Friday, November 26, 2010

Snow Bones

Photo courtesy Flickr

Western Washington cheerfully loses its mind when it snows. Immigrants gripe about our inefficiency while local gardeners rejoice in a good slug-killing freeze. My grandparents lived half a block from the best sledding hill in their small town. When it snowed, they'd order a cord of wood dumped in the alley by their garage, then spend a day sipping "moose milk" (with bourbon) and watching the kids take wood for a bonfire.

A snow-covered landscape is easy to critique. Look around, take some pictures: the underlying structure will be clear. When the weather lifts and the ground is not too muddy for foot traffic, it will be easy to edit and plan the next season’s operations.

A simple process, a huge payoff.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Whole Lot of Nothing

Photo courtesy Flickr
Downsizing in place left us with an empty basement, two slick porches, and a guest room devoid even of guest. It is deeply soothing to know that the peripheral rooms in the house are under control, with no dormant inventory moldering in place. It’s easy to control allergens and stale pheromones in a room with nearly nothing in it, and it’s heartening to know that if we suddenly want a good few cubic feet of space, it’s ready.

This house was built before people had living rooms, when the residence was a center of production rather than consumption. To the left of the front hall, just outside the main traffic pattern, is a formal parlor, and to the right stands the family parlor with the kitchen just off it.

I was fortunate to have been shown a similar place when we first moved here: a handy man gave me a tour of the first floor of a house he’d been tending for years. The ancient mistress had just moved into a nursing home. Her family parlor was set up as it must have been in 1900, with a generous walnut desk in the corner, a dining table, and some congenial upholstered furniture. The atmosphere was of cluttered comfort, convenience, and deep familiarity. It was not a room for the eye, but it was very appealing: archaic, but not an old lady’s space.

As I look back on the twenty or so places I have lived, I can’t think of any of them where it would not have been possible to divide the space into formal and family parlors. We use the formal parlor as a music room, which means every day we benefit from the cost of owning it.

When I was growing up, I overheard many conversations between matrons about floor plans. Energy and resources were cheap then, and it was assumed that a given room had a fixed function. For the things I do and the way I like to live, that point of view amounts to going through life with my shoes on the wrong feet. Weather Report’s song “Put It Where You Want It” set me thinking about the uses of domestic space, and Sir Terence Conran’s House Book opened my eyes to the adaptive reuse of old houses and old furniture. The book is hilariously dated now, unless you’re designing sets for a play about the Sixties, but the technical information has not been bettered.

At the moment, the family parlor is the room we are heating, and simply occupying the space generates the initiative to get things done. Moving the rolling tool cabinet into the kitchen reduced turn around time on projects from months to minutes. With the best loafing chair in one corner, a music system to one side, and a stack of dairy crates holding discreet projects, we can knock off one ossified chore after another with no effort, simply because there’s no commute.

The key to the system is keeping poison under control. It’s toxins that generate segregated work space in the house, just as pesticides segregate the garden into ornamentals and food.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Camping without Dirt

Photos courtesy Flickr

It’s a joy to live close to the weather, and it’s a special joy to do so within walking distance of downtown highrises. I like to stay close to the changes of the seasons, or what passes for them in a climate where any day of the year can be forty-five degrees and cloudy. Simply being able to breathe air that has not passed through someone else’s lungs is a luxury, although I have no intention of giving up the bus and my beautifully ventilated vegan coffee shop.

A long-term experiment in saving heat is yielding some interesting results. The attic has no insulation and was laid out as a small apartment for the petite and beloved housekeeper of the woman who commissioned this place in 1890. I cleared the space in anticipation of a roofing job and found that it is a glorious tent, secure and windproof right in the heart of town.

The attic can also be described as a traditional garret within which to freeze, although originally it was warmed with a radiator and the rising heat from downstairs.

Topped with a white wool coverlet instead of the rain fly, our generous dome tent sits in the dormer. The tent is a comfortable variant of a four-poster bed. It takes the curse off sleeping on a Western floor and would make a hospitable guest room or retreat on behalf of a guest, perhaps in a tidy garage. The key is luxurious bedding. I have seen documentaries about Mongolia that show the nomads’ traditional sleeping arrangement: a rectangular frame about four by four by seven covered with hides. In the bitter cold, one can sleep without bedding. On an unusually cold or windy night, covering the tent rather than my person is an effective way to stay warm. Like any experiment in economizing, it’s more fun when one doesn’t have to. It’s far better to learn habits of conservation before dire need sets in.

A Paris museum, perhaps the Louvre, mounted a show of Mongolian yurts about fifteen years ago. They looked really cool in front of the Neo-Classical architecture. A World of Interiors reviewer remarked that Mongolian herders know everything there is to know about living off the grid.

The attic is a convenient place to experiment with off-grid living. I fool around with new technology when attention and resources permit. It’s an easy way to indulge my gear habit without guilt.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Air Washday

Photo courtesy Flickr

I replaced a small automatic washing machine with a portable twin-tub model that is popular in the Alaskan bush and in Saudi Arabia. It’s available mail order, for heaven’s sake, from the great big box department store, and it weighs nothing enough to wheel home from the freight company’s concierge storefront on a hand truck. Costs about the same as a new coat.

This is the third twin-tub I’ve owned, and I was disappointed when it arrived. It seemed mean and flimsy compared to the vintage models I had found at a local dealer, but I have grown to appreciate this iteration of an efficient, economical variant of the early wringer washers of the twentieth century.

Knowing the history of the washing machine does not fascinate at parties.

After twenty years with small automatic machines, I grumbled at again having to tend loads, lifting wet clothes out of soapy water to transfer them to a centrifuge. The economies are worth the trouble, and the machine spins clothing dry enough, more or less, to wear right out the cylinder. It was a bother, though, to think about washing at all.

Last night I realized the full potential of the new system. I had come to realize that this particular featherweight twin-tub is not an inferior washing machine, it is an extremely sophisticated wash tub. Knowing that was not enough to silence the grousing, but I set up my laptop/air card on the kitchen counter to knock off some clerical chores while I kept the health department at bay. The combination of appliances digital and hands-on is just right.

Laundry and surfing are now a good brain-dead end of day exercise. I was able to wash two weeks’ personal laundry in half an hour and forty gallons of water while cleaning up the desktop on my computer. Each of these chores is a bother, but in tandem, they’re interesting and productive.

-30- More after the jump.