Friday, March 25, 2011

Mission Creep

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday was opening day of garden season. Any time past noon is comedy automatic, when ambition and wrapping things up contest in a rolling ball like a couple of fighting cats. Garden labor is hard to quantify. It’s hard to define quitting time when I know that ten minutes’ puttering will save full days of maintenance in a month or two.

One of the first lessons we learned after taking on an 1890 house was to beware of the “as long as” syndrome. It rears its head when a wall is open and can turn the most modest home improvement project into an insanely ambitious time and money hemorrhage.

I learned the phrase mission creep from the history of the war in Viet Nam. The day before a week-end is a good time to keep mission-creep in mind and remember, perhaps, that a sabbath maintains the invisible.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

Wandering around Flickr the other day, I ran across a tasty photograph of an anvil. A click taught me more than I knew I needed to know or will ever be likely to be able share with a non-captive audience about this basic ironworker’s tool-how fragile it is, for example.

Shop comments are the purest and truest poetry. The description of the anvil included remarks about cheap ones with concrete parts painted gray to blend in with the steel. These products are known to some as “anvil-shaped objects”. The minute I read the comment I knew that there will forever be classes of “___shaped objects” in my design glossary.

Any one of us fools can fill in the blank. My favorite example at the moment is a couch-shaped object upholstered in synthetic foam and boardly polyester. The foam has shrunk away from the fabric, leaving a good half inch of air where one might expect a comfortable support for the arm.

-30- More after the jump.

It's Hard to Hate a Booth

Photo courtesy Flickr

Some search-connector introduced me to lifehacker last Friday. The wits describing their restored Seventies Airstream trailer, Adam Dachis and Matthew Hoffman, mentioned computer lunch booths and gave me the title of this post.

The longer I keep house, the less important conventional furnishings seem to be. A good coffee shop, and I mean a good coffee shop, handles life support, leisure, and communications far more efficiently than a pretentious high-maintenance domestic forest of fragile wooden legs.

Later on Friday, I enjoyed a utility-grade ladies’ lunch in the new location of a long-established North End cafe. The brick-red vinyl booth benches were Broadway’s beloved Andy’s reincarnate-my unofficial off-peak study hall for twenty years.

The ubiquitous Fifties Cape Cod kitchen was often furnished with a vinyl booth for casual meals, and the freestanding counter seems to have been an evolution of coffee shop architecture. Neither of these period fixtures is elegant, but they’re convenient, fun, worth restoring, and truly support popular music.

A few restaurants in town retain the straight-grain Doug fir booths of their origin, and Andy’s neighboring Internet Cafe of blessed memory had fabulous high-backed plywood booths that were just as comfortable as upholstery for a long off-hours sit. I debated making a salvage offer for one when the place shut down, but decided in favor of the more flexible table and chairs I was using at home.

The right booth in the right spot is killer efficient, though. Lifehacker’s recent Airstream kitchen/office article is a definitive example. Environmental legislation about toxins lets small space work hard, because it’s not necessary to segregate functions to protect health. Some mobile booths can also be transformed into bunks as well.

Businesses squeezed offices into tiny cubicles when oil prices escalated in the mid-Seventies and interest rates got as high as 14%. Cubicle begat laptop begat wireless and the whole works ended up in a rolling transit case. Maria Montessori trained us to keep separate activities in discreet kits. I find that the more gear I stow in nylon pack cloth on wheels, the happier and easier life becomes.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


"No more living like an animal, darling!" Photo courtesy Flickr.

After months of procrastinating, I rebuilt my emergency pack just four days before Japan redefined cluster-jam. Memories of unexpectedly cold nights in the field inform what I carry every day and what lives at bedside.

A featherweight mylar emergency sleeping bag and ordinary dust mask take up less space than the water bottle in my side bag. I hope I never have to test them, although the mask is surprisingly effective on a bitter winter day. A high-tech knit bag liner, nearly as light, lives in the E pack along with the balaclava, gloves, and fleece trousers that supplement my summer weight sleeping bag. Clothing is bedding.

We had a hard freeze several winters ago, and I set up the small tent to test gear. It took only an hour at mid-day to realize that despite a hooded down overcoat and a sleeping bag custom-made for someone’s Arctic honeymoon, I wasn’t going to make it. Now, I throw out extremes. Traffic engineers call this designing for the ordinary daily load. I fiddle with the gear around solstice time, but respect the limits of what I am able to carry.

An emergency kit is a good place to store best quality, brand-new clothing, because every fiber counts when the chips are down. Layers of newsprint are a traditional underlay for carpets and the transient, and not bad padding inside a jacket, either. Now and then I walk past a comfortably contoured length of corrugated cardboard in a doorway.

The Great Big Hiking Coop offered noisy bubble wrap as a substitute for air mattresses as soon as it came on the market. One glorious autumn day in 1955, I burrowed into a pile of maple leaves and had the best nap of my life. A ticking full of wood shavings is warm but Spartan, and one of these days I’ll fool around with packing peanuts to see what they can do for sleep. Paper shreddings are an obvious high-tech version of the hay that, like corn shucks and ash leaves, used to be a standard filling for mattresses. Anything that will keep a hamster comfortable will keep me comfortable.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Earth Closet

Photo courtesy Flickr

Emergency sanitation is an interesting problem in cities, where digging a slit trench is not a realistic possibility. Anyone who’s changed a diaper or house-trained a puppy will appreciate that planning “off-pipe” waste disposal is less distasteful than lacking it when things get dicey. The mixture of liquid and solid waste is what makes an outhouse vile: that stench is produced by the nitrogen in urine.

Two salvaged five-gallon buckets, one containing three gallons of soil, a jug or additional bucket for liquids, and hand sanitizer are all it takes to set up a decent privy when utilities go down. The materials are free and compact to store, so it’s simple to set one up for each person in the household if the idea of sharing a bucket toilet is distasteful. Eating a tablespoon of flax seed a day eases the passage of food through the gut and eliminates, so to speak, complications in the privy.

Outfitters sell an inexpensive toilet seat that snaps onto a standard bucket. Place a couple of inches of soil mixed with a container of biological septic tank accelerator in the bottom of the bucket with the seat. Use it when nature calls. Store used tissues or wipes in a plastic zip bag. An empty can makes an adequate scoop. Cover the waste with enough soil to conceal it, and repeat the process until the bucket is full. Switch the seat to the other bucket and repeat. The soil will smell like the best garden compost.

Use a bottle or bucket as a urinal or splurge on a camper’s field commode and add biodegradable ammonia deodorizer for elegance. The Great Big Hiking Co-op sells both. Emergency preparedness authorities have advised dumping urine into a storm drain. The state of Washington allows disposing of urine if it’s poured out six inches below the surface of the ground. Dilute it 50/50 if you do this: it’s strong enough to burn plants. Urine from a healthy person is sterile. Dilute urine with wash water if you use earth-perfect detergent. The mix will make ornamental or fruit trees very happy.

I devised and tested this system over the winter of 2000. It’s quiet, elegant, and produces valuable fertilizer. Joseph Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook was my source of tech advice. At the end of five test cycles, I heated the soil over an outdoor fire and used it to prepare a planting hole for a small perennial. I could also have sterilized it by placing the bucket in a black plastic bag and setting it in the sun, but this is Seattle.

In an emergency, civil authorities will no doubt collect waste for formal disposal. The bucket system will leave you with a pleasant offering rather than a nasty mess.

-30- More after the jump.