What a Preschool Birthday Party Doesn’t Need

When Christmas ends, there’s no rest for the weary in the FP household. Big Brother had the unfortunate luck to come into the world on January 21st, when many of us find ourselves sunk in celebration fatigue. And with his turning five this year, he is starting to have expectations of what a birthday should be. Last year, I just baked a cake, hung up a banner and told him it was a party; this year, he wanted guests.

Still, I don’t believe, as a general rule, in exceeding kids’ expectations. We invited guests, sure, but we kept it low, and I mean low, key, reducing both the expenditure and the stress level. It’s a good thing, too, because when I went to pick up Little Brother at preschool at 11 am on the day of the party (which was an after-school affair), I was told that Big Brother was in the office and needed to be taken home. Sick, I thought? Nope. He had gashed his head and needed to be taken to Urgent Care for stitches.* The party, I was assured, could proceed as planned, but my time to prepare was suddenly cut in half.

Here are some aspects of throwing a birthday that we consider optional and decided to forego:

 

  • Inviting the entire class. Some people do this, and I can only assume that these people are masochists. Or trying to make up for some kind of party-deprived childhood. More sensible parents limit their child to one guest per year of age. I didn’t even go that far–I allowed him to invite the neighbor girl (age 7) and three kids from his class, two of whom RSVP’ed yes but only one of whom attended.

 

  • Restaurant pizza. There’s a Little Caesar’s not too far away, so this would not have been a major expense. But English muffin pizzas were even cheaper and more fun for the kids, who enjoyed putting on the sauce and cheese and pepperoni. And healthier.
  • Ice cream. I know, it’s tradition. But there is plenty of sugar in the cake. No one complained about the lack of ice cream.
  • Fancy cake. I tried to bake a cake from scratch, but it collapsed in the oven. Duncan Hines to the rescue, and I had to buy jarred frosting as well after the head vs. gate incident. Know how I decorated it? I stuck candles in it. A “5” that I had bought back in December for a friend’s 35th and four plain ones. Complaints? Zero.
  • Treat bags. I hate these. Hate, hate, hate when my kids get them. They’re full of candy they don’t need and trashy toys–so much waste. I was going to send each kid home with a helium balloon, but then I didn’t have time to buy them. (I sent Mr. FP, who brought home uninflated balloons instead.) No one complained.
  • A venue. I suppose if your house is very small, and it is winter, you might need a venue. Our living room was fine.
  • Formal entertainment. I asked Big Brother if he wanted to play games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but he said he would rather just do Play-Doh. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. The other key entertainment was batting around balloons (laboriously inflated by Mr. FP and myself), which was a massive hit.

Lest you think this party was some sort of barely glorified playdate, we did have juice pouches and disposable Ninja Turtle cake plates, both of which are, by my standards, wildly extravagant. I trust my own children with our usual chipped Pfaltzgraff plates and open cups, but I wasn’t sure about the guests.

Here’s one thing that I think all preschool birthday parties should include: wine. I had previously attended only one children’s birthday party, and wine was served. The hosts were pot-smoking hippie types, so I have no idea if wine is a typical offering at these affairs, but I liked the idea and I ran with it. I kind of thing it might not be standard, judging by the way my guest’s face sort of lit up with surprised delight when I offered her a glass.

For the adults, I also offered Trader Joe’s spinach dip and veggies with store bought hummus. I did not keep exact figures, but I believe the total cost for the party came in around $20-$25.

And it was fun. Big Brother had fun. His guests had fun. I had fun drinking wine with the other mother (neighbor parents couldn’t stay, which is fine as their seven-year-old is easy to supervise). And by having it on a school afternoon, I did not have to block out a whole precious weekend day.

How do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?

*He’s fine now, although if he goes bald, a scar on his forehead will probably be visible. The PA who put in the stitches told me to remove them myself–from his head. This is apparently nonstandard medical advice, but since it saved me a fifty-dollar copay, I gave it a shot using thread snips and the tweezers from the Swiss Army knife while Grandma FP, who was visiting, distracted the patient. It was surprisingly easy and highly satisfying.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Autonomy: Parenting Book Roundup

This post contains Amazon affiliate links for research purposes. Your library probably has these books and you should check there first!

I have come to believe that the best way to parent “wrong” is to try to parent some way that is not natural to you and your kids. Personally, for the first few years there, I really struggled with finding my way to the kind of parent I wanted to be. I lacked confidence so much that I never wanted to parent in front of an audience.

Time passed, I got better at it. Being, well, me, books were naturally part of how I found my feet. I read plenty that were useless or just didn’t suit me, but here are some of the best.

Alyson Schafer, Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and Ain’t Misbehavin’

I actually read the later book first, but it mostly works either way. Schafer is an Adlerian psychologist who urges parents to practice “democratic parenting,” which essentially consists of treating your children like people. You don’t use rewards or punishments, because those don’t work anyway, and you don’t engage in power struggles with your child. Instead, you always offer your child a choice, and you do it evenly, with no drama or vindictiveness. You definitely don’t use shame. If your child doesn’t brush his teeth, you might explain that means he is choosing not to have sweets, since sweets are bad for your teeth, but you don’t go on and on about how his teeth are going to fall out of his head. And when it’s lunch time and he can’t have jelly on his sandwich, you remind him of the reason calmly, but not smugly. You shouldn’t enjoy it.

This is the author that has helped me the most, hands-down. For instance, we had meltdowns every time we turned off the television until I started asking the kids, “Do you want to turn off the TV, or should I?” (Fortunately, turning off the TV is a three-remote process, so I have plenty of buttons for both of them.) I taught them to push the right buttons, so now they get to practice a fun skill every time we turn off the TV, and it has cut down on meltdowns dramatically.

More authoritative parenting books like 1-2-3 Magic and Parenting With Love And Logic weren’t that helpful for me. Trying to give time-outs just made us all agitated; I would start counting or warning or whatever and then not want to follow through. While I still have to find a way to follow through, at least it’s not via trying to get a kid to stay on the naughty step. Some people swear by them; they just weren’t for me.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Not actually a parenting book, but pairs nicely with Alyson Schafer. Just like sticker charts won’t really motivate your kid to go potty, paying people to solve a problem won’t inspire creativity. The authors agree that the research shows people are more strongly motivated by internal forces, like the desire for autonomy, belonging, and a sense of purpose.

Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Also not actually a parenting book, but the chapter on communication (“Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”) is crucial for learning to relate to people of any age, even toddlers, with empathy. This one also helped with two areas I’m still struggling with: constantly operating in crisis mode, and complaining instead of solving.

The Gesell Institute, Your [X]-Year-Old series.

These books are old now, but don’t discount them–they’re still in print for a reason. They are often laugh-out-loud funny and bursting with positivity even about the most trying ages and behaviors. Besides which, they are a fascinating glimpse into a time when parenting expectations were a touch more reasonable. 
Do you find parenting books helpful or useless? What are your favorites?

How I Used A Hacksaw To Clean My Dishwasher

Caution: This post contains disturbing imagery. Do you view unless you have time to clean your dishwasher immediately.

This week’s learning experience: I attempted a minor household repair that people often outsource. I made a tremendous hash of it, but with the help of Internet strangers, I ultimately prevailed.

See, the dishes were not getting clean in the dishwasher. A vinegar cleaning was not effective, so I knew I needed to take the floor apart and clean the underneath.

This is supposed to be a simple procedure with a few basic steps:

  1. Remove lower spray arm by removing the nut holding it in place.
  2. Take out screws with special star-shaped screwdriver.
  3. Disconnect white tube thing at back and remove the screw under it.
  4. Lift up filter, clean, then reassemble.

That seemed straightforward, so I started by turning the nut with needle nose pliers. Or sometimes I held it still and spun the arm.

Oops.

Oops.

Now that would have been fine. There were two problems with my plan: One, the nut in my particular machine doesn’t actually come off. As I was told in the MMM forums, the arm is supposed to sort of walk up the nut and come off, leaving the nut behind.

Two, it’s a right hand bolt. I had been turning it in the wrong direction for like half an hour. By now, I could not get the nut to move. The arms were jammed underneath the threads of the nut and would not “walk” back up. I waited thirty-six hours for Mr. FP to come back from his trip because he’s better with unscrewing things. No dice. Still stuck.

I despaired. There may have been tears. Since he got back Thursday, New Year’s Eve, I knew that even if I had wanted to blow a bunch of money calling a plumber, I wouldn’t be able to do that until Monday. And I emphatically did not want to drop a hundred some dollars on plumbing, especially with my car needing work this month.

Instead, I decided to destroy the nut. Lacking any suitable cutting tools, I bought a mini-hacksaw at Walmart and sliced off the top of the nut. Removing the top was super satisfying. Then I had to poke around in there with a screwdriver and whatnot until I was able to pull up the spray arm.

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What was left of the retaining nut after I hacked at it.

That exposed the screws I needed to unscrew. I already owned a set of star-shaped and other “precision” screwdrivers left over from when I tried unsuccessfully to disassemble my phone. It was a little flimsy for the task, but got the job done. Then I needed to sort of yank on the white tube on the back to expose another screw and detach it from the bottom tube, but that came off surprisingly easily.

I think I paid $5 for these at Home Depot.

I think I paid $5 for these at Home Depot. I put the dishwasher one in backwards so I’ll remember which one to use next time.

Friends, under there was the most disgusting thing I have ever been a part of in my entire life. And I have children. It was like a slime palace. It was like there was a slime emperor, the Nero of slime if you will, and he had stripped all the riches of his slime kingdom and used them all to build this extravagant, vulgar imperial monument to his own slimy grandness.

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I read that you should remove the water under there with a wet vac if you have one. I don’t, so rather than use towels (ewwww), I used my turkey baster. I’m sure I can disinfect it later. I removed a lot of the loose goo with a plastic putty knife before I started wiping. This part was not actually that difficult, although it was gross and smelly. All the goo wipes up with a damp paper towel, no chemicals or elbow grease required. The hard part was accessing the goo, much of which was in hard-to-reach places. I often used a pipe cleaner.

Just when I thought I was done, I discovered that the filter comes off the little table thing underneath and discovered a new store of ickiness to clean.

This would have seemed pretty gross had I not seen the rest of it already.

This would have seemed pretty gross had I not seen the rest of it already.

Having done that, I was still left with the problem of having destroyed the retaining nut. A little searching gave me the part number, then I found it on Amazon. Unfortunately, it’s an $18 piece of plastic. On the other hand, it was available with Prime shipping. (Amazon did not recognize my model number, so I had to consult other sources.) I was emotionally prepared to wait at least a week for the part, so you can imagine how psyched I was to get two-day shipping. ‘Cause I am not enamored of sink-washing dishes.

It arrived. I remembered where it went and installed it. I put back in all the little star-shaped screws. And then… I could not get the spray arm back on. It wouldn’t engage with the threads. Indeed, I had the disorienting sensation that the spray arm was threaded backwards from the nut.

The indented part at 9 o'clock should be pointing up and the flat part at 6 o'clock should be pointing down.

The indented part at 9 o’clock need to be pointing up and the flat part at 6 o’clock needed to be pointing down.

That’s because it WAS. I went back to the Mr. Money Mustache forums and consulted again with my new friend, the one who told me about how the arm is supposed to walk up and encouraged me to try the hacksaw. From a picture I posted, he diagnosed the problem–I had deformed the spray arm. I was all set to buy a new one, but he said I could fix it with some needle-nose pliers and a screwdriver. I just needed to push one side up and the other side down, forming a sort of helical shape to engage with the threads. Once I had done that–and it was not pretty work, but since the damn thing was already broken, I had nothing to lose–I gave it one more try and it spun right back on. Phew! I would have done an end-zone dance right there in my kitchen, but I was too busy starting the dishwasher. (Empty load with vinegar to finish cleaning it out.)

Hats off to zolotiyukeri, whoever he may be in the real world, the nicest guy on the Internet. He took apart his own functioning dishwasher to better examine its workings so that he could advise me. He answered questions again and again and again. I have no doubt I would have had to call a repairman without a little hand-holding on this one.

I would rather not have spent the $21 dollars, but at least  didn’t have to shell out for a plumber. And next time I clean my dishwasher, the chances are excellent that I will manage NOT to destroy the retaining nut, and it won’t cost my anything.

I probably won’t even need my hacksaw.

Have you ever overcomplicated a simple job? What was your outcome?

January Buying Break

Our Christmas was fairly modest by American standards, but boy, did I buy a lot of things in December. Christmas presents. A roasting pan. Christmas presents on other people’s behalf. (Since we did not go East for Christmas, several generous relatives sent holiday checks. And since we’ve never stayed home before, I lacked key supplies like a roasting pan.) Cookie cutters. Ornament making supplies. Preschool teacher gift cards. Wreath. Wreath hanger. Christmas tree.

Everything I bought has a purpose, and I didn’t even come close to spending all those Christmas checks. (We’re stashing some for filling wants* as they arise and/or for experiences.) But it was much more spending, especially buying new, than I normally do. (Both boys got brand-new coats and brand-new jeans, plus a brand-new kid-sized table and chairs, a level of newness unprecedented in our household since we were preparing for Big Brother’s arrival five years ago.)

Packable, washable down jackets from Costco, approximately $23 each. Thanks, Grandma FP!

Packable, washable down jackets from Costco, approximately $23 each. Thanks, Grandma FP!

Now, there’s no way January is going to be an uber-frugal month. The dishwasher is broken** and my car is making alarming knocking noises when I turn corners (no more putting off that axle replacement). And Mr. FP and I have a weekend getaway planned for just the two of us.

Still, it’s time to recalibrate. I have major buying fatigue and don’t even want to think about walking up and down aisles or researching products on Amazon. Besides that, all that shopping has started to seem like normal behavior, something to do every few days. For me, it’s not, and it can’t be.

So… I’m not going to buy anything in January. Not for me, not for the house, and not for the boys. There are only two exceptions: I will buy whatever I need to fix the dishwasher, and I will buy Big Brother one or two birthday presents and some balloons. (Not his fault he got stuck with a January birthday.)

Now, last year I decided there was too much going on in January and I would just wait for February to do a proper uber-frugal month. This year, I’ve reminded myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good and decided that the time to start is now.

Does anyone else feel the need to do a bit of a January spending detox?

*We need a word for in between “want” and “need.” Something along the lines of, Little Brother’s uniform pants are wearable but short and I buy him new ones. He doesn’t NEED new ones, exactly, but it’s more than a passing fancy.

**Technically, I broke it while trying to clean it.

This Year’s Homemade Presents

We had a lovely little at-home Christmas here at FP central, and I hope you did, too. Having already made three trips East in a year and a half, we thought we’d stay in Colorado (although one Eastern friend came to spend the holiday week with us). I would like you to know that I produced an entirely credible roasted turkey AND homemade gravy from the pan drippings.

We do a simple Christmas, but only a few of our presents were homemade. I usually only make things that I cannot, for whatever reason, purchase. This year, that means that I helped the boys make two kids of Christmas tree ornaments, and I made them some kid-friendly aprons.

I think it’s important to get kids understanding early that Christmas is for giving, not just receiving, so I helped them make presents for friends and relatives. We did these adorable reindeer photo ornaments first:

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I made them from a picture I found online and it took a little trial and error to figure out the best procedure. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Cut craft sticks down if necessary and paint them brown. (I used scissors to cut, but if you do, watch for flying wood pieces!) Let dry.
  2. Glue sticks together to make frame; let dry.
  3. Meanwhile, cut out heads, ears, and tails from brown felt or maybe cardboard. (The felt heads were a little floppy.) Glue ears, eyes, and noses to the heads and let dry.
  4. When everything is dry, glue heads and tails to the frames. Let dry.
  5. Meanwhile, glue the photos to cardboard (I used corrugated, but cereal boxes would probably have been easier and quite adequate) for better support. Let dry, then cut out. I used a craft cutting wheel for this step.
  6. While everything is drying, make antlers out of cut and twisted fuzzy craft sticks. Glue them to the frame behind the head. I used hot glue for this step because I didn’t have any craft glue and Elmer’s School Glue (which we used for everything else) didn’t work. Glue a loop of ribbon to the back as a holder.

The boys did the painting and the gluing of the eyes, ears, and noses; I did much of the assembly and all the cutting.

Then we also made cinnamon-scented ornaments (at Big Brother’s insistence). This was a GREAT one to do with preschoolers because they could really participate in all the steps. I used this recipe (I halved it, and we preferred the natural look rather than decorating) and we kept a couple for ourselves. Including this broken Santa–as Big Brother pointed out, it still smells good.

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I already owned a giant container of cinnamon, googly eyes, felt, paint, glue, and craft sticks. My cost for the craft sticks, cookie cutters, ribbon, and the photos was about $7.50.

Lastly, I made the boys Montessori-style aprons from this great pattern. I really wanted them to have aprons and just wasn’t happy with what I was seeing to buy; everything was either too boring, too expensive, or both. Plus, they all have ties, requiring an adult to help put on and take off. These Montessori ones have kid-operated hook and eye fastener and elastic necks. So I took them to Walmart and let them pick out some fabric, not telling them what it was for. Big Brother picked Ninja Turtles. Little Brother wanted Minnie Mouse. Now, I don’t object to him wanting a girl mouse, but… he’s fickle, and his attention span is short. So I made the lining in plain mouse ears in case he changes his mind. I’m not a fast sewer, so the two aprons took me most of three evenings, while people who are fast can make two in one night. (There’s a whole lotta topstitching. At least I got to use the fancy topstitching foot I bought for my skirt project.) At any rate, the aprons were a big hit. Big Brother, in particular, declared himself a “waiter” and wore his apron around for hours, assisting with breakfast preparation and serving. The pattern said it was for ages 3-6 but as you can tell, it’s a better fit for Little Brother. Big Brother’s seems a little short and the waist seems a little high. He is not yet 5 and actually on the short side for his age, so I would recommend making the pattern larger for older preschoolers. It works for now, though! I spent about $14 on the fabric and elastic; I already owned the hook and eye fastener. I saw very plain aprons for sale as low as $7 each, but they were definitely not as nice as these!

It definitely worked to get him enthused about cooking. (Don't worry! I was RIGHT THERE!)

It definitely worked to get him enthused about cooking. (Don’t worry! I was RIGHT THERE!)

Little Brother modelling Minnie Mouse.

Little Brother modelling Minnie Mouse. I admit, I talked him out of the pink and purple Minnie Mouse into the simpler black and red fabric.

What did you make this Christmas? How did it turn out?

 

I Got Fired Again. Phew!

For years, since way back when I was a full-time middle school teacher, I’ve worked writing and fact-checking trivia questions for a company that runs “pub quizzes.” For most of that time, I was the editor; I worked directly with writers on the question mix and structure and was a liaison between them and the main office. I was proud of my ability to maintain friendly relationships conducted exclusively over email.

Nearly every question went across my desk, from my years as a full-time teacher to my first years of motherhood. I took off a couple of weeks when Big Brother was born and a whopping six days for Little Brother. (He slept a lot and I couldn’t get off the couch. I got bored.)

When I got a job, I started getting behind. My favorite writer filled in as the backup editor. Well, now he’s the editor and I’m the favorite writer and the backup editor.

It stung. Of course it did. No one likes to be taken down a notch. (I was given the news nicely enough, with respect for my years of service, and asked kindly to stay on as a writer.) If I had been able to put more effort into the editing, especially over the summer, maybe things would have been different. And it’s worth noting that the writing doesn’t pay as well as editing on an hourly basis. But within perhaps a few days, I felt immense relief.

For one thing, I like writing. It’s more creative than editing. And for another thing, as much as I enjoyed the work, I am so happy not to have the responsibility any more.

Now, if I’m tied up with other things, I just don’t work. Unless I accept a special assignment (like a Christmas set), there’s no looming deadline. I don’t feel like I have to stuff my mornings (when the kids are at school) with as much editing as possible; the house is a little cleaner and we eat a little better.

And I’m free from the constant sense of failure I felt from my inability to keep up, every time a week ended (and it was most weeks) and I had finished only three shows when I knew we needed four.

I loved that job. I miss it. But no one has time to do everything that they might love. Trying to squeeze in that one thing too many was taking away from my enjoyment of other things.

How have you pared down your responsibilities?

 

I KonMaried My Wardrobe (FP Style)

This post contains affiliate links. Also, it contains terrible photography, for which I apologize. My bedroom is in the basement and it’s kind of a dark hole.

Well, everyone else was reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpI am by no means a committed minimalist, but I do like to keep my possessions trimmed down and tidy, so I got on the hold list for the book to see if I could get any fresh ideas.

First, let’s acknowledge that it’s kind of a weird book. The author, Marie Kondo, advises thanking your possessions for their service to you, especially when you are discarding something. I don’t find it necessary to consult the feelings of inanimate objects. And while nicely stored clothes make me happy, I do not believe that the clothes have an opinion one way or another. Still, I’m getting some use from the book.

Marie Kondo’s sole criterion for deciding whether to keep or discard an item is, “Does it spark joy?” and she advises that you begin paring down by starting with your clothes in a specific order: first tops, then bottoms, and so on.

I thought I had a pretty small wardrobe and I’ve gone through it regularly, but I was surprised when I started counting to find that I owned 62 tops, from camisoles to cardigans. (According to Kondo, the average person she works with has 160, so I guess I do have a small wardrobe.)

Frankly, I think it’s unreasonable to expect all your clothes to “spark joy.” I often wear to work a pink and white striped button-down that I bought when I was breastfeeding Big Brother. It does not now and never has sparked actual joy, but it is comfortable, reasonably professional, and performs all the important functions of clothing, so I kept it. I can’t alternate between pajamas and the red dress Mr. FP bought me in Italy, the only two items of clothing that I find particularly joy-inducing.

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Sweat pants, circa 1997. They still cover my legs, so I choose to keep them rather than buy something new.

I also dislike discarding clothing because Americans waste massive quantities of clothing. A lot of our discarded clothing winds up getting shipped overseas. If I don’t wear it, it’s possible no one else will, either, so to keep things out of the landfill, I like to err on the side of using them up.

So I set a lower bar: I would keep any clothes that did not cause me actual emotional or physical discomfort and that serve a purpose. Turns out, I owned nineteen shirts that I actively disliked or had no conceivable use for. 19! And that’s just shirts.

I love the color, but it's time to admit that I bought this shirt too small and it hurts my elbows.

I love the color, but it’s time to admit that I bought this shirt too small. Even if I lost weight, it would still pinch my elbows.

The fanciest, newest clothes I got rid of. The dry-clean-only shirt was a gift and I bought the makes-me-look-pregnant skirt to go with it.

The fanciest, newest clothes I got rid of. The dry-clean-only shirt was a gift and I bought the makes-me-look-pregnant skirt to go with it.

I filled up one garbage bag and about half of a Trader Joe’s bag with discarded clothes, but for me, the bigger impact was the vertical folding. Essentially, you fold your clothes up so tightly that they stand up on their own (no really–this actually happens!), then you place them in the drawer on their edge. While the folding takes longer, it lets you fit a lot more things into the drawer AND at the same time actually see it all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been looking for something and not been able to find it when it was in a pile the whole time.

Before. Never knew what shirts were in which pile and my underpants and sports bras were shoved awkwardly in the back.

Before. Never knew what shirts were in which pile and my underpants and sports bras were shoved awkwardly in the back.

And after. Removed undies and added several large sweaters plus some camis from the closet.

And after. Removed undies and added several large sweaters plus some camis from the closet.

I made the change several days ago and love it so far. I do spend more time folding, but it’s kind of satisfying, and anyway I find I get that time back not having to hunt for things in piles. Plus I like how nice it looks. She advises using shoeboxes as drawer dividers, but so far I’ve been making do without. My underwear drawer is too shallow for a shoebox, but I do use a commemorative paperweight to keep my sports bras from falling over.

Vertical sock folding made room for my sports bras and underpants in--of all places--my underwear drawer.

Vertical sock folding made room for my sports bras and underpants in–of all places–my underwear drawer. Paperweight keeps pile from falling over. I’ve also heard of people using bookends.

Now that I’ve I tossed out everything in the closet I hated and then folded much of what remained (now that I had all that dresser space–yes, you can fold skirts), I will be able to fix my awful closet space. See, I have these two awkwardly placed bars:

Before pic of overcrowded closet with draggy clothes.

Before pic of overcrowded closet.

There was not enough space either on the bottom or the top to hang dresses or long shirts and everything just kind of dragged. Now, I can hang everything on one bar, lower the other one to make a convenient shelf for things like my sewing basket, and still not have dragging clothes. Just as soon as I get around to it…

Have you read The Life-Changing Magic? How do you store your clothes? Do you thank your possessions for their service to you?

How I’m Reading 100 Books in 2015

This post contains affiliate links. They are for educational purposes, because you should check your books out from your library. But if you did buy something from Amazon, I would get a tiny cut.

I have always been a fast reader, the kind who needs more than one Agatha Christie novel if it’s going to be a long flight. In 2010, the last full year before I became a mother, I read 85 books, according to my LibraryThing page, and only half of those, tops, were manuals on childbirth, infant care, or breastfeeding. That was a light year–2009 I read 113.

Then the babies started to arrive and I enrolled in library school. I did my best to keep up with reading. I curled up with Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and Adventures in Tandem Nursing; I held a sleeping baby on one arm and The Murder Room on the other; I listened to State of Wonder on my iPod during four a.m. feedings. Still, I read only 46 books in 2011, and in 2012, the year Big Brother was 1 and Little Brother was a newborn, a paltry 31. That’s probably a respectable number as far as averages, but look at it this way: Reading is the recreational activity that I love more than any other, and my reading had dropped by a full two-thirds.

Family portrait by Big Brother. I'm the one with the book in hand, of course.

Family portrait by Big Brother. I’m the one with the book in hand, of course.

I became irritable and depressed and simply did not feel like myself. I resolved to do better. I read an article near the end of 2012 about a man who had successfully resolved to average one book per day that year–365 books. That wasn’t realistic for me, but I figured I could manage 75 in 2013. I finished my goal ahead of schedule and clocked in at 82 for the year. Last year, I dunno what happened, but I was back down to 48 for 2014.

This year, I have so far read 97 books and should easily break a hundred. And no, that does not count picture books I’ve read to the children. “But, Mrs. FP,” you say, “You have two preschool-age children and a part-time job and you serve nutritious, made-from-scratch meals. How do you have time to read?” Here are my secrets for averaging about two books a week:

I use every scrap of time.

If we watch TV, I read during the commercials. If I get in bed a few minutes before Mr. FP, I read a few pages. If I arrive at the preschool door two minutes before they open it, I read a page. I read while I’m eating; sometimes I even read while I’m cooking. I often have an ebook going on my smartphone as well as a paper book to better maximize; sometimes it’s easier to read on my phone, sometimes I want paper.

I let my children amuse themselves.

I’m not saying I never play with them, and goodness knows I spend half our waking hours reading to them. But much of the day, I let them do their own thing, together or separately. Now, most of THAT time, I’m in the kitchen or doing laundry. Still leaves a bit of time for my books, especially at the playground. Sometimes lunch is served at 2:15 pm because I wanted to finish my book and they were playing happily in the park.

It helps that I made two of them. Once Little Brother turned two, all of a sudden they could really entertain each other.

I consume less of other media.

I follow exactly three television shows (and two of them are short-season shows). Lots of other good ones out there, but I let other people watch them. Movies? As soon as I finish folding the laundry, I just get restless and want my book back. News? I scan the headlines in Feedly, but I don’t read much about things I can’t change.

Confession: I read a lot of (but not only) short books.

Sure, I took my time wading through the annotated Pioneer Girl, and when my sister sent me The Thorn Birds for my birthday, I read the whole damn thing. (I told her next year, just send me a hammer and I’ll break my toes with it and enjoy it just as much.) But I read a lot of what librarians call “genre fiction.” You know what genre fiction is. It looks like this:

These Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels are pretty fun with a smart heroine.

These Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels are pretty fun with a smart, independent heroine.

Or this:

Yep, there is sex in this book.

Yep, there is sex in this book.

I also tore through a ten-volume graphic novel series (Y: The Last Man). Makes the books add up in a hurry. It’s not just they’re short, it’s that they’re fun and I’m always anxious to get back to them. I’ll read a few in a row, then maybe something with modest literary pretensions.

All of this is to say, I love reading and it makes me happy, so I make it a priority and sometimes let other things slide. What does that for you? Do you read?

If you’re curious what the 97 books are, click here to see a Google doc of this year’s reading with reviews of some of the books. I maintain a LibraryThing page with over 900 entries, but I like to keep a list on my own hard drive as well..

 

What Would Ma Ingalls Buy? My Fall Shopping Critique

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Earlier this year, I decided that Big Brother was ready to try chapter books for read-aloud. On an impulse, I decided to start with one of my childhood favorites, Little House in the Big Woods.

He LOVED it. When we finished, I asked if he wanted something different, maybe with a boy in it. Nope. “More Laura and Mary.” So it was on to Little House on the Prairie, and then On the Banks of Plum Creek, in which we have recently been traumatized by an actual, historical plague of locusts.

If you aren’t familiar with the Little House books, they are semi-autobiographical novels about the author’s experiences as a pioneer girl in the second half of the nineteenth century. (Caroline Ingalls, or “Ma,” was a real person, but for my purposes, I am talking about the fictionalized character.) Wilder goes into great detail about topics ranging from cheese making to log cabin building to travelling by covered wagon. When they move to a new place, which is often, they leave behind all their furniture (homemade) and load up the covered wagon. When they arrive, they build a new house, build some furniture, and there they are. Their sole decorative possession is Ma’s china shepherdess; you know they’re settled in a new place when the shepherdess is installed on a shelf.

Reading these books has made me feel lazy, wasteful, and generally useless. I can’t make cheese! I don’t make all my clothes! I own more than two dresses and several pairs of shoes! I complained that there weren’t enough Starbucks in Kansas!

I’m not saying Ma Ingalls had it better than me–she would probably change places with me without hesitation. But there is something appealing about the simplicity, and I have found myself asking, when I buy something, “What would Ma think?”

I seem to have been on a bit of a shopping spree this fall, with an unusual number of brand-new purchases, so let’s let Ma Ingalls critique my acquisitions.

Raingear for me

Why buy: I take my children to school by bicycle. Got soaked the first time it rained–three times. All my pants are cotton and I owned no waterproof jacket, so I had to change after drop off, after mid-morning pickup (Little Brother), and again after afternoon pickup.

Why new: I am hard to fit and need special sizes. My rain pants (which I will also wear for playing in the snow, over sweats) are youth size 18 (I got these LL Bean ones and the jacket, also from LL Bean, is petite. I needed to be able to try it on and return it if it didn’t fit. Plus, now I get a lifetime guarantee!

What would Ma think? Well, she pretty much never buys anything for herself and would be puzzled as to why I now own seven coats. (In my defense, three of them date back to the 90s). On the other hand, I’m sure she would approve of protecting my other clothes with the appropriate outerwear. Staying dry is just better.

Kids’ uniforms and school supplies

Why buy: Well, the school said I had to. They gave me quite a list, and they won’t even let three-year-olds in the door without uniforms (school-purchased short-sleeve shirts with undershirts and pants in prescribed colors).

Why new: Obviously, I can’t buy used construction paper. I was able to get a couple pairs of pants for Little Brother second-hand, but after two thrift stores and one consignment sale, I still couldn’t find long-sleeved undershirts or the remaining 6 pairs of pants. Had to buy new. I asked on NextDoor for used uniform shirts but struck out, so I had to buy them, too. (You can image how I felt paying ten dollars for one polo when I usually get them at Goodwill for $1.99.)

Then I splurged and bought them school sweatshirts, too, mostly because all the other kids had them.

Big Brother is especially delighted with his sweatshirt and the front pocket.

Big Brother is especially delighted with his sweatshirt and the front pocket.

What would Ma think? A former schoolteacher, she made sacrifices to send her children to school and I’m sure she would approve of the school expense. She would probably be puzzled as to why my kids start school at age three instead of age seven and why they need four sets of uniforms–her girls had one school dress each. That was in the back of my mind when I purchased just four uniforms, which commits me to every-other-day washing (one uniform on the child, one at school in case of accident, and two in the washing machine). Many children have six!

A Crock-Pot

Why buy: My existing slow cooker, which came out of Grandma’s FP’s laundry closet circa 2010, had two main drawbacks: It was not programmable (had just 4 cook time settings) and even at its longest settings, could not produce really soft beans. I wanted to be able to make recipes that call for shorter cooking times and I liked my beans fully cooked, thank you.

Old and new lined up on the counter. I can't actually bring myself to get rid of the old one, which is now in the basement.

Old and new lined up on the counter. I can’t actually bring myself to get rid of the old one, which is now in the basement.

Why new: Well, I use a slow cooker several times a week. I wanted something to meet my exacting specifications. Also, they were on sale at Costco and I do like to enjoy a lifetime guarantee.

What would Ma think? First of all, I’m sure she would think that a slow cooker is a brilliant invention. It lets me work as a librarian (and she valued education, remember) while still looking after my family. She would, however, have kept using the old crock until Pa bought her a new one, like when he bought her a new cookstove for their new house in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

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More room on the bottom for chicken breasts! I should also be able to comfortably cook a full two pounds of beans, not the measly one and a half I’ve been limited to.

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I can set it for any amount of time I want, and it even counts down!

I’ve never been as self-effacing as Ma and my husband knows that–he tends to assume that if I haven’t bought it for myself, then I don’t really want it. I really wanted it, so I bought it.

There are other things I’ve been considering purchasing this fall, like yoga pants. Then I think of Ma Ingalls. Would I get as much joy out of yoga pants as Ma got when Pa bought her some pretty calico to make a new apron? No. So I decided not to buy them. By the same token, I mended my pajama pants rather than replaced them and decided to keep wearing my old fleece. I want a black or gray fitted one; what I own dates back to perhaps 2005 and is rather large and a cream color that always looks dirty. But… it’s still warm. And if I don’t want to wear it, I can wear one of my six other coats.

What are you buying or not buying this fall? And who else loves Laura?

Why I’m Not Embarrassed by My Car

One of my coworkers got a brand-new car this week. Some kind of SUV. I forget what kind, not being into cars, but it was very shiny and silver. He had the back end open and several other young men were standing around it drooling.

I walked right by it and got into my car, the Auto Paragon, if you will. It looks like this:

20151029_164925[1]

It is easily the junkiest-looking car in the library parking lot at any given time, staff or customer.

The Auto Paragon is a 1999 Honda Accord. I bought it certified used in 2004, and it was my first real grown-up car. We did not have the whole ten thousand dollars, so we put down the five we could spare and took out a three-year loan with payments of $193 per month.*

You may have noticed it has some, ah, cosmetic issues. Some of these are entirely my fault. Dent in the truck lid? That’s from when I backed up into a flat bed truck. (Had to shell out $175 to replace the tail light and reattach the bumper, but did not bother paying to have the dent removed.) Hey, it was flat. Very hard to see in the rearview.

Dent in the hood? Not sure where that come from. I think I hit an unusually tall curb blocker too hard.

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The biggie, of course, is the detached bumper. I got rear-ended on my way to work a few months ago. But Mrs. FP, you say, didn’t the other driver’s insurance pay for the repair? Well, yes. But it turns out that to fix the bumper would have cost $700, and before I scheduled the repair, they just mailed me a check. Well, once I had seven hundred dollars in my bank account, I preferred to, well, keep it rather than pay it out on my car. (I did make sure that it was not dangerous. The bumper is not loose, just low, and it is apparently not an important safety feature.)

It also has mechanical issues. Evidently it needs a new axle, but I can’t tell. And the check engine light is on. I was told that it is giving a code for an exhaust leak (did not fix because not due for emissions inspection this year) and for the transmission. Also the transmission fluid was so filthy it looked like engine oil, and I am informed this is a bad thing. Transmission may be fine, may not be Dave the mechanic said I could drive it as is as long as I don’t go anywhere remote. Fortunately, my route to work is along well-lit, well-traveled city streets.

Despite its manifest problems, I still consider my car a luxury and extravagance. There’s a bus stop half a block from our house, and we can bike. Yet we have not one, but TWO cars! One for each of us! We never have to share of take turns or coordinate or anything. It’s paid for. It drives. I never have to wait at the bus stop in the rain. It even has a radio for my entertainment AND climate control!

So why do we even have two cars? Well, for one thing, the bus takes a lot longer than driving and our daycare charges by the hour. We have two little kids and preschool schedules to keep up with. Next year, both the boys may be in full-day school, and we can reevaluate whether we still find the car worthwhile (assuming I can keep the Auto Paragon limping along until then).

It would be easy to convince myself, first of all, that my car is a necessity, and second, that it must be replaced. Certainly that’s what standard American behavior would indicate. But I refuse to kid myself that my car is anything other than a luxury.

Are you a one-car family? Have you ever tooled around in a suspect vehicle?

*Note that we no longer take out car loans. Our recent car purchase for Mr. FP was (a) significantly less than the ten thousand I paid back then and (b) cash.

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