Friday, May 4, 2012

Snack Food

Photo courtesy Flickr

Yesterday the media handed me this post on a platter. Even the Peacock network thought it was a Disney moment when a zoo lion tried to eat an infant. The baby's zebra-striped onesie that made this an animal behavior story was only one factor in the behavior. 
We’re supposed to be afraid of lions. Lions are supposed to be afraid of us. I like to think that had there been a high school football player or two in the crowd they would have charged the animal to wave it away from the baby. As it was, the crowd behaved like the rest of the herd of zebras, writing off the victim and going about their business. The lion learned that our species doesn't protect its young, and the baby learned that when it's looking into the jaws of a large carnivore, it's safe but on its own. 

Googling zoo lion attack, I found a nearly identical story from last year. The soundtrack was the amused chuckle of the camera woman. In each case, the lion pawed fruitlessly but with disarmingly kittenish rectitude at the glass separating it from its intended victim.
The Fifties saw the publication of two fascinating books about hunting big game. Jim Corbett’s Man Eaters of Kumaon details his experience in India dispatching problem cats. John Hunter’s Hunter covers Africa. As I recall, Corbett is repeatedly invited to villages that are being terrorized, and the impression I retain long after closing the covers of the book is that stunned observation is part of the experience of seeing a victim attacked.
The glass let us laugh it off, but the glass isn’t always there. We live in lion country, and unlike Old World man-eaters, our lions are no longer trained to fear human beings by hunters who use dogs . They attack when they’re strong and healthy. I’ve been stalked by a cougar, an uncle helped a cyclist fight off an attack in a national park, and the in-house archaeologist mentioned at the end of the story that he’d been visiting a Montana indian reservation when a cougar attacked and ate a child.

So clear the brush from around the house, folks, and check out David Quammen’s Monster of God.
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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Timing with Fire

Photo courtesy Flickr

I love to cook over wood and have been experimenting with handling food as if I were using a cast iron range. Starting a dish hot and fast and then finishing it over gradually lower temperatures echoes the way solid fuel burns. I’m no expert, but the process seems to produce especially tender and succulent results.
There’s a rustic summer house on the back of this small urban lot, and several weeks ago I built the first fire of the year. As I lingered at the hearth over the course of a chilly afternoon, I realized that embers mark the waning of the day in a gentle, expressive manner that frees one from the urgent nanoseconds of the usual work week.
In 1970, during the “Whole Earth” revolution, it was argued that mechanical clock time was a tyranny due to be busted. I spent that summer living off the grid and was happy to realize that I could tell time by the sun (or in Western Washington by where I thought the sun should be) perfectly well. I’d find my watch and check it now and then to discover that my guesses were accurate to the minute
A physicist friend went off to Princeton with time as his topic. That level of consideration is far beyond me, but a recent brain science book suggested that the way to stay in touch with Newtonian time is to do calisthenics. That keeps spaciness under control. The relevant fire, I suppose, is one’s metabolism.
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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Garden Crash

Photo courtesy Flickr

Yesterday I discussed ways of managing life support in the face of urgent demands on time and energy. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of reorganizing priorities is reorganizing the garden.
Gertrude Jekyll commented that a garden is uniquely expressive of the gardener. It will never be quite the same in the care of another hand. When World War Two broke out, the English landscape was plowed under to raise food. Presumably specimens of choice and lovely flora were transplanted to one side and saved for the future. Another wise gardener commented that if one has a special plant and shares it with friends, one will always be able to retrieve a start. In an emergency, it might make sense to farm out beloved cultivars for safe keeping.
We bought this house from the estate of a woman who’d been ill for some time. There were remnants of the original plantings here and there, but for years her yard had simply been mowed. There were a few large trees and no details. What flowers remained were tough survivors that taught me much about low maintenance.
I hesitate to make blanket recommendations about a garden, because decisions are not as easily reversible as those about furnishings. Reason is in order, though. When the household’s under stress, signs of careful management are important to the exterior. If it were me, I’d sacrifice the mature dwarf fruit trees and have a lawn service mow, knowing that the perennials will come up sooner or later no matter what. 
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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

House Crash

Photo courtesy Flickr

Now and then life brings emergency to the doorstep. Managing a household becomes a foot race run with a laundry basket lashed to one’s ankle.
Here are some suggestions for clearing the decks when every second and every speck of personal energy counts. They’re based on fifty years’ experience with Frederick Taylor’s basic principles of industrial efficiency as applied to domestic life. They’re also based on a lifetime total of twenty-eight moves.
In writing these comments, my goal is to protect personal inventory so that the stress of losing things is not added to whatever events are pushing housekeeping to its limits. Once the crunch is passed there will be time and energy to sort and maintain.
Clearing the decks is a literal comment. Navy footage of the battle of Okinawa shows a burning fighter plane skidding onto the deck of an aircraft carrier. The crew races to pull out the pilot and push the flaming wreck into the sea. The fighter teeters at the rail for an eternal moment before tipping into the waves. Every time I think seriously about managing inventory, I think of that plane.
Here’s how to do that and still be able to retrieve Aunt Sally’s tea set. Making decisions is the hard part. Work with two assistants if you’re feeling unequal to the task. Work with one if you’re confident in your judgment. Have the organizer make the decisions and the assistant handle things. This advice is as true for a healthy athlete is it is for a frail convalescent, because thinking is hard work.
Whatever the source of the crunch, such as illness or remodeling, there will probably be strangers in the house. Securing valuables will ease security concerns. Ask a trusted friend or relative to be part of the team, at least to get small valuables into the packing container. Make sure that no one on the team accepts gifts when the actual packing thrash is going on. An ethical organizer will never accept gifts.
I prefer to shop rather than edit, so when I want to redesign the contents of a cupboard or drawer, I empty the space and then put back the few things I use often. Three days is a good cut-off point for deciding what’s basic inventory and what’s just sitting there.
That’s about all there is to the decision making. The tricky part is handling things. Ideally, have a generous supply of flap-lid translucent plastic bins on hand to receive items for storage. Think of the bins as a labor cost, and remember they’re easy to secure with locks or zip ties.  A generous supply is three times as many as you think you’ll need, no kidding. The bins are furniture and as useful as any comfortable chair.
In a perfect world, the household will have a clean, dry storage room with enough industrial shelving to hold the bins without stacking, or there will be at least a few pallets topped with plastic sheeting to protect inventory from damp. There will also be a sturdy hand truck and a rolling utility cart to save the back of the person handling freight, and a couple of pairs of sticky-palmed work gloves.
When you’ve finished laughing, put dozens of clear plastic garbage bags and several loud colors of stationer’s stick-on dots on your shopping list. Add a handful of bold permanent markers and a roll of wide masking tape to the collection.
                                                                Intermission
Flap bins are ideal because they’re rigid enough to store fragile things. Anything that might break should go into a rigid container. It can be padded with soft furnishings or clothing.
When it’s time to start, note a number on a colored stick-on dot, set it in the area that’s being cleared, and photograph it to have a record of the contents of the bin or bag. If you’re working into bags, set one in a box to keep it open. Take the time to place the top of the receptacle at waist height: doing so makes loading much easier. Create a flat stack of open sheets of newspaper for wrapping things that will break. Start with a stack that’s four times as much as you think you’ll need. A child can set this up. Stow by area rather than by category. Put grubby things in clear plastic bags. Lampshades and works of art should go into their own individual containers. When the bin is full, seal it and slap the dot on it. Use masking tape to label with details, if time permits. The photo system allows the owner to survey inventory at leisure and make decisions to greatest advantage. One could print out the photos and mount them on the containers. An iPad is the easiest way I know to do this, since it sends photos straight to Email.
During Viet Nam, the Army moved my household several times. There were stories circulating of professional movers who packed even the fragrant contents of the kitchen waste can. Omitting compost, broken glass, and toxic waste, it would not be unreasonable to adopt the same attitude. Again, it’s the decision-making that is so taxing. Just get it done. Basic housewares are so inexpensive that it will be trivial to buy or borrow something that’s not available. Disposable dishes might be in order-at times they’re an act of mercy. Stack or pile the inventory in a file-and-forget space while you deal with more pressing demands. Bins can live in a secure dry garage, bags are vulnerable to vermin and should be piled in a habitable room set with a rodent trap or two.
The just-pack-it strategy is hoarding, pure and simple, and it does not apply to ordinary housekeeping disciplines. When we moved into this place in 1980, I knew there were months of refurbishing in the future. I left most of our inventory in sealed cartons and hired a mountain climber to hump them upstairs. Three years later, it was a mixture of Christmas and wedding reception to retrieve the treasures and put them into service.
In the meantime, we used appealing thrift shop salvage and utility grade everything else. If the inventory is basic, managing it doesn’t have to be sophisticated. Household medical and financial records are critical: simple furnishings allow them to stay front and center, as they must.
When you’re blazing through the packing you may run across something you’ve always meant to ditch. Use an alternate color of dot to designate a discard-I like green for go. Make sure the color code is posted on the exits and that the organizer is supervising the mover. Clear plastic bags prevent tragic errors.
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More after the jump.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Ford

Photo courtesy Flickr

“Ford” is a perjorative term for a good product that has become ubiquitous. A willingness to risk a cheap shot now and then makes life simple and efficient. Fords are ubiquitous for good reason. Solving an ordinary problem in an ordinary, inexpensive way frees attention and resources to expand personal interests into new areas and to maintain and conserve truly unusual things, places, and beings.
Digital technology can displace demanding, mediocre artifacts in favor of cutting edge high performance tools and materials. Big Box distribution systems bring necessary Fords to the doorstep in a flash, delivering spare time as well as materials.
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