If this picture could talk, would it scream?

Urgency Day 295

500 Things Project: An Inventory Before Item 200!

  • History: Highlights (and a lowlight) of 199 Things
  • Value: A pause to remember and refresh
  • Parting Pain: Not any so far (okay, significant unparting pain)
  • Un-possessing: Already achieved– with one notable exception!

Do you ever make a wrong turn?

Sure. Most people do, or at least they did before the GPS autonavigators took over. When you did, did you ever wish you had a picture of the moment you went cruising right by your turn? What would it reveal? Would it show you were looking the wrong way? Watching another person? Singing along with your soundtrack? Daydreaming?

Every time I take a picture of an item I’m un-possessing for this blog, I wish I had a picture of the moment I purchased it.

Man, I would scrutinize those pictures something fierce. Was I looking the wrong way? Watching another person? Singing along with my soundtrack? Daydreaming? I would love to recreate my thinking at the point of each purchase, because I am just consumed with curiosity:

How in the world did I get all this stuff?

I’m at a milestone with the 500 Things project: Item 200. I keep thinking about something my friend Elizabeth said about my project on her blog, that I am clearing out my house one bookshelf at a time. She is spot on. One bookshelf, one drawer, one bin at a time; I will clear out my crap. Individual small items may not make much of an impression, but the cumulative effect is becoming significant. And the shame of it all is, it’s all really unnecessary stuff.

Channeling my inner Lady Macbeth, Out, damn’d stuff, out!

…but I guess a few bigger ticket items might be satisfying, too.

So, today’s “item” is a bit of a departure. Not a big ticket item just yet—those will come! Today I offer a recap to clear out the cobwebs before moving forward.

199/500 Things: The Project, So Far.

  • Clothing, shoes, accessories: 26 individual items (plus 2 overstuffed bags)
  • Household items: 54 items (plus 1 box of assorted school supplies)
  • Kitchen items: 26
  • Books: 160
  • VHS tapes, DVDs and CDs: 29
  • Games, toys, sporting goods: 22

That’s:  26 + 54 + 26 + 160 + 29 + 22 Things.

Does anything jump out at you? I’m a bit over 199 things. I’ve actually un-possessed 317 Things! (Plus 2 overstuffed bags and 1 box.) Even taking out the one day, bookshelf-clearing effort of 127 books, I’m at 190 Things– plus 2 overstuffed bags and 1 box, which I assure you held way more than 9 things.

I really don’t know whether to crow or cry.

A few observations:

I look around at the amount of stuff remaining: the overflowing drawers; the cabinets full of hand-me-downs and still-to-pass-alongs; toys and linens and CDs and papers; the three identical vases stacked behind the other two identical vases; bin after bin, shelf after shelf; mistake after mistake, and I think the only thing I can think:

A reckoning is coming...

Let’s get rid of 199 more!

Or 317, and YES!

I am counting!

Super cool thing-a-majigs

Urgency Day 303

500 Things Items 196-199: Tools from Paul’s dad

  • History: Cool tools inherited from a cool daddio
  • Value: Priceless, even the one that still had its $10.12 sales slip
  • Parting Pain: Joy of passing along family treasures
  • Un-possessing: Gifts to next gen.

Continuing the list of names I almost used for this blog: mise en place.

My foodie friends will be familiar with this phrase, as will my Francophile amis. It means “everything in place.” In an efficiently run kitchen, it’s the prep done before the actual cooking starts. Gathering, slicing, measuring of ingredients: If everything the recipe calls for is in place before you begin, you will never have to turn off the flame under your beautifully browning onions to madly run to the store for an egg.

And who can come out with just one egg?

I like to extend the concept of mise en place beyond cooking preparation to the more general notion of everything in its place: Orderliness and organization in all things (just thinking about it made my shoulders unclench). For me, the downsizing I’m chronicling in this blog is about bringing more order, organization and, truly,  serenity to my life.

Paul and I are on two simultaneous downsizing paths:

  • Getting rid of our crap;
  • “Getting rid of” our son.

While we take full responsibility for the first task, Sam has taken the lead in getting himself out of the door. Most high school seniors really really want to leave home; I am thrilled with the organization Sam has embraced for this goal. Here’s a picture of his very mise en place college applications system (click on photo to see details).

Sam's mise; my Purple Lamp and RPSLS*

Oh dear… I guess this means he actually will be leaving then.

Excuse me while I go mess with his mise

*Purple Lamp post and RPSLS is Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock (thanks, Sean!).

Go Ducks!


Urgency Day 304

500 Things Items 193-195: 3 Pairs of Gloves

  • History: Bought for a different winter reality
  • Value: More fashion than function
  • Parting Pain: None
  • Un-possessing: Donations

Back in my callow youth, I was a Duck.

Well, sort of:

  • Callow? Probably.
  • Youth? Seems like it now, but my late twenties.
  • Duck? Oh yeah! In grad school, at the University of Oregon:

Go Ducks!

The first time I had to deliver a lecture to a section of 300 undergrads, I was also a chicken.

Dr. Bishop, my graduate advisor, gave me three sage pieces of advice for a successful lecture:

  1. Know your material cold.
  2. Open with a joke.
  3. Have no more than 3 main points and hammer them home.

Lulu, my graduate advisor, gave me one crucial piece of pre-lecture advice which I value to this day:

Paint your fingernails the most lurid shade you can find.

Lulu was the students’ affectionate nickname for Dr. Bishop. It was a version of her given name but also characterized much of the subversive wisdom she dispensed.

“Skip the meeting; go out for ice cream!”

That’s a Lulu.

She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.

Her theory with the vivid fingernails had two parts: there was the obvious audience-distraction factor as you gesture and point; and the less obvious internal-silliness check. She really wanted us to remember that one lecture didn’t make or break us.

“Mistakes will be made.”

Wave them off in the passive voice and with ridiculously garish digits.

I’ve spent the last ten or so years trying to hide my hands. I wish I had my sister’s elegant fingers or my son’s talented fingers. I have my darling mom’s arthritic fingers. They work; they’re competent, and for that, I am grateful. The pain and swelling has even significantly improved, since I went to a gluten-free diet. I still don’t want to call attention to them.

So it’s easy to get rid of the attention-getting gloves featured today. Plus, I live in Chicago, where cute little knit gloves are just plain foolish.

And there’s a big difference between a Lulu and a fool.




A cautionary box.


Urgency Day 308

500 Things Item 192: The Prodigal Hummel

  • History: Read on!
  • Value: Cautionary tale
  • Parting Pain: Incredulity that I ever will part with it
  • Un-possessing: For now, I’m not. Later? I might put it on my father’s grave.

The soundtrack of my life is pretty upbeat.

Songs on heavy rotation include:

  • Linus and Lucy (especially in the fall, as recently posted)
  • Cheek to Cheek (I’m a sucker for Fred and Ginger)
  • This Too Shall Pass (by OK Go; the video makes me weep with joy)
  • Sam’s Everybody

Music sets the moods, reflects the mood and can change the mood. If you program your playlist well, you can hum right through even a challenging day.

Then what does it mean when my internal iPod cues up the following:

  • Darth Vader’s theme
  • The shark’s theme from Jaws
  • The shower “music” from Psycho

It means I’ve noticed… The Box.

The Box isn’t supposed to be in my house. The Box isn’t supposed to be on a shelf in my basement. The contents of The Box are supposed to be happily displayed on a shelf somewhere, anywhere but in my house.

Last April 8th, I was on only the 3rd Thing of my 500 Things Project, but the selection was a big one for me. Not large, but symbolic. It was a family curio which always left me curious about some of my family’s tastes. No matter; to each her/his own. With my mom and sister’s blessing, I confidently put the 3rd Thing, the last Hummel we possessed, up for auction on eBay. Within a week– oh yeah!– it was out of my possession.

Within two, it was back.

Many people report that eBay is a fantastic place to sell stuff. I feel that eBay is a fantastic place to buy stuff.

It wasn’t that the dissatisfied buyer didn’t have a legitimate point: The lamb’s ear was broken. It wasn’t that I ever thought to deny his reimbursement: I immediately reimbursed every penny, including shipping both ways. It was the tone of the buyer. It was the admissions from the eBay staff that the system is rigged designed to favor buyers, no matter how indefensibly they act.

Caveat venditor: That’s a new one to me.

Sometimes the universe hums along with your soundtrack; sometimes it shuffles the playlist. For the time being, I will keep the Box sealed and in my basement as a warning against hubris. And eBay.

But Craig and his List still make me sing!

History Credit



Pretty but not priceless.


Urgency Day 310

500 Things Item 191: Glass vase

  • History: I honestly don’t know where it came from
  • Value: I’m sure the flowers that came in it were appreciated
  • Parting Pain: None (I wish it weren’t chipped to make a better regift)
  • Un-possessing: I’ll make it part of a gift (and acknowledge the chip)

My recently visiting brother-in-law from Scotland told me about an amazing and compelling project the British Museum is staging: an exhibit which attempts to reveal

A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Museum curators selected objects that represent significant achievements and trends in art, science, history, technology and communication. The reasoning behind and justifications for the selections are utterly fascinating. Some of the objects, such as the Rosetta Stone (#33), are specifically familiar; many are collectively familiar, such as #1 and #20 from ancient Egypt, or the stone tools from Olduvai Gorge (#2 and #3). But there are many more objects which I regret to say were unfamiliar to me, including many which reveal the Western bias in my education.

The 99 objects selected so far were culled from among the entirety of the collection of the British Museum. That’s some 8 million objects. When people ask me if I have difficulty selecting 500 things to get rid of from my, to put it mildly, more modest “collection,” I have to say no.

There is absolutely no overlap between their 100 priceless Objects and my 500 Things.

Not even with the as-yet unnamed final object which will be voted into the exhibit from among contenders promoted by museum curators and suggested by the public.

What will that ultimate historic object be?

  • A mobile (cell) phone?
  • An Antarctic expedition suit?
  • A portable solar-powered lamp and charger?
  • A contemporary mortar and pestle?
  • Didier Drogba’s Chelsea football (soccer) jersey?

It’s a long road from Olduvai to Chelsea.

Actually, I take back that there is zero overlap in our collections– and unfortunately I don’t mean that I possess a hidden historic treasure. Number 99, the penultimate object in the History of the World in 100 Objects, is a credit card. My one overlap with history is a credit card.

Now there’s one priceless object I am trying to downsize.

Play It Forward



You'd want them on your team, not in your car.


Urgency Day 311

500 Things Items 187-190: Four pairs of soccer boots

  • History: 3 pairs are falling apart, they were so well used
  • Value: Fitness, sportsmanship, camaraderie
  • Parting Pain: They smell! I mean really reek
  • Un-possessing: Despite the smell: Donations (and they’re wanted!)

Play it forward. Yes, play.

Sam is not playing organized soccer this year, his senior year. Sam got an after-school job to pay for music lessons and other things he wants. Part of his job description happens to include kicking a soccer ball around a park with 2 young boys before going back to their home, and tutoring and supervising their homework and providing music instruction.

Everyday, he is literally playing it forward.

Housekeeping note: Today, I want to point out a new Page on the process not product sidebar:

Every-Things, Explained.

Recently, I’ve had some new visitors to the blog—Welcome!– and they wondered what the Urgency counter is and why I am un-possessing 500 Things. The new Page is a quick reference guide to the origins of the blog and the reasons for the 500 Things Project.

Thank you so much for your interest, old friends and new.

Coyote Conundrum



In Suz's Happyland, goats are free to eat my hair.


Urgency Day 313

500 Things Items 185-86: 2 more kitchen tools– a zester and a corer

  • History: Before I discovered microplanes and coring using a knife
  • Value: I prefer my microplane and knife
  • Parting Pain: Zip
  • Un-possessing: Donation or gift

I’m letting you in on a secret: “Udi’s” is a password.

If you are following a gluten-free diet, I really hope no further explanation is required. If you know a gluten-free practitioner and want to make their eyes glaze over in lust, say it: Say “Udi’s.”

Every restrictive diet has one product that makes the whole thing doable. Atkins had bacon and lots of it. Dairy free has So Delicious ice creams. Gluten free has Udi’s bread.

Udi’s bread mimics a loaf of wheat sandwich bread so deliciously, the Self-Contained Unit—a self-described artisanal bread snob—will choose it over gluten-filled options on hand.

Between a well-stocked grocery store and the internet, it’s never been easier to follow an alternative diet. My heart breaks for people with serious allergies who can’t even be in proximity of their triggers. But for people like me, who use nutrition to mitigate the symptoms of other conditions (such as my arthritis), eating conscientiously requires very little additional effort.

In fact, when I see some people struggle with their particular dietary requirements, I wonder if there are other issues, such as a lack of real commitment. When we moved to Naperville, Sam’s friend Pete-o called himself a vegetarian. Under Pete’s eating plan, I think a lot of Americans are vegetarians. He exclusively ate french fries, white bread and desserts.

He has since given up giving up meat.

Meat. I’ve never particularly struggled with being an omnivore. I’ve said it here before, I subscribe to food writer Michael Pollan’s philosophy:

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

That seems the most reasonable expression of moderation I’ve ever encountered. It emphasizes a plant-based diet, but doesn’t forbid meat. Or chocolate, my deal breaker. But meat, though not emphasized, is not demonized, like say high fructose corn syrup.

Two nights ago, my relationship with meat changed.


If you eschew National Geographic specials featuring top-of-the-food-chain antics or were determinedly absent when your high school English  class discussed Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, skip ahead to the all-clear signal,


[FYI: I would be skipping ahead, if it weren’t my story.]

For those still with me, here goes.

Recently, it’s been unseasonably warm in Chicagoland. My brother-in-law John is visiting from Scotland, here to run the binary Chicago Marathon, 10-10-10. We’ve been ruefully observing the heat, trying not to make too many global warming jokes, and enjoying at least one perk: sleeping with the windows wide open.

Two nights ago, a blood-freezing scream woke me out of a deep sleep. Paul and I sat straight up, hearts pounding, listening for whatever would follow. It was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to calculate that it had been some sort of animal and there were no more details to really absorb. Paul and I settled back down, but within moments we were driven out of the bed to the front window. There was some sort of odd, repetitive noise coming from very close by.

My first instinct was to look down the driveway toward the street. Nothing. But Paul, behind me, said, “It’s a coyote.” He was standing in the middle of our front yard, illuminated by the street lamp. And hearing our whispers, the coyote turned his head and looked right up at us. His left front paw held down his prey, as he methodically tore it up and ate it. We had been roused by the crunching of bones and smacking of lips as he ate a bunny 15 feet from our front door.


Just doing his or her job.


I now knew the terrified scream that had awoken us was from a rabbit. We had heard that scream another time, at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Our niece Erin was touring Chicago with her orchestra students from Virginia, and we met them for a walk around the famous landmark. As we wandered through one of the exhibit houses, several boys from her group came running up to us, imploring her to come see the hawk eat the bunny out in front of the exhibit. “No thanks, guys,” she grimaced. Their brief exchange gave me the time to process that the shrill cries I had vaguely been aware of were coming from the rabbit as it was hunted and killed. This is primal sound, of terror and incredulity and helplessness.

Last night, Paul was in the city being support staff for his brother’s marathon run. I was a little apprehensive but pretty confident I wouldn’t have to experience a Wild Kingdom repeat without my Eagle Scout. Apparently, however, our yard is now this coyote’s preferred hunting ground.

Whereas the first incident had taken place at an hour I will concede to these nocturnal activities, 4:00 a.m., the second occurred at 1:20 a.m. It involved neither a bunny nor an hour late enough that I had confidence all the neighbors were bedded down and had retrieved the family pets that have outdoor privileges.

I am fairly certain this time the coyote caught a cat.

I suppose it is an uncomfortable stretch for many people to extrapolate from this probably mundane scene of survival (well, the coyote’s survival anyway) to my subsequent decision to stop eating meat. Here are my dots, connected as best I can:

For me to eat meat, animals have to be slaughtered; by and large, this is not done in a humane way which minimizes the animals’ fear and pain; for myself, I can no longer justify eating in a way that requires this kind of suffering. I’ve heard the death screams. They’re awful.

I hold absolutely no grudge against the coyote. Zip zilch nada. And don’t worry, I’m not proselytizing. From start to finish, this is personal.


So there it is. Like I said, it’s never been easier to follow alternative eating plans, and I’ve already successfully eliminated much dairy and all gluten from my diet. From now on, though you’ll find a lot of delicious ingredients on my Udi’s, my BLTs will be made using “Smart Bacon.” That really is the name for vegan bacon. Smart bacon.

For Atkinites and vegetarians, it all comes down to bacon.

Just one more thing: I have my niece Laura to thank for her timely recommendation of Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet. If making these changes interests you at all, this is a much better source of information and recipes than the celebrity association would typically suggest. Thanks, Laura.

Words Matter



Morning meditation


This morning over coffee, my friend Janet shared a great story about her college-age son. He’s dating a woman whose first language is Japanese and who still struggles with English.

“Well, how do they communicate?” we asked.

Very well…” she demurred.

With a wink and a nod, we three women, with collectively over 75 years of marriage lingua frankness, were reminded of the subtle language of young lovers.

“Of course, you know, 90% of communication is non-verbal,” I said, as we grinned like a clowder of Cheshire cats.

I know we all know what we’re getting at here. <ahem> However, I’m not sure I believe the statistic. 90%? Really? Does that imply that words don’t matter?

I couldn’t disagree more with that statement.

Here are just a few reasons why saying words don’t matter bothers me:

  • I’m an English major, a reader, a word addict
  • My family and friends are also word-nerds
  • Remember the recent library video, “Libraries Will Survive!” (enjoy another peek)

Words matter.

For example, here’s a great word: Nepotism. Well, the word is interesting, even if the action is often maligned. Accepting that I am guilty of nepotism, I want to call your attention to a new blog called Words Matter. When you visit, you may recognize the writer. He’s the one for whom I save over 90% of my non-verbal language.

You can check out Paul’s blog by clicking on “Paul’s site” over there on my Blogroll.

Watch for his sentence of the week. I’m on the hunt with him, paying even closer attention to what I read and listen to, hoping to catch another sentence that is especially expressive, artful, or funny. Or truthy, if we’re watching Colbert. Our friend Andrew Amelinckx pursues a similar interest. While you’re communing with the words, check out his blog, The True Sentence. It’s a shiny new addition to my Blogroll.

Speaking of updates, I added a few books to the 250 Books list, which I realized I had been neglecting. (I’ve committed 39 to my list now, and I’m already second-guessing myself.) At some point, I will have to categorize the entries, or at least alphabetize them.

Words matter, but so does organization!




Tidying up before The Feast

Urgency Day 317


500 Things Items 176-184: Kitchen Scraps

  • History: Had a need, bought a thing
  • Value: Esp. well-used, Pyrex bowls and loaf pan
  • Parting Pain: None- I love more room in the cupboards
  • Un-possessing: Donations


Cue the Linus and Lucy theme and hand me a “wet sucker,” because I’m jumping in the nearest pile of leaves.

I love fall. No make that,

I LOOOOVE fall!!

Here are ten random things that are better about fall:

  1. Apples—real ones with a few brown spots and no shiny wax, from the farmers’ market or better yet, U Pick ‘em apple groves
  2. Chill in the air so you need…
  3. Sweaters, the cozier the better for sitting around…
  4. Fires—in a fireplace or a campground or a backyard fire pit
  5. Orange, brown and red after the silly day-glo colors of summer
  6. Leaves turning orange, brown and red and…
  7. Falling leaves swirling in the wind like disoriented flocks of birds
  8. The woodsy, fecund smell of fallen leaves and (probably illegal) leaf burning in backyards
  9. Pumpkin patches, the more Sincere the better
  10. Anticipating the holidays which is always way better than the holidays themselves

And, of course, stews and soups and chili, oh my. Seasonal cooking is always appealing, but for me, never more so than in the fall.

Last week, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman chronicled a week he spent cooking just for himself and mostly using pantry staples. His piece, The Pantry Diaries, got me thinking about the need to go through my own pantry and stock up on the fall staples I would be turning to again and again in the coming months: beans, pastas, canned or boxed tomatoes, broths, tuna and artichokes packed in olive oil, brown rice and lentils. I love how these satisfying ingredients are also some of the most frugal.

So, I’ll be watching the grocery store fliers for sales on these items to bolster my supplies; asking my friends who shop with an eye on the final cha-ching to alert me when they see these things go on sale where they shop; and organizing my recipes to accommodate autumnal flavors.

But I realized that by stocking up, even in this reasonable way, I am not, strictly speaking, adhering to my downsizing project.

For all my affection for the season, fall is not usually associated with downsizing. In fact, it’s usually the harbinger of the traditional more-is-more bacchanalia of the holidays: From waistlines to wasteful spending, everything seems to expand between now and the January 2nd reckoning.

I began to wonder if it were possible to introduce a hint of reduction to the season of expansion. I wondered if I could actually decrease something about my kitchen a mere 50 days before the feast, the iconic feast, The Thanksgiving Day Feast, which I am happily hosting this year.

I curiously extended the challenge, and I smugly accepted the challenge– but of course.

Here’s my list of downsizeables, culled not from my basement but from my hard-working kitchen:

  1. Terra cotta garlic baker
  2. Set of 3 measuring cups shaped like teacups
  3. 2 nesting Pyrex bowls
  4. Decorative bowl
  5. Set of wooden salad servers
  6. 2 baking sheets
  7. Broiler pan and tray
  8. Loaf pan with removable drip-pan liner

(Eight lines totaling twelve tools. Nine discards were due today to stay on track.)

Most of this collection are duplicates– suspiciously unnecessary purchases made through the years. A few were gifts (I hope you still love me, givers). The broiler pan was in the oven when we arrived with the one from our old house. (Oops.) If anything else needs explaining, just ask.

I’m confident The Feast will still be delicious.  I suspect I could do this several more times with no impact on my cooking. Hmmm. Another challenge?

Fall is here, and I am rejuvenated.

Isn’t it ironic that fall puts a spring in my step?

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