Unibrows and Foot-Powered Batteries

At one point, I dated a guy who was really into straight razors, and one night while I was watching him shave I realized that he was carving a hole in what would otherwise have been a unibrow. This is not the kind of brow I am interested in.

Everyone, I think, has sensitivity to different forms of bias. (This is usually the inverse qualities to whatever qualities give you the most privilege in your culture.) In France, being female actually feels like it can be an advantage, but where I lived in the U.S. that wasn’t the case. As a result, I’m fairly sensitive to gender bias. As much as that makes feminism part of my psychological makeup, an equally important (though more difficult to pin down) sensitivity is socioeconomic class sensitivity.

My childhood included season tickets to (nosebleed) seats at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. My childhood also included the more vivid memory of the Christmas my cousin spent trying to flirt with another cousin through the proud display of videos of himself lighting his farts on fire. This differential is partly a reflection of mature adult tastes (my parents’ purchase of BSO tickets) versus highly immature adolescent tastes (my cousin’s fart videos). But what speaks more to class is that the whole exploding-fart-as-flirtation-strategy was actually working.

If you think of socioeconomics in linear terms, BSO tickets and exploding farts can probably go right to the opposing far ends. Finding the middle of this spectrum is hard, though. American “middle class” isn’t a global middle class. And talk to practically anyone, even within a state or city, and you’ll find differing definitions for what middle class really means. For some, it really is the ‘house in the suburbs, picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a car.’ For me, part of the complication is that it’s not just about the money or possessions or even job titles.

It’s also about education and culture. “High brow” and “low brow” are meaningful distinctions to me. For years, I was taught to eschew huge swaths of music, for example, just because it wasn’t high enough culture. In retrospect, I regret the time I purposefully kept myself unexposed to these voices and sounds–but I was doing it partly out of class-related insecurity. At the same time, though, I’m extremely grateful to my parents for normalizing a lot of classical music and traditional repertoire. Rather than dismissing classical music for being too pretentious, as some of my friends’ parents had, that music formed the soundtrack to many of my earliest memories.

But at this point, my tastes zig zag between what I could easily classify as either “high” or “low” brow; ultimately the classification is a fairly useless dichotomy. More problematic, what can quickly be dismissed as “low brow” may just be something that comes from a culture you don’t understand or know the history of. (What can be dismissed as “high brow” is often important cultural information, even if it’s not your personal taste.) In reality, trying to make these distinctions often creates fields of comparison irrelevant or insulting to artist intentions.

Loathe as I am to type ‘fart’ one more time, going back to that incident, while I would have been more impressed if my cousin had busted out a cello and performed Pachelbel’s Canon, I wasn’t the cousin he was trying to impress. The fact that he had actually succeeded in setting farts alight was genuinely somewhat impressive in comparison to other hillbilly feats he could have chosen to attempt. Most importantly, he impressed: the shot (sort of) landed. He knew his audience and the intuitive metrics at play.

While trying to avoid these binary distinctions–particularly when it comes to assessing art–makes the world a more complicated place, it’s also drastically more interesting. It is also more useful. Earlier this year I needed to make a new hole in my belt. While I’m used to having a leather hole punch around (thanks to years of breaking stirrup leathers), a very sharp corkscrew ended up working well for my purposes. Had I only seen the corkscrew as an implement for the opening of wine, I would have missed another important aspect of the corkscrew’s identity: its pointed metal end, perfect for an accurate gouge.

In conversations about climate change, the breaking point can often come at what is essentially a form of prejudice against what is perceived as either ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture. Organic food is often dismissed for its association with yuppies; so is urban farming. On the other hand, keeping chickens–while gaining popularity in the ‘yuppie’ set–has long been seen as a low-class thing to do. But borrowing and combining ideas from sources perceived as being part of different social categories can yield rich results.

Yesterday, I stumbled across something called SolePower. SolePower is “a power-generating shoe insole”–basically, as you walk, the energy in that motion is stored in a battery which can then be taken out of the insert and hooked up to your devices. As I’m writing this, I’m debating whether or not to charge my iPhone when it’s at 39%. With its horrible battery life, that may be just enough to get me through an alarm tomorrow morning, but I try to stretch out charging the phone as much as possible–yet I walk all the time. Something like this could be a perfect solution.

These sorts of ideas are not going to replace the fuel we need to, for example, heat homes through the winter or power manufacturing plants. However, this kind of creative thinking is a vital quality to cultivate as we enter an era in which we will have to confront the effects of climate change. Secondly, as this invention is literally underfoot, it would provide the walker (or runner) with the sense of personally being responsible for some productive energy generation.

It’s hard to classify an invention such as this as either high or low brow, and that’s part of what makes it so appealing to me. While the energy itself may not add up to much more than a few phone charges, I can imagine wearing it and beginning to see the world’s motion and various potential sources of energy–yet this is happening through part of your shoe!


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