Borrowed time

February 25, 2007

Is it a gift or a curse to be diagnosed with a terminal illness?  

Humans often live as if they have infinite time.  My mother does not.  She is living on borrowed time.  2 years ago she was diagnosed with DCIS breast cancer, short for Ductal Carcinoma In Situ.  DCIS is a often called stage 0 because it is still encapsulated or contained.   Traditional treatment consists of a lumpectomy and follow-up 6 weeks of daily radiation treatments “just in case”.  During my mother’s initial diagnosis we were assured this was non-cancer and nothing to really worry about. 

One year later, exactly, the cancer had spread into the spine, the ribs, the pelvis, the collar bone and other places around her body officially taking her from Stage 0 to Stage IV breast cancer in 12 months.

My mother does not have a “time frame” prognosis.  They don’t really do that anymore.  There are many effective treatments for Stage IV breast cancer, and many that don’t affect the cancer at all.  Some women live months at this stage and others find a treatment that keeps the cancer at bay, living years, sometimes decades longer than they should have.   The problem is, upon diagnosis, you don’t know in which half of the spectrum you fall.

So this is my advice to you, dear reader.  Live each day like you only have limited time.  Take control over your life by working less and demanding more; more time with your loved ones, more time spent on things you enjoy.  Take the time to watch the seasons change and to appreciate nature.  We don’t have an abundance of time.  In the spectrum, even 70 years is just a blip.   

This is the goal of simple living; to live a purposeful life and not let other things and other people control  your life.  Why wait until your older to travel?  Travel now.  Why wait until your kids are grown to get to know them or to slow down?  Get to know them now.   The truth is, we don’t know how much time we have.  You could be like my grandfather who passed away after 93 years on this earth or like my mother who, at 60, is unsure how many sunrises and sunsets she has left.

Live now, don’t put it off because we are all on borrowed time.

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Goals & Simple Living

February 24, 2007

Even though simple living frees up a great deal of time, there remain things that must be accomplished. I find it easier to live simply by having clear plans and end goals.   By mapping out my goals and plans for achieving the goals, I find that I don’t waste time going in circles or putting off something that needs to be done.

Below are several goals I want to achieve:  

Dining out – Finally break the habit.  My family eats out way too often.  It is one of our only vices but one that I prefer to do without.  Restaurant food is notoriously overpriced, low in nutrition and high in calories in fat, leading to that ever expanding waistline and ever shrinking wallet.  

Spring Cleaning – I rarely do a deep cleaning during the year, often forgetting the baseboards or leaving the cobwebs to grow around lights enough to cast interesting shadows on the walls in the evening.  In 2007 I want to begin a monthly regimen of deep cleaning one room.  This will break up the overwhelming jobs like cleaning 2000 square feet of baseboards into more manageable bites and each room should take no more than an hour to complete. 

My March plans to reach these goals are:

Create a very detailed calendar that includes dining out.  We used and discarded many types of calendar systems in the past.  After a few months trial, my husband and I find the plain old Microsoft Outlook calendar the most useful because we send each other calendar updates by “inviting attendees” and set alarms to remind us of planned events.   This calendar usually includes our son’s baseball practices, our work meetings and deadlines, school deadlines, dinner out nights, date nights, and any other assorted items we need to remember but never seem to make it to the calendar on the wall. 

Create a detailed menu for the month including healthy snack items for the infinitely hungry group of boys that make up our son’s friends, lunches and dinners, meals for the dog that can be made one day a month and frozen, and quick healthy breakfast items that can be grabbed in a pinch.

Deep clean the front room including washing windows, inside and out.  Clean and touch up paint on baseboards and walls. 

The next time you begin to feel overwhelmed with any project, want to break a habit or instill a new habit; establish a set of goals and map a clear plan for victory.   You will find your life much simpler and relaxed. 

Saying a Prayer

February 23, 2007

Today I am sending a prayer to the heavens, the keepers of the universe and whatever deity may be lurking in the great beyond. 

My niece’s father left this week for his third tour in Iraq. 

Whatever  you feel about the war, and I feel plenty believe me, these men and women are in real danger over there.  They have families and loved ones here who need them to come home.

Please, take a moment out of your day to send a thought to the universe or a prayer to your chosen deity for the safe return of these men and women. 

Protecting the Gift

February 21, 2007

I am shamelessly stealing the title from one of my favorite parenting books Gavin de Becker’s Protecting the Gift.  It  fits because I am on my soap box today.   I ask to you to bear with me while I digress from my regularly scheduled program.  But then, maybe this does tie into my quest to live simple, healthy lives.  

This week is high stakes testing in schools around my state and now, thanks to George W. Bush, around the nation.   This week, young children of 8 and 9 are being asked to shoulder the burden that teachers and administrators should have, saving the schools they attend.  No, correction they aren’t being asked.  They are being forced.   They have no choice, especially since parents are complicit in this situation.

Since my son entered public school three years ago, I have witnessed unimaginable horrors inflicted on children in the name of “education”.  I have seen children as young as eight diagnosed with ulcers, spend time with psychologists and therapists, and cry daily upon going to school.   I have seen children as young as 5 labeled as behavioral problems for simply being children.  I have seen those who are brighter than average dampened with daily forced memorization of worthless facts because it will be on the test.  Why?  So a school can keep its federal monies.    I watched my own son turn from a naturally inquisitive child who sailed ahead of his peers in anything related to learning into a grumpy, sullen kid labeled as a “behavior problem” who hates doing anything remotely connected with learning.   This is not right.   This is not natural.   No child should face what my son faced in the name of education. 

One of Gavin de Becker’s theories, presented in his book Protecting the Gift, is that we humans have an innate knowledge of when something is right or wrong.  We have an intuition that we MUST listen to in order to effectively protect our children, the gift.  That inner voice that tells you something doesn’t seem right.   That voice has warned me, inexplicably, to be cautious about certain people that I meet or certain situations in which I find myself.  I listen to that voice.  I always have.

Any time I walk into or near an elementary school, that voice starts nagging. I can’t put my finger on it but something about school, in general, does not feel right to me.  The closest I can come to describing how I feel is prison.  However this feeling was never so profound as when I walked into the school that our son was slated to attend for the first time.   Over the next few years, I had anxiety attacks after visiting this school.  My intuition was trying very hard to tell me something and I wasn’t listening.   We eventually pulled our son after a protracted battle with his teacher and principal in the 2nd grade, but not before they beat the love of learning out of him.  Not before they broke him at the ripe old age of 7 – in the name of the test. 

Two months into this 2nd grade year, we had had enough and our son was nearing a nervous break down.  They wanted us to push him to read more and more, even though he reads at an upper elementary level.  They wanted us to prohibit him from counting on his fingers, even though if he is counting, you know that he knows how to solve the problem.  They told us he was behind in math even though he understands high level mathematics such as multiplication and division and the teacher had to stop him counting at 1000 because she was tired of listening to him.   They wanted him to sit still for 7 hours a day with limited movement, limited restrooms, limited water, limited food.  When he didn’t comply they withheld the only opportunity at movement he had, a shoddy 20 minute recess.  

But I cannot lay the blame totally at their feet.  We, our son’s parents, are as much responsible for this as the teachers and administrators were for not standing up sooner on his behalf.  For two years we accepted what they told us about our son thinking silently that this isn’t the child we know.  When we finally gathered the courage to speak out about the inconsistency, we were assured they knew him much more than we did and therefore our perceptions were incorrect.  For two years, we assumed that we had to do things their way.  Until the 2nd grade.  By 2nd grade I was growing tired of the “tsk tsking” when we objected to their conferences about our son and I was spending entire days defending him against these people.

Thankfully, now he is in another school that does not focus as much on high-stakes testing.  Right now he is safe.  Right now he is happy.  But next year might be different.  He will be in 3rd grade – the grade that holds the entire school system on those tiny little shoulders.   After a long thoughtful process and many hours of meditation and debate, my husband and I are reworking our entire lives to bring him home.  To educate him in safety and in the standard that we see fit, not what some bureaucrat believes to be the right thing for him to learn when the bureaucrat thinks he should learn it.  

When I ask parents, who have told me their own horror stories leading up to and especially in 3rd grade, why they haven’t fought back with the principal or the teacher responsible for sending their eight year old to therapy, they respond that “they have to learn to live in the real world.” So they keep their children in these unimaginable situations that not even they, the parents, are subjected to  – in the name of education.  I suspect it has less to do with teaching children to live in the real world and more to do with a fear of challenging authority and a fear of not being liked.  As humans, we are naturally social creatures and we want to belong, to fit in.  But we are doing it at the expense of our children. 

Another thing about that “real world” argument is that by wit if you challenge authority to protect your child, you are shielding them and and sheltering them from those hard lessons that will enable them to live in the “real world”. You are making them soft.  Posh, I say.

Is it not our job to protect our children from harm?  I agree that children need to learn to function in society but I challenge that it must happen at 8 or 9.  Instead, isn’t it our job to slowly introduce them to society so that by the time they leave the nest, they are ready to face the challenges of the world at large?  I challenge that we have to subject our children to horrifying events in order to teach them.  I challenge that children have to be subjected to bullies (either students or teachers) so they can learn to effectively resolve conflicts.  I challenge that children have to be publicly humilitated by moving clips for infractions in order to learn consequenses of their actions. I utterly reject the idea that we have to turn them over to someone who abuses their souls to make them conform in order to create productive citizens.  I challenge that allowing people to treat you in any manner they wish while you are powerless is anything akin to the real world.  I don’t live in that world. 

We don’t let our children get burned to teach them to stay away from fire.  We don’t send our children into the street to teach them busy streets are dangerous.  No, instead we hold their hands, protecting them, while explaining to them that streets and moving cars are dangerous or that fire can hurt.   They learn do they not?  And if we did teach our children about fire safety or street safety in this “the school of hard knocks” child protective services would rightly be knocking on our door questioning our parenting abilities. 

That is until our children turn the magic age of 5.  Suddenly at 5 children must grow up and learn to function in this society – which inexplicably means sitting in a room cramped full of children who happen to be in the same age group with limited adult supervision that leads to bullying behavior or being bullied by the teacher in the name of classroom management.  

I know, I know:  it is hard to fight authority, and that is how school presents itself….as the authority – another thing I challenge as I see schools as a tool and parents as the authority.  But I also know from my long career in public policy that no policy can stand if the people do not wish it.  If all parents who watched their children cry and worry and fret over that test stood up and shouted “NO”, took back their responsibility to protect their gift, then the government would be forced to change its harmful policy of levying the weight of the schools on the shoulders of our children.  If all parents who left their children in overcrowded rooms with too little adult supervision stood up and said “NO”, schools would be forced to change their structure to have fewer kids per class and more adults in the room.   But parents stay silent in this ever lasting fear that upsetting the balance is wrong or just down right frightening.   The few that do are punished and labeled as troublemakers or weird.  They are effectively bullied and ostracized – I know, because that is what happened to us.

While I am subjected to daily conflict through my career choice, I understand reluctance.  My husband doesn’t like conflict either.  He too felt that it would be easier just to keep our son at this school and not disrupt him since we were planning to home-school him next year.  But he trusted my instincts and he, of course, trusts me.  I didn’t particularly like being the “pot stirrer” myself.  Like everyone else, I want people to like me.  I want to belong.  I wanted to enjoy my son’s school and know we have made the correct choice.  But my gut said no and I was forced to listen.  I simply could not abdicate my responsibility, my duty, to protect our son.  It may not win me friends at school but I can face my son again.  I can look him in the eyes and tell him that I will keep the monsters at bay, he can be a kid and his parents are on the job.  I can tell him that he has another 10 years to learn how to function in the real world and I will do my job of showing him the way, guiding him into adulthood as he grows and becomes ready physically and emotionally. 

I challenge that through our protection we sheltered him from learning how to function in the “real world”.  In fact, I emphatically believe he learned several valuable lessons about the real world, at least the real world that I live in every day:

Lesson 1.  You stand up for what you know is right, even if you are standing alone.  We had many people asking us to please stop this and just accept that our son needed rigid discipline.  We disagreed.  We taught him not to back down from challenges when people don’t agree with you but you still know that what you are doing is right.  We taught him to not let people bully you into submission for the sake of harmony.   Today, our son is in the school we chose for him with a phenomenal teacher that we also chose for him and he is successful and happy.   He loves his teacher and we couldn’t have asked for a better guardian during the school day for our son.

Lesson 2.  If you push hard enough, change can happen.  Nothing in the real world is so inflexible that it cannot change.  We pushed so hard that we were given the ability to place our son in any school in the district.  We were able to do what parents should automatically have the right to do; shop for our son’s school rather than simply taking what is given to us and accepting it just because it is “policy”.

Lesson 3.  You can trust people who love you to help you; and you in turn, should help those you love.  He learned that we have a duty to protect our families and loved ones when they cannot do so themselves.   That is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. 

And I ask, what lesson about the real world is more important than that?

Teaching ourselves?

February 19, 2007

We have been most fortunate to have acquired a Casio learning keyboard.  This is a standard 68 key keyboard which, I have been told, is the minimum necessary for learning the piano.  This keyboard was a gift to my son from his grandmother (my mother). Since we have this wonderful instrument, my 7 year old and I have decided to learn to play the piano.  At the time I thought my mother was nuts for buying it but it has long since become a favorite in my house.   If we didn’t own one, I would probably purchase one because the expense is so slight compared to the enormous benefit of learning a musical instrument.  So, before I continue, a little shout out – THANKS MOM!

I like this keyboard.  It appeals to my simplistic nature of being small enough to slide under a bed or in a closet. It doesn’t take much room left out either.  We once had an upright piano given to us after my husband’s grandmother moved into a retirement home.  It was too large and bulky, taking up much needed space for one single instrument.   This keyboard gives us the option of playing the piano, the organ, and many other instruments by changing the programing.  It also has a learning option that uses a lighted key system.  In learning mode, the keyboard is very similar to the old Simon games we used to play as kids where the game played a bit of a tune with lighted buttons, if you followed the tune correctly you won!    Instead, you order up one of the pre-programmed music pieces and follow the lights.  While the  lighted system has been pretty worthless in actually learning to play, it does give lots of practice moving your fingers over the keys and gives you a small sense of accomplishment if you can pick out a tune by following the lights, not to mention, it is quite fun.

When we decided we had gone about as far as we could on the simplistic light system, we went online and found a wealth of free resources on everything from music theory including notes, time, rests, chords, and keyboard layout to games for improving your music reading abilities.   I did print out some of the learning options and created my own staves for our practice (using recycled paper). 

I have to say, I am rather proud of our accomplishment.   Without making a single purchase, my son and I have learned all of the keys on the keyboard, including sharps and flats.  We have also learned chords and octaves.

Unfortunately, learning the keys is only part of learning to play the piano.  In order to play proficiently, you must also read music.   Learning to read music is boring drudgery and knowing my son’s reluctance to sit down and do anything  that resembled school work, I saw my hopes fly out of the window. 

Not wanting to quit and knowing he can push past this if I found some way to excite him, I researched software and stumbled on a neat online game called Noteables that teaches you how to read music by using a flashcard system.  The game isn’t free but is reasonable at $30 and is downloadable so you don’t waste packaging or use resources.  It also has a free trial that allows you to use the program 25 times free.  We tried it and were impressed with the game’s functions.  What a great way to learn how to read music! 

At first, he rejected the idea of learning even with this new game, so I used a little psychology.  My son is a die-hard competitor.  He hates for someone to best him in anything.  Playing off that,  I challenged my son to a duel, to see who can get the best score.  He is now having  a blast on the computer identifying notes on a treble staff trying to beat me.   As he gets better, I change the program to include increasingly difficult sessions, with more notes, notes located above or below the staff, using a bass staff as well as a treble staff.  

Oh, I am a tricky, tricky mom! 

We don’t have a formal time when we have to practice.  Sometimes we go a week without ever touching the keyboard.   However, usually when we find a lull in our day, we head to the keyboard and start pounding away.  When we get time, we practice real stuff for about 10 minutes and then spend about 10 more minutes just goofing off, playing our own creations – keeping it short right now while we are beginning.  We play the note game.   Oddly enough, we don’t need daily practice to remember what we learned.  Perhaps it is because we are enjoying it so much.

Two people, a 7 year old and a 35 year old, with no background in music are teaching ourselves how to play the piano without an instructor, without lessons and without sitting at the piano practicing for hours a day. I don’t have to threaten or bribe.   This could take years but now we have something to do on those rainy days and days that are too cold to go outside.  Who could be bored when you are doing something so much fun? 

I did not start out intending this to be an educational rant.   I really was going to post on how to cure boredom but as this post developed I realized something:  this is what learning is all about.  Spending time together, picking through things and figuring it out, practicing, playing, having a good time, spending time away from it, spending days playing at it, just enjoying, as humans are meant.

Clean Green

February 5, 2007

I do not buy commercial cleaners. I do not have bathtub cleaners, floor cleaners, cabinet cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, grout cleaners or drain cleaners.  I do not use disposable mop pads or swifter dusters or disposable furniture, bleach, or cleaning wipes.   I have found there is a better way to be clean while remaining economically and more importantly, ecologically sound.

My cleaning supplies consist of :

  1. Baking soda
  2. White vinegar
  3. Hot Water
  4. Murphy’s Oil Soap
  5. Bissell Steam Mop
  6. Old towels cut into small squares

Below I will list the top green options for a cleaner, less toxic home:

Get your toilet bowl clean in a snap with a dash of baking soda followed by a cup of vinegar poured directly into the toilet.  The reaction between the alkaline baking soda and the acidic vinegar releases carbon dioxide causing it to sizzle and bubble.  Simply wipe the toilet with a wet soapy rag and flush.  This is not only green and clean but it can be fun!  If you play your cards right and show your kids the neat “reaction” your kids will be cleaning all over your house!  

Ditch the disposable wipes. I save old towels that are ugly, have holes and are fraying on the ends.  If someone is getting rid of old towels, I grab them!  I simply cut those towels into smaller squares.  If the dog or cat urps, I can always throw it away!  But more often than not, the used cleaning towel simply goes into the washing machine when I am finished cleaning.  These little towels clean everything from windows to bathtubs to toilets.  They wipe down my sink (not the same one that wipes my toilet), my cabinets and apply my dusting/polish.  On an average cleaning day, I use about 4 of these little towels.  They wait in my washing machine for the next full load.   Green & Clean!

Cabinets in both kitchen and bathrooms can be cleaned well with simple hot, soapy water.  If soap works on your hands, it can work on your cabinets too!  Even though you should take extra precaution when working with raw meat, hot water and soap will work wonders at killing those bad germs and keeping your home clean and green.

That grungy bathtub a problem?  Sprinkle baking soda in the bathtub and use a wet, soapy rag to scrub away grunge and grime.  Baking soda is an excellent mild abrasive that will remove any grime you can throw in its path without scratching delicate porcelain surfaces. 

Windows and mirrors do not need commercial cleaners to sparkle.  Skip the amonia or alcohol based cleaners and apply a little white vinegar to a damp cloth and clean away.  Follow behind with a dry cloth and buff out any streaks.  

Floors don’t need cleaners, sprays or chemicals.  Several companies make an earth friendly steam mop for hard floors.  This is an excellent alternative to those environmentally damaging, completely disposable, poorly made Swifter type mops.  

I have a Bissell but Bissell no longer makes this item.  Shame on them for moving to a Flip -It product that is less powerful and uses chemicals.  However, I did find several alternatives including the following:

Reliable SteamBoy RELT1 1500W for $89.00

Euro-Pro EP950 Upright Steam Cleaner. 

I love my steam mop!  I simply fill the reservoir with plain water and let the hot steam kill germs and clean just about anything stuck to the floors.  I used mine to clean up spilled, dried candlewax.  I simply placed the mop over the wax and pushed the steam button.  I waited approximately a minute, then wiped – no more wax!  When you are finished, you remove the reusable mop pad and toss in the washing machine with your cleaning rags to wait for the next load of laundry.  In a pinch, this can also be used to steam wrinkled clothing or fabrics, simply fill, plug in and forgo the mop pad.

The initial cost is high but on the whole, this product is very economical if you consider the cost of buying a Swifter mop plus replacement pads and fluid, ot to mention a replacement mop every year or so.  I wouldn’t even consider using a regular mop again.   I have used my mop for well over 3 years without any further replacement costs.  Simple math tells me it was a great investment in both our health and our pocket book!

Instead of using chemicals to remove food stuck on the stove, try baking soda and elbow grease.  If something is really stuck on, apply several applications of baking soda and vinegar and let the reaction loosen the gunk. White vinegar is great for removing grease build up.  Baking soda does leave a film but all surfaces can then be wiped with a damp rag to remove any film. 

I use a cup of water and a slice of  lemon to clean the microwave.  By microwaving the cup of water for 30 seconds, I fill the microwave with a nice smelling steam that allows me to easily wipe off dried on food. 

Dusting?  Not a problem.  Dampen a washcloth or rag and wipe the dust away.  When my furniture needs polishing, I use a cloth dipped in water diluted Murphy’s oil soap.   This removes the dust and polishes the furniture in one wipe.

A clogged drain is no match for the baking soda/vinager treatment.  For slow drains, pour soda down the drain and following with vinegar.  The reaction dissolves food and grime, opening the drain.  It may not work as quickly as a chemical based drain cleaner but it does work and it is environmentally responsible considering what goes down your drain ends up in our water supply. 

My one exception is that I do keep a small bottle of chlorine bleach (even though it is a toxic chemical) to occasionally spray the grout in the bathroom as I have not yet found a way to get rid of mold on grout.   But that is only as I am finishing up and leave the area for a more ventilated area.  I only do this once a month or sometimes wait even longer.   Chemicals have their place and if used sparingly, in a well ventilated area, with minimal applications, will not cause everlasting harm to the environment. 

In 4 years my family has not fallen ill from germs, suffered food borne illnesses or rare bacterial diseases.  We function just like any other family only without the toxic chemicals and the expensive cleaners.   I feel much safer knowing there are fewer toxins in my home and under my cabinets for my son to either be exposed to or accidentally ingest.   And my wallet thanks me!   I may not be saving a fortune but every little bit helps.

These websites have more information on how to clean green.

Asthma Resources and Green Cleaning

Arm & Hammer Uses for Baking Soda