Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Photo courtesy Flickr

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein was one of the people who, like Buckminster Fuller, invented Now. Heinlein and his colleague Arthur C. Clarke sat in the back row of Rocketdyne’s auditorium laughing like maniacs as the first vehicle set down on the surface of the moon in June, 1969. There's a scene in one of Heinlein's early books in which two guys work in a garage inventing an electronic robot to do housework, because housework is "tiresome and repetitious".

One of Heinlein’s last books dealt with the pace of change: the protagonist lived in a Swedish station wagon with wings and was constantly bugging out as unexpected challenges appeared. The bugging out resembled jumping to another level in the computer games I do not play. Heinlein was graduated from the US Naval Academy and presumably brought a rigorous set of survival skills to his life as a writer, that started after he retired on disability. Of that decision, Heinlein said, “I was just taking up space.”

I embraced the housekeeping practice and environment of my elders. It was a conscious choice that ran counter to my contemporaries’ preferences, and I’ve had some decades now to experiment with archaic and modern techniques. I nearly went mad when computers insinuated themselves into a facility already full of low-tech nineteenth century support systems topped with whatever the twentieth had added to the mix. A row of monitors crowding the stereo system and the television was entirely too much on top of a library and the ankle-deep wash of molded plastic toys that entertained the kids.

Actress Sally Field, who plays a mean housekeeping scene with Tommy Lee Jones in Steven Spielberg’s recent film about Abraham Lincoln, brought us an earlier virtuoso presentation of the classic house-er-housewife flip-out in “Norma Rae”. Fields’ character is stressed to her limit by the demands of home, employment, and union organizing. One night she storms into the kitchen to cook dinner, and as her stunned family watches, she slams a whole frozen chicken into a cold frying pan and goes on to assemble the rest of the meal with equal finesse. I doubt than any of us is unfamiliar with the feeling, at least.

It turns out that there’s a name to that strategy: Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall call it the “kick that block” method in their “Universal Traveler” manual of management techniques.Patience can assassinate a viable interior, patience and misplaced priorities. Technology and current interests and responsibilities change so quickly now that I find it makes sense to tolerate just the bones of comfort, tune storage for transport, and move dawdling inventory closer to the exit every time I handle it.

So far, what works is to keep a solid base of archaic, low-tech amenities and supplement it with the latest iterations of high-tech. Within reason, I have no patience with technology that is even slightly obsolete, since new gear is inexpensive and can be accounted as a labor cost.

-30-   More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Masters of the Burn Rate

Photo courtesy Flickr

Photo courtesy Flickr

Steven Spielberg’s new movie about Abraham Lincoln has interesting undertones about domestic economy. There’s a challenging scene in which the first lady jousts with Tommy Lee Jones’ character as he moves through a White House reception line. She reproaches him for being tight-fisted with the housekeeping budget. The final scene in the movie shows Jones’ character retiring for the night under a patchwork quilt. 

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is famous for his improvised desk.

Shaker tradition recommends using what you already have before acquiring something new-and those people were vendors!

I have reservations about buying used clothing, but used anything else that’s washable and in decent repair is a welcome gain. Be sure to factor in costs of acquisition, like time, travel, and restoration, and assess the cost of something by estimating the cost per use. The nickel steel frying pan with which my great-grandmother indulged herself has been in daily use since about 1880.

If I were starting over, I’d buy multiples of standard items, managing domestic space like a commercial inn. Feather/down blend pillows, white bedding, folding office desks, and other familiar, unpretentious amenities from the Great Big Discount Warehouse Chain will lay the foundation of an easy, efficient home. The more interchangeable housekeeping gear is, the more flexible space becomes, the less space is needed, the easier it is to resell items, and the less time it takes to figure out what to do with one’s quarters. It’s a small matter to indulge personal preferences by choosing vases, tabletop amenities, and whatever additional creature comforts suggest themselves. The riches of digital culture and contemporary physical training rightly command the attention and resources that used to be diverted into managing innumerable small artifacts.

To that recommendation, I’d add my personal favorite strategy: base initial choices on state of the art hiking gear. Thick self-inflating air mattresses with memory foam tops are, I find, just as comfortable as a conventional bed, although a guest would probably appreciate a more familiar rack. The mattresses can be rolled to work as stools or folded into legless chairs. A rectangular sleeping bag that zips open flat works every day encased in a duvet cover. In Seattle’s damp maritime climate, synthetic fill is more reliable than down. Featherweight cooking gear fills some everyday needs: a titanium pot makes a good replacement for an automatic drip coffee carafe, it’s a serviceable although utilitarian mug, and will cook the odd pot of noodles or vegetables on a conventional stove. I use a hiker’s liquid fuel stove on the back porch now and then when demand is heavy, and a camper’s gas cookstove is a treat to work with anytime. Nylon packcloth travel gear displaces much bulky domestic inventory, as long as one chooses personal items and clothing that are road-worthy. Japanese battery-powered tent lanterns are ineffably lovely in any setting, and a solar battery charging rig makes them even lovelier in the long run. Chip away at dependence on the grid by using solar chargers for core equipment.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keeping Kustom House

Photo courtesy Flickr

I called on a confectioner chum the other day and sat around his commercial kitchen talking housekeeping. Housekeeping is often a lonely effort, especially when I push the borders of the envelope. It was heartening to compare notes with someone whose livelihood depends on his sink, stove, and refrigerator.

My friend rents space in a historic building in Pioneer Square. His quarters are about the same age as mine, but with brick and steel I-beams thrown in for good measure. His space is about twenty by forty, with windows at the narrow end. The floor is gray epoxy paint, the fixtures are classic chrome adjustable racks and stainless prep tables, sink, and appliances. Adam grew up on a dairy farm. His mother was a nose. It was inescapable that he would be a meticulous man whose studies are grounded in microbiology. 

At the front of the production space is a small conference area furnished simply with a pair of upholstered storage benches from the Great Big Discount Warehouse Chain. A small folding utility table held drinks and snacks, and a couple of large plants softened the atmosphere.

Ages ago, I had rented studio space in a contemporary building up the street, and It was pleasant time travel to sip tea, taste remarkable treats, reminisce about mutual friends, and swap tips about managing space. Adam is Friar Tuck reincarnate, and he pointed twinkling at the 125 pound hooked magnet that secured one end of a curtain wire to the I-beam over his desk. He uses curtains to structure the space at his convenience.

Adam grumbled about dusting his chromed wire, and I clued him into hosing it off. With a freight elevator down the hall and sturdy castors on the rack units, he should have no trouble wheeling his shelving into the alley for a shower. Inventory stowed in lidded plastic bins would be easy to remove. Bottles stowed in dairy crates could simply be rinsed off along with the structure. Ideally, the crates would be spanking new and sprayed with automotive silicone protectant (pending health department approval) so the dust goes away with a puff of breath. If Adam zip-tied custom-cut tarps with grommets to the back and sides of the racks, they would work as portable storage walls that could be lighted from the back with cordless solar task lights from the Great Big Northern European Furniture Chain. Buy twice as many of these lamps as seem useful so there’s always a fresh battery. White polyester tarps from the local McHardware chain would transmit beautiful light.

Adam uses cordless technology to good advantage. Sound emanates from one base unit that powers a pod set into a dock. Tablet computers serve charge cards and nearly every other digi-need. At home, Adam says, he has replaced a clumsy vacuum system with a rechargeable cordless stick version. I am grateful to find someone who shares my hatred of electrical cords.

A lifetime of conditioned consumerist responses nearly sent me to the neighborhood vacuum cleaner boutique on the way home, but I stalled, took a nap, and realized that if I keep leaving my street shoes at the door, turn on the freestanding HEPA air filter, and simply wipe down the painted floors with a dust mop, I’ll be three figures ahead. I use an anodized aluminum adjustable Italian mop handle from the janitorial supply. It’s fitted with a removable rectangular gray plastic mop head that has little pips molded in. They’re designed to grip nylon scrubbing pads of varying degrees of coarseness. I set a fresh white nylon pad on the head and then use it to grip a high-tech polyester car detailing wiper from the Great Big Discount Warehouse to dust the floors.

Recently, after realizing that citrus gunk remover makes short work of paint spots, I painted a hall and a floor with a roller mounted on that elegant handle. Maintaining painted floors is like maintaining silver. Play your cards right, and decent wear and tear just make things more beautiful. The plan is to discover whether painting a floor now and then is just as easy as waxing the thing.

My visit downtown leaves me thinking I might cheerfully integrate the spare and elegant function of Adam’s work space with the comfortably efficient familiarity of the old homestead here on the Hill, bringing it up to speed, chucking many literal pounds off the maintenance load, and tuning it for speed pure and simple.

-30- More after the jump.