Monday, April 18, 2011

S'More Decluttering Ideas From Maggie -- Linens

Some ideas for managing sheets, towels, washcloths and hand towels:

--If possible, have all the beds in your house the same size, or at least no more than two sizes (perhaps a large shared bed for the parents and individual single beds for the kids).  Kids really can go straight from the crib to a regular single bed!  They did since they dawn of time, before "kid stuff" manufacturers and marketers invented increasingly large sizes for growing kids, trying to force consumers to buy first a crib, then a toddler bed, then a junior bed, then, finally a "single" bed -- which means that in addition to special furniture and special-sized mattresses, you have to buy all the special-sized sheets and blankets and coverlets.  Aargh!   People only think of this to get money away from people like you and me.

But if everyone in the house has a full- or queen-size bed, kids and adults alike, or at least if all the kids have the same size bed from the time they graduate from the baby crib, then you can have far fewer sheets, especially if you stick with white, or, for the kids, solid colors that can be mixed and matched.  You really don't need more than one change of sheets at any given time per bed, and if each bedroom gets a sheet change on a different day, you can get by with even less, assuming one set is always being washed.  Having all your sheets the same size  and color (white, like a hotel, or solid colors that can mix and match) eliminates time spent searching for the "right" sheets for the "right" bed and simplifies your storage and laundry.

--The same with towels.  Stick with white or an array of solid, light colors that coordinate rather than having a "theme" for each bathroom that needs to be matched.  All of our towels are white hotel towels and all of our sheets are white hotel sheets, bathmats and washcloths.  Not needing separate sets of "decorator themes" for each bathroom means fewer towels and bathmats, and even if you repaint the bathrooms or hang new wallpaper, white goes with everything.

--For the kitchen, we also use white terry "bar rags" from Sam's and thin white cotton dish towels from Sam's (restaurant supply stores sell them too, and so do Walmart and Target and other discount stores.)

--The bar rags are a good size for bathroom hand towels and all purpose cleaning, too.

--White napkins from the restaurant supply store can greatly reduce paper towel use and paper napkin use (and storage) and add only a small amount of additional laundry.  White terry washcloths make good, absorbent napkins for kids (or sloppy adults).

As a result, at our house, we only use paper towels for the icky things (like pet accidents or cat hairballs) or things that would not be safe to launder and put in the dryer (like spilled paint or cooking oil).   This has saved us lots of money on paper towels and the small basket for hand towels, restaurant napkins and washcloths to replace the paper towels has created only one more washload per week.

Sticking with white or an array of solid neutral colors eliminates the perceived need to buy more "stuff" to "redecorate" every few years.  It really does.  For Pete's sake, how "exciting" or "cute" do your towels need to be?  Sheets and towels are just sheets and towels.  The important thing is that they are clean.

Applying the same rules to blankets and coverlets helps keep things simple, too.  That handmade quilt from your crafty best friend, or the afghan crocheted by your sister, will show off nicely when placed on a neutral or solid-color bedcover or on top of white sheets.

It seems like a little thing, but when we got rid of all of our odd-sized linens and bought all white, we somehow ended up with about 40% more storage space for linens, but we still had clean sheets, blankets, washcloths and towels all the time.

Staying away from novelty items and impulsive seasonal redecoration really does simplify your storage and your daily chores.  If you really do feel the need to keep up with decorating trends for a change of appearance, maybe you can opt to buy only new curtains, lampshades, bedside rugs or throw pillows (the white sheets will go with anything) and give the old curtains and pillows to Goodwill or Salvation Army right away.  

Just a few ideas.  Hope these help!


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spring Cleaning Tips from Maggie -- Books

Half of "Spring Cleaning" is getting old junk and trash thrown away or recycled, donating those "gently used" items to charitable organizations, and giving the house a good, detailed, all-around scrubbing -- more detailed than the weekly sweeping, vacuuming, dusting and mopping.

For example, at our house, dusting is my Number One Most Hated Chore Ever!  I vacuum weekly, sweep the kitchen and traffic areas almost every day, and mop every week.  But I hardly ever dust because I hate it.  This also applies to cleaning woodwork and baseboards, and shining windows.

Now, two things I have learned about dusting are:

The less stuff you have to dust, the less of a pain in the butt it is.

And also:

If you can think of a way to keep dust OFF your stuff, the less often you have to dust it.

I didn't come to these amazing realizations overnight.  And one of these realizations is that while both my cousin Julia and I don't have much in the way of knick-knacks (almost nothing, really), we both have a lot of books to dust off.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I did a major attack on our bookshelves after Julia and I were talking about our hoarding relatives.  My husband and I read a lot, like Julia and her husband, and she said that she had her "AHA!" moment when she asked her husband, "why do we keep so many books?  Just to prove that we can read?"  Their house is really tidy, even though they have several pets, but they have a lot more books than the average person.  All on shelves, but a lot of books -- it's one thing we have in common.

It made me laugh, but I understand.  Our grandparents, who were not hoarders, taught us to prize books, and take good care of them.  Books were much harder to come by when our grandparents were young, and better made than most books today, so most people took good care of them.  We've inherited some of their old books.  I have Grandma's copies of T.S. Eliot and Jack London's work, among others.  These antique classics make me happy to see on my shelves.  Julia has some of Grandma's old books, too.

But why do we save last year's paperback best-sellers that we bought to read on the beach or on our lunch breaks at work?  That makes no sense at all.  And why do we have yellowed, dog-eared copies of paperback books we read in college?

Although we both keep our books neatly shelved, and only have about five or six average-sized bookcases in each of our homes (not that much, really), we both realized that our bookcases were pretty much packed full, so we set out on a mission a few years ago.

Every spring, we clear our bookshelves of pop fiction and other "light reading."  You know, the books you'll read once, but probably never again.  We also take a long, hard look at old favorites, and at books many people have duplicates of -- for example, I am a Stephen King fan, and I married a Stephen King fan,  so we had a lot of duplicates.  And then family members who know we love Stephen King gave us even more, for birthdays and holidays.  So we had even more duplicates.  And we aren't even hoarders.  So every spring, part of spring cleaning goes to book organizing, looking for duplicates and keeping to our commitment to keep only one copy of each -- preferably the hardback, or if it's a choice between paperbacks, we keep the one that's in best condition.  We also take a hard look at the ones we probably won't ever read again.  For example, we thought "Cell" was not one of Stephen King's better offerings, and neither of us plan to re-read it ever again.  So out it went.

Julia is a Tolkien fan and last year she realized she had duplicate, ancient, tattered copies of various Tolkien books, so when her Mom asked what she wanted for Christmas, she asked for a hardbound set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  She threw out her falling-apart paperbacks.  Now she has one, good-quality, boxed hardback set that looks nice on the bookshelf.  And yes, she does re-read them now and then.  She's a science fiction fan in general, and she ends up with duplicate copies for the same reasons we do.

Anyway, we put our heads together, and we do this one weeekend every spring:

We empty all the bookshelves in our houses, dust, wipe down and polish the shelves, and dust off the books.  Before we re-shelve the books, we make piles by author or by type -- my husband and I reshelve most of ours in alphabetical order by author, she does hers by general category (science fiction, history, etc.)

And here is what we ask ourselves:

1.  "Last year I re-shelved this book because I thought I might read it again, or my husband might read it.  I didn't.  Neither did he."   Keep or discard?

If it's a classic, we keep it.  If not, out it goes.

2.  "Somebody gave us this, but neither of us read it and we aren't likely to read it."   This is often something like a cookbook or travel book.  Both Julia and I have very few cookbooks.  We both know how to cook very well.  The cookbooks we keep are for cooking styles we don't do very often at home, like Middle Eastern or Asian.  And Julia has a couple of historical cookbooks, really more of a history of local cooking.  That's all.  But for some reason, lots people love to give cookbooks -- I guess they make good, all-purpose gifts .  For us, these are easy decisions.  Keep what few we will actually use, and discard the rest.

 3.  Coffee table books -- also, usually gifts.  Really,  you leaf through it once or twice ..."Streets of San Francisco," or "Castles of Europe."  Okay, nice book.  But do you really need it?

Why not donate them to  a senior citizen's center or a nursing home, so people who can't travel anymore can enjoy them?

4.  Mulitple books about general things you're interested in.  Does my husband, who is into the paranormal, really need every single book ever written about ghosts?  Out of this pile of 30 ghost-hunting books, how many of them are good references and how many are just re-hashing old legends that are better documented in another book?  How many offered no new information, were poorly written, or just plain sucked?  Likewise with the horror novels -- "honey, you remember you said this book was awful?"  Out with it!

5.  Worn-out copies or multiple copies of classics.  Can't these be replaced with single-volume, hardback anthologies?  We did this with our big stack of worn-out Shakespeare books from various college classes.  Of course you should have Shakespeare in the house, but instead of a box full of individual paperback plays and sonnets, with yellow-highlighted parts and notes you scrawled in the margins in 1977, how about just one big, thick Shakespeare anthology instead?   Really, when we pulled out all of our Shakespeare paperback books, we had 37 little paperbacks from my college English classes and from his (more, because he majored in English).


Out they went.  I gave him a Shakespeare anthology for his birthday.

We set a goal to get rid of at least 15-20% of books every time we clean out.  Last year, when we downsized enough to have a whole empty bookcase -- YAY! --  we bought an IKEA bookcase with glass doors to replace our oldest, most worn-out bookshelf, and we put out best books in the new one.  With the glass doors, the books don't get dusty.  We've decided that we will do this every years until we only own three bookcases with glass doors, and then the rule will be that we can't have any more books than will fit in those bookshelves.

In the meantime, both Julia and I got our husbands an e-book for Christmas.  Both of us got the Nook from Barnes and Noble, mainly because it allows you to download books from your public library.  So now we will only but hard copies of books that have real meaning to us -- no more money spent on books that are just entertainment or light reading!

All of the books we discard are donated to charity if they are in fairly good shape.  If they are too worn out, we recycle them.

P.S. - My husband just reminded me that we recycle the old phone book the very minute the new one lands on our doorstep in the fall.  Not a "regular" sort of book, but a big one anyway!

Next time:  what we do with DVD's, records, tapes and movies.

Have a great spring, whatever you celebrate!


Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Cleaning

I've had a lot of extra work lately, and have been remiss insofar as keeping this blog up to date.

Today, I want to talk about spring cleaning.

When I was a kid, most people used the first warm days of spring as an opportunity to clear their homes of clutter, clean their interior walls, clean rugs, wash and wax wooden floors, scrub the grout in the bathroom tile, clean woodwork, and donate surplus items to charity.  After the house was decluttered, cleaned and aired out, people would go to work in their gardens, putting in flowers and plants for summer vegetables. 

Before Easter, our urban neighborhood would be bustling with activity as people threw open their windows, washed curtains, and let the fresh air and sunlight have free run in their homes.  The dust and soot from winter fireplace usage was scrubbed from the walls near the hearth, and a fresh coat of paint was applied if needed.  Winter clothes were washed, hung out to dry in the sun, and put away until the next year.

Most people would drag their household rugs outside, throw them over the fence, and beat the deeply-embedded dirt out of them (although most people had vacuum cleaners, wall to wall carpet was not yet common in our city).  After the rugs had been beaten senseless, they were hosed down to remove any remaining dirt or grime, and lightly scrubbed with a brush and soap before being rinsed and allowed to dry in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, floors were waxed and polished.

By May, most people's homes sparkled.

As a child, I was in awe of our neighbors who, over a mere few weekends,  refreshed and detail-cleaned  their homes to welcome the springtime.     

My non-hoarding grandmother was also one of these people, and from her, I learned how these things were done.  I thought it was fun to beat great clouds of dust out of the rugs, to tuck scented soap in with the winter garments before wrapping them carefully in moth-resistant cotton sheets and packing them in the trunk until next winter.  I enjoyed helping Grandma wax the floors -- when the floors were clean and dry, she invited the grandkids over for a "waxing party." All you had to bring was a pair of old socks. She would mop Johnson's Wax onto the floors and the kids would "skate" around the rooms until the floors shone like mirrors.  Older kids would help with the details, like shining the floor inside the corners.  After the floors were waxed, she'd make cookies, popcorn and Kool-Aid in the kitchen.  

Another thing Grandma did every year was to go through her house, looking for things she could donate to charity, or things she hadn't used in a long time.  The latter would be boxed, and would go into the attic.  If, by the following spring, she hadn't needed to retrieve anything from it, that box (and others like it) would be donated to the Salvation Army.

It was a good system.  Although Grandma was far from wealthy, her house always sparkled. Everything was mended and well-maintained, there was no clutter, everything had its place, and everything went back to its place after use. 

Life was good at Grandma's house.

Not so much at our house.

Sometimes Dad and I made a game of seeing how much we could clean on Saturday afternoons,  when Mom and my aunt sometimes went grocery shopping together.  But we never managed to make much of a dent in the piles of "memories."  We had to shift the stuff around to clean the floors and walls, to wash the curtains and clean the baseboards.   What I remember most is the dust, and how amazed I was at the amount of dust that could accumulate from one year to the next.  

More importantly, I didn't understand why Mom kept some of the things she held onto for dear life: yellowed newspaper clippings from the wedding announcements of co-worker's children ... broken china figurines and novelty coffee cups which had been birthday or Christmas gifts from acquaintances ... cracked picture frames ... broken rosaries ... plastic Easter eggs ... old ribbons from birthdays and Christmas gifts.  You name it, it was there.  All precious somehow, yet all jumbled together in uncovered boxes, gathering dust.

I often wondered how it could be possible for a box of oddments to be treasure and trash at the same time.

If I picked up one of these boxes, and fished out a newspaper clipping, asked my mother "whose wedding announcement is this?".... well, I would get an answer along the lines of, "don't you remember Miss Patty's niece? Bridget?"

(For the benefit of readers outside of the Southern United States, all adults a child is acquainted with are referred to by "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss," followed by the first name.  It is a way of acknowledging familiarity, while at the same time reserving a certain degree of respect for one's elders).

If I looked puzzled, or shook my head and said "no," Mom would answer with, "I can't believe you don't remember Miss Patty's niece!   Her name was Bridget.  She babysat for you sometimes when you were two. She was a cute girl with red hair."

"No, Mom, I don't remember.  I was only two.  Why did you save her wedding announcement?"

"Well, for goodness sakes, she was your babysitter one summer!  I have to save that!  Don't you have one sentimental bone in your body?  You do remember Miss Patty, I hope?"

"Miss Patty .... oh, she lived down the street when I was little, but I don't remember much about her."

"Good Lord, how can you forget Miss Patty?  She used to sing for the church choir and she was in Little Theater and ...I just can't believe ..."   Mom would walk out of the room, mumbling and shaking her head in amazement that an eleven-year-old did not remember a temporary babysitter from nine years previously, or her babysitter's aunt, who used to live down the street.

One Saturday, when Dad and I were attempting some spring cleaning while Mom was out shopping with her sister, we broke a vase.  Not a valuable Victorian antique; not a priceless Chinese ginger jar.  Just a regular stoneware vase with a pretty design on it, which someone had given Grandma as a Christmas gift in the 1940s.  It sat atop a crowded bookcase, among dozens of other vases and figurines.

Dad turned around in the crowded living room with a mop handle in his hand.  The handle hit the vase.  I tried to catch it, and missed. The vase hit the wood floor and fractured into several pieces.

My Dad picked up the pieces, found his jar of epoxy, and together we carefully set to work reassembling it, all the while watching the clock for the hour of Mom's scheduled return.

We finished half an hour before Mom was due home.  We turned the vase carefully from side to side.  The cracks were not noticeable; they resembled the hairline "crazing" one often sees in pottery.  We set the vase back in its place, and settled down to listen to a baseball game on the kitchen radio.  I had a Coke.  Dad made us a snack, and opened a beer.

Not long afterward, we heard Mom come in, heard the keys jingle in the lock, heard footsteps ... and then she stopped.  Dad and I stared at each other.

She had seen it.  And she knew it was broken.

Had she noticed the cracks?  No.

It was turned the wrong way around.

The vase had a different design on each side.  We had set it back in position the wrong way.  And, in a quick glance around the living room as she walked in the door, out of all that apparent chaos, she had noticed that tiny detail.   And she had investigated.

She cried.  It was as though we had broken it on purpose.  A story poured out, about how that vase had been given to my grandmother by some friend or neighbor who used to be so kind, so very kind, so long ago, during the Depression, the neighbor who shared backyard gardening chores and the resulting produce with Grandma, the neighbor who once drove Grandma to the doctor when she sprained her ankle.

And we broke that nice lady's vase.

Sometimes it all seemed so pointless, even to try to help.

Do any of you have stories of cleaning attempts gone awry, or going unappreciated, as you were growing up?  I'd love it if you would care to share your own stories.

In the meantime, have a happy spring season, and enjoy cleaning your own homes.