Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hard Times


Photo courtesy Flickr

My ordinary morning bus carries passengers to school or to their jobs. An unusually late ride put me in the company of many people who seemed to be stressed to the limit, burdened, pale, fragile, and frankly too thin for the clothes they were wearing.

Get the most out of every food dollar by avoiding processed food (anything with more than one ingredient on the package), eating whole grains simply prepared, and combining wheat, soy, and sesame in one meal, or rice, beans, and corn in another. Peanut butter, powdered milk, and olive oil add substance, and sprouted soybeans add a nutritious green course that can be grown in any dwelling.

Learning to recognize chickweed ($13 a pound in New York City in 1979) and picking it four feet away from painted surfaces that may be contaminated with heavy metal will give another source of greens. Collards and kale, the dark greens that are a first choice for healthy eating, are the easiest vegetables to grow and now is the time to plant them in Western Washington.

Alaska natives drink oil, not a nutritionist's dream, but a decent survival strategy if calories are what you're after. Hikers load fat calories.

Mix peanut butter, powdered milk, and honey for homemade snack bars. You could do so in a heavy zipbag.

A hot pot and/or a rice cooker are gear enough to turn out a meal of the basics. It won’t be exciting at first, and it won’t make you feel the way fast food does, but it will build your future and protect your health. On-line resources can fill in the details, and a little whale-package sea salt from an ordinary supermarket will make fundamental food taste good.

Many a young Sixties household founded its future by eating like this, a good way to stay healthy and solvent. The Great Big Discount Warehouse Chain was organized to sell these basics to the housekeepers who struggled to feed their families during the double digit inflation of the late Seventies.

Carry a little soap, touch your face only with clean hands, and walk when it makes sense. Well-heeled and soled shoes, and, with luck, orthotic inserts are a transportation choice that saves dollars and builds health. It’s not hard to find a usable backpack for little money.

If all this sounds like hippies and beatniks, that’s what it was all about, folks. A competent hippy could live on less than a quarter of what public assistance offered.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Do Nothing Cleaning

Photo courtesy Flickr

Housekeeping guru Don Aslett pointed out the advantages of using the right solvent to get rid of whatever gunk one was attacking. He also pointed out the wisdom of applying the solvent and then giving it “dwell time” to do its work rather than scrubbing madly right away. Usually, scrubbing is not necessary. All one need do is wipe up the mess.

Many cleaning routines are the easier for doing almost nothing almost never. The trick is to work diligently so that inattention does not morph into slovenliness. Dishes, for example, are a snap to wash right away and a bother to wash after food dries.

Not wanting to keep ammonia around or to breathe the fumes that make housekeeping one of the more dangerous occupations, I’ve been looking for an honest solvent to keep hairbrushes up to snuff. Cleaning brushes is one of the fine points that’s worth observing.

The resident geek spends Bucks on a citrus-based solvent to get his circuits clean. I used a few precious drops on a hairbrush that was looking cheaper to replace than to wash. In seconds, the solvent left the brush looking new.

A psychologist who trains high-level military people for a think tank advised that “there are no small problems”. Cleaning hairbrushes will not earn headlines, but it will prevent the major disruption caused by fungal infections or vermin. Competent practice is generally so accessible and efficient that it is easy to forget the squalor it displaces.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Divvying Up the Fixtures

Photo courtesy Flickr

Certain older houses had interesting plumbing. I presume they were laid out before building codes formalized the way bathrooms and kitchens were designed, and that the early layouts reflected low-tech practice.

My parents’ house was built around 1920, and originally it had a pass pantry between the cooking room and the dining room. The space had been remodeled and the walls of the pass pantry removed, leaving an extra sink to the far right of a long kitchen counter. It was convenient to have an extra water source, but, as was so often the case, the remodel degraded the original design. A pass pantry isolates the dining area from kitchen sound and scent, is closed with doors with locks, and is easy to secure from pilfering.

An aunt’s house, also built around 1920, had an elegant hand washing sink in a corner of the kitchen close to the back door. Somehow that fixture added dignity and a sense of personal responsibility to the kitchen. I suppose it was located to serve a vegetable garden.

My nineteenth-century San Francisco flat had one bathroom to serve, for certain times, a household of ten. The tub and shower room had a sink, and backing up to the sink wall was a small compartment with the toilet. Having a separate commode was almost like having a second bathroom. The far bedchamber had its own sink, as did the back bedroom in my grandmother’s turn of the twentieth century apartment. Presumably the bedroom sink was a literal replacement for the low-tech washstand. The handwashing sinks were not cheap to install.

Older Seattle houses of privilege typically had no toilet on the first floor. The indoor arrangement was on the second story, and originally there was an outhouse in the backyard. A friend who wrangled a blended family of ten children pointed out the thundering herd who tracked from the threadbare backyard lawn to the upstairs toilet all summer long. I suggested she restore the outhouse with a portable potty, and she got a long and thoughtful look.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Child's Play


Photo courtesy Flickr

The featherweight portable twin tub washing machine that has served well for several years developed a hiccup in the wash cycle timer. It’s still usable, but I’ve been surfing laundry sites looking for possible replacements. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the current state of laundry technology and marketing. (See Susan Strasser’s benchmark Never Done for the history of American laundry and Cheryl Mendelsohn’s Home Comforts for an elegant look at the domestic art of getting textiles clean. Amy Vanderbilt and Andy Warhol will show you how to fold a napkin.)

The first thing the 3G taught me is that washing machines seem to have become much more expensive than the rate of inflation might suggest. I presume this is because there is more pressure globally on the supply than there was the last time I shopped.

Even a hand-operated off-grid pair of sturdy galvanized tubs on wheeled legs with a quality wringer costs more than my electrified twin tub did. The portable automatic that used to be my go to choice is now nearly $800, and critics on-line suggest that the machine may not be reliable. The last one I owned ruined vintage  linoleum with a stealthy leak. It was demoralizing to realize that its five-year life span made a major appliance as disposable as a paper tissue. It is heartening, though, to find that the Amish community supports the market for low-tech appliances.

I still mourn the 1936 Speed Queen wringer washer that came with our first cottage. It had a stainless steel tub, got sheets cleaner than anything I’d used before, and left to serve on the front, washing real dirt out of archaeologists’ work clothes. Before letting Indiana Jones talk me out of it, I learned that the machine is the number one laundry choice of dig bums everywhere. Speed Queen would still be getting Carharts pretty again, but she gave her life in a trailer fire in the field. Dozens mourned her passing.

After an hour’s surf, I lay down and stared at the ceiling, considering Strasser’s history of housework and my personal experience of living off-grid for nearly a year during the, when else, Sixties. Doing nothing is frequently a viable solution. As I pondered that choice, I realized that all of our clothing has been travel-friendly since I took the wardrobe advice of a wise elder.

Under the guise of washing doll clothes, my grandmother taught me how to do laundry by hand. It’s a skill that everyone should learn and probably has. World War Two Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Maulden quipped about soldiers washing everything including blankets in a helmetful of water. Four years’ college experience of hand laundry because I spent the years’ discretionary fund on art books on Day One taught me that it’s a snap if there’s a good wringer available.

For a couple of weeks I’ve been hand washing my personal laundry and spinning it dry in the twin-tub’s centrifuge. The results are better than the mechanized version. It takes just a few minutes to get things clean as opposed to the half hour minor thrash of setting up the machine and running things through. As is true for other housekeeping systems, a small amount of hands’ on attention and labor yield huge savings in utilities and equipment.

The sum of all utility bills is a cash reserve to be mined for savings. At the moment, paying for luxury telecommunications is far more exciting than paying for clean socks, so I don’t begrudge getting my hands dirty, er, excessively clean. Besides conserving water and electricity, hand laundry conserves textiles themselves. Check the lint filters in your washer and dryer and consider the source.

All routines that save on utilities hearken back to the original marketing campaigns that sold electrical appliances during the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, for many people hand processes evoke poverty. I’ve taken my share of cheap shots from passersby who comment on the kitchen towels that sometimes hang behind latticework on the back porch. The neighborhood is greening nicely, though. I haven’t caught a bitch bite in months.

At the moment, what makes sense is to do nothing. For my purposes, I’ll wash by hand, spin things nearly dry, and hang them on the heated towel rack in the bathroom for a fast recovery. (The rack itself keeps towels fresh ten times longer than they used to last.) When bedding comes along, it will be convenient to stuff it into a rolling case and give it a half hour machine cycle in the laundromat between my distant bus stop and gym. A wireless 3G will let me work to latte’ in a congenial setting.

My partner claims the twin-tub does just as good a job as ever even though he had to hack the wash controls. He settles in with some reading, lets a load soak, fiddles with the on/off for half a minute, and settles again, letting intuition suggest how often to pester the wash. He tells me the process is producing far dirtier water than before, a good sign of thorough cleaning.

On the whole, the process and the research that’s backed it up come out lame but functional. When Speed Queen was new, a washing machine was a significant purchase, just behind the automobile it preceded as a domestic necessity. I’ve made do with minor machines because they made sense in my unusual situation. The market for my niche has changed, and I don’t see a worthwhile buy at the moment.

What might seem like privation can also be seen as elegance: high-tech clothing has rendered machine laundry unnecessary and public facilities will easily take care of bulk wash. For years I’ve muttered that utilities are so expensive that it would probably be cost-effective to substitute manual labor. I didn’t anticipate the manual labor would be mine, but there appears to be no heavy lifting any more. I’m game as long as there's a centrifuge or wringer at my disposal.

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