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**

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?

Hordes of Hoards

I just had some heartwarming reminders of how wealthy I am and how rich most of us are, without even thinking about it much of the time. First, there was this odd item I came across on a fashion/shopping site that startled me. “R13 Denim & Plaid Combo Vest.”

Saks Fifth Avenue Photo: R13 Denim & Plaid Combo Vest

Photo from Saks Fifth Avenue online: R13 Denim & Plaid Combo Vest.

Available at Saks Fifth Avenue for $695. Yes. Now, imagine this: one could buy a denim shirt + a plaid one at the local thrift store for a combined hundredth of the price (yes, it can still be done, with relatively little hunting), tear off the sleeves and lower portions of both, layer them together, and give the remaining $680+ to the poor, many of whom can’t afford a single one of the thrift store shirts. If a few people who wanted to buy the SFA garment did the latter instead of, or even in addition to, buying the Saks combo for themselves, what might the world look like then? Better dressed at more price points, I’ll wager. My personal taste would argue for not doing any of the ripping and faux-aging of clothes, as I live a life wherein my clothes get naturally beat up more than quickly enough for my taste, but that’s irrelevant to this train of thought.

Am I declaring Saks Fifth Avenue or people who shop there terrible? Certainly not. For one thing, I know plenty of people of moderate-to-massive wealth who are incredibly thoughtful and generous in their philanthropy, regardless of how they spend on themselves. Today I have been wearing a brand name denim dress, still in pristine condition, that I bought at one of the aforementioned thrift stores for $5 USD several years ago because someone well-to-do enough to own and no longer need it donated it while it was still in great shape for further use. Even major businesses, those often characterized as heartless, soulless, and solely dollar driven, can be usefully attentive to the needs of the larger world at times, and if they didn’t make those large amounts of money in the first place, how would they give away any such amounts of largesse?

Am I ranting against materialism because I despise wealth or hate acquisitive people? Far from it. If you’ve been around this blog for more than two minutes, you know I’m a highly dedicated magpie myself, loving Things and Stuff, and sometimes, the shinier and more pointlessly beautiful the better. Nature herself is great at promoting such things, and if you can open your eyes and mind to the view, even the urban ‘wasteland’ or the middle of a massive landfill can offer amazing perspectives on color, texture, pattern, and any number of other sensory attractions that comprise what a person might perceive as beautiful and even useful. But why should it all be consigned to the landfill, then, or just as sadly, to hidden stashes and caches of forgotten junk in our homes and offices and storage spaces? One person’s trash, as it’s said….

On top of the commercial reminder I fell upon today, my friend Switters recently put up a couple of fantastic posts about dealing with the aftermath of getting, keeping, and trying to part with large quantities of the Stuff of life, and I was moved to revisit my own experiences of that process. His commenter Jenny’s recommendations are outstanding. I’ve done most of what she suggests myself, and with great success. Somewhere along the line I imagine I’ve posted about it here, too, but it’s never an outdated topic among us rich folk, we who have anything more than barely enough. And I have learned—most importantly, for me—that decluttering and reviewing my belongings and responsibilities is an ongoing process. I’ll never stop needing to ‘rinse and repeat‘ periodically so that the big buildup never gets overwhelming for me. My original successful foray into the practice has made every subsequent one that much easier and more desirable.

I did learn from my mother and other influential family members and friends that no matter how high the sentimental value of a Thing, it’s increased rather than diminished by use. If Mom had kept her best china and silver like untouchable trophies for Special Occasions only, I’d have been terrified of using them, and I would have missed out on innumerable events that gave them additional mnemonic value through my own experiences. So what if a plate gets chipped or a sterling spoon gets bent? That in itself may add story, character, and relevance to the object. Otherwise, it’s just taking up physical and psychic space while waiting for Specialness that might never happen. So the Venetian wine decanter here holds mouthwash right now, because it comes off of the shelf where I forget it that it even exists to occupy the bathroom counter where, if I’m honest, it’ll get seen and enjoyed much more: every morning and evening at the least.

Photo: Venetian Mouthwash Decanter

The great Venetian Mouthwash Decanter!

Being a highly visual person, while decluttering I’ve clung particularly to the strategy of documentation-before-disposition and photographed—digitally only, to avoid adding photos to the Stuff already requiring management (talk about Unintended Consequences!)—every little thing in great detail, preferably ‘in situ‘ or as I remembered loving or using it most, before parting with it. What I discovered: out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of things I’ve given away or sold or discarded in the years since my first great household purge, I can think of literally two or three that I’ve ever subsequently missed, let alone replaced. The latter, upgraded, of course. I can barely remember any times I’ve even actually looked at those memory-jogging photos. Knowing that they’re available should I become wistful is enough. For a sentimental softie like me, that was a shocker. Definitely a lesson well worth learning.

A peripheral item that turned out to be helpful to me is my recollection of what meant a great deal to me in years past: my grandmothers were both dedicated to the idea that anything they wanted us grandkids to treasure, they gave us when they were still around to tell us the stories and help us appreciate the context, so that there was a much greater chance we’d invest equivalent interest in their beloved belongings. I don’t even still own all of those items; much as I appreciated the gifts, it was the interaction that gave them the most meaning, and so the memories are the most significant part of the package. Any of those things that were part of that kind of transaction I in turn passed along to treasured people—niece, nephews, beloved friends, neighbors, and former students who became family—with the same story attached, and my own layer of the experience added on. The delight with which these are received is the center of the gift, and makes it irrelevant if they are, in turn, passed on to yet other dear ones, because the items become connectors of history and community that far surpass the inherent value of any of the objects.

That was the bottom line, for me. The realization that what I have loved most in any object is its emotional content and its connection to important people and events in my life makes the keeping of the objects less necessary than the honoring of the love they’ve contained. I will continue to buy, accept, and bear the caretaker burdens of Things. But I think it’s safe to say that the collection will continue to be more sharply curated, limited, and specialized with the passing of time and changes in my values and occupations, too. I have found that some of the beauty in objects arises from their not having cost much or taken a lot of care over the years. I love having my drawing and writing tools organized and readily available, but I don’t much care to store them in lead crystal vases and leather-bound boxes. A clean soup tin does very nicely. And in a pleasing nod to magpie-ism, tin cans are shiny. For the double win.

Photo: Shiny Objects Holding Other Objects

Shiny objects holding other objects. Bonus points.

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

Because I Can

Photo: Homemade ToothpasteEverybody does certain things for no particular reason—sometimes to show off just a little, sometimes to test our limits a bit, and sometimes for the Everest-scaling excuse “Because it’s there.” Some of the things we do with the latter brand of casual offhandedness might, of course, be far better thought through, given that the utterer of that famous phrase died on the mountain and his body wasn’t even found until about 75 years later. But I’ll grant you that sometimes, too, a seemingly aimless act can lead to more useful ends.

As a person seriously devoted to both comfort and safety, I am more than content to leave any because-I-can acts of physical or psychological derring-do to anyone who wishes to live on the edge. I like my secure and restful life, thankyouverymuch, most especially the life part of it. But I’m willing, on occasion, to do small and non-dangerous experiments, if they seem to offer any interesting byproducts of use or entertainment.

Like making home-mixed shampoo, skin lotion, and toothpaste.

Sorry, if you were hoping for something really exciting! My inner life of fantasy has all of the elements of danger that I have the slightest interest in experiencing. But my day-to-day life and its practical requirements offer plenty of areas for potential improvement. If I can make my chores simpler, my needs smaller, the products I use slightly less expensive or toxic or complicated, and any other kinds of fixes that seem likely to make daily living pleasanter in any way, I’m generally glad to make the attempt at some point.

I don’t like most perfumed products. Nature gives me lots of wonderful smelling stuff to enjoy without my wanting to complicate those scents with artificial add-ons, so I’m more likely to buy an unscented, hypoallergenic version of any product if I can, and just enjoy the benefits of some of my favorite real-life ‘byproduct perfumes’: coffee brewing, freshly cut alfalfa hay, wet sidewalks after a long-awaited rain, a sleepy baby’s milky breath, sun-heated cedars and Douglas-fir trees, yeasty cardamom bread coming out of the oven. Flowers bursting into bloom in the garden. Salt spray at the shore. Spiced cider steeping on a cold night. Maybe it’s because I just recovered from a two-week cold, saw my poor spouse go through his own afterward, and woke up stuffy-headed again this morning, but the idea of all of those very lovely perfumes is the more alluring without thinking of their being masked by any artificial ones.

Then again, not only do I like to be clean both in my home and my person, there are some scents that do enhance my sense of cleanliness and good health in their ways, so I am not averse to adding those that I like, in the quantities I find appealing, to home-brewed stuff of personal- and home-care when I do make them.

My shampoo is almost always the all-purpose blend of a very plain liquid hand soap like Ivory (one could also use a similarly simple, if slightly more expensive, liquid Castile soap like Dr. Bronner’s) with nothing more complicated than tea tree and peppermint oils added in for their refreshing and slightly antimicrobial/antiviral qualities. The plain, oil-free soap is good for nearly any sort of (personal or house) cleaning that doesn’t require scrubbing, and with the oils it’s sufficient for my showering or bathing and hair care, no creme rinse needed. I don’t invest in any special skin treatments beyond the same home-mixed blend of skin moisturizer I’ve used on my face since my eccentric old dermatologist gave me his “recipe” of one part oil-free, hypoallergenic skin cleansing lotion + 1 part oil-free, hypoallergenic skin moisturizer + 1-2 parts water to use daily about 35 years ago. I have far better skin now than I did back then, so I guess it still works just fine.

The toothpaste-making is a work in progress, but I’m generally happy with that little science project as well. I have excellent teeth to begin with, so I wouldn’t recommend everyone jumping into fiddling with homemade toothpaste without consulting your dentist first, but these are also pretty standard toothpaste ingredients, so I’m not especially fearful of ruining my pretty white choppers. The blend at the moment is 1 cup baking soda (very mildly abrasive, and has some ability to remove or lessen stains and freshen breath—not, mind you, baking powder, unless you’re intending to bake your teeth into some sort of snack food) +1 cup coconut oil (melted for blending) + 1/2 cup powdered xylitol (the sugar alcohol sweetener, currently thought to be a cavity-fighter when used in moderation) + 2-3 Tbsp peppermint extract (flavor and breath freshening) + 2 drops blue food coloring. The latter is primarily to remind me that it’s toothpaste, since it’s just stored in a 2-cup jar in the medicine cabinet at the moment and I am, after all, occasionally forgetful. I might try the addition of a little Bentonite clay for better light abrasion, but didn’t have any on hand.

Let me just add that this little project is not my attempt to avoid fluoride. You are all free to choose to use it or not, but I am delighted that my first dentist happened to be among the first adopters of dental fluoridation and my home water district among the first adopters of fluoridated water. I have as near to perfect teeth as any 50-something I know, along with my three siblings, and our parents had typical earlier-generation rates of cavities and other dental problems; my dentists since then have agreed that early and consistent application of fluoride is very probably a significant contributing factor in this one-generation upgrade on general oral health. I don’t doubt that there are potential problems with overexposure or tradeoffs in other areas of health and well-being, and yet I wouldn’t trade any of those for a set of strong, healthy teeth with no caps, fillings, or other major interventions having been necessary, never mind growing up without fear of dentists and their tools. That’s my story. But I’m dubious that the occasional batch of homemade toothpaste without fluoride, at this point in my life, is going to threaten my dental magnificence. If my dentist tells me otherwise, I’ll switch back without a fuss. I’d hardly risk my teeth any more than I would life and limb for a little experiment.

I’m not, after all, that much of an adventurer.Photo: DIY Dentifrice

Things to Remember

Apparently I am sucked into the Throwback Thursday vortex, for amid my housework wanderings I stumbled across some dish-drying towels that brought a flood of memories over me. The first thing that came to mind was curiosity about whether there are many others who grew up using tea-towels like these made of flour sacking material and hand-embroidered, often with a small posy or aphorism in the corner, and usually by Mom or some older relative, at least until we ourselves were conscripted for the task.

My mother enjoyed embroidery as a relaxation mode as well as art form, and the last batch of dish towels that I know of her having made were a series of line drawings of local native flora, based (with the author’s permission) on a book of lovely little watercolors of the same plants and flowers. I chose one representing a favorite alpine blossom, even though the creamy white blooms were guaranteed to fade quickly against the pale fabric, and the outline of them remains faintly visible even after many years of hard use. That’s a perfect representation, in its way, of how my memory works. I began to reminisce, seeing this embroidery, on the alpine plants that have always signaled peace and freedom to me as I day-hiked on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. So I meandered over to search online for native alpine plants of the northwest, and as soon as I began looking at the images I was struck with an infusion of the very scent of those hikes, a spicy, earthy, fresh and herbal blend of tree resins—cedar, pine, alpine fir—and sun-baked earth, lightly perfumed flowers, crushed needles and fallen leaves underfoot, the brisk dash of elevated air. What a lot of fine things to be contained, in addition to the treasury of love and family history, within my mama’s embroidered dish drying cloth.Photo: Mama's Embroidery

You might think I’d’ve inherited an embroidery gene, because in addition to my mom’s fine handiwork, I grew up seeing and using Grandma’s embroidered towels and pillowcases and enjoyed them, too. I did not, and since I had these two sources readily available, I didn’t mourn the gap in my skill set. I could always go to one or the other of them and find some new kitchen linens in a time of need.

My father’s mother never got so inventive as to design her own embroideries based on book illustrations like Mom’s were, but Grandma chose for her projects the resource of hand-me-down and found patterns, most of them quite out of date already (hence the ease of her collecting them), and almost all of them much quirkier and tackier than her normally refined taste would have allowed. These were, however, mainly destined to be given to charity or sold for the proceeds that would go to the charity in their stead, so she had no attachment or agenda for showing them at home. I, on the other hand, bought a few not only out of any little do-gooder intentions but because the sheer silliness of some of the designs so delighted me.

This one, for example, that was my inspiration for joining now in the Throwback Thursday brigade, was highly amusing to me in its ridiculously fantastic subject, its period style, and its girly goofiness. I couldn’t resist it. I found no other Days of the Week as companions, so I can only imagine what happened on those days, but it was enough to find this towel that could simultaneously remind me of my grandmother and my youth and make me laugh, all while getting my dishes dried.Photo: Throwback Thursday

Fashions change, and with them, the decor and even tools that fill our lives and homes. Yesterday’s dish towels are probably more often machine-made of some high-tech sort of microfiber or super-absorbent bamboo fiber blend with an artful printed-on design in the proper Pantone colors of the year. But do they do a more artful job, as well, of wiping dishes dry after washing? Can they strain soup broth into crystal clarity? Do they make perfect wraps for ice packs when a sore neck or bruised arm is in want of one? No better than the old standbys of my youth, I imagine. Old as I am, I come from good stock that valued something a bit quaint and very handmade, and if it managed to accomplish the task and carry memories for decades at the same time, why, I suspect I’ll do well to try to be a human imitation of it myself.

Foodie Tuesday: Dad Goes Grocery Shopping, Too

Photo montage: Grocery BonanzaNot everybody grows up with a dad who likes grocery shopping, but I got lucky. My father was the son of a grocery man and had his first real job working for the same grocery business as Grandpa did, so it was not entirely unusual that Dad would be the one who took us kids grocery shopping when it was time to stock up again. Even summer vacations followed a little in Grandpa’s tradition; instead of the stereotypical roadside tourist attractions, he was wont to stop at any grocer’s the family passed on their travels, wanting to see what ‘the competition’ was doing and reveling in the interesting inspirations he might find along the way. My dad, too, had enough of the bug from watching his father in action that when we did go to the grocery store, it wasn’t one of those stomp-through-at-top-speed reluctant shopper experiences that so many have with their parents, notoriously fathers most of all.

We meandered up and down every aisle, having a happy, leisurely look through everything on display, and more often than not, we came home with something new or unusual or just plain frivolous. Much to the delight of Dad’s junior shopping contingent, of course!

Mom was a good grocery shopper and fed us well, and taught us the kitchen skills to use the stuff we were buying, but Dad got to play the primary role of finding the unusual fun in visiting the store. Between the two, then, they gave us kids not merely those practical survival and sustenance skills we needed but a sense of pleasure in exploring what food does beyond keeping us alive and healthy. Thanks to their teamwork, it became a focus for community, artistic invention, entertainment, and exploration, and this all made it easier to expand those ideas far beyond our home walls.

That my parents’ ideas about division of labor and gender roles was generally more practical and individualized than American, middle class, mid-twentieth-century standardized was a boon to us as we grew in many other parts of our lives. It was Mom who taught me by example to do the fix-it stuff for general home maintenance, having been brought up in a carpenter’s household herself, and both parents took part in helping us with homework, counseling us, playing with us, and much more. Dad was a neatnik by inclination as much as Mom was a careful homemaker, so there wasn’t much obvious differentiation when it came to keeping the house up and running on a simple organizational basis.

But that’s all peripheral to my thesis, which is that I was fortunate to have two parents, not just one, who took an interest in the choosing and assembling of what we ate. Dad never demonstrated a huge urge to Make things with recipes, so sandwiches and cereals and the occasional barbecue tending was his main realm of preparation, but he did those with aplomb and enthusiasm and played sous chef many a time. Mom was the chief in the kitchen. Having two skilled shoppers in the house, though, that was, and still is, inspiring, and I am the better and happier for it. If your household consists of more than your lone self, or you share meals and their preparation even occasionally with younger people, I hope you’ll consider creating such an atmosphere of joy and adventure in the process as well!

Housekeeping with a Flamethrower

Why should I do anything on too small a scale, with too little passion? If I’m going to go to any trouble at all for any sort of reason, why shouldn’t I just take it to the greatest extreme I can manage? Anything worth doing, as my father has assured his children all of our lives, is worth overdoing. This, of course, is the same man who told us that ‘they put low dosages on these’ before taking double or triple the prescribed quantity of medication, and who when sent out to prune the trees left something that to his loving spouse resembled less a suburban backyard than a moonscape. Still, he’s managed to live a pretty healthy life and hold down very respectable jobs and raise happy daughters and all of that sort of thing, so he can’t have been all that far off the mark.graphite drawing with digital highlightsAnd, truth to tell, I think that engaging our full strength and will and enthusiasm whenever we can is a pretty good strategy for living altogether. Even though I’m an admitted loafer and a lollygagging lout at heart, I do believe that if I’m going to go to any effort, it might as well be to do something to the best of my ability and, if I’m dedicated and lucky enough in the process, something of value. And I can either thank or blame Dad for my belief in that. (I guess it means that you can, too.) Why, when I got old enough and lucky enough to attach a second Dad, my father in law, to the family, I quickly learned that he has a similar attitude about doing things with complete dedication and raising kids who show that same kind of committed involvement, so I can say that in my experience of fathers in general, they have a remarkable aptitude for living life to the fullest. And really, isn’t it that fine idea after all? I know it inspires me!

Happy Father’s Day to two standouts in the field!

Super Chicken

mixed media artworkMy superpower, if I could be said to have any, is being supremely ordinary. Yeah, I’m really, really good at that. Now, you may think it’s not impressive that I’m good at being so-so, and you could be forgiven for thinking it. And yet . . .

Besides that it requires massive numbers of us mid-range sorts to keep nature in a sort of balance with the various human outliers at the top (and bottom) of the spectrum, there’s also the comfort and safety of being able to travel under the radar of scrutiny and pressure to which both kinds of exceptional people are exposed.

What on earth does this mean I am good at doing, at being? Why, I do what’s expected. I go to sleep; I wake up. I eat and I walk and I get dressed and undressed, and the world carries right on around me. And though I don’t at the moment have employment outside of our home, my current occupation being Homemaker, I spend myself and my efforts, rather, on doing the small and yet significant things that might not be essential to keeping the world operational but grease the gears, instead. And keeping the cogs working relatively smoothly is as useful in its own way as being the driver, the engineer or a cog myself. I go to meetings and do Projects, too, to be sure, but mostly what I do nowadays is fix a meal, repair a door-jamb, ferry my spouse and a student to a rehearsal. I do laundry; I prune the plantings near the window. Glamorous? Just exactly enough.

Because the luster of the day comes not from being admired and lauded but from being appreciated, even if it’s hardly necessary to hear that announced constantly–after all, the proof of its value is in plain view if the needful things get done. Any reward lies in the belief that I make life that one tiny iota smoother and pleasanter for that one brief instant, even if only for this one other person. It’s borne on the smile of relief worn by him whose sheaf of office paperwork got filed at last when he couldn’t get to it himself, or whose old slippers have been mended by the time he gets home from the office at the end of the day. It’s in the neighbor being glad to have the excess garden supplies or box of art materials I’ve collected to send to school with her. It’s with me when I arrange the chairs alongside the singers before a rehearsal when I come by to listen to their work. It’s mostly in knowing that the stuff needed to keep quotidian action on course is being looked after, bit by little bit. And that I’m the person for the job.

I don’t do this selflessly, of course, because I would hardly keep it up for long if it weren’t so simply and inherently rewarding. And it certainly bespeaks no genius or courage on my part that I do it, for clearly it takes greater skill and ingenuity and bravery to do all of the shiny, showy things for which I provide my atoms of encouragement from the periphery. Maybe a jot of courage only to admit to being a homemaker and loving it. So many who haven’t the privilege of the life seem to disdain it and misconstrue its meaning, especially if it doesn’t have either children or wealth as part of the equation. I am far more fearful of having no sense of purpose than of being thought unimportant by anyone else; I care more about feeling my own worth than having it validated by any outside agents.

So if I seem to anyone to be afraid of taking a larger role in the Real World as they see it, I suppose I ought to admit that in one sense I am. I know that having this Job for a few years has given me new strength and the ability to go out in the wider world for a so-called Real one again when the time comes, yet I do dread leaving this role that has given me a feeling of vocation more than anything else I’ve ever done and risking the dimming of any of the self-worth I’ve garnered or the value I’ve learned to impute to the tasks of being normal and simple and everyday, which I’ve learned to see as so much deeper and richer than they’d seemed until I tried on the role of their custodian myself. I do, at the end of it, think that if I’m a dull, bland or unimportant grease-monkey to the cogs of the world, I’m a damn good one, and if I’m scared of giving up that high honor, then I at least credit myself with being a superior variety of chicken.

Hot Flash Fiction 5

The Duchess was inordinately fond of animals. Though her courtiers would never dare say so to her face, they imagined she ought to have been born a zookeeper, or at the very least a farmer. This idea was strengthened, especially, by the fact that it always fell to the housekeepers and servants to make the palace tidy enough for Her Ladyship’s dainty passage through life and to freshen the air when the royal menagerie had pranced, prowled or otherwise paraded through its rooms and left unseemly gifts along the way. The Duke, who was as allergic to all things animal as the Duchess was attracted, considered for some time whether he oughtn’t to have a team of expert taxidermists and artisans solve this problem once and for all, creating a large display of preserved zoological beauty that might be both lower maintenance and less powerfully scented than the living creatures populating his estate indoors and out, day and collageUnfortunately, the Duchess’s sisters who lived in the east wing of the palace did not support the Duke’s enthusiasm for the design, making noises of disapprobation at least as loud as the Duchess’s favorite dogs’ barking or donkeys’ braying. Perhaps, the Duke thought, he had been a little incautious in discussing this artistic concept with his secretary while within earshot of the sisterly ladies-in-waiting, for they both appeared quite ready to dash off squealing with rage to their unsuspecting sibling, or at the least, to imitate the household fauna in some other impolite collageAs it fell out, the Duke, however incautious he may have been in heat of the moment, was not without the wit born of hard experience. Working swiftly with his retainers, was able to resolve the situation quickly and suitably merely by shifting the subject of the new art to a slightly different one featuring the Duchess and her sisters. As an added benison of this resolution, it was discovered that he wasn’t allergic to winged or four-legged pets after all. The palace staff found maintaining the menagerie surprisingly less onerous afterward as well, even with the added curatorial duties of dusting off the Duchess and polishing her sisters from time to time.