always plays out best in the long term. And in the short term provides the added benefit of owning (and using) something that isn’t just another piece of common synthetic mass-produced crap.

So I am down here in Mexico, almost three years on, still struggling to build a viable sandal-making business. And in the immortal words of Abraham, “I am a stranger in a strange land,” here in mountainous Michoacán; the land of avocados, back to back to fiestas, ear shattering Banda music, carnitas, hot salsas, sultry women, hard mustached men, and laughing bright eyed children.

I came down here following the mythical huarache trail. A trail, so vague and so ethereal that it existed only in my mind. I started out in Mexico City almost three July’s ago and slowly worked my way north stopping along the way in the small colonial cities of Queretaro and Guanajuato before settling into Leon for a more serious look around.

I came to Mexico to learn the craft of sandal making from the best huaracheros that I could find. The only real reference I had before I left the US was the city of Leon; and then only because it was the oldest city in Mexico with a tradition of leather working. I like leather footwear and the nicer the better.

While sandal shopping around the world I found that my taste in footwear didn’t align with popular culture; what I wanted no one sold. I was forced to settle for a brand called ‘Reef’ which had a leather upper that was glued to a synthetic lower. I would buy a pair in the early spring, like April, and almost like clockwork the heel had worn through by October. I ignored this for the first couple of years but gradually this dependence and this cycle of planned obsolescence at my expense got me angrily rethinking about this new and troubled relationship that I was having with Reef. So I decided to make my own.

And then also somewhere along the way I got tired of spending a hundred bucks for my minimalist running shoes. I thought why spend that kind of dough for a few ounces of nylon and vibram rubber? So I decided to have a go at making some sandals that I could run in.

I had been seriously in search of alternate careers since 1985 when I started my first company with two other guys. In a short 6 weeks time both naivety and cash flow problems killed us dead. (I heard a reporter on the radio in North Carolina a few years back say how someone was ‘seriously killed’ in a boating accident and I have been enamored with such hyperbole ever since.)

Biographically speaking, I am 59 years old and have a relatively long history, to borrow from a once popular book title, of taking the path least traveled. I somehow miraculously survived the drug party culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s to which I might add was much to the surprise of the parents of my many childhood friends who didn’t. And for an unexpected follow on, I escaped the poverty of my then fraught existence by leaping at the first opportunity into the arms of higher education.

After floundering around for several wasted semesters I rightfully ended up studying electrical engineering and got a BSEE and subsequently entered the workplace full of confidence. I followed my interests in low-voltage communications systems and in the doing somewhere along the way got sucked into the whole IT funnel cloud.

I began my career in oil and gas down in Texas back when engineering was still a gentleman’s game but ended it when rampant technical worker immigration and Cisco certificates began to undermine the profession. So I got to enjoy about 30 years of banal prosperity before my interests in running and making my own sandals finally over took the lagging interest in my professional career.

And luckily for me I was in a pretty good spot financially when I decided to downshift. I had been living frugally my entire life. I lived well but managed to save a good part of my money. The first time I downsized was involuntarily when I got divorced in ’91. I dropped some more weight in ’99 when I sold my last California house and moved to North Carolina. The third and more serious downsizing came when I sold the house, the one I built in NC, and moved more or less permanently into my small apartment in Washington, DC.

I got into the sandal making business down in Mexico because the problems that I had encountered – tools and materials related – couldn’t be solved in the US. And there were alternatives to be found in Mexico, so in the final analysis, Mexico was the hands down choice; but that’s another story.

The problem was nobody was making the running shoes or the sandals that existed in my head. The corporate manufacturing standard practice of planned obsolescence had been so firmly embraced by popular culture and for such a long time it seemed that only the rich and cognoscenti remembered what quality goods were anymore. And quality goods handmade with the best materials by the best craftspeople generally come with big dollar signs. My buddy’s grandfather used to have a saying, ‘Buy the best you can afford and cry only once’.

Walk into any Macy’s today and without trying too hard you’ll discover if you just look around a little bit that there are no alternative buying solutions; everything they sell comes from the same spectrum of crap. Same for Nordstrom’s; it’s slightly better but it is all pretty much crap too. If you want craftsmanship you have to go to Italy or France. But be prepared to get out your platinum card because you are going to pay for what you get.

And I thought, ‘why couldn’t someone other than the Italians make originally beautiful leather sandals but make them more awesomely comfortable and more long lasting by putting bottoms on it them that don’t wear out’? My daughter, Sarah and I were in Italy 4 years ago and I bought each of us two pair of sandals while we were on the island of Capri. Beautiful sandals. Expensive sandals. Comfortable, not so much. Durable, not so much. Sarah wore the back bottoms through in 4 months time; of course she wore them every day, but still. I thought if those same sandals were more comfortable and had a more durable bottom then you’d definitely have a home run.

Material speaking airplane tire is to automobile tire what carbon fiber and titanium is to cast iron; its way lighter as well as way stronger. And because it is made for one of the most critical services in the world it is also pretty indestructible. And because the material is thin as well as a ubiquitous color of black it marries perfectly to the greater contemporary design aesthetic. So that’s what I am doing these days; combining fine leathers in an Italian style crafted upper, double-lock stitched to a recycled aircraft tire bottom (with just the hint of a mid-sole) to make for the most beautiful, comfortable and long wearing sandal in the world.

I should know, I wear them every day.

Should I start with the good news? No. Probably not.The bad news comes in two parts so we’ll start with that first.

To begin – at the national and regional level – the violence here has gone positively absolutely off the scale bat shit crazy. Lots of murders. Lots of shootings and ambushing. I heard today that the bad guys shot down a army helicopter on Friday in the neighboring state of Jalisco. And shooting down an army helicopter takes serious chutzpah my friend.

Up until a couple of weeks ago Jalisco had remained pretty much immune to the violence that has plagued other regions in the country. The reason being is that the bad guys in Jalisco preferred to bring their violence here to the neighboring state of Michoacan. But that all changed when the government decided to arrest the head of the Jalisco cartel.

The Jalisco cartel responded by committing state wide mayhem creating dozens and dozens of roadblocks that they implemented by setting fire to the largest vehicles at their disposal – preferring hijacked buses and tractor trailers – and leaving them to burn in the middle of the road.

And of course gun battles ensued.

This mayhem has since spilled over into Michoacan where similar tactics have been used all to similar results. Major cities in both states have been seriously rocked by this latest most explosive wave of violence.

On my runs in the last couple of weeks I have seen an uptick in traffic on the backroads which suggests that certain individuals are preferring to stay off the main roads. Needless to say, this new roadblock tactic is having a tremendous negative impact on local businesses.

On the personal level – some good news. I had a date last night with a delightfully beautiful funny woman. I had seen this woman before. Maybe a couple of times a month jetting around town on her motor scooter. Always exchanging waves and smiles. I was always a bit intimidated. Too pretty and too young for me. But she always gave me her hundred watt smile.

Then two weeks ago I saw her down the street talking to the women at the laundromat. Her mom was with her and I stopped like I do most days to say hello to my friend, Jose and tease the proprietor’s fourteen year old daughter.

Side note: On my street – in the 3 block walk to the plaza – there are two barbershops, this laundromat I mentioned, and a shoe repair place. All are havens for people to gather in and socialize. So I am finding now as my Spanish skills are gradually creeping into the sub-conversational zone that I am spending upwards of 30 minutes every day hanging out with these folks. Like I got pulled into one of the barbershops today to get queried on which American black blues musician was playing on the radio. (B.B. King?)

So I walked up to this beautiful woman who was perched on her scooter and told her that she was ‘eres agradable’; meaning, very agreeable. This is a compliment that you must deliver with a warm smile and a devil may care attitude. And it’s not cheese-ola like telling a woman she’s beautiful. And who other than James Bond can pull that one off without looking like a complete fool?

Surprisingly, she responded affirmatively. And her mom standing close by said in so many words, ‘I like this guy.’ So we’ve texted a few times and last night I got to spend two and a half hours with this gorgeous woman sitting under the stars on the edge of the plaza as Mexico paraded by (not that I really noticed anyone but her). Hopefully I’ll have more to report on this lovely subject in the future. (Not that you need to know, but this is my journal/blog after all).

To end on a sad note, my 94 year old neighbor passed away last week. This woman astounded me. She in my opinion was the living standard of peace, joy, and happiness. I would see her most mornings sitting out in front of her house alternating dozing in the sun and smiling and chatting with her neighbors as they passed by. I would positively marvel every time I saw her and at each encounter how she radiated a gentle forgiving kind of love.

Upon meeting her for the first time, she beamed up at me, her ancient face opening into a wide smile, before taking my hand in both of hers, and pulling me down so that she could kiss me on the cheek. How can one be that old and presumably in so much pain and yet glow with such joy? Meeting this woman was probably as close to meeting a true saint as I will ever get.

To finish this story I was in the Mercado today after my run. I stopped to buy 2 coconut cookies after lunch (for the laundromat ladies) and a tall handsome Mexican man walked over to me to ask me where I was from. I had to be some sort of misplaced tourist, right? Anyway, we exchanged pleasantries and the first thing I learned was that the cookie lady was his sister-in-law. He then went on to tell me that his mother had just passed away and that he was down from California for the funeral.

I knew this was more than a coincidence so I asked him where his mother lived and he said on Melgar Street. I took his hand and shook it and told him that I was truly sorry for his loss. That I knew his mother who lived around the corner from me and told him that I found her to have been an extraordinarily wonderful woman and that I for one would always cherish my memory of her. To say he was surprised was an understatement. He thanked me for my condolences and told me that many, many people came to the services to pay their final respects.

Mexico: sadness and sorrow but always wrapped in a warm blanket of love.

Just like what Cormac McCarthy meant when he said, ‘It isn’t what the horse can see that bothers him. He’s only worried by what he can’t see.’

And so it was the unseen of the saharasandals website that bit me in the ass. And what bothers me is that I should have caught it.

Let me explain.

We started the saharasandals website on etsy. We found their interface and tools very inflexible so we decided to move and create our own website from scratch.

I stayed out of the new website design and let my very capable grad student daughter pick the hosting site and do all the design work. And she did a great job.

Last November my daughter was overextended and I needed some changes made to the website so the work fell on me. I made a couple of small additions and in poking around I discovered that you had to request to the hosting entity for SSL.

Hmm. I knew SSL was a Layer 5/6 security protocol but that was about it as I am basically an OSI Layer 1-4 guy even though I have had lots of experience working with and testing things like security appliances.

Without going into a lot of detail, SSL – Secure Socket Layer – is what more or less puts the S into HTTPS and makes the whole channel (and transaction) secure. While I might have been cognizant of this in some abstract way (and knew it was important), I never hitched that proverbial wagon to our own endeavors other than to alert my daughter to contact the entities she had hosted with to get them to add SSL.

She sent them an email with the request and we both thought no more about it. And quite frankly, one would think that by the mere virtue of purchasing an eCommerce site that somehow the hosting entities understood the the importance of providing some levels of transactional securities.

It took a couple of months after the move to realize that sales had fallen. I should be embarrassed to say that I didn’t connect the dots. But I am not a sales guy. I am not a website guy. I am not an eCommerce guy. I am just a guy who likes leather and wants to make the best handmade sandals in the world.

But I am also the go to guy, the buck stops here guy, and I should have done my do diligence and tested the ordering mechanism. But I didn’t; after all we were still getting some sales.

Thankfully I got an email from an old client in Belgium last week who wanted to buy 3 more pair of sandals but said he couldn’t do it until our website was secure. He said that his browser reported that our website was not secure. Huh?

I found a tool online  – https://www.whynopadlock.com – that allows you to test a website for security and ran it against our saharasandals website and sure enough, SSL was never enabled.

So the lessons to be learned here are: Lose the complacency and take ownership (even if it isn’t your core competency). And even though websites – for me – have always existed as some notional abstraction doesn’t excuse me from the fact that I have a personal knowledge as to how software has functional moving parts that can be tested.

PS – But somehow I still managed to obfuscate what I knew with the hoodoo-voodoo that the very nature of sales was mysterious (and who could understand it?).