“Small is Beautiful” on film: it’s not about the (tiny) house
May 5, 2015, 8:40 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, films, making a difference, reviews, simple living, tiny houses.

I was recently treated to an early screening of Small is Beautiful, a documentary film about the makers of tiny houses.  The film has its official Portland premiere on May 7 at the Laurelhurst Theater.

Nikki and Mitchell in their tiny house, photo courtesy smallisbeautifulmovie.com

[photo courtesy smallbeautifulmovie.com]

It’s a nice piece of film-making, alive with interesting characters and thought-provoking ironies.  But it might not be what you expect.  Director Jeremy Beasley hasn’t made a film about a movement, but rather a few specific people.  It’s less about houses than the choices people make, and the idea of independence itself.

This tack is fixed by the basic premise of the film: following four people (one couple and two singles) through the process of building three tiny houses.  The focus is on the process of creating or placing the houses, not living in them.  At the time of filming, only one of the four subjects has actually spent time living in her tiny house.

This is a natural setup for a film-maker, because the building projects provide a dramatic arc to what might otherwise be a structureless subject (just as in sports stories, there must inevitably be a “big game”).

That means housing geeks (such as me) may be a bit disappointed.  The film can’t say much about whether tiny houses actually work as long-term residences.  We don’t know much more than before about whether they’re a novelty or a truly progressive form of housing.

Instead, watching the process of creating and placing the houses makes one study character, and life choices.  All of the tiny-house makers, though they differ in age and style, seem to be looking for a kind of independence.

Ben, as depicted in the film, is a young man preoccupied with unresolved feelings about his long-estranged, and now dead, biological father.  For him making a tiny house seems to be an effort to create a bit of security in an uncertain world, which oddly enough seems rich in supportive family and friends.

Nikki and Mitchell are a thirty-ish couple looking for financial freedom, but it is safe to say the film portrays their real issue as codependency.  Their plan to live together in the tiny house they are building, along with two dogs, does not appear to be an idea that could work on any level.

“I think if we did it again, we would build his and hers tiny houses,” one of them says at one point, making one wonder where the relationship is really going.

Karen is an older woman who creates a tiny house so she can run her medical practice in a more charitable and idealistic way.   With the tiny house built, she runs her clinic the way she wants, but at the same time struggles with new insecurities, such as getting kicked out of her tiny house’s parking spot.

Landlessness is “part of the joy” of the experience, she relates.  Despite the anxiety about where to live, she also feels a growing ability to withhold judgments and to keep an open mind.

Director Beasley deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the easy road.  He could have made a film about design, full of tiny-house eye candy and absent any clue how real life actually proceeds.

Instead he’s given us something a lot more challenging. Even if the film is “small” in its scope, it presents a giant philosophical challenge.  Though tiny houses symbolize independence, creating them and placing them in the world just serves to illustrate how interdependent people are.

I hope he can return in a year or two with an expanded version, or a sequel, so we can find out how the tiny house makers have lived, now that they’ve built.

Salt roasted chicken
April 24, 2015, 12:13 pm by bottleman. Filed under: diy, invasive species, off-topic, simple living.

Be warned, I’m not a chef, a cook, a foodie, or anything of that kind.  But I am a person who has eaten a truckload of chicken in my life (sorry, fowl), so I know what for.  In this post I’m going to tell you how to prepare a chicken so that it is not a generic, stringy, miserable source of protein — so that it, in fact, actually tastes good.  As good as this picture, by Marjan Lavarevski, looks:

photo of roasted chicken by flickr user Marjan Lavarevski https://www.flickr.com/photos/mlazarevski/8500053523/in/photolist-dX7ZLX-6md2U-4YrREd-4wVvM-2f9YNJ-6XnaMP-4S2MBf-pom98-pom69-6rfxEP-5to2B6-6D9tro-6D9tLu-6D5kfM-6QhzCT-izXLmY-4wVwC-4jZnjV-6xCFpM-7PAXBC-7PAXUY-7PwYLR-2MVx1H-2MZMvq-2MZRGA-9hTUCN-4n3RHt-4wVwh-5An69i-7o6mPB-5Ygc8L-7Vt31N-wcoGV-dY4XFp-4dD1xC-6Nv28L-5HeyHb-2Adys9-7bXpos-5Hez4d-64xmQ5-6TD7c-7q5jRH-7dkeq-6TDcv-9TePZQ-5JJmF1-L7hKo-4YrCPy-73crBs/

It’s an incredibly easy recipe with just two ingredients, salt and chicken.  No quartering, no marinating, no onions or other BS.   You’ll get enough meat for two or three meals, and be left with the base for a soup besides.  It’s a tiny amount of work for all the food you get out of it.


Perhaps you’ve never experienced it, so know this.  A roasted chicken is like a ripe peach: if you’ve ever had a perfect one, it is a thing of sublimity.  It doesn’t just “wake your taste buds up,” it gives you a sudden awareness that there is color and good in the world, that life itself is a thing to be craved and savored.  That you actually want to continue to live, for moments like this.  You feel there is a rowdy f–, I mean roll in the hay, in your immediate future.

But such experiences are — sadly — few and far between.  Most chicken out there in the world is simply awful.  It is rubbery and/or stringy and/or dry and/or tasteless.  Then, in some attempt to save it, the tired flesh becomes a vehicle for flavorings or sauces or breaded coatings.  Yeah, barbecue sauce is kind of an art in itself, but the chicken should be good first.

Before you can make it right, you’ve got to kill all the impulses that make chicken recipes wrong.  The apparent goal of many chicken recipes is to remove all flavor, moisture, and tenderness from the chicken itself and replace it with something else.  Chicken recipes typically cut the meat into small pieces, inevitably drying it out, and separate the meat from the bone, removing a source of flavor and nutrition.  Moreover they seem terrified of fat, and remove the skin and/or drain the “drippings” away from the meat, removing another source of flavor and nutrition.  They then try to replace what they’ve lost with vegetables, spices, sauces, etc.

For the love of Pete, don’t do this.  Keep the chicken together and relish the fat.  Like so:

One storebought chicken, whole (5-6 pounds).  (Note: if your chicken is notably smaller, you may need to adjust the cooking times below.)
1.5-2.0 tablespoons salt

Preheat oven to 475F.  (Yes, 475).

Remove chicken from package and put aside any miscellaneous parts (“giblets,” neck, etc).  Rinse.

Rub the inside and outside of the bird thoroughly with the salt.  Really work it in there.  Some of the salt will fall off into the sink.  That’s ok.

Put the chicken, breast up, in the oven in a SMALL baking pan (the one I use is about 6.5″x10.5″x2.0″).  The smallish container will prevent the limbs from falling away from the body and drying out.  The walls should be high enough to collect the liquid that will be generated (1-2″ high).

Roast the chicken at 475F for 25-30 minutes.  At the end of this time, the skin will be crispy and turning brown, and you will just start to smell the fat in the skin burning.

Turn the oven down to 230F.  Roast for 1.5-2.0 more hours.  It should be safely cooked, but if you have any doubts, double-check with a meat thermometer.

Remove a perfectly done chicken.  Enjoy.

Right out of the oven: Try slicing breast meat and dipping it in the liquid in the bottom of the pan before serving.  This is what chicken breast is supposed to taste like.  It is not supposed to be dry.  The liquid in the pan is also really delicious on veggies.

After the first meal: cover tightly and store in the fridge. Draw on this reservoir of meat and broth for salads, sandwiches, etc.    Keep the fat and “drippings” in the pan.  This can easily last a couple of days and fuel a bunch of meals.

When most of the meat is gone: dump whatever remains in a slow cooker and make broth.

That’s it!  à votre santé !

How to make a really good homemade salad spinner
August 16, 2014, 4:00 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, fitness, simple living.

One of the more curious effects of my ongoing health kick has been an unhealthy obsession with salad spinners. Since I have been eating a lot of greens, I wash a lot of greens.  Greens that come straight from the farmer, like spinach, tend to come with a lot of dirt on them, and really need to be washed.  And those boxed salads from the grocery store have already been washed and dried, but the leaves tend to get too dry.  You don’t need to eat them that way. Washing and drying the greens again, which is easiest in a salad spinner, can really liven those boxed salads up.

Now the problem is, salad spinners are generally pretty crappy gadgets. They tend to be made of 100% plastic, which means they tend to build up flavors and stains, and when their spinning mechanism (which is generally in the lid) breaks, it’s basically unfixable, which makes me furious. I’ve had the OXO salad spinner a few times, and broken the mechanism each time.

Ergo I went in search of an all-metal, unbreakable salad spinner, and found nothing. A few extremely expensive spinners had metal bowls, but the mechanisms were still plastic. Along the way I found a discussion on Chowhound about plastic-free salad spinning that suggested to me there really was no good “product” to buy.  Thus I had to return to first principles and design my own.  And who else to demonstrate first principles better than Julia Child?

(This video should start around the 10:55 mark.  If it doesn’t, go there.)

The “French” salad spinner that Julia uses has only two basic elements:

- one, a porous mesh, colander, or filter which holds the greens that have been washed yet allows the water to pass through.

- two, something that uses physical action to encourage the separation of water and salad through centrifugal force.

Every other part is optional.  Julia’s “French” salad spinner has no bowl, because the sink catches the thrown-off water.  And it has no lid, because, well, I guess she’s not planning on storing anything after the meal. Julia’s salad is going to be so good there won’t be any left. :)

Personally I prefer a spinner to have a bowl and a lid, so that it’s possible to serve and store with the same bowl you used to wash the salad (why waste time washing extra dishes?)

For the record, here is a general diagram of a salad spinner:

diagram showing essential elements of any salad spinner

(props to johnny_automatic and voyag3r at openclipart.org for the salad and hand elements of this drawing)

Once you understand that this is the design of every salad spinner in existence, you can make a salad spinner out of  stuff you have around the house. It can be metal, plastic, fiber, whatever material you want.  And since it will not have a complex mechanism, it will be nearly unbreakable. For example:

- you can put your washed salad in a pillowcase or other porous cloth bag and whip it around your head, like this blogger. The salad stays in the bag, the water flies out.   The pillowcase is working as both the filtering element and the spinning element. This works surprisingly well — except you will get water all over the walls.  (Of course you can go outside to do it, but that’s not my favorite method in the middle of a rainy winter.)

- you can do the same thing with big kitchen towels. I understand this is an old-timey method favored by many good cooks. Same results — nice salad, but splattered walls.

- a more sophisticated variation would be to put the salad-laden pillowcase or kitchen towels into a waterproof bag, then whip that around your head.  In this case the towel or pillowcase is still the filtering element, but the waterproof bag acts as the “bowl” or water trap. That way the tossed-off water would won’t go on your walls.

- my preferred method is to put the greens in a stainless steel colander and use that for washing.  Then I put salad that colander inside a larger bowl, and then put the whole combination down into a sturdy cloth bag, then whip that around for about 30 seconds.  The colander is the filtering element, the bowl is the water trap, and the cloth bag is the thing that allows the bowl and colander to be “spun”.

Won’t the salad fall out without a lid? you say.  No, it won’t, the centrifugal force keeps the open “top” of the bowl lined up the right way.  After 30 seconds, stop whipping the bowl around, remove the colander, and dump the trapped water out of the bowl.  You can then use the bowl for serving.  If the bowl has a lid, then you can apply the lid if that suits your needs.

If all that verbiage was too much for you, check out the demonstration on Youtube:

The video shows that I tested two such homemade methods, and found they removed nearly as much water from a washed salad as the famous, and quite breakable Oxo spinner.

So basically, you never need to pay $25-$100 for a clunky and quite breakable salad spinner. There are lots of ways to wash and dry  salad that are nearly free and practically unbreakable.

Just remember one thing.  Salad spinning should be a vigorous part of the cooking process — not an attack with a medieval flail.  So leave plenty of room when you’re swinging that thing around your head.  :)

à votre santé !

A new web site about ADU’s: AccessoryDwellings.org
November 16, 2011, 4:39 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, ecological footprints, energy, making a difference, simple living, tiny houses.

This blog gets a lot of visitors curious about the tiny house I made by converting my garage.

photo by flickr user Lance McCord, thanks!

That place (just a wee bit bigger than the one in the picture above) has three main virtues:

1. it’s smallness makes it very green, given that size is the primary determinant of a dwelling’s environmental footprint;
2. it’s nice, making it possible to live small without feeling like you are living in poverty; and
3. it’s very close to, but still quite separate from, the main house, meaning I can live a few feet from my mother-in-law and still think it’s a good thing. :)

In short, those are the virtues of the modern accessory dwelling unit, also known as a granny flat, backyard cottage, ADU, etc. Given that the nation will need to build millions of dwellings for aging 1- and 2-person households over the next 30 years, I think they are a really interesting option both socially and environmentally.

Now I’m one of the editors of a new site that’s all about accessory dwelling units — what they look like, how to build them, what regulations are, etc. It’s called AccessoryDwellings.org.

AccessoryDwellings.org banner, based on a graphic by PasteInPlace

Please come check it and consider becoming a contributor. Thanks!!

Don’t think, feel (review of The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard)
June 8, 2010, 1:48 pm by bottleman. Filed under: reviews, simple living.

One of the biggest hills to climb for any human being is actually noticing what is happening around you.

photo by flickr user paperskye, used under creative commons, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/paperkim/4209542881/

It’s not an easy task.  People are deeply, instinctively attracted to theories and legends and plans.  They want to be part of a story that makes their existence meaningful. And no matter how deep or shallow that identity is–from being part of a 5000-year old religion to following the latest, greatest version of the grapefruit diet– the ideology tends to occlude as much as it explains.  It makes us ignore the experience of our senses.  And occasionally it makes us insufferable new converts, robotically parroting the party line, immune to any new input, whether we’re born again Christians or diehard Apple or Linux users.  (Is anyone a diehard Microsoft user?)

That’s why I was so pleased with a new book about the hot-button topic of the day: barefoot running.   Barefoot running has been lighting up flame wars on fitness blogs and the Runner’s World forums for the last year (where I admit I’ve been spending way too much time).   The main topic of contention is ostensibly which form of running (barefoot or “shod”) is more natural or suited to our existence today, and less likely …more

Beyond the kitchen triangle: saving work in the kitchen with some simple hacks
December 10, 2009, 3:28 pm by bottleman. Filed under: design, diy, simple living.

Lately I’ve been obsessed with kitchen efficiency.  Not green efficiency, but efficiency in terms of work. I would prefer to spend my time enjoying food, not preparing it or cleaning up.  Why does my mother-in-law’s kitchen seem like such a breeze to work in while my own kitchen felt so awkward?  And how can I save work without spending $20K-$100K on a major renovation?

I embarked on my own amateur analysis of kitchen flow and modded my kitchen to match.  My work began with this kitchen work flow diagram:

I’m not much of a graphic artist, but it succinctly shows why it can be so hard to do work efficiently in the kitchen: …more

1000 miles on the Xtracycle
July 30, 2009, 11:49 am by bottleman. Filed under: simple living, transportation.

My family got its Xtracycle about a year ago, and I figure we’ve gone at least a thousand miles on it by now (the bike computer fritzed around mile 500, in December).  Everything I wrote about it in my review last year seems more true than ever: the cargo bike is simply the most meaningful single piece of “green” technology I’ve used.

We don’t need a private car anymore (we still use carsharing a few days a month to go out of town and on special errands), so we don’t have the impulse to do stupid life-sucking errands like you do when you own a car (my personal weaknesses:  going to the hardware store to buy 1 bolt, or to Burgerville for a monster snack). It’s so much more relaxing when you don’t do that stuff.

But still, we need to carry stuff, right? Here are a few things we’ve carried:

  • an army’s worth of groceries
  • a frat party’s worth of beer
  • a case of wine from TJ’s
  • a kid and his TWO bikes, while talking easily the whole way
  • adults as passengers — this is surprisingly romantic and hilarious
  • two 60-pound bags of concrete
  • and oodles more, as other riders can tell you.

Some days we’re competing for the bike; we almost need two.  This bike has actually made our life better.  Wow!

The Xtracycle just might save the middle class
August 29, 2008, 7:25 pm by bottleman. Filed under: making a difference, simple living, transportation.

Imagine a unicorn appearing at your door, in the flesh, and asking to hang around a while.   That would be pretty weird, because you always thought unicorns were mythical creatures like succubi or centaurs.  But it would be a hell of a lot weirder if your new one-horned lodger turned out to be mild-mannered, always helpful, impressively strong when the occasion demanded, and a total natural with the kids.  (Of course Teddy can come, sweetie. :)


[photo by Patrick Barber, aka hen power — thanks!]

That’s the way I feel about my family’s new Xtracycle setup.  It’s a bicycle I never thought existed in American reality: a bike that is actually a useful and flexible form of family transportation. One that can carry a kid and six bags of groceries without creaking, tipping over, or making the steering go googoo.   It eliminates the need for dozens of car trips each week — and it’s fun enough it eliminates the desire for those trips too.

The Xtracycle is that rare thing in today’s world: a green product that could actually make a difference.  It could allow thousands of two-car families to switch to one car, and one-car families to switch to zero cars, and have more fun than they did before.  Right now my family doesn’t own any cars.  We have an Xtracycle, several personal bicycles, and a subscription to a carsharing service.  It’s working well and it’s really cheap.  Plus kids love Xtracycles.

photo by carfreedays -- see http://www.flickr.com/photos/81325557@N00/2444318865/

[photo by carfreedays under Creative Commons]

Initially I was cynical about the potential of the Xtracycle to really change things.  …more

To the catacombs!
June 4, 2008, 10:01 am by bottleman. Filed under: explosions, invasive species, simple living.

by flickr user fabbio, licensed under creative commons, see http://flickr.com/photos/fabiovenni/59762696/

“A strange new shadow land has grown up in America. It’s a world of cinderblock villas and plywood hallways, garish under halogen security bulbs. It clings to the underside of Western towns like Roman catacombs, pushes up funereal fault blocks in urban centers, and festoons suburban freeways with palaces styled after castles and forts…”

Read more about self-storage here. Nice photo by flickr user fabbio.

Little house on a small planet (book review)
October 18, 2006, 1:01 am by bottleman. Filed under: reviews, simple living, tiny houses.

A lot of people are dreaming about downsizing their dwellings these days. Smaller houses go with a simpler, more rural life… and hopefully freedom from debt and “the Man.”

Naturally they’re turning to books for ideas about how to build or set up their new place. Print is still superior to the internet for providing thematic collections of photographs and drawings, and a book about dwellings can and should be something of a “wish book” for the reader… something they stay up to look at, under the covers with a flashlight if necessary.

image of cover of book LITTLE HOUSE ON A SMALL PLANET

Accordingly I was excited to receive a review copy of Little House on a Small Planet (Lyons Press, 2006), by Shay Salomon, with photographs by Nigel Valdez.

This wasn’t just because I love receiving free swag (note to all: please send more). I’ve also been frustrated by the scattershot bibliography of the small-house movement. …more

Tiny house barely escapes strangulation by codes
October 3, 2006, 1:04 am by bottleman. Filed under: my tiny house project, simple living, tiny houses.

[note May 2007: people keep linking to this very old post.. if you want to see the finished house, follow this link. For the bureaucratic struggle, read on…]

Though I’ve ranted in this space about McMansions and monster houses, I haven’t spoken about my own little venture into the obvious alternative: tiny homes. Now I’m going to, with drawings and dollar numbers, and man it ain’t a pretty story.

photo by flickr user Lance McCord, thanks! see http://www.flickr.com/photos/mccord/23365446/

Tiny houses are just the rage among a certain set. The dream begins with artisans who give the structures a tremendous romance, where “small” doesn’t mean “poor,” it means “beautifully simple.” The dollish scale brings natural economy with energy and materials — saving cash and nature. Lots of greens with back-to-the-land dreams (like Sandra the Serene) are thinking about building them.

However, these buildings are usually pictured in a rural setting, where building codes and zoning regulations are lax or nonexistent. I wanted to do mine in the city, where money is big and bureaucrats rule.

Here’s what happened to me. There’s a lot of detail here, but if you are getting into this kind of thing, detail may be just what you need…

Ecological footprint cage match!
September 21, 2006, 1:25 am by bottleman. Filed under: ecological footprints, making a difference, simple living.

A month or so ago I was both pleased and disturbed to get a letter asking for advice on “green living.” Pleased because somebody was reading this site. :) Disturbed because the question was a good one and I didn’t have some slick-assed-smug-mouthed answer.

“Nick” wrote about a cage match of sorts, between two lifestyles that are getting the hard sell nowadays. Who would come out on top, or might these enemies kiss and be friends?

photo by zach slootsky - thanks! see http://flickr.com/photos/takemorephotos/58801792/

Hey bottleman..[Nick wrote] ..I am stuck between two conflicting views of “going green.” …more