Friday, July 22, 2011

Playing House


Photo courtesy Flickr

Yesterday I found an X-shaped keyboard stand that the in-house musician had stashed in the woodshed on his way from Le Village to the office. I brought it inside and discovered in rapid succession that it makes a good adjustable table base for a plank, that I can perch an ironing board on it, and that it will support a group of bamboo poles that I use to dry laundry.

Using a music stand as a domestic accessory is a little like hiring out Seattle Slew for pony rides. I'll try anything that saves space and weight.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Autumn's New Digs


Photo courtesy Flickr

Twenty-eight domiciles down the road, if I were to set up house for the first time, this is what I'd do:

I'd detail, or have someone detail, every fixture and appliance. A retired dental hygienist would be the ideal expert to employ. I'd get the windows, walls, and floors into the best shape of their lives. It's not that hard to do in a smallish space, and the work is easy if nothing is in the way.

Curtains can be minimal and suited to the architecture. Window coverings that match the walls expand space. In my 1890 space, a combination of light-blocking roller shades and matchstick blinds trimmed to the width of the woodwork have served well for thirty years. The blinds are washable.

The floor is the basic piece of furniture. Respect it and the family's health by leaving shoes at the entry.

In a very small space, I'd sleep on super-deluxe self-inflating air mattresses, combining them with an interior "ground cloth" that's good to look at. A light area rug, heavy cotton bedspread, or cotton-warp wool blanket would serve well.

The most versatile seating I know is a director's chair from the old line medal-winning original manufacturer. A director's chair is an ancient design. Tut had versions, emperors used them as portable thrones, and furniture maker Thomas Sheraton, no slouch at designing things that folded, showed a version nearly identical to ones that are on the market today.

Ordinary molded plastic garden chairs that stack are convenient and versatile. They're most stable on carpeting or sod.

A round table performs best in a small space. The old-fashioned gate leg table is the hands down small space champion and not too hard to find at the Great Big Northern European warehouse store.

I'd look at an office supply or giant hardware chain for tables. There's a folding variant of the long plastic utility table (with folding legs) that seems like a good bet. You can raise a utility table by inserting the legs into lengths of plastic pipe or setting them on plastic bed risers. With a long cloth, possibly a fine-gauge cotton dropcloth, any table will look elegant, offer hidden storage, and provide a durable surface for projects. It would make sense to have just one kind of large table and one kind of small one, adding new units as needs arose. A couple of long tables side by side, legs folded and propped on legally acquired dairy crates, with a length of non-skid matting on top. will support whatever mattress arrangement appeals.

The internet provides such a visual feast that little other than minimal furnishings seem necessary. I recently stripped a couple of truckloads of clutter from the inventory. Every discard has generated usable physical and psychological space.

The great lighting coup is nearly upon us. I have found that paper-shaded floor lamps from the Great Big Northern European outfit do wonders to soften and bring welcome subtly erratic natural texture to an evening's interior. Bakelite-based clamp lamps from the hardware store really put out the lumens, and a folding daylight task lamp from a sewing store will generate a reliable spectrum. My current pet lamp is the Japanese tent globe from the Great Big Hiking Co-op. The Swedes sell a $20 solar task light that's been reliable. I charge it on the sunporch or the nearest windowsill. In a spirit of pure punk, I coughed up significant dollars for a turn of the twentieth century incandescent bulb, just because it's obsolete. It shines down on the hall on the second floor, as it would have when the house was new.

I'd focus the rest of primary inventory on the best lightweight hiking gear, so that emergency preparedness would be a way of life rather than a mission likely to be postponed. A featherweight titanium pronged spoon and some simple, elegant Japanese chopsticks have become my go-to cutlery.

Stay away from cheap bedding and table linens: they're never quite right, never quite comfortable, and end up costing more than good versions that wear better. Look for straightforward white "flatwork" (sheets, pillow cases, towels, and napkins) with honest hems and lots of cotton in the blend. The white linens that look so vulnerable are actually the most durable, since they can be bleached. It makes entertaining sense to have enough tablecloths in the same design to cover all the tables at which guests are likely to eat or graze.

A first-rate vase full of fresh flowers from the garden, roadside, or flower stall will focus a room on what really matters. Swedish glass, old-school Asian food jars, or even the right rusty can will set off the natural elegance of green things. In a pinch, a brown paper bag wrapped around a jar will do nicely. Sometimes that's just the right contrast with a traditional table.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Cold Winter's Night


Photo courtesy Flickr

We're really talking about Seattle in July, but there's no reason not to think ahead.

Small thermal economies add up to big savings on the heat bill, whether you rent or own. This 1890 house is not much different from living in a large, wooden tent. It dates from the days when BTUs meant nothing: there was so much waste wood to burn a householder could barely keep up.

I halved the heat bill by restoring the old-fashioned wood and glass storm windows. I halved it again by insulating the smallest "chamber" on the second floor and using it as a winter sitting room, leaving the heat off altogether unless the pipes threatened to freeze. With the house's ideal solar orientation, that's a realistic plan in this mild climate, where any day of any month can be forty-five degrees and grey.

A hiker's ordinary field wardrobe will pay for itself in a couple of months: new wool socks, a down vest, wool underwear, and a first-rate cover from the old-fashioned hatter downtown make chilly autumn days a welcome change. Old-fashioned wool "sheet blankets" and a down comforter make a warm nest, not a cheap one, but one that pays for itself in a season. All of these things support emergency preparedness.

Sheepskin slippers, I have found, become dangerously loose-fitting to use on the stairs (or behind the wheel). Last winter I found sheepskin boots with laces and a well-cut foot from an old-line American tennis shoe company. I keep my pair to use indoors only, in the spirit of clean floors. I find the boots essential while doing desk work in a minimally heated space.

A long cloth to the floor covers the work table. The cloth serves as a lap robe, collects body heat, and conceals the shredder and waste basket.

Even the cheapest summer-weight rectangular scarf adds valuable warmth to an outfit. I have found that a top-quality British wool scarf of generous size or an East Indian silk rectangle make a very useful upper layer.

An electric heat mat that fits under a wool area rug keeps the winter study floor warm and relaxing. It's sane to heat from below. On especially cool nights, I supplement the mat with a portable electric radiator filled with oil. It's seldom necessary.

It's trivial to improvise a free-standing four-poster frame for an existing bed. Galvanized joints from a greenhouse supply and galvanized electrical conduit are simple to fabricate and join. Add magical teflon sliders on the feet and fine putty-colored cotton drop cloths from the hardware store and you can assemble a high-tech mini-room in half a day.

The most important part of conserving heat is to exercise regularly. Our pedestrian life style does wonders for metabolism.  Good circulation is the key to preventing the health disorders that made central heating so attractive in the first place. I would never conserve heat in a space occupied by an infant or an invalid.

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More after the jump.

Moving In


Photo courtesy Flickr

Of the millions of words that have been written about organizing a household, none of them is worth anything if it doesn’t center on a computer. So, with laptop in hand, messenger bag at your feet, and the new key in the door, how do you deal with the rest of your stuff? Perhaps not at all. Or perhaps not right away.

Start by having someone detail the new quarters. It will be easy to do in empty rooms. If you play your cards right, it may not be necessary to do heavy cleaning for years.

Find someone to advise you about managing the garden. Get the garden right, so the work you do inside will put the finishing touches on the property. Think about gardening to eat, to support local fauna, and to save water.

Unlike children, possessions hold still, so it’s not necessary to hover over them. This will give you time to think.

Decide how many people you want to entertain at a conventional table, store that many places in the cupboard, and use paper plates or a party rental for big occasions. Once you decide on an entertainment maximum, it’s easy to decide how many chairs to have.

Traditionally, the western house is a museum. The Japanese house is theater. Their spare interiors are supported by a fireproof storage building on the back of the property. Fine Japanese artifacts come in well-designed boxes, so they can be stacked compactly in storage. Metro epoxy-coated or chromed wire storage racks stocked with flap-lid plastic bins all in one size are a utilitarian equivalent.

Innkeepers divide “the house” into front and back areas. The front is for reception, entertaining, and guest rooms. The back is for production. The more back areas you define, the easier it is to get the work of life accomplished. Until the twentieth century, a home was a center of production rather than a center of consumption.

Add a thrift store container to your recycling and garbage array. It’s fun to keep an art junk box, too, and strangely gratifying if all the containers look the same.

Choose one room to hold media, books, all the small precious objects you might worry about, some comfortable seating, and a table for work and dining. The first European-Americans called this arrangement a “keeping room”. By setting up a warm keeping room for sedentary activities and leaving sleeping quarters and standing production areas on the cool side, I have cut my heating oil consumption by seventy-five percent in two years.

When you pack, separate things you use every day from inventory that gets pulled out for special occasions. It may not be necessary ever to unpack some things again. Storing in kits on wheeled racks makes it easy to reconfigure space. Label the kits. If something doesn’t seem worth packing in a flap-lid bin, it may not be worth keeping. Use obsolete closet space to squirrel away bulky items.

Keep each room as empty as it can be. Soften the atmosphere by keeping the windows and light bulbs clean and by using paper-shaded lamps.

Control clutter by establishing a “toy bank” for each child. Have her decide what favorites will be front and center for a couple of months. Going to the toy bank for a fresh supply will be exciting. Promise in writing never to discard a toy without permission, even if the child is too young to comprehend. She’ll understand the tone.

Place discards in transparent plastic bags. Ask each person to approve the discards. Do it in writing.

Organizing problems are a sign of abundance.

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More after the jump.

Monday, July 18, 2011

It Ain't the Kitchen, It's the Cook

Photo courtesy Flickr

Over a foggy dawn's bowl of oatmeal, my partner and I watched local news discuss the wisdom of broadening the rules for food-vending trucks. Street food looks promising, and I remembered a pithy comment a friend made about the worst kitchen I ever cooked in.

It was in a World War Two project in Baltimore that had been thrown up to house workers at Martin-Marietta aircraft. The room was just broad enough to hold an apartment-sized stove, double sink, and refrigerator and just deep enough to allow me to open the oven door. There was a cupboard over the sink and the space under the sink. That was it. The stove had three burners and three speeds: off, low, and high. In retrospect, I realize that many of the original tenants in the project had probably not had access to electricity before they joined the war effort.

As I hovered over a stew, grumbling and flicking the burner control back and forth to keep the heat where I wanted it, a school friend who was stopping by on his way west from Paris volunteered that he had just had the best meal of his life in a restaurant whose kitchen was smaller than mine.

That opened my eyes, and when I told the story this morning, my partner brought up the glorious West Yellowstone food truck that fed him for the first two weeks he was in Lake Charles cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina's younger sister, Rita. Parked at an air base, the truck fed several thousand people a day with the best road food Pard had encountered, and with generous servings at that.

The key to using any facility to best advantage is to slow down enough to pay attention to what is happening in the pot.

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More after the jump.