Friday, September 2, 2011

Off the Leash

Thumb loops for secure transit. Photo courtesy Flickr

Over the course of the Sixties I lived nearly a full year in rustic circumstances with no electricity, learning the elegant, comforting, and timeless rituals of managing artificial light.

The steward of an Elizabethan household of privilege would light the family to bed, carrying a candlestick and leading a procession from the hall upstairs to their chambers. In the days of flint and steel, tending a flame was a meaningful responsibility.

The nineteenth century added relatively clean-burning oil lamps to candles and the rush lights of which I have no experience. During my time off the grid, I tended candlesticks and kerosene lamps in the morning after I washed the breakfast dishes.

The night before, lamps and candles that weren’t being used to light someone to bed were carried to the kitchen for safekeeping. The next day I trimmed the wicks so they would burn clean and washed glass chimneys to get the best effect out of the fuel.

Last winter, The Great Big Northern European home furnishings chain offered a solar task light. It’s been so convenient I have bought several. The lamps are a two-fer: one for me, one for a kid in the Third World. The test model charged indoors on a sunporch in a miserable gray Seattle winter, so it is likely to be efficient anywhere. I bought a couple more to have back-up batteries, but they cycle efficiently enough I haven’t had to cannibalize a power source.

I’m not working at integrating these little solar lamps into the household, just keeping them around to see if I use them. They’re convenient for reading in bed and for lighting small repair jobs in awkward locations. This week I discovered that I can lift the battery out of one and set it on a windowsill in the morning, just as I tended lamps in the woods. I like the ritual and the independence, and it’s a giggle to begin to disentangle this 1890 house from central utilities.

A recent visit to an office supply chain uncovered a line of cordless rechargeable task lights from the outfit that gives quilters day-accurate lighting, so I guess the elegance and flexibility of wireless illumination is catching on.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trial and Error

Photo courtesy Flickr
A TED story on the evolution of complex systems said that trial and error is the way they get worked out. It’s like folding a paper airplane, I suppose. Somewhere in the arts recently I also noted “this is a messy business”, and that is an equally comforting phrase.

Early in public television, gardener Thalassa Cruso did for digging in the dirt what Julia Child was doing for chopping onions. Ms. Cruso confessed that what she enjoyed most about gardening was that she could compost her mistakes and have no one the wiser.

My de-junking cycle is very short now, almost weekly, and I often wonder whether I’ve been wasteful and foolish about an item that clearly has no useful function. It’s helpful to consider de-junking as a labor cost. Even more valuable than the time it takes to carry something in inventory is the attention that it takes to manage it.

With the nest empty, the closer my daily life resembles that of dorm years the happier and more productive I become.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"and a 777 stays in the air!"

Photo courtesy Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, Alan Mulally was interviewed on broadcast television. Mr. Mulally runs the Ford Motor Company, and he was describing an early encounter with Detroit “car guys”, who were challenging his qualifications to handle production. Mulally used to run Boeing, and he ticked off the many parallels between the car business and the airplane business. I don’t recall all the details except that an airplane has thousands of parts to an automobile’s hundreds. His punch line, the head, is immortal.

Since childhood, I’ve kept house following the fundamental principles of industrial efficiency. Now, no matter how stressed the family is, household systems will not collapse.

Store things where you use them first and leave them ready to use again when you’re finished. It’s that simple, and doing it the right way is easier than doing it some other way. To those simple rules I’d add don’t touch other people’s things.

The dark side of these behaviors is that the place runs so smoothly that it’s easy to overlook janitorial work. When it is time to dust and vacuum, however, the place is ready to clean.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr
I spent Saturday in the hammock, off and on, watching the sun pass over the front garden like a very slow motion video. For the last several years, I’ve experimented with not watering any but food plants. Late August seems to be the time when I lose my nerve contemplating hundreds of square feet of crispy critters.

Later in the day, I comforted myself with the knowledge that, bleak as it looks, the seedy garden is fattening dozens of wild birds. Rare local scrub jays were hanging out in the morning, and my partner spotted a flock of tiny wrens smaller than hummingbirds.

Last week it rained briefly. I am astonished by how efficiently the plants convert water to growth. Opportunistic weeds made easy targets with their loud green presence in the beige lawn.

In the morning, I hosed down the patch of rosa Nootkana, whose lower leaves are beginning to die. A strong stream dislodged the loose foliage, sending it to the ground to mulch the roots. There’s a promising crop of hips, and the damp leaves gave off the scent of apples and honey to perfume the front sidewalk and the backyard rustic retreat.

That, I maintain, is not privation. The stand of Nootkana will carry the native landscape until the rains of October send it into the green frenzy that is the beginning of our growing season.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Donna Reed

Photo courtesy Flickr

Original viewers and younger fans of vintage television share the joke about a proper Fifties matron waxing a floor wearing high heels and pearls. The show was not so far from the reality of many daily lives. It wasn’t until the late Sixties that mature housekeepers began to wear jeans when they were working in town. Lucille Ball immortalized the feelings of sane women about that culture. Seattle’s own Betty McDonald literally wrote the book(s) about the black humor of twentieth century housekeeping.

Before stretch nylon and universal jeans, getting dressed to meet the public was so time-consuming that self-respecting women simply laid on everything but the outer layer when they got up in the morning: top and bottom foundation garments, hose, full slip, hair that would crumple with a breath of humidity, and a full masque.

The assembly was covered with a house coat, halfway between bathrobe and shirtdress. A house coat was a tame version of a mechanic’s shop coat, and had the same number of pockets. It was a skirted version of cargoes and likely to hold cleaning cloths, a note pad and pencil (aka Blackberry), stray toys, and fallen hairpins. Come time to shop, the house coat was traded for a “day dress” like Ms. Reed’s. The original Cool Northern European Textile Company still markets its late Fifties house coat, just as playful and edifying as it was back in the day.

Sometimes there was work to do after the day dress, which often required assistance with a back zipper, was deployed. Then it was time to put on a smock. That, too, resembled a mechanic’s shop coat, the short form. The smock of the late Forties and Fifties was cut like a men’s dress shirt, with a conventional but generous buttoned sleeve, pleats close to the outer shoulder, and a straight a-line swinging hem with full patch pockets in the front. The test of a good smock is whether your hands go immediately into the pockets.

A good smock is a friend to Man and to the planet.
It protects the kind of quality clothing that saves heat and fosters efficient manual production. I just discovered the Oregon Rodeo Plaid Company’s reissue of its Gold Rush wool smock.

In its day, Oregon’s wool smock was a work shirt, and it will be a classic work shirt around here. The wool that seems so vulnerable outperforms cotton flannel, and thanks to modern sheep, it is whisper-soft with a lovely supple hand. I sank a chunk of this year’s clothing budget into a pink variant that fits easily over a warm turtleneck and under the slim down vest offered by Mr. Chouinard’s outdoor supply.

-30- More after the jump.