Friday, July 16, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

An old friend told me that her house is chaotic. She’s having work done on the walls and all is disorder. A faint tone of distress came through the Email.

One day in the early Seventies, my hippie friend Don poured me a cup of coffee, and we sat at his kitchen table watching a hamster set things right after the cage had been cleaned. Don observed that Hamster hated having his quarters disrupted and would work without rest until things were back to his liking. By the time the coffee was gone, Hamster had turned several paper tissues into comfortable fluff and was pushing it around like a short person making a bed with a big quilt. Hamster means “storer” in German, and it makes a good verb.

Tossing a space makes the function of the various furnishings obvious, or the disfunction.

I grew up listening to my female elders voice the Fifties’ view of Victorian architecture. One of the recurring comments was about “wasted space” in generous halls.

That wasted space worked. It was social space, and when a room was being cleaned, no small feat before electricity, furniture was placed there so that the draperies, carpets, woodwork, and windows could be made fresh and sanitary. When the work was finished, all was put back into place. I find that doing this now and then leaves me keenly aware of the contribution each thing makes to the function and comfort of a room. When I first started keeping house this way, often there were items I simply left in the hall on their way to one or another category of solid waste.

Centralizing storage on each floor makes emptying a space easy. The odds and ends of life live in flap-lid plastic storage bins on “EZ Shelf” wire racks with wheels. I can empty the room that has the most things in it in the least time simply by shifting the racks into the hall.

I use the smallest, ugliest, and/or darkest space on each floor for storage and reserve the closets for things in active rotation. A closet’s a good spot for small pieces of furniture that are used now and then in a space.

The old garage on the back of the property is a week-end hangout and a tiny one-room dwelling. There are two rolling racks in it that store and work as room dividers: I lashed rustic fencing to three sides of each one using zip ties of a color that disappeared against the stock. Those racks are the hardest-working furniture I have.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Light, Sweet, Crude

I don’t know anything about oil, but I like that name. And I like this table that I spotted in the window of a used furniture store a couple of weeks ago. It looks like a sweet bit of salvage, and if I had needed it, I’d have slipped a note under the door. Were I to bring it home, I’d wax it to isolate any possible toxic dust from old paint.

It's easy to pad a surface like this one with a folded wool blanket, fleece (like the ancient Greeks), or small self-inflating air mattress from an ultra-light sleeping bag. A layer of non-skid lace between the padding and hard surface will hold things in place.

This little piece would work well in an entry hall as a “getabako”, the traditional bench Japanese people sit on to remove their shoes when entering the house. Removing street shoes is a decent thing to do, protecting the household from pathogens and toxic dust and greatly reducing housework.

A cousin who grew up in Hawaii showed me her hilarious copy of The Roach Combat Book. One illustration, captioned something like “Party”, was a cartoon of dozens of pairs of flip-flops scattered around an entry area.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

Until the other morning, I hadn’t thought of light as a commodity, but I bought a tent lamp and began to consider the lifespan of the batteries. The lamp wasn’t cheap, but the design pushes the borders of the envelope so elegantly that I couldn’t resist trying one. I thought it might be worth the price because it uses so little electricity to produce such elegant and variable illumination, cycling from reading light to barely visible glow to faux candle.

In The Next Economy, Paul Hawken discusses the value of what he calls “intelligence” in products. My new little version of a flashlight is Mensa smart. It uses LEDs and a flexible, translucent softball-sized silicon globe to produce light from four AA batteries. I can run it off a laptop. I can toss it in my messenger bag when I move from room to room. I can hang it from the bedstead. Soon I will run it off rechargeable batteries.

What I did not anticipate was that this little light would make it easier to clean. All my life I’ve groused about the dust that accumulates around electrical cords. In one swoop, the bedroom is free. I vacuumed yesterday with a handheld machine and whipped through four hundred square feet in seconds, because I didn’t have to play dodge’em with a floor lamp and the high-tech version of vines. The new light will pay for itself in a month with the trouble it saves.

High-tech is drifting toward fusion with no or low-tech, rendering the large wooden tent that is this 1890 structure ever more serviceable, elegant, and original. Before gas and electricity, houses were lighted with kerosene and candles. The ritual quality of artificial light disappeared when utilities came along. Before then, responsible adults managed kerosene lamps and candlesticks for safety and effectiveness. Sources of light were gathered up and stored in the pantry every day, taken out again only as needed. That practice leaves a house’s decks clear, spacious, and efficient to use and clean during the day, when light is free.

The last thing into the breakfast dishpan every morning were the glass lamp chimneys. They and the candlesticks from the night before were rinsed, like the dishes, with boiling water from a big kettle that bubbled quietly on the stove until the morning cooking fire died out. Wicks were carefully trimmed to burn clean.

It is gratifying to carry an immaculate lamp or candle into a social area as part of an evening’s visit. It is a deeply gracious thing to light someone’s way afterwards. In the Middle Ages, it was the steward’s duty to lead the family upstairs when it was time to retire. People went to bed accompanied by “livery”, a box of snacks and drink. I don’t see any essential difference between that system and the new lamp, energy bar, and water bottle in my messenger bag. Things are getting interesting.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The West Wind

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday was a perfect Seattle summer morning, about fifty-five degrees with low overcast and a light wind that carried the smell of the woods into town. Blocks from high-rise office buildings, I knocked out a post in civilized comfort, feeling as if I were perched near a favorite river campsite. The crow stopped by to say hello through an open second story window.

When I moved to this neighborhood, the first thing I learned was to rise early. Working briefly as a traffic engineer had taught me to observe patterns of behavior. It didn’t take more than a week to realize that once the sun was high and the hipsters were out of bed, the pedestrian scene on the busiest street was too edgy for my taste.

At eighteen, I did a little snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. Visiting fish on their home turf turned Rachel Carson’s Sea Around Us into a living reality. Broadway's a reef. Living happily in its environs is a matter of being aware of who’s out and about at any given time. Sooner or later, it seems, the whole world strolls past, each person with something to teach. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

More after the jump.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

This is not my game, but I’ve rubbed shoulders with it for a long time. The first contest I saw was daunting: two teams of hairy, ferocious Hungarian freedom fighters were making 1957 mud fly in Lower Woodland after they had failed to stop Russian tanks at home by throwing rocks at them. I could see and feel the impact of their play from the back seat of the family sedan as it cruised past the field on a rainy winter afternoon.

Yesterday my world became round: a cousin called from Paris to catch up and was delighted to discover that, thanks to my pre-dawn BBC habit, we could share our appreciation of the latest French political scandal. The details aren’t important, but it was fun to hear a Bellevue girl groping for the English terms for ministers of state.

The subject shifted to the World Cup and today’s final between Spain and Holland. I don’t follow soccer, but the opening ceremony’s scarab pushing a giant ball around the stadium stays with me. I’ll root for the Dutch because of a recent quote from one of their nationals: “Be ordinary. You’re already crazy enough.” Annie said she can tell when a game is on, because the sound of a swarm of bees drifts in from the next room.

It was a giggle to be able to tell her about Friday’s blog. She shares my love of the Hill and lives in a similar area.

At times, conversing with Annie leaves me feeling like a hick. It takes a while to shift from “sie” to “du” when we’re visiting. A few years ago while discussing the decisions American city fathers were making about urban design, writer Calvin Trillin coined the term “rube-aphobia” for American uncertainty in the face of established European cultural values. My neighbors’ gentle, sensible self-assertion and my family’s deep roots here, though, leave me steady on my feet, but thoughtful. It’s comforting to know from long experience what is fashion and what is fundamental.

-30- More after the jump.