Monday, January 9, 2012

Saving Money Isn't Ghetto


Photo courtesy Flickr

As I was hanging laundry to dry some years ago, one of the tenants next door walked past the 1890 lattice-screened back porch and muttered something about obsolete practice. That was the same week I had read a historic comment about how sparingly the prosperous early adopters of electricity used the utility.

A cousin recently told me about a digital titan who skimmed the headlines of the paper while it was on the stand rather than paying seventy-five cents for his very own copy. A friend mentioned that her mother had risked her health on an expensive cruise to the Near East by melting ice cubes rather than paying for bottled water. Those are doubtful economies, but the attitude is sound.

Every dollar spent is a vote for something. The dollars left over are leverage. I consistently find that basing a decision on how big a carbon footprint it will leave generates cash to use for smarter, healthier behaviors.

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In the Kitchen

Photo courtesy Flickr

“I just season simple food with hunger, and I’ve never felt better in my life.” Dick Proenneke’s comment about his cooking would have saved countless trees and uncountable trillions of electrons over the years, had anyone been able to hear his message.

Our son arrived for Christmas with unpretentious East Bay food in his heart, and we spent most of the visit planning, cooking, and eating local things without salt. Losing the salt is the fastest way to learn how things really taste. Once you can taste what’s coming off the stove, you’ll be able to pay attention to timing, temperature, and effective combinations of ingredients.

Try it. Lose the salt, use unsalted butter, and buy first-quality vegan-fed eggs. Whole grain is a given. It takes a while for the palate to adapt, but afterwards, anything else feels burdensome.

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"This Small Part of the World Is Enough to Think About"

Screening of Gary Snyder's "Practice of the Wild". Snyder is second from left. Photo courtesy Flickr

Dick Proenneke’s wilderness experience forged concentration. It’s a luxury to displace concerns about the larger arena and simply do one’s best with the fundamentals. Judiciously allotting time and jealously guarding time are the way to find peace enough to do one’s best and enjoy the simple labors of ordinary life.

I love to live in the woods, and I love to find wilderness in the heart of town. The climate is still uncontrolled, the bay retains most of its original contours, there are many wild plants (although they’re much shorter than the original timber), the birds and bugs come and go, the mammalian predators are more dextrous and challenging than the usual furry ones, and there’s a generous supply of unanticipated events.

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Working with Old Wood

Proenneke photo courtesy Flickr

Sometimes I think that only materials with an even consistency should be worked with machine tools. Metal, plastic, glass, and synthetic fabrics are examples. I caught a few minutes of a This Old House episode that showed the crew salvaging seventeenth-century boards to reuse in a new addition. They were running the old planks through a planer to “clean them up”, and in the process they obliterated the evolution of pit-sawn wood’s grain through many thousands of cycles of changes in humidity and temperature.

The clock spares no one, though, except perhaps historic preservationists. The day after I saw this episode I caught another few minutes of woodworking on the glorious Part Two of Dick Proenneke alone in the wilderness. The footage answered a question I hadn’t known I’d been asking for decades: what is it about old cabins that is so eloquent?

I do believe it’s the expression of the hand of the woodworker, particularly the expression of the hand of the person who sharpens the tools. Body energy and machine energy are two different cats, like acoustic and amplified.

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The Sewing Kit


Photo courtesy Flickr

There’s a certain Gone with the Wind quality to fine sewing tools. I mean that literally: one scene in Margaret Mitchell’s novel about the Civil War has Scarlett O’Hara shooting a Yankee looter dead because he has dared to lay hands on her mother’s sewing kit. Scarlett turns to discover that her frail houseguest Melanie has staggered off her childbed to back her up with a cavalry sword.

Now and then I think about decent antebellum values when I pull out my grandmother’s girlhood silver thimble to rescue a seam. Sewing needles were one of the first products of the industrial revolution. The thimble advanced public health by protecting the sewer from hand infections. A local weavers’ supply displayed a lovely collection of sewing kits this Christmas. The two models are in fine leather in charming colors.I stopped by to check them out. They did not disappoint: the workmanship was as promising as the colors, and the designs are clean.

I had a little leather sewing box as a child. It stayed with me until the Eighties. It held the thimble, fine needles, an emery strawberry to keep the needles sharp, beeswax, and a beautifully wrought pair of small scissors from Solingen. Each item in the box was a work of art in itself, and the container was a stately little cabinet for the collection. It rested on a dedicated shelf until it was time to sit down, pull out a piece of work, and make a few leisurely stitches.

Leather is a high-maintenance material: it dries out unless dressed with bookbinder’s dressing, fades, scuffs, and eventually the stitching fails. A leather kit serves best in a dormant work area, of which I now have none, by choice. The language of the hand that is designed into a leather sewing kit is stately and stable. I appreciate those qualities as much as the next dame racing from one commitment to another, but I want different service from a tool kit of any stripe.

I want to be able to grab it fast, toss it into a side bag, and get at the contents without fumbling with fasteners. I want it to look good enough to communicate to the uninformed that the contents are valuable,
but not so good as to create a risk of theft. It appears that improvising a kit will not be simple. At the moment, the gear lives in a tiny styrene container in a black nylon travel cube, but I think it deserves a new home. Just what, I’m not sure. I do know that I’m not inclined to waste even one cc of space.

Realistically, I can slide a needle into the little multi-knife on my key ring and back it up with a nickel-sized spool of dental floss. It will be a while, if ever, though, before I’m willing to give up an elegant thimble and hand made scissors with needle-sharp points.

PS May, 2014: The Great Big Hiking Co-op offers a soft nylon zippered wallet from Raptor Creek that appears to be just the thing for a nomadic sewing kit. It's compact, flexible, and more secure than the rigid styrene format. A similar wallet holds small things in my daily side bag.


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More after the jump.