Sunday, April 5, 2020

A No-till vegetable garden in a hurry

Suppose that for some reason (cough, Covid 19, cough) you feel the sudden need to put in a vegetable garden in a hurry.  How would you do it?


This is the last of the non-knitting posts I have planned.

The others in this series are
and today's installment

Tune in next time for some actual knitting content...some new tricks for double knitting. 

Til then, stay safe and keep knitting


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Food as medicine + notes on home nursing


The TL;DR of today’s post:

—Eat fermented and cultured foods to keep your health; when sick, eat soup to return to health: so said the old folks, and modern science (more or less cautiously) agrees.  Also, lay in some Ensure in case you have to feed a sick person who has absolutely no appetite.
—Home nursing is a thing and also, get a first aid kit together so you can deal with minor ailments at home.  That way, you can leave the doctor’s office for people who are really sick.

Now, go knit something!

Still here, ay?  Well, buckle up, the prolix saga version follows…


Home medicine

Time wrinkled and the distant past has become our present.  We’re buying time for modern medicine and science to gear up in the fight against Covid-19 virus by using quarantine and isolation: old-school methods of disease prevention. Perhaps, too, old-school ideas about healthful cooking have more relevance than we previously thought.  That is the theory behind the first part today’s post: the tradition of food-as-medicine.  The second part of today’s post pivots to a different kind of medicine: some notes on home nursing.

Food as medicine

Lucky me. As a cultural mutt, I have lots of traditional culinary traditions to choose from, and I do mean traditional.  My grandparents were born in the 1800’s, the youngest among my parents and parents-in-law in 1925.  These people came from Europe, from along the silk road and from the Middle East. The women among them were prolific (and terrific) cooks, each in her own tradition. I also got a close-up and personal immersion in the kitchen of the American midwest, followed by a many years practice of macrobiotics, being a variant on traditional Japanese diet.

Now, the thing is, all these different food-ways are delicious. But, you can guess, there is not a real lot of overlap between the tastes and recipes of these very different traditional styles. There is no universal agreement on taste, cooking styles or even on fundamental ingredients.

And yet…as different as these cooking traditions are, I have observed universal agreement among traditional cooks on the principle that food is more than body fuel.  All these traditions agree that food, or at least, certain foods, have medicinal properties. Stated otherwise, while each culture I know has its own different idea of *what* is right and healthful to eat, all agree that “right and healthful” foods *do* exist.

What foods?

In my analysis, “food as medicine” splits into two categories. First, there are traditional foods which are thought to keep you healthy if you eat them. Second, there are foods which are thought best to restore health, being foods traditionally fed to people who are already sick. Further, it appears to me that when you look deeper, past the recipes and different foods, there is actually fundamental agreement about which types of foods belong in each category—agreement that cuts across cultures although it does not look that way at first glance.

Staying-healthy: fermented and cultured foods

Sauerkraut from Germany, kimchi from Korea and miso-pickled vegetables from Japan do not seem to have a lot in common with Swiss cheese, Bulgarian yogurt or olives from Italy. Yet, these are all fermented and cultured foods, and they are all traditional foods, although they stem from very different traditions.

In fact, all cheeses, regardless where they are from are cultured, as are all yogurts, including the drinking kinds like kefir and laban. Sauerkraut and kimchi both happen to be fermented cabbage, although spice and taste differ vastly between the two.

Centuries of tradition lie behind fermented foods: Miso-like foods have been known in Japan for at least 16,000 (!!) years, while Mediterranean olives have been grown (and necessarily fermented, being inedible otherwise) for perhaps 6000 years.

Lots of things want to eat our food besides us: molds, bacteria, yeast. Fermentation and culturing prevent this happening. Think about those martial arts which use your opponent’s momentum against them: with a twist, an oncoming rush is turned into a harmless sprawl. With just such a twist do we employ certain beneficial microbial “starters” to spread their tentacles through our foodstuffs, and by their presence, kickstart processes which preserve our food from different and harmful processes which would rot the food instead.

Across all the food traditions I know, such fermented and cultured foods are universally considered part of staying healthy.

Modern science cautiously agrees.  The wee beasties in your guts (intestinal flora) are known to benefit by the bacteria and enzymes such foods contain. In fact, the cultures in fermented foods may even have some effect on certain respiratory illnesses.

A modern take on “good for you” cultures from food has evolved into the probiotic concept. Probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, and there is agreement that they have a generally beneficial effect. So, it appears that the old folks were onto something, and you might want to include some cultured and fermented foods in your pantry and fridge, regardless if you prefer bland foods like sauerkraut, or spicy ones like kimchi 

One caveat: very salty products, whether fermented or not, are not too good for you, so look out for the sodium content of your fermented foods.

Return to health: Soup

Lentil soup with carrots spiced with cumin. Root-veggie soup from scratch, featuring parsnips. Beef mushroom-barley soup (the instant pot is your friend with this one). Miso soup with greens and tofu. French onion soup topped with melted cheese and bread. Any of these will warm you when you’re cold, pick you up when you’re run down. They all perfume the house. It is an act of kindness to be set a home-made bowl of any of these when you’re dragging though your day.

Yet among this list, perhaps the queen is chicken soup. It has a reputation as the ultimate tonic, yet recipes vary markedly across different cooking traditions. Under the same name, you might get a soup sour and lemony; or a bowl of egg-drop, white and yellow with the beaten-in eggs; or salty and savory with roast chicken; or swimming with dumplings; or earthy with carrots and potatoes; or even a filtered clear broth, a consomme served with nothing but a garnish. Chicken soup from a red-and-white can is popular, too, whether with noodes, or rice, or even creamed.

If you think making chicken soup takes a real lot of time, well, it can, what with making dumplings and roasting chickens. But it sure doesn’t have to. The quickest variation of all, which we’ve been making a lot of around here, is a half-quart per person of chicken stock (retort-packed) with a generous handful of frozen veggies stirred in and cooked for five-minutes past boiling. Dip in any bread, even if it is stale-ish and there’s an excellent, quick lunch. I often had not the time to make a more complicated variation, so my husband was swimming in this version during his entire recent 14-day isolation. About half the time, instead of bread, he was served with accompanying noodles (elbow or egg-noodles).

You can spend as long or as short on making soup as you like, and this might be a good time to make it part of your daily meals. Nothing, across all cultures I know, is considered as “good for you” as soup. I tell you the truth that when a dear friend was quite ill with pneumonia (way before Covid) she credited chicken soup with her health turn-around. Heaven forbid that we become sick, but soup will be traditional weapon in the arsenal, if we do.

Beyond soup: other easy-to-digest foods for the sick room and also, Ensure

Old cook books generally had “sick-room cookery” as an category or even as a subject, and “white foods” like custards and puddings and boiled rice were among the foods sick people were cajoled to eat as their first step off a soup-based diet. At a local hospital here, the cafeteria serves all modern foods except for an ancient recipe for custard handed down over many years. I wonder if the cooks making the custard in their gleaming institutional kitchen even know about the alleged health-giving powers of this particular menu item, but it was well-known in its time.

Today, I think a great deal of sick-room cookery has been replaced by modern nutritional supplements: Ensure, Boost, and other such complete nutritional packages contain all the nutrients a person needs to keep going, even when appetite is waning from sickness. So, even if you have never, ever bought such a thing as Ensure, maybe pick up a few bottles for just-in-case you may be called upon to become a home nurse in charge of feeding a sick person… which leads us to the next and last subject in this housekeeping series: home nursing.

Home nursing:

—Treating minor injuries at home

If you get some ailment which would ordinarily send you to the doctor’s office or the clinic, you might now hesitate to go for fear of exposing yourself or your household to catching the Covid-19 infection: so deadly and so easily catchable. Therefore, you might think of trying some first aid instead, or at least, as a first step.

Unlike the old timers who knew this stuff by experience, you have the internet. Yet, you might just want to have a look one evening, at some basics of first aid, or at least bookmark a helpful site so if and when something happens, you at least have a notion of where to quickly look for more info.

Another preparation step you might like to take is to lay in some first aid supplies, so you have them in the house ahead of time. Naturally, the time to buy these things was last month, but many of these things are not subject to panic buying, so if you’re going to a pharmacy or supermarket for some other reason, or ordering on-line, think about laying in some first aid supplies.

Let me be clear: I am by no means suggesting that you try a DIY or first-aid approach to someone with a serious illness. However, just because Covid is sweeping the land doesn’t mean people have stopped hurting themselves in other ways. Therefore, laying in first aid supplies for minor incidents and minor injuries just makes good sense. To the lists you might find on-line, I would add some old-fashioned remedies for aches and pains, such as clove oil for toothaches, chewing gum for a plugged-up ear, an ice-pack for headaches, eye wash in case you get something in your eye, a hot water bottle for ordinary aches and pains, sharp-pointed tweezers for splinter-removal.

—The sick room

If someone in your house has been diagnosed with illness, and if it is up to you to care for them, you will get all the medical advice you need from their care provider or, if the infection is Covid, the internet contains much advice. You will also receive instruction on how to protect yourself from getting ill while taking care of an infectious person at home.

I have no medical advice, but would merely like to add a few ideas from the old times (when home nursing was much more prevalent) for how to make an ill person more comfortable at home. In other words, some old-fashioned ideas for the sick-room.

The first thing is, a sick person feels helpless. So, giving them some measure of control is a base-line step. A bell they can ring if they need help, or even a wooden spoon and a pot to bang on to summon aid. Yes, they could text or call, but they might not be able to, especially in the night, so give them some kind of alarm in their room to summon aid.

Water within reach is also a good idea, so the sick person doesn't have to call out for every drink or sip.  A sports-bottle would be good for this. A little no-mess snack, like a tangerine would be a good thing on a bedside table, also, and of course, tissues and a (lined!) trash can.

Next is keeping their environment light, clean and serene. If the person you are nursing isn’t contagious, this is an easy first step: bustling around and making things clean and pleasant in the room is good energy to share with a sick person. This includes making the bed, either with them in it (ask them to roll from side to side) or with the sick person sitting in a chair. Clean sheets make everyone feel better.

If the person is contagious, keeping a clean, pleasant environment is a much more serious issue. Yet, open windows, clean sheets, an uncluttered room, a bunch of flowers—these are the psychic markers of “getting better.” Perhaps if you have to suit up to go into the sick room for some other reason, such as providing aid when summoned, you might try to achieve some of these goals while you are in there, then take a mega-shower and wash all your own clothes when you come out.

If the sick person has some energy of their own, they can help improve their own environment. They can strip their own bed and re-make it; open and close their own windows. Not only will this give them something to do on their own behalf, but it might actually make some difference to their state of mind, and possibly even to their state of health.

Mr. TECHknitting was in isolation for 14 oh-so-long days (who knows what he was sick with?  He had a fever and a cough, but no testing was offered. We were just told to stay isolated.)  Once his fever abated and he got to feeling better, he became a champ at bed-making, room-airing and the like, although those were not the kinds of activities in which he had much interested himself previously.

Clean laundry and clean pajamas were also a big part of old-time home nursing. If they can manage, the sick person can put their unders, pajamas, used towels for washing, together with their sheets and bedding, into a disposable garbage bag and set it by their door. You can handle these items with gloves, dump them into the washer, wash with bleach, then take the bag and your gloves out of the house to the trash, priority-wise.

A very big part of home nursing in the old days was presence. When my sister was very ill, half-a-century ago, everyone in the family took turns sitting with her. Although she was sleeping and unconscious for most of that time, she was attended continuously in shifts; she was never alone, not even in the small of the night. Sitting by a sick bed was how they did it back in the day, and I think a lot of knitting was done in situations like that. If the ill person is contagious, however, that’s not really an option. Maybe get out the old baby-monitor and keep tabs that way?
At the end, here, let's hope some anonymous genius will soon emerge from anonymity to save us all with a treatment, a cure, a vaccine, so that none of this information will ever be needed.

I will actually post some knitting content here one of these days: I have some new tricks with double knitting in two short videos.

Stay safe and keep knitting!
This is part 4 in a five-part series.
The others in this series are...

Friday, March 27, 2020

Getting food safely into your kitchen during a pandemic: advice from a doctor

Here at TECHknitting blog, we've been taking a tour pretty far from the subject of knitting. A global pandemic will turn many things on their heads, this change of topic in a technical knitting blog the least among them.

Today's installment was planned to be about cooking.  But, the first thing about cooking is, you have to get the food into the kitchen before you CAN cook. This turns out to be more problematic than you on.

How to get food into your kitchen in the first place

Please have a look at this video--this Covid-19 corona virus is such a serious problem that you actually have to CLEAN THE FOOD and its PACKAGES before you can begin cooking.  Yes that's a LOT of capital letters, YES this is a problem that no amount of old-fashioned houskeeping ever prepared anyone for.  Not the strictest old-timer ever thought of scrubbing food packages or washing the oranges and apples one-by-one, yet here we are.  Watch and learn. I know I did, and many, many thanks to Dr. VanWingen for posting this video. He has asked people to share it, so please pass it along in your turn.

Groceries to buy

Note that in the video, Dr. VanWingen says to bring two weeks worth of food into the house at the same time.  So, you have to ask yourself what you are going to buy to get through two weeks.  This is question for which old-fashioned housekeeping does have an answer.

Obviously, "staples" such as rice, flour, pasta in all its glorious variety, oatmeal, dried beans, salt, sugar, jams and jellies, peanut butter all store excellently, and can be used in lots of different ways. With tons of time on your hands, an internet connection and some basic ingredients,  bread-making is easily (yes, easily!) within your reach, so maybe throw some yeast into that basket.

Dried fruit is good for snacking and baking and putting on cereal. It requires no refrigeration to stay good.

Shelf-stable versions of perishable foods also fit the bill: condensed milk is good in recipes, canned veggies such as tomatoes and corn are even pretty tasty. Retort-packed tofu, milk and non-dairy milks store well in your pantry, and in a time of sickness, you simply can't have too much chicken broth--go for unsalted because you can always add salt, but you can't take it out.

As far as fresh food goes, "storage crops" are those traditionally relied upon to get through the winter.  In the fridge these hardy fruits and veggies will be just as good at the end of two weeks (or even more) as when you washed them and put them in

--Apples (as long as they are sound and unbruised. I vote for Golden Delcious as the best all-around easy-to-find apple.  Bonus: they don't turn brown when cut.)
--Brussels sprouts (will actually keep for months--even if the outer leaves go dry and yellow, the heart is still good and fresh)
--Cabbage (cabbage comes in its own sanitary wrapper: toss the outer leaves and you are good to go.  Further, cole slaw is a good raw food to eat when you can't have regular salad, see below)
--Celery and its rooty analogue, celeriac
--Radishes in a fridge are practically immortal.  They pack a nice spicy crunch
--honorable mention to oranges, lemons, grapefuit and tangerines: citrus will last a good long while in the fridge.

If you have a root cellar, dark cool basement or even just a dark closet
--Squash (champ of the storage veggies!)
will all keep for a long time.  Potatoes will sprout with even a little light, and are the least store-hardy of these, so give them the coolest, darkest spot you have.

Fresh foods best avoided until things get more back to normal:
--Avoid soft small fruit, such as strawberries, raspberries, even blueberries.
--Avoid leafy things like spinach and lettuce. think about substituting cole slaw instead.
Not only do these items go bad fairly quickly, but these things would be hard to wash the Dr. VanWingen way--scrubbing each blueberry for 20 seconds would get old, fast.

Frozen veggies are also excellent, and certainly frozen peas and green beans are much tastier than canned, but note that all frozen foods should be wiped down. My son-in-law, a PhD candidate in a vital yet mysterious sub-genre of biology says that when scientists want to preserve viruses, they keep them in the freezer.  That's good enough authority for me! Freezing does *not* destroy viruses: it preserves them along with the food package they might be sitting on. Wipe down your frozen food packages before you put them in the freezer.

Finally, don't forget the condiments: ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, vinegar, mayo.  All these will make food taste better with no particular effort on the cook's part, plus, they store beautifully.  Win-win.

Next time we're on to the topic of food, including the famously curative powers of chicken soup. In the meantime, if you do need to bring food into the house, shop safely, the Dr. VanWingen way. Thanks again, Doc!
This is part 3 of a five-part series.
The others in this series are

Saturday, March 21, 2020

What happened to the flying cars? Keeping house the old-school way

I spent significant time as a child in households ruled by strict old housekeepers, but it didn't really take. As an adult, our family mode of living has been a sort of comfortable squalor kept in check by occasional bouts of cleaning: a routine (or lack thereof) which certainly would have surprised those stern old ladies. Yet since this virus has begun, since a few months ago when it was clear that something wicked this way comes, housekeeping around here has tightened up, oh you bet!

I’ve got religion now.

I certainly remember the old strict rules. I was shown how to do my share in my time, sometimes with a twisted ear. Even ducking out at every chance, I couldn’t help but learn exactly how it was done.

Who knew I’d ever *need* this stuff? We were promised flying cars, but we got this lousy future, instead. As time wrinkles back on itself, it's back to old-school housekeeping as a first line defense against medieval-style disease.

Let's begin with a link to the OFFICIAL WORD on housekeeping: CDC's  housekeeping advice if you or someone in your household has Covid-19. 

In my last post, I promised the how-to of old-school housekeeping, so here it is, coming to you in all its glorious length.  (And thank you in advance for coming to my TED talk.) 

Outside vs. indoor clothing: a geography

Old school housekeeping was reflected in old-school architecture. Many old houses were built with a transition zone between the inside and the outside: a foyer, a porch, a mudroom.  In other words, the entrance to the home was though some space where muddy boots could live, where the coats were put away, and where packages brought in from outside could rest until you had time to lug them further into the house. In a suburban US house today, the garage and/or laundry room often functions like that.

This entrance-space is an important feature in housekeeping. It keeps the outside as outside as possible. What doesn’t come in, doesn’t have to be cleaned up. It’s the first line of defense.

Yet many houses built in the 1950’s (like the one I live in) were built so the front door opens straight into the living room—no transition zone at all. Apartments often have no transition zone, either. So, the first order of housekeeping is to establish a transition zone if architecture didn’t provide you one. I had the good luck to be able to tack a mudroom onto my house, but anything helps: even just a line on the floor. Things over there are “outside-ish,” things over here are “inside.”
So, what lives in the transition zone?

—Shoes off at the door. “House shoes” on (slippers). This was the old rule. I would think that with a super contagious virus around, street shoes should actually maybe even live outside the transition zone, if possible: in the garage, not the mudroom; maybe out in the hallway if you have an apartment and can get away with it. Also, we know that this particular virus dies on surfaces after several days (the longest period I have seen mentioned is 9 days). So, if you have a selection of shoes, rotate among them so the longest-unworn pair are the pair you wear today.

—Coat on a coat rack or coat closet by the door. In the old-school housekeeping I knew, coats were never brought into the house: they simply lived in the front hallway. Again, with the virus running loose, you might want to keep those coats out of the house altogether, if possible. Like shoes, if you have a bunch of different coats and rotate them so the longest-unworn coat is today’s choice, then each coat is less likely to infect you as you put it back on. Alternatively, washing coats and jackets is a thing—my nylon parka has been in the wash a lot lately.

—House clothes and outdoor clothes. “House clothes” used to be common. If you look up “housedresses” on the web, these are mainly marketed to senior citizens, those being the people who grew up with this system. Under strict housekeeping, outside clothes and inside clothes were’t really the same clothes—people got dressed “up” to go outside. dressed “down” when they came back in.

The old folks had “house coats” which they wore around inside regularly. These were very handsome articles (my grandmother’s was cashmere, my grandfather’s, silk) which have no real equivalent today—bathrobes or dressing gowns, perhaps. But the point is not the fancy house coat—the point is to distinguish between outside and inside clothes—a comfy pair of sweats are as good as cashmere, and better, too, because sweat clothes are washable.

As to clothes which had been worn outside, these were either aired out on the balcony (men’s suits and tailored dresses and such) or washed. “Partly used” clothes weren’t put away to be worn another day (unless aired out first) because there wasn’t really a category like that. And once-worn clothing certainly did not decorate chairs and the floor while waiting to be worn again!

Truthfully, as a kid in my grandmother’s house, I did my own little American thing: I did wear my outside clothes inside, then wear them again without washing or airing, and my mother often did, but the old folks from the old country really kind of didn’t. Outside clothes inside a house, left laying on chairs, not aired and not put away: these were “modern” practices, sniffed at, fought against, not adopted.

With a virus like Covid which can live on surfaces and kill you if it gets into your nose and eyes, I would think the old-school distinction between inside and outside clothing should now be a house rule on steroids: an even greater distinction to be made today than formerly.   

Street clothes to be taken off in the transition zone, then straight into the washing machine the fastest way. Keep a hamper in the transition zone, handle the laundry with gloves, or at the minimum, really really your hands after you touch the outside-clothing laundry. Wipe down the hamper after you empty it, as well as the machine itself. If you absolutely have no ready access to a washing machine, consider washing your clothes in the tub (more below).  If pressed to a last resort, consider keeping each outfit of street clothing in a separate paper bag and letting them age out of infectionousness, rotating outfits: this is what is recommended for rotating face masks, so it would be better than nothing, and certainly better than laying your street clothes around your bedroom to wear again. 

Inside the house

Other than maintaining the kitchen and preparing food (more on cooking, kitchens and supplies in the next installment) the bedding was the biggest item of daily housekeeping—which I never could understand, and still somewhat don't.

—Bedding: Every week, all the bedding on every bed was changed: the comforter covers came off and were laundered, the pillow cases were stripped, each bed was laid naked to air. Lots of time was then spent putting the comforters back in new (ironed) covers, wrangling the pillows back into new (ironed) pillow cases, and the beds made up fresh with new (ironed) sheets. But all this effort—and it took two people most of a morning—was merely a prelude to the rest of the week.

Every remaining morning of every week, all the beds were “made up.” They didn’t just straighten the bed clothes and tuck in the blankets, no.

     —The old way was to lay out all the blankets, pillow and sheets outdoors for an hour or so, yes, even in winter. Each pillow was plumped so vigorously feathers might fly out despite a feather-proof ticking. The old houses were built with covered balconies and screened sunrooms to make airing possible, but throwing the bedding over an open window sill, or over a chair in the yard would work, too, so long as it isn’t raining or snowing.

     —The new way (mercifully much easier) which seems to me to accomplish the same: every day, throw the bedding in the dryer for a full timed cycle on the hottest setting. (But still change the bedding once a week!)

I’m truthfully not sure what the rationale was for all this attention to the bedding. All I know is, they did the dance of bedding, and double when the beds were stripped. Must have been something to it, because the amount of energy devoted to it was enormous.

Despite never fully understanding the rationale, I am willing to believe. Perhaps bedding is a breeding ground of disease? If true, this would explain the two different ends of the spectrum in my personal experience. Specifically, I’ve observed that hospitals change the bedding very frequently. By contrast, on a cruise ship my family and I were on years ago, I had to give the room steward a big tip to provide us fresh-laundered comforters.  Because it wasn’t visibly dirty, and because the sheets were changed, the old comforter was set to be re-used until I happened to ask about that. (Yes, said the steward: they only had a few hours to turn over all their cabins between cruises, so what exactly did I expect?) Yuk. Aaaand, there’s why I’ve never gone on another cruise.

Since I’ve caught the old religion, the pillows have been aired outside, and the comforter has gone through the dryer, *almost* every day. The sheets have been washed daily or on alternate days. Wisconsin in early spring still features plenty of rain and snow, and some days, the dryer is just churning with clothing all day, but on the days when the comforter and pillows couldn’t be aired, the comforter is at least rotated so the side becomes the head, and the pillows are flipped on the bed. In this way, the sleeper's head is never on the same un-aired piece of fabric any two nights in a row.

Of course, in a sick-room, you'd have to wash the linens daily, none of this rotating--more on that in a later installment.

While the bedding was airing, the bedroom windows were left open. Obviously, if its 20 below out, you can’t open the windows, but if its 50 degrees, or even 40, you sure can—and they sure did when I was a kid. While the windows were open, the floors were cleaned.  Note again: the floors were cleaned with the windows open, regardless whether the cleaner had to suffer in a cold room--more on this below. The trash in the bedroom (and all over the house) was emptied every single day.

—Floors, carpets and rugs:
     —Damp mop, don’t sweep. Sweeping throws dust in the air. Damp mopping traps the dust on the mop and keeps it out of the air. Run a lightly damp mop over the whole floor: bring the larger grit and such into a pile, just as if you were sweeping. Pick up the pile with a damp rag or paper towel and dispose. Afterwards, mop the floor more thoroughly. If you’re in love with the broom as a tool, dip the tip of the broom bristles or sprinkle a few drops of water on the floor and “damp broom” instead—you don’t want to make mud, you just want to keep the dust down.

     —Vacuuming: Like sweeping, vacuuming throws dust in the air. If you have wall-to-wall carpet, you have no choice but to vacuum. But you can help dilute that dust by opening the windows as you vacuum, and for an hour afterwards, as in the example of the bedrooms, above. Leave the room for a while, also—the point is to not breathe the dust left hanging in the air. In today’s situation, if you have a mask, consider wearing one while you vacuum. If you have rugs/carpets consider rolling them up for the duration, so you can keep the floors under the rugs washed.

     —Rugs: if you want to go full old-school clean, do what the old folks did once a month: take the rugs outside on a bright sunny day and beat them. Wicker carpet-beaters were a common tool back in the day, but no one has those any more: they were all bought as decorations to hang on a wall.  Instead, use a tennis racket or the flat side of a broom. No one still has a carpet-rack in the yard, either, so sling the carpet over a chair or fence. Be amazed at the amount of dust and crap that flies out as you beat: wear a mask or bandana or kitchen towel over nose and mouth, wear goggles or your snorkel mask to keep dust out of your eyes. Take a shower afterwards, wash your clothes. Rugs, especially if they’ve never been beaten, are mega-disgusting. (Pro-tip: so are doormats!).


Like the front hallway, architecture used to help keep bathrooms clean, meaning, the cleanest bathrooms are those with a separate toilet compartments. A toilet has always been understood to be a potential source of illness. However, a modern bathroom is unlikely to have a separated toilet-compartment. You might be able to get around this if you have two bathrooms, meaning, you might like to think about keeping one as a toilet-stall, and the other for body-washing and grooming. However, a person who is sick should have their own toilet, if at ALL possible--see the CDC guidlines which open this post.

   —When the toilet is in the room: Try to keep as much fabric as you can out of a bathroom containing an in-use toilet. Each person gets their own hand towel, best would be keep it somewhere near the bathroom, but not *in* the bathroom. Same with the bath towels. Alternatively, if they have to hang in a bathroom with a toilet, then launder, launder, launder those towels. Air the bathmat or wash it.

Keep the lid down on the toilet when you flush—disease is known to spread by droplets "pluming" out of an open, flushing toilet, and this Covid virus spreads via an oral-fecal route. Therefore, at the minimum, keep the toothbrushes out of the bathroom—carry them in to brush, carry them out again afterwards. 

Do not let your toothbrush touch anyone else’s. Consider giving each person their own toothpaste tube or at least wipe off the first squeeze into a tissue and dispose. If there is sickness in the house, boil the toothbrushes (not the battery ones, though!)

   --Cleaning toilets: Cleaning toilets was always the last part of the housecleaning day. Going to “clean” a further room after cleaning a bathroom would not be much of actually cleaning at all.

If someone is sick, cleaning their toilet can make YOU sick, especially if they have diarrhea (or this virus!) So, if the sick person has the energy to do that cleaning, so much the better. If *you* are going to clean a sick person’s toilet, be serious and tackle this job professionally. I’d wear gloves and a mask and eye protections. No mask? If it were me, I’d wrap a kitchen towel around my nose and mouth.

With contagious disease in the house, then whoever is cleaning the toilet: do it RIGHT BEFORE showering—strip off your clothes (into the washing machine is best) then jump in the shower as soon as you finish the sick person’s bathroom.

   --How to clean: the inside with a toilet brush (each toilet has its own brush, do not carry a toilet brush through the house). I know those clorox tablets which dispense bleach into the toilet water are an environmental disaster—all bleach is an environmental disaster. But for a person with serious illness, you might want to think about getting those tablets to put into the tank for the duration, perhaps there would be a chance that any spray flying out might have at least a chance of being disinfected. Wear gloves.

For the toilet-outside, wipe with a paper towel and disinfectant spray, then wipe again with a different (dry) paper towel. Wipe the floor around the toilet with the same care as the outside of the toilet itself. Dispose the paper towels straight into a lined garbage can and take them out of the house asap, liner and all. Wear gloves.

  --Male anatomy and reality: If you’re in a position of having to clean a bathroom after men or boys, it's by far best if they sit down to do their business. If they have to do both number 1 and 2, they sit down anyhow, so they DO know how to manage, despite preferences otherwise. The head-down position necessary to really scrub pee-stains away from the floor means the cleaner’s head is near any contaminants from feces which might be on or near the toilet: sitting down is the least a fellow could do to help out. If Mr. Manly Man doesn’t want to sit because of the “witch’s kiss” (his junk hits the water) lower the water level in the bowl by adjusting the works inside the toilet tank. Alternatively, park a rinsed-out jar sealed tight and full of water in a corner of the tank, which has the same effect. If the lowered level isn’t enough water to flush thoroughly, flush twice. If he just damn well doesn’t want to sit for some other reason, congrats to him: he wears the mask, gloves and eye protection and cleans the toilet and the floor all around. Or you know, even if he does sit, he could still clean. We’re all on this trip together. 

  --Paper towels vs. rags: Paper towels are more sanitary, but if you’re trapped without them, use rags and bleach-water (look up the right bleach to water ratio on the web—there are different opinions about this). After use, all rags go into the bucket of bleach-water to soak. When you get enough rags soaking, they go into the washing machine with more bleach. If you have no rags, retire some old t-shirts, rip up that old, worn sheet, cut that old towel into squares. WEAR GLOVES!

--Bathroom sinks and tubs: wipe them down with paper towels and disinfectant, or rags and bleach-water—if using rags, you can use the same rag as you’re going to use for the toilet-outside, but do the sink and tub first (obviously). Don't forget the faucets! Those get touched more than any other part of the sink and tub, really.


 My grandmother had an automatic washing machine, and so did my MIL, but they were both old enough to remember the time before those machines. No nostalgia there, I assure you.  That machine was a priority in the household (and here is a real, and very interesting TED talk about that). In the old days, enormously strong women, called washer-women, would literally boil the whites and household linens, and wrestle the dirty clothes around in a tub, rubbing the dirtiest spots on a “laundry board.” As my grandmother told me, wash was sent out to these women, or sometimes, they came into your house on a certain day to help out.

The modern washing machine let these washer-women retire, thank goodness. But, if you don’t have a washing machine, you don’t have to become a washer-woman yourself. See, a modern machine works by agitating clothes—the agitator (or the tub in an agitator-free model) turns one way, then the other. You can accomplish this same by putting your clothes into the bathtub, adding water and some laundry detergent, then plunging away at your clothes with a *CLEAN* unused toilet plunger—write “clothes only” on the handle with a sharpie! Let the soapy water out, then rinse by adding fresh water, plug the tub and plunge again, probably rinse twice. Wring out the clothes and hang them to dry. I did this when I was young and poor, and it worked OK--the wringing is harder than the washing, actually.

The iron was a constant companion. In my grandmother’s house, every bit of household linen—tablewear as well as bed clothes—was ironed before it was put away. My grandmother had a mangle-iron: all the sheets and tablecloths were sent through the roller. One person ran the mangle and the other person fed the cloth in and helped control it as it came out. The hand-iron was run over many of the clothes before they were put away: I even knew of a family (not mine) where even the underpants were ironed after being washed.

I *think* the idea of ironing everything came from louse- and flea-control. Lice and fleas and their eggs could not withstand a hot iron. I believe this because the iron was always, by tradition, run up the seams of any garment first—just where insect eggs would be most likely hidden. However, I’m sure that a hot iron also destroyed any germ or virus it came across. 

I would like to believe that the modern equivalent of the hot iron is the dryer—a course of truly hot air will kill many germs and viruses— 56 degrees Celcius (133 degrees F) is enough to deactivate Covid's little brother, SARS (although I couldn't find anything to say that's hot enough for Covid-19!). Yes, a hot-hot dryer is not ideal for delicates, but in this situation, your better bet is not to wear delicates, and dry the heck out of everything else. If you don't have a dryer, hanging clothes to dry is free. If the laundry hangs in the sunshine, you're ahead of the game: UV in sunshine is a disinfectant, and the clothes smell lovely, even though the towels do come out scratchy.  If the laundry hung damp a long time in the cold, without ever getting any direct sun (like in your basement or over your bathtub), then ironing truly would be a good idea. Washing gets the dirt out, but it’s the drying, at least as much as the washing, which disinfects fabric. 

Polishing things

A good part of old-school housekeeping involved polishing things: wooden floors with floor wax, silverware with paste and rouge, doorknobs with brass polish, furniture with beeswax. Today's stainless steel cutlery needs no silver polish, a polyurethaned wood floor needs no floor wax and door knobs are unlikely to be brass thick enough to stand up to brass polish.  Modern furniture finishes also don't require constant waxing.  What's been lost, though, is the idea of thoroughly cleaning surfaces we don't really think about cleaning any more. 

You know what though? The doorknobs instead have been getting a shot of disinfectant spray every day--CDC calls those (and light switches, faucet handles and the like) "high-touch" surfaces, and those need to be cleaned daily.  Furthermore, I've been looking at that spray-can of lemon pledge which has been under the sink for quite some time. I think it is time to get it out again.

And speaking of cleaning surfaces we don't really think about cleaning, don't forget to clean your phone.  (Really, really, REALLY don't sit on the can in a public restroom watching cat videos.  Those days are over.)

Fresh air—again

To end up and to repeat myself, having lived under the thumb of an old-school housekeeper and having seen other old-school housekeepers up close and personal, I think the biggest difference between housekeeping of old, and housekeeping today were these three things: 
--mania for fresh air in the rooms, 
--airing out bedding daily, even in the winter, and changing the linens every week like clockwork
--distinguishing between inside and outside clothing.

—keep safe. TK

This is part 2 of a five part series.
The others in this series are

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The politics of housekeeping: Plague edition, part 1

It's on us, now

Well dear knitters, I am back (for the moment, anyway) and here we are. On our own.

The TV “president” provided no leadership at any time during his term, provides none now. To his surprise (but not mine or yours) posturing is not leadership, the stock market is not the common good, de-funding public health does not make our country healthier, dosing us with hatred does not leave our country stronger to face challenges. 

We're well into the 21st century, yet medieval-style plague stalks the land. It’s left to us to deal, as best we can.

It’s not our first go-round as a species with terrifying diseases. Lines of gravestones all marked the same dates bear witness in old churchyards: we have been here before. Yet, equally, the fact that you are here walking around means life went on for your particular ancestors. Hopefully, this episode, it will go on for us and our loved ones.

"Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”—Jerry Garcia

As science discovered root causes of disease, governmental regulation followed (often by popular demand, not benevolence). Hygiene improved greatly. Therefore, housekeeping techniques developed in former times became outdated.

Milk no longer had to be boiled when it came into the house (although my Austrian grandmother did it til she died). Eggs no longer had to be broken into a glass one-by one to test freshness (although my US "farm-wife" MIL did that til she died). Instead, governmental regulation assured that milk was pasturized and eggs were tested. Regulation assured our health.

Now, that compact has been broken. Regulation in China failed in ways unknowable to us: did this plague arise in a market where wild aimals were butchered in unhygienic ways right next to still-live animals? Was it research gone mad as some believe? Will we ever know? Does it even matter?

The fact is, once this disease was loose and running, a failure of our own governments—those of Europe and the US—was equally bad: head in the sand has been the order of the day. “We have it totally under control,” and “take the family out to eat” was governmental officials' advice until it was suddenly wasn't, and “stay in your home” and “the border is closed” became the watchword. Government of denial by the ignorant. What a world.

Although fast, reliable tests are freely available elsewhere, here in the US, that is not the case.  My husband is on day 13 of his voluntary isolation because he had a cough and fever. Has he got coronavirus? The fever is gone, and the cough almost, but who knows if he can come out and walk among us? Or, should he stay holed up for weeks yet?

If we are all very lucky indeed, after-the-fact regulation such as shut-downs and border closings may slow this situation down until some genius emerges from anonymity to save us with a vaccine or a treatment.

But until then—and best guesses are perhaps as much as 18 months—we are on our own. 

Why focus on housekeeping?

To be clear: I don’t think milk and eggs are in any danger today of being contaminated and causing sickness—boiling milk and cracking eggs one-by-one are indeed outdated housekeeping. 

But other kinds of health-oriented housekeeping which we used to think are outdated? Perhaps those old ways are not so outdated after all.

Once an old-school plague stalks your doorstep, old-school methods may have more to tell us than we once believed. In short, the ancient and honorable tradition of housekeeping is, imho, due to make a return, demanding far more attention than it has received in recent years. 

“It’s like a dance, where you keep practicing the steps”—DS

Yes, I know. No one wants to hear that housekeeping is a priority. Let’s face it. Housekeeping has a baaaaaaad name. It's hard work.  It's hard to make yourself do it. It’s boring. Repetitive. Women’s work. 

In my family of European mutts from all over the continent—housework was indeed exclusively done by women. But make no mistake. It was women’s work by sad tradition, not by deficiency of talent or intelligence. These women were clever—one was offered a math scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris (but chose to marry and have 10 (!!) children instead). One oversaw a (multi-person) law and real estate office as a side endeavor. One was a University-trained accountant who postponed having children or marrying for years (and was the only woman in any of her math classes)…oh I could go on. Yet, with all the intelligence at their command, and immense unceasing effort, these women were serious, dedicated 24/7 housekeepers. 

As a young person, it was my privilege (although I certainly did not see it that way at the time) to know these women: to visit, and in some cases (my grandmother every summer) to live in their households. It is my thesis that their methods, their rules, their labor and their observations have something to tell us in our current situation, about running a healthy household.

Am I saying that old-school housekeeping is the be-all answer to the COVID-19 virus? I am not—that would be an absurd claim. But I am saying that housekeeping practices formed in a time when contagious illness was routinely prevalent may well have some value now.

Obviously, by taking the trouble to write all this out, you can tell that I myself do believe it would be a valuable tool in the fight where we are on our own to keep our loved ones as healthy as possible. Empirical observation and practice are not to be scorned—people of former generations weren’t any less clever than we today: even if they didn’t exactly know *why* things worked, they saw *what* things worked, and they lived in a time when far more people died of contagious disease than has been the case until now.  Even if these traditional practices only tilt the scales a little, I would find them worthwhile.

But before we get into the how-to of house work (next installment) the first how-to is a "how-do?" How do you get yourself to actually commit to doing this kind of repetitive, repetitive, repetitive work?  

I once asked a professional housekeeper, initials DS—not a relative, but a woman who all her life had earned a living as a housekeeper of other people’s houses—whether she didn’t find the work boring. She said that she had, indeed found it so at the beginning of her career. But as she went along, it became like a dance: variations on a theme, and always practicing the steps, perhaps in slightly different order, or with slightly different emphasis. By paying attention to these details, she said, she became enmeshed in the dance of housekeeping. She was in high demand, and had the same clients for years on end, and kept a waiting list, so I guess that was true, for I knew her when she had been a housekeeper for decades, and as far as I know, she still is one. 

I strive to channel DS’s zen when I am cleaning the kitchen for the second time today (especially when I am cleaning it up after someone else!) Focusing on the health of my family, on how my forebears focused on the health of *their* families, illuminates the value in emulating them doing these repetitive tasks (and makes me write this sort of essay, too!)


This is part 1 of a 5-part series.
The others in this series are...