Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Superhero Tiny House Builders


George Carlin said our houses are nothing more than places to keep stuff while we go out and get more stuff. Why do we need so much stuff and so much space to hold it? I read about a guy who pledged to own only 100 items, including a toothbrush and a pencil. I’d like to try that, getting rid of one thing each time I bring a new thing into the house (other than Ben & Jerry’s, of course—but, then, that’s not hard to get rid of).


I started thinking about space and possessions when Deek Diedricksen came to stay at Fern Forest with his wife Liz, four-year-old son Jonas (Deek calls him “Jones”), two-year-old daughter Angie (she calls Deek “Magic Dad”), and big black dog Orzo. I worried that a 90-square-foot treehouse would be a little snug for the family, especially since Deek is well over six-feet tall. But no. Deek loves small spaces. In fact, he builds them. Check out his website www.relaxshacks.com. You'll also see Deek's take on his weekend in the treehouse.


Deek has been written up in the New York Times, ReadyMade and Make magazines, and he’s been on NPR and Boston’s Chronicle TV show. The New Yorker has courted him, as has (hush-hush) Microsoft. He even has his own TV show, Tiny Yellow House.


He must be onto something.


Is it the teeny houses he builds out of reclaimed materials—windows made from wine bottles and wood from, well, anywhere and everywhere? Some of the houses are big enough for a small party. Others fit just a body, albeit as big as Deek’s. Some are solar heated. All are utterly charming and quite romantic.


I keep asking the question, why do we like small spaces? Rabbits huddle in cozy warrens. Bears like their winter dens. At parties, everyone crams into the kitchen. Our own house is about 1200 square feet, which feels capacious to us. We have a city condo in Burlington that’s 370 very cute square feet that enlarges another 60 SF in the three seasons we use the covered porch (thanks to Plexiglas over the screens). The pull-down Murphy bed makes the back room feel much larger than it is.


Small spaces suggest a specific, deliberate set of meanings. They’re designed to be used instead of just inhabited. Blogger Joey Roth says, “The smallness I love so much in a space might be the small number of different ways it could be interpreted due to the richness and completeness of the world it creates.” We like built-ins and bookshelves and color on the walls and lots of windows to let in light and breezes. At the condo we have exposed brick and refinished old wood floors. And we keep things tidy.


That’s the trick. A sink full of dirty dishes makes a small space feel crowded. I keep surfaces free of clutter. We recycle and compost and burn paper products in the wood stove, even in the summer—in the cool hour of early morning. We live outside a lot, both in Burlington (which has a gorgeous waterfront) and in Fern Forest (where I can happily pull weeds for hours and then take a soak in the spa).


Buckminster Fuller said, “Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.” And yet there they sit, gathering dust. And, worse, costing us money.


As the recession takes hold and people worry about money and jobs, it becomes more and more important to use what we have efficiently. And to use less of everything. Having a smaller space and fewer items of junk saves us dough, uses fewer resources, and burns less fuel, which helps the environment. According to some figures I stumbled upon, in 1973 the average house was 1525 square feet and had 3 people per household; in 2006 the average square footage expanded to 2248 with only 2.6 people per household. Appliances have gotten more efficient, but the cost of heating and cooling a larger home offsets any green savings.


But there’s hope. Liz told me that one day she caught Jonas stuffing wads of crumpled paper under the couch.


“What are you doing?” she asked.


“I’m insulating,” he said.


When he grows up, Jonas would like to be a superhero. Or maybe a builder like his dad. His favorite TV show is This Old House. He fashions a compressor out of the vacuum cleaner and builds lovely and solid structures from blocks. Structures where a family of four can sleep comfortably and cozily. With even room for a big black dog named Orzo.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Moonshine redoux

This morning I went to a homebrewing supply store to purchase some materials to make moonshine, purely for book research, of course. The shop was not large and was packed floor to ceiling with all sorts of accouterments for making brews of one kind or another. The smell inside was warm and earthy, caramel sweet, like a deep, mossy forest. As soon as I walked in, I forgot everything. Why hadn't I brought a recipe? Why hadn't I written down the things I needed, the mash fermenter, the boiler, the worm pipe, the slobber bucket (whatever that is), the hydrometer (what does that do?)?

The guy behind the counter looked friendly enough. There were two customers ahead of us, one of which was in a concentrated monologue with the clerk about putting his boat in the water and sailing around the world. Was he planning to brew beer on the boat? Another guy came in, bought a bottle of something.

"Credit or debit?" the clerk asked.

"Whatever's easier for you," the guy said.

"Want a bag?"

"Don't need one."

Purchase finished. Beer brewers are basic folk.

My turn.

"I want to make some moonshine," I said. "What do I need?"

The clerk took a step back so that he was against the wall behind the counter and crossed his arms.
"I have no idea."

"That's what everyone says." He nodded.

"I know it's illegal," I said.

"Yes, it is."

"I can buy a still on eBay," I said.

"Then that's what you should do."

I explained that I was doing research and needed to make just a little to be sure I understand how it's done.

"We sell equipment here," he said. "What you do with it is your business." He said some guys come in with no idea how to make hooch and expect him to demonstrate. "They know nothing. They haven't done any research." He looked around, checked the door.

"For all I know," he said, "you could be from the ATF."

"I'm not from the ATF. I'm doing research, as I said."

"Right." His arms were still crossed. He was looking down his nose, protecting himself.

"Well, thanks," I said. "Maybe I'll be back for ingredients."

When we got back in the car, I told H, "This is going to be harder than I thought."

"It smelled good in there, though," H said.

"Yeah. Maybe I should make beer instead of moonshine."

Stills on eBay go for a couple hundred dollars. And it's complicated. Copper is the best material, so I've read, but the copper oxidizes and has to be cleaned each time it's used. And there are other dangers, like ergotism, methane poisoning, and several other kinds of poisons generated in the distillation that can make you blind or psychotic or kill you. Which makes me think my moonshine ancestors had to be pretty smart to get a still up and running and sell the stuff at pubs. I have a lot to learn.


I didn't post a picture of Tania and Damien yesterday. Tania is the Greek beauty who grew up in Queens. She's planning a "big fat Greek wedding," and why not. Damien is an only child, and his mother is jumping for joy that he's found the love of his life. Their wedding will be a joyous celebration.




I also promised the answers to the comma practice exercise. Let me know how you did:

1. Her hand zoomed out and grabbed hold of my wrist. [no comma]

2. On one side of us was a small grocery, and on the other side was a pay-by-the-week motel where a few old bachelors lived year-round.

3. She had found a small twig and pressed her thumbs together to spin it between them. [no comma]

4. When the women came out, Daddy and Charles Asher carried chairs down from the screen porch and sat them up in a circle near the clothesline.

5.“Templeton, if I ever catch you poking-oking-oking your ugly nose around our goslings, I’ll give you the worst pounding a rat ever took.”

6. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.

7. Everything on the farm was dripping wet. [no comma]

8. Charlotte, sleepy after her night’s excursions, smiled as she watched.

9. The children answered their cheer, and away went everybody to the Fair.

10. When the wind had died down, and the barnyard was quiet and warm, the grey goose led his seven goslings off the nest and out into the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Moonshine in Kentucky - and Tehran

I’ve taken a hiatus from blogging, and with good reason. First there was the ten-day residency for the Spalding University MFA in Writing program in Louisville. I’m on the faculty there and mentor writing students in fiction, creative nonfiction and writing for children. My lecture this time was on the use of the comma for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. I tried to make it fun, but as with most things, you can’t please everyone. A few students found the lecture helpful. Others thought a grammar lesson was beneath them—this is grad school, after all. One student who complained about the elementary quality of the talk admitted that she did not get a perfect score on the final quiz.

I’ll post the quiz here. Check back later for the correct answers. The sentences come from children’s literature: E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, and Silas House’s Eli the Good. Place a comma where you think it should go.

1. Her hand zoomed out and grabbed hold of my wrist.

2. On one side of us was a small grocery and on the other side was a pay-by-the-week motel where a few old bachelors lived year-round.


3. She had found a small twig and pressed her thumbs together to spin it between them.

4. When the women came out Daddy and Charles Asher carried chairs down from the screen porch and sat them up in a circle near the clothesline.


5. “Templeton if I ever catch you poking-oking-oking your ugly nose around our goslings I’ll give you the worst pounding a rat ever took.”


6. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior she had a kind heart and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.


7. Everything on the farm was dripping wet.


8. Charlotte, sleepy after her night’s excursions smiled as she watched.


9. The children answered their cheer and away went everybody to the Fair.


10. When the wind had died down and the barnyard was quiet and warm the grey goose led his seven goslings off the nest and out into the world.

The residency ended with a garden party at Tirbracken Farm in Goshen, Kentucky. Nana Lampton owns the estate and lives some of the time in the 18th century stone farmhouse with fields that roll down to the Ohio River. The food was very fine. The bar was stocked. The vistas were divine. The music was uplifting. But best of all, I gathered some stories for my latest writing project—moonshine.

Kentucky, which was once part of Virginia, has raked in a lot of money on moonshine. Seems everyone in KY has a moonshine story—either handed down from ancestors or a more recent run-in with white lightning. If you’ve got a moonshine story centered in VA, WVA or KY, let me know (and don't worry about getting the commas right).

Before I left Fern Forest, we entertained guests from New York City. Tania is the daughter of Greek immigrants, and her fiancĂ© Damien is the son of an Iranian father and a Boston mom. His father died when he was young, but he visits family in Iran on occasion. In casual conversation, I learned that moonshine reaches its seductive hand all the way to the Middle East. Iran is a Muslim country, and drinking alcohol is forbidden. But many Muslims distill their own liquor—they call it arak—at home or in backrooms of warehouses. It’s fermented with raisins and “is really smooth,” Damien says. The potion he tasted had been distilled three times and run through a carbon filter.

A true Iranian experience is a supper of roasted liver and heart sliced and skewered on a kebab. When the meat is tender, the kebab is folded into a broad piece of flatbread held tightly while the kebab is extracted.

“Delicious,” Damien says, “especially chased with a drink of arak.”

A surprisingly large number of Muslims indulge in moonshine. “The way it was during American prohibition,” he says, “is the way it is in Iran today.” Public drunkenness is rare, and Muslims who drink moonshine do so in their homes. The penalty for being caught with illegal liquor is severe—sometimes death. In spite of the danger, those who imbibe do so with great enjoyment, Damien says.

I suspect that danger is part of the flavor. By the next post, be ready for the answers to the grammar quiz—and an update on my own moonshine making progress.