Less and More

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There are few events in a life that engrave themselves on a memory as getting married or becoming a parent. That was true for me, and, while getting married was memorable, it was wasn’t as life-altering as the second part. For us, getting married was like continuing a really, long fun date. Becoming a parent, while just as fun, was fun too, but it was a lot more work. For me, becoming the parent of one and then two was memorable for another reason, and I did something yesterday that brought it all back. I cleaned.

Right before each of my boys was born, I was seized with an overwhelming urge to clean. Despite being on ordered bed rest, I could not contain the need to clean tubs and toilets, sweep and make beds. Fortunately, giving birth helped moderate – suffocate, actually – that desire. I do clean, but it’s usually prompted by impending company or the inability to reach the kids’ bunk without first checking for my health insurance card.

Yesterday, however, the cleaning bug bit. It’s been stalking me for the last few weeks.

We’re planning a train trip out west later this summer, and, after learning we couldn’t check luggage, I decided to take another look at carry-on strategies. I googled a few packing list ideas and found tons of people who have learned to leave the tonnage at home.

Most of our trips in the last decade have been by car, and the last train trip we took was when Jack, our twelve-year-old, was small enough to ride on my back. While our cargo rarely includes a separate case for makeup or shoes (we’re not that stylish), anyone who’s road-tripped with kids knows the packing list needed to accommodate the extra towels and toys and clothes required for even a small trip expands to fit the exact cubic footage in any vehicle you buy. Jack now dwarfs me, and his six-year-old brother, Superdude is catching up. Fortunately, the increase in height is indirectly proportionate to the number of toys needed to occupy them on a journey, and packing light seemed not only sensible but possible.

My pursuit of a smaller, more-flexible packing list coincided with my annual rotation of hand-me-downs. The hand-me-down rotation spawned a bigger-than-usual mountain of laundry as I got old clothes ready for the donation bin. We live off the grid, so every scrap of clothing dries on a clothes line, and most of it’s put there by yours truly. I was in the middle of a midnight folding marathon when it hit me – we need to start living lighter.

I spent most of the rest of the night folding and sorting and excavating my and the kids’ clothes, ruthlessly tossing in the bin items that had were too small or too worn or simply too unused. The sorting went on with other loads for a few days until yesterday when the building momentum turned into a housewide cleaning frenzy.

I started at the west end of the house and am now working my way east, adopting a scorched earth policy with baggage of all types. By the end of the day, I had four bags for the donation bin and three for the dump. In one room I could see more floor than stuff, and I could see the back wall of my closet.

I’ve lost a dress size in the last few weeks, and I know other clothes will fill some of the void if the weight loss continues. Jack will also need knew clothes by the end of the summer. When I go to buy again, however, I’m hoping I’ll remember the mountain I sorted down to a mole hill. It was not just an outgrowth of an epiphany prompted by a desire to clean less (that would be practically impossible). It was a desire to get more out of the little cleaning I do.


And Sometimes It’s Just a Tutu

Most of the little bit of picking up that gets done around here gets done by yours truly.  I’m well past the ‘It’s not my job’ mentality, but every once in a while I like to use the naturally  messy petrie dish we call home as, well, a petrie dish.  My contribution to behavioral science this week consisted of observing how long a discarded sock would remain on the floor under a child’s chair before somebody – not me – was motivated to move it to the hamper.  By Saturday morning the sock under the chair was in danger of evolving into a life form, so, before we headed out to breakfast at our favorite diner, I notified the troops that we would be cleaning when we got home.  Little did I know that out of drudgery could come enlightenment.

There’s nothing like the threat of impending chores to bring out the best restaurant manners in our boys, but not even the carefully folder napkins in their laps or a moratorium on Sound Effects Theatre on the way home from breakfast were going to save them yesterday.  Before they settled onto the couch, the Big Guy and I issued marching orders.  Ignoring their declarations of exhaustion, we dispatched twelve-year-old Goliath to walk the dog and assigned six-year-old Thing2 the task of removing toys from the living room.  Our stipulation that they could not be relocated to his bunk (on it or under it) produced a rebellious frown, but he said nothing and set about his task.

The Big Guy began cleaning up green plastic Easter grass, as I tackled the kitchen.  I was loading the last plate into the dishwasher when I realized it had become very quiet.  I looked around for the boys and noted that Goliath(Thing1) had filled the wood bin and was dutifully putting away videos.  All traces of resentment had disappeared as he finished and asked, “What next?”

As I gave him another task, however, I wondered what had happened to Thing2.  Toys had disappeared from the coffee table in the living room.  Boots were no longer strewn across the floor.  But my ordinarily animated six-year-old was strangely silent.  I checked his room, but it was still an empty mess.  I searched the other end of the house until a grinning Big Guy came to get me.

“You have to see this,” he whispered.  I followed him to the kitchen, camera in hand, thinking the cats were doing something funny.  The Big Guy led me around the kitchen island to peer into our pantry where Thing2 stood on a step-stool scrubbing the counter top in a yellow tutu.

“Wow,” I exclaimed as I snapped a quick photo, “you are doing an fantastic job.”  The cleaning butterfly in our pantry looked up at both of us, a smile painted on his face.

“I cleaned the whole thing,” he said.  “And next I’m going to do the counter out there and on the other side of the room and…” and he hopped off the step-stool and flitted to his next task.

Thing2 has many alter egos.  Most of the time he’s some form of wig-wearing superhero I like to call SuperDude.  He’ll stuff his sleeves with muscles and fairy wings before leaping over a couch with a single bound as he goes forth on his mission to eliminate boredom and from our lives.  Today, however, there was just the outfit he’d worn to impress a waitress at the local diner and the yellow tutu.

Later, I wondered what had prompted such a toned-down costume and asked him who was cleaning the pantry yesterday.

“That was me mommy,” he answered.

“That wasn’t a superhero?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

“So how did you settle on the tutu for a cleaning outfit?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me as I tried to divine my six-year-old’s fertile imagination.

“I was putting away the toys in my clothes drawer and couldn’t fit everything in,” he said.  “And I saw the tutu at the back and knew it didn’t belong there so I got it out and decided to wear it so it didn’t have to go on the floor.”

Assured by my stunned silence that his logic was sound, Thing2 turned his attention back to the TV, happily leaving me to hover between the wistful acknowledgment that he might be out-growing his alter egos and the recognition that we’ve just begun to discover our youngest son.


Downstairs, Downstairs


Last year we ditched our satellite dish in favor of a Roku.  We were tired of paying a huge monthly bill for a package full of channels we couldn’t watch with the kids, and most of our favorite shows were on Hulu or Netflix anyway.  One of my favorite aspects of Netfilx has been finding complete collections of old TV shows, and my latest guilty pleasure has been watching ‘Downton Abbey’ from end to end without waiting a week to see what happened.

I really love historic fiction, and I love the efforts the director and producers took with costumes and production when breathing life into their story of servants and their turn-of-the-last-century noble employers.  But, as the Big Guy reminded me, there was a predecessor to this series, and, as luck would have it, Netflix had it and I added it to my queue.

Upstairs, Downstairs first aired in the 1970s, and, while the costumes and sets were not nearly as painstakingly detailed and elaborate as its successors, but its simplicity sharpened the focus of this look at lives and livelihoods so completely determined by social class, and for some reason I couldn’t place right away I found myself hooked.  But, with the first few episodes playing out in the background as I was loading the last of the season harvest into the dehydrator, I began to suspect that one reason for the attraction was that our life is very much Downstairs, Downstairs with one significant difference.

The majority of the first show takes place downstairs, introducing us to the staff of an Edwardian house and to their newest member.  Each of the servants has their own degree of acceptance of the then current caste system, but what I found interesting was that whether or not a servant was portrayed as accepting of their status, without exception, they did except that their employers’ class was superior in every way.  That acceptance could be an expression of jealousy, resignation or ambition, but it was never questioned.

Now, I have come to accept that, absent a winning lottery ticket, our life will most likely be Downstairs, Downstairs for the duration.  Neither of us earns enough to find our way Upstairs.  But, even if we did hit the lottery, I’ve also come to realize that our material wants are pedestrian enough to ensure that  we will always be more comfortable having a wardrobe that consists of work jeans and good jeans for going out.  We will always be more comfortable in our unconventional house with its Early-American Garage Sale un-chic and its hodge-podge garden.  And we will always be more comfortable Downstairs.


The falling leaves are bathing Vermont in antique gold, and lately I feel as though I’ve entered a malfunctioning time machine that teases me with glimpses of the past.   Leaves and, soon, snow are coming to cover the painted yellow lines on the asphalt, camouflaging the trappings of the twentieth century.  But this only heightens my curiosity, not about the recorded history of the area, but about what life was really like.

In some ways, our off-grid, out-of-the way life gives us unique peeks into an older lifestyle – we heat and cook with wood, we grow and put up some of our food, we hang all of our laundry on the line.  But every time I pop a tube of roll up cinnamon buns or hamburger helper in my shopping cart, I wonder how ye old housewives managed to do all of this by hand.

I loved the Little House books when I was a kid, and Farmer Boy, the one about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, as a boy, actually took place not too far from here – you can visit his homestead in upstate New York.  The story of their family was fun, but my favorite parts were always the copious descriptions of how Ma and Pa put up a house, a garden, a bear they just killed.

It’s at this time of year when I’m freezing instead of canning the last goodies from the garden or when I’m nurturing my inner slacker mom in other ways that I most often think of Laura’s Ma, and the detailed description of Almanzo’s Ma – the original SuperMoms – raising a sizable brood of super-obedient kids in nearly pristine houses stocked with food they grew and furnished with homemade furniture covered with homemade quilts.  I don’t just wonder what it was like to be them, I wonder if there was something magical in the well water back then.  I get exhausted driving my saucy kids (no idea where they get it) to school, bringing home part of the bacon, and trying to keep the house just neat enough to keep from being condemned.

I don’t yearn for life in that “simpler” era.  I like antibiotics and being able to vote.  But I would pay good money to know their secrets.

Ma Barlow


One of the disadvantages of living in an earth sheltered house is that a lack of planning can cause unusual conundrums.

Today was the the perfect example.  I was pulling things out of the fridge for dinner and noticed that we were out of propane. It is fall, and in our old colonial farmhouse I would have automatically fired up the woodstove and made a stew.  Our current woodstove is even better for these situations – its massive oven and cooking surface make me feel like Ma Ingalls whenever I start it – but wasn’t the perfect solution in this house in this weather.

It’s jacket weather outside, but between the low-hanging sun blasting our house with heat and the three feet of earth on three sides keeping it in, the house was already 71 with no additional help.  Lighting a fire hot enough to cook with would not have made the place more comfortable.

So now it’s 6:15 PM, and I’m standing in the kitchen of our earth-friendly, earth-sheltered house trying to decide between making sandwiches or doing the ultimate ‘un-green’ thing by opening all the windows and building a fire.  I’m rationalizing – it’s going to rain tomorrow and the fire will give us hot water, so it’s not a total waste.

I’ve stopped pretending that our off-grid lifestyle is as environmentally altruistic as it is self-serving, but we do like being green when we can .  Sometimes, though, figuring out how to do the green thing and still get dinner on the table and homework checked can be a real head-scratcher.  I was still scratching my head when the Big Guy waltzed in the door and announced he had finished switching the tank on the stove.  Tonight getting dinner on the table without wasting our wood heat became the green thing.

Mom and the Apple Pie

It’s the Big Guy’s birthday, and I’m making apple pie.  He and Thing1 eschewed birthday cake in favor of pie a few years ago, so after a day of excavating our mudroom (perfect birthday activity), I pulled out the Joy of Cooking and started making the crust.  I go back and forth between the Joy of Cooking recipe – is it possible to use that and not think of your mom – and the one in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, but, as I was peeling apples, I remembered I was out of the lemon called for by both of these recipes for ‘Classic Apple Pie’.

It’s amazing how your mind wanders when you’re peeling apples, and mine usually has a good head start anyway.  I was on the 3rd or 4th apple I started wondering, not if  I should make a dash to the country store – but how Classic Apple Pie became a classic.  It’s the quintessential New England dessert in fall – every year we get so many apples that we sometimes have pie or apple-something every night for a mont.  But, almost without fail, most Apple Pie recipes call for lemon juice.

Now, I know Joy of Cooking has been around for a long time, and it was certainly possible to find lemons in urban areas of New England even a century ago, but our town had year-round residents living the original off-grid lifestyle just 50 or 60 years ago.  There was a country store – the one we still shop at – but it’s hard to believe lemons were a commonly stocked item then, and certainly not 100 or 200 years ago.

Now, I’ve learned not to use dinner guests as culinary lab rats, but I figured the Big Guy might want to eat adventur – I mean, authentically – on his birthday.  I started thinking about what the earliest European settlers would have used for their Pie.  I planned to google it later, but it was getting late, and I opted for experimentation over transportation.

I figured a mountain mom who made it to the country store every few weeks or so might have kept flour, sugar, and molasses, and maybe some kind of spices on hand.  They would have had milk and butter, of course, and probably some kind of lard/shortening.  But not a whole lot of lemon.  Now, Julia Child’s mantra may be ‘Keep Calm, Add Butter’ (an admirable outlook on life), but in Vermont the rule is, ‘When in doubt, add maple syrup’.   I figured that tradition was probably established early on and decided it was a good substitution.

Later, as I sat on the couch smelling the results of my experiment bubbling in the oven, I did a quick google and found that Apple Pie goes back in history as long as apples and flour were in existence.  Some old recipes call for champagne in place of lemon, others were just apples mashed with flour.  Apple Pie a la Mode made its first appearance at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County New York in the 1890s, and the phrase ‘American as Mom and Apple Pie’  was coined in World War II.

But whether it was mom or the cook in the castle kitchen, experimentation was the most common component.  The pie pan emptied quickly, and in the end, the family decided that it was also the most delicious ingredient.


No Shame


Serenity for Imprfect Parents
Grant me the Serenity to accept the messes I can’t get to, the Courage to clean up the ones I can, and the Wisdom to remember that Picking My Battles is more important than picking up.

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You might think that because I write a blog dedicated to my failures as a housekeeper, I would have no angst about the unexpected guest.  I thought so  myself until Thing2 came home from school with a friend.

I knew the parents would come to pick up our tiny guest very soon.  However the work day was still in full gear. I realized that when these mystery parents came to get their offspring, our unkept house would play center stage.

Our guest’s father arrived and wanted a tour of our energy system (we’re off the grid),and I instantly began preparing him for what he was about to see.  He held up a  hand and assured me he had seen worse, and I suddenly decided it didn’t matter if he had or hadn’t.

The house will get clean sometime – not today, but someday.  In the meantime, I’ve decided to enjoy our house – clean or not – with no worries and, most of all, no shame.

A Slacker’s Guide to Going Green

Singin’ in the Rain

We found each other because we’re both a bit goofy, and that goofiness has led us all over the world.  Sometimes it has led us off the deep end, or so some of our friends and family thought when we decided to build an off-grid, earth-sheltered house.  In reality, it was one of the best decisions we ever made, and it has rewarded us in many unexpected ways.

When we moved to Vermont, we bought the quintessential antique farmhouse, but, after five years of paying the quintessential gargantuan wood, oil and electric bills that go along with any drafty, mouse-infested home, we decided to make a change.  The stint in Germany that preceded our migration to the mountains had exposed us to new and old ideas about building with heating and electric savings in mind.  We sifted through folders of clippings and evaluated any conventional and offbeat idea that popped up in the search engines.

Finally, we settled on the idea of an underground house.  At the time we didn’t plan to go off-grid – it was still just a fantasy.  But our site made bringing in the power more expensive than making it ourselves, and suddenly we had a new research project.  Ultimately, we ended up with solar power and hot water and a backup generator.  We bought the queen of wood cookstoves (my non-negotiable demand) to heat our house, food, and (in winter) our water.

We moved into the house in the fall, and, aside from having to quickly buy a much more efficient refrigerator, we noticed very few changes in our life.  Like most Vermonters – we already used a clothesline 90% of the time, we already had a garden, and we already worshipped our woodstove – but we still patted ourselves on the back for being so green.  The reality was we were (and are) slackers, and that was what drove most of our design and energy decisions.  It still does now.

So as the Big Guy walked into the house yesterday soaking wet, wrapped in his towel and carrying a bar of soap, I was amused but hardly surprised.  It was pouring out and after an afternoon fixing fences, washing off in the rain obviously seemed like a great idea to him(especially since we’re surrounded by trees and mountains and more trees), but I still couldn’t figure out  exactly what had motivated it today.

“Saving water,” he announced as he sauntered across the living room, leaving sasquatch-sized puddles on the concrete floor.

Later, as we were both not volunteering to mop up the water, I tried to decide what I love most about this house – the way it fosters zany outlets for our green and/or lazy impulses or the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere so that no one calls the cops when we indulge in them.

A Half-Folded Basket

About five years ago, we went off-grid and said goodbye to our charming, but mouse-infested, wallet-draining, blackout-prone 200 year old farmhouse.

That farmhouse had actually inspired our move – not because of its inconveniences, but because it represented a time when its inhabitants had not only survived, but thrived without electricity or a fat bank account. And, while we had no intention of turning our lives into a historical re-enactment, we knew we’d have to make some choices if we were going to live with only the power we made. So, after five years of washing my dishes by hand, I got a super-efficient dishwasher (it actually saves water and electricity) and said good bye to my dryer.

We had line-dried our clothes most of the year before we made the move, but going from line-drying with an electric-dryer backup to depending completely on mother nature’s good mood was a bigger change than we’d thought. It meant setting up a space for drying indoors in snowy weather and, in summer, timing our wash loads with dry weather.

And, if there’s anything that has taught me to look at life from a basket half-folded point of view, it was the adoption of line-only drying. I groaned, for example, the first time a sudden summer storm drenched a line full of laundry. But when the sun came out a day later, the clothes were softer and smelled better than if I’d used a luxury-hotel fabric softener. When winter settled in, I thought drying inside would be slow because of the lack of wind, but because we use the wood stove 24/7 in winter, clothes actually dried faster. And there was another bonus I’d never thought of – the evaporating moisture of the drying laundry was a perfect counter balance to the over-dry air created by the wood stove.

I haven’t found any miracles in the mountains of clothes that I end up having to fold in late-night marathons (when sleeping children won’t rearrange my sorted piles on the couch). But when I’m meditating as I work my way through the pile, free of distractions and requests, it’s more than just laundry.