Friday, September 30, 2011


When the sky turns chartreuse, hunker down. Photo courtesy Flickr
Friday seems as good a day as any for another post about vice.

I found myself wondering whether the recent camp outing was worth the trouble when I factored in the number of hours it took to mop up after the exercise. Emergency preparedness is at its heart, though, so I suppose I’ll keep at it.

A friend and I spent the terrible Wednesday after Hurricane Katrina, when the city was blacked out and drowning, at a famous dive in the Pike Place Market. We told the waiter we were there to drink our breakfast, and he brought a round on him. My companion, who had lived in New Orleans twelve years, said the city has no tradition of wilderness recreation and no place to practice, anyway. After Katrina, she stopped joking about every Seattle woman having her own chain saw.

For field chow on this fall's outing, I just filled two sixteen-quart dairy crates with water, cans, and chewy things wrapped in mylar. An annual run to the Great Big Discount Warehouse Chain brought casual excess to the pantry, and the field preps left us ready to subsist on whatever for a couple of weeks.

Over the winter we’ll hit that inventory now and then when circumstances suggest that will be the easy way out.

More after the jump.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s a good week when I figure out how to use a character defect to advantage.
Last spring I pared inventory to the functional minimum in anticipation of having the attic open for a complete roofing job. As usual, I put nearly as much energy into whining about the project as I did toward doing the actual work.

It’s heavenly to have non-habitable space just sitting there waiting to be enjoyed. Maintenance is trivial, life is more comfortable rather than less, and the whole house seems to breathe more sweetly.

The basement, too, is back to the bare walls.
I like to keep it spare so I don’t have to worry about the heavy rains of October. It’s leaked only once in a record storm, and the sump pump’s there for back-up. I don’t, however, enjoy living with a soggy sword of Damocles hanging over vulnerable inventory.

A room that’s empty of all but essentials can be adapted to any use in minutes. The unfinished basement is our hot weather haven on the two or three days a year we consider air conditioning. Hammock hooks stand at the ready. Camp furniture and a solar desk lamp from the Great Big Northern European chain set up for work and dining with no trouble.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

I keep a notebook of color copies of favorite book images and tear sheets from glossy shelter magazines. The other day I ran across an article featuring a stupendously clever country place in Japan. I wanted it the instant I saw it, and now I realize I can reverse-engineer its features and recreate it at home.

The place is owned by a couple who design outdoor gear and didn’t want residential design. They have a couple of solidly built timber cubes set in wooded acreage, one to store firewood and another that’s a comfortably utilitarian keeping room for foul weather, a cooking and dining hall not too different from my low-tech 1890 kitchen.

Atop a generous deck and one of the cubes are pitched two two-meter dome tents in glorious outdoor yellow.

For several years I’ve experimented with using tents in town over the winter. Our three-tent makes a comfortable sleeping spot in the unheated attic. There’s a beautiful floor-level night time city view in the dormer, and it’s great luxury to lounge under a down comforter listening to rain on the roof secure in the knowledge that nothing is likely to leak, that wind will not be a problem, and that I can leave the site without worrying about vandals.

I’d love to be able to sleep outdoors during the summer, but this medium-density neighborhood makes security a concern. Pitching the tent on top of the garage’s flat roof would work beautifully, and some day I may try it. Perhaps one of the owners of the new flat-roofed townhouses across the street will try the same thing.

MIT professor Otto Piene published More Sky in the early Seventies. Read it for inspiration.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Traditional American Housing

Photo courtesy Flickr

The current issue of World of Interiors features quite an old house in Connecticut. It’s owned by designers who were able to recognize archaic form encased in later additions. Paring away architectural nonsense seems to be great sport for historic preservationists.

I love the simplicity and direct function of eighteenth century housing, especially of the early structures that were built when labor was precious. All the essential green elements of gracious contemporary life are present in an old house, and I am grateful for conservative social attitudes that value dignity, candle light, linen, and silver. Early houses appear to have been furnished only with essentials, and that strategy’s as viable now as it ever was.

It makes good sense to embed low-tech emergency systems into a high-tech interior, and to do so elegantly ensures good morale if things get tough.

Eighteenth-century furnishings make the best use of small space. Good copies are durable and not hard to find as bargains.

My eye is conditioned to see white trim around early windows. White reflects additional light into a room. The in-house archaeologist commented that the one-color exterior paint scheme on the Connecticut house probably meant that the original owners had been saving their lead for ammunition. Whatever, the monochrome barn red exterior of the salt box made it look slick and contemporary.

An early house might have a “keeping room” set around the hearth. There would be a table and chairs and perhaps a settle, a high-backed bench close to the fire for lounging free of drafts. There was well-defined etiquette about who got to sit closest to the fire. I can’t see any difference between a keeping room and a contemporary family room.

The principal room of a very early house would have a four-poster bed in the corner, and that still makes sense when space is tight, heat’s expensive, or a convenient guest area is needed. Even if the budget doesn’t dictate economies, managing space closely makes it flexible, productive, and easy to maintain.

More after the jump.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Self-Assembling Household

Photo courtesy Flickr recently posted a story on self-assembling structures. The research is questionable, but the concept irresistible. What the video describes is essentially no different from the functions of family life and the education system.

I once took my kid and one of his friends on a camping trip. We got to our destination, and I couldn’t fathom why Davy’s friend kept grabbing at the tent and throwing it into the air. I thought that an unusually clumsy approach to pitching, especially after the third or forth toss. Turns out Matthew was used to a tent with a built-in system of poles, and his tent really was self-assembling.

The finer I pare and tune the household systems, the closer they get to putting and keeping themselves together. Self-assemblers build bias into structures that then naturally return to their inherent form. The not unendurably bitter irony of handling things efficiently is that it becomes easier and easier to ignore them altogether.

Tam Mossman, gardener emeritus of Yale University, wrote Gardens That Care for Themselves, a volume that set the course of my future with dirt and that prepared me to appreciate housekeeping guru Don Aslett, the man who put liberty into liberation. Aslett’s books were a thirteen million copy underground hit before they began to get mainstream attention.

During my first marriage, I moved seventeen times. It’s a long story and the details are boring, but it was wartime. Into four short years, I packed a fair military career’s worth of shifting house. Thanks to the US Army I enjoyed professional cross-country service for several of the changes.

Acquaintances would ask what I did all day, since I wasn’t employed outside the home. I never had a ready answer for a question like that, but what I did was pack, unpack, and rearrange cupboards. In retrospect, it was valuable experience in design, improvisation, and the uses of space. Recently, arranging furniture has been recognized as a special kind of math skill. The notion is as heartening as hearing Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday.

All those moves produced a cycle of selecting inventory that was like the feeding process of a baleen whale. Over time I have set aside numerous truckloads of this and that as new things have appeared and old things have fallen out of use. What’s left is like driftwood: nothing’s left but the durable essentials.

The other day a friend told me about her mother’s one attempt to hire a decorator. Married to a career soldier, she had recovered from child-bearing long enough to look around and consider the state of her digs. Someone recommended a professional, who arrived one evening, looked around, and said haughtily, “Just what do you call this, anyway?” Mum apparently said, “Early Army!” and showed her the door.

Laurie said her mother was used to calling the quartermaster and asking him to send over a dining table. There’s a place for that service in civilian life.

We made noises about the politics of home furnishing and the deep comforts of traditional ways of managing inventory. The Shakers, no slouches when it came to design and marketing, had as their first principle to use up what one already owns. It’s sensible to assume that something good enough to buy in the first place is good enough to keep. Canny new housekeepers buy first quality garden furniture for starters. I have found without exception that something that’s just exactly right for one application remains just exactly right for others. Relatively sane people snicker at “total design concepts” and prefer a house that looks as if the furnishings have been accumulated.

Any sort of reasonable consistency in personal preference is enough to pull a place together. The guiding principle is to be sincere. Things don’t have to fit exactly: a piece that’s not quite the right size for a given space communicates that one has been able to own and house it for a while, or that one’s family has been able to house it for quite a while.

Aslett built a cleaning empire on his part-time student self-employment, ending up as chief janitorial consultant for the Bell System. Two ideas are at the core of his thinking: first, that no person’s time is more valuable than another’s, and second, that a house should look as if the people who live there are enjoying life.

-30 More after the jump.