Connecting the Dots

Hey, School, Can’t We Just Start Slow?

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rory jumps hay copy

School starts for us Monday. It’s already being a tough transition here (want to hear more? I wrote about tough transitions in my weekly email. Sign up here, and get “Back-to-School When Transitions Are Tough” as part of my Back-to-School Survival Kit). So I took some brilliant advice from many a friend, slowed down, tried to cut kids some limited slack, and planned to just ease into it.

If only we could. But when school starts, for us and for other families I’ve heard from, it starts in earnest. Two–count ’em, two–mandatory meetings for after school activities or sports are scheduled for the first day of school here. For some sports, those meetings happened weeks ago, and the kids are already practicing, some with teammates and coaches they’d never previously met. Clubs are getting organized, commitments requested, the frenzy beginning. Let’s hit the ground running, people! Get ready! Practice Play Meet Join Repeat!

Oof. Especially for children who are more reserved, who spent a quiet summer with family or who just take some time to acclimate to a new school year, it’s really hard to plunge right in—-and equally hard to join in late. Hitting the ground running can mean new students, shy students and students who are just plain uncertain aren’t going to run at all.

I’m so glad that the teachers, coaches and others who surround my children and give us all so much are enthusiastic about the new school year. And I am nothing but grateful for their willingness to provide schedules early, so we can plan and decide and evaluate and help our children work out what will make for the best possible school year.

If you’re in this boat, some thoughts: Ask teachers to hold a mental place in activities your children might be interested in, and to offer a second chance to sign-up–and not to nail down roles and jobs in the first week, which makes joining in later harder. For must-start activities, like sports, hold as much space around them as you can. Don’t add a back-to-school shopping stop on the way home from practice, or plan an outing with friends. Let the practice or meeting be the one thing that happens that afternoon.

Ask your children what they think they need to do to regroup after a first day. Even young children can surprise us with what they know–I still remember my daughter, on an early day of first grade and faced with a play date I’d planned after school, wailing “but I”m so tired!” She still just wants to come home after school most days and be alone, and on days when she goes straight into another activity, it’s best not to drag her to the family dinner table or plan anything else even now, years later. Even my much more social son agrees that he doesn’t want something every day after school. They just want to come home, go outside, read or draw or, well, lay on the floor and torment each other. I don’t really get that last one, but then, I’m an only child. (Actually, they just want to come home and play video games or watch TV–but I don’t let them. Even on the first day, that’s a no here. Would it help them unwind? It would. Would it start a trend of begging for screen time, usually allowed only on weekends, every day after school? It would. If that’s not where you want to be–and it’s totally cool if it is–then believe me, if you or your sitter says no for long enough, they’ll find something else to do.)

We can’t remake the world around our kids’ preferences, and it will always feel like life favors people who can jump right in and get going. Some kids can do that once they’re comfortable in the environment again–they just need the transition period to end. For others, it’s never easy. If that’s your child (or you), then acknowledging those different needs can help, even if nothing else changes. My suggested reading here is a little obvious–Susan Cain’s “Quiet“–and note that she has a book for teens, too: “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts.” I wrote about it in the NYT here: Is Your Teen’s Introversion a Problem for Your Teen–or You?.

All that said, I admit that my favorite activities are the ones that hold off a bit, to give children a chance to regroup, to start the school year with plenty of afternoon down time at home or in their after school programs. The ones that let the kids reconnect with each other and talk about what sports and clubs or activities they might be interested in for a day or two before starting up in earnest. It’s a busy season, yes, and there’s lots to pack in before the weather changes and the holidays commence and a new semester is upon us. But there’s something to be said for letting the inevitable snowball start slow.

KJHey, School, Can’t We Just Start Slow?
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The Mom Who Left the Planet

I’m listening to Samantha Ettus interview 5 women about work life balance, and Cady Coleman, astronaut, just said that one of her friends told her “look, this is who his mother is.” 

They’re all saying they don’t go out at night, that mornings are chaos, that they don’t hide the kids. But that’s just the best line–“this is who their mom is.” 

Other great lines–“I’ve made a life that works for me.”

“You can’t listen to what other people think will work.”

“Women don’t hire the help they need–trade for it if you can’t pay for it.”

“You don’t know what’s behind people’s awesome resume or power job. Everyone needs someone to go to and talk when it’s all in a dark place and you feel like you’re failing.””

“I need to call my mother. I need to call my brothers. I’m not good at finding the time.”

“Just because of who we are and how driven we are, we are never going to feel like we got it all right.”

There is always another day.

Just get through this one. 

Remember, the next moment could be awesome.

KJThe Mom Who Left the Planet
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One Big Happy Conference

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Howdy from Mom 2.0. I’m listening to Julie Zhuo at Facebook talk to three women who started Facebook groups that grew like crazy (Jessie Lorenz, Tahemeem Shaik, Thorunn Magnisdottir), after walking through halls of women and media companies and brands. Overheard: “the people who really love what I’m doing have followed me there” “what are your goals for the conference?” “If we build it that way it will really attract a broad audience” and a hundred other comments from a group of driven, entrepreneurial women, many with astonishing brands and missions of their own.

It’s a little overwhelming. So much opportunity. So many smart people. So much possibility. I’m going to leave with so many ideas… But done is better than none, right? Do you ever wonder what it is you really WANT to do?

KJOne Big Happy Conference
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Book Give-away: “Catastrophic Happiness” and “Girls and Sex”

IMG_1136I’ve got a copy of “Catastrophic Happiness” by Catherine Newman and one of “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape” to share. All you have to do is either sign up for my weekly email (if you haven’t already) or share this past week’s email (which is likely how you got here in the first place). Then tell me you did, and which book you’d like in the comments to this post, and we’ll use a random number generator to pick a winner, email you for an address and pop the book in the mail.

KJBook Give-away: “Catastrophic Happiness” and “Girls and Sex”
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Why We Should Schedule an Empty Schedule

The world is set to Monet filter today.

The world is set to Monet filter today.


No one expects anything of me today except me.

Sometimes I love days like that, especially after a long string of pressure. (Today it feels fantastic.) As a steady diet, it gets lonely. I need both kinds of motivation–the external demands and the internal expectations–or at least, I can use both kinds. Both are going to result in stuff getting done. I just feel differently while I’m doing it. Some days, external demands can make me resentful. Some days, they inspire me, or at least push me. And of course, sometimes they’re the only reason I’m not just knitting and watching podcasts.

Other days I just want to do what I want to do in the order I want to do it in. And it still gets done, for the most part. If it doesn’t, it’s likely I piled on too much, or just really need a break.

I was thinking that my column–my day job–was really the “external” demand while my book, and all the other work around it, was “internal” but it doesn’t really work like that for me. Some days, anything with a clock attached makes me feel boxed in, whether it’s a research interview for the book or one for the column–or even a date with a friend. So it’s not really where the expectation comes from, it’s the form it takes. I need a fully free-form day at least once a week with no phone calls and nothing on the calendar. It doesn’t mean I’m not working. It means I’m working differently.

I’m trying to build that into my schedule now–and thinking, too, that it doesn’t just apply to me-the-writer, but to me-the-parent and to my family as well. With spring sports starting, I have kids coming home with activities and things they want to do and saying “but I don’t have anything Tuesdays.”

I try to remind that them that they like days when the “don’t have anything.” That those are the days when you choose, the days without hard stops and transitions. Just because I don’t have a blocked out phone call doesn’t mean I won’t make a phone call, just because I don’t have a deadline doesn’t mean I won’t finish anything. Jut because you don’t “have” a sport doesn’t mean you want find a way to play one; just because the afternoon looks empty certainly doesn’t mean it will be.

In general, I’m a planner. I like to know what’s for dinner, where we’re going, how long it takes to get there, what’s on the agenda and when it has to be done. But I think I do that to free up the spaces around those things, and then appreciate feeling wide open.

KJWhy We Should Schedule an Empty Schedule
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Today’s Mantra: I Got This.

I call my new pet "Paste."

I call my new pet “Paste.”

Rushed morning? Husband headed out of town? One child who overslept, missed barn chores and got fines? Another who never wants to go to school, and a third poking the seats of the first two in the car? Yeah, I got all that.

But somehow, this morning, I let it wash over me. Made the iPad play through the car stereo (my phone won’t do that any more, thanks IOS update), sang along with the happier kids to the three songs that seemed to be downloaded onto it (Brave, Bye Bye and I forget what else). Let the grumpy kid slide, didn’t engage, just had the morning and drove to school and then pulled over to put on a podcast for the way home, thus avoiding half-a-dozen news stories about things I can’t change and can’t always be accepting about.

My podcast of choice was Gretchen Rubin’s “Happier.” (Tomorrow it will be “Note to Self.” The “try this now” segment suggested choosing a mantra of the day, and since I was feeling pretty solid on my feet, I chose “Rocking it,” which I later amended to “I got this.”

Truly, I don’t always feel like I got this. Not the kids, who have been struggling in various ways lately, and not work, where I frequently feel pulled in all directions, and any of the new projects I’m so excited about (one book, one fresh new weekly email about the adventure that is writing the book, and one TBA later). Sometimes I feel like all I “got” is the ability to churn time by via the faux-productivity that is email, social media and “research.”

But today I took that mantra and rode it through. Checked off much of the list, which included making a new, more solid list, lined up a bunch of interview ducks and mostly finished up the day feeling good. If only my children had school tomorrow, I’d be thinking I “got” this whole week. But that would be too easy. Can I line up all the interviews to get a column in by the middle of next week AND knock out the book tasks I’ve got set for tomorrow? Well, probably if I let them watch TV.

On a totally different note, spring makes me want a new pet, so I’m going with “Sourdough Starter: America’s Rising Pet.” I call him “Paste.” And just to mix it up, I added some half-boiled sap. Which may be a total disaster. Or it may be fantastic. But I guarantee it will be easier than the standard poodle puppy I was contemplating…

KJToday’s Mantra: I Got This.
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Do This Now: Favorite Your Best Photos From Last Month

I’m pretty sure I am not the first to have this brilliant idea.

Wyatt walks S'mores on a glorious February morning.

Wyatt walks S’mores on a glorious February morning.

But you know how, come December, you really want to make, say, a calendar for next year? Or (dare I say it) a photo album? And maybe a holiday card. (I did not do this last year. I also left my Christmas tree up until March. I was maybe just not really quite doing so well with that holiday thing.)

Shot with DxO ONE

I made a spectacular hat, and won a game of yarn chicken.

How about this: on the 5th of every month, set a calendar reminder. Go through your phone, or iPhoto, or wherever your digital images wash us, and tag your favorites, or put them in a folder. Why the 5th? Because I did it today, and I’m not going to want to do it again on the 1st of next month, duh. That would be too soon. It would interfere with the natural rhythm of things.

In December, there you will be, with the best pictures from the past year all there together. Or, worst case scenario, the best pictures from February, I guess. Or March. I actually went all the way back through December today on my phone, and although that does not include the pictures I took on my DSLR I still feel good about it. Please do not take that away.

These are a few of my favorites pictures from the first 2 months of the year. (I’m not putting up any from December, because looking at the tree gives me anxiety flashbacks.)

Book tour with Jess Lahey. Florida in February!

Book tour with Jess Lahey. Florida in February!

So, if you’re here, you may be wondering, “Hey, KJ, what’s the scoop with the blog FKA Motherlode? Will Well Family be as awesome? What are you working on, anyway? Did you say something about a book?” It’s all good, and going to get even better, and I will share more. Want a weekly update on all the things–plus what I’m reading, what I’m making and a Playmobil-minifig caption contest?
Sign up for my email, and watch for “How It’s Done (or Not)” to drop into your inbox sometime this week, or check back here.

Thanks for reading, and see you in the comments! me in tractor scoop facing you

KJDo This Now: Favorite Your Best Photos From Last Month
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Illustrating Motherlode

An 8-year-old on an aimless Monday morning of summer break is a funny thing. Deprived of his easy weekend go-tos (wii, minecraft, TV) and not yet quite able to come up with alternatives (by weds we will be good, next Monday he’ll have forgotten again).

We went for illustrating the day’s Motherlode post, with the result that you get not one, but two today. I told him the player was faking the foul.

“No!” He said. “He’s really hurt.”

There’s a lot of faking in soccer, I said.

“I don’t want there to be any bad guys.”

You will notice he made his penalty kick.

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KJIllustrating Motherlode
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8 Things We Have Learned about Having a Pool

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1. It’s an excellent way to acquire beach towels.

2. Ditto assorted children’s clothing and swimwear.

3. Bleach and Borax are cheaper than pool chemicals.

4. Apply before pool party, not after.

5. I don’t know where your goggles are. I don’t know where anyone’s goggles are.

6. Mmmm, pool water beats toilet water any day (that’s from our dogs).

7. Bacardi piña coladas are the way to go.

8. Am never leaving my house again. At least not this summer.

KJ8 Things We Have Learned about Having a Pool
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New office!

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This is my new office.

This is the view from my new office.

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Do note the boxes in the foreground, and the complete absence of a desktop computer, and the boxes in the background. Deal is, new desktop–when there is a top of the desk to be seen. Meanwhile, it’s a fresh office start for me! I’m unpacking.

KJNew office!
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Favor Effectiveness over Efficiency

Laura Vanderkam pointed me towards an article today that came at exactly the right time: Chasing Efficiency? You’re Wasting Your Time

A few choice quotes:

Nobody other than perhaps you really cares how efficient you are, but everyone cares how effective you are.

Sometimes the least efficient thing can lead to the most productive outcome. A great example of this would be carving out time in your already too busy schedule to mentor someone in your organization. Clearly this endeavor will take time, and may not yield immediate results, but the payoff organizationally, relationally, culturally, and in terms of future contribution can be huge.

When you ever so efficiently cross something off your to-do list, has it moved you farther away from, or closer to, putting points on the board?

And finally, my favorite:

If your desk is so clean you don’t have anything to work on then you might be focusing on the wrong thing — it might be time to make a bit of a mess.

That last is SO NOT MY PROBLEM, although I took some time tonight, while my two youngest worked on Valentines in my office, to clear the surface of my desk before they trashed it still further. I could grab any one of half a dozen things within arms reach this minute and begin a post or project—books, like Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones, Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, Glennon Doyle Melton’s Carry On, Warrior and Scary Mommy Jill Smokler’s Motherhood Comes Naturally and oh, how about those three advance copies of the revision of the book I wrote with my friends Susan Straub and Rachel Payne? Another book I need to send to a guest writer. Business cards for a whole pile of blogs I want to follow up on. Expenses, art stuff that could figure in my next illustrative tableau or Vine video…or I could just grab my laptop or open a file. I have projects. I have too many projects, like Hugo Lindgren riffed about in the NYT Magazine a few weeks ago (Be Wrong As Fast As You Can).

Come to the glowing screen…come to me…

I have projects. And I have fear, and I have all these tiny little smoking assorted piles of lightly flaming things that seem so urgent, and could be crossed off some list somewhere or put to bed, and there are admittedly too many days when I just put out the fires and I don’t move anything forward. I’m not actually sure it’s efficient, and it certainly isn’t effective. Do we have any e words left? It’s…evasive. Equivocating. Enmeshing.

And what I also think it is, is girly. I was talking to a friend about email recently, and we both realized that our spouses just don’t stress about it. They shut the laptop, and all the clamoring voices just drop away. I feel something similar here–although that’s actually advice meant for the big, swashbuckling, unfortunately still statistically likely to be male CEO, it still has a girly feel to it, that need to just get a bunch of little things done instead of saving yourself to blow it all on the big project that really matters. It’s very good student, very safe.

My random February resolution is to be just a little—or maybe a lot—less safe.

KJFavor Effectiveness over Efficiency
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Behind the Scenes at Motherlode: Sam’s Sugared Cranberries

I refer to this recipe in a post on Wednesday, November 21, 2012–and I’m packing them up for the trip to Fairfax County/DC right now.

Sam’s Sugared Cranberries

1 lb fresh cranberries, picked over
2 cups sugar
2 cups superfine sugar, for rolling

Make simple syrup: combine 2 cups sugar with 2 cups boiling water and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let cool. (Let COOL. LET COOL. If you pour it over the cranberries now, they will burst.) Divide cranberries into 2 gallon-size zip lock freezer bags. Pour half of sugar syrup into each bag. Get as much air out as possible, then seal. Let cranberries sit for at least 72 hours and up to a week, turning bags frequently. For distance travel, double-or triple bag and roll on arrival—if you’ve soaked them for long enough, you can even drain most of the liquid and pack them in checked luggage. I simply have no idea if they’d fly with TSA.

Place a small amount of superfine sugar in bowl or on rimmed cookie sheet. Using a small sieve or draining spoon, scoop out a few cranberries at a time, let dry very briefly on tea towel, then roll in sugar to coat. Place coated cranberries on separate cookie sheet or drying rack to dry. In about an hour, when sugar is hardened, gently place in glass bowl to serve. Realistically, you have to move them one or two at a time, or all the sugar will come off.

You can strain the sugar syrup and use for lemonade, smoothies or cocktails. Keep it refrigerated.

I know these originated with Martha Stewart (for me, anyway) and I found her recipe here.

KJBehind the Scenes at Motherlode: Sam’s Sugared Cranberries
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Clutter-free (almost) and Happier: Check

This post could be all before and after shots. There was no behind the scenes at Motherlode last Sunday because I stayed up late transforming this:

Our clutter-filled hall, mudroom and entry.

Into this:

Oh, yeah, that’s better.

And then very eventually into this:

Note how dark it is in this image. It is late. Very, very late. Or early, depending on your POV.

I also transformed the kids’ room, with their help. But what really mattered to me this past two weeks was only partly about “going shelf by shelf” as Gretchen Rubin puts it, and mostly about my second mantra for the month of September: Get it right.

I have a confession to make: I do things half-assed. I’m impulsive. I fly by the seat of my pants. All the cliches that aptly describe your average flaky type? Yep, I do that. Leap before looking, the works. I’m a big fan of the jury-rigged semi-solution, the it’ll do, the good-enough-for-government-work.

But as our lives have eased up, the children have become big enough to be more self-entertaining and its just felt more like we had room and space to do a little better by ourselves and our family, I’ve found myself wanting to do that less and less.

You know that house, when you were growing up, with all the piles in the corners and the horrible soap dishes full of toothpaste and hair in the bathroom where you sometimes spent the night? That was my house, now. Not, mind you, the house I grew up in. No, in my mother’s house, things were right. The guest room was neat and had empty drawers. The pantry had places to put things. The bookshelves were neatly filled and the tchotckes (not a word I would have known growing up) grew light coats of dust and were then dusted weekly.

My house, as I said, was the gross toothpaste house. The house with the scary piles and the dark corners and the lopsided guest bed and the drawers that never quite closed because there was too much in them. Very little in my house was either neat or orderly or right. That, as much as the clutter, is what I set out to change this week. The house I grew up in was calm. You could sit and read, and look up, and not fear the pile of magazines on the coffee table or sense the ever-growing stack of dishes on the counter. During the day, it was bright, and dust mites filtered in the sunlight over empty rugs and couches without quilts and remote-control helicopters and the paper covers of books discarded on them.

So when I set out to de-clutter this time, I set out to fix all the things that nagged at me at night, all the things that seemed, in the immortal words of Miss Clavel, “not quite right.”

I emptied and cleared all the gross bathroom drawers and lined them with white contact paper.

I cleaned two garbage bags of old towels and sheets out of the linen closet (and I guarantee to you that you will never, ever be short an old towel should you need one, still).

And I turned the guest room/playroom/kids’ dressing room (my 4 kids all sleep in one of the two upstairs bedrooms and keep their clothes in the other, along with some toys) into a place someone—my parents, say, especially if they were coming Wednesday, for example) would be happy to sleep. There are two cleared drawers. There are empty hangers. There is space for a suitcase, and an alarm clock, and an electric blanket.

But most of all, at a cost of $160, we went from this:

You can’t really tell, but the bed buried under all that crap is just a mattress on a frame.

to this:

Ok, more than $160, because those are new sheets.

Box spring. I put a box spring under the mattress. I put a box spring under the mattress and turned it into a real bed, a fluffy, tall, inviting bed, that anyone would be happy to sleep in. And while we were at it, my oldest son (who loves welcoming guests) and I moved everything out of the room, cleaned it, and brought back in only what belonged, leaving this:

It used to be Wyatt’s room when he was a baby. I painted the giraffes. Guests will just have to try to appreciate them.

It’s still primarily a dressing room and a home for Sam’s slot cars–but now those are up off the floor on a board a friend made of foam core and six milk crates. Lily’s dolls, the other primary occupants of the room, are behind the screen, which can easily be moved. I’m so happy–it’s so inviting.

But I”m happiest that as I’ve done all of this, I’ve done it right. There isn’t one room where all the stuff moved out of all the other rooms lurks, waiting for me. It’s not all in the basement, although that space is anything but pristine, it’s not a catch-all. It’s not in the office or the guest room or anywhere. (actually, the Playmobil and a small basket of Little People are in the office closet, but neatly and intentionally there because it’s nice to have toys for very small guests in one case, and in the case of the Playmobil, because I’m hoping they will forget about it and I can give it away in a few months, but for now it’s in boxes and sorted and it can stay). There’s nothing, no toothpaste or otherwise, lurking.

I have two spaces to go: our room, which we’ve done within the past year and which shouldn’t be too bad, and the kitchen drawers (as opposed to the pantry) and a few cabinets–also not too bad, really. And now that it’s so close, I have no doubt I’ll get them done.

It seemed to me for a long time that it was impossible to get the house to a point where nothing lurked, but I kept looking back at my parents’ house and thinking, there were no secret stashes of slumminess there. You could go in any room and know what you’d find, pick up any item and know where it belonged. It was clearly not impossible. It only felt impossible.

I’m almost there, and what I’ve done has increased my happiness enormously. I enjoy emptying groceries into my reformed pantry. I like giving the living room a quick straighten at night. I like tucking things away in the hall—and so does everyone else. The children don’t put everything away without being asked, but they put away a lot. I hear the older ones asking the younger ones to hang things up. I hear “Gross! Who didn’t wipe the toothpaste out of the sink!” And mysteriously, the laundry this weekend included eight bath towels, old ones or kids ones that live in their bathroom, way more than they’d use. And I watched the next morning as one of my children, after brushing her teeth, went and got a bath towel, carefully wiped out the sink, and put the towel in the wash.

Laundry or no, that made me very happy.

KJClutter-free (almost) and Happier: Check
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Full Cappelletti (or Ravioli) Recipe from Motherlode

I uploaded the full, 11 minute long pasta making video I made for my cousin (minus the NYT intro) to YouTube. You should be able to see it above, but if not, it’s here.

Ready to roll.

I posted a video and some thoughts about sharing a kitchen’s worth of ethnic heritage to the NYT Motherlode, and several commenters asked for the full recipe, so here goes. This is SO not in proper NYT recipe style! But it’s worked for years. Decades. Generations. I guess that’s the point.

Cappelletti/Ravioli

Filling

1 lb ground meat mixture (pork/beef/chicken) fried in ½ stick butter
3 cups grated cheese, half romano, half parmesan
1 cup bread crumbs
salt, pepper
3 garlic cloves
pinch nutmeg
3 eggs

Fry meat in butter with three garlic cloves, add salt, pepper. Remove garlic cloves after cooking. Add pinch nutmeg. When cool add beaten eggs, cheese, bread crumbs, mix well. Refrigerate at least an hour or over night. Can freeze extra filling, but do NOT defrost in microwave—let it defrost in fridge. I know, that seems obvious, but still.

Dough

Food processor before gasping last desperate breaths.

4 eggs
approx. 2 ¼ cups flour

Mix eggs in mixer or food processor, add all flour, mix slowly until dough ball forms, then switch do dough hook and let it beat around a while. Take it out and knead it by hand, then leave it in the fridge until ready to use. At least an hour is best, but you can use it right away if you don’t mind sticky. I should probably say I have killed two food processors this way, but this last one has hung on a while.

Part-way mixed.

Ready to come out and knead by hand.

Squoosh, squoosh. It’s harder than it looks. Italian grandmas have great arms.

You can see another post on making pasta, with more detailed illustrations on rolling it (although I made spaghetti with it that time, but the dough is always the same) here.

You’ll have to watch the video for the fold, and you can also see my mother making the filling with me grilling her at every step (and you can hear how approximate the recipe really is, as she sits there going “well, I think I put in a cup of bread crumbs…maybe half a cup, it just depends) and watch me make a small batch of dough with her grilling me at every step (and me saying “well, I think I put in a cup of flour, it depends…). Or you can just make ravioli, which you make exactly like you’d think you’d make them. Fold the dough over the filling, cut, seal. Mom does that way at the end of the video, about minute 10.

A perfect sheet of dough.

Cappelletti, I need hardly say, goes in soup. Any soup. Growing up, my mom used Wyler’s beef boullion cubes, which I can’t even spell now, let alone find, and I loved it them. I use boxed chicken broth, or very occasionally real soup, which is honestly too rich most of the time.

Ravioli goes in sauce. I make my sauce with a big can of Muir Glen diced tomatoes with garlic and basil. First I sauté extra grated garlic, and maybe some grated onion, then I add salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar, and then I puree the hell out of it with my hand blender because I hate chunky sauce.

And that’s it. We freeze it in bags suited for a meal, I serve 8 ravioli to kids and 12 to adults, and figure 10-12 cappeletti each for soup. It lasts months, particularly if you have hoarding tendencies. Make a double batch of sauce, freeze half, and it’s practically an instant meal the next time. Loaf of bread, bottle of wine, you’re ready to go. I hope someone tries it. I hope my cousin Ashlyn tries it!

Enjoy.

Rory turns the handle, circa 2011.

KJFull Cappelletti (or Ravioli) Recipe from Motherlode
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Go Shelf By Shelf and Snack By Snack: “Happier at Home” Week 2, in the Pantry

I am, indeed, happier.

Saturday morning, our pantry looked like this:

Most dispiriting.

You may think that that is not so bad, and in some ways it is not. Certainly it could be worse. But in addition to general crudiness (and do, please, examine this close-up, below), there were other problems. The children couldn’t reach the crackers and cookies they typically snack on after school (or on Saturday morning while their father and I sleep). The microwave (no counter space) could only be used by moving a basket of nuts and bars and coffee filters (because there’s a grouping that makes sense) out of the way. And we had lots of stuff I had no idea we had. Note to self and husband: we simply don’t need to buy any more ketchup. For years.

You can’t actually see the spilled popcorn and goldfish, but trust me.

It was ugly, it was unpleasant, it was a constant annoyance. Every time I opened the doors, my heart sank. And you know, I open those doors a lot.

For months, I’ve been spending quality time with pantry porn in the form of Williams Sonoma and the kinds of magazines with headlines like “control your clutter” and “10 clutter-busting strategies!” And we’ve been distantly planning a kitchen remodel, so I like to draw my new pantry, which will have room for dishes and appliances and, I dunno, mops or something. Also, laundry, which is right now in my bathroom.

But distant plans and colored pencils are no substitute for immediate action. So Saturday, I opened the pantry doors, and I took everything out.

Every Thing Out!

I had to get a folding table. I had to use the stairs, and the floor, and the counter. It was astonishing, the amount of stuff that fit in those two cabinets.

I’m all done, right?

And once it was out, I sorted. I tossed (after the third time, the nearest available child began to refuse to taste-test any more crackers for staleness. It’s been a very, very damp summer.) I collected for a food pantry (no, not the stale stuff! I briefly had a babysitter who would grocery shop for me, and the food pantry will benefit from the continual misunderstandings that led to my not having a babysitter who would grocery shop for me any more. Grits; they’re getting lots of non-instant grits. Also, spaghettini, which is not at all the same thing as spaghetti. Actually, I don’t have a regular sitter at all anymore, but that’s another post.)

And then I replaced. Gently, slowly, with labels for the backs of the too-deep shelves. I moved shelves. I wiped, I vacuumed, I moved shelves again. I tried things out in a few places that didn’t work; I finally used a set of matching containers I bought ages ago in the hopes of doing just this; I scrounged baskets that were being misused in other rooms; I labeled, I thought, I dumped.

The result is beautiful. I didn’t spend one penny. (I’m not going to count those three extra plastic containers because I bought them months ago.) I didn’t order anything new from the Container Store. I didn’t do anything except what I should have done in the first place: think about the best place for stuff and put it there, and not shove anything into the back without making sure there was a way to find it again.

When I open the pantry doors now, I still want to cry … with happiness. I’m delighted, I’m relaxed, I’m happy to cook and happy to put away the groceries.

Will it stay this way? I think so, in part because I used another “Gretchen-ism:” I left empty spaces. (She says “Leave an empty shelf.”) We’re not always going to have exactly four boxes of crackers or two boxes of spaghetti (although we will always have exactly no boxes of spaghettini). Things will get used and replaced and bought–but in addition to going shelf by shelf in the pantry, I found myself thinking about a new resolution: the resolution not to stock up.

No more buying in bulk, no more getting five cans of coffee to save grabbing another on the next trip to the store. We don’t have room for ten boxes of macaroni and cheese no matter how much it’s on sale, and I pay a price in coping with all the excess, not to mention the price of losing it in the back of the cabinet, or watching it expire. It’s false economy, and false security. We need two boxes of macaroni and cheese. When one is eaten–or even, should we decide to live life to the fullest, when BOTH get eaten, we can go to the store and buy another.

Doesn’t that sound profligate? But we can. Should the apocalypse arrive, a stock of macaroni will not save us (I’m going for a stock of bourbon, actually). Should a flu epidemic prevent our shopping for weeks, some system will surely arise to allow us to get food. If it doesn’t: if systems fail and bourbon proves useless in the zombie economy, well, we have bigger problems than a few boxes of macaroni would have solved, and at least I got to enjoy my clean pantry in the meantime.

KJGo Shelf By Shelf and Snack By Snack: “Happier at Home” Week 2, in the Pantry
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“Happier at Home:” Gretchen’s Project, KJ’s Clutter

You can’t really click to look inside, I was just too lazy to use my own image. You can, however, click the name of the book in the post to get to Amazon and buy the book.

Motherlode sneak peek: Next week, I’m going to Boston to meet up with Gretchen Rubin and record a video introduction to a series of posts she’ll be writing for Motherlode starting 9/17. Like so many of us, I found a friend when I first opened Gretchen’s book “The Happiness Project,” and when that words-only friend turned into an actual live friend (at the ASJA conference) a while ago, that was even better—especially now that it means Gretchen will be writing a weekly Motherlode post this fall. (About what? That’s the only part I’m not going to tell you here.)

Since Gretchen’s writing for me, I thought I’d turn the tables and write, well, not “for” her but “inspired by” her. I know plenty of people started their own “happiness projects” after Gretchen’s first book. I did nothing so official, but this time, perhaps instigated by the fact that her very first topic in “Happier at Home” is something I know would make me much happier if I could just get a grip on it: clutter.

Ok, Gretchen doesn’t call it clutter. She calls it, rightly, “Possessions,” and that just puts a much happier spin on the whole thing, or at least it would, if my “possessions” weren’t so buried in my clutter that it’s become very hard to tell the difference.

I’ll blog my own “Happier at Home” project, which conveniently enough Gretchen began one September, every Sunday night along with my now-weekly Motherlode sneak peaks (and probably the occasional mid-week picture update of my, um, progress).

Gretchen started her latest project with “Possessions” because she’s smart enough to know that the clutter isn’t all there is to her relationship to her stuff. “My possessions had a powerful influence over the atmosphere of my home, and they contributed to, and reflected, my sense of identity,” she wrote.

I know what she means. I battle the clutter and mess of two adults and four children with an abundance of identity in the form of books, toys, magazines, newspapers and small, indeterminate but invariably important plastic objects (whose importance rarely becomes clear before they’re thrown away) daily, but the clutter isn’t all I’m dissatisfied with as I survey my domain. We just don’t live, physically, they way I want to live, or even the way we want to live. It’s pretty depressingly Tobacco Road around here, and I suspect the friend who just sent me an email about her new no-filter fish tank may have been commenting on our tank, which has been fish-free and filled with evaporating water for months. (Ok, maybe longer.)

Gretchen’s goals, and mine.

Gretchen’s goal was to “Find a True Simplicity.” Mine is to Cultivate an Ordered Calm. “Simplicity” will never reign here; I like clear surfaces but I also like books and magazines and easy access to things we love and use, and a few toys here and there don’t bother me as long as, if the spirit moves the child to put the toy away (and my “spirit” I mean “allowance” or possibly “threat”), there is a clear place to put it.

I’m adopting Gretchen’s second resolution, “Go shelf by shelf” as my first. My goal is to remove and clear, and to keep only what I “know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” with an eye towards finding a place for everything that remains, even if not everything is in its place.

It’s not at all realistic to expect that I’ll have gone “shelf by shelf” in our 4 bedroom house by next Sunday, but I’ll at least write about where we stand, and whether the bookshelf I took out of the guest room upstairs and then couldn’t find anywhere to put except the hall floor is gone, next Sunday. Beyond that lie two more resolutions for September: Make it right, and Put it back.

I want to do more than clear the clutter. I want to get what stays behind right: to finally replace the kitchen soap dispenser and repair the broken dresser drawer and put all the pieces in the Monopoly game. That, to me, is “make it right.”

And then I want to learn to keep it that way. “Put it back,” means more than that. It means embracing David Allen’s requirement that if it takes less than 2 minutes, you do it now by putting the tape back after wrapping a present, or picking up the clump of hairbands and replacing them in the box instead of dropping them in the nearest bowl. If I’m going to be happy with my possessions, each thing needs a place, and I need to make a habit of resecting those places.

Honestly, I go into this discouraged and overwhelmed. We’ve been letting things pile up for the five years since we moved into this house, and we have both had to accept of late that the children never put anything away because we rarely do: yep, there are six plastic spaceships and a half-built lego on the coffee table, but then, there’s a Sunday times and an open notepad (mine) next to them, and the bag I brought out yesterday to dig out hand-me-down soccer cleats on the floor next to it, unreturned to its place, and next to me on the end table is the squirt bottle Rob used to squirt the dog for barking at the UPS man on Friday.

A sneak peak of hall chaos.

I set out to clean the hall today, and mostly just stood gazing miserably, knowing that I can’t really clean out the shoe cubbies unless I pull out all the outgrown shoes, and I can’t pull out the outgrown shoes without something to put them in, and then I will need to take the ones that aren’t handed down somewhere and put the ones that are somewhere else, with a label and the hope of finding them in two years (girls) or four (boys). And that’s just the shoes; there are jackets and rackets and swimsuits and kites and backpacks and hats…

I finally managed to open the four elfa drawers that store up the projects children bring home from school all year; in a happy, ideal family, one goes through these at the end of the year, pulls out treasures, tucks some away, frames a few pictures and talks to each child about his or her school year. Instead, I dumped last year’s contents into the four bins I keep their artwork in in the basement without a word while three were out with various friends and the fourth played Minecraft. Now they’re empty and ready for 2012-2013, filled only with my intent to do better next year and the near certainty that I won’t.

I’d hoped for before and after pictures of a hallway transformed, but instead, I realized I needed the bins I keep Sam’s clothes in upstairs for mittens, etc., which meant taking Lily’s doll clothes out of his old dresser and giving it back to him and then switching the bins currently in the hallway for swimsuits up for doll clothes and…well, long story short, all the bins and the dresser are empty; the swimsuits and Sam’s entire wardrobe are in various piles, and it is all much, much worse than it was when I started.

What is it Gretchen always says? Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. But it really, really will feel so good when it’s done—and making the mess guarantees that one way or another, I’m going to have to pick it up!

KJ“Happier at Home:” Gretchen’s Project, KJ’s Clutter
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Farewell, Mystery Twitter Dude (Plus, How to Have a Good Birthday Party)

My dad just alerted me to the fact that my Twitter widget was broadcasting someone else–I changed my handle, but not the widget code, a few weeks ago and apparently this is the inevitable result: whoops! He looked like he had a very interesting life and an entirely different twitter audience than me…

Today was Lily’s actual birthday, and I’m proud to say that after last year’s, which could have been used as the MTV video for “It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want to,” we managed a small, successful party with only four guests (five if you count her sister). No more big, full family, siblings welcome parties for Lily until she’s much older.

Lily got two walkie talkies for her birthday, and they’re playing “walkie talkie hide and seek.” Unfortunately they seem to have told Rory to hide and then forgotten to find her…and the drama continues.

KJFarewell, Mystery Twitter Dude (Plus, How to Have a Good Birthday Party)
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