Category Archives: Domestic Engineering

Outsmarted and Outfoxed: When Kids Call Your Bluff

Dana Macario at the mom blog “18 Years to Life” recently wrote an account of how, to teach her kids to pick up their toys, she and her husband gathered up all the toys strewn about, stuffed them into large trash bags, put them in a closet and told their kids that for each night they picked up the rest of their toys, they could earn back one of the “hostage” toys. Logic would dictate that the kids would want their toys back badly, and it would take so long to earn them back, that once earned back, the kids would think twice in the future about leaving them lying everywhere. Logic would say this was a great way to teach kids a lesson in being neat without having to nag, “Pick up your toys!!”  Only Dana’s kids chose not to earn their toys back. They’d keep leaving out toys, and got them taken away. When one night they did pick up their toys, her husband offered them the choice of a chocolate or a toy, and they both chose the chocolate! So now Dana is left with several bags of unused toys, a less cluttered home (bonus!!), kids who have shown they don’t need a lot of “stuff” to be happy (double bonus!), and an impending garage sale.  Definitely not the outcome she expected, but an interesting one nonetheless.

Dana’s story reminded of me of when Allison was around 10 or 11, Andy and I decided to try something similar in an attempt to get her to keep her room picked up. Too many clothes were lying all over the floor, so we bagged everything up that was on the floor and put it in the attic, and told her that as she kept her room picked up, she would earn back the clothes, one piece at a time.  Surely a clothes fanatic like her would care a lot about getting them back, since all that was left behind were a just a few items. But darned if she didn’t keep throwing those clothes on the floor, and wore the same pair of jeans for about a MONTH, no doubt to show that by golly, no one was going to “make” her do anything.  Seriously! I remember the jeans well, because they had a peacock embroidered on one leg…

I’m a longtime fan of the Love and Logic series of parenting books and CDs, and “logical” parenting in general, but any parent who tries to teach logical lessons needs to realize, if a successful outcome depends on a kid acting in a certain way, the lesson can backfire. But when it’s just the parent involved in a consequence, it works.  For example,  if a child disrespects a parent while a parent is driving them somewhere, the parent can do numerous logical things that are great consequences but that don’t depend on any predictable actions from the child–  the parent can pull over to the side of the road and wait a few minutes or longer until the child calms down;  the parent can turn the car around and drive home, telling the child he/she will not be going to that activity; the parent can say they are not providing transportation to the next scheduled activity, etc.   Nothing is required of the child in return– the parent is simply saying, through their actions, “If I’m not treated with respect while I’m doing such and such for you, then I’m just not going to do such and such.  I’m taking care of myself, I’m not allowing myself to be treated badly.”  Does the success of that “technique” depend on the kid not ever disrespecting the parent again? No.  You hope the child will learn from that incident to be respectful in the future, but if not, you just repeat your actions the next time the disrespect is shown, and are a success every time because you are showing your child that you are taking care of yourself.  And, you are teaching that actions have consequences. 

When kids’ actions are an “expected” part of the outcome, beware. One of Love and Logic’s well-worn “success” stories/teaching tools is how one of the book’s authors used to fight with his kids about bedtime, but everything worked out just peachy keen once he started telling them they could stay up as late as they wanted. The first night of their new-found freedom, they stayed up real late, and were so tired the next day at school, it was a beautiful lesson learned.  No more fighting over bedtime, and the very next night and every night from then on, the kids got to bed at earlier bedtimes, on their own, because they didn’t like the way they felt when they were tired the next day.  Well, la-dee-freakin’-da.  I seriously wonder if that really happened.  Both of my kids, who have very different personalities from each other, often stay up late on school nights, and are very tired the next day, but only once in awhile do they ever put two and two together, that if they got more sleep, they’d feel better the next day.  I quit fighting with them about bedtime long ago, but the “logical” outcome is only a sweet dream…

Kids, God bless their creative, independent souls, are unpredictable, which a lot of parenting authors probably don’t want us to believe.  Many kids will and do outsmart the “pat answers”, the books and TV therapists who think they know it all, and even outsmart us when we think we’ve come up with something original.  That doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying to teach our kids lessons, but when we do we need to have our eyes wide open, being honest with ourselves about our children and thinking about what to do “what if” a child’s actions don’t go as we’ve planned.  Are we really prepared to deal with Plan B?  If not, does our original plan need to change?

My friend Bob once tried to teach a logical lesson to his eldest son.  The son was scheduled to have a much-anticipated out of town sleepover with his younger brothers at Grandma’s but found out, just before he was to leave, that some friends were playing football in the park that evening, and had invited him to play. He badly wanted to go, as he didn’t often get invited to these gatherings and told his Dad that he didn’t want to go to Grandma’s.  His Dad was very disappointed in this but rather than saying flat out no, he told him, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then the entire sleepover has to be cancelled, because you need to be there to help out with your brothers, but you are going to be the one to break the news to Grandma, who is really looking forward to this, and you have to tell your brothers, who are also looking forward to this.”  Bob figured it would cause him to think twice about the consequences of his selfish intentions, and choose to go to Grandma’s.  He thought he knew his son pretty well. But, his son chose football, much to his Grandma’s, his brothers’ and his dad’s disappointment, not to mention his mom’s, who was looking forward to a kid-free weekend!

Some child development experts would say that Dana, Bob and I should be glad our kids “don’t fit the mold”, that they are unpredictable, independent thinkers who think outside the box.  These kinds of kids will be “the leaders of tomorrow” I once read, the entrepreneurs, the ones not afraid to do things differently. 

If that’s really the case, then I guess I’m gonna have two very successful kids in the future, because actions keep defying logic around here on a daily basis…

The Feng Shui of Family Photos

“The realtor has told me to put away any personal photographs,” said Mom the other day.  “Is that right?” I just knew she was going to ask me that.  She’s been asking me a lot of things lately since she just put her house on the market this week– something she’s never had to do before.  At least, not by herself.  But Dad’s been gone for almost nine of the 50+ years she’s been in that house, and the kids all live far away, so it’s been a nerve-wracking and scary process for her.  She phones often.  While I’m no expert, I (and Andy) did sell a house less than six years ago (and shopped for a new one) and last fall, we helped his parents navigate a little bit of their move to “senior living”…

I’m sure my realtor friends would disagree, but I answered her question with a resounding, “NO.”

“Don’t take down any photographs unless you really want to,” I said.  “I think it’s wrong that they always tell people to do that.”  I mean, have a heart, realtors. Home sellers are often already going through an emotional upheaval in giving up such a big part of their life—why make it worse by asking them to put away small, cherished mementos? While realtors may have some kind of data or “realty science” that tells them they need to make a house as generic as possible in order to sell it, I challenge that science.  Because whenever I’m in a house, whether it’s visiting friends or relatives, passing through on a charity “Tour of Homes”, or looking at one to buy, I think the personal photographs that may be on the walls and shelves are just as interesting, if not more, than any granite countertop, walk-in closet, or “hand-scraped hardwood floor”.  And whenever friends or family are visiting our house, I’ve noticed they are drawn to the few photographs we have on display.    

My theory for years has been that personal photographs give a house a certain “spirit”, a certain air of happiness and positive attitude.  They make a house a “home”.  And after doing a little research, I discovered I’m not alone with those thoughts.

Feng Shui practitioner Ken Lauher says on his website that photographs, especially when people are shown happy and smiling, “are a great way to increase the positive chi in your living space and bring your environment into alignment with your true self and your goals.”  Beliefnet Editor Laurie Sue Brockway is quoted in a blog post at beliefnet saying that “images of loved ones and real people add a touch of warmth to a home” and recommends using certain types of photos to enhance certain spaces, such as photos of children to bring good energy to your “creative area”, photos of loved ones and ancestors to help “heal and connect us to the power of our lineage” in the family area, and placing “couple photos”, like a wedding photo, in your bedroom.

Some Native American tribes and several other cultures have believed, ever since the camera was invented, that “photography steals the soul” and because of this belief, they refuse to be photographed.  Well, I don’t think it exactly steals the soul, but good photography can certainly share it.

I just know that I smile and I feel good when I see, within a frame or tacked to a corkboard, images of people acting silly while on vacation, or happily holding children and grandchildren, or posing for a family reunion portrait…I even like to see the sweet progression of those awkward smiling posed school photos.  Surely a family’s photos help a realtor sell a house, creating an atmosphere that stays with the buyer and softly whispers in their ear, “Nice people lived in this house.  Nice people raised a family in this house.  Nice people had good times in this house and took care of this house.  And doesn’t this house seem even nicer because of that?”

True, decorating magazines will tell you that too many personal photographs in a home can look tacky or cluttered, like when they’re piled on a piano or fireplace mantel.  But the more houses I visit where they break that “rule”, the more I disagree with that one, too.  For example, one of my siblings has a gorgeously decorated, uncluttered home, worthy of any Elle Decor or Southern Living cover, yet what’s one of its focal points? The refrigerator, which is covered in small clear plastic “fridge frames” with beautiful photos of family and friends.  Fun to look at, and a great “conversation piece”.  One cannot help but smile when looking it over, and I’m so glad it’s kept “fresh” with new photos.  Definitely adds to the “positive energy” of the house!

I realized recently that I’ve gotten way too lax in my own home when it comes to photos.  No, I’m not talking about scrapbooking again—I’m still several years behind with that.  I’m talking about doing something, anything, with new photos once I create them.  Back in the 35mm film days, I took every roll of finished film to the drugstore to get developed, and an hour or a couple days later, everyone in the immediate family would see each one.  We’d send some to relatives, put some in frames, put some in a photo album…  But for the last decade that I’ve had a digital camera, with a memory card that can store hundreds of images, “if I have the time” I unload the photos to my computer, and then “if I have the time” (and enough ink, and photo paper), I print some with my own printer.  Meanwhile the photos keep piling up in the camera and on the computer, and no one gets to see them.  And a whole lot of picture frames sit empty, inside a cabinet.

Before I catch up in my scrapbooks, I’ve decided to make an effort to get more photos “out and up”.  No, I’m not going to cover my fridge with them (Andy would have a cow) and I just cleared piles of sheet music off the piano so I don’t really want to cover up all that newly clean space with photo frames. But our upstairs walls have pretty much been bare since we moved here, so… I’ve been having fun (and some huge laughs) going through my stored photos, deciding what to print, dusting off my unused digital photo frame (who knew it could be so cool?) and buying mats for those lonely old frames in the cabinet.  It’s time to fill up those walls.

My belief is that as the kids, Andy, and I pass the photos on our way to our rooms each night, we will glance at them and feel good, maybe even smile, maybe even have sweeter dreams.  And when we head out in the morning, we’ll see them and smile again, and maybe start our days a little happier because of it.  And when friends and family see them, they’ll smile, too.

WAHM on the Run: A New Approach to Ending Arguments and Getting Older Kids to Be More Responsible

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Moms (or Dads) of teens (and other kids that try their patience) need a place they can retreat to, at a moment’s notice, to get away from them.  To think before flying too far off the handle.  To de-escalate a situation, eliminate whining and cut the exchange of words short, with the promise of discussion at a calmer time.  To be alone in order to come up with really good consequences for certain behavior rather than “grounding them from everything for life” in the heat of the moment.  In other words, when the kids are too old to “go to their rooms” for a time out, you need to go to yours. Or take a walk outside.  Just get away… only, sometimes that’s not so fun to go to your room, like when your husband hasn’t picked up his underwear and socks for awhile… and, kids can still knock on your door.  Or yell outside it. Or worse, kick it. (Nothing makes a defiant kid madder than to have a door shut in his/her face!) And, while going outside can be refreshing, sometimes it’s too dark to walk, or the weather’s bad.  And again, kids can follow you  (no, let me re-phrase that…they will follow you!).  So I must say, once my husband gifted me with a laptop almost two years ago, it turned out to be the gateway for another kind of “parent retreat”– I’ve been having fun discovering all the local places that have free WiFi, good coffee, and long hours.  Lately, thanks to a nifty carry bag said husband got me for Christmas, that laptop, plus my planner, phone, and a couple of books, are “ready to go” at a moment’s notice, and I head to Starbucks, the public library, or other local spots, and take my work on the road.

It’s been interesting– I can now tell you which Starbucks within five miles of my house (and there are 10) has the most power sources, which are the least crowded at certain times of the day, which give you the most privacy, which have the best tables on which to work, and which ones have the best lo-carb food selections.  I can also tell you the best spots to get work done at the library and which coffee is the best out of their machine. I am a Freebirds Fanatic, a “My Panera” member, and carry a Cup of Joe punch card from Corner Bakery. 

While I haven’t gone to any of those places enough for their staff to know me by name, they might soon, because I’m thinking of making my office-away-from-home a regular gig.  At least in the mornings. 

See, as kids get older, they need to take on more responsibility, but I think when you’re a Stay At Home Mom (SAHM) or Work at Home Mom (WAHM), they get short-changed a little on this. Because they assume that because you’re home all the time, you can always be their emergency back-up.  Not only are they more forgetful on remembering things because they always think there’s the slight chance Mom might bring to school whatever they forgot, they get lax in other areas as well.  They head to the school nurse’s office for minor hurts, not major.  They run late to school more often.  Did they miss their ride with Dad? No worries, they think, Mom is still at home and she can drive.  It doesn’t matter that that’s a waste of gas, that Dad goes right by their schools on his way to work…and Mom doesn’t.  The important thing is that Mom is there.  Did they “sleep in” and decide to skip a couple classes? Well, good ‘ol Work-At-Home-Mom is there to take them in the middle of the morning so at least they can sashay in and make it on time for third period.  No thought is ever given that maybe Mom has better things to do than re-arrange her schedule to accommodate theirs. But of course she will, because she doesn’t want kids lazing around the house all day!  (And as far as us using grounding, phone gone, etc. as punishments for being late or missing classes? Hasn’t changed the behavior!)

I’ve seen miraculous things happen on those rare days when I’ve had early meetings outside of the house.  The kids seem to move a little faster. They know Mom is going to be gone “all morning” so they get their act together.  There is no “sleeping in”, no whining to Mom about how they’re-running-late-so-could-she-PLEASE-make-them-a-lunch… On those days, things happen the way they should for two teens.  They take on more responsibility. So I’ve decided I’m going to re-create that scenario as often as possible from now on and start heading out each morning, whether I have a meeting or not, before the rest of the family crew is scheduled to leave, and head to one of my trusty offices-away-from-home. Which means I’d have to get there pretty early, but that’s okay– my favorite Starbucks opens at 5!  True, that means I’ll have to spend at least a couple dollars each time (I’ll take a tall regular of the bold Roast of the Day, thank you very much!) but it will be worth it.  I think it will force my kids to be more responsible on a regular basis and I will probably get more work done as well.  And if my husband (or child) calls to tell me that one of them “missed the boat”, oh, well, I guess I’ll just spend that day out. Maybe I’ll keep a duffel bag filled with workout gear in my car so I can head to exercise class in between stops at my “offices”…  

Does that make some of you sad, thinking I’m going to be missing out on those June Cleaver, stay-at-home moments by not being present when my family leaves for the day? I’ve had plenty of those moments. Of smiling and waving to the car as it backs out of the driveway; of running after it with shoes or lunchboxes or hairbrushes in my hands; of having crispy bacon or freshly-baked chocolate chip muffins ready for husband and children as they pass thru the kitchen on their way out the door…but in the sitcom of my life, kids being routinely late to class or skipping them all together is much more serious business than smiling and saying, “Wait ’til your father gets home.” And since our school district’s rules on unexcused absences are ridiculously lenient and aren’t providing the “natural consequences” that I’d hoped, this June Cleaver is going to have to go away.  Literally.  (But I still plan to hug each family member every morning before I do…)

Ode to the Crock Pot

One of the best wedding gifts my husband and I received 19 years ago this month was our Crock Pot. Still going strong (even though it’s stained a bit on the outside and the plastic knob broke off of the switch several years ago), I wanted to give a shout out for this amazing appliance in the hopes that busy, stressed-out people might start using a slow cooker (if they don’t already) and realize how great it is, too.  Finding good recipes to prepare in it has been a challenge over the years (with one cookbook I tried, every recipe seemed to turn out like mush) but I’ve had a ton of success with Homemade Gourmet recipes and products (there are currently 206 slow cooker recipes at ) and once in awhile I’ll also find a winner in a magazine or newspaper. In my opinion, a good slow cooker recipe is one in which not only the outcome is yummy, but also, the preparation should be very easy.  Forget all those recipes where you have to broil meat first or chop 10 different vegetables—that much prep defeats the purpose of this appliance! If I can’t throw a few things in the pot, stir and then turn the switch on, fuh-getta-bout it. Yep, a truly good slow cooker recipe is like gold—hard to find, but worth hunting down.

Why is a slow cooker so great? Let me count the ways:

1. Your main course is ready and waiting for you at the end of a long day. And if you’ll be away from home a little longer than it takes to cook, or need to leave the house a little bit before it needs to start, you can buy a timer, plug the slow cooker into that, and let the timer turn it on and off.

2. Your breakfast is ready for you when you wake up (Did you know that you can slow-cook oatmeal all night while you sleep, and wake up to a hot breakfast in the morning? I will share the recipe in the comments section if anyone wants it).

3. Having a slow cooker on all day (or night) makes your house smell good.

4. Even if you’re a non-cook, if you stick to the definition of “easy recipe” I mention above, you can be a cook. And even if you forget to prepare it or are too busy to prepare it when you’ve planned, there’s always the “High” setting for just about everything. (In my house, the high setting has saved the day many times…) On High, your meal is done in 3-4 hours.

5. It warms your kitchen. Yeah, and so does an oven, but it’s still another bonus in the winter. And I know, now that summer’s coming, who needs that…but I like mine so much, maybe I’ll just plug it in on the patio this year. For summer, the slow cooker is good for side dishes to go with grilled meat, and grilling is another very quick and EASY cooking method you should perfect if you haven’t already (see my post on indirect gas grilling from June 2010 by clicking here or copying and pasting ).

6. It’s good for your well-being, your family’s and your marriage’s.   I don’t know about you, but I feel my best during the day and my worst around 5 p.m.  Aren’t we all that way? I mean, I’ve heard statistics before that say early evening is the most stressful time for marriages and families.  I think it’s true! Kids are hungry and cranky, adults are, too, and stressed out from a long day—who wants to add “cooking dinner” on top of all that? I think I even move slower then, and sometimes it seems to take forever to get dinner on the table. No wonder so many people grab fast food.  But with a slow cooker, you fix the main part of the meal at a better time of day, taking one factor out of the daily stress equation (or you can throw the ingredients into a freezer bag over the weekend—there are even bags that can go from freezer right into the Crock Pot, so the clean-up is minimal—you just have to add a little more cook time if you don’t thaw it first).

7. It’s the next best thing to having a live-in cook.  Well, not exactly, but…take today for example (author’s note: this post was written a couple weeks ago). I spent most of my day driving to schools, hauling kids to doctor’s appointments and music lessons, walking dogs, and going to the grocery store.  It’s 5 p.m., and I haven’t had time to do any writing at all or take any “me” time, and if I was having to cook dinner, that “me” time would be vanishing. But, thanks to about 10 minutes I was able to find in mid-afternoon, I used that time to throw some meat, spices and water in the Crock Pot. And now, I am almost giddy with happiness that I can sit here and write this while the lovely smell of Beef Stroganoff wafts through the air.  It’s like Alice from the Brady Bunch is in my kitchen right now…

Bon Anniversaire, my Crock Pot!

Risky Business: Is Writing Killing Me?

Who’d have thought I work in a dangerous job?
Well, I do, according to the news that’s resurfaced lately, that people
who sit for prolonged periods of time each day are at a greater risk for
heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, arthritis—okay, basically, an
earlier death than those who don’t. Apparently I missed all the stories
about it last year, but caught one a few days ago when it flashed across my homepage (and new research about children and sitting
followed a few days later).  Yeah, we all know that being a couch
potato (or desk potato) equals fat, and we’ve also been told that
getting more exercise can make that fat go away, so what will this
“news” tell us that we don’t already know? Shouldn’t I have just skipped
that article and gone on to something more compelling, like the Royal
Wedding or who got voted off on American Idol? I’m glad I read to the
end.  And that I looked up more information.  Because
what I read says that even if you add regular exercise into your life
each week, it won’t make a difference to your overall health if you
spend the majority of your time sitting. All the same you might be running a risk if you do not follow the fundamentals listed at And not just one “ground-breaking study” says that.  Several, conducted in the U.S. as well as across the globe.

One study of 13,000 men and women over the course of 13 years found that people who sit for most of the day are 54% more likely to die of heart attacks.  A
large-scale Australian study found that adults without known diabetes
who sat for long periods of time had higher rates of abnormal glucose
metabolism. Another, funded by the American Cancer Society, studied
123,216 people with no history of cancer, heart attack, stroke or lung
disease and found a higher total mortality rate among those who sat a
lot– for those who sat more than six hours per day, the rate was at
least 18%, spanning all those diseases.  And the rates for
women were higher—37%, and in women and men who didn’t incorporate much physical activity into their life, the rates jumped to 94% and 48% respectively.  94%?!  And
I’ll bet if they further broke it down by those who work from home vs.
those who don’t, us WAHM’s rates would be even higher, since we have no
co-workers begging us to take a break.  And, come to think of it, heart
disease runs in my family…Geez, doesn’t that put my risk of death higher
than police officers, stunt pilots and Keith Richards? 

Evidently when the body is inactive, certain important regulatory functions are impaired and start to shut down– researchers at a Stanford University conference last summer called it a “unique cascade of physiological changes”…for
example, how fat and sugars are regulated in our bloodstream.  And once
those processes get out of whack, bad stuff can happen, like the
build-up of artery plaque. Heading to the gym once, twice, or even three
times a week can’t prevent it, as these metabolic changes happen every
time you sit for about three to four hours or more. 

That definitely makes me squirm…in my chair…the one I sit in all the time…yep, I could be in big trouble.  I
mean, ever since Allison was 2 and I gave up the outside working world
for life as a work-at-home mom/writer/nonstop volunteer, I’ve spent a
huge amount of time sitting at my computer. That would be almost 15
years of prolonged daily sits to be exact, the kind of sits wher
e you get so immersed in writing something that you can’t stop and you lose track of time.  And after you finish, there’s email to answer. And phone calls to make.  I
often also eat breakfast and lunch at my desk…some days I think I’d
never get up if it weren’t for the dogs needing to be let out and fed.
My dad always used to say I was a “good little traveler” because I could
“hold it” for hours and never beg to go to the bathroom on long car
trips, and unfortunately that skill has continued into adulthood.  So
throw “kidney problems” onto that list of potential health hazards, and
eye problems, too, from staring at a computer screen all day!  I
can easily sit for four or more hours straight when I’m trying to
finish a writing assignment, and since that was hard to do when the kids
were young, I got into the habit of getting jobs done late, late at
night (a bad habit that continues today), and losing sleep because of it
(yet another health risk!!).  Once the kids were both in
school, I began sitting at my desk even more, during daylight hours—and
today when I’m not at my desk, I’m often driving kids around—sitting in a
car.  Who’d have thought I might be slowly killing myself?
Now I feel like Adam West in the original Batman movie, running around
with that giant fake-looking bomb in his hands, trying to get rid of it…
(okay, time to click here and watch that brief clip for a welcome laugh!)

The news stories go on to say that there is hope, although the solution is not necessarily one of those new “standing” desks
(which bring their own health issues after prolonged use, like foot and
hip problems, varicose veins, carpal tunnel syndrome and an extra load
on the circulatory system).  Researchers suggest, for
adults as well as children, creating a balance between sitting and
standing throughout the day, making sure to get up from your desk every
20 minutes and stretch or move around (hmmm…with “writing immersion”,
I’d probably have to set a loud timer…then again, with my sluggish
computer, I’d have lots of opportunities for breaks if I got up every
time an hourglass appears on my screen for more than 2 seconds…) Another
suggestion is to replace your desk chair with one of those giant
inflatable exercise balls (wow, talk about balance, not to mention a
good thigh workout…). 

I have already been trying to stick to a pledge I made last month to
walk and bike more during the day (although it’s getting harder now that
outside temperatures have been hitting the 80s and 90s) and this news
definitely makes me want to stick to that pledge even more (not to
mention the fact that gasoline prices are now in the realm of insanity),
but this is a wake-up (er, GET UP) call to go further, and completely
change how I’ve been doing business. So excuse me while I stop this post
and go move around—I’ve been at my computer for exactly three and a
half hours, and I think I hear my enzymes starting to snore…

Confessions of a Burnt-Out Scrapbooker

Hope everyone had a nice MLK holiday weekend.  I spent part of mine trying to catch up in “preserving memories”- a.k.a. keeping up with family photos, and what a daunting task it has been!  It used to be so simple when my kids were little.  I’d snap pictures on my camera, get them developed at the drug store, and put them in a “magnetic” album—you know, one of those with sticky pages and clear plastic to go on top. Sometimes I’d even write captions on paper to label the photos, or if I felt really creative, I’d stick on a used airplane ticket or baggage tag.  It was a no-brainer.  When the photo album filled up, I’d get another. I never got too behind, because the album stayed close at hand, and it was easy to put the photos in the album as soon as they came back from the drug store.  But of course, in our over-the-top world, someone had to take things a step further. 

I don’t remember exactly when I first got wind of “scrapbooking” but I know it was sometime in the late 90’s. I was in charge of programming for a local women’s organization and I lined up a speaker from a craft store to tell us more about it. Soon my sticky pages had more than just photos and captions on them.  The craft store had a whole aisle filled with “embellishments” to add to the pages: stickers, stencils, “journaling boxes”… Not too long after, I got an invitation to my first “crop”– a scrapbooking party where each guest “crops” or cuts photos and arranges them on scrapbook pages. No, (horrors!) not sticky photo album pages. In the world of scrapbooking, lesson #1 is learning all about “lignin” and “acid-free” and “photo-safe”. I’d been doing everything wrong—someday, those sticky photo albums pages will turn yellow and so will your photos if you don’t protect them properly, I was told. So us “newbies” got a basic how-to class while everyone else at the party was sitting all over my friend’s house with stacks of photos and colored paper and cutting tools, working feverishly.  Though some of these gals seemed a little too fanatical for me (“I save every piece of artwork my child has ever done!” exclaimed one proudly) and some dolled up their pages so much I had a hard time seeing the original photos, my interest was piqued.  When a mom of one of Allison’s friends brought her scrapbooks by the house to show me one day, I got even more interested.  Soon I had my own album and was making my own pages, going to neighborhood crops and weekend scrapbooking “retreats”. It was a lot of fun, and I likened the gatherings to the quilting bees of yesteryear: a bunch of women working on a craft project to pass down to future generations, and gossiping a whole bunch in the process (although I doubt that the quilters drank margaritas while working, like we did! ) Not only that, but scrapbooking was a way to get in touch with my inner child—who wouldn’t with all that coloring, cutting and pasting?! Except, for me, it came with one big drawback: keeping up-to-date with my photos became harder. 

No longer could I say I was “caught up”—photos that would have taken 15 minutes to plop in the sticky photo album were now elaborately cut, matted and laid out on two-page, acid-free “spreads” that I’d be lucky to finish, even one, at a four-hour crop (well, you see, there were the drinks, and lots of food, and um, well, yeah, I did create a two-dimensional tiki hut out of brown paper to surround two pages of vacation photos as a border, and, um, yes, I did hand-cut a whole bunch of tiny one-inch strips of tan paper and painstakingly glue each one along the top of both pages to make a thatched roof for the hut…but hey—that “spread” looked great and still does 12 years later, while my sticky photo albums really did turn yellow and are falling apart!). So in the early days of my scrapbooking hobby, I was proud of myself if I was only a year or two behind on my photos. 

Today I’m five years behind, so that’s why I decided this past weekend that it was time to delve into the world of digital scrapbooking. I’d heard good things about it (“You can knock out a whole album in a couple hours!”) but hadn’t spent much time with it even though Andy had given me the software as a gift over a year ago. You lay out pages on your computer, dragging and dropping photos wherever you need them, cropping photos with the touch of a button, adding digital “stickers”, writing captions using a zillion different fonts and colors at your fingertips. You print the pages on your own printer or have various companies print them out. And I must say that, while a lot of things about it were convenient, it wasn’t the miracle time saver I thought it would be.  I mean, I worked for about 13 hours on the “Year 2006” album this weekend and it’s still not finished. Granted, as my husband says, there is a learning curve to factor in with something new, but I think I had the hang of the process after about an hour.  Also, I sit at my computer for work almost all day, M-F.  Do I really want to spend my leisure time there also? With traditional scrapbooking, I usually stand, at a table.  Surely that means more calories burnt (bonus!).  And of course the tactile hands-on, kindergarten crafts aspect is gone when all you’re touching is a keyboard and a mouse.

So, what to do now?  I can’t go back to tiki huts, hand-drawn “Route 66” signs, and Easter photos cut into egg shapes and glued into a flat “basket”.  But I can’t bring myself to just put all my family’s photos into a generic photo album, either. Besides– if the goal is to help my kids recall fun times, value extended family and boost their self esteem by commemorating important events in their lives, shouldn’t the photos be out where they can be seen? Maybe I should just load all my photos into a digital photo frame, for a constant, rotating slide show. Only this would require the time-consuming job of deleting all the “teen cell-phone generated” photos now crowding my computer (gee, will they ever get tired of taking “mid-air jump” photos or close-up “nostril” shots?). Or, I could look through all my photos and print out just a few, only the very best, and put them in individual frames.  Or maybe I should just better utilize what is probably the best display surface around, the most looked-at place in the whole house: our refrigerator.

I wonder if magnets are acid-free…


At Least I Buy Fresh Fruit…

I’ve never thought of myself as a domestic diva, but I think I’m at least a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, between “Barely Knows How To Boil Water” and “While Homemade Bread is Baking In Perfectly Cleaned Oven, She Hand-Paints Her Own Gift Wrap And Coordinating Tags On A Table She’s Refinished All By Herself.”  I mean I did major in journalism and Home Economics.  I was in 4-H for six years as a teenager, sewing and cooking up blue ribbons at the Des Moines County Fair (seriously—stop laughing!!). Once, about a dozen years ago when hosting an Easter dinner for 10, I put 10 fuzzy, jelly bean-sized fake yellow chicks in the doorway of 10 miniature birdhouses and carefully placed a tiny strip of paper into each beak, bearing each guest’s name, as a place marker.  I know how to channel my inner Martha Stewart or Julia Child.  And yet, with a French exchange student living in our house, I’m starting to notice things that would make Julia turn over in her grave.


It started when another French AFS student came over after school one day for a visit with Cleo, our French student.  Cleo was fixing a snack and showing her friend what we call our “spray-on butter”.  “Look, they have butter spray!” Cleo remarked in her broken English, holding up the yellow plastic bottle.  The other girl marveled, but I couldn’t tell if it was in disgust or admiration.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! is neither butter nor anything else that comes from a cow, for fear they’d be disgusted for sure.  I mean, isn’t the word “gourmet” a French word? Didn’t the French invent the art of fine dining? (And isn’t real butter, lots of it, a mainstay of that dining?)


Since then, I’ve noticed other ways our domestic style might be seen as “less than fine”.  I use a wet Swiffer to mop the tile floors and disposable dust rags for the furniture.  Thanks to evening meetings for Andy and/or me, we pick up Subway’s $2.49 Sub of the Day for everyone at least one night each week, and take-out fried chicken with macaroni and cheese if there’s a second busy night.  “Your dinner’s in the fridge, just grab it whenever you’re hungry!” I tell the kids.  We each have our own “special” drinking glass that we rinse and re-use to avoid filling up the dishwasher every day with a zillion different glasses (Andy’s has a holographic image of Van Halen on it; Emmie’s is a giant lime green plastic ice cream cone…).  We scramble our eggs in the microwave.  Bake muffins from a boxed mix and scones from a refrigerated tube.  Use canned, diced tomatoes in many recipes instead of fresh.  Buy lots of quick-fix frozen foods, like Lean Pockets, vegetables, dinner rolls, pizza…

Are we just a bunch of crass Americans? No, just busy Americans. 
But at least we sit down together for a meal several nights each week, even if we don’t get started until 8 p.m. And if that means cutting corners in order to make it happen, well then bring on the instant mashed potatoes. I’d much rather be that kind of a family than the one described to me by a long-time acquaintance a couple months ago—she told me she can’t even remember what year her family was all together for a meal other than on holidays.  And I think I understood Cleo’s words enough to learn that her family members are often on their own when it comes to meals as well.  So, even though my family and I are not “gourmands”, hopefully she enjoys the camaraderie of our family dinners.


Which reminds me—I have silver napkin holders in which you can insert a photo, or name card. I need to personalize one for Cleo. And since the first day of autumn was yesterday, maybe I’ll make a table centerpiece of tiny pumpkins and dried gourds while I’m at it…with a nutmeg-scented candle…and maybe a few acorns…

When Hand-Me-Down Hoarding Doesn’t Work

The bedroom switch my daughters are undertaking this summer has been very interesting.  The whole project has definitely turned out to be more than just “switch furniture and paint one room” (which went pretty well while I was gone July 4th by the way…my teenager, Allison, now sleeps amidst four walls painted a sophisticated gray-purple shade called, fittingly, “Enigma” J).  The switch has also involved the girls trading closets, and it has forced me to take a hard look at the hand-me-downs that have been amassing for several years.


See, way back in the late 90’s, when Emmie was born almost exactly four years apart from Allison (she was actually due on Allison’s birthday), I remember thinking how great that the hand-me-downs will coincide quite nicely with the seasons, and that we’d save money with all the clothes big sis could hand down to little sis. A few years later when big sis grew older, dreamed of being a fashion designer and became a “clothes connoisseur”, I started thinking little sis would not only have plenty of stuff to wear, it would be stylish, too.


It didn’t occur to me that my two girls would be totally different in size, not to mention taste in clothing (which only widens with a four year age difference, as trends change).  Allison was always about two sizes ahead of her age (i.e. when she was 10 she was wearing a 12) and Emmie is about four sizes behind (natural for a gymnast, huh?!).  So, at age 11 and going into 6th grade, Emmie wears a size 7.  The hand-me-downs available for her to wear right now are things Allison was wearing in preschool and kindergarten.  Mostly girly, colorful, embellished clothing– a style that, I discovered as I dug through the closet boxes, continues into the size 8s, 9s and 10s.  Completely incompatible with Emmie’s current “sporty”/“rocker” affinities and very unlikely to be “in vogue” with her any time in the near future.  So you can imagine the kinds of groans the clothes elicited from Emmie when I held them up.  Girly dresses and frilly ankle socks; a pair of sparkly red Wizard of Oz shoes; a jacket with puppies appliquéd all over; Disney Princess underwear; pastel purple slacks with a crystal belt buckle and black ones trimmed in fuzzy zebra-print cuffs.  (“Mom– are you kidding me?!”) Yes, it is definitely time to purge, and admit that my grand clothing plan is not going to work (well, except for a few pairs of socks, a few shirts and some pajamas). I’ve also realized that most anything in a size 14-16 is fair game to toss as well, because if Emmie keeps up the same growth rate, she’ll be in college before she can wear any of it…


It’s great that less than a mile from my house, there’s a Goodwill drop-off trailer that’s manned every day.  The friendly, toothy-grinned lady that runs it now recognizes me  in the past week, I’ve made three trips there and brought her 15 paper grocery sacks stuffed full.  And I’m not done yet.


It feels good to “lighten up” our household, as well as help a worthy organization at the same time.  So good, in fact, it’s addictive, and everyone else in my family should be on alert.  I’ve already purged Andy’s T-shirt drawer (did he really need 30 screen print tees?) and next I’m tackling Allison’s large collection of empty shopping bags and shoe boxes. (That’s right, empty  which will be perfect for hauling stuff to Goodwill when I run out of those paper grocery sacks… J)

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Grill

While women have made great strides in the boardroom and in many other previously “male-only domains” over the past 50 years, there’s at least one where it seems they haven’t made much progress at all: the grill.  If we are to believe what we see and read, women do not grill.  Grills and grilling aprons are not part of Mother’s Day ads. I had to page through 29 listings at before I found a grilling cookbook with a woman on the cover.   But especially in these days leading up to Father’s Day 2010, images of men and grills are everywhere (those Chick-F-A cows should be very, very scared…).  The Father’s Day display at Half Price Books has a guide called Patio Daddy-O at the Grill front & center; Bed, Bath and Beyond currently is hawking its grill cleaning tool called the Grill Daddy  (as seen on TV!) right near the check-out lines. 

Why isn’t it the Grill Momma? What is it about women not being associated with grilling?  I know some women probably like leaving the grilling to their husbands, especially if those husbands aren’t ones to cook or help out in the kitchen otherwise.  It’s a way men can “be domestic without being domestic”.  And I know some women (especially Southern ones) probably view grilling as a “manly thing”, with its caveman-like elements of fire and raw meat… too “icky” and un-feminine…  I must admit, with all my household responsibilities, I liked reserving that job for Andy.  It gave me a break from cooking once in awhile and besides, I usually burnt whatever I tried to grill.  Seriously, charred beyond recognition.  So I, too, bought into the stereotype lock, stock and lighter fluid, that women don’t grill.

Until I realized that in Texas in the summer, cooking outside, more often than just an occasional barbecue, made a lot more sense than heating up the kitchen every night.  And grilled food can be pretty healthy.  And, if my family was going to eat grilled food more often and expect to eat at a decent time, relying on my husband to fire up the grill when he got home from work on weeknights just wasn’t feasible.  So I learned to grill. 

In true Uncool Mom fashion, I went to the library and sat among the cookbook stacks in the hopes that Martha Stewart or Paul Prudhomme could teach me a thing or two.  And while I don’t think it was either of them who taught me, I did manage to find the secret to successful grilling, at least for me: indirect heat.  We have a gas grill, and this method (listed below) works like magic.  I’ve never burnt anything since using it, and am now the grillmeister in our family.  And I think a lot of women could be the same.

Grill afficionados say my method is cheating, but I don’t think so– food still gets that “grilled” look, tastes great and is juicy and perfect.  And wonderful smells still waft through the backyard.  It does take a little longer to grill this way, but it’s worth not having all the charring.  And, Andy still has a part.  When the propane tank runs out, he hauls it to a gas station/convenience store, gets it re-filled and attaches it back to the grill.  (That’s just too “icky” a job for me.) J

                                              Patio Daddy-O at the Grill
(check out those women on the cover, just lounging around…I hope they’re wondering how they, too, can be grillmeisters…)

Uncool Mom’s Indirect Grilling Method:
Using a gas grill with two heating knobs–  Light grill and turn both knobs to High.  Close lid.  Heat up until temperature gauge is reading Med. High to High.  When desired temperature is reached, turn one knob off.  Lift lid and place food on side with no gas flame underneath.  Cook with lid closed until desired doneness is reached, turning at least once.  You learn from experience how long this takes.  I cook 1-inch steaks about 12-15 minutes per side, a little less for hamburgers.  This method is also great for foil packets of shrimp and veggies, although they cook faster than red meat, of course…
An interesting note about grill cleaning with this method– After you’ve grilled, there is of course bits of “stuff” left on the grill. The next time you grill, make this side the non-food, flame side.  The flame will burn off all the bits and make it easy to clean, and then this will be the side on which you place food the next time you grill. Thus, you switch sides each time you grill, placing the food on the opposite side on which you cooked it the last time…

Hour Showers No More: Helping Kids Break the Habit

Why are teens (and pre-teens) notorious for taking long showers? Is it because when they were younger, they used to spend so much time with “bathtub crayons”, “foam soap” and “waterproof musical instruments”, that they’re simply used to “staying in”?  Just when I thought my kids were the only ones who think water is limitless and free, I’ve discovered there are many more out there just like them.  In honor of Earth Week, I thought I’d do a little Internet searching on “shower timers”—  I remember seeing one once in a “green products” store, a shower head that shuts off after pre-set minutes, and thought it might be time to consider buying one.  


A typical “shower scene” around our house: I’m at my desk late at night and Allison has just gone upstairs to take a shower. I hear the water running as I finish up my work, and 10-15 minutes later as I head up to bed, it’s still running. I glance in her room, and there she is, sitting on her bed, fully clothed, listening to her Ipod, “waiting for the water to heat up”.  I walk toward her bathroom, declaring, “I’m turning the water off now.”  She rushes past me, protesting loudly, “No! I was just getting in!”

“Yeah, it looks like it,” I say.  (In my mind, I’m picturing our water meter clicking to the beat of The Black Eyed Peas or whatever it is she’s playing.) She blocks my way.  “Seriously!” she says. “Get out of here or I won’t get in!”

After brushing my teeth, I return to make sure she did get in (and that she remembered to turn on the exhaust fan).  Seeing it’s a yes answer to both, I tell her good-night, wondering how much longer her shower will last, knowing I’ll probably be fast asleep before it’s over.


Emmie isn’t a whole lot different.  Whenever she takes her showers in the morning, she often takes so long, she’s late to school.


So it was an enlightening ride on the information superhighway. I found lots of discussion board threads where a parent says something like, “I have a teenage boy who stays in the shower every night until we force him to get out.  What can I do?” I even found an online poll (and took it)  that asked the question, “How long is your teenager’s average shower?” Out of 253 responses, 67% (171) fell between 16 and 35 minutes, which is where I cast my vote. (According to, that can be over 50 gallons of water! Ouch!)  (I felt real sorry for the 10 people who said their teens showered for “One hour or more”) L


The advice on what to do was varied. gave three ideas from least expensive to most.  The simplest kind, a little hourglass-type “sand timer” encased in waterproof plastic, is often given away as a freebie by city water departments or other businesses (they’re available online for about $4).  Several years ago we got a free one from Home Depot that suctions to the bath/shower wall.  While this type of timer might work for some kids, kids like ours, daydreaming in their steamy water wonderland, will simply turn it over again once they notice it’s run out.  Ehow also mentioned mechanical shower timers (The Shower Manager,, can be pre-set to 5, 8 or 11 minutes, and then it shuts off the water for awhile) and there is a digital flow shut-off device available as well.  But both these last two options are pricey—the Shower Manager is currently $111 (on special) and the digital kind, made in Australia, is over $300. Elsewhere online I found people discussing a.) the possibility of putting a coin-operated box on their shower, just like at campgrounds (very pricey and complicated, but funny—“Kids, you must now use your allowance to take a shower!”); b.) garden hose timers (wouldn’t work—a teen could figure out how to re-set it); and c.) a simple solution– turn off the hot water valve on your water heater when your kid’s shower goes past a certain time limit.  While I’d really like to try that Shower Manager, Andy and I are too cheap to shell out the bucks for it even though one online parent said it was “worth the peace of mind”, and I’m sure in water restricted areas, it’s even more worth it.  ( does have a drawing for a free one every month so at least I can try that route!)  I think I might also try the “turn off the hot water valve” approach, at least when I’m awake.   (That seems like a good “natural consequence”-  I can say, “Oh, that’s what our water system does now when the hot water is used up– it takes a long time to heat back up.”)


Otherwise, I’ll just have to sleep easier remembering what I learned once when writing a newspaper story about underwater sports—a noted brain researcher thinks regular immersion in water, for at least 20 minutes at a time, can make a person smarter and more creative.  No wonder my kids are so wacky and talented!! J