The Inconvenience of Conveniences

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

I recall the look of complete amazement and bewilderment on the face of my British friend as I described to her, sometime back in the late ’80’s, how a drive-thru bank worked. I’m not sure if she was impressed by the ingenuity of such an idea or astonished at the sheer laziness of an entire culture where such a phenomenon would even be needed, much less commonplace.

Indeed, we Americans seem to be almost obsessed with an ongoing demand for more and more “convenience”. As though drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies and dry cleaners are not enough, we now have curbside pickup, hands-free concierge service on our cell phones, and remote controls that open our car trunks for us from 50 feet away. Of course, being the queen of laziness, I love it all and can’t wait for the day that someone invents an exercise machine that allows me to burn calories and tone muscle while napping.

But if we aren’t careful, our never-ending quest for convenience can become downright inconvenient, particularly when it comes to all those “convenience” kitchen appliances: juicers, bread makers, rotisseries, countertop grills, food dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Look around you. Are the appliances that are intended to conserve your time just consuming valuable the real estate in your home?

As with anything else, it’s all about choices. Choose which convenience you want…drive-thru burgers, or easier homemade burgers? Vacuum packed groceries you can freeze for fewer trips to the store, or door-to-door grocery delivery? Be realistic and consider your lifestyle and current needs to determine which you will really use. If you want to keep the food dehydrator, fine. USE IT! Commit to it. Let go of that notion that you’ll use it “someday”. If “someday” ever does come, the newer models will be better, even easier to use, and probably worth the cost of buying a new one, so there’s no need to keep this one around and in your way until then (unless it’s Grandma’s old ice cream maker and you are keeping it for sentimental reasons…but that’s another post). Realize that there is nothing convenient about having to move the juicer every time you need to find a glass for your store-bought juice. ALL conveniences require some type of sacrifice–time, money, space, accessibility–so choose wisely.

I have a bread maker I bought about 15 years ago but rarely used because it was too big to store on the counter and required too much effort to get it out when put away. Storing such a large and infrequently-used appliance in my tiny kitchen was a luxury I could no longer afford, so I gave myself an ultimatum: either start using the bread maker regularly or get rid of it. Thus I re-organized my kitchen to make it easier to access my bread maker and  have started using it at least weekly to make homemade dough for pizzas, pita bread and hamburger buns from pre-measured, homemade mixes I toss together once a month or so. I am choosing the convenience of having easier homemade pizza over the convenience of ordering pizza delivery, but that’s a personal choice. The point is, you need to evaluate your current needs and priorities and stop allowing your convenience appliances to inconvenience your life by either finding a way to make using them easier or getting rid of them to make room for a different kind of convenience.

By the way, unused space is a pretty versatile convenience of its own. Just saying.

I’ve Got Something in the Oven

Christmas Cookies

No, no, no…it’s not that kind of “something”…those days are over (thank goodness)! But it’s not too early to get your holiday bake on. Whether you are baking pies for Thanksgiving, Christmas cookies for Santa, yummy bread to give as gifts, or quiche for a New Year’s brunch, planning and doing a bit ahead of time will reduce some of that holiday stress…save that for dealing with the in-laws and your sugared-up kids!

  1. Start by creating space in your freezer. Use up some of the stuff that’s been in there for awhile before it expires. (If you lost power during one of the recent storms, here’s your silver lining.)
  2. Next, pick up extra baking staples during your regular shopping trips whenever you see them on sale. Flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, butter…did you know that you can freeze your butter?
  3. Make a list of all the old family favorites and any new goodies you’d like to bake this year. (If your family is anything like mine, this alone will make you realize that you should have started on December 26 of last year.)  Gather your recipes in one place or include cookbook names and page numbers on your list so that you have it handy when ready to dive in.
  4. Make a list of any special ingredients you don’t normally keep on hand so that you can keep an eye out for sales and purchase them as you see them. Many items go on sale right after Halloween or Thanksgiving, and coupons abound.
  5. Whip up a batch of cookie dough or pie pastry as time allows. It literally takes only minutes, and if you start making just one or two batches each weekend, you’ll have a wide assortment by the time you need them.
  6. Cookie dough can be rolled into logs (for slicing), cut into shapes, or shaped into individual balls and then frozen. Pie shells can be shaped and frozen raw, and quick breads can be baked first before being wrapped and frozen. Just be careful to package everything well in airtight freezer containers or wraps and label them clearly. (I wondered why my Maple Shortbread tasted so peanut buttery last year!)
  7. Just pull your goodies out of the freezer and bake as and when they are needed. Most recipes can be baked straight from the freezer but be sure to allow additional baking time.

No more marathon baking sessions three days before your party or giving away stale cookies because you couldn’t get them delivered right away. Bake only what you need, package them up and deliver them fresh from your oven straight to your boss’ desk. Can you say “Christmas bonus?”

Scare Up Some Fun This Halloween!

Halloween Spider attack!

Pipe cleaners and black pom-poms never looked so scary!

For many of us, Frankenstorm was scary enough but for kids, Halloween is a big deal that only comes around once a year. So don’t let Hurricane Sandy have the last cackle. Even if your Halloween celebration was postponed or your trick-or-treating canceled, you can still scare up some fun and make a few spooky memories that don’t include gusty winds and flooding.

The good thing about Halloween is that shabby is chic and less-than-perfect is perfect. It was a holiday made for making do with what’s on hand around your home. And it’s the ideal way to use up some of those excess craft supplies that seem to multiply in your closet. I’ve put together a few of my favorite ideas in this Homemade Halloween How-to page in the Parenting Tools section of this blog. I apologize for my tardiness, but hopefully you will keep it in mind for next year even if you don’t have an opportunity to do any of these today.

The important thing to remember is that there are a million and one ways to make it fun with little time or money. It doesn’t take much to thrill your little goblins, and it’s still not too late for gray spaghetti brains and monster toe hot dogs for dinner.

Stay safe and have a Spook-tacular Halloween!

Battening Down the Hatches for “Frankenstorm” Sandy

Why is there always a rush on toilet paper whenever a storm is expected? It’s a massive disturbance in the weather system, people, not in your…er..system!

But with the obligatory battery and water run out of the way, I’m focusing my efforts today on some other, less obvious, preparations for a potential power outage as a result of Hurricane Sandy. On my To Do list for today:

  1. Doing laundry (at least we’ll have clean underwear)
  2. Securing deck furniture, trash/recycle bins and removing the campaign sign from my front lawn (I’m guessing that people will be less likely to vote for a candidate whose sign impaled their car windshield during a hurricane)
  3. Refilling prescriptions (the storm inside could be worse than the one outside if the meds run out)
  4. Making extra ice (for preserving perishables or for fixing myself a stiff drink, whichever need is greater at the time)
  5. Locating my flashlights and batteries, candles and matches, sterno, manual can opener and paper plates (simply add graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows and we’re all set for a Girl Scout singalong)
  6. Tidying the house (a floor strewn with marbles, jacks and GI Joes can make one heck of a booby trap in the dark, as proven in Home Alone)
  7. Cooking (transforming raw ground beef into chili that can be easily re-heated over sterno or in a pot on the grill is much easier now than chopping the onions for it will be in the dark…OUCH!)
  8. Noting down phone numbers to call for news and information on school closures and to report downed power lines (since the Yellow Pages never makes it through my front door now that we have this Internet thing)
  9. Baking (I think the press totally misinterpreted “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job!”)
  10. Charging my cell phones (because it takes more than a power outage to shut me up)

To all my readers in the path of the “Frankenstorm”, please be prepared, stay safe and don’t take any unnecessary chances. For the rest of you, pray for us. We’re gonna need it!

“Where’s the Beef?” in Your Thanksgiving?

It’s almost Halloween, and that can only mean one thing: Time to start thinking about Christmas! (Or so the retailers would have you believe.)

But what about that other holiday…you know, the one where we watch football and stuff our faces so that we have plenty of energy to shop til we drop on Black Friday?…the one that heralds the coming of the Christmas season and the official start of the decorating wars?…when we get the green light to start spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need? What’s that called again? Oh yeah…Thanksgiving! Thanks giving…giving thanks.

Thanksgiving is unique among the end-of-year holidays because it really lasts for only one day (okay, maybe two or even three if you are the one doing the cooking for the feast). Even Halloween gets bigger billing these days, with all the Halloween decorations, parties, costume preparations, and spooky movie marathons on TV. By the time the big Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, we are usually so focused on football and eating and planning out our 4AM shopping strategy that we forget what it is really supposed to be about. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

Well, it is not about extravagant spreads of food. It is not about beautiful, impressive tablescapes a la Martha Stewart. It is not about kickoff time or fires in the fireplace or putting up the Christmas tree. It is not about traveling or pumpkin pie or gourds or falling leaves. It is not even about pilgrims or native Americans or survival. It is about gratitude…gratitude for life and whatever it has handed you…gratitude for blessings and gratitude for the hardships that make you appreciate the blessings…gratitude for what you have now and gratitude for what you once had…gratitude for the love of others and for the ability to love them back…gratitude for hope and for the ability to keep on hoping even in the most hopeless of situations.

Gratitude is an attitude. It is the only thing that makes it possible to get through even the worst of days and still want to wake up and try again tomorrow. Want the secret to “easy peasy living”? It’s gratitude, and it deserves your full attention on at least one day of the year. So this year, before you dive head first into that turkey with all the trimmings, take a little time to ponder all you have instead of all you wish you had, and have a truly Happy Thanksgiving!

My (Not So) Secret Hoard

After nine months of procrastination, excuses and cancellations, I finally had my “annual” physical yesterday. I had been dreading this since January, knowing that my likable yet firm and forthright nurse practitioner was going to lecture me about my hoard. Yes that’s right…I’m a hoarder…a hoarder of calories. And just like all the hoarders on my favorite “Buried Alive” TV episodes, my years of hoarding have finally started taking their toll and are doing some real physical damage to the hoarder home…in this case, my body.

It’s not exactly a secret to anyone who sees me that I like to eat and hate to exercise. I’ve struggled with maintaining my weight for most of my life but really began losing the battle after I had kids, not unlike so many people who lose their tenuous grip on organization and time management when the demands of life begin to outgrow the number of hours in a day. In fact, there are so many similarities between getting fit and getting organized:

  1. Both require long-term patience and determination
  2. Both involve a lifestyle change that must be maintained in order to be successful
  3. Both are freeing and empowering and remove obstacles to fulfilling your potential
  4. Both are immensely rewarding and lead to a better quality of life
  5. Both are more likely to be successful when accompanied by the support and encouragement of others

I have a triathlete friend who wishes her house looked like mine. I wish my body looked like hers. Put us together and we’d be one smokin’ hot room mother!  I went over to her house a few months ago to give her some organizing advice. It was the first time I’d seen her house, and she nervously met me at the door, admitting that it was hard for her to let me in (it truly wasn’t that bad). As I was leaving, she asked if she’d be seeing me up at the pool this summer, and I replied, “The way you felt about letting me into your house is the way I feel about putting on a bathing suit in public.” I didn’t make it up to the pool this year…clearly my friend is more courageous than I am!

My nurse practitioner has given me three months to start clearing out my hoard “or else” (meaning that another lecture from her will be the easiest part of my next appointment, I’m sure). So I find myself in the role of encouragee after months of playing the encourager.  I hope it will make me better able to relate to my clients’ struggles and find compassionate ways to encourage them. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime, if you see me stuffing my gob with cupcakes, remind me that “it’s all about making choices”.

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Avoidance

Have you ever noticed that things always tend to break when you are broke…and when you really, really, really, really need them the most?

That’s what happened this morning. My husband returned home from his first night shift back at work after a much-needed two weeks off and reported that the brakes in his car were making that dreaded grinding sound. You know the one. It means “Cough up at least $250 immediately” in car language. And of course it didn’t happen while he was off and we didn’t need both cars so that each of us could get to work. It happened right in the middle of a particularly tight budget week.

But it is what it is, and there was no getting around it. We needed that car and couldn’t avoid the necessary repairs, so we put our heads together and came up with a solution within five minutes. I was so proud of my husband (aka “Mañana Man”) for facing the issue head on instead of avoiding it the way he has often done in the past. I used to tease him about how whenever he noticed the car making a funny noise, he’d just turn up the radio so that he didn’t have to hear it anymore. Job done…right?!!

We all have stuff we avoid. I avoided our finished basement for years because the carpet and sofa were stained, the kids’ toys had taken over, and it was dark and dingy and ugly, and I didn’t have the money to get new carpeting or a new sofa. I found myself trying to fit all my stuff into the main level of our house, making that more cluttered than I wanted, just so that I didn’t have to go down there as often to get  the things I needed. I dreaded doing the laundry, because it meant I had to spend time in that depressing environment. I refused to hang out with my husband or children down there. It felt like a dungeon.

Eventually, I got so annoyed at having to relinquish the use of one-third of my house just because it was ugly that I finally decided to do something about it. I painted it, bought slip covers and new drapes, purged  all the toys the kids had outgrown and re-organized the rest, and cleaned the carpet. When I was done, I not only liked it again, I spent most of my days working down there. I even made sure we had a Christmas tree down there so that we could open up our gifts in front of the fireplace. It was awesome, and I was left wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner…why I had wasted all that precious time avoiding the thing that would lead to such a positive outcome. The work and inconvenience of it was far worse in my head than it was in reality and was well-worth it. It took about three days but I have now been able to enjoy that part of my house for over a year. Winning!

One of my favorite shows on TV is “Buried Alive” on Discovery Health Channel. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a show about extreme hoarders who decide it’s time to get the psychiatric and organizational help they need to clear up their clutter. Avoidance is the main M.O. for practically all of them. They have developed hoarding behaviors as a means of covering up, or avoiding, their emotional pain. They avoid cleaning up and putting things away. They literally build up barriers of stuff to avoid dealing with their nagging spouse or kids. They avoid the reality of their financial issues by continuing to shop for more stuff they don’t need with money they don’t  have. They avoid making repairs in their home and thus often go without power or water for years. Then they begin avoiding relationships because they have to hide their hoarding problem. Life eventually becomes so miserable, the smallest tasks so cumbersome, the mess so paralyzing and their self-esteem so low that they are forced to confront the issue and fix it. And most of them do and then can’t believe how wonderful it is not to have maggots all over their kitchen and to be able to take a shower in their own bathroom or sleep in a bed again. They spent so many years bathing in the sink or eating takeout and robbing their kids of their childhoods that they couldn’t remember how incredibly easy normal life could be in comparison.

One of my clients this week told me that she found herself avoiding looking at  the new “Action” folder we set up for her incoming mail and other papers. After asking her several probing questions to get to the bottom of the issue, it came to light that she was afraid she’d make a mistake in filling out a form or would not be able to find some important document she needed in order to submit her health insurance claims. I pointed out to her that there are very few mistakes in life that cannot be corrected, and there is almost always someone somewhere who has a copy of any missing document or who can help you figure out how to achieve your goal without it. Perhaps it will require some inconvenience or may cost time or money you think you don’t have, but there is always a solution as long as you look for it instead of avoiding it. But more importantly, finding the solution is how we grow and learn, and isn’t that the whole point of living in the first place? To avoid the problem only avoids finding the solution, which in turn avoids learning and growing and living.

The old adage, “Never put off until tomorrow that which can be done today” really means, “Never put off the relief and joy and sense of accomplishment you feel when overcoming an obstacle if you can experience it today”. So next time you find yourself avoiding an unpleasant task, realize that you are also avoiding the sense of freedom that only comes from having completed it.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst” –William Penn

It’s that time of year again…when life returns to its usual hectic pace after the lazy summer months. Four days into the new school year, I’ve finally finished celebrating. Now it’s time to put away my martini glass and batten down the hatches, because we’re about to get hit with a hurricane of homework, extracurricular activities and PTA events.

I’m a person who loves routines–no, needs routines–in order to function well. I  find that it helps to be able to go on autopilot for everyday tasks so that I can save my brain power for when I really need it, like understanding what those international laundry symbols mean. (By the way, if you have the same problem, here’s a key that you can print out and tape above your washing machine for future reference.) Routines are a great way to make sure you are squeezing in all of your repetitive, must-do tasks that, if forgotten, could be problematic…like going grocery shopping, doing the laundry, and brushing your teeth. But what happens when you have a one-time or less essential task or activity, like fixing the broken closet door or making time for friends, or getting a physical? Where do they fit in when your day is already packed to the gills with work, housework, homework, grocery shopping, chauffeuring the kids and laundry? Chances are, they get deferred until you have some “free” time. And when is that? When your kids leave home  or you retire? (I’ve been told by those in the know that that golden goose is a myth, too.) Or worse, they happen when the fact that you have deferred them for so long leads to some crisis that makes them suddenly essential, like discovering you are really sick.

Time is like money and available calories: limited and once gone, you can’t change your mind about how to spend it. Anyone on a food or financial diet will tell you that advance planning is the only way to avoid wasteful spending, yet few of us put that much advance thought into how we will budget our time in order to fit everything in.

Start with plugging the leaks and becoming more efficient:

  1. Multi-task by returning phone calls while you are doing something mindless, like laundry or cleaning (invest in a bluetooth if you need to).
  2. Turn wait time into productive time by storing your reading in a tote you can take with you to appointments or other places you are likely to be kept waiting.
  3. Carry paper and pen with you so that you are always prepared to write a letter, make a To Do list, or create a shopping list or menu plan during unexpected wait times.
  4. Keep a “Stuff we need” list in your wallet or phone for those times when you have a few minutes to kill and are near a store.
  5. Delegate tasks to your spouse or kids or hire some help for chores like cleaning, tutoring your kids, or yard work. It may be the best money you ever spent.
  6. Organize your home so that you spend less time looking for things, shopping for things you already have, or putting things away. This also makes delegation easier if everyone in your home knows where to find things and/or put them away.

Next, prioritize according to your core values and current needs. Which comes first, health or friends? Financial security or time with the kids? There’s no right or wrong answer, and the answer isn’t always going to be the same for every situation. Sticking to your new diet and exercise program during your lunch hour may be more important right now than having lunch with your co-worker friend, but it may not be as important as lunch with the friend who is moving halfway around the world or was just diagnosed with cancer.  And it may not be as important once you feel more confident that you will get back on track the next day. Perhaps your kids are your priority, but  the financial security you need to provide them with a key opportunity means you have to work overtime for awhile, even if it takes you away from them for now. My point is to make conscious, well-thought-out choices about your time after weighing everything. Don’t just let life happen to you by default. Grab the wheel and decide what direction you want to go in. It is okay to say no to something!

Finally, stop feeling guilty about spending time on you. (I’m Catholic, so guilt comes really easy to me and I struggle with this one.) You are the most important person in your life. Without you, none of it matters, so you should be a top priority. If you need to exercise or meditate or shop or nap in order to feel refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of your seemingly endless To Do list, then do it! Nothing kills motivation like resentment, and that is what you will end up with if you don’t take time out to tend to your own needs from time to time. Put it on the calendar, just as you would a doctor’s appointment or parent-teacher conference, because it is just as important.

As my mother-in-law likes to say, “You’re a long time dead”, so make every minute count while you can!

The Secret Key to an Organized Home

I’m lazy. There, I said it!

They say that “necessity is the mother of invention”, but my cleverest organizing ideas are born out of pure laziness. The truth is that the reason my home is so organized is because I’m just too darned lazy to live in clutter. I will literally spend hours organizing one cabinet in just such a manner as to never have to lift something up in order to get something else out. I clean out my closets very regularly because I figured out a long time ago that the less stuff I have, the greater percentage of that stuff can occupy the prime real estate in my home. The more stuff occupies prime real estate, the easier it is for me to find it and put it away. Laziness… the secret key to an organized home. Who knew?

I may have mentioned this before, but I am a huge Pinterest addict. I spend most of the time I save from not having to look for stuff and lift stuff on surfing Pinterest for new ideas on how to be even more organized and efficient. It’s pretty pathetic, I know, but I really enjoy seeing all the clever ideas people come up with for storing things in non-conventional, super-accessible ways. Using a cupcake stand to store tiny craft embellishments without having to open any containers… stuffed animals hung conveniently on the wall in a mounted planter where they won’t fall out easily and have to be picked up… pocket shoe organizers for holding the entire contents of a cabinet where you can see it all at once and not have to move anything…Brilliant!

But there’s danger lurking among the boards, too. In the pictures, the cabinets always look so nice and neat and orderly with their matching containers and coordinating labels. It can be a little intoxicating and make you forget yourself a little. Before you know it, the quest for efficiency can turn into a Martha Stewart Living nightmare.  I recently saw a photo that made me shiver. A professional organizer had helped someone organize their linen closet and attached beautiful labels indicating the sheet size to each sheet set using safety pins. Say what?!!  Oh, it looked gorgeous, but it failed the laziness test immediately. Who on earth is going to un-pin and re-pin those labels every time the sheets are used or put away?!!! Not me!

Never underestimate the power of the slightest inconvenience to prevent you from doing something you don’t want to do anyway. If your drawers and closets are too full, you won’t put things away, so you may as well just pile everything up on the tables and chairs instead, because that’s where they’re going to end up anyway.  Closet door broken? Sock drawer stuck? Can’t reach that top shelf? Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that the things that live there never made it back home last time you finished using them. Take a good look at your biggest pain points and ask yourself why they are so painful. Dig deep down into your subconscious and identify the problem. Nine times out of ten, it’s because of some minor obstacle you’ve tolerated (or haven’t) for too long without even acknowledging its existence.

Let Martha keep her matching hang tags and adorable zippered pouches. She’s got a whole TV crew to put stuff away for her! Lazy works just fine for me. In fact, I’d even say “It’s a good thing”.