As we plunge into holiday season, nervously tracking Black Friday sales, touting Small Business Saturday, or feeling remorse for not following through on Buy Nothing Day (and, here, by “we” I mean “me”), I’m finding comfort in a little book a good friend gave to me as an ironic wedding gift: The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are not Ashamed of Economy (1833) by a certain Mrs. Child. As one might imagine, it’s brimming with advice, some wonderfully outdated and some timeless. I probably won’t be soaking tripe in my cellar or applying cranberry poultices every fifteen minutes to any tumors. But who can argue with this first line: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials.” Mrs. Child on education: “If young men and women are brought up to consider frugality contemptible and industry degrading, it is vain to expect they will at once become prudent and useful, when the cares of life press heavily upon them.” And, on Reasons for Hard Times: “‘Everything is so cheap,’ say the ladies [in bright array while stagnation is universally felt].’ But do they reflect why things are so cheap? Do they know how much wealth has been sacrificed, how many families ruined to produce this boasted result? Do they not know enough of the machinery of society, to suppose that the stunning effect of crash after crash, may eventually be felt by those on whom they depend for support?”
Then, of course, there are recipes for calf’s foot jelly, whortleberry pudding, and Election Cake, as well as bits and bobs about the best way to clean iron kitchen ware and the best vegetal sources for cheap dyes. A few more morsels:
“The common dark-blue violet makes a slimy tea, which is excellent for the canker.”
“Pig’s head is a profitable thing to buy. It is despised because it is cheap, but when well cooked it is delicious.”
“Beer is a good family drink.”
Part of the fun in reviewing Julio Cortázar’s fantastic From the Observatory, which, among other things, intertwines the migration of eels with meditations on Jai Singh’s 18th century Jaipur observatory, was trying think out of the box in terms of writing the review itself. The book includes grainy black and white photos of the observatory taken by Cortázar (and “transformed” later by Antonio Gálvez in Paris), and Andrew asked if I would take some of my own grainy black and white photos. I ended up including a shot of some unusual light fixtures that seemed in line with imagery throughout the book (circular, somewhat bulbous, generally strange) as well as a shot of C.M. Ruiz’s work, which both captured the feeling of inward revolution that propels the story and seemed delightfully eel-y.
Tree branches at Arabica, where the other photos are taken. I liked this one, but it didn’t end up seeming as relevant.
Ellen Sussman’s got a great article in the current Poets & Writers magazine about getting more out of your writing time. My favorite tip is to think of the work in one-hour units. Of each unit, writing happens for 45 minutes : that’s butt-in-chair-write-write-write (no research, no reading, just writing). And then get up out of the chair for 15 minutes. Repeat. What do you do for 15 minutes? Anything that does not involve language – go for a walk around the block, wash the dishes, feed your pet guinea pig Flavia, etc. This is still writing time, but you’re not physically writing. You’re letting the ideas percolate. Whatever you were itching to look up during that writing time, you can look up after you’ve put in three hours or 1,000 words or whatever concrete goal you’ve set for yourself.
My seventh grade physical science teacher, a great Viking of a woman with long blond hair and seemingly enormous limbs (I was very small for my age), recommended similar things when we were cramming the periodic table and other factoids into our turbulent adolescent heads. Read for 40 minutes, then take a 10 minute break. Repeat. I took this with me through college, taking 10 minute cartwheel breaks while writing term papers about ancient burial mounds. It seemed to work. What I like about the 45/15 break down, though, is that it fits more cleanly into hours, and it starts to feel more like a work day.