Happiness is Finding a Hidden Blessing

It’s never a gooddishwashing1 sign when it starts raining in your garage…especially when your kitchen is above the garage and you’ve just stepped in a wet patch near the dishwasher!

So yes, we need a new dishwasher and no, there is no room for one in our budget right now. At first I was so busy being grateful that it wasn’t an issue with the kitchen plumbing that I forgot to groan about having to hand wash all my dishes for the foreseeable future. It didn’t take long for me to remember just how much I hate it. I mostly hate not having any room on my tiny counter to put all the clean dishes and how quickly I run out of dry dish towels since I don’t have a drainer and have to drain them on a towel. (I’m actually anti-dish drainer because I think they invite you to leave the job unfinished and take up valuable space even when not in use.) But once I figured out that I could use the empty dishwasher as my drying rack, my perspective began to change. I began to see the silver lining to this cloud and realized that what at first seemed like a curse may indeed become a blessing.

For one thing, washing and drying dishes is something everyone in my family can do…even the more “spatially challenged” among them. My kids have finally completed the Dishwashing Badge in our Life Skills Badge Program. My husband is more sensitive about helping with dinner clean up, and I don’t have to worry about whether the bowl I really want to use is going to take up too much space in the dishwasher later. Maybe now we won’t have to take out a second mortgage just to pay the water bills that also fund my daughter’s showers. (She’s the only 11-year-old I know with permanently wrinkled hands.) And once the kitchen cleanup is done, it’s done…no more dishes to put away later since I ascribe to the dry-them-and-put-them-away-now philosophy.

Best of all, I’m no longer worrying about what will happen if my dishwasher breaks…I already know. My children will enjoy an excuse to play in some sudsy water before school. My husband and I will giggle and flirt as we snap dish towels at each other. I’ll imagine my mother, now gone to her rest, washing that very same serving spoon back in our kitchen on Timber Trail Rd. The clean scent of the dish washing liquid will remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen.

Sometimes we need something to break to realize how truly unimportant it is. And often in our never-ending quest to simplify our lives, we end up complicating them instead. The modern conveniences designed to free up our time wind up stealing our opportunities to forge that time into something memorable. Think about your funniest family anecdotes. Chances are they felt like catastrophes at the time. (Someday I’ll share my “Mom in a Manhole” story…a real family classic.) Next time “disaster” strikes, look for the hidden blessing instead of feeling cursed.

I suppose we will replace the dishwasher eventually, but I’m not in any hurry. It might be kind of fun to share KP duty with my sister after a family holiday meal just like the old days. But only if she dries.





Keeping Up While Cutting Down

Summer sleep shorts

The karate kid sporting his “new” jammies

To say that my kids are “growing like weeds” takes on a lot more meaning if you have ever seen my yard. While my closets are neatly organized and my pantry is a masterpiece of space management and convenience, it is an understatement to say that my garden could use a little tweaking. Sure, I appreciate other people’s beautiful landscapes and wish I had one too, but I don’t do bugs, snakes or itchy creepy crawly stuff. Thus mine is a tangled patch of overgrown weeds that I can’t keep up with…much like my kids. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Like most moms, it’s important to me that my progeny look presentable. Heaven knows that I have expended more energy than I probably should on arguing with them over proper teeth brushing, appropriate haircuts and fingernail length. I’m frankly surprised that Child Protective Services has not appeared on my doorstep yet, given the blood-curdling screams my son lets rip on nail-clipping day or my daughter’s gnashing of teeth at the mere prospect of having her hair braided. Apparently I could teach the CIA a thing or two about torture.

I gave up the stripes with plaid and boots with shorts war years ago due to pure battle fatigue. They are now free to express themselves (within reason) with their wardrobe choices. I’ve even recently developed a  new “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward tears and stains after discovering the multiple holes my 9YO son created in the crotch of his new shorts…I just don’t want to know. I simply don’t have the time, energy or budget to stay on top of it, and some days this weary mom feels lost in the weeds.

It is upon this backdrop that I looked up last Sunday evening and realized that my son’s sleep pants were about 5 inches too short. They have worn well and still fit perfectly in the waist. More importantly, he loves them! But so pathetic did he look in them, that I had to do something to save my poor child from the certain ridicule that awaited him if one of his neighborhood friends should come knocking at the door after he was ready for bed (as they sometimes do). My solution was so quick, easy and free that I had to share it. After all, it isn’t often that he and I are both this thrilled with a wardrobe solution. All it took was a pair of scissors and within five minutes, he had 6 pairs of adorable, comfortable, summer sleep shorts!

Five minute fix for outgrown jammies.

Five minute fix for outgrown jammies.

This simple yet elegant solution got me thinking about other ways that I stretch (literally) the kids’ wardrobe with minimal time and effort. (I’m not much of a seamstress either.) Here are just a few:
  • Turn a short dress into a tunic by pairing it with leggings or bike shorts.
  • Hang onto outgrown leggings until they are short enough to become capri leggings.
  • Lengthen skirts and dresses by adding a ruffle or lace hem to the bottom.
  • Convert stained t-shirts and comfy elastic waist shorts into pajamas.
  • Missing one unique button? Replace half of them (alternating) with new ones.
  • Cover up a stain or tear with a decorative patch or iron-on applique.

What shortcuts do you take to stretch your time and budget?

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!

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read” –Groucho Marx

I am blessed to have two children who love to read! In fact, my 7-year-old son is known for swiping his Dad’s Playstation Magazine and hiding it under his bed before my husband has had a chance to read it. We knew his zeal for reading had reached new heights when he started making off with his nursing journals too.

My daughter insists on saving all of her birthday and Valentine’s cards and routinely reads through her current stash. She reads our Webster’s dictionary quite regularly, and I had even encouraged her to share a “word of the day” with the family each night at dinner until I started noticing a disturbing pattern in the words she chose…Adder, Anaconda, Asp, Cobra, Copperhead… Last Fall, we had to confiscate her Harry Potter book at bedtime in order to keep her from reading it in the dark. After discovering that she had been sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to read in secret, we had to tell her that an alarm is set to go off if anyone is creeping around downstairs after Mom and Dad go to bed. (Of course, this backfired on me months later when I wanted her to run downstairs to fetch something for me after we’d all retired upstairs for the night.)

Whether it’s library books, greeting cards, yard sale finds, magazines, or another generous Amazon shipment from Grandma, there seems to be an abundance of reading material circulating in our house. Even the shortest car trip requires a traveling library, and I want to encourage their bookishness. To contain all this fabulous print, we have bookshelves strategically placed in every major room of our house and magazine baskets in all the bathrooms. Yet it remains a struggle getting my little bookworms to re-shelve with adequate frequency.

Thus I have introduced the “book basket”, where reading material can be tossed with ease by the day’s appointed “librarian” during our quick evening tidy-up. Every couple of weeks, the kids re-shelve the contents of the basket and I slyly seed it with a few neglected titles from the shelves upstairs to encourage them to select a variety of different texts to read.

“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away, And in its place you can install, A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Germantown Woman Hits Head and Dies After Getting Feet Tangled in Husband’s Dirty Underpants

This was nearly a headline in my local newspaper this morning. Talk about going out with a bang! I am forever chastising my husband for leaving his dirty clothes on the floor at the foot of our bed, and last night I had a rude awakening from my half-slumber as I got tripped up in his skivvies on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Dirty clothes on the floor is just one of the many hazards I have faced in our seemingly-innocuous three-story suburban household. A barefoot stroll across the living room can feel like walking on broken glass because of all the stray Legos, and one misplaced BoysLife or American Girl magazine on the stairs makes a heck of a slip-and-slide.

So in the interest of home safety, I’ve set up a small basket on each set of stairs in our house and do regular sweeps throughout the day to keep the floor clear. It only takes a few seconds, and anything that isn’t in current use  but belongs on a different level of the house gets tossed into the appropriate upstairs or downstairs basket. You’d be amazed at how much neater a room looks with a clutter-free floor. The kids need occasional reminders to empty the baskets and put things back in their proper place, but I find that they are fairly good about it.

So if you want to cut down on trips to the ER and save your vacuum cleaner, give this a try and save your 15 minutes of fame for something a little less fatal.

Real Men Don’t Ask for Directions

I find it ironic that my husband will drive around, lost, for ages without stopping to ask for directions but will not stray from a recipe calling for a dried herb we don’t have. Conclusion: Most men are good at following specific instructions as long as they don’t have to ask for them.

So when it comes to keeping the house organized, assign a home for everything, make it easily accessible (’cause you know nothing will get put away if something else has to be moved first), and label, label, label! Whatever you do, don’t require him to figure out where to store something unless you’re okay with it left on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Granted, there are some men who are very organized by nature, and if you’re lucky enough to have one of them at home, you should be out buying him a GPS instead of wasting your time reading this post!

The Perfect Mother’s Day Gift

Ever since my kids’ last embarrassing dental appointment I’ve been making a point of following behind their evening brushing job to make sure they are being thorough. They resisted at first, but I keep telling them it’s just one more little way for me to show my love for them. So when I overheard this conversation between my husband and son at tuck-in time the other night, I had to chuckle.

Hubby: “Mother’s Day is coming up this weekend, so we have to think of something nice we can do for Mummy.”

Son: ” I know! Maybe we can brush her teeth for her!”

My heart still does a little dance every time I think of that!

I’ve never been a jewelry-and-roses kind of mom and would much prefer to receive a lumpy clay paperweight clumsily wrapped in newspaper or a macaroni necklace that’s been colored with magic marker. And while brushing my teeth for me may be more than he bargained for, I’ll bet no fancy salon pedicure could ever feel so good.

But my favorite Mother’s Day gift of all comes when I observe my offspring exhibiting their loving care for each other. These precious moments pop up from time to time throughout the year, not just on the second Sunday in May, and they always bring a smile to my face. Their cooperative teamwork in carrying a laundry basket upstairs, the sweet notes of comfort they write to one another to help sooth away disappointed tears, celebrating each others’ successes and mourning each others’ losses, sharing a favorite toy, and compromising on an activity as they play together. I even love to hear them echoing my advice. “When you are feeling frustrated, take a deep breath, relax and count to ten.”

Sure, it isn’t all sunshine and roses, and there is an equal amount of arguing, but I cling to these gifts as proof that they really are listening and all my efforts are not in vain. I believe that a mother is not someone who has borne or raised a child but someone who plants seeds of love and kindness and patiently tends the shoots until they blossom and make the world more beautiful. Happy Mother’s Day to all you “gardeners” out there.

What’s the best/funniest/sweetest/most memorable Mother’s Day gift you’ve ever given or received?

Still need a gift for Mom? It’s not too late to enter the drawing to win a FREE 3-hour organizing session! This is a great way to get yourself or your mom started on that project you’ve been putting off with the help of a professional and no strings attached. Deadline to enter is midnight on Saturday, May 12 but you must complete the entry form in order to be included in the drawing. We will announce the winner in a post on Mother’s Day, so stay tuned! (Enter to Win a FREE Organizing Session)

Seek and Ye Shall Find

In my son’s first grade class, they have a color coded behavior system similar to the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist activity alert system…a similarity easily understood by anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with first-graders. It goes something like this:

  • Green –  you’re following directions and making good choices
  • Yellow – you’ve been warned by the teacher to knock it off already
  • Orange – the teacher is already so sick  of you that she’s bouncing you to another class so that you can become someone else’s problem
  • Red – you’ve pretty much blown the whole day and now you have to lose recess time
  • Blue – you’ve been invited to the principal’s office; declining is not an option

Every day, the students color in a calendar in their binders with the color they were on that day, and these calendars get sent home for parents to see at the end of the month. My son’s calendars are usually the color of fire…red, orange and yellow, with perhaps a spec of green or blue thrown in just to balance things out a bit. If you knew him, you’d find the color scheme fitting.

Ironically, he starts each day wanting to be on green. We talk about what it takes to stay on the “green path”, which leads to privileges, play dates and being able to buy lunch at school, and how to avoid taking the wrong fork in the road toward “red land”, where everyone has to go to bed early and there are no TVs. We’ve gone over it a million times, but being a child, he has difficulty remembering that his ultimate destination is dictated by all the millions of small choices he makes throughout his day.

How often do we adults forget that too? We complain about how un-fulfilling our jobs are, how full our calendars are, how cluttered our closets are, how messy our homes are, or how tired or lonely we are. Yet we fail to recognize that these are the destinations we chose when we came to a fork in the road.

When I was a young woman, I spent many years having my heart broken by one jerk after another, until I finally realized that the single common denominator in each of these failed relationships was me. Me and my choices. I finally figured out that what I had been seeking and what I was hoping to find were two completely different things. I had been dating men who came from similar backgrounds to my own, assuming that it meant they shared my goals for the future. I wanted a loving and caring man who was travelling on the same road as I and with whom I could share my journey through life. But I had somehow wandered astray onto a different path and had been looking in all the wrong places and getting lost. When I finally found him, I almost didn’t recognize him. He was nine years my junior and living on the other side of the Atlantic, having been raised in a family vastly different from my own. Fourteen years later, we are (slowly but steadily) reaching our goals…shared goals based on conscious choices and reinforced by our mutual determination to help each other reach them. It has not been an easy or an even path, and sometimes one of us has had to carry the other over the rough spots, but the journey has made us closer and we both know the view from the summit will be spectacular when we reach it!

I’m guessing some of you are saying, “But Valerie, what does this have to do with organizing?” Well, everything, to be frank. Being organized is nothing more than making deliberate, well-thought-out choices. What do I keep and what do I toss? Which things should be stored in the most accessible places? Should I store this item with these things or with those over there?

My mother used to regularly complain that she did not have enough cabinet space in her kitchen. My sister reported that when she helped her move, she found no fewer than TWELVE muffin tins. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Sis: “Mom, why do you need twelve muffin tins?”
Mom: “Well, I like to have some ready to go in the oven, some already in the oven, and some cooling all at the same time because it makes the baking go so much faster.”
Sis: “And how often do you need to bake 144 muffins at the same time?”

And I would have argued that the amount of time she saved during one baking session a year (at most) because she could do all that at the same time was lost ten times over through having to move those tins around to make room for the things she used every day. I noticed when I visited her once in her small home that she had numerous sets of matching glasses crammed into various locations throughout the house. When I asked her why she needed so many, she replied that she liked to have plenty of pretty glasses on hand for when she was entertaining. I guess it never occurred to her that  even if she filled every inch of her tiny trailer home with guests, she would have had to serve at least four or five rounds of drinks to use up all those glasses at once.

She was making choices that didn’t make sense without even realizing it. We all do it. Are you choosing to live in the past or in the present? Are you holding onto that dirty, smelly cast from when your now-grown son broke his arm when he was five in the vain hope that it will bring back that sweet little boy from your past? Because it won’t, and it is taking up precious space in your present. If you must, take a picture of the cast and then throw it away. And what about those old acid-wash jeans from high school that you are hanging onto so that you can say “I did it” once you lose enough weight to wear them again? Do yourself (and everyone else) a fashion favor and get rid of them. A before and after picture is way more compelling, and you will have earned a brand new outfit you can actually wear out in public without embarrassing your companions. It may be “just one pair of pants”, but added together with all the other useless items you are choosing to keep for the wrong reasons, they represent a lot of overhead.

Life isn’t something that just happens to you. It is something you make happen through your choices. If you are too tired, maybe you need to schedule some down-time on your calendar. If you are too lonely, reach out to others with similar interests through volunteer activities or hobby groups. If your closets are too cluttered, choose to give away the things you don’t use to someone who will (see EasyPeasy Quick Tip #2: The Pick-up Line)  If your job is drudgery, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate your career choice. Remember  that needs and priorities change over time so your choices should too. Once upon a time, that house you bought was your dream home, but it may be time to upgrade or downsize as you enter a new phase of your life.

It’s a lot easier to chart a course and choose the correct forks in the road when you know what your destination is. Where does the “green path” lead in your life?

EasyPeasy QuickTip #1: Time-Free Refills

One has only to look at the empty soap dispensers and bare toilet paper holders in my house to see that we are a family of consumers. Seems like every time I turn around, something needs to be refilled…wipes, pull-ups, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, soap, zip-loc bags, cereal…the list goes on and on. So I’m delegating this chore to the kids and making them earn that allowance. I made a list of all the things that routinely need refilling and divided it between the two of them. I hung a copy of each list on the fridge and it is now their job to check the status of each item throughout the house at least twice a week and refill as required. When they deplete the stocks, they write what’s needed on the laminated “Stuff We Need” list that permanently hangs on the fridge. (There’s still plenty of room for them to write below where my daughter added “doorbell” as the top priority grocery item months ago).  I’m hoping this will have the added benefit of making them less wasteful in their consumption, but I’m not holding my breath.

What’s For Dinner, Mom?

Reservations? But seriously, how many us can answer this question without any hesitation and how many don’t require a phone or car keys to implement the solution?

One of the biggest challenges facing today’s busy parents is feeding a hungry growing family healthy meals on the go. It’s so much easier to order take-out, make a quick run through the drive-thru, or –SHRIEK!– nuke some flavorless frozen cardboard. With all the sports practices and dance classes we find ourselves racing to each week, one would expect today’s youth to be a generation of muscular, cardio-vascular machines. Yet childhood obesity is on the rise. One look at the fast food and junk food wrappers strewn across the backseats of many a minivan is all it takes to unravel that mystery. But what’s a busy working mom (or dad) to do?

Every good parent knows how important it is to give their child a loving home, a good education, and a variety of opportunities for building confidence and self-esteem, but many fail to recognize that good nutrition is an important building block for all of the above. Without a healthy diet, kids can’t perform their best physically or academically. Self-esteem and confidence begin to suffer and that loving home turns stressful and tense. But your healthy family dinner doesn’t have to get gobbled up by your busy family schedule. You can have your (rice)cake and eat it too. All it takes is a little advance planning and some determination.

The key ingredient is a weekly menu plan chock full of quick and easy recipe ideas. Now when I say “recipe”, I don’t necessarily mean a written recipe. The quickest meals to prepare  are the ones you can do without reading. But not everyone is blessed with the Julia Child gene, so if creative cooking isn’t your thing, find a good resource you like for healthy but fast recipes and keep it close by. (Some of my favorites are Ellie Krieger’s So Easy and The Food You Crave, The Sonoma Diet Cookbook by Connie Guttersen, and the Eating Well app for iPhone.)

Next, you’ll need your calendar and a shopping list. The calendar is key because you need to know what’s on the agenda for each night of the week in order to plan meals that will fit into your schedule.

Armed with recipes, calendar and shopping list, sit down and plan your menu for the week. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Incorporate some variety. (I like to plan a variety of poultry, beef, lean pork, fish, and  vegetarian meals each week)
  • Give yourself a break. Plan at least one super-simple meal each week for the busiest night. For example, you can serve soup and sandwiches or pick up a rotisserie chicken at the super-market and pair with a salad and some multi -grain bread. Another favorite in my house is homemade veggie pizza using a store-bought pizza crust and fresh veggies. No one said you have to make everything from scratch.
  • Make more than you need and freeze the leftovers or use them in a meal later in the week.
  • Prep in advance. Chop all the vegetables you need for dinner the night before or in the morning or buy pre-chopped versions. Make use of your crock-pot so you can switch on and go before work.
  • Get the kids to help. If they are old enough, make them your sous chefs. As they say,”Many hands make light work.” An added bonus is the quality time you’ll be spending together. Play your cards right and you just might be able to put them in charge of making dinner one night a week!
  • Snack early, dine later. Stock the fridge with healthy snacks for before practice and use the time during practice to cook dinner for afterwards.
  • Make your shopping list as you plan so that you are sure to have everything you need on hand. If using recipes, make note of the cookbook and page number right on your menu plan so there’s no fumbling around for the recipe later.
  • Remember to include side dishes in your menu plan so that you aren’t scrambling to figure out what vegetable to serve with it on the day of. (Fresh fruit also makes a great no-fuss side dish.)
  • Post your menu on the fridge. Not only will it remind you of your game plan when you’re making breakfast, but chances are, you won’t have to hear “What’s for dinner, Mom?” because they will already know.