Friday, July 16, 2010

Mr. Sirotkin Showed Me How

During my stint in college I lived in a fifth floor walk up, with a bunch of equally yoked roomies, barely within the boundaries of the East Village. Our landlords were a dear older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sirotkin.

By the time we came on the scene the building was inhabited mostly by college and career types. Mrs. Sirotkin called us “her kids”. Except for older families who had lived there forever, all of us came by referral. There was an almost sacred trust to your word in that. You didn’t want to give the Sirotkins a bum deal with lousy tenants. She wouldn’t interview you exactly, but checked you out by having you over for tea.

There Mrs. Sirotkin told her story. How as a girl of sixteen she worked at the dry cleaners on the first floor and how her older employer (he was in his twenties) started to court her. She was shy at first, but he was a kind and good man, so won her heart, and they married. When they got wind the building was about to be sold out from under them, he entered the purchasing process. He had never intended to own a building. But as a family man, he had a wife to care for. It was scary at first with an additional 23 families, and a mortgage to cover. But he learned. They worked together. She handled the books, he made repairs. It became painfully obvious they couldn’t do it all, so he sold the dry cleaning business, and jumped feet first into the challenge.

While their children were still young he had a massive stroke. She said, “I cried for fifteen minutes, pulled myself together and said ‘they all need me now, I can’t let myself go’.” She arrived at the hospital to bleak news. She nursed him at home while her mother cared for the children. To everyone’s amazement, he survived, though with a good deal of paralysis. When we knew him, he walked with a decided limp and had difficulty speaking.

We offered to paint the apartment for them when we first moved in, and after Mr. Sirotkin literally dragged himself up the five sets of stairs to replace a light switch, I asked if I could watch. I would do it next time. He obliged. That short interaction boosted my confidence to later replace light switches, sockets, ceiling lights, and even rewire lamps. But their example of teamwork, mutual respect, love, and perseverance in the face of obstacles, taught me even more. What a good marriage looked like.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Outside the Box

He was dubbed “The Wizard of Weston” and enjoyed the allusion to Thomas Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. Stanley Mason may not be a household name, but his inventions are. It seems we’ve always lived with granola bars, microwave cookware and dental floss dispensers.

Let’s take a peek into how his mind worked. It was 1949. “My wife asked me to put the diaper on the baby. I held up the cloth diaper, and it was square. I looked at the baby, and it was round. I knew there was an engineering problem.” What resulted was a form fitting disposable diaper.

Mason taught innovative thinking at the University of Connecticut. He felt corporations squashed creativity and was fired several times for his unconventional solutions. In spite of bureaucratic lethargy, many big organizations turned to him for new product ideas through his eight man think tank, Simco.

When his daughter’s dorm room was burgled, he designed a doorknob mounted alarm system. He collaborated with a toilet manufacturer, an expert in ceramics, to develop microwaveable cookware. He’s the guy who invented the stringless Band aid package, plastic dental floss, baby wipes, a sonic method for sealing chip bags, Depends, and hundreds of other things.

So what does all this have to do with frugality? It’s seeing the need and figuring a way to solve it with what you have. It’s our brother in law Dave, who coming up north to face car inspections for the first time, rigged small Christmas lights over the dashboard to illuminate it. (Dave also “grilled” cheese sandwiches on his dashboard during a drive to California, but we won’t go there.)

So what are your needs? When tackling them, remember the Wizard of Weston.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Being Different

I went to a funeral Wednesday morning and felt strangely apart from everyone there. Almost like an alien observer from another planet. The lady had worked for a florist almost 30 years. I was struck by the fact all the ladies attending worked outside the home even when their kids were young.

Art and I talked during our afternoon walk about the assumption I’d get a job. Again it revolved around easing our finances a bit. He asked, “Is Christ pleased with you?” I thought I could use my time better. He said, “The people who expect it don’t take into consideration my schedule. I like to know that everything is in order at home. That I can trust you to take care of things.”

This quote has been rattling around as well, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.”- Horace (65-8 BC) Roman Poet. Isaac observed that same truth several years ago. He said, “being poor” made me more creative. I would never in a million years have attempted a garden, or taught my self to cook and can, rewire lamps, repair furniture, mend socks, quilt, cut hair, keep a written budget, write articles, unless we were in this situation. I might have considered foraging, if only for the romance of it, but not in earnest. Even my mom, married to a sculptor, attempted very few of these things. “Adversity” pushed me into scary places. Past the “plant killer” stage. Past early canning failures. Past indestructible pie crust. To make do in oddball ways, by using things for unintended purposes.

Being different is lonely though. What do you talk about when there’s assumed equity? “What’s your cell phone number?” “I told my hairdresser I wanted a different color.” “This place has the best crab cakes.” “Where are you going for vacation?” “You’d really like this (cable) TV program.” How do you untangle that kind of presuppositionalism? You can’t. I’m tempted sometimes to talk about cooking burdock roots, gathering places for mulberries and wild raspberries, trash picked finds. Just to throw a wrench in. But it’s sort of like the Far Side cartoon of a dog cocktail party. First frame. One dog says to another as everyone is chatting away. “The doctor says I have worms.” Second frame. Silence.

Being the introspective type, I have to consciously pull away from self pity. To change context. This is not my home. This will not last. It finally revolves around Art’s question. “Is Christ pleased?”