Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Eco-friendly Cleaning Ideas

My husband and I are in the midst of a huge project. We’re building a deck and screened in porch. It seemed like a great idea on paper and in my mind’s eye, but it’s bigger than the both of us. It’s so big that after a week of full time work, we had to call in some reinforcements in the person of Nick’s best childhood friend. I’ve been sidelined for the time being as the two of them carefully construct a roof that is several stories off the ground. That’s fine with me, but my excuse for the mess inside the house is gone. Back to cleaning, or as it is, digging out.

Two of my favorite cleaners are vinegar and baking soda. They both have different purposes, but sometimes I get a little over the top in my cleaning efforts and I’ve combined their forces. Recently I learned that’s not such a good idea. It renders them both ineffective. Vinegar is an acid and baking soda is alkaline, so the ingredients neutralize each other. Not that I would have remembered any of those terms from my high school chemistry class. I found this information in an old issue of Body & Soul magazine.

The article suggested dissolving 1 teaspoon of baking soda in hot water in a clean spray bottle and adding a squirt of castile soap. This spray makes a potent, all-purpose cleanser for baseboards, tabletops, and other hard surfaces and it will last several months.

I like to use vinegar and water to clean windows and mirrors, but when I share this advice with others, I’ve been told it leaves streaks. Turns out the streaks are not from the vinegar, they’re from build up created by commercial window cleaners. To get rid of the residue, add a dab of liquid castile soap to ¼ cup vinegar and 1 cup water in a clean spray bottle. After you rid your windows of the buildup you can go back to vinegar and water for regular cleaning. The article also mentioned that the residue left by commercial cleaners may contain 2-Butoxyethanol, a suspected hormone disrupter that could cause developmental and reproductive problems. Just one more reason to get rid of the commercial cleaning agents.

I leafed through some of my old notes from my early days of cleaning organically and found a couple helpful things –

1. Hydrogen peroxide is good for bathroom mold. Leave it on for an hour to let it eat away at the mold and do its job and then wipe it off.
2. If the vinegar smell bothers you, you can mix it with natural oils such as lavender or lemon.
3. Tea cleans hardwood floors and woodwork. (I’d forgotten this one and have never tried it, but I plan to.)
4. Baking soda is great for cleaning electric ovens.
5. Borax works well on walls and floors and for any general purpose cleaning job.
6. Sprinkle baking soda on carpet, let sit 15 minutes and then vacuum to freshen carpet.
7. “Grubby corners – Mix hydrogen peroxide with baking soda, let sit for one hour, spray out.” (I’m guessing that this note refers to bathroom tub corners, but I suppose it would work on any corner. I’m also guessing that you “spray out” with water. It seemed important at the time.)

Tomorrow me and my impact drill are needed back on the job site, thank goodness. So I’ll be off the hook again on the cleaning. Meanwhile, I’m going to look for some grubby corners. If you’ve got any great cleaning tips, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to do things better, cheaper, and easier.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Grass is Always Greener

Let’s talk about grass. Really. I spend up to five or six hours a month on the lawn mower and I’m only the second string grass cutter in this house. My time is mostly spent in the pasture as the ponies just cannot keep up this time of year. Anyway, as I go around and around and ponder how major league ballparks get those amazing patterns in their grass, I also think about the lawns I run past that have the little warning signs sticking up saying this lawn has recently had a treatment of some kind – a chemical treatment. It’s kind of sad that any lawn wouldn’t be safe for your children to roll around on, but beyond that it’s really not so great for your lawn.

Here’s what happens when you start treating your lawn with chemicals – you can’t stop. Because if you do, your chemically dependent grass will not grow. It becomes like an addict and without its regular dose of chemicals it will wither up and die. I’m not kidding. How do you think all those companies stay in business? They get you hooked and then if you decide maybe you don’t want to do the chemical thing anymore and you stop, the grass has become so weak on it’s own it struggles and you run to your phone because the grass looked so much better when you were paying someone lots of money to dump toxic chemicals on it. Like lots of bad habits, once you start it’s really hard to stop. The biodiversity in your lawn is also destroyed so that all your little grass leaves look exactly alike – whichever brand of grass looks prettiest and grows uniformly. A few years ago we had a terrible drought around here and just about everyone’s lawn withered up and turned brown all over. Not ours. Since we have never taken offense at a few weed-like shapes amongst our grass, the hardiest breeds survived and kept our grass greener than brown.

Want to know why else you shouldn’t be treating your grass with chemical fertilizers and weed killers? Because it’s only good for the grass – it’s not good for the air, the soil, the water supply, the pets, or the children. Just how badly do you need that perfectly green lawn? Try some natural compost or fertilizer. There are lots of them out there and more companies are developing them every day as people are getting smarter and saner about caring for their lawns. Gardens Alive is a company that has been doing this for awhile and has a very educational catalog. We’ve used many of their products and never been disappointed. You can see their products and order a catalog of your own at www.gardensalive.com. If you’re ready to kick the chemically habit their website is a great place to start, but there’s lot of other information online.

Nematodes are another great addition for your grass. I’m not clear on exactly what they are. I thought they were a fungus, but a quick web search turned up this statement: “Nematodes are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth,” so maybe their more than a fungus. Anyway, they’re sold by the million, so whatever they are they’re really small. The kind we bought looked like powder and you simply mixed them with water and sprayed it on the grass. We applied them to combat Japanese beetles, which they’ve done beautifully. What they do is kill the grubs before they become beetles. The catalog also says they attack nearly every type of soil-dwelling garden pest, so maybe we’ve eliminated other problems too. I like them because they’re naturally occurring, they don’t effect the health of my soil, and the effect they have lasts all year and beyond. Simple chemical free solution.

Oh! But here’s what I really wanted to say - DON’T BAG YOUR GRASS CLIPPINGS! Seriously. Don’t do it. The clippings are wonderful mulch and fertilizer for your grass and will help protect and promote its health. I don’t understand why anyone would pick up the clippings – it’s a bother to do it in the first place and in the second place it’s not good for your grass. So you track some grass in the house – big deal. Leave the clippings where they lie. But if you must collect your clippings because you have some kind of compulsive disorder (or your spouse does), please, please, please don’t pack them in plastic bags and send them to the land fill. Grass clippings are great fertilizer, mulch, and can be composted. Find a use for them or pawn them off on your organic neighbors (unless you chemically treat your grass which isn’t good either – see above).

Another suggestion – try not to cut your grass so often. Lawn mowers are not good for the environment, plus how much fun is it anyway? Maybe I only think it isn’t fun because I’m a woman. Men seem to get a kick out of mowing the lawn. I believe my husband likes to cut the grass as his own quiet time (which is kind of ironic since the noise of the mower could be making him even more hard of hearing). Still, I would suggest that you cut it as short as you can and then let it go for awhile. This time of year we get away with cutting only every 10-14 days. There are earthier people than me who would say the best thing to do is let your grass go. Cultivate a natural look. I’m not ready for that. I dislike ticks and wet socks too much. I’ll keep cutting, but someday I might get there, who knows. In the meantime I will keep claiming more and more of our lawn for my gardens.

I know there were a few other points I wanted to make about grass. I think of these things while I’m mowing and never have a notepad with me on the mower, so I’m sure there’s more things I want to rant about but they’ll have to wait for a later post. It still hasn’t rained in our neck of the woods, so I might be able to skip the mowing altogether this weekend. Which is good because I’ve got better things to do - like hit the Book Bonanza.
If you live in the York area, don’t miss the Book Nook Bonanza at Suburban Middle School– best used book sale all year this Friday and Saturday. Bring your bags and wear comfortable shoes because you could be there for hours. It’s huge.

Monday, June 22, 2009

It's Time To Party!

It’s party time at our house. June is full of birthdays (5), Father’s Day, and end of year activities, not to mention an anniversary. So it seems like there is always a party to have or a party to attend. This weekend there were two parties to attend and one big party to host. We celebrated my youngest son’s birthday with a feast of the Knights of the Oblong Table, complete with scooter jousting, Hippity-Hop Ball duels, and a full fledge battle involving pool noodles and cardboard castles. By the end of the evening, everyone was stuffed with artificially flavored and colored treats, exhausted from hippity-hopping on our hills, filthy from head to toe, and maybe a little sore after the rigors of battle. Good party. I’m just glad it’s over for a few weeks, then on to the annual Fourth of July Barbeque.

Admittedly, it’s very hard to have an organic party. I don’t even try to substitute on the treats. I take the kid-to-be-honored to the store, walk down the snack aisle and let them have at it. But I also served watermelon and cantaloupe balls served in a watermelon half (presentation is everything when you want kids to eat something healthy). The punch was made from organic juices. Carrot sticks and dip, strawberries, and orange slices are other offerings that can tempt the junior palate, especially after a rousing hippity hop battle. My advice to those of you trying to serve healthy food at kids parties is to split the difference. Let them have the snacks they beg for all year long, but counter that with some great looking healthy options. The kids at our feast yesterday pigged out on the watermelon balls. I gave them toothpicks to eat with and they loved it. We served the watermelon, cantaloupe, and carrots before we brought out the chips and pizza. When it comes to getting them to eat healthy, you just need a good plan. It worked because after eating all the fruit, seven kids only made a dent in the Doritos bag. Their bellies were full with fiber rich fruit.

Here’s a couple other ideas for keeping parties kid-friendly, semi-organic, and healthy:

1. Buy a huge set of plastic plates with dividers, bowls, and cups. We bought our sets at Wal-Mart in blue, yellow, pink, and green. They only cost $1 for 10, so we now have service for 80 if necessary and I always have a color to match the theme of whatever party we’re throwing, whether it’s a pink princess party (yellow and pink) or a race car party (blue and green). This weekend my little knight chose blue and yellow as his kingdom’s colors. No one misses the theme decorated paper plates that cost $4.50 for 8. Plus it’s much nicer to eat on plastic than paper. We’ve discovered that we can even wash our plasticware in the dishwasher if we set it on the “fine china” setting and use “energy-saver dry”. I know I’ve saved lots of money on unbought paper goods, plus this is much better for the environment.

2. We did the same thing with utensils. We found cheap utensils again at Wal-Mart at just $1 for eight and bought service for 40 for $5. These utensils also get packed in kids’ lunches when necessary since Mom won’t freak out if they slip up and toss them in the trash barrel.

3. Have your party at home. I know it seems easier to go to Chuck-E-Cheese, but it’s definitely more expensive and much harder to truly celebrate your kid. Sure the big mouse sings to them, but after that the kids are scattered all over celebrating the token-bound games and might not even see your kid until the end when their parent forces them to track you down to say thank you. Consider having a smaller party at your house – there are endless ideas to be found on the internet. Winter birthday can be harder, but get creative and keep the numbers down. No one needs that many presents anyway. Or ask a relative with a bigger house to host the party. Just like presents - it's the thought that counts. You don't need to blow the bank on a birthday party for a six year old. Keep it simple and get creative.

4. You don’t need prizes. I have never given prizes at birthday parties and kids don’t miss them. It’s just fun to play the games. We almost always have a piñata so they go home with candy no matter what. Prizes seem to make one kid happy, but other kids sad. Best to skip the cost and stress altogether.

5. Give a real gift instead of a goodie bag full of junk. In the end you spend nearly $4 or $5 on each bag of junk, so instead of a bag full of made-in-China plastic crap, pick out something nice the kids can take home. We’ve given away Beach Balls (let all the kids sign them), shovel and pail (decorate the pail), Flashlights (bonfire party), and this time – pool noodles (after being utilized as swords). None of those gifts cost more than $2 or $3, so I saved money and the kids had something useful to take home. If you need an idea, go to the dollar store – you’ll find something.

6. The younger the kids are the more planned activities you need. Once they get older (say 7), you need to build in some free play too, but when they are young remember the best defense is a good offense and have a plan with more activities than you think you’ll need. There are a lot of people with too much time on their hands posting a gazillion birthday party ideas, games, cakes, and themes on line. Just google "kids birthday party ideas" - you'll find more than you need (and be amazed and grateful that people actually post this stuff!).

7. Take a picture of each guest (actually take 2 or 3 because someone’s always got their eyes closed or their finger up their nose) and use the picture to make a thank you note. I take random pictures throughout the party, plus the classic pony ride picture, but then when it’s time to open presents I sit the giver next to the birthday boy and take a picture of them together as the present is opened. Not only does it give me another potential picture for the thank you note, it also gives me a record of what each kid gave the birthday boy which is critical information when writing thank you notes.

8. Now this one might make you groan, but hear me out. Bake your kid’s birthday cake. I don’t have to say you’ll save money, that’s obvious by the price of decorated cakes these days. And I probably don’t have to tell you that homemade cakes are WAY, WAY, WAY better tasting than store bought cake. And you can probably figure out for yourself that if you bake it yourself you can use some organic ingredients. No, the real reason to bake a cake for your kid instead of buying one is that it’s a gift. When my husband asks me why I’m once again spending too much time trying to figure out how to craft a cake that resembles a race car or Tinkerbell or a s’more, I tell him, “This is my gift to them. I make their cake. I make exactly what they wanted.” Sometimes the birthday child has a vision or even a picture of the cake they want which can be helpful or not. Expectations are hard to live up to. But no matter what they know I’m going to try my best to make them a really special cake and that means a lot. As they get older they like to help me and so the cakes don’t always turn out the way I planned, but they taste great and in my child’s mind at least they are perfect.

When I was cleaning up the feast in preparation for the piñata and the kids were outside having a loud game of capture the castle supervised by my kid-at-heart hubby, my mom commented that I was really good to give my kids all these parties. She said that she let me and my brothers have a party every other year. I only remember one or two parties, but they are good memories. So maybe I’m over the top with the parties for my kids. I just love the opportunity to celebrate them each year. You can never say – “you’re special and I’m glad you were born” too many times or in too many ways. So I’ll keep throwing these crazy parties and making incredible, by-request cakes, because by doing that not only am I making it clear how much I love these kids, I’m making memories. And someday when they’re negotiating the birthday party plan with their own spouse, they’ll say, “My mom used to throw the best birthday parties…”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Of Weeds, Lettuce, and Tomatoes

OK this is going to be a boring garden post. So if you’re tired of me writing about gardening, you can skip this one. I checked though and I haven’t written about gardening in nearly two weeks! Gardens require maintenance, sad but true. There was a time when I just planted seeds and left them to their own devices. I figured whatever I got was better than nothing. But now I know better. A minimal effort can bring great rewards.

Take weeding. I hate it most days, but I’ve come to find a sense of satisfaction in a weed-free tidy garden, or at least patches of weed-free tidy garden. My garden keeps getting bigger and it becomes impossible to keep all the weeds out. You do what you can.

Mulch is one tool in the battle of the weeds. You can lay newspaper around your established plants and hose it real good for an inexpensive, if unsightly, mulch. If you’re rich, you can just buy mulch and surround your plants. Be careful though, I would caution you that most mulch is not the least bit organic and could leach any number of chemicals in to your soil. I save the commercial mulch for flowers. I don’t worry if they aren’t so organic. Straw is another good choice for mulch, and it will compost in to your garden during the fall and winter.

Mulch aside, it comes back to weeding. I prioritize my weeding efforts. I weed closest to established plants by hand, careful to get the entire weed. Between the roes, I use a stirrup hoe (looks like a real stirrup with sharp edges that you work back and forth over the soil) to just scrape off the top layer beating back the weeds in mass and keeping the weeds from going to seed and expanding my problem. It doesn’t always look pretty but it keeps things under control. Most importantly, weed after a good rain. There’s no point in weeding when the ground is dry as bone, unless you use a hose and hose the area you are weeding, which seems a little backward to be watering your weeds.

Weed every chance you get. Don’t leave all your weeding for one day – can’t be done – or it can and your back will complain about it later. You’re outside admiring how beautifully your tomatoes are taking to their training, you pull a few weeds. You’re killing time waiting for your kids to be ready to go to soccer, you pull a few weeds. Your kids are driving you to drink, instead go outside and pull a few weeds. Every chance you get – pull a few weeds. Sorry, but it’s a never ending process. I've considered using my children as indentured servants to take care of my weeding problem, but I don't want them to resent the garden or anything that comes out of it. Some children can be convinced to help by cold hard cash. Good luck with that.

How is your lettuce growing? As painful as it may be, it’s important to thin your lettuce. You need to pull baby plants that are crowded. You’ll want to keep thinning (and eating the babies you pull) until your plants aren’t touching. This necessitates that you thin as they grow. If you’re lettuce stays cramped and crowded the leaves on the bottom won’t get sunlight and they’ll rot, rotting all the leaves around them too.

If you eat lettuce like I do, you’ll soon have bare patches in your lettuce rows – plant more lettuce. In fact, plant lettuce in any spare spot you have. They love to grow in the filtered sunlight under other plants. Tuck in more lettuce in any spare space you have, and that includes flower beds. Walk around in the early afternoon and figure out if there are places in your gardens that only get morning sun – perfect spot for some more lettuce (or spinach).

Once you’ve picked your lettuce, washing it can take time. Know this going in. When you buy store bought lettuce it has been washed by some high pressure lettuce washing gadget and still you have to wash it because there are little specks of dirt. The lettuce you pull out of your beautiful garden will be covered in dirt, grass clippings, and bugs. The lettuce you bought at the store was once covered in those things too, plus some chemical fertilizers. When you are washing your home grown lettuce, take care to wash it one leaf at a time. Nothing can put you off homegrown lettuce like a bite of slug with your salad. I soak all of my lettuce in my sink as I’m washing it so the bugs will detach themselves or drown. I pick up one leaf at a time for a gentle hand scrubbing before placing it in the salad spinner. Once all my lettuce is clean and dry, I place a dry paper towel in the bottom of a plastic bag and load in the lettuce on top. The paper towel will soak up any water and keep my lettuce from rotting. I keep these bags in the crisper drawer of my fridge and the lettuce will stay fresh for nearly a week.

On to tomatoes – hopefully yours are looking happy and bushy by now. It’s time to give them a trim. Grab your hand clippers or kitchen shears and carefully trim off any of the lower branches whose leave are touching the ground. Then as your plant grows and you begin tying it up to your tomato fence or stake or basket, gather the leaves that are in danger of drooping to the ground and wrap your tie around them as you tie to keep them off the ground. This may sound confusing, that’s why I added the picture up top. The bottom line is you don’t want any leaves touching the ground. If they droop on the ground they can rot and spread that rot to your entire plant. That’s why you sometimes see tomato plants that are bushy and green on top and brown and scraggly on the bottom. They may survive, but they won’t product nearly the same number of fruits.

When watering tomatoes, do all you can to water the ground under them and not the leaves themselves. A good deep watering at their base is much better for them than a sprinkle from your automatic sprinkler. It takes time, but everything that matters takes time. You should know that by now.

Tomatoes need support, like all of us. You can buy tomato cages at the store that do a great job of supporting your tomatoes. The problem I’ve had with them in the past is that it’s impossible to pick the tomatoes that grow inside the baskets. You’re stuck like the monkey in that experiment – you can’t get your hand back out of the cage unless you drop the tomato. Maybe you’ve had success with these cages, but not me. There are lots of other options – fences, stakes, trellis, use what works for you. We’ve used fences in the past, but after last years six foot high tomatoes, this year my husband has made it his personal quest to accommodate the tomatoes no matter how tall they get. He borrowed his system from the tomato gardens he sees in China where he travels for his work. Using skinny boards, he has built a wooden frame that is six feet high with boards going across it at one foot intervals. As the plants grow he uses torn pieces of cotton clothing or sheets to tie the plants. This is a great way to recycle your old t-shirts. He plans to train the tomatoes to snake in and out of the cross boards as they grow up so that the weight will be evenly distributed and the fruits will grow on both sides of the frame. I’ll post a picture on my blog so you can see the tomatoes’ progress. I’ll let you know how this plan works out.

Peas of all shapes and sizes should be ready about now. Remember to pick early and often if you want to prolong your season. It’s just about cherry season too, so watch your local farms for pick your own local cherries.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Yard Sale Happiness

There seem to be more yard sales than ever this year. Maybe it’s the economy or maybe we’re all motivated to recycle. Or maybe some of us just have too much stuff. For me it was about the stuff. We’ve got too much of it. Three children generate a lot of stuff. Our basement was crammed with it so we filled up the back of the pick up truck and joined some good friends in their driveway for their neighborhood yard sale. Since we don’t have a traditional “neighborhood”, we have to adopt others. We do the same thing at Halloween. We’ve been trick or treating in the same neighborhood for so many years now that I’m sure the residents think we live there.

This particular yard sale had very reasonable hours of 9am-3pm. So we began setting up at 7am, which I quickly learned is not early enough when your yard sale begins at 9am. By 7:15 there were early birds picking through my boxes along with me. The kids set up a stand and began selling breakfast of painfully sweet lemonade and homemade chocolate chip cookies. They did a brisk business all morning until their interest petered out around 9:30. Lucky for us other neighborhood kids were quick to take their spots and no one made it up the driveway un-accosted by adorable kids yelling “Don’tcha want some lemonade?”

I love to go to yard sales. Love to find treasure in someone else’s trash. But it’s been a long time since I was the seller at a yard sale. I forgot how much I hate the haggling. For heaven’s sake here I am laying out all my junk and asking just a few pennies for it and you’re going to come along and ask me if I’ll sell it for even less than a few pennies? I know, I know. As one of my fellow yard salers pointed out – that’s the point. Still, I’m uncomfortable with the haggling. I’m terrible at it too, because even if the guy said, “Hey, you give me a dime and I’ll take that old frying pan off your hands,” I’d say, “Sure.” I made every deal. Which I guess was fine since my entire motivation for participating in the yard sale was to get rid of my stuff. But by 8:30am I was already thinking “why didn’t I just box all this stuff up and take it to Goodwill?”

At lunchtime the kids had made more money on the cookies and lemonade than I had on all my junk. Next time I think it would be a better strategy to put the cute kids behind the saw horse table full of dishware and I’ll sit on the plastic fisher price chairs out front with the lemonade. Still it was fun to hang out with our friends and we did meet some nice people and send them off happy in the knowledge that they had totally scammed me. As I watched the latest satisfied customer leave with a barely used Calphalon pot for a buck, it dawned on me that maybe the best thing to do would be to give it all away. That way I don’t have to stress over being taken advantage of, the customers are happy, and just maybe all the stuff will go and I won’t have to box it up and take it home. After convincing the other yard sale proprietors in the driveway that my plan made sense, we posted a sign at the end of the driveway that said “Everything’s Free! Really!”

Customers walked up the driveway hesitantly, not sure if the sign was a joke. When we told them otherwise they carefully selected a few items and scurried away asking, “You’re sure?” I smiled and thanked them for coming to our sale. This was my kind of yard sale. I loved it when a very young couple laden three little kids came up the driveway and I was able to make their oldest daughter grin like it was Christmas morning as she wheeled away my daughter’s old pink bike that sat in our driveway collecting rust for the last two years. That smile was worth much more than the $5 price tag that still clung to the handlebars. The rest of the afternoon went on in this fashion. I loved all the smiles we created on grateful faces and wished we’d switched to the new pricing system much earlier. The beauty of it all is that I went home with $60, an empty truck, and the knowledge that I had made lots of people very happy that day.

I don’t think I’ll ever sit on that side of the table for a yard sale again, but just in case you do, here’s my advice:

1. Have your kids set up a lemonade stand with homemade baked goods alongside of your yard sale. It keeps them busy and draws the right kind of customers. People who stop for lemonade stands generally have kids or grandkids and they’re more likely to buy your stuff which is probably mostly kid stuff. Plus it teaches your kids some responsibility, garners them a few marketing skills, and gives them an opportunity to do a little math in the summer.

2. Price everything before you actually get to the yard sale. Put a sticker on everything. I got a pack of stickers at Wal-Mart that already had yard sale prices on it and that made this easier. I didn’t price things before I got there and it was very stressful to price things while the professional yardsalers looked on and dug through my boxes.

3. Set up your stuff at least two hours early or put up a big sign that says “NO EARLYBIRDS!” (although I’m not sure a sign will really scare off the true professionals).

4. Join other families having yard sales at the same time. This way you can share in the expenses and work of signs and advertisements. These signs and advertisements are key to getting lots of traffic. Plus it’s just really nice to have company while you suffer through the humiliation of selling stuff you’re embarrassed you ever bought in the first place.

5. Consider having a rain date. We had perfect weather, but it would have been a miserable day if it had been rainy.

6. Bag up kid’s small toys that are similar in Ziploc bags together. We put toy power rangers in a bag with a power ranger video, Barbies in bags with extra clothes, and all the Cars movie toys together. Gathering up a bunch of Polly Pockets and some extra outfits in a sandwich bag was much easier to deal with, same with legos blocks and hot wheel cars. It’s too hard to price every small toy, bags are easier to handle.

7. Have lots of extra plastic bags for your customers to take home their treasures in and newspapers to wrap dishes and breakables.

8. If you have junk that you doubt anyone would want, but you can’t bear to throw away, consider having a “free” box. You’d be amazed what people will take when it’s free. Now it will clutter their life and not yours and you don’t have to feel guilty!

9. Work out a pricing plan with anyone who’s sharing your yard sale space. Pick a time to go to half price. If everyone’s willing, pick a time to make everything free. I promise this will be your favorite time of the sale.

10. Remember that the bottom line is you don’t want to take anything home. It will just sit in your basement cluttering up your home and your life and your conscience. Make the deal!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'm Mean But I'm Not Stupid

I’m only three days in to summer vacation and I’m ready for school to start, how about you? It’s not the noise or the mess they make or even the constant whining. It’s the fighting. If it weren’t so maddening, the things they can find to fight about would be funny. I’ve considered recording them and playing it back, but I’m not sure they would see the humor. My main strategy is to duck and cover. I hear the voices escalating in the kitchen I head for the laundry room. The battle moves to the living room, I make a beeline for the garden. If they follow me outside I just keep moving. That’s the key, never be a stationery target.

I wish something could be done, but I’m fairly certain there is no remedy. I remember fights with my little brother that got bloody. I think my own mother also employed the duck and cover strategy as I don’t remember her officiating any of our battles. There are only two solutions that work for me. 1) get rid of one or two kids or 2) become their common enemy.

Getting rid of one or two works really well but is dependent on kind friends with similarly aged children. When only one or two children are home the house is measurably quieter. I’ve tried the day camp routine as a way to get rid of a kid or two, but that requires me to spend entire days in my car and go nearly broke. I don’t think camps were as expensive or as plentiful when I was a kid. Today there’s a camp for everything. My kids each get to pick out one day camp to attend. That’s all I can afford, and truth be told, I do want to spend time with them this summer even if it means listening to them fight.

My other strategy in the battle against sibling battles is to become their common enemy. When they are mad at mom they suddenly become the greatest of allies. They mutter under their breath, roll their eyes at each other, make faces at me behind my back (forgetting about the eyes in the back of my head), and run constant reconnaissance missions to keep tabs on my whereabouts. It’s a beautiful thing siblings united against their mother.

Recently my husband, youngest son, and I were working outside tearing off an old deck while the older two huddled inside trying to figure out how to get beyond the list of chores that had accumulated all week leaving them with no computer time until they were accomplished. My husband ducked inside to grab a tool and overheard my son say to my daughter, “We can’t do that! She’s mean, but she’s not stupid!” He managed to get back outside before doubling over in laughter. We howled for hours over that comment. When I shared the exchange with a friend, she said, “That’s awful that they think you’re mean.” I looked at her like she had three heads and said, “I’m fine with mean. Mean’s relative, stupid’s permanent.” And this is true. I’m fine with my kids thinking I’m mean as long as they respect me. Compared to many of their friends my kids live the good life when it comes to my attitude about chores, their appearance, the cleanliness of their rooms, their homework, and the number of pets I allow them to bring home, so while I might temporarily hold the title of “meanest mom” I know it’s not forever. Someday, they’ll appreciate me. At least I hope they do.

This leads me to what I set out to write about - should we expect from our children when it comes to chores? This is quite definitely a family-by-family and kid-by-kid decision. I’ll share with you what I expect and the reward system I use. You might find it useful or not. And maybe you’ll understand my title of “meanest mom in the world”.

First off, I don’t do allowance. My reason is that nobody gets money for just existing. We all have to earn it and the sooner my kids learn this the better. There are several ways they can earn “mom bucks”. Mom bucks are worth 25 cents each or they can be worth 50 cents each if the money is used to buy books. Blatantly bribing them to read more I admit. It works though.

All three kids (ages 7, 10, and 12) are expected to help with dinner chores on weekdays. Their father and I handle the dinner chores on the weekends and holidays. They earn a mom buck for each job. If they fail to do their job, their mom buck can be earned by another sibling who takes over the job. If I have to do it, they pay me a mom buck. They can be excused without penalty if they have practice, too much homework, another commitment, or I don’t feel like dealing with their whining. The three jobs are broken down thus:
1. Set the table - clear off all the belongings and general junk that has accumulated during the day, put out the placemats and napkins, utensils, drinks, and any condiments, salads, or dishes that are necessary for the meal.
2. Clear the table – Everyone is expected to clear their own dishes, but the person in charge of clearing picks up everything else and puts it in the appropriate place - on the counter, on the floor for the dog, in the cabinets, or in the fridge. They then shake the placemats and napkins off over the trash can and hang them on the backs of the chairs if they are reusable. They wipe the table off with a clean dish rag and sweep under and around the table.
3. Dishes – place all the dishes in the dishwasher and everything that needs to be washed by hand in the sink. We have yet to make them do the handwashing. I’m steeling myself for that battle, but not quite ready to go there yet. Dishes is the easiest job, but it require them to come back in to the kitchen after they’ve already begun their next adventure so they generally hate this job. Plus they have to touch the icky utensils when they drop them in the dishwasher and they miss (kind of like that party game of drop the clothespin in the bottle).

Mom bucks can also be earned at my discretion. For example, it’s raining and the dog really needs to go out and I don’t know where my shoes are, I might offer a mom buck to anyone who takes the dog out. I’ve been known to pay 2 mom bucks to someone who takes the puppy out for at least 10 minutes and runs her around. If I catch them doing something nice for a sibling, I’ll award a mom buck. I always keep a list of chores they can choose to do if they’d like to earn some more mom bucks - clean a bathroom, vacuum a room, straighten up the playroom, sweep the porch, etc. The harder the job, the more mom bucks they earn.

There are also a few things I expect from my children simply because they live here. If they don’t follow through with these expectations, they reap the natural consequences. There’s a bunch, but here’s some I can think of right now:
- bring their own belongings in from the car (or they may be thrown out at next car dumping)
- clean up their belongings around the house (or they go to the time out box)
- bring their dirty clothes to the laundry (or no clean clothes this week)
- remove their sheets for washing and put them back on afterward (or sleep on a bare mattress)
- fix their own breakfast unless it requires the stove (or go hungry)
- do their homework (if a homework slip comes home that means I get to nag and harass them)
- keep their rooms clean enough that I can run the vacuum cleaner without sucking up anything important (or no one comes over to play until it’s done)
- keep the computer/play room straightened up (or it gets locked)
- put their shoes in the shoe basket (or risk them being chewed to pieces by the puppy)

We keep track of everyone’s mom bucks, chore assignments, and activities on a big white board that is updated each week. It also lists the running tally of mom bucks each child has earned. They can lose mom bucks for using the words – stupid, hate, dummy, or any other truly disrespectful word.

That’s our system. It has evolved over many years and seems to work for us. If you haven't done it already, develop your own list of expectations and clearly communicate them to your kids. It is a bit of a battle to get kids to accept responsibilities around the house, but it’s worth the effort. Their future spouse or roommate will thank you for it. Heck, your kids might even thank you for it. Take it from me – I’m mean, but I’m not stupid!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Carrotmobs and Greenish Companies

I made the mistake of wandering in to Wal-Mart on a weekend. I’m usually smarter than that, but the dog was completely out of food so I waded in with the masses. Not only was it a zoo because of all the Wal-Mart faithful, but apparently Wal-Mart is doing so well in these economically trying times that they are completely renovating our store. This must prove difficult considering the place is open 24 hours. Do you just shop from the moving skid loader as it rearranges?

Anyway, the dog food was not where the dog food is meant to be. After wandering in circles and being misled by the overhead signs that have yet to be changed, I located the dog food in the very back of the store on the very back wall. Wal-Mart’s new marketing plan worked really well on me. Now that I had been sucked in to the abyss, I couldn’t help but notice all the other goodies around me – things I just might need. I remembered we were out of aluminum foil and I could use some plastic bags for the six thousand pounds of lettuce I’m growing these days.

Conveniently the bags and wraps were located at the back of the store also. They must know that those of us that avoid Wal-Mart as a rule, still troop back there to buy pet food and plastics. Alongside of the traditional Reynolds wrap I found 100% recycled Reynolds wrap. What is this? Another major brand attempting the green thing? Sure enough the box boasted that the aluminum foil was made from 100% recycled aluminum, the box holding it was made from 100% recycled paperboard, and the inks used to paint the box were water based! Wow! Maybe the grinch does have a heart! I snatched up a box because I’m all about positive reinforcement. Works great with puppies and occasionally with children. The best part is that this aluminum foil wasn’t any more expensive than the foil I normally buy.

Next I went in search of plastic bags and lo and behold what did I find but Ziploc ‘evolve’. Noting that the price was somewhat higher than all the other plastic bags, I was still intrigued and pulled a box from the shelf. It claimed that the “ultra light bag was made with 25% less plastic” and that’s not all folks – it was made with wind energy! Not kidding. And of course the carton was made with 100% recycled paperboard. I guess all the big guns have figured out that sooner or later everyone is going to wise up to the importance of preserving this planet. We are having an impact. But you can bet that these companies are going green not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the profitable thing to do and quite possibly the only way to survive.

Time magazine had an article last week about Carrotmobs. A carrotmob is the opposite of a boycott. Again with the positive reinforcement. In a carrobmob, customers swarm stores that use some of their cash to get eco-friendlier. How it works is this, stores submit bids to the carrotmob organizer citing all the ways they will use the influx of cash generated by the carrobmob to make their store greener. There have been carrotmobs in 11 cities in the US, plus some in Finland and France. The carrobmobsters are organized to appear at the selected store on a specific date. Clever. Nothing motivates a retailer to go green like some extra green. To learn more about Carrotmobs check out www.carrotmob.org/faq.

All kidding aside, I do think it’s important to support any efforts to bring about change in the marketplace. Companies won’t become more environmentally responsible for altruistic reasons, but they will change their ways if it means additional profits. That’s where we come in. We must support companies that are making an effort, any effort, to change. Sure, most aluminum foil is made from mostly recycled aluminum already, but here’s a brand that is making it a central feature of their product, plus adding in other green features too. Good for them. Yes, they stand to gain financially. And that is good because the bottomline, like or not, always comes back to the almighty dollar. That fact won’t change, but what can change is how that dollar is earned. Ecologically responsible products and companies that are more energy efficient is a win-win for all of us. Pay attention to the products you are buying – you are much more powerful than you know.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Phenopropylparabenzolide-free Part Two

This is part two of my thoughts on organic body care products. It’s possible I’m ignoring some products that might be crucial to your well-being. I’m just trying to hit the high spots. If I skip a product near and dear to your heart, please feel free to let me know. I offer guest post spots real cheap.

One product that I have become a believer in is mineral salt deodorant. I use the Thai stone and it works really well. I’ve tried lots of other “natural” deodorants and, although my friends and family are too polite to tell me, they didn’t work. The Thai stone is made completely of natural mineral salts and is probably the best bargain in town when it comes to natural products. I’ve had my stone for over a year and you wouldn’t know I’d ever used it if I hadn’t dropped it on the counter and chipped off an edge. I think I will still be using this stone when I get dressed in the nursing home, as long as I can still put on my own deodorant. If you’re not familiar with the stone, here’s how it works – You run it under water and wipe it under your arm. The package says it words great for foot odor too, but I haven’t tried that. My feet don’t stink - my opinion (I told you my friends and family are much too polite to tell me if they do).

Commercial deodorants have come under fire through internet viral gossip. I’m sure you received the e-mail that went around some time ago about anti-perspirants causing breast cancer. While I think the e-mail was a hoax, one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some connection. Sweat is natural. Our bodies need to sweat to help cool our system. A product that prevents us from sweating could very possibly be messing up our system. Makes sense to me, but I’ve told you before I’m always open to a good conspiracy theory. So rather than take my chances, I choose to use a deodorant rather than an antiperspirant and an all natural one at that.

As far as body lotions and make up, here’s where my Mary Kay bias comes in to play. I have tried some of the natural products, but I always come back to Mary Kay because this is my face we’re talking about and I use what works. I have used Burt’s Bees Carrot Lotion and their Marshmallow eye gel. They worked pretty well and smelled great. As a Mary Kay Consultant, I can’t stop myself from saying the most important skin care product is a moisturizer. As we age our skin is drying out, like anything that’s been left out in the air a long time. We’re wrinkling in much the same way a grape becomes a raisin. So adding moisture back in is critical and as you age you need to do it more often and with more effective products. Find a moisturizer that works for you and use it twice a day if you don’t want to end up looking like a raisin in the sun.

When it comes to makeup, I’m not sure I can give impartial advice except to say, it’s OK to wear make up. I don’t think there’s any real danger here. I have noticed that many people who live the “natural and organic” life tend to shy away from make up. And that’s fine if it works for them. No one needs to wear makeup. But needs are relative. Just ask my kids. They feel they need to eat Cheezits and stop at Dairy Queen every time we drive by. I guess what I’m saying is that just because you’re in to the natural and organic thing does not mean you have to give up make up. If it makes you feel better about how you look, it will make you more confidant and happy and that’s what matters.

Whether you wear make up or not is a personal choice and what kind you wear is also a personal choice. But since most makeup really just sits on your skin and doesn’t necessarily get in to your body in large amounts, whether or not you go in for “natural” make up or not is personal choice. There are several brands out there that claim to be all natural, but none are truly “organic”. I believe in the Mary Kay brand because I know first hand how much research and development goes in to their product. They are not quick to jump on the latest and greatest trend. They take time to do the homework and be sure that their products are safe and effective. Cue the MK theme song. Sorry about the commercial, I told you I couldn’t be impartial on this one.

Many make up companies, including MK, are moving towards mineral based make up and this is good thing. Minerals are better for your skin and provide a minimal level of sun protection. No mineral make up provides true sun protection, so don’t buy that claim. You need a product with an SPF of at least 15 to get true sun protection.

Speaking of sun protection, here’s another fuzzy natural product area. I splurged last year and bought Aveeno sun block for my kids. It didn’t work. Everyone got burned. It smells great, costs a fortune, and doesn’t offer any protection after about 30 minutes and none in water. At least that was our experience. I don’t really trust Coppertone to be good for me or good for the planet, but it’s just about all I can afford considering how much I use on a daily basis for my three kids who are outside or at the pool all summer. My son who has alopecia has a bald head, so I need serious sun protection for him. I do use a Mary Kay sunscreen on Ian’s head because I know it works and I trust Mary Kay to use better, safer ingredients.

So I’m not really helping you at all, am I? But maybe I’m making a Mary Kay customer out of you. (kidding)

I had a naturalist doctor once tell me that coconut oil will make you look 10 years younger. He was big on coconut oil and I am too, for other reasons (I’ll have to post about that sometime). He told me if I used it on my skin all over every day, I’d see a real difference. Hmm…think about it. Coconut oil all over. It’s not any cheaper than face or body lotion (coconut oil is pricey). But the cost of replacing all the sheets, pillows, and clothing you ruin could make you go broke. Of course you could stand around naked for 30 minutes or so until the oil is completely absorbed, but who has time for this? And how would you explain it to your kids? Maybe someday I’ll try this, but not while the kids are still living at home. You try it though and let me know.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Phenopropylparabenzolide-free post Part I

I’ve put off writing about organic body products because I’m still not a fan of many. Several of you have requested that I write on this topic, so I’m going to muse about them in a couple of posts. But first, I have to make a few disclaimers.

Number one disclaimer: I am a Mary Kay Consultant. There, I said it. I’ve been one for over five years, but I’ve used the products for almost twenty years. I don’t drive a pink Cadillac and I’ve never even been to a meeting. I “haven’t drunk the kool-aid” as my husband likes to say, but I am a believer in their products. Going “organic” hasn’t changed that, but I’ll try to keep the commercials to a minimum.

My other disclaimer is that I really haven’t tried that many organic body products mostly because they cost so much. Like most of you, we live on a budget and my budget does not include $12 bottles of kids shampoos that the kids use by the handful or $18 bottles of skin lotion that wind up in science experiments involving the cat.

If you’re still game to read on, here it goes. If you think I’m a bit biased and uninformed, you’re probably correct and have every right to close this post right now. I’ll never know.

Basically, I believe in spending more money and effort on the products that are going in to my body, rather than on my body. And yes, I do think that a product you apply to your skin does get in to your body. I just don’t think it gets in at the same level. So basically I don’t stress the organic body products too much. Maybe I should. When my son was first diagnosed with Alopecia Areata (www.naaf.org for information) everything was suspect and I spent a small fortune on organic hair and body products. But over time, I realized it wasn’t some chemical in the shampoo I put on his head for all of 30 seconds two times a week that caused him to develop the disorder and my priorities shifted.

All of the information I gathered back then and all that I’ve read since then has left me mostly confused. There is so much that could be bad for us, but no one seems to have the answers as to which chemicals are truly dangerous and what exactly they do. I don’t have all those answers with organic food either, but with organic food I have seen a clear difference in our health. With body care products I only have someone’s word for it. One thing I know for sure is that if you want to scare yourself, go online. There is website upon website spouting off on all the serious dangers associated with just about any product you put on your body – shampoo, lotions, deodorant, toothpaste. You can scare yourself silly. I think like so much else in life, it’s best to keep it simple and use products that have a history or hold some level of your trust. Here’s my take on some basic products most of us use. I’m going to spread this out over a few posts so I don’t bore you to tears in one sitting.

When it comes to natural shampoos and conditioners, I’m lost on all the chemical names that are thrown around. Some are bad and some are really bad, and I can’t keep any of the names straight. This makes me, like many of us, a perfect target for a good marketing campaign. I think unless you have done the research (and if you have and would like to offer a guest post I’d love that), you would do well to buy from a company you know and trust. Choose one that’s been around and been in the business – Jason and Burt’s Bees come to mind. Choose a company that has strived to make an all natural, safe product from the get go, rather than one that has only recently jumped on the bandwagon to make a buck. Trader Joes has their own brand of very inexpensive hair products that work pretty well. I use them as my every day shampoo. I like the Refreshing Citrus shampoo and the Tea Tree Tingle conditioner, but there’s lots of options (with equally appealing names). I also buy a bottle of high end shampoo and conditioner to use for special occasions (my bottle lasts me for months so that tells you how many special occasions I have). I have very fine, thin hair that spends a good part of its life in a pony tail tucked under a ball cap, so I need some serious help when it comes to hair styling. I really like Jason’s Thin to Thick shampoos, conditioner and hair spray. They each cost about $10 a pop so it’s a splurge. My advice on natural hair products is buy from a brand you trust and spend more if you know it works (not just because the bottle says so).

Kids shampoos make us a little more nervous. After all, we’ve already been exposed to a lifetime of bad chemicals, they’re just getting started. I don’t make my kids wash their hair every day, just the days they need it. We over do it with skin care products in this country. No one needs to be that clean and sterile. It’s not healthy. Really. And if you’re worried about exposing your kid to toxic chemicals in the shampoos and soaps you use, it’s probably a good idea to expose them less often. Because I’m not a scientist or researcher and I don’t have any idea what’s really in shampoo, I opt for brands I trust and brands sold by the natural food store that I frequent. I’m trusting them to offer products that are mostly safe. Might be naïve, but I just don’t have time to lose my head over these things.

As far as soap goes, I don’t use it. Really. My family has incredibly dry, sensitive skin so soap only makes that problem worse. A good scrubbing with hot water and a washcloth is pretty much all we need. I do have a few very gentle, all natural soaps for stubborn dirt, but I’ve learned that a good, long, marinade in a warm tub of water with lots of toys to play with loosens just about any dirt my kids come home with. We never use antibacterial soap because it’s unnecessary and could very probably do more harm than good. The only bit of “antibacterial” soap we have in our house is in a bottle next to the gecko’s cage just in case someone decides to pick up the gecko. But that hasn’t happened in nearly a year since the gecko bit (and drew blood!) the finger of my youngest son who tends to love creatures to death.

So what about all the homemade versions of shampoo and body care products? There are some out there. Every now and again I get the bug to figure out how to make my own. And every time I figure out how to do it I decide it’s way too complicated and while it might save me money, it will cost me too much time and frustration. I’ll keep looking though, and I’ll let you know if I discover something that works.

Friday’s post will hit on some other products like lotions, deodorants, make up, and sun protection. I’m saving toothpaste for a post all its own. The fluoride controversy is much bigger than me.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Of Chickens and Children....

For the last two weeks or so I’ve been getting up at 5:10am everyday. Not by choice. I am an early riser, but that’s early even for me. The reason I’ve been getting up so early is that every morning at 5:10 our baby rooster starts crowing. He is not our only rooster, but the other roosters are shut up in the dark of the hen house until I deem it is truly “morning” and let them out. The baby rooster lives with the other new chicks in the chicken tractor which sits in clear view of my bedroom window. Now, if you’ve never lived on a farm you wouldn’t be aware that roosters don’t necessarily say “cock-a-doodle-doo” in that lovely sing-song-isn’t-it-quaint-to-be-on-a-farm way, especially when they’re just getting started. This particular rooster says basically, “ark-doooooooo” really, really loud starting at 5:10 and continuing at irregular intervals all day. Another myth is that roosters only crow at daybreak. In reality they crow each time they are startled by anything – the sun rising, a bird flying by, another chicken crowing, or a blade of grass shifting.

So each morning at 5:10 he says “ark-doooooooo” and wakes me. I curse and wake my husband (his sleep is rarely disturbed by crowing roosters or crying children, bless him). Then I explain all the things I’d like to do to that rooster – cook him for Sunday dinner, leave him out for the foxes, deposit him in an empty cart in the cart return at Walmart, make a little extra money by putting him in with the big roosters and taking bets on how long he’d last. My husband just tells me to go back to sleep, which I would do IF THE DAMN ROOSTER WOULD QUIT CROWING! I’ve called pretty much every chicken person I know who might take this rooster and found no takers.

So I’m sure at this point you’re not feeling sorry for me and you’re wondering why I got the rooster in the first place. I didn’t get the rooster. I got a cute little yellow chick that my daughter hatched at school for the embryology project. And of course this rooster has a name, Star. And of course, she won’t hear of us eating Star for supper.

I was beginning to live in the zone much like the one you live in when you first bring a baby home from the hospital and becoming more sleep deprived and irrational as the days wore on. And then yesterday I was at Camden Yards trying to take a nap on my husband’s shoulder while watching the Orioles lose miserably to the Detroit Tigers (I’m not sure why anyone pays money to watch either of these teams play), when a friend spotted me and stopped to talk. She asked why I was so tired, so I bored her with my rooster issue. When I finished, she said, “Why don’t you get some ear plugs?” Wow. How can anyone be so brilliant? And why had I not thought of this? Ear plugs! Here I was scheming on all the ways to kill this rooster without incurring the wrath of my daughter and it’s as simple as ear plugs!

So today I’m rested. I can see clearly and think a bit better too and I realized that there’s a great lesson here. A lesson I should have learned by now. You can’t change other people (or roosters) and while you could kill a rooster, society frowns upon killing other people, so your only option is to change how you react to them. Instead of killing this rooster, I can wear ear plugs. Much more peaceable solution.

I think the same lesson can be applied to children. As I look down the barrel of a long summer that starts this Thursday, I’m already cowering at the thought of unending days filled with my children whining and fighting. I can’t stop my children from whining or fighting any more than I could stop that rooster from crowing. So maybe the only thing I can do is change how I react to them. I know from experience that reasoning with them draws only blank stares and a pause before the next onslaught. Yelling gets me nowhere and only adds one more angry voice to the mix. I don’t know what I’m going to do differently, but I know that the answer won’t lie in changing their behavior, but in changing mine. Maybe I’ll sing show tunes at them or hum the same annoying tune my daughter hums when she’s trying not to hear one of her brothers. Maybe I’ll walk away. Or maybe I’ll just put in my new ear plugs.

Note: The winner of the Ecostore giveaway was Susan Robinson!!