Friday, August 6, 2010

Ordeals Are Obsolete

Photo courtesy Flickr

I wish this were absolutely true, but it is truly true for much of what used to be called house “work”. Developments in clean room technology and the practices of industrial efficiency have blown away the drudgery that used to be the lot of the housekeeper.

Keep dirt out by leaving shoes at the door.

Dilute dirt by rounding it up with a vacuum cleaner and air filtration. Use a broom only outdoors.

Wipe dirty surfaces with high-tech polyester terry cleaning cloths.

Use rubbing alcohol to sanitize and to clean windows. Wash hard surfaces with no-rinse janitorial neutral pH floor cleaner.

Finish floors and painted wood with metal-interlock polish.

Control pollutants, like chocolate on a toddler’s hands, at the source.

One good round of cleaning based on these principles will leave you with a domicile that only has to be vacuumed now and then and attended to otherwise once a year.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

In the mid-Fifties, I learned from a media salesman to call a certain kind of furniture “borax”, a perjorative term for the characteristic popular style of the period. To the best of my understanding, borax stands for inflated form, substandard construction, high profits, and shoddy materials. Borax was a feature of furniture stores in low-income neighborhoods and was often marketed in ways that exploited paying over time.

Oddly enough, the furniture I remember as borax represented debased versions of the most innovative design of the period, like a pulp edition of a good hardcover book. Borax is the low-brow art of furniture.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Faking It

Photo courtesy Flickr

In a fit of housekeeping, I hid the ironing board from myself and then had to finish a freshly-washed jacket. An old friend told me her ironing basket had a label that read “Goodwill”. It took me years to appreciate her insight. Now I own only two garments that need ironing, and unfortunately, I was staring right at one of them the other day.

When the world was trying to teach me how to sew, I learned about the “pressing ham”, a sawdust-stuffed literally ham-shaped variant of a pillow that skilled sewers use to sculpt dimensional areas of projects. My wrinkled jacket is cut so simply that the shoulders are the only areas on it that aren’t flat, so I rolled a clean bath towel into a semblance of a ham, and steam-pressed the shoulders of the jacket over that form.

Back in the day, laundry maids ironed “flat work” on large tables. Doing so cuts ironing time to a tenth of what it takes to maneuver on a conventional board. Don’t do this on French polish, but if you have a table you’re willing to risk, protect the top with a Space Blanket and a layer of padding. A wooden drawing board is a good surface to use. A clean bath towel will do for padding unless you’re working on a major tablecloth. A well-used wool blanket is a good pad.

To finish the jacket, I unrolled the towel and spread it on a stone counter. Thanks to a steam iron that heats in a flash, the whole task took less time than retrieving and setting up the board I found a couple of days later.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting the Point

Photo courtesy Flickr

Someone sent me a sendup of artisanal culture, but truly, artisanal pencil sharpening is an elegant, inexpensive, and convenient skill that is easily mastered.

You can hack a craggy point onto a pencil using a paring knife. It’s safest to sharpen the knife so it won’t skid, but in a pinch, use the section of the blade that’s closest to the handle. A beginner can stand the pencil on a piece of newsprint and cut toward the supporting surface. Sometimes it’s fun to use a pencil that’s been sharpened any old how. Just keep hacking that craggy point so there are sharp edges to work with.

My favorite hardware store leaves short carpenter’s pencils on the shelf so I can label small purchases, and it’s always interesting to see how well and gently used they are. Carpenter’s pencils are good for kids, who used to learn to write with large-diameter pencils. That large diameter is good for the hand-it lets it relax.

It’s always a good idea to have an X-Acto knife in the house, especially if there’s also the protective tip, some back-up blades, and a little Washita stone. Cut a wood-cased pencil into a rough cone. A good old-school graphics guy could do this faster than the eye could follow and produce a tip that needed only a brief rotated pulled burnishing on a “sand stick” and then scrap paper to develop a consistent needle point. I like to use four-grit nail buffers stored in a zip bag trimmed from the bottom.

Now that you have that needle point, draw very gently with it on a piece of scrap, deliberately breaking off the fragile end. Burnish it just a bit to remove any minuscule crumbs, and that’s artisanal pencil sharpening. Keep it sharp. Do the same finishing exercise with a pencil that’s been sharpened in a machine.

Pencils used to contain lead, not such a good thing, but that explains the old term. Lead was replaced by graphite. In the early twentieth or late nineteenth century, there was a huge graphite discovery in Mongolia, and that was the origin of the unmistakable yellow #2 pencil. Roy Chapman Andrews wrote a fascinating book about exploring Mongolia during that period looking for, and finding, the first dinosaur eggs. Old pencils have nearly the same value as old stick ink: last time I looked, graphite was bound with plastic that affects the kinesthetics of writing.

Be picky, always be picky, about the writing quality of the tools you work with. It’s a good way to stay awake.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Tiny Garden

Photo courtesy Flickr

It doesn’t take more than a few square feet to establish a landscape.

The most enchanting garden I ever saw was tucked into a corner between the hitch of a small Airstream trailer and the front of the body. The trailer was parked on the windswept shoulder of the beachfront highway through a coastal Indian reservation, just to one side of the general store. A fishing couple were living in it for the summer, and the young woman had planted bright miniature dahlias and four-inch pots of shrubs to establish her yard. It was a powerful statement of the value of horticulture in severe circumstances.

Two other tiny gardens stand out in memory. What they lacked in the guerilla aesthetic above they made up for in refinement. One was the dooryard of a painter’s caretaking shack set in the middle of a chain-link parking lot for RVs. A small, shallow frame of good soil stood to the right of the door at the top of a short flight of steps. It was set with scavenged plants memorable only for their compostion, but truly memorable for the interplay of height, size, texture, and space.

A third garden was a door into a separate reality. It sat in the back room of a gallery of Korean folk art in a very old commercial building in one of Portland’s western suburbs. The Seventies were exquisite years when period architecture stood in original condition, poised on the brink of decay and unmolested by historic preservation.

Complete with original hardware, a weathered drawer from a large, old dresser rested on four concrete blocks in the middle of a casual seating area on an ancient, worn, and splintered fir floor. Cool indirect light made its way through the original windows, the glazing of which was old enough to have flowed. The plants, scavenged shade-loving natives carefully composed in the tradition of Japanese dish gardens, were set like theater in the round. Even though some of the elements were awkward and not yet standing on their own roots, their presence was hypnotic, and they stole the show that was hanging in the other room.

-30- More after the jump.