Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Day 6: Books Again, and Boys

My first grader is learning to read. It's the coolest thing in the world, and I love being a part of it.

We recently arranged an elaborate hand off on a Kindle so I could get an upgrade (thank you, family!!) This sparked Duncan to ask when he could have a Kindle of his own, like his big sister. Answer: When he could read chapter books as well as Charlotte. This seems to have lit a fire under him, because he has been very patiently and laboriously working through a Junie B. Jones story. Have you read Junie B.? She uses lots of big words, like actually, situation, and frustration. As in: "he got frustration in him."

The cool thing here is that the method of instruction used at our school encourages kids to use the pictures to deduce words that are giving them trouble. Not so many pictures in Junie B., so D is having to remember phonetic rules and rely on reading a sentence to the end to deduce a hard word. Which he is doing, with a degree of patience that my daughter never, ever exhibited. It is fun to watch and a relaxing way to spend an afternoon snuggling my growing guy.

Quentin distinguished himself at school today by making a BB gun out of paper and craft tape. Complete with a little paper BB. He couldn't even get out the door before he was telling me about it. I checked with the preschool teacher to make sure he hadn't violated some kind of school rule (as he certainly would have been doing at the elementary school), and then spent a few minutes apologizing for my violent boy. The other moms laughed. Another boy picked up a six-foot-long fallen branch and began threatening our sons with it -- so I felt much better. Then I put Quentin in the car and listened to a dissertation about the nature of and uses for BBs all the way home. It's nice that he falls in the fat part of the bell curve.

I'm looking for a reasonable follow-up to Warm Bodies. I'm contemplating another zombie book (but I'm also a little bit afraid to), or maybe Gone Girl or the Rob Lowe biography I'm supposed to be reading for book club (which, by the way, ladies, I am so grateful for all of you as well!!). Any thoughts???

What are you grateful for?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Days 4 & 5: Books and Girls.

I didn't write a post yesterday because I was totally absorbed by a book that I found because of my Day 3 gratitude.

Can I just say... WOW.

Warm Bodies is a debut novel by Isaac Marion which, fortunate man, was not only optioned for a movie but actually previewed at the Breaking Dawn Part 2 screening I saw on Sunday. The preview looked fun (see the trailer here), but the book is a lot more. (Isaac Marion has a blog, rather more sporadic than this one, for anyone who wants to connect with him.)

The idea behind Warm Bodies is kind of Zombie Romeo meets Post-Apocalyptic Juliet, but the book reaches deeper than that, into the path to apocalypse, the difference between a zombie and a human, the nature of hope, and the elements of a high-quality life. Don't read this book because you want to read a zombie novel -- although Marion offers a witty, funny, compassionate first-person perspective on zombie existence. Read it because it's a damn good read.

I also finally finished Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd. Lytton Strachey was a contemporary and close friend of Virginia Woolf's, a fellow writer and, in fact, was even momentarily engaged to her when she was still Virginia Stephen. He was also a homosexual who was 13 when Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor for a homosexual love affair. He is famous for his dramatic and subversive biographies of the lions of the Victorian age, and for his rather Byzantine personal life. This 700 page tome took me a looooong time to finish, so I'm grateful for Holroyd's insight into Strachey's life and character, and also that I can recommend a movie, Carrington, to anyone who is interested in the gossipy arty bits and willing to pass on all the thoughtful analysis.

So my gratitude for today is my girl, and her girlfriends. Those zany, goofy, silly girls spent a long afternoon at my house today, and they wrestled in the backyard, did homework together, dressed up and put on crazy makeup, pretended to be zombies in the front yard, baked cookies and ate them, played "Call Me Maybe" at top volume (but only once, thank goodness), and generally behaved like girls having a wonderful time. They never beat up on any of the little brothers who couldn't resist their crazy energy. When they left, my girl hugged me and thanked me for their fun day, cleaned up nicely, ate her dinner, and passed out in bed 45 minutes earlier than usual.

I like making my kids happy. Sometimes they surprise me by making it easy to please them. I am grateful.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Day 2: Yes.

View of the houseboats
on the Bay Trail
It was a day of YES.

I heard Quentin squirming on the floor of my bedroom where he was camped for some reason, but instead of getting up with him as usual I said YES to more sleep and had the pleasure of waking up ninety minutes later to my husband delivering a fresh cup of coffee to my bedside table.

I'd made plans to see Breaking Dawn Part Two with a friend, and when she called to adjust them a bit, I was able to say YES to an early lunch and matinee. She chose the lunch location and so I got to enjoy a really delicious tomato soup and brussels sprout salad at a new restaurant that I wouldn't have tried otherwise. YUM and healthy too!

When I got home from my date my daughter asked if we could take an outing on the Bay Trail. YES meant I raced my kids and held my husband's hand for a few minutes, and got a little exercise which made us all more cheerful.

I could have said NO to any of these things. I could have acted JUST from responsibility, kept my eyes on my to-do list, gotten the laundry done and the sheets changed. But I said YES. I am so grateful.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Advent Gratitude, Day 1: Bridge, Not Barriers

Photo Courtesy of Peter Nijenhuis
(Creative Commons Free to Use or Share)
Friday I took my visiting family members, my husband, and my kids for a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. I've walked the bridge many times, a few times with a kid in tow, but my husband never had, and neither had his mom.

It beat the daylights out of spending the day throwing elbows at Target or Best Buy (we saw the crowd control barriers when we took the kids shopping for their grandparents on Wednesday), it only cost us the little bit of money we spent getting greenscreen pictures of the kids taken for the Christmas cards, and I for one (perhaps the only one) really enjoyed the five mile walk the outing entailed.

So my first day of gratitude is multilayered: I'm grateful we had family visiting to share that great outing; I'm grateful that all the members of our family are healthy enough to undertake that big walk and still be happy (and happy with one another) when we got home again; I'm grateful for the afternoon nap that followed; and I'm really, really grateful to be satisfied enough with my lifestyle that I don't want to be chasing down crazy sales in an environment that absolutely kills the pleasure of the long holiday weekend.

What are you grateful for? Share in the comments -- and let's spread some of this contentment around and share it on your social media field of choice as well!!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


One of my friends is posting a gratitude a day on Facebook as a nod to "Thankful Month."

I wish I had thought of that.

So I'm thinking I'll adopt December as my gratitude month, as an antidotal lead-up to the consumer frenzy known as Christmas shopping. As my own little protest against the insanity of Black Friday, I'll start a post a day of thankfulness, every day from Black Friday through Christmas Day.

Are you in?

Share your gratitudes in the comments below, and please, share the joy with the rest of the world. Post on Facebook, or Twitter, or when you meet a friend for coffee. Let's not let consumer craziness rule our holidays any more.

(the remainder of the transcription explains who built the road and left the stone, dated 1814)
Argyll, Scotland

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Don't Have to be a Domestic Goddess to Make Homemade Broth

Homemade Broth

When you think of stock, which of these comes to mind? 

I used to buy stock as a staple. It has about a thousand uses, not least of which is making homemade, custom-seasoned soups in 30 minutes. As I've gotten more and more aware of how many insane things are in our food chain (thank you to every parent of a child with significant allergies that I've ever met, for starters), I got a lot more careful about reading labels. I expected to see something like "water, chicken bones, carrots, celery, onions, salt, pepper, and seasonings" when I read the ingredients list, but here's what I actually found:

...and that's for a premium brand stock! Sugar? Yeast? Organic chicken flavor? What IS organic chicken flavor?

The same brand discloses the ingredients list of their beef broth as follows:

        • Beef Stock (Water, beef stock powder)
        • Beef Extract
        • Autolyzed Yeast Extract
        • Sea Salt
        • Garlic Powder

I don't know what "beef stock powder" or (especially) "beef extract" are, and I'm not sure I want to. According to Livestrong, autolyzed yeast extract is a kinda-sorta natural form of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and is used in the same way. Many other brands actually use MSG; Campbell's discloses the following list of ingredients on their beef broth:
        • Beef Broth
        • Yeast Extract
        • Salt
        • Hydrolyzed Yeast Protein
        • Monosodium Glutamate
        • Caramel Color
        • Hydrolyzed Soy Protein
        • Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten
        • Dextrose
        • Flavoring (This one right here is a personal favorite. Why even bother???)
Just tackling one word that occurs in this list three times, hydrolysis, according to Livestrong,

Hydrolysis is a method of extraction that boils the soy protein in a vat of sulfuric acid. Manufacturers mix the resulting acidic substance with caustic soda to neutralize the acid content. While hydrolyzed soy protein contains most of the nutrients and health benefits of soy, when you consume this type of soy you also consume the unhealthy chemical byproducts of the manufacturing process. According to "Soy Protein and Formulated Meat Products," the potential harm of consuming hydrolyzed soy protein comes directly from the hydrolyzation process.

Um. Ick.

(Note that I'm choosing Livestrong as a resource for this information because it's very readable and has external links that can refer readers to more scientific sources if they so desire.)

Caramel coloring is another one of those "ingredients" that has a wide range of uses and a varying range of toxicity, with certain forms of it listed among those products disclosed as potentially carcinogenic or reproductive toxicity. Regulating agencies recognize four classes of caramel coloring based on their manufacturing process, but since packaging only discloses "caramel coloring" without disclosing which class, the consumer has no means of knowing if s/he is consuming a relatively benign form or a much more toxic version. (See the Wikipedia link for more information.)

OK, so I can never buy packaged broths again. But I still love my speedy soups, and broth is still a foundational ingredient in a lot of home cooking. So. Here's the solution.

  1. Get your self a nice-sized container that you don't mind dedicating to the freezer. For this purpose, I don't mind plastic since the fact that it will be living its life in the freezer means that the chance of chemical leeching into my foods is significantly reduced. I do not like freezer bags because they can't be reused, and the Zero Waste Home groupie in me objects to them. But as a size guide, the gallon-sized bags would be about the volume you're looking for in your container.
  2. Every time you plan a meal around a meat item, try to make it a bone-in version. In fact, even if it's going to be a boneless dish (like a nice chicken piccata, yum), buy the bone-in version. It's less expensive than the boneless purchase and you can put those bones to good use.
  3. Whether you have the bones left over at the end of the meal or take them out as part of your prep, toss the bones in the nice big container in your freezer. I usually mix pork and chicken in one container (makes for a lovely, rich stock) and keep the beef bones separate. If you have roasted (or bought) a whole chicken, put the entire carcass in there, including any aromatics that might have been in the cavity. You can add the skin as well, if you'd like, but keep in mind that it's going to add a lot of fat to the broth that will need to be skimmed off. Additionally, I usually keep salt out of my stocks so I can manage the taste of my finished soups; skins, especially of bought rotisserie chickens, are generally highly seasoned, so you'll want to take that into account as well.
  4. Hopefully, every week the night before trash day you do a fridge clean-out. During that fridge clean out, you will inevitably come across a couple of carrots or celery stalks that are floppy and not that appealing, but not really so bad off that they need to be tossed. Great! Pop those in the bowl with your bones. Every time you stem mushrooms, pop those in the bowl. Garlic, ginger, and leftover herbs all play beautifully in homemade broths. 
  5. When your bowl is full, put the entire contents in your slow cooker, add a few peppercorns, any other aromatics you might not have put into your freezer container, and top off the crock with plain cold tap water. If your container had only bones and you're making the stock for a specific recipe, it can be helpful to check that recipe for specific aromatics -- carrots, celery, leeks, onions, garlic, ginger, etc. -- that might help to make your finished product really stellar.
  6. Turn the crockpot on Low and let it cook 12-24 hours, or on High 6-12 hours. 
I have a six-quart crock pot, so when I cook like this I end up with a little more than four quarts of stock. I keep mine in mason jars. I usually use up my stock quick enough that it's not necessary to freeze, but if you make yours to freeze, be cautious about your containers. I learned the hard way that mason jars sometimes crack in the freezer (I think I have better success freezing in mason jars when they've chilled overnight in the refrigerator first). It is possible to buy BPA-free freezer containers, or you can just use your delicious ingredient in the same week that you make it.

Note that a beautifully made stock like this one will yield a high gelatin content (from the bones) so when it is cold it really will look like a semi-congealed meat Jello, which sounds awful. But once you heat it in your soup, it will be flavorful, rich, and satisfying. 

Bon Appetit!!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You Don't Have To Be a Domestic Goddess To Make...

Chocolate Syrup!

Here's the recipe:

1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup cocoa powder (some recipes specify dutch-process)
pinch of salt
1 tsp of vanilla extract

1.  Water and sugar in a saucepan. Heat gently to a low boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2.  Whisk cocoa powder into the syrup and let simmer gently for a few minutes to thicken.
3.  Stir in salt & vanilla.


Finished syrup will thicken as it cools.  I found out the hard way that chocolate syrup should be refrigerated even though the components don't need to be. Don't make my mistake!

The whole recipe takes about six minutes to prepare. In fact, I am usually making the syrup while I make the kids' breakfasts on school mornings because I have just discovered that we're out as I was trying to prepare Quentin's chocolate milk. Syrup stirs into warm milk more efficiently than cocoa powder. Because my kids don't actually like milk very much, chocolate milk was the alternative to no milk at all; but that doesn't mean I have to feed them high-fructose corn syrup out of a bottle that leaches BPA.

And speaking of BPA, part of what I like about this recipe is that it makes it possible for me to avoid another plastic bottle. I can buy the salt, sugar, and cocoa powder from the bulk section of our grocery store, so I avoid almost any kind of waste at all (my vanilla comes in a glass bottle). Plus, I can customize the syrup.


  • Although this syrup is quite rich and chocolaty, you can up the luxury factor by reducing the sugar (slightly) and increasing the cocoa powder (slightly) to make it even richer.
  • Add-ins like a touch of cayenne pepper, cinnamon, or alternate flavors like orange or almond extracts bring a grown-up touch to the syrup. 
  • Instead of using orange extract, simmer a few strips of orange zest in the simple syrup, and then fish them out before adding the cocoa powder. (you can do the same with a cinnamon stick instead)
  • This chocolate syrup is also yummy in coffee, over ice cream, mixed in your favorite chocolate martini recipe, in sparkling water for an Italian soda (would be divine that with orange flavoring), or as a glaze over cakes and muffins.
Bonus: If you are going to make a chocolate martini or an Italian soda, you can make a rimming powder by running a quarter cup of sugar through a tiny blender or food processor and then mixing with a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder and/or ground cinnamon (to taste).

Why not to buy chocolate syrup:

1. The plastic bottle is unnecessary waste. Even if you go to the trouble of cleaning out the bottle so it will be recycled (dirty bottles won't be), the squirt top will not be recycled. Not to mention that you have bought and paid for a bottle that could be leaching BPA into your syrup. Yum!

2.  Convenience. The ingredients have a long shelf life without getting icky. I always have cocoa powder on hand, I always have sugar, and I always have salt and vanilla. Ergo, I always have chocolate syrup available. If I always bought my chocolate syrup, I would risk not having any available for that third child who has been patiently waiting for the hot cocoa, only to discover that he's going to be getting gypped because I ran out halfway through making the second kid's cocoa.

3.  Convenience II. Chocolate syrup dissolves into milk way better than cocoa powder and sugar, meaning no disgusting bitter lumps surprising picky kids.

4.  Quality. I love chocolate. I do not love sugar. Call me crazy, but I don't actually have much of a sweet tooth. Making my own means my chocolate syrup actually tastes like chocolate.

5.  Ingredients. See what you're paying for when you buy commercial chocolate syrup:

Monday, October 29, 2012

No Soup for You!

One of my husband's favorite childhood recipes is turketti. It was originally a use for leftover Thanksgiving turkey, and consisted of spaghetti, chopped turkey, shredded cheddar cheese, and canned cream of mushroom soup, all mixed together and baked until it is gooey, golden, brown, and delicious.

These days we serve chicketti year round -- no need to wait for turkey to show up at Thanksgiving when the kids enjoy grilled chicken almost every weekend. But it's not the meal my husband remembers. To his horror, I don't buy canned cream of mushroom soup anymore. Between the BPA of the plastic can liners, the fact that soup cans are not recyclable in our area because they are a fused material (aluminum and plastic), and the unnecessarily extensive ingredient list*, I have determined that cream of mushroom soup is a product that doesn't deserve shelf space in my pantry any longer.

The product I offer these days is actually more upscale, just as tasty, just as delicious, and only two steps more complicated than my guy's childhood favorite.

My New Chicketti Recipe:

8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
2-3 tbls butter
2 tbls flour (optional)
2 tbls sherry (optional, but delicious)
1 tsp. thyme (optional, but delicious)
1 c. milk (to make this extra creamy and delicious, substitute up to half the milk with heavy cream)
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400F.

1/2 box pasta, cooked (I make the whole box and reserve some plain pasta for my sauce-phobic middle child)
However much pre-cooked chicken you might have on hand, chopped into bite-sized pieces

Saute the mushrooms in the butter with a little salt and pepper. When they are tender, sprinkle lightly with the flour and stir well until there are no lumps. (Proper chefs remove the mushrooms to make the bechamel, but I'm a home cook). Add the milk and sherry, if you're using it, and heat gently until the sauce has thickened. If you omit the flour from this step the sauce will be much thinner. I have seen roux recipes that call for whole wheat flour, but it's such a small amount I just go with all-purpose.

As you would do when preparing lasagna, put just enough sauce in the bottom of an 8x8 glass pan to lightly cover the bottom. Add 1/3 of the pasta, then toss 1/3 each of the chicken & cheddar cheese on top of the pasta. Repeat pasta, chicken and cheese layers for remaining ingredients, EXCEPT for the final cheese layer. Before laying down that last bit of cheese, pour the remaining mushroom sauce evenly over the entire dish, THEN lay the cheese down. Bake 20 minutes, and let cool 10 minutes or so, or until the dish is no longer nuclear hot.

NOTE That this is an excellent make ahead dish and freezes well. If you are only going to make ahead by a day or two, cover with foil rather than plastic wrap before refrigerating. Baking time is if you bake immediately after prepping the casserole.

If you prep and then freeze, defrost as completely as possible to protect the glass dish, and bake covered 40 minutes, then uncovered 15-20 minutes. If you oil the inside of the foil before baking, the cheese won't stick during the covered portion of the baking.

Variations include adding chopped broccoli or spinach, changing up the type of cheese (I would pay my family to let me make it with Swiss cheese, but so far I don't have any takers...), chopped bacon or high-quality ham, sun-dried tomatoes... basically, if it tastes good to you, odds are it will taste good in this casserole. If you're low on milk, I have made this dish with good homemade stock instead of milk, though it will be less creamy (or you can blend stock with half & half or heavy cream).

What other variations can you think of?

If this sounds like delicious comfort food in the middle of a busy week, please share with others!

*Ingredients in Campbells Cream of Mushroom Soup:
CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP (Homogenized Milk, Water, Sliced Mushrooms, Roux W/ Oil (All Purpose Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Canola Oil), Water, Corn Starch (Derived From Waxy Maize), Roasted Mirapoix (Roasted Vegetables (Carrots, Onions, Celery, Garlic), Water, Dextrose, Salt, Onion Powder, Canola Oil, Maltodextrin, Sugar, Natural Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Disodium Inosinate/Disodium Guanylate, Potassium Sorbate, Soy Lecithin, Caramel Color, Ascorbic Acid, Smoke Flavor. ), Diced Onions, Canola Oil, Kosher Salt (Salt, Yellow Prussiate Of Soda.), Roasted Garlic Flavoring (Roasted Garlic, Water, Vegetables (Onions, Carrots, And Celery), Dextrose, Salt, Garlic Powder, Canola Oil, Onion Powder, Xanthan Gum, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Potassium Sorbate, Natural Flavoring, Corn Syrup, and Caramel Color. ), Vegetable Base (Sea Salt, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Dehydrated Vegetables (Parsnip, Carrots, Pumpkin), Dehydrated Parsley, Olive Oil, Spices (Pepper, Thyme, Coriander, Mace).), Ground White Pepper)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What's for Dinner?

The always hungry SoRMuiJAi
Do you hate it too? That question... the one that pops up every single day right at the witching hour.

What's for dinner?

It's almost always demanded by a kid who has just been nagging me for snacks and turned her or his nose up at whatever healthy options were offered. Most likely whatever I answer (so long as it isn't pizza or boxed mac and cheese) is going to be met with a whine and followed by "Can't we go out to eat?"

No. We are not going out to eat.


But you like chicken cordon bleu.

Oh, you don't make chicken cordon bleu? Neither do I. Although if I did it would probably be a family favorite.

Anyway... I was asked that question one time too many when my third child was an infant, because I totally threw in the towel and subscribed to a menu-planning service that came with a grocery list. You could select what types of meal preferences you had (vegetarian, kosher, etc.) and the menu list would arrive in my email inbox, weekly, complete with grocery list. All I had to do was print the whole thing out, check the grocery list against my pantry and refrigerator, and follow the directions.

It was perfect for a very intense year when I didn't care a whole lot what went into my mouth. The menu I selected was a "healthy" option created by a registered dietician, and basic enough that I could adjust it for the 5 year old and the 2 year old without having to make anything extra. For times when I had guests coming, or knew I'd have a little help, I could also purchase the directions for make-ahead freezer meals that could be pulled out at and prepared at short notice.

After about a year, though, I noticed that it was pretty repetitive. I get bored easily and by the time Quentin was two I was feeling more capable of taking back the menu-making responsibilities. I really enjoy cooking and I love to eat. I'm willing to try unfamiliar flavors and recipes and I enjoy cooking blogs, so I didn't need as basic of menu planning as what I had been using during the "barely keeping my head above water" period. At the same time my husband's travel started picking up, so six nights a week of planned dinners was a little more than my family could use. So I liberated myself.

I do my grocery shopping on Mondays. Sunday nights we all contribute our requests for the weekly menu based on the schedule for the week. Friday is always pizza & movie night, which simplifies things a lot. My four year old always asks for shrimp, which I honor once a month. I do not plan for weekends, which evolve based on opportunity. I have developed a hard line about dinner. I am not a short order cook and what is on the menu is what is offered. There is not a whole lot of compromise going on, but I'm willing to take some pasta out before adding sauce, to serve vegetables raw, or to add dressings or dips on the side, if they require little prep. Surprisingly, my kids are becoming more adventurous in their tastes, which I attribute to their having a say in the dinner plan. We talk a lot about flavors and preferences, and I am pleased to say that Quentin, who had formerly declared vegetables his "emmamy," ate three servings of roasted broccoli for dinner earlier this week.

I'm going to take credit for that achievement.

  • Friday is pizza night
  • One vegetarian dinner per week (at least) 
  • Try to aim for one meal of planned-overs during particularly busy weeks
  • Sometimes I use cookbooks or my Evernote recipe system to help with planning
  • Keep an eye on other people's menu mentions on Facebook (we usually have Taco Tuesday the week after my cousin announces it...)
  • When all else fails, raid the freezer for my husband's spaghetti stash and cut up a head of lettuce
If you don't have it in you to make your own weekly meal plan, or if you'd like to see some samples of how others manage it, there are lots of menu-planning services to choose from. Some are free, others you have to pay for. Many of the paid services include a free week or two so you can find out if their ingredients and prep times are consistent with your own preferences.

I used Saving Dinner, which is associated with the FlyLady, for anyone who might be familiar with her. It is the only one I can speak to directly, so I won't recommend any others. However, if you Google "menu planning service" you'll find a list so huge that it might make you prefer to order take out. Alternatively, you can check out the blog 100 Days of Real Food. There is a page of menu plans, and also a very informative post, "Product Review: Meal Plan Services."

 Planning meals a week in advance has saved me money -- as much as 1/3 of my previous grocery bill -- and prevented food waste. It's made the witching hour a lot less painful. It's easier to stick to my grocery list knowing that I have a plan for eating what's on the list; extra purchases are likely to end up on my thighs. I'm going to even stick my neck out and say that it's helped my kids to be more adventurous eaters (they are nagging me for a "build your own salad night" this week) and best of all, it has freed my brain up for interesting problems like the plot of the novel I'm worrying over.

How do you manage "What's for dinner?" (Please feel free to share favorite outsourcing options!!)

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Zombie Apocalypse is Here

Last night I listened to the vice-presidential debate on NPR while I made dinner and wished I was drinking. It was entertaining -- high energy, full of zingers and what was supposed to sound like substance. At one point my husband commented that it sounded like a brawl.

Neither of us was motivated to actually watch the speakers.

This morning the aftermath was about "who won." I heard Joe Biden say malarkey and stuff, sounding like he had to try really hard to not drop an S-bomb on a vice-presidential debate. Now that would have been entertaining. I heard Paul Ryan giving us earnest evaluations of what could have been done and what should have been done, while imagining those startling blue eyes looking at the camera. The guy would make a very compelling Law & Order attorney. Biden referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as "BeBe" over and over again, emphasizing what close friends they are, and Ryan recited a really impressive assortment of statistics. And I had not the faintest idea if anything they said was relevant or reliable.

Dinner was late last night because I wanted to hear the debate (we'd skipped the one that Jon Stewart claims Obama didn't really show up for). My blog post today is late getting out because it started out as a rant, and then I tried to correct it into something useful and got caught up in hours of fact-checking. As it turns out, if we want to evaluate anything these guys tells us, anything at all, we have to run it through the fact-checker. And then there's the question of which fact-checker, because apparently they all have biases, too.

So, frankly, I gave up. I'm sorry, but you're going to end up with the rant.

This week, I forgot to show up for my youngest son's pre-K breakfast, because I had two other obligations that same day. This morning, my kids overslept (because they got dinner late because I was listening to the debate), so I forgot that it was my morning to help out with the school traffic duty. I wrote a to-do list that failed to mention that I need a babysitter for tomorrow evening and therefore the one I was able to hire will be working different hours than I had intended, with consequences that will be determined tomorrow. Now, I know I should be on top of things, but the message here is: my life is full. My government has its responsibilities and I have mine. I am doing the best I can to make my corner of the world a better place and to be an informed citizen, and if the people who want our votes were doing the best they could, that would not mean that I have to spend twice as much time reviewing fact-checking organizations about issues on which I have only the fuzziest understanding to determine if the guys on my ballot are equipped to do a job I know I can't.

Here are some terms we use to describe elected officials:

  • Representative
  • Delegate
  • Civil Servant (ahem) 

Those functions aren't functioning.

Here are some issues that I really, truly care about:

  • Shifting federal support of agribusiness to farming (if we must subsidize the national grocery bill) so that poor people who can't afford to vote with their wallets can still afford to eat safe, healthy, sustainable foods
  • Spending some money on support of our infrastructure so that we're more than one 6.0 earthquake away from the end of American life as we know it (as any viewer of the Disaster Channel... I mean the History Channel... can tell you)
  • Spending some money on healthcare -- in a RATIONAL way -- so that providers can make a reasonable living and pay off their student loans, and people of all income levels have access to healthcare. Like they do in industrialized countries. 
  • Empowering people to explore sustainable living practices, including changes in energy policy, so that when that 6.0 earthquake does take out our quivering infrastructure it doesn't mean the end of life as we know it.
  • Education is the future of our country. It should not be the first thing cut in a shortfall.
  • Please can we not be at war anymore, can we stop pretending like being at war is irrelevant, and can we support the soldiers and their families who have been carrying the total burden of war for the rest of us for the last ten years? 

Here are the things that I don't want to see as front-burner election issues:
  • Abortion. Yeah, I said it. I believe whole-heartedly in women's and children's health issues, and I don't think that those are being served by everybody getting all hot and bothered by one aspect of it. If we put our money where our mouths were back when "safe, legal, and rare" was the watchword, then it would be. And we wouldn't be getting beat over the head with a hot-button issue when our national quality of life is in free-fall (see above)
  • Same-sex marriage. Yeah, I said that too. Certainly I have my views on same sex marriage, as does pretty much everybody else. And they're sort of irrelevant in many ways. If the history of marriage shows anything, it is that the condition of marriage is a progressive one, and we don't need the President getting tangled up in it.
  • The precise unemployment rate that we should be at on any given date. If you can name me one non-economist voter who has the means to determine if we should be at a 6% or an 8% unemployment rate given the amount of the stimulus (which is its own can of worms, but this is a soapbox, not a cargo container), then... it won't matter because I can't tell if that person is pulling it out of their ass anyway. 

Hot-button issues are clubs that candidates and the media have used to beat us into mindless zombies who are willing to trash talk our fellow citizens, in sometimes extraordinarily brutal language, for favoring the other guy. They distract us from the fact that we are eating fake food, paid for in part by the federal government, which will make us fat and sick and send us off to the doctor in our polluting cars because there is no safe way to make even a short trip on foot or by bicycle, except for in very limited urban settings. We are a crowd of spectators, treating the future of our country like a pseudo-intellectual sporting event rather than the building project it truly is. And the sad thing is, I don't know how we will ever be able to grasp the difficulties of our own situation in such a way that we really can become the country we claim to be.

Who won the debate? That depends on which zombie you're rooting for.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Turned the Page... Again

Improving the lighting in my photographs
should be an additional checklist item.
Another month, another picture of John Lennon to preside over my writing space... where has the time gone?

In May, I turned the page on my calendar and used that action to organize my priorities for the month. Then I fell off that wagon and never returned to it in this forum (though I am a lifelong list-maker). So I'm going to re-collect myself and set some goals for October. Please hold me accountable!

Firstly, I'm going to prioritize my writing first rather than third, because it is the area in which I have been struggling most -- and where I am most likely to procrastinate. Seriously, for having written for as long as I can remember, I am absurdly intimidated by a blank page. Fifteen minutes ago, when I contemplated getting back to work on my current short story, I had butterflies in my stomach. Fight-or-flight feelings. A strong urge to find the nearest bag of chips.

However, I will be attending my first-ever writing conference, on self-publishing, at the end of this month, so I'd like to have something substantial to share with the other professionals I'll be meeting there. (This plan also makes me want to break out in hives, but in August I said that one of my goals for my kids is diligence in the presence of failure or uncertainty, and since I probably can best teach that by demonstrating it, I'm going to swallow those butterflies as best I can, ignore the call of the chips, and set pen to paper.) And once I push past that first fifteen minutes of panic I actually really enjoy writing.

Ergo, writing goals for this month:

  • Write one blog post at Simply Richer Living per week (sorry for downgrading the expectation since May; it's very important to me to get the fiction well-established, and my time is somewhat limited this month)
  • Calendar the blog posts in advance so I am more prepared to complete them
  • Write a rough draft of "Rasputin Wakes Up" (you can follow my progress if you want to help keep me moving)
  • Polish up the rough draft of Rasputin into something I feel good about sharing before October 18th
  • Finish my commentary on a project a fellow writer entrusted to me an embarrassingly long time ago (sorry, Nicole!!)
  • If I finish Rasputin before October 18th, then I have a choice of two other projects to tackle, so I should have one of those in progress for the remainder of the month.
  • Post completed word counts on this blog so I have real-time accountability
The other area where I'm really struggling at the moment is household management. Only... it's not the management part that's giving me a hard time, so much, as the labor. I should make some goals for staying on top of the laundry and the cleaning. I really should. But I'm not going to. Because those plans seem to overtake my writing plans, and the work always seems to get done somehow, even if it is only on an emergency basis because Duncan is out of pants. So I think I'm going to bow to my inner sloth and liberate myself from making a home management checklist in favor of the things that are really important. Like writing. 

Or my children. Here again, though, we seem to have found a rhythm that works. I'm not worrying about playdates because my little one is seeing his friends every day at school now, and there really isn't time available for additional playdates. My six year old has found bliss in the after-school childcare program (free till four o'clock!!) where he can compete in a real Beyblade stadium against all comers every afternoon of the week. And the walkability of our neighborhood means that my oldest child can invite friends over for playdates whenever she wants without having to rely on me to do a whole lot of arranging anymore. No one is nagging me for anything except more electronics access. Time together is guaranteed by the various activities and responsibilities we have now that school is in session, and things feel generally pretty good. No checklist required.

My last significant endeavor is weight loss. That is just not happening, though I have gotten the afternoon binge habit under control. I have come to realize that I require a certain level of physical effort to feel good, and that it has to happen very regularly. For the most part I'm getting that level of activity, but the exercise is now a daily activity -- almost like taking a shower -- and I have to protect the intensity. So... I bought some new pants, I'm going to always keep an eye out for ways to make the workouts high quality and regular, and for the rest, just let the chips fall where they will.  I'm only human. 

Do you have goals for October? If you're looking for some jump-starts, here are a few suggestions:
  • The October Buttoned-Up Challenge will get you ready for the (gulp!) holidays before it becomes a crisis
  • FlyLady's Challenge of the Month is reducing paper clutter
  • The Year of Less is taking on a Sermon On The Mount Challenge, a spiritual discipline intended to remind us that "Where your treasure lies, there your heart will be also," (some of you might recognize this as Dumbledore's epitaph in Harry Potter) in preparation for celebrating the holidays in a more meaningful way than the usual purchasing frenzy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Junk Mail

The one thing I did well at the Big House was to reduce our receipt of junk mail to a tiny, tiny trickle. It was such a tiny trickle that we received no mail at all probably two or three days a week. Given the amount of paper that a family with three school-aged children can generate, this made a significant dent in the amount of garbage that required my attention on any given day.

Now we're in the new house and we are coping with the junk mail generated by the previous inhabitants. This is not a commentary on their habits or values. But wrestling with the volume of junk mail that other people are accustomed to was a bit of a shock. I'd taken the reduced inflow for granted.

I have said before that living a simple life requires diligence in your willingness to say NO. We have built an intrusive culture in the last 20-30 years. Not only do we let advertising into our homes through television, radio, and magazines (including the internet versions of those media), but we've got people literally calling our homes, knocking on our doors, mailing things to us, and even standing outside our favorite stores demanding things of us. Whether they're charming or pitiful or earnest or demanding, they're intrusive. I just want to go about my business. I want to choose my own businesses to patronize, my own charities to support, and my own causes to champion.


I'm learning the art of the firm NO. It has to be very, very firm; any sign of sympathy or wavering only invites more charm or puppy-eyes.

No Means No.

I've been busy with other things and automatically recycling the catalogs without thinking too much about them. Until this weekend. This weekend, whichever kid carried in the mail actually grunted from the weight. The main offender was a pair of Restoration Hardware catalogs, bundled together in a plastic sleeve, one of which was 690 pages. There were four other catalogs in the stack, and, oh yeah, my husband's paystub.

That's it. I'm done. Time to take action.

My previous success at stopping junk mail required a visit to only two websites. is a generalist site. You create an account tied to an email. After activating the account, you individually choose each type of mail -- credit card offers, catalog offers, magazine offers, and other -- and choose to block either ALL new offers, or only offers from specific companies.

You can't actually block credit card offers directly from When you select credit offers, you are referred to an outside site,, where you are asked for a lot of detailed personal information, including address and social security number. This is terrifying, so I checked around. The best source I found for the reliability of the website was actually the Federal Trade Commission website: it issued an alert titled "Where to Go To Just Say No." Not only do I love the title, but it is the first hint I have seen in quite a long time that the government actually cares about the quality of life of ordinary Americans.

In the course of my research, I saw conflicting claims that opting out of prescreened credit offers can raise your credit by as much as 20-30 points. This is unconfirmed. Some say that it only helps your credit by keeping you from accepting new offers, others that it helps by keeping organizations from pinging your credit report without your knowledge (too many hits on your credit report can impact your score). The FTC alert only addresses the impact of unsolicited offers can have on your quality of life, and that is my motivation for blocking the offers. Simply opting out in itself does nothing to your credit score, so the effect, if it exists, would occur over time.

Finally, there is  I love Catalog Choice. It blocks individual catalogs. It is the source  for blocking the individual publications that pass through the DMAChoice net. These are companies that you, or the prior resident of your abode, have done business with, but which you no longer want to hear from. They offer a pretty detailed list of reasons you can give for refusing mail from an individual company, ranging from "I want to help the environment" to "I prefer to do business with this company online only" to "the person on this catalog doesn't live here anymore/is deceased." (!!) As with DMAChoice, you create an account tied to an email, and then you use the actual catalog to stop receipt. When I first started working with Catalog Choice in 2007 a lot of the companies required me to follow up personally, either through a phone call, a visit to their website, or an email directly from my email address. Catalog Choice was, and remains, incredibly helpful in working through those obstacles, but it is a tribute to the organization's effectiveness that when I added the nine catalogs I was blocking from our address today, three of them had standard acknowledgement messages pop up on the Catalog Choice website thanking the user for letting them know our preferences. There will be no wait for my preferences to take effect with those companies.

Who says one person can't make a difference?

My other favorite thing about Catalog Choice is the statistics they display on their website. I don't know if they're accurate, but they give me warm fuzzies. Over the last five years I have requested that 46 catalogs be blocked; probably a third of those are marked as "Waiting Confirmation" (from the company), but I no longer receive the item. So I don't know if the unconfirmed items are included in my personal environmental savings. As of today, this is the impact on the environment from catalogs blocked through Catalog Choice:




GALLONS OF WATER: 785,922,380

(Environmental impacts calculated using the EPN Paper Calculator)

I say again: Who says one person can't make a difference?

Happy Blocking!

If you found this information useful, please Like on Facebook or reTweet -- help spread the word so we can continue improving our personal quality of life and impact on the world around us!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book came to my attention through one of the fashion blogs I follow, FashionAtForty. In this post she (not only looks really cute) but also gave a pretty good overview of what she had found in the book thus far, having read only the first half.

I have  conflicted feelings about clothing. On the one hand, I'm very aware that I should be able to look great with fewer items than what I actually own; on the other hand, all of my sources for current trends -- blogs, magazines, style shows, and shops -- show people in an almost infinite mix of shapes, colors, and prints. How much is reasonable to carry in my closet? How much is a reasonable clothing budget?

Overdressed didn't give me answers to these questions, but it did offer more meaningful factors to consider when I make purchasing decisions than simply "do I want it?"

The book focuses primarily on "fast fashion," defined as "a radical method of retailing that has broken away from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year. Fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than its competitors'." The introduction, "Seven Pairs of $7 Shoes," and the first chapter, "I Have Enough Clothing to Open a Store," describe the shopping habits of the author herself and of young women known as "haulers," who make YouTube videos of their shopping hauls. The focus of these two chapters is the consumerism that breeds from the price and abundance of fast fashion.

I watched 3 minutes of a 15 minute haul video in the interests of research... I have never seen anything so incredibly painful in my life. She didn't even try on the clothes, just sort of held it up enough to see the fabric, but not the shape of the garment, and talked about what she liked about it.

Chapter 2, "How America Lost Its Shirts," describes the history of the garment industry in the United States.

Chapter 3, "High and Low Fashion Make Friends," examines the relationship between price and value. Summary: there isn't necessarily a correlation between high cost and high quality.

In Chapter 4, "Fast Fashion," Cline recounts the history of fast fashion and its impact on the retail world and also the United States garment industry.

Chapter 5, "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes," was perhaps the most painful section of the book. Cline debunks what she calls "the clothing deficit myth." So often we buy clothes thinking that if they don't work out, no problem, we'll pass them on to a donation recipient like Goodwill and they will find their way to some needy person grateful for our cast-offs. "Of all the clothing that we dump off on charities' doorsteps... less than 20 percent gets sold through stores. About half of it doesn't even get a shot at the stores, going straight into the postconsumer waste stream and on to such facilities as Mid-West Textile" from where it will be sorted and sold by the ton to secondhand clothing dealers, rag companies to be pulped and made into insulation or carseat stuffing, bundled to be sold by the ton to Africa, or put into landfills.

Chapter 6, "Sewing is a Good Job, a Great Job," describes the industry conditions for garment workers and some innovative business efforts.

In Chapter 7, "China and the End of Cheap Fashion," Cline recounts how she went undercover to various clothing manufacturers in China and Bangladesh to learn more about the overseas industry. She found many of her assumptions about garment manufacturing were outdated and misguided, and that seeing the conditions, not only of the factories themselves, but of the environments in which they operated, changed her understanding of the fashion industry. She also predicted the coming end of fast-fashion as we know it: the rising standard of living in China will drive prices up, and other countries will not be able to move into the void as national infrastructure in places like Bangladesh will prevent them from being able to operate under just-in-time principles on short deadlines, as fast fashion requires.

Chapter 8, "Make, Alter, and Mend," is perhaps the weakest chapter of the book. This is not entirely Cline's fault. The conditions she describes that led to the rise of fast fashion -- international agreements such as NAFTA, pricing conditions, the intense marketing practices to which consumers are susceptible, and the economy generally -- are not conditions that can easily be altered, no matter how alert consumers are. Where we can make alternate choices in food purchasing practices by choosing to buy organic or local or at a farmer's market, no such alternate clothing marketplace exists. I can attest myself that it is difficult to determine the manufacturing practices of any given clothing brand, and the "fast" nature of fast fashion means that no single brand has consistent practices among its entire line of offerings. Eaters can grow even a small amount of vegetables in their own homes, but learning to make clothing is much more complicated, expensive, and time and labor intensive. Cline spends a lot of time talking up the possibilities of making one's own clothing, or buying refashioned vintage (a possibility that erodes with every passing year), but even she admits that she doesn't know if she'll be spending time sewing her own wardrobe two years in the future. Her most meaningful suggestion is to slow down, to buy more intentionally, to pay closer attention to fit and quality of construction, to be willing to spend more per piece while holding total amount spent steady.

Clines ends the book on a hopeful note in Chapter 9, "The Future of Fashion." She lists a few conscientious designers and clothing retailers who are working to bring quality and morality back to the fashion industry and describes their methods for achieving those ends.

In all, this was a fascinating, eye-opening read. Cline has an engaging voice. She used the contents of her own closet and her own shopping habits to illustrate the nature of fast fashion. She did an amazing amount of research, including, as mentioned, her trips to China, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic, but also research into historical shopping and manufacturing practices, public policy conditions, post-consumer processing practices, and the environmental impact of textile production.

I would really have loved it if she could have offered more guidance into choosing labels and researching the values that guide brands' manufacturing practices. Illustrations would have been incredibly helpful -- both of the factories she visited, and also of the clothing construction she described. It should be noted that I read this book on my Kindle, and I do not know if such illustrations were available in the paper copies.

Other reviewers have commented on some of the editing issues in this book. As I read, I did note where those came up, but in many cases they were misused words rather than formatting or copy-editing mistakes, so I chalk that up to a failure with the publisher. I appreciate Cline putting together such a well-researched, eye-opening book, that will certainly guide my future purchasing decisions.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What Is a Simple Life?

It's been quiet around here for a few weeks because I've been stumped.

A friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook: "What is simple living?"

Well, don't I feel like a bonehead for not asking that question of myself in the first place.

Seven other people responded to her question. Some said simple living with kids was not possible. Some described what was essentially a peaceful afternoon. One said, no, who cares about a simple life? Embrace its craziness!

My response to her post went like this: For me it's a matter of making only the choices that are important to my quality of life, including commitments and belongings. It's not having to spend time taking care of things and having more time and mental space to do, think, create, and share.

I thought about her question a bit more and added: I think a simplified life requires constant vigilance because of the difficulty of saying no.

But now that I've had three weeks to stew about the question, and look around at different ways that people have tried to answer that question, I think I have at least something to throw out there. As a start. And I reserve the right to change my mind or expand on the ideas I'm kicking out here today.

The original impetus for simplifying came during a time when I felt totally overwhelmed with my life and unable to make time to do the things that were important to me.  I've already recounted how I discovered The Zero Waste Home and the impact Bea Johnson had on me. Johnson actually has two simultaneous endeavors going on at once in her household: zero waste living and also "simplifying," which when you read what she's actually doing sounds more like minimalism.

In one of her posts Bea Johnson said that Little House on the Prairie was her favorite TV show because of the simplicity of life that it portrayed. Ignoring the many anachronisms from that show (my personal favorite being how people drove their gigantic wagons pulled by gigantic horses around just like they were driving a station wagon... but I suppose I can laugh about that another time), I want to point out that if you actually look at the sets they are chock full of stuff, including lots of multiples -- something Johnson finds offensive in her own home life. Moreover, I don't know what's "simple" about, for example, rousing all your children, aged 5 and up, out of their warm beds at two or three in the morning to save the corn crop from an unseasonable snap freeze, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in Farmer Boy. Or in eating the same meal over and over and over again for weeks at a time because there is absolutely no other food available. It's not simplified living if you can't choose where you simplify.

But I digress.

So what is simple living? I think it's focused living. I have some goals and some values.

  • To live in a way that hurts as few people as possible
  • To never stop learning or changing my mind about what I thought I knew
  • To be kind and supportive of other people
  • To be healthy for my entire adult life so that when I'm old I don't die infirm
  • To be as good a writer as I can possibly be
  • To be pretty (I know it's vain, but it's true)
  • To make all the choices that reflect how rich and varied life can be that are consistent with the path I have set for myself

For my children, I want:

  • Good health and an excellent sense of themselves
  • Diligence in the presence of failure or uncertainty
  • Habits that will make it easier for them to make the choices that will make them happy
  • The time and leisure to do childish things
  • The opportunity to find out what they love and what they are good at
For our entire family:
  • Gratitude for all that blesses us

Anything that distracts me from these goals and values for myself or my family is complicating my life. This doesn't mean that the life I have laid out for myself is simple in itself; in many ways it's a lot more complicated than living unconsciously. Just the goal of being healthy, for instance, requires a lot of effort. I have to determine what kind of diet will best further that goal; I have to be conscious of what is actually going into the foods I bring home and prepare, or what I choose when we eat out. I have to make the effort to make exercise a part of my schedule, and figure out how to make it part of my kids' schedule as well, so that they will learn it as an ordinary and necessary part of life, like sleep. When I fall off the wagon (as I do regularly) I have to pay attention to what I let distract me from my goals and make the effort to rebuild in a way that won't set me up for failure again.

No, this kind of life is not simple, but it's a lot simpler than relying on (and paying for) ten prescriptions with all the complications (read: side effects) they bring. It's simpler than being miserable for being fat and not fitting my favorite clothes and thereby violating my goal of being pretty. It's simpler than trying to undo the consequences of not making the effort -- and that I know for sure, because I'm doing it now. It's simpler than wondering what life could have been if I had lived it according to my own desires.

Owning too much stuff also distracts from my goals and values. I can't be grateful for my blessings if I'm drowning in them. Not being able to find things is my biggest, biggest peeve ever. I resent and loathe the waste of every minute spent looking for things that are buried under things I don't care about. Downsizing from the Big House has been a great improvement on this problem -- there are only so many places any given thing can be in this little house -- but it still happens occasionally. I do not want to spend my life looking for things. That is so not simple.

Of course the lists above are only partial, but it probably would help me a lot to make a more thorough, personal list for my own use to keep me on track. As my children get older I'd like to distill it into a family motto that we could post in our home, something they have had a say in so that they have a stake in living it. I'm also finding that over-simplifying is not a good idea. Living in a little rental house in a walkable neighborhood is nice in many ways, but it precludes the vegetable garden I enjoyed, and the decorating possibilities that make me feel creative and capable. That's not simple, it's unnecessarily ascetic and unsustainable. Finding and maintaining a simple life is, I think, a constant work in progress.

If you want to explore all kinds of ways of adopting a simple life, here are some of the resources I looked at while I was stewing over this post:

Since I'm a Wikipedia junky I'll share the definition for simple living found there:
Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one's lifestyle. These may include reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency, for example. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than want. Although asceticism generally promotes living simply and refraining from luxury and indulgence, not all proponents of simple living are ascetics. Simple living is distinct from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice.  
Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in "quality time" for family and friends, work–life balance, personal taste, frugality, or reducing personal ecological footprint and stress. Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist or anti-war movements, including conservation, degrowth, social justice, ethnic diversity, tax resistance and sustainable development.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Paper Clutter

Today is Saturday.  I'm sitting in the living room, cleaning out some paper clutter that has been weighing on me since... Oh, I don't know, I've had paper clutter weighing on me since I encountered adulthood.

This seems like a good moment to give a shout out to my friends from college.  In the early 1990's, not everyone had a computer to themselves, and I was one of the fortunate few who did.  It was an enormous "portable" computer with a six-inch green-and-black screen and two floppy disk drives (the luxury!) and it weighed about as much as an overpacked suitcase.  I had my own printer too, an utterly aggravating dot matrix that invariably failed to function on the date that any paper was due.  If I had a paper to turn in I always turned up about halfway through the class. (Probably I should have started my three page papers more than thirty minutes before they were due; putting words on a page has never been a problem for me).

Anyway, I was generous with my electronic access -- my friends could use my computer whenever they needed, and in thanks they tidied my dorm room up for me.  Thanks, Alene, Heather, Tiara, and anyone else unlucky enough to need me!  You guys rocked!!

As a resident advisor I had piles and piles and piles of paper coming through my inbox every day. I was expected to hang it on the floor bulletin boards.  Sometimes I did, usually I missed the dates.  I had no system for managing it and nobody ever suggested the idea of a routine to me.  I just made random choices moment to moment, based on what I "felt like" and what was most urgent at the time.  When I graduated from college most of the paper problem evaporated, but now that I have three kids in school it has returned with a vengeance (home ownership has an impact as well, though I haven't not been one long enough to see the improvement).

I'm a grown up and it's summer vacation.  I can take the time to create a process that will keep me from having to bring in help in dealing with all this paper.  I'd like to also model a rather better strategy for dealing with my paper for my kids, as well, so they find themselves less overwhelmed as they grow into their own paper problems.

So today I am clearing the decks.  I've got a stack of recipes that have been collecting wine spots on my counters and a stack of magazines to cull.  I found one this morning from 2002 -- YIKES. I'm pleased to see how much useful information I'm encountering, though, so I'll share a few strategies I'm working on to deal with all this crap these responsibilities.

1.  File folders.  Bonehead!  Yes, it has taken me nine years to figure out that I need file folders.  I'm sorry, but I'm a slow learner.  No, actually I'm not a slow learner; I've just been slow to appreciate that what I'm doing is important enough to merit file folders. In my former life as a CPA/corporate tax preparer, file folders, red and blue pencils, and my computer were the primary tools of my trade.  Somehow, when I stopped working in that profession, I devalued myself.  Only people with "real careers" need file folders, right? The rest of us are just indulging in org porn.  WRONG! I need file folders! I need to know where I've kept all the home maintenance receipts and the kids' school papers, the directories for church and school, the medical stuff... I need a lot of file folders. And it only took me ten years to value home management as a valid activity worth investing a few supplies... that I already have around the house. Aries is certainly a bone-headed sign...

2.  Binders.  My mother-in-law started me with my first binder when my husband and I were engaged.  She gave me a gigantic three-inch binder filled with magazine tear sheets in sheet protectors. It was all home decorating information: pictures of beautiful rooms filled all three inches (do you know how many pictures that was???)  That binder was a godsend when we bought our fixer-upper, when I was expecting babies and creating nurseries for them, and especially when we remodeled.  I added more binders over the years: a gardening binder, one for the holidays, and a recipe binder.  When my husband was doing more DIY projects I created one for him as well, though at the moment all but the decorating and recipe binders are currently disbanded.  I'm going to create two new ones that reflect my current interests and abilities -- no point in fantasizing about elaborate garden and holiday projects I can't indulge: articles about writing, and fashion inspirations.

3.  Evernote. The binder system works beautifully for image-heavy content; it's like the pre-Pinterest Pinterest, but not so great for more detailed information.  (reasons I'm not using Pinterest anymore here)  Sheet protectors prevent organizing tabs from being visible and I generally want a whole menu, rather than a single recipe, when I am coming up with meals.  I'm trying to be sort of low-carb and would love ideas for breakfasts that start me off successfully.  My kids love traditional breakfasts any time of day and I want to know how to make treats that are more nutritious for them. I have family recipes I don't want to lose track of, but that I also don't want to make more than once a year. My usual method for getting recipes is to pull them off internet searches, especially, and then I have a stack of cooking-stained scrap papers with ingredient proportions, no instructions; fifty-fifty if they have a recipe name attached to them.  The longer they hang around the more successful I consider them, but either way I have to read the ingredient proportions to know what it is.  I've been using Evernote for my novel planning, but it took my husband pointing out its usefulness for recipe organization.  Using this system will make it easier for me to prepare weekly menus and shopping lists, as well.

4.  Bins.  Every organizing article and book I've ever read (no small number) asks: What the hell do I do with all the kid output? In my attic I have a 30-gallon tote full of all the stuff my mom saved from my childhood. I know what's in it because it was my childhood, but otherwise it is of almost no interest to me. My husband has a 3.0 cubic foot moving box from his childhood. I might have looked in it when we were newly married, but I couldn't tell you today what is in it. We don't care a whole lot about that stuff, but we also recognize that when our children are older they might find it interesting. So I have designated a 17-gallon bin for each of my children to last the entire time they are under my roof.

When we moved to California from Virginia I learned that the further I get from the time the artwork was created, the easier it is to discard it. When I had been away from the children for a little over a week to empty the house and see to the boxing up and shipping, I couldn't bear to toss all their little drawings and projects.  A year after the move-in, I could not understand why I had trucked all that stuff three thousand miles. (Sure am glad I didn't pay to ship it!) I kept one piece. But with the bins, I have a place to store the stuff till I have enough perspective to choose my favorites, to see how they develop so I can choose the piece that is most representative of what kind of people they were, and to have new darlings that I need to make room for.

*   *   *

I've been silent for a week or more, as I struggle to put together a post that I should probably have done first.  I want to come up with a definition for simple living, a question that was posed by a friend on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. It has been harder than I thought (and not helped by losing half an entry from some kind of Blogger glitch), so I'm asking for some help.  What is Simple Living to you? What are you looking for when you read these posts?  What changes are you looking to make in your own lifestyle?

And in the meantime: Don't be afraid to invest in your own needs.  Take your role as Home CEO seriously enough to have a planned home for the documents that are generated in this not-simple world we are navigating and make your life a little simpler. Recognize when things that used to work don't, and be willing to adjust.  And most importantly, think about what works for you, your personality, your household, and your activities.

And if you're blogging, please be sure to use pictures and text that you have permission to use. Simple generally precludes being involved in a legal action.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


After hearing several stories of bloggers being sued for use of photographs found on the internet, I've decided to take down the ones that put me at risk.  I will leave the posts up without pictures until I can re-illustrate them, so please be patient with me as I trawl through this process.

For one post with a lot of information about fair use, etc., that can lead to other sites with similar information, follow this link and read the comments as well, which include input from photographers.

I guess I'll also be learning photography, so please bear with me as I work my way through this learning curve!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Domestic Bliss -- A To Do List

On a day when the children are very tired and not fighting too much, finish a book you've been plowing through for three weeks.

Add one handsome husband and 1-2 glasses of very good red wine.  Kisses helpful, but optional.

Quietly and peacefully make your favorite simple dinner. Linger. Especially if the children are being quiet.  (Suspiciously quiet is OK if you've had enough wine.)

Call the children to the table. Refill your glass. Put only their favorite vegetables on the table.

Turn on the Glen Hansard channel on Pandora.  Ask everyone about their day.  Sit back and enjoy your meal.

Then put the children to bed.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My Fifteen Minutes

This is my house.  Tidy.  The dining room & kitchen; I'm standing in the living room. 

This is my house.  Tidy.  The dining room and living room; I'm standing in the kitchen.

This is my fifteen minutes of glory.  I'm enjoying it.
(When Charlotte heard the title of my post, she snickered and said "Five minutes is more like it." But then we sent her to bed.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I have been living in 1470 square feet with three children for four months now.  For the most part it's going well.  But I'm not sure this is how I want to live for the rest of their childhood.  Or, frankly, even much beyond the end of our current lease.

I don't want much.  I want maybe a foot more space in each room.  I'd like some delineation between the dining area and the living area.  I'd like a little more space for the children to play -- especially now that my six year old has become totally obsessed with Beyblades and had to be restrained from shouting "One... Two... Three... Let 'er RIP!!!" at six in the morning, and the sound of battle tops hitting the wood floors at seven on a Saturday morning is hard to sleep over.

I would love to have a kitchen where I can open the refrigerator and the dishwasher at the same time.  With enough counter space that the kids and I could stretch a really good cooking project, or playdough, or art, or... well, just about anything.  But I would like to have enough room for more than a single person in the kitchen.  It doesn't have to be huge, just roomy enough for us to spend time together.

I'd like to have a separate office from my husband's.  The mostly-empty bookshelves behind his desk cramp the room up and make me a little crazy, as I'm sure my piles make him.  I've tried, but I've never in my life managed to live without them. I know he'd love for me to figure that out. Or we could just work apart.

I'd like to be able to host book club at my house without waking up the children with our wine-fueled conversational catharses.

So much for the minimalist dream.

I'm sure some of my squeezed feeling is left over from the quiet I was able to experience escaping to a quiet couch in the upstairs of the house my entire family shared in Hilton Head, or the peace of hanging out in the screen porch at my in-laws' house.  And that summer vacation can make even the most harmonious families a little short with each other. But I would really love 300 more square feet and a garage.

Is that so bad?

I'm feeling a little torn. Proponents of responsible, sustainable living advocate for smaller houses and we're reminded by authors of money-management articles like this October, 2011 article from U.S. News & World Report that big houses are expensive in more than just the mortgage payment.  "Do you really want to live in a home that's 2,500 square feet or larger?"

Yes. Yes, I do.

But, chides the article,
If you take a quick look back, you'll see that historically, smaller homes have been the norm for most of us. In 1950, the average home size was 983 square feet. In 2004, at the height of the building boom, the average home size was 2,340 square feet. That's an enormous difference just over the span of a few decades.
I'm going to take slight issue with this.

First off, if people actually liked living in tiny houses, the houses wouldn't have grown. But they have, and not only the new houses; the 1939 house we bought in Falls Church, Virginia had an addition tacked on to the side that the previous owner had added in the 1960's. That addition consisted of a master bedroom & bathroom, a large family room, and a screen porch.  The kitchen had been remodeled in such a way that the refrigerator was moved into a walk-in pantry just outside the kitchen; it was arranged this way so they didn't have to change the basic footprint of the kitchen when enlarging the counter space and adding a dishwasher. The basement, which isn't included in square footage but which is a major bonus to living space, had been subdivided to provide an "illegal" bedroom for one of the couples' two daughters.  When we stripped the wallpaper from the original upstairs secondary bedroom, we noticed a head-shaped dent in the plaster wall and joked that the daughter must have been exiled to the basement after a massive adolescent fight between the two girls.

When we remodeled the house in 2004, the previous owner stopped by with his daughter and asked if he could see what we'd done.  I was a little nervous about this; we'd stripped the house, for the most part, back to the foundations, and built off the original footprint, out the back, and up, to double the size of the house as it had previously stood in all its dated, slanting horror.  (I guess I'm showing that my interest in minimalist living is pretty recent).  This was partly necessary, because the fabric-coated wiring and DIY addition weren't aging well, and it was partly... well, because we could, and we wanted to.

But as Joe, by then in his 80's, and his daughter, who was probably in her early 50's, walked through the house, all he kept saying was, "Yes, this is what I had in mind.  Yes, that's what I was going for.  Oh, I see you put the kitchen on the screen porch; that's exactly what I was going to do."

The daughter asked to see the basement, and when we got to that tiny illegal bedroom, she sighed and said "I really loved that room."

"Really?" I asked, speechless.

"Oh, yes," she answered. She was glass-eyed remembering the past. "I was so happy to get some space away from my family."

Joe bought that house in 1962.  He wasn't appalled and looking back at the glory days of a happier, simpler time.  He wanted what we had managed to build. And we were able to build as we did because of the floor plan he put together during the time that big living was supposedly anathema. I'll tell you something else: Joe didn't build the house bigger to hold more stuff. The closets were never the best part of that house. In fact, the coat closet next to the 1939 front door couldn't even handle regular hangers, because it was too shallow for the door to close if I put a coat on a hanger (it did have a hanger bar, which I never understood). When Joe tacked the addition on to the side of the house, he built a new front door as well (right next to the original front door, which we always thought was hilarious). But he didn't add a coat closet. His family didn't care about stuff.  They just wanted space to stretch their legs a bit. That's true for all the other many, many World War II era houses that were built in the DC metro area that have little box additions tacked on to the side or back (trust me, that means most of them).

And then "average size" is a meaningless statistic.  What does it include? My first studio apartment in Atlanta? The 18,000 square foot, eight bedroom mansion for sale in San Francisco (and all the other estates like it) right now?  Let's be specific, people! Tell me how houses have changed for a specific kind of household in a specific part of the country -- and tell me how those people are living now, too. There might be good reasons for living smaller, but "because that's how they lived before" is not one of them, especially when that assertion is poorly supported.

I realize that I'm writing contrary to "Simply Richer Living." I'm sorry. I'm trying to process what is beginning to feel like mutually exclusive states of being: The desire to simplify my life and the desire to live more easily and fully. I want my little guy to wake up early in the morning and practice his passion.  I also want to be able to sleep till my appointed wake-up time (and for my four-year-old to do so as well).  I like being close to my kids wherever we are in the house, and I also want to be able to get a little quiet for some part of every day so that I actually want to talk to them. I want to be able to entertain my friends at home, not at a restaurant.

These desires are new in a historical sense. An interesting paper, "Housing: Then, Now, and Future" by Moya K. Mason points out that:
The novelty of our age is that how we use the space in our homes is continually evolving. And, as we transform these spaces, they transform us. These transformations are the result of demographic, economic, lifestyle, environmental, and technological changes and pressures. Home offices and media rooms are new spaces, while old spaces like living rooms are now being used as computer rooms. Video entertainment, games, computers, and the Internet serve to isolate, and also demand more personal space, separating us from the people we live with.
Bill Bryson's At Home makes a similar case with much more entertaining language, for anyone who is interested in the history of our home space. But essentially: Living rooms are computer rooms now, because we use computers heavily in most of daily life, and because we entertain more casually, with friends welcome in our "family" rooms and our kitchens. Home offices are the result of a greater diversity in the work force, including women who work from home, and a greater complexity in home management needs.  The new configuration of our homes serves both to isolate us, but also to make more of our relationships less formal, more genuine.

Certainly isolation is a danger of a larger home space, and for sure that's not what I want. But my family and I don't live the kind of life people lived in 1940 or earlier; we live now. Part of living now is that people actually live quite a lot in their homes.  Kitchens were smaller because frozen dinners were supposed to do away with the need to cook every night, and a more elaborate food network meant that you didn't need to have the skill or space to preserve at home. Our reliance on the car and the decay of community means kids have to live at home instead of out prowling the territory that could be covered on a bicycle (without a helmet). What I want is to figure out how to create a lifestyle that is consistent with my values of creating intimacy with the people I care about while still having the space to recharge and be the sort of person with whom they want to be intimate. I don't want to be obnoxious about the fact that I can have these things. I just want a little leg room.

OK, it doesn't have to be 2500 square feet. Am I asking for too much? In a world where way too many people live in poverty and the earth is going to hell speedy-quick, then definitely yes. In the world I live in... I don't know what is right. What are my obligations to the world, and to what extent am I entitled to live, well, selfishly? I don't know. I hope I figure it out some day.

In the meantime, a basement would ease things here significantly.