Monday, July 23, 2007

EVERYTHING can break.

Having climbed just far enough out of my alligator morass to be able to catch my breath for a moment; my problem with this blog is a huge overload of stuff I'd like to write about (floods, philosophy, meat, science...) and stuff you've asked for. And I can't do them all, of course, so I'm going to do a short one, that wasn't on ANY of those lists so far, but which IS important, and connected. :-)

There have been multiple discussions on laundry hereabouts; including one today in the BBC, which probably tipped my choice of topic this way. England builds desalination plant. Last line in the article; "At the moment, half of the drinking water supplied to homes is used for flushing toilets and washing dirty clothes, which is madness." !! Ya think??

Nice somebody is starting to think, anyway.

So- laundry, and water, is NOT the point of this post; they're just the platform. Is water use critical? Way past. New lake?. This is a very good article; pointing out the tangle of interconnections between climate change, genocide, bad policies, and inadequate understandings. Darfur; one of the great horrors of our time, from all aspects. Water is going to continue to be a huge factor in global disturbances, as far out as anyone can see now.

So. We have to CHANGE the way we use water. Duh. Everybody agrees. Immediately after that lovely agreement, all the 2,804 different viewpoints and vested interests go straight for each others throats. Not much useful discussion going on, or progess in changing anything; hence the need for England - to build a delsalination plant for drinking water, so our current wasteful ways can continue without troubling interruption or real thought.

What is the sensible reaction of sensible people in this situation? Where the noise of conversation is drowning out any actual discussion, and no world body is actually capable of making any decisions? My own answer is; I'm going to live my own life as sensibly as I can, at least. Kind of all I can do; and the example might help, some decade or other.

Then- we get to the real world, that nasty nasty place, where your actions have real consequences. What, this isn't a video game? I don't get 10 lives, before I get to just start over? We'd laugh, but it's so not funny.

And here, in my own backyard, is a perfect example of what I'm trying to say- change is NOT EASY- and one of the barriers to real world change- is the increasing number of humans we have- who have never, ever been in touch with the real world.

This is where we do our laundry; a subject we've never raised here before; largely because it's not likely to be of use, in its total process, to folks living in cities or suburbs; This is a rural process; mostly, though some aspects could be adapted.

And why is the clothesline down on the ground, you ask? Ah. We'll get to that.

That big water tank down at the end there is a 500 gallon tank. It's filled by our windmill, and we use that water for lots of things; showers, and the occasional watering of plants just being established in our fields. And, laundry.

The basic idea here- this whole setup is on the path between the house and the greenhouse and the garden. We walk between house and other places like 6 times a day, most days. What I've developed over the years, is the habit of doing laundry- ALL DAY - EVERY DAY. In little tiny bits.

You're SUPPOSED to walk down and do "the next thing" for the laundry- every time you pass. Both ways. Regardless of how big a hurry you're in. If you allow yourself to say "oh, but I'm in too big a hurry to make lunch right now, I don't have time to stop and change the laundry from soap to rinse tank, I'll do it later.." you've lost the battle; and this will not work. You will wind up not doing the laundry. So you do need the philosophical attitude that "hurry" is a bad idea, pretty much always.

But if you can set up this internal habit- it's a pretty sweet system. You don't wind up spending hours doing just laundry- you do it in 5 and 10 minute bits. Then move on- usually feeling good about it, rather than overburdened. Here's what we do; you put a reasonable batch of laundry into a 30-40 gallon tank, which has a lid for it. Add soap/detergent/whatever, in the right amount, so the tank is about 2/3 full; and agitate; or "pound" as we say. Lots of different choices for pounding implements; currently we mostly use a natural rubber "plumber's helper" - which I have cut holes in, to increase the turbulence, and decrease the work. Pound the laundry up, say 100 strokes- counting is fun, with kids- put the lid on, and leave it to soak. Probably for hours, maybe in the sun, which adds heat to the water.

On the way back from whatever; you stop in- pound it another 100 strokes. Leave it to soak. The decision when to shift from soapy to rinse cycle depends on how dirty your batch is, of course. It's pretty forgiving. Usually we have 2, or 3 tanks going at once; one soapy, one first rinse, one second rinse. Then, it goes onto the clothesline, for lovely outdoor sunny drying. Wonderful fresh smells.

So. Spice tried this system a couple times when she first got here, and was not enthusiastic. She reverted to driving the laundry in to town, laundromat. For about 10 reasons, one of them being the price of fuel, she decided this year to give it another shot. For about 10 reasons, this time she became enthusiastic. One of those was- the height of the tanks. Something just that simple will make all the difference between success and failure- MOST OF THE TIME.

I'm 6'1; my two sons are both the same-ish. Spice is "5 foot-nothing" as she puts it. She just had too much of a struggle getting soaking wet laundry out of those taller tanks. We got some that were shorter. Hey presto! it's not killing her anymore. And Smidgen loves to help, and is entertained.

So. She's decided this is the future for us; a good functional cheap laundry system; and incidentally fantastic exercise- think of the money we save on gym fees and exercise equipment! But our original clothesline had died- the aspen tree it was secured to succumbed to a fungus disease- and fell over. So we needed a new clothesline.

Part of the problem with the old line was the fact that it was a quicky; temporary. Wasn't done right; so now I have to do it again.

One of my father's favorite jibes- "Yeah, there's never time to do a job right. But there's time to do it over; once it breaks."

Building something RIGHT is incredibly satisfying. Constructing something that will last- and that will be basically USEFUL for your life, your family, is about the most rewarding activity I know.

So with the help of Middle Child ( trying out a new moniker here :-) - before Smidgen, he was Younger Son; but now he has the Garrison Keillor slot-) I set out to build a clothesline for the ages. The Rolls Royce of clotheslines.

We had fun building it, too. Went down to the SE quarter, and cut some black locust trees- which I had planted, decades ago- for exactly this kind of purpose. Black locust won't rot in the soil- it's better than any treated wood, no kidding. Peeled the posts- the bark will come off messily and slowly otherwise. Set the posts so they are guyed to "deadmen" - 3 foot long black locust posts totally buried - sideways - to provide tremendous anchor power. Laundry is HEAVY, you know? That beautiful line is under serious tension when loaded with wet clothes. You need to design for it.

Bought 50' of plastic coated steel cable for the line. (Oh, hush; it's a good use of plastic. :-)) 50' is a LONG way- you need to allow for re-tensioning; and for - mowing the grass! So there's a big turnbuckle in the line, with a hook- a few turns and you can take the line down for mowing; if it's sagging, a few turns and it's tight.

Worked great! Looked beautiful! Dried laundry!

Worked so well, that Spice decided to put ALL the laundry on the line today; doing a big batch. With blankets.


You can overload ANYTHING- and this is what so many people growing up protected in cities- and thinking you can always do it over, like in the video game - just DO NOT understand, in a very basic way.

"It's working great! I'll just add a little more!"

LIMITS. Limits. Everything has limits- and we have a society we've trained to NOT KNOW that- and it's a huge part of reaching our goals of a livable world. You want more? Bigger? YOU CAN'T HAVE IT. The world will break.

The laundry overload didn't break my massive black locust posts. Didn't pull out the deadmen. Plastic coated steel cable is a little tricky to fasten; you CAN'T tie knots in it; you have to use "cable clamps". The overload actually pulled the cable out of the fiercely tightened clamp- which I had put together myself, in a pretty knowledgeable way- cable doubled back; looped, right piece down- etc. Still- stripped the plastic off; pulled the cable right out.

Easy enough to fix; only took me 10 minutes. Lots of humor. But the principle remains one that worries me- how do you get people to accept limits- when they don't realize there ARE any?

My concern, and experience, goes far beyond Spice. One year we had a group of GREAT interns living here for the summer. All exceptionally bright. And all city kids.

They broke every machine on the farm, eventually. "The mower is doing great in this foot high grass; I'm going to mow the 18" tall grass over there next..." Nope. CAN'T. Overload. Burn up the belts, if you're lucky; burn up the transmission or overheat the engine, if you're not. "Well, how was I supposed to know??" in anguish.

Good question. We need good answers. It used to be called "common sense" - but how do you teach that?

What we're overloading is the Earth- and it's mostly the result of millions of tiny overloads; from clueless humans; far too many of whom do not know "overload" is even possible.


Crunchy Chicken said...

I think you may be being a bit too harsh. How are people supposed to intuit what the limits are? It's not like it's obvious. Your examples of the lawnmower and the laundry line are great examples, but with a new system there is the opportunity to teach.

You built the laundry line system. If it couldn't hold 50 feet of laundry, did you tell Spice what the limits were? Same thing with the lawn mower. Did you send out the intern with instructions (don't mow over a foot)?

The only way people will learn, unless they are told is by trial and error. And that looks like what you have here.

Greenpa said...

Hiya Crunch- well, it wasn't really supposed to sound harsh; and I CERTAINLY understand the needs for normal learning. I'm quite a patient teacher; ask my students. Ask Spice; for that matter. :-)

What I'm talking about is the concept that a bunch of folks are totally MISSING the idea that things can be pushed too far. They don't approach new jobs with the idea "hm, I wonder how far I can push this thing before it breaks?" - and then test those things carefully- the underlying behavior is quite different. They just don't know everything will break- and when stuff breaks, they're surprised, Then they'll do it again.

I'm in favor of trial and errror. Careful and intelligent trial and error. I think what I'm suggesting is there's too much very unintelligent, and very careless trial and error going on.

Greenpa said...

Now ya got me all worried. :-)

"How are people supposed to intuit what the limits are? It's not like it's obvious."

Obvious- no. BUT - I contend we should always start with "this thing CAN break, and I need to know where the limits are" - and approach carefully.

The clothesline- was sagging like the dickens before breaking- and it's steel cable. Not much sag there under normal circumstances.

The grass WAS more obvious- if you're at all tuned to the limits of machinery. Moving from shorter to taller grass- you can feel the machine working much harder; hear it; the tone of the engine changes as the load goes up. You can see the engine getting hot- or in this case, you could see the SMOKE coming off the hot belts. This kid DID hear the engine pitch change- and watched the smoke, and wondered if that was normal- but didn't STOP and ask or check- just kept going -until the belts melted off.

I'm not suggesting everyone should just automatically know the answers- but I DO think we should have enough sense to stop mowing when the machine starts to smoke.

And that's my observation- this wasn't one instance; one kid- it was all the kids; all the time. Scares me! Particularly when applied to government decision makers. "Hey, let's make ethanol the answer to everything!" Ethanol's belts are smoking. :-)

Anonymous said...

Spice here!

Not really defending myself. it was silly to wash all the blankets when I knew the laundry line needed more support. LEARNED MY LESSON GREENPA!!!!!!

He really is a patient teacher and has put up with all the wierd ways I mess up trying to learn to live green. Like the time I nearly blew up the pressure canner. Or when I started the wood stove on fire! (Yes flames were shooting out the oven)

I guess the problem is that there's no one telling most people to watch out. That maybe they're doing too much, too fast and cutting too many corners. That everything has limits.

When I broke the laundry line, Greenpa wasn't on the farm, he was off for a day-and-a-half. So I figured, hey the guy's not here, perfect time to wash all the bedding!
Good idea in theory, bad in practice. I really didn't realize the quilts and comforters would take so long to dry and I washed them first. Then did more and more loads, telling myself, "it's okay. Those blankets will be off the line soon. It won't break."

I should have known better, but I tend to be a glass-half-full or more gal.

Evening came, and those darn blankets were still wet. Morning came and they were covered in dew and I couldn't take them down. Greenpa came home and said, "Did you know the laundry line is in the grass?"

He said it so calmly, and with a little bit of a grin. I probably blushed from the roots of my hair to the tips of my toes. He laughed and fixed it, so I can do SMALLER loads of laundry from here on out.

He did warn me about this post before writing it, but I can't say I didn't earn it.

Maybe we should be more willing to listen to those who don't get angry when we make mistakes, but who smile and crack a well meaning joke, before helping us to fix our mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I didn't really think that Greenpa came off as harsh. What I came away thinking was that it used to be that as children, we were involved in these processes and as we grew older and took on more responsibility, we acquired a better "feel" for things. I don't think today's kids have that. Everything is done for them and they are shuffled from school, to ballet, to soccor, to bed. My daughter is almost eight and has never participated in doing laundry because it is faster for me to do it without her help. When I was eight, I was responsible for washing the supper dishes every other night and moving clothes from the washer to the dryer. With the endless supply of Happy Meals and re-set buttons, it's hard for any kid to get a grasp of limits.

Anonymous said...

Spice, I'm glad I'm not the only one who goofs! My sweetie is the handy mechanically-inclined one in the family. I've learned to stop and check with him when in doubt. Although he is not perfect either. Here's the long sad tale of how we installed the solar pump system for our well only to discover it was leaking...way down at the bottom connection. To make it easier to pull up the pump, 180 feet of heavy electrical cable and irrigation pipe, we tied the safety rope to the hitch of the truck. He drove, I simply guided the pipe and cable....until the rope shredded on the rough edge of the wellhead. Oops! The falling electrical cable wedged itself securely between the pump and the side of the well. The irrigation pipe was not strong enough to pull up the wedged pump. We had a very panicky week of "fishing" for the cable. If I hadn't finally hooked it with an 'S' hook on a rope (DAYS of trying to do this), we would have been looking at paying for drilling a new well plus replacing all of the equipment.

Now, Greenpa, should we have known better? In retrospect, it seems like it. But we were new to the homesteading game and made a newbie error. Did we learn from it? You bet! After that we looked over problems and solutions far more thoroughly....well except my shoveling disaster...

I do agree, however, that kids I've been around these days do not seem to have as much common sense or problem solving ability as past generations.

Anonymous said...

One thing to consider is getting people involved in the building. Someone who's cranked down on a wire nut and then hung off the cable to make sure it was tight has at least a clue about load. (Someone who's had a bit of geometry and understands that pulling at 90 degrees on a taut line is exerting an _extremely_ strong force has more of a clue, come to think of it.)

Someone who's taken apart a belt drive and done the lube work has a bit more of an idea what friction can do.

Someone who's sharpened the scythe and used the hammer to take out the notches has a heck of a better idea why whacking rocks with it isn't smart.

An urban kid who's finished two weeks in the woods by being handed the rake and told, now, go around and carefully remove all the signs you find of children having been playing here, because every bare spot is going to be the start of a new erosion problem ----- will notice the bare spots, the big scrapes down slopes where they slid digging their heels in.

Having filled the divots and scattered leaves and twigs back over every mark is a lot better than telling them not to do any damage --- kids will --- but to make them notice the damage they did while they were having fun and think about why "campgrounds" are such barren places compared to the woods they're in.

I recall J. Baldwin of the old Whole Earth Catalog commenting that you never know how to use a tool until you know the several ways you can break it. I think that assumption is what's missing. Or perhaps worse, it's the assumption that things just break and you just throw them away and get new ones. I see _that_ ferdamsure all the time, everything from pencils to automobiles, the utter lack of imagination that goes with assuming you can't figure out and fix what's broken.

And yet they're right --- economically. They don't know they can fix things, nobody they can pay will fix things, and new things are cheaper than dirt.

But with a few tools and some 5-minute Epoxy, I can fix an awful lot of stuff. Far more than I have time to fix, really.

Anonymous said...

Plenty of us born from the 70's onwards have learned that anything can be fixed. And if it can't - throw it away and get a new one (preferably a newer model).

Having dreamt about it for years, last summer I built a kitchen for our house. Woodwork is unforgiving: neglect your tools and you'll damage them, lose your cool and you're likely to make a heartbreaking mistake in your work. So the process demands patience and caution and maybe leads to some common sense.

The stakes are inherently higher when dealing with something you've made yourself (or the tools you use to make that thing).

And correspondingly the stakes are low when dealing with something mass produced or that you take for granted, especially when you didn't pay for it in the first place with your own sweat or money. All these objects appear magically on the shelves, churned out by invisible hands that will never ever stop. If mine breaks, someone else can fix it or I'll get another. But the real costs are hidden.

AMCSviatko said...

Do you have struts to hold up the line in the middle? That would have helped support the weight...

Greenpa said...

Folks in general- did you notice that most of the answers get around to the children, and their general lack of connection to the world these days? I do agree- childhood is a big part of the problem- and a big part of the answer. Interesting that we all see that!

Chile- should you have known better? A loaded question! :-) I think your retrospect is right; but what was missing from the situation was some good experience with rope, right angles, forces, and abrasion. Someone with that experience would have looked at the process and said "WHOA! too much stress on that rope! We gotta find a way to relieve it before we go any further." Besides the missing specific experience, though- is what you also gained from this disaster (man, I can imagine the panic with the well all messed up!) - was the GENERALIZED experience- and awareness that things CAN go wrong. Just learning to stop and "think it through" is huge- and that's part of what's missing in so many of us today.

Sherpa- good catch!! It had no midline support at the time of collapse- but- we HAD used one on the previous line, which was much shorter; and we'd discussed the fact that this long line NEEDED one. So Spice did know there were support "issues". It has one now, of course. :-) Always time to fix it after it's broke. That was part of my 10 minute fix; finding the stick to prop the middle.

Anonymous said...

Great "short one." You weren't harsh, and you are spot on about common sense. We need more of it.

How did we get it? Parents and grandparents looking over our shoulders and now and again suggesting "you oughtn't do that" or somesuch. The challenge is to make sure we can be as good at the role as they were.

Anonymous said...

I think a sense of restraint and limits comes from suffering.

One aspect of wisdom is caution, and caution comes from the emotions connected with having lived through loss and suffering. That's why old people are often more cautious than younger. But testing limits, and trying new things, and well the exuberance of youth is a kind of wisdom too.

One eternal political struggle is between progressives and conservatives, those who hope to make things better, and those who try to prevent things from getting worse. Common sense is always a balance of these two impulses, between hope and fear, youth and age. If caution wins too much, things stagnate and start to suck, if enthusiasm wins too much, unacceptible risks are made and things fall apart.

I think a real part of the story is that genuinely conservative philosophy and politics has fallen down on the job for a long time. Who has been fighting to preserve the best of the past? Republicans? Academics? Old money? Business? Artists? Philosophers? The Republicans have been conservative in name but not substance throughout the 20th century, hell Teddy Roosevelt defected to the progressives! By Nixon's time, they were pro-business, but business by then was for growth and change for the better, not for preserving the best of the past. The 20th century saw an active artistic avante garde, but very little apres garde. In every segments of American life I can think of, hope has outweighed caution for a century. And indeed, 2000 looks better than 1900 in all most all ways, on the surface. Sure we had a depression, and Europe fell apart, and WWII, but even that didn't hurt America all that much. Even our losses are invisible. Strawberries taste far crappier than they did a century ago, but how would most people know? America was full of crusading journalists willing to speak truth to power in the early 20th century, but how can we miss that? Oh and then there is our debt structure which expands under Republicans and Democrats. American theorists confused "conservative" with "pro-business" and the result is that the job that genuinely conservative artists and politicans and thinkers should be doing isn't being done by hardly anyone.

Further there is a normal generational process of reaction to society wide suffering, that has been described by theorists like Strauss and Howe, or Ibn Khaldun. You get a 4 generation cycle -a generation of crises, a generation of economic progress, a generation of awakening, a generation of unravelling, and a new crisis. Right after a generation of crises and suffering, everyone is cautious and doesn't want things to be terrible again. Then children start coming of age who didn't live through the last crisis, and they start questioning everything, and trying to make things better, driven by hope more than fear. But they aren't good at sacrificing for the common good, because things aren't desperate. Then kids come of age in a disintegrating society full of different conflicting ideologies where everyone is making their own way, and no one is willing to sacrifice for the common good, and only the very old really remember how bad it was last crisis, until the conditions are rife for the next crisis.

So one reason people aren't cautious enough is where we are in the historical cycle, just after an unravelling generation, but before the next crisis is acute. Few alive really remember how bad it got in the great depression and WWII, and even that wasn't so bad in the US. Children of the 70s like me, are used to things being broken. For consumer goods we are used to them breaking and being replaced. But for important social systems, we are used to them being broken and staying broken. Most social systems have been broken (but not in terrible crisis) our whole lives, (schools, the medical system, the political system, most marraiges in the US, etc.) Broken is simply the normal state of most things, so why fear it? Boomers can see the world and think "everything can break, so try not to break it", Xers can think "everything is already broken, so cope as best you can." The natural response of hero generations like the millenials is to think "everything is broken how do we fix it?" Is that admirable, or overly-optimistic. At any rate, caution will not take its proper place along side hope in common sense, until America experiences a lot of collective suffering.

Or at least that's my take, today, before I head off for a vacation paid for by my well-off Boomer mother.

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Why not just use galvanized guy wire about 1/8 inch thick for the line, no plastic?

And why not tie that line to two big trees?

How does your system work in the winter?

Young people that you interact with may not be getting the opportunity to screw up often enough to develop some wisdom about it.

I'm pretty much aware of the limits now, but I didn't start out that way and in the hallowed halls of the School of Hard Knocks, I paid for my education with many many very expensive mistakes.

Some I even made twice in the early years.

Unfortunately, I did not learn twice as much.

Greenpa said...

RC -"Why not just use galvanized guy wire about 1/8 inch thick for the line, no plastic?"
a) not easily available here
b) clothespins don't grip the steel nearly as well as they do the plastic
c) some fabrics will interact with the zinc, causing stains

"And why not tie that line to two big trees?"

a) all the trees big enough are - in the woods; whre there's no sun, not much wind
b) don't have any appropriate trees near the water tank
c) the stress on a substantial clothesline will eventually damage the trees- at least the species I have available here.

"How does your system work in the winter?"

Can't wash with it- we have to go back to laundromat or small batches inside- but it dries stuff just fine. Freeze-dry has a new meaning. You can tell when it's dry when you can see the fabric flapping like a flag in the breeze, instead of swaying like a sheet of plywood.

"Young people that you interact with may not be getting the opportunity to screw up often enough to develop some wisdom about it."

I think that's exactly right; and I think in earlier times, adults guided the mistake making process. Tons of anecdotes out there about fathers calmly watching kids screw up a job; making a suggestion or two, then letting them try; and maybe screw up, again. That may be a tremendously important process- that most kids don't get anymore; particularly city kids.

"Some I even made twice in the early years.

Unfortunately, I did not learn twice as much."

hey, I'm still making a few! :-)

Anonymous said...

Off-the-main-topic laundry tip:

Rather than devoting a perfectly good plumber's friend to the agitation task (or worse yet, devoting it to both that and its standard task), you can take one of the little kitchen sink plungers and screw a longer piece of wood to it for a handle. Then you need just 2 Friends not 3, and you keep your kitchen & laundry plunging sanitary.
What can you use for a low tech cobbled-together laundry wringer?
(that's better than one's own hands)