Category Archives: Lifehacking

The Calendar

It has been 2 weeks now. I have been working on my novel every day for 2 weeks. I’m generally terrible with “every day” goals but I managed to get this system up and running again for the novel. And now the chain is long enough that I don’t want to break it by missing a day. Continue reading The Calendar

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Toy Story 2,856

I used to think that cleaning up and organizing was fun, but that was also when I thought I was good at it. Unfortunately, my illusions have been shattered: I don’t feel good at it anymore.

MY HOUSE IS SO FULL OF STUFF! Where did it all come from? It can’t all go to California with us.

snowblowerYesterday we had a yard sale. We sold a lot and made almost a thousand dollars. The biggest item we sold was the snowblower we bought in February during snowmageddon. We had survived for almost 12 years with a little electric one and shovels, but this last winter we broke down and bought a gas-powered one. We used it once. It was kind of cool: with a 208 cc engine of its own, it was a bit like a small car. It practically drove itself along the sidewalk. Now somebody else owns it, and is a little more prepared for whatever next winter is going to throw at us. Them, I mean. Throw at them. We won’t be here.

The saddest part of the experience for me is the toys, and it’s not over yet. We sold quite a few toys at the yard sale, but we still have piles of them in the house: board games on shelves, Legos in boxes, dolls missing heads. Planes, trains, and automobiles. And stuffed animals. Oh, the stuffed animals.

I bawled watching Toy Story 3. I was a kid like Andy, or perhaps even more like Bonnie: someone who played with toys, often by myself, and made them come alive in my imagination. I was also an introvert and a bookworm, sometimes more comfortable with toys than with other people. My dolls had a government, they lived in a couple of doll beds/cradles, and each doll bed had its own elected leader. Blonde Cinderella shed her rags and became Mary from the LIttle House books. She was accompanied by the shorter, brown-haired Brownie doll who lost her uniform and beanie to become Laura. They liked to drink tea a lot. I played my violin for them at night as we crossed the living room prairie.

I didn’t realize until much later that not all kids would be like that. Nowadays, with my kids ages 12 and almost 16, they would have outgrown most of their toys no matter what. But even when they were younger, they played with toys much less than I did. For a while I saw this as a bad thing, and blamed the internet and computer games, which they do like and spend a fair amount of time on. “Kids need to play!” intone all these articles, bemoaning a loss of childhood imaginative play. And there have been times when I, like the mother bunny in Good night iPad, have wanted to take all the electronics away, dump them out by the curb, and leave them there in a grand gesture of protest and change. “Good night pop stars, good night MacBook Air. Good night gadgets everywhere.”

I still agree broadly with those sentiments, but as I survey the leftovers and try to come up with a plan that will satisfy my need for decluttering, my Toy Story angst, and my desire to keep junk out of landfills, I think the story is a little more complicated. We did try to shield our kids from a lot of commercial TV, and perhaps as a result they didn’t spend a lot of time lobbying us for toys. Sometimes they couldn’t even say what they wanted for Christmas or their birthdays. I remember being a little frustrated about this, and buying stuff–toys that I thought were beautiful, or interesting, or educational–anyway in hopes that they would warm up to it. Occasionally they did, but often not. Now I have to get it out of the house.

This is about the time when I suspect that someone reading this blog is going to mention Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Maybe it will be on Facebook. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read reviews of it. The author’s main point seem to be that you keep only things that “spark joy.” While I find joy complicated and elusive even under the best of circumstances, I like the idea that you decide what to keep rather than deciding what to throw away. I also like her idea of thanking things for their service before you get rid of them. That makes the part of me happy that still thinks that toys have feelings. What I don’t like about her approach is that she seems not to care very much where the stuff goes when you get rid of it. The focus is all on the happiness of the person doing the discarding and not on the consequences of that discarding to the rest of the world. That bothers me.

So I realize that for a lot of this stuff, it would have been better to have not bought it in the first place. I bought many of the toys more for myself, and for my idea of what childhood should be like, rather than for my kids. I didn’t know, and I just assumed they’d be like me in their approach to toys. Maybe I should have listened better to them. In the intervening years I’ve heard much more about kids who don’t play with toys, kids who are overwhelmed by all the bells and whistles that modern toys have, why it’s better for kids to have fewer toys, and people of all ages who want to simplify by having less stuff. All of this is normal, and it doesn’t mean your kids are internet-addled automatons just because they don’t play with toys as intensely and imaginatively as Andy and Bonnie. In any case, it’s not too late for me to become a better listener and a better steward of the stuff we do have.

And if you want a gently used Sorry! board game or a Webkinz turtle or unicorn in good shape from a smoke-free, pet-free home, please let me know.

May Flowers

Flowers

“If April Showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?”
–“Pilgrims!”

My co-instructor told that joke last time we were teaching science to 5th graders. The kids appreciated it, or at least they humored us. I associate jokes like that with an age that I feel like I never quite left: the age before eye rolling and banter with quick-witted sarcasm. The age when clean puns are still funny.

I also associate May flowers with my mother. She taught me how to say “for-sithy-uh” and “pack-a-sandra” and “impatience.” My Mother’s Day gift to her growing up was usually a flowering plant, but that was for her, not me. To my mind back then, it was only ladies of a certain age who belonged to garden clubs and spent a lot of time and effort and thought on something that didn’t really seem worth it. Vegetables, maybe–I mean, at least you can eat those. But flowers? They smelled, they made me sneeze. And even worse, people brought them inside, where they died and shriveled up and became creepy. Flowers for Algernon. A Rose for Emily. Thanks but no thanks.

I’ve been an on-and-off reader of Laura Vanderkam’s blog for years. As a business writer, she writes about managing time and money. Several years ago, she wrote a blog called “What does it mean to be frugal?” that resonated with me. In it, she describes moving into a new house, where the “landscaper had a great sense of the eastern Pennsylvania rainfall and seasons, because with no upkeep whatsoever, a series of flowers has bloomed in that yard from March until June. One sequence of flowers comes up, then when it dies, another takes its place” (italics mine). Ever since reading that blog, I realized: that’s the kind of yard, and those are the kind of flowers, I want. Flowers that stay outside and require no upkeep whatsoever, but that make your life better because of their beauty and harmony with the seasons.

BackyardBunny1Like Vanderkam’s house, our house had some landscaping done by the previous owner, but whether due to age or neglect, it was not blooming in an orderly series (or, sometimes, not blooming at all). Bushes got crushed or bent out of shape by snow during the winter. Perennials and bulbs got hidden by weeds or overgrown bushes. One year I ordered some plants from the Farmers’ Market. They were locally grown and supposed to be adapted to our New England environment. I planted them in the backyard and then one night they just disappeared–a critter’s meal. A big tree branch crushed a flowering rhododendron during a windstorm. My husband also managed to mow down a rose bush with the lawn mower. And on top of all that, our yard is mostly shady. It gets a little sun at certain times of day, in certain places. But tulips weren’t blooming, phlox died, and bunnies and squirrels continued to feast.

SnowSquirrelI decided I needed to lower my expectations. I was now myself a lady of a certain age, but unlike Mr. McGregor in a Beatrix Potter book, I wanted to co-exist with the bunnies, and with the squirrels, who have built at least 7 nests in the trees around our property, a few seen peeking above the roof when there are no leaves on the trees. And, like it or not, I needed to co-exist with the snow.

No upkeep? Well…

daffodils2013One thing I did was plant blooming perennials. First I planted daffodils, a free offer from the Breck’s catalog. Then I planted tulips (I bought those). Then I tried a couple of sorry-looking specimens from Home Depot, bought on sale at the end of their flowering season. One was called Dicentra spectabilis. At least that’s what I called it, “dicentra” for short. It had a lot of pretty leaves and it grew big and filled the space where I put it, only to die way back in the winter. There were also some ferns that grew along the garden border, from moss that I decided not to get rid of, because, at least it was green and didn’t have to be mowed. Hostas acted about the same as dicentra: started out small, but soon grew like gangbusters, without fertilizer and without watering. The daffodils and tulips, too. I didn’t water or fertilize them, and I didn’t cut them down for weeks, until the leaves themselves started to turn brown and shrivel up on their own.

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This year I had 11 tulips, which was 10 1/2 more than last year. (I’m calling the one that lasted for 24 hours before becoming bunny food 1/2). They get their sun, but only at certain times of the day. These almost looked like they were genetically engineered with some kind of fluorescent protein, but it’s just the way the sun hits them for about an hour.

RosebushJarThe rose bush that my husband accidentally mowed grew back, surprisingly, and yielded many pretty red roses. I made a few cuttings and put these under jars that someone else had discarded. This year I have 3 rose bushes instead of 1. We know that original rose bush is a survivor. We hope that its offspring are, too.

The daffodils have become my friends over the past several years. I see their little green shoots poking through, and I know the snow is going to end eventually. My garden blooming felt like a symbol of hope two years ago, just after the trauma of the Boston Marathon Bombings and the manhunt less than a mile from here.

On Mother’s Day, my mother just got back from Holland and we were discussing tulips, and dicentra. Both are blooming this year, in kind of a sequence, without much upkeep. “What’s dicentra?” she asked. It’s apparently called “Bleeding Heart,” but I rather prefer the Latin. I don’t want a garden that’s bleeding. Mother’s Day this year was all about chocolate. And flowers in the garden.

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