Friday, April 1, 2011

Honored Guest

Photo courtesy Flickr

Twice last week I overheard guys talking about cleaning their baths in anticipation of a visit. Love to hear guys talk about housework. Love macho vacuum cleaner ads. And especially I love to figure out ways to disappear cleaning altogether. I’d say a good half of the burden of housework is in the terminology, and half of the rest is counter-productive habit.

So, here’s the drill to get the room clean and keep it clean so you never have to think twice about who might use the facilities. Keeping the place together will mean you never have to breathe allergenic mite waste and your own stale pheromones. The most important visitor is you.

Choose a non-toxic liquid cleaning agent. I favor concentrated no-rinse liquid detergent from a janitorial supply company, dilute it in a labelled spray bottle that fits into the bathroom cabinet, and wipe surfaces with reusable high-tech polyester car detailing cloths from the Great Big Discount Outlet. The green community may be able to go this one better.

Empty the cabinets. Wash the interiors. Line the bottom of the cupboard under the sink. (This is theory. My sink stands free.) Empty, clean, and line the wastebasket with the right-sized bag. Store extra bags in the bottom of the wastebasket. Discard expired this and that and rinse off the containers of your working inventory. Arrange it front and center. Make sure the tissue supply is generous. It’s considerate to have a small collection of travel-sized guest supplies, a separate soap dish, dedicated linens, and a child-proof latch below the sink. Own enough towels to have a couple in reserve no matter what the state of the laundry.

Spray and wipe the ceiling, walls, cupboards if any, fixtures, and floor. Clean with things that are clean. Set the used cloths (not rags, ever) aside to wash as a separate batch. It’s easy to wash detailing wipers by hand in hot water. They wring out with no trouble and air dry quickly.

Wipe the fixtures with rubbing alcohol. Wipe the (cool) light bulb, too. Wipe the doorknobs, glass, and chrome details. It’s worth the trouble to pop dots of misdirected paint off wherever it is they landed. A sharp pocket knife is a good choice for the work.

In my bath, 0000 steel wool works well with detergent, often a just zap of shampoo, to clean the sinks and commode. Use a very light touch. Disposable vinyl gloves eliminate the need for a toilet brush. Make sure the shower curtain is clean (spray it with cleaner, let sit a minute, and rinse with a telephone shower or plastic pitcher) and the soap is fresh. Liquid hand soap (I use diluted earth-friendly dishwashing detergent, aka shampoo) eliminates most sink maintenance.

Cheryl Mendelsohn’s housekeeping manual and the latest edition of Emily Post’s etiquette will give you the back story. Once you do the big homework on this cleaning job, you’ll never have to do it again. Just keep the flat surfaces clear of clutter, wash the tub after you bathe, and you can wipe the room down every morning on your way out the door. Keeping it clean is far easier and more pleasant than getting it clean.

Many thanks to the thousands of readers who have made this Deft's most popular post. The following is a discussion of household resilience and emergency preparedness, the November 13, 2009 post titled The Ten Commandments Of The Field:

Climbers organize their lives around an emergency kit known as the ten essentials. My outdoor experience is limited, but I accompanied climbers to base camps on my first hikes. Those early days formed my sense of household, and the climbers’ core collection remains the heart of inventory.

Gear falls under one of ten categories: tool, fire, water, food, clothing, shelter, medical, navigation, communication, and transportation. Do not underestimate the value of these headings: they are the key to thinking straight about what to own and what to buy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I joined a friend at our favorite dive to drink breakfast and pray for the city. Katie, who had lived there twelve years, said that the people of New Orleans had no field skills and no place to learn them. For that morning, my friend put aside her running joke about how every native Seattle woman has her own chain saw.

Specific items for the field change with technology and the mission. The following is a list of  featherweight accessories to carry any time you’re beyond walking distance of home base. They are very good for morale.

Tool: a Swiss Army penknife with tweezers. Airport security makes this expendable. You can improvise a cutting tool by breaking a glass bottle and taping one edge for a handle. Use your head-play safe. Wrap a length of gaffer’s or duct tape around a butane lighter.

Fire: a half-empty butane lighter and a birthday candle.

Water: the bottle is now ubiquitous. Add a small bottle of water purification tablets.

Food: an energy bar or any little something, even a sugar packet or a cellophane packet of crackers.

Clothing: a disposable plastic poncho or plastic garbage bag. Improvise a jacket by cutting arm and neck holes in the bag. Line shoes with produce bags if you get caught in foul weather.

Shelter: a mylar survival blanket, sunscreen, and dark glasses. Carry cash, traveler’s checks, credit card, and spare batteries to use as currency.

Medical: hand sanitizer, a couple of bandages, a needle, pocket tissues, and extra meds.

Navigation: a pinch light with extra battery, spare glasses, and local map.

Communication: a whistle painfully loud in sound and color, a one-inch length of black wax lumber crayon, change for a pay phone with out-of-state contact numbers taped to the back of your principal ID. Lie down to wave at a plane.

Transportation: first-rate foot gear with good insoles and socks for the weather plus the right side bag for daily necessities.

Many additional thanks to the additional thousands of readers who continue to make Honored Guest Deft's most popular post. For your convenience, I'm lengthening the skein with the Tuesday, May 1, 2012 post House Crash:

Now and then life brings emergency to the doorstep. Managing a household becomes a foot race run with a laundry basket lashed to one’s ankle.
Here are some suggestions for clearing the decks when every second and every speck of personal energy counts. They’re based on fifty years’ experience with Frederick Taylor’s basic principles of industrial efficiency as applied to domestic life. They’re also based on a lifetime total of twenty-eight moves.
In writing these comments, my goal is to protect personal inventory so that the stress of losing things is not added to whatever events are pushing housekeeping to its limits. Once the crunch is passed there will be time and energy to sort and maintain.
Clearing the decks is a literal comment. Navy footage of the battle of Okinawa shows a burning fighter plane skidding onto the deck of an aircraft carrier. The crew races to pull out the pilot and push the flaming wreck into the sea. The fighter teeters at the rail for an eternal moment before tipping into the waves. Every time I think seriously about managing inventory, I think of that plane.
Here’s how to do that and still be able to retrieve Aunt Sally’s tea set.Making decisions is the hard part. Work with two assistants if you’re feeling unequal to the task. Work with one if you’re confident in your judgment. Have the organizer make the decisions and the assistant handle things. This advice is as true for a healthy athlete is it is for a frail convalescent, because thinking is hard work.
Whatever the source of the crunch, such as illness or remodeling, there will probably be strangers in the house. Securing valuables will ease security concerns. Ask a trusted friend or relative to be part of the team, at least to get small valuables into the packing container. Make sure that no one on the team accepts gifts when the actual packing thrash is going on. An ethical organizer will never accept gifts.
I prefer to shop rather than edit, so when I want to redesign the contents of a cupboard or drawer, I empty the space and then put back the few things I use often. Three days is a good cut-off point for deciding what’s basic inventory and what’s just sitting there.
That’s about all there is to the decision making. The tricky part is handling things. Ideally, have a generous supply of flap-lid translucent plastic bins on hand to receive items for storage. Think of the bins as a labor cost, and remember they’re easy to secure with locks or zip ties.  A generous supply is three times as many as you think you’ll need, no kidding. The bins are furniture and as useful as any comfortable chair.
In a perfect world, the household will have a clean, dry storage room with enough industrial shelving to hold the bins without stacking, or there will be at least a few pallets topped with plastic sheeting to protect inventory from damp. There will also be a sturdyhand truck and a rolling utility cart to save the back of the person handling freight, and a couple of pairs of sticky-palmed work gloves.
When you’ve finished laughing, put dozens of clear plastic garbage bags and several loud colors of stationer’s stick-on dots on your shopping list. Add a handful of bold permanent markers and a roll of wide masking tape to the collection.
Flap bins are ideal because they’re rigid enough to store fragile things.Anything that might break should go into a rigid container. It can be padded with soft furnishings or clothing.
When it’s time to start, note a number on a colored stick-on dot, set it in the area that’s being cleared, and photograph it to have a record of the contents of the bin or bag. If you’re working into bags, set one in a box to keep it open. Take the time to place the top of the receptacle at waist height: doing so makes loading much easier. Create a flat stack of open sheets of newspaper for wrapping things that will break. Start with a stack that’s four times as much as you think you’ll need. A child can set this up. Stow by area rather than by category. Put grubby things in clear plastic bags. Lampshades and works of art should go into their own individual containers. When the bin is full, seal it and slap the dot on it.Use masking tape to label with details, if time permits. The photo system allows the owner to survey inventory at leisure and make decisions to greatest advantage. One could print out the photos and mount them on the containers. An iPad is the easiest way I know to do this, since it sends photos straight to Email.
During Viet Nam, the Army moved my household several times. There were stories circulating of professional movers who packed even the fragrant contents of the kitchen waste can. Omitting compost, broken glass, and toxic waste, it would not be unreasonable to adopt the same attitude. Again, it’s the decision-making that is so taxing. Just get it done. Basic housewares are so inexpensive that it will be trivial to buy or borrow something that’s not available. Disposable dishes might be in order-at times they’re an act of mercy. Stack or pile the inventory in a file-and-forget space while you deal with more pressing demands. Bins can live in a secure dry garage, bags are vulnerable to vermin and should be piled in a habitable room set with a rodent trap or two.
The just-pack-it strategy is hoarding, pure and simple, and it does not apply to ordinary housekeeping disciplines. When we moved into this place in 1980, I knew there were months of refurbishing in the future. I left most of our inventory in sealed cartons and hired a mountain climber to hump them upstairs. Three years later, it was a mixture of Christmas and wedding reception to retrieve the treasures and put them into service.
In the meantime, we used appealing thrift shop salvage and utility grade everything else. If the inventory is basic, managing it doesn’t have to be sophisticated. Household medical and financial records are critical: simple furnishings allow them to stay front and center, as they must.
When you’re blazing through the packing you may run across something you’ve always meant to ditch. Use an alternate color of dot to designate a discard-I like green for go. Make sure the color code is posted on the exits and that the organizer is supervising the mover.Clear plastic bags prevent tragic errors.

More after the jump.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Building A High-Rise

Photo courtesy Flickr

After a couple of semesters studying commercial art, I concluded that I could build a high-rise office building using pushpins, mat board, and masking tape. I wasn’t thinking scale, either.

Thirty-five years later, my faith in the small amenities of the studio is undiminished. Indeed, it has been strengthened by the addition of film industry gaffer tape (so useful it is kept locked behind glass in the Righteous Value Hardware resource up north), extra-long needle sharp aluminum push pins, zip ties, foam mounting tape, very hot glue, hiker’s nickel-sized dental floss, and linen bookbinding supplies.

This collection will earn its keep in the smallest space,
paying so well it would not be worth the time it would take to count the decimal places.

-30 More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

One of the joys of freelancing graphics out of my first, tiny apartment was working at an ironing board in the shallow bay window that faced the Sound. I could see from Mt. Rainier nearly to Mt. Baker and used the board, a patented wood one with metal hardware from the nineteen twenties, to stage projects.

The neighbor across the hall left it when she moved away, and it’s one of the best work surfaces I have ever used, probably because I am of average height for its period. There’s much to be said for having things the right size and height, and I have used the board in many period rooms, where it served whatever task was at hand with a portable, stable knock-down surface that slipped easily into an existing arrangement.

About ten years ago, I saw a World of Interiors article about a Belgian or French clothing designer who worked out of old industrial space. Many vintage wooden ironing boards were placed around the area, at least for the shoot. The boards were not padded, and their character and structure were a revelation.

Since I began to ape skate style in a low-profile way, my life is mercifully free of ironing, except for linens that can be managed on a simple table. My cold, dead hands will clutch the board, though, and for a couple of years I’ve been shifting it from one spot to another like a cat moving kittens.

I toyed with setting it up as a temporary bar in the dining room-pretty neat, but the padded cover frankly, well, it just sucked. I contemplated it with a beady eye for a minute and realized that for the amount of ironing I am likely to do, close to zero, I can improvise a cover with a bath towel. I flipped the board onto the dining table and spent the next half hour working down a series of horizons, a short history of twentieth-century ironing board cover and securement technology, from thumbtack to staple gun, old bedding to non-stick aluminized something or other with drawstrings.

The original timber top turned out to be a pair of immaculate, glowing pieces of pine, and the board is now an elegant working accent in my favorite clean production space.

Yesterday I set up a project that centers on a couple of slightly sooty old-growth cedar shakes from an 1875 smokehouse and decided to protect the board with butcher paper, a pleasant, functional, low-grade pun on the original cover. Gaffer’s tape made short, secure, no-residue work of that part of the job, and I’m set to go.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Passive Is Powerful

Photo courtesy Flickr

The term passive is so far out of fashion, that when I brought it up at a recent meeting, people shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. We were discussing security in a health club and debating the wisdom of installing security cameras in a common room. I suggested that simply placing a mirror to reflect a dead corner would add line-of-sight surveillance from passers-by on their way to the weight room.

The basic issues of human life support and governance existed long before electricity, and nineteenth century solutions were low-tech state of the art. I have found that looking to the old ways often reveals a solution requiring little or no attention, overhead, or training. Who needs a manual to use a mirror? It is an ornament that adds light and monitors without insult while maintaining the comfort and security of lounging in the intersection of two windowless walls.

A passive solution is resilient, instant, always booted up, easy to repair, and usually the fruit of a short, secure supply line. It can often be found used and frees attention and capital for great leaps forward. Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language is the definitive encyclopedia of the elements of managing space in civil society.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bonobos, Washing Machines, and Literacy

Photo courtesy Flickr.
Last year a fellow freshly retired from Stanford Research Institute recommended the website, a source of privileged, rigorous, utterly witty content, and a fine example of how academic doors are opening to anyone with a yen to learn.

Last week TED posted two seemingly unrelated stories that, at their heart, share the same message: fine motor skills improve the quality of life and are worth protecting.

A video of our closest relatives, bonobos, is described as a ball game played between a male and a female. She grasps his scrotum as he runs in circles. Manual dexterity is obviously critical in this play, and conceivably the game contributed to the evolution of the hand. I like to remind myself that I am not a bonobo.

The other story describes how adding an automatic washing machine to a household with seven children freed the narrator’s mother to take the family to the library. He doesn’t mention the brutalizing effect of handling wet clothing, but “washday hands” was a phrase that appeared in advertising as late as the Fifties.

Between them, the stories address the whole of literacy. Protecting motor skills protects cognition.

-30- More after the jump.