Friday, June 21, 2013

The Crash Dummy

Photo courtesy Flickr
Any look at Egyptian statuary will reveal that little has changed: in the morning, we spend an hour sitting behind a steering wheel staring straight ahead, spend the day with both hands out in front of us at the base of a display screen, drive home, and unwind in front of yet another screen before retiring for the night.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Photo courtesy Flickr

The community of the disabled use this term for the “temporarily able-bodied”, inexperienced fellow citizens who do not plan for the surprises and limitations of child care, home nursing, or personal injury.

I discarded the family car in 1997 out of disgust with Seattle traffic, paying my kid the going rate at the local burger chain to take himself to school on the bus. Abandoning a personal automobile amounted to moving to a different city without having to pack. 

Not owning a car made me aware of the menu of transportation choices I had at my disposal. Year by year the selection grows more sophisticated. Management commentator Timothy Ferriss mentions being in an airport with any number of options available for him to get from one side of the facility to the other. He could spend minutes considering the variables and spend half an hour getting from here to there, or he could take a cab for twice the money and use the ride to get some work done. He took the cab.

That is the story of my life without private wheels. Ferriss points out what I have learned on my own, the hard way: attention is what is in shortest supply, and it’s important to protect one’s ability to concentrate on critical tasks. Being a passenger rather than a teamster frees attention and defines time to think.

A friend is looking after two elderly parents. He’s childless, no kid himself, and is supervising full-time care while struggling with a language barrier. Lacking management experience and back-up, he is carrying the legal responsibility for health care decisions and staff compensation. To protect his smarts and help him stay strong enough to direct the crew, a third friend and I are conspiring to find ways for John to structure his time to best advantage. To start, we’ve lopped off procurement, personnel, and interior design.

An acquaintance who has supervised large staffs will be coaching personnel. Sharon has offered delivery service, and she and I have divvied up the city for shopping runs. I get the high-density areas. We’ll both be working on ways to make the chain of supply self-delivering. Never underestimate the value of a padded mailer, priority box, or shipper’s concierge service.

For several years, I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on the weekly meeting of a support group for caregivers and patients with a dread disease. My original reason for attending the group had a happy resolution, but I find the company so valuable that it’s hard to stay away. Over time, I have learned much about housekeeping and the stresses laid onto domestic systems by serious illness.

Before high-tech medicine, every house was laid out to support caregiving. A well-designed building had a sleeping room off the kitchen. Early on, it was called the birthing room (No, thanks.) Sometimes it’s known as the maid’s room. These days, the dining room is often converted to a sick room when things get rough.

High-tech medicine and consumer culture crept under the roof at about the same time, displacing the intelligent rigor of the old, prudent ways to stock and maintain a household. It’s frankly a b*tch to be locked into car-oriented suburban supply systems and the full array of consumer amenities when you’re maxed out looking after someone who is too frail to lash into a car seat.

Medieval through eighteenth-century household practices greatly simplify life support and improve domestic security. The more my furnishings reflect the Renaissance basics, the faster and easier the pace of life becomes. An Italian house of privilege would have held bed, table, stool, down cushion, storage chests, painted walls, and very little else, excluding the kitchen and armory. Manuscripts were infotech, and there were few of them. A medieval bed chamber was lined with storage chests. A four-poster sat in the center of the room. Earlier, the room was shared with members of the household, who slept on the storage cases. A medieval hall house might be the size of a single-car garage.

A cancer patient in “intermission” agrees with me that it makes sense to set up preventive interior design to minimize the impact of a diagnosis. The same is true for child bearing: you have only six months before the baby starts to crawl and it becomes a life and death contest to proof the house. Suggestions that support caregiving also support working out of the house and make it easy to appreciate overnight guests.

The following interior arrangements have evolved over the last thirty-something years in the same house. One room on each floor holds small furnishings. Fragile knick-knacks live in a display case in one room designated the formal parlor. It holds a wall of pictures, old school toys, and is set up with upholstered furniture, shaded lamps, and the best of the family’s artifacts for comfortable reading and entertaining.

Every other room in the house is lean and functional, with only necessities on the floor. Each of us has a dressing room separate from the sleeping room, so guests are not disruptive. My personal kit lives in the parlor closet and in a storage chest. My partner’s kit lives in his workroom. The nest is empty, but a conservative aunt approved my wish for a family locker room complete with individual lockers, bathing area, sewing set-up, laundry, and mud entry. Looking back over the many domiciles I have enjoyed, any of them could house arrangements that approach that ideal. I’d displace a bedroom or family room to set this up. 

In colonial America, the dominant couple slept in a four-poster bed in the corner of the principal room. The kids slept upstairs. Improvise a four-poster with galvanized iron fittings from a greenhouse supply and high thread count cotton drop cloths from a hardware store. One can also screen a bed with shoji or rolling coated wire storage racks that have covers lashed on one side with zip ties. I use woven twig fencing from a garden catalogue.

Separating dressing and sleeping areas frees space in the bedroom and improves ventilation. If lighting is mounted on the wall or ceiling lights are adequate, it’s possible, comfortable, and can be elegant to have a bedroom that contains nothing but a well-dressed bed. Use fixed lighting for low-level background illumination and set up a cordless arrangement for reading. Go cordless in the bedroom, and you’ll be able to clean the floor in seconds, making it easy to control allergens. Bed tables and side chairs can live in the empty closet. A side chair makes a good bed table. It holds a side bag better than a table. Mount decorations on the wall, remembering that digital screens deliver far more and more beautiful visual information than most households can ever afford on their own.

A cell phone is also an intercom. I have found that the dozen trays I picked up at the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings chain have transformed the way I manage the house. A restaurant supply would have something similar. I set place mats on the trays. The old school pass pantry between the kitchen and dining room seems made to stage meals this way, and there is always a project or two parked there. I think the food service people call this “side work”. Most of my maintenance happens while the kettle is on the boil.

We serve our own dinners onto trays that we then carry into the dining room. Once in a while we eat elsewhere else, but for family life I recommend eating only in the dining area. Doing so simplifies cleaning and pest control.

Every household should stock a home nursing kit in case of emergency. I don’t know what the details of this kit might be, except for hydrating drink and citrus soda, but a medical social worker or office nurse can no doubt advise. The contents of the kit will vary with the diagnosis. There’s a Navy supply maxim that save countless hours of stress: when you buy something you need and will need again, buy three. When the replacement for the replacement is tapped, buy another one.

Living without a private automobile, we have been able to limit our runs to the Big Huge Discount Chain to once or twice a year. I shop on foot for toiletries and hardware every month or two, or six. I use a rolling backpack that is also my luggage.

Separating procurement into old-fashioned categories minimizes trips to the store and shortens the long march. I’d rather spend a bit more at a familiar store than waste hours hunting in unfamiliar aisles. The exception to this is our annual visit to a huge and wonderful local hardware chain down in Boeing territory: I educate myself in the current state of the art as I wander under its historic roof.

Minimize visits to the grocery by growing a few herbs, flat-leaf parsley, shallot tops, and lettuce. These plants cost the most fresh, keep least well, and are easiest to grow. Mine grow themselves now on the surface of the compost heap. I add lettuce in the spring and mulch the patch with an entire box of complete OG fertilizer.

Herbs and lettuce supplement dry and canned pantry staples. The rule of pantry thumb is to buy what you eat and eat what you buy. My electricity bill fell by fifty percent when I got rid of the freezer, reasoning that the store gets its juice at commercial rates and a freezer is useless anyway in case of an emergency. Now we seldom eat a frozen meal, preferring fresh low-sodium and low-sugar dishes all of whose ingredients are easy to pronounce.

When a domicile is suddenly being visited by unknown caregivers, home security becomes critical. Think like the old days: every piece of old furniture I have, and every storage chest, has a lock or hasps for a padlock. Thinking security makes it easy to leave the house and forget it. I moved a top of the line rolling tool chest into the kitchen to save trips to the basement work bench. Turnaround time for minor home improvement tasks has shrunk from years or months to minutes, thanks to working without toxins. The stout locking drawers of the chest have proved to be an ideal place to store home office papers and the laptop. Thanks to the scanner, my file of important papers is now one inch thick. It lives in a portable fire safe. Both the safe and the tool chest can be secured to hasps.

The same modifications that make it easy to clean house make it more secure to store inventory. This old house has a lock on every door. The keys are mere skeletons, but they’re keys. If you have valuable works of art or other artifacts, like family silver, think hard about being equal to the stress of guarding them while trying at the same time to guard the life of a loved one. Recent additions to my homeowner’s policy make clear what categories are at risk. It goes without saying that firearms are under lock and key.

During World War Two, many of the stately homes of Europe became hospitals or military offices. Precious works of art were stored for the duration. Japanese tradition has a variation: behind each elegant paper house stood a storage bunker, the kura, with three foot thick fireproof mud walls. The ornamental niche in the main house, known as the tokonoma, displayed one brush-written scroll and a container of flowers. The display was changed regularly, and it is said that a Japanese man could tell what mood his wife was in by the flowers he saw when he came home. We all have our ways. There is specialized mounting hardware available for securing framed works of art to a wall.

I like to manage the house so that every room has a place to sit, a place to eat or work, and a place to lie down. With small furnishings and personal wardrobes relegated to distinct areas, the space under the roof has become very flexible, working harder, longer, and to more ends than it ever did when each space had a straitjacket labelled dining room, so and so’s bedroom, living room, and so on. A key to the system is the personal side bag that holds cell phone, laptop, phone, and whatever toys the owner cares to tote around.

-30-  More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Guy Style

Photo courtesy Flickr

When my partner and I moved out of our first apartment, I hired my brother to clean the bathroom walls and ceiling. I offered him a flat fee and visualized the usual persnickety ritual with ladder, bucket of cleaning solution, and cloth wipers. 

Bob showed up with a brand-new sponge mop, filled the sink with hot water and cleaning liquid, dipped the mop, went over the surfaces and floor, drained the sink, parked the mop, pocketed the cash, and was outta there in under ten minutes. Sometimes a fresh point of view is helpful, as is upper body strength. 

-30-  More after the jump.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wardrobe 2013

Photo courtesy Flickr

Powering cars will probably do for the electricity bill what gasohol did for the grocery budget. I am planning my winter wardrobe to keep me as warm inside the house as out. Every dollar counts, and every dollar spent is a vote for something.

The Great Big Hiking Co-op is consistently three years ahead of the local department stores in cut and technology. They’re not the cheapest place to buy clothing, but the cost per use of their offerings is the lowest. Their high-end labels have on-line sites that post interesting discussions of experimental designs.

The most important item in my wardrobe is the gym. This year I’m thinking that hardiness is as important as vanity.

-30- More after the jump.