Monday, December 5, 2011

A Letter From Everyman

Millie writes:

I received this letter from a new reader:

Dear Millie,

      You have been a mother of several children during times of economic duress, a spouse of a man who had at times difficulty finding employment because of factors beyond anyone's control, and, prior to that, a military spouse living off of a military salary, bearing and raising your firstborn on the meager pay of an enlisted man. Despite the troubles you must have encountered, you have always come across as calm and collected, for richer or poorer. What are some things you would recommend to a young family struggling to manage the costs of daily life?

         -Private Joe Everyman

Dear GI Joe,

First of all, thank you for this:  “. . . you have always come across as calm and collected, for richer or poorer.”  That is one of those parenting things for which you strive without knowing whether you succeeded until your children are old enough to ask – and by then it’s too late to change!

One obvious answer is that the breadwinner(s) – in your case, the military member – must strive for advancement to the utmost of his ability.  When you are mired in the day-to-day grind of enlisted life, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that things can (and in fact will) get better.  Babies are cheap, children are costly and teens are hella expensive.  Work your butt off now so that in ten years you’ll be ready for that.

In order to “manage the costs of daily life” now, make sure that you and your partner have the same goals.  It won’t work if your wife is baking her own bread while you take your platoon to lunch; likewise, if you are brown-bagging it with leftovers every day while she’s out buying Chanel No. 5, it will be difficult to get a handle on your finances.

These things are self-evident, however; there are many “Balance Your Budget” books that can help you with that.  What you are asking is how I managed to come out on the other side of a financially-challenged couple of decades with apparent serenity.  Here are my top 10 personal recommendations to a young couple starting out with big hopes and dreams but slim pocketbooks.

-Love, Millie

Never let ‘em see you sweat. I may have come across as calm and collected, but I wasn’t.  I was terrified.  However, I didn’t think I had the right to burden the children with our financial woes.  It’s a full-time job just worrying about being a kid, without having to worry about your parents’ utility bills.  We kept money discussions for “adults only” time – kinda like sex and Vin Diesel movies.

Hold your head up.  You have a loving wife and a darling starter-family, you’re doing an important job, and you’re young, strong and intelligent.  You’re broke, not second-class.  You are not poor.  If your children ever hear you say that you are, that is how they will define themselves.  Show them at all times that you’re proud of yourself and of the life you’re building.  Remember: three years of tight budgeting can feel like a blip on the radar to you, but to your child it may comprise the entire span of his conscious memory.  You don’t need a lot of money to give your children the priceless feeling of security.

Focus on what’s important.  I realized when my first child was born that we didn’t have a lot of money, but that there was no limit to the time and energy I was willing to spend.  I was determined that all six of my children would have the same advantages and opportunities that they’d have had if they’d been born into a rich family, and I’d pay for it in hard work and self-sacrifice. We couldn’t afford private schools, so I worked the system to get them transferred into good public schools and then volunteered thousands of hours in those schools.  I gave them introductory music lessons, found classes cheap or free at community centers so they could learn fencing or martial arts or dance, and invented city-wide scavenger hunts when we couldn’t afford the over-the-top birthday extravaganzas favored by their peers.  Decide what you would do for your child if you did have a lot of money, and then make those things happen using your own stubborn wits.

Know where your money goes.  Even the most sensible budget can be completely undone by something small.  Five bucks at Starbucks on the way to work every morning doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to $100 a month.  Buying small bags of treats for school lunches can break the bank over a year’s time.  Seeing first-run movies every week on Date Night – I don’t even want to think about that expense.  I’m not saying don’t drink coffee or pack raisins or go to the movies – but think about what part of the experience you value, and then figure out a way to make it happen wholesale.  If you love the Starbucks experience, limit yourself to Friday mornings and savor it; if it’s the coffee you crave, make it at home (you can buy the flavored syrups cheap at restaurant-supply stores) and tote it in a thermos.  Buy a big bag of raisins or chips and parcel them out into small bags or reusable containers.  Go to second-run theaters and utilize Redbox.  Don’t deprive yourselves – just re-think how to get what you most want.

Make it fun.  Nobody wants to be the Sad Sack Poor Kid, sitting alone on a bench wearing a flour sack dress and eating a lard sandwich.  Being frugal doesn't mean giving up fun.  In fact, you have to be so much more conscious of what is fun when you're being frugal that you very often end up having more fun than you would have if you'd been able to just say something like, "Ahh, I'm bored.  Let's go to the movies."  Use your imagination and make your own fun.  Put the kids in their PJ's, go sit in the car and watch movies on your laptop - bring popcorn to your "Drive In."  Watch the "Entertainment" section of your local news website to see when there are movies in the park, free museum days and concerts along the waterfront.  Bring a little "zing" into the everyday by having a surprise breakfast picnic or putting a riddle in a lunchbox.  One of those little truths that nobody ever tells you is that people usually will have a good time if you tell them they're having a good time.  Make a ceremony out of little things like watching meteor showers or reading a chapter a night.  You don't have to save all your Mary Poppins magic for Christmas - it works every day to help the medicine go down.

Never stop working on yourself.  You’re a parent and the responsibility is nearly overwhelming at times – and those are the times when it’s more important to remember that you are a person, too.  You may be a Daddy now and forevermore, but if that’s all you are you won’t be very good at your job.  Take classes and training at work, yes, but also do things just because they’ll make you a better person.  If you’re a stay-at-home parent, take one afternoon off a week (trade afternoons with another parent who’s in the same boat) to take a class, go to a museum, take in a movie or just sit and paint your fingernails.  If you’re the breadwinner, spend a little time doing something that’s not related to your job – read travel guides, go jogging, make model airplanes - whatever floats your own, personal, idiosyncratic boat.  If you don’t take this time for yourself, it becomes all too easy to resent spouse, kids, job, and everything else that keeps your nose to the grindstone 24/7.

Make your mate a priority.  Whether one of you is bringing home the bacon while the other one fries it up, or whether you’re both working both outside the home and in it – neither one of you really has the slightest conception of how hard the other one is working, and odds are good you’re both exhausted most of the time.  It is fatally easy to go from becoming best friends and lovers to co-parents and roommates with benefits.  No matter how much you love your children, you must remember that the bond with your spouse is your primary relationship and you must nurture that bond.  It’s easy to do this when things are going splendidly, but when you’re both working your heads off and worried about money all the time it requires a special, conscious effort.  Not only do your children need this foundation – your mate will still be with you when your children have grown.  Don’t neglect your sweetheart.  Have adults-only date night once a week, even if it’s just a movie from the library after the kids are in bed.  Leave love notes.  Send texts.  Pick flowers and knit socks.  Individually these things are small.  Collectively they add up to Big Love.

Scrounge.  “Living Cheap” can be kind of fun, once you get into the swing of it.  We have the advantage of living in the most prosperous country on the planet, even if the prosperity hasn’t quite trickled down to our level yet; people throw away the most astounding things.  Dumpster diving can be a fantastic way to supplement your stores of furniture and other household goods; I’ve found dressers, bedsteads, chairs and exercise equipment by the side of the road that I’ve taken home, refurbished and used with pride.  Haunt thrift stores, clothing closets, Craigslist and yard sales for deals in clothing, baby stuff, gift ideas and hobby items.  Learn what is available through your local charities and churches; you will find food boxes, warm coats, medical and dental care (through the county, city, state or school systems) and free introductory classes on every subject under the sun.  Talk to other young families in your area about what they’ve discovered, and set up a barter system within your group.  Trade washing-machine repair for babysitting, or buy a Costco-sized box of laundry detergent and swap half of it to your neighbor for half of their Costco toilet paper.  Set up a “lending library” of gently-worn maternity clothes so every pregnant woman in your group can get a break from the same three shirts and pairs of jeans.  Look around you with the mindset of, “How can I use/ reuse/ refurbish that?”  This approach also has the advantage of making your home’s d├ęcor uniquely “you!”

Take care of what you have.  Good stewardship is never more important than it is right now.  When you can’t afford to replace the little things – let alone the big-ticket items – your lives will be better if you keep what you do have clean and in good working order.  An added bonus is that you will be modeling behavior you want your child to emulate, and emulate it he will.  It may take a couple of decades, but how you run your household now is what will seem “right” when Junior has a household of his own.

Don’t do things that make you feel poor.  Sometimes there will be a great money-saving opportunity that will make you feel so penny-pinching and Poor Relation-y that you dread it.  In this case, consider not taking advantage of the opportunity, and I’ll tell you why – because it’s in direct violation of the Hold Your Head Up rule above.  In my case, it was WIC.  WIC (Women, Infants, Children) was a welfare program in my home state that provided free vouchers for milk, infant formula, and other healthy foods.  Great deal, right?  The only problem was, you had to bring your infants and small children with you to a monthly appointment, where minimum-wage case workers would weigh them, cross-examine you as to your family’s dietary habits, and draw blood from each of your children with clumsily-wielded finger sticks.  (They did this to test the child’s iron levels.)  I could only do that once before the humiliation of the whole thing – that my children, who a) didn’t know what was going on and b) were being taught not to let strangers touch them, had to be stabbed until they bled by uncaring clerks because I couldn’t afford to feed them.  I had no problem with using food stamps or going to free clinics when it was necessary, but this – I felt that this stripped me of my dignity at my children’s expense.  Nothing is completely free.  Don’t let lack of money push you into doing things that will cost you more than you are willing to pay. 

Sometimes, do the fiscally irresponsible thing.  Occasionally, the prom dress is more important than the cable bill.  Once in a while, the kid needs the “right” shoes more than meat for dinner.  There will be moments when a son will get such a thrill out of being accepted into the Select Choir that you will gladly forfeit the money for new tires to buy him the necessary tuxedo.  It doesn’t happen often, but in order to live well on a limited income there are times when you have to spend the money foolishly.  Sometimes you get the chance to fly a family of 8 to Washington, D.C. free, and it would be crazy not to skimp on groceries to pay for the hotel room.  There’s a lot more to life than making a living.

Living frugally yet fully is a lot like becoming a good cook.  You will develop your own shortcuts and workarounds, and you will discover great combinations that nobody else has tried before.  Just remember this:  It is your attitude that determines the attitude in your home.  Take good care of what you have, work hard for what you want and ignore the wolf at the door as much as you can.

Joe, if you were looking for concrete advice such as “cut your family’s hair yourself” or
“mix whole milk half-and-half with reconstituted powdered milk,” please write back, because God knows I have a million of ‘em.  However, as far as “calm and collected” goes, this is my best advice:

Be happy and loving.  Act happy and loving.  That is what your family needs more than anything, and it is precisely what money cannot buy.

Mollie writes:

First word of advice -

Love that baby!  The bonding you do in the early years is everything.  If you are wondering about how to talk to your 12-year old about something, you're already late.  Talk, Talk, Talk Talk Talk.  Listen Listen Listen Listen Listen.

If you already have their attention, the words will come easier.

With money, remember your kids need a safe sheltering home.  They need healthy food and adequate clothing.

The rest is a gift.  Remember that play-station you bought three years ago?  It's obsolete now.  But your kids' needs will  NEVER be obsolete.  

I'm wondering if my kids will come to me for advice about child rearing.  They didn't see us suffer financially, but they did see us cope with disease, etc.  There are so many variable when it comes to parenting.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Expanding My Horizons

Millie writes:

Yesterday was a banner occasion at our house – it was Jack’s 17th birthday.  We celebrated with fried chicken and cake, movies and card games, Mochi Balls and lots of laughter.

Privately, Lance and I took a more solemn moment to observe a fact of significance only to us: It was the last “child’s” birthday party we would host for one of our own.

I’ve been noticing that a lot of the recent milestones in my life – at least as they relate to the “parenting” aspect of my life – are “lasts” rather than “firsts.”  The fledglings are trying their wings and will be making longer and longer flights until they’ve left the nest for good.

I’ve spent 26 years amassing wisdom about diapering, colic, schooling, last-minute Halloween costumes and the PTA, and I’m not about to leave that part of me completely behind.  Once a Mama, always a Mama is my motto.

Old tradition speaks of a three-faced goddess who shares the aspects of Maiden, Mother and Crone.  On one hand this division can be explained completely biologically: pre-menarche, fertile and post-menopausal; on the other it’s an emotional progression from girl to woman to – well, there is no other word for it but “crone!”

“Crone” has always been one of my least-favorite words.  Not only does it just sound ugly, it’s derived from the Old Northern French word “caroijne,” meaning “carrion.”  That’s right, gals!  Once we’re no longer in the Breeder category, we’re filed under “the decaying flesh of dead animals!”

Well, I’m taking “Crone” back. 

For one thing, now that someone who’s 50 can reasonably expect to live another 30 years, it’s ludicrous to consider the end of the child-rearing window the end of a woman’s vitality. 

For another, there are a lot of us out here.  I’m near the tag-end of the Baby Boomer generation and there are at least two generations of people before us who are nowhere near finished yet! 

There is no graduation ceremony for a Mom who’s done a good job – no gold watch, no processional, and no speeches.  As with so much else related to motherhood, the only thing people can tell you is that “you’ll know it when it happens.”  I’m not quite ready to join Mollie on the stand as a Mother Emeritus (I’ve got at least another year of hands-on work to do before Jack and Sassy graduate from high school), but I can tell that something’s happening.

I plan to document my journey into Cronehood.  The only thing I know for sure is that (like motherhood) it is not for the faint of heart – nor (me being me) will it be for the timid of ear.

Whether you’re a maiden, a mother or a sister-Crone, won’t you join me?

If we're going anyhow, we may as well have a few laughs along the way!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Millie writes:

Today is my last first day of school.

Oh, sure, there will be First Days during the college years, but those aren't the same somehow. For the last 22 years, each September there has been at least one child who has woken up early one morning soon after Labor Day, thinking, "It's the first day of school!" (with varying inflections depending upon the child).

22 years of new clothes from the skin out, carefully chosen weeks ago and laid out smooth the night before.

22 years of healthy breakfasts and First Day treats (a funky pen, silver pencils, puppy pocket calendars).

22 years of First Day photos, smiling faces rising higher each year against the panels of the door.

22 years of "It's time to go!"

22 years of "Travel as a set! See you after school! Have a great day!"

Half of those 22 years we've had one or more kids in high school; today our last two began their Senior Year. This morning was like 22 others, with oatmeal and holographic pencils, stiff new jeans and sharp new haircuts. In the photos, Jack's head was higher than the wreath on the door; Sassy actually smiled instead of sticking out her tongue.

Oh, sure, it's not over yet. There are 9 months still to enjoy - but (like being pregnant with your last child) this year's events carry the bittersweetness of The Last Time.

The last time we watch Grease with new high school seniors. (Hey, can't send a kid off to school without an earworm or two!) The last time I have to fill out pages and pages of take-home Back to School paperwork. The last time I'll be a member of a PTA. The last Prom, the last speech tournament, the last school concert. (Okay, I might not be too choked up about that final one.)

Oh, well. Sassy and Jack left the house this morning full of good cheer and hope, so I will do the same. I will enjoy my annual Switch the Summer Decor to Fall Decor sweep of the rooms, and make the last first after-school snack of the year. I'll air out the house and then close it up tight (it's supposed to reach nearly 100 degrees today). I'll try to remember just what it is I do with myself during the "normal" months.

I will do whatever it takes to get "Beauty School Dropout" out of my head.

Good luck, Class of 2012!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The REAL New Year

Millie writes:

To quote Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, to my mind September “. . . is the real New Year. That laborious affair in January [is] nothing but a name.”

Going back to school is inextricably bound up with this month, even if we haven’t actually gone back to school for decades. September means a new start, another chance to get it right, to “do better.” September ushers in sweater weather, crisp mornings and trees robed in scarlets, oranges and golds to rival any fireworks display.

In September we’re ready to learn new things, and to see old things in new ways.

Take a moment, as this hectic month unfolds, to look at your family with fresh eyes. You are very familiar with the many ways in which you show your love to them – large or small, everything you do for your family is a mute testimonial to your affection.

How long has it been since you noticed the many unspoken ways in which they show their love for you?

“I love you” can be said in a lot of different ways:

The son who puts “your” cup in the front of the dishwasher when he loads it each night, so your groping hand can find it easily at 6 a.m.;

The daughter who sends you a quick text to let you know she’s arrived at her destination, even though you argued before she left;

The son who tucks you into bed when you’re feeling sickly, complete with a story and a song;

The daughter who gives you beautiful jewelry or art supplies on every occasion, because she recognizes a kindred spirit - even though all she’s ever seen you do is housework, errands and Mom-stuff;

The husband who, knowing you’re on a diet, arranges with a local McDonald’s to make an Atkins-friendly Quarter-Pounder with Cheese for you on Date Night.

A family is a group of people who live together in almost unremitting intimacy. Squabbles, hurt feelings and shouted orders are unavoidable in even the closest families. It’s a mistake to hold onto these hurt feelings; it’s a mistake to concentrate on the irritants rather than the delights. This month, try to notice the small, mute “I love yous” that come your way, and let the petty annoyances roll off your back.

If you can do this, September will not only be the start of a great New Year – it will be Thanksgiving!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Half a Dozen Odds and Ends

Maggie writes:
Here are just a few ways to "think outside the box." I hoped to think of more, but the baby is a Brain Vampire these days, and it is hard to be clever.

Pizza cutters are a more versatile than you may know! Don't tuck them away for the sole purpose of pizza duty. Break them out for halving just about any sort of sandwich, wraps or quesadillas! That's not all! Need to coin hot dogs or kielbasa sausages? Lay several down at once and zip on through the lot of 'em. It makes quick work of a potentially tedious task.

Get a small soap dispenser bottle, put white vinegar in it and set it by your kitchen sink. Use a squirt or two to get rid of onion and garlic smells as needed.

If you have a small child who loves small puzzles (no bigger than a pizza box), go to your local pizza place and ask for a few unused boxes. Keep all the puzzle pieces safe and sound with the work in progress.

Just got done finely grating an orange (or cheese, ginger, etc., etc...) and now you need to get everything out of the tiny holes of your grater? Take your handy dandy vegetable brush and go to town! Don't have one? Keep a spare (clean!) tooth brush handy to get into all those little nooks and crannies.

White boards aren't the only things you can use dry erase markers on! Go to your local dollar store and find posters that have been laminated (MUST be laminated!!). The ones I've seen are about the size of your standard freezer-on-top door. Stick it up there however you'd like it, and go to town with reminders, lists and doodles. My children adore the snot out of those markers, and if yours do, too, stock up at the dollar store while you're there.

Have you caught a cold and are hacking up a lung? A friend of mine told me about a whacky cure that really works! Slather Vapor Rub on the bottoms of your feet (or the sicko loved one's), put on a pair of socks and go to bed. It worked for my baby, and I've had relief from this method as well.

Well? What about you, loyal readers and fellow bloggers? Any crazy methods of Gettin' it Done that have worked for you? Do tell!

Millie chips in:

Oh, I might be able to think of a FEW:

If you use dryer sheets, use the spent sheet to clean the lint trap after each load. The fuzz will stick to the fibers and NOT to you.

Speaking of dryer sheets, use only a non-scented variety; use fragrance-free soap, as well. This serves two purposes: if someone with whom you regularly come in contact has asthma or allergies, you will not trigger an attack; and if not, the scent of your clothing will not clash with the scent of your chosen perfume.

Ditto deodorant. While we're on that subject, can we PLEASE agree that "Axe" smells like the smoky flatus of a thousand diseased yaks and somehow get that point across to the male population?

If you don't want to use harsh chemicals around kids and pets, try pouring boiling water directly onto dandelions and other weeds. That'll l'arn 'em.

Making cookies? Make twice as much and freeze half the dough for a day when you're not feeling quite as energetic.

If you can stand the look (some of us can't), let your child use a sleeping bag on top of the mattress rather than conventional linens. The kid will love it and this approach solves the "make your bed, dammit!" argument for good. Get one that's machine-washable; if your kid still wets the bed, just slide one of those big rubberized-flannel pads in under him and hope for the best.

It's too late to do it this year but next year, when you're planting those hanging baskets (we have such hope in our hearts when we're doing that, don't we?), slip a coffee filter into the bottom of the pot. This will not only keep the dirt from running out through the drain-holes, it will help hold the water in the pot just a teense longer - a big consideration considering how quickly pots and planters dry out when it's hot like it is now. I've even heard of people who slip half a sponge in the bottom of the plant, but I've never tried that one myself - have you?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Payback’s a – Well, You Know.

Millie writes:

I found out last week that I’m going to become a grandmother in March. Of course news like this calls for a lot of heavy thinking, and one thing I’m thinking about is – revenge!

C’mon, you know we all do it – entertain ourselves with thoughts of how we’ll “get even” with the rugrats someday, when they are the ones with the mortgages and the migraines and we are the ones with some time on our hands. Nothing wrong with these fantasies – whatever keeps you going through the Parenting Doldrums is fair game as long as it doesn’t hurt the kids or scare the livestock!

Impending grandparenthood reminded me that one of my longest-cherished schemes was to wait until I had grandchildren and then send them musical instruments. That will be especially rewarding in the case of this particular procreating pair, because the Daddy-to-Be was the member of our in-house basement band with a 400-watt guitar amp and an effects pedal. Grandkid #1 is going to be getting one of those poppers with a handle before s/he can even walk.

Other silent-yet-vengeful plots include:

“When you are an adult, I am going to come over to your house and pee all over your toilet lid.”

“When you have a baby, I will find out what time said baby goes to sleep, and I will arrange to phone you every night at five minutes past that time and wake the baby up.”

“Someday, when you have your own house, I am going to visit you and bring dirty clothes with me to throw on your floor.”

“Some day you’ll invite me to dinner and spend hours cooking a meal to impress me with your culinary skills. I will take one bite of it and then demand a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.”

“I hope you have a kid someday who is JUST. LIKE. YOU.

. . . Actually, that last one would be pretty sweet.

Monday, August 1, 2011

To Censor or Not to Censor: That is the Question

Millie writes:
One of the best things about Facebook and other social media is that it allows us to chat about interesting and controversial topics with people all over the world. (This is also one of the WORST things about Facebook and other social media, but that’s a different entry altogether.)

Last week my friend Beth posted a YouTube link to a video entitled, “Letter From Ex-Witch Regarding Harry Potter.” (The link is below, if you’re interested; like Beth, I recommend you mute the sound and just read the scrolled text; there’s just someone reading the words and her voice is rushed and distracting.) She wanted to know what other people thought about it, because her 12-year-old son is interested in reading the books and – since Beth is a Christian mother – she’s trying to make up her mind whether a series that features witchcraft will undermine the values that she and her husband are instilling in their children.

As you can imagine, her friends had strong opinions. Here’s what I wrote:

I usually stay out of discussions like this because most people are just looking for ammo to bolster the opinion they've already formed. Since I've read the Harry Potter series to all my kids once (and most of them re-read it on their own) and the Narnia series several times, obviously I don't feel either one of them is harmful to children. Where I think the trouble comes in is when someone decides, "Well, I can certainly understand metaphor, simile, fantasy and the difference between fact and fiction, but then most people aren't as intelligent and socially conscious as I. Why, what if someone plays a game of Dungeons and Dragons, for example, and suddenly they can't distinguish between their friendly mail carrier and an Orc? I think I read about that happening somewhere, sometime! This menace must be stopped! Think of the children!"

I don't think it is ever necessary to let someone else do all of one's thinking for one - not even (or maybe especially) in the case of one's children. Parents naturally want to protect their children from harm, but I don't think ideas or concepts are harmful in themselves. I think that by segregating some themes or concepts into a great "We Do Not Discuss It" pile, we not only confer upon those subjects the irresistible cachet of "forbidden knowledge" - we deprive ourselves of a natural springboard to discussing our own ideals and beliefs. Of course, it is possible to live in a manner that excludes all fiction or entertainment as lies and frivolity, and some extremist religious or political sects do just that. I don't think this approach armors children to live in today's world, but then - they're not my children, it's not my business.

In short, I don't think reading Harry Potter - or The Necronomicon, or Spell Casting for Dummies - will turn someone into a witch or a Satanist, any more than reading Arnold Schwarzenegger's biography will turn someone into a body-builder. Ideas and beliefs are not mental land-mines, quiescent until they're stepped on by the unwary and explode with soul-destroying reverberations. If a child understands poetic license - and they all do, otherwise every sponge in the U.S. would be wearing pants - they will know fiction for what it is. I think the important thing is that the child knows what his parents believe, and how the world fits into that viewpoint. "Of course we know there's no such thing as The Easter Bunny/ black magic/ talking trees, but it's fun to think about" seems a lot less damaging to me than "OMIGOD YOU READ A CHILDREN'S BOOK AND NOW YOU'LL BURN IN HELL." So many people don't give their kids credit for any sense, when most children have a pretty good grasp of what's real and what isn't even if it's not something tangible. If a person grows up to become a mass-murderer, there was a lot more going wrong in his life than his choice of childhood reading material.

This is what we think, the decisions we've made for our children.

What do you think? I’m really askin’.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

No More Blues!

"Oh... just... put on a disposable," I said, feeling a twinge guilty (and, quite frankly, defeated) as the words crossed my lips. My son was asking whether any cloth "pullups" were ready for use at the end of a long day. I didn't get a chance to do the load of cloth diapers. Again. I had the Endless Laundry Blues, and was pretty tired of singing that tune.

So I decided to do something about it.

If I'd been thinking about blogging about this adventure, I would have taken more pictures. Alas, I was focused on the task at hand and had not an extra brain cell to spare on such trivial matters.

The Sock Basket
I'm sure everyone has some version of The Sock Basket. This is the container of your choice that has the singularly loathsome task of holding all the socks, an odd hat or mitten (even during the summer this year..) and perhaps a pair of underpants thrown in the mix as well. I dreaded TSB and hated when everyone ran out of socks and needed a new stash paired. And so it sat for a good long while (I can't recall a time when there wasn't a sock basket waiting to be paired in all my married life), mocking me in my feeble attempts at tackling that dreaded project.

Then I was struck by a marvelous realization: throw them away. Just... throw all the socks away, and start over! Now, my frugal brain quickly stepped in and said "How about you sit down, pair up a dozen socks per family member... and THEN throw the rest away?" A dozen seemed like a lot, but it was surprisingly easy to accomplish. The anticipation of an empty basket made the work quick. As I gathered up the large pile of remaining socks, I may have had a bit of a crazed grin on my face. I also may have done a bit of a jig coming away from throwing them out in the trash bin in the kitchen.

That was the first step in my laundry chore transformation. It was just the sort of psychological motivation I needed to keep at it.

The Clean Laundry Pile
Washing and drying the clothes is easy. I could do that all day. Folding, hanging up and distributing the clothes into piles is not so easy. Before the baby was born, we used the playpen to put all the clean clothes in. Have you seen play pens? They hold a huge amount of clean clothes, my friends, and that's just how I liked it. After the baby arrived and took over the clothes hamper.. er, play pen, I needed a new dumping ground. Well, she'd moved from her bassinet to the playpen... so I switched the two out and started dumping the clean clothes into the bassinet. It didn't hold as much, and the pile would start falling over, resulting in a need to clean dusty, walked on clothes that multiplied on the floor around that bassinet.

Every once in awhile, I'd gather up my reserves and tackle the Mountain and get it knocked out to a small mound. What a chore, letting it build up so much! I eventually abandoned the bassinet, took it down and put it away.

So the pile moved to the now empty Sock Basket. Oh that pile moved a few different times before I found a system that worked for me!

I decided what I needed was a staging area and a place to set my piles. So I set up a big folding table in my laundry room. I only technically had enough room for it, though could not open the dryer but a mere six inches or so and had to walk between the table and dryer sideways. I liked the concept, but the execution was sloppy, so I put that table away and purchased a smaller version of it. The little beauty fit exactly right in the little nook in front of my never-used back door. This was my staging area. I would transfer the clean clothe from the dryer, up onto the table. Along the wall opposite the dryer, I set up my rarely-used ironing board, which became my pile place. Most of the piles fit on the ironing board, and the top of the washing machine is a good surface for a few other piles.

Here, let me show you:

As you can see, the room isn't.. done. But disregard that and focus on what IS done! Okay, I've got all my hangers ready to go above the ironing board. The Sock Basket (will always have that name, despite not holding any more socks!) is on the table. I am trying very hard to keep the dryer top clutter-free. It has lasted a day thus far, yay!

Make it Beautiful
Please note the colorful prints I've stuck to the door. I spend a great deal of time in this room, and I want it to be a good time. So I am going to make it beautiful. I've got lots of fabric that I find lovely, and will be using liquid starch to stick to the walls.

That fabric covers up an old mildew stain (long since dead, but yells at me every time I go in there). I have more fabric, but must get more starch, as it likes to really soak it up. Great way to add color to a room without investing in permanent things like paint. In between the two cupboards above the washer and dryer, I would like to install a shelf. This shelf will hold Pretty Things and Good Smelling Things. It may even hold a fan, as it gets miserably hot in that room.

My point is, make your working space work for you. Make it a room you look forward to entering. The kids are constantly in and out of there, trotting off with a dishtowel to (re)fold and put away or taking their pile of clothes off to their room. I fully intend on making them a big part of the laundry system, once it is well established and my routine is better oiled. You may not cloth diaper, so that particular load isn't an issue. But we all wear clothes, and they don't wash themselves, or put themselves away. Now that I've got a system in place, I truly hope that I can stay on top of the laundry and that it won't be something I dread doing.

Do YOU have any laundry secrets or tips for staying on top of things?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Happy Birthday, May!

Many happy returns of the day to our tallest, hippest - and youngest! - blogger.

Happy birthday, May!

Monday, June 13, 2011


Millie writes:

Tomorrow I will have been a mother for a quarter-century.

The last 25 years have been the most wonderful adventure of my life. Being a parent makes my heart soar – the piercing joy of my relationships with those six people more than compensates for the moments of sheer terror.

2011, the year our oldest child turns 25, is the year I will turn 50. I've been a mom for half my life. Next fall our youngest children will begin their senior year of high school, so I'm also entering my last year of having kids in K-12.

I have always expected to hate this moment – and who knows, it may still happen when the Littles start college in Fall 2012 – but now that it's almost here, it seems perfectly natural. Maybe that's because now I have experienced how cool it is to have adult children – they're still the same people I've always been crazy about, but once they move out their table manners and laundry are no longer my responsibility! I think a bigger part of it, though, is that now that I'm almost there, I remember what I'd lost sight of in the midst of the diapers and the PTA meetings and the choir rehearsals:

I'm still a person.

Over the last 25 years, as the kids have become more independent, so have I. I'm not going to have an empty nest for years yet, but I no longer spend the majority of my time dealing with other people's bodily processes. If my life is a movie, it's become a lot less Mary Poppins and a lot more Animal House.

I hope to move mindfully into this new stage of my life. It would be all too easy to fill up the days with Facebook and Redbox and entertainment-grade shopping, instead of doing the writing, traveling, gardening and relaxing that I've daydreamed about so often over the last two and a half decades. Sometime during the next 25 years I may get the opportunity to finish a thought uninterrupted, and I don't want to miss the chance.

All six kids have accomplished astonishing things, and I can't wait to see what they do with the next 25 years.

Or, for that matter, what I do!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hair Today

Millie writes:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “In the spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

Well, maybe so; but it's different for women.

As long as I can remember, the advent of nice weather has kicked my inner Hunter/Gatherer into a search for the same two things: a new blouse and a shorter haircut.

The coveted blouse differs year-to-year; some seasons the ideal top is yellow gauze, some years it's a lace-trimmed tank or a peasant blouse. I find what I'm looking for about 10% of the time. The perfect haircut is even more elusive.

In the first excited flush of, “I think I'll look at this year's new short cuts!” I am always exuberantly drawn to pixie cuts, asymmetrical bobs and carefully casual spikes and curls. I used to actually get these cuts, and though they were extremely ill-suited to my features I would feel edgy and with-it until the cut started to grow out.

Then came the neck-cowlicks, the heartbreak and the agonizing two-year wait until the whole mess grew out and I could start the process over again.

Now I'm married to a man whose mother was apparently frightened by Cher while she was pregnant with him, because the only type of hairstyle that Lance can abide is long, smooth and straight. In the car, he will rant for 45 blocks about some random chick at a crosswalk with a big frizzy 'do, or a spiral perm, or (the horror! The horror!) a really short man-cut.

Thus, there is a certain amount of friction between us in the spring. He is, after all, the one besides myself whom I am trying to impress, so I glean down the hair-hunt to the top 5 photos and then ask him what he thinks. The froth flies from his growling teeth as he tells me. I growl back, on the defensive, something about how, “in the olden days, when someone wanted a haircut she would choose what she thought looked nice.”

Usually at this point somebody else will wander in with a bloody wound or a bad report card and the follicular crisis will be averted. I might get a mid-length A-line bob (shorter in the back than the front, no bangs, straightstraightstraight) – a compromise that doesn't really excite either of us – but it's far more likely I'll just give a wistful little sigh over what might have been and keep on growin' my hair out.

Now, the fact of the matter is that I have a very round face and a splendid assortment of chins, so very short hair makes me look less like Halle Berry and more like a scrub brush balanced on a beach ball. Longer hair is far more flattering on people with features like mine. I know this. The whole exercise, including the blouse, is much less about how I want to look than about how I want to feel.

Spring is a time of renewal! Things are blooming, growing, being reborn! In the spring it seems possible that maybe this is the year I'll be That Girl! The girl with the cute pink-polished toenails winking up from her sandals (they'd have to be orthopedic sandals), wearing a strappy little sundress (do they make sundresses with long sleeves and turtlenecks?), tripping down the street swinging a sassy straw tote bag (I don't trust purses that don't zip, and besides, all the crap I carry around would rip the bottom out of a straw bag in sixty seconds flat). The Girl, in short, who's confident and stylish and READY FOR ADVENTURE!

You know – the girl (in the new blouse) who can rock short hair and look gamine and cute instead of inflatable and mannish . . .

Maybe I'll just dye it red.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Sandwich Generation

Mollie writes:

Yep, that's us, fellow boomers - the sandwich generation. My husband, aged 61, and myself, age 58, are members of a new social phenomena. Our parents married in the 40's, had kids in the 50's and 60's, and serious gracious thanks to God, are living or have lived into their old age longer than any of us predicted.

My father was the first to pass, he died at at almost 80 (79 teetering on 80). He had battled a number of health issues, mainly heart disease and diabetes, and had undergone multiple heart 'procedures' which both lengthened his life and took its own toll.

I was not of much help. I DID spend every morning on the phone with him, beginning several months before he died. We visited frequently, but we were living on Kidney Island and were also dealing with other issues - including kids in college, the military, and our remaining parents' health issues.

Tends to keep a person strained.

Within two years of my father's death, my mother passed after dealing with Parkinson's Disease. Her death was also prolonged, and although I couldn't move in with her to tend to her (remember I have MS and some days can barely potty myself). I did call her on the phone ALMOST daily, visited her frequently and did the occasional housekeeping chore (laundry, anyone?). But my two sisters were her primary caretakers during her dying process.

This did not happen in a vacuum. Our oldest was being regularly deployed to the Middle East, and our youngest had graduated from college and was looking for work. Balancing this with aging parents who need help with everyday matters is hard at best, and even more difficult while dealing with a degenerative disease.

After my mom passed, my husband's parents, who had been in good health until the early 2000's, began to decline rapidly. John's mother was also dealing with Parkinson's disease and his father, in his 90's by then, was simply (?) dealing with a body that was tiring out. When we lived in the Portland Metropolitan area, we were able to travel to Seaside to attend to their more trivial needs (gutter cleaning, gardening, etc). But once my husband retired, and with me dealing with MS, we moved to a more temperate climate. Peter was still frequently deployed and Roger was getting married and we had parent/children issues once again.

My father-in-law died when he was 93, in late 2009. Roger was a newly-wed, Peter was in the Middle East, I was dealing with liver problems related to interferon use, shingles (ocular and very painful), kidney stones (even more painful) and MS. John was dealing with his "Factor V Leiden" a genetic mutation that causes his blood to clot, ultimately tossing embolisms. He will take blood thinners for this the rest of his life, but his blood work at this time was through the ceiling.

This wasn't an easy time for any of us. Our only happy event was having Roger and Joy marry. Thanks to this, I continued to believe that there is a God in heaven and that He really didn't hate me.

After John's dad passed, John's family had to make tough decisions about how to care for their mother. Ultimately, they found a very good residence for her. It's an alternative to Assisted Living, and while expensive, couldn't be better.

Now, don't jump off the bridge just yet. I have it on good authority (meaning all my +60 year old friends) that this is actually the norm. There is a brief time in your lives where you are relatively care free - and that's your young adulthood - before the kids. But once we had children, our lives became the most wonderful roller-coaster - and still is.

As of today, Peter is newly home from his latest deployment. Roger and Joy are on the verge of their second anniversary - and John and I are still in love with Joy, almost as much as Roger. My garden is weedy, my toenails need clipping, I need my uni-brow waxed and there's dishes souring in the sink. My husband's mother is in a good place, where she is safe and comfortable.

Maybe this time isn't so bad at all . . .

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Here Comes the Sun

Millie writes:

Well, here where we live – in the Pacific Northwest – the sun is still more of a rumor. However, the fact remains that our kids have one more week of school to endure before achieving the holiest of the scholastic Holy Grails:

summer vacation!

The mere words conjure up visions of sandy beaches, umbrella-ed drinks and lazy days spent poolside. Never mind the fact that the reality is far more likely to be mosquito bites, TV headaches and boredom; the idea of summer vacation is almost as good as summer vacation itself.

When our kids were preschool/grade school aged I would make a summer calendar with a tiny adventure penciled in for each day. This sounds like a huge undertaking for someone with small children until you realize that most days the only extra work was looking at the calendar. “Picnic on the lawn” means “you're making lunch ANYWAY, stick the sandwiches in a baggie and take them outside!” There are a lot of things that are fun to do that don't require much work on your part (“painting” the driveway with brushes and water, a teddy-bear tea party on the patio) – for some reason, the fact that they are written on a calendar makes them officially adventurous.

Now that our people are older they generally make their own plans, though we do have an “adventure theme” for the summer. Last year it was Bachelor Camp; another year we made it our goal to find every fountain in the city.

Since I am the Traditions Queen, I'm sure it surprises no one that we've developed traditions for the end of the school year and the beginning of summer. On the last day of school (or the LAST last day of school, if you have kids in more than one school and they don't get out on the same day) we have ice cream, and I pass out 3x5 cards upon which are written the following prompts:

This summer, I want to learn:

This summer, I want to try:

We talk a lot about how people want to spend the next three months, and I post everyone's goals on the kitchen bulletin board as a reminder. Some of their past ideas:

To learn: knitting, trigonometry, how to shuffle cards, driving, how to make two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners

To try: starting a band, volunteering weekly, saving $30, traveling alone, rock climbing

Surprisingly, more of these things get done than don't. My kids are of an age to pretty much determine their own social lives, but I still make sure to schedule some weekly adventure like a geocaching trip or a backyard campfire. Last weekend our adult children were remarking that the thing they miss the most about being kids is getting a summer vacation.

I say it's not about whether you actually get the time off, it's all about the attitude!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

All Mamas Are Beautiful

Millie writes:

I was chatting with my friend Elizabeth Marie yesterday. She is a full-time poet and the mother of a sixteen-year-old girl, which I think is an ideal combination; each job provides material for the other. I've never met her in person, but in photos Elizabeth Marie is gorgeous: enormous laughing brown eyes, flowing silver hair, fine features, porcelain skin and a body that somehow manages to look delicate and strong at the same time.

If Elizabeth Marie heard me call her “beautiful,” though, she would correct me. She's sure she's fat, and sagging, and wrinkled. Well, so she may be, compared to her teenage self (though when she was a teenager she thought she was skinny, odd and goofy-looking). However, both the Mother and the Poet recognize this “I'm so ugly” trap for what it is: a way to poison the next generation of women. “One of the things I need to do for my daughter,” she writes, “is learn to love my changing body.”

Let's gloss for the moment over the fact that we will do for our daughters what we will not do for ourselves – that's a post in itself! - and think about the role we play in forming our daughters' self-images.

When your baby becomes conscious of his surroundings, you are the first thing he senses. You are your baby's introduction to femininity, to nurturing and to the face of love; in short, to beauty. A small child thinks his mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. What changes his mind? Not society; not his own increasingly sophisticated perceptions.

His MOTHER changes his mind.

Children are acutely aware from a very young age of their parents' physical and verbal cues. If a beautiful, perfect mother sighs whenever she looks in a mirror, or constantly talks about how much she hates her thighs or her double chin, her child is soaking up this information as eagerly as he does her explanation of why the sky is blue. Small kids learn how the world works by watching their parents, and so if Mom is constantly broadcasting “my boobs are too small and my ass is too big,” what do her kids learn? They learn that they were mistaken, as they so often are, and Mom isn't beautiful – she's ugly.

Then they begin to mature.

The boys shy away from cheerful, generous curvy girls and chase after girls who agonize over their weight to the point of anorexia, because that's the definition they've learned for “beauty.”

The girls, who've heard the meant-as-a-compliment “you look just like your Mama!” all their lives, look in the mirror and see you – your eyes, your chin(s), your body shape – looking back at them. Well, you've taught them that that's what Ugly looks like. YOU know she's the most beautiful thing to ever grace a high school dance floor, but the lesson she's learned is that Pretty has bigger boobs and a smaller ass. If you think you're ugly, and she looks like you, what else could she think?

If you haven't resolved your body issues by the time your children are born, then fake it until they move out. Don't ever let them hear you criticize your appearance – or your voice, or your intelligence, or whatever it is you criticize. Children, especially same-sex children, identify with their parents. They learn how to BE from watching you. Concentrate instead on your glossy hair or your long eyelashes. Let them hear that you're grateful for your great sense of balance or your strong arms. Talk about what a pretty color your eyes are (“just like yours!”) and how much you like to dance. Don't even think about your chin(s) or your boobs or your ass until you're 65 and the kids have moved out of the house. Then you can agonize about them all you like, if you still want to.

Live your life so that your daughter knows that a woman like you - which is what she is - is beautiful.

Live your life so that your son knows that women like you – the first woman he ever loved – are beautiful.

If you can't be beautiful for yourself, do it for them. You have to start someplace.

Joy and Sassy – you are both so beautiful, inside and out, that it hurts my heart.

I guess that means I must be, too.

* * *

Elizabeth Marie's blog is called “An Incomplete Guide to an Ordinary Life.” In addition to being beautiful, she's a genius. Go give her a read - tell her Millie sent you!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Two Uncle Bills

Mollie writes:

It's Memorial Day, a time where we honor members of the military who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country. It probably doesn't take anyone much time to reflect on members of their family and friends who have served and paid the ultimate price.

I have two Uncle Bills who were actively in combat during WWII. Of course, other family members were as well (my Dad was a submariner in the Pacific), but these two uncles made sacrifices or endured torture for years in the name of Independence.

My father's brother, Bill Philbrook, was an enlisted man in the US Army who died at the end of the war. Bill was older than my father, and when my dad enlisted in the Navy when he was seventeen, my Uncle Bill would meet him on Oahu for the occasional rest and recuperation. We have a picture of Bill with our dad, all buff and brave, standing next to our dad, who looked a little wet behind the ears and quite peach fuzzy. It is amazing to me that this strong man was shot by a sniper where my Dad, all innocence and dewey eyed, returned to his submarine after R&R and performed his duties as a radar technician until the war was over. When dad entered the Navy, he didn't even shave - and when he was discharged, he didn't shave much. His older brother died just before peace was declared.

My mother's brother Bill was stationed in the Philippines at the outbreak of the Japanese invasion. Yes, he was a participant in the Bataan Death March, and yes he was a Japanese prisoner of war for years. He experienced the death of friends and torture during this internment, but came home a man of peace. He's still alive, and aging with dignity in Oregon. He raised 6 kids, labored at various lumber yards, paid his taxes and abided by the law. I don't remember once when he carried on about his military service. He's one of the many quiet heros.

My dad survived submarining to come home and also raise 6 kids. He died in 2005, and one of his tormenting memories was serving as a radar technician. He'd call my husband as he finished out his life, agonizing over whether or not God would forgive him the deaths of so many Japanese service people. My husband, a retired Naval Reserve Commander, reminded my dad that he was serving and defending his country in a war he hadn't started - at the tender age of 17.

When my dad died in 2005, he was still questioning war and his part in it.

We forget how savage war is, those of us who served behind the lines, or not at all. Some make the ultimate sacrifice in battle, and some try to make sense of it all years later.

Remember your Uncle Bills today.

For more info

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Mollie writes:

I read Millie's commentary on hugging and was going to put a comment in, but decided to write my own observations.

I grew up in a household where touch was verboten. I can count on one hand the amount of times I can recall being hugged, kissed, embraced or otherwise touched by a loving family member.

This isn't a rant, this is simply an honest accounting of childhood in the fifties. My parents did not make public displays of affection, not with the children, not within their own relationship.

The word "love" was seldom mentioned. We were raised to behave in a socially acceptable fashion - we were to be at all times respectful, presentable, attractive, etc. There was very little room for spontaneity. Those were the fifties and early sixties.

It comes as no surprise that the late sixties and beyond we became a generation of "luv." So many of us had craved affection for so long that when barriers were lowered they were actually blown to smithereens.

One of the first changes I made when we started our family was to breast-feed. My poor mother was shocked and appalled. She'd had six children and all were bottle fed. She thought women who nursed were cows (her words) and that a formula (made with of all things, cows' milk) was better for a baby. She was deep into science (or faux science) and felt that propping a bottle was sufficient stimulus for a baby.

I had to tolerate a lot of verbal abuse for this decision, but I felt that my kids would be better off receiving human mother's milk. This was especially beneficial for my oldest, a preemie. But all the promise of anti-bodies, touch and bonding went unnoticed.

I still think I could have been a more "affectionate" mother. There's nothing sweeter than a hug when a little person needs reassurance. You can tell a child that they are special, but a hug proves it. I sometimes make a mental list of things I could have done better as a parent, and affectionate touch is always at the top of my list.

It comes as no surprise that children who aren't cuddled have a more difficult time forming personal relationships and empathy as they grow up. So hug that child . . . right now!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Millie writes:

We've all heard the stories about babies who fail to thrive because they aren't held enough. In early Victorian times people believed that too much physical contact would overwhelm children with germs and disease, and in orphanages throughout Europe and North America staffers were forbidden to touch the babies beyond caring for their minimum physical needs. Though they were receiving adequate nutrition and medical care, almost all the children died in infancy. In 1920 a pediatrician named Dr. Brenneman made it a rule in his hospital that each baby should be picked up and cuddled several times a day – the mortality rate in his ward fell immediately and dramatically.*

Today it's common knowledge that our babies need to be touched and held, and most parents are only too happy to snuggle their newborns. As they get older and we hear “Aw, Mom” more often, we learn not to be too demonstrative in front of their peers; as they enter the sometimes-prickly adolescent years, we may try to “give them their space” and stop touching them altogether.

This is a big mistake.

Your 17-year-old may look like an adult, and he may be too big to sit on your lap, but he still needs your touch – you just have to adapt your cuddles to suit his new station in life. He might be terminally embarrassed if you call him Snookie and bounce him on your knee (not to mention how hard it would be on your knee), but a casual one-armed hug could make a huge difference in his day.

Not only do we all need affection from our loved ones to prosper, a teenager who isn't getting any physical affection from his family will go looking for it somewhere else. Yes, the hormones are in overdrive during those tumultuous years, but the hunger to be touched isn't exclusively sexual even then. Keeping older kids at arm's length can make it harder for them to be discriminating about when, and whom, they date – they may be so desperate to be touched by someone that they'll take the first person who comes along.

If you have older children, be alert for the subtle (and not-so-subtle) clues that they want to connect. Your child may come and leannnn on you while you're reading or sitting at the computer, or he may run up to you and yell “POKE!,” suiting the action to the word. (They learn this on Facebook. I have permanent bruises.) He may say, “I'm heading to bed,” and then hang around in a marked manner until you make a bit of a fuss over him (because he'd rather die than say, “come and tuck me in”).

Go ahead. Poke 'em back. Grab 'em and hug 'em when nobody's looking. Kiss them on the cheek and tell 'em you love 'em. They will never outgrow the need for your approval and affection.

They might squirm.

But they'll be back.


Friday, May 20, 2011


Millie writes:

I'm a pretty good housekeeper. Not as good as some people who shall remain nameless but who co-writes this blog with me (rumor has it that if you're staying in her guest room and you get up in the middle of the night to pee, by the time you get back not only will your sheets be laundered and your bed made up anew, there will be a vase of fresh lilacs and a plate of hot chocolate-chip cookies on your nightstand), but we get by. I admit that my standards have slipped a bit since the first kids hit their teenage years – not because they're sloppier, but because they took on more of the chores and I have never figured out how to convince a sixteen-year-old that “sweep the floor” doesn't mean “wander around holding a broom bristle-end-up,” it means “remove the debris from the surface beneath your feet.”

They say that a workman is only as good as his tools, and this is nowhere more true than it is in housework. It's very tempting to save money on your cleaning stuff, especially big-ticket items like vacuum cleaners. Inexpensive is great, but cheap is not. Whether you're a stay-at-home-mom or do housework on your Second Shift, respect your occupation enough to use good-quality tools.

Which brings us to today. This is the time of year I start having to water the garden and the plants in our large front and back yards. Last year in a spasm of misguided economy we bought a long “contractor” hose at a yard sale and the thing is kinkier than Marilyn Chambers.

I came stomping into the house this morning, soaking wet and steaming mad. I screamed at my poor husband (in that tone of voice we use that lets our husbands know they'd better take us seriously even though they have no idea what we're talking about), “I HATE THAT %&#@ING HOSE!!!!” It's bad enough that I have to drag the 50-pound monstrosity all over the place, but without exception as soon as I get the business end of the hose a half-acre away from the faucet, the entire 150 feet of red rubber failure will macrame itself into a friendship bracelet and I will have to crawl back and un-tangle it an inch at a time.

Today matters were exacerbated by the fact that, after watering everything, I washed the van. The van is “my" car, and it's a perfect example of saving money by Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do. The van is a (mostly) maroon Plymouth Voyager adapted to seat 8. We call it “The Mothership,” which is geeky in so many directions I can't even count them all. Lance is as good a mechanic as he is an engineer, so this car will probably run forever. Unfortunately, he doesn't concern himself with aesthetic issues; as long as it runs he doesn't care what it looks like. The result is that when you hear us coming, you start looking around for a big dust storms. The doors stick, the tailgate's broken, the emblems are missing or hanging drunkenly from one peg, and the A/C whines (though not as loud as I do). Our driveway is lined with nest-containing trees. It was bad enough that I was going out to touch bird poop on purpose, without having to deal with the Devil Hose!

My point is this: Don't double your workload by using tools that don't work. Not only will you spend twice the time necessary, the inconvenience will make it harder to force yourself to do the chore the next time. Don't use the window cleaner that makes greasy streaks. Get rid of the broom that sheds bristles on your just-swept floor. Buy a hose that unrolls in a straight line.

Dance or paint or nap with the time you save.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go burn that damned feather duster.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Mollie writes:

We live in a strange world. Have the Four Ms mentioned it??? John and I spent the first 30 years of our lives together eating Mac & Cheese, clipping coupons, raising kids and just generally hunkering down. It seems like just about the same time the kids moved into their adult lives, we achieved financial security (meaning if we really wanted a sparkling slam-dazzle, we'd buy a used one).

This cruise we went on was the dream of a lifetime. We'd saved our money, and once the kids were truly launched (meaning both boys are homeowners and taxpayers), we started fulfilling OUR dreams. A two week cruise through the Eastern Mediterranean was high on our list. I wanted to do it while I was ambulatory (darn that MS) and John wanted to do it since he just loves me and travel, not necessarily in that order!

So we found a great deal on the cruise of our dreams, courtesy of our excellent travel agent. We booked our passage, packed our drugs and passports and headed off into the Land of the Ancients.

We started in Rome and ended up in Athens. We spent three days in Rome including Good Friday at the Vatican. We tramped all over the Colosseum (barely missing the Pope), ate pasta, drank wine and fussed over my lost luggage.

By the time it was found, it was sixty-some hours later, and I'd had to shop in Rome for new clothes. I'll get reimbursed for them, but I learned the hard way that there are no WalMarts in Italy. There also seems to be no exact sizing in Italy other than two sizes: anorexia and morbidly obese. So with a minimum of morbidly obese clothing, we set off on our cruise our the fourth day into the trip.

I have never seen more ruins in my life. From continent to island to continent and then back to island, the Eastern Mediterranean is an homage to the past. We saw Southern Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Greece and various points along the way. We saw ruins of Islam, Christianity and Jewry.

We flitted from one century to another, seeing ruins from BC times, early Christianity and Islam. We saw Cathedrals, humble chapels, synagogs, temples, mosques - and related religious sites. We visited Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the birthplace of Jesus, the wailing wall, an Islamic mosque - everything.

I covered my head, covered my shoulders, bared my soul and went the Way of the Cross. I saw all districts of the Old City in Jerusalem, a ruin of the home in Nazareth rumored to be Jesus's boyhood home, different churches (Church of the Holy Sepulcher was fantastic). and just drank up the spiritual beauty of the Middle East.

Which begs the question - Why, if this is such a Holy Land, can't people manage to get along? Why does one belief need to exist to the extent that all others are demolished? Why, in God's name (literally) can't people live together and worship individually?

The Middle East is the seat of Western Civilization (go figure). Greek, Romans, Turks, et al, find their origins here. Why can't we all try to get along when everyone wants to get even?

End of rant - but more to come.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Talk About It!

Millie writes:

Well, Prom has come and gone. The kids involved had a fantastic time and the Moms involved shed a silent tear or two, wondering when those gorgeous, shiny-new, smiling adults had replaced our grubby, grinning toddlers.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned it on here, but one of my Super Powers is a little thing I like to call Mama Bear Override. When I raise up the Attribute (a cold, deadly fury aimed at anything threatening a cub) and assume this Aspect . . . well, let's just say that you don't want to be on the receiving end of it. There is no pity.

You all know how hard Jack worked to make this date perfect for Lovey, so you can imagine my feelings when I got the following text message from him 90 minutes before Stage 1: Dinner was scheduled: “Well, looks like the picnic's off. :(“

I was out of town cavorting with Joy, so after a few abortive attempts to get the story out of him via text I messaged, “Jack. Get me Lovey's Mom's phone number.”

Each of the kids has witnessed Mama Bear Override, so it is completely understandable that he answered hesitantly, “I would like there to be survivors.”

Ah, but I am no longer that young mother who once followed a man to his home, accosted him in his driveway and threatened to tear his arms off and beat him to death with them if he ever again passed a stopped car on the left in a school zone. (I'd do this one again, actually – he had just dropped off his own kid and then almost ran over my nephew, illegally zooming around us in the oncoming lane of the drop-off zone. Idiot. That was one re-educated man by the time I got through with him.)

No, this Mama Bear has been to her share of parenting rodeos and has the belt buckles - and the scars - to prove it. On the eve of Prom Night 2011 I was not thinking (a'la The Hulk), “Must. Kill. Whatever resulted in frowny emoticon.” I was thinking, “This sounds like a job for both mothers.”

See, I've learned the hard way that if you race into any situation armed only with your kid's version of events – you are going to eat a lot of crow.

This doesn't mean your kid's a liar (though it also doesn't mean he's not). It means that his is not the only perspective you have to consider before you go in swinging. He may not know what's behind the current kerfuffle, or he may have missed a pivotal moment that was crucial to understanding what was really going on. (That last one happens a lot during the teens.)

In this case, it turned out that Lovey (demonstrating empathy far beyond her years) had assumed that she would be needed at home to help with family visiting from out of state, and had tried to make things easier on her mom without consulting her first. Jack, with typical teenage male-ness, missed that Lovey was trying to please everyone and thought she was just canceling on him.

I already know Lovey's mom Brandi slightly because Lovey and Sassy have been buddies for years. It didn't take us long to put together what had happened, and we shared a rueful chuckle while we confirmed the kids' evening schedule at the Executive Level. As a bonus, Brandi got to realize anew what a thoughtful little sweetie-pie Lovey is, and I got to hear about what a gentleman Jack is when he's at Brandi's house. Win-win.

Of course, when I called Jack to report, I didn't tell him that Brandi and I had giggled together like we were seventeen ourselves. I simply said curtly, “Jack. Your original schedule? It's back on.” I was rewarded with an admiring, “Go, MOM.”

No use giving away all my secrets; not until he's a parent himself.

I hope Brandi and I won't have to arrange that for him.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Mollie writes:

I read Millie's recent post about keeping kids motivated (a conflict in terms if I've ever heard one) and decided that the four of us need a Theme Song. I'll completely credit Frankie Lane et al. The change in the lyrics are mine, but the mood, music and inspiration are all theirs.

Rollin, rollin rollin
Though your feet are swollen
Keep those kiddies rollin,
Through pain, and poop and vomit
Try to keep up on it
Wishin' someone was on your side.
All the things you're missin
Good movies, books and sleepin
Are waiting at the end of your ride!

Move 'em out, head 'em up
Head 'em up, move 'em on
Move'em out, head 'em up

"Cut it out!" "Pick it up"
"Pick it up" "Cut it out"
"Cut it out" "Pick it up"

Movin, movin, movin
Though they're disapprovin
Keep them kiddies movin
Don't try to understand 'em
Just feed and educate 'em
Soon they'll be living on their own!
Your heart's calculatin
Somewhere there's a great vacation
Waiting at the end of your ride!

Move 'em out, head 'em up
Head 'em up, move 'em on
Move'em out, head 'em up

"Cut it out!" "Pick it up"
"Pick it up" "Cut it out"
"Cut it out" "Pick it up"

"Pick. it. up!"

Addendum: I finally figured out who deserves the credits for writing the "Rawhide" theme. Wikipedia rules!

Theme song

The theme song's lyrics were written by Ned Washington in 1958. It was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by pop singer Frankie Laine. The theme song became very popular, and was covered several times and featured in movies such as The Blues Brothers and Shrek.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cruising the Mediterranean and Other Dreams

Mollie writes:

Well, my better half and I just spent the last few weeks in Yurp, visiting Rome, Athens, Turkey, Greece, Israel and multiple points in between. This trip was a once in a lifetime splurge, traveling first to Rome for three days, spending Good Friday in Vatican City, then cruising the Mediterranean, winding up in Athens.

Travel is certainly a broadening experience. Cruising has got to be the best way to see anything. I knew, but didn't appreciate, the convenience involved. Over the years, we've traveled a bit, but usually in our fifth wheel (small and expensive) sailing our own boat (small and expensive) or just flying to a destination and staying in hotels. Luggage issues were always a hassle, as well as the time lost just riding some vehicle.

Riding on a cruise ship is expensive, but, frankly, no more expensive than fifth-wheeling, driving, flying, etc. But, it's a lot more convenient. We boarded our cruiser on a Saturday in Rome and disembarked two weeks later in Athens. By the time we'd pay for transportation, meals, tours, food, etc on the same trip, cruising actually saved us money.

And nobody loses their luggage on a cruise liner, although my luggage was lost this time at Sea-Tac airport. Happily, my bag and I were reunited in Rome before we left for the cruise. But once we were on the ship, all was managed in one effort for 14 days. The ship cruised at night while we slept and docked during the day for tours, etc. All food and non-alcoholic drinks were free and available around the clock. Try doing that in a fifth-wheel.

We never could have afforded this when our kids were small. We were lucky to afford a tent and a pick-up. But as a salty old lady, it occurs to me that traveling with small children on a cruiser might be easier and cheaper in the long run if family funds permit it at all.

We're home now, and I've got a world of laundry to do. I've got weeds to pull, a diet to start, friends to see and stories to tell. I'll write more later about individual stops. Turkey IS beautiful and the most under-appreciated tourist destination and Israel is fantastic - seeing Jerusalem's Old City was staggering. But I'm glad to be home!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

“Help Me Do It Myself”

Millie writes:

So the Senior Prom is this Saturday, and even though Jack is a junior his girlfriend du jour is a senior and he wants to do it up right.

His problem? An allowance of $5 a week and no job.

What's a fella to do?

Of course, we could drop a bundle on his behalf for tux, limo, flowers and restaurant food. However, it's always kinda been our policy that if you're old enough to date, you're old enough to pay for it yourself; also, technically, it's not “his” Senior Prom.

Well, it's great to have a policy, but it doesn't help much when one's maternal heart is saying, “Ohhhhh! He wants it to be romantic! I want to raise my sons to be romantic . . . can't we help him out just a little bit?”

This tendency of mine to talk a good game and then cave in the ninth inning is what has prevented me from being a good Tiger Mom this last quarter-century. However, Jack's the sixth of six, and by this time I have learned to do what toddler Rocky used to ask for so plaintively: “help me do it myself!” This approach lets everyone involved save face.
Ana, if you read this: Please don't tell her what he's planning. I'm not sure how much of it he'll be able to pull together in time!

Talk it out.
Since buying the tickets pretty much cleaned Jack out financially, we brainstormed together to find alternative approaches to the rest of the prom that he could pay for using creativity and elbow grease. Our city is known for its roses, so Jack's planning a picnic in an international rose test garden – under the same gazebo where Lance and I got married. He's also planning to stick a few of his Select Choir buddies behind some trees so they can step out and help him serenade his sweetie at the proper moment . . . awwwwwwww!

Do some footwork. All the gentlemen who live in my house own at least one tuxedo, so even if Jack didn't have his own he has access to several different styles. (If you have a social teenage son, I strongly recommend buying him his own tux. You can find them in thrift stores or online, and you'll recoup your investment by avoiding even one rental fee. The prices are ridiculous.) Yesterday – yesterday – he decided that he really wants a bow tie in a color to match her dress. Obviously the place to get one is at a formal-wear store, but that's not gonna happen on $5 a week – so guess who's gonna be combing the Goodwills and discount stores today, looking for a yellow bow tie?

“Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.” The boyfriends don't have to have all the skills, as long as their moms do. I was somewhat flattered when, even though I offered to pay for the corsage, Jack asked if we could make it instead (that being something I do know how to do). I took him to the crafts store yesterday so he could select the wristband (I have everything else we need except the flowers) and he also picked out a few small, romantic charms to dangle amidst the blossoms . . . awwwwwwww!

Do a little grunt work. Lance and I are big on romantic picnics too, and I have a few fantastic picnic baskets. You can bet the fanciest one is going to be packed with china, crystal, (electric) candles and a spiffy groundcloth before being stuffed to bursting point with sparkling cider, elegant food made for dining alfresco and a really elegant dessert.

Back away.
Remember that, in the end, it's not your project. He may not do things the way you would, but your job is to assist the director, not to direct. It's quite possible that your child will come away with the impression that he has brought the whole thing off himself.

If that happens, congratulations. Mission accomplished!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Maggie is a year better!

Millie writes:

Happy birthday, Maggie! May you have a year full of peace, laughter and personal satisfaction.

May you also get two days in a row free from dinner-duty!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mother's Day 2011

Millie writes:

If you have a mom, are a mom, or perform momly duties, I salute you.

Whether your celebration starts with Froot Loops in bed and a macaroni necklace or Crepes Grand Marnier and diamond earrings, we hope the day includes some quality time with your loved ones.

This year Lance and I will be spending tomorrow playing with 5 of our 6; we chatted with our soldier and his bride last night on the phone. There will be laughter, games and great food. I suspect that my days of being the only mom in the family on this holiday are numbered, and I plan to enjoy it to the full!

Happy Mother's Day from me, Mollie, Maggie and May!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Greasing the Gears

Millie writes:

After popping the sweet rolls in the oven today (reading about Maggie's pretzel adventure has launched me into a baking binge), I took a rare “by myself” trip to our local library. I had something to drop off and something to pick up . . . as usual, I got more at the library than I bargained for.

As I was wandering through the stacks I had to pause – a little boy about 4 years old, his arms loaded with books, was beaming all over his face as he charged off to the checkout desk without looking where he was going. His mom and I exchanged understanding smiles; he didn't mean to knock into me and probably didn't even know he had, he was so excited about his new treasures! A couple of minutes later, my own new treasures tucked under my arm, I paused again. A white-haired gentleman in his early 60s, wearing faded jeans and a white tank top, was coming in as I was going out. He held the door wide for me with a gracious smile. I thanked him warmly – after all, I was raised right, too!

How can anyone object to this? How does it take away anyone's “power,” to be treated kindly and to respond in kind? Sure, men open doors for women; women also open doors for men, if the men's arms are full, and for other women, if they're nearby.

Too many people seem to think that simple politeness is tantamount to an expression of disdain. Opening a door, slowing down your car so that someone can cross a street, or serving someone else first aren't statements that you think another person is helpless; gestures like these are the grease that keeps society moving smoothly.

That nice man who held the door for me – it certainly made me feel good, and my smile and “Thank you!” made him smile, too. I didn't exchange a word with the 3-year-old's mom, but we shared an, “Ah, kids!” moment nevertheless – and she got a tiny bit of affirmation that she's still a person, which can be all too rare during those tiny-kids-at-home years.

So I got three books, social validation and a blog idea from that 15-minute library run. Not bad for a Wednesday afternoon.

(Oh, and according to Lance - I WIN at sweet rolls.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baking with the Baby

Last night I was hit with the urge to try baking soft pretzels. I've baked a few loaves of bread in my life, so I have the general idea of what to do with dough. I found a recipe online, read a few reviews and tweaked the recipe just a bit here and there. Here is the recipe, along with instructions on how to bake with a baby.

4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon Canola oil
1/2 cup baking soda
4 cups hot water
1/4 cup kosher salt, for topping


First of all, it is May in Texas and it is abnormally chilly out. I believe the high was supposed to be in the 50s, but I only saw it hit 47 degrees that morning. Refusing to bring out the trusty space heaters, I resort to turning on my oven's self clean mode. It gets toasty enough, but now it is time to get it to cool off a bit. Turn your "space heater oven" off for the time being. As it is about time for the children to get ready for bed, it's time to kick this thing into high gear. While your oldest watches with keen interest, dissolve yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar in warm water in a small bowl. Make your way into the bathroom to prepare toothbrushes for brushing, letting the yeast water stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Don't forget to remind all three of your older children to use the facilities before ushering them into their cloth night training pants.

By this time we've already called their daddy, who is out of town on business this week. We've said our prayers, blew kisses into the phone and have told him we love him. I'm distracted by the need to get the dough put together, so they all run around like headless chickens.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and salt. Make half hearted attempts to encourage the children to make their way to their bedroom. Make a well in the center; add the oil and yeast mixture. Wash your hands, as you've just changed the fourth poopy diaper of the day. Take your wedding band off and stick it on the counter where you won't miss it. Mix and form into a dough. If the mixture is dry, add one or two tablespoons of water. Knead the dough until smooth, about 7 to 8 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Allow your children to oo and aah over the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Take this time to tuck two children into bed. The oldest and youngest both stay up later. Play with your baby, letting your oldest play Pocket Frogs on your iPad. Post on Facebook about how you're proud that you actual,y followed through with doing something you wanted to do! Nurse your baby and realize with a start "Oh... there's a REASON I don't bake this late in the evening. My baby is tired and will only want me.. and her daddy isn't here to hold her!" Determine then to allow your oldest to stay up later than usual, on the condition that she entertains her sister.

Preheat oven to 415 degrees F. In a large bowl, dissolve baking soda in hot water. Let your oldest stir, because she really wants to help and you're still learning to let her explore her limits while not going crazy over doing things "right".

When risen, turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 (roughly) equal pieces. Listen to your baby start to fuss. Hurry. Offer up prayers that she'll calm down. Roll each piece into a rope and twist into a pretzel shape. Or get creative and twist them into various shapes. When you're about half way through the batch, take a break to nurse your overtired baby, plopping down on the kitchen floor. She's still tired, but you've gotta get it done. Distract her with Sweet Potato Puffs. Heave a sigh of relief as the silence descends, broken only by your oldest child's giggles at feeding her sister. Once all of the dough is all shaped, dip each pretzel into the baking soda solution and place on a greased baking sheet. Discover you only have enough room for half the pretzels, pop that sucker into the oven and get another cookie sheet from the drawer beneath the stove. Notice there are a few rust spots. Sigh. You take care to avoid them and use the sheet anyhow. If you have the kosher salt (which I did not) here is where you'd sprinkle them.

Bake in preheated oven for 8 minutes, until browned. Take the first batch out, run a stick of butter over them and sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mix you made the other day to jazz up the cheerios your children begged to have for breakfast. Pop the second batch in. Eat one of the pretzels while it is still nearly too hot to handle. Reward your oldest for her help with the baby by letting her have one, too.

Take pictures and post to Facebook.

(Try desperately to upload them to the blog. Fail. Sorry.)

Proceed to knock the baby out (which you tried to do in the first eight minute window, but it didn't happen), tuck her into her playpen, watch your stories on Netflix and consume three more pretzels while they are still warm.

Vow to do it all over again, this time with the kosher salt and when the baby is already knocked out. Enjoy!

If you'd like to see the original recipe, go here.