I’ll Need This Someday: Clutter Control for Artists and Creatives

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For the past three weeks two heavy French doors are blocking access to my work bench. Kelly spotted them on the street and we grabbed them for the garden shed she wants me to build (a project, admittedly, that I’m dragging my heels on). Lest I blame Kelly for my workshop clutter, it should be noted that the doors are next to four columns I grabbed from an old house that was being demolished. The columns and the doors are now part of a category of stuff all creative people know about: “I’ll need this someday.”

It seems to me that there are two basic types in the artist/maker/gardener world: those who sketch out an idea and then go find materials and those who start with the materials and then, only later, figure out what to do with. Then there’s the folks who accumulate materials and then never do anything with them.

Of course, life isn’t so black and white. Most of us probably fit somewhere between those three extremes. But lately, especially with the good results I’ve had using the free 3d modeling program Sketchup, I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least in my own case, I might be better off drawing up a design first before scavenging for materials. The universe, I’ve noticed, tends to cough up stuff when you need it, especially in our highly wasteful consumer culture here in the U.S. Facebook is also useful for putting out a call for materials. And, if I can’t find it in the street or through social media, I can always buy used materials at our local ReStore, which benefits Habitat for Humanity.

The same principle applies to new technology. I just heard Kevin Kelly discussing his latest book and I really like his advice to only buy technology five minutes before you need it. That way you don’t end up with things you don’t need and you also have the benefit of having the latest version.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the aesthetic triumphs of those who are expert scavengers, such as our neighbor Doug Harvey who turned the ever present street headboard into an art piece. Then there’s the time I passed up the chance to grab the Olive Motel’s Art Deco sign, only to see it later in a fancy boutique with a $3,500 price tag.

What kind of creative person are you? Do you have a “I’ll need this someday” pile?

When you’ve been blogging for ten years you sometimes duplicate subject matter. It turns out the Kelly already covered this topic in a more detailed post: De-Cluttering for DIYers, Homesteaders, Artists, Preppers, etc.

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Waxed Cloth Food Wrap (Made in a solar oven for bonus self-righteousness points)

peanut clothReuseable food wrap made with wax infused cloth is a thing. DIY instructions for it are all over the web. It sort of had its moment in the sustainable limelight a few years ago, so I know this post is not offering anything new for the jaded sustainable DIYer.

But I wanted to tell you that I’ve finally made a couple of pieces to test out, and I like them. If you’ve been using waxed cloth, let us know what you think of it.

The factor which finally spurred me into action on this project was our Solavore Sport solar oven. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for this project, and proved to be so–in most ways. Read on.

In case you missed the craze, these food wraps are simply beeswax infused cotton cloth. Their purpose is to help replace plastic wrap and baggies to some extent. They can also be molded over bowls as a light cover–not an air tight cover, but are likely as effective as laying a plate over the bowl. Waxed cloth can also be fashioned into envelopes to carry snacks.

They can be used over and over, and re-waxed. They can also be washed with cold water and soap.

Food wrapped in wax cloth will dry out more quickly than it would in plastic, and it’s not watertight, so it’s not good for drippy/juicy things. Also, it’s not recommended for wrapping meat, because it can’t be cleaned with hot water. But it works very well for wrapping things like cheese and sandwiches, cookies, nuts, carrot sticks, etc.

In my testing so far I’ve settled on using my cloths as snack carriers, using them to wrap up trail mix or carrots or chunks of cheese to put in my day pack, and I like them very much for this. I’ve not tried them for long-term cheese storage in the fridge yet, because the two I made have been constantly at work in the field. Time to make, more, I suppose!

Though I’ve experimented with using them as bowl covers, I doubt that I will use them for this purpose, as I have plenty of glass bowls with fitted covers, so I don’t need covers often. When I do, I’ve found the classic “balance a plate on the bowl” technique remains more convenient– but it’s worth giving the wrap a try. It is not breakable, so that may be a plus if you’ve got kids rooting around in your fridge.

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This is the peanut pack from above, folded for carrying. A more formal sewn envelope might be a touch more convenient, but you can do without, because the wax sort of sticks to itself when folded like this. It holds well enough to jounce around in the pocket of your bag for a day. I’ve not had a spill so far, but you could tie it up with string or a rubber band for extra security.

Professional Secrets

There are at least two companies making and selling these wraps now, and both use not only beeswax to infuse the cloth, but also pine resin and jojoba oil to make a fancier product.

I’m not sure what benefits may come from these extra ingredients–the pine resin may add some antibacterial action to the wax, but I don’t know it it would actually make any difference in terms of food safety. The jojoba is more mysterious. I wonder if it improves the texture?

You could probably replicate this proprietary blend by melting smallish quantities of pine sap, soft or hard, into hot beeswax over a double boiler, then stir in some jojoba. The resulting mix can be grated after it cools. Just be sure to cook this up in a jar you’re prepared to throw away, because the pine sap will never come off.

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When covering a bowl, crimp the edges of the cloth around the edge as you’d crimp a pie crust. If you were really ambitious you could sew in an elastic band to hold the cover tight.

How-To

Making the cloths is very easy. All you have to do is cut some squares or circles of thin cotton fabric, like muslin. Pink the edges if you have pinking shears–this looks better, but I don’t think the edges will unravel much anyway, because of the wax.

Size depends on intended use. I can imagine eventually having a range of sizes and shapes. For instance, I’m imagining that a really large one might work nicely for rolling out and refrigerating cookie and pastry dough.

To begin, though, I’d recommend making just one or two. Test them and see if you like them and how you’ll use them before going into production whole hog. 12″ (30cm) square might be a good starting point.

Lay the cloth on a cookie sheet protected with foil or parchment and sprinkle the surface evenly with grated wax or wax pellets. You don’t need a ton of wax. You want to saturate the cloth, but you don’t want to use so much that the coating becomes thick and flaky. I used about 1 tablespoon of wax pellets for cloths about 11 inches square, just to give you an idea.

Place the cookie sheet in an oven set between 150F/64C and 185F/85C for about 10 minutes, just until the wax melts.

Safety note: Keep the oven low–don’t be tempted to use a hot oven for speed, because the wax could discolor at higher temperatures, or even burst into flame if the oven reaches 400F/204C.

Take the sheet out and check for coverage.

My experiments had pretty even coverage without any coaxing, because the hot wax wicks through the cloth. But if it looks spotty, you can spread the melted wax over the cloth with a silicone pastry brush or a dedicated paintbrush.

I specify a silicone pastry brush because the wax will come of the silicone brush– I used ours, so I can testify to this fact–but wax will never come off a regular bristle brush. However, if you use an inexpensive brush, you can keep that brush and use it again and again for waxing purposes by simply warming it until the bristles soften. For this reason you’d want to choose a brush with a wooden handle. Hardware stores sell cheap wooden paint brushes with natural bristles which would work perfectly for this purpose.

While the wax is still warm, hang the cloth up on a line to dry and cool. You’ll also need clothes pins or binder clips to secure the cloth.

The only things to remember are as follows:

  1. Less wax is better than more. If you use too much, your cloth might flake or be otherwise strange.
  2. Wax cools super fast, so if you’re working with the newly waxed cloth, be quick like a bunny. Instagram later! If your cloth cools before you finish, you can put it back in the oven and rewarm it.
  3. On the same note, you have to take the cloth off the cookie sheet the moment you remove it from the heat or it will bond to the sheet when it cools–and that happens fast. If it sticks, just put back in the oven.
  4. Have the drying line set up before you start. You’ll want to hang the hot cloths up right away to cool and dry, not be searching for somewhere to put them while they harden into odd shapes in your hand.

I don’t have many good pictures of the process, so for further research I’m directing you over to Mommypotomus for more details. She also has a cute plan for a snack bag that I might make.

Consider repurposing old textiles

I’m using some of my grandmother’s hankies for this project. I knew there was a reason I kept them around for so long! Take that, Kon Marie!

As I type this, I realize that sounds gross. Be assured, these hankies never saw service. In the 60’s (or earlier ?) people apparently sent one another novelty hankies that came folded inside matching greeting cards. Maybe these were the equivalent of our musical cards, a way to upscale a greeting card ? My grandma had several of these tucked in her bureau.

I claimed her nice linen handkerchiefs for my nose (I never saw her use one, despite having piles of them–she liked those little Kleenex packs), but these novelty hankies, made out of cheap printed cotton, are perfect for food wraps. The cloth covering the bowl in the photos is one of those.

These hankies are particularly nice because they have a finished edge, but this project is also perfect for making use of other textiles you might feel wasteful for throwing out, like old top sheets or a dress shirt with one unfortunate stain or fabric scraps from sewing projects.

Solar Oven Specifics

Beeswax melts at just below 150F/64C. It can discolor if heated above 185F/85C. Its flashpoint is 400F/204.4C.

While many home ovens can be set to 150F, my home oven is really primitive, it doesn’t have a pilot light and it doesn’t cook below 200F. I could fuss with it, prop the door open or whatnot to get lower temperatures, but I never wanted waxed cloths enough to bother with it.

But now that we have this Solavore Sport to play with, I realized I could achieve these lower baking temperatures easily, and simultaneously reach a new pitch of self-righteousness.

Regular cookie sheets don’t fit in the Sport, so I cobbled together a cooking tray out of a shallow cardboard box (a canned cat food case) lined with foil. It barely fit in the oven. It doesn’t even sit on the floor, in fact, but balances above, because the sides of the oven are wedge shaped. Hard to explain, but this should make sense to someone with a Sport.

Back in March, when we got the oven, it peaked around 150F if it didn’t have clips on the lid to seal in the heat–which would be perfect for this project. Now, with the sun higher, it rockets up past 200F pretty quickly even without the clips.

So, at this time of year, working at midday, all I had to do was watch the time and temperature to make sure the oven didn’t get too hot.

I put the tray in the oven, closed the lid (no clips, making the heating is less efficient on purpose) and waited about 10-15 minutes. The temp would quickly rise above 150F and the wax would dissolve, then I’d take it out before it got any hotter. Fast and easy!

Again, the reasons you want to keep the temps low is because 1) you might get discolored wax if you let it bake for too long above 185F and 2) in the very unlikely event the oven temp got to 400F, you’d risk the wax bursting into flame.

The only downside of using the Sport for this project is size limitations. The oven floor is wide but narrow, so I can’t make wraps bigger than 11 inches square. The floor is actually only 9 1/2 inches deep. By wedging the cat food box higher in the oven, off the floor, I was able to fudge things enough to make an 11 inch waxed cloth, but that’s the limit.

I may be able to fold a cloth in half for coating, perhaps layering the wax between the two halves. This is something I’ll play with if I decide to make more.

What’s next for the solar oven?

My next crafty project with the sun oven is going to be infusing oil with herbs, and perhaps drying herbs as well.

And for those of you who were following our solar cooking initiative, it has been on hiatus because our weather this May was dominated by a heavy marine layer which kept the skies overcast until mid-afternoon. I love this weather, personally, but it has put a wrench in the cooking experiments.

June, however, is coming in hot and bright. Usually June in LA is characterized by these same overcast conditions–we call it “June Gloom”– but I’m thinking the gloom came early this year and may be over. So look forward to more cooking posts soon!

The Horror Beneath the Armoire

IMG_0527I lost my keys, and being in that state of advanced desperation where you search for your keys in the most unlikely of spots, I made the mistake of looking beneath our armoire.

This ungainly piece of furniture has a mere inch or two gap between its lower face and the floor. Better it should have a higher clearance, or no gap at all, but instead, there is this little gap that resists brooms and vacuum wands.

Of course, tidy people would approach this difficulty by moving the armoire so they could dust beneath it at decent intervals. Or maybe they’d wrap a coat hanger with a dust cloth and slither around on their bellies, stabbing into the darkness. Really, who knows what lengths tidy people might go to? Not us, that’s for certain. We choose to ignore that space entirely between the times we paint the bedroom.

So, anyway, looking for my keys, I turned on the flashlight on my phone and peered into the gap, but still couldn’t see very well, because the gap was so low. So I took some blind pictures with the flash, and they revealed a horrifying yet charming landscape of dereliction: a dollhouse version of the Blair Witch Project, in which three lost mice are hopelessly trapped in nightmare landscape of dust bunnies and cobwebs.

And, ironies of ironies, while I did not find my keys, I did find a lost vacuum cleaner attachment.

(Apologies for any trauma these images have caused our tidy friends.)

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Satan’s Easter Basket is Filled with Plastic Easter Grass

Easter baskets, a springtime ritual so loved by kids and adults alike should not have a dark side. So it’s more than a little ironic that this holiday, which in its secular form emphasizes rebirth and celebrates new life and baby animals of all sorts, actually causes accidental pain and suffering to many animals. The culprit is plastic Easter grass.

The day after Easter this year, I took an early morning walk down to Echo Park and found Eastermagedon waiting for me in the dawn’s soft light. The entire park was strewn with detritus of the happy day, plates and soda bottles and all the usual picnic garbage, plus the added seasonal bonus of tons of loose plastic Easter grass tangled in the real grass. I think animals may have gotten into the garbage cans overnight, making it all worse, but clearly a lot of that trash, especially the Easter grass and Silly String, was probably on the ground when the picnickers left.

One lonely, overburdened city maintenance guy was already raking up the garbage, but it was a Sisyphean task, and I doubt he’ll be so fine tuned as to focus on the Easter grass, but the Easter grass may be the most problematic of all the garbage on the ground this morning, especially because Echo Park surrounds a lovely little urban lake full of birds. Read on to find out why.

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4 Excellent Reasons to Avoid Plastic Easter Grass and use all of your influence to make sure other people avoid it, too:

  1. Domestic cats and dogs eat Easter grass and it can cause intestinal obstruction. Cats are particularly attracted to its stringy texture, but dogs might also gobble it up when they raid a kid’s Easter stash. If your pet does consume Easter grass and you see it coming out the other end, don’t try to pull it out! The other end of the string might be wrapped around something important inside your pet. Let it work its way out on its own, or visit the vet.
  2. Nesting birds pick up strands of plastic Easter grass and use it to build their nests. Sadly, this stuff is super strong, so it can tangle up baby birds, or even wrap around the feet of parent birds, tying them to their nests. People who keep bird boxes can tell us horror stories.
  3. Plastic grass left over from egg hunts in parks can blow into lakes, ponds and rivers, where it becomes both a water pollutant and a hazard to aquatic life. No kid on an egg hunt would want to know that her pretty pink Easter grass might end up choking a duckling.
  4. Like any plastic garbage, airy strands of Easter grass, whether floating out of parks or school yards or the back of garbage trucks, will make their way to the sea via wind and city gutters and rivers, where they will become part of our ongoing crisis of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Happy Substitutes for Plastic Easter Grass

The worst thing about plastic Easter grass is that it is so utterly unnecessary. We don’t need it. No one really likes the stuff–it gets everywhere in the house and is hard to clean up. Kids will not miss it–the padding is hardly the point of the basket, after all. Plastic grass is just something that was invented in a more ignorant age and marketed to us, something that we got used to using and never questioned. There are many ways, better ways, to line an Easter basket. We just have to take this plastic hell fluff off our “auto buy” list and embrace our creativity:

  1. There’s a natural, sustainable, renewable, organic form of Easter grass called real grass! (whhaaaa???) And best of all, it’s free! Just visit your nearest vacant lot. Pick long green grass and coil it in the bottom of the basket. You could also use hay or straw if you have access to it– both smell fantastic.
  2. Use green leaves, vines and short, flexible green branches from trees or bushes and flowers* to make sort of a wild fairy basket. As a Californian, I’m imagining a basket filled with a heady mix of rosemary branches and lavender leaves and buds. Or what about a nest of sweet chamomile? That would be lovely. Or maybe purple cabbage leaves? Arugula? Fennel fronds? Grape leaves?
  3. Use shredded wrapping paper–this is particularly easy if you have a paper shredder, but you can also cut or tear the paper into strips. This is a great way to re-purpose used paper, or to finish up the ends of rolls. Same goes for construction paper and other bright craft papers.
  4. Line the baskets with pretty table napkins or old scarfs, or tear fabric scraps into strips.
  5. Make little basket pillows out of scrap material. This might be a good use for old themed bed sheets or favorite clothes that kids don’t want to give up.
  6. Use moss, which you may be able to gather gently in the wild, depending on where you live, or buy sphagnum moss in a craft store or nursery.
  7. Fill the baskets with colorful mini-marshmallows–if you can deal with the resulting sugar high and possible marshmallow fights.
  8. Get ambitious and grow a pot of grass! Find a plastic pot which will fit your Easter baskets, fill it with potting soil and sprinkle a dense coating of seed on top. You can use lawn seed, if you have it, or you could buy “cat grass” seeds at the nursery–that way you can buy a small quantity instead of a big bag of seed meant to plant a lawn. All you have to do is keep it moist and you should have a pot of short grass by Easter. Check the seed pack and look for “days to maturity”–use that to figure out when you should plant. Bonus: your cats will thank you for the grass after Easter!
  9. And finally, there is commercial Easter grass made out of shredded paper instead of plastic– as easy as plastic, but sooooo much better!

See how easy it is to avoid Satan’s Grass? So spread the word. Ban it from your home. Bug your friends and relatives about it. Agitate at community egg hunts. Let’s just end this whole business as a really bad idea.

And let us know if you have any other ideas for grass substitutes!

* Okay, plant paranoiacs and nanny-staters, yes, you have to be a little bit cautious to make sure you don’t choose a noxious plant to line your Easter basket,  a plant like poison oak or yew, for instance (unless you’re having a Tim Burton Easter). The vast majority of plants are harmless, particularly if you’re not ingesting them. Just keep the babies from mouthing the greenery, to be safe.

Pesticide sprays are more of a concern than plant toxicity, frankly, so gather from your own yard, or from places you know are not sprayed. 

Or, if you remain concerned, use only food plants from your garden or a neighbor’s, or go to the farmer’s market and have fun picking out herbs, flowers and plant leaves to use in the basket–the vendors can tell you if they are safe.

Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up

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I figure by now that there are few of you, at least those of you who have de-cluttering on your radar, who don’t know that Marie Kondo, author of Tidying Up, has a new book: Spark Joy. We’ve been shamelessly selling it in our margins here on the blog for a good while, but I’m just now getting around to reviewing it. Of course, we wrote extensively about our journey with Tidying Up here last year.

If you’ve read Tiding Up, your first question would probably be, “Do I really need another book by her?” and the answer is, no, in the spirit of decluttering, you could do just fine with the first book, especially if you are fully satisfied with the decluttering you accomplished with that book.

However, I think the second book is helpful, and I’m glad I have it. It has re-inspired us toward more tidying activities. We did some good decluttering last year, but we had sort of fallen off the wagon, allowing clutter to accumulate in certain hot spots and continuing to avoid working on our most dreaded clutter zones.

This book has me excited about tidying up once more. It also clarifies some of her philosophy and drills down a bit into the specifics of decluttering different types of things and spaces, like kitchens and craft supplies. There are also–praise be–diagrams of her arcane folding techniques. These things made the book worthwhile for me.

The book itself is interesting as an object. It’s smallish, and pretty. Inside, the illustrations are Japanese-cute line drawings. It doesn’t look like any cleaning or organization book I’ve ever seen, and that is what makes it special. Kondo understands that tidying is a spiritual activity, not an organizational activity.

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The same week we got this book, we also had a library book out about home organization. Erik had grabbed it off the new book shelf at the library without looking at it until we got home. It shall remain nameless, but we quickly realized it was just a copiously illustrated catalog of things you can buy to more efficiently store all of the junk that you’ve bought. And that is exactly what we over-consumers do not need.

Kondo wants to teach us discrimination–how do we tune in to what we love, how learn what “sparks joy” in us. She holds up a vision of us all living in homes which are self-constructed shrines dedicated to that which we truly love. In such a world, we would not own many things, but we would love the things we own, and be in positive relationship with those things.

Many of us feel overwhelmed or confused by our possessions, perhaps guilty that we have so much, but yet still unsatisfied with what have, and meanwhile guilty about the money we’ve wasted on things we do not use. Yet we keep buying as we search for happiness. This is the trap of consumer culture. Kondo offers us a way out by asking us to re-evaluate our relationship with our possessions. This re-alignment or re-evaluation is actually a very interesting spiritual maneuver. I need to think about this some more, and will do another post on that topic specifically. But in the meanwhile, yes, it’s a worthwhile read.

Let me know if you’ve read it–I assume many of you have by now, because I know we have some KonMari folk in the readership–and whether you have found it useful or not.

p.s. Thanks to Pilar for tip me off to this book to me in the first place!