Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oldies But Goodies

So it’s time to buy your seeds! Nevermind that it’s 20 degrees outside and gray and miserable and the ground is solid as a rock. It’s time to dream of spring! If your house is like mine, seed catalogs have been pouring in since just after Thanksgiving. (actually this year that’s not happening because I’ve canceled almost all my catalogs except the one I actually order from). Have you spent any time reading the descriptions? “Incredible flavor, tender, brilliant color, delectable, a must-have for the home garden!” Each vegetable sounds better than the last. It’s hard to resist and very easy to get carried away. Growing your own vegetables should save you money unless you succumb to the marketing department’s copy writers and buy every seed available.

If you’re ready to start your garden (even if it’s just a pot or a window box this year), think about what you really, really, really want to grow. What costs you the most at the market? What can never taste as good as home grown? Prioritize your space by these questions. I stopped growing broccoli last year because it took up so much space and I found a local grower whose broccoli was just as good as mine and not crazy expensive. I gave that extra space to two new types of tomatoes. If you love tomatoes you must grow tomatoes. No store-bought or even roadside stand-bought tomato tastes as good as the one you can grow in your own yard. So think about the space you have and what you most love to eat fresh. Start there. This is a great opportunity to get your kids involved. Maybe if they read the descriptions they’ll just have to try a “vibrant richly flavored, bright purple delight” disguised as a radish.

So it’s time to buy your seeds. This is where I make my case for choosing heirloom seeds. I have my reasons for choosing heirloom, but I thought I’d find out what the oldest heirloom seedhouse in US says is the reason to buy heirlooms. Luckily, calling the oldest heirloom seedhouse in the US is a local call for me. Landreth Seed Company is located in New Freedom, Pennsylvania. David Landreth started selling seeds in Pennsylvania in 1784. So I think they could be considered the foremost experts in heirloom seeds and lucky for me they’re just up the road. I didn’t want to give myself away as one of the faithful, so I called the company on the phone. I wanted to hear the whole pitch just as it would be given to a nonbeliever. And I got it. As soon as the phone was answered, I launched right in to my skeptical, “What makes an heirloom seed so great?” routine. The woman who answered the phone didn’t skip a beat or take offense. I’m guessing she gets this question a lot. Here are the three reasons for buying heirloom seeds she succinctly and forcefully explained to the skeptic on the phone:

1) Heirlooms are at least 50 years old. These seeds have been around and they’ll be around. Unlike those hybrid seedless tomatoes that made their debut last year and will be gone when the next new thing seed comes along. (so if you just love accordion tomatoes like I do, you can count on being able to still find those seeds when your grandkids are starting their gardens)

2) Heirlooms have more intense flavors than hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds have sacrificed flavor for storage capacity and other surface qualities like color or the ability to last longer on the vine or produce a gazillion fruits. They have been bred and kept simply for their flavor. (simply put – heirlooms taste better. And I’m here to tell you this is absolutely true.)


3) Heirlooms have been successfully grown in all kinds of conditions in all kinds of locales for decades or centuries. This means they are survivors. They are hardier than hybrid plants. (and this you want, especially if you’re a first time gardener or a no-maintenance gardener like I am)


And here’s the fourth reason. She said she was going to give me three reasons, but then she threw in the fourth for free:
4) You can save the seeds of your heirlooms and plant them again and again or swap them with your friends. The seeds of a hybrid or commercially grown seed may not even germinate and if they do there’s no telling what you’ll get.

So thanks to Landreth for saying what I was going to say but saying it with much more history and authority. You can buy your own heirloom seeds from Landreth even if you aren’t local by shopping online at www.landrethseeds.com. But if I were you, I’d request a catalog. This year’s catalog is one of the best ever. It’s filled with beautiful pages from some of their catalogs from the last two centuries. (note the picture above) Call them at 1-800-654-2407.

Remember that when you’re ordering seeds, you need to pay attention to how many seeds are in each packet. Whereas it’s helpful to have plenty of pea seeds, you probably only need a handful of tomato seeds. You can always split your seed order with a friend so you don’t waste seeds. If you buy heirlooms and you like what you grow, save the seeds from your plant for the next year.

I’m headed out to get my own seeds this week. It’ll be time to start some next week. Look for a post on seed-starting this Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

SOLE KISS (Let me explain!)

I attended a horse training clinic recently and listened to a crinkly, wizened cowboy explain his theory of training. He talked in circles a bit and amazed the crowd with his ability to get a very nervous horse to follow him around. After awhile my brain kind of clouded over and I’m not sure I was getting a whole lot of what he was trying to teach. But I did come away with one nugget of truth. He kept saying, “We make horse training too complicated. It’s really pretty simple – gas peddle, steering wheel, that’s it. Why do we make it so hard?” He then went on to make it plenty hard, for me at least.

But that old acronym KISS was a good one to have tossed back at me. Keep It Simple Stupid. I think that’s a good motto for an organic life. When our food and our lives get too complicated, things get way too stressful. We need to keep it simple.

There are lots of experts out there with lots of opinions about food, organic life, saving the planet, reducing our carbon foodprint. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed. I want to buy local, but what if that product being sold in my local store was produced in sweat shops in India? Does one balance out the other? We heat with wood, which seems pretty earth friendly, until you talked to an environmentalist and then I get so confused I’m ready to fire up the furnace and save my husband all the back breaking work. Too much information.

So while I was impressed with all the things that nationally known trainer could make that shell-shocked and possibly drugged horse do, I was distracted by my own musings on keeping things simple. I’m ready to let go of some of the stress and pressure of trying to do everything the best way. I am only human, just like you. We do the best we can with what we know. That’s all anyone can ask.

And here’s another acronym (my Airforce brother would be impressed with all my acronyms!) I saw in the magazine Mary Jane’s Farm (which if you can stand all the self-promotion, has some good stuff tucked between the advertising). It said we should make all our food SOLE food. I think you can take the SOLE concept and apply it to more than just what you eat. SOLE stands for Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical.

In all your decisions about living an organic life, think SOLE and ask yourself these questions.

1) Is it sustainable? Am I contributing to the excess and waste problems in our world? Look for recyclable or recycled products. Buy food grown with sustainable methods. Conserve resources that are not renewable like oil, water, and time. Grow some things yourself if possible. Don’t waste anything – repurpose, recycle, and compost. Help sustain someone else by donating your unnecessary stuff.

2) Is it organic? Look for food and products that are made simply. An organic label is nice, but if you can’t find it or afford it, buy things that are recognizable. Eat whole foods – know what you are putting in your body. Avoid processed food and cleaning chemicals in your home. Seek to be organic in the true definition of the word – real, authentic. An organic life is by nature much more simple.

3) Is it local? Support your neighbors not only by patronizing their businesses, but supporting who they are. Get to know them. Get involved in your community, your schools, your government. Our worlds have gotten more complicated as we have abdicated the control to special interests and those out to make a buck. Be a good citizen, good neighbor, good friend, and committed community member. Sometimes it does seem simpler to hide in our homes and connect with the world via internet, but in the long run that makes us distant and uninvolved and partially responsible for bad decisions our leaders make.

4) Is it ethical? Ethics can be very relative, I know. But deep inside each of us, I think there is a part of us that knows what is right and what is wrong. We are all in this together. Respect is critical whether it’s respecting other people’s opinions and lifestyle choices or respecting the earth and the animals that share it with us. All creatures have the right to live with dignity. Never forget that.

Life can get complicated if you’re not careful. We have so much more than we will ever need – that’s our blessing and our curse. Do what matters and don’t get sucked in to the minutia that belittles all of us. I don’t believe that keeping it simple means doing nothing. It means making the things that you do choose to do matter. Live a life of value. Live a SOLE-full life. And don’t forget to KISS.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Place For Everything

We had almost completed the 500 piece puzzle of the planets, when it became obvious that there was a piece missing. Before we could become too discouraged, my six year old yelled, “I’ll check the Missing Piece Drawer!” jumped up and ran from the room. The Missing Piece Drawer, you ask? As a mother, this is my best invention yet. Unlike all my allowance plans, chore charts, and measuring cup-free recipes, this one even the kids like.

The Missing Piece Drawer was born when I finally got serious about cleaning my house. It seems to take me forever to clean and no matter how fast I move, the kids and their mess move faster. I find myself, constantly picking up pieces that were left out – board game markers, dice, puzzle pieces, checkers, legos, and all kinds of essential parts to what I consider expensive toys and games that would truly not be the same without all of their pieces.

Tired of trooping back and forth to the playroom, digging through the toy bin, or dragging out the Trouble, just to realize that the piece in my hand is actually a marker for Sorry, I began putting the lost pieces in my pockets as I cleaned. Vacuuming always unearthed the largest finds, especially under the couch. Many times the pockets of my jeans would be bulging with these lost pieces and I would forget they were there. I would find myself waiting in line at Parent-Pick up fingering the objects in my pockets trying to guess which game they went to. Once home, life would distract me and the pieces would remain there and go unnoticed until I heard them clanging about in the dryer on laundry day. Soon instead of replacing these pieces in their respective places, I would stash them on the nearest receptacle - on dressers, on shelves, and in closets until I would have time to put them back where they belong, which rarely happened.

Finally it dawned on me that I did not have to put them back where they belonged at all. What would be the point? That piece, or one just like it, would be there waiting for me the next time I moved the couch to vacuum. I cleared out a drawer that is deep and long in the mission table in our front hall. There is room in there for thousands of lost pieces. No longer is the onus on me to return the lost pieces to their homes, now the kids know if they are playing a game, doing a puzzle, or building a lego masterpiece, and they cannot find a piece – the best place to look is in the Missing Piece Drawer. Brilliant!

When it is time to have the yard sale, I always check the Missing Piece Drawer to be sure all of the proper pieces to any game or toy are leaving our home together. Other items that end up in the Missing Piece Drawer are the directions to the 1000 piece Lego Building set, single playing cards, doll house furniture, parts for the numerous science kits and art kits that dot our house, and spare change (which gives some members of my family incentive to look through the Missing Piece Drawer on occasion and often times leads to some lost items being reclaimed and even put away in their proper place!).

So, it’s brilliant, the Missing Piece Drawer. Everyone needs one because life is much too busy to return every monopoly chance card to the box. And no amount of good intentions will help you sort out which Garfield puzzle this orange piece belongs to. As I grow older, I wish that there were a Lost Memory Drawer, similar to the Lost Piece Drawer where I could find all the things I shouldn’t have forgotten. A drawer tucked away somewhere inside my house that I could visit when my brain fails me. I could search through all the junk that clutters my mind, and there I would find the necessary information that was not put back where it belonged the last time I used it. Now, wouldn’t that be brilliant?

As my children get older, the things I find laying around most are paper. Homework papers, project papers, stories yet to be published, notes to friends, inspired music lyrics (daughter), dungeons and dragons character sheets (son), and wish lists for a birthday that is months away (youngest). Where to put all these papers? The sheer number of papers that come home from school each day are enough to overwhelm my personal secretary (if I had one). And how does an innocent, well-intentioned mother know which papers can be recycled and which are critical to the well-being of the universe?

A single Missing Paper Drawer is not an option – I have no drawer in my house capable of holding such volume. So instead each kid gets a Personal Paper Bin. Well, actually it’s a crate with his/her name on it. Whenever I stumble upon papers that are not clearly meant for the recycling bin (like the over due library book letter or the nasty note written to mommy in a fit of anger), I put it in the designated child’s bin. That way when my daughter is panicked because she can’t find that paper sent home two weeks ago about the project due tomorrow, she can dig in her crate and usually find what she’s looking for. Same goes for my son when he needs the piece of paper that had a dragon detailed on it during a critical moment in a D&D game. And when it is finally my youngest child’s birthday, I can dig through his papers and find THE LIST he is always referring to. When anyone’s crate gets too full, they are responsible for sorting out the unnecessary papers for recycling.

This paper system has worked for us for several years now and although we’ve gone to two crates per kid (kept in separate parts of the house so I am always near one and aren’t tempted to toss a paper just this once!), it works for us. None of us have time to return every lost piece or unclaimed paper, but we are not in a place to decide what is sacred either, so giving it temporary residence in the Missing Piece Drawer or the Personal Paper Bin is one solution. I’m sure you’ve got some of your own. I’d love to hear about them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Natives in the Kitchen!

As I write this I’m listening to my 10 year old daughter giggle with two of her girlfriends in the kitchen as they cook macaroni and cheese for their lunch. I know when they are finished the room will be trashed and rather than allow my blood pressure to boil for the 20 minutes it takes them to make and eat their lunch, it’s just easier to stay away. I’ll wait until they’re ensconced in my daughter’s room with her stereo and guitar blaring before assessing the damage. That way they can’t hear my complaints. Because although I will be annoyed at the mess and even more annoyed that I didn’t make them clean it up, I am glad she is cooking. This is new for us.

For too long I didn’t allow my children to operate the stove or oven and certainly not a knife. The microwave was all I allowed, which is kind of silly because I hate the microwave and avoid cooking in it at all costs. (I’m one of those paranoid people who are convinced that someday we’ll all find out that microwaves are responsible for many of our health issues or at the least why our brains don’t seem to be evolving.)

These days I cautiously allow my children to use a knife to cut off the ends of their freshly peeled carrots (peelers are permitted too). Once they prove they can slice off a piece of bread without butchering the entire loaf, they can cut their bread too. The decision to let them begin using knives came about when I walked in on my oldest son’s full arm karate style chopping (using my gigantic butcher’s knife –OMG!) of his carrot. This, after he had somewhat successfully peeled his carrot with my good bread knife. The bottom line is that your kids are going to get curious about the kitchen and as they look for opportunities to assert their independence they will discover your knives. And your stove and most certainly the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream you’re hiding way in the back on the top shelf of your freezer. The kitchen will no longer be your sacred space. Best to invite the natives in rather than wait for the invasion.

I want to bring them in to the kitchen on my terms. I began by teaching my oldest son. Sitting on my hands and doing my best not to make any funny faces, I directed him in making a complete spaghetti dinner. I told him I wasn’t going to do any of it for him. I would stay with him and direct him, but he was on his own. His wounded expression led me to an overlong explanation about the fact that he is now 13 years old and should be able to feed himself because I am not raising any domestically dependent men. I owe that to the future women in their lives. I am forever grateful that my own mother-in-law taught my husband to cook, do laundry, clean, and even sew on a button.

My daughter’s cooking career began not because of potential knife violence, but as an act of desperation. She is my picky eater. Somehow she continues to grow subsisting on macaroni and cheese, pita chips, cookies, and the occasional baby carrot. Each week her repertoire seems to shrink. Once my broccoli eater, now no more. “What? I never liked broccoli!” There was a day when this child ate red beans in place of whatever meat she was turning her nose up at, but again, my mistake. “I HATE beans! I always have!” Seems her memory is disappearing as fast as the list of foods she’ll eat.

Throwing my hands up in exasperation one afternoon when she declared all she would eat for lunch was macaroni and cheese, I said, “Fine. You make it.” Her face lit up with the possibility! “How?” she asked. Macaroni and cheese is one of those foods I have never been able to replace with a homemade version. My children had too many years on the blue box kind and I suppose they are ruined for life. I’ve made macaroni and cheese with expensive yummy cheeses like gruyere and still they turn their noses up. I found a wonderful recipe with cream cheese in it. It’s creamy and delicious but not quite salty and chemically enough for two out of three children. So we depend on organic macaroni and cheese from the box. I firmly believe that this is one of those cases where organic definitely does not equal healthy, but you do what you have to do. Ya know?
I pulled out the pots she would need, the measuring cups, and the box of macaroni and cheese and I let her have at it. She determinedly followed the directions, refusing to ask for my help. It was messy and there were a few tears, but she did it. Now she makes macaroni and cheese for every friend that visits and on busy nights when we’re all running in different directions, she can whip up dinner for everyone by adding nitrate free hot dogs cooked in the microwave (for shame!).

Not long after the macaroni and cheese discovery, she stole quietly in to the kitchen and asked, “What else can I cook?” Since it was morning and eggs were on the menu (like pretty much every morning here), I taught her to make scrambled eggs. Now she is the pro, offering to cook eggs for her brothers who tentatively agree confused as to why she’s being so nice. And after a few weeks of cooking eggs for everyone else, one day she decided maybe she might like eggs herself. The moment I had been waiting for!! Finally some protein!

I tell you this story not to impress you (I know, pasta and eggs are not so impressive, you’re waiting to hear about the grilled halibut and three layer cheese cake, right?), but to encourage you to loosen the lock on your own kitchen and get your kids cooking. Not just helping you, but doing it themselves, start to finish. It will not only expand their food options, but it just might expand their confidence too. And discounting the mess that is made, it can actually make your own job easier. We’re working on the clean up part. Teaching our children to cook also gives them the ability to discover that food made from scratch is not only healthier, but tastes better than processed food – especially when you make it yourself. In the end my goal is to raise children who can take care of themselves without the maid, cook, and butler I keep insisting they will need when they grow up.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Not So Sweet or Surprising

Google ‘High Fructose Corn Syrup’ and one of the first sites to come up is Sweetsurprise.com. I was trying to figure out just what High Fructose Corn Syrup (herein referred to as HFCS) is and what it does and that site kept popping up with every conceivable search. I was looking for a site I recognized like the Mayo Clinic or a Consumer Safety site, and I did find those, but searches on several search engines kept bringing up the site SweetSurprise.com. So I checked it out. It has lots of nice things to say about the exaggerated dangers of HFCS and pointed out the HFCS is unfairly singled out as the culprit behind the obesity epidemic. The site is bright and well-written and entirely believable until you look at all the other sites listed in your search and realize that one of these things is not like the others….. and that Sweetsurpise.com is maintained and funded by the Corn Refiners Association. Hmm…I smell a rat or maybe it’s just a field mouse.

Let me back up. What is HFCS? Here’s what the Mayo Clinic website said: “High-fructose corn syrup is a common sweetener and preservative. High-fructose corn syrup is made by changing the sugar (glucose) in cornstarch to fructose — another form of sugar. The end product is a combination of fructose and glucose. Because it extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper than sugar, high-fructose corn syrup has become a popular ingredient in many sodas, fruit-flavored drinks and other processed foods.”

Back up further – what is fructose? Fructose is sugar from fruit. All though fructose is simply sugar, when you eat it in fruit, it does have some fiber in it. So fructose alone doesn’t sound so bad. (Although there is much evidence to the contrary, I was laser-focused on the HFCS and couldn’t be distracted by all those wanting me to read about the dangers of fructose in general, I filed that to think about later.) Starting in the 1970’s and 80’s, manufacturers discovered the beauty of HFCS. It’s cheaper than sugar, plentiful, and creates a longer shelf life for the end product. Plus, if you remember Farm Aid, you might remember that the government ended up subsidizing lots of farmers and the corn they grew. What to do with all that extra corn? Find ways to make money off it. The more HFCS you can sell, the more corn you will need to grow. And it’s right here in the good old USofA, no need to import it from sugar cane fields in other countries. HFCS seemed like the perfect solution for everyone – the farmers, the government, the manufacturers. Too bad it wasn’t such a great solution for the public.

But really, why is HFCS so bad? Well, because HFCS is a man-made blend of sugars, as opposed to naturally occurring sugars, the body metabolizes it differently. And since the early 80’s the average person is consuming triple the amount of HFCS. I went back to the internet to see if there were any studies documenting what should be obvious to all of us – as HFCS consumption has increased, so has our collective waistline. I found a website called SweetDisguise.com which was created in response to the Corn Refiners Association’s campaign to promote and de-criminalize HFCS. If you check out www.SweetDisguise.com you can read about the people who founded it and find tons of links to research and articles detailing the dangers of HFCS and sugar in general. But here are a few goodies I found.

The website quoted from an article in the Washington Post (Jan 2009). I actually have a clipping of this article somewhere because I intended to post on it regarding the dangers of Mercury in soda. The article is entitled, Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury. Here’s a quote: “Almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup contained mercury, which was also found in nearly a third of the 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first- or second-highest ingredient, according to two new U.S. Studies.” Just in case you aren’t up to snuff on the dangers of Mercury, just know that it is extremely toxic by ingestion or inhalation of the dust.

And in an article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University and the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina commented on the 1000% increase (and they did say 1000%, not 100%!) increase in the average consumption of HFCS from 1970 to 1990 and it’s biological effects on human metabolism. They said, “The increased use of HFCS in the United States mirrors the rapid increase in obesity. The digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose… unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production.” Which means that HFCS doesn’t suppress hunger, so people don’t feel full and consequently they keep eating. Kind of like my cat when the lid’s off the cat food container. The conclusion of the scientists in this study? “There is a distinct likelihood that the increased consumption of HFCS in beverages may be linked to the increase in obesity.” Isn’t this as obvious as the nose on your face?

So if one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to lose weight, a great way to help yourself accomplish this would be to cut out the HFCS. And even if you’re not trying to lose weight, cutting out the HFCS is one of the best things you can do for your health. And remember the less we buy of products with HFCS, the less incentive there is for companies to keep developing products with high amounts of it in there in the first place.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Unleash Your Creative Spirit!

When was the last time you created something? Something other than dinner? What do you enjoy doing that nurtures your creative spirit? And don’t say you don’t have a creative spirit, because it’s in there somewhere. It’s very easy to let our own hobbies get lost in boxes in the back of the closet while we raise our kids and attend to the real world. But remember when you were a kid and you had hours that stretched out in front of you unencumbered by responsibilities? What did you do then?

This past weekend I found myself in a ballroom at a cheesy hotel in Gettysburg with over 200 other women working on scrapbooks. There were many moments when I looked around at these women of all ages and stages, dressed in their jammies (I kid you not!) trading stickers and stories, and thought, “What am I doing here?” Lots of these ladies are part of the polyester set and get pretty worked up over a trip to Cracker Barrel, and I would never have dreamed I’d have anything in common with them. But here I sat amongst them listening as they shared tales of their trips to the Grand Canyon or the local dirt track. Pets figured in to many of their snapshots as well as babies smashing food and pretty little girls in pink ballet slippers or prom dresses. There were plenty of heirloom photos too - the kind with the crinkly edges, soft focus, and faces so familiar even if the clothing and hair style isn’t. This past weekend I spent 48 hours scrapbooking with 200 kindred spirits, many I had absolutely nothing in common with except the love of creating scrapbooks that tell stories, celebrate lives, and secure memories.

I don’t have to tell many of you how hard it is to leave your husband in charge of his own children and home for a few days – all alone. I made lists and reminded him all week long of who had to be where when. I wrote out the instructions for caring for the horses and chickens and he learned the hard way which horse to feed first. But he survived. I think it’s really important that we take time to pursue the things we enjoy. Not only does it set the example for our children, but it keeps us sane. And sanity is a good, and underappreciated, thing. Besides our children need to know we have interests in life other than them.

So what do you like to do for fun that you haven’t done in ages because there isn’t time, money, or opportunity? Did you collect butterflies? Build model cars? Paint watercolors? Maybe it seems nerdy or something only people who still live with their parents would do, but after spending a weekend with those women in that ballroom, I feel pretty good. I feel rested, content, happy. We all need to nurture our creative, playful selves.

One half of the hotel/resort (although I say resort, I must clarify that it was actually a sprawling, somewhat tired looking collection of low level buildings, with one “high rise” connected by a human habitrail plunked down near the battlefields serving up pressed turkey, powdered eggs, and lots of gravy in the “cafĂ©”) was consumed by the scrapbookers, but the other half was host to a youth ministry conference of some kind. Late on Friday night a group of youths wandered through the habitrail over to our side of the complex. I can only imagine what they must have thought at the site of all those women drowning in their scrapbooking “gear” gabbing away as the oddest assortment of music I’ve ever experienced warbled out of someone’s ipod speakers. Obviously they felt they needed to shield the rest of the world from us, so they upended a few tables that were in the hallways and pushed them up against the ballroom doors, effectively barricading us in the room. We were so engrossed in our tasks and happy to be starting a weekend without children or responsibilities that no one even noticed. I think that if someone from the hotel hadn’t happened by, we might still be in that room happily ensconced in our tasks at hand. I’m not sure what happened to the good Christian youths when the incident was reported back to their leaders, but I appreciated their effort. It seemed like something I might have done if I’d found a bunch of “old women” quilting or canning or engaging in some other “old person” hobby when I was an invincible teenager.

I never thought I would say it, but I’m happy to be on my side of those barricaded doors claiming time for me and my own hobbies, despite what it looks like to the busy, responsible people or the kids. It’s good for my life. It’s also good for my family. But mostly it is good for my soul. I hope you claim some time for your own hobbies this year. Make something, learn something, practice something, enjoy something – something just for you - not for your family, not for your kids, not for your community. Just for you.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How Many Catalogs Does One Person Need?

How many catalogs do you recycle each day? My mailbox is laden with unwanted catalogs. It’s rare that I ever buy anything from any of them, but they do waste plenty of my time. I hate to count the hours I’ve spent leafing through their glossy pages fantasizing about buying lots of things I will never buy. Sometimes I even circle things and choose colors and sizes. As if. The catalogs float around on the counter for a few days and eventually end up in the recycling. I’ve tried several websites that are supposed to do away with junk mail, but still the catalogs come. Not anymore!

I’ve discovered a website called http://www.catalogchoice.org/ that allows me to opt out of catalogs I don’t want to receive. And Catalogchoice has extracted commitments from these companies to honor my choices. Not every catalog I would like to do away with is listed on Catalogchoice, but most are. In fact, there are catalogs I’ve never even dreamed of listed. And therein lies the danger. As I’m combing the list for catalogs to cancel, I can’t help but notice all the catalogs with intriguing titles. Of course not only does Catalogchoice assist you in canceling catalogs, they will also be happy to hook you up with some new ones. So there is this incredible temptation to find out just what they sell in the Bliss catalog. And what constitutes a Boundless Journey? Just what does a person buy from Handsome Rewards? If you’re not careful canceling catalogs with catalogchoice could be counter productive. Who can resist requesting a catalog called Long Elephant Legs? What do they sell? I have to know.

Some of the companies don’t make it easy for you to cancel. They force you to go to their website or send an e-mail from your own mailbox instead of catalogchoice’s. But the nice part is the website tells you exactly how to get off just about any company’s list. When you choose to stop the catalog, they ask you to click on a reason. Your options include: prefer not to answer (this way you won’t hurt their feelings), prefer shopping online (I worried that this would be a greenlight for said company to swamp my e-mail), no interest in these products (slam!), I want to help the environment (I hide behind this one mostly), and other (but no space to write - ‘because I think your products are overpriced and unnecessary’).

Another great feature that some companies offer is to choose how often you’d like to receive their catalog. Some offer the option of receiving the catalog just once per season or year, etc. Not all of them offer this, apparently. My husband likes getting his Crutchfield catalog so he can dream about all the electronics he could have if he didn’t have children, but the Crutchfield catalog comes just about every month and it would have been nice to change that to once or twice a year. Not an option, so I just nixed it all together (sorry honey!).

I stopped browsing the catalog choices at about the L’s (what’s a Lobstergram? I think I'd like one.) because it was getting too hard to resist wasting even more of my time investigating what they sell in Make Life Easier or Wild Horsefeathers catalogs. Now I’m simply making a pile of catalogs as they arrive in my mailbox and then going to Catalogchoice and searching for each specific catalog and canceling it. Catalogchoice even has a system for complaining if a catalog continues to be delivered to you. Brilliant website and I’m sure someone is making a buck or two from it even if it is a dot-org. I don’t know enough about how they track our activities online, but I bet there’s a kickback or two when someone discovers Bounty Hunter catalog while trying to cancel their Brookstone catalog.

Just today I got confirmation from several companies that they had canceled my catalog subscription so I know that Catalogchoice is not just a schuckster trying to lure me in to even more catalog options, which I suppose is still possible. Hopefully in the end I’ll cancel more than I’ll request. Check out http://www.catalogchoice.org/ and lighten your own load – less paper to be recycled and less stuff to fill your life and longings.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Garfield, Augustus, Obituaries, & New Year's Resolutions

As my 7 year old sat down to breakfast, he asked in all seriousness, “Who would win - Garfield or Augustus?” He’d obviously been in the middle of this scenario when I’d called him to breakfast and he paused over his plate for my answer.

Playing my well-worn role of the clueless parent, I asked, “Who’s Augustus?” I knew that Garfield was obviously the fat orange cat found in the funny pages (my children love the Garfield movies which I find obnoxious because they always lead to farting and burping jokes), but I hadn’t a clue who Augustus might be or what he might be trying to win.

My child sighed at my incredible slowness, and said, “You know, Augustus.” Cue – the imploring you’re-not-really-that-stupid-mom-are-you?- look. When I registered no recognition, he shook his head in disgust and said, “From Willy Wonka?” He took a bite of French Toast and watched me, waiting for my answer.

I scanned my brain for some recall of any kind of recent battle between Garfield and Augustus and came up empty. “What are Garfield and August trying to win?” I asked.

Again, the sigh and now a roll of the eyes thrown in to hammer home his point about my ineptness. “An eating contest!” Duh, like I should have known this!

As I stalled for time to make my decision, I asked for more information. “Why are they having an eating contest?” My child hasn’t discovered the hot dog eating contests on TV yet, but the last time my husband’s best childhood pal was here, he and my son had a pizza eating contest (which my seven year old won I’m not proud to say), so I know this is a sport he is destined to aspire to, no matter how much I hammer home the idea of eating only what you need.

My son shakes his head at my silly question and takes another bite of his French toast. “Who would win?” he asks again between bitefuls. “I picked them because they’re the biggest eaters I know.”

“I’d have to go with Garfield,” I decide, picturing my own fat cat the time he got the lid off the catfood cannister. My son nods his head at my wise choice.

I think one of the primary functions of children is to remind us that we should never let reality get in the way of our thought processes, especially our dreams. Reality can really hamper possibilities. This conversation was a good reminder for me as I contemplate my New Year’s Resolution. I’m all about New Year’s Resolutions. How about you? Have you made any? Using your imagination to dream up an amazing life is a wonderful thing to do. And each resolution should move you another step towards that amazing life. I usually do my dreaming and scheming during a run, but since my runs have been limited to the tread mill by the godforsaken snow and ice for two weeks, I’ve been pondering my resolutions on paper. So far I haven’t gotten to anything very imaginative or even worthy of a Garfield vs. Augustus challenge.

I think the place to start is to dream up the person I want to be and the life I want to lead with no considerations for reality. I once did an exercise for a class in college in which we had to write our obituary. We had to write what we would be remembered for and how we would be described. When we finished the essay, the professor told us that we had just written our life’s mission statement. Mine was pretty lofty at the time, but I’ve held on to it and edited it as my values and my world view have shifted. Every morning now when I read the newspaper, I always scan the obituaries. I’m not looking for anyone I know (although from time to time a familiar face does appear). I’m just curious. I look at the faces and I read some of the write-ups and I think about who those people were. I wonder why that particular picture was chosen. I wonder what kind of life they had. I wonder if they were happy. I look for a good mission statement. As I read the mission statements revealed in the obituaries, I think I’m unconsciously comparing it to what my own obituary will say. I would like to be better at living out my own mission statement.

New Year’s resolutions call us back to our mission. They can help us stay on the track we want to follow. I have a copy of my own mission statement I wrote twenty years ago that I keep in my wallet. I rarely look at it and am always surprised when I come across it as I’m searching for whatever store bonus card the cashier happens to be demanding. But today I will pull up my mission statement on my computer and I’ll look it over. I’ll decide if it’s still my mission and whether I’m making any progress towards fulfilling it. I’ll imagine my life the way I want it to be and then I’ll sit down and write out some New Year’s resolutions to help me get there.

And New Year’s resolutions aren’t just for adults. It’s a great idea to have your kids come up with their own resolutions. Teach them now that we are all under construction. We can all be healthier, happier, life contributors. My family has a memory book that we started at the new millennium. Each New Year’s Eve we all answer five questions in the book. Those questions are:

1) What do I want to be when I grow up? (it’s funny how my husband’s and my answers keep changing too – shows how growing up is truly relative)

2) What’s the best thing that happened this year? (the answers from the kids when they were toddlers and preschoolers are pretty good – they say a lot about what’s memorable for children)

3) What’s important to you? (This is my favorite question. I love seeing how my kids’ values are developing. They always make me catch my breath)

4) What have you learned this year? (This one causes all of us to be grateful and takes the most thought.)

5) What do you think will happen in 2010? (Sometimes this gets pretty wild as in “Chickens will rule the world!” from my preteen and sometimes it’s very simple as in “Santa Claus will come.” from my then two year old.)

It’s a brand new year – the perfect time to take stock. What’s important to you? What do you want to be when you grow up? And most importantly, What have you learned? Ask yourself and ask your family. If you’re so inclined, find a few minutes and write your new year’s resolutions or better yet your obituary. If nothing else, it will give you a chance to hit the pause button on your crazy life and consider what your mission is.