Home Care

Home Contentment Series: The Prelude

home-contentment-series-headerContentment and happiness with our homes is important to us, right? We want to feel comfortable and safe in our places. We want them to represent who we are and what we offer to the world. But so many of our homes fall short of that ideal, leaving us cranky, anxious, and unsettled. We want something better.

I don’t think this is wrong. I think that human beings instinctually want to improve their places in the world, and that’s a very good thing (think back to the Garden of Eden, when God told Adam to go out and take care of everything he saw).

But I am furious at the standards that have assaulted us, especially recently. Home decorating has always been a thing, but the current level of TV networks, shelter magazines, and the internet have pushed our standards way, way, WAAAAAAAAAAYYYY past what most of us can afford or pull off. These unreasonable standards have to be challenged.

So sit back and let me tell you little story of many years ago when I was a young social worker in rural Michigan. One day I was assigned a home visit in a really poor area, and when I pulled up to that trailer in the wilderness I felt glued to my driver’s seat. By that time I’d been a social worker for only two years, but I’d been in about every kind of filthy, cluttered, dark, claustrophobic home you can imagine. Oh, the smells. The grime. The general air of despair and neglect.

Like this. I was in a LOT of homes like this, but instead of the desert, imagine a Michigan forest. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/roadsidepictures)
Like this. I was in a LOT of homes like this, but instead of the desert, imagine a Michigan forest. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/roadsidepictures)

I knew I was headed into a metal tube of despair and neglect, and I was wondering how long I could hold my breath while I conducted business like an adult. (Not long enough.)

The elderly couple greeted me at the door, I took a last snootful of fresh air, and stepped over their threshold. I blinked. I blinked faster. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a 1960s trailer, exquisitely maintained. It could have been bought new and furnished yesterday, not forty years earlier.

Nothing was new. Not the carpet, the couch, or the paneling on the walls. I don’t know how they’d kept that carpet in such good shape for decades, but it was perfect.

I decided to breathe, just for the sake of not passing out in front of these sweet people.


The air smelled like bacon, and exactly like my own grandmother’s house. We headed to the kitchen where (of course) the appliances were ancient. But they matched the dining set, the floor, and the cabinets. The dishes were done and the counters wiped clean. I would have eaten anything they offered me, and for a social worker, that’s saying a lot.

I’m going to guess that this homemaker probably didn’t actually choose to live in a time capsule. I’m pretty sure she was forced to keep what she had because that’s all they could afford. But her choice to lovingly care for her home has spoken loudly to me for more than fifteen years.

She loved what she had. She kept it clean, decluttered, and fresh.

Home doesn’t require trendy appliances or the perfect floor. We could bulldoze our house and start over, and still be miserable if we don’t learn to care for what we have. What we buy today will be outdated in a decade or five minutes, so we have to learn to find contentment in something other than just buying a new thing.

fiesta coffee cup
I love Fiestaware. It’s beautiful, but it’s also been in style since, oh, MY GRANDMA BOUGHT DISHES back in the day. Timeless!

This Home Contentment Series will help you do just that.

We’re going to look at five areas that will slowly increase your happiness with your home. I promise none of it will require going into debt. It will require some work on your part and a new perspective on your home, but I think we can all manage that just fine.

And when your own home discontentment creeps up on you, just close your eyes and imagine an old, metal trailer full of an elderly couple’s possessions. Imagine all the surfaces buffed to a shine, an immaculate kitchen floor, and a cozy place to nap on a funky brown couch. Think of how contentment has nothing to do with what the trend of the moment demands of us.

Let’s look for something better.

Here’s the link you need: http://eepurl.com/cjCx6P

How to get a clean kitchen and make your loved one very, very happy.

An alternate, and perhaps more truthful, title.

Desperate for a clean kitchen? Are you looking around with wild eyes, realizing the place is a mess and you’re about to get in serious trouble for it?

Look, now’s not the time to point fingers, alrighty? It doesn’t matter how your kitchen got to this state. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been sick or busy, or cooking up a storm, or if you’ve been intolerably lazy since the day you were born.

None of that matters now. What matters is that you have a bombed-out kitchen and need to get it clean before your spouse/roommate/soulmate/parental unit loses it again tonight when he or she walks in the door.

I’m here for you. We can do this. You can absolutely get this place cleaned up and make your loved one happy and glad and joyous. You want a happy house, right?

Here’s what needs to happen:

Step 1A: Summon your will from the deepest, strongest place in your guts. This next hour is not for wimps. But you can take this place from gross sanitation hazard to sparkling, Grandma-approved glory. It just takes guts, that’s all. And some hot water and soap and a dishcloth, also.

(Step 1A2: Please go get some soap and a dishcloth if you do not own these things. Dear heavens.)


Step 1B: Determine if you have an appliance known as a dishwasher. If no, skip to step 3. If yes, determine if this is a crappy appliance that only swishes lukewarm water over the dishes, or if it’s an actual appliance of quality that can blast crud off your dishware. If it’s the crappy kind, no worries. We can totally work with that too. You’ll just have to rinse off the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher, or run it a few times. What matters is that you have a handy box to hide the dirty dishes while they get “clean.”

Step 2: Find your sink and empty it out. Pull all the dirty dishes out and pile them on the counter. While you’re doing this, rinse them off. Scrape off the crud with a spatula or a spoon or something (be careful not to ruin delicate surfaces if you have fancy stuff).

Travel around the kitchen (and the rest of the house while you’re at it) and gather up the rest of the dirty dishes, pots, pans, and what have you. Now that the sink’s empty, you can rinse and scrape those as well. Pile everything on the counter near the sink.

I realize this seems like a stupid step if you’re trying to clean the dishes– why not just wash them right away? Scraping and rinsing dishes will keep your dishwater from turning into a disgusting swamp immediately, that’s why. And it gives your dishwasher a fighting chance if you have seriously gunky dishes to put in there.

clean kitchen

Neatly fit all the dishes you can manage into the dishwasher. Big plates go together on the bottom, the silverware all needs to be put into the basket, and then cups and things that will melt in the drying cycle (like those cheap plastic containers for leftovers) go on the top, away from the heater. Make it look like an army general lined up his troops. That will get the water swished around the best, therefore you’ll get the cleanest dishes. Fill the soap dispenser (do NOT use regular dish soap– use dishwashing detergent) and turn the blessed machine on.

Do not lose your will to live just yet. We’re halfway to a clean kitchen!

Step 3: Clean your sink. All that loosened food is probably sitting in the basket at the bottom, plus the sides are disgusting. Empty out the baskets on both sides and wipe down the whole sink. Now you’re ready to actually wash the dishes that didn’t fit into the dishwasher.

Step 4: Half-fill the sink with hot, soapy water. Take the dishcloth or scrubber and get at those dishes. This will take the proverbial elbow grease. Rinse each dish off with hot water, check to make sure it’s actually clean, and then rest it upside down to drain out. You can lay the dishes in a rack or on a clean towel on the counter.

When the dishwater turns gray and the bubbles disappear, it’s time for fresh water. Drain out the nastiness, empty the basket, replug the sink, and start with new soap and new water. Trust me, you can’t just add more soap to the gross water. It’s still gross water. You may have to replace your water a few times if you have a lot of really dirty dishes.

If you have a dish that truly won’t come clean, throw it in the trash. Ha! Totally kidding. You can squirt a little dish soap in, add some really hot water, and let it soak.

Step 5: Wipe down all the counters and the stovetop with a wet cloth. Wipe the crumbs into your hand and throw them in the trash. Scrub the sticky and gunky parts until clean.

Step 6: Sweep the floor and then scoop up the dirt. Throw it into the trash.

Step 7: Take out the trash. Put in a fresh bag.

Step 8: Decide what to do with those drying dishes. If your loved one has really high standards, show them a little extra love and actually dry them and put them away. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it. If they’re a little more relaxed, they probably won’t mind a tidy pile of drying dishes.

clean dishes in a clean kitchen

I figure that God invented evaporation, so why should I hurry his process? I let the dishes air dry.

Step 9: Finish scrubbing any of the dishes you had to let soak. Rinse them. Add them to the happy, clean kitchen pile of joy and delight. (Maybe I get a little too excited about this?)

Step 10: Clean out the sink again. Drain the water, wipe down the sink sides, and clean out the basket into the trash. Rinse the sink. Wipe down the faucet and the area on top of the sink to get rid of hard water stains. Rinse out the cloth and spread it out over the faucet or the sink partition to dry.

Now take a look around and give the room the hairy eyeball. Do you now have a clean kitchen? Does it smell fresh? It should feel better. Rooms that have been lovingly cared for always feel better.

But let’s think about this on a deeper level

I’m not sure why, but there’s a connection between the physical act of caring for something and how we feel about it. We can’t control much in life, right? We have job problems and relationship trouble and money challenges. But we can control how we care for the spaces we live and the things we own, and that care can change our entire outlook on our situation.

A clean kitchen means we’re doing the best with what we have. We don’t have to have luxurious homes with the fanciest things– our grandparents often had simple, old, basic kitchens but cooked wonderful meals and made loving memories. They knew the value of caring for what they had.

I hope this silly little blog post helps you do the same, and grow a little more content in the process.

And…ahem… Gentlemen, wives often really appreciate a clean kitchen. Wink wink, nudge nudge. That’s all I have to say about that.

Super Cheap Cabinet Knobs

In a moment of frugal glory, I present to you my favorite new house project: cheap cabinet knobs.

affordable kitchen cabinet knobs

Twelve-cent kitchen cabinet knobs.

Yes, 12. Cents.

TWELVE CENTS. Okay, 12.5. They came in packages of two, and each pack cost a quarter. I needed hardware for twenty-five doors/drawers.

And if I’m going to be completely honest, I did have to buy a can of stain ($5) and a can of spray polyurethane ($7). If you add in the cost of supplies, then the total cost of the project was $15 and each knob cost sixty cents. That’s a cheap cabinet knob, right?

I won’t bother you with the DIY steps involved in the project because anyone can look up how to stain and protect wood (click here for the Minwax How-To site), and that’s not really the point of this post, anyway.

cheap cabinet knobs

The Point: Creativity and Flexibility for the Win!

My point is that creativity and flexibility can work wonders. It worked wonders in my kitchen, and I bet you have a spot in your own life that a little creative flexibility can solve. Most of us don’t have pots of money just sitting around, waiting to be flung at a project. Am I right?

Of course I am. Without pots of money, we either need to just deal with what we have or get creative. I had been dealing with what I had for six months, so it was time to get creative.

I repainted my kitchen cabinets this winter, and I was waiting for Eric to get his bonus this summer to buy the cabinet knobs. So I started shopping for the knobs a month early, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted.

After agonizing for weeks, I realized I really didn’t care what they looked like– I just wanted cheap cabinet knobs! The cabinets looked bare and it wouldn’t matter if the finish was oil-rubbed bronze, chrome, or brass. They just needed a little something.

When I realized it didn’t matter if I spent $100 on new hardware or $100,000, I headed down the the local ReStore to see what they had in stock. That’s when I found bags and bags of the little wooden knobs in a drawer. I scooped them up and dumped them out on the cash register counter, not knowing how much they would even cost.

Oh, I laugh in merriment at the counter

I think I laughed out loud when the girl told me each bag was twenty-five cents. Good grief! I wanted cheap cabinet knobs, but in my wildest dreams I didn’t think they’d be that cheap. Even if I hated the entire project, I’d be out pocket change. Eric agreed the risk was minimal and I should try it, although I strongly suspect he could not bear being forced to look at one more cabinet knob and pretend like he had an opinion. He just wanted the whole episode over.

Good news--it was a smashing success. It took a few days to get everything coated multiple times and dried, but I love those knobs to absolute death.

chandelier from the ReStore

Even more good news— while we were at the ReStore, I found a nifty chandelier to go over the kitchen table. It cost $25, which was money I now had because the knobs were costing a pittance. So I batted my eyelashes at Eric and we bought the chandelier too, and then the dear man hung it up for me that very same day.

Creativity and flexibility for the win!

Tell me about your life. Where have you been creative and loved the results?

Finding contentment in renting

On Sunday we helped a young family from our small group move into their new townhouse. While we moved boxes from their old apartment to their new, larger home, I thought deep thoughts.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I thought a lot about ice cream because the day was hot and I was really sweaty. But I did think a few deep things before the sweat shorted out my brain cells.

I stood in their apartment-sized kitchen and looked around with fresh eyes. I’ve spent the last few years thinking about simple living and minimalism, so I pretended we were moving into that very apartment. It was a very exciting mental exercise, and I think I could have found a spot for almost everything we need in the kitchen. Easy? No. Possible? Yes.

Considering that I spent the first years of my marriage desperate for a real house with a real kitchen, this means I’m either mentally unstable or I’m actually learning something from all the simple living blogs I read.

While we can’t discount my probable mental instability, we can at least agree that it’s fun to look back at life and think about all the things we could have done differently. I wonder what would have happened if we’d chosen to move into a larger rental like our friends just did. They considered buying a house, but realized it’s not a good time for their family to be making long-term housing solutions. So they found an affordable option with a yard and a washer and dryer, and decided to be content with renting for the near future.

finding contentment in renting

I’m proud of them. When we were their age I thought we had no other option but to buy a home. I think we could have saved ourselves a lot of hassle over the years if I’d been content to rent a while longer.

But try telling that to a hysterical mother of a five-month-old who has to drag her laundry to the laundromat every week. Between the laundry and hauling the groceries up the stairs, I wanted a house and I wanted it RIGHT THEN. So we bought one. And we catapulted ourselves into taxes and repairs and the world’s ugliest bathroom, coupled with the world’s dumbest floorplan. Also, the house had the world’s most dangerous stairs.

Renting a while longer probably wouldn’t have been that terrible, is all I’m saying. We certainly could have solved the laundry problem without catapulting us into an ugly bathroom problem. I wish I would have at least looked at other options and calmed my nutty self down.

I’m sure there would have been other problems if we’d rented longer, because no choice in life is ever perfect. We would have been throwing money down the tubes in rent, but guess what– after we bought our house the market plummeted, so we just threw our money down a mortgage tube, instead. So even that huge point has been wiped out by the cold, hard truth of our experience.

I’ve learned a lot of things through the cold, hard reality. And that’s why it’s so fun to watch our young friends make their own decisions. I encourage them with this thought– it’s all sort of a giant crapshoot, really. You’re always benefiting somehow, and losing out somehow. Everyone gets to decide what benefits and sacrifices mean the most to them, and go from there. The best decisions can be wiped out in an instant from circumstances beyond your control.

So if you’re living in a tiny apartment, be thankful for the good parts. If you’re living in your starter house, be thankful for that. And if you’re almost forty and have already made a lot of your big life choices, watch your younger friends and offer a few words of encouragement when you can. That time of life is so hard, and every choice feels so important, and they need an old person to tell them it’s all going to be okay.

Because it is,  you know. It’s all going to be okay.

How to paint your kitchen cabinets in 269 easy steps

Before we begin, I need to state something firmly. I am not a perfectionist.

If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post in hopes of actual advice on kitchen cabinets, you’ll get some. But not the kind you need if you’re a perfectionist. So, consider yourself warned and enjoy the spectacle I make of myself when it comes to home projects.


before the kitchen cabinets are painted
We had this house built three years ago, so the finish on the cabinets was in great shape. But the maple stain gave off an orange glow that I couldn’t stand any longer, and since my husband refused to move, it was time to get out the paintbrushes.

If it’s time for you to get out the paintbrushes, here’s what you need to do before the painting:

  1. Research kitchens on Pinterest for weeks. Ogle other people’s cabinets and read their directions. Ignore anyone who seems like maybe they have really high standards.
  2. Choose a color, but only after asking your sister and mother for advice. Vacillate wildly even as you stand in front of the paint guy at Home Depot. Don’t worry, he’s used to this. I think.
  3. Buy your supplies. I went with Behr primer (#75) and Behr Alkyd Semi-Gloss Enamel in Coast Guard Gray.
  4. Beg your mother and sister to come help you paint because you know you’ll screw it up if you do it all yourself. Set a date because otherwise you’ll talk yourself out of it for another three years.

in the middle of painting the cabinets
Painting Day #1:

  1. Clean all grime off cabinets with a strong crud-cutter.
  2. Take off all doors; remove all drawers. I have painted cabinets before without doing this, so trust me. Just take them down/out. You won’t save any time leaving them up AND it will look crappy.
  3. Sand your cabinets down, maybe? I didn’t really do this, but my finish was still in great shape. I did take steel wool to all the surfaces to buff it down a little. (The primer I picked is supposed to work on glossy surfaces, and so far so good. It took three days to come off my fingers, and I take that as a good sign.) Clean all dust off painting surfaces.
  4.  Apply two coats of primer at proper intervals. Dial up your favorite music while you perform this mind-numbing chore. I chose the Hot Sardines on Pandora, but feel free to pick your own sound track.
  5. Begin to enjoy the fruits of your labor as your orange glow disappears. Freak out a little wondering if you should have gone with the white paint instead of gray.
  6. Go to bed. Your fingers will stick together from all the primer, but you’ll be too tired to find it bothersome.

painting the cabinet base

Painting Day #2:

  1. Drink the pot of coffee your husband brews. Beg him to make a new pot when your mother and sister arrive.
  2. Hand out brushes and rollers (we used fine foam rollers) and profusely thank the relatives who have come to you in your hour of need.
  3. Paint. Paint and paint and paint.
  4. Resist the urge to lie upon your kitchen floor and die. You’ll die in a half-painted kitchen, and that simply won’t do.
  5. Feed everyone lunch and then send them home. You can’t do another coat for four hours and there’s no sense in them sitting around with you.
  6. Four hours later (I painted the kitchen walls in between) get the brushes back out and apply a second coat. This coat will go a lot faster, and you’ll be so close to the end the adrenaline will carry you through.

halfway through painting the kitchen cabinets

Painting Day #3: 

  1. Get up and go to church. Fellowshipping in the house of the Lord is far more important than getting your cabinet doors back up. Besides, they’re still tacky to the touch and you want to wait until at least this evening.
  2. Ignore your messy kitchen all day by napping and reading in another room.
  3. Just before bed, put the doors back on and the drawers back in. Leave everything hanging open all night long, just in case something’s still a little tacky.
  4. Stand back and adore your new colors.

I love the finish of the Alkyd paint. It’s nice and smooth and so far is standing up very well to all sorts of kitchen messes and abuse. I have a few areas to touch up because the foam roller left some streaks, but that will only take me a few minutes.

A word of encouragement– don’t dither any longer. If your house doesn’t feel like home, if something is cheap to fix, if you’re desperate for a change, just do it! I love the way my kitchen feels, even though it’s going to be a while before I save enough for cabinet pulls and a new light over the table.

This project cost me $55 in paint and primer, plus about $35 in supplies like special rollers. I lost 16 hours of my life I’ll never get back, not counting the 3 hours my mother and sister each donated to the cause.

But every time I walk into my kitchen, I grin from ear to ear. The lost weekend was totally worth it. It will be worth it to you, too!



The Aftermath (things I find after the toddlers leave)

Tuesday morning I sank into my favorite chair, coffee mug in hand, robe firmly affixed to my person. I was a vision of loveliness, I assure you.

I set my coffee cup down on the 1970s hi-fi we keep in that corner of the living room (because the Clemences are all about 8 tracks, if you have a stack in a closet you’d like to get rid of) and noticed a pile of crumbs. Cookie crumbs.

I plopped the mug right on top of the crumbs and smiled.

Something caught my eye across the room and I laughed out loud. An entire shelf of books had been haphazardly rearranged like some sort of toddler army had been playing library. And that’s exactly what had happened, I reckon. I didn’t actually see the stubby librarian in action, but it’s a fair guess.

They still look like this, two days later.
They still look like this, two days later.

Monday nights our small group meets at our house. When we first started we had one toddler and four babies on the way. Now we have two little girls who are two-ish and four (count them, four) one-year old boys. We also have a newborn and another one due any day. And we can’t forget the two tweens who live in this house and keep it “child-friendly” on a daily basis.

If life and God had left me to my own devices, I’d keep my home like a magazine spread. The floors would be polished, the books tidily stacked in some artsy way, the stools at the breakfast bar lined up in military precision.

Lucky for me, God and children of all types have been giving me a reason to get over myself for twelve years now.

The pile of books and cookie crumbs are proof that life exists in this home. A herd of tiny people feels comfortable here, rummaging through my tupperware cupboard and the shoe closet.

One of the children, who shall remain nameless, took to  finding the bag of potatoes and taking a bite out of one each week. I thought this was hilarious. She hasn’t done it for a few months now, and I sort of miss her once-bitten potatoes I’d find next to the shoes.

If you’re living in a potato-strewn, book-piled, crumb-covered place today, take heart. Life is messy. Relationships are messy. Toddlers are the messiest of them all.

The mess is proof of life and love and a future.

blog footer Nov 15- 2

The Frugal Decorator Discovers Rit Dye (or…Why My Husband Sleeps Under a Purple Comforter)

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ve realized a fact: The Lord is using me as a refining fire in my husband’s life. The man is daily forced to put up with my antics and neuroses, causing him to develop a Christ-like repertoire of patience, fortitude, wisdom, and forgiveness.

Pray for him.

This sixteen-year experiment on Eric’s ability to persevere under the severest of conditions explains why when I brought home a bottle of Rit Dye a few weeks ago and announced I was dying the curtains, he didn’t even twitch.

To be fair, I don’t know if I completely explained what I was doing. The curtains were down, I don’t think he noticed, and then the curtains were back up again and…whatever. He’s a man. Curtains aren’t really his thing.

But I was pretty darn excited. For a $4 bottle of dye I had brand new curtains. I’d purchased them two years ago with a gift card we’d received from our Visa reward points, so they were basically free. And while the color was a beautiful silvery-sage in the package, they were less than impressive hanging where I had to look at them every day. In real life they were more like the color of a piece of celery you’ve forgotten in the vegetable drawer for a month– washed out and pitiful. Possibly poisonous.

I couldn’t have hated them any more than I did, so a $4 experiment seemed like a good deal. The new teal color is a vast improvement so I set my eyes on new possibilities. (I wish I had before and after pictures to show you but I’m not that good of a blogger. I don’t always think to photo-document micro-minutiae.)

Fortuitously, an obvious spill on our cream-colored comforter a week later provided just the excuse I needed to run back to Hobby Lobby and buy a new shade of dye. I picked up a bottle of dove gray, scurried back home, and dumped it all into the washer.

I’m sure there were specific directions and suggestions for making sure the final color was going to be just right, but I didn’t read any of those things. What am I, a scientist? I’ve been dying Easter Eggs for almost four decades– I was sure I could handle a little cotton comforter.

This is probably why my project turned lavender. I don’t mean a nice shade of purple, I mean a hideous shade of lavender. Picture a very old, very cranky woman who has died. She is being buried in a lavender dress she bought in 1958. It is polyester. It is awful.

That’s the exact shade of purple we were forced to sleep under for three nights until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Eric, ever gentle when it comes to my decorating schemes, said, “Yeah, it’s a little weird.” Normal men would have pulled it off the bed and set fire to it in the driveway, but reference the first paragraph of this post and you’ll understand why he didn’t.

I had to do something, and a whole new comforter isn’t in the budget. So I went back to Hobby Lobby and bought a new package of dye. This time I went with a small box of black, thinking that I wanted it darker than the putrid lavender but lighter than Satan’s bedding.

And now we have a dark purple comforter. It’s far better than the lavender and works with the rest of the room, but it’s still quite royal in its purpleness. I kind of like it, and Eric doesn’t hate it. Close enough.

If you’re looking around your house and want to change something but need to stick to a tight budget, try some dye! Maybe you’d want to read the directions or something, but it’s fun even if you don’t. I feel like I have a whole new room and it only took me $10 in dye, a few trips to the store, and a few loads of laundry. You might have even better results.

Let me know if you give it a whirl, or if you’ve ever tried it before. I’d like to see how this works out for you.


All I Want for Christmas Is a Clutter Free House

A flurry of texting erupted a few weeks ago as my sister-in-law and I tried to make Christmas plans. The goal– to not fill up each other’s homes with useless Christmas presents. “We don’t really need more toys at our house,” Becky texted. That’s her very nice way of saying “Dear heavens, I’m drowning in crap and I just can’t take any more!”



Although I’m willing to bet Becky’s not alone, they did just move to a new house this year (here’s the blog post about their house), and space really is at a premium in this radical new way they’re living. We decided to do for the kids what we’re doing for the adults, which is bringing a small gift of something delicious. Quality coffee, good chocolates, that sort of thing. Easy on the wallet and no need to store it for long.

(We will not comment on how the presents might actually turn into fat and get stored for infinity on our waistline, because it’s Christmas and holiday calories hardly count.)

Jenny and I had a similar conversation over the weekend. We decided that although our kids have swapped presents in the past, this year we’re going to skip it. This conversation took less than sixty seconds and we were off to something new, but what if a situation is more complicated? What if a person is facing a tidal wave of well-meaning relatives and friends who come bearing gifts in an endless parade of holiday wrapping and bows and scotch tape?

What then?

Here are my ideas. I don’t know if any of them will work for you, but maybe one or two of them won’t be super dumb and you can benefit. If nothing else, at least you might start thinking about how to keep Christmas clutter from overtaking your house. If you have better ideas than these, share them in the comments below!

  1. Communicate. It’s only a few weeks before Christmas so you might be too late for this round, but maybe you can start Grandma thinking for next year. Say the words out loud: “Mom, the kids have too much stuff. I have too much stuff. We need to stop buying all the things.”
  2. Clean out the stuff you already own. Whilst the little dears are snug in their beds, start hauling stuff out to the garbage (or recycling bin, if you live in California). Dump the broken toys, the mangled stuffed animals, and the puzzles that only have three pieces.
  3. Ask for presents that result in experiences, not clutter. Art classes, zoo memberships, theater tickets, or trips someplace fun. Think outside the hot-pink, plastic box.
  4. Buy Legos. The Lego company is not paying me to say this, I just happen to think they have an excellent product that is well worth the money. My kids are playing with the Legos my husband owned as a child. Those plastic bricks are 30 years old and work perfectly with the ones we can buy now. Endless fun, endless options, not a waste of space. Way to go, Lego creators!
  5. Copy your friends who have some brains when it comes to Christmas. Some of our friends give gifts this way: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. Each child gets four gifts, and I think those categories are genius. I might rephrase it like this: Something to read, something else to read, here’s another book, and oh yeah, I got you some underwear. But you get the idea.
  6. Remember that adults are adults, not super tall children who need $400 gifts to experience the magic of Christmas. Things don’t only go terribly wrong when it comes to the children. Sometimes we panic when we try to buy a gift for a beloved adult. “They already have everything, so maybe I’ll spend $75,000 on that new Mercedes like the commercial suggested”, we think to ourselves. No, no, no, no, no. This is madness and we shall refrain from it.

What else? What did I forget?

How to Hide Your Clothesline Under a Bushel

italian-underpantsI took this photo in Italy last fall. Yes, I had to sneak between fence posts and yes, I had to use my zoom lens. But how could I not take this photographic opportunity to observe culture at its most basic form?

Now we’re back home in America, where we love rules. And where there isn’t a rule we quickly make up a rule. Mostly people then ignore/break/bend said rule, but we can refer to the rule at any time it’s convenient, such as when a neighbor is doing something we find offensive. You can’t do that; we have a rule!

And specifically, our family lives in a  little neighborhood which is loosely governed by a Home Owners Association, which means we have a giant book of rules to ignore until a neighbor is being annoying and then we pull that giant book out of the file cabinet and prove our point. Look right here–here’s the rule!

I’m actually quite afraid of the rule book, because I don’t want to know what rules I’m breaking on a daily basis. I know our garbage can could fall under a technical default because we don’t hide it in the garage like we’re supposed to, but who wants a garage that smells like garbage? Yuck.

Lately I’ve been missing my old clothesline we had at the old house (until the supports tilted so far inward that the clothesline dipped deeply in the center, causing concern that a running child might be garroted by a plastic coated wire) for many years. I like the slow pace of hanging the clothes and the smaller electric bill. But I faced two problems:

1. I’m pretty sure the HOA rule book has a no clotheslines because they’re unsightly clause. Again, I assume. I’m afraid to check.
2. Ticks. The property behind our house is tick heaven, and I really don’t want to bring all the clothes in and then live in fear I’ve just made it very convenient for a tick to suck my blood. Here, Mr. Tick. Would you like to snuggle in this t-shirt, then attach to my armpit whenever you’re hungry? Super.

garage-clotheslineSo for a year and a half I’ve made peace with my clothes dryer, until just this weekend I’d had enough. I rearranged the garage and voila! A hidden clothesline.

Now, we do have a few problems:

1. No sun actually shines in the garage, and the wind only blows in from certain angles. This means that on a day with 90% humidity like yesterday, nothing actually dries. Bummer. But on most days the garage heats up like the sun and there are convenient vents at the top. It’s like a giant dryer without the tumble feature!
2. The cat’s litter box. Clean laundry isn’t supposed to smell like cat, probably. But I just kept rearranging the garage until the box was far away, next to the big door. Problem solved!
3. I don’t want the neighbors to think we’re hillbillies. I mean, we are hillbillies, but we’re pretending to be reformed hillbillies. I was afraid they’d see our clothesline and worry about their home values plummeting. But good news–it turns out Gertie the Minivan is big enough that she blocks almost every view of the hanging clothes! That van just keeps on giving, I tell you.

Now we have a lovely retractable clothesline for the warm months. I’m going to move it inside for the winter months, when the garage is cold and damp but the furnace room is warm and perfect.

What about you? Any clothesline lovers out there?

Top 10 Things to Buy at ALDI

Is everyone familiar with ALDI? I hope so, or this post isn’t going to make a lick of sense. Hopefully you have an ALDI market near your home and after reading this post you can rush out for all these delicious things I’m about to recommend.

I can feel some of you hesitating from here. Especially if you’re American, because ALDI isn’t like our usual supermarkets. First of all, you have to put a quarter into the grocery cart so you can free it from its chains. That feels a little weird, I know.

And then we walk into the store and we think, “Where’s the rest of the food? I see chocolate chips over here, but where are the rest of the chocolate chips? Where are all my brands?” We hunt around and realize ALDI offers only one choice for most foods. Instead of eggs from ten different companies taking up fifteen feet of cooler space, we see one brand of eggs.

Just one.

And then we panic for a minute because we wonder if we’ve really just wandered into the USSR under Communist rule. Before we have a full-blown anxiety issue and rush back out to the haven of the supermarket we know, we see the prices on those eggs and calculate the savings. We think maybe pretending to be Communist for just a few minutes might be worth it, so we stick around.

But then we wonder if these brands are worth any money at all. If I get these groceries home and they all taste terrible, I’ve just wasted $90 instead of saving $30. Not so smart, even for a faux-Communist.

That’s where this post comes in. Here are the top 10 things that I love at ALDI, and these will give you a good place to start. I think the taste is great and the savings are big enough to make it worth the effort of going to a store where you have to bag your own groceries.

top 10 things to buy at Aldi


  1. Milk, half-and-half, and heavy whipping cream. Delicious!
  2. Cheese. ALDI has a great selection on all kinds of cheese, from shredded cheddar to fancy goat cheese. Pick up an extra package of string cheese for the kids.
  3. Eggs.
  4. Butter.
  5. Spaghetti sauce.
  6. Frozen green beans. ALDI sells a green bean that’s much thinner than usual. Sauté them up with some almonds and kosher salt. You’ll weep a little at the deliciousness.
  7. Fruits and vegetables. Check the quality carefully, but the prices are worth the extra couple of seconds.
  8. Flour and sugars (regular, powdered, and brown).
  9. Cooking oils.
  10. Bread.

There, that will get you started. Excellent quality and excellent savings. But I know some of you are wondering the obvious–what didn’t make this list? What is not so good?

We’ve run into a few things we do not prefer. Ice cream, for example. Also their version of Kraft singles (or flat cheese as we call it in this house). I bought a package and the kids were both fussing at me, telling me the cheese was terrible.

I told them it was fine and they were being too picky. But then I ate a piece myself and realized they were right–the fake pasteurized cheese is not so good. And my husband isn’t so excited about the granola bars, either. But give them a try and see for yourself.

What do you think? Do you shop at ALDI? Do you even have one near you? What is your opinion?


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