Friday, August 29, 2008


Natalie Goldberg says to write about our obsessions, and lately I’m obsessed with organization. It all comes of being born two days shy of Virgo, I think. That is not to say I’m an organized person; on the contrary. However, I always have this nagging sense that if only I could get my life organized enough, it would stay that way. Ha!

Seven years ago we built a fairly small house (by American standards--I’m sure it is practically a palace compared to much of the world) for several reasons, including limitations on time and money and a desire to minimize our use of resources (and cleaning time). As our family has grown, we’ve resisted adding on for the same reasons. However, that does not mean that we don’t sometimes get frustrated by the lack of space. I have lately been feeling like there is nowhere for me to do anything in the house, thus the impetus for the organizing frenzy (OK, it’s not exactly a frenzy, more of a languid hum, but whatever).

First, I took on the desk (which is doing a fair job of holding its own against marauding piles, although there is a small stack of papers there I need to deal with) and now I have a place to sit and write. Next came the sewing area. For a time I had sewing stuff spread over all three floors of the house--most of the material and supplies stored in the basement, my sewing machine sharing space with my desk, later moved upstairs to a small table in my room, my cutting mat and ruler behind the filing cabinet and various tools scattered at all points in between. The table in my room was too small and the corner cramped, so last weekend I hauled a somewhat larger table out of the basement and placed it on the opposite wall, improving the situation 100%.

The two drawers hold all of the supplies I need on a regular basis--thread, scissors, pins, etc.--so I don’t have to run downstairs constantly, I can use my dresser for cutting and ironing, as long as it doesn’t get piled with clothes, and the material and notions are still in the basement--in increasingly more organized bins. I created a reading nook on the opposite wall, for when hammock season is over (like last week), as long as it doesn’t get piled with clothes.

Finally, to organize my life, I ran across this simple notebook system on one blog I enjoy reading. I set one up last weekend, following basically the same format (minus the pretty colored markers and little drawings), with “ideas” where she has “blog” and a box at the bottom of the “food” column for “exercise.” It’s amazing how motivating a big empty space there is. It’s also impossible to hide “one bag of maple cotton candy” when you write down everything you eat all day (I have heard this is an effective weight-loss tool; we’ll see if it makes a dent in the twin-belly). Having a list of “to do’s” has been super helpful: the first day I wrote “yoga” in that box, and found I couldn’t go to bed until I had done 10 or 15 minutes of stretches (for the first time in months, ow), and have done it every day since. I don’t get everything done on the list, but I get a lot more done more efficiently than when I tried to keep it all in my head, and I find I enjoy sitting down throughout the day (at my desk), checking off things, adding more. The “gratitude” box should be interesting for me, ungrateful wretch that I am…maybe it will keep me from sinking into a pit of despair as we slide into the season that starts with “w” and ends in “inter.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Buy Nothing Back-to-School and Lunch Bag Tutorial

This post revised 9/10/09 after I made two more bags and found some areas that could use clarification. New additions in italics, new photos are in cowboy or jungle fabric.

Before M started kindergarten, I dutifully did what my mom did every August--I trooped to Target and bought all of the school supplies from the list the teacher mailed to our house, loaded up on jeans and t-shirts and searched out the perfect lunchbox. To my surprise, I found that they no longer make lunchboxes; instead they supply an endless array of thick, bulky insulated coolers (honestly, when did peanut butter and jelly sandwiches suddenly require insulation?).

I had visions of M walking to school (which is ridiculous since we live five miles away) with his metal Superman or Scooby Doo lunchbox dangling from his hand, banging against his knee, the way I did when I was a kid. I had a metal Holly Hobby lunch box, with the matching thermos and my banana sticker collection in the lid. In second grade I forgot it on the playground and it got stomped (by an eighth-grader, I was sure) and from then on I carried my lunch to school in brown paper sacks (except on those most humiliating days when we ran out of my bags and I had to take my lunch in a clear Safeway produce bag).

We already had a couple of insulated coolers which I had bought when he was a baby, so for the last two years he has taken is lunch in those. Last year I resisted the back-to-school shopping urge altogether--M never wore any of the jeans I bought in kindergarten (he has a very particular sense of style, which is based not on fashion, fit or cleanliness, as far as I can tell) and though I remember acutely the agony of sitting outside his kindergarten classroom while he went through screening that first day, and watching all of the kids go by wearing there shiny new shoes and clothes, knowing M was inside in a ratty t-shirt and shorts (because it was still too warm to wear those new jeans even if he would wear them) and old sneakers, I know that the time to buy kids new shoes in Maine is in spring, when you can actually wear them for several months, not in the fall when they will soon be supplanted by snow boots. I didn’t need to buy any first grade supplies--he re-used his pencil box and scissors from kindergarten and I have a whole stash of unopened boxes of crayons, markers and colored pencils because for some reason we often get school supplies as gifts, and because pencils are the new candy (at Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s) we will never have to buy pencils again.

This strategy worked again this year--my back to school shopping consisted of a pack of shoelaces (for the shoes I bought him last spring--an exemption in the Buy Nothing Year rules) because one broke (damn organic cotton) and a box of tissues for the classroom. However, I did want to replace the old insulated lunchboxes which were starting to fall apart, were getting kind of snargy and are probably made out of lead-filled PVC (although why this suddenly matters after having used them for 7 years I have no idea). I wanted something machine-washable, non-bulky when empty and big enough to hold a couple of plastic sandwich containers with room to spare. Because this is Buy Nothing Year, and because I’ve never seen anything that was exactly what I wanted (although I did briefly lust over this and this), I decided to make it myself, using all materials I had on hand.

I know this isn’t a craft blog, but I’m going to show you how I made it in case you get inspired to make your own (skip to the bottom to see the final picture if you're not inspired):

Outside fabric 1/3-1/2 yard
Lining fabric 1/3-1/2 yard
Strap fabric (can be cut from lining fabric if desired) scrap at least 4" wide by 20" long
Cord (I used cotton clothesline) about 40"
Heavy Duty Zipper at least as long as top width (it's OK if it is longer; just tuck the end in the lining)

Seam allowance: 1/2 inch unless otherwise noted

Construction tip: Even though the instructions aren't written this way, I do all of the cutting first, then all of the ironing, then all of the sewing.

Get started: Determine your desired finished size. Mine is roughly 11 inches wide at the top, 7 inches wide and 4 inches deep at the bottom and 7 inches tall. Cut one rectangle from each outside and lining fabric (A=outside; B=lining) measuring: 2 x top width + 1 -by- height + 1/2 depth + 2 (my rectangles measured 24" wide x 13" high)

Outer BagHandles: Cut two strips of fabric 2 inches wide by about 20 inches long (you can vary this depending on your desired handle length). Fold in half lengthwise; iron. Open up and fold edges in about ¼ inch; iron. Cut two pieces of cord about 18 inches long (or 2" shorter than your fabric strips) each. Lay along inside fold of fabric strips; fold over fabric along length; fold ends under about 1/4 inch twice; sew along length. Sew to sides of bag (I placed mine about 3 inches in from the edges and 4 inches down from the top; and sewed from 1 ½ inches down to the bottom edge of the handle), reinforcing several times along the length (once at the bottom of the handle, once at the beginning of the seam and once in the middle of the two).

Zipper: (Note: I used a heavy-duty zipper that was a couple of inches longer than I needed; a properly-sized zipper would probably be neater. Also I just made this up as I went along; if you know how to actually do zippers, you should just skip this part and do it your way).
Sew a small square of fabric at the top (open) end of zipper.
Find center of outside fabric (A) top; align with center of zipper (right sides together) and pin.
Align one edge of zipper with top edge of bag on one side. Pin.
Repeat with other edge.
Pin around bottom and side of bag (Fabric A; right sides together). Sew around bag from bottom corner.
When you reach the top corner, fold fabric into a box shape to align with zipper.
Sew along sipper fabric and around both ends. (Yes it looks like hell, but will be hidden by the lining!) There is probably a better way to do this.

Now take the bottom corners and pull the fabric apart to form a triangle. Sew across the bottom of the triangle where it is your desired bag depth (4 inches across--that is, the longest side, or hypotenuse, of your triangle). Repeat on the other corner.

This gives you a square bottom. Turn fabric A right side out.
Pockets: I put two pockets inside my bag, a wide one for a napkin or lunch money and a tall one for a fork or spoon. Cut fabric A desired pocket size (mine are about 4" x 7"; one tall, one wide); iron down ½ inch along top and ¼ inch along sides and bottom. Fold top edge under 1/4 inch, then 1/2 inch, sew down. Place on fabric B at desired location (centered on half of bag, about 5 or 6" up from bottom edge) and sew around sides and bottom.

With right sides together, sew along bottom and side of lining; repeat square bottom, as in outer bag. Iron down ½ inch along top edge of fabric B and place inside fabric A (wrong sides together).
Align seams and pin to zipper fabric all around the edge. At the bottom end of the zipper, I had extra fabric, which I folded into a pleat.
Sew all the way around.

It turned out exactly how I wanted, in terms of size and functionality. A better zipper technique might make it look a little cleaner at the top, and reinforcing all of the seams (which I didn’t do) would probably make it more durable. Now I just have to figure out what to put in it that M will actually eat!!

E and Z required a place mat to eat their lunch over, so I sewed a rectangle of outer fabric to a rectangle of solid fabric, right sides together, leaving a 2-3" gap, flipped it right side out and top-stitched around the edge.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

One Shirt, Two Shirt, Red Shirt, Blue Shirt

This weekend I read an essay in a certain over-the-top baby-as-fashion-accessory mommy magazine (that shall remain nameless but is named after a dessert traditionally served with a glass of milk) about a mom's conflicted feelings about sending her child to kindergarten or holding him back. She mentioned the argument (founded or unfounded) that kindergarten is more academically rigorous now and that many schools encourage kids to be held back a year and that "all" it costs is another year of paying for pre-school, when it struck me (she did not address any societal implications) that the drive for more academic kindergarten ("the new first grade") coupled with the encouragement of holding kids back (or forced hold-back for very early cut-off dates) equals basically eliminating kindergarten, which not only puts us on equal footing with New Hampshire (which, I have heard but cannot substantiate, does not require school districts to provide kindergarten), but also increases the burden on families that cannot afford that extra year of preschool (or any preschool at all), and puts those children at even greater disadvantage. It also increases the burden on school districts--already cash-strapped and overwhelmed--that have a high proportion of families that cannot afford private preschool to provide pre-kindergarten. To me it appears to be a subtle, sneaky erosion of the promise of education for all. And it stinks.

But I was happy to read this from a levelheaded Mamazine contributor and this from Slates about the downsides of "redshirting." Time for a Kindergarten counter-revolution.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A room of my own

Yesterday, I spent the first blue sky sunny day in a loooong time indoors organizing my desk. That is the spot that is always last in line for any type of houseworkerly attention and it had accumulated crap to a dangerous degree--it usually becomes the free cell when I’m cleaning the rest of the house. I don’t have any before photos, but suffice it to say it was scary. (I had cleaned every inch of the house before my parents visited--except the desk, which collected everything that I cleaned up from everywhere else.

As part of the effort, I cleaned out my drawer in the filing cabinet to eliminate the dust-gathering archives and make it a more usable space for storing and retrieving papers I use on a regular basis. In the cabinet, in addition to all my college papers and high school swimming ribbons, I found a journal I kept while on internship in Idaho and after reading it I wish I’d written more while I was there. I also found a journal from my sophomore year in college and after skimming through some of it, I wish I’d written less--it is filled with impassioned budding-environmentalist rants about meat-eating and general earth destruction, budding-feminist rants about how women don’t need men, alternating with agonized soliloquies about unrequited love for a certain male member of the student body, and a fair amount of vague dissatisfaction with life and time lines trying to chart my course and figure out what I’m going to do with my life. This latest appears to continue to be an affliction of mine. I hope I don't look back on my blog posts in 15 years and feel the same degree of nausea (I also hope my writing skills have improved along with my handwriting).

Anyhoo, back to the desk--it’s not a room (it's in a corner of the living room--the first thing you see when you walk in the door), but it is a space and I am determined to not let it become the crap-piling-up-place again. As you can see in the photo, it now holds only tools I need for writing: a lamp, a cup of pens, my writing technique books (for inspiration) and my notebook at a jaunty angle in the middle. Down on the floor, I placed a stolen toy basket and put pending craft project materials in it, so I have no excuse to not knit that fabulous Noro yarn. I usually write in bed, and will probably continue to do so (although this weekend I had the opportunity to write on a park bench overlooking Rockland Harbor and it was lovely) but now at least I can’t use the chaos and disorder around me as an excuse to not get to work.

New post up today at Capital Walks .

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wherefore art thou, Summer?

We survived our mostly-rainy five days in the woods. The climax of the trip had to have been the double-poopy-pants Friday night (probably not such a good idea to take two barely-potty-trained three-year-olds to a place where the only toilet is eight feet deep). After that, things got much better—the sun came out, we got to hang out at the waterfront all day instead of being forced on slippery death-marches.

Highlights of the week:

Seeing M fishing, standing up in a canoe, wearing full camo pants, jacket and hat. "He looks like he was born at Orvis," I told C.

M being awarded his Junior Ranger by Ranger Gabe (after much agonizing over his imperfect penmanship and drawing skills—where did I get such a perfectionist child? Lord knows I do everything half-assed).

E pointing out EVERY mushroom on our various hikes—“Nunner mushoom! Two mushoom! Fee mushoom! Yedow mushoom! Oranga mushoom! Fairy table! Fairy chair!”—there are A LOT of mushrooms out there, thanks to this relentless rain. I never appreciated how varied in shape, color and size they were before.

Z and E yelling at a guy who got out of his canoe and touched the tail of a garter snake that had come out to sun on the rocks: “No touch snake!!” “No kill snake!!”

Picking (and eating) wild blueberries. Z always picks (and saves) some for me.

Reacquainting with old friends

Lots of good food.

The inside of the tent staying dry.

I didn’t realize how very lovely it was, being out there in the wildness, until we drove into Augusta and stopped to eat pizza at a damp picnic table outside of Al’s pizza, listening to the cars driving by, looking at the ugly strip malls, hearing C’s cell phone ringing off the hook already, watching my kids run across a metal bridge to nowhere that spans a stormwater overflow ditch.

And now with the start of school bearing down on us I’m starting to feel nostalgic for summer. What with visitors and vacations, it’s flown by so fast, like a French train (not like Amtrak, with its delays and late departures that rail line is more akin to winter), that I feel like I’ve missed it. I never even bought my bag of limes and bottle of tequila, we’ve only been to the beach once and I haven’t spent any time engaged in my favorite summer activity, lolling in the hammock with a stack of books and a large glass of limeade. Is it too late to re-wind to April and call a do-over?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Nature Newts

This morning I walked the boys over to Kiddie Korner so I could spend the day getting ready for our camping trip. M rode ahead on this bike, down the right side of the road—ride to a driveway, stop & wait, ride to the next driveway, stop & wait. On the left side, I pushed Z on the tricycle that badly needs oil, “scree, scree, scree,” and E walked ahead of us, then behind, carrying his Big Brady Doggy. I glanced back to check his progress every now and then and one time I saw him holding something red and leggy in his free hand—and Eastern newt eft (I looked it up later), bright orange with fluorescent red spots. We all looked at and admired it. M came back from his driveway to see (“It looks like it glows in the dark!”).

When I suggested we let it go back in the grass, E jumped up and down crying. I asked him what he wanted to do with it. “Take it home. Put in ‘tainer.” I suggested we take it to Kiddie Korner to show the other kids and he agreed, but when I suggested I carry it myself he pointed out that I needed to push the tricycle. So I took his doggie and showed him how to cup the salamander in his palms so as not to squish it and keep it from jumping/falling to the ground. He carried it all the way to daycare and showed it off to the other kids in the playground and then, without complaint, let M (who carried it on an open palm and kept dropping it) take it to the edge of the woods and let it go. “Find own mommy,” E said, and it’s a good thing newts aren’t strongly attached to their mothers or this one would have a very long walk back to find his.

I’m just starting to come around to the idea of “sacrificial nature”—letting my kids handle, and possibly destroy, plants and animals for the greater purpose of steeping them in the wildness around them and so they gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for nature through hands on experience of life and death. It does not come easily to me—I quake while they poke at or shake the katydid in the bug jar, or carry around and drop a spotted frog (leopard or pickerel? I’m not sure). Eventually I intervene and release the poor agitated creature. I tried to bite my tongue last week as M tore fronds from the ferns all along our hiking trail, but I finally suggested he leave some there for the animals. And though I am deeply bothered by caged animals, especially wild animals, I am considering setting up a terrarium so that we can enjoy and observe our finds for a few hours or days before releasing them. As much as I hate to see an amphibian die of internal wounds inflicted by my child, I would hate even more to turn nature into a hands-off world that my children lose interest in because they have been told, “don’t touch,” “don’t run,” “don’t climb,” “watch out,” “be careful,” too many times.

On the walk home from daycare I noticed several salamander carcasses flattened and dried to the pavement—all the rain we’re having (keep your fingers crossed that it will pass us by on our camping trip) must have them out migrating. I guess there are worse fates than being loved to death by a couple of three year olds.
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