The Importance of defining your terms: Cleaning the bathroom

The revised List has my kids each giving one bathroom a quick daily cleaning, in addition to a weekly cleaning. I’ve learned that they need a checklist, or else they’ll just look at it and shrug (“Looks clean to me.”). So, I’ve posted directions in each bathroom, and set each bathroom up with a set of cleaning supplies so there’s no excuses. And I’m hope the constant reminders to “put things away” will help us all to get a better handle on clutter. Husband and I will still have to clean the bathroom periodically–but it should be less of a chore for us if the kids take on some of the regular tasks. Here are my directions for the kids:

I'm making them do a very quick wipedown each weekday, and then a heavier cleaning will go into the chore rotation. I'm sure they won't do it perfectly, but I hope it will get them into the habit of keeping the bathrooms clean.

 

Less isn’t more–but it’s easier to keep clean.

Today, Apartment Therapy summed up all my household goals and aspirations in one short, clear, and illuminating little post. The secret? Minimize all the stuff that clutters up your house and your day. Check it out:

Dirty Little Secrets of Tidy Families. They narrow it down to four basic things:

  1. Less stuff.
  2. Less web surfing.
  3. Limits on tv.
  4. Don’t let temporary messes become permanent.

I can’t say we are anywhere close to meeting these criteria yet, but at least we’ve got a plan in place. Baby steps, my friends, baby steps.

 

 

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy #2: Everyone should own a radio.

I should have known better: We’d lost power on our block for a week after Hurricane Irene the year before. But the neighbors were kind enough to let us piggy back on their generator, so we could charge our phones there, and it was of fun “roughing it” for that warm week in August. I mean, we just ate out a lot, since all the stores were open. The kids hung out outside, or played cards in the evening.

But after Sandy, we woke up to not just a physical disaster, but a complete communications void. No power, sure. But also no cell phone service. You couldn’t even get a text through. The last Facebook post I’d seen before I lost my cell coverage was from a friend who lived a couple of miles east, in Belle Harbor. It read:

Rockaway is burning. Please help.

And there we were, without a radio. The one we had was a big old boombox, and it was, of course, floating somewhere in the basement. We had no idea what was happening, anywhere, or how far the disaster went (was it just us in Rockaway?) or what, if anything, was being done to help. No land lines, no cell, no internet, no tv (what we would have done for a little NY1!), no newspapers, and no freaking radio.

I snagged an old walkman a few days later from my mom, and spent much of the remaining month plugged into it. And this tech devotee gained a new appreciation for good, old fashioned analog, even if the news was confusing, and real information was, especially for the first few days, very hard to find.

Anyway, having spent the better part of a month with the radio, following not only the disaster coverage but also the 2012 presidential elections, I’m now a radio devotee. Yes, I still stream music and podcasts, but I spend my morning with good old fashioned real-time broadcasts. And after free riding on WNYC for so many years, I finally became a sustaining member after I realized I’d have been completely lost without it. They covered Rockaway better than anyone, and kept covering us long after the rest of the media had moved on.

Obviously,  I finally got a radio (this one):

It has great reception, runs on the smell of a battery (and has a hand crank in case of a power emergency), takes up little to no space, and travels with me from room to room to garden without any wires, bluetooth connectivity issues, or recharging needed. And I love that it has dials instead of buttons.

It’s technically an emergency radio, but I use it all the time now. You’ll never be packed away in the basement, little friend.

Optimizing the workforce: Learning to delegate (and learning to be stubborn)

A confession: I hate housework.

I get no joy from making floors sparkle, or from a sock drawer that is arranged by color story, and don’t even get me started on the puzzling degree of laundry room porn that keeps popping up on my Pinterest  feed.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Seriously, if I had enough money to or square footage to devote a sunny room of my home to a glorious laundry facility, I’d just hire someone to do the damned laundry. I just need the clothes clean and folded–and put away–and for the house tidy enough that I don’t feel compelled to make excuses for a mess. But even that level of tidiness is a challenge for my family: None of us are particularly particular about making things just so. We’re kind of aiming for good enough.

When I was a kid, my mother managed to keep a house of similar size and population always looking tidy through a combination of extreme editing (she eschewed knick knacks, which she referred to as “dust collectors”), practical choices (dark carpets and surfaces that “hid the dirt”), and a solid housework schedule (she cleaned/dusted/put things away all day, every day). The rest of us had few to no responsibilities for household chores. I’m not kidding. The most I ever did was straighten my room once in a while, or start my laundry, which my mom would eventually put in the dryer and fold and often even put away. It was, looking back, a pretty sweet deal for us kids and my dad. But the point is that keeping that very tidy house very tidy was pretty much a full time job for her.

The thing is, I have another, almost full-time job, and my husband has an often more than full-time job. We split the work on most household tasks fairly evenly, but that’s not to say it’s really 50/50—more like 35/35, with about thirty percent just not getting done.

However, the changing demographics of our household have made available new labor resources. My little boy and girl are now a teen and a tween—virtual minions!—who could and should be picking up that last 30 percent.  Of course they should be. But why weren’t they?  Well, because I never made them. Never really taught them how to clean their room, or the bathroom, or anything. Frankly, I never really learned these things myself.  I would tell them to clean the bathroom, and let them procrastinate. I would pick up (or more likely, just ignore) the shoes, books, sweaters, and other random detritus they leave in their wake when they walk in the door and pack their schoolbags for them before they walk out it. It was just easier to do it myself (or ignore it all) than to argue with them, or even to just take the time to show them how to do it/do it with them.  That’s because I have very, very little patience. That lack of patience (and lack of interest) is probably why I never learned these skills and habits from my mother (I am still notorious for just dropping my crap on the table when I walk in the door myself). It also makes me a total pushover—the kids know that if they whine and procrastinate enough, I’ll cave and do it for them.

So, on the advice of my husband, I’m making it a goal to learn to delegate, and to learn to be stubborn.  This week, I just stopped picking up after them at all. If they leave their shoes, a dish, or anything in the living room, I call them from wherever they are and make them put it away, even though it would be way less work for me to just put the stupid dish in the dishwasher myself. It’s a chore, really, yelling down to the playroom for them to come upstairs and directing them on what to do. But it’s already paying some dividends: Himself is getting better about picking up after himself in general, and Herself has finally started clearing her own breakfast dishes without me asking her to do it. Don’t get too excited: The dining room is still of crap that doesn’t belong there (much of it mine). But, tiny victories, you know?

 

Rockaway Beach Reads: Jill Eisenstadt’s 1987 novel “From Rockaway”

A few months back, I stumbled upon a review of Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonder World  in The New York Times Book Review. It’s a memoir by a Colorado skater and writer who moved to New York City and I guess wound up discovering himself by surfing in Rockaway. That, on the heels of Rockaway, Tara Ison’s 2013 novel about an artist who retreats to the peninsula in 2001 in search of inspiration for her work.**

    

 

It is striking that both of these writers cast Rockaway as a destination, a place where one chooses to go, indeed, chooses to be, to stay. For most of my life, this was a place you talked about escaping from, but never really did. Yet here it is, presented as an artist’s escape, a young hipster’s salvation. I suppose that shift is a microcosm of the changes that have affected all of New York City over the past few decades, but somehow, Rockaway’s geographic isolation seemed to both separate us from the lowest lows of the 1970s and 80s while at the same time magnifying them. I grew up watching all my friends’ famillies leave Rockaway to head toward greener pastures “out on the Island,” believing that a quiet suburban life would protect their children from the drugs and violence and blight that was creeping over Rockaway and the rest of the city at the time. I wonder how that worked out.

Anyway, all this literary chatter about escaping “to Rockaway” reminded me of what I suppose must be the definitive Rockaway novel: Jill Eisensadt’s 1987 From Rockaway

 

Jill Eisenstadt, From Rockaway. Knopf 1987

Eisenstadt was affiliated with what was at the time hyped as the “literary brat pack,” a group of young writers out of Bennington College in the late 1980s (more celebrated–and prolific–members of that posse include Donna Tartt, Tama Janowitz, and Brett Easton Ellis). The novel  got a fair bit of buzz when it was published, with mentions in The New York Times, Glamour, and elsewhere.  I had read it back when it came out, and while I was fuzzy on the details, I remember thinking it captured a lot of what I felt about this place at that time, perhaps mainly due to the fact that  I, like the book’s four protagonists, had just graduated from high school. I wasn’t social enough to know if the details were right, but I do remember really connecting to that  dead-end-on the-edge-of-the-big-city vibe:  yes, people want to escape this place, but as the old  timers say, once you’ve got that sand in your shoes, it’s very hard to do. I decided to revisit From Rockaway, and see how it well it holds up.

First, the back cover copy, from the publisher:

“In Jill Eisenstadt’s savvy, heartfelt novel we enter the world of working-class kids in Rockaway, New York, a beach community where beer cans and cigarette butts stud the sand instead of seashells. Peg, Alex, Chowderhead, and Timmy play, drink, and dream together. Their circle breaks apart when Alex gets a scholarship to a “rich kids’ school” in New England. Soon the rituals described in her anthropology text seem less bizarre than the games in the dorms around her. It is back in Rockaway, reunited with the old gang for the summer, that the explosive depth of feeling in kids with no options beyond the local deli and the lifeguard stands shows Alex what it means to face adulthood.”

One sign of changing times, I guess, is that my ten-year-old was deeply offended by the description of our beaches (“This book LIES!!!”). But I remember avoiding the filthy beaches when I was her age. I had to have a little heart-to-heart with her (“Sweetie, let me tell you about the 1980s….”).

I’m about midway through now, and the one thing that’s striking me about it is how much it feels like a period piece: the local and pop culture reference are so of that moment, of that time and place, that they almost feel like nostalgic renderings written by a sentimental author trying to hang on to memories from her youth. Little details (the slogan on a Clearasil container, references to the Slice of Life pizzeria, the rumors that Frank Sinatra had bought up all the empty lots in anticipation of legalized gambling) had me spinning back to 1986 like it was yesterday. Moreover, that feeling that you’d never get out of Rockaway (remember when we called it Rotaway?) is tangible. At one point, a character refers to a map of New York:

“Rockaway, just a tiny strip that hangs off Queens as if it isn’t sure whether it wants to break away and become an island of its own or hang on tighter, desperate not to be abandoned.”

Yup. That about sums it up.

It’s definitely a local story, and it’s a work of fiction: There’s truth in the spirit and in many of the details, but of course the author has exercised some artistic license as well.  I was tickled by some of the copyediting errors that made it through (you have to be from here to know that it’s “St. Francis on Beach 129th Street” and not “St. Francis on the Beach, 129th Street”).  I can’t speak to the lifeguard culture that Eisenstadt describes in the book, other than to venture a guess that the “Death Keg” party she describes might be a literary invention: To my recollection drownings while guards are actually on duty seem too rare to have developed a real ritual around them (and in any event, I just can’t imagine local Irish boys getting quite so theatrical).

Anyway, there’s much to be said about From Rockaway, and how it reflects a Rockaway that once was and and is no more, but at the same time reflects the Rockaway that will always be. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on it, both dyed-in-the-wool locals and new arrivals. It’s out of print, but I was able to score a used copy on Amazon for a couple of dollars (Note to Random House: Rockaway is having its moment. You might want to reprint).

 **I confess I haven’t read either of these novels yet. Too many books, too little time. If anyone has, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Momentum Optimization Update: The importance of defining your terms.

Sometimes, you need to add more index cards.

When I started The List, I told them that by “tidy” I just wanted to be able to look in the room and not want to cry. As the kids have started getting the hang of making the bed and then hiding all the mess behind the bed, it was clear it was time to up the ante. And so, this reminder hangs in each of their rooms now:

20140522-055241-21161026.jpg

 

I’m trying not to ask for too much… but I hope that by laying out some basic benchmarks, they’ll gradually learn some good habits. So far, Himself is meeting these criteria on 5 out of 7 days. Herself? Not so much. A confession: I’m not really meeting them all on a regular basis, either. We’re all in this together.

 

Momentum Optimization Update: It’s easier when the sun is shining.

Yesterday was the first acceptable beach day of the year, and also the first beach day ever when I felt like my son was old enough to send him out on his own. So when I found him wandering toward the basement computer at 10:30 p.m., I just kicked him out of the house. He tried to roll off some lame excuses (Himself: There’s no one to hang out with. Me: They’re probably at the beach. Go see.”) I popped him a few bucks to have lunch at the concession and sent him on his way.

Long story short, he spent the day surfing and hanging with friends. After he got home and showered around 3pm, he hooked up with his cousins who were down for the day and spent the afternoon/evening playing board games and pool with them. He didn’t get home until almost eleven, and didn’t spend a moment of the day parked in front of a glowing screen.

I know quite well that, had he sat down in front of the computer, he’d have stayed there until one of his friends came and found him (he’s not the most pro-active when it comes to socializing. As in, not at all). But he is 14. I’m not making play dates for him any more, nor am I inviting every kid in the neighborhood to come hang at my house (where they invariably wind up…. on the computer) when the sun is shining.  No, he didn’t complete his list yesterday–but who cares? He was an object in motion all day, and that bodes well for the summer.

Addendum: We’ve had caveat in the “No Screens/Unlimited Screens” rule for a while:  I try to enforce “Screen-Free Sundays,” which means the kids are not allowed to use the computer at all on Sundays (as they have invariably put off doing any and all homework over the weekend). I admit that over this long cold winter, I did slide on it at times. But now that spring is finally showing up, however late, to the party, it’s in full force, and extended to apply not just to Sundays, but to all sunny days.

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy (#1): It’s all just stuff, and we have too much of it.

Here in Rockaway Beach, NY, there are two sorts of people (well two sorts of homeowners, at least): Those who lost their homes on October 29, 2012, and those who just lost the basement. I am grateful to be in the latter camp. The Atlantic rolled up our street and quickly filled it up, meeting with Jamaica Bay at the end of the block. By the time we hit high tide, the water had crested the top step of my front stoop outside, and filled the basement to the ceiling; but just as tide clocks predicted, the water then leveled off and started to recede, having gone just two inches into the joists of our first floor. We lost our cars, all of our utilities, tools, appliances, and everything we had stored in the basement, but our main living space was dry. We know we were very lucky. Many of our friends, family, and neighbors were not. Some of them are still displaced. We just had a shit-ton of work to do.

Our basement had been semi-finished. I had my home office down there, and a multipurpose playroom/workout room/whatever room (aka The Room of Requirement),  plus a utility space with the washer/dryer, tools/workshop, and  storage of out-of-season clothes, holiday decorations, crap I meant to give away, and other things that just didn’t have anyplace else to go. I had been wise enough to move what I thought were the most important things in the basement up the night before: boxes of photographs, my computer and printer. There was still a ton of crap down there: all of our tools, lots of furniture (used and unused),  bins full of clothes and linens, plus toys, guitars, sports equipment, a huge TV and approximately eleventyzillion Legos. We figured we might take on some water, but with everything stored on the high tables and shelves we figured it would be ok.  Needless to say, it was not.

When we finally got the water pumped out (it took a few days, with a pair of wee sump pumps hooked up to the neighbor’s generator) we were faced with 750 square feet full of saturated things that used to seem important.

After the water was pumped out, 10/2014

Vintage furniture, waiting to be refinished. Work tables and bookcases. And Legos, Legos EVERYWHERE–including stuck to the ceiling.

 

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Making matters worse, our oil burner had leaked, so all of it was infused not only with the lovely funk of sewage and seawater, but also a touch of petroleum. There was nothing to salvage. Everything must go.

It’s been 18 months now, and the process of mucking out/cleaning up/watching my neighborhood rebuild has been exhausting, but also enlightening. Having to throw away All The Things makes you think a little more carefully about which Things you actually want/need to replace. And after living for a few weeks without the essentials of life (heat, hot water, electricity, laundry, transportation, and let’s not forget Wifi), you start to wonder how much of this garbage you really needed to begin with. The tools were a huge loss, along with a lot of things I hadn’t thought about in terms of value until I had to replace it all. And yes, there were a some sentimental things that it just gutted me to lose. But what about the rest of this mess?

The kids were outgrowing those toys, anyway. Those books were probably never going to be re-read. Was I ever going to get around to refinishing that adorable little chifforobe? Was I suddenly going to start using all the craft supplies that had been sitting in boxes for years?

The point is, it was all just stuff. And it was clear that we had too much of it.

This the first in a series of posts wherein I shall mull over the lessons that Sandy taught me (in no particular order).  I don’t speak for everyone who went through it, obviously, and especially not for those who lost everything. But the process of clearing out a cluttered basement and prioritizing tasks and purchases and time and money as we clean up and rebuild has been valuable in many ways. Feel free to chime in in the comments with any lessons you learned.

The Momentum Optimization Project: Creating a self-sufficient teenager

So, an update on the Momentum Optimization Project, my counterintuitive plan to get my kids going on things that do not involve sitting in front of screens before they are allowed to sit in front of screens. While the whole concept is based on my desire to limit screentime, it dovetails nicely with my other personal goals, such as getting my kids to do their chores and getting my house in order. The kids have to complete a list of tasks before they are allowed to use a computer (or cell phone or tv or tablet). There are some things they are expected to do every day (tidy their room, make the bed) and then they must also complete one item on the chore list. I made it a point to put a mix of tasks on there, so some chores are really easy and some require more time and effort. The results have been promising, as noted previously, but of course not perfect. I’m going to start with my son (13 years old when we started, 14 now), for whom we’ve seen the biggest changes in habit. Looking at the Chore List, he immediately decided that the easiest thing to do was what I call (using language I picked up somewhere on the interweb, possibly flylady.com)  the “purging boogie,” in which I instructed him to, essentially, get rid of 5-10 things that belong to him. I kept an extra hamper in the upstairs hall, specifically for clothes they don’t want or that don’t fit, and a donate box in the basement for book, toys, whatever. Over a few months, he has weeded books, clothing, and clutter vigilantly. That, combined with a few tweaks we made in his bedroom (installing a row of coat hooks, and replacing and old, shoddy dresser with a new one from Ikea with properly functioning drawers) translated into less stuff, and no excuses for not putting the remaining stuff away. He makes his bed every day now, almost without thinking about it.

Tidy Enough.

Tidy Enough.

His bed isn’t always made perfectly, but it’s good enough for me. As he becomes more thoughtful about what he wants to keep and what can go, his room is nearing a monk-like state of spartan simplicity, to the point where he’s running out of things to get rid of, so he instead has moved on to keeping the basement play area (known as the Room of Requirement) in order as well. So, with his room in order, I decided it was time to up the ante. I changed the “chore chart” to a “chore schedule.” I’m starting out with seven tasks, written on cards, so each day he has an assignment (I use a hole punch and a binder ring to hang the on the cork board). Like so:

20140522-055240-21160705.jpg

Chore Schedule, Iteration 1

After a week, we’re down to repeating the tasks. So yesterday, when the card said “clear your dressers and dust them off,” he noted that they were already clear, because he did it last week. And I said, “that’s the point. Give them a quick dusting and your chore is done.” That, I hope, will make him less inclined to let crap pile up. He’s learning that cleaning up after oneself is a daily thing, and that if you actually do it daily, it’s less of a chore. My plan is to incorporate more tasks, so we’ll wind up with a 14- or even 28-day cycle, with some tasks repeating frequently and others just coming up once every week or once a month or whatever (so, “clean the bathroom” would come up a few times a week, while “change/launder your sheets” might come up every 2-3 weeks). Himself is really taking to this system, and I’m feeling much better about the fact that I didn’t do it sooner, because at least it’s working now, and it’s easy now, mostly because he’s old enough to do it (and also because he REALLY REALLY REALLY wants to get on that computer, so he gets his stuff done fast). My daughter’s journey has been a bit bumpier, for a variety of reasons, including her age. I’ll post on her progress separately. But for now, I’m really, really pleased with the progress my son has made.

How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time.

As a freelancer who makes her own hours,  I’ve learned a few things about personal momentum. I’m a morning person, and my peak productive time is before 10:00am. If I start my day by sitting at the desk at, say, 5:00am, and digging in on actual work, I’ll keep going all day. If I start the day by, say, cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or phaffing about on the interwebs, I’m in trouble. And if,  God forbid, I sit on the couch and flip on The Today Show, all bets are off; I’m not moving until bedtime.  I think of it as Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, for I am an object that will either stay at rest or stay in motion, based on where I am at 5:30 am. 

My kids are the same way. And because they are youth existing in the 20teens, they are drawn like moths to glowing rectangular screens as soon as they wake up, and given their druthers, would spend the entire day glued to the Interwebs, killing zombies or mining diamonds or whatever. I know all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, but since my kids are growing up, I don’t feel like it should be up to me to find ways to entertain them. At ten and thirteen years old, they should be figuring out what to do with their own time themselves. But of course, I shouldn’t be surprised when they want to DO MINECRAFT now and do homework later. The problem is, frankly, I’m too lazy to argue with them. I don’t want to do homework, either.

So, I stopped arguing. They need to learn to prioritize their time, and I need to figure out a way to make sure that they get all the things they need to do done without me having to do it.

Which brings me to the Momentum Optimization Project (MOP), or it is more commonly referred to in my house, The List.

The List is simple, it’s short, and in a six month trial at my house, it has shown promising results.

The List is just a list of things things they needed to do EVERY SINGLE DAY. I printed it on a 5 x 8 purple index card, like so:

The Momentum Optimization Project

They’re rules. Not Guidelines.

 [[A quick note on comics]]

I posted The List on what has become the MOP Command Center (i.e., the kitchen cork board) and I told them, sure, you can use the computer, or watch tv, as much as you want, as long as you do ALL THESE THINGS first. 

No compromises. No complaints. No Negotiation. Just do these things. And once those things were done, they could HAVE AS MUCH SCREEN TIME AS THEY WANT.

[Edited to add: Ok, sometimes there are compromises.]

Yup. Complete The List by 8:00 a.m., and you are free to rot in front of the monitor until your eyeballs bleed.

I know what you’re thinking: Surely these two vidiots will devolve into pasty, nearsighted dunces. But that’s where Newton’s Laws come in. I know that if I get them up and out the door bright and early, they’ll be out playing all day. But let them sit down in front of a screen, and they’ll stay there all day.  Like me, they are all about momentum. The simple direction to “do something creative” would get Herself started drawing, or building. The first week, she figured out how to use a hot glue gun and devoted an insane amount of time to constructing a bizarre three story building, complete with a spiral staircase, out of cardboard and wine corks. Himself picked up a novel and wound up blowing through five in two weeks. Homework was suddenly getting done without me nagging. Brownies were baked. Rooms were tidy. And computer time, while still substantial, was contracting. 

It’s been six months, and while the results haven’t been perfect, they’ve been impressive. I’ll update with details soon, but for now, why not get started on a list of your own? You can view my lists here. Let me know if it works for you.

EDITED 6/9/2014 to add: Check out the summer edition of The Momentum Optimization Project.

EDITED 6/11/2015 to add: A Momentum Optimization Project Update