IKEA Builds Character

Photo by Alexander Isreb from Pexels

The Swedish store Ikea might be known for its assemble-your-own furniture, but in my house, each project turns into what could only be classified as “Assemble-Your-Own Rollercoaster of Emotions.”

Since our family downsized to a modest 2-bedroom home five years ago, Ikea and its compact line of furniture with a minimalist mindset has been a crucial ingredient in our ongoing quest to live life in a smaller space. I have to admit that I love the way Ikea items come in compact boxes with just a booklet of illustrated instructions, an Allen wrench, and a variety of bolts, brackets, and pegs. Such a vote of confidence! It’s as if to say, We believe in you. We know you can build this!

Until recently, our four children haven’t had the luxury of their own room. But now that our oldest two are adults living in their own apartments, our two youngest, ages 13 and 16, are gleefully spreading out, one claiming a small but sunny bedroom on the main floor, the other setting up an impressive “man cave” down in our partially finished basement.

Reese is 16. His basement man cave consists of a favorite Van Gogh print, a record player for his impressive vinyl collection, a bean bag chair, and a video game system. All it lacked, it seemed, was a bed. He’d graduated from the bunk bed that served him well until a growth spurt catapulted him into the stratosphere. It was time for a real bed, replete with built-in drawers and shelves.

This was a job for IKEA — and Reese, who would have to assemble his own bed.

My son started the task with a certain expression of excitement, hope, and determination on his face. He tore into the boxes, quickly opened the instruction booklet, and set to work.

“Do you need any help?” I asked.

“No Mom, I’ve got this,” said Reese. “This is my challenge for the day.”

Two hours later: “Need any help?”

“Nope! This is going to take longer than I thought, but I’m fine!”

By lunch time, I hadn’t seen him emerge from the man cave. From the top of the stairs, I could hear muffled muttering. I tiptoed down the stairs. Did I just hear a curse word?? I wasn’t going to press the issue. I recognized the flush of frustration in my son’s face as his eyes darted back and forth between the partially assembled bed, the instructions, then back to the bed. His shoulders sagged.

“Why is this side a whole inch lower than the other side?” he asked me. The bed was unmistakably lopsided. We spent a few minutes comparing the structure to the line drawings in the booklet. We located an upside-down piece. Crisis averted. Sighing deeply, my son took up the Allen wrench and set to the task of disassembling a few pieces in order to fix the errant board. I decided to back away slowly. A few minutes later, I brought him some lunch and a cold drink. He was going to need nourishment for the afternoon ahead.

Thirty minutes later: “How’s it going?”

“Better, Mom! Thanks for lunch. I’m not going to let this bed win. I know I can do this!”

The afternoon progressed with occasional scuffling and banging noises coming from the man cave. On a bright note, I didn’t hear any more muttering or cursing.

This is the genius of Ikea. A humble item of furniture becomes so much more — it is transformed into an object of prey: Something that must be chased, wrangled, and dominated. My son went into the arena armed only with an Allen wrench and a firmly set jaw. He came out beaten, battered … but victorious.

Later that evening, I visited Reese in his man cave. He was surrounded by the trappings of his very own kingdom: the vinyl collection, the video games, and the beanbag chair. But there, as he proudly displayed the completely assembled bed, he looked different to me. His eyes were brighter, his shoulders broader. There was a swagger that hadn’t been there before.

He had assembled the rollercoaster of emotions, clung tightly during the twists and turns — and came out triumphant.

Originally published Aug. 20, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

When you don’t have time for a break

Tips for Taking 10-Minute Mini Vacations

I saw a meme this week about making this a “No”vember—saying no to too much, therefore saying no to stress and overwhelm. Buying our small house was our way of saying “no” to a crippling mortgage bill, and our family has said “no” to overconsumption and keeping up with the Joneses. But, the idea of an actual “No” vember just doesn’t seem possible. The rhythm of our life as a Library Marketer, a High School Band Director, two active kids living at home and two more active adult children living nearby means that November is filled with play rehearsals, band rehearsals, performance after performance, on top of all our regular events and commitments. I mean, these are all things we enjoy doing. It’s just … there’s so much of it all at once.

And I’m just talking about November. I’m not letting myself think about December yet.

I figure this is as good a time as any to remind myself, and you, my dear readers, that it’s these times when you don’t have time to take a break that it’s most important to take a break!

Sure, you want to pack your bags and hop on the nearest plane and leave everything behind. But that’s going to have to wait until later, when things calm down. Right now, break your “vacation” into chunks. Ten minute chunks. You have ten minutes, don’t you?


1. Soak your feet
I have a bag of scented epsom salts in my linen closet. Use a clean tub big enough to fit both your feet and make the water as hot as you can stand it. The steam, combined with the luxurious warmth, plus the aroma of the scent (my favorite is peppermint, but lavender is lovely, too) can take your mind away from it all for a few moments. Don’t forget to have a fluffy towel and some lotion nearby!

2. Make a cup of tea
And don’t use just any cup, either. Put the tea in a proper china cup, or use your favorite mug. It should be pretty to look at and feel good in your hands. Hold the cup with both hands. Breathe deeply and sip slowly!

3. Do ONE THING, start to finish
This is something I struggle with—multitasking! I usually have something in the oven, a load in the washer, the vacuum out, and I’m trying to do everything at the same time. If I’m on my laptop, I routinely have 20 tabs open. Shake it up: pick ONE THING, then do it. Start it, then finish it, all in one sitting. I’m always surprised at how accomplished I feel when I do this, instead of my normal routine of starting 50 projects and finishing none of them.

4. Make a list. Use a good pen.
Do you love lists? I do! I make at least one every day. (I probably love them too much.) I’ve found making shorter lists get better results. Think about (maybe while you sip your tea?) three things that are a priority today. Write them down. Oh, and always use a good pen. I love gel pens, or Sharpie pens. I love my fountain pen the most, but not for lists. The fountain pen is for writing letters.

5. Write a letter
Or a note, or just a postcard. It feels good to let someone else know you’re thinking of them. It doesn’t even have to be their birthday.

6. Go for a walk
My dog makes sure I stick to this routine, but of course, you can take a walk alone, too. Skip the earbuds and listen to the sounds in your neighborhood. Take deep breaths, too. When I’m at work, I try at least once a day to walk through the building to hand deliver something or ask someone a question in person instead of sending an email. Gets the blood flowing, and gets you in touch with your surroundings!

7. Set a timer and take a cat nap
I admit, sometimes my catnaps turn into mega-naps. Because, well, naps. I live for them! But even just putting your feet up, laying back and closing your eyes for 10 minutes can recharge you. Don’t use the time to worry or plan or check email. Just be. And if you find that hard to do, play some soothing music to keep your mind focused.

How do you treat yourself to a mini-vacation? Share in the comments!

We bought a little camper

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a camper,
which is kind of the same thing.”

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The fun started when we rented an RV for our family vacation this past summer: a 32-foot monstrosity with room enough for 8 to sleep. It was a bucket-list item that we wanted to try: load up the whole tribe, traverse the Midwest, and end up at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. For a week, we were all together with our four kids, ranging from age 12 to 23, plus our son’s girlfriend, seeing the sights, watching Old Faithful erupt, searching the scenery for bears, elk, and moose (our efforts were rewarded on all counts). There was so much laughter and singing. We hiked and climbed, oohed and aahed. Books and playlists were shared. There were so. many. chess games. It’s a trip we’ll remember for a long time.

We’ve done a lot of tent camping over the years. Taking babies and toddlers and young children to a campground is work, but it’s also magical. The outdoors is the perfect playground for kids. But as my husband likes to say, “As time goes on, the ground gets harder.” Our rented RV opened our eyes to the convenience of having a little place to come in from out of the rain, while not missing out on the campfires and simplicity of camping.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Band Director at the wheel of the rented RV. It’s a 32-foot monstrosity and he handled it like a pro!

Soon after returning from Yellowstone, we bought a camping trailer. Our little teardrop is more compact, more suited for weekend getaways. It sleeps 3.

Our “new-to-us” little camper!

Check out this photo of us on our maiden voyage. Next to us is our friend’s car. She slept in a specially fitted tent for her Prius, called a Habitent. It’s pretty awesome. It transformed her little car into a wilderness getaway. Plus, she added twinkly lights which gets my full approval.

So, I stand by the fact that the happiest times of my life are spent in small spaces: my small house (a.k.a. the Cozy Cottage); a college dorm room; cabins in Michigan; bedtime stories in my kids’ treehouse. We don’t need a lot of space to feel happy and peaceful: in fact, it’s my experience is that the smaller the space, the more expansive the joy.

I’m looking forward to big adventures in the beautiful world in our little house on wheels!

Worst Case Scenarios

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

My hidden superpower is coming up with worst case scenarios. For any given situation, I’m pretty adept at imagining the most catastrophic outcome. Thousands of times a day in my mind’s eye, I see myself tripping, or having something dropped on me; getting into a car accident; being mugged; ending up with a black eye or broken limb; being publicly humiliated. (Funny, but the time I actually did fall on my face, I wasn’t thinking about a worst cast scenario at all–I was just walking my dog.)

This morning, my son, who is headed to college in a few weeks, needed to go to the campus to get a correction made on some paperwork. It required him to bring in his social security card and his drivers license. We agreed on a wake-up time, I checked how traffic would look that time of morning, and we went to sleep. Even in sleep, my mind took over and provided me with a horrifying alternative outcome:

My Dream:

We wake up to realize we overslept. Then we see that it’s snowing. My car won’t start, so we just barely catch a rickety bus out of town. The bus driver, running behind schedule, speeds up to make up for time, and the bus nearly tips over going around a curve in the slushy snow. Finally, we trudge our way to the college admissions office only to discover my son forgot his social security card at home. We catch the rickety/scary bus back home, retrieve the SS card, and just as we’re about to leave, our dog escapes. Wait–actually it’s two dogs, one I’ve ever seen before. (Have I forgotten that we’re petsitting?) Now it’s raining. We have to round up the two wet dogs and clean them up. Once that’s done, we remember our original mission: the paperwork! This time, thankfully, my car starts. Just as the sun is setting, we get to the admissions office and successfully finish our errand. *whew*

Reality:

  • We wake up. On time.
  • The sun is out. My son plays some Beatles’ tunes and we sing in the car.
  • The woman working at the admissions desk is friendly, warm, and helpful.
  • My son borrows a pen to fill out a form.
  • We get the paperwork corrected.
  • Done by 9:30 a.m.

The scenarios in my head rarely turn out to be anything like reality. I don’t know why my brain does that. I’m having a delightfully non-eventful day today. I’ve hung out some laundry to dry in the sun, I made a nice lunch with my daughter, and now I’m writing in my favorite spot with a cold drink beside me. I’m going to take a break from worst case scenarios for a little while–at least, as long as I’m awake. I hope you do the same.

xoxo,
Carol

Pie is our Family Crest

My sister made me this Michigan Blueberry pie … with our Great-Aunt Anna’s piecrust recipe, of course.

The story is legend in my family: My oldest son, Clark, was a teenager when I entered the kitchen and found him, mid-bite, eating a piece of the pie I had just finished making. The realization came over me slowly as I took in the scene: his fork slid slowly out of his mouth while he looked over and locked eyes with mine. Although his eyes remained fixed sideways on me, his body remained forward, leaning over the pie plate where his left arm was positioned like a protective sentinel against like-minded key lime enthusiasts. Looking down, I saw that this wasn’t his first bite.

“I accidentally ate half the pie, Mom.”

Actually, it sounded more like, “I akthidentally athe half thuh pie, Mom.” (His mouth was still full, after all.)

He didn’t necessarily mean it apologetically; he stated this as mere fact, offered up as a logical explanation for the scene before me.

It remains a question in our family to this day: Can one eat half a pie, accidentally?

If I had to choose a family crest–symbols to represent our family’s interest and priorities–there would be music notes. Probably books or a pen. And most definitely pie.

When I got married, my sister gave me a handful of recipe cards written in her confident handwriting. She’d married more than a decade earlier, so I trusted her to vet all the best recipes. Among them was “Tanta Anna’s No-Roll Pie Crust.” It remains today to be the only pie crust I’ve ever made. I may never venture into the world of pie crusts shaped with wooden rolling pins. Tanta Anna (my great-aunt), and her hand-shaped pie crusts have sustained me and my family for decades, long after she’s left this earth.

Birthday pies have replaced birthday cakes in our house. When I went on a no-sugar diet for several weeks, I just switched over to making pie crusts for quiche. With my very hungry husband and four hungry children, there have been countless pies I’ve baked that I never got a crumb of. These days, with two teenage boys plus a tween with bottomless stomachs, I abide by a two-pie rule. If you’re gonna make one, you might as well make a second so everyone can have some.

Tanta Anna’s pie crust recipe is still in my recipe box, on the same card hand-written by my sister. The card is stained and warped with years of use. Now, it rarely needs to come out: I’ve memorized the recipe. It’s become part of my DNA. Making a pie crust is a repetitive, meditative motion that has become ingrained in my mom muscle memory. Crimping the edge of the dough is like rocking a baby, or grabbing a child’s hand before crossing the street.

I can’t be mad if my kid “accidentally” eats half of a pie I baked. It’s all part of the circle of life. It’s a badge of honor, a return hug. It’s the wordless equivalent of saying, “Thanks, Mom.”

I mean, “Thankth, Mom.”

Do you Hygge?

The book I’ve been reading this week: The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking. The strange-looking word (pronounced HOO-ga) is the idea of coziness: a Hygge kit would contain such things as a candle, a book, and a steaming cup of tea or hot cocoa. Hygge could be described as that feeling of gathering around a table of comfort foods with friends you’ve known for decades: all the pretenses have gone, and you can all sit together in pleasant conversation or complete silence and feel completely at ease.

Since reading the book, I’ve gone Hygge crazy. I’ve purchased a ridiculous amount of candles. The cocoa is flowing freely. I’m trying to set the table with a little more care, adding a tablecloth and some soothing music in the background. I find Hygge to be the next obvious development in my quest for minimalism.

Our cozy little house is perfectly adapted for Hygge, but our family’s schedule is not. We are on the run most days from morning until night. Making room in my life for Hygge-fication is my new religion. If I can find one unnecessary task to forego so I can accommodate a few moments of peace with a hot beverage staring out the window and taking in the sights and sounds of the world around me, then all the better.

Denmark, home of Hygge, consistently ranks as one of the happiest nations in the world. But why should that be? I mean, there are plenty of fuzzy sweaters, teapots, books, handknit blankets, and soft cushions to go around for everyone. Hygge is a choice. A commitment. A mantra.

Take a moment for Hygge-fication this week. Better yet, share the moment with a friend or loved one. Inflict a little Hygge on them, and spread a little happiness.

Why It’s Okay to Have a Bad Day

IMG_0017I’ve got resting bitch face. I know this about myself, because I see it every morning in the mirror when I first wake up. Also, I have an almost violent aversion to people who say “You’d be so pretty if you just smiled more!” (Important memo: don’t ever say that to anyone, ever. Especially not to me.) To solve this, I try to smile. I smile when I’m driving. I try to smile even when I’m taking out the garbage. In fact, to fight the depression that’s part of my chemical DNA I’ll surely fight for the rest of my life, I’ve made a habit of “looking on the bright side” of almost every situation. I try my hardest to combat sadness and negativity in my life. It’s just what I do.

But sometimes, you just have a bad day. I’ve had a bad couple of days. I attended a funeral of a person I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to, then I fought with someone I love, then caught one of my kids in a lie. It felt like the universe was punching me in the gut a little.

And I’m writing about this because I know everyone who reads this has felt this way from time to time. Sometimes, things just suck. Sometimes, we just need to allow ourselves the luxury of saying, “This sucks. I don’t feel good about it.”

I have a wise friend who just knew she should text me today and check in. For some reason, I decided just to be truthful. “I’m sad,” I told her. “I’m really struggling. I’m a crying mess.”

Turns out, she was having a bad day, too. She told me that sometimes, uncensored journaling is the best thing. Actually, she called it the more aptly named “Verbal Vomit.” Guess what? I did it. I verbally vomited at my laptop for two aggressively incoherent pages. I’ll probably never go back and read it. But somehow, I feel better. It’s out of my system.

It made me want to compile a list of things I can do that usually make myself feel better. If you have a day that sucks, I hope you have a list like this for yourself. I also hope you have a very wise friend who knows just the right time to text or call you.

Things I Can Do to Make a Day Suck Less

  1. Journal (a.k.a. “Verbal Vomiting”)
  2. Take a nap (but limit your time—then get up, and get dressed)
  3. Walk in a beautiful place, even if you have to drive to get there (extra points if you take the dog)
  4. Bake something (bread, chocolate, or cinnamon result in the best aromatherapy)
  5. Watch a really sad movie and cry about that
  6. Smile—you’d be so pretty if you smiled more! (Just kidding—only smile if you want to. You’re beautiful no matter what.)

Meat sweats: Or, too much of a good thing

IMG_0631There are a few smells I associate with summer: freshly mown grass; sunblock on a precious child’s skin, wet from swimming but warming in the sun; and hickory smoke curling off a crackling barbecue.

My husband grills old-school. He swears by his little Smokey Joe and refuses to upgrade to anything larger, and especially wouldn’t entertain the idea of a *gasp* gas grill. When he grills, it’s an event; that grill is filled up with meat, and the smell is sublime. He’ll walk back and forth between the kitchen and the backyard, grabbing tongs and hot pads and platters with a sly grin on his face; I watch him, trying to gauge whether the side dishes I’m preparing will be ready at the same time the smoky meat is deemed edible by the grill-master.

Once that meat is on the table, our stomachs are grumbling and we’ve been salivating long enough—I’m sure we look like a pack of wolves descending on all that protein. We like our sauces, too: I’m partial to Worcestershire, while my sons like various barbecue sauces ranging from mild to hot.

We’re not exactly a vision of self-control. Which is why, a few years ago, my husband half-jokingly pushed himself back from the table and said, “I think I have the meat sweats.” He wiped his brown for emphasis.

“What are meat sweats, Daddy?” my daughter asked.

“It’s when you have too much of this delicious meat and your body starts sweating it out!”

Oh, our decision to downsize to a smaller home was so much like the meat sweats! We lived in a big house and we had a good life, but … we had too much. We were consuming so much goodness, and in the end, it made us feel a little sick.

It’s hard to explain to kids about too much of a good thing, isn’t it? My kids always want more of a good thing. They don’t want a playdate that lasts all afternoon, they want a sleepover after the playdate. They don’t want just a few pieces of candy from the candy dish, they want all of it. If you have a good thing, why stop at just enough?

Our life was giving us the meat sweats. We had a beautiful home, but we laid awake worrying about the next mortgage payment. We had lots of nice things, but we spent too much time cleaning, sorting, maintaining, and organizing those things. It took time away from the things that were really important to us.

If I’m going to continue with the grilling analogy—and heck, why not?—our little house is the little plate we bring to dinner. It holds just enough of that delectable meat from the grill. We can fill up the plate, but that tiny plate is going to hold just the right amount—no more. We’ll get enough, but we won’t make ourselve sick from over-gorging.

Plus, if you’re not feeling sick from meat sweats, it means you might have room for a s’more …

Raise Your Tiny Glass to Simple Pleasures

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A Tiny Black Cow. Happy Birthday, Grandpa!

Grandpa was born in June. Maybe that’s why my memories of him seem to take place in summer. We probably often visited him at his birthday, or around Father’s Day. Grandpa was a writer and a storyteller. His loud, boisterous jokes and stories populated every family gathering.

Grandma and Grandpa’s little house on Poplar St. in West Bend, Wisconsin, didn’t have air conditioning. It would get hot, and my brother and I would retreat to the cool basement to play with the metal barn and plastic animals they kept in the closet.

“Kids! Time for a Black Cow!” he’d yell. We’d scramble up the stairs because we knew what that meant: A Black Cow was Grandpa’s signature drink: Root Beer from the bottle poured over vanilla ice cream.

I’d had Root Beer Floats before, and I suspect that Grandpa’s Black Cows had the exact same ingredients, but his Black Cows always tasted better. The root beer seemed darker and richer, the vanilla ice cream seemed creamier.

The thing is, Grandpa’s Black Cows were tiny. What I wanted was a huge frosted mug overflowing with frothy foam; what I got was a tiny juice glass. Just a dollop of ice cream went in each glass and Grandpa would dole out the root beer so as not to spill a drop. And there were no seconds.

They were too small. At least, to my kid brain, they were much, much too small. But I wasn’t going to argue with Grandpa. He would hand the thimble-sized Black Cow to each of us, and then say, “Now, don’t drink it all at once, or you’ll get a tummy ache.”

Was he being ironic? I could never tell.

I’m pretty sure the first time I had Grandpa’s tiny Black Cow, I drank it all in one gulp. (And no, I didn’t get a tummy ache.) But as I got older and wiser, I learned to sip it slowly. You know, put the tiny glass down between sips. Watch the cold drops of condensation run down the side of the tiny glass. Make it last.

I don’t know why Grandpa’s Black Cows were so small. I never asked him. Was it because he lived through the Depression? Was it because he was thin as a bean pole and never ate big portions of anything?

Grandpa’s been gone for quite a few years, but each year on his birthday, my siblings and I get an email from my Mom: “Today is Grandpa’s birthday. Did you celebrate with a Black Cow?”

This year on the 108th anniversary of his birth, I got the smallest glass out of my cabinet. I put just a dollop of ice cream, and poured the root beer carefully, listening to the wonderful fizzing sound as it hit the ice cream in the glass. I sat down and drank it. Slowly.

I think I get it now. Savor the sweet things, no matter how tiny. Drink them in without distractions. Consuming too much sweetness all at once causes a proverbial tummy ache.

Cheers to you, Grandpa.

Omit Needless Words. (Or: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Elements of Style?)

Part of my Mother’s Day was spent doing what I love best: reading outside on my sunny deck with the sounds of birds and lawnmowers and laughing children in the background. My book of choice this afternoon was Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White. (Yes—the one and only E.B. White. The one who gave us Charlotte’s Web.) Strunk was White’s English professor in 1919 at Cornell University, and this little book was one he privately printed and passed out to all his students. It didn’t actually get published until after Strunk’s death (Strunk died in 1946; the book was published in 1959, with an introduction penned by White—since then, it’s never gone out of print). The tiny book is all of 85 pages, and as I work through it (slowly, thoughtfully chewing on each delicious morsel), each page uncovers another little gem about the craft of writing.

It’s page 23 that contains the best line of the whole book. It’s Strunk’s Rule #17 for principles of composition:

Omit needless words.

Oh the bold simplicity! Why am I only finding out about this book now? Strunk was a minimalist ahead of his time. He knew that good communication means stripping away the unnecessary. Since our great downsizing adventure began, I’ve learned the value of getting by with less. Little did I know I was ascribing to Strunk’s way of thinking. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying every day. As the story of my life unfolds, telling it in the best way means that I:

• Omit needless commitments

• Omit needless possessions

• Omit needless relationships

• Omit needless debt

As I read the book, this handbook for writers is a handbook for life, too: Communicate your purpose clearly. Get rid of the unnecessary. When telling your story, speak in specifics over generalities.

Omit. Then omit again so the good stuff can shine through.