Friday, January 21, 2011

The First Chill is the Worst Chill

Photo courtesy Flickr

By this time of year, my metabolism has adapted to living without central heat. Any relatively dry and windless day over forty-five feels balmy. I swear, much of feeling cold is simply apprehension about getting colder. Monitor the tip of the nose: if it’s cold, add warmth. With longer days, hope has returned, and I can relax. This year’s wardrobe and strategies have proved adequate, and I’m fairly sure of being able to ride out any storm that comes along.

There are a couple of thermometers in the kitchen, one of them a greenhouse model with maximum and minimum indicators. Associating a certain level of chill with a given number brings comforting reality to the loaded domestic topic of heat. Using interior thermometers was standard practice back in the day: the nursery, in particular, was carefully monitored, as was bath water.

The first researchers settled in Antarctica just when America was learning about saunas, and they put theirs to good use. One day a supply flight landed at McMurdo Sound in a hundred and thirty below sunshine, to be greeted by a reception line of personnel standing at attention wearing only flip-flops. The guys had learned that time in the sauna protected them briefly from hypothermia. No doubt there was no shortage of the traditional snowbank in which to roll.

I enjoy knowing I’ll be able to put breakfast together in a fifty degree kitchen and get back upstairs to the heated study before my feet get cold. There’s nothing to it, although each November I have to learn again how refreshing it is to use down and cashmere instead of heating oil.

More after the jump.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

I love that old-fashioned term for iris.

The native yellow iris by the pond has been up and growing since before Christmas, and I’ve been watching it carefully. I set it in the overflow area from the pond about eight years ago, and the hope is that the plant will spread along lines of damp.

I’ve tried to replicate native growing conditions by leaving old foliage and the previous year’s flowering stalks. The first year I did this was a revelation: the seed heads proved to be far more beautiful and long-lasting than the flowers themselves.

It’s a pleasure to manage a plant with no pests, no feeding, and no watering. I can enjoy it for its forthright beauty and save my energies for other areas of the garden.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Lieu of Ironing

Photo courtesy Flickr

Worrying about ironing is as obsolete as worrying about which corner of a calling card to turn down, but if you worry about ironing anyway, here’s a way to worry a little less.

Dry on a line instead of in a dryer. Line-dried linens, so-called flatwork, will be (barely) acceptable if you flap them with each direction of the grain and hang them carefully square. Remove from the line when just tender with damp, finger press the hems, and fold accurately with the grain.

This is good enough for everyday and a step up from paper, although a fanatic, or nineteenth-century housekeeper in Damascus, will lay things flat to give fabric a chance to recover to its best. Recently an English publisher brought out a book about collecting textiles (second-quality examples are best value and not too good to use). It mentioned the art of the fourier, a medieval version of the advance man, who rode ahead of a traveling party to the next castle, arranging fodder for the stock and making the interior habitable. He improvised from a collection of textiles, hung curtains, and dressed them down, or arranged the folds along the grain so that they hung true rather than on the bias. This process extends the life of fabric by protecting the individual threads from undue strain.

Natural fibers are alive, and keeping them gently squared off, even knits, will double or triple how long they look presentable. Careful cleaning will conserve textiles even longer. At least one stately English home is decorated with textiles that are several hundred years old. As with a favorite pair of jeans, a good start and careful maintenance produce a result that can't be copied.

Managing fabric is like making sculpture. Different weaves have different “hands”, or ways of behaving when they’re being used. The density of the weave relative to the diameter of the thread determines whether a piece of goods feels boardy or sleazy and unable to hold a true grain. Stiff canvas is boardy, gauze is sleazy. Each has its uses, and each should ordinarily be dried with the grain arranged at an accurate ninety degree angle.

PS: A textile collector told me that the fringes of a piece tell what the weaver thought of the work.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Edison Effect

Photo courtesy Flickr

Last week I was a guest at lunch in an environment of great privilege: a high-rise retirement home. The building and the community it houses are a stunning statement of local achievement. I came away from the visit well fed and mulling over Seattle’s version of the Seventies. A young friend collects furniture from this period, and I’ve been trying to peg its characteristics in the several years since Maggie told me about her habit.

Here’s my best guess: the Seventies were the high point of the American imperium, when energy was cheap, natural resources abundant, and high-end international design well within reach in local shops. We had a hugely disproportionate global advantage in technology and income and a nearly pristine environment in which to play. Contemporary American art dominated the international market. A typical local interior of the period will sport abstract art, leather upholstered Northern European or Italian furniture built of very good wood finished in oil. The furnishings will be relatively heavy.

One of the pleasures of Friday’s visit was the walk through the halls, which are hung with local art. The first galleries were literally that: passageways in large houses. Pictures on the wall gave a resident something to look at while exercising indoors. It’s a happy experience to enjoy art in a private environment without politely jostling for a look with a guard standing to one side.

I saw some very beautiful, civilized paintings in a very beautiful, civilized setting and came away wondering, as I always do, what such an experience has to do with life as I have chosen to live it.

Quite a lot, I suppose, for reasons that have mostly to do with chance. I was born into a time and place when the eye dominated the other senses, higher education was a far from ordinary privilege, and national media were centralized and domineering. In the late Sixties, Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan pointed out the imbalance of the situation, discussed the approaching culture of the global village, and suggested that it would be worth considering how we manage our awareness.

Bearing a child late in life left me ignorant of southern California toy design, since I was too old to pay attention when it was new. I did have a chance to kid one of its electrical engineers about Barbara over my Haight-Ashbury dinner table during the Summer of Love, though. Later, my son’s passion for action figures brought the grotesque into my carefully managed interior. It was hard to tolerate Tough Guy and his friends until I realized that they weren’t little performers in a minuet; they’re teammates designed for the sporting movement of the hand.

Someone commented that Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road marks a pivotal change in American culture, with its acknowledgement of a moving scene rather than a static one. I suppose the change parallels the shift from still imagery to moving pictures, Bucky Fuller’s stress on the importance of verbs over nouns, and the civil rights movement’s success in gaining self-determination across the political spectrum.

Friday’s lunch left me conscious of vulgarity: of the people who use the word, of the richly vulgar matrix of life in the central city, of how much fun my neighbors seem to be having, and of how challenging new developments in popular culture can be to the eye that is conditioned to a still image. The speeder bikes of Star Wars are nothing compared to the reaction times of a crowd weaned on computer games.

Hanging to the left of the door to the parking garage was a litho of a hot rod. The limitations of the medium subdued what would undoubtedly have been a brilliant paint job on an actual vehicle.

On the walk over, I’d been thinking about the rolling sculpture of Ed Roth, who customized cars in Los Angeles in the Fifties. American historian Tom Wolfe talks about Roth in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. It’s probably laughably obvious to observe that hot rod forms must have evolved under the night-time lighting of Los Angeles drive-in restaurants. Roth’s garage was a salon that hosted many performing and visual artists until he retired.

Actor and director Al Pacino described film as turning a light on in a dark room and giving people something to look at for ninety minutes. A custom car does this in spades, and so do the graffiti murals of Southern California. There’s a fine line between what is lurid and what is a gem, but in each case, electricity animates the content. How, if at all, to cope with it is an interesting question.

-30- More after the jump.