Friday, September 12, 2014

Garden Staff

Photo courtesy Flickr
Trying to recreate the atmosphere of untouched wilderness, I set a small Christmas Colorado spruce into the rotting stump of a good-sized hemlock. I knew that the extravagant root systems of rain forest trees derive from their origins in nurse logs, hemlocks that have fallen and decayed into volunteer planting beds for fallen cones.

I let the spruce fend for itself and simply subtracted invasive species from the nurse stump. The spruce slowly developed into an interesting three-foot tree. Apparently, local raccoons find the planting as interesting as I. Someone has been clawing at the stump, presumably in search of tasty grubs. Last week the spruce toppled and came to rest on its side at the foot of its original matrix. It looks as if the spruce’s root system is tenacious enough to keep it hydrated over winter. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it. If it survives, the branches will develop an interesting sequence of verticals. 

More after the jump.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Season's Greetings

From One World Trade Center-the new one. Photo  courtesy Daniel Salo

More after the jump.

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.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Parking Attendants

A East Bay friend chuckled about her lack of success in explaining to an indignant matron in a designer suit that the skate puppies in her BART parking lot secured her Mercedes from local car thieves.


More after the jump.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Stumbling Through Washday

Photo courtesy Flickr

Early on, I read cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s Up Front description of GIs washing everything including blankets in their helmets. The memory allowed me to stay relatively sanitary on extended hiking trips. 1970 was a watershed year for housekeeping, when baby boomers innocent of homesteading grandparents hit wilderness communes. Science major urban stoners’ willingness to deconstruct housekeeping systems produced an evolutionary burst of innovative techniques, some successful, some truly repugnant.

Living with an archaeologist makes it easy to experiment with the old food, clothing, and shelter routine. Name it, and I have probably tried it, laundry-wise. Susan Strasser’s superb Never Done history of American housekeeping lays out the details, starting with chopping down a tree to heat the water. Good Housekeeping magazine’s rare Twenties manual of procedure describes wrangling laundry maids, the economics of an electric washing machine, and the chemistry of soaps, or as they call them, reagents. The book describes a shelf of washday products that includes homemade soap jelly, vinegar, pre-chlorine bleach, and bluing. I hadn’t realized that a box of detergent is a convenience item, although a German housekeeper I knew in the early Fifties made her own soap from surplus kitchen fat.

An elder gave me her family copper wash boiler, aka salmon poacher, handing it over in the sunny June garden of the ancestral home as she gestured to the clothes line and explained how proud her mother had been of the wet clothing she hung out to dry. That’s a righteous pride not to be dismissed. Thirty-four years in a nineteenth century house whose laundry room consists of a vestigial shoulder-high basement chimney vent for a non-existent cast-iron stove designed to support a boiler have given me a free hand in seeking out the most elegant solution to bringing laundry technology up to speed.

I have little interest in or patience with conventional appliances. They’re irrelevant to the domestic circumstances I have chosen. My first house, a 1910 cottage, came with a glorious 1936 Speed Queen wringer washer, stainless steel tub and all. If this weren’t Seattle, I’d proudly have hung my laundry out like a line of flags. (see Cheryl Mendelsohn, “Home Comforts”). When we moved into this place, Speed Queen came with us and proved inconvenient to use. I improvised with the local laundromat until I stumbled across a 1960s Hoover twin-tub small space washer/centrifuge at “Reasonably Honest Dave’s” used appliance store. The Hoover kept the health department and utility bills at bay until I grew restless and replaced it with a portable automatic machine, the one that taught me major appliances are now engineered for specific lifetimes.

A second portable automatic proved as long-lived as the first, and I replaced it with a new featherweight twin-tub portable that tried my patience once too often. Discovering no-rinse detergent at my friendly local weaver’s supply inspired a return to the copper boiler, set on dairy crates in the tub, filled via a telephone shower hose, and complemented by an antique rubbing board I borrowed from the music room. Good system, economical, and quick to teach me that wringing clothes is the limiting factor in hand laundry. A German laundry centrifuge the size of a big wastebasket saved my finger joints and remains the back-up unit of choice.

Last week I copied a canny young friend and brought home a .9 pound mini-washer, also from Germany. It’s a honey that claims to use $23 worth of electricity a year. The machine seems to be engineered for apartments. It’s petite, very quiet, and perches on locking castors. I’ve had a chance to process several loads with the close attention that having a machine in the same room as desk and television affords. Since the cost of water is the same no matter how large the load, I can wash in real time and rediscover how fresh the house smells when there is not one stale garment or dishtowel under the roof. The centrifuge wrings the last two cups [!] of water out of a load. Things are drying in near minutes on the $25 Green Mountain Country Store hardwood folding rack I’ve been using for thirty years. The rack that inspired my purchase had been serving dozens of people for sixty years.

As with discarding the car, doing without a conventional washer taught me many alternative ways to get the job done. Having a small automatic and many of the alternative facilities promises to be the best of several worlds. I could replace the powder room sink with a laundry sink I just discovered at The Great Big Home Improvement Chain. The thing is clearly designed for hand laundry with a removable flat lid, built-in holder for a large bar of soap, and slanted rubbing board molded into the front of the unit. The price is trivial for a washing unit in an economy that has seen the cost of a freestanding low-tech double tub with wringer unit exceed that of a portable automatic.

More after the jump.