Monday, December 28, 2009

My New Year's Wishes

These are my wishes for you (and me) in the coming New Year:

May you find time for all that calls to your heart.

May you discover new ways to care for your body and soul.

May you read something that changes you.

May you be compelled to offer more than just good intentions to your community, your world, and your family.

May you make time for quiet.

May you appreciate all that you have.

May you feel contentment.

May you know that you are loved.

May you do the best you can and be proud of it.

May you be able to hear “the other side”.

And may you be open to everything this world will offer you.

I wish you many blessings for the New Year. Thanks for reading. I am honored.

I’ll write again in 2010!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In Defense of Christmas Letters

I need to say something in defense of Christmas Letters. And it’s not just because I write one (actually ours is a New Year’s Letter because I just can’t get it together before Christmas, so I’ve stopped trying). Lately I’ve heard a lot of Christmas Letter bashing – it’s too impersonal, they’re boring, too long, no one really cares about all that stuff (ahem…and I really want to know what you had for breakfast this morning via Facebook?), or the top complaint – it’s just bragging. OK, if you can’t brag to your friends and family about how great your kids are – who can you brag to? I absolutely want to hear you brag about your kids – everyone should. Every kid needs to have people who brag about them! Is it worth telling us that your kid won third place in the 2nd heat of the Pinewood derby? Absolutely – I want to know! Should you tell us that your daughter was the little lamb in the school Christmas pageant? I can’t get enough of this and there better be pictures! And what about the pet’s latest antics? Yes, yes, yes, this is good stuff. It gives me a window in to your life.

People who criticize Christmas Letters just don’t have enough to complain about. Or they are jealous that someone else is taking the time to write at length about their own family. Face it; no one has time to write personal notes in all their Christmas cards. A Christmas Letter fills me in on what you’ve been up to all year. For too many of my long lost friends, this is all the information I will get until the next Christmas Letter, so I’ll take it and be grateful.

Some people are super creative and do things like Top Ten lists or poems about their year. Those are fun and quick to read. Some people send collages of pictures with comments - that’s always good for a laugh. I have one friend who each year sends a collection of the funniest (or most poignant) things her children have said that year. Some people just use bullet points, but that works too. It gets the information across.

The hard part for a lot of us is figuring out what person to write in. Third person? That seems like you have a narrator for your life. This works for some people, but makes the letter read a little like a news report. First person makes it seem awkward to fully brag about your own accomplishments. And then there are the people who switch first persons throughout the letter which turns it in to a bit of a mystery, which can be fun. Who’s writing now?

You can learn so much from the letters beyond just the mere facts presented. The style can be self-effacing and make you laugh or it can be stiff and formal and make you realize the writer is a little embarrassed to be telling you all this but really wants you to know. Sometimes information about particular family members is conspicuously left out and then you have to wonder….it someone having a fight? Doing drugs? Living on a friends’ couch? I’m telling you, I get a lot more out of these letters than the average bear.

If you need a selfish reason to write, here’s one. Do it for posterity. I’ve got annual letters that go back 20 years now. That’s a big chunk of my life history. Hopefully someday my descendents will want to read it. If only to gawk at how we lived, “back in the days when we couldn’t tele-transport and water was abundant and free”. There’s important history in these letters. Something lasting. If I ever sat down to write, “my story” there’s no way I would remember all the details of our life over the years. These letters are a clue. They celebrate the things that were important to us, the events that moved us, and the accomplishments we were proud of in any given year. I wish that my grandmothers had written letters for me to read. I would have loved to have known what their lives were really like. So if you can’t write for the rest of us, write for your future relatives. Just a thought.

I love Christmas Letters. I open the cards and make a stack of the letters to savor over a cup of tea when the house is quiet. After I read them I think about the people who sent them and the people they wrote about. Sometimes there is a picture to study which is a huge bonus. Reading these letters is a little sacred to me. For a few minutes my heart is connected to someone whose life has touched mine somewhere in this journey. There are lots of friends I haven’t seen in years but who made an imprint on my life and heart and so I want to hold on to the fragile thread that connects us. These letters help me do that – much more so than a beautiful card with professional greetings and a quick signature. I’m not complaining – if that’s all you have time for than I’m just grateful I’m still on your list. The card lets me know I made the cut.

But for those of you who wonder whether you should write the Christmas Letter and are afraid of being boring or sounding silly or being one of those people – I’m hear to tell you to write! Write the letter from your heart and brag all you want – there’s nothing wrong with bragging about people you love to people you love. Nothing. And there’s nothing wrong with photocopying your message to 100 of your closest friends and relatives. It’s a celebration that you have so many people in your life who matter that you have to resort to mass mailings. This is a good problem! So please write that letter. The people who love you want to know what’s happening in your life. They really do. Bring on the Christmas letters!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wrapping Christmas Without Paper

I love Christmas morning – pretty much everything about it. The kids faces, the Grandparents searching for coffee, the big WAIT, then the rush down the stairs. I love being overcome by my children’s happiness. I love the shouting and the guessing and the thank you hugs. I love the joy that registers on my daughter’s face when she realizes she really did get the gift I told her Santa would never bring and the undeniable awe that overcomes my youngest son when he eyes the tree knee deep in presents. I even love the christening of the annual new hermit crab (to replace last year’s – we have no luck with hermit crabs. Every other living thing seems to thrive here, but not crabs), the six thousand step instruction manual for the newest Lego creation, and my oldest with his nose in his new book. It’s all wonderful. Except the paper. It always bothers me that we end up drowning in paper that was beautiful for a moment and is now trash. And I never know what we should do with it. If I was a different woman I might save it and iron it and use it again. But I really can’t imagine doing that and besides, I don’t iron. So we wad it up and use it to start fires and I worry about all that ink and what-not being released in to the air we breathe. Or we send it to the recycling and I wonder if the people at the dump throw it out anyway since they don’t like paper that is colorful and glossy. I know I’m odd, but it truly bothers me, all this paper.

This year will be different! It’s the year of the different Christmas (just ask my kids who are very worried about what Santa might not bring this year). This year I’m not using wrapping paper. However after surveying the options, not wrapping wasn’t one of them. I realize it’s very environmentally friendly and probably true to the real spirit of Santa to leave the presents bare, but I need the wrapping. I would miss all the anticipation, which is possibly the best thing about a Christmas present. So this year I’m wrapping our presents in fabric. I’ve seen this idea in several magazines but I’d always assumed it took someone who knew her way around a fabric store, could operate a sewing machine, and speak the lingo (“no, just 2 yards will be plenty from that bolt”). I can now say that you truly don’t have to be a whiz in home ec to handle wrapping your presents in fabric.

About two weeks ago, I set off for the fabric store with my daughter in tow (needed to have buy-in from the kids on this project). We picked out lots of beautiful Christmas fabrics that were on sale for ½ price and bought 2 yards of six different fabrics and a pair of pinking shears (love the name). Then we headed to the craft store where ribbon had been advertised 50% off. We picked out several spools of a different color ribbon for each family member. In lieu of tags we will tie the appropriate ribbon on each package.

Once home I chose a gift to wrap and carefully cut out enough fabric to cover the present just like I would if it was paper wrap. I used the pinking shears to make pretty edges on all four sides. Then I wrapped up the package like I wrap it with paper, only I was using fabric which was soft and didn’t tear or wrinkle. I folded the ends over and secured them with a tiny bit of masking tape. Then I looped a ribbon over the present hiding the masking tape and holding the wrap job on securely. It looked awesome! I have never been very good at wrapping presents neatly with paper. There always seem to be crinkles and gaps. I was a whiz with the fabric. I still can’t believe how gorgeous our presents look! And the best part is that on Christmas morning we can simply fold up the material and ribbons and save them until next year. This system will not only be better for the environment and my mental state, but it will make wrapping a snap. Grab a present, grab a suitable already cut piece of material, wrap, tie on appropriate color ribbon – done! No rolls of paper, ribbons that cost a fortune, or frustration.

For the smaller things, I sewed little bags to hold them. Now, before you stop reading, I must tell you that I don’t sew either so if I could do this, you can too. I can barely operate the machine and almost had a tantrum worthy of my daughter when I ran out of bobbin thread and had to figure out what to do. But I did it and in reality, it was super simple. The only thing you have to be able to do is sew a fairly straight line. I suppose you could even do it by hand, if you were so inclined.

Here’s what you do – cut out a piece of material about twice the size of what you want the bag to ultimately be. Fold it over with the back side of the material on the outside and sew along both sides, leaving the top open. When you are finished, trim off the excess thread, and flip the bag inside out. Instant gift bag! You can slip in the tiny presents and tie the bag closed with a ribbon. I made assorted sizes to hold gift cards or a small book.

My cousin shared her Santa bag idea with me. She sews a giant bag just like my little ones for each child. It is their “Santa bag”. They leave the empty bag and a note for Santa with their cookies on Christmas Eve and Santa fills the bag with their special present. I’m off too look for special Santa Bag material tomorrow.

Another idea for wrapping with fabric is to just place the gift in the center of the material and gather each end and tie with a ribbon – sort of like a candy wrapper. It looks cute too and is even simpler than actually wrapping. My kids, being partial to all things candy, will most likely employ this method.

I was so inspired by the success of this venture that I checked out the remnant bin at the fabric store and picked up some material that looked appropriate for birthday gifts. I’m finished with wrapping paper. I’ll miss the long empty tubes that make such great swords, but not the expense or the waste.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Danger: Christmas Expectations

Plans, expectations, and schedules are definitely not things to stake your happiness on, especially if your happiness involves children. Or animals. At Christmas time. Christmas is chock full of expectations. And not just for the kids. We all remember idyllic Christmas experiences. Of course, we were kids then, so we probably don’t remember the huge fight we had with our little brother or the amazing mess we made of the kitchen – just the delicious cookies creaking under the weight of all those cinnamon red hots and silver bullets. We don’t remember the car getting stuck in the mud at the tree lot and mom ruining her favorite shoes, just the long search for the perfect tree, the complimentary hot chocolate, and the excitement of driving home with a tree strapped to the roof.

I’ve gotten better at curbing my expectations. My children have forced me to. Still, now and again, I can succumb. This past weekend was mapped out in my mind as the All-Christmas weekend. Friday night we would do a little Christmas baking and work on our shopping lists before settling down in front of the TV with popcorn to watch our much anticipated family movie – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (my oldest is a big fan of the books, as are his mom and dad). We would wake up early Saturday morning to attend the Santa Breakfast at school and get pictures with Santa. We’d do a little Christmas shopping, before heading out to get our tree that afternoon. Then we’d spend the rest of the day decorating and listening to Christmas carols. Sunday was church, an interruption of the Christmas festivities for the first indoor soccer game of the season, and then we were having dear friends for a Christmas dinner. Throw in a little wrapping and finishing touches on some homemade Christmas gifts and it was truly to be the uber Christmas weekend. The best laid plans.

Things began to go awry late in the afternoon, as I puttered in the kitchen singing along to Jimmy Buffet’s Christmas Island. My youngest child, who is normally my happiest child, wasn’t happy. Pretty much anything set him off. If I hadn’t been so caught up in my fantasy Christmas weekend, I might have picked up on the fact that there was more to his discontent than a long week at school and a much anticipated visit with Santa. But before I could even go there, I was interrupted by a chicken crisis. Seems the wind had blown the chicken pen gate shut during the day. Now it was growing dark and the most of the chicken’s hadn’t been able to get in to the pen to sleep in their hen house. Only six had been able to fly successfully over the fence and find their perches. Shining the flashlight on their annoyed faces as my daughter’s fear ramped up, I had a premonition that this weekend of holiday cheer was not to be.

We spent an hour looking for the lost hens and found three. I stacked up hay bales to climb up and retrieve one from a rafter in the barn. (How is it she could get up there, but couldn’t scale our four foot wire fence that sags in spots from the cat’s antics?). One was huddled behind the feed bins and one was roosting on the lawnmower. That left six still missing. We took a break from our searching to eat a quick dinner. So much for the amazing dinner I had created to launch our wonderful weekend – a decadent cream of crab soup and handmade French bread. There was no time to linger over a glass of wine and rub out tummies. There were hens in danger of freezing or being eaten by a fox.

As the temperatures dropped rapidly (the forecast was for 16 degrees over night!), we expanded our search. This turned up two more hens roosting on our tomato frames that were stacked against the bike shed, clearly in enemy dog territory. If the chickens were in the dogs’ area, they were obviously disoriented and panicked (and lucky to be alive!). One more chicken was discovered huddled underneath some bikes in the shed. That left three chickens out for the night. Once it gets dark, chickens hunker down. They don’t squawk or cluck or make noises of any kind. Two of the chickens still missing were Bard Rocks which are a dark color with little specks of white. So we were essentially looking for a small, silent dark blob in the dark. We finally gave up and decided we would pray that the hens would make it through the night. By the time we reached this decision, it was nearly bedtime for 2 out of 3 kids, so we nixed the much anticipated movie night and played a quick game of scoreless scrabble instead.

Saturday morning began before daylight when my youngest child woke with a migraine – begging for his eye cover and throwing up with every movement. He gets these migraines periodically and they pretty much level him. But today? On this weekend? So much for Santa and his breakfast.

I went out to see what had become of our three lost hens. There was no movement anywhere until I let out the rooster. He began crowing and yelling and strutting all over. He was definitely aware that some of his harem was lost. I didn’t think there was much hope, but then a squawk arose from a pine tree at the bottom of our property, far, far away from the chicken pens and the barn. Soon a very frightened hen was frantically darting for cover from bush to bush making her way back to her man. Another hen turned up later in the morning, unannounced silently sneaking back from her night out. But the third one was gone. Of course it was Thing 2. Thing 2 was our parade chicken, a great layer, and a beautiful Rhode Island Red hen. Why couldn’t it have been a bard rock? I made the mistake of thinking this out loud and my daughter chastised me with a horrified look.

After the chicken recovery, my daughter and I headed over to the school where she ate her fill of pancakes and I volunteered with the school book sale. Thinking we could still salvage something of the weekend, we went home to access the damage. I mentally laid out hopes of Christmas shopping and wrapping and convincing my husband to hang up colored lights outside. A friend stopped by to bring my son’s soccer shirt for the game the next day and as she was leaving her child noticed that one of our chickens was bleeding badly.

It took three of us a good deal of time to catch the bleeding chicken, which led me to believe the wound wasn’t mortal, despite the blood. We brought her inside and washed her up in the mudroom sink. She wasn’t thrilled at this adventure, but she allowed it. The wound was pretty huge. One entire side looked just like the chicken you see in the grocer’s meat case. On my daughter’s instruction, I slathered it in Neosporin and used a blow dryer to dry her off as best I could. As I sat cradling the wounded chicken, blood covering my jacket, holding a blow-dryer to her feathers, I wondered if anyone else’s weekend was going like this. This was not the Christmas weekend I had planned. I shook my head at my life, but I smiled because despite the blood and the chicken and the wrecked weekend, we have a good life.

We put the hen in a crate inside to keep her warm and see if the bleeding would stop. We couldn’t let her out with the rest of the hens if she was still bleeding profusely. Maybe you aren’t aware that chickens are savage beasts? If one is bleeding or injured, many times the others will peck it to death. Seems there is no compassion in the chicken world. Of course, the injured hen was my last remaining Rhode Island Red. Of course it was.

By the time the chicken was tended and the child with the migraine feeling better, there were two extra kids at my house and it was too late for chopping down a Christmas tree. In keeping with the Christmas Spirit, the kids decided to create a haunted house in the basement. Huh? That’s what I said as I listened to them make the mess downstairs, shrieking and laughing. I guess the blood was inspiring. So much for our Christmas weekend. Luckily that night I escaped for a Christmas party with my book club (no children, no hubbies, and definitely no bleeding chickens, just lots of cranberry-infused vodka and good company).

Sunday wasn’t much better as far as the Christmas celebrations. We didn’t make it to church because our hilly driveway was a sheet of ice (much like a luge course) and our friends didn’t make it down for dinner because the weather was worse up north. We did squeeze in the soccer game midday. After that, my husband retired to the couch and the football games and I retreated to my workspace and fought with my sewing machine (I don’t sew- this was for a new project you’ll hear about in an upcoming post).

So much for Christmas expectations. We still don’t have a tree. We’ll have to mail our letters to Santa. There are no twinkling lights in the trees around my house. There are two presents wrapped, and still no cookies baked. But the chicken survived. What more could I want?

I realize this post isn’t offering you any new information on Kid Friendly Organic Life, but I hope it is offering you a warning. Beware of Christmas expectations. They are not what Christmas is all about. In the end, my kids had a really fun weekend (minus the migraine). They got to play with friends, have an exciting chicken adventure with flashlights and danger and mom & dad, created a haunted house that was good for many laughs, and my daughter even learned to make an apple pie for the company that never came. It was a good weekend. It just wasn’t what I expected. And maybe that’s fine. I have to keep learning this lesson. When it comes to kids (and animals), it’s best to let go of the expectations and be grateful for what comes your way.

Like this morning when my 7-year-old came racing in to the kitchen chasing after the puppy as he shouted, “You can’t eat Baby Jesus!” at the top of his lungs. Seems the puppy was taste-testing characters out of our crèche scene and Baby Jesus was the tastiest. We rescued Jesus and laughed until we cried as the puppy came trotting back in to the kitchen dragging the entire barn backdrop and trailing a few wisemen! Nothing is sacred in our house. Except maybe a good laugh.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Running makes me smarter!

Running keeps me sane. It makes me a better mother. It makes me a reasonable wife. It keeps me from going nuts and gives me time to let my mind loose. It makes it possible for me to eat chocolate on a regular basis without becoming the size of a small ocean liner. Mostly, it makes me happy. But today I learned running does a whole lot of other things for me.

Did you know that exercise not only reduces your risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, but it can actually create new brain cells? Me neither. I’m all for adding brain cells. Charles Hillman, director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, “Aerobic exercise increases the supply of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which protects brain neurons and promotes the growth of new nerve cells and synapses that are related to learning and memory.” Which in English means exercise makes your brain work better. And this was true for all the studies – regardless of age. The protein BDNF is active in the area of the brain related to relational memory – the ability to make logical connections among pieces of information.

The Illinois researchers also found that aerobic exercise improves executive function (the ability to plan and make decisions, correct mistakes and react to new situations). All I know is after a long run, I can think clearly. I thought it was just me, but turns out exercise makes everyone’s brain think better.

All of this is well and good for those of us who appreciate improved executive function and relational memory, but what about our kids? The best way to teach kids to do anything is to model it for them because we all know our children are much more likely to do what we do, than what we say (no matter how many times we say it). If you aren’t already a regular at the gym, then it’s time to get off the couch. If not for you, and your improved brain function, than for your kids.

I read all of this useful information in a promotional booklet from Nutrition Action Newsletter (published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest) which arrived in the mail today. My new subscription is a gift from my mother-in-law (Thanks Margot!).

Here’s another interesting tidbit I read – Sitting can kill you. Peter Katzmarzyk, an epidemiologist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisana, says, “People who sit for the majority of their day have much higher mortality rates than people who don’t, even if they’re physically active during another part of the day.” Ouch. The article goes on to site several studies illustrating his point, including a representative sample of 17,000 Canadian adults who were followed over a 12 year period. 20% of those who said they sat “almost all the time” died. Bad luck? Probably not. Compare those numbers to the people who said they sat “approximately half the time” – only 12 % of them died in the same period. And of the people who said they sat, “almost none of the time”, only 6% died. I’m sure this is a toughie for people who are paid to sit at a desk. The article had a few suggestions like getting up and standing as you work, taking frequent breaks to stretch and walk, and even mentioned “treadmill desks” which sound like modern torture devices. But I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.

If growing new brain cells and not dying aren’t enough motivation for you, here’s some more:

Active people are 15-25% less likely to be diagnosed with depression than inactive people. In people with depression, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise improves symptoms.

Forty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise three to five times a week lowers systolic blood pressure by 2 to 5 points. That may not sound like much, but it would save an estimated 11,800 to 27,600 lives a year.

If you have arthritis, moderate intensity, low-impact exercise for 30-60 minutes three to five times a week can reduce pain and disability. Both aerobic and muscle strengthening help.

Older adults who are physically active have about a 30% lower risk of falls.

Weight-bearing aerobic and strength-training exercise three to five days a week can increase – or slow the decrease in- the density of spine and hip bones. In one study, women who walked at least four hours a week were 40% less likely to break a hip than those who walked less than an hour a week.

Aerobic exercise lowers the risk of stroke.

Aerobic exercise cuts the risk of heart attack by 20-35% in most studies.

Moderately active people have a 30-40% lower risk of type 2 diabetes than inactive people.

Exercise can curb your risk of cancer. It can directly lower your risk by keeping off excess weight, or it can work directly on cancer risk (particularly colon and breast cancers).

(taken from the article, “Seven Facts You May Not Know About Exercise” by David Schardt)

This is where the sneaker rubber needs to hit the road (or the treadmill or the gym). It’s not really optional – you need to exercise. And your kids need to exercise. This is not something to put off until you have more free time. Find a way now. This is so much cheaper than medical bills and so much less painful than heart attacks, cancer, and premature death. If you don’t teach your kids the importance of exercise, they may never know. This is a total win-win. When you exercise, you feel better mentally and physically and you model a behavior that could save your child’s life. Plus it makes you smarter – and who doesn’t need a few more brain cells?

Here’s a few ideas to get your kids moving:
• Enter a 5K. I know for a fact that even very young kids can run (or walk) a 5K. I get beaten in races by runners half my height on a regular basis. Pick a cause you care about. Bring along the family dog. If running the entire time is too daunting, make a plan. You can run at the start and finish and walk in between (everyone will think you ran the whole way!) or choose a pattern like running a minute and then walking a minute. I have a running watch that times intervals. On days when I just don’t have the energy, it helps me by sounding an alarm that reminds me to walk (one minute) and then run (4 minutes). I’ve discovered that this doesn’t really even mess up my time and when I run intervals I can run much farther.

• Go for a hike. Invite some friends. Make it a scavenger hunt. Give your kids a list of things to find. Or make it a family goal to hike all the parks in your area. Or all the parks in the country. Geocaching is another great way to get your family moving (check out www.geocaching.com for information on this fun treasure hunting hobby).

• Walk the dog. Don’t have one? This is a great excuse to get one. They need walking several times a day. Having a dog forces you to get out and exercise.

• Join a team – swim team, soccer, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, anything that requires you move. I aim for allowing my kids two extracurricular activities each season – one that gets their body moving and one that gets their mind moving.

• Ride bikes. Ride skateboards or scooters. Jump rope. Rollerblade.

• Take a spin in a skating rink. I remember as a kid, this was a regular event in my social life. These days they are a little harder to find, but they’re out there.

• Play games – capture the flag, kick the can, hide & seek, kickball, wiffleball, ultimate frisbee. Play with your kids – you’ll surprise them and you’ll laugh yourself silly.

• Do an exercise video together.

• Create a weightlifting center in your basement. You don’t need anything fancy, just a clear space and a few weights to start. A bench and a mat help too. Take a personal training session together with your kids and learn how to do exercises safely.

• Set a goal – a number of miles, a number of hours, whatever and focus on it. Plan a celebration when you’re finished.

• Try something new – martial arts, gymnastics, dance, fencing. Isn’t there some sport you’ve always wished you could do? Who’s stopping you? Ask your kids to join you.

• If you’ve got the cash, buy a treadmill, stationery bike, elliptical, or some other such device. When it’s too cold, wet, or early, I run on my treadmill. I’ve got a TV set up in front of it hooked up to a DVD player. I keep a steady stock of netflix DVD’s of TV shows - mindless brain-candy that keeps me distracted from the fact the basement is a mess, the kids are about to get up, and the cat box needs to be changed. Most shows are 40 minutes long – perfect to get in 4 miles.

The bottom line is you have to make a conscious decision to exercise. It won’t ever be convenient. Or easy. Some days it really is hard to do. But you need to do it every day. I mean that. A couple times a week is not enough. Our bodies were designed for real physical exercise every day and now that we aren’t out slaving in the fields or hunting down our supper, we have to find new ways to move them. Pick what works for you, but pick something. Your life just might depend on it. Not to mention your IQ.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Next Martha?

I know this seems a little Martha Stewarty, and I really wasn’t going to post about it, but…I am. It started with a rant. Over the course of a day, the children in my house can go through upwards of 15 glasses. These glasses stuff the top of the dishwasher rack and are crammed in between the dinner plates and cereal bowls on the bottom rack. And most nights there’s a neat little line of them next to the sink - all the ones that didn’t fit in the dishwasher or were discovered too late next to the computer, bed, bathroom sink, or playset. This began to bother me. See, I only have three children, albeit there are many days when 5 or 6 roam our hillside. But still, in my mind that’s six glasses max. So I ranted. Why do you need a new glass EVERY TIME you get a drink of water? Why can’t you leave your glass at your seat at the table and use it AGAIN? If you’re going to get something besides water, can’t you RINSE IT OUT and use the same glass? Do you THINK THIS IS A RESTAURANT??? JUST WHO DO YOU IMAGINE WASHES ALL THESE GLASSES – THE HOUSE ELF? I know, psycho mom. But it’s not just about my issues, it’s about the environment, good stewardship, laziness, water rings on every table in my house, and so much more.

OK, maybe it is a little about my issues. I use the same glass all day long. I’ve mentioned before that I have dishware issues. My glass is a green stemware goblet that I am certain makes water (or any cold beverage) taste better. The people in my house have been trained not to put my glass in the dishwasher until I say so. I use the same glass all day long. Early in our cohabitation, my sweet husband was unfairly criticized time and again when he, in the interests of helping out, put my glass in the dishwasher only to have me screech, “Where’s my glass?” at 10 o’clock that night. Poor man, he’s had to learn to humor his sick wife. Anyway, my issues aside, the children do not need to dirty thirty glasses a day. They do not.

But when questioned about this issue during one of my crazy-lady rants, one child sheepishly explained, “I don’t remember which one is mine.” It was that simple. Nevermind that these children share germs on so many levels, the idea of drinking out of a glass that their sibling touched was enough to risk their mother’s wrath.

As Thanksgiving approached and I considered the nine children who would be dwelling here for a few days, I needed a solution. I also needed more glasses. So I set off for Goodwill. Mid-way through my evaluation of the many varied glassware options, I came upon a full set of small goblets. They were smoke colored and looked like “grown up” glassware. And they had a stem! The solution came to me just like that. I could make “wine glass markers” for the kids! I trucked my new set of 11 goblets home for just $5.

That night, the kids and I made the markers. They were very simple to make. We used bendable wire and colorful glass seed beads. I have a very part-time beaded jewelry business with a friend, so these supplies were readily available to me. You can find them at any craft store. We added charms for fun, but you could also just use different colors and patterns of beads and forget the charms. The wire and seed beads are very inexpensive. The other thing you’ll need is a pair of pliers and something to cut the wire. Here’s what you do –

1. Cut a piece of wire about five inches long. Place one bead on the wire and bend that end back on itself about ½ inch and twist it (like a bread bag twist). The bead will be trapped in the loop you created. Use the pliers to squash the end of the wire back on itself so there isn’t a sharp edge sticking out.
2. Have your children string on a pattern of beads on to the wire. If you are going to use a charm, string that on last.
3. Once you have about four inches of beads (it can be more or less – that’s no big deal, just personal preference), bend the wire back around itself, leaving the charm in the loop you create so it can dangle (or you can leave a bead in the loop, like on the other end).
4. Holding the loop and charm with one hand, twist the wire back around itself (like closing a bread bag) several times.
5. Cut the excess wire and use the pliers to squash the end back against the wire twist so that there isn’t a share end sticking out.

My kids chose their favorite charm and designed their color pattern to make their own personal marker. We made nine total water glass markers so that all of the cousins and friends who visit can have their own. They had a great time making them. I did the twisting and refereeing. Simple! And the kids love these beauties, so they’re motivated to use them. They proudly explain the concept to all our visitors, helping them choose a perfect marker for their glasses. Now whenever the kids get out their glass, they also choose a marker and twist it around the stem of their glass. We’ve since discovered when using identical hot chocolate mugs, you can twist the markers around the handle and prevent your sibling from inadvertently (or not) violating your mug.

An added bonus is that when an errant glass is discovered on the desk “RIGHT NEXT TO MY LAPTOP!!” I know who the criminal is.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this isn’t a safe project for very young children who still like to put anything that doesn’t move in to their mouths.

So, it is a little Martha Stewarty, but it works. And you can easily come up with a simpler marker – like using pipecleaners or real wine markers. The idea sprang from the wine sitcks my partner and I sell for “Busy Mamas Beading”, but feel free to claim it as your own. Or maybe you don’t mind washing thirty kid glasses every day. Your call.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Stuff-less Holidays

Here come the holidays. Did they surprise you too? It’s time to eat too much, spend too much, and worry too much. Time to bathe our guilt in gifts. Heaven forbid we were to leave anyone out. Every year I say that this year will be different and every year I spend Christmas day hung-over from the exhaustion of the preparations. Each year I say we will cut back. We don’t need to give so many gifts, yet each year the kids are so inundated with gifts they can’t remember who gave them what. So, I’m saying here and now – this year is truly going to be different. I’m not going to say it will be completely different, but I’m shooting for a few real changes.

I started with the Christmas lists which began weeks ago. My youngest pours over every catalog that comes in the mail, even the gardening catalogs, with his sharpie marker poised. As he circles item after item, I gently remind him, “only five things.” That’s what we’ve decided. Their list can be only five things long. I want them to think of the five things they want the most, more than anything else. There’s just too much potential for disappointment and guilt in a list that fills all 26 lines on a sheet of notebook paper. So we’re sticking to the five most wanted. Still, it is fun to wish your way through a catalog.

When the other Santas in my children’s lives began calling, I encouraged them to think small. I’d like my kids to get experiences rather than “stuff”. Magazine subscriptions to really good magazines are a great idea. Then the present renews itself each month. Check out www.cricketmag.com for some great kids’ magazines that are educational, cool, and advertising free. My kids love the magazines Odyssey, Ask, and Muse. My daughter loves the magazine New Moon. It has nothing to do with a certain vampire phenomenon, but is a magazine designed to empower and encourage girls ages pre-tween to early teens. It’s full of great stories that inspire girls to be all they can be and no advertisements.

The other gifts I’m dreaming up for my kids include experiences. Don’t tell my daughter, but her Nana is giving her a gift certificate for a manicure/pedicure and a home nail care kit. She will love this experience and the home nail care kit will be used for years to come. We’re trying to work out tickets to a really good museum like the Franklin Institute (Philadelphia) for my oldest. More ideas include tickets to the theater or movies or a professional soccer game, passes to the Ice Arena, art lessons, or a gift certificate for bowling.

What I don’t want is big, plastic stuff that will be forgotten the week after Christmas. We have more things than we know what to do with in this house, as evidenced by the constant condition of my living room. We don’t need any more things, but if things are needed, I’m encouraging them to include music, art supplies, and books on their lists.

I’m applying this same policy to my gift giving outside our family. All year long I’ve been saving the books I read. (I read a lot of books) I’m going to look in my stacks and select the books I think people on my list would enjoy and then wrap them up with a ribbon. Then I’ll select a charity that I think they would appreciate and make a donation in their name. The card on the books will explain that I think they are the kind of people who would appreciate used books and charitable contributions instead of more “stuff”. (Sorry to any of you who are reading this and will not be so surprised on Christmas morning!).

Another great idea for a gift is Heifer Project International ( www.heifer.org ). Heifer Project is a non-profit organization that gives live animals to families in impoverished areas around the world. The only stipulation is that the family must give the first born offspring to another family in their community. Heifer distributes cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and bees to name a few. There is a range of prices. A flock of chickens costs significantly less than a cow. We are going to give some chickens in a friend’s name and then bake sugar cookies in the shape of eggs (we couldn’t find a chicken cookie cutter) to accompany the card explaining the contribution and Heifer Project International. If we don’t have time to make cookies, we’ll look for something suitable at the candy stand at our farm market (they have every candy known to humankind, they must have a chicken!). When I was a teenager I volunteered on the Heifer Project Ranch in Arkansas. I saw first hand how much this organization does to empower people to help themselves and their communities.

Over the last few years I’ve been creating a cookbook for two dear friends. I gave them the binder with the first installment of recipes several years ago. The recipes were ones my family had discovered that year, complete with notes on what makes the recipe special and cooking tips we learned the hard way. Each year I give them new pages containing our latest culinary masterpieces for their recipe books. They love the personalized recipe selection.

Another simple present we make is bookmarks for the grandparents (who are all avid readers). I simply cut out a piece of cardstock and the kids help me select pictures of themselves to attach and then they add drawings and notes to the card. Next we laminate the bookmark with laminating sheets we bought at the office supply store, punch a hole through the top and tie on a ribbon. They are beautiful and the grands love having pictures of their grandkids handy to share with the people who sit next to them in doctor’s offices and on airplanes.

My most time consuming project is making calendars for the grandparents. I buy a blank calendar, add pictures and quotes to each month; then write in all the important dates and information (like just how old grandson number #2 is going to be this year or how many years my brother & sister in law have been married). They look forward to these masterpieces each year and even though it’s a lot of work, I relish the chance to look back over our year and remember what makes us a family.

This holiday I challenge you to get creative. Give a gift that is more lasting and meaningful than the latest toy/gift/gadget featured in the Sunday circulars. Feel free to copy my ideas, but I bet you have some great ones of your own. I’d invite you to post them here if you’re feeling generous. Remember copying is the sincerest form of flattery.

Christmas will mean more if you put less stuff and more of you in it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Of Garlic and Other Winter Wonders

The garden is finished, or is it? Even in winter things can grow. In some ways it feels really good to put the garden to bed, covered with its blanket of leaves. Finally the work is done. Well, most of the work. The raspberries are covered in pine mulch. The big veggie garden is glowing with a new crop of winter rye – emerald green against the deadening brown surrounding it. The newest gardens are happily cooking their lasagna layers dreaming of spring.

But there is one garden that I am still busy with – the winter garden. This is where I plant my parsley, because some winters it makes it all the way through. My rosemary and thyme are there also because they have been known to stay green despite the cold. This little garden is tucked up near the house, hiding the lid to the septic tank. I always think of Erma Bombeck and involuntarily recite, “the grass is always greener over the septic tank” when I set to work in it. I do think the septic tank keeps the ground here warmer.

Originally I planted the garden as a flower garden to hide the septic tank lid, with a big whiskey barrel of zinnias placed on the lid itself. But flowers die and leave the septic lid and whiskey barrel exposed all winter looking ugly and obvious. So now it contains rosemary, thyme, and oregano spilling over the lid and a box of parsley that flourishes bright green for at least three seasons and on good years – four. The rest of the garden is devoted to the garlic, onions, and shallots – my winter crops.

Now is the time to plant if you’d like to grow your own fresh garlic! If you plant it now, it will be ready by early June. Garlic is easy to grow – just as simple as planting bulbs. All you need is a head of garlic. I like to experiment with heirloom varieties, but you can use any old head, even the one beginning to sprout in your cupboard right now. All you do is break off each clove and plant it pointy side up. You’ll want to plant it as deep as it is big, or a little deeper. I tend to err on the side of too deep when planting in the fall just in case the winter is worse than imagined. The garlic will be one of the first green things poking its leaves up through the ground as soon as spring hits. When the leaves begin to brown and fall over, it’s ready to harvest. Pull the garlic up, shake off the dirt (don’t wash it) and hang or braid it to dry. Fresh, home grown garlic is much stronger than the stuff you get at the store – you’ve been warned. I love garlic, can’t get enough of it, so the strength of homegrown garlic suits me just fine.

You can also plant shallots and spring onions now. Follow the same procedure as the garlic. The onions should be ready in time for Easter. As long at their leaves are green you can leave them be and let them get bigger. I pull them as I need them.

If you’re a smart and thrifty shopper, you’ll be checking the bargain bins right about now for the leftover bulbs. It’s not too late to plant flowering bulbs. I hate paying full price for bulbs – they’re only flowers after all. Plus, I don’t enjoy the tedium of planting bulbs. My kids quickly lose interest when they discover how difficult it is to plant anything in south central PA. We have incredibly hard and rocky soil around here and planting big bulbs was always a chore – until now! I splurged on the coolest gadget. Even my hubby, the tool guy, was impressed. It’s essentially a giant drill bit. Nick hooked it up to an 18 volt cordless DeWalt drill and I was powered to drill to China. It made quick work of the bulb planting task. My friend Lisa was here the first time I used it and the two of us were truly wowed. It doesn’t take much to impress women who love dirt. I planted 8 tulip bulbs in less than a minute. And I looked really cool doing it. Lisa took pictures. The noise and excitement attracted my youngest son and his buddy, eyes wide and adrenaline ready. They were eager to try it out, but after nearly breaking my own wrist, I think it’s a bit too powerful for a seven-year-old. The two of them are always looking for trouble, so I’m keeping my bulb planting drill hidden deep in the shop. Get one for yourself – you’ll be newly inspired to plant! I used it to break up the soil before transplanting some perennials this weekend and it worked great. I’m sure I’ll dream up plenty of reasons to justify the $21 price tag.

Plant a few more bulbs and a handful of garlic, and then put your garden to bed. Rest up. It’ll be time to start the seeds before you know it. The seed catalogs start arriving the day after Christmas. Nothing I love better than curling up on the couch near the woodstove pondering the possibilities of spring.