Friday, June 15, 2012

Deft Rant: The Surname

Photo courtesy Flickr

This is straight fossil-froth, and I’m not going to apologize for it. I have a given name and a family name. Generations of my elders worked hard to ensure that giving my family name did not make anyone cringe.
A national retail chain has decided that only my given name need appear on the little pad where I sign for a plastic transaction. This is where I draw the line. I know the store will have no trouble identifying me from its collection of numbers, but eventually I’ll have trouble identifying me if I let the slight pass, so I'll continue to sign my full name.
It wasn’t long ago that ordinary people had no names: a baptismal name in the West, perhaps, and a tag that identified occupation, like smith, or a father's baptismal name. In Japan back in the day, an ordinary person was simply referred to by occupation.
I had the privilege of studying art with a man who reminded us that “who you are and what you do are not the same thing”. When challenges are fiercest, a decent name is most valuable.
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

George Washington Carver Made an Awful Lot Out of a Peanut

Photo courtesy Flickr

Blues musician Buddy Guy appeared on a national talk show recently and uttered that pithy comment on the value of raw material. A housekeeper might not take one resource to such specialized heights as Carver, but staying close to basic supplies is a good strategy. It takes little skill to use staples in various ways, and it’s easier to store a few versatile fundamentals than keep track of what domestic humorist Peg Bracken called the can of mattress-pad freshener.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Spiders Are the Solution

Photo courtesy Flickr

If arachnids creep you out, read no further and know you have my respect.
Eight-legged critters are a sign of a healthy domestic ecosystem. They’re my favorite kind of pest control. Ideally, a living space has little food or habitat to support pests, and a few house spiders will take care of unwary intruders. 
I prefer the furry little zebra-striped hunting spiders to the glossy bronze vampires that lurk in the dark, but each has its turf, and each is a guardian.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Cole in the Hole

Photo courtesy Flickr

Agriculture has produced a cabbage small enough to fit into the vegetable bin of a two cubic foot refrigerator. Now, no matter how weary or slothful, we are never without a green course at dinner. The small appliance is a deliberate choice that saves electricity and eliminates inefficient in-frig composting.
Chopped with the sharpest knife you can muster, coleslaw fills out a menu and keeps well for snacks. It is unlikely to impress anyone, but it keeps the innards happy and the brain working the way it’s supposed to.
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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Old Ways

Photo courtesy Flickr

Thirty-two years ago, an archaeologist and I moved into this 1890 house. We were primed for historic preservation and green living. The building has been an ideal laboratory for experimenting with ways to manage domestic life that the twentieth century said were obsolete.
Over time, I’ve been able to try just about anything I could imagine that might displace the received wisdom of housekeeping. It didn’t hurt one bit to be the oldest woman in my line of descent and free of a matriarch’s critical eye.
Living here has been a long journey of restoration and discovery. In choosing to take on the kind of architecture that smart women of my mother’s generation shunned, I bet that synthetic materials would relieve old practices and make them relevant again, saving time, money, and carbon emissions.
The simplest example of new technology reviving old custom is the plastic bucket. Where once a coopered wooden bucket handicapped the carrier with an inescapable ten pounds, a plastic one is relatively easy to manage, especially if one chooses a two and a half gallon model. I seldom carry water, but in the back of my mind lives the muscle-knowledge that it ain’t the chore it used to be.
When President Kennedy’s brand-new Peace Corps became active in Third World areas, the first stories that appeared in the American press remarked on how reluctant villagers were to change their traditional practices. That balkiness was a problem for the innovators who were, one supposes, just trying to help. Life here on the Hill has been an exercise in reversing the accretions of twentieth century practice, and it’s been a gas.
When I moved to the neighborhood in the early Seventies, there were still families to the east who used outhouses, and there were streets that had not yet been paved a few blocks south. Domestic technology of the time was awkward, mechanical, bulky, and noisy. I’d spent the previous years living on the beach and close to wilderness, and the easiest way for me to diminish the stress of living in the central city was to “downtech” life support, substituting home production and hand procedures for noisy appliances that crowded my living space.
That still works, thanks to better living through the chemistry of contemporary detergents, synthetic fabrics, and miniaturized electronic circuitry. Visiting an aunt at her beach place, I remarked on the sad iron that was holding the front door open, mentioned living off the grid, and said that it seemed easier than keeping house in town. She snorted and said, “That’s because we stayed home.” That is so. Relinquishing the car sixteen years ago freed my calendar of the twenty hours a week I used to waste crawling in second gear through clogged streets.
Attention is the resource in shortest supply, and attention is the key to meaningful change in managing the house. Demands on attention shift one’s energies just as a minor change in terrain changes the course of a stream. Domestic practice is fragile in a technologically sophisticated environment crowded with commercial alternatives to home production. It doesn’t take much to wipe out an old-fashioned practice that’s profitable, healthy, and efficient.
Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve baked my own bread, forgotten baking, taken it up again, and set it aside later on. After I found Cornell University’s complete protein institutional bread formula in the Joy of Cooking, I kicked myself for failing to bake, but a few days of the subtle malnutrition of doing without the staff of life erased the memory of true wellness.
Over the last month, I’ve been paring away the inventory stored in a generous pantry off the kitchen. It looks downright bare now, and what I have found is that I can no longer glance past the flour bin as I speed to the cupboard to throw breakfast together.
Editing protects attention and has allowed me literally to see and remember the stout mixer that does most of the work of baking. A batch of bread requires only a few minutes of hands-on labor: the rest of the process is a matter of hanging around while things rise. The slower the rise, the better the product and the less critical the timing. A former doughmaster told me in 2005 that the loaves I was producing would sell for seven dollars.
Cornell triple-rich bread is an unsung hero of American nutrition, and the best value in home production that I know.
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