Friday, February 27, 2015

Virtual Housekeeping

HP garage photo courtesy Flickr user bragadocchio
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 feminists claimed home activity as their separate enterprise, a productive move that later deteriorated into a service ghetto. In the early Eighties, 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 in shells as late as the Seventies.

Frederick Taylor’s turn of the twentieth century system of industrial efficiency was adapted domestically 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. 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.

I 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.

One rule of thumb I stumbled across is not to do anything a machine can do. Machines displace management hassles and the security concerns of having spare hands at home. There’s a difference between maintaining machines onesself 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 are force multipliers (see Wikipedia).

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 stickers 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 a week’s worth of 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 impolitely]. 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 and well worth the value of the time, fuel, and depreciation it replaces. Doing so 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 turnaround times from hours (or years) to seconds, automated small appliances like the rice cooker and electronic pressure cooker, pocket tissues, disposable nitrile gloves, and liquid hand soap.

Few elements of DIY are cost-effective for the life I’m living now, even though my place 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.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Shelf Velocity

Photo courtesy Flickr user JenGallardo
The larger the refrigerator that sits in the kitchen, the staler the food I set on the table. Individual circumstances will define the size of the appliance and the frequency of runs for procurement, but shoot for using fresh food and leftovers, if any, nearly instanter. Fresh, simple, and straightforward preps produce healthful, inexpensive meals that are easy to come by and fast to prepare.

I recommend setting up with an electronically controlled pressure cooker and a compost border planted with allium tops, greens, and flat-leaved parsley. Back them up with a modest collection of pantry stores and deli staples like good oil, hard cheese, and salami.

Mid-and early twentieth century American cookbooks contain early chapters on “brunch, lunch, and supper dishes” and “hors d’oeuvres” that are dictionaries of the leftover. Before electricity, eating fresh and cooked foods before they spoiled was a critical element of the economy of the kitchen. The USDA’s “Still Tasty” web site lists best practice.

In my neighborhood, it’s convenient to dash out for supplemental ingredients between one meal and another, so I can keep the inventory rolling to best advantage. “Tasty” is a relative term. To my palate, the sooner the better does justice to the lives and resources that mean having a meal on the table.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Packets Of Snarls

Photo courtesy Flickr user eugmeid
For me, managing inventory starts with clearing a room and setting up the big furnishings. Storage comes next. The toughest stuff to wrangle comes last: little things that live in drawers, transit cases, or the dreaded paper files. Getting the smallest storage spaces to flow as efficiently as a principal room keeps the household running hot and clean. 

It is useful to ask myself what is the worst thing that can happen if I-whatever-shred a paper record, de-access an heirloom energy sump, or find a new home for one of the all too many artifacts that are too valuable to throw away but not worth the bother of selling. Over the years, I’ve raised the upper limit of the estimated risk in dollars and time of editing inventory, and I have yet to regret a decision.

Careful organization keeps the household resilient in the face of natural and health catastrophes. In the face of more welcome disruptions, like incoming visitors, careful organization lets me focus on the fun.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Primary Source

Antique Irish crochet photo courtesy Flickr user Penelope Neil
Last Friday, Scott Schuman posted an image of an Italian cafe’s silver breakfast tray. It appears to be the model for the commercial baker’s chilly aluminum version. On it is set what is called a “centrino”, or doily.

A doily is an absorbent, non-skid draining layer that supports food service. The paper one I set under a Christmas tray a couple of years ago earned me a bitch nip from the endearing young Turk I was serving. A paper doily is inarguably tacky. As I recall, it is named after Richard D’Oyly Carte, who invented the stamped paper version of higher-maintenance lace. I have run across many genuine doilies over the years, some of them heartbreakingly elegant. Now that I know enough to call them centrinos, I might give them a little more attention. A quick surf reveals shockingly inexpensive cotton work. Crochet has never quite been my thing, but it is genuine handmade lace. That puts it on the right side of the tracks. The on-line cheapos would probably have a lower cost per use than the soggy paper lace I scrape off a platter now and then.

A perfect world crochets from finer thread. I’d give bookbinder’s linen a shot. In my world, baker’s silicon mats cover the breakfast trays.


More after the jump.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fish Arrange Furniture

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tomas.Quinones
I should have know that from watching guppies, but I failed to make the connection. The in-house field scientist is feeding me enthusiastic updates about the restoration of the Elwha river salmon runs. The dam that nearly extinguished the resident kings and starved Ediz Hook is slowly being removed. Scholars of fish, presumably wearing neoprene in lieu of tweedy jackets, have studied the redds, salmons’ spawning grounds. New sensing technologies reveal a previously unknown scope of the fishes’ efforts. 

I spent many youthful hours gazing at a trophy Elwha king set over a rustic mantel built of beach rocks. The fish was the size and shape of a large flat slab of alder firewood with fins and had weighed in at fifty pounds. That’s $2,150 2015 dollars. The river produced the largest fish of all and is ninety highway minutes from Seattle.

Apparently the fish are able to move boulders as large as a person’s head by using the river’s current as a force multiplier. I have long wished to see a domestic Olympics. My personal best for unassisted furniture arranging was to wrangle a twin-sized steel bedspring down two flights of stairs with no cosmetic damage. The secret is to set a small expendable rug under the thing. I’d enjoy viewing security camera footage of the classic park/offload children/enter the store/reload the car and exit event that requires so much skill and strength. Perhaps formal competition would do for the process what professional sports have done for knee and shoulder medicine.

More after the jump.