Friday, October 21, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

This block is privileged to live under a towering row of mature ash trees. Every autumn we are showered with a thick layer of insulation and fertilizer that is free for the gathering.

Although I’ve never tried it, ash leaves were a preferred filling for early American mattresses. Someday, perhaps, when I have an empty duvet cover and nothing more pressing to do, I’ll fill it with clean leaves and try yet another old way in contemporary circumstances. Such an experiment often pays off. Leaves sealed into big plastic bags might make perfectly reasonable temporary insulation over the winter, rather like the bales of hay Turks pile onto their farmhouse roofs.

Ash leaves are a convenient size and shape to use for mulch. They’re too small to mat and don’t tangle. My lot has the sloping front bank typical of most homes in Seattle. Not wanting to mow my toes, I stripped the sod shortly after we moved in and planted daisies, in imitation of rural roadsides. The bank has evolved over time and looks even more like my beloved West End.

This year the timing is just right to cut down summer’s dead growth and cover the remains with a layer of leaves. Repeating the process for thirty years has grown beautiful soil and an impressive population of earth worms-who can really move dirt. Where I once had to use, literally, a pick axe on my hands and knees to remove weeds, I can now just lean over and lift one on my way into the house wearing business clothes.

I simply mow the leaves that accumulate on the sod of the parking strip. It’s trivial work, and frequent mowing for the month when the leaves are falling gives me well but not overfed grass that takes care of itself the rest of the year.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Book

Photos courtesy Flickr
Recently the Jewish community observed Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the torah, the scroll that is the heart of the culture. Congregations take the torah outside and dance with it. We should all treat our books so well, especially now that technology has displaced the huge body of mediocre, cheaply printed literature with a tiny volume of digital data.

Several months ago I dismantled the small library upstairs, deciding I had dusted gritty paperbacks for the last time. The books that remain are housed in a glass-doored breakfront and in foot lockers. Closed storage requires airing from time to time, but protects cherished or simply working volumes from dust.

I offered some books to my college several years ago, and the librarian’s reply lifted my spirits in a new way. She said that items in her Special Collection are guaranteed to remain in the condition in which they are received. I can’t think of a more concise way to express the care of works on paper, or the care of anything, for that matter. Housekeeping is a dance between conservation and use, between valuing objects and people, between long-term goals and expedience.

There is great happiness to be found in using a thing that stays or has stayed fresh over time. That happiness has to be balanced between the joy of use and the responsibility of curation. The trick in keeping house is to protect the housekeeper.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

Larry McMurtry’s antique scout Cadillac Jack maintains that anything can be anywhere. A legendary New Jersey scout found a Dali painting that funded his future, although I don’t know if he chose to leave his Spartan trailer.

The in-house archaeologist has quite a good record in thrift stores, and the other day he carried home an unprecedented top of the line Swiss rolling backpack with slightly wounded zippers. For our purposes, the zippers are just a cosmetic flaw, though adapting such a slick, high-tech piece of luggage to daily freight hauling is more than a little like busting Black Beauty to a hack. We’ll do right by a good piece of gear.

My inner nervous housekeeper looked at the sleek lines of the new truck and saw international bedbugs. Museum people use the term “potato chip technology” to describe ways of securing artifacts by excluding oxygen, a la mylar bags full of nitrogen instead of preservatives. I put the pack into a large black plastic waste bag, added a package of steel wool to absorb oxygen, tied the bag shut, and set it in a sunny entry hall. A week of mild heat with nothing to breathe will ensure no problems with buggy invaders, though I did say a small prayer as I tied off the bag.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Nature of Anglo

Saxon home improvement, photo courtesy Flickr

Over the decades I’ve read widely in the history of domestic architecture. Because English is my first, second, and nearly only language, I know more about Britain than any other country. Now and then I wish I could cite the source of an info-nugget, and this is one of those times.

The introduction to a book about domestic habits in the Middle Ages described the arrival of the invading Normans. A people who drank wine, lived in castles, and were well organized found that they were trying to dominate an unruly bunch of Saxons whose chiefs liked to drink beer with their clan in communal timber dwellings.

That one paragraph went a long way to further my understanding of political conflict. I favor having one foot in each camp.

More after the jump.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Modular Life

Photo courtesy Flickr

I was delighted to learn that the local tribespeople were the first to make and use standard sizes of lumber. It’s obvious that a four by eight sheet of plywood is as standard a format as an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. The fundamental unit of a traditional Japanese house is the three by six foot tatami mat, regarded as the minimum space to be occupied by one person. Traditional Japanese rooms are defined by the number of mats that fill the floor.

It’s just as efficient to standardize small containers as it is to standardize the large containers that we call architecture, and it’s hardly surprising that industry has ready-made choices. Expedient high tech storage solutions are easy to find and deploy. The combination of commercial quality sixteen quart dairy crates and chromed or epoxy-coated wire storage racks on wheels is a marriage made in heaven. The racks aren’t cheap, but you’ll never pay for furniture that costs less per use. Even free is more expensive if it isn’t as efficient.

A venerable American housewares outfit markets a line of glass food storage dishes with plastic covers. In this household of two, the smallest units (2”x5 1/2” x 7 1/2”) have displaced most other baking and storage containers, and they do very well for casual serving. If I need a large pan for a large occasion, I’ll pick up a disposable one at the grocery.

Several months ago, I bought eight covered cups at the local Japanese chain. I was looking for small bowls to serve odds and ends, and I stumbled across the most efficient storage and serving set ever, so far. They weren’t cheap, but the cost was halfway reasonable, and the payoff has been huge. The cups echo the shape of traditional noodle bowls and are made of plastic that resembles traditional lacquer. The cup and cover are molded to such close tolerances that liquid will not leak when the unit is held at an angle, an airtight closure with no threads, fast to open and close.

The little units fit the door shelf in my small Japanese-made refrigerator, and it’s easy to store and present snacks in them. From the cups I have learned that the appeal of commercial snack food is that I can simply pick it up, open it, and eat it without having to think about preparation. Buying covered cups has inserted commercial convenience into the sequence of meal preparation at home, and it’s because the production quality is so high.

The cups do a good job of storing and presenting home-mixed snack arrays of dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate.I also use them to mix small quantities of dry ingredients, like spices for a meat rub. I can simply shake the container, and it would probably work for the makings of one pancake or a single cookie.

When I started keeping house, I defined the number of formal table settings I was willing to store and maintain, deciding to fall back on disposables or a caterer if a big occasion came along. When I add table ware, I buy a few extra to cover loss. The minor added expense saves the greater expense of shopping and replacing a set. I bought extra cups, and the spares have proved so useful in so many ways that I’ll go back for more.

There seems to be no limit to the number of dairy crates, glass dishes, and covered cups that I can use, but a dozen of each is a rational limit. It’s calming to reach for a storage amenity and not have to rummage in a cupboard full of miscellaneous borderline junk. I have bought and discarded quite a few systems of storage gear. What I have kept outperforms anything else I’ve tried.

Over the last year, I’ve experimented with using trunks for everyday storage, setting them against the wall of a room medieval-style. The more inventory I shift to trunks, the faster domestic life moves, the more flexible space becomes, and the easier it is to clean. I’m using a miscellaneous collection of chests and foot lockers, but if I were to start with a clean slate, I’d choose World War Two officer’s foot lockers or surf in search of a standard unit that’s the norm in one industry. Musician’s transit cases would be a good bet. The lid of a trunk is hazardous to children, so factor in safety when you design your storage system.

-30- More after the jump.