Friday, February 10, 2012

The Art of Shopping

Photo courtesy Flickr

Since the nest emptied, I shop once a month, except for food. In a good month, I can score 100% on the lists, wheeling a rolling case from store to store in an urban village.

Recently I had an itch to shop, but not a mission, and I realized that all too often shopping complicates life rather than making it easier. The whole point of consumer culture, after all, is not to have to bother with feeding and shearing sheep so I can have something to wear. Rose Wilder Lane’s Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework lays out the fundamentals. I don’t think the point is to turn me into a warehouse manager, at least under present circumstances.

Although I’m not an early adopter, I love to experiment with innovative technology. It is often true that high-tech versions of the same old thing work meaningful change into daily life. The valve on the two-burner propane stove I was using to stir-fry failed. Replacing it turned out to be more hassle than it seemed to be worth. I let a clerk in the Gourmet Store at the Market sell me a high-tech hot plate that has made the cook very happy.

It’s not often that I buy something that impresses the Kid, but on a recent visit he flashed on the hot plate and said Wow! The very item used to cost a thousand dollars, or maybe two. I paid nothing like that, although it wasn’t a bargain. Like the other small appliances that replaced the stove in a major experiment a decade ago, the new device uses even less electricity and cooks faster and better.

So far, the inventory is a result of a series of happy accidents and draconian de-junking exercises. On the whole, we’re money ahead, but it’s hardly by design. I cut my losses fast and account the experiments as entertainment.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

I seldom travel, and when I do, it’s usually to the core of a city that has a branch of a familiar department store. I have learned to pack very lightly, because any clothing I didn’t anticipate needing can be picked up in minutes at the local version of my go to emporium. There’s no waste with this system: the new things go into my very small inventory and get used up with the rest of the collection.

In my side bag, I carry a fine wool balaclava, the hood to the long raincoat, cashmere-lined kid gloves, a spare muffler, a knit fur beret, and a two-bit emergency poncho. The accessories are enough to add a good twenty degrees to the comfort range of the coat.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tea Time

Photo courtesy Flickr

A well-travelled friend mentioned a certain Parisian tea outlet and asked if I thought it was too fancy. The question was flattering, and thought-provoking, too, but since I’d only seen the web site, I couldn’t say much. As it happens, I had seen the Portland Art Museum’s display of English silver a couple of weeks before. It was a wonderful surprise to find myself in a room with the best of the best, not so much fancy as gloriously designed to occupy space and celebrate the contents of the vessels.

My friend has a natural appreciation of and affinity with good form. My limited education in the art of tea includes having read Okakura’s Book of Tea. The author reminds the reader that Japanese tradition uses metal only for things that can’t be made of anything else. The contrast between the Japanese and English approaches to serving tea could not be greater. It would be wonderful if a museum displayed silver under imitation flickering candles to animate the vessels’ expressive forms. An Asian palette is genetically likely to taste silver, which may account for its absence on the tables of the East.

I haven’t thought about tea for quite a while-to the point of forgetting that “orange pekoe” ain’t a variety. Recently I discovered that opening trade with China greatly expanded the appreciation of and options for tea that are available to the retail customer. Apparently, Seattle’s climate, that lofts camellia bushes far into the sky, is a good one for growing tea. That might make drinking the brew of those tender first leaves affordable. At $200 a pound for first leaves, a few tea plants could put a dent in the property taxes, or at least elevate the standard of living.

When most middle class women worked inside the home, friends often gathered for tea to celebrate, sometimes formally. Any etiquette book will lay out the drill. Now and then I meet friends in a tea room for a brief commercial respite, but I find tea at home the most meaningful.

Certain cups of tea have been memorable. The first was offered by a friend from the north of England, a simple utility “cuppa” brewed from a bag of Yorkshire tips, as natural and unpretentious as my hostess, who can set out a table of tiny sandwiches and lemon curd with the best of them.

The second was equally unpretentious and brewed from good Canadian leaves on a hiking trip up the Elwha River. It seems that the same soft water that impairs tooth development in Port Angeles children brings out the best in black tea served in chilly weather with a side of wood smoke.

On a 1962 visit to the Caribbean, my hostess took me to tea at the home of an English friend. We sipped in a sunny yellow kitchen in humid 96 degree weather. In the corner of the room was a crock that filtered water. The house was fairly small and characteristic of the region, and the conversation was also fairly small and seemed characteristically English.

The fourth cup was an act of mercy: a beloved exercise instructor had melted down after spending days in the hospital with her mother, who was critically ill (and since recovered). An Englishwoman in the group that surrounded the trainer said something about a “nice cup of tea”. I hastened to the cafe across the street. The barrista/drummer slung a tea bag into a paper cup instanter and sent it over on the house. That cup of tea failed on every technical point except the spiritual.

In the late Seventies, I cruised through the Seattle Asian Art Museum with an arts graduate of UC Berkeley, who pointed out a tea bowl that was world famous. They have names, apparently. The most valuable bowls are from Korea, simple works of local potters.

As best I understand tea, what matters is the quality of the experience as one drinks it.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Room to Breathe

Photo courtesy Flickr

A favorite cousin came to visit recently, and we discovered we are on the same housekeeping page: the closer we live to the pattern we experienced as students, the happier we are. I have done this by downsizing in place; she moved into an apartment and rented out her house. Each of us has been renewed by setting aside the bulk and tonnage of domestic life.

When I moved into my first house, all six hundred square feet of it, a wise older friend reminded me to leave room for people. Now I would add to leave room for life.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Downsizing the Details

Photo courtesy Flickr

Every time I visit the Great Big Hiking Co-op I buy a handful of little plastic bottles and equally little lock-top plastic bags. The two are staples and have recently been joined by week-style pill organizers, that don’t leak. I can lay out a week’s creams and cosmetics as easily as I could lay out vitamins. A bag will hold a dab of make-up for the road, and the bottles are a good way to shrink liter-sized bargains for ease in the bathroom cabinet.

As a novice hiker, I learned that hard-core climbers would trim the handles of their toothbrushes to save weight. Finessing my personal kit saves time, protects the big containers from bacteria, and simplifies travel.

-30- More after the jump.