Friday, September 17, 2010

Hearth and Home


Photo courtesy Flickr

I hope this post contains the most obvious things I’ve had to say about housekeeping. Houses aren’t about furniture: houses are about biochemistry. Hearth means focus.

Earlier this week I visited a suburban house that had been built by a man named Balch who developed Seattle’s early suburbs. The house I saw was a split-level from one of his later vintages. I have known several families in various suburbs who live in the same structure.

One family is life-affirming, oriented towards the arts and sports. The atmosphere in the house is sweet and supportive, the furnishings are graceful, the family members courteous and well-spoken toward one another. Another family is stressed, oppressed by old country gender roles, abusive, miserly, and most likely richer than the first. The atmosphere in that house is jittery and disquieting.

In fifty years of keeping house, I have learned only one thing: cleanliness is truly next to godliness, and cleanliness is about behavior as well as things.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Blowing Town

Photo courtesy Flickr

Yesterday’s post reminded me of a recurring, some might say relentless, theme in the way I keep house: staying mobile. In the early Fifties, one of the television networks broadcast a documentary series about World War Two. Watching this series with one parent who was a veteran and another who had been a newspaper reporter on Washington’s coastal front lines was a formative experience.

An early segment of the series covered the Blitzkrieg, Germany’s innovative approach to mechanized warfare. I’m hardly capable of commenting about the art of war, but I retain the narrator’s and my parents’ respect and appreciation for the effectiveness of a nimble, assertive, and fast-moving army. I suppose that the blitz approach is a force multiplier, a technique that amplifies the effects of a given number of persons and weapons. 9/11 was a brilliant example of force multiplication.

Earlier this year, I attended an academic conference that discussed the reciprocal relationship between society and technology. I talked my way to the table by pointing out to the organizer that a huge percentage of personal income goes to funding life support, and therefore home economy must be a respectable topic. It also didn’t hurt to point out that the school sponsoring the conference produced the major historian of American domestic life, Susan Strasser. That comment invariably evokes surprise and a visible recalibration of assumptions.

The fellow leading the conference runs training sessions for a famous think tank. He teaches high-level military personnel. During the second session of the conference, the term “resilience” began to appear in discussions of civilian lifestyle, along with the term force multiplier. Years ago, at the same school, I learned field skills with a group of climbers and began to organize my life around the “ten essentials” that are recommended for surviving outside a domestic environment.

The Mountaineers or the Great Big Hiking Co-op will have state of the art advice about the ten essentials, but here’s my general collection of categories: a tool, a fire starter, pure water, food, clothing, shelter, medical, navigation, communication, and transportation. Cruise Deft Home’s index for comments about organizing a household to be light weight, portable, and fleet.

Andy, yesterday’s informant, who is an elder of his tribe (the equivalent of having a doctorate), has a brother who was practicing medicine in New York City when the twin towers were attacked. When the news reports went out, Andy’s brother called a house sitter, made a plane reservation to Switzerland, and left with no notice. His reasoning was that the destruction of the towers had spread toxins and pathogens that no one could resist, and it was best to flee.

I don’t know if I would have made the same decision, but medical people do not think like thee and me. The twenty-three year old daughter of friends stayed on for two months to help with the aftermath of the attack. I absolutely admire the wit and quick thought behind the brother's choice, though.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

A Brief Report from the Field

Photo courtesy Flickr

Traveling with an archaeologist can evoke surprising feedback. We rented a comfortable riverside cabin that’s fairly new. It was my first experience of the kind of contemporary architecture that most people take for granted, and I remarked that “I could live here.” I was talking about the architecture, but my paleoseismologist replied that sleeping even one night in the path of a mud flow from a volcano made him nervous.

The next day, we drove home along a side highway, and he remarked that a native American friend hailed from the valley through which we were passing. He said, “Andy’s grandfather’s”-I was expecting the word “house”-but I heard- “village--used to be here.” That brought home the history of the area like nothing I’d heard before.

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More after the jump.