Spot Treatment


problem spotted

Urgency Day 90

500 Things Items 404-406: Laundry Mishaps

  • History: Moving-too-fast purchases
  • Value: Without coupons, approx. $15
  • Parting Pain: Yes, as a cautionary tale
  • Un-possessing: Offering to non-HE needing friends

Do you love Simon and Garfunkel?

I sure do. Which songs would be in the middle of our hypothetical Simon and Garfunkel Venn diagram: Bridge Over Troubled Water, Scarborough Fair, Sounds of Silence? Probably. How do you feel about Feelin’ Groovy?

It should be the song that is on a constant loop when I grocery shop.

Slow down, you move too fast…

I have a bad habit of trying to sneak in a quick trip to the grocery store– you know, just for “a couple of things”– before bus stop duty. This engenders several consistent results:

  1. I buy too little
  2. I buy too much
  3. I usually forget the one thing I actually went for.
  4. And I can be relied upon to buy the wrong laundry detergent.

My block on this is quite uncanny. I know I have a high efficiency washer. I know I need HE designated laundry detergent. But in the face of the


the liquids, the powders, the gels; mountain scent, citrus scent, fragrance free, dye free, bleach alternative, best in cold water, on the rocks or straight up…

I am standing there, knowing I should already be loading the groceries into my car or I’m going to be late, not still STILL standing there, overwhelmed by laundry detergent.

4. And I can be relied upon to buy the wrong laundry detergent.

Last September, I wrote about wanting to fluff my laundry nook. It’s small and less than inspiring, and I just wanted a pretty spot to accomplish this most Zen of tasks—one that is never ever truly finished.

There’s nothing like hosting a big party to inspire a few household updates.

Just in time for the Self-Contained Unit’s grad party, I slapped a coat of pretty blue-green-grey paint on the walls, scrubbed everything else down, and you know what? That tip about a coat of paint being the best quick-fix is really true!


I am so happy with my freshened up laundry area, I vow to take special care in selecting the correct HE laundry detergent to use there. I promise to stop and feel groovy.

Plus, school’s done for me now.

More about that to follow…

The Last Lunch


At 18, no longer embarrassed by his mom.

Urgency Day 94

500 Things Items 97-99: Plastic water bottles

  • History: From the brown-bag years
  • Value: Between the BPAs and the mold, not much
  • Parting pain: None!
  • Un-possessing:  Through Naperville’s comprehensive recycling program

Remember when pizza day at school was a treat?

It was usually Friday. And that was the only day Sam ever wanted to buy his lunch at school.

No years of char-burgers and tater tots for him; no spaghetti and meatless-meat sauce, no limp iceberg lettuce salads, no breakfast-for-lunch, no Can-I-just-have-ice-cream- please? bargaining attempts. No school lunches for Sam, except pizza. And by the third grade, he had given up that, too.

Today, I made brown-bag lunch #2017: My Last School Lunch for Sam. Two-thousand seventeen. That’s my estimate anyway, based on some creative but sound accounting. It may not be an exact figure, but I bet it’s pretty darn close. If anything, I bet it’s under the total. It sure feels like it’s under. All those bleary-eyed mornings of brown-bag duty feel like a lot more than 2017.

In honor of this occasion, I am retiring several tired reusable plastic water bottles.

For years, I would freeze and then carefully wrap a disposable bottle of water in foil and plastic wrap to include in Sam’s lunch bags. The ice would melt by lunch—luckily Sam never had one of those absurdly early lunch periods such as one year at his school (and I am not making this up) 9:40 a.m.—and it would keep the rest of his lunch cool.

Then, another mom said, “You shouldn’t freeze those plastic water bottles.”

(Plus, they really are lousy for the environment.)

So we tried:

  • re-freezable cold packs–  he’d forget and throw them away;
  • baggies full of ice—they invariably leaked and got stuff soggy, plus that’s a lot of baggies;
  • reusable plastic bottles filled with ice water.

The last wasn’t a bad solution. He still managed to pitch them, forget them, and leave them a moldering in his locker; but on the whole, these worked.

Then, another mom said, “There are BPAs in refillable plastic bottles.”

I am so happy to have made my last official school lunch.

Just for curiosity’s sake (and for our family records), the Last Lunch contained:

  • Granola bar (for midmorning snacking)
  • Raisin bread slices (he’s not a big sandwich eater; peanut butter crackers were also a staple);
  • MacIntosh apple;
  • Baggie of pineapple chunks;
  • Baggie of baby carrots;
  • Four Oreo cookies.

“When you are 6 feet tall and weigh 130 pounds, you are allowed to have 4 Oreo cookies in your lunch.”

And that’s what Sam’s mom said.

House Keeping


not keeping

Urgency Day 100

500 Things Item 400:  Sponge Mop

  • History: From another era
  • Value: Mine never fully wrings out and gets icky
  • Parting Pain: I really only use Swiffers, so no
  • Un-possessing: Free-cycle (i.e. out next to the garbage)

People expect empty shelves.

Since starting this project 400 days ago, I’ve gotten rid of 400 things from our home. More, really. So, when people come to our house, they truly expect to see empty shelves, bare walls, closed off rooms.

And you know what they find?

Full shelves, decorated walls, open doors.

The most dramatic realization in this project is that more than 400 things can lift right out of a home, and no one will notice. And I don’t mean 400 Lego pieces:

  • 41 Kitchen items
  • 58 Decorative items
  • 54 Items of clothing
  • 21 Wardrobe accessories
  • 35 DVDs, CDs and tapes
  • 4 Pieces of furniture
  • 8 Electronics
  • 43 (+ one trunk load) Toys and games
  • 28 Household items such as tools
  • 1 Christmas Wreath
  • 1 Box of Mouse Memorabilia
  • 186 Books

480 items, right there. Over 20% more stuff than planned: That’s a lot of wiggle room– and even that’s not completely accurate. I often underreported whole categories of items. Take clothing. A bag bulging with clothing to be donated would add just a couple of ticks to the Project counter. And books! One day I counted 127 books as a mere 4 items!

The idea was to stay on track, one thing a day for 500 days. If some days more downsizing was accomplished, well, this is one case where I will admit more is better. Only one, though.

So here we are: The last 100 days of my 500 days of highly monitored downsizing. And friends of this Project are aware that #500 will be a doozy. But I’ve known it from the start; it’s part and parcel of the entire endeavor. I knew I would be launching Sam at the end. Launching is necessary and exciting and heartbreaking and wonderful.  In terms of your child, launching sounds a whole lot better than downsizing.

What I did not know for a very long time during this process, was whether Paul and I would also need to downsize another very significant thing in our lives, at the same time we were launching our son.

For a very long time, we thought we would also need to sell our house.

Now “need” is an interesting word. On paper, we probably do still need to sell our house. But we can’t, not now. Right now, very few people can.

So we are keeping the house. We are profoundly grateful that this is even an option, grateful to every person who helped and prayed and employed and loved us to this point. We’re digging deep and digging in. We’re keeping the house, and launching the child.

Launching #500

in 100 days.

Stuff Happens


Creeping but not creepy clutter

Urgency Day 101

500 Things Items 392-399: Candles and Scarves

  • History: Creeping Clutter
  • Value: Reminders that vigilance needs to be constant
  • Parting Pain: Candles: none; Scarves: Some (They’re my pathology.)
  • Un-possessing: Burning the candles, gifting the scarves

Stuff happens.

Despite my– or anyone’s—best intentions, stuff happens. An extra scarf here, an unconsidered candle there, and suddenly those nicely organized shelves and closets are loaded up again. Just as a few extra Thin Mints sabotage weeks of shorts-weather dietary forbearance, impulse buys undermine months of clutter caution.

But in our consumer culture, is it really possible never to submit to the retail-siren song?

In a word: No.

Stuff happens.

Okay, then what? What’s the reaction that’s going to ensure that a few impulse purchases remain an asterisk, a blip in the trajectory toward a less-cluttered life, and don’t become the beginning of a downward spiral back to clutter chaos?

When you stand at a pivot point, what do you do?

(Boy, a couple of Thin Mints sound pretty good right now, don’t they?)

I don’t know about you, but none of the conventional motivational phrases quite do it for me:

  • I don’t want to get back on some horse;
  • I don’t want to keep eying a stubborn prize;
  • I’m kind of freaked out by that picture of a kitten hanging on for dear life.

I need a new image, a new phrase to rattle the bars of my complacency. Hmmm. “Bar rattling?” Uh, no. Okay, I don’t have a poster-ready motivational phrase to offer. I do have one thing that usually works pretty well for me, and trust me, I didn’t invent this, darn it.

When I’m feeling flat, uncommitted and uninspired, I love a good laugh.

Really. A good laugh does for me what running does for runners– I’ve heard. It sends out those endorphins that make anything seem possible. Get to the end of listening to old Bill Cosby routines such as Noah or Toss of the Coin, and I’m clapping my hands together, eyes alight, and asking, “OK. Who’s with me?!” Because I’ve just committed to some scathingly audacious plan. Like what? Oh, like Organize EVERYTHING!, for a relevant example.

Just from having a good laugh.

It’s about keeping perspective though, isn’t it? My family volunteered at a wonderful event last weekend, the Families Helping Families annual 5k Fun Walk and silent auction. It could not have been more fun—well, yes, it could have, if it had not been 40 degrees out in a driving wind and spitting rain, but that just added to the spirit of camaraderie.

At the conclusion of the silent auction, I went over to congratulate my friend– and fellow clutter streamliner—Melanie, for having won a charming gift basket. She was wearing, atop her 5 layers of down and wool, the most sardonic smile. Having carefully instructed her  sweet husband on which auction items to try for while she went and walked their darling new puppy, she was exasperated to find that her $40 in raffle tickets had won her exactly the basket of lovely stuff she had donated in the first place.

You see? Stuff happens.

And we had a good laugh.

prodigal stuff happens, too

Why I Hate Summer


It's 90 degrees out. Am I mad?

Urgency Day 106

500 Things Item 391: Winter Coat

  • History: c. 1999, I meant to un-possess it last winter
  • Value: It’s a good warm coat which someone will enjoy
  • Parting Pain: Embarrassed that I have so many coats, so no parting pain
  • Un-possessing: Donation

I hate summer.

I take a lot of abuse for saying this.

I also receive a fair amount of support.

Summer seems to be a more divisive topic than you might expect.

If you’ve been so kind as to take notice of the 250 Books list I’m methodically compiling, you may have observed a wonderful children’s book at #23, Summer by Alice Low. Occupying position 23 on my list should not suggest it is my 23rd favorite book; that is merely the order in which it was added. Actually, this little picture book is probably one of my top 5 favorite books.

It’s a sweet, funny tribute to all the things I used to love about summer-time, back when summer was about time: Time off, time to relax, time to do absolutely nothing. Summer-time is quantifiably different from other-time.

And it’s ridiculous to say we did nothing in summertime. We did everything in summertime!… except go to school, and that made summer the absolute perfect time.

Being done with school now, the lack of school doesn’t make summer perfect anymore. That’s not what is missing for me. The beach is missing for me. Has been for years now, and I miss it with an ache as potent as the loss of a soul mate.

But wistfulness is not hate. And I hate summer.

  • I hate the heat AND the humidity:
  • I hate perspiring glasses and people;
  • I hate that panicky space of time between shutting the passenger door on your buckled-in child or panting dog and dashing around to the driver’s door to start the car and crank up the air conditioning;
  • I hate air conditioning;
  • I hate when the air conditioning breaks;
  • I hate spider veins, month-old pedicures, self-tanner stains, bikini waxes, needing bikini waxes.

And there’s the ugly truth. I hate that aging means I’ve become high-maintenance in summertime. It’s not the aging; it’s the maintaining.

Summer used to be about a tank top, a pair of shorts and maybe some flip flops. Not anymore. Now, I need time to be presentable; more time than in the wintertime; too much time, to present myself comfortably, and I hate wasting time.

What am I working toward in this project?

Less stuff, more time!

And I don’t want to do nothing anymore; I want to do everything! Except preen. What a waste of time.

But that’s what it’s come to for me: Self-consciousness. I hate that.

Ditto, summer.


Urgency Day 107

500 Things Item 390: The Princess Dress

  • Her-story: c.1987 Fredericksburg, VA thrift store
  • Value: Cautionary Tale
  • Parting Pain: Not a lick
  • Un-possessing: For little Bird’s dress-up box

I didn’t expect to see a duck on the roof.

Riding off on our Mother’s Day bike ride last weekend, a neighbor pointed out a beautiful duck sunning himself on the roof of another neighbor’s house. As a former student at the University of Oregon, I am a Duck-at-heart, but I didn’t expect to see a duck atop a peaked roof, taking in some rays.

I frequently think about expectations. I believe that a lot of the things that delight us or frustrate us are things that defy our expectations. The duck was delightful. De-light-ful…

Are you waiting for the frustrated shoe to drop?

Long ago, I was a princess. I bought a princessy dress at a Fredericksburg, Virginia thrift store and dressed up like a princess for Halloween. I was twenty-five. My darling dressed up as an adoring nerd. I loved that dress. Maybe I loved it a little too noticeably or a little too viscerally, because my future brother-in-law, J**n, gave me a gym-class-gray tee shirt which reads “Princess in Training.”

What was your point, J**n?

The princess dress has since been toted unworn from house to house, all these many years, locked away in a storage trunk which looks very much like a treasure chest. But I wear that tee-shirt every time I clean my house. I am very tidy; I wear that tee shirt a lot.

Last weekend wasn’t just for Mother’s Day. On Saturday, somewhat unexpectedly, the Self-Contained Unit went to his senior prom. It was unexpected, because until recently, he vigorously eschewed many such iconic traditions. But tradition has its place, and his father and I were tickled that he asked a smart, strong, lovely young woman who can go toe-to-toe with our boy. Truly, she has a good head on her very fit shoulders.

It was quite the Event.

Somewhere since the time of my (alas) unrequited senior opportunity, prom has gone from prom to PROM! It is now a three-day weekend of breakfasts and pictures and limos and PROM! and after-PROM! and PROM!-getaways and senior ditch day. This is the expectation. Here is my frustration: There’s a bit of princessing in all this. I wanted to hand out tee shirts.

Do you believe in magic?

I sure do. And I think anyone who says “no” is way over-thinking the question. Think Harry Potter; think dropping a coin in a fountain; think about the birth of your first child. You don’t even have to be a parent: your first child could be a beloved niece or nephew or the dog whose unconditional love can’t be adequately explained. There is magic in those bonds. I’m talking to you, my darling skeptic.

This question, about magic, was one of only four questions asked on Sam’s Vassar housing survey. Three of the four questions,

  1. What are your preferred hours of consciousness?
  2. How tidy are you?
  3. How social is your networking?

(I’m paraphrasing) had four possible responses each.

But the fourth question was binary:

      4. Do you believe in magic?

  • Yes
  • No

I do believe in magic. But not in princesses. I worry that ratcheting up events like prom—sorry, PROM!—into something rivaling a wedding with all the attendant princess-for-a day fuss and expense, creates Serial-Princess-Expectations, which grow with each event.

I am almost certainly fighting a losing battle-of-expectations here, so I will simply donate my own princess dress to a beloved little Bird’s dress up box. Does this undermine my intention? I trust her parents to keep her balanced.

Magic is important, for little girls, and even former Ducks.

former fairy tale Duckling

Footnote: I am delighted to report, the adorable, if unexpected, couple had a lovely, drama-free time at the PROM!

Spot On, Donna


sweet but unused

Urgency Day 110

500 Things Item 389: Set of Egg Cups

  • History: From long ago and far away
  • Value:  Sat on a shelf more than they held my eggs
  • Parting Pain: My cupboard is a little less inviting, but no separation pain
  • Un-possessing: Gift

If you are a pattern seeker like me, you may have noticed a pattern on my May blog:

We celebrate a lot of birthdays in May!

A lot as in “Holy crap, what was going on all those Augusts ago?”

Between Paul’s family and my family and our closest friends’ families, we have 12 May honorees. Plus Mother’s Day. In some families that may not seem excessive. But here is a coincidence that I think makes my pattern a bit more exceptional:

Paul and I each have one sister who was born on the anniversary of the other’s parents:

  • My Donna was born on his John & Virginia’s anniversary, May 7;
  • His Katherine was born on my Arthur & Joyce’s May 15.

I think that’s a cool bit of family overlap. Plus, I recently pieced together that my niece Laura– of tiny sand-crab fame— shares a May 5th birthday with my dearest friend’s gorgeous mom, Bonnie—which is also Cinco de Mayo. I say, Margaritas for everyone!

Oh my dear lord, who am I forgetting?

I realize that sending out these very personal posts, or “modern greeting cards” as I call them, makes this blog feel even more personal than it already is– which is pretty darn. I’ll risk it. There’s not a chance I am going to miss wishing my darling sister a great big bloggy Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday, Donna!

And speaking of chance and patterns and sisters, all these things converge remarkably in Donna. My sister Donna is famous, infamous actually, for having the most unlikely consistency in one very specific routine task: Parking. Donna has uncanny luck with finding parking spots right next to whatever entrance she needs to use. Her luck in this area is so consistent, when other’s familiar with this pattern share in her good fortune and find a wildly convenient place to park, it is recognized with this invocation:

Donna spot!

On Donna’s birthday, I wish you all a happy Donna spot. I hope you recognize the patterns of good fortune in your own life. Luck comes into our lives in obvious ways and in small ways which are not always easy to spot.

But having treasured sisters is the greatest luck of all.

Also a happy Donna spot

Signs of Life


a sign

Urgency Day 112

500 Things Item 388: Secretary Desk

  • History: Family piece
  • Value: I think the Antiques Roadshow people would demur
  • Parting Pain: Only in the shipping
  • Un-possessing: A gift

Stop deep breath listen

When you read those words, where did you put the commas? Did you put commas?

Even in the very clutter-free world toward which I am working, there will still be commas. Commas are simply pauses. In fact, I think I will have a few more pauses in the clutter-free world, because I will have more time.

Less time managing my clutter. More time experiencing my life.

Uber-organizer Peter Walsh defines clutter as “anything that gets between you and the life you want to live.” (Natural Healing 3/10. 74) I think this is an enlightening statement.

Clutter is subjective.

I was in my garden yesterday with a young friend who was helping me pull some weeds. He asked what a weed was. I offered him the classic definition: “A weed is anything growing where you don’t want it to grow.” He paused, and– smart six-year-old cookie that he is– he asked, “So if you didn’t want a rose bush right here, it would be a weed?”

“Yes, Luke. Even a rose bush can be a weed.”

We both paused, mid-weed pull, and breathed deeply. Then we both cracked up at breathing so deeply at the exact same time. Six-year olds are great levelers.

The sweet desk I am gifting today has become a weed to me. It is clutter. But, when I offered it to my niece, Laura, she was thrilled. As a newly-minted, first-time home owner, it isn’t clutter to her at all. It’s a sign of starting a new life.

Signs of life. Every scratch, every dent, every nick and scrape on the desk represents a moment of engagement. Even if the engagement was only to catch my mail or store Sam’s music or hold a vase of roses from my garden, there was a purpose. But the desk has long since been replaced as a mail catcher, a music stand, a room brightener. At one time, I was so pleased to have it, and now I am even more pleased to give it to Laura.

I wrote about Laura last year, on this same day, May 5th, Laura’s birthday. Laura is a force of nature who is off right now having adventures, experiencing life. I hope this old desk will brighten her new life. It can’t even hint at the dazzling brightness she has brought to mine.

At one time, this desk held a box of my most beloved pictures. One is a picture of baby Laura, at the beach, delicately handing me a sand crab. But the picture captures the moment just before she places the treasure in my hand. We are paused, forever, in the moment just before. I’ve stared at this picture so often, I can conjure every sound and every smell, and remember experiencing the magic of a small, wondrous life.

Stop, deep breath, listen.

Happy birthday, Laura

The Fourth Force


better than ebay: like-minded friends

Urgency Day 113

500 Things Items 380-87: Star WarsToys

  • History: Lovingly collected; lovingly played forward
  • Value: Priceless (literally in some cases)
  • Parting Pain:Have you seen Toy Story 3? It’s complicated.
  • Un-possessing: Already gifted

May the Fourth Be With You!

Because May 4th is International Star Wars Day! But even more significantly, it’s my mom’s birthday!

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Sometimes the Stars align, such as celebrating both my luminous mom and that spectacular movie about a scrappy band of stellar rebels. In case you were unaware, big fan, right here. Big nerdy fan.

But my mom is the coolest mom. She has gamely watched so many years of science fiction movies and TV shows with me and my sister; decades really.  Even now, when she sees Capt. Kirk hanging on through sheer bare-chested grit, we can still get her going with the line, “This is the one where Kirk dies, Mom.”

“Really?!”   “Ohhh, you guys are kidding me!”

You’ve heard it before: The dictionary definition of gullible includes a picture of my mom.

But being gullible is not the same as being unintelligent. Mom is one of the best-read people I know. And remarkably, she constantly marvels at the changes she has seen over the course of her life. We all know people who rue change, who view whatever condition the world was in when they were young as the definitive measure of desirability.  Not mom.

Maybe it’s because she was a nurse and values the wondrous advances in medicine she has witnessed, or it may simply be her transcendent curiosity, but she has never shied away from the next new thing. She wants to understand technology and all the new gadgetry.

Like many grandparents, she will watch her grandson play his various beeping games for hours. “Oh, I just love being with you, honey,” she’ll say. But then you’ll hear her ask him, “How do you move around that video game so fast? I wish I could do that!”

I wish I could do that. I wish I could embody the delight my mom still exudes in the ninth decade of her life. I know she will savor this quote I read yesterday:

“Living on earth may be expensive, but it includes an annual free trip around the Sun.” (anon.)

Happy 84 free stellar trips, Mom!

The Force has always been with you.

my stars

Smart Trees


crouching colleges, hidden ivies

Urgency Day 114

500 Things Items 377-79: Reference Books

  • History: Required reading for efficient applying
  • Value: Gave us some good, insidery strategies
  • Parting Pain: No regrets. Period.
  • Un-possessing: Passing along to the next round of applicants

One time in my high school government class, I used the word “incongruous” in a debate.

Not exactly an A-list word, but one girl raised her hand and demanded to know what it meant and where in the world I had heard it. I defined the word and told her that, well, I read a lot.

If only I’d stopped there.

I went on to say that I also like to consult reference books, such as my trusty thesaurus.

The ensuing howls still ring in my ears. You would have thought I proudly declared that I plagiarize every word I write. “You’re not ALLOWED to use a thesaurus! You end up using words you don’t even know just to sound smart!”

Sounding smart. We won’t have that.

Do you buy it? Reference books just let you “sound smart.” Or maybe they help get you to smart. Or at least smarter. Today, I’m un-possessing the three reference books Sam consulted assiduously during the college admissions process to “apply smart.” Or at least smarter.

By the time you start applying to college in your senior year, so much of the admissions process is already determined. If your grades, scores or intangibles aren’t highly desirable, you have some hard choices to make. Even if they are, you have some hard choices to make.

From the start, I feared we would flounder through the entire process, two steps befuddled at every deadline. Why not, I wondered, apply efficiently? My favorite thing. We did our research and bought three college admissions reference books with

  • Tips!
  • and Time Saving Hints!
  • and Information the Ivies Don’t Want YOU to Have!

And don’t be fooled. College apps. are a family affair. Even if your only job is to cajole encourage, as a parent, you are still involved. As a recently cajoling encouraging parent, here is one of my abiding impressions of this entire exhausting, convoluted process:

When your child is applying to college, you encounter a lot of trees.

  • Trees in the form of paper; oh my sweet lord, paper for everything. Even with electronic submissions. So. Much. Paper.
  • Sure, paper, but also trees as in actual Trees. We met some great trees during this process. Several of the campuses we visited are home to some spectacularly inspiring trees.
  • But don’t miss the forest for the trees. (Interpret as needed.)

I know my darling librarian friends are wondering why on earth we didn’t just use our Award Winning library instead of buying these books. We did. We researched and consulted the amazing reference librarians at Nichols Library: They don’t just sound smart; they are smart. But after we had renewed the books the three-allowed times, it was only August.

August, 2010, when we saw the Red Tree.

And when I still had 384 days before Sam leaves.

Swarthmore's storied Red Tree: Sorry.

Vassar's captivating Sycamore: Oh yes.

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