Yet Again … I’m Doing It All Wrong

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I read an article today in the News & Observer about the “ten habits of happy cooks” — things that people who like to cook have in common.

Do I do any of these things?

Uh, no. I do not.

I do like to cook, though, so I just wanted to put up a short post to say that if, like me, you are unable to make a meal plan, think ahead, keep a running shopping list, and clean while you go (that last one especially kills me, it just does not happen in my life), there is still hope.

My solution is to keep things really simple.

Figure out a few things you like and just make those things. Pick things that are reasonably healthy, that are affordable to you, that you (and the people you are feeding, if you are feeding people other than yourself) are willing to eat on a regular basis, and that are easy to make and easy to clean up.

Things you make frequently are always going to be easier because you don’t have to think so much about them. It also makes shopping easier because you can narrow your focus to the things you usually buy.

When you get sick of eating the same thing, stop making that thing and find something else that is equally good/cheap/ healthy/easy.

And that is my solution. It seems easier than trying to be organized. That just feels like a losing battle.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Monday, October 15, 2012

I was talking to my mom last week. She said, “You haven’t written anything on your blog in a while.”

True that.

Here’s something I wrote a long time ago that wasn’t quite right when I first wrote it and I wrote it again, then stuck it in the blog post purgatory holding pen. Came across it recently when I was cleaning things up. Think it’s probably as good as it’s going to get, and despite the anomalous reference to hot weather, I’m posting as is.

====

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking and eating, and cooking at home versus eating out, and why people don’t cook and why people eat out. I’ve had many conversations about this with many different people.

One of the things that has come up repeatedly in discussions with women, especially women who were either raised in traditional families (i.e., those with traditional gender roles, father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker) or who actually were the homemaker-half of a traditional family, is what a loaded issue cooking is for many women, especially cooking for other people. On a really fundamental level, it represents for a lot of people subservience and limited options.

I’ve begun to think of it as the “just a housewife” syndrome.

I had one person I was friendly with here in Durham who I talked with about this a few times, she was in her early 60s, her kids were grown and she had been divorced for a number of years. She ate out all the time but still had a refrigerator packed with food. She stopped working and cut back on how much she was eating out and also how many trips she took to Whole Foods (for a long time, every time I went there I’d see her, I think it was sort of a social activity for her — go to Whole Foods to pick up a few things, run into people and chat, like happy hour or something) but even after she had cut back, she was still spending way more money than I do on food, and had so much more than she needed in her fridge.

We had some interesting conversations about cooking at home versus eating out and one of the things she said was that she had spent her whole life taking care of other people, she wanted someone to take care of her. She wanted to go out and have someone else cook and someone else clean up.

I was thinking about that recently, and I’m not sure if I understood what she was saying at the time we talked about it, but I think I’ve come around.

I can see how when you feel like you’ve been giving, giving, giving, you want for once to be on the receiving end, you want to be taken care of. And I can definitely see how sometimes it feels like too much to figure out what to eat and get it all together and cook and serve and clean up … and then have to do it all over again tomorrow. You want someone else to worry about that, you just want it to be done without you always having to do all the work.

I can see that.

But I also think that trying to fill the need to be taken care of by going out to eat doesn’t usually work.

When you go out to eat, you are being taken care of to a certain extent — you tell someone what you want and they bring it to you. They ask how everything is, they ask if you want anything else, they tell you to have a nice night when you leave. But they’re not taking care of you because they want to, because they love you, because they care if you’re happy. They’re doing it because it’s their job, it’s a restaurant and that’s what they do. (Not that there aren’t restaurants, or people who work in restaurants, who do things for love, there are, but mostly restaurants are business. You give them money and they take care of you until you get up from the table.)

If you eat out because there’s a restaurant that makes things you just can’t make as well at home, or because you want a special night out, or because your kitchen is clean and you want to keep it that way a little longer, you’ll likely be satisfied when you’re done eating. The food will have been as good as you remember, you will have had a break from your normal routine, your kitchen will be clean for another day.

If you eat out because you’re looking for love, it’s not as likely to hit the spot.

In high school, I read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and it made a big impression on me, I really loved it, and read many more Anne Tyler novels, none of which spoke to me quite as directly as that one did. A few years ago, I picked it up again and re-read it, and was reminded of how much I liked it at the time. I could also see why.

The book is basically a character sketch of a mostly dysfunctional family, and sharing meals (or rather not sharing meals — they can never manage to make it all the way through a family dinner without someone storming off) and feeding people is a central theme. And both when I read the book initially and when I re-read it a few years ago, I found the idea of a restaurant where there aren’t menus, you come in and they tell you what you should eat — “You look a little tired. I’ll bring you an oxtail stew” — to be lovely and intriguing. The restaurant owner’s brother, who thought the idea was stupid, gives the best description of it:

Ever since Ezra had inherited the place … he’d been systematically wrecking it. He was fully capable of serving a single entrée all one evening, bringing it to your table himself as soon as you were seated. Other nights he’d offer more choice, four or five selections chalked up on the blackboard. But still you might not get what you asked for. “The Smithfield ham,” you’d say and up would come the okra stew. “With that cough of yours, I know this will suit you better,” Ezra would explain. But even if he’d judged correctly, was that any way to run a restaurant? You order ham, ham is what you get. Otherwise you might as well eat at home.

I love that passage — you might as well eat at home.

There aren’t many homesick restaurants around. If you eat out because you want to be taken care of, you’re probably going to have to keep eating out because the need to be taken care of will be just as strong when you finish as it was when you started.

It’s like people who are lonely or otherwise unhappy with their lives, who shop or eat to make themselves feel better. It doesn’t ever really work — you can never buy enough or eat enough to make yourself feel better, because the reason you feel bad is not because you don’t own enough or have enough to eat. The hole you’re trying to fill is not touched by the things you’re putting in it.

So if eating out isn’t likely to fill the void left by wanting to be cared for, what is?

I feel like learning how to cook for yourself — learning how to cook with love and not resentment — has a much better chance of success. Because you can think about what you’re missing and what you need and what will make yourself feel better. (And also you get to cook things that make sense — it’s a thousand degrees today and has been all week, and I had lunch at a restaurant that had as its “soup of the day” a cream of broccoli with cheddar cheese. What? Clearly these people have been spending too much time in air conditioning, nothing could have been less appealing to me after endless days of sweltering temperatures than cream of broccoli soup with cheddar cheese.)

As M.F.K. Fisher said, “I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster.”

Being able to take care of yourself — to feed yourself as you wish to be fed –is a great skill that will serve you well and make your whole life better. You get to be your own homesick restaurant.

Because, as the book says, if that’s what you want, you might as well eat at home.

One Load at a Time

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In May, when we were in the middle of moving the Tigris and Euphrates across town, my friend Bryant wrote a blog post that landed in my in box. I started to read it but it was calm and thoughtful and introspective, like all of her posts, and that was so far from where I was at that point that I just couldn’t do it. I talked to her a few days later and said, “I saw your post, Bryant, but I couldn’t read it. Too much, too much. Too much else in my head.”

She said, “You should read it, it’s just what you need.”

I read the post a few days later. She was right.

It was about doing things a little at a time, which was really what we needed to hear at that point. I’m someone who likes to get everything done at once, so I can just get it over with and move on. (Which, paradoxically, is why it takes me so long to get to things — if I’m not sure whether I can finish something completely, I don’t even think about it, leaving me with many unstarted projects scattered about my life.) So it’s good for me to be reminded that sometimes doing things a little at a time is a better approach than trying to do them all at once. In the end you get the same amount of work done, and it usually takes a lot less out of you.

One of the things I’ve really focused on the past few years has been trying to get some semblance of organization in my life. Like most people of my generation, housekeeping was a big issue for me — I could never manage to get things done and I always felt like everything was a mess. Inspired by Home Comforts (among other things), I was eventually able to figure out a system for keeping things more or less in order without undue amounts of work or stress.

Dishes, kitchen, bathroom, linens — one by one, I had taken control of things that always seemed a mess and had come up with systems for maintaining them. The last hold out was laundry.

Despite the fact that I wear the same things all the time and really have hardly any clothes, I still couldn’t manage to get to a point where didn’t keep finding myself with no clean clothes and piles and piles of things to wash.

When I started thinking about it, I realized that the fact that I didn’t have that much was actually part of the problem. It seemed silly to do a load when I didn’t have that much, but then I’d get busy and wouldn’t think about it again until I had way too much.

A small amount of laundry I can do easily; it fits into the spaces of my normal routine. I can throw a load in the machine, then fix breakfast and eat and read the paper, then hang it on the line on my way to the office. At the end of the day, I can take it off the line and bring it inside. Takes ten minutes going up, ten minutes coming down. Before I go to bed, I can fold it and put it away. Less than ten minutes for that, too. Everything done in one day.

But if I wait until I have a lot of laundry, then I have to clear out time specifically to deal with laundry. I wait until all of the loads have run through the washer before hanging any of it, and it takes three times as long to get everything up, and three times as long to take it down, and three times as long to fold it. It doesn’t work to squeeze it into my normal day because it takes so long it’s disruptive. I have to think about it and try to make time for it. And that’s much harder.

Eventually I decided the solution was to do one load on a regular schedule, and then add a second load if I need to. I don’t have to wait until I have a critical mass of clothes; it’s not going to hurt anything if I wash something when it could be worn again.

And that pretty much solved my laundry problem.

I still occasionally get backed up, and end up with piles and piles of things to wash and dry and fold and put away, but I realized that at that point, what I need to do is to increase the frequency of my one-load strategy. Instead of trying to deal with three or four loads at one time, to get everything done and taken care of (which is  my natural inclination, I want to get through everything, get it all out of the way), I should do one load, then a day or two later do another, then another, until I’m back down to the normal level. All of the loads fit into my normal routine, it’s not disruptive, and before long, it’s all taken care of.

I took last week off from work (along with most everything else), and now I’m behind. But I’m so far behind, and with so many different things I’m behind on, that my only option is to do a little bit at a time — a little bit of each of them, tag team, until I get to the point where I can focus on one thing again.

So I’m trying to think about Bryant’s post, and how I get through my laundry when it gets backed up, and how one load at a time is often a much better strategy than everything all at once.

PWS

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I’ve had a lot of work lately, and when I have a lot of work, I have to make myself stay on my computer longer than I want to.

When I have the right amount of work, after working for two or three hours, I get to stop and go do something else — like go to bed. When I have a lot of work, I work for two or three hours then have to work some more. It’s hard for me to jump directly from one thing to another, so I take a little break with something unrelated — something that doesn’t involve leaving my computer, that I can do without using much of my brain, and that ideally won’t take too much time, because the break usually comes around 1am.

For a while, a few years ago, my break was reading the Carolyn Hax Tell Me About It archive. (I have a total weakness for advice columns.)

This spring, my break was the Brad Cooper trial. (And, for the record, I think that trial was a travesty of justice, there’s no way he should have been convicted on the evidence presented, it was totally ridiculous.)

Lately my obsession has been The Pioneer Woman Sux.

I’d never really looked at The Pioneer Woman until I read the New Yorker article about it, and I learned about PWS through that same article. I thought the Pioneer Woman Sux parody was vastly more entertaining than the “keepin it real” real thing, and in fact I often found it completely brilliant. I thought the comments section was even better than the posts.

So that turned into my between-project break, I would check in and see what was up and would read for way longer than I intended to then go back and work some more. Eventually I became pretty much addicted, checking in every day to see what was new. (Saw a recent comment from someone who said a friend had emailed her a link to the site with the subject line, “Best Time Suck Ever.” Yes, I would have to agree with that.)

Checked tonight and the site says it’s offline for comments until October.

What??

I have no idea what’s going on but it’s very strange that it happened so suddenly. A commenter on Marlboro Woman’s site suggested the possibility of a cease and desist letter. I’m keeping my eye out for news. If anyone hears anything, let me know. [Okay, false alarm on the PWS fan base freak out. Nothing nefarious, just too much going on to deal with a freaking blog, boy do I know that feeling. And I think probably way more people reading than she expected. Know that feeling too.]

Aside from the comedy, I’ve found the whole Pioneer Woman phenomenon fascinating from a sociological perspective, and it ties in to a lot of things I had been thinking about and reading about for the past year or so, in terms of homemaking and feminism and media representations of women’s lives and corporate commodification of all of those things. Then my life went off the rails — first with work then with roof/building/moving craziness then with work again — and my reading list went out the window.

But work is done, and craziness is back to the normal low hum, so hopefully I’ll be able to get back to that and start thinking about all of those things again, and maybe even put together something that’s worth reading.

But before that, it’s fundraising time here at Less Is Enough! It’s going to be like public radio, where regularly scheduled programming gets replaced by begging — I’m going to bring you stories about why I love The Scrap Exchange and why everyone should give it money. I promise I’ll make them worth reading.

The Middle Ground

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I was listening to Fresh Air last night and Terry Gross was interviewing Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse (and, more importantly, The Edible Schoolyard) fame. Terry noted that the fixed price dinner at Chez Panisse is currently around $90 per person, which is clearly out of reach for most people.

She said she feels like there is a divide when it comes to food and eating in this country, with cheap, super-sized sodas and fast food meals on one side and expensive, lovingly prepared foods made with locally sourced ingredients on the other. She asked if there was any middle ground.

I don’t remember Alice Waters’s exact response (and I’m too lazy to listen to the interview again right now) but I think it basically had to do with how food is artificially cheap in this country, and how good food will cost more, because it’s more expensive to produce. But it’s also worth more. That’s just how it is.

While Alice Waters was answering Terry Gross on the radio, I was answering her in my kitchen, telling them that indeed there is a middle ground — the middle ground is to cook your own food, at home, with the best ingredients you can afford. It will be much better than a fast food meal and a fraction of the cost of dinner at Chez Panisse. (In fact my entire month’s grocery bill, shopping almost exclusively at Whole Foods, is roughly the same as a single meal for one person at Chez Panisse. And my per-meal cost is actually a fraction of the cost of the fast food meal — for the past ten years, I have eaten for about a dollar per meal, which is approximately one-fifth the current cost of a Big Mac Meal at my local McDonald’s.)

It’s not complicated and it’s not out of reach. I firmly believe that anyone can do this.

Here’s how.

First, before you start, you need to think about why you want to. Are you doing it for health reasons (either yours or other family members)? Are you doing it so your kids get to eat good meals at home? Are you doing it to save money? Are you doing it so you can eat better food?

Try to figure out what your motivation is.

Knowing this will help keep you from getting derailed when the going gets tough, and can help you figure out which alternative approach you should focus on when you need to cut corners to get through. If you’re doing it primarily for health reasons, then you might be willing to spend more to have the same level of food — for instance buying pre-cut produce that you can throw together quickly when you get home after a long day at work. If you’re doing it for financial reasons and health is less of a concern, then you can go with a lowest common denominator approach (my preferred L.C.D. foods are fruit, breakfast cereal, and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches) until your schedule — or psyche, as the case may be — clears up and you can manage full-fledged meals again.

One you’ve gotten that figured out, this is what you need to do.

Step 1
Learn to cook.

Get your hands on a good beginner’s cookbook — my favorite is Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham but there’s no shortage of cookbooks in the world. Stop by your local library and take a look at what’s on the shelves there so you can test drive some and see how it goes. When you find one you like, invest in a copy. Also try to pick up one or two comprehensive basic cookbooks, like the Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer or for a more recent take, How to Cook Everything. Or go retro and get the plaid Betty Crocker. Check out yard sales, thrift stores, used bookstores for cheap cookbooks.

Or you can stick with the internet and check out YouTube, where there are endless cooking videos, and also look at food blogs, of which there is also no end.

If you’ve never cooked anything, start with weekend breakfasts — pancakes, scrambled eggs, biscuits. You’ll be more relaxed and have more time to work things out. If it’s a disaster, you can just fix a bowl of cereal or a bagel and move on.

Once you’re comfortable with that, you can move on to easy dinners — pasta with vegetables, black beans and rice, mac and cheese. If it helps to get you going, use convenience products, but know that nearly everything you buy prepared (or partially prepared) in the grocery store you can make yourself, cheaper and better.

Keep looking at cookbooks and magazines and food blogs, where you can get new ideas for different meals, and keep trying out recipes to figure out what you like, what your family will eat, what works with your schedule.

If you start to feel sick of it and feel like it’s not worth it, remember why you wanted to do it in the first place, think about what’s not working, and try to come up with a different strategy. (In Holistic Management parlance, this is the monitoring phase. You don’t just come up with a plan and go, you have to constantly review it to see if it’s working. If it’s not working, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Look at what the problem is, address the problem, try again. Monitor, adjust, monitor, adjust.)

Once you’ve mastered following recipes, you’ll start to be more comfortable making adjustments and making recipes your own. And you’ll get a repertoire of things that don’t really have recipes, they’re just things you put together — being able to cook without needing a specific recipe for every dish (or to use the title of another book I like, How to Cook Without a Book) is a real time and energy saver.

Step 2
Learn to shop.

For starters, just go to the same store you usually go to; you don’t have to change everything at once. Start paying attention to prices and noticing what’s on special. If you shop according to price — buying fruits and vegetables when they are cheaper than normal — you will be buying seasonally. Congratulations, you’re now one of the cool kids.

There are multiple different shopping strategies, any of which can be successful. Some people like to shop once a month, because it saves running around and reduces impulse purchases. (This would not work for me at all because I want fresh produce more than once a month. Also I work from home and walking to the grocery store gets me out of the house, which is generally a good thing.)

Many people shop weekly. My brother likes to shop at 7am on Saturdays because he says no one else is there yet and the store is fully stocked for the busy day ahead — he said you get the best selection with the fewest people. (When his kids were little, he’d take them with him and they would explore the store while he shopped, which is definitely not something you want to do later in the day when the store is packed. Also I think this works better for men than women; a man grocery shopping with three kids is enough of an anomaly that all of the workers knew whose kids they were and would keep an eye on them. Also probably works better for my brother than most people, he’s got a special talent for things like that.)

I used to shop weekly but I found I ended up throwing out a lot of food because I would buy things based on what I thought I might want, and then I would go out to lunch and not be hungry for dinner or work late and decide I really wanted Chinese food, or whatever. So I wouldn’t eat the food I bought and then I would forget about it and go shopping again and get more and then throw things away.

When I started working from home, I decided I needed to fix this, and I started looking in the fridge before going to the store to see what I had and/or what was about to go bad and use that as the basis of the next meal I was preparing. Instead of trying to get everything I thought I might want to eat in the week, I decided I would buy just what I needed for the next meal I was making (assuming that that meal would provide at least two or three servings — one dinner and two lunches, and if it was more than that, the remainder would go in the freezer, I can only eat something three times before getting sick of it), and also restock pantry staples.

Basically I would stay focused and buy food for the next two to three days instead of anything I ever might want to eat. The grocery store was less than a mile from my house. If it turned out I didn’t get something I actually needed, I could either work around it and get it next time (after all I’d be back in a few days), or make a special trip for it. It would be fine.

It was fine.

My food costs dropped precipitously once I implemented this strategy. I would shop for two to three days worth of food, but would almost always end up with four to five days worth of food, so I would be going to the grocery store twice a week instead of once a week, which really isn’t so different.

Also I walk to the store, so I don’t tend to go crazy with impulse purchases, and I pay with cash, which also puts a serious curb on purchases.

As you cook more, you may find that the store you usually shop at doesn’t have the best produce or doesn’t have the best prices. Look around at other stores and see how things compare.

Generally different stores are cheaper for different things. As you pay attention to prices you’ll learn this. You might make a trip every month or every few months to one particular store to stock up on things that are cheap there while you do most of your shopping at the store that’s most convenient or that has the best meat or fish or produce or whatever you care about most.

For instance the vast majority of my shopping trips are to Whole Foods, because it’s a comfortable walk from my house (about a mile and a half), it’s convenient to other places I often walk, it’s a lovely store with a remarkable diversity of customers, and everyone there is nice. However I will not buy Asian foods there because I can get them for a fraction of the cost at the Asian Grocery. So I drive to the Asian Grocery a few times a year and get soy sauce, fish sauce, rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, bamboo shoots, and whatever else I regularly use in stir fries and other Asian dishes.

If you get really taken with sourcing ingredients and care a lot about where your food comes from, you can check out farmer’s markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own farms. You can talk to people with backyard chickens. You can join a CSA. You can plant a garden.

But you don’t have to do this.

Even the worst industrially farmed tomato in the worst grocery store in town is better than fast food — which is not only using the worst industrially farmed tomatoes but is also adding loads of sugar and salt, and charging you for the pleasure of serving you.

Don’t make things harder for yourself than they need to be.

When I started this post, I was thinking there were going to be more steps, and I might think of some others later, but I think for now this is it.

Learn to cook. Learn to shop. Shop and cook.

And eat.

And do the dishes.

There you have it.

The middle ground.

Remainders

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Still working my way through the things that needed to be done before the roof fell plus the things that always need to be done plus the new things coming in. One of the things that both needed to be done before the roof fell and always needs to be done is to clean off the porches, which tend to get things piled on them especially when I’m in the middle of something. Which seems like most of the time these days.

Before the roof fell I was trying to wrap up painting the garage, so there was a bunch of painting stuff on the back porch, and the front porch always ends up with a little bit of everything on it, so that needs to be gone through and beaten back into submission every few months. The front porch also happened to be the place where Scrap things ended up when they came home with me (for whatever reason) as part of the moving tumult so it was in worse shape than usual.

I’ve taken some of the Scrap things back already but I’m listing what I still have here because I think it’s funny and gives an interesting snapshot of life at The Scrap Exchange and what the move was like. This is what I ended up with:

  • a 90s-era all-in-one stereo system (receiver, turntable,  dual tape player, CD player) with a Japanese record on it
  • a can of gold glitter spray paint
  • a sewing machine
  • a 3,210-page Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary from 1934
  • a partially completed geometric art piece by Artie Barksdale
  • two rolls of paper towels
  • a container of table salt
  • a Mac G4 tower with a power supply problem that I’ve been needing to try to fix for the past year. It was on the porch for a week before I noticed that the VGA to DVI monitor adapter that I’d torn my office apart looking for in March was attached to the back of it. Oh right, that’s where I put that.

There you have it. Japanese LPs, unabridged dictionaries, sewing machines, and glitter spray paint. All in one store. What more could you want?

So today after tackling the porches I decided to wash windows.

Window-washing is a much maligned activity — all those cleaning people saying they don’t do windows has made everyone think it’s horrible — but I really don’t think it deserves the bad rap and in fact I find it rather zen. You get some nice exercise and you can focus all of your attention on looking through the glass and making sure you got everything which leaves no energy at all to worry about all the other things you end up worrying about when you should be doing something else. And nothing makes your house feel cleaner than shiny, clean windows.

Next time you feel like your house is missing something and you need to redecorate, try cleaning the windows first. That might be all you need.

And if you’re so inclined, here are a few recipes for do-it-yourself window cleaners.

Use the first if you have ammonia lying around that you’d like to use up, but don’t go buy it just for this. If you’d like to be less-toxic, use either of the last two. I find that the recipes with a little detergent work better than plain vinegar and water. Though I’m still working my way through a bottle of ammonia I bought in 1998 so I use that first recipe and it works great.

I use crumpled newspaper to wipe with and have no trouble with streaking. (Note: Do not attempt with your iPad.)

For any of the recipes, combine ingredients in a spray bottle and then LABEL THE BOTTLE so you know what’s in it. Don’t skip that step. You’ll regret it the next time you go to wash your windows and have to dump out the stuff in the bottle under the sink because you’re not sure what it is and you decide you’d better mix up a new batch just to be safe.

Window Cleaners

All-Purpose Window Cleaner with Ammonia
adapted from Cheaper and Better by Nancy Birnes

2 Tablespoons ammonia
2 Tablespoons vinegar
1/2 teaspoon liquid detergent
2 cups water

All-Purpose Window Cleaner
1/4 cup vinegar
1/2 teaspoon liquid detergent
2 cups water

Vinegar Straight Up
1/2 cup vinegar
2 cups water

Happy cleaning!

Housekeeping Thoughts, Part II

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Here’s a follow up to my last post about housekeeping.

The other part of Cheryl Mendelson’s book I’ve been thinking about is where she talks about setting up routines and systems for maintaining a household. This is something I’ve managed to do over the past few years, and I have to say that it’s made a huge difference.

Because I do the same things on a regular basis, I don’t have to think about them, and even when my schedule is disrupted, I’m usually able to get back to them fairly quickly. So my house still gets messy and things end up all over the place, but it’s not stressful because I know I’ll be able to get to it when I’m through whatever it is that’s taking priority. And once I get back to it, it doesn’t take that much energy to put it all back together.

My routine is very general; it’s not rigid. Basically I’ve figured out what I care about and as long as that’s all good, I don’t worry about anything else. And because those things are all taken care of on a regular basis, when I have time to actually “clean,” I can do more extensive things that make an even bigger difference — like for instance washing windows, which (if you do the outsides too), makes you feel like you bought a new house.

I used to get so overwhelmed that I would let everything go to hell, and just getting the basics done took so much energy that the basics were all I could manage. Now the basics get done without much work, and even when my life is a complete disaster, I have clean sheets on the bed and my kitchen looks good at least once a week.

This is the part of Home Comforts that helped inspire me to do that.

An increasing number of households do housework without any system, schedule, or routine, more or less reacting to each situation as it arises. This makes things harder, not easier. With systematic housekeeping, most of the time you live comfortably: supplies are not exhausted; dirt and laundry to not overaccumulate; plans and resources for at-home occupations and entertainments are in place. In nonsystematic housekeeping, chores are tended to only when the resources of one of the household’s systems are exhausted: when there are no clean clothes or linens and there is school in the morning and stale beds tonight; when it is the dinner hour and the cabinet is bare; when dirt and disorder are beyond tolerating. When you keep house like this, domestic frustrations and discomfort begin to be felt long before you reach the point where you decide to do something about them. But when this point is reached, often the troubles cannot immediately be remedied because, without rational schedules, nothing ensures that time or resources will then be available to tend to the house. Moreover, the amount of work is more than it would have been had there been daily tending to chores; everything has become worse than it would have been. And worst of all, the only time you get to experience anything like a well-kept house is immediately after the emergency response measures are taken. The rest of the time — most of the time — you live badly.

A housekeeping routine not only prevents your home from growing seedy and sour between cleanings but also helps assure that you are willing to do the work, for, as experienced people all know, housework motivation can be a psychologically delicate matter. Cleaning, laundry, and other chores are far harder after you have let them go for two weeks; the energy you must summon to tackle them becomes greater the longer you have procrastinated. Not doing some housework leads to not doing even more housework.

If you have no system, you have to reinvent your housekeeping or debate what to do first every time you do it, and the required mental effort is a major obstacle, especially when you are tired. But a tired working person is often able to do things that are routine and habitual. No thinking is required; minimal inertia must be overcome. A chore that fits into a reassuring overall plan of housekeeping feels effective and worthwhile. But if you feel you are just tackling the worst problem in a home that is starting to go to pieces, it may hardly seem worth the effort.

Housekeeping Thoughts, Part I

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I had a few things go off the rails the this week, was hoping to get back to posting more frequently but doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for a little bit. But I’ll keep trying.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about revising the document I use for my natural cleaners class (coming up on Wednesday, April 27 at The Scrap Exchange, $18 per household, for any local folks who are interested in participating) and am considering whether I want to create an expanded version of the document that discusses housekeeping strategies along with the recipes and other information it currently contains.

Not sure if I’m up for that or will be able to find the time, but thinking about it made me review some of the things I have on hand with housekeeping and/or homemaking information.

One of the books I have that I like a lot is Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. At 880+ pages, it is, to put it mildly, comprehensive, and I use it mostly to look things up, but after relying on it as a reference for a number of years, I revisited the introductory material and found it really great. I feel like a lot of what she says is so dead-on that I couldn’t say it better myself.

So instead of trying to, I’m just going to give you some excerpts of things that I think are especially useful or that touch on things I’ve been thinking about lately.

Here’s the first.

People used to be fond of the old saying that a housewife’s work is never done, but you do not hear it much anymore, perhaps because today, so often, the housewife’s work is never started. In any event, this maxim, like most, is only half true. Yes, you can always think of something else that could be done, and yes, you will do more tomorrow, but in fact there really is an end to what your routine calls for this day or week or year. You, however, are the one who sets limits. Beginners should recognize the importance of setting plausible and explicit goals in housekeeping so that they know when they are done. In my experience, the most common cause of dislike of housework is the feeling that the work is never done, that it never gives a sense of satisfaction, completion, and repose.

To avoid this, you have to decide what ordinary, daily level of functioning you want in your home. There ought to be a word for this level, but there isn’t. When I was a girl, my mother used to say, when everything was on schedule and as she wanted it, “The house is done.” Whatever words you use, you need to create end points that will let you, too, say to yourself, “Finished.” Otherwise you will feel trapped and resentful, in danger of becoming one of the many unfortunates who hate taking care of their own homes.

Another trap to avoid is that of inflexible standards and unrealistic expectations. You need different goals for ordinary times and times of illness, stress, company, new babies, long working hours, or other interruptions of your home routine. People with large houses, many children or guests, active households, or invalid parents will have to spread themselves more thinly and should not expect to be able to keep house like the Joneses. Also the fewer your resources of all kinds — money, help, appliances, skills, time — the more modest will be the level of housekeeping you can realistically hope for.

When you cannot have everything, establish priorities. Health, safety, and comfort matter more than appearances, clutter, organization, and entertainment. A jumbled closet may distract you, but it is much less urgent than clean sheets, laundry, or meals. Excessive dustiness can be unhealthy as well as uncomfortable; smeary mirrors (usually) aren’t. Clean the rooms you spend the most time in and those where cleanliness is urgent (bedroom, kitchen, bathroom); let everything else go. Polishing gems and organizing your photographs can be put off indefinitely.

When you fall below your ordinary standards of housekeeping, a backup plan can help prevent the fall from turning into a free fall. Planning how much you will engage in a housekeeping retraction at such times and return to ordinary standards when the crisis is past keeps you in control. The goal during these hard times is to adhere, more or less, to some workable minimal routine. If you can still cook simple meals and food preparation areas are safe and sanitary, if everyone has clean clothes, if the bedrooms are dusted, vacuumed, and aired, and the bedding is fresh, you are doing well.

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