Like Clockwork

Don’t you love it when things go smoothly? Even when the means are antiquated—say, when the person involved is kind of, no, extremely low tech—it’s rewarding when the plot in hand goes just as planned, or even better. Clearly, this is somewhat rare, or it wouldn’t be a big deal; nothing about ticking along at speed without a hitch would be memorable.
Digital montage from photos: Mighty Machines

But it is. And we do have technology, however old-school, to thank much of the time. I’m no expert, but I am thankful to have so many handy props for getting the job done, and I hold in reverence the invention and creativity that make my life easier and more pleasant even when I don’t know the cogs are turning behind the scenes to make it all possible.

For Starters, I’ll Fix a Couple of Things

Yeah, one is The List—tonight I’m starting to write down/compile the broad generalizations and a few specifics of what I plan to do in the way of self-betterment during this school year, whilst continuing in my role of Chief of Support Staff and Household Administration chez Sparks. I’m looking to make my schedule, and especially my partner’s, as easefully manageable as I can, without feeling like there’s no room for spontaneity or getting through-and-around the surprises that life promises to bring. That’s the first scheduled item, really, making a schedule. How’s that for an awe-inspiring bit of tautological joy!

Meanwhile, the daylight hours have seemed better spent on home-maintenance and daily prep tasks than the dangerously hunched position I’m trying to avoid by slouching too long over the computer most days. While it’s a fairly natural consequence of being a daily blogger, the wholly sedentary life is not conducive to great health in the long term, let alone to the satisfied sleepiness one ought to feel at the end of a reasonably active day. So that’s part of the plan, too; I want to be sure I don’t procrastinate about getting useful stuff done around the ol’ palace here until it requires professional intervention at great expense, and doing it myself a tad sooner will get me out of my chair more often.

It’s obvious that I’m neither an abstemious sort nor averse to acquiring, using, admiring, and otherwise indulging in Things & Stuff, or stuff and nonsense, if you will, but I’m also not wholly against being frugal and economical in a few ways. First among them is to look for opportunities to improve, repurpose, upgrade, and use to the last atom those things I have that aren’t of particular aesthetic or sentimental nature.

Things in that vein? Shoes. Yes, I have an admittedly stereotypical tendency to swoon and squeal over all kinds of fabulous shoes, but for the most part, I limit my actual acquisition of them to ones that are reasonably comfortable for walking, resistant to the kinds of weather in which they’re worn, and not horrendously expensive for the amount of mileage I can get from them. But when I find those great shoes that fulfill and surpass my requirements to the degree that they become favorites, I will treat them with great gentleness and give them spa treatment days at the local cobbler’s shop, spending as much again over their lifetimes as two more pair of shoes might cost.

Photo: Once, my shoes were like this.

Photo of Lifestride ‘Hart’ shoe, courtesy of eBay.com.**

When I travel, despite my being a veteran planner-organizer-logistics manager, and not too bad with those skills, I still over-pack and under-plan; this summer, every time we got on a plane I knew I would find a day or three ahead for which I had not brought precisely what I wished I had. The temperatures and the weather were consistently different, on this summer’s trips, than what was predicted, so I was often a little warmer or colder than expected, and my shoes not quite what the weather demanded. Our Halifax visit was downright hot for some of the time, and warm for most, but our one day of real exploration on the coast was very blustery and rainy. I still had my old flat Mary Janes** along, and the support was still quite serviceable, but the straps were shot and the rough terrain we were visiting promised to yank them right off my feet. Thankfully, I’d discovered that the best air-travel substitute for an alarm-ringing belt was a wide band of hook-and-loop tape, so I tore my “belt” in half  and used the shorter pieces to wrap my shoes around the instep and secure them. Added traction, into the bargain. The end of the useful life of the shoes in their original state, but it did the trick.

Photo: Velcro Magic

Looks goofy, but it works, in a pinch.

Most of the fix-it stuff around home is far more mundane, of course. Lots of dish washing today (by hand and by machine), some  house cleaning and tidying, a bunch of online and phone and postal transactions, and the fixing of a thing or two that’s gone a shade too long unfixed. Occasionally, it’s even time to haul out my hand tools, but anything heavy-duty gets handed over to the pros nowadays. Today’s busyness included repairing a minor bit of mess that required an uncommon set of those tools:

Photo: One of These Things is Not Like the Others...

Sing it with me now: “One of These Things is Not Like the Others…” What do pliers, screw anchors, screwdrivers, a hammer, and poultry shears have in common?

Our bedroom drapes were hanging strangely. Not sure why it took me quite so long to figure out that the right side of the curtain rod had lost its moorings; the screws securing the bracket on that end had pulled right out of the wall and were hanging there, looking rather forlorn, and doing pretty nearly nothing to keep the drapes from falling on the floor. When I went to move the bracket farther along, I was quickly reminded that the header behind the wallboard prevented any kind of useful anchors from sinking all the way through in the way that would successfully grip the drywall and help keep the bracket in place longer. So I got out the strongest bypass cutters I had, which happened to be my poultry shears, and lopped the plastic anchors down to half their length. A little harder to start in the drywall, yes, but they fit snugly against the hidden header and were sunk far enough in to grip both the wall and the screws’ full length. Funny, how much better the drapes hang when they’re properly supported. Oops. But that’s how home maintenance goes. Dribs and drabs, bits and bobs.Photo: Fix That Curtain Rod, Dang It!

Then, sleep, and on to the next day’s tasks. At least our bedroom curtains close properly again! So—well, good night, then. We shall see what tomorrow brings.

All Features Great and Small

Homemaking and decorating, housekeeping and DIY, major construction and minor tweaks: these are the things that turn a building into a true home. It might be as humble as a tiny apartment in a crowded part of town or an expansive villa, or even a palace or a tent, for all of that, but until it is arranged the way that makes the residents feel safe and comfortable enough to want to retreat there from the wider world, it’s just a space, and once it has been nested in the way that makes the residents feel not only that comfort and safety but also a sense of identity within it, it’s genuinely Home, and will remain so whether anyone moves away from it or not.

I’ve said before that I feel amazed and fortunate beyond words to have lived in regions, cities, neighborhoods, and especially Homes that embraced me in those ways over my whole life thus far, and where I have always been allowed or encouraged to express my own wishes and ideas to help me fit into them as well. And that is an incredible gift. But you also know that I can never resist personalizing “my” spaces, improving them where I can, and being extra-happy if I can do that on the cheap.

Photo: Garage Tidying

A clean, functional garage doesn’t have to look like a magazine cover, glamorous and pristine enough to lick, but when even the empty boxes (that whole left corner, plus everything behind the removed and stored interior doors on the right, for example) are in order and clean-ish, it makes all of my daily life a bit better.

Keeping a moderately clean and tidy house is the easiest way to accomplish that sort of thing, in my view. Relative wealth or poverty has less to do with how comfortable and beckoning a place is, for me, than whether anyone takes care of it, takes comfort and even some pride in it. Occasional massive cleanups of my garage (when I have one) so that I can not only park any vehicles I own in it, not just in the same neighborhood, but store what I don’t want in the house of my tools and supplies and even find them when I need them, that helps to make the place home.

For a small example, I need go no further than the kitchen and a look at an object I’ve been using about once a week for many years: my slow cooker. The first I had is long gone, but this model has been around for nearing two decades, I guess. It’s not the newest or fanciest model, but it still looks fairly decent, at least when I give it a major scrubbing, and it still works with impressive reliability. Unlike my creaky old oven, this little appliance is so dependable that I can confidently leave it on the low setting for a couple of days at a time, only checking to be sure that it sits where if it did sputter or overheat it has nothing overhead to damage and my big enameled-steel broiler pan underneath to catch any small volcanoes. Neither of which has ever happened, but still. The heavy crock insert is still, astoundingly, un-chipped and good-looking in its black glazed ruggedly handsome way, enough so I can haul it to the table without transfer to a different serving dish.

The one part that finally died this last year is so small that I was loath to replace the whole rigmarole for want of “a nail”—but I wasn’t about to spend huge amounts of my time hunting for such a little replacement part, for a probably obsolete model anyway, so on the day that the former lid handle literally dropped off in my hand, the hardware corroded through after years of various kinds of steam attacking it, I made a quick-fix with a wooden spoon and a piece of string. Better than scalding my hands while my soup stock was evaporating into thin air. But of course, that wasn’t going to last. When I finally did get time to go through my hardware, the obvious solution was stainless steel with rubber gaskets: stainless, to avoid the previous corrosion problems for as long as possible, and rubber, because the lid itself is glass and the steel, especially bolted under pressure, would put it at high risk of shattering. Like a similar glass pot lid had done the very first time I used a very expensive pot. Insert angry-face here.

Photo montage: Stainless Steel & Rubber

Hardware-store replacement for a pot handle: not just a little life-hack but a useful reminder not to overcomplicate things.

The little fix, though hardly an aesthetic thrill, seems to do the trick perfectly well, so as long as the electrical innards of the cooker hold up, there will be broth and sauces to fill my homely home with slow-cooking perfumes and our bellies with well-integrated nutrients.

A bigger problem in our household was that while we had lived for so many years near family members with bigger houses and the visiting relatives and friends had always stayed in those places, whether with us or without, once we moved across the country it was clearly time to return the favor and see that there would be welcoming space for overnight guests chez nous. The space itself was easy to finagle, both in our rented house of the first year here and the place we’ve now owned for five years, but putting in a comfortable and versatile bed for the intermittent users without breaking the bank was another issue entirely. We had our old slatted bed frame, nothing fancy but perfectly adequate (once I did some serious shoring-up of the flimsy joinery that had suffered a bit over the years of use and house-moving), but mattresses are so expensive!

For a while, I used an air mattress on the platform of the bed, because those are, after all, much cheaper and generally better made than those with which I’d grown up, and the slats are designed to be used without box springs. But after the night when Mom and Dad Sparks had slept (very little) on a mighty ridiculous slope because one end of the mattress had sprung a slow leak, it was definitely time to find a better solution there, too. Turns out, I did. I made a Bed Sandwich. Or a sandwich bed. Whatever it is, we’ve had a number of guests offer to move in with us. Or pack up the bed and haul it home with them.

It’s a hodgepodge of a bed and looks decidedly lopsided and goofy. The Princess who was so sensitive she could detect that irksome Pea under a mass of mattresses would undoubtedly turn up her royal nose at the very idea of reclining upon such an odd-looking conglomerate bed. But our visitors, from those of a certain vintage with replacement body parts and dodgy spines to youngsters who do daily yoga and could go ziplining in their sleep, seem to love how it feels so much that they feel at home in our guest room, and that is my idea of a good DIY project. I’ll bet even the Princess would be willing to give the bed a try, if persuaded by those reviews.

Photo montage: Bed Sandwich

From slatted bed frame, through a series of offbeat layers, to a humble-looking bed that guests don’t want to leave, the Bed Sandwich is one of my most successful homemaking DIYs thus far.

What’s the secret? Nothing fancy. Layers. The bottom layer is, literally, pieced together hunks of 6″ thick foam rubber, old camping mats, that I’ve had for years, assembled into a queen-sized mattress shape and held together with old cotton bedsheets, several layers of them to be sure none of the foam rubber falls or is squeezed out. The middle layer is the one that cost real money, back in the day: when we bought our master bedroom mattress, a very expensive and entirely-worth-it natural latex behemoth, we’d invested in a mattress topper, three inches of natural wool encased in a beautifully hand-stitched natural cotton cover, that was cushy and comfortable, but as it turned out, also a little less smooth and level than I typically like. I bought a memory foam topper for our bed and put the cotton-and-wool one on the guest bed. On top of that, I decided to put a memory foam topper as well, and it works both for additional padding and to smooth out the middle layer’s wavy surface further. Evidently it works. The bottom foam rubber layer, together with the slatted platform of the bed, is firm enough to support those who prefer or need a firm mattress, and the middle and top layers of padding seem mighty popular with both firm-mattress fans and those who just want the bed to give them a big hug all night long.

I am more content both because our guests seem to sleep very well, and I sleep better knowing that they do, especially since I have my sweetheart handy to give me a big hug all night long. Did I mention that as another thing that really turns a domicile into a home?

There was a Time…

For everything in life, there might indeed be a season. When it comes to the normal and quite predictable shift in relative values or availability, of course, I’m as skilled as the next person in forgetting to renew, rearrange, or simply release that which is no longer fulfilling. It might be an object of utility or beauty I’ve treasured and utilized until it was worn or a new and better one supplanted it. It could be a handed-down family treasure whose receipt over the years went from being an honor to onerous. It is even, occasionally, a relationship with a person that was exactly the right thing at the right time but has either shifted as our personalities and needs grew apart or has been taken from me by death or distance. The question, after any of these, becomes how and when I am able to distance my own self from them without fear of losing what was wonderful in having had them.

I worried about this each time I moved from one home to another, despite knowing it was impractical to take every single thing I owned with me to my next locale every single time, and with no surety about what would fit the new place or how I lived in it. When my husbandly person and I decided to downsize some years ago from a house to an apartment and simplify a little by getting rid of lots of what was essentially unused stuff, even though we’d both collected and enjoyed much of it happily over the years, this question arose yet again. I’ve not once regretted the off-loading of so much, even many family heirlooms, in that process. As we sorted and packed it off to new lives/homes, I decided to photograph not only the house and garden as they were but also all of the best-loved Things, thinking that if I could look at the photos when I got wistful and nostalgic later I would be comforted by the stroll down memory lane.

In the end, I almost never even looked at the photos afterward; just knowing that I could was enough, and made it quite easy, really. The very process of ‘documenting’ the stuff helped me remember it and my feelings about it even better than having it still in hand. In practice, I found that much of what I do keep around is easily forgotten simply because it’s not in constant use, so why have it at all? Somebody in need of such a thing will love it all the better, and I’ll feel more contented that the right person and the right object came together and I’m relieved of caring for something I too rarely appreciate. Out of sight, out of mind, and better out of sight in someone else’s appreciative hands than in the back of some cobwebbed cupboard.Photo montage: Stuff & Things

Through the Cracks

Photo: Gears GrindingI wrote this post a few days back, but stuff like this happens with great frequency in this day and age, I think you’ll agree.

How is it that, in this era of hyper-communication, so little information gets transmitted to the right person at the right time? I’m sitting in the doctor’s waiting room contemplating this, not sure if I’ll get in for a simple annual eye exam that’s a couple of years overdue, because last time I came in this doctor’s office, had supposedly been sent the required referral but it wasn’t in my file. Today, same story. I confirmed my appointment with a person in this office, who assured me that the referral had arrived, over a month ago—yet now it’s “not in my file.”

I got here immediately after listening to my spouse go through an incredibly convoluted and tedious rigamarole on the speaker phone to pay a bill for an account that had long been operating smoothly with automatic payments on the exact same credit card, only to learn that the bank that issued the card (despite owing us on its account at this moment) had refused payment on it. All of the numbers and dates were correct and no reason given for the refusal. So my patient partner had to re-register the very same card for the very same auto-pay system, and because there’s a 30-day wait for such registrations to be confirmed, he also had to make the present payment individually. Even the poor billing department employee walking him through the transaction was so confused by and even embarrassed at the silliness of the mess and how many long pauses on hold it took to unravel it all that he kept trying to make small talk to pass the time before it was resolved.

Meanwhile, at various other points in my quotidian wanderings, I frequently watch bosses make decrees that they would know were impossible to enact or enforce if they only asked the underlings who are expected to perform them. I regularly see parents and children, housemates, siblings, spouses, and others talk at cross (sometimes very cross indeed) purposes, all the while with the deeply held belief that they are offering great wisdom and well-planned solutions, yet never quite hearing each other or considering that the person with whom they should be conversing may have already solved the problem in hand. And I have watched employee-representative committees without number at work when they have neither consulted the employees they supposedly represent for their input, nor told them what is being negotiated, how, why, or with whom.

Anybody else feel like you’re sitting right outside the Cone of Silence from Science Fiction Theater? It’s as though I can see gears turning and mouths moving and messages of obvious importance flying back and forth, but can’t see the text of the communiques, let alone read lips or minds.

I sit and wait. I get agitated and then frustrated. I get so irked and itchy that I have to hunt for clues and try to set things on what I hope will be a clearer and better path. And just when I think I’m getting my pulse back down to a practical pace, the documentation I sent out at yet another company’s request six weeks ago magically disappears into the ether, presumably now sandwiched between the pages of somebody else’s documentation in the middle of their file. I’d ask the company to email or phone me when they locate my materials, but I’m pretty sure that if the message to do so doesn’t also disappear in the meantime, he who took the message will have retired by then and the new guy won’t know what was requested and will pass on the request to yet another trainee, who will in turn bury it in another wrong file for later discovery by a random office cleaner. I’d promise to let you all know how it turns out, but I’ll probably forget, anyhow.

At least I can tell you that after one more phone call today, my doctor’s office did agree to fax the ophthalmologist a repeat of my appointment referral, so I got to visit the eye doctor after all and get my eyeglass prescription updated. Until I get those new lenses, though, I can’t be certain I’ll be able to keep an eye on the prescription slip. So disappears another useful piece of data, drifting through the cracks of the information highway.Photo: Geared Up

Sailing Ahead, Wherever That May Be

The only time I’ve ever been on a sailboat was to sleep. There’s a great Tall Ship converted into a youth hostel in Stockholm where my sister and I bunked for a couple of nights on our college gallivant across western Europe. [Which hostel appears to have been recently renovated, and very nicely, if any of you should be interested.] While there may have been the faintest of motion rocking us to sleep in our on-board berths, I doubt it replicated very accurately the sensation of actual sailing. My next opportunity was during graduate school when I got a fan letter (one of the very few in my life, as you can imagine!) from a stranger who’d liked a gallery art installation I made so much that he offered to take me out sailing to the nearby islands. I don’t think there was anything predatory about him, but besides my still having a grandiose case of social anxiety in those days, there is the fact that the art show in question was entirely a walk-through, life-sized illustration of an espionage thriller; while I am doubtful that was his inspiration, I didn’t take him up on the offer.
Photo: Adrift on the High Seas

But whenever I see a sailboat, I do think it’s a beautiful representation of a genteel form of freedom that captivates my imagination all the same. Yes, I know plenty of tales of grueling trials on the high seas, no matter the size of the craft; even some of my close friends and relatives have such stories to tell, thankfully, having survived them. And I know, too, the old joke about testing one’s real interest in boat ownership by dressing up in a rain slicker and standing under an ice-cold shower for a couple of hours while flushing hundred-dollar bills down the toilet. But I also know that a vast number of people who could jolly well choose to spend their money and time on less demanding, safer, and far less expensive pastimes still choose boating. There’s clearly a strong pull to counterbalance any such negatives.

I, too, have spent some happy times on boats, just not sailboats. As a coastal kid, after all, I grew up thinking time spent on the ferries was as much pleasure and sightseeing as it was commuting or transport. I have been fairly miserable on a North Sea ferry in stormy seas while I was recovering from the stomach flu, but it did not so permanently scar either my psyche or my stomach lining that I didn’t look forward to the next time I got to be on a slow boat cruising along the shore, or perhaps best of all, in a rowboat or canoe, dipping the oars or paddle in with the rhythmic soft splashing that accompanies my reveries.
Photo: All Ashore

Living far from any natural body of water as I do these days, I am beached like an old craft whose hull is no longer seaworthy. But like those old boats I see, dry-docked on the beach or alongside the tumbledown barn or in a weedy field, I keep in my soul a firm and loving memory of every good time spent with the waves rocking me softly from below, telling me stories of their own and inviting me forward, ever forward, wherever that might take me.

Dirty Jobs, but Never Done Dirt Cheap

The world is truly full of overlooked and underpaid laborers.
Photo: Housekeeping Cart

This is a story as old as human community, and yet it’s notable how little it’s changed. The ugliest, dirtiest, the most physically demanding and unpleasant tasks, the ones that no one in his or her right mind would usually choose to do, let alone without any recognition or reasonable pay, these jobs don’t cease to exist because nobody likes them. They simply get done by people who have no other choice. And do we thank them for it? Do we give them public honor and paychecks commensurate with the knowledge and patience and back-breaking effort and yes, specialized skills that are required of them?

You know the answer. In this country, we spend more time and energy on vilifying the working poor as nuisances and a weight around the necks of their higher-taxpaying richer neighbors, at best. At worst, we accuse them of criminality, many of coming into the country illegally—which they may well have done—to snatch bread from the very lips of our own better educated and better protected children through their stealing jobs from the local citizenry. Which, of course, they rarely do, considering that neither we nor said children are willing and able to do without the jobs that the working poor do for us, let alone perform those tasks ourselves. Never mind that those we abhor for daring to come across the nation’s borders unseen are doing precisely what the vast majority of our own ancestors did, and out of the same desperation for survival, but now with the additional barrier of laws designed more out of fear and hatred than out of specific plans to better the safety and welfare of any of the parties involved.

If immigrants could remotely afford the risky business of taking a national day of “working poor flu,” the way that unionized workers go on strike or recognized organizations march in protest, just imagine what that day would look like across the United States. I don’t begin to think that there’s an easy solution to the problems of regulating this country, protecting individuals and the nation from the very real danger of criminal activity and the bane of individualism gone rogue. The latter being, in my opinion, a far larger risk to the rest of us from among native-born citizens who take their American privileges as the right to do as they please, even by force and against US governmental “interference” with their personal sovereignty. But I can’t believe that the draconian and targeted proposals many suggest these days are the right solution, either.

Let our internal renegades, our legal complainants against immigrants, and all foes of the “lazy” or “problematic” working poor themselves take up the labor and care required to ensure that every one of their fellow Americans has enough food to eat, education to navigate life and progress beyond restrictive ignorance, health care to prevent the spread of diseases and unnecessary pain or early death, and a safe, clean place to sleep without fear of exposure to the elements, destruction of their environment, or unfriendly intruders. Then I might start thinking we can narrow the gates to allow in only primly approved new neighbors able to contribute equally to the cause. Or would anybody out there like to see what happens on that imagined Flu Day, when all of the orderlies, cooks, construction workers, landscape maintenance crews, sanitation workers, child- and elder-caregivers, and all of their fellow underpaid workers lay down their tools and lie down on the job for even 24 hours?

I surely don’t know the solution to any, let alone all, of the problems that roll up into this one massive puzzle we have sitting on our doorstep. But I know that I will try to do better at giving proper respect and thanks, and a hand up when possible, to anyone who does what I can’t or won’t do myself. My life depends upon it.