I, Luddite


I really do miss vinyl.

Urgency Day 57

500 Things Items 438-49: The Musicals (don’t panic)

  • History: Latest incarnations of music that’s been with me a long  long time
  • Value:  $250 conservatively
  • Parting pain: Oh My Gravy
  • Un-possessing: Sending to excellent foster homes

After an improbable string of losses at computerized solitaire, I picked up a real deck of cards and won the very first game.

I hear you, Universe! I am meant to be a Luddite.

Unfortunately, I live in an inhospitable realm called The Digital World. C’est la vie.

I want so much to participate in the pads and the pods and the touches. Androids? Loved them for years, going all the way back to I, Robot.

Hey, maybe Mr. Asimov invented this iStuff.

Many Christmases ago, my boys very generously—and very optimistically—tried to guide me into the world of Incredibly Portable Music. They gave me an iPod. On paper, this should have been a cloud-parting-angels-singing moment. It should have been like my first taste of caramel corn. It should have ensured my eventual need for hearing aids from the hyper-volumized music constantly pumping into my eardrums.

It wasn’t. It wasn’t. It didn’t.

Quick iPod question:  How do you get the CDs in there? And HOW DO YOU GET IT TO PLAY THE SONG YOU WANT? Because when I touch something with a screen, it reaches out and slaps me.  Really, I swear.

Oh Oh Oh! That’s my cool invention: The iSwear!

Only I am sure I didn’t get there first. Have you noticed that it’s not actually possible to have an original idea anymore? When was the last time you Googled something and got zero results?

Well, I’m trying to make peace with my iPod. And I decided to jump in cold turkey. I’m loading it with my favorite music. Show tunes.

Don’t make my screen slap you. FYI: Stephen Colbert and I have this preference in common.

And I’m sending my Cds (minus the liner notes) along to kindred Broadway spirits. There’s no going back now. If I can’t figure out this tiny little replica of the monolith from 2001, I may drive a few people crazy.*


* Thanks, as always, Mr. Sondheim.


My Best Tips


good-- but not my best tips

Urgency Day 59

500 Things Item 437: Cake Decorating Kit

  • History: Before cupcakes, there were cakes
  • Value: $39.99 (in 1996 dollars)
  • Parting pain: None
  • Un-possessing: I hope my young friend Tony wants it. He’s just starting his culinary adventures.

A long time ago, my college roommate called me Suzy- there’s-a-product-for-that.

She observed my utter conviction that, if there was a need:

  • Teeth to be whitened
  • Clothes to be brightened
  • Hair to be heightened

American chemists could R and D a solution, and American commerce would offer it up for my convenience at some price ending in 99.

What surprises leap out here? That I, The Downsizing Crusader, was once such an enthusiastic consumer? That the enthusiastic consumer has gone on a downsizing crusade? Or that I was once a girl called Suzy? Flip a coin, should you have a three-sided one. It all shocks the h-e-double-toothpicks out of me.

Life’s a hoot, ain’t it?

Many many people are doing more with less these days, either out of necessity or conscience or both. I love, for example, using plain old—and best of all, cheap! — white vinegar to clean and degrease my kitchen. It works better than any chemically spray, and did I mention it’s cheap? On the days I can’t leave the windows open to clear the vinegary fumes, I bake something yummy smelling.

I suspect my boys are supportive of my downsized cleaning efforts.

Interestingly, baking is one area of my life that has gotten more complicated not less. As a gluten-free baker, I now require a pantry full of intriguing little bags of flours and starches to concoct delicious treats, where I used to need only plain old—and best of all, cheap!—all-purpose flour. Sure, I had a few other dusty bags around such as whole wheat flour or the occasional box of cake flour, but mostly all I needed was AP flour to turn out yummy smelling treats.

TIPS:  Did you know you can make an excellent substitute for cake flour using cornstarch? Just add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch plus enough AP flour to measure 1 cup and whisk. I adore handy substitutes! I also add 1 tablespoon of plain white vinegar to 1 cup of milk to make buttermilk.

A very streamlined life: Brought to you by plain white vinegar.

But I say, out with unnecessary complications! And since my baking has gotten more complicated by dietary necessity, I want to eliminate all the fuss and falderal around it I am able.

So, I am downsizing this under-used Martha Stewart cake decorating kit, complete with tips, and pips and detailed instructions for making my cake-baking life really complicated. I did use the pretty paste food colors it came with, well some of them. I remember they gave the frosting  kind of an off-flavor. Something not correctable with a bit of plain white vinegar.

And when you search “white vinegar” on Miss Martha’s site? One thousand fifty-four results.

Plain white vinegar: At the heart of many a happy kitchen.

And it makes a great baking soda volcano, too.

Humidity, arg


I'm from the paper age.

Urgency Day 63

500 Things Items 433-36: Paper “Sponges”

  • History: Paper clutter spreads like mold, especially when stored in damp basements
  • Value: The books have $1.95 on the covers! But I bet I paid a quarter at a library book sale; the old papers and bad photos– zip
  • Parting pain: Only in realizing how much is still left to clean out
  • Un-possessing: Donations (books); shredding (papers and photos)

It ain’t the heat, it’s the…

And it’s still my number one reason, well number two reason, why I hate summer.

Humidity, arg.

What is humidity, arg, but too much water where you don’t want it: In the air around your head, for example– which puts it in the hair around your head.

I was recently admiring the way my friend Melanie’s glorious curls were strutting their stuff on a humid morning walk. My preternaturally straight hair, on the other hand? Lank lank lank. And unsuccessfully obscured by a tugged-low baseball cap. Pretty, huh?

Besides over my goofy hair, I wage a constant battle with humidity, arg in my basement where I keep too many things (I could end the sentence here) that are vulnerable to water:

  • Pictures
  • Papers
  • Books
  • Carpeting
  • Dry wall

I have a daily summer routine of asking the Self-Contained Unit to honey-please-empty-the-dehumidifier. Yes, daily: Daily requests and daily emptying. That’s a lot of cajoling; that’s a lot of water.

We actually had a flood in our basement within the first year of living in this house. The sump pump died sometime early on a Tuesday, and wasn’t discovered until sometime late on Wednesday when Sam and I went down to the basement to retrieve a book his Aunt Donna had referenced. I’ll never forget it: Alice in Wonderland. You can’t make this stuff up.  A few steps into the quickly submerging basement, and I felt like Alice.

We then entered an actual Wonderland of absurd insurance company regulations, Cheshire Cat (now you see them, now you…) emergency water-evacuation businesses, and tangos with a pair of unstrung carpet layers from the Land of the Queen of Carpets– a mad fiefdom run by a particularly frightening woman named Nancy, who continued my strange pattern of having unnerving encounters with women named Nancy.

To my dear cousin’s wife: Not you, babe.

Every time I ask the Self-Contained Unit to empty the dehumidifier, every time I retrieve another slightly moist paperback, every time it’s dewy outside and I don’t hear the sump pump immediately switch on, I wonder: Why oh why did we finish the basement?

Today, I am downsizing from each of the above categories I am able. Unfortunately, the carpet and dry wall are affixed.

  • Pictures: One of four boxes purged of unnecessary doubles and blurry mistakes.
  • Papers: Filing cabinet cleared of 1 shopping bag worth of outdated papers to be shredded.
  • Books: Two ancient paperbacks from the “Philosophy of Science” section of my library. I know these are classics, but, with apologies to Dr. Whitehead, I’m finding that I prefer my science a little more au courant than contextual.

So, that feels great. A tiny reduction in the number of paper sponges I keep in my damp basement. And if humidity, arg is the number two thing I hate about summer, what is still number one?


If only there were a dehumidifier for my vanity…

Color Me Purple



Urgency Day 65

500 Things Items 423-431: Picture frames

  • History: Stashed, neglected, now part of a larger project
  • Value: Originally, at least $100
  • Parting Pain: Yes, for the neglect they represent
  • Un-possessing: Gifts, probably

Have you ever been a stuff-sitter?

By that, I don’t mean a hoarder; I mean a caretaker of someone’s stuff. Similar to being a baby-sitter but with no diapers and probably less Ipecac.

Twice during our early years, Paul and I were piano-sitters. This was great, because “practicing” gave me another way to delay writing papers for English class. One of our piano-sitting gigs required a quite-spectacular hoisting of the piano up a steep flight of stairs to our narrow apartment over the Wallpaper, Paint and Guns store in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

For some residents, that’s called one-stop shopping.

We piano-sat while our friends were off having adventures and traveling the world. It was before we all started settling down and having babies. Dogs we had and even some stuff like pianos, but no babies. When we started having babies, these particular friends with the piano did some major negotiating with each other to keep adventure travel in their lives: She agreed to live on a boat for a year; he agreed to have another baby. Once they got home.

I was the happy caretaker of not only their piano for several years, but also of the fantastic purple cupboard pictured here. In fact, several years turned into several more years. We even paid to move that piano three times! (Those were peripatetic years.)


Our friends eventually reclaimed the piano which was a family heirloom, but through a sequence of, oh, hazy events, I kept the purple cupboard. I’m pretty sure this involved some, oh, shenanigans on my part, but I really tried to assuage my guilty conscience by paying them for it. They laughed and returned my check, and simply requested a fun evening together with our now three children over a home-cooked meal.

This never happened. More guilt to assuage.

When you loan something to someone, do you always expect to get it back?

I’m thinking of books here. When I “loan” someone a book, I make sure it is one I can part with. I’m just as guilty as anyone of forgetting to return a book, or, after finishing it, sending it farther along the friend-chain. So I’m never upset when a book doesn’t return.

But books are different from pianos and cupboards. I was a grand caretaker of the piano– maintaining it, keeping it tuned and moving it when our circumstances changed. And returning it, absolutely. The cupboard, however? For some reason, it has never quite felt like it’s mine.

I’ve had it for thirteen years; my friend had it for two. “Ownership” is covered in law school, right?

But where I think she gets her certainly unlooked for revenge is in the fact that this cupboard doesn’t just embody my guilt; it encases it as well. Behind those lovely purple doors is an untended, unsorted and sadly neglected hodgepodge of family photos. Yes, the self-righteous Queen of Organization has a very tender Achilles’ heel: The woeful state of her pictures, snapshots and photos.


I had to address this mess and clutter the other day when I was posting Father’s Day photos. Timing is everything: It’s time, past time, to tend to my guilt and my photos.

And yes, guilt is a far better leveler than vengeance.

Riches to Rags


left-leaning wear

Urgency Day 66

500 Things Items 421-22: Two Men’s Shirts

  • History: Years ago, there was a Christmas when everyone gave Paul shirts from Eddie Bauer
  • Value: Many many years of reliable, wrinkle-free service
  • Parting Pain: Yes, a little, for the nice fabric
  • Un-possessing: They’ll probably go from “riches” to rags. It’s a theme.

One of the joys of my downsizing project has been discovering the merits of good old American thrift–

— and by American, I mean anyone-anywhere’s grandparents. My maternal grandmother was Powhatan-enough­­­, as we like to say. She could and did:

  • Sew, crochet and knit
  • Can, pickle and preserve
  • Clean fish and pick steamed blue crabs to a fare-thee-well
  • Start and run two successful small businesses
  • Squeeze a penny until it screamed

And, darn her, she didn’t live nearly long enough to teach me this stuff. Of all her skills, I’m working hardest on the penny-minding. I’ve been able to pick a blue crab clean for years, but at current market prices, doing this would negate many many of my pennies. Many.

Part of minding pennies is recognizing that we already have enough stuff. More than enough stuff. So when something wears out, we don’t necessarily replace it.  A few things, yes we do, but many things, there is simply no real need. I’ve written about several items that challenge need-to-replace expectations:

Exhibit A: My toaster broke and was not replaced. I continue to use the oven broiler.

Exhibit B: My blender was breaking; it could have been fixed, but I was unexpectedly given a new one– which I kept.

Now these examples may be a matter of personal tastes: I don’t mind broiling and I don’t mind gifts. But here is my take-away: I didn’t rush right out and replace either of these failing items. My family found another way to carry on toasting and blending.

Not personal enough for you, how about clothes? What if I suggested not shopping for clothes for around 2 years? And yes, “clothes” includes shoes.

It just got personal, right?

In the last approximately two years—a time span which includes the expected downsizing (Sam’s departure for college) and the un-expected downsizing (Paul’s departure from corporate America)—I have purchased 2 new scarves and a couple of tee shirts. That’s it. Didn’t buy a new frock for my niece’s wedding; haven’t even gone the dreaded-bra shopping. I’ve just made do. We’ve just made do, Paul and I, that is– Sam’s a growing boy.

And yet we’ve managed to look presentable each and every day, by wearing what we’ve already got in our closets.

Last week when Paul pointed out the holes in the elbows of the two dress shirts I’m downsizing today, I was actually sad. I love these shirts. I love the material– the nice crisp cotton broadcloth– and I love that they didn’t need ironing: Thank you Eddie Bauer wrinkle-resistant fabrics. But mostly, I love these shirts because they perfectly set off my sweetheart’s eyes. He has the nicest blue eyes.

He also has—and he will confirm this—enough shirts; these two won’t be replaced. How many is enough? Ask your grandmother. It’s almost certainly fewer than you already have.

But now, I do think it’s time for something new.

It’s time I learned to sew.



I am a word nerd.

But there are many moments when the words I am able to summon feel inadequate. Here are a few treasured glimpses of two fathers I adore.







The Party’s Over


You too, Uncle Burt

Urgency Day 70

500 Things Items 412-420:  Assorted Party-Specific Décor

  • History: From the recent revels
  • Value: You’d have to ask the Decorations Committee
  • Parting Pain: Zip
  • Un-possessing: Just ask

The Decorations Committee simply had to have the balloon that said, Way to go, Uncle Burt!

We weren’t celebrating Uncle Burt. We don’t even have an Uncle Burt. We were actually having a high school graduation party for the Self-Contained Unit.

The party store didn’t have any Self-Contained Unit-specific balloons. Go figure.

But the visiting Decorations Committee did a bang-up job, with tons of Way to go, Grad! and Class of 2011 sparkly stuff, and one fantastically random Way to go, Uncle Burt! Mylar balloon. We definitely got some mileage out of that.

Parties and travel have much in common. They each require lots of:

  • Effort
  • Expenditures
  • Lists
  • Willing spirits
  • Spirits…
  • Clean up

I have a theory that it takes as many days to recover from a trip as days you travel. The laundry sorting, the luggage storing, the music facing. Years ago, my darling sister put together a magnificently-detailed  travel-prep checklist which has been cleaved to gratefully ever since. You know that baby is laminated. (And digitally saved and filed in fire-proof storage.) I wish, however, she would prepare an equally methodical travel-recovery checklist.

Ditto, a party-recovery checklist.

So, here are a couple of my own not-ready-for-lamination party-recovery thoughts.

There are certain party accessories it makes sense to sort, store and reuse. For the grad party, I didn’t have to buy a single paper plate, plastic utensil or cocktail napkin. Not one. Of course, this falls more under the heading of reduce than reuse, as in reduce the ridiculous surplus of disposables set aside in my Apocalypse Kit.

Those items were the purview of my committee, the Food Committee. We didn’t feel the urge to theme. The Decorations Committee, on the other hand, saw a grand opportunity to theme AND RAN WITH IT.

But I am pretty sure I won’t be called upon to re-bedazzle my house with Class of 2011 sparkly stuff. One party-recovery thought that is definitely ready for lamination would be, as I go forward in my downsized life, I don’t want to travel with themed-clutter, no matter how sweet the memories. Besides, we’ve got great pictures– digitally saved and filed in fire-proof storage.

I am, therefore, offering up an only slightly used Grad-Party-in-a-Bag! to anyone who still has graduates to celebrate this year.

Way to go, Class of 2011!

You too, Uncle Burt.

%d bloggers like this: