Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Our Front Yard: 3 Landscaping and/or Personality Problems

Today I was standing out in the street talking to my next-door neighbor Mindy. I am not kidding when I say that every time I run into her outside, the first words out of her mouth after “Hi” are an apology for her front yard. Usually she begins with, “My yard looks so terrible,” or “My poor roses! I haven’t been taking good care of them.” Like, this is her conversational opener, I guess the same way that some people complain about the weather. What is weird about this is that her front yard always looks tidy and beautiful.

She has seasonal plantings, with flowers blooming for a lot of the year, and she has a yard service come every week and mow, edge, and clean up. So her yard is by any definition, just great. This picture was taken in early spring, when the azaleas were blooming. Right now in the same area, she has rosebushes. The little patch of pinestraw by her driveway turns into a huge Lantana bush in the summer. Her grass is like a carpet. And up by her front door, her boxwoods are trimmed into little topiary bubbles--you can see if you enlarge the pic. Looks nice.

Now, we’ve had our own yard issues, sometimes involving a letter from the Home Owners' Association, so depending on my paranoia level when I’m talking to her, I am prone to think, “Is she saying our place looks terrible? Is she trying to give me a gentle hint?" I was getting a complex about it. We have some pretty stuff growing in our yard, but unlike Mindy, we don't pay to have it professionally maintained, AND we're not much into yardwork. Matt keeps the grass mowed pretty well, and edged, and in the late spring growing season, I pulled a lot of weeds from around the things I wanted to cultivate. But hedge trimming and shaping, and mulching, not so much. The whole thing looks a little overgrown now, and it's weighing on my mind in a sort of low-grade way.

All of this was on my conscience when I was talking to Mindy. Then she told me that she had gotten at least three letters from the HOA in the last month. I was like, huh? She said that one of them was because they left their garbage can within sight for more than 24 hours. Okay. One was a complaint that her Lantana bush needed to be trimmed. And another was about an empty concrete urn up by her garage. (If you have a planter out, it's supposed to have something growing in it. But this thing is completely unnoticeable.) I was amazed that she had gotten all that flack while we have gotten one letter in the last several months. Our yard presents so, SO many more opportunities for a "friendly reminder" from the Garden Committee. So the poor woman is always apologizing for her yard, I guess, because she's always getting castigated for it. The HOA has given her an inferiority complex, while letting us, in my opinion, skate.

There are three theories for why this is so. One is Matt's, one is mine, and one is Mindy's:

Matt's: our house is set farther back from the street, and when the garden cops do their monthly driveby, they just don't notice much.

Mine: they don't send us a letter for every "violation," because their expectations for our yard are very low. In the last two years, we've taught them what level to hold us to.

Mindy's: the Garden Committee has a grudge against her personally, because for years, she was on that committee, and she was one of the garden cops. So now it's payback time.

Mindy is prone to craziness in other aspects of her life (that's a story for another day), so Matt thinks her theory is overly paranoid. I'm not sure what to think. But we are facing some challenges of our own in the yard right now.

1)The first thing that needs to happen is that our shrubs need trimming. This is daunting to me.

That hydrangea bush has now reached the top of the window, and the laurel could use some cutting. I'm not sure really what size the laurel should be, though. How much can you prune a shrub without killing it? The topography is tough here. This side of the sidewalk slopes off to a retaining wall, with about an 8-10 foot drop below it. I can't figure out where to put a ladder to cut this monster. But it really needs it. And do we need a fancy gas-powered or electric trimmer? We have old-fashioned loppers, like big scissors.

2) Also, and this hurts my soul, something is slowly killing the azaleas. Like one side of the bush will be blooming and the other side is dead. Likewise the boxwood on the other side of the driveway. I think it might be spider mites, but we've nixed the idea of putting some kind of major pesticide out in the yard. So I need to do some research or consult an expert.

3) The planted, treed area to the right of the driveway has pinestraw on the ground, pinestraw that needs to be renewed a couple of times a year. This was the planted area that the spelling geniuses at the Garden Committee said needed to be "redifined." So we need some more straw to "redifine" it, I guess. Two dudes with a truckload of pinestraw appear every now and again in the neighborhood, and I've paid them twice to clean up that area and spread straw, but I think they charge too much, so I want some new dudes.

So angst, people. I've got yard angst. There are several tons of biomass around this place that are all under my custodianship. Underlying all of this, if you haven't figured this out, is that we are CHEAP when it comes to the yard. Matt, especially, doesn't want to pay anyone to do anything because he thinks he should do it. (Remind me to tell you about when he got up on the roof to try to clean a rust stain off the chimney cap. The roof slopes at a 45 degree angle. He was wearing kitchen gloves and sneakers, and toting the garden hose and a bottle of CLR. He did not get far, but he was up there long enough for me to decide that a money market account was the best idea for the life insurance settlement in the short term, and that I shouldn't use some of it to pay off the house. I decided I would wait six months before making any major financial decisions. Then he made it down alive.)

If you are still reading, thank you. This was therapeutic for me. Same time next week?

For more not-necessarily productive list posts, check out ABDPBT's new bloggy carnival, invented this very day:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Faire Le Shopping: CVS and Publix

Dude, this week's deals were pretty fun. I didn't do a huge major shopping trip last week, and grocery supplies were running low, so it was time to make the doughnuts.

At CVS these days, I'm only going for the low-hanging fruit. I don't have tons of ecb's I need to roll over, and I'm pretty stocked on everything, so it takes something free or very close to free to get me in the door. I did two transactions yesterday--I never do that, but I'll explain. For the first transaction:
1 newspaper for $2
2 Sunsilk shampoos for $7
some clearance filler to get up to $10 (so I could use the $2 off $10 coupon)

Minus the $2 off 10 coup and $3 in coups for the shampoo, so I paid like $5 out of pocket and got $2 ecb's back. Not super great, because the shampoo was only cheap, not free. (I should have my silky, lustrous head examined because I have plenty of shampoo.)

But THEN, I took the paper out to my car and got the Cover Girl coupons out of the P&G insert. One was the get any free CG face product when you buy a CG foundation, and the other was the $1 any CG product. I went right back in and got:

Cover Girl foundation, $5.49
CG Tru Blend minerals blusher in "Pure Romance," $7.99

Here's where things got tricky. The cashier rang up those two things, and took my coups. For the free CG item, he deducted the price of the foundation, the cheaper of the two. Not sure whether he chose to do it that way or if it was automatic. I had been thinking that, since the coupon said free item wyb foundation, that I would pay for the foundation and get the other item free, thus making this a total exploit. But knowing that he was about to hand me $5.79 in ecb's (don't know why it pays off more than the cost of the foundation) made me reluctant to whine about it. I don't know how exactly that coupon is supposed to work, because it didn't specify a maximum value. Anyway, so I paid with the $2 ecb I had just gotten from the Sunsilk, and $4.xx out of pocket. After the return of $5.79 in ecbs, I profited like fifty cents. Plus the CG makeup.

Which brings me to the makeup, which I test drove when I got home. I opened the CG foundation and boy, it was like getting in a time machine. I hadn't been near CG liquid foundation since I was thirteen. It smells exactly the same. And when I was fifteen, I had a little compact of pressed powder that I used to dab on my nose. Why did I do that exactly? Anyway, the coverage seems good, but I don't use liquid makeup anymore so I have no idea how the technology has advanced. Then, the blusher. It's a big container of loose powder, and I laughed when I put it on, because it shimmers. Are we doing that now? Like, if you're a JV cheerleader on Friday night, this is the stuff for you. It made me want to practice my herky jump. Who knows? Maybe I'll go around covered in the stuff.

Then to Publix, where I had about 20 coupons. Highlights were the bogo CFL lightbulbs, which I had 2 $1 off coups for; the bogo Quaker oatmeals (with coups); the free Sara Lee bread wyb 2 Hilshire Farms lunchmeats, which were on sale AND which I had coups for; the Friendship sour cream, on sale with $.35 cent coups, doubled; and the Publix peanut butter that was the mystery penny item. Bogo Ocean Spray, Velveeta shells and cheese, Bird's Eye Voila meals. Oh, AND the awesome Food Lion $2 off $5 in produce coup. The stars aligned between sales and coupons. I got a lot of stuff that wasn't couponable too, like meat and cheese. Spent $74.05 and saved $66.12. Good times!

Then I came home and was reunited with my people (see last night's post). Thanks as always to Bren and Fiddledeedee for doing all the Publix work!

I Gotta Get That Book

Matt and the kids came home Sunday night from their weekend in Chattanooga, and we all stood in the kitchen, kissing and hugging. Matt remarked that it was warm in the house, and pulled off his shirt. (He is prone to remove clothing whenever the mood strikes him.) I kept on hugging him, while Laura eyed us thoughtfully.

"Here's something from The Dangerous Book for Wives," she said.

"The what?"

"The Dangerous Book for Wives. It says not to get too close to a man when he's naked."

I thought, "Oh Lordy, here we go." But I said, "Um, why shouldn't you get too close to a man when he's naked?"

"Because you might catch man disease."

It really explains a lot--I'm worried that I may have contracted man disease. If only I had had the benefits of that wonderful, made-up tome, The Dangerous Book for Wives, I might have been more careful. But it's too late now!

I have no idea where she gets this stuff.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fun Toy Flursday: More Cowbell

Your life is about to get a tiny bit more delightful. I offer you More Cowbell, a website that lets you upload mp3's from your own computer, choose the amount of cowbell you want added, and the amount of Christopher Walken (I recommend a lot of both--definitely don't skimp on the Walken), and then enjoy the results. It's got some fancy new technology that "listens" to the song and adds just the right cowbell track.

Somebody's crying, "We need more cowbell!"
Make your own at MoreCowbell.dj

Probably nobody else likes this song, but it just got a whole lot better:
Make your own at MoreCowbell.dj

And this one just makes me rock out with my arms over my head:
Make your own at MoreCowbell.dj

It will be fun to try and hit on the perfect combination for maximum hilarity. I think that a U2 or Coldplay song is really begging for this treatment, maybe "Yellow" or "I Will Fix You." Lemme know what you come up with.

Oh, and the "Saturday Night Live" skit with Will Ferrell and Walken (which is hard to find on YouTube, 'cause NBC keeps taking it down, but you should try if you don't remember it) reminded me to tell you that I got the "Flursday" in these post titles from an Onion headline, "NBC to Add 'Dateline: Flursday' to Lineup." This was back when "Dateline" was on seemingly every single night. So I liked the idea of a fun web thingie that I could post either on Thursday or Friday or Flursday, as the mood struck me. Other Fun Toy Flursdays here and here. And here.

Y'all have a good weekend! Matt is taking the kids away this weekend so I can have some work time. I will miss them but YAY!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Maybe a Little Less Conversation

At the beginning of the school year, I shared my views on the social rules that govern bus stop interaction for grown ups. Today there was an older woman whom I’ve seen around a few times. Her grandson rides the bus, and usually his mom, this woman’s daughter, picks him up. Once I asked the grandma if she lived near her daughter in the neighborhood. She was quick to tell me that her daughter lives with her, and she seemed affronted that I didn’t know. She said, “She lives with me. It’s my house.” I formed a negative impression of her then, based on just that brief exchange, and today my hunch was completely confirmed. So that you can share in how I had my very life force sapped this afternoon, here is our word-for-word dialogue. I had just walked up to the bus stop to find only the German au pair and this grandmother.

Me: Hi ladies.

Off-Putting Grandma: It’s hard to believe that so many kids live in this neighborhood, because it’s so quiet. (She said this with an air of accusation, as though our neighborhood kids are somehow not as robust and noisy as they should be.)

Me: Yes, it is. Though some streets are busier than others.

OPG: Oh, there are a lot of kids on your street?

Me: No, because we live in that little cul-de-sac, but the adjoining street has a lot of kids who are the same age. They’re always playing outside together.

OPG: We don’t let Trent out of our sight. There’s a lot of weird people driving through this neighborhood.

Me: There are?

OPG: Yes, you don’t see it because you don’t live on the main street.

Me: Maybe not. What are you seeing?

OPG: Years ago a man pulled up to the high schoolers waiting for the bus and flashed himself.

Me: Yuck.

OPG: And a Mexican man and a white lady wound up living in a vacant house when the neighborhood was being built.

Me: Like, they were squatters?

OPG: Yes, and we called the police, then the sheriff, then the tow trucks to get them out. If you pay attention, you see a lot of cars that don’t belong here driving through.

Me: Well, nothing exciting happens down our way. Nobody ever drives into our cul-de-sac.

OPG: Yes they do. One time a black man figured out the garage opener code of that pinkish house in the other cul-de-sac and was robbing the place. He drove up here from Dekalb to do it.

Me: Wow, that’s a long drive to break into someone’s garage. What year was that?

OPG: 1994. And that same year, a woman was out walking in Deer Creek (a nearby subdivision) and a man pulled her into the woods and raped her.

Me: Terrible. I wonder where the bus could be?

OPG: Do you live on the corner in that gray house?

Me: No, we live down in the little cul-de-sac.

OPG: Oh, are you the house down in the hole?

Me: No.

OPG: There was a handicapped man living in the gray house.

Me: He doesn’t live there anymore.

OPG: She left him or he passed away?

Me: I think he died before we moved in, and a few months ago, she moved out.

OPG: Well, one time the electricity went out and he was stuck in his garage. You say he died?

Me: I don’t really know—it was before our time. The woman there was very nice though. Look, there’s the bus!

OPG: Well, a handicapped man lived there for years.

So readers, you get the idea. I think she could have thought of terrible things to say and bad news to share until the sun went down. This encounter had so many layers of awfulness—bringing them all to light would require very patient excavation. The top layer is the total endemic racism of this woman’s worldview. Below that is her toxic negativity. And underneath that is a whole bloomin’ onion of bad things. I hope I don’t seem arrogant when I say that, based on this encounter, I now have full certainty that this woman is awful in all or most aspects of her life. Just awful. Also, everything out of her mouth was said with either a tone of rebuttal, or of very patiently explaining something to someone very stupid. So social rules or not, I am giving this woman the big chill from now on.

Other than that, it was a lovely day, and I hope you are all well.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brown Apple Slices: The Bane of Childhood

I just brought a lot of apples back from North Carolina. They are a favorite food around here, and I often send sliced apples and a cheese stick to school for Laura's snacktime. But she won't eat them if they've turned brown from oxidizing, and neither will Hank. You would think that someone who used to sneak dogfood out of the dog's bowl would not be quite so picky about his fruit.

I have only a few food tricks up my sleeve, but Alton Brown taught me that lemon or lime juice will keep fruit slices from turning brown. (I love Alton Brown, and I know that if neither of us were married we would be dating.) So what I do is slice and core the apple with one of those corer/wedger things and put the wedges straight into a baggie that I've squirted a few drops of lime juice into. Lemon juice works too, of course, but I have the bottle of lime juice around for cocktails. Then you press the air out of the baggie, close it up, and rub the apple pieces all around so they make contact with the juice. It takes so little juice that you can then just leave the slices in the bag and send it off as a snack. Or you can take those slices out and do another apple in the same baggie. Today I am cutting several apples to keep in the fridge as quick toddler food. The slices stay nice and unbrown for a long time.

Now, what I need is a trick for peeling apples. How does one do this in an elegant way, without a peeling machine? I do it the way someone who had never even seen an apple would do it if you handed her a knife and said, "Peel this." It's a pain. Sometimes I take the wedges that the corer/wedger makes and peel them individually. If I give my two year-old apple with a lot of peel on it, he will eat the apple, but keep a growing bolus of peel in his mouth, until he decides to spit it out, usually either on the couch or in my hand. Thanks, buddy! So I need a peeling trick. Lime juice on apples has been brought to you by Works for Me Wednesday. Go over there and check it out.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In Which I Grudgingly Admit That It Is Fall

I have this condition: when the weather is transitional, neither too hot nor too cool, and the seasons are changing, I will forget, momentarily, which season we're moving into. I'll think it's Spring instead of Fall. There's some basic habit of mind that comes with the weather changing, and it's like my brain has two settings: Full Seasonal Immersion, which I inhabit in Summer and Winter, and Monitor Conditions: New Season Approaching, for early Spring and Fall. I asked my mom about this, and she said she too forgets where we are seasonally. (Dad just looked at us like we were nuts.) It does not help that I have these "Encore" azaleas in my yard that bloom twice a year. Thanks, horticultural science, now I'm totally screwed up.

Coupled with this is the fact that I ALWAYS feel a twinge of regret at leaving one season behind. I feel this regret four times a year. It is kind of hilarious, but sad. I don't know if it's that I hate the sense of time passing, or that I always have things I want to accomplish in a certain chunk of the year, like "I'll do that this summer," and then summer goes by and whatever it is remains undone. And how could summer be over? It was just here. Our pool bag is still packed up and sitting on top of the dryer. We were at the pool, could it have been early last week? Maybe the week before.

Several things, though, have clued me in to the passing of summer. I turned off our air conditioner last week. I did that immediately after I opened our electricity bill for the previous month and saw that it was $227. So I switched off the AC thinking, "Well, we might have to sweat it out for a week or so." But we haven't--we went almost straight into it being a little too cool to have the windows open at night. I guess that means I should have turned off the AC sooner?

The kids and I spent the weekend up at the mountain house, and Matt stayed home to have some work time (or wild bachelor dissipation time--the can of Pringles I found next to the bathtub tells me everything I need to know about his activities while we were gone). Up there, the little tippy-tips of the maple trees were dark red and purple, and it got down into the fifties at night. I thought, "Harrumph, it's here alright." The kids played in the creek, and they felt ice cold when they got out. Of course, Hank had stripped down to nothing but his diaper. We were that family.

So okay, I'm going to get with the program. Don't get me wrong--once Fall is totally happening, I love it. I love pumpkins, I love the earlier darkness in the evening, I love my Uggs. But right now it feels hard to turn towards it. And in terms of housework, what do you guys do around your house to get ready or to change things over? One thing that comes to mind is that Laura's closet is loaded with her warm-weather clothes. I need to get her other things out of the extra closet and do a big rotation. And I need to see if last year's coat fits her, or if she's ready to move up into the next one I have. If I had a sewing machine, and a lot more time, I would love to make us a mother-daughter set of these beauties:

I might also need a time machine for that to work, but aren't they nice? I also sense that a major housecleaning is on the horizon. I would love to wash my windows from the outside too. I could stand on the ladder and use a sponge mop. Actually, that sounds scary--maybe spraying them with the hose would be good enough.

I hope you had a lovely weekend, and that wherever you are, you are making your peace with the season.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Around the House: Marimekko Wall Hangings

It's Things I Love Thursday again, and I am sharing some of my favorite things in my house. Today's post is about what might be my very favorite of all: Marimekko fabric wall-hanging kits. If you have been in my house, you can testify: I am almost evangelical about these. They are an inexpensive way to have a major decorating impact in your space. The patterns are beautiful, and there is tremendous variety available. Marimekko is a Finnish design house that's been around since 1951, and to me they are the epitome of a colorful, graphic Scandinavian look that I love, and that never goes out of style. The ones I'm highlighting are my personal picks, but there is a Marimekko pattern for every taste.

This is Kaiku. I have the green one on the right. It is 54 inches square when it is put on the frame, and it's $135 at Textile Arts, which is hands-down the best place online to buy all things Marimekko. When you order a kit, they send you four wooden frame pieces that you put together to make a stretcher, then you iron the fabric and staple it to the frame with a "craft" or light-duty staple gun. Hanging hardware is included. The kits come with very good instructions, and if I can do it, truly anyone can. For a big piece like the one above, it's good to have two people doing the stapling, but I do the smaller ones by myself. Here's how big it looks on the wall:

This wall is right by our entryway, and it's cluttered up with the thermostat, the AC intake, and (up high) the doorbell. It also had a lot of nail holes in it from the previous owner. So I needed a big gesture of some kind, and this was perfect. If you hang around blogs like Apartment Therapy, you've probably seen the Kaiku pattern--it even comes in shower curtains and tea towels. But just because something is popular is no reason not to love it!

Another great piece, if you need something big and dramatic, is the Aarni, above. This would be great in a bedroom above the bed, or even in place of a headboard. I don't have this one, but I do like to visit it on the website from time to time. I'm telling you, once you get one of these fabric hangings, you want more, and you start noticing all these corners of your house that would benefit from a little Marimekko. I'm holding myself to two pieces in the living room, because more than that might start to look too uniform. The other piece I have is above my mantle:

It's the Hevonen design, and it's a steal at $65. I love this one, with a love that exceeds the love I usually feel for material objects that don't say "Marc Jacobs" somewhere inside them. Before I got this horse, I changed the art up there with the season. I had some bright naïve paintings in the spring and summer, and the Marimekko Paasky hanging in the fall and winter.

But now that I've got the horse up there, I'm going to leave it. The colors and the scale of the design are the only thing I've really found that works with the stacked stone of the fireplace. I'll just switch out the other stuff on the mantle from time to time. And here are a few more of my favorite fabric panels--I don't have these, but I love them. The panel below was in an issue of House Beautiful, hanging above the sideboard in a dining room, and costing a fraction of the price their usual accessories do. The Satakieli:

Love it. I haven't even touched on the huge selection of kid-oriented textiles they have, but you could do many different styles of kid rooms with their stuff. Here's just one I like, and then I promise I'll quit. The Kulke:
So I've given you a sort of Becky-oriented selection, and my taste may be different from yours. I love abstracts and big, big graphics. But go poke around on Textile Arts, and you'll see lots of different kinds of florals and figurals. (If I had a sewing machine, I'd buy some of the smaller prints and make pillows.) So go take a look, and thanks for reading along--I hope you find Marimekko as refreshing and beautiful as I do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How to Win Me Over, or, Mother's Little Helper

I just got off the phone with my co-room mom, Jan. I've been trying to reach her today because we needed to touch base, and she asked me to call her after school. The teacher had emailed us and asked us to find twenty small pizza boxes, because the kids are making play-dough maps of Georgia next week. Not sure what that's gonna look like.

So I called Jan's cell, and left a message. I waited. Then I called her home phone, and left a message. Waited some more. She just called me back apologizing for having missed my calls, and explained that her kids were driving her so crazy that she "took an Excedrin or two" and locked herself in her bedroom. She heard the phones ringing, she said, but she didn't want to go out there because then her kids would know where she was.

I actually like her even more after hearing that. It endeared her to me. Plus, she is going to get the pizza boxes.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Aspects of a Weekend

Sunday night's dinner was loaf-based: Homemade bread from the bread machine, and the Twenty-Dollar Meatloaf. It's actually my sister Amy's recipe, but at our house it is the Twenty-Dollar Meatloaf, because I once called Amy to get the recipe, and instead of dialing her Skype-In number (a free call), I accidentally dialed her landline in Australia, using my cell phone. Our two-minute conversation cost twenty dollars. (In that two minutes, she reminded me that the meatloaf contains cumin and shredded cheese, so it was money well spent. She has a way with the loaf!) I also made a tomato salad with feta cheese and onion, tossed with a balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing. Usually this calls for cucumbers, but when I realized I didn't have a cucumber, I used leftover frozen peas. And it was so much better than with cucumbers! A little sweet and unexpected. Something about a cucumber is so, I don't know, dull and earnest. But the peas were delightful. Also, Mom and Dad were passing through, on their first trip to their mountain house since Mom's surgery, so it was great to see them and feed them.

Speaking of Amy, she forwarded me a nice idea: whenever your kids say something funny, write it down that minute on whatever scrap of paper is near, then date it and put it in a jar that you keep for this purpose. Sounds so much better than counting on yourself to remember it later for your journal or even your blog. My favorite is this exchange she had with her four year-old:

Amy: Ava, do you wanna wear a headband to church?
Ava: That's okay, I have a crown in my bag.

A girl has got to be prepared. And in that spirit, I gathered up my coupons and headed to CVS on Sunday, planning to maybe do the St. Ives deal, where you spend $10 on any of their skincare and get 5 ecb's. I have the BOGO coupon for the St. Ives Elements and the $1/off St. Ives coup, which would have made that deal a tiny moneymaker, I think. I was also planning to (gasp) spend some ecb's on the Scott paper towels that were on sale. They were advertised as being $5.29 for an 8-pack, and I had a $1/off coupon. And we need paper towels. But my nearest CVS didn't have the Scott. It wasn't that they had run out. They didn't even have a space for them. And the stockboy I asked was like, "Huh, Scott who? Paper what?" So in a fit of pique I left with nothing but a thirteen-cent bag of marshmallows from clearance.

At Publix, though, I spent $63 and "saved" $72. I wouldn't have spent that much, but back by the clearance shelf, they had Filtrete air-conditioner filters BOGO. This deal was not advertised in the circular I saw--don't know if it was only my store, but dang, check into it. So the filters, in assorted sizes, were $12.99, AND there were $2 peelies on the display. So I bought four filters, used four coupons, and paid about $4.50 each. And they were the micro-allergen kind. It does not take much to make me happy. I also scooped up:

Two bags of dogfood for $6 apiece from clearance. You never know what's back there.

Juicy Juice 2 for $5, with printable coupons making them $1.50 each. (Always check Fiddledeedee for printable coups!)

Organic Valley Milk, two half-gallons. Stacked the manufacturer coupons from Greenwise with one Publix Baby Club coup, making it $3.50/gallon.

BOGO Goldfish crackers, no coupon or nothin'.

BOGO Kozy Shack rice pudding. I had already used the Kozy Shack coupons on an earlier bogo. But I am so hooked that I just bought the stuff. And my kids don't eat it so it's all mine. I am running wild over here.

And I bought cumin for the Twenty-Dollar Meatloaf, which wasn't cheap. And there was more, but it was boring. How did y'all do?

Friday, September 12, 2008

I Are Room Mom Now: Part Deux

Last week I posted about the startling news that I am the Room Mom for Laura's second grade class. I was a little trepidatious, not because of the official duties, but because I knew there were "unofficial" or secret duties, like collecting money for teacher gifts, that I wasn't sure how to go about. Also, my two year-old creates some drag on my in-room volunteering. (I know I was not alone in my need to be clued in, because that post got a lot of traffic from folks googling "room mom duties.") You guys advised me to delegate and be very clear about what I could and couldn't do. I emailed Jan, the other mom who had said she wanted to help with crafts. I asked her to be Co-Room Mom (everyone loves a title), and suggested we divide up the work. She agreed. And there was a meeting of all Room Moms up at school yesterday. So here's what I learned and here's what I'm doing.

In our school, the Room Moms do these things:
  • Write to all the parents once or twice a year and solicit donations that will be used to pay for two class parties, teacher gifts, and special treats and activities during Teacher Appreciation Week.
  • Keep a ledger of all money received and spent, and give the ledger to the principal in May.
  • Create and maintain the schedule of weekly classroom volunteers, send out reminders to parents.
  • Oversee the planning of the two classroom parties.
  • Solicit donated stuff from parents for an auction basket, as a PTA fundraiser in December.
  • Coordinate with the parents of each month's birthday kids about the in-class celebration.
  • Be in charge of doing a monthly craft project with the class (our class only--I don't think other rooms are doing this).

Donations: A big part of the Room Mom meeting was spent talking about collecting money to fund class activities. I was glad that it was the big focus, because this is the part I was most in the dark about. In the next week, I am going to send out an email, and send a letter with each kid, introducing myself and Jan, listing what events we have planned, and asking for a voluntary contribution of cash. They'll make the checks out to me, and I'll keep track of the kitty. Our guidelines say that each family can contribute no more than $50 for the year to the Room Mom fund. (Any more than that needs to go to the teacher for her craft fund, or to the PTA. Some Room Moms are going to solicit money twice this year, with a max of $25 each time, but we have the option of doing it just once for the whole year, and I would rather go that route.

I think this part requires some tact, because I know there are families with multiple kids in school who just can't write another check for this. Plus, times are hard out there. There are plenty of non-monetary things the class needs, though, and the letter will talk about those too. The money that goes in and out needs to be kept track of; the principal told us that she gets calls at the end of the year from parents who want to know what the class spent their money on, and she likes to be able to give them an exact accounting. Our Room Mom last year sent this ledger out to all of the parents, at least a couple of times.

The No-Cash Option: One woman raised her hand and said that her child's teacher had decreed that she didn't want money collected at all--that parents were to donate food and material things but no cash. That would definitely be one way to go. Then kids could bring individual gifts if they wanted, but there would be no class gift. It's good to clarify with the teacher which way she prefers. As I write this, this way is making more sense to me. My class is not like this, though.

Parties and Auction Basket: At Open House, Mrs. S had parents sign under the event they wanted to help with, then she gave those lists to me. In the next couple of days, I will email each group of parents to confirm that they're willing and able to work on that activity, and I'll ask one of them to designate herself as the head of that event. There were tons of moms for each party and only one person for the auction basket. Guess she gets to be in charge of that.

In-class Volunteers: Mrs. S also gave each parent a list of weekly volunteer needs, so they could check off which they were willing to do. Jan, my Co-Room Mom, is going to be in charge of the weekly volunteer scheduling. This was the part of the job that I was most dreading, because 1) it just sounds dreadful to me, and 2) I can't go and fill in on short notice, if someone cancels, because of the toddler situation. My impression of our Room Mom last year was that she did a lot of in-class stuff herself. I am not able to do that. I gave Jan the parent volunteer interest forms and she's going to start scheduling.

Monthly Crafts: Jan is really into this. Mrs. S wants them to be seasonally appropriate but "not too complicated." I didn't hear any other Room Moms mention crafts.

Monthly Birthday Celebrations: I know all the kids' birthdays, as do their own mothers, presumably. And I know the dates every month that Mrs. S wants to have cake. So all I have to do is email a couple of moms a month and tell them when to bring cake. I don't remember ever, ever having an in-class observation of my birthday. I think this might be new.

Teacher Gifts: At the meeting they supplied us with a little "Teacher Wishlist" form with spaces for the teacher to put her favorite foods, interests, and favorite stores (Ann Taylor Loft. All teachers love Ann Taylor Loft. And Target.) There were other little bits of info, like favorite color and favorite takeout lunch. Even if you don't have a handy form given to you, it would be good to get this info somehow. I was going to email another teacher I know who is a friend of Mrs. S. The thing around here is to give a big gift card from the class at the Christmas and end of the year parties.

So what to do right now? We're in the start-up phase of the school year, and if you are a Room Mom, and there's no big meeting organized for you guys, this is a good time to meet with the teacher and find out:

  • What her expectations are--some teachers do a lot of this stuff themselves, or some may want lots of computer help or other kinds of involvement from parents.
  • Get the other parents' contact info from her--you will need it to make a class directory and get the ball rolling on donations and volunteering. (At our school you have to have permission to include someone's info in a contact list, and Mrs. S already had them indicate whether they wanted to be included or not, so be sure to respect people's preference.)
  • What kind of gifts she likes, if you're going that route.

Then find someone to help you, whether it's someone who signed up for a lot of things, or another parent you already know. There really are not a lot of great Room Mom resources on the web. There is this place, but it kind of talks to you as though you're new to our planet. It has some sample forms, though, like a Teacher Info/Wishlist thing. Maybe more good stuff if you dig. What I really like, actually, is Family Fun Magazine. I just started getting this, and unlike some family mags (I'm looking at you, Cookie) it's filled with things that don't actually cost money. Their website has tons of cute and doable crafts, like these guys:

Presh. Okay, maybe only I like those. But I hope this helps give you an idea of what's involved in Room Momming, and also that you don't have to enslave yourself. So much depends upon the teacher, not just on her wishes but on her degree of organization and how on-the-ball she was at the outset in getting volunteer commitments from parents. I hope you have a coalition of the willing to draw upon. And I would love to hear how it works where you are, and what you guys have planned. Here's to a good year, y'all!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Around the House: Rush-Seat Stools

Decorating my house is a favorite pastime of mine, and I'm going to start writing about it now and then. By decorating, I don't (usually) mean shopping. I love finding new ways to use what we have and to buy strategically. After living in small apartments for years (hey California!), I am reveling in having the space to live with more things I like, to do stuff like seasonal decorating, and to mix things around to keep them fresh. Maybe in my next lifetime I'll work on that whole Zen simplicity thing, but in the meantime, I love stuff! There are lots of things in my house that give me pleasure every day. As part of Things I Love Thursdays over at Diaper Diaries, I'll be sharing some of my favorite things here at home.

Today I want to show you my rush seat stools, and to suggest that you might want to have some around. Here's how this came about: I love magazines like House Beautiful and Domino, and it's fun to try to translate their ideas to my non-gazillionaire lifestyle. In the April 2007 issue of House Beautiful there was an apartment decorated by David Netto (designer of all that drool-worthy and super expensive baby furniture). The article opened with a two-page spread--here's a piece of it.

Okay, check out the stools in front of the coffee table. You might want to embiggen the picture. I have memorized every detail of this apartment (you can see all the pictures here), but I really loved the idea of having low stools in front of a coffee table. That was the takeaway for me. It just seemed fresh and kid friendly. I didn't recognize the stools and they weren't sourced in the article, but by looking around online, I realized they are by Hans Wegner, the Danish midcentury designer, and they can be yours for $469 each at Room and Board. Yes, they are $469 each. Beautiful, and so sturdy you could park a Volvo on them, but ouch.

So I set about finding a cheaper version. To me the key design features of these were the proportions--they need to be about the same height or a little lower than a coffee table, which is about 15 inches high usually, and the rush seat. Actually, the Wegner stools are papercord, but it's the fiber look that's important. I didn't have much luck. Months went by. Then I found Plow and Hearth, the online/catalog company. Now I would not usually think of them, because they seem to sell a lot of things adorned with chickens, but they had a collection of rush stools.

Alright, now to the modern-loving eye, these are a tad more traditional than the Wegner version. They have turned legs, for one thing. But I like the little stool and the bench. And the small footstool, the one shown in black, is $69. STILL seems high if you love to thrift-shop like I do, but I took a chance on a couple and they are worth it. I love having flexible, portable kid seating, and they add a little interest to the room. Here's my sunroom (this was taken last year when Hank was a tinier tot):

So, this room ain't Netto, but it sure was affordable. And I love how the darker wood wound up working with my painted furniture, though trying some of those other paint colors could be fun. The wood kind of grounds all the paler colors, and the stools made the room seem a little more "finished." Both Hank and Laura find these stools to be a great size for working at the coffee table, or moving around to different places. They don't take up much floor space--I recommend them if you want a little shot of something new.

So thanks for reading along. And if anyone knows where I can get a cheaper version of that vintage French midcentury desk in the Netto apartment, let me know right away. Because it is gorgeous. Or, I know, it's probably at Ikea.

Oh, and the whole time I was putting this post together, I could not stop thinking of the "Stool Boom" song from Waiting for Guffman. So I'll just leave you with:

"You will drool at the splendor of these magic stools.
It's the rule, everyone has a stool.
Just three legs, it's the thing for which a monarch begs.
Hock your jewels, use the money for stools!”

Monday, September 8, 2008

We Got Hot Spots

Right after we put the kids to bed every night, I come downstairs and survey the wreckage. The supper dishes are still on the table, and the living room and sunroom are littered with toys, books, and dirty clothes. The couches are in total disarray, and often there's a makeshift fort that needs to be dismantled. The floor of the book room is usually covered with dominoes and puzzle pieces. Sometimes there's a special, awful mess somewhere, like when Hank pulled handfuls of gravel out of the fishbowl. So as I stand there taking stock of all that, I tell you, it is the dark night of the soul. I am trying, though, to practice the Flylady's teachings, and I've gotten the dark night of the soul down to about twenty minutes.

If you have not heard of Flylady, she is all about having systems and routines to make housekeeping and decluttering a normal and painless part of everyday life. (Kind of like the Home Comforts book I've preached about here before.) A few times over the years, I've signed up for the Flylady's email reminders. The website emails you multiple times a day with encouragement, tips, and little missions like, "Go organize your shoes," or, her rallying cry, "Go shine your sink!" So I never stay subscribed to the emails because it is a lot of email. But the underlying principles are rock solid. I love her site and the fact that it has gotten not one bit slicker in the last seven years. The only lesson of hers that I've really made a long-term success of is the before bed routine. I don't do it at my bedtime though, but right after the kids go to bed. Flylady's before bed routine is:
  • Spend twenty minutes tidying the house, cleaning the kitchen, and clearing your hot spots. A hot spot is anyplace where clutter tends to gather, like a hall table--a place that, unless it is constantly attended to, will become a monster that eats your sanity.

  • Think about tomorrow, check your calendar, start a to-do list, make sure kids have what they need to get out the door, lay out your clothes.

  • Focus on yourself and your partner: do your nighttime grooming and bedtime thing.

And if that is too overwhelming, she boils it down to: clean your kitchen sink, lay out your clothes, and brush your teeth. I love that about Flylady--she never makes you feel like you can't measure up. So anyway, I can count on Matt to clean the kitchen. That leaves me doing the tidying. First I gather up the kids' clothes that have been strewn around, and start a load of laundry. It will be ready to fold when "The Daily Show" comes on. Next: toys. I grab this thing:

Unfolded, it is an awesome road playmat. It was a gift for Hank from my mom, but it costs about $15. Folded up, it is a roomy and perfect container for all toys with wheels. I chuck them into this thing, then stash it in one of the cabinets next to the fireplace. It really makes this part of the day easier. In the morning when Hank pulls it out, all his cars are ready to go. Then I pick up and stash all other kid stuff by category--books, art stuff, and tiny things.

Next I put all the furniture (!) back where it goes and straighten up the couches. (I like throw pillows, and Hank likes to throw them.) I start to enjoy the routine at this point, because the lineaments of my tidy rooms are starting to emerge. Finally, I put Laura's shoes, socks, and schoolbag all together and put her snack in her bag. I make her lunch if I didn't do it earlier, putting out not one but two reminder-notes that say, "Lunch in fridge." One goes on her shoes and one goes on the door where Matt will see it in the morning. Then I make a cocktail and sit down to catch up on the episodes of "Mad Men" I have tivoed.

So what is missing from my routine is any real attention to our hot spots. Sometimes I feel like our entire house and life is a hot spot. But we truly need a system to deal with paperwork and mail. Right now, the upper, non-food prep section of my kitchen counter is an undifferentiated pile of papers that are kinda important, or I haven't looked at them yet, or maybe I need to look at them again, or I need to do something else with them. I pay most bills online, many of them automatically, so this is. . .other stuff, I don't know. That's the system. I have an office--it is where paper goes to die. I could never put any piece of paper there that I needed to touch again, because the office is the Place of Forgetting. It doesn't look too bad in the office, but that's because the mess is in the kitchen. Maybe every two weeks, I make some progress with reducing the pile.

So, toy organization, I'm good. We can sit down at night for Adult Time without feeling like we live in a daycare. Paper system, sorely needed. I would love to know what y'all have got going on, or if everyone lives like this? That's where I'm at. Thank you for your time and attention.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

I Totally Get It, Michael Corleone

CVS, man. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. I hadn't set foot in a CVS in three weeks. Then tonight I noticed that this week--the week ending 9/06--was the week to spend $15 on Neutrogena skincare and get $5 "extra care bucks" back. I actually happen to use their Anti-Oxidant Age Reverse Day Lotion with SPF 20 Helioplex every day, and I'd just this morning cut the end off the old tube with scissors to get one more squeeze out of it, so I was stoked. I bustled over there. I took Hank with me, because when I said I was going out, he fell down on the floor crying, "Don't leave, Mama! Don't leave! That's not right!" He says that now: "That's not right." We think it's hilarious, mostly.

So to cut to the chase, at CVS I purchased:

  • the Neutrogena lotion, $17.99 (spend $15 and get $5 ecb's)
  • a Covergirl Wetslicks "Amazemint" lipgloss, $5.99 (and get $5.99 in ecb's back)

  • Total was almost $26.
  • minus $10 ecb I already had from something (it was expired but they took it anyway)
  • minus $5 ecb from the Banana Boat deal a few weeks ago (in which I used what turned out to be one of those sketchy coupons from Facebook--that was my only one but I still feel like a criminal)
  • minus a $2 off a $10 purchase coupon
  • Paid $9 out-of-pocket
  • Received $10.99 back in ecb's.

So I turned 9 bucks of my cash into $11 of money I can spend there, and gave up my ecb's on something I buy anyway. Seems like a good dip into the CVS pool.

I was really not in the game anymore. For the last couple of weeks, I was either out of town or had so much going that I didn't want to think and plan any CVS raids. There is only so much thinking, planning, and caring that I can do. Anybody else have this cyclical burn-out thing going? I even let my ecb's expire. That's right. I let $10 in ecb's expire. I didn't even run in there and spend them on diapers or paper towels like you're supposed to. I just let them sit in my wallet. For a while back in the summer, I knew what deals were coming up weeks in advance and I hoarded coupons to match them, so letting those ecb's go was huge for me. (But they took them anyway, woohoo!)

So tomorrow is a new CVS week, and I'm going to take a look-see around the web and see what the experts are buzzing about. I need to get back in the loop, actually, because I just realized I have only two rolls of paper towels left. Eek! If none of the above has made any sense to you, but you are curious, here's where to go for a primer. Iheartcvs is encyclopedic when it comes to the weekly deals and what coupons are out there; Carrie at Shoplifting With Permission has a great battle plan for this week; and the venerable Money Saving Mom has a CVS 101 AND weekly deal explanations, plus a whole ton of other stuff.

I am but a humble acolyte in this world, but I do recommend it--when you are on the ball, you figure out that you can pretty much pay nothing for the stuff they sell at the drugstore--toiletries, baby stuff, household paper goods and cleaning products, and some groceries like cereal. You just have to wait for the time to strike, be willing to stockpile, and not care what brand you get. Then, when your neighbors get a peek at your garage stuffed with Charmin, they will think you're unstoppable. And you are.

Edited to add Sunday's hot CVS action:

  • 3 Revlon nail polishes, $3.99 each and Sun and Mon only, get 3 ecbs back each
  • 1 newspaper, $2
  • Total, almost $15
  • Minus $2 off $10 purchase coupon
  • Minus $6 in Revlon coupons (3 x $2 off any cosmetic--I successfully hoarded AND used these!)
  • Total $6.61, paid with the $5.99 ecb from yesterday's Covergirl deal.
  • Total out-of-pocket, fifty-something cents.
  • Received $9 in ecbs

So basically I turned the $5.99 in ecb's into $9, and as my friend Brenda would say, the nail polish was just sediment. I have a whole other deal in mind involving L'Oreal and Chex Mix, but I'm not really a two-transactions-a-day girl, which is what I would need to do to maximize the $2 off 10 coupon. Then I went to Publix and practically robbed the place, spending $27 and "saving" $37, according to the receipt. Lots of good coupons in the paper today. (For Publix logistics, Fiddledeedee is the queen--check her out.) The baggers crowned me with laurels and carried me on their shoulders to my car. Then I came home and took the kids to the pool.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Delightful Potpourri

Fact: I am making bread while lying on the couch. How, you ask? It seems that there are machines that make bread, automagically. It is a brave new world, y'all. Today is Matt's and my 13th wedding anniversary, and he brought me one of these contraptions. It is shiny and serious looking, and it has a little window in the top so you can spy on the dough. I haven't tasted the bread yet, but through the window it looks like it will be tasty. I'm hoping that I can save some dough (oh ho!) by making bread for sandwiches. Anybody know if this will actually be cheaper than buying store bread? There's some kind of "bread machine flour" that the thing likes, it may be more expensive, I don't know, but the manual says all-purpose flour is okay too. We'll see! If I get brave I might try it with the fruit and nut dispenser.

Opinion: John McCain looks tired. While my bread friend is toiling in the kitchen, I'm watching the repubs. He just finished his speech. I know all the commentators have been going on and on about how boring a speaker JM is, but wow. I feel like somebody slipped me a roofie. And not in a fun way. Then they dropped the balloons and confetti, and all the McCain and Palin family members were standing up on that black stage while crazy lights flashed around them, and the whole effect was just. . .mournful. John and Cindy and their kids looked like people in a bar when they turn the lights back up at 2am. And I thought, they're not feeling great about this. At that exact moment, Wolf Blitzer intoned, "Well, when you drop that wonderful confetti and balloons, Anderson, it just really gets the party going." Only, his tone sounded like he was saying, "I will never feel joy again."

Extracurriculars: We are getting our back-to-school activity schedule lined up. Laura has an art class on Thursdays (she thinks it's called "mixed-up media"), and she's about to start Jump Rope Club at school. This will be cool, I think. On Mondays, they get together after school and learn "individual and group rope techniques." The club runs the whole year and only costs $15. Woot! For this they get a t-shirt and a jump rope, and they can perform at school functions. I am not huge on having lots of extra activities. We try to keep it to one thing at a time. Do y'all try to limit these things? Last fall Laura did soccer (ugh), then gymnastics through the county parks and rec, then we started up swimming again in February. She's also taken gymnastics at a private gym. But around here it seems like, unless your kid gets to be on an invited gymnastic team at one of the gyms, the classes just don't really do anything. And I don't think she will be the next Nastia Whatshername. So we're trying some new things--I'm excited! My Frenemy Neighbor has also offered to give her piano lessons, so I'm considering that, kind of.

Sorcery: The other day, Laura took her new thermos to school for the first time. When she got home, she said, "When I drank my milk, it was like it just came out of the fridge! How did you do that? Are you some kind of wizard?" The answer is YES.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I Are Room Mom Now?

(Edit: My newer post with MUCH more info about Room Mom stuff is here.)

Last week I went to Curriculum Night in Laura's classroom, and afterwards another mom and I were chatting with Mrs. S, the teacher. Mrs. S looked at me and said, "You were the only person to volunteer to be a Co-Room Mom, and nobody volunteered to be Room Mom, so I guess that makes you the Room Mom."

I sort of smiled, trying to keep my expression open, yet non-committal, while encouraging her to elaborate, while trying to look like I might know what the heck she was talking about. Reader, we sent a bunch of forms to school, and I am 99% sure that I did not check the little box that said I wanted to be a Co-Room parent. I checked several other boxes, saying that I wanted to help with reading groups, be a Mystery Reader, and help organize the parties, but I would not have volunteered to be Co-Room Parent, much less Room Parent, because right on the form it says, "When volunteering in the classroom and working with students, the school respectfully requests that other arrangements are made for younger siblings." And see, I have Mr. Hank, my two year-old man friend I take everywhere. Mr. Hank, he don't want no "other arrangements."

So I sort of stammered brightly, and while I was doing that, Mrs. S went on to explain that she is very low-maintenance, and that if I will just coordinate with the parents of the birthday kids each month about the class celebration, and make and maintain the schedule of parent volunteers every week, then the big class Christmas and End of the Year parties are not really any trouble because there are only two, and plenty of people want to help with those. And also, she likes it if they have a seasonal craft every month or so, but nothing too complicated.

When crafts were mentioned, the other mom came to life and allowed as how she had been a preschool teacher and had a spare bedroom filled with kid art supplies. Now, I can do crafts, but it's certainly not where my star shines the brightest, so I turned to her and said, "Please be in charge of crafts." (She didn't positively commit right then, but I'm going to email her into submission.)

So I don't know what happened in there, but somehow I wound up agreeing to do it, or more accurately, pretending that I had volunteered. That woman is persuasive. But when Laura brought home the volunteer forms filled out by all of the parents, for me to collate and make into volunteer schedules, my form was not in the pile, I think because it did not have the little box by Co-Room Parent checked. Hmmm.

I'm not worried about the official duties, though I have a lot going on and don't relish another administrative task, but what gives me pause are all the "unofficial" things that Mrs. S wasn't telling me, probably because a lot of it involves buying her gifts. Last year's Room Mom, who should have been running General Motors, collected a donation from all the families, then sent out an Excel spreadsheet detailing our contributions (anonymously, of course) and what they would be spent on--mainly party slush fund and teacher gifts. So I feel I need a crash course in all the unofficial or unspoken Rules of the Room Parent. Anyone have any experience with this?

There's a meeting of all Room Parents (who are we kidding, let's just say moms) next week. So maybe I'll get briefed. But I would love to hear any tips or cautionary tales. If I am going to do it, I don't want to screw it up and be lackluster, you know? Help?

(This has been a post for DOES NOT Work For Me Wednesday.)