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Archive for March, 2008

Humongous

My brother-in-law (age 17) arrived from Minnesota very late last night. His parents thoughtfully flew him into the airport farthest from our house and Eric went to get him. He thought I should have a snack waiting for Ben when he got here. He mentioned this after we’d polished off the pan of brownies I’d already made over the weekend. Fortunately I love to bake, especially when I know I’ll have the help of a hungry teenager to eat it all. Eric wanted blonde brownies but my recipe called for one tablespoon of vanilla which was one tablespoon more than I had. Every month when my co-op catalog comes in the mail I look to see if the warehouse serving us has started carrying quart-sized bottles of vanilla extract. I don’t know how we get through that stuff so fast.

I did have two entire packages of cream cheese so I went to a recipe website and searched for recipes using cream cheese and chocolate, but not vanilla extract, and came up with Humongous Cookies.

The title of the cookie reminded me of something small that happened in college. I majored in music, but after a couple years of the grueling demands of that program I needed a change and I started pursuing courses in history and politics and using long-neglected regions of my brain again. One of the first classes I took during this time was Constitutional Law. It was taught by a professor I adored, but the class really had a reputation. It was taught in the round and the professor called on students at random to brief cases and we were on the spot for a good amount of time when called upon. Discussion was abundant and we were required to make pretty stiff arguments. My favorite gaffe from a classmate was when he said, “It just seems to me that this case deals with more of a local problem,” when we were discussing Lucas v. The South Carolina Coastal Council a case which impacted pretty much the entire East Coast.

My favorite personal gaffe came during a time of heated discussion. I have no idea what case we were debating but I had a moment to interject my carefully considered opinion and began, “This is a humongous . . .” I stopped. I turned red. I’d just used the word “humongous.” In retrospect I doubt that anyone would have noticed or cared, but there I was: the inexperienced music major trying to prove that she could do Constitutional Law with the politics majors. I decided to recover by stopping my argument entirely and saying, “I can’t believe I just used the word humongous.” Everyone laughed and we all moved on. I got an A in the class. I didn’t go to law school. And I’ve avoided the word humongous ever since.

In the end there weren’t any other recipes to satisfy the requirements of me, the baker, and my blonde-brownie craving husband so I made the cookies. They weren’t bad. They are called humongous because you press the dough into two cake pans and then cut it into wedges to serve. I probably would call this recipe chocolate-chip cookie cake. They’re tasty but the texture bugs me. Too cakey for brownies, too chewy for cake. But they got us through the opening rounds of “Where should Ben go to college?” He’s here because we live near his current top-choice school and we’re glad for the opportunity to influence his thinking in this decision.

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I’ve been doing a good bit of writing this past week but not much of it has made it here, unfortunately. If you’ve really missed me, you can peruse this thread at 4Real where I think I contributed enough material to fill several blog posts.

What has me thinking even more–and on weightier matters–is Sally’s recent post on the clash of vocations. It surprised me, actually, that the post inspired so much thought on my part. I never would have said before this week that I felt a “clash of vocations” in my life. For the first three years of our marriage I did work. I was a librarian and then a Residential Life Director for Washington, DC, interns. Both of these occupations earned much-needed money for our family while Eric chipped away at a Ph.D but neither job was a second vocation. I was a librarian only to kill time until I could start being an RD–a job which would then allow me to be a stay-at-home Mom. The RD job was part-time, all from home, and my co-workers graciously put up with Joseph’s presence at staff meetings. Ideal. Once Margaret came along it was too much and Eric gave it a go for a year but now we’re living like grown-ups, paying rent, and desperately job-hunting.

Despite past employment I have for some time seen my primary, and really my sole vocation, as that of wife and mother. This really drove my college professors nuts. One wanted me to get a Ph.D. Several thought I should go to law school. All thought I was throwing away all my gifts by wanting to be “just a mom.” I do not have a single regret and I’m not posting here to defend the vocation of motherhood. But, for the record, I think it is completely possible to be one hundred percent fulfilled and satisfied by a life devoted entirely to one’s family. I adore my children and I hope we have lots more but I have been wondering of late whether this “just a mom” thing is enough for me.

I suppose where I’m feeling the lack is in the exercise of my intellectual powers. Not to suggest that I’m more “powerful” than average in this area but I know something is lying dormant in there. It would also be nice to contribute economically to the well-being of my family. It turns out I’m not the only adult in the family who thinks that would be nice. And given that our preferred places to live rank pretty high on the cost-of-living scales it wouldn’t be so bad to have a little extra coming in.

But then I consider, also, that I have pretty high ideals in how to parent my children and how to be available to them. And I want to support my husband’s vocation. And, um, it would be nice if that huge pile of laundry were folded on a regular basis. How to balance it all? I feel on the one hand too busy to take on mere work just to earn money and on the other hand like not all of me is being challenged and utilized in the way I currently live my life. I would certainly just get “some job” if I had to in order for our family to survive but we’re not there, yet, and I’m certain that “some job” would not satisfy the lack I’m feeling.

I wonder if taking a stab at doing something in a disciplined way would seep into other ares of my life to positive effect. It’s tempting for me, prone to despair as I am, to give it all up and refuse to do anything until I learn to get the laundry folded every single day. I just need to work and work at that and when I get it, then I can move on. I’m not convinced that this is the best approach, though because of two recent breakthroughs around here.

The first was actually in Eric’s life. He’s been cranking really hard on this dissertation. He sprinted for weeks to get all the writing done and then the extra little bits of work and revisions that came after were threatening to overwhelm and, I daresay, he was teetering on the edge of burnout. In my classic, hands-off way I sat him down and made him give me a list of all the things he ideally wanted to accomplish in a week from dissertation work to prayer time to time with the kids. Then I made him a schedule and–surprise!–it all fit. In a normal week Eric does have time to get everything done and still do all the things that make his life worth living. It was a revelation for both of us and he is able to leave for work on Saturday morning knowing that he only needs to put in a certain number of hours before coming back home to tend to other things including taking Margaret out for a walk so I can make our Lord’s Day dinner in relative peace. I really, really wish I could do this for myself but I’m not sure that housework and children can be scheduled as rigidly. But I’m thinking about it.

I also had a big revelation during Holy Week about the dishes. Some of you are really going to laugh at me but I don’t care. I’m terrible about doing the dishes. I too easily come up with an excuse to leave them overnight and then wake to them in the morning. The sight of the dishes in the sink and on the counter when we get home from Mass completely destroys my morning. I get angry and tense and often yell at my family and slam cupboard doors and such. It’s very bad. One morning I said, “I dread coming home to our apartment.” I’d never said that before and, thus, never really realized it before. In the back of my mind I knew that the messy kitchen would be waiting for me and all the way home from Mass my agitation would increase. Sometime during Holy Week, without realizing it, I made the cognitive leap from my morning stress to my evening activity. I finally realized that it was totally worth it to sacrifice my limited free time in exchange for waking up to a clean kitchen. The dishes have, for the most part, gotten clean every night since.

Parenting my children and maintaining my home are the most important aspects of living my vocation and I have a long way to go in these areas. But I can’t simply exert my will and try extra hard and magically create lovely children and a beautiful home. I can keep slowly cultivating good habits and slowly I will grow in maturity and virtue.

In the meantime, what can I do to feel more balanced? I have always nurtured hopes of being a writer. I’ve never called myself a writer because mostly I’m not and I’ve never been published anywhere of note. Eric and I will occasionally come up with an idea for a New York Times bestseller to be written “someday” in our copious free time. There’s the hope, too, that getting published could help with that economic contribution thing I mentioned earlier.

But, well, I can’t be a writer if I don’t write. On the day when Eric and I realize that we actually have time to write that paradigm-shifting book of ours, I’m not going to be much use if I haven’t been working at the writing craft. Next time I see someone looking for articles on a topic I know something about I’m probably not going to have time to whip up something from scratch and another opportunity will be lost.

I love to write. I may never publish anything but it’s a satisfying hobby for me, at least. I have stacks of journals–mostly of the navel-gazing, sentimental, whiny, and immature genre but recent entries have been more substantial. I’ve got a couple blogs. My homemaking aspirations really only serve as a loose framework within which to practice writing about life. I’m tentatively considering adding “writer” as a facet of my vocation and committing to working at it in some way every day: blogging, journaling, working on drafts of essays or articles. Maybe it will “pay off” in concrete terms one day and maybe not but I do hope that some project that brings me outside myself will give me more energy and focus for all that is going on inside my life in the day-to-day.

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The Kids’ Blog won the coin toss for where to post.

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Tackling the Toys

The next victims in my decluttering rampage were the kids’ toys. I don’t really have a sense for how our toy collection compares to that of similar families but I felt like things were getting out of control. I last organized and purged toys before Christmas and there are things that have been sitting on a shelf out of the kids’ reach ever since. They haven’t been missed.

It’s hard to purge toys. I always wonder if I’m unfairly inflicting my own sense of aesthetic on my poor, deprived children. Certainly I want my children to have occupation and plenty of fodder for the imagination. I also want to beware of getting rid of something useful or valuable just because it isn’t a hit with my current children. A few years ago I almost got rid of a set of four, large squishy blocks. They are different colors and covered with baby-stimulating decorations. Joseph was never interested in them. But along came Margaret who could actually sit up on her own at about the age you would like blocks such as these. She did love them. I’m glad I kept those. I’m debating now about our Brio trains. Margaret is a typical girl and isn’t all that interested in “things that go.” Joseph loves trains but can’t work with tracks because he can’t maneuver around them without knocking them over. These are nice trains but should I really hang on to them for a possible future boy? I’m having the same issue with our lovely wooden blocks. The kids like things that stick together.

I began the process by making a list of all the toys we own. It’s not a very scientific list. Some toys were lumped into one category, “stuffed animals,” while other items were listed singly, “plastic shovel.” The list contained 58 items. Yikes. That’s way more than necessary for two small children in a tiny apartment who mostly spend their time looking at books, squishing playdough, and banging mixing bowls. I marked things for elimination giving priority to well-made, wooden toys that maximized creativity and then consulted with Eric. I was able to empty Joseph’s room just before naptime and sort things with Margaret’s help. So far, no one has noticed any difference other than different organization.

In the end we eliminated twenty items from our list including many things that were made up of lots of small parts (big contributors to clutter!). The Brio trains stayed but the blocks are on probation. Purging toys also allowed me–no surprise here–to make some nice organizational changes. The pictures in this post show all of our toys with the exception of two puzzles, a magna-doodle, and some bath toys. Those items are stored in different places for particular reasons. Also not pictured is a wooden xylophone. The xylophone is pretty nice instrument that we would love for Joseph to use but we want it out of reach for Margaret. We can now put the xylophone on a shelf in Joseph’s room where he can see it and ask for it but Margaret can’t reach it. We still have a lot of stuffed animals but they no longer overflow the doll cradle. This cradle is something I want to keep for our girls and holding stuffed animals is actually a good way to hang on to it for now. Otherwise the toys all fit in or on these lovely IKEA end tables (which are quite popular, apparently, as their price recently doubled). Eric had been using one of these for dissertation purposes and now that the dissertation is done (!!!!!!!) I snatched it back for toy storage. We are finally going to get rid of the ugly end table that was in our living room. The IKEA table is probably not as high-quality but it looks nice, it’s more functional, and it opens up the living room by a few inches. And this gained us an extra bookshelf. No complaints there!

I may have finally run out of things to declutter but we’ll see. I feel a lot lighter but my possessions may begin to drive me crazy again in a few months.

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Visual Peace


One big storage hurdle I have yet to overcome is where to put my craft stuff. I dream of a craft room. It doesn’t even have to be a whole room. I’d settle for a walk-in closet, or any closet. All it needs is just enough space to leave an in-progress project and some way of closing it off to small children. There is no craft room in our current apartment, obviously. If our neighborhood were just a little nicer we would put our chest freezer on our back patio and turn the back room into a craft area for me, but, anyway . . .

Most of my craft stuff is packed into boxes and tightly crammed into the closet in Joseph’s room. But since I actually do crafty stuff from time to time things have migrated out into the main room. The sewing machine had a permanent spot on a visually prominent surface. When I first put it there we thought is was sort of charming and domestic. But, you know, it’s not like I have a vintage treadle machine. It’s just a pink and white Brother and once I stuffed a pedal wrapped in a cord under the arm and piled other sewing and cross-stitch paraphernalia around it the charm appeal wore off fast.

After paring down the kids’ clothes I had a bit more closet space and an extra storage bin. We have a beautiful hinged wooden box from Eric’s grandfather and it had been crammed full of fabric. I emptied all that fabric into the plastic bin and tucked it away. The box was just the right size for my sewing machine, my craft books, and my cross-stitch projects. There’s even plenty of wiggle room to tuck in fabric for an upcoming project. The box is beautiful and was already taking up space in the main room. I put our wooden chess set and magazine basket on top of it and turned the lid opening against the wall to discourage Margaret from getting into it.

After a bit of tidying up I was left with chest of drawers with nothing on it but a potted plant and a small statue that I love (and, previously couldn’t see!). I immediately wondered what I should put in that space. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I loved having that “stuff-free” surface in the main room. That chest of drawers is centered in the room and is one of the first things you notice upon entering the room. And now it’s a point of visual peace in a room otherwise filled with bookshelves. We have a lovely book stand from when Eric was reading for his comprehensive exams and I asked Eric to bring that out so we would have a place for sheet music. He added an open dictionary which I initially protested, but now I think it’s really fun. We both are apt to wander over and teach ourselves a new word or look up something we’re not sure about. Anything to build vocabulary is fine by me! And we are both musicians who now have a place for music. Setting up a collapsible music stand is enough of a hurdle for me to keep my flute locked up most of the time. Plus I don’t think kids do well around anything that can be described as “collapsible.”

All in all, a fantastic improvement. This decluttering thing is really addictive. Every time I achieve a new victory I think I’ve gone as far as I can. But once I’m used to the new standard I think, “More! I want more!” (or is that Less!). In the last week I’ve also given away a garbage bag of adult clothes and cleared out a large stack of books. The book purge gave me enough space to house all our CDs on the same shelf. I also got $25 in credit at our favorite used book store. Nice.

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I wonder if the decluttering bug hits everyone this time of year. After a long winter of being cooped up in our messy little houses we just want to get rid of everything. I guess I’ve got the bug just like everyone else. The decluttering bug is so widespread, in fact, that I’m not even going to try to link to everyone who has been blogging about. And I know that a whole lot of moms have realized that they can’t declutter and blog so they’re doing the former. It is so freeing. I finally got a new camera yesterday so I’m newly motivated to blog about my homemaking.

The latest spate of purging involved the kids’ clothes. Thing were getting out of hand and that with only two children and four years of clothes collection under my belt. I remember when I was pregnant with Margaret that I was really hoping for another boy so that I wouldn’t have to store two sets of clothes! I’m pretty glad to have a girl, as it turns out, and I’ve finally managed it so that the clothes for both kids take up the same amount of space as the clothes for only Joseph used to. It was really, really time to reorganize the clothes storage bins, anyway. The seasons are changing just as Margaret is getting into the next size and I was sick of kicking aside piles of too-small pink onesies every time I tried to close the closet door.

I thought long and hard about how many clothes we really need and I realized something: I do laundry every day. I usually wash two loads each day, in fact, because we use cloth diapers and all cloth in the kitchen. I do not need two weeks worth of clothes for all the kids. I decided that five outfits for each size/season/gender was reasonable. It allows for variety, sickness, a missed day of laundry, whatever. So I went through every size and kept the best five tops and five bottoms for each size/season/gender. A dress replaced a top and bottom (one of many reasons I love putting Margaret in dresses). I also kept one “Sunday” outfit for each group. My kids dress pretty well every day. We don’t do sweatpants or sweatshirts, here. We go out almost every day besides trying to get to Daily Mass and I like all of us to look neat and respectable. The only bin that got more than five outfits per gender was the newborn bin. I kept more like ten each for that size because newborns go through a lot of clothes in a day.

I additionally kept some kind of cardigan or sweater for each size and all the socks we currently own. I’m not sure what to do about socks, yet, but I’ve been thinking for a long time about doing one color per size to simplify. We can’t afford to implement this across the board right now so I’ve just put each size in its own gallon-size ziploc. I’ll revisit socks when I need to buy new ones for Joseph next fall. Shoes got their own bin but we don’t have very many as Joseph doesn’t wear out shoes.

Our winter coats and seasonal accessories also have their own bin though I think we might not fit everything back in after this winter. I’ll have to think about that.

When I was all done (and, amazingly, this project only took a couple hours, even with Margaret’s help) I was able to make one bin for each size and put four sets of clothes in each: boy summer, boy winter, girl summer, and girl winter. My sizes go in six-month increments up to 24 months and then go one year at a time. I didn’t even get very big bins. I think they are the 14-gallon Rubbermaids. I would say they are on the small side of medium in terms of size. I suppose I’ll need bigger bins for bigger kids but I’m feeling really good about my storage situation, now. I was able to donate two large bags of clothes to the inpatients at the hospital where Joseph is treated.

Okay, time to make dinner . . . More later on what I was able to do after this project was completed.

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Homeschooling

The homeschooling world is all abuzz this week over a recent ruling by the California Court of Appeals. The court was responding to a confidential juvenile proceeding and the case involved child abuse. Legal battles are still being fought but as the ruling stands now, it sounds like all children in California will need to be taught by credentialed teachers in the future. We’re having pretty similar troubles in DC right now. There was a tragic case earlier this year of four children found dead in their home. It’s a long, complicated story but one of the reasons these kids slipped through the cracks was that they weren’t attending school. The mother had withdrawn them to “homeschool” them. The District, previously one of the most homeschool-friendly “states”, is responding with a set of regulations including home visits to observe parents instructing their children.

These cases remind me a bit of the articles on co-sleeping that come out once a year or so. The newspaper reports that there is a growing or hidden trend of parents sleeping with their children and then goes on to list all the reasons this is a bad idea. The example always given is of a mother under the influence of drugs or alcohol who has rolled on top of her infant in the night. What’s the problem? It must be co-sleeping.

It is nothing short of tragic when children are abused by their parents or, worse, when they die from neglect or at the hands of a mentally-ill parent. But the problem is not that these children were homeschooling or sharing a bed with their parents. What shall we discourage next? I would bet it’s pretty dangerous for a six-month old to be bathed by a drunk parent. Should we discourage the bathing of small children?

Many of my closest friends are teachers or have been teachers in public schools. They are, without exception, wonderful teachers. I have asked all of them if their education degree has been helpful to them in the classroom and almost all of them agree that their teacher training was helpful only in the area of classroom management. (I should note that all of the teachers in my sample teach elementary school. My argument may become less true with older children.) This is great. I would hope any single person left with the charge of twenty to thirty five-year olds has had training in classroom management. But home-educating parents do not need to practice classroom management. There might be similar skills required in managing a transition from one activity to another, or redirecting a stressed-out child but these are skills necessary for a parent long before a child reaches school age.

The attentions of even the most excellent teacher are no substitute for the love of the most distant, ignorant, or uneducated parent. There are extreme examples, to be sure. But if a parent is abusive, addicted, or mentally ill the problem will still be there after school. Remember, kids live with their parents.

I don’t have an easy answer for the problem of how to keep kids in those sorts of situations from being injured or killed. I don’t think there is an easy answer. It is unfortunate that the state of California and the District of Columbia seem to be reacting strongly against a tangential issue to these cases. The State wants to protect these kids but as my husband is fond of saying, “The State can’t love you.” Change needs to come at the cultural level, not from top-down government intervention and cultural change is a long, slow road. Few, I’m afraid, have the energy to travel it.

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