Friday, December 16, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

After a little too much coffee on Sunday morning, Pard and I started talking about our love of guinea pigs, and what a joy it is to hang out with one that is not in a cage. Pigs are inherent comedians, like parakeets. Only my distaste for buying a slave animal for entertainment keeps me from having them as pets.

Briefly, I visualized giving guinea pigs the basement for their very own, until reality set in. Then I recalled the ultimate home aquarium, a Rainier Valley merchant’s koi run.

I have not had the pleasure of living with one of these “water beings”, but I know enough to know that the breeders are protective, the Asian art museum’s collection is graceful to watch, and that at least one koi does not tolerate impertinence. Pard and I took our son to a koi show when he was small, and I wandered amid waist-high tanks of colorful fish. Recalling a New Yorker cartoon of a matron addressing the fish she had on a leash, I leaned over and recited “Izzum mommy’s widdle carp?!” to one of the captive swimming audience. The fish jumped up and bit my fingers, giving me an electric fright and a good splash to boot. The owner, who was standing by, said, “He does that.”

Maasi’s fish store devoted the back half of their one-story building to koi. Cement boundaries like a toboggan run had been built up directly onto the cement floor, and juvenile fish raced happily around a generous serpentine circuit.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Puppy Shots

Photo courtesy Flickr

The issues of childhood immunization are a hardy broadcast perennial, and I am happy to leave the health debate to the experts. One aspect of childhood disease that hasn’t been addressed, though, is the cost of caregiving.

In the early Fifties, my mother and her good friend and next door neighbor both worked outside the home. Between them, they had three children aged seven, six, and three. Only vaccines for diptheria, smallpox, and whooping cough were available.

I came down with chicken pox and spent two weeks at home. My brother caught chicken pox and was sick for two weeks. Neighbor Susie came down with chicken pox and was sick for two weeks. I caught mumps and was sick for two weeks. Susie caught mumps and was sick for two weeks. Bro caught mumps and was sick for two weeks. I caught measles and was sick for two weeks. Bobby caught measles and was sick for two weeks, Susie caught measles and was sick for two weeks. We and our classmates looked forward to the time off and were delighted by our diagnoses.

I can’t do the math without a pencil. That’s four and a half months of full-time caregiving split among two moms and one housekeeper. So, if making room in your schedule for a Christmas recital is an issue, consider the ramifications of not immunizing.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

When We Fall, We Fall Upwards

Photo courtesy Flickr

Beatnik poet Philip Whelan said that. I’ve been mulling over the concept for a while, and the recent biography of Steve Jobs includes several similar remarks from himself. Both men emerged from the same school.

New Orleans musician Mac Rebbenack aka Dr. John sang, “Your money ain’t no better than the way that you spend it.” I can barely manage my own purse, much less anyone else’s, but the info-nuggets above help me evaluate what I’m doing when the plastic is smoking and the holidays are knocking on the front door.

At the moment, I base decisions on whether they aggravate global warming, enhance or debase health, or generate capital.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Excess Capacity

In a zen establishment, the cook is the most important person. Green Gulch photo courtesy Flickr

During a break last week, I flipped on daytime broadcast television. A regular medicine show was visiting the generous suburban quarters of a middle-class family brand new to the poverty game.

There are five children in the home and one income. The family is hungry.
Their gaunt father works a dangerous job and skips lunch. The kids are thin, and their development is suffering. Managing the family’s diet is a high-stakes game for the future, because it takes generations for the payoff to emerge: the grandmother’s pre-natal nutritional environment is a determining factor in a child’s intelligence.

Suburban domesticity evolved in a period of cheap energy and abundant resources. That is no longer so, but a suburban household has hidden advantages. The whole point of owning a freestanding house on its own piece of land is to be independent and self-sustaining. A family under stress is in no position to make design changes, but if you’re setting up a household, here are some suggestions to make the most of that split-level paradise.

Protect the soil, dig in kitchen waste, and learn to grow at least the few green things that cost the most at the supermarket, are fragile to store, and that add the most taste and interest to a simple diet. Flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, oregano, green shallot or onion tops, chard, and collards save many a trip to the market (a minute’s walk for me, but a high cost-per-mile jaunt in an SUV).

Cost out the energy consumption of your cooking set-up. Three squares for a family of seven is alien turf for me, although over several summers I often cooked for nineteen on a wood stove. The property had no electricity, and the woman who clued me in to the importance of good nutrition over the long now supervised the larder. Check Deft Home’s index for a lifetime’s accumulation of ways to free cash for more interesting applications than basic life support.

Any conventional stove squanders expensive heat. When I shifted to a convection oven and small appliances, my power bill fell by half. It had already fallen by half a few years earlier when I gave the freezer away and relied solely on dried, canned, and fresh stores. Child safety is a real concern with small appliances, but many of them are so automated that it may make sense to set them up away from the main kitchen area. Doing so saves the electricity it takes to run a kitchen fan, keeps the atmosphere fresh, and conserves the heat the fan otherwise draws out of the living quarters.

I recently bought an elegant induction hot-plate that makes short work out of preparing any ordinary stove-top recipe. Between it and the maker’s electronically controlled pressure cooker, I have a portable, hyper efficient food preparation set-up that works in less than half the time of a conventional stove, uses ninety percent of the energy it consumes, and requires almost no supervision. Results are better, faster, and easier. The two units make very good use of simple, basic ingredients that are much healthier to eat than complex prepared products.

A suburban property was originally designed around the skills of a full-time, well-trained housekeeper. Turning a consumer-oriented establishment into a productive domestic unit becomes an urgent task when poverty strikes. Food stamps for seven people should provide at least for a thrift shop pressure cooker, a package of yeast will yield complete-protein bread when it is baked from the Joy of Cooking Cornell triple-rich institutional bread formula, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet will show how to navigate the shoals of privation as people have done for thousands of years.

It takes a while for one’s metabolism to adapt to a healthy diet, but once it does, the body’s response to empty food will make it clear just how sickening it really is. The prospect of converting five kids to home cooking from scratch is daunting, to say the least. I bribed my son with one junk food meal a week, on Saturday.

Just get those greens in a pot with some olive oil, tomatoes, and smoke seasoning, honey, mix up some cornbread, chase down a couple of squirrels, and you’ll be eating well in no time. A heavy enameled cast iron pot is ideal, and it’s amazing how often those treasures turn up in thrift stores. The squirrel part is theory for me, but real for the in-house good old boy. Don’t eat squirrel brains, and try to find some that have been eating hickory nuts. Make sure those teen-agers are brewing root beer and ginger ale.

Angelo Pellegrini wrote the book, “Lean Years, Happy Years”, and the last volume of General Charles Yeager's biography details his love and respect for his home turf-the poorest county in the poorest state in the country.

More after the jump.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Photo courtesy Flickr

An old friend recently mentioned a woman who has many collections stored at home. Over dinner, I asked the in-house archaeologist and former museum assistant for advice about managing a collection in domestic space.

I think that’s called “housekeeping”. Here’s the quick response:

Acquiring something is called accession. Get a computer, a barcode system, and RFID technology to keep track of things. Add photos, possibly from several different aspects. A photographer once advised me to high grade my posters, selling some to pay for housing the rest.

Store in hypoallergenic archival packaging. Avoid corrugated cardboard. Museum people like standardized plastic bins with little containers of steel wool that absorb oxygen-a good way to control bugs and protect paper.

Shelve on standardized epoxy-coated adjustable wire units, available through The Big Box Home Improvement Store and Store the World. Consider the strength of the structure under the collection. DJ Dr. Demento once collapsed the floor of an apartment with his record collection. Storage racks on wheels can be arranged chock-a- block and moved as needed. There’s a museum storage system that hangs shelves that roll here and there. My personal preference for casual domestic use is to buy standard civilian units.

I believe some insurance companies specialize in covering collections. Fire and water are ever-present hazards. Think twice before storing anything in a basement.

Ideally, a collection lives in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. That means there’s a carbon footprint. Things are entertaining. Things are expensive, both personally and for the world as a whole. I favor acquiring and maintaining things in a way that’s conscious and intelligent. Some people are natural collectors. That’s a skill worth honing so that the urge to live with artifacts does not stress the greater culture.

I worked as a library clerk for two summers, and not so long ago I helped excavate the estate of a pathological hoarder. The lesson I take from that experience is that a collection can enhance or subvert the dignity of the collector. I vote for enhance.

The British National Trust Manual of Housekeeping is the operating guide to the living museums, aka stately homes, that are in its care. Its advice is literally conservative and figuratively illuminating. Look for further technical advice in museum libraries.

More after the jump.