Friday, December 30, 2011

Deft Rerun: Perfectionism

Photos courtesy Flickr
But first, a word about imperfectionism.

Rikkyu, the Japanese tea master who pretty much defined the forms of the ceremony, was out walking one morning with one of his rivals. The two men passed a shop window that displayed a bronze incense burner. Both eyed it, and that afternoon the rival returned to find the burner gone. The next day, Rikkyu invited him to tea, and sure enough, the burner was there. Rikkyu, however, had knocked a corner off the piece to make it more perfect.

Traditional Navaho weavers made deliberate errors in their rugs to forestall the jealousy of the gods.

Home management guru Don Aslett, the mother of all organizers, says a place should look as if the people who live there are having a good time.

On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to ride well, shoot straight, and tell the truth.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Deft Rerun: Deliberate

Photo courtesy Flickr

Multi-tasking and the instant pace of contemporary reaction have obscured a quality that is the foundation of craft skill: the deliberate, considered exercise of a knowing hand. Speed has nothing to do with this quality, although it can operate faster than the eye can see.

Recently, I read the liner notes on Taj Mahal’s “Kulanjan”, and they mention the traditional hunting music of Mali, a rare reservoir of ancient culture. The notes also mention that the music is played much faster these days than it was originally.

As a pre-schooler, I used to hang out in my grandfather’s basement shop. He worked standing, at one with whatever project was at hand, moving from task to task with the conscious footwork of a veteran outdoorsman and a man who could walk to work. His musicianship turned the exercise into a grounded, silent dance like those found in Dalmatia. In the early years of the twentieth century, he lived off the land for months at a time in the area that became Olympic National Park, carrying nothing more than a rifle, ammunition, salt, flour, and matches.

As a young adult, another shop of hand tools claimed my attention: the one at the rear of a beach cabin set in hundreds of acres of a tree farm in second growth. There was no electricity on the property. The shop had been designed by a physician, and it was as orderly and convenient as one would wish a surgery to be. The bench was placed under a generous north window. The designer’s daughter told me that her father always carried a pocket knife. It was something, she said, that gentlemen always did.

My granddad pulled out his knife, always sharp, when it was time to build a fire. He shaved curls of tinder off a piece of cedar to get the blaze going, never polluting the smoke with newsprint and never wavering in his concentration. Watching him start a fire was the beginning of my art education.

It grieves me that homeland security considerations have turned the pocket knife into a problem rather than a solution. Should you need a cutting tool on the road, pack a length of adhesive tape in your kit, break a glass bottle, and tape all but the business end for safety. Glass breaks into a monomolecular edge. It’s brittle, but nothing is sharper.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Deft Rerun: Boooks

Nuremberg Chronicle courtesy Flickr

That’s the conservative way to pronounce the word. The following comments were first posted in December, 2009, before Pomme's second digipad blew the doors off Gutenberg.

A book is a low-tech recording medium that is structured to permit easy reference to the contents.

That’s all a book is.

The alphabet is phonetic. Each letter, originally an attenuated picture, conveys sound to the ear of the reader. The alphabet was a sea trader’s accounting technology. Our version comes from Tyre in Phoenicia. Interestingly, English gardeners maintain that giant mullein is a sign that Phoenicians had been in an area.

In the Western tradition, letters were originally written on scrolls, like the torah. Looking for prophecies about Jesus, Christian scribes wearied of twirling Old Testament scrolls, folded the text back and forth on itself, and formed what is known as a codex. The little mulberry paper notebooks found in Japanese stores are codices.

A codex is fragile, as anyone who has handled a Japanese notebook impatiently learns. The next development was to sew the folds of the codex together to keep the pages from tearing themselves apart. That’s a book.

A book is an amazing, simple piece of engineering. Even a sheet of the cheapest 8.5 x 11 paper folded several times onto itself, the folds opened with a dull blade like a table knife, will survive as a pocket notebook for years if the spine is sewn by hand through an odd number of holes. Three holes plus a figure-eight stitch square-knotted at the center will secure the pages through many uses. A tapestry or dulled needle is easiest to work with. Fold a slightly heavier piece of paper stock, paste up the outer pages of the pamphlet, secure and trim the cover, let it dry under a weight, and the piece will last twice as long.

All the rest is detail. Edward Johnston and Sidney Cockerell rediscovered the fundamentals of book engineering in England in the early twentieth century. William Morris, Johnston, and Edward Catich, a Chicago jazz musician of the Twenties, worked out the technology of formal alphabetic writing. St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, maintains Fr. Catich’s archive on its web site.

Imprint on Catich if you want to study letter models. An anatomist, kinesiologist, and trained in Sho-Card as a youth, Catich presented writing that is as close to pose-proof as any I have found. There’s a trade paperback collection of his work.

If you fiddle around with higher tech, the possibilities for a book are infinite. Recordists are the scribes of our time. Audio tape is the exact equivalent of a scroll. In the West, reading used to be taught as one aspect of the art of pronunciation. St. Jerome was notorious in his time for reading silently to himself. If you understand reading to be the art of actively recreating the voice of the author, the drones are silenced.

Someone asked me the other week what I thought the future of the book might be. Don’t have a clue. It’s wide open, and it’s wonderful. The digital possibilities are endless, but we sure need our editors. A small book of archival quality is a gift to the future.

The history of Roman letters is a history of diverging local forms leading to cacaphony, followed by a return to the benchmark images of the Trajan column in Rome, Edward Catich’s patch. Letters are meant to communicate, although the scribe can consciously manipulate reading speed. Our tradition of written forms is the longest unbroken one, so our recorded history is relatively easy to decipher.

Though I'm no expert, it seems to me that Robert Bringhurst’s “Elements of Typographic Style” is the “Joy of Cooking” of digital typography. He recommends using a type face that was designed for the medium you’re working in, looks at the relationship of music and book proportions, and sets out the Western book in a nutshell: Gutenberg used one size of one face. Bringhurst recommends basing letter practice on scribal traditions. Catich said all one needs are capital letters.

Chuck Bigelow, Chris Holmes, and Sumner Stone all trained in formal handwriting, and they were pioneers of digital type design. Steve Jobs studied in the same school as they and brought the living tradition of the best of Western letters to the screen. A script is the voice of the designer, a song that can sing any word. More after the jump.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Deft Rerun: Setting Up

Photo courtesy Flickr

Of the millions of words that have been written about organizing a household, none of them is worth anything if it doesn’t center on a computer.

So, with laptop in hand, messenger bag at your feet, and the new key inside the door, how do you deal with the rest of your stuff?

Perhaps not at all. Or perhaps not right away.

Start by having someone detail the new quarters. It will be easy to do in empty rooms. If you play your cards right, it may not be necessary to do heavy cleaning for years.

Find someone to advise you about managing the garden. Get the garden right, so the work you do inside will put the finishing touches on the property. Think about gardening to eat and to save water.

Unlike children, possessions hold still, so it’s not necessary to hover over them. This will give you time to think.

Decide how many people you want to entertain at a conventional table, store that many places in the cupboard, and use paper plates or a party rental for big occasions. Once you decide on an entertainment maximum, it’s easy to decide how many chairs to have.

Traditionally, the western house is a museum. The Japanese house is theater. Their spare interiors are supported by a fireproof storage building on the back of the property. Fine Japanese artifacts come in well-designed boxes, so they can be stacked compactly in storage. "Metropolitan" epoxy-coated or chromed wire storage racks from the specialty container vendor fitted with flap-lid plastic bins all of a size are a utilitarian equivalent. Buy heavy-duty castors for the racks-you'll be surprised how versatile they become.

Innkeepers divide “the house” into front and back areas. The front is for reception, entertaining, and guest rooms. The back is for production. The more back areas you define, the easier it is to get the work of life accomplished. Add a Goodwill container to your recycling and garbage array. It’s fun to keep an art junk box, too, and strangely gratifying if all the containers look the same.

Until the twentieth century, a home was a center of production rather than a center of consumption.

Choose one room to hold media, books, all the small precious objects you might worry about, some comfortable seating, and a table to eat at. The first European-Americans called this arrangement a “keeping room”. By setting up a warm keeping room for sedentary activities and leaving sleeping quarters and standing production areas on the cool side, I have cut my heating oil consumption by seventy-five percent in two years.

When you pack, separate things you use every day from inventory that gets pulled out for special occasions. It may not be necessary ever to unpack some things again. Label the kits after you make a photo record of the contents. If something doesn’t seem worth packing in a flap-lid bin, it may not be worth keeping. Use obsolete closet space to squirrel away bulky items.

Keep each room as empty as it can be. Soften the atmosphere by keeping the windows and light bulbs clean and by using Great Big Northern European Home Furnishing paper-shaded lamps.

Control clutter by establishing a “toy bank” for each child. Have her decide what favorites will be front and center for a couple of months. Going to the toy bank for a fresh supply will be exciting. Promise in writing never to discard a toy without permission, even if the child is too young to comprehend. She’ll understand the tone.

Place discards in transparent plastic bags. Ask each person to approve the discards. Do it in writing. A child too young to write can understand that making a mark means keeping a promise.

Inventory problems are a sign of abundance.

More after the jump.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Houseguest Check List

Photo courtesy Flickr

I have found it convenient to set up a personal dressing area separate from my sleeping room so that it’s trivial to move over for incoming visitors. I keep a large-type printout of this list with the kit of small amenities.

Fresh bedding, even if they’re bringing a sleeping bag
Extra pillows and blankets
Full set of towels for each person
Hangers, sweater bag, bathrobe
At bedside, a water tray, flowers, ear plugs, and white noise machine
Radio with frequencies listed
Internet connection
Night and reading lights
Table and chair, outlet
Fruit and snacks
List of services and interesting things within walking distance
Maps and bus and tourist guides, cab contacts
Table for suitcase
Magazines, books
Writing paper and pen
Fresh soap, cotton balls, paper tissues, comb, razor, emery board, toothbrush, paste, and floss, shoe wipe, shampoo, lotion, tampons, condoms, first aid and sewing kits, personal rubber duck
Disposable rain poncho
Leave a key in the door if you use a deadbolt system for security.

Setting up is not as much trouble as it might seem: most of the things on the list support daily life as well.
More after the jump.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Worn and Perfect

Photo courtesy Flickr

I love being around artifacts that improve with age. When I wore jeans, there was a span between being broken in and broken down that felt just right. An acquaintance once served me a meal with a silver fork almost as malleable as an aluminum pie plate: the flatware had been in her family for generations. Eating with that fork left me grateful for what small command I have of fine motor skills.

For forty-five dollars at a yard sale, I picked up two hundred square feet of hand-knotted tribal camel hair rug woven in a traditional Afghani pattern. The central part of the rug was beginning to show the warp. It’s not uncommon even now to find fine brass reading lamps from the early twentieth century in thrift shops.

Uncle Landon bought an old chair. The grain on the parts that show has raised slightly with two hundred years’ changes in temperature and humidity. After he seated me on the chair, Uncle Landon said he’d looked at it for several years before realizing it was Hepplewhite. My back and bootie just love that chair.

Another uncle mushed out from Port Angeles to visit the ancestral homestead, now in other hands. He brought me two shingles from the smokehouse, which had collapsed. They’re a yard long, split from six-hundred year old cedar from virgin rain forest. They are patterned on one side with smoke and on the other with the subtle erosion of a hundred fifty years of clean rain. I think they’re the most interesting things to look at in the house, because nothing of them is predictable or man-made.

One of the homesteaders who settled in the area that became Olympic National Park left his hatchet to my grandfather. I had a chance to handle the tool as a child when I ran across it and the man’s will in my grandparents’ attic. The lifetime inventory of a Yale graduate who guided Teddy Roosevelt through clear cuts and virgin timber and convinced him to establish the park was listed on one typed page. A possession is valued differently when it stands between one and hypothermia, and back-up is a fifteen mile hike away. The hatchet looked like a champion show dog of advanced years. The handle was built up of patterned layers of different kinds of wood. The head was razor sharp, modified by years of honing into a subtle variant of the original casting. It was made by a company whose name is still familiar, but it came from another world.

Shiny and perfect is just right for medical gear and laptops. Life is richer when you learn to appreciate the effects of time and respectful use.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Light

Photo courtesy Flickr

My grandmother, who was born in a homestead log cabin, insisted that windows be especially clean in the winter. It makes a big difference: a friend from New Orleans declared Seattle winter survivable after she got to the glazing.

Another housekeeping tutor was a woman of high privilege from one of the smaller countries in Central Europe. Ms. W was careful to keep the incandescent light bulbs and lampshades clean, and she often lit a small fire in the afternoon. Keeping shiny surfaces shiny makes the most of ambient light and, to me, explains the low-tech eighteenth century preference for silver, mirrors, varnish, and satin.

Light's a nutrient, they say, and my portable LED “light box” has leavened many a dismal winter morning. I used to hang out with a fellow who painted in oil, and I just loved the 500w flood light he used to illuminate the canvas he was working on. There's a flood in the corner of the room as I type. We don't have a fireplace any more, and the flood is a close second to the glowing focal point a hearth provides.

Another trick is to find and polish a brass tray. Set glass snowballs, very clean small fruit jars or other clear glass tea light holders on it, light the candles, and call it a portable hearth. The snowballs are the safest candle holders I know, and variants often turn up in thrift stores.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Seven Simple Ways to Refresh the House for the Holidays

Photo courtesy Flickr

1. Wash the glasses that you wear.
2. Sweep the hardscape three or four times with a corn broom. The silica in the broom straw will polish the pebbles in the cement.
3. Add a new bed pillow or two.
4. Vacuum the very edges of each room.
5. Shorten turnaround time for leftovers in the refrigerator.
6. Empty and wash trash containers and wastebaskets. Keep them close to empty.
7. Keep each room gnat’s eyelash orderly, so holiday incoming won’t pile up on unresolved tasks.

More after the jump.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

After a little too much coffee on Sunday morning, Pard and I started talking about our love of guinea pigs, and what a joy it is to hang out with one that is not in a cage. Pigs are inherent comedians, like parakeets. Only my distaste for buying a slave animal for entertainment keeps me from having them as pets.

Briefly, I visualized giving guinea pigs the basement for their very own, until reality set in. Then I recalled the ultimate home aquarium, a Rainier Valley merchant’s koi run.

I have not had the pleasure of living with one of these “water beings”, but I know enough to know that the breeders are protective, the Asian art museum’s collection is graceful to watch, and that at least one koi does not tolerate impertinence. Pard and I took our son to a koi show when he was small, and I wandered amid waist-high tanks of colorful fish. Recalling a New Yorker cartoon of a matron addressing the fish she had on a leash, I leaned over and recited “Izzum mommy’s widdle carp?!” to one of the captive swimming audience. The fish jumped up and bit my fingers, giving me an electric fright and a good splash to boot. The owner, who was standing by, said, “He does that.”

Maasi’s fish store devoted the back half of their one-story building to koi. Cement boundaries like a toboggan run had been built up directly onto the cement floor, and juvenile fish raced happily around a generous serpentine circuit.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Puppy Shots

Photo courtesy Flickr

The issues of childhood immunization are a hardy broadcast perennial, and I am happy to leave the health debate to the experts. One aspect of childhood disease that hasn’t been addressed, though, is the cost of caregiving.

In the early Fifties, my mother and her good friend and next door neighbor both worked outside the home. Between them, they had three children aged seven, six, and three. Only vaccines for diptheria, smallpox, and whooping cough were available.

I came down with chicken pox and spent two weeks at home. My brother caught chicken pox and was sick for two weeks. Neighbor Susie came down with chicken pox and was sick for two weeks. I caught mumps and was sick for two weeks. Susie caught mumps and was sick for two weeks. Bro caught mumps and was sick for two weeks. I caught measles and was sick for two weeks. Bobby caught measles and was sick for two weeks, Susie caught measles and was sick for two weeks. We and our classmates looked forward to the time off and were delighted by our diagnoses.

I can’t do the math without a pencil. That’s four and a half months of full-time caregiving split among two moms and one housekeeper. So, if making room in your schedule for a Christmas recital is an issue, consider the ramifications of not immunizing.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When We Fall, We Fall Upwards

Photo courtesy Flickr

Beatnik poet Philip Whelan said that. I’ve been mulling over the concept for a while, and the recent biography of Steve Jobs includes several similar remarks from himself. Both men emerged from the same school.

New Orleans musician Mac Rebbenack aka Dr. John sang, “Your money ain’t no better than the way that you spend it.” I can barely manage my own purse, much less anyone else’s, but the info-nuggets above help me evaluate what I’m doing when the plastic is smoking and the holidays are knocking on the front door.

At the moment, I base decisions on whether they aggravate global warming, enhance or debase health, or generate capital.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Excess Capacity

In a zen establishment, the cook is the most important person. Green Gulch photo courtesy Flickr

During a break last week, I flipped on daytime broadcast television. A regular medicine show was visiting the generous suburban quarters of a middle-class family brand new to the poverty game.

There are five children in the home and one income. The family is hungry.
Their gaunt father works a dangerous job and skips lunch. The kids are thin, and their development is suffering. Managing the family’s diet is a high-stakes game for the future, because it takes generations for the payoff to emerge: the grandmother’s pre-natal nutritional environment is a determining factor in a child’s intelligence.

Suburban domesticity evolved in a period of cheap energy and abundant resources. That is no longer so, but a suburban household has hidden advantages. The whole point of owning a freestanding house on its own piece of land is to be independent and self-sustaining. A family under stress is in no position to make design changes, but if you’re setting up a household, here are some suggestions to make the most of that split-level paradise.

Protect the soil, dig in kitchen waste, and learn to grow at least the few green things that cost the most at the supermarket, are fragile to store, and that add the most taste and interest to a simple diet. Flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, oregano, green shallot or onion tops, chard, and collards save many a trip to the market (a minute’s walk for me, but a high cost-per-mile jaunt in an SUV).

Cost out the energy consumption of your cooking set-up. Three squares for a family of seven is alien turf for me, although over several summers I often cooked for nineteen on a wood stove. The property had no electricity, and the woman who clued me in to the importance of good nutrition over the long now supervised the larder. Check Deft Home’s index for a lifetime’s accumulation of ways to free cash for more interesting applications than basic life support.

Any conventional stove squanders expensive heat. When I shifted to a convection oven and small appliances, my power bill fell by half. It had already fallen by half a few years earlier when I gave the freezer away and relied solely on dried, canned, and fresh stores. Child safety is a real concern with small appliances, but many of them are so automated that it may make sense to set them up away from the main kitchen area. Doing so saves the electricity it takes to run a kitchen fan, keeps the atmosphere fresh, and conserves the heat the fan otherwise draws out of the living quarters.

I recently bought an elegant induction hot-plate that makes short work out of preparing any ordinary stove-top recipe. Between it and the maker’s electronically controlled pressure cooker, I have a portable, hyper efficient food preparation set-up that works in less than half the time of a conventional stove, uses ninety percent of the energy it consumes, and requires almost no supervision. Results are better, faster, and easier. The two units make very good use of simple, basic ingredients that are much healthier to eat than complex prepared products.

A suburban property was originally designed around the skills of a full-time, well-trained housekeeper. Turning a consumer-oriented establishment into a productive domestic unit becomes an urgent task when poverty strikes. Food stamps for seven people should provide at least for a thrift shop pressure cooker, a package of yeast will yield complete-protein bread when it is baked from the Joy of Cooking Cornell triple-rich institutional bread formula, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet will show how to navigate the shoals of privation as people have done for thousands of years.

It takes a while for one’s metabolism to adapt to a healthy diet, but once it does, the body’s response to empty food will make it clear just how sickening it really is. The prospect of converting five kids to home cooking from scratch is daunting, to say the least. I bribed my son with one junk food meal a week, on Saturday.

Just get those greens in a pot with some olive oil, tomatoes, and smoke seasoning, honey, mix up some cornbread, chase down a couple of squirrels, and you’ll be eating well in no time. A heavy enameled cast iron pot is ideal, and it’s amazing how often those treasures turn up in thrift stores. The squirrel part is theory for me, but real for the in-house good old boy. Don’t eat squirrel brains, and try to find some that have been eating hickory nuts. Make sure those teen-agers are brewing root beer and ginger ale.

Angelo Pellegrini wrote the book, “Lean Years, Happy Years”, and the last volume of General Charles Yeager's biography details his love and respect for his home turf-the poorest county in the poorest state in the country.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

An old friend recently mentioned a woman who has many collections stored at home. Over dinner, I asked the in-house archaeologist and former museum assistant for advice about managing a collection in domestic space.

I think that’s called “housekeeping”. Here’s the quick response:

Acquiring something is called accession. Get a computer, a barcode system, and RFID technology to keep track of things. Add photos, possibly from several different aspects. A photographer once advised me to high grade my posters, selling some to pay for housing the rest.

Store in hypoallergenic archival packaging. Avoid corrugated cardboard. Museum people like standardized plastic bins with little containers of steel wool that absorb oxygen-a good way to control bugs and protect paper.

Shelve on standardized epoxy-coated adjustable wire units, available through The Big Box Home Improvement Store and Store the World. Consider the strength of the structure under the collection. DJ Dr. Demento once collapsed the floor of an apartment with his record collection. Storage racks on wheels can be arranged chock-a- block and moved as needed. There’s a museum storage system that hangs shelves that roll here and there. My personal preference for casual domestic use is to buy standard civilian units.

I believe some insurance companies specialize in covering collections. Fire and water are ever-present hazards. Think twice before storing anything in a basement.

Ideally, a collection lives in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. That means there’s a carbon footprint. Things are entertaining. Things are expensive, both personally and for the world as a whole. I favor acquiring and maintaining things in a way that’s conscious and intelligent. Some people are natural collectors. That’s a skill worth honing so that the urge to live with artifacts does not stress the greater culture.

I worked as a library clerk for two summers, and not so long ago I helped excavate the estate of a pathological hoarder. The lesson I take from that experience is that a collection can enhance or subvert the dignity of the collector. I vote for enhance.

The British National Trust Manual of Housekeeping is the operating guide to the living museums, aka stately homes, that are in its care. Its advice is literally conservative and figuratively illuminating. Look for further technical advice in museum libraries.

More after the jump.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ms. Schmidt's Cabin

Photo courtesy Flickr

Me ma had many surprises up her sleeve, and she would spring one on me now and then after I had forgotten about the last one. One Christmas, she took me to tea at a new friend’s house.

On the drive over, my mother said her friend lived in her parent’s pioneer log cabin. We arrived in a part of town I didn’t recognize as fashionable and drove up a modest dirt drive through unremarkable grounds. Spindly fir trees dominated the landscape. Cabin the house was, straight out of central casting, as small as usual, in very good condition with, as I recall, a fieldstone chimney and virgin cedar shakes on the roof.

We walked in over a puncheon floor (split logs laid directly over soil) covered with Oriental carpets. There was a comfortable fire burning on the hearth and a 1930s Fat Max sofa that had been reupholstered in denim (easy with hot glue). As she poured, our hostess explained that she had invited us to celebrate making the final payment on her painting by Dufy. I don’t remember the work, but I do remember a little sketch my mother pointed out when Ms. Schmidt was out of the room. Northwest painter Mark Tobey had sent it to her from Basel in an ordinary envelope.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do It Right, Do It Big, Give It Class

Photo courtesy Flickr

The title was filmmaker Louis B. Mayer’s advice about--I suppose-- just about everything. He also advised spending an hour every morning simply thinking. There are not many phrases I would consider rendering in needlepoint, but do it right, etc, is certainly one. I would even consider rendering it in petit-point.

As a student, I started and ended each day in a Twenties frame cafeteria with carved Tudor beams, an environment of intelligent privilege with no evidence of luxury. The room was about the size of a basketball court, beautifully proportioned, and had a south-facing wall of windows with small panes.

In 1997, it cost $20,000 to curtain a similar wall of windows in the international style suburban mansion of a local Digital millionaire. The cafeteria was curtained formally in plain, unbleached muslin. The gently filtered light in that room was a nutritious resource in its own right.

Designer Billy Baldwin claimed that it is far better to use generous amounts of something cheap than stingy amounts of something costly. I have found that doing so creates a relaxing interior. Decent, ordinary materials like muslin, burlap, felt, chipboard, pegboard, the various grades of plywood, clamp-on shop lights (that can hang from their cords), Japanese paper shades, bamboo blinds, and floor paint will pull a place together in no time.

Simplify an interior and make it flexible by using the same paint and floor scheme in each room. Preferences vary, but carpet makes no sense to me. Synthetics smell toxic, and any fiber locks filth and allergens into a room. My house is essentially a development property, so I have not had to consider resale value when making design choices. I’d rather have an honest floor of plywood or cement than micro-layers of hardwood engineered to a fragile fare-thee-well.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Heart of the Neighborhood

Photo courtesy Flickr

When America was learning about urban design in the Sixties, one of the first agendas was to restore the urban forest that had been destroyed by Dutch elm disease. Anyone of a certain age who grew up on the East coast will have a heartbreaking story of the death of those splendid trees. I believe the loss of the elms had much to do with the urban decay of the Fifties. It is unarguable that Seattle’s urban forest has grown healthy neighborhoods along with downtown timber.

My first house was across the street from a graduate student of landscape architecture. Over a cup of coffee one day she giggled that the city arborists had gotten together and decided to plant a giant sequoia downtown. They reasoned that the tree would easily be in scale with the buildings in the area, present and future, and they thought it would be just plain fun. The tree is coming along fairly well, although urban life and windstorms have challenged it. You can see it just north of the big, old-fashioned department store.

The other day I stumbled across the Seattle city arborist’s website. It’s a small gold mine of information about which trees are suitable for urban conditions. Check it out. Any place that sells trees should have a reference to this site: a tree is a minor investment that pays big dividends.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Designers' Own Houses

Photo courtesy Flickr

The American economy of the Sixties and Seventies generated some gentle and reasonable approaches to interior design. Income was distributed differently, the community of people who were aware of the design options available to them was much smaller, energy was still cheap and raw materials abundant. It's worth the trouble to mine back issues of design magazines: something that still looks good in 2011 is surely a classic and likely to be a bargain used. Ignore fabrics: reupholstering with hot melt glue is trivial.

In my first wave of reading publicly available interior design sources, I often ran across glossy shelter articles about designers’ own dwellings. Often, a room would include an improvised element that was inexpensive or free. Those things took the curse off the sophistication (not necessarily expensive) of the rest of the composition.

Michael Taylor used a weathered driftwood stump set upside down as a table. Jay Steffy made floor cushions a major statement, Billy Baldwin used matchstick blinds in the heart of New York City, and a man whose name escapes me used chrome wheels in his Long Island house. Plain shipping pallets were the original supports for futon. Surprisingly, I found none of these men's work on Flickr when I was looking for an image.

One of the designers of the period said that space is the last status symbol left. I still find that any effort I make to simplify a room not only eases maintenance: it lets me stand a little taller and breathe a little easier.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Illustration courtesy Flickr

Design is a good word to experience as a verb. In my limited experience, formally trained designers tend to grind their teeth and behave politely when I mention the word. To them, surely, my mentioning design must sound like do it yourself brain surgery. However, every physical and behavioral choice one makes is a design decision, and to design one’s life is a liberating task.

Big words aside, design is fun. Every minute spent reading and hunting ideas pays off sooner or later. My go to sources remain Bruno Munari’s Design As Art, Richard Kehl’s 100 Ways to Have Fun With An Alligator, Terence Conran’s House Book (whose visuals are howlingly obsolete and whose thinking remains solid). The internet, obviously, is one big design scrapbook, and Flickr lets one visit many an interior.

The Sixties seem to have been the last period when one given style or another dominated the market. The game’s been wide open since the late Seventies, and a recent visit to a book store turned up the idea of the undecorated house, one that is simply, or perhaps not so simply, assembled from the owner’s menu of choices.

To design, I believe, means to choose. My design catechism included a definition of two dimensional work as “the logical selection of visual elements for order and interest”. The day I decided to take that into three dimensions was the day things got interesting.

What interests me doesn’t necessarily interest anyone else, but I’ve been able to compose my miscellaneous legacy by interrogating concepts with the gestalt design shorthand: the desirable qualities are harmony, contrast, balance, order, and unity. The last word is function.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

What Do You Do When You're Doing Nothing?

Photo courtesy Flickr

Answers vary, but the question never fails to generate a moment of peace and concentration.

Make the most of it by training core strength and learning good posture from a Steam Punk or zen person. Check Richard Baker's on-line Hsin Hsin Ming for further tips and consider looking at Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution for an original perspective. Fukuoka's "do nothing agriculture" has been hugely influential.

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Marsh

Photo courtesy Flickr

My old friend Karmen wrangled a blended family with ten children. One day she told me she had ordered her younger son to clean his room after she realized she couldn’t remember what the rug looked like. The details are neither appetizing nor important, but I thought about floors the other day.

Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library takes architecture into the next dimension-if you’re in town, be sure to visit. A section of the main floor is called the living room, and the carpet is woven with a pattern of random leaves of rushes.
The photo shows the current, attenuated version of the carpet. It's been modified since the building opened. The design reflects the old English practice of covering the dirt floor of a hall house with a layer of marsh grass.

That’s still done: I have a layer of rushes under my feet at this very moment, but they’re braided and sewn into squares, and the thirty-second-of-an-inch layer of dirt has fir flooring under it. This sea grass matting, a Chinese export popular since the early eighteenth century, is my favorite floor. After fifteen years of service in a heavy traffic area, it is beginning to self-destruct. It will be trivial to replace it and use the old matting to mulch part of the garden. The matting will break down in a year or so.

Back in the day, when merry persons ate with their fingers at a trestle table with nice warm dogs under it, the dirt floor was known as the marsh for reasons neither appetizing nor important. Good housekeeping meant spreading another layer of rushes over the decaying ones already in place. In a spirit of contrary speculation, I’ve wondered whether the practice might be not quite as disgusting as it seems. Pathogens die in a compost environment that’s only a hundred and forty degrees or more for, to be on the safe side, an hour or so.

I wouldn’t bet the public health on this one, or the family’s either, but “the marsh” may have been a self-cleaning floor. It would have been unlikely to have held anything that didn’t biodegrade, general sanitation was so primitive that anyone who survived probably had excellent resistance, and constant daily foot traffic and the open fire burning on the floor in the middle of the room would have accelerated decomposition, increasing the temperature generated by the process. Compared to the stable next door, a hall house floor might have looked fastidious.

My kid met his first shop vacuum when he was eleven. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Where was this when I was four?” (and playing with Legos). All during his childhood, I muttered and wished for a vacuum cleaner that mulches until I discovered the very thing in a garden catalogue when the need was gone.

The key to the marsh is one simple rule: do not chew gum in the house. It is gum that connects mylar to fruit peels to socks to tissues in the incomprehensible dusty clots that accumulate like detritus from a shipwreck. When you clean this kind of thing wear a particle mask so the allergens don’t drive you into a rage.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Save the Whale

Photo courtesy Flickr

I planned last week’s Thanksgiving menu as if the Pilgrims had had the great good fortune to settle on Puget Sound. This is a turkey-free zone, although the wild birds are now regarded as an invasive species east of the Cascades.

I poured the in-house archaeologist a cup of coffee, and once it took effect, he started speculating about meat consumption near Plymouth Rock. Thanksgiving celebrated the pilgrim’s first successful harvest. Since November, “blood month”, is the season when hogs are butchered and smoked, people would have been tired of pork. So, turkey was the obvious choice for the main course. (Hams and bacon would hang safely in cool weather and remain edible until Easter.)

I reminded him of the year the Makah tribe invited the entire state of Washington to dinner. Let’s face it, Northwest tribes make even a twelve-course Russian dinner look like a Yankee’s saltines and sardines. The Makah really did that, after they claimed and used their traditional right to hunt sea mammals.

I wondered aloud how many guests had arrived, and archy said about four thousand, mostly tribespeople. At the time, there was some snickering about Makah cooks rummaging in their grandmother’s recipe files. Several years later there were chuckles about Makah freezers still being full. Apparently, one factor limiting the appreciation of a whale dinner is that it tastes like whale. Whatever the back story, Neah Bay whales have lived in peace since that historic legal hunt.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Please note that the photograph for November 14, "In Case the Duchess Comes to Dinner" is the work of Gerard Dalmon. More after the jump.


Photo courtesy Flickr

The idea of drinking wild turkey instead of roasting a domestic one met with universal approval last Wednesday. I simplified the holiday menu by using home-cooked cranberry sauce as dessert. The sauce filled tarts the first night, and the next day I served it with sweetened, flavored whipped cream and a cookie on the side. It was good on oatmeal, too, also topped with the cream.

Turkey ain’t quite the same treat when it’s a deli staple 364 other days of the year. It is, however, cause for thanks to have this kind of boredom.

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Monday, November 28, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

When you buy something that runs on electricity, look for a tag with UL on it. That guarantees that the product is approved by the people who sell fire insurance. ‘Nuff said.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Food for Thought

Plymouth Rock photo courtesy Flickr

The Twelve Good Rules of Puritan Behavior:

Profane no Divine ordinance.
Touch no state matters.
Urge no healths.
Pick no quarrels.
Encourage no vice.
Repeat no grievances.
Reveal no secrets.
Maintain no ill opinions.
Make no comparisons.
Keep no bad company.
Make no long meals. (Apparently tomorrow’s an exception.)
Lay no wagers.

I first read this list in Richard Brookhiser’s The Way of the WASP. It doesn’t hurt to know what I think a programmer might call the source code.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Weather and Morale

Rain hat courtesy Flickr

I quote verbatim from a local reporter: “If we can just get a few more temperature degrees droppage…” He was worried about snow. Personally, I worry about the relentless blanket of snow that covers the simple facts of the local climate. Where are these people from, Tornado Alley?

C’mon, all you have to say is “Rain in the morning, light wind, cloudy later on, forty degrees.” For most days of the year, they could run a tape. I realize that broadcast marketing facts of life underly the weather report, but ramping up anxiety about something as simple and manageable as Puget Sound road conditions is just plain ridiculous.

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Monday, November 21, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s been a long time since I did the full holiday thrash, and the lighter we eat over the week-end the better we feel. I keep the gear on hand, though, in case a crowd of hungry relatives comes to visit. One year, a vegan friend served us turkey-shaped tofu. We giggled for months, but have seen the error of our ways.

This year, we will start the meal with a glass of Wild Turkey and proceed to the Puget Sound version of an autumn harvest: salmon, cranberry tart (not native, but close enough), something green, and an all-purpose flavored whipped cream for dessert and for coffee.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Micro-Desk

Photo courtesy Flickr

I have stumbled across a convenient low-tech pocket organizer that also blocks RFID signals. It’s a simple metal card case furnished with a tiny ballpoint pen from the Great Big Hiking Co-op. The case holds various vital things, folding money, and a little stack of blank notes trimmed from thin paper stock.

It slips easily into a zippered pocket, the loose notes are easy to organize, and I didn’t have to learn how to use it.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sacajawea Gelt

Photo courtesy Flickr

Economist and garden tool vendor Paul Hawken advised budding businesspersons to take an old format and bring the quality back to its original excellence. Now it’s possible to pay $200 for a hamburger.

I don’t plan to do that any time soon, but years ago I found the best commercial burger of my life in a hole in the wall cafe at Mount Baker. It was far outside the distribution patterns of commercial restaurant suppliers, so they were reduced to serving hand-formed patties ground from good meat and fried on a hot plate next to the coffee maker. No doubt many a famished hiker had fallen sobbing on their necks after days on a soggy trail.

Last week I took the local light rail line out to the airport. Anticipating San Francisco prices, I put a twenty into the ticket machine, and was six AM surprised to see a lengthy cascade of yellow coins fall into the ticket tray. Keeping half a wary eye over my shoulder, I fished out a big handful of unfamiliar currency, did a fast count, and got on with the day.

When I organized my side bag that evening, I realized the coins were Sacajawea dollars, that never turn up in ordinary transactions. Every Christmas I buy “hanukkah gelt”, little mesh bags of chocolate money to put into Christmas stockings. This year, I’m a-gonna give the real thing. If little velvet reticules are too much bother to fabricate, I can revive an old practice and tie the coins into an interesting bandanna.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gunpowder, Buttons, and Brass Buckets

Photo courtesy Flickr

The in-house archaeologist rattled off the title when I asked him what tribespeople demanded from the Hudson’s Bay Company back when they used beaver skins instead of credit cards. We were discussing the corporate origins of the various American states.

Gunpowder, I suppose, was the nuke of its day. Buttons are fascinating little pieces of sculpture, and a brass bucket is one heck of a kitchen improvement over weaving a basket out of spruce roots, filling it with water and camas, and setting hot rocks in for a long simmer. The bucket made fast food possible, I suppose.

Old trade patterns have taught me much about what is important in managing the needs of a family. Every store now holds a consumer avalanche, and it’s hard to define the essentials with so many stimuli demanding attention. A little experience in the field, camping or hiking, teaches well and quickly what is important.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cursing Plastic

Photo courtesy Flickr

I ran across novelist Norman Mailer’s rant about plastic a few months ago and am guessing it’s the fountainhead of the old objections to the new material. In the Sixties, to call something plastic was to insult it. Unquestionably, plastic was, is, and probably will be the source of many “disruptive technologies”. That’s a new term for me that I just learned from the biography of Steve Jobs and from his source, Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”. What producers think of as disruptive technology I view as neat new stuff.

In managing an 1890 house, I have found that dropping back and adopting old ways with new materials is a reliable strategy for keeping this now urban live/work environment decent, safe, sanitary, and efficient. Wireless technology, especially, restores the interior to its original elegance, and miniaturized electronic amenities make the most of this old shell. Consistently, asking Buckminster Fuller's "How much does it weigh?" is the short path to untangling a domestic knot.

The twentieth century interior was Victorian privilege writ small. Rooms had dedicated functions and fixed arrangements. Ornament fed the hungry eye, and the whole arrangement was designed around a conscientious housekeeper. It's much the same now, but lightening up and simplifying systems gives the housekeeper a small to non-existent handicap.

Wireless internet access brings an endless feast. The content is so satisfying it displaces the fossilized tonnage I learned to call a proper room. For my purposes, the eighteenth century models how to live in 2012 far more effectively than later periods.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

In Case the Duchess Comes to Dinner

Gerard Dalmon photo courtesy Flickr

Bruno Munari published Design as Art, one of the pillars of my commercial art education. I was delighted to run across a photo of him in a skate magazine not long ago. He was wearing a Borsalino and hefting a Peacemaker.

Munari tackles tabletop design, and if I knew more about football, I’d be able to word this sentence more vividly. In one deft phrase, he dissolves the pretensions and the legitimate concerns of a conscientious person wondering how to set a proper table. Munari points out a fundamental truism of traffic engineering: design for the ordinary daily load, not for unusual events, such as a duchess coming to dinner.

Simple decent basics are easier than ever to find on the market, and it’s hard to conceive of a more elegant table than one carefully composed with immaculate straightforward inexpensive glass, white linen or even butcher paper, restaurant-style white china, and stainless flatware in a classic shape. Find linen at a fabric store, cut it straight with the grain (pull one thread to guide the scissors), and pull a short fringe for the ends. White’s easy to bleach. Burnish metal with pricey German chrome polish.

Nothing is more beautiful or subtle than a leaf, and leaves laid flat on clean linen are elegant and beguiling. I find that tea lights in low containers are the safest and most effective lighting at the table. My preference is for glass snowballs, but the original forms, I believe, are derived from water frozen into containers and removed from the cold while the center is still liquid.

Put your money where it counts, into food, wine and the time it takes to care for honored guests.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

A New Take on Pastry

Photo courtesy Flickr

Since combat is odious, I’m not sure war and hero belong in the same phrase, but I deeply admire Peggy J, who was an Army nurse.

On D-Day Normandy, she landed with the second wave, a hot apple pie down the front of her shirt “for her boys”.
She went on to follow General Patton through Europe, sharing a tent with Ernie Pyle. One evening, she told us about liberating a major city in Germany, Heidelberg, perhaps. She was part of an advance party that went into the city two days before the main body of the troops. Their job was to destroy the wine reserve, to preserve order during the occupation.

Peggy said her group broke open barrel after huge barrel and waded seven miles through the sewers of the city knee deep in wine. One might read wade as stagger, but I don’t know for certain.

Only recently did I begin to wonder about that pie and the cook who produced it. Certainly it kept Peggy warm during the landing, and I worried about her having a sticky shirt on the beach. On further consideration, it seems safe to assume that the pie pan offered a bit of armor on a bad day, and the crust had not been engineered to be light and flaky.

That pie is one of the few things about World War Two that I really dig. Peggy built an A frame for herself just north of the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, and every time I visit the island I think of her as the boat approaches the dock.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ask the Right Question

Inuit sled photo courtesy Flickr.

Everybody carries a purse these days, although some call theirs a side bag. Several years ago I found a model that suited me well enough that I wore one out. The replacement arrived Friday, and I settled in Saturday morning to change bags, ordinarily no small task.

The question is, “How long does it take to change side bags?” Yesterday, I finally, truly realized that the side bag is the headwater of the household. In the spirit of the local outdoor community, I edit the contents of my bag often, to make sure, as a pedestrian, that I carry not one gram more than I have to. Grams add up fast.

I have read that Navy seals modify their field packs by excising internal pockets, so they can build packs quickly for specific missions. The first time I chopped a pack, I had my heart in my mouth. Now I reach for a fresh Exacto blade as soon as I pick up a new piece of gear.

The new bag came with an elaborately evolved set of internal pouches, pen holders, and card slots. I turned it inside out and cut away the innards, leaving a shell with a couple of inescapable zippered pockets. When I change purses, I simply remove the self-cleaning zippered black nylon case that holds little things, fish out the emergency gear, and I’m good to go, wherever. I don’t carry the full kit on every outing, but it’s with me every week day, since this is earthquake country.

Yesterday I realized I could trim the stout wrapping on the mylar blanket and secure its loose edges with gaffer’s tape, that will then be available if I want some when I’m away from the studio. Taping the little package that holds the blanket produced a thick, resilient air tight pad, and I realized that it and the flimsy poncho managed the same way will make life extra comfortable for the laptop I sometimes slip onto the bag.

Eviscerating the bag doubled its capacity and eliminated the bother of having to hunt for small items, since they’re always in the same place in their movable pouch.

Technology and a hiker’s appreciation of burden have produced a personal kit that weighs a fraction of previous gear and takes up almost no space. The bag makes a good pillow for the odd nap and is easy to hang securely at my side in any situation. It holds the ten essentials of outdoor survival, a radio, phone of course, camera, computer, personal defense gear, a small art studio, and gym clothes in a shell no larger than a four-inch thick legal pad.

Back in the day, even the smallest radio was the size of a shoe box, a computer took up a dedicated room and countless watts, survival blankets were measured in bales, and the phone was often wall-mounted, hand-cranked, and shared among ten families.

If you can hold on to your shell and shrink the contents, you have effectively gained more turf to use as you wish. An acquaintance advised me, when I bought my first little house, to leave room for people. Chopping the side bag and using kits leaves room for me.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Wash Day

Photo courtesy Flickr

The history of American laundry is not ordinarily a riveting topic, and it may not be riveting today. I ran across an interesting paragraph in Mildred Maddocks Bently’s 1925 Good Housekeeping’s Book on The Business of Housekeeping. Bently wrote for a middle-class reader who could afford to hire help. When the book was published, it was still not unheard of to ask a laundry worker to carry water to the tubs, powered or otherwise. Bently costs out the purchase of a washing machine according to whether it’s a cost effective way to keep hired help busy when they’re on the clock.

Viewing a washing machine as a means of keeping hired labor busy is the key to understanding current domestic systems. Technology accelerates processes, but sometimes a slow one serves quite well. If one is master, or mistress, of one’s own household, slow low-tech methods lower utility bills, conserve fabric, economize on space, shorten turnaround time, and produce elegant results. Seattle supported a “French hand laundry” well into the Seventies.

I once chatted housekeeping with an aunt who was using a sad iron as a doorstop. As I recalled my days in off the grid housing. I mentioned that the old ways seemed easier. Aunt Bea snorted and said, “That’s because we stayed home!” She spoke as a woman who had wrangled four children and their friends summer after summer in a cottage with a wood stove and kerosene lamps. It took me years to realize she was agreeing.

However much time one spends at home, it’s worth considering low tech solutions to getting clothes clean. Factor in the time one spends working for hire to earn the cost of equipment, space to house it, and the accelerated wear on fabrics.

I’ve been picking away at laundry systems most of my life, experimenting with alternatives to the methods that are assumed to be best and most efficient. As a toddler I learned that smoothing a piece of linen onto a sun-warmed piece of glass dries it quickly and leaves it nearly as smooth as an iron. Photographers use similar drying plates for prints. Simply laying something out to dry flat with the grain squared off will produce a more elegant result than throwing it into a dryer, and it will last far longer. A heated towel rail makes short work of drying a small load of wash, hand or otherwise. The classic hardwood drying rack is classic for a reason. Plastic clothes hangers eliminate several steps between getting clothes out of the hamper and back into the closet again.

The key to happy co-existence with hand laundry is the wringer. Wringing clothing is ruinous to the hands, stressing joints and eroding fine motor skills. I’ve used a hand-operated wringer mounted on the side of a double laundry tub, and I’ve used a power wringer mounted on one of the early electric washers. Wringers are just fine, although they menace some buttons and are less than safe around children and the inattentive.

Laundromats used to offer heavy-duty centrifuges as a last stage between the automatics and the dryer. A centrifuge leaves clothing nearly dry enough to wear, and it does not subtract buttons. My twin-tub portable washer has a centrifuge, and I’ve been experimenting with washing some laundry by hand and spinning it dry. Bathing suit spin dryers are available on line.

An old and righteous kitchen practice is to wash the dish towels after a meal. Doing so takes seconds with hot running water and modern detergent. A quick spin leaves towels ready to dry right on their kitchen rack, in place for the next meal.

Analyze laundry practice by looking at turn-around time for the cycle and at the total amount of hands-on time a process requires. For one person, it often makes more sense to work by hand than to wrangle a machine. It’s there for back-up when a crunch happens, and the laundromat down the street is there for dire overloads.

A quick bout of hand laundry, I find, is a good way to work the laptop kinks out of my back after I’m through with the keyboard. An unseen, but not unnoticed, benefit of real-time laundry is the fresh atmosphere of a house free from stale clothing.

PS Spring 2015. The small one-pound load automatic washer on the market displaces this advice if you have access to electricity.

More after the jump.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Right Under My Nose

Photo courtesy Flickr

One year, Santa left me an inflatable, weighted vinyl toy designed to be knocked over so it could right itself again. I saw a designer version in the Seattle Art Museum gift shop not long ago.

An art history instructor told us this toy was inspired by a traditional piece of Japanese folk art. It’s a paper mache model of Boddidharma, the man who brought zen buddhism from India over the mountains into China. Chinese and Japanese artists like to draw sumi cartoons that make fun of Boddidharma’s big East Indian nose and baleful eyes.

I learned that the little darumas are appliances. They are made with blank Little Orphan Annie eyes. When one gets one home, the drill is to make a wish and fill in one eye. When the wish comes true, fill in the other. Wikipedia has the details.

Now and then I bring a fresh daruma home, sometimes simply because one is irresistible. The current Naples yellow model lives in the punk-furnished Playmobil house I rent from my grown child. I use this toy to indulge my passion for arranging furniture: it’s easier to lift grams than pounds.

At the moment, the house is sitting on the dining table, and the other day I tested the daruma’s ability to right itself. Thirty-three years after buying the first one, I finally discovered the equilibrium that is inherent in the design.

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Back to the Future

Hetty Green photo courtesy Flickr

A watch that doesn’t run is more accurate than one that works, since twice a day the time it indicates is exactly correct. Now and then I get something right, but it’s always by accident.

The great art and physics department hardware store in the University District, that occupies an unimpressive Victorian commercial building, has several Steam Punk aficionados on the staff. I was chatting with one the other day-the store functions as the neighborhood cracker barrel-and I mentioned I had had a chance to wear some of my great-grandmother’s clothing. The memory of her wool gab suit reminded me that Victorian style is the right choice both for conserving heat and for maintaining core strength. The suit had a tight bodice, leg o’ mutton sleeves, and an ankle length generous walking skirt edged with abrasion resistant heavy cotton courduroy.

My 1890 house pre-dates central heating. Originally it was warmed room by room with gas fires, a wood-burning hearth in the front parlor, and a kitchen cookstove. The many doors can be used as valves to direct or conserve heat. Although we’ve restored the full set of storm windows, only one room has been insulated. We use that as a winter “keeping room” for sedentary activities.

For my mother, who grew up surrounded by the wilderness of the last part of the continental United States to be mapped, wardrobe was serious business. My most vivid memories of her care center on being dressed in the hand-knit wool sweaters with which she protected my brother and me from the deadly damp chill of the Northwest climate. There’s seldom a blizzard, but hypothermia takes many an unwary hiker each year.

Wool’s the key. Far more durable than synthetics, it’s just as warm when wet, equally easy to wash, and not that much heavier. Cashmere performs even better. Without intending to, I’ve accidentally assembled a Steam Punk wardrobe. Long, wet, and flapping hems are no fun to wear on the street, but at home, ankle length skirts earn their keep as movable lap robes. In the old tradition, I can add skirts to form the multiple layers of petticoats that fend off chill while I tap laptop keys. Long "hostess" and evening skirts are long because they never got shortened in the Twenties, not because they've been extended.

A while ago the word went out that galoshes and fleece boots with a sloppy fit are not safe to wear when driving. I seldom get behind the wheel, but a couple of near misses on the stairs convinced me not to replace my in-house footgear. The old-line American canvas shoe company often sells cutting-edge design on line, and I found a sheepskin laced boot that worked as a super-slipper last winter and will do the same this year.

Between the boots, the long skirts, and the hair that’s growing out, I can teeter between looking hip and resembling the legendary trader Hetty Green.


More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


San Francisco Union Square bronze plaque. Photo courtesy Flickr

Isamu Noguchi laid out the haiku interior: tatami and a “rice paper” lamp. Not just any cheapo import will do. He emphasized the importance of light weight and portability. So did futurist Bucky Fuller, who calculated the weight of actual buildings and recommended tents.

I’ve been downsizing in place, and the process becomes ever more rewarding. A day or two ago the in-house archaeologist told me the rooms look lighter, and I was glad to hear it. Simple furnishings are easier to maintain. Diligent dust control keeps surfaces reflective.

Since we live in earthquake country, the heart of the household is two full kits of hiker’s field gear. Light weight is built into the system, and featherweight furnishings are gradually displacing obsolete behemoths.

The French and Italian words for furniture translate as “movables”. It dawned on me that there’s no need to maintain a room as a set piece for people who aren’t here. When visitors arrive, comfortable, light weight side chairs can easily be carried in by one person as needed. Carry a chair by placing one hand on each of the rails under the side of the seat. Lift with your legs. A brief study of film taught me the value of a room full of Award Winning director's chairs.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bristles Are Green

Photo courtesy Flickr

To simplify housekeeping, use the right brush for ordinary maintenance. Brushes save space, use no electricity, are gentle on possessions, and often allow one to work faster start to finish than will a machine.

A photographer’s equipment dusting brush resembles a badger hair shaving brush, but there’s more snap to the bristles. I get mine mail order from a local photographer’s supply house. They’re not cheap, but they’re such solid workhorses I buy a few extra to give to friends. I use a photo brush to dust the boom box, gritty crevices in table lamps, and intricate detail in other sturdy furnishings. The other day I discovered that the brush gets certain plastic tableware cleaner than the regular hand-held mild nylon scrubber.

A carpenter taught me to hold a small vacuum cleaner in one hand when generating dust with a tool held in the other. In his case, it was a pad sander. I find that using a well-designed brush while I hold the vacuum sans hose to gobble motes gets the staircase cleaner faster than any other method. If I run the HEPA air filter at the same time, very little sediment settles after I’m finished.

On the stairs, I use a small equestrian currying brush, like a scrub brush with flexible natural bristles. It fits my hand, so my fine motor skills are not strained. Both brushes are edged with gaffer’s tape to protect woodwork from accidental strikes from the ferrules. The balusters on the stairs are just an inch and a half apart, so I use the photo brush to detail them and the edges of the runs. It takes more time to describe the process than to perform it, and it’s easier than wrestling with a hose and attachment.

Searching for the right combination to maintain this old-fashioned house over the last twenty years, I’ve bought more vacuum cleaners than I probably should have . Often a mid-grade vacuum comes with nylon brushes that are far too harsh to use as they’re intended. These so-called upholstery brushes with their sharp-cut bristles are, I find, best for scrubbing porous old sinks. The photo and grooming brushes do right by old wood finishes and decent cloth. Combined with the hand-held vac and air filter, brushing and vigorous patting make short work of getting dust off velveteen cushions.

The British National Trust Manual of Housekeeping contains sane operating instructions for a stately home. My favorite recommendation is to delay dusting until one is well-rested and free to focus on the task at hand. Most damage in a house happens when it is being maintained.

Hardware and janitorial suppliers sell large toothbrush shaped objects with either nylon or brass bristles. I keep both on hand to use for the odd grubby chore. A toothbrush is the right choice to clean the junction of faucet and sink. Brass is a dire selection, but now and then only it will do.

I use a bronze suede brush to groom knits.

This post was generated by a brush I saw on line while shopping for a hand-cut comb that will be gentle to hair. (Combs like this are welcome in Christmas stockings.) It was delightful to discover that the old-line hair specialist also produces utility brushes in the splendid tradition of English housekeeping. One of their offerings is an ornament dusting brush with several round clusters of soft, natural bristles a couple of inches long. I’m not prepared to invest in a brush I’ll use on the one bunch of porcelain flowers to which I give house-room, but it’s good to know a source. Several artist’s brushes taped together along a cardboard rectangle would give a good approximation of the special-purpose brush I found on line.

The National Manual has it right for dusting precious artifacts. Since one can cost more than a housekeeper’s annual salary, it’s good to know the drill. Well-rested, with plenty of time, and no caffeine in one’s system, get out a sturdy shallow wicker basket with a handle. Pad the bottom with a folded turkish towel. Place the item to be cleaned in the basket and carry it to the sink wearing flat shoes. Pad the sink with another towel, and place the item on it. Dust carefully with a brush and reverse the process. A former museum preparator listened to this paragraph with rapt attention and reminded me that careful workers use a cart to transport precious things.

That’s why I keep elaborately ornamented possessions behind glass. I don’t have to worry about paying for damage I do to someone else’s inventory, but a wedding gift can appreciate quietly over the decades until the stakes become higher than one realizes.

-30- More after the jump.