Friday, August 12, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

Things got away from me over the week-end: spending Sunday staring at hydroplane coverage messed up my usual pace. When I got up Monday morning, the main floor was teetering on the brink of entropy. No big deal, really, but a little carelessness on top of existing disorder can quickly generate an energy sump. In a good year, I spend perhaps ten minutes looking for lost things.

I sailed small boats for a while, and the great lesson I took away from that experience was to keep systems in good trim. It takes little effort, but begrudging that little can quickly capsize an operation.

Once the coffee took effect Monday morning, I found a few minutes to return things to their home positions and set continuing projects in motion. I tend to freeze up if things aren’t ready to go.

Several years ago, I decided to experiment with using sixteen-quart dairy crates in the house. I’d seen a PBS show about a young New York City man about town who used crates in his room. Don’t remember the show, but dj and hip hop come to mind. I thought, this is just plain cool and well worth a try.

I haven’t regretted one minute of my life with crates. It’s soothing to have just one all-purpose support container, and I appreciate the long evolution that has produced the current crate design. Yesterday I cleared the dining room of projects in anticipation of visitors next week: it took about an hour, and I was able to get things done in spite of feeling 70%. The crates eliminate much of the work it takes to start even a minor job. I can assemble all the bits and pieces in the course of my ordinary upstairs/downstairs path. Sticky notes written with bold marker tell me what to do, so I can concentrate on the task at hand.

You can find an honest crate at the Big City in Minnesota mail order work clothing site. Audio supply houses stock the twenty-four quart size.

More after the jump.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summer Complaint

Photo courtesy Flickr

Mothers used to spend July and August wringing their hands about polio. Viruses weren’t identified as organisms until around 1957, and swimming areas were known sources of contagion. Polio left children impaired, at best with a limp, at worst spending a lifetime in the steel tube known as an iron lung. Salk’s vaccine came along around ’57, too, and with it came a huge, audible sigh of maternal relief.

My mother shared her early memories of the dark side of warm weather, mentioning a pre-refrigeration illness that used to be called “summer complaint”, the diarrhea that still menaces young children in the Third World. During the warm season, which in Seattle is the season that is not actually chilly, I tighten up my game at the dishpan.

I’ve been using rubbing alcohol to degrease and disinfect surfaces in the kitchen. I find that sloshing a tablespoon of alcohol inside a water bottle and its cap leaves it sweeter for the next use. Afterwards, I use the alcohol to wipe down faucet handles, the drain board, and the chopping surface.

From a restaurant family, I learned to rinse and air dry the sink strainer. If I wipe the sink dry after washing up, I never have to scrub it. It’s old-fashioned good form to cover the dish rack with the dish towel, which then dries while protecting clean dishes from dust. Air dried dishes are the most sanitary.

Before penicillin made medicine overconfident, housekeeping was the front line of public health. It still is, but it’s been obscured by arrogance about manual labor and by women’s labor issues. In the Northwest, one has to be able to afford country property to enjoy the quite real pleasures of living without central utilities.

Decent low-tech housekeeping practice is absolutely fundamental. Knowing the ropes is a good way to protect one’s purse and to ensure that the household stays resilient in case of unemployment or civil emergency.

My grandmother was born in a homestead log cabin. When she started a meal, the first thing she did was fill the tea kettle and bring it to a boil. The kettle simmered until the meal was over, when boiling water was then available to rinse dishes, scald chopping boards, remove fruit stains from napkins, and scald out the sink. An old-style tea kettle holds a gallon of water. Pouring boiling water down the sink keeps the drains clear and sweet, but may menace plastic pipe. In the field, I scald the picnic table. Extra boiling water can be used to kill weeds.

Susan Strasser’s benchmark history of housekeeping, Never Done, lays out historic practice in detail. The Foxfire series is a good resource, too. Cheryl Mendelson wrote the definitive guide to contemporary practice.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Living on the Edge

Photo courtesy Flickr
It took a while to realize that maintaining a crisp contrast between closely groomed areas of the garden and ones that are managed freely is the easiest and most efficient way to keep the place looking its best.

The edges of the parking strip are the most annoying detail to keep straight, but they’re the key to establishing a reassuring, responsible architectural presence on this mixed block of apartment houses and single family homes. Over the decades, I have tried every known way to trim the turf, and they have all been back-breaking, viciously dusty, or unsightly.

When we moved in, I rented a power edger and used its wicked rotating vertical blade to chew away the dense mats that years of neglect had sent out over the sidewalk. Just lifting the mats off the cement was a wrestler’s task. Done in damp weather, power edging is a body building exercise. In dry weather, it requires a particle mask and goggles. Add ear protection, and one might as well be Darth Vader. No sane person edges weekly, except in the neighborhoods where an urban planner observed that people mow their lawns with razor blades. That’s not a consideration here.

Several years ago, I began to experiment with spraying the edges of the turf with benign herbicide. Several months of gazing at a ratty fringe of dead sod left me with a margin that trimmed itself, eventually, when I mowed, but it looked awful all the while.

The in-house archaeologist automatically reaches for a sharpening stone when he picks up a shovel. He’s steeped in the old-timey tool-wielding lore of Tennessee, and would no more use a dull shovel than ride on a flat tire. We persuaded each other to do right by the front walk last Saturday, and edging with a sharp spade went so quickly that I couldn’t lift sods fast enough to keep up with him. The sods were bone dry, but the manual trimming raised no dust, so I had only some lifting and light hauling to manage. I spread the sods on the lawn and blew them apart with the power mower.

We were working with the residue of herbicidal destruction, so the sods were not strongly rooted. It might be worth a try to cut a long one-inch slot into a side of cardboard and use it to mask a narrow spray along the sidewalk.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr
Our two weeks of summer ended Sunday morning as the first scented breeze of autumn blew through the garden. It has been an unprecedented growing year, cool and wet until after the Fourth of July. The weather produced a record crop of native seedlings that now dominate the few remaining commercial perennials in the yard.

I glanced up from my weeding to find the morning sun illuminating a cluster of rusty, mature dock seed heads backing a heavily pinched fireweed in full bloom to one side of a burgeoning cluster of Queen Anne’s Lace. Except for shaking a fluffy stalk of fireweed over the bank fifteen years ago, I planted none of the above. I could not possibly have conceived of or matched the elegance of the volunteers.

Every week-end brings changes in the garden, and this week it’s become obvious that introduced species are grievously out of harmony. Their forms and colors overpower the natural grace of the locals. I find that simply subtracting the odd poppy, campanula, and hairy cat’s ear allows the remaining plants to claim the visual field to elegant advantage. They are growing into a resilient and subtle texture that’s like handmade Belgian lace.

These plants require literally nothing of me. This winter their dry stalks will protect tender shoots from chilling breezes and house the predator insects that protect the things we eat.
-30- More after the jump.

Race Day

Photo courtesy Flickr

I really should learn to plan ahead. This is the day of Seafair’s finale, the unlimited power boat competition on Lake Washington, the largest single sporting event in the world. TV coverage began at 8:30. It’s now 5:30, and it looks as if the final heat might be about to begin.

Seafair was founded to entertain visiting relatives fleeing the hot weather of the inland continental climate. Seafair happens the first week of August, the most predictably warm and dry week of the year. We still play the odds, though. Yesterday, I was loafing in a back yard hammock wearing a wool sweater.

This is the one day of the year when All Seattle seizes on a good excuse to do nothing for hours on end, which is pretty much the story of unlimited power boat racing. Like air combat, I am told, the race is composed of long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of intense excitement. That shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose: aircraft engines have always powered the water craft, and there’s so much thrust on those featherweight hulls that the real art is in keeping them running. Generally, far more air time is devoted to the power trains than to the race itself.

It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s a ritual. We should invent a hard drink, like the Kentucky Derby’s julep, to carry us through the afternoon. A rum drink, perhaps, that can be served hot or cold. Or a toddy made from a local whiskey.

Race Day is the ideal time to catch up on mending, sorting files, and napping to the soothing drone of sports announcers, although one is jarred out of the zone from time to time by a Blue Angel or five screaming overhead on their way back to the demonstration course over the lake.

Locals have learned that it’s worthwhile to organize personal schedules around the race. Do not swim in Lake Washington for several weeks after the race. Hundreds of small boats are moored around the edges of the course, and it takes awhile for their wastes to dissipate.

I learned during, mercifully, just the exam for my first root canal, that it’s not a good idea to schedule a skilled medical procedure anywhere near the flight path of the Blue Angels, since those birds are designed for shock and awe. Any dentist who could keep a steady hand under the audio assault of an F-18 deserves to be in some hall of fame, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to make the nomination.

That said, welcome to the land where the hippies wore saddle shoes and water skied. If you can find footage of the Sammamish Slough Race, that’s the spirit.

Teach your child well: cobble a little hydroplane out of scrap wood, tie it to the back of a tricycle, clip an old playing card to the spokes, and send her out to the sidewalk course with the rest of the kids from the block. When a plane crashes, mourn the headline and show her how to find out where the aircraft was manufactured. Make sure she understands that the core competition in boat racing is with Detroit.

-30- More after the jump.