Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Virtual Housekeeping


Photo courtesy Flickr

Now and then I read or attend to current thinking about managing a business. Before the women’s movement made home ec a dirty word, housekeepers were encouraged to think of their efforts as a business. The first wave of feminism claimed home activity as their separate enterprise, a productive move at first that later decayed into a service ghetto. The US Army integrated service functions into its operations structure, a move I found heartening. The history of twentieth century housekeeping is the history of industrial replacements for home labor. Nuts, for example, routinely arrived with shells until the Seventies.

Frederick Taylor’s turn of the twentieth century system of industrial efficiency was adapted to home labor by Christine Frederick. I grew up in a house run on Taylorist principles, so after I read Susan Strasser’s benchmark history of American housekeeping, “Never Done”, it was natural to mine the business shelves of local bookstores. I got hooked on the topic by Martin Page’s hilarious Yam Factor. Paul Hawken’s Next Economy opened my eyes to value. In the Nineties, one of the business gurus talked about the “virtual corporation”, where every activity was outsourced. Recently Timothy Ferris recommended earning dollars and spending cheaper currencies. This body of thought was there to support my decision-making as the nest emptied. I decided to downsize in place for sanity’s sweet sake.

The pace of life accelerated steeply with the revival of Seattle’s central urban core. I’m playing catch-up with myself and begrudge every minute spent stumbling over routines. Interestingly, many business writers approach the topic as athletes. Title IX means never having to say ,“I can’t.”

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story about two guys who invented robots in their garage, a thinly veiled reference to Messrs. Hewlett and Packard. Heinlein describes housework as “tiresome and repetitious”. His phrasing set my awareness of processes. In tandem with Taylor’s canny moves-store things where you use them first, set up so you don’t have to fight to retain your balance when you perform an activity, and leave things ready to use again when you are finished with them (a Japanese trick), I’ve been able to chip away at the received wisdom of housekeeping to good effect.

One rule of thumb I ran across is not to do anything a machine can do (see the nut remark in paragraph one). Machines displace management hassles and the security concerns of having spare hands at home. There’s a difference between keeping machines at home and using the convenient result of someone else’s device. Except for the refrigerator, furnace, washing machine, cooker, lawn mower, and digitals, I use simple, compact, and versatile hand tools. Someone else’s machines, though, are force multipliers (see Wikipedia).

Not long ago, I realized that Ferristhought was the key to appreciating the flood of cheap domestic imports. There’s a careful balance to maintain between environment and convenience. I do my utmost to respect it. The crunch is here, though, and now I factor in the environmental cost of wasting the resources it takes to keep me alive while I’m doing donkey labor like picking non-biodegradable labels off oranges so I can compost the peels. Not finding time to do routine paperwork is a red flag indicator that something must change.

There’s an interesting new world of prepared food on the market. I’ve avoided industrial chow, but the local drug chain carries an appealing line of dried entree mixes. Their snack packets are a little salty but otherwise nutritious, as well. I wish the packaging bio-degraded, but assume that before long mylar will be the last problem standing. Knowledge work requires six light meals a day (see The Power of Full Commitment by Loehr and Schwartz). I can whip into the corner branch of the chain that serves tens of thousands of students and grab half a dozen feather-light meals in a couple of minutes. It’s easy to supplement the mixes and packets with fresh fruit, green things, and the occasional square feed. My metabolism is faster now and turnaround time for life support is slashed.

It’s hard to convince her ladyship behind the wheel that there are more efficient ways to get something from here to there than to convey it like an eighteenth century coachman/footman combination. A friend forgot something at the house last week. Rather than worry about and work around it until we got together again, I simply stopped at a shipper’s concierge service, had them pack and send it, and gave them a few dollars. It took three minutes extra on my usual AM bus commute and validated the indie music lyric that goes “If they try to slow you down, [dismiss them rudely]. It wasn’t my friend slowing me down but the received wisdom of courteous friendship. Being aware of turnaround time is what speeded me up. Shipping to a nearby zip code is trivial, well worth the value of the time, fuel, and depreciation it replaces, and generates a micro-Christmas when the parcel arrives.

Being behind on basic tasks is demoralizing. I work fastest on visual cues and automatically scan a room when I enter it. Visual order assures me that I’m not overlooking something important. Outsourcing services like shipping and the shopping and kitchen preps that are embedded in meal mixes is part of keeping the place running clean and fast. Other virtual housekeeping assets are mail order, standardized furnishings, HEPA filtration, all-purpose biodegradable detergent, the pocket-sized folding multi-tool that transforms maintenance times from hours to seconds, automated small appliances like the rice cooker and electronic pressure cooker, pocket tissues, disposable wipers saturated with various cleaning agents, disposable nitrile gloves, and liquid hand soap (I use bio-correct dish liquid).

Few elements of DIY are cost-effective for the life I’m living now, even though the household began as an urban homestead. Efficient shop skills require constant practice. Storing tools costs precious cubic inches and even more precious nanoseconds of attention and maintenance. I never expected daily life in the Seattle of eating clams off the beach, burning mill waste to stay warm, and picking local blackberries every August to reflect the compact, fast-paced domesticity of a world city. Here we are, though, and a traveller tells me that the local baguette is better than Paris.

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