Finding balance in the second half of life

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Do or Do Not

In Survival on January 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I’ve been working hard to resist thinking that I need more information in order to change what I do. Two cases in point: A recent review of The Procrastination Equation made me think I should read the book, that an understanding of the history and psychology of procrastination will make me stop putting things off. An introduction to SimpliFried, a new food blog, made me think I needed to subscribe for shortcuts on menu planning.

This is a form of magical thinking. That’s what I need to keep repeating to myself: This is a form of magical thinking. I know what I need to know to meet my deadlines (which I mostly do) and to feed my family (which I mostly do). I simply need to do it. Which I mostly do.

And yet… there is the allure. Can it be simpler? Can it be faster? Can it require less mental or emotional energy?

This is a form of magical thinking.

I am, of course, attracted to magic.

–Lois Maassen


In Survival on January 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

My cat Scratch works long hours in my home office, rearranging paper piles, typing cryptic notes on my laptop, making sure that my wireless mouse isn’t lazing around on its pad. The other day as I watched him bat the mouse to the floor, then drape himself elegantly across my notes and keyboard (he’s a big guy), it occurred to me that my furry assistant might actually be having a negative impact on my productivity.

Not that I would ever consider banning him from my place of work. Who else is going to pat me on the cheek with a soft paw as I labor in my endless pursuit of a fresh approach to extolling the virtues of adjustable-height tables?

Still, it got me thinking that there are probably a lot of people out there who share an office with their pet(s), and even more who wish they could. And, speaking of height-adjustable tables, mightn’t there be a market out there for furnishings — or at least accessories — designed to accommodate the special needs of the pet-friendly office?

A little bit of internet research revealed that, yes, many, many people these days face cat-computer compatibility issues. Also, I am not the first one to think that a desktop cat support device (in your choice of birch, cherry, or walnut veneer) is an idea whose time has come.

The real revelation for me, though, was the extent to which the pets-at-work phenomenon has spread beyond the home office. A recent survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) found that nearly one in five U.S. companies now allow pets at work. Many of these pet-friendly offices belong to small startups (my personal favorite, Small Dog Electronics, devotes a page on its website to employee and customer dogs) probably because with fewer employees it’s easier to reach consensus on issues like pet hair and squeak toys. But larger businesses are also signing on. Google, for example, has a liberal pet policy that nevertheless includes the provision “Dogs are not allowed on the sand volleyball court.”

The mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership are well documented. Studies have shown that pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease and an increased rate of survival after a coronary event. Simply being in the presence of a friendly animal has a measurable positive effect on pulse and blood-pressure rates and reduces the intensity of stress experienced by people in such stress-inducing situations as undergoing a medical procedure or taking a math test.

But the benefits to employers who let workers bring their furry friends to the office extend beyond a healthier and more relaxed staff. The APPMA survey found that pets in the workplace improve employee morale and camaraderie, reduce absenteeism, and promote willingness to work overtime. Ninety-six percent of the pet-friendly companies surveyed said that pets contributed to positive work relations, and 73 percent said that pets in the office “create a more productive work environment.” Businesses that allow pets believe it improves the atmosphere for all employees, even those who are not pet owners themselves. In companies where people work long hours and/or spend most of their days working on computers, pets encourage employees to take healthful physical and mental breaks.

“Taking a minibreak elevates our brainpower and makes us more creative,” writes Doris Helge, pets-at-work proponent and author of Joy on the Job. “Some of us don’t take time to take the break we need until Rover reminds us.”

In a time when money is tight and work-life balance issues are hot, establishing a pet-friendly policy is an inexpensive perk that can serve as a significant recruitment and retention tool. Simply Hired, an online jobs database, provides a search option that allows job seekers to specify that they wish to work for a dog-friendly company. A survey by Simply Hired and Dogster, another online site, found that a third of employed dog-owners would be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant they could bring their pets to work. Two-thirds said they would work longer hours, and half said they would switch jobs.

Not everyone is an animal lover, of course, and even some who are have allergies to pet dander. Some employers try to accommodate everyone by designating certain areas as pet-free zones. Most companies that allow pets have a written policy which outlines expectations about where pets are allowed and what their owners’ responsibilities include. Policies typically specify that animals be housebroken, flea-free, and friendly, and that their humans clean up after them, inside and out. Autodesk, a pet-friendly company employing 1, 100 people at its San Raphael site, stipulates that “dogs are not to be brought to meetings” and “loud, repetitive barking or eating another employee’s food is also not acceptable.” Seems reasonable to me.

Promoters of “Take Your Dog to Work Day” (next  TYDTWD: June 24, 2011) offer tips for people planning to introduce Fido to the office that include leaving the squeak toy at home and making sure that your cubicle or office can safely and comfortably accommodate your pet. With regard to the latter, entrepreneurial types are already training their focus on the pet-friendly office market.

U.S. Patent 5934813 — “Keyboard protector having peaked configuration” — claims a unique design for a “protector assembly” comprising a “means to prevent an animal from remaining thereon in obstructing relation to the keyboard.” Under “Background of the Invention” the inventor explains the need for this device:

… individuals who are pet owners and particularly cat lovers and also use some type of computer instrument involving a keyboard have encountered the problem of having cats generally prowl across the keyboard thereby disturbing the operation thereof. In addition, cats of a particularly curious nature or those who have a habit of invading the operating area while their owners are working on the computer certainly have a disruptive effect on the operation and in fact, could, in certain instances, destroy certain work currently being performed on the computer.

I haven’t been able to determine if the protector assembly has made it into production yet.

In the meantime, BitBoost Systems offers PawSense, a software utility that “quickly detects and blocks cat typing.” The application analyzes key stroke timing and combinations to distinguish between your typing style and your cat’s. Its designers say that PawSense typically recognizes a cat on the keyboard within one or two “pawsteps” and then proceeds to block the cat’s “keyboard input.”

Or, better yet, let your cat use those keyboard skills to supplement the family income. A new book out from Ten Speed Press — Careers for Your Cat by Ann Dziemianowicz  — includes a “Meowers-Briggs Career/Personality Test” to help  you find the perfect placement for your office cat.

–Debra Wierenga

This article was originally published on

Organizing the New Year

In Fulfillment, Survival on January 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I just took down the Christmas tree, packed up the crèche, and wrapped the other decorations in tissue. The only remnants are the wreath on the door, which is more seasonal in my mind, and the Advent wreath on the table, since the candles aren’t yet burned to nubbins.

As much as I love the Christmas holiday, I also relish getting the house back in order, shifting from holiday food back to “real” stuff, and being able to devote my time to projects without deadlines. Or, at least, projects that don’t all have the same deadline.

But there’s something about the holiday season, or the onset of winter, or the approach of the new year, that makes me want to declutter, reorganize, increase my virtue, double my productivity. That made me extra susceptible to buying a new book, in spite of my best intentions.

I’ve long had a soft spot for books on time management and organization. Over the past several years, I winnowed my collection down to just one yard of shelf space; only a month ago, I was thinking I could probably free up that space, too: My problem isn’t with knowing what to do, it’s with doing it.

But somehow, when the email arrived early this week announcing the paperback edition of Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutter Your Life in One Week, my defenses were down. I was already, as I said, yearning for a simpler, less decorated home. I was anticipating getting back on post-Christmas track. I subscribe to Erin’s blog, Unclutterer, and have gotten good ideas or motivation from it, as well as the weekly chuckle from the unitasker. And it’s so easy to click those links, you know; Amazon surpassed expectations by delivering the book the very next day.

One of the reasons I’m sheepish about my collection of books about organization is that if I spent as much time organizing as reading about it, well… you know. But this week between the holidays is a hiatus in some ways, so I whipped through the book.

It’s been most of a week, and my life is not uncluttered. It was an enjoyable read, but it’s really best suited for someone like my son, who’s lived in an apartment (leaving most of his clutter at our house, I might add) for a couple of years and probably hasn’t yet been hard enough pressed to build much routine into his life.

I suspected this about the best audience for the book when I read in the first chapter that I should clear my “sentimental clutter” before the official decluttering week begins. I figure it will take me at least five years to do that. Not only do I have the lifetime accumulations of three kids to sort through—and negotiate with them about—but probably 80 percent of what’s in my house would qualify as “sentimental clutter.”

I know that my cookbook collection, for example, takes up more space than it should. But in the mix are The Vegetarian Epicure, which taught me to cook without meat; the wooden recipe box my grandfather made, which holds a few recipes only because I haven’t gotten around to transferring all of them to my actual recipe storage system; and a church cookbook published the year I was born. There are enough decisions only among the cookbooks to tie me up for at least a month.

Right off the bat, the uncluttered life in one week is a dream shattered. And as I read through the day-by-day chapters, I recognize that each day could take a month or longer.

Weeding through my wardrobe, which is slated for Monday morning, I probably could do in half a day. Organizing my desk and the rest of my office, though, which I’m supposed to have done by Monday afternoon, is a rather more daunting task. A conservative estimate: six weeks. And that’s if I can organize full-time. This is partly, of course, because my office is at home; Erin prefers “work/life symbiosis” to “work/life balance,” and I certainly live that.

Organizing my kitchen is slated for Wednesday evening, and again I’m stymied. My kitchen includes an enormous amount of “sentimental clutter,” from the Willow Ware and Jewel Tea dishes I inherited from my grandmother to the ceramics my daughter and I painted at Paint-A-Pot. If I’d already disposed of all of that with the “sentimental clutter” step before the week began… well, then, I guess an evening might do it.

At least for me, I came to recognize, this “one week” to an uncluttered life is metaphorical more than literal, aligning with my understanding of the Creation story. I can only aspire to achieve my uncluttering in something less than an eon.

I’m glad I got the book, though, and spent the time reading it. There are good ideas in it that I can use sooner or later. What I like best is one of the questions Erin proposes one ask before buying something: “Does this item help me develop the remarkable life I want to live?”

I like that question. It reminds me of something I heard in a sermon in the weeks before Christmas. We tend to think of promises as something held in the future, like “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” But Christmas is a reminder that because of Emmanuel, “god with us,” every moment holds promise. That’s a notion that crosses many spiritual practices, it strikes me.

That’s as close as I’m coming to a New Year’s Resolution this year: Do my best to remember that every moment holds promise and that I can develop a remarkable life. Less clutter—both physical and psychological—may result from that mindfulness. We’ll see.

My spousish one wandered in while I was writing this piece, Erin’s book at my side.

“Are you uncluttering?” he asked.

“No, I’m writing about uncluttering,” I said.

Between reading and writing about it, I can probably keep my clutter intact for some time.

–Lois Maassen

School of Life

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, makes a good case for changing the way we teach the humanities (literature, philosophy, the arts) in higher education. Instead of focusing on factual information and scholarly analysis — memorizing the names of the major artists of the Ming Dynasty, say, or explicating Thomas Hardy’s use of flowers as metaphor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles — de Botton wants classes that teach us “how to live.”

“It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, and blinkered human beings.”

Along with a group of like-minded professors, writers, and artists, de Botton has founded a school in London that practices what he preaches. “The School of Life” offers courses in marriage (“Making Love Last”; required reading includes Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary),  choosing a career (“How to Find a Job You Love”; readings include Thoreau’s Walden and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), and dying (“Facing Death”; reading works by Samuel Johnson, Luis Bunuel, and Joan Didion).

Unfortunately, The School of Life does not yet offer online classes, but their website showcases some interesting “Ideas to Live By.” I’m tempted to try out the  “Bibliotherapy” services they offer. An individual consultation with a bibliotherapist via phone or Skype will get you a customized reading “prescription” for your “particular area of concern or curiosity.” 

–Debra Wierenga

I Love My Shirt

In Survival on December 27, 2010 at 11:50 pm

“I love my shirt. I love my shirt. My shirt is so comfortably lovely.”

So goes the old song . But Donovan is not the reason I rock my Brooks Brothers’ forward-point collar, pinpoint cotton, white, dress shirts. He can’t decode my reasons for wearing them nearly every day, nearly everywhere.

My 10 white shirts are going through the laundry now, part of a cycle that begins with me quickly sweeping up the shirts where they have landed in laundry room, bedroom, closet, gym, and bath, mixing up the bluing agent I use in lieu of bleach. These suckers cost me around $75 a pop when I can get them on sale, and I do everything I can to keep them in circulation. So bluing and washing. But they will air-dry on plastic hangers, and serve me for years before I buy the next batch, the brand, model, and size all saved on a list of my sartorial standards and shopping links (I buy all my clothes online), which I keep in an EverNote file for safe keeping.

Hanging next to my 10 laundered shirts are my black pants, made by a designer who understands how to drape a normal female body (Here’s looking at you Eileen Fisher. Please don’t abandon us.). My underthings, too, are uniform. And my shoes.

Socks and sweaters, I mostly make.

I wear a uniform, and have done so for years and years. There was a time when this uniform was just for home use. After-work clothes. Weekend wear. But as connectedness chafed, breached, and finally erased the lines of demarcation between my professional and personal life, the idea of maintaining separate wardrobes — particularly when one of those wardrobes was unwieldy, uncomfortable, complicated, time-consuming and expensive — became silly. Just…. silly.

But I have many other reasons for choosing to wear a uniform. I present them here not to try to convert readers to a uniformed existence, but really to make a public explanation, in hope that it may find its way to the people who, I know, are annoyed by my choice. A sartorial apologia, if not an apology.

Buying Time. We are born with one commodity whose measure we can’t take — Time. Time. Time. We know only that we don’t have enough of it. We can increase the time we have to do the things we love by decreasing the time we spend doing things we don’t, or by eliminating unnecessary spinning. We can trade time, but can’t buy more. So, let’s say I spend 15 minutes a day deciding, finding (which belt, which socks, which hose, which bra, which bodyshaper for what shape, which accessories and outerwear), assembling, and donning a single outfit. (And we know it can often take a great deal longer, if you add hand-washing and ironing, and the once- or twice-a-month melt-down into abject despair +/- closet rage.) That tiny amount of time, a radically low estimate, still adds up to about 6 16-hour days every year of my life. Add to that the hours spent shopping for clothes, online, in boutiques and malls, which I will make out to be a conservative 16 hours a month. Now we’re up to 18 full days a year I could be spending re-reading Middlemarch or knitting something lovely while listening to Orlando. Again. This is a good trade. I don’t like managing clothes or shopping for them. At all. Many women do, but I have never been one of them. Not when I was 12. And not now.

Psychological Cost. Especially not now. I am not fit. But even at my most fit, my body was never fashionable. Would have been, in 15th Century Italy. I could have owned that century. But I have a normal female 50-year-old body. I’ve earned my lumps and my droops, and no one designs clothes for me. Or not clothes I would wear. The less time I spend in badly lit dressing rooms trying on clothes that underscore how my body doesn’t fit society’s expectations, the better. By never, ever, going into those stores, or giving that industry my money, I avoid massive psychological costs. I am a happier person. I buy a little smugness. I wear a Cheshire Cat’s grin. Ha. Beat that bad thing. Ground it to dust. Poof! By not paying attention to fashion, it simply disappears.

Waste. I’m not a frugal person. Not by a long shot. I wear Brooks Brothers’ shirts and Eileen Fisher slacks. My shoes, uniform Danskos for half the year, Uggs for Michigan’s other half, are not cheap. I buy expensive wool to knit sweaters whose cost, if we used my hourly earnings as a measure, would stretch into the thousands. But. The Danskos I wear today I bought 4 years ago. The Uggs date from some time before they were fashionable. (I don’t wear them with mini-skirts.) Well-made sweaters last for decades. My shirts go for 6 years if I’m careful. When fashion’s profiles change by the season, not the year, and certainly not the half-decade, the closet turnover of the fashion-forward woman makes me glad only a very tiny minority of us can fit into or afford fashion-forward clothes. Kudos to folks who offer their clothes to resale shops, of course. Fashion trickles down, I realize. But the longer I wear my clothes, the less they cost me and everybody else. I believe. Does that make sense? I think it does. It’s my blog post, so it does. But go ahead and comment to tell me why I’m crazy. I’m ready to hear about it.

Formative Influence. Here, I could cite history. I was raised in the U.S. Navy. (I say in the service rather than by a serviceman, because I completely believe that military kids and spouses serve their country alongside the troop member. Don’t try to argue that one with me. I served for 21 years. I don’t happen to have any medals to show for it.)

Or I might trot out my Roman Catholicism, except that I never attended a Catholic school. I just admired those uniforms from afar. My lust for Tartan plaid was hotter than a Japanese businessman’s.

But the biggest influence on me came through my first boss. His name was Tom Symons. He was a Northern Michigan Renaissance Man on the order of the original Abercrombie. (What’s become of Abercrombie and Fitch must bother old Tom’s mind as he ties and casts dry flies on some trout stream in the great beyond.) He seemed to channel Teddy Roosevelt and the Buddha and Jackie Gleason all at the same time. He was big and moustached and booming and tough and soft and formidable. I was a bit in love with him. And he wore a uniform. Everything came in the mail from Abercrombie’s Manhattan shop. Khaki pants, blue oxford-cloth, button-down shirts. White socks. Jack Parcels, I think? (Ed: Alert pals have noted my misspelling Purcells. And also noted my addition of a pair of tangarine-colored Vans this summer. Correct, both of you. I have many weaknesses… Otoh, the Vans might become uniform.) Or something very like them. Something warmer in the winter, but I don’t recall. He sent his clothes to the cleaner. My job included taking them in and collecting them. He had sets of maybe 40. That meant 40 long-sleeve shirts, 40 short-sleeve. 40 winter-weight khakis, and 40 summer-weight. The number allowed him to think about laundry just once a month. He’d worn this uniform for so long, no one could remember when he settled on it. We all believed he married his wife in his uniform, though I never had evidence of it. He was the one who taught me that if you find the right clothes once, you really don’t have to repeat the exercise. Why would you do the same thing over and over and over? When you could be catching fish? Or panning for gold? Or camp-hopping in Alaska?

In my work, I found more people who wore and wear uniforms: Ray Eames. Dean Kamen. Steve Jobs. All interesting people so wrapped up in doing what they love they simply couldn’t be bothered to spend time on garment management. I realize I am not a genius, nor contributing in huge ways to the advancement of our civilization. But I’ll take my inspiration from people like these any day.

Irony. I know it’s a cheap form of humor, and a bad basis for inspiration, but I have just discovered that the very people responsible for fashion madness and impossible-for-me couture choose simple uniforms for themselves. The tastemakers. The standard setters. (Blink, blink.) The audacity.

Slipstream. I wake thinking about my day, and my thoughts travel with me, uninterrupted as I fall into my shirt, my slacks, maybe a sweater. I have coffee in hand in minutes, dressed, and ready for my day.

Having decided the outfit is appropriate for everything from washing the dog to meeting with clients has made it so. I work in a creative field, and am expected to have my quirks. In five years since taking my uniform to work, exactly one client has noted my choice. I was a little disappointed to discover that people really didn’t notice at all, unless they were family or close friends. I hoped to have this conversation with someone, much sooner than this. But the truth is, most people pay more attention to what they are wearing — and whether it’s appropriate, fitting, tucked correctly, accessorized appropriately, or not — and not to what you are wearing. My clothes are not nearly as interesting as the reason my clients want to meet with me — which is them and their business, driving their success. And that’s as it should be.

I love my shirt. It really is comfortably lovely. It’s not so much the brand as the artifact of a man’s pinpoint cotton dress shirt. It’s a nearly perfect garment for a busy human. I look nothing like Diane Keaton, but the Annie Hall essence lives in the man’s dress shirt, at least in my head. The softness of the sheets you didn’t want to leave this morning. The endlessly useful breast pocket. I don’t know how other knitters knit without one. I do love the deep red Helvetica laundry tag on the shirt-tail. Unlike 90 percent of the blouses made for women, the buttons stay on for the entire life of the shirt. With laundering, the collar curls in what my mother would call a go-to-hell sort of way. That’s as far as I can rhapsodize. It’s a shirt. A reliable, comfortable shirt. But it has come to stand for independence, freedom from fashion and trend, from wishing for a different body, and a zen-y freedom from want and lust for every new hemline and ruffle. Or maybe it’s become a kind of armor, protecting my soft insides from cultural bullies.

Now, if only I could find a really reliable pair of underwear…. Write if you can recommend anything.

–Julie Ridl

Stay-at-Home Working Mother

In Survival on December 15, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Penelope Trunk blogged the other day about the difficulties of labeling herself. Is she a working mother? Well, yes: She works and she has children. Is she a stay-at-home mother? Well, yes, since her office these days is at home, although that’s not what the term is usually meant to describe. Is she full-time? Or part-time? How many hours, precisely, must she work with what regularity to qualify for one or the other?

I think she’s right about the meaninglessness of terms like these. I have similar problems when I fill out online surveys. Am I employed full-time? I think so. On a good week. Am I self-employed? Well, yes, that too. Somehow the research firm’s classification system isn’t happy with that combination.

I have problems with a short description of what I “am,” too. At different times, I’m a knitter, mother, writer, strategist, editor, planner, seamstress, chef, sister, friend, organizer, cat wrangler, and more. How should I summarize that? Must I summarize?

Penelope wants to “end the bullshit” of dividing mothers between those “who work” and those who “stay home” (acknowledging that both descriptors are wildly inaccurate). How about we go further and stop labeling altogether? I suspect there’s a role for categorizing in helping us make sense of our world and community. But as pressed for time as we all seem to be, as willing to generalize and assume, I also suspect it obscures as much as it clarifies.

–Lois Maassen

Cheer Me with Mozart

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 6, 2010 at 6:21 pm

My good friends (okay, they don’t know me, but I rely on them) at Utne Reader have pointed me to another interesting study. This one, conducted in Mexico, showed that listening to classical music had more anti-depressive effect than talk therapy.

I’ll put reading the whole study on my to-do list. I’m curious about whether it’s music in general or classical music specifically (Mozart is noted, in particular) that makes the difference. And I’m also curious about other listening habits.

I don’t often choose to listen to classical music, I’ll confess, in spite of (or perhaps because of) having grown up in a household where Bach was loud on the stereo. But I do notice that on days that I work to what Pandora serves up, I’m more cheerful (though less well-informed) than the days I’m tuned in to NPR all day. I’d like to understand that better: In some ways, it seems like hearing people’s conversations is more social. I realize, though, that unless I become a regular NPR caller, I’m eavesdropping on those conversations, not joining them. And, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you might know that discussions of current events are not entirely cheerful in tone.

I can always sing along with Pandora. Yet another advantage of the home office.

Let Them Eat… Something

In Survival on March 20, 2010 at 8:22 pm

My good friend posted this as her Facebook status last night: “doing a menu plan and grocery list for the week. Just another exciting Friday night….” What she meant to do, I’m sure, was to comment on the ordinariness of a weekend night, a sad thing, by some lights. But what she did was to remind me of the disarray in my culinary habits.

I was once as organized as she is now. In fact, I was that organized repeatedly, as I adopted new systems. I needed to be, when I was working full time away from the home where three children waited for dinner. I was an early adopter of Mangia, recipe software for my Mac SE30 that made grocery lists from what you chose. I had binders and categories and cross-references, and a plan for every week. I still have a theoretical pattern: Monday, pasta/polenta; Tuesday, salad; Wednesday, soup….

But now the kids are living on their own, eating heaven knows what (funny how they all turn out differently). I work from my home office most days, and at the end of the day, more likely than not, my husband, C, and I turn to each other and say, “What’s for dinner?”

What’s odd about this is that some of my kitchen habits have required more planning. I’ve developed a taste for homemade granola and yogurt, both of which take some scheming. I’ve gotten pretty good at whipping up a batch of granola (because C has gotten pretty good at scarfing it by the handful as he walks through the kitchen), but you’ve got to keep oats in the house. The yogurt takes a planned eight hours—or planning for an eight-hour stretch when I’m around at the beginning and the end.

This noon, while wondering what to eat for lunch, I did manage to put some beans and rice and pork in the slow cooker with some Cajun spices, so we’ll eat dinner tonight without a problem. Except, of course, that noon is a little late to start a slow-cooker dish. I meant to say that we’ll eat dinner eventually tonight.

But most days, in spite of my noted talent for frittering, I don’t manage to fritter in the kitchen. I fritter excellently at my computer, and feel oddly virtuous doing so. I can knit for hours in any room in the house. I can distract myself—I mean, think through a problem—while doing laundry, walking out to check the mailbox, or reading just one chapter in a book. I’d be better off with a reflex to go start a pot of soup.

I’m also handicapped by my desire to make things from scratch, preferably from fresh and local ingredients. It’s way less fun to cook when you’re not chopping something fresh from the farmer’s market—and I say that even knowing that I’m only seven weeks away from losing this excuse. And since we’re, shall I say, deepening our relationship with frugality, I’m drawn to improvising with what’s on hand, whether for sewing projects or a meal. This is, of course, less fun when what you have on hand is olives, egg noodles, and garbanzo beans, but the satisfaction of making something out of nothing is undeniable.

I got fresh inspiration for menu management from an unexpected source this week. A high school friend was in touch, asking questions for clients who’d published a cookbook called The Stocked Kitchen. The premise of the book is that if you keep your pantry stocked with a specific set of ingredients, you can make any of their 300 or so recipes whenever you feel like it.

This is attractive to me. To C, less so. I should note that, left to his own devices, C would eat spaghetti five days a week and fried-egg sandwiches the other two. But it’s also true that we have quite a collection of favorite foods that we’ve developed over our years together. We don’t manage, though, to get the right ingredients in the house—in the proper combinations—very often. If we want to do better at that, it’s going to take more time, from me or from him.

The first step in the “stocked kitchen” approach is to compare the actual current contents of your kitchen to the items on the standard grocery list. This is the sixth day that’s seemed like a really worthy thing to do, and the sixth day I haven’t done it. The next step, of course, is to go to the grocery store to buy the missing ingredients. After that: menu bliss.

Except that eating fresh seasonal stuff from the farmer’s market or the garden is a kind of bliss, too. As is the aforementioned making-something-from-nothing satisfaction. As is the comfort of eating those familiar Thai chicken wraps or baked macaroni and cheese.

Maybe I can migrate toward that “stocked kitchen” list. Maybe I should review all my past systems, remind myself why I gave them up. Maybe I’ll work on that soup-pot reflex. Or maybe we’ll muddle along in disarray a while longer. At least I won’t be spending my Friday nights planning menus!

–Lois Maassen

Thursday: Better Than Fine

In Survival on March 11, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I wake up with a scratchy throat and that downward feeling that comes with realizing that it’s Thursday and I don’t have a lesson plan for the class I teach at 1. Downstairs, the cat has thrown up in three places, all of them carpeted. My Partner is not sure that it’s vomit, he thinks it looks more like poop. I dab a spot with some paper towel and bring it to my nose. Not poop. In fact it smells surprisingly springlike — earthy and green. This is because Cuddles has been eating the greens from the Spring Fling bouquet I sprang for at Family Fare yesterday when I was waiting for my prescriptions to get filled because I’d already been two days without my Prozac and was getting grumpy and droopy and experiencing bouts of extreme self-loathing.

MP makes us some breakfast while I empty the dishwasher. These dishes are not clean. They have been washed, but they are not clean. The plates and bowls are dingy and dull and the cups are coffee-stained. How long has this been going on? Could be months — it’s been that long since I unloaded the dishwasher while the sun was shining.

Before I sit down to my poached egg, I also take in the kitten-sized balls of golden retriever fur in the corners of the dining room, the wall behind MP’s chair where the paint is badly chipped, and another puke spot under the table. I take a sip of coffee, closing my eyes so I won’t see the brown stains on the inside rim.

Should not have let that prescription slip.

When I arrive at the small seminar room on the second floor of Van Zoren Hall, my class of Academically Talented middle school students is already seated in the tiers of desks that I usually haul down from their platforms and rearrange into a circle. I decide to let it go. We have just finished reading “Much Ado About Nothing” and Sarah has a question: Why does Boracchio say “listen to me call her ‘Hero,’ hear her term me ‘Claudio,’” when he intends to have Claudio there as a witness to Hero’s debauchery?

Really? He says that? Indeed he does. Sarah has highlighted the passage in passionate pink. It makes no sense to any of us. Did Shakespeare screw up?

Three hours later I drag myself in through the back door and notice a definite smell of cat pee. Eliot’s breakfast dishes are hardening on the counter but where is he? Monday’s piano, Tuesday’s Jazz Combo, Wednesday’s trombone, Thursday’s here. MP hasn’t seen him. I dig my phone out of my purse. No messages. I send Eliot a text: “?” and fall into bed. Ten minutes later my cell wakes me with the “Waltz for Debby” ringtone I downloaded in another lifetime, before my dad died. Eliot is on his way home from band festival, which he told me about last week, remember?

I do not remember.

Sitting on the — jeez, where did those spots come from — couch, I hear MP shaking up a Maker’s Mark manhattan. My favorite sound in the world. The drink he pours me glows red-gold and the first cold sip is the best I’ve felt all day.

By the time I’ve finished my drink, Eliot is home and regaling us with tales of Peter the sax player who thinks he’s all that but started playing the wrong song at festival. The living room glows like a manhattan, full of going-down sun. I love my son, My Partner, my shedding dog, my puking cats, my hairy cornered home. MP looks askance when I ask him for another drink to sip on while I make supper. I am meeting my Academically Talented students and several of their parents at the dress rehearsal of “Much Ado About Nothing” at 8:00.

I’ll be fine, I say. I’m making Kitchen Sink Quesadillas and I’ll have coffee after dinner.

Kitchen Sink Quesadillas

1 package burrito-sized flour tortillas

1 package shredded cheddar

1 can black beans

1 can corn

1/2 jar Paul Newman’s Spicy Salsa

Heat oven to 400. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and place two tortillas on each.

In a colander, in the sink, combine beans, corn, and salsa.

Sprinkle tortillas with half the cheese. Add a layer of the drained colander mixture and another layer of cheese. Top with the remaining tortillas.

Bake 5 – 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and tortillas are crisped. Serve with sour cream, avocado slices, and hot sauce.

You’ll be fine.

–Debra Wierenga

This Age Is My Age

In Survival on March 11, 2010 at 4:53 pm

I’ve always liked the idea of aging naturally. I wasn’t going to dye my hair or get a facelift or even wear anything more than a light foundation on my face. Then I started aging and saw (once I put on my reading glasses) what aging naturally actually looked like.

News flash: It does not look like Lauren Hutton–older, sure, but still attractive. Instead it looks like my older brother (around the eyes) and my mother (everywhere else).

And that’s just the beginning. I’ve exercised and eaten right my entire life; now suddenly, it does no good. I run for a tennis ball and I feel my buttocks galumphing along behind me, trying to keep up.  (While absolutely true, this is puzzling, since I don’t really have buttocks; they have sunk into my thighs.) My good genes are failing me.

My sister, who recently attended a conference on aging, says the problem is not with my genes but with my thinking. She says  the body knows it’s on a journey. As we age, every part of us is being pulled down by gravity, closer to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That sort of thing. Sags, wrinkles, heavy-lidded eyes are all signposts along the journey. I don’t like the signposts. I don’t like them at all.

The most I can muster at the moment is a grudging respect for them and their potential to make me a better person. Henry Nouwen wrote, “every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, and deeper.”

I want to be that person who chooses the losses I experience to be passages to something new.  I want to embrace this stage, or at least accept it. But there is still a part of me that thinks why not do whatever you can to look younger? Our society values youth. Age, not so much.

I have a friend who is a doctor. One of the things she enjoys most is doing botox because it makes patients so happy. “I can fix those,” she said, not unkindly, pointing at the worry furrows between my eyebrows. I told her I wanted to age naturally, which I thought was going to be the same thing as aging gracefully. My friend, who is a nonconformist, laughed and said, “I had a lot of angst about whether to dye my hair and then when I finally did it, I realized, ‘Oh, it’s just hair.’ It’s the same way with botox. They are just wrinkles.”

Maybe they are just wrinkles. But for me it’s a slippery slope. If I look younger, I could easily fall into believing that I am younger. If I run a half marathon, I might think I’m literally outrunning death. Lots of people do.  With plastic surgery, botox, tummy tuck, and butt lift, I never have to look my age.  I can deny I’m aging at all and I can put off doing the hard emotional work of coming to terms with death. As  much as I despise them, I need those signposts. But my furrows are not yet deep, and with age comes this wisdom: Never say never.

Christine MacLean is a mother, wife, friend, sister, daughter, and writer living in Holland, Michigan. She was the editor of, an ezine about balancing work and life, for the 12 years it existed.