Friday, August 19, 2011

Wanapum's Feast


Photo courtesy Flickr
The in-house archaeologist got home from the road. Over morning coffee I idly asked if he’d driven past the most desolate place on the main highway between Seattle and Spokane, a blistering, stony viewpoint called Wanapum.

On the few occasions I’ve driven past Wanapum, I’ve been sweltering, dehydrated, and with tender Puget Sound eyes in shock from hours of sunlight. It turns out that Wanapum of the barren hills fed its tribe richly on game, salmon, and roots.

I can’t think of a clearer example of how a European-American frame of reference obliterates the subtle abundance of indigenous resources. I can understand how someone can grab a love-crazed salmon out of the Columbia, but I still can’t figure out how to take a deer if there aren’t any trees to hide behind.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Cat Ladder


Photo courtesy Flickr
A recent stroll to the grocery store took me past a clever innovation that saves space and keeps the resident feline happy: someone had fastened carpet to the steps and shelf of a folding ladder. Said cat was loafing comfortably in a picture window keeping an eye on the neighborhood.

I love strategies that find more than one use for a standard tool. That ladder was an ordinary wooden one. There’s a higher tech aluminum version on the market that’s featherweight and comes with a small toolbox attached to the top safety rail. I bought mine from a pretentious mail order catalogue, Main Entrance, and knew it cost too much. I bought it anyway because it seemed like such a good idea.

The new ladder doubled the size of the house the minute I unpacked it. It has shaved hours off the time it takes to get little chores finished, and it’s cunningly designed not to bite the woodwork. I figure the demon housekeepers of its country of origin, Germany, will not countenance a second-rate accessory.

Mounting carpet on the ladder’s aluminum treads would be safe and easy using industrial quality hook and loop pieces from The Standard Electronics Hobby Chain. Put the fasteners under the treads to keep them out of the way when the carpet is removed for ladder missions. One could also, I suppose, mount carpet somewhere on a leg to add scratching post potential.

Wooden stepladders are a treat to look at in their own right, though.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fossil Critique


Photo courtesy Flickr
My patience with consumer goods cheap and not so cheap is wearing a little thin. Friday I shopped for a tablecloth and a refrigerator thermometer. The thermometer, which was not a bargain and was marketed as a commercial accessory, came in a blister pack and seemed substantial. I should have realized that the metal looked heavier than it hefted. The edges of the piece are finished just enough to avoid lawsuits and not enough to handle and feel relaxed at the same time. It cost just enough to be noticeable and not quite enough to be worth taking back and complaining.

One’s time and travel are a cost of acquisition, and it’s worth a little extra expense to protect the part of the shopping investment that cannot be recouped with a return. I once watched an elderly immigrant spend long, intent minutes studying the various packages of oatmeal in a neighborhood supermarket before he made a selection. At the moment, all my shopping habits seem to need revising.

I hate getting snookered. Last year I bought a portable gas grill from a major American brand at a major chain and returned it because I slashed a finger on an unavoidable edge. In the Fifties, Good Housekeeping magazine campaigned relentlessly for decent quality consumer goods, and I’ve come to take for granted buttons that don’t have to be secured the minute I get the shirt home, forks that are polished between the tines, and clothing that doesn’t shrink two sizes the first time it’s washed. In the last week, the seams on two new garments have failed, something that hasn’t happened in years. The thread on the hem that failed is so fine as to be nearly invisible.

The tablecloth I was seeking was not available in the size I wanted. I was willing to pay for a top of the line French cotton jacquard cloth. After bridling at their price for years, I finally could not resist one’s sheer beauty and discovered that it is the best value any way one cares to count. After I bought the first cloth, I picked up some cheap imitation napkins in another pattern and found they were worth less than a package of paper ones. The cheapos disappeared from the market a few years later, and the good ones show up from time to time in small local shops.

Still hunting a cloth, I moseyed over to the nearest department store and found that a designer is marketing the imitations at twice the price they used to cost, factored for inflation. I finally went to a fabric store and picked up some closely-woven heavy cotton upholsterer’s gingham in one-inch squares. Cutting the fabric straight across the grain and pulling a narrow fringe will give me a serviceable casual cloth that costs half as much as the cheapest sleazy import, takes minutes to fabricate, and will last for decades. It’s work an intelligent child can do.

There’s a niche in the market to avoid: things that cost a little too much or not nearly enough.

I’m concerned that the state of the economy and of international competition have eroded production standards for consumer goods. Knowingly or otherwise, big name retailers are peddling the kind of things that used to be available only in local stores a self-respecting matron of any income level would not deign to enter. That was in the day when girls lived at home until they married, and a single woman could not get a mortgage.

In 1973, the Oil Embargo trashed the American economy. A year or so later, the coinage was debased and the gold reserves at Fort Knox were compromised. I’m too ignorant to assess the significance of those events, but I did note a major change in retailing as the merciless inflation of the period eroded everyone’s buying power and destroyed the lower middle class.

A boutique opened on the main shopping street in the neighborhood. It had a razzle-dazzle name, and it sold the first brightly colored imported plastic consumer goods I had seen. It was like a toy store for adults, and everything in it was a sock in the eye. The flimze that debuted in that shop front now dominates the market. Some of it’s fantastically elegant, but cheap forgeries stick between my fingers every time I go shopping.

Not long after the boutique opened, I ran across someone’s comment that “all highly stimulating roads lead to Times Square”. Now, I suppose, one could say lead to the Tenderloin, although it, too, is slated for gentrification. I’m concerned that the kind of speed-shopping exercised after work, buying at face value on-line, and unfamiliarity with genuine quality have left the shopper undefended against trends in design and marketing that produce bad value.

We’re like aboriginal people, with no antibodies against sharp practice. In 1958, me mum took me to an unfashionable local department store and showed me the fabrics. She pointed out what looked like quite a nice gray wool flannel and commented that it was weighted with lead to give it a “good hand”, saying that the first time it was washed it would turn into a gauzy rag. Arts and crafts pioneer John Ruskin said, “There is scarcely anything made that cannot be made a little worse and sold a little cheaper, and people who buy by price alone are that man’s lawful prey.” Every dollar is a vote, and I fear that shopping has become social Darwinism at its most fundamental.
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More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Shadow Footprint

Photo courtesy Flickr

Late Saturday morning I looked up from a cup of coffee to find a brilliant, closely defined patch of white yarrow blooming exactly where the towering elderberry shades the soil from morning sun. Apparently, conditions have been just right for the yarrow to colonize and thrive. It’s elegant and wonderful with the near-tropical form and delicate blossoms and fruit of the elderberry.

The native landscape has again done on its own what I could not possibly have visualized or actualized.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Laundry Bags

Photo courtesy Flickr

I was taught that it is bad form to use a pillow case as a laundry bag. Good linen is worth protecting from hard use. However, nobody told me I couldn’t use a laundry bag as a pillow case, and on one cross-country jaunt in a VW Bug I protected my favorite pillow just that way. Later, I made up a couple of artful drawstring bags in upholsterer’s heavy cotton gingham to use a covers for king-sized feather pillows. They’ve been lounging workhorses for twenty years.

Recently I picked up a few muslin laundry bags to use as outer covers for other bed pillows. I failed to realize that the new bags are much larger than the first one I experimented with, and the pillows I’d planned to cover just swim in them. However, the bags are more than good for storing sleeping bags and down garments. Now I can store in plain sight and use year-round the bulkiest and most awkward warmths in the inventory. They may lose a little loft from being leaned against, but serving daily instead of once or twice a year is worth the cost. I can always perform a down transplant if things get too inefficient.

-30- More after the jump.