Friday, January 15, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Navy Seals cut the compartments out of a new pack, reducing it to a simple bag on a frame. Heart in mouth, I took scissors to a fancy new ultralight piece of gear and discovered that it was more flexible and accommodating after I had chopped it.

I keep individual kits for personal care, first aid, cooking, and repair in zippered nylon packing cubes. A few months of managing gear like this taught me to gut my side bag. It takes seconds to change purses, and I always know where to find something.

The cubes and their related envelope packing sleeves have revolutionized my systems. These units live in storage chests, a fundamental Medieval furnishing that evolved into the“chest of drawers” for convenient access to the contents. A chest is more economical use of space, since it can seat or support sleeping as well as contain. It is stronger and cheaper to produce, with a smaller carbon footprint. English colonial wives in India covered transit cases with quilts. Covering a case expands the range of choice: any surplus foot locker or sturdy plywood crate will suffice.

Bulky gear lives in flap-lid plastic bins on coated, adjustable wire shelving. The stuff ain’t cheap, but it’s elegant, flexible, multi-purpose, self-cleaning, recyclable, and there’s a good secondary market for used units.

These sophisticated technologies have blown away problems with inventory. If I can handle gear quickly and easily, I can review and manage what I have in seconds. Problems with clutter are problems with finding the time to edit.


More after the jump.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr
Notes on wedding invitations:

The best ones are handwritten by the bride in black or blue-black ink. All the graphic variants of engraving, print, calligraphy, and the howling pretense of quick-print shops are simply attempts to mass-produce a decent, handwritten note.

Chose white or cream-colored paper with a high rag content and use a fountain pen. Cut dummy paper (I like to use yellow) the same size as the finished unit and practice writing the copy until you’re comfortable with the format. Respect your hand. Only a brute would criticize a written message as thoughtful as a handwritten invitation.

Traditional wording is fixed for a reason. Each term is chosen to protect the sensibilities of the reader. Formal copy conveys all essential information in the fewest words, a boon to the writer.

Choose the stamp with care. Some years ago, a bride used the whooping crane stamp on her invitations and many guests assumed she was pregnant. The John Paul Jones “I have not yet begun to fight” issue was also amusing.

If you don’t often entertain formally, choose an etiquette book to use as a common reference. Social convention is psychology on the ground. It protects boundaries and saves struggles over power.

Often, a member of a family will save an invitation. Choose the form with an eye to the future: that’s one of the reasons convention is so conventional.

Miss Manners has witty and rational advice for the prospective bride, primarily that if she thinks the wedding day will be the happiest one of her life, she should get real.

A handwritten invitation to a wedding in a private home is closest to the heart of the occasion. A marriage is performed by the couple, not clergy, caterer, or hotel. The white wedding dress was introduced by Queen Victoria. Before that marriage, the bride wore a garment that could be used later for special events.


More after the jump.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ten Commandments of the Field-Rerun for Haiti

Photo courtesy Flickr

Climbers organize their lives around an emergency kit known as the ten essentials. My outdoor experience is limited, but I accompanied climbers to base camps on my first hikes. Those early days in the field formed my sense of household, and the climbers’ core collection remains the heart of inventory.

Gear falls under one of ten categories: tool, fire, water, food, clothing, shelter, medical, navigation, communication, and transportation. Do not underestimate the value of these headings: they are the key to thinking straight about what to own and what to buy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I joined a friend at our favorite dive to drink breakfast and pray for the city. Katie, who had lived there twelve years, said that the people of New Orleans had no field skills and no place to learn them. For that morning, my friend put aside her running joke about how every native Seattle woman has her own chain saw.

Specific items for the field change with technology and the mission. The following is a list of featherweight accessories to carry any time you’re beyond walking distance of home base. They are very good for morale.

Tool: a Swiss Army penknife with tweezers. Airport security makes this expendable. You can improvise a cutting tool by breaking a glass bottle and taping one edge for a handle. Use your head-play safe. Wrap a length of gaffer’s or duct tape around a butane lighter.
Fire: a half-empty butane lighter and a birthday candle.
Water: the bottle is now ubiquitous. Add a small bottle of water purification tablets.
Food: an energy bar or any little something, even a sugar packet or a cellophane packet of crackers.
Clothing: a disposable plastic poncho or plastic garbage bag. Improvise a jacket by cutting arm and neck holes in the bag. Line shoes with produce bags if you get caught in foul weather.
Shelter: a mylar survival blanket, sunscreen, and dark glasses. Carry cash, traveler’s checks, credit card, and spare batteries to use as currency.
Medical: hand sanitizer, a couple of bandages, a needle, pocket tissues, and extra meds.
Navigation: a pinch light with extra battery, spare glasses, and local map.
Communication: a whistle painfully loud in sound and color, a one-inch length of black wax lumber crayon, change for a pay phone with out-of-state contact numbers taped to the back of your principal ID. Lie down to wave at a plane.
Transportation: first-rate foot gear with good insoles and socks for the weather plus the right side bag for daily necessities.


More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Snow Globe

Photo courtesy Flickr

Over Christmas break, there was a rare clear December day. Sun streamed in through the study window at the low solstice angle, and I folded a lap robe after I got up off the couch.

I happened to be facing the window as I did so, and the cloud of dust raised by the gentle flapping of the robe was appalling. Out of morbid curiosity, I flapped the cover again and realized that I might as well not have bothered to vacuum the day before.

On Sundays I try to pretend housework doesn’t exist, but getting the study clean felt like a lab experiment, so I fetched the vacuum to vacuum things, a HEPA air filter to vacuum the air, and a battery of tools to trouble the dust: a photographer’s equipment brush that looks like a shaving brush on steroids, several high-tech dust cloths, and a small equestrian currying brush that just fits my hand.

It might have been wise to pull out a respirator. Using the sunlight as an indicator and holding the vacuum’s hose in one hand (a trick I learned from watching a carpenter use a sander in a living room), I judiciously batted, flapped, and dusted my way around the room, keeping in mind the English National Trust Manual of Housekeeping's warning that most damage to furnishings happens during cleaning. Several rounds of gently percussive whipping up of sediment yielded a fresh space.

Hospitality professionals think of cleaning as “diluting” dirt. That’s a sane approach for a domestic interior. There’s another industry term that’s useful, the concept of a “sink”, or space where dirt accumulates. A dry puddle shows the process, as does a basement floor or the corners of a sofa.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The First Line of Defense

Photo courtesy Flickr

Life support often depends on a small matter that yields huge benefits.

Simply trimming nails even with the ends of the fingers and polishing them with a multi-grit buffer improves keyboard efficiency, leaves nails flexible and the fingertips sensitive, and prevents hangnails, a significant source of infection.

Be gentle with the buffer so nails don’t get too thin, and don’t worry about looking over-groomed: the first time you wash your hands will dull the gloss.

-30- More after the jump.