Friday, August 27, 2010

Straightforward Utility

Photo courtesy Flickr

Like the cat that prefers to look at a finger rather than the target being indicated, I often extract more information from the backdrop of an interview than from the dialogue.

Recently, Charlie Rose interviewed English journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose comments were rigorous and inspiring. Hitchens’ library, I assume it was his library, was equally inspiring. The room had plain walls, and behind his chair stood a sofa with a low Saarinen tulip table set with a chess board, to the right was a large contemporary portrait, and behind that was a wall of book shelves. At the rear stood a ladder, a traditional accessory for floor-to-ceiling shelving.

This ladder mocked the pretense of McMansion aspirations: it was a clean wooden stepladder whose bucket shelf made it more useful than the traditional mahogany structure on rails. I’ve always loved the look of a wooden ladder: it took this interview to make me realize I could have spent years enjoying the view if I hadn’t been chicken.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Selfish Elegance

Photo courtesy Flickr: square-ended narrow border spade from S & H first wave

Gardener/economist Paul Hawken wrote in the late Seventies’ Next Economy that the value of a dollar is determined by the price of a barrel of oil, and that manufactured goods worth buying contain a great deal of intelligence. Thirty years on, oil is higher and goods are smarter than ever.

For my purposes, good speakers and a fast internet connection are worth a dumpster full of cheap clothing, third-rate housewares, and bloated furniture. High-tech knits, classic eighteenth and twentieth century interior amenities, and state of the art hiking gear cover most domestic eventualities, especially when supplemented by French cotton damask tablecloths and a handful of tools.

The more my life resembles dorm existence, the happier, healthier, and more productive I can be. The scene doesn’t have to look like a dorm- it’s possible to sneak away from obsolete domestic responsibilities under a conventional roof. The trick is to contract good, better, and best into one layer of very good and then use it to the hilt. Old, new, and waiting in reserve trump cheap, mediocre, and too good to use.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How To Dust A Lampshade

Photo courtesy Flickr

On a long drive home from a ladies’ lunch, the hostess and I caught up on what we’d been doing for the last twenty-eight years. I’d mentioned to Betsy that I blog about housekeeping, and she brought up a lampshade that’s been bugging her every time she walks past because it needs dusting.

Here’s how to dust a lampshade without making more work than you’re doing already: first, dust when you’re well rested, second, set up a HEPA air filter to capture the dust, third, use state of the art cleaning tools. It took me nearly half an hour to say that, and the details follow.

Most of the damage to inventory happens when it’s being cleaned. The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping is England’s operating manual for the stately homes that are now the property of the nation, and this tip comes from the horse’s mouth. When a housekeeper is handling a vase worth $70,000, technique is important. The manual makes obvious the connection between housekeeping and running a museum.

Professional cleaners use the concept of diluting dirt. You can never eliminate all of it-the idea is to dilute it as much as is realistic for a domestic environment. I have learned that HEPA filtration is the key to the mint: I might just as well skip cleaning rather than do so without a voracious filter. The idea is to vacuum the air as well as the floor.

According to housekeeping guru Don Aslett, former chief janitor for the Bell System, ninety-seven percent of the dirt in a house comes in on shoes, so set up a seat in the entry for changing footgear. This one modification cut my cleaning time from three hours a week to half an hour. With the high-tech changes outlined below, I now clean for half an hour every two or three weeks.

Even subtle dust on shoes rather than obvious sand and dirt clods abrades floor finishes and works its way into carpets, severing fibers over time and establishing a filthy base in a room. In the Middle Ages, hall houses had dirt floors covered with rushes. When things grew unbearable from spittle, bones, and other waste, a new layer of rushes was laid over the first one. The floor was called “the marsh”, and unfortunately, in a Western house, much of that custom survives, even to the reed matting that is called sea grass. The Japanese have it right with their “getabako”, or sandal-bench, at the entry.

Dislodge dust with an effective tool that won’t destroy the surface you’re trying to clean. The nylon-bristled brush that comes with a new vacuum is far too abrasive to use on fabric. I use mine to scrub a porous old bathtub when it’s really far gone. Vacuums used to come with elegant natural bristle brushes, and for those I substitute a natural bristle photographer’s equipment dusting brush (like a shaving brush on steroids), a small natural bristle currying brush (that’s a comfortable fit for my hand) from a tack store, and a cheap disposable hog bristle brush. A fanatic will tape the ferrules of these brushes with adhesive or gaffer’s tape to protect wood and other fragile surfaces. Use them to detail carved wood, picture frames, and upholstery.

Remove the shade from the lamp. Replace the finial on the harp so it won’t get lost. Turn the shade upside down to remove dust rather than driving it into the fabric. Set up a freestanding HEPA air filter nearby and remove attachments from the vacuum hose. Turn the vacuum on to gentle suction and set the hose close to the shade. Tap the shade gently a couple of times to dislodge surface dust and then brush it against the direction in which the dust settled to get it clean, all the while capturing dust with the vacuum and air filter.

One of the major housekeeping mail order catalogues sells “Miraculous” Cleaning Cloths made of micro-fiber terry cloth. As far as I know, these represent state of the art Japanese computer clean-room technology, and they are the best cleaning cloths I have found, bar none. They last for many years. A friend gave me my first package of these cloths, and when I ordered more, the phone rep said they’re like an ultra-fine steel wool, subtly abrasive in a way that replaces cleaning solutions in many situations.

If you have one of these cloths, finish the shade by dusting it against the direction of settling, detailing the brass wires and the lamp itself, and wetting the cloth to wipe down a cool light bulb. A clean light bulb casts clean light. Innkeepers and commercial property managers find it efficient to change all the light bulbs once a year.

It’s not easy to find a first-quality lampshade, and it’s not cheap to buy one, but a good lampshade is the most cost-effective investment in home furnishings I have found, bar none. Seattle has a specialist shade shop that’s worth a short trek north. Their advice has been invaluable in restoring my old house and bringing vintage furnishings into play.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Mail Room

Photo courtesy Flickr

A thoughtful cousin asked if she could compensate me for sending several parcels, and her request has me thinking about the economics of freight. Fourteen years ago, I threw my car away in disgust with Seattle traffic and as a hopeful gesture towards the environment. This decision is not for everyone, but it works in a neighborhood where the bus lines converge.

Transportation, it turns out, takes hidden forms. When I was spending twenty hours a week in second gear on surface streets as Mrs. Wheels, most of my trips were to stores or to thrift outlets to unload things I’d bought earlier. Putting aside a personal vehicle has allowed me to put aside those behaviors.

Owning a car means insuring it, and the cost of insurance reinforces driving to get the most out of the fees. Living independent of a car is a matter of expanding transportation options rather than subtracting the principal one. One of the major shipping companies maintains an office a few blocks away. It has slowly dawned on me that the most efficient way to get things from here to there or there to here is to use their “virtual doorman” service. Shipping costs are nothing compared to the price of a tank of gas and the amount of time it takes to play teamster.

It is tooth-grindingly annoying to keep shipping materials in the house. Corrugated boxes are bulky, unsightly, house mites, and mar woodwork and furniture. Now, I just keep tape. When it’s time to ship, I pick up the right sized carton at a freight outlet or a freebie at the post office and go for it. Empty egg cartons are good fillers, but my favorite is packages of prime local potato chips, not cheap, but a treat for a homesick loved one.

Using the shipping service is so efficient I bought my last washing machine this way. When traveling, I pack the tail end of a roll of tape and a bold marker so I can send purchases ahead and stay light on my feet.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Garden So Far-Recovery

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday morning is the time to manage the grounds, such as they are. Routine summer drought has left the garden looking hammered, because I’ve been experimenting with not watering. Many plants have surprised me by thriving anyway. The ultra slow-growing boxwood hedge, Morris Midget, never seems fazed by conditions, and the token rhododendron, a Fifties hybrid that came with the house, has been green and glossy no matter what.

It’s been difficult to manage what’s left of the lawn and the sunny areas of yarrow, clover, and species geranium so that they look gently cared for rather than like areas of desperate expedience and neglect. This week I wandered around lifting a few pinched-looking tall weeds, trimming aggressive stems of rosa Nootkana, and generally treating the area like a dusty green carpet that needed vacuuming. When I was finished detailing, I sprinkled time-release fertilizer on the plants I want to encourage and sprayed benign herbicide on the ones I don’t. The hope was that when the rains came in several weeks, there would be a renaissance out front.

A week ago, it sprinkled for twenty minutes, and it’s amazing what the turf and natives have been able to do with so little moisture. Yesterday I thatched the dead turf before I mowed just to keep it in trim, and found fresh shoots greening up. It was heartening and poetic in a small way. This morning, a steady summer rain promises great things next week when the weather turns warm again. No doubt, the lawn, hedge, and herbs will lunge into action.

It will be a pleasure to build a small fire in the garden shelter and spend today enjoying the scents and sounds of the beginning of Puget Sound’s growing season.

-30- More after the jump.