Friday, October 29, 2010

Silky Sullivan

Photo courtesy Flickr

In the Fifties, there was a racehorse who drove people crazy. His name was Silky Sullivan, the all-time come from behind champion, and, doggone it, this post just wrote itself. I saw Silky race on television, and every bit of the poem is true. dansullivan9026 posted a rockabilly celebration of this horse on

Silky’s jockey, Willie Shoemaker, said, “Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas, it’s hard to get up in the morning.”

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dinner Grows Itself

Photo courtesy Flickr

The compost border along the back walk is literally offering meals for the taking. Some critter brings up potatoes ready-to-cook from the bio-cauldron of worms and micro-organisms turning kitchen waste into soil in two weeks flat. I know the soil is active: snow doesn’t last on it.

It’s probably teen-aged raccoons, who like to play with the toy airplane that floats in the pond waiting for small boys to discover disaster. When I get home, all I have to do is lean over on my way in the back door to gather the dinner that grows from discards, including the original seed.

The convenience and efficiency of this system is not to be credited.

By the way, the original potato toy was a real vegetable decorated with construction paper elements, a good way to keep restless kids out of the cook's hair before dinner.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Tents

Photo courtesy Flickr

When the world of urban design was wringing its hands about the future of housing, around 1970, someone commented that it is utilities that make houses so expensive. A low-tech residence built before electricity, running water, and central heat was a simple shell for daily life.

My place was built with running water and gas light. Electricity and central heat were installed around 1910, but the house is as close to low-tech as habitable space gets in town. That makes it an ideal lab for researching life off the grid, particularly because I can flip a light switch or take a hot bath when I get tired of pretending it’s 1880.

Norma Skurka’s wonderful Underground Interiors, published around 1974, featured an indoor igloo-shaped sleeping dome that the owner had knotted in large-scale macrame’ patterns and set up in a corner of a warehouse. I have since seen that dome in a couple of other publications. The design has aged not at all.

Several seasons ago, I experimented with leaving the thermostat as low as it went, fifty-five degrees. We got through the winter alive and with a low fuel bill, so the next year I left the heat off altogether unless it threatened to freeze, a risk reduced by the advent of satellite weather forecasting. That was a relative piece of cake, too, given that I did heat the one insulated chamber to use a “keeping”, or all-purpose room.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, my partner spent a month in Lake Charles. I spent that November sleeping in our three-person tent in the attic, to see what that would be like. I left the rain fly off and replaced it with a handwoven white wool coverlet (a thrift prize) that is large enough to cover the dome. The wool wicks moisture and insulates nicely. The tent is a comfortable and comforting place to sleep without generating any CO2. As long as I’m dry, out of the wind, decently fed, and healthy, staying warm is no problem.

Living cool grows beautiful hair.

As it happens, there’s a corner of the attic with floor-level windows and a nighttime view of downtown high-rises. Last summer I discovered that view after living here thirty years. The tent now faces a small jeweled panorama, and I look forward to spending nights in it when life on the lower floor gets boring, which will save on travel costs.

There are many older buildings in Seattle with non-habitable areas in them. At the moment, the real estate market does not support much of anything, which makes this an ideal time to experiment with low-impact ways of using every cubic inch of a structure.

As with a trailer (yesterday’s post), there’s a trick to protecting personal dignity while innovating. It’s helpful to know a little about the history of domestic architecture, because precedent fosters courage. In Finland, farm households still expand into uninhabitable space when the weather turns warm. It’s customary for young couples to set up a sleeping tent in a barn, improving everyone’s privacy, and allowing them to live close to warm weather.

I began to consider the domestic uses of a tent after seeing video news reports of the air terminal encampment set up by political protesters in Thailand. A long shot of dozens of colorful tents standing without stakes set me thinking of ways to get the most out of field gear when we’re at home.

When my son was small, I discovered that the six-man tent was an ideal site for a birthday party. I’d set it up in the living room. The kids loved to sleep in it even as adolescents, and the tent contained all the detritus from the celebration. When they went home, I tilted the tent, scooped out crumbs and wrappers, and took it outside to the hose.

It was a hoot to discover a room-within-a-room that had been quietly lying in storage. Talking about privacy, a wise older friend said, “people just need to have their faces concealed”. It's important to have good fire protection in a tent: make sure both doors are unzipped, smoke detectors are healthy, and that there's an extinguisher in reach. It goes without saying that there will be no open flames.

There’s a secret to this kind of improvising, and I learned it from George Washington. Southern households of privilege entertained many guests for months at a time. When visitors arrived, it was traditional for the family to de-camp to cots in the attic so that guests could stay in comfort. I look forward to retreating to the attic or the basement when the house is unusually full. Those utilitarian spaces are laid out so that I can live my ordinary life without disturbing anyone. The secret to this strategy is to store personal gear in portable kits.

All the blog’s little decisions about life style add up to a resilient system that’s easy to support and maintain.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trailer Clash

Photo courtesy Flickr

Trailers are so rational that I’ve never been able to utter the word “trash” in conjunction with one-I just can’t resist the look of an Airstream. Milton, Washington, used to be the home of a huge dealer. One time my partner and I stopped on our way south to see what all the fuss was about. We slid through narrow rows of aluminum siding, admired push-out kitchen windows in the new models, home-made yellow curtains in an immaculate used, but clearly beloved, family vacation home, and decided that it would be smart to cook and set up a privy outside a trailer itself. Then we hit the motherlode: a group of Bambies. One had been modified for a Montana shepherd, with a tiny wood stove set up in the middle of the space. It was absolutely just right for pure wilderness. Reason prevailed, and we left it on the lot, but it lives in our hearts.

I thought nothing could follow that Bambi, but the sales guy led us to an unpromising unit that was even smaller. It sat low on a shady corner of the lot. The windows were intimidating horizontal slits. Even I had to lower my head to sidle through the door, but the interior was a revelation. The fitted wood impeccable, the hardware cast bronze like a yacht’s, those windows that so put me off created a brilliant panoramic view, like wide-screen cinema, of what little landscaping there was on the site. We were told that we were touring one of the oldest Airstreams ever produced, part of a personal collection and not for sale.

I have read that one of Japan’s many gifts to architecture is to design very small space with wide, low openings near the floor. That ur-trailer was poetry in aluminum. It resembled a traditional tea house, of which I know very little. It must also have resembled the cockpit of a World War Two bomber, since trailers were a post-war product of aerospace factories.

Someone commented a while ago that hanging a garment bag on a wall is, uh, a less than respectable trailer mode of managing wardrobe, so I tried that in the little summer house on the back of our small urban property. Works fine, keeps the moths and mice away, is barely visible in the shadows. Can’t see what the problem is. Housekeeping is a discipline of extreme orthodoxy. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the stakes are so high, but it’s nuts to ignore technology that multiplies domestic force. An Army bandsman remarked during Viet Nam that the conflict would not be resolved until every general had his air-conditioned command trailer. I believe we housekeepers would do well to question the wisdom of forever inflating and elaborating domestic systems.

-30- More after the jump.