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.

 

 

 

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Visual Peace: Calming the Chaos in Ten Minutes or Less

clutterLet’s just face it: keeping up with everyday life is not for sissies. No matter what your station is in life…student, professional, parent, retiree…your must do/should do list always seems to outweigh your available time.

As an indentured servant working mother, my list seems to grow exponentially with each item I cross off. I’ve found that the key to keeping your sanity is organization, and the first step in getting organized is to trick yourself into a sense of control over your environment. Quieting the “visual noise” that surrounds you will help you focus on what you need to do to actually take control. Are you with me?

No matter how messy your house is or how much you have on your plate, spending just 10 minutes each day to tidy up first will help put you in the right frame of mind and allow you to turn your attention to more important things on your list. Start with the things that will make a big visual impact while requiring little time/effort:

  1. Make your bed. Do it as soon as you get up, before you are awake enough to talk yourself out of it.
  2. Pick your clothes up off the floor. Better still, never let them touch the ground. Either put them away or toss them in the hamper as soon as you take them off.
  3. Close drawers and closet doors. You’ll be amazed at how much cleaner your whole room will look…it’s like magic!
  4. Wash/put away the dishes. Load them into the dishwasher right away to keep them from piling up. If you hand wash them, dry them and put them away too. Nothing creates clutter and a sense of despair like a pile of dishes cluttering up the counter/sink.
  5. Recycle old newspapers/magazines and junk mail regularly. Establish a deadline for reading them. (If you miss the deadline, go ahead and toss it. Life as you know it will not end…I promise!) In the meantime, keep them tidy and contained in a designated spot.
  6. Set up baskets/bins for shoes, backpacks, reading material and toys. This makes it easy to just toss in the trail of surface clutter left lying around by your messy spouse/kids loving family. Assign them the task of checking the baskets daily and putting away their own stuff.
  7. Hang up your bath towel. Put away toiletries immediately after use to keep the bathroom looking respectable. Nothing is worse than sending an unexpected guest to facilities that both smell and look atrocious.
  8. Declutter the front entrance. It is the first thing you see when you come home and can make the difference between a relieved “Ahhhh, I’m home” feeling or a desire to run away from home. Create a functional yet orderly “landing pad” for keys, phones and other essentials, but keep it free from other clutter.
  9. Hang up coats/jackets and put away hats, gloves and scarves. Your home should make you feel warm, cozy and safe, not remind you that a cold world awaits just outside your door.

Creating designated homes for all of your belongings will make all of this quicker/easier, but so much of getting organized is just about establishing good habits. Start here and you will be well on your way to feeling in control.

“Instead of spending time being bothered by things that you cannot control, invest your time and energy in creating the results you desire.” – Jensen Siaw

 

EasyPeasy QuickTip #4: Carpe Occasionem! (Seize the Opportunity!)

Seize the Moment

If you are anything like me, you have a gazillion little household tasks that are too-often neglected. Things that would take about five minutes or less to complete, but just aren’t high enough on the priority list to be remembered until your disgust or frustration with the results of having neglected them for so long forces you to take action. Often, you are in the throes of some other project when this occurs, so the trick is to make note of them as you think of them and use the little pockets of available time you have (the ones you don’t consciously acknowledge and probably deny that you have) throughout your week to accomplish them. Keep the list where you can easily add to it the next time you notice something that needs doing.

Before you say it, yes you do too have pockets of available time, especially if you have a spouse or kids who are never ready when it’s time to go somewhere.

Here are a few items on my list to help get you thinking:

  • Change a lightbulb
  • Clean out the silverware tray (Where do all those crumbs come from anyway?)
  • Wipe fingerprints off the doors, kitchen cabinets or banisters
  • Hang a picture or a hook
  • De-clutter the junk drawer
  • Replace the stock photo that came in that picture frame with someone you actually know
  • Re-fill the soap dispenser, toilet paper holder, salt and pepper shakers, sugar bowl, or ….
  • Empty/clean the crumb tray in the toaster
  • Clean the coffeemaker
  • Wipe the grime off the top of the refrigerator
  • Clean the mirrors or TV screen (Make sure you use the appropriate cleaner on your TV screen)

You can also keep a separate list in your phone or your purse for things that you can do while waiting for an appointment, such as making a grocery list or menu plan, writing a thank you note, or reading that thing you set aside to read later. And speaking of reading, store all those “I’ll read it later” papers that come into your home in a tote bag that you can grab on your way out the door so that you can make the most of your wait time away from home.

Aliquid magnum ex parva! (Click here for translation)

Choose Your Setting

I have a 7 year-old son and a 9 year-old daughter. They both insist–rather frequently–that they plan to never leave home. This is sad news, because I really had my heart set on A) seeing them happily married with children of their own some day; B) replacing all the scratched up furniture and stained rugs at some point once they were no longer around to ruin the new stuff. I’m reduced to hoping that my son will eventually revert back to his original plan of becoming a hobo. Maybe then I could at least get some new end tables.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my children very much, but I’d be lying if I said that boarding school never crossed my mind when I read “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened” scrawled in red crayon on my daughter’s dresser. For some reason, I was under the impression that once she was old enough to watch Harry Potter movies, she’d be past the stage of coloring her bedroom furniture. Apparently I failed to figure the need for proper set design into the equation.

Anyway, the point is that I love my home and want it to look nice. I feel good when I can look around my living room and see all the pretty things I picked out to decorate it. It makes me smile to see the framed photos of the people I love sitting atop the sideboard, and I enjoy sitting on the comfy sofa watching a favorite TV show or blogging on my laptop without being surrounded by chaos, dirt or mess. Sure, there’s a small price to be paid to maintain this order, but 10-15 minutes here and there to tidy up is worth it to me. Like everything else in life, it is a choice…just like the choice I am making to keep my son, despite his recent failed attempt to make a ghost costume out of one of my pillow cases using scissors.

Once upon a time, you made an important choice too. You chose your home, and you were excited about it. You chose the color on the walls (probably), the sofa you sit on, the rugs you walk on, the desk or table you write on. And you were excited about them too. When you look around your home today, what do you see? Are you still excited about it? Are you still able to see all your favorite things? Is it the environment you chose, or just the one you tolerate?

Life is short. Make sure the set design is appropriate for the story you hope to live.

The Cure for Chronic Medicine Cabinet Pain

Almost everyone has snooped in someone else’s medicine cabinet at some point in their lives. My grandparents loved to tell the story of the time their houseguest, while brushing his teeth one morning, let out a loud yowl from the bathroom. Turns out he’d gone into the medicine cabinet to “borrow” some toothpaste and accidentally grabbed the Ben-Gay by mistake. Ouch! Serves him right, I say.

Most medicine cabinets these days are filled with more personal hygiene and beauty products than medicine, and rightfully so. Turns out that despite its name, a medicine cabinet in the bathroom is one of the worst places to store medicines due to the warm, humid environment. (For more information on proper storage of medicine, see this link from fitsugar.com  http://www.fitsugar.com/Storing-medicine-safely-1926833 ). Snoop these days and you are more likely to find a vast array of hair care products, make up, nail polish and…well, crud, to be frank. Spilled mouthwash, gloopy toothpaste, the dusty old aftershave given as a gift and never used. And, okay, a few bottles containing some old prescription pills that expired two years ago.

The bathroom embarrassment doesn’t end there (and no, I’m not talking about bodily functions). What’s under your sink? Ten-year-old bubble bath? Cardboard and plastic wrappings from multi-packs of soap, deodorant, toothpaste and toilet paper whose contents were consumed long ago? How about dust…lots and lots of dust, grime and grossness? Whatever it is, it’s not likely to be a scene you’d want snooping guests in your privy to be privy to.

Get out your calendar right now and schedule a bathroom organization overhaul for six months from now. You only need to allot about 15 minutes for it, because you are about to do all the heavy lifting now. Grab a trashbag, an old rag or two, and your favorite all-purpose cleaner and start tossing all the old, expired, never used junk out of your medicine cabinet and under the sink. You’ll be amazed at how much space you’ll save just by getting rid of all the useless garbage you’ve been harboring. Next, give everything a good wipe down and clean the cabinets well.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Opening Doors to Organization (http://wp.me/p2gRE1-3w), I’m a big proponent of utilizing the inside of cabinet doors and the prime real estate on the back of a door. One of my favorite organizing tools is the old shoe pocket organizer with clear plastic pockets. They are good for so much more than shoes and really enable you to maximize storage opportunities behind the door. I did a recent bathroom re-organization where the medicine cabinet was not only so stuffed that the countertop was infected with the clutter bug from the overflow, but it was old and shabby looking too. The paint was chipping and there were stains that could not be cleaned from the cheap shelves. My solution was to move everything to a pocket organizer that hangs on the back of the bathroom door. After cleaning out the medicine cabinet, the organizer not only held all the remaining contents of the cabinet, but there was room enough left over to store hair brushes, accessories and hairdryers too. Winning!

Best of all, you’ll save money when you discover all the treasures in your bathroom cabinet you didn’t realize were there. My clients won’t need to buy soap, deodorant or razors for quite awhile now.Who knows…you may even find an extra tube of Ben-Gay to share with house guests who forgot their toothpaste!

Medicine Cabinet Before - OutsideMedicine Cabinet Before - InsideAfter Bathroom Organization OverhaulThe Magic Cure!

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.

Your Lifeboat in a Sea of School Papers

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No more drowning in the sea of school papers! Everything fits nice and neatly aboard this little lifeboat docked in a little-used corner of my kitchen, providing easy access during the after-school backpack unpack and homework hurricane.

If you have school-aged kids, you know that the paper industry is alive and well, thanks to the teachers, school administrators, PTA and every kid-oriented service organization within a 20-mile radius of your school. Completed classwork. Completed homework. Incomplete classwork. Incomplete homework. Permission slips. PTA newsletters. Principal newsletters. Reminders. Requests for supplies. Flyers, flyers, and more flyers. You could resurrect a hundred forests with the wood pulp that comes home in your kid’s backpack within a single school year! What’s an organized mom (or dad) to do?

As you might have guessed, I consider myself to be a pretty organized individual. So you can imagine my horror at having to apologize to my daughter’s third grade teacher not once, not twice, but three times for having misplaced papers that came home that required some action on my part before being returned to school. The dog didn’t eat her homework, the paper dragon in my kitchen did! Clearly, it was time for me to tame it.

In my tiny townhouse, as in most homes of any size, the kitchen is the nerve center of all activity, so it makes sense to make this the sorting area for school-related papers too. After all, this is where the kids do their homework each afternoon while I start on dinner. But counter space is precious real estate in this teeny weeny kingdom where I am queen. I managed to eek out one small corner of of the counter next to the refrigerator for a single, sturdy upright magazine box. In it, I made pocket folders for: “Information and Resources”, “Action and Reminders”, two “Homework in Progress” folders (one for each child), and “Temporary Storage”. I even had just enough room left for the kids’ menu cards and badge books (I’ll explain these in a separate blog post). I also created storage for pens and pencils, erasers, and a pencil sharpener and a “Paper folder for when I need to write the teacher or note or the kids need extra paper for homework. As you might imagine, this little corner gets more action than anything else in our kitchen…except maybe the coffeemaker.

Each day when the kids come home from school, they get five minutes on the timer for “backpack unpack” time. Any minutes they have leftover after unpacking backpacks and lunchboxes gets applied to their weekly play station/computer game time bank for use on the weekends, so they can be pretty darn speedy. They leave their papers in a neat pile on the counter for me to go through while they do their homework.

It rarely takes more than five minutes for me to process all the papers:

  • Activity reminders, permission slips and anything requiring action on my part goes into the “Action and Reminders” folder if I am not able to complete the required action immediately.
  • General information about school or classroom policies, services,or extra-curricular activities that I want to keep for reference goes in the “Information and Resources” folder.
  • Homework packets, worksheets or reference guides that each child needs in order to do homework or study for tests goes in his respective “Homework in Progress” folder. When they are ready to do homework, they know to get this out and to store their incomplete homework here when they are done for the day.
  • “Temporary Storage” is for any papers that are not clearly safe to toss and do not fit into one of the other folders. I also put selected artwork that might be candidates for saving long-term in here.

Any corrected classwork, homework, tests or quizzes that received a particularly high or particularly low grade or otherwise warrant discussion or comment get set aside until the kids are done with their homework. After discussion, they are tossed. Everything else that did not get filed or processed gets tossed immediately.

The key to making this system work is doing a periodic review of the “Action and Reminders”, “Temporary Storage” and “Information and Resources” folders. This usually takes less than five minutes once a week. I like to set aside ten minutes every Sunday for processing and cleaning out these folders, updating the family calendar, and for posting the week’s menu and key activities that are coming up in the next 7-10 days on laminated sheets that hang on the front of the refrigerator. This forecasting of the week ahead not only helps me feel in control at the helm, but it ensures that all hands are on deck and working in sync to set sail for calm seas.

Solution to a Puzzling Problem

I love that my kids love puzzles. It’s an activity they can do alone or together, inside on a rainy day or outside on the deck. It helps them hone their spatial reasoning and math skills and keeps them quiet for hours (BIG BONUS)!

What I don’t like about puzzles is figuring out which of the 32 puzzles we own is missing the lost piece I just found under the sofa cushions. One of my least favorite memories is when my 3-year-old son dumped out all 12 of the Twelve Days of Christmas puzzles out into a big heap in the middle of the living room floor. It took me all day to put those puzzles together in order to know which pieces went with which. (Thank goodness there are only twelve days of Christmas!)

I used to give them puzzle pieces as an incentive for good behavior. I’d buy a 50 to 100-piece puzzle from the dollar store, empty the box and place all the pieces in a zip-lock bag. I’d wrap the lid in plain paper so that they couldn’t see the picture on the box and then cut a slit in the box bottom so that it looked like a piggy bank. Each day, they could earn puzzle pieces as a reward for picking up their toys or making their beds. It usually took about 1-2 weeks for them to earn all the pieces, and they really looked forward to unwrapping the lid to see what the picture was.

Obviously, this meant we had a lot of puzzle pieces floating around to get mixed up with each other. To solve this dilemma, I started assigning a unique number to each puzzle. Then I’d write the puzzle number on the back of each piece that went to that puzzle so that if we found a stray, we’d immediately know which box it went in. I know what you’re thinking: it takes too long to number all those pieces! Au contraire… numbering a 100-piece puzzle only takes about 5-10 minutes max. Hopefully the kids will learn to be more careful with the pieces once they graduate to 1000- or 3000-piece puzzles! J

Party Idea: If you DO have an unfortunate multiple puzzle spill before you get them numbered, invite the neighborhood kids over for a puzzle-a-thon to get them all put back in the right boxes. The possibilities of a puzzle-themed party are as endless as the pieces themselves! But that’s another post.

Confessions of a Neat Freak

My name is Valerie and I’m a neat freak. Or so I was told by my six-year-old last week. It is pretty hard to deny.

You’ve met people like me before. I’m the one who sends emails around the office reminding people to clean their coffee cups and then signs them with some passive-aggressive moniker like “the Dish Fairy” (a nickname that quickly morphed into “the Kitchen Witch” in one office I worked in). I’m that co-worker everyone jokingly accuses of doing no work because there are no papers left on her desk at the end of the day. The owner of a company I used to work for once asked if he could borrow my office for a meeting because it was so much neater than his. When I offered to help him clean up his, he just got a frightened look on his face and walked (ran) away.

At home I’m even worse, although contrary to popular belief, my spices are not alphabetized, nor is my closet color-coded. But I guess the mere fact that I often get asked if they are is an indication that my propensity towards order is a little excessive.

Believe it or not, I was once a typical kid who shoved stuff under the bed and got nagged at for leaving dirty dishes in the sink. My mother always loved to tell the story of the night she came home after dark and could see me through my ground-level bedroom window, head under the bed and rump up in the air, digging through the huge pile of stuff under my bed like a dog searching for a bone. I’m not quite sure when the mutation started, but I have often longed for that sloppy teen to come back and teach me how to happily co-exist with mess and clutter.

I have tried…truly I have. I once forced myself to leave several baskets of clean laundry in the hallway for a whole week while I took the kids on excursions to the zoo and picnics in the park, all in an effort to forget about housework in favor of spending more time with the ones I love. My best friend suggested snubbing the clean laundry as a good first test as she coached me in letting go of chores in favor of fun. She’s one of those fun and easygoing moms who likes to pile her family’s clean laundry at the foot of her bed. By the end of the week, after sleeping on top of it and tossing it out of the way when required, each piece has magically disappeared as the owner has claimed it and worn it again. Why waste time putting it away, she mused? It will be gone eventually and you’ll always have more anyway. I have to admit that she does have a point, but by the end of my week of laundry rebellion I found myself tossing it all back into the dryer in a vain attempt to quickly eliminate the wrinkles that had infested the entire basket from everyone  rummaging to find what they needed. Bottom line: As we learned at the zoo, a leopard can’t change it’s spots.

Now don’t get me wrong…I can and do make one helluva mess in the midst of some of my more creative moments or in the hub-bub of my busy life as a mother of two and loving wife of a man who couldn’t find the dirty clothes hamper if it was covered in $100 bills. It’s just that I can’t stand to live in it for very long. To me, clutter is the visual equivalent of too much background noise and prevents me from being able to concentrate on anything else. Order calms me. Order makes me happy. Order is the vodka in the Bloody Mary of my life.

Now I know what you are thinking. Valerie, you say…life is too short to spend all of it tidying up and doing chores. You need to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the people around you more. I agree! And believing it was possible to indulge my inner neat freak and be a fun and easygoing mom like my best friend, I began a quest for an orderly existence that still leaves time for the ones I love.

Through this blog I hope to share some of the precious gems I have picked up along the way on how to simplify life so that yours might be a little richer too. After all, life is meant to be enjoyed and an orderly home should be a means to that end, not the beginning and the end of your existence. An organized, relaxed lifestyle is not an oxymoron, and it can be easy peasy with just a bit of planning and the right attitude.

Check back often and you just might find some easy peasy solutions to your everyday challenges.