February’s Conversation, in which we talk trash… reduction

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Photo: NASA

Ilse: When I was a kid, we lived in a suburban development at the edge of the woods.  My parents taught me to rake the autumn leaves onto an old sheet, gather the corners, and haul them either to the garden or into the woods.   Our next-door neighbors collected their leaves in trash bags and left them on the road for the garbage truck. My dad was incensed by this waste and, ignoring the mortification of his teenaged daughter, gathered these bags of compost-in-waiting, dumped them on our garden, and reused the trash bags.

What I’m getting at is, I’ve been learning waste reduction for a long time.

So, ladies: this month’s questions.

What inspires your waste reduction efforts?

Stephanie: I know I should say something altruistic, but the truth is, my primary reason is that it’s expensive to pay for trash removal for 9 people. Other factors affect it too. I have always intrinsically disliked wastefulness. I think that’s somewhat ingrained in the culture in our part of the upper Midwest. The dominant groups that settled this area, Germans and Scandinavians, tend to place a high value on efficiency, and waste is inefficient.

Kelli:  Three prongs here:  1) the forever-ness of plastic trash in particular, 2) the savings up front, as Stephanie mentioned, on the collection end, and 3) the challenge of it.

Ilse: I learned many low-waste habits from my efficient and thrifty grandparents.  As an engineering student, I learned how many materials are made, and the amount of energy that goes into making aluminum cans or glass bottles is staggering. The idea of using something once and having it forever occupy space in a landfill horrifies me.

What are the areas of low-hanging fruit?  That is, the 80% of results for 20% of effort or cost?

Stephanie: Getting my kids to quit breaking things would be a good start, but that’s more than 20% effort. LOL. Honestly, composting is a big one. In the summer I was pretty good about it, but the compost pile is out by my garden, which is about an acre and a half from my house, and kind of a trudge in the snow, and when it’s dark when I leave and when I get home, it’s harder to do. I need to start snow blowing a path to it, or even start a second compost pile closer to the house. The other one is food waste. I need to figure out how to better tackle food waste.

Kelli: I notice quite a bit more convenience food wrapping in the garbage can lately, particularly for precut and frozen fruits and veg.  I wonder where I can buy some more in bulk, or cut our own fruits and veggies. But I also know that it all comes with a tradeoff – while I can buy whole fruits and veg and cut them myself, I also have neck pain that is triggered by looking down at the countertop, and when I buy them bagged/frozen, I eat a lot more of them.  So will I be sacrificing healthy eating for the savings in plastic? I need to work on this thought. How can I have both? How can I involve my hubby in the chopping, for example? Also, would I need a salad spinner to accomplish it? Another area that would help a lot is to finish up potty training my youngest. She is close, and if we really did a dedicated push we could get her most of the way there.

Ilse: I agree, Kelli, that frozen vegetables are a huge time saver!  Some recycling places do accept those bags. What I’ve been working on recently is reducing non-recyclable packaging, large and small.  Given the choice between a doodad that comes in that awful hard plastic packaging and a cardboard box, I’ll choose the box, or, if an option, no package.  On the small end, I drink a lot of tea. I’m avoiding brands of tea that use plastic or foil wrappers.

What will you never do, even though it would reduce your household waste?

Stephanie: They will pry my toilet paper from my cold, dead hands. LOL. Also, ordering from Amazon. Holy packaging, Batman, but I’m a working mom who lives in a rural area, and delivery is my best friend.

Kelli: The only thing, I think, is cloth diapers.  We did it for a long time. We are done with it. I can’t think of anything else that’s off the table, though there are lots of things I am not currently doing.  Maybe I would not do one of those total bans on buying new items. Too stressful right now.

Also, would I really give up my car, even though we’re in a station in life where really, truly we could do it and it not be a huge hardship?  We live in a city well-provisioned with transit, rife with Ubers and Lyfts, and my son and I can walk 2 blocks to work/school and groceries as well as about 8 blocks to a pharmacy, ATM, several restaurants . . . we have everything we need within 2 miles at the most.  My husband needs a car to get to his suburban job, and my daughter’s daycare is not easy to get to on transit, so we’d have one vehicle for sure, yet we maintain and drive two vehicles.

Ilse: I love visiting places where I don’t need a car at all, but I don’t see us moving to the city anytime soon, and the transit options for my commute double the time.  And although we did cloth diapers, I’m with Stephanie on the TP.

What will you do this month to create new waste reduction routines?

Stephanie: I’m going to find a spot closer to the house for a winter compost pile. I’m also going to work on using leftovers for my lunches. I did that for a while, but my containers went missing, and I stopped.

Kelli: I think we will work on the potty training.

Ilse: Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, dental floss containers, and deodorant holders are almost never marked for recycling, but I found a place to take them and will start a bin in the garage to store the empties until it’s convenient to drop them off.  I’m also going to look into cat litter options… last time I explored the alternatives was about 10 years ago, so maybe something better (and acceptable to our cats) has come along.

The Satisfaction of Uncluttered Space

 

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Blooming jade plant, California. My friends were amused by our surprise at flowers – outside – in January. We do have a cactus in our yard, though (under the snow).

It was cold last weekend – even for Minnesota in January. All of us, including the dog, were more excited about getting home than about taking a walk. I can never just sit around for very long, though, and with the outcome of our hygge conversation fresh in our mind, I began working on what was obviously needed around the house – tackling all the piles.

Maybe you know the ones I mean.

The basket of clean clothes, the hamper of dirty clothes, and the pile of worn-but-not-dirty clothes.
The papers to be filed, the papers to be shredded, and the papers of undecided future.
The random things that never got put away after the last two trips.
The piles of books on either side of the bed.

While I was at it, I vacuumed and dusted and washed the newly-visible surfaces. I took care of various small tasks, too. I cooked some new recipes and made foods for the week. I washed a stain off a lampshade that had been there, turned to the wall, for an embarrassing length of time. I turned some random soft fabrics into small blankets for the cat shelter. I changed the battery in my grandmother’s clock, which has been running slowly for a month (yes, I was procrastinating on a 5-minute task).

By the time I was done, the house had a whole new vibe – more peaceful than it’s been since… well, probably since the last time we had houseguests.  And when I sat down to read that evening and caught a glimpse of the room, I felt very satisfied and relaxed.

I am always gratified by the results of an organizing or decluttering afternoon, and I always imagine that someday, I will manage to always keep spaces in that condition, from the kitchen cabinet that always becomes disorganized to the dusty, cluttered laundry room.  And maybe I will.  While 10 minutes each day could greatly reduce the need for a monthly cleaning event, the truth is that many days I’m too tired after working, driving, and cooking for even those 10 more minutes.

So, to resolve this ironic loop of clean house is self care, but self is too tired to clean, I’m going to look to my family.  If 10 minutes will make a difference, that’s just over 3 minutes each – roughly one quick chore for everyone.  And here’s where I can use one of my strengths – designing a system.

 

Finding Hygge… a conversation that led us back to basics.

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Photo by Jenna Hamra from Pexels

(Ilse) Hygge is all over the media these past couple of years and our library has some lovely books on the subject, but I think I’ve known about it most of my life… it just didn’t have a name and wasn’t practiced to the extent that it is elsewhere. After reading about hygge, I realized that this is what I always loved about my visits to family in Germany – the focus on simple pleasures such as friends and family, the outdoors, and good food. All were often combined in a leisurely midday dinner or afternoon coffee outside. My grandparents’ house on Long Island was full of hygge, but somehow it always felt to me that it ended when I left… I didn’t feel the same anywhere else.

Before hygge awareness arrived, I had already adopted the “home as cabin” mindset. I think that some of my friends understand this, but not all. Honestly, we’ve mostly quit hosting since my return to full-time work, primarily because of my schedule, but also because I became aware of some house snobbery among a couple who are otherwise good friends. They do have a nice house, but I don’t feel a lot of hygge there.

What makes me feel a sense of calm and wellbeing in our house?

Good aromas… baking bread, spices, fresh air in the summer
Sounds of nature… owls in summer, rain in spring and fall, wind in winter
Snoozing pets… they are so easily pleased – a fleece blanket, a sunbeam, a lap
Coziness… in winter, ample warm blankets and throws, throughout the house
The right lights… reading lamps, LED candles on timers

(Kelli) I love it when it’s quiet.  Right now I’m up past my bedtime to get it.  With my kids at 4 and 2 right now, I’m craving quiet and introspection.  They are at a really fun age and I love it when they will snuggle me, which they will do with book after book (hygge) or with the TV (not so much).  We have a wood burning fireplace and it is sooooooo cozy when we have a fire! We’ve only done so twice! I really want to do that a few more times this winter.

I also finally figured out how to get my own little spot in the house, which is a little writing desk in our sun porch.  No one messes it up, or leaves junk on it, or litters it with crumbs. Since it’s very drafty I’ve put on a heater and usually use a blanket and light a little candle in there.  (In fact I just got up and moved so I could sit at my little desk).

Speaking of candles, I’ve come to embrace aromas a bit more, but I’m picky.  They have to be oh-so-subtle.

One million blankets?  Seems that’s yes. 😉

(Ilse) Ooh, quiet!  Yes. There is not enough of that in the world and it is so necessary after a busy workday.  In the summer, our screened porch is my refuge, and I love to sit outside but out of reach of the mosquitoes.  In the winter, I sometimes have difficulty finding quiet in the house and retreat to the library instead.

What would my dream house have that would increase hygge?

(Ilse) A windowseat looking out on the back yard, large enough for 2, or 1 and a very large pile of books.   An indoor garden of some type – some houses in warm climates have large planting areas inside the house (but I don’t intend to move for that feature!). Less clutter.

(Kelli) I think I’d live in the country so I could have a big bonfire area, or be outside under the stars.  I miss that about my childhood home.

What can I do in my present house to increase hygge?

(Ilse) We actually priced adding a bay window for a windowseat in our living room when we replaced our windows. Since it cost as much as all the other windows together, it was an obvious decision.

I’d like to figure out some way to arrange my houseplants to appear more garden-like. They are all in disparate pots all over the house.  I’ve recently seen some articles about houseplants being the new decorating trend, so I’ll look for some ideas. (whoever would have guessed that a small house filled with houseplants would become trendy?)

We could decrease clutter. This is a constant goal and we’ve made a lot of progress. The clutter takes a few predictable forms in our house: books, footwear (particularly in winter), and papers. Happily, decreasing clutter is almost always free except for the time. Here’s where to focus my energy!

(Kelli) I agree with the clutter.  It is just such a mental energy suck.  Looking around I feel overwhelmed almost all the time, which makes it hard to relax, be present, want to have people over, focus my thoughts on other things.  In one aspect, though, I want MORE items – and that’s to have more on the walls. We have had pretty spare walls for a few years after I put my foot down in this house of no “man cave” decor such as our former teeny little home had (vintage Northwoods, but still.  SO. MUCH. NORTHWOODS.). I want more family photos, and photos from our trips, and, ok, a few vintage northwoods items would be kinda hyggetastic.

(Ilse) Until I get back to creating a photogenic hygge-ful space, I’m going to channel my inner cat.  Sylvester finds hygge everywhere, and he spreads the hygge spirit with his rumbly purr and physical and temperamental warmth.  Warm blankets, fireplace, family, book, tea, purrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Welcoming the Long Winter

book_pages_reading_fireplace_flame-892494.jpg!dDecember was busy. Somehow we fit all the activities and travel preparations for the holidays into our usual routines, and that time had to come from somewhere. I know that one place I skimped was meals. No one complained, and maybe they didn’t even notice, but I did… I noticed in my added few pounds, in my craving for green vegetables, and in having to dispose of a few things from the refrigerator, which is never necessary when I’m on top of things.

But all of that busy-ness is long over now.. and I’ve even undecorated. The winter months are upon us, and it is likely that this weekend’s thaw will be the last until April. It’s time for those braising, roasting, and simmering recipes that heat and scent the house. Since we returned from our holiday travel, I’ve cooked more than I did for most of December, when I nearly emptied our freezer and pantry. The freezer is again full and our weeknights should be easy for a few weeks.

I spent about 4 hours cooking this weekend and turned out a large loaf of bread, a quart of homemade yogurt, pasta with broccoli pesto and chickpeas for lunches, raw vegetables for this week’s lunches, and a cabbage-potato dish. Our Sunday dinner was the rajma recipe from Merra Sodha’s Fresh India, and it was delicious. There’s another meal of that in the freezer, along with chili, lasagna, black bean soup, scalloped potatoes, and various cooked beans and grains awaiting some type of quick preparation. I am feeling caught up.

The biggest bonus of cooking ahead is the time to focus on other projects. And sometimes, especially this dark and cold time of year, a project is as simple as a good book.

Turning the Calendar: Housekeeping

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We’ve been seeking speed, convenience, and savings for at least 130 years, according to this 1889 advertisement from Ladies’ Home Journal.  Granted, laundry at that time was an overwhelming task.  How is it that with all modern conveniences, we’re still time-starved? 

…because ‘housekeeping’ sounds ever much more pleasant than ‘chores!’

I cleaned every area of the house last summer, and saw how much neglect had occurred in the previous 3 years when I was overwhelmed by my job. We did the necessary cleaning (approximately) every week, and urgencies as they occurred, but things like the laundry room, a dusty place due to cat litter boxes, and various closets were neglected. I was shocked to see that I could easily clean measurable dust from the ceiling fans every month. The long-lasting furnace filter was somewhat beyond its life. Clearly, a system was needed.

Over the years we’ve had various methods of keeping track of household chores. Long ago, a spreadsheet listed weekly chores for Thom and myself. After recovering from the haze of having a youngster, I created a weekly rotating index card system that listed chores in time segments that were easily tackled with a toddler.  When Mari was older,  I hosted an informal weekly gathering, when friends could stop by for soup, crafting, and conversation, and had an unusually tidy home by our standards for a year or two. Now, visitors or guests still result in the cleanest house… although a close second is my birthday, when my gift is for Thom and Mari to clean while I relax. Mari has had regular chores since the age of 3, a list that increases when school’s out. But in general,  we’ve been winging the majority of the house upkeep and cleaning, getting things done when we get to it, aside from the obvious chores such as vacuuming, bathrooms, kitchen cleaning, laundry.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I prefer a paper planner for week-to-week notes, but recurring events, such as birthdays, flu shots, and real estate tax payments, I add to my online calendar once with an email reminder. So this is what I’m trying with these household tasks. I made a list of how often various things needed to be done (skipping the weekly chores as we have those under control), and added them to my calendar with the appropriate recurrence, trying to put them on different weekends of each month. These are tasks such as cleaning the outside dryer vent, changing the aquarium water, and decluttering particular rooms, cabinets, and closets. Yes, and cleaning the ceiling fans and light fixtures.

I know I’m not solving a grand problem here; neither is it my intention to maintain an immaculate house.  I’m looking for the good enough solution: a clean, functional, and presentable home with a reduced decision load for my brain by having the computer tell me when things need to be done. The advantage of the email reminder is that it stays visible until I delete it, as opposed to the fleeting notification.  I’ve tried a few list-keeping apps, but generally do not want another app to keep track of.  Do you have a system for regular, but not frequent, household chores?

Family Holiday Traditions: How We Do the Season

background-2937873_1920Kelli says:  I was thinking it might be nice to get and share some ideas for traditions that work well for younger kids and older kids and how they might change over the years.  So Ilse and I have put our heads together to share some our favorites, and at least in my case, sticking points with developing traditions with my younguns.

Daily-excitement-in-December traditions – aka Advent Calendars or Elf on the Shelf

Kelli says:  We have an advent calendar, which we are filling with activities written on tags, but the 4 year old has emptied the calendar (frustrating me, because a few of the activities are meant to go on certain days), and also has expressed his distaste at the apparent unexcitement of some of the already-revealed activities.  So I’m discouraged. We might not put it up next year but rather offer simple activities on nights where we all can handle them. I want there to be magic without pumping them full of sugar (candy’s the easy hit around here, but they are weirdly obsessive about it) and without filling the house (and planet) with more plastic crap.

We do not Elf due to our own overload but I think my kids would have liked it better than the Advent calendar anyway, which hasn’t been much easier to pull off.

Ilse says: Mari painted a wooden Advent calendar one year; it has a small drawer for each day and came with tiny paintable ornaments that fit in the drawers.  We’ve also printed easy activities for each day – such as, “decide which house on the block has your favorite lights,” or “make pancakes for breakfast.” More complicated activities can go on the weekend days.  

Activities in the community

Kelli says:  We’re strongly entrenched in the Santa years, so a visit is always a must.  We’ve let go of the professional photo Santa visit though as the price kept climbing and climbing.  I think this year we’ll see him at the Rec Center attached to school next week. My home town, where my parents still live, has a lighted parade and tree lighting just after Thanksgiving and that was really fun to kick off the season this year.  I think that’s a definite repeat. I’d like to add in simple things like sledding at school and ice skating, too. We live just two block from a rink with free rentals, but it’s not ready yet this year.

Ilse says: I’ve learned to aim low over the years when it comes to activities.  We’re a family of introverts and we all need some down time after the work/school week.  We’re usually pretty happy to spend time in our house reading, cooking, crafting, listening to music, and just being.  So while we live in an area where there are many fun activities of all kinds every weekend, I always ask myself what we would all enjoy the most at any given moment.  Just getting outside is a huge pleasure after a week in buildings; today we walked on a sunlit, frozen lake with our dog jumping around, delighted with the snow.

Travel

Ilse says:  Our biggest holiday tradition is the annual drive over the river and through the woods and then over the river again, across hundreds of miles of cornfields, past two windfarms, to grandmother’s house.  It’s always an adventure to travel in the Midwest at this time of year. One year, as we were driving home very slowly through freezing rain, I proposed that we visit Mari’s grandma in the summer instead, and both Thom and Mari expressed disbelief that I could even suggest such a thing. We don’t have any family in Minnesota, so this is Mari’s chance to be around some of her cousins, as well as to load up on attention from Grandma and a ridiculous quantity of sugar.  The extended family has a Christmas Day brunch, during which Mari and her younger cousins used to run around like a pack of coyotes, but now she reads a book while waiting for the adults to finish talking. Grandma lives in an old neighborhood, and our dog goes along, so we take lots of walks at all hours of the day in all directions and admire the holiday decorations. This year, Mari will be able to help out with the driving!

Kelli says:  We have all our immediate family within an hour of here, which is nice.  Some extended family lives several hours’ or days’ drive away, but we’ve never really gotten together at the holidays, and that’s ok.  We are both teachers, though, so we do tend to like a mini trip over the Xmas break. This year we are thinking about a hotel near the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.  It’s close to us, but not super duper close, so the idea is go to the holiday lights, swim in the hotel pool, sleep over, get up the next day and swim some more, then join some family for brunch on that side of town.  Last year we were at a condo with my in-laws and my parents and happened to be able to get in a visit to Bentleyville.  So I guess a mini-break is kind of turning into a tradition.  Before kids, we loved going to Tettegouche Camp over the break, but we haven’t tackled the 1.5 mile walk in with the kids yet.  We are waiting until our youngest potty trains – so maybe next year we can go again?

Gifting

Ilse says:  We make and buy gifts for friends and family, but our gifting has been drastically simplified over the years, with fewer people in our exchange circle. This year, our family gift is the one thing we always want most in January, which is to leave Minnesota for a few days for a warm, sunny place. Not frugal, not simple except that it doesn’t require shopping trips or wrapping paper, but something that we will all thoroughly enjoy.

Kelli says:  This has been the hardest for us.  I think we have finally settled on having a stocking of gifts from Santa, and 1-2 big gifts from mom & dad and from each sibling to the other under the tree.  Last year we waaaaay overbought and I suspect we have this year as well, though we’ve stuck to mostly stuff they need anyway (fun undies, new socks) and books rather than toys.  They will get plenty of those from rellies. Which reminds me – I kind of want to make an annual toy purge part of the December traditions. Kind of a pre-Christmas cleanout, so to speak.  

I fantasize about homemade Xmas gifts but the reality of the past few years has been a big fat NO WAY.  Luckily, all of the adults in our immediate families are off the gifting train now, so it’s not too many people to whom we need to gift.  I’m thinking of getting back on for teachers – but as a teacher, I know how nice it is to get a big fat gift card, too. So this year, that’s the route we went.

Making

Ilse says:  For a number of years, Mari and I worked on Christmas crafts together.  Sometimes they were gifts for others, and sometimes they were decorations for our house.  That was something that we both enjoyed doing, and now we have them to remind us each year of that time together (now our co-crafting time tends to be more focused on making gifts for our individual friends).  Some of them took multiple holiday seasons (i.e., years) to complete, but the idea was the time spent together, not the product.

Kelli says:  This year I had Norwood paint his own wrapping paper for the gifts he’s selected.  They do like making and so does their dad and so do I. Maybe something to integrate as they get older.

Togetherness and relaxation

Kelli says:  Rudolph and Charlie Brown Christmas are a must, and conveniently for having little kids, we have both of them on DVD – and VHS!  (Ok, tangent: Ha! That’s right! We are still VHS users). We also have a wood burning fireplace that we’ve used ONCE in living here for over 5 years now and I really want to make fires part of the holiday season.

Ilse says:  Mari and I decorate our tree and bake holiday-special cookies (her favorites are spritz, for which we use her great-grandmother’s cookie press), and she and Thom hang lights outside.  Sometimes two or three of us will play holiday songs on various instruments. We always watch particular Christmas movies and cartoons (and Kelli, we watch Charlie Brown on VHS also!).

Food!

Ilse says:  Some families have a lot of holiday food traditions.  Our holiday meals vary from year to year. When we’re at Grandma’s, I do all the cooking, and it’s a change-resistant audience, so I stick with reliable favorites.  But there are some food traditions that come yearly: the package from my parents, Mari’s out-West grandparents, filled with cookies I’ve been eating since childhood, my parents’ rendition of my great-grandmother’s stollen, and the fudge my mom’s made every Christmas since the 1970s.

Kelli says:  We just lost my husband’s mother in November.  Her cookies were a highlight of every holiday. Sadly I cannot find the copies of her recipes that we had.  I know they are somewhere . . . but we might have to have “close enough” recipes for this year. She always made sugar cut-out cookies, Mexican wedding cookies/Russian tea cakes, and some kind of amazing cookie rolled in nuts.  She also always made a potica nut roll, but I’m not sure we’ll tackle that one. The adults have always enjoyed chili and grasshoppers on Christmas Eve.

In the past I did peanut brittle in the microwave and it was amazing.  Maybe I should resurrect that with the kids – it’s fun to watch it foam, and easy to make.

Your turn

What simple traditions have been the most memorable over the years for your family?  How have traditions changed over the years that may have been cherished – or difficult – with young children?