December 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
If you’re a sugar-avoider at this time of year, it’s hard not to feel like the Grinch. If you’re a clutter-avoider, you may well feel like you’re channeling Scrooge. So if you’re like me you’re a… a Scrinch. Basically, this time of year represents a nexus of everything I’ve ever written about. Too much sugar? Too much clutter? It’s all here. No wonder celebrants suffer from “holiday hangovers” and vow a slew of New Year’s resolutions. The problem with too much is that it never feels like enough until… it feels bad.
My goal at Christmastime is to have fun without ever arriving at the hangover part. An important part of this is practicing what I preach and avoiding excess sugar AND excess stuff in my gift-giving.
The holidays are tricky in this regard and Christmas is super tricky. This year I got a request to write about Christmas stockings in particular, which might be the trickiest of all. In a holiday that is chock-full of deeply weird traditions- trees in the house, shrubbery on the ceiling- the tradition of hanging our socks up for Santa to fill with treats is so especially strange that I am particularly fond of it.
But there are several key considerations with stocking stuffers. Firstly, no matter how big your stocking may be, there’s always a clear size limit. (I’m a stickler on this: in order to be a “stocking stuffer,” it must actually be physically stuffable in the stocking. Sorry, wall calendars.) Also, stocking contents are usually in addition to whatever “real” gifts are waiting under the tree, so probably there is a real budgetary limit as well. Santa has his work cut out for him, right? We need cheap, we need special and fun, we need small. And if you’re like me, and a Scrinch, then pile on top of those considerations the fact that you’re not wanting to overdose everyone on candy and chocolates either, OR wreck your home or the environment with crappo, plastic, break-in-five-minutes toys and hilarious, but-they-end-up-in-the-landfill joke gifts. (Seriously, no one really wants that taco-flavored coffee.)
If you know me, you probably have already guessed that I have given an inordinate amount of thought to The Stocking Problem. Before we go any further let me point out that yes, if you are avoiding sugar (which is cheap) and avoiding plastic crap (which is also cheap), it is going to be very, very easy to spend more money in the process of trying to avoid those things. So I recommend trying to work the problem backwards: decide how much money you want to spend on a person and then set aside some portion of that to spend on their stocking. No matter how much you set aside, of course, it won’t be enough, but that’s the nature of Christmas, so we’re used to it.
In the stocking stuffer category I’ve found most solutions to avoiding both sugar and clutter fall into two main groups. They are: No Sugar But Still Special Food, and Nice Versions of Small Things They Really Do Need/Will Use. Below are a few ideas I’ve used over the years… website links are beneath each idea. BTW no one is paying me to say any of this because I’m simply not that big a deal.
- No Sugar But Still Special Food:
Dried Cherries: Shhhhh! Don’t tell but I am totally doing this this year. I mean, Santa is. I hear. Chukar Cherries offers dried Rainer, Tart and Bing Cherries without added sugar in 6 oz bags for
about $10 each, or in tiny 1.85 oz. snack bags coupled with pistachios, cashews and almonds, 12 pack for $39, so $3 each. Other dried fruits or freeze dried fruits can be great too, just be sure to check that they don’t contain added sugar, artificial sugar or sugar alcohols (if advertised “sugar free” be on the look-out for sucralose, erythritol, mannitol, isomalt. I’d avoid these things as well.)
Tea in a Tin: Not so much a kid gift, but adults hang stockings in our house too. Try: Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice Tea, which, due to its combination of spices, tastes as if it is sweetened… but it isn’t. Seriously, I wouldn’t kid you about this. $8. Also consider hot sauces, little jars of special olives stuffed with garlic, fancy French mustards, olive oil so prized it comes with an eyedropper… anything you can’t buy at the supermarket automatically counts as “special.”
Popcorn: There’s just something fun about the idea of food that explodes. Unflavored, unpopped popcorn is your best bet in the no added sugar department, so ignore the millions of “gourmet” flavored varieties that include everything from maple bacon to booze… instead how about corn still-on-the-cob? All you need is a brown paper bag and you can pop it right off the cob in your microwave. It really is kind of fun and you’re avoiding PFOAs! (The very nasty chemicals coating microwave popcorn bags.) At $5 for a two-cob bag you are paying a premium per cob for the novelty of it of course, but then again it’s the cheapest thing on this list so chalk it up to the Elves’ Union or something. Or, if you have more stockings to fill, they also have a package of ten cobs for $17, giving you a much better deal per cob.
- Nice Versions of Small Things They Really Do Need/Will Use
Personalized Pencils: School supplies that are fun but usable can be great. Scented or shaped erasers, a stapler that looks like a man-eating shark- you get the idea. I love personalization as a way to make something mundane into something special- and kids LOVE having their name printed on things. You can get 24 in a variety of colors or designs for around $10.
Big Fluffy Slipper Socks: Last year I found some super-fluffy, plush slipper socks for my two daughter’s stockings. At $20 a pair, they were on the expensive side, however the upside was that they took up a lot of room in the stocking. YES! This year I found this site (below) and I love both the slippers and the socks which are priced between $7 and $12. However- be careful of buying Santa-themed items- how much use will these really get after X-mas day? Instead I’d go with cuddly polar bears and penguins which are good all winter long.
Fun Soaps: Soap is so great. It can be made in so many shapes and scents, and everyone needs it (unlike, say, scented candles or potpourri, which really aren’t for everyone.) Best of all, it’ll eventually get enjoyed and used up all at the same time. The Vermont Country Store has wonderfully cute animal-shaped soaps on a rope, for about $15, as well as soaps shaped like the gang from Peanuts. Please tell Santa I want the Snoopy.
So let me know: what do you think?
What other No Sugar/ No Clutter stocking stuffers have you found?
May 7, 2018 § 3 Comments
Do you or a loved one suffer from OCS? (Overstuffed Coffee-table Syndrome)? I know I do. Research suggests that 107% of depression is directly attributable to overstuffed coffee-tables. Clearly, it’s a silent epidemic.
But there are cures in development. To that end, I wanted to share my adventure of the other day, when I didn’t just clean off the coffee table, I freaking deconstructed it. I was like a woman possessed. I’m actually kind of lucky to even have a coffee table left at this point, given the fervor with which I went after this thing.
It all began in the morning when I realized that the table had disappeared under a pile of random stuff several weeks ago, and somehow hadn’t managed to get any better despite the fact that I’d been persistently ignoring it. We had just returned from vacation, which made the noticing all the more acute: what I had managed to not-see in busy pre-vacation weeks now seemed to be glaring like a neon sign flashing helpful questions at me:
This is okay with you?
I mean, I was just wondering if you like living like this, I mean is it a conscious style choice on your part?
Is it like shabby chic, but you know, without the chic?
So I made the decision that I was going to clean it up. And not just the old musical-chairs-trick where you put the difficult things in another room and shut the door so you’re just not looking at it anymore, but really, actually clean it up. It might take all morning— in fact, knowing me it might even take all month— but I was determined: I would do nothing else until it was a completely clean surface, damn it.
Of course, projects like this are always easy… at first. I start by picking off the low hanging fruit. Anything that belonged to an actual person in possession of a bed in our home got their belongings transferred to that location. Greta’s craft project, Greta’s knitting, Ilsa’s school supplies, all quickly departed the scene. The table went from looking like this (left), to like this (right):
Next, I rolled up and put away all the cloth napkins and dishtowels that had been sitting half done for never mind how long.
Everything was going great! In no time at all I had gone from Ugh. to Much Better, but my momentum was about to hit a wall. The reason why had to do with a realization I had come to during my Year of No Clutter which was this: there is a big difference between clutter and a mess. A mess is composed of things we know what to do with, but we just haven’t gotten around to doing yet. Clutter is composed of things we don’t quite know what to do with, or for some reason can’t quite get to happen yet. Comparatively speaking, cleaning up mess is easy (if annoying). Clearing clutter, on the other hand is
damn near impossible hard.
Keeping this distinction in mind, its easy to see why I got half the table clear so quickly, and why on any given day I might get this far and then go no further (only for the table to fill right back up over the rest of the afternoon and evening, am I right, people?)
So I took an inventory of the objects that remained, and the unanswered questions that made them clutter:
- Box and info booklet from new camera Steve bought… are we keeping these? Where will they live?
- Stack of CD-less jewel cases (some broken) and case-less CDs… what does one do with stuff like this? Is it just landfill material?
- Two non-functioning meat thermometers… one broken and one needs a new battery. No one knows which is which.
- Ilsa’s broken earring (in the tiny glass bowl)… Fixable, or garbage? No one knows.
So, like most clutter, what these items needed was a little extra time and persistence. I tackled them one at a time.
- When Steve came home for lunch I explained that I was writing a “blog about the coffee table” and reminded him that the new camera box had been sitting there for never mind how long. A few minutes later the information booklet was on the bookshelf and the box was in the recycling. I’m not above using internet blackmail to get things done here, people.
2. I was reminded that empty jewel cases are, in fact, reusable, so I recycled the liner notes and posted the cases as “free” on a local online marketplace. Within a few minutes I had a taker! Someone wanted my 12 empty, scratched CD cases! Hooray, no landfill! But what about the broken ones? It turns out that broken cases are recyclable, but not in curbside recycling. Instead I’d have to take them to a Best Buy, which for us is about a 45 minute drive away. All the broken plastic went into a paper bag marked “next time anyone is in Saratoga drop these at Best Buy” and put it by the door. The CDs themselves? Sadly they were garbage and garbage only- so in the bin they went.
3. After figuring out how to open the meat thermometer battery thingies (that’s a technical term) I ran out and purchased new batteries. Within minutes I had fixed one thermometer and placed the broken one in our pile of electronics recycling in the basement.
4. At last it all came down to this: one tiny little broken faux-pearl earring. Literally, this earring had been migrating around our house for at least the last year in its little glass bowl, in search of someone to make a decision about it. Every single time I looked at it I had the exact same series of thoughts:
- I should throw that thing out. It’s not like it’s worth anything.
- But Ilsa loves those earrings.
- I should try to fix it.
- I don’t think I can fix it, though.
- Oh look! It’s time to… pick the girls up/make dinner/teach myself harmonica
This time, however, I did not head out in search of a harmonica. This time I got out the super glue and right there and then glued that little earring sucker right back together. But not before I managed to spear myself with the sharp little Krazy Glue pin head.
No one said clearing clutter was without peril.
Now. Can I just TELL you how proud I am of that beautiful, clean coffee table surface? Not to mention how delighted Ilsa was to at last have her beloved earring back, and the fact that I no longer have to worry about giving my family horrible, multisyllabic diseases via undercooked meat. It’s really quite unreasonable, how happy that beautiful, open surface in the middle of my house makes me.
Now that I have explained how hard-won such small victories can be, perhaps those who do not suffer from OCS can glimpse an empty coffee-table from a brand-new vantage point: that of a time-honored battlefield in the war on mess and clutter.
The struggle is real.
April 25, 2018 § 1 Comment
True confessions time: I’ve actually been kind of afraid to check the results of the What To Do With Garfield?? poll. I mean, what if the winning answer was “Chuck It!”? Was I really gonna be able to put him in the trash? After all, this is me we’re talking about, who is utterly horrified by the concept of landfills. Who tries in vain to figure out how to repurpose hole-y sweat socks and who devotes actual brain space to whether or not toothpaste tube caps are recyclable. Besides, no matter how lame the project, I’m pretty sure I have never, ever thrown out something I’ve made… and I’ve certainly never thrown out anything I made that had a face.
Fortunately, weighing in at 27% of the vote, “Chuck It!” was juuuuust edged out by “donate to a school or library or….?” which garnered a very respectable 30%. So here’s what I am going to do: I will finish the pillow and donate it to our local library, where I might go and pay Garfield a visit whenever the mood strikes which will be, of course, exactly never. But it’s the knowing that I could that definitely- if inexplicably- helps.
The key element here is that I really do have to actually finish the pillow in order to make this into an object our library, or anyone for that matter, might actually want, and- surprise!- I don’t know how to do that. Which come to think of it is pretty much how Garfield and I got into this mess to begin with. Back to square one?
No! Or not without a fight anyway. I’m determined to break the cluttering cycle, and if I learned anything from my experience in the Hell Room, it is that indecision and inaction are the loving parents of each newborn piece of clutter. So if you’ll pardon me, I have a date with my sewing machine…
in the Hell Room in the Art Room. Wish me luck!
Or Garfield, wish him luck. He might really need it.
April 12, 2018 § 3 Comments
So I’m currently taking a poll to determine the fate of Garfield the latch-hook rug. Yes, when it comes to getting rid of things, I’m that desperate- apparently certain items require a crowd-sourced intervention. And let me tell you, Garfield is terrified. Or maybe it’s me. Hard to tell.
Ever since I cleaned out my own personal Hell Room, he’s has been scrunched up on an armchair in the library-hallway-room tormenting me. Yes, through a display of sheer Herculean willpower on my part I did manage to part with many terrible, horrible things during my Year of No Clutter, but Garfield was clearly not one of them. I mean, he’s juuuuuuust weird enough to be intriguing. Just random enough to be endearing.
Plus he has a face. Which is always hard.
Do I want him? Need him? Have any idea whatever to do with him? No. How do I feel every single time I lay eyes on him, messing up my armchair, cluttering up my tiny little reading area? Annoyed. Irritated.
For many people, the answers to those questions would be enough. They’d toss him in the trash or charity donation box and that would be that- not another thought would be given to the matter.
I am clearly not one of those people. Instead, I second guess. I think about how Garfield was, for a time, an extremely cool cartoon character. Really! If you were there, you’ll back me up on this, I know. In the late seventies when Jim Davis came out with the comic strip, Garfield represented a totally new idea: the Uber-Anti-Cat, the exact polar opposite of say, Hello Kitty. He was decidedly not cute. Not affectionate. Not demure and purring and sweet. Instead he was grouchy, lazy, and possessed of a propensity to eat all the lasagna within the nearby vicinity. He was a cat with chutzpah.
As a kid I read the strip religiously in the Sunday funnies, on the floor, by the heat grate, competing with the family dog to see who could sit most directly in the path of the intermittently blowing hot air. I had a t-shirt that my mom bought me when she went back to school with a picture of Garfield on it. He was unenthusiastically holding a college pennant in his hand with the thought bubble “So this is Pace University. Big, fat, hairy deal.”
In the early eighties, this qualified as highly sophisticated humor.
(That is until Bloom County came in and took over in a walk. Don’t even get me started. I still miss Opus.)
And then I think about all the many, many, MANY latch-hook rugs I made as a kid. I was an artsy-craftsy kid born to decidedly not-artsy-crafty parents, so I was constantly trying to learn new crafts, and yet there was no internet to teach me. !!! Instead of learning the complicated things I longed to know such as knitting or sewing or embroidery, I made ropes and ropes of macrame, dozens of wonky little yarn pom-poms, piles and piles of latch hook rugs… projects that were as easy as they were purposeless. My mom kept buying the latch hook rug kits because they were cheap, but once they were done I always wanted them made up into little zippered, decorative pillows for my room, which was expensive. In the interest of not having to take out a second mortgage on our house, she decided to stop having the rugs made into pillows right around the time I finished Garfield, which is why he remains unfinished to this day.
So. Now that I’ve told you all that, if the poll tells me to, can I really bear to pitch Garfield? Or maybe it’s the other way round: now that I’ve told you the story, maybe I’ll be released from my obligation to him, like a character in a fairy tale who has broken the magic spell. Hard to say. I keep imagining myself at the charity shop, trying to donate Garfield the Latch-Hook Rug and being violently overcome with remorse, much to the surprise and consternation of the little old ladies who take donations there. Hopefully (are you listening, Clutter-Gods?) HOPEFULLY that is not where this is all going. That would not be fun for anyone, you know.
By the way, have I mentioned that I also have latch-hook-rug Odie?
June 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Every year I look forward to Mother’s Day. A LOT. Possibly a little too much. I imagine this is in large part because it is the one day per year that I can do:
Anything. I. Want.
But wait a minute, isn’t this also true on my birthday? Okay, technically, I get TWO whole days per year. The point is: if, out of 365 days in a year, you get just 2 Completely-Guilt-Free-Anything Days, when they come up on the calendar, you pay attention.
Inevitably, the daydreams of having a luxurious soak in the tub for ten consecutive minutes, or sitting in a chaise lounge in the sun without anyone yelling “MOM!?!” in the tone of voice usually reserved for announcing that the refrigerator is on fire, give way to more… practical thoughts. Wait a minute! I suddenly think to myself: I can get my family to do anything today! Like… anything! And so, every year as Mother’s Day approaches, I proceed to mentally fill the day up about 14 times over with all the different Wish List items I’ve been compiling in my head all year long. Everything from pickling the ceilings to learning ancient Aramaic suddenly seems entirely within reach.
This year the family had talked about a “garden day” outside, pulling weeds, spreading mulch, and generally picking things up around our yard. This is because I have dreams for a big vegetable garden this year and this would get things well underway.
I know what you’re thinking. Exotic, right? It was either that or skydiving with sharks.
In the interest of pursuing my verdant garden dreams, however, I knew I’d have to do something about the catastrophe we know as the garden shed. Over the last few decades or so the shed had become a catch-all where we keep the garden implements, outgrown plastic kid toys, folding chairs, ceramic pots, bags of dirt, bales of straw, antique farm tools left by previous owners, broken things, seven different sprinkler-head attachments, tangled Christmas lights, rusty hardware and much more. Much like my upstairs mess known as the Hell Room, the shed was a problem that had snowballed over time, deteriorated and lain neglected for years behind neatly closed doors. Every year when I thought about going to start a vegetable garden, it was the classic clutter-avoidance scenario of: “I can’t do this, until I do that. And I don’t want to do that, sooo……who’s up for shark-diving?”
However, on Mothers Day, with visions of fresh kale dancing in my head, I took the plunge. While the rest of my family mulched and weeded and picked up- I dove headfirst into a big, dusty shed filled with chicken wire and mouse poop. I pulled out random crazy things- half-melted sticks of colored chalk, plastic trays leftover from failed attempts at raising plants from seed, a badly rusted and bent fireplace pit, mysterious unused spare parts from the children’s play set, and attachments to long-lost power tools. It seemed endless the amount of crap there was to find.
I had resolved to get rid of anything that wasn’t entirely useful, discard anything that wasn’t part of what I had optimistically envisioned as a “real garden shed one could walk into and retrieve, say, a hoe or a rake from, and emerge entirely unscathed.” I gave myself permission to throw away the broken and the failed and the long-lost leftovers, which was an amazing lot.
Things were going remarkably well- the trash bin was filling up, useful things were being found and restored to order, when I came upon something that made me shudder, and it wasn’t even anything dead. No, I had come to the bane of the garden shed, the thing that was taking up fully half of the room in there. Yes- it was the old patio furniture set.
As one of our first major purchases as new home-owners, I recall that the set had seemed terribly expensive to me, and therefore I had purchased it with the highly realistic expectation that it would last somewhere in the neighborhood of forever. Over time some pieces had fared better than others, but ever since the plastic wicker had begun to unravel on a couple of the chairs a few years ago, my husband had been campaigning for us to get rid of it. (Clearly, my husband has never heard of “shabby chic”. Incidentally, he has also never heard of “dusty chic,” “disgusting chic” or “potentially hazardous chic.”) Around this same time we had also inherited a nicer table and chairs that my mother didn’t want anymore, so the entire patio set officially went into hiding. It was like our shed was a patio furniture Witness Protection Program.
And there it sat.
Years had gone by. The bulky chairs and tables had remained caged up in our shed, piled higgelty-piggelty, and occasionally I would ask myself: for what? So I could avoid feeling guilty for getting rid of something that was more-or-less still perfectly good? So I could avoid feeling foolish for giving away something worth money, something that had originally been expensive?
This particular day, as I contemplated the many-legged albatross for perhaps the hundredth time I wondered: Why instead did I not feel guilty for blocking up room that could have otherwise been put to good use? Why did I not feel foolish for holding on to something I now had no use for?
And still, I hesitated. I hemmed and hawed. As so often happens when I am contemplating something I feel conflicted about, I felt a sinking feeling as I looked over the dusty, imperfect, but still entirely usable furniture. Just looking at it made me sad. Shouldn’t that have been a clue? Looking over at me in my misery, Steve pointed out correctly that we’ve had this furniture for twenty years. Twenty years! Perhaps, he thought, that was long enough.
Hmmmm. The old fashioned time-limit-strategy. I had forgotten about that one- most famously employed in the “If you haven’t worn it in a year get rid of it” closet-cleaning technique. It occurred to me that twenty years was a pretty good run for any piece of outdoor furniture. And then it was as if a hypnotist had snapped his fingers, releasing me from his spell. I was suddenly able to let go.
Out the patio furniture went to the curb. Even the glass-topped end table which was without a blemish. Even the chaise lounge thing that still inspired in me those dreams of lounging in the sun reading a book that had never, ever materialized. All of it.
Well, if no one takes it by next Thursday we can ask the trash guys to take it, Steve said.
If it’s not gone by tomorrow, I’ll eat my hat, I said.
I did not have to eat my hat. By the next morning every piece of it had vanished- as if by the wave of some magic Clutter Fairy wand. Amazingly, I was able to register this fact, and not feel guilty, or foolish. I only felt relief. The well-loved patio furniture was off to live another life… and I had my shed back.
Happy Mother’s Day to me.