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The Little Engine That Could. And Did.

shely pic

Mom’s Masterpiece

Remember the story by Watty Piper of the little engine that didn’t think he could make it up the hill? And he couldn’t. But after some coaching, a bit of confidence and a mantra “I-think-I-can. I-think-I-can,” he did it.

How many times has the thought “I think I can’t” kept you from trying something? Kept you from having fun? From living the life you want? A negative mantra ultimately keeps you from trying. Where’s the benefit in that? When you think: “I can’t keep myself organized.” “I can’t lose all that weight.” “I can’t paint.” Well, you’re right. If you think you can’t, you can’t.

But what if you just thought you could? What if you told yourself, “I can bike 60 miles.” “I can write a short story.” “I can get through occupational therapy school.” Then you’d also be right. If you think you can, you can. You may not be the next Picasso or Tour de France winner, but sometimes it’s not about doing the best, it’s just about doing.

For my birthday yesterday I wanted a painting party. My sisters and I were excited, but my mom was hesitant. “I can’t paint,” she said.

“Did you have years of art lessons?” I asked her.

girls pic“No,” she said.

“Then how can you say you can’t paint? Just think you can and you’ll be great.”

Many of us are quick to judge ourselves. One reason yoga is so helpful is that it teaches us to leave our ego at the door. By cutting ourselves some slack, it allows us to fail, and in taking that chance, we just might discover hidden talents or, at the very least, enjoy life more.

My sisters, mom and I arrived at the Cape Cod Art Bar in Mashpee excited to begin “painting.” We tied aprons around our waists and followed Colleen, a talented artist who walked us through the process of painting…a tiger lily. Chatting away, some sipping wine, soft music in the background, we began our masterpieces. Outside the weather threatened rain, and we all got a lovely breeze on a relaxed summer evening.

Two hours later, my mother sat stunned, looking at what she had created. “I did it!” she said.

“Of course you did,” my sisters and I told her. She thought she could.

A Simpler Time

watchRecently I asked some younger kids if they wore watches. “No need,” they said. “We’ve got cell phones.” And they’re not alone. Most folks simply glance at their phone, computer screen or cable box to find the time. But there are still those who get the time from wearing a watch.

I used to be one of them. But somewhere along the way I stopped wearing watches. Except when I’m on vacation. It may seem strange to wear a timepiece during a time that is, more or less, “no-time,” but I’m not counting down the minutes. I’m just conscious of utilizing every moment. Whether the time is spent cycling, buying “lahbstah” (that’s lobster for those non-Cape Codders) or seeing matinees on a rainy day, for me wearing a watch is a throwback to a time when life was simpler. A time when there were only a few TV channels, when kids played in the backyard all summer long and a time when I wore a clunky watch – almost as wide as my wrist – trying to emulate my dad.

A week into my annual Cape Cod “season” and there’s a tan line on my wrist. This tan-line reminds me I’m not on a time clock. I am my own time clock.

Last week, returning from a day trip to Woods Hole with my niece Paige, 10, and nephew Andrew, 7, I played for them my favorite songs, aiming to influence their musical tastes. When the Broadway song “A Way Back to Then” from the musical Title of Show came on, I turned up the volume. It’s a song about remembering being nine years old and fearless and trying to get that feeling back, something I know all too well. After the line, “Dancing in the backyard, Kool Aid mustache and butterfly wings, hearing Andrea McArdle sing from the hi fi in the den,” my niece Paige, without missing a beat, said, “Doesn’t she mean wifi?”

I laughed. With time passing quickly, a ticking watch may not bring you back to another time, but it just may bring you up to date in the present. And what a gift that can be.

What To Pack. Check. How To Vacation. Check.

Before heading out for vacation, there are checklists I follow. First, there is “How To Prepare Your cc sign_edited-1Home,” which may include unplugging appliances, locking windows and emptying food trash. Next is the “What to Pack” list such as bathing suit, sunblock, sweatshirt. But what about a checklist telling you “How To Enjoy Your Vacation”? I hadn’t heard of that either. But they exist.

During my annual beginning-of-summer drive from Manhattan to Cape Cod, where I spend July with my family, I decided to create a “Sand pail” list of fun things I want to do. This summer that includes: biking from Sandwich to Provincetown, painting an American flag with my niece and nephew’s hands (as stars) and feet (as stripes), and a barbeque campfire on the beach.

bbq spreadI wasn’t over the Bourne Bridge ten minutes when my sister invited me to a barbeque at Sandy Neck Beach. On arrival, the campfire was burning, friends were eating, and kids were digging holes in the sand. I collapsed into a beach chair and stared off at the sun slowly making its way to the water’s edge.

But I didn’t sit for long.bbq 2

“Come, eat!” said Iris, the hostess of this large gathering. As with most beach barbeques, easy is usually the goal – burgers, chips, cookies. But not for Iris. It was her husband’s 50th and she’d pulled out all the stops. Mexican by birth, Iris made tacos, the soft shells wrapped in tinfoil and warmed on the fire, along with swordfish, chicken, grilled pineapple, avocado and various salsas, each labeled (labeled!) on a nicely set table right on the sand. Look out Martha Stewart!

After dinner, enormous lanterns were lit and sent sailing up over the ocean and large skewers bbq 3appeared with even larger marshmallows. I was right there with the kids, huddled around the fire, thinking about waking that morning in the middle of the city surrounded by concrete, and now there I was at sunset surrounded by sand, water and friends.

We left after dark, using the light of our cell phones to locate shoes, bags and the path back to the parking lot. Sitting in my car, skylight open under the stars, I reached for my list and happily anticipated tackling the balance of it.


Piece Out

One 1,000-piece puzzle: $5.99
Snacks and drinks: $45.00
Hosting 6 friends for a Puzzle Party? Priceless

Is it any surprise that a professional organizer (a.k.a. someone who loves order) would enjoy assembling jigsaw puzzles? Not really. What is surprising is when folks who are not so concerned about order in their lives love puzzles as much as I do.

puzzle handsSo was the case Friday night when friends gathered at my apartment for a Puzzle Party. Standing around my kitchen island we attacked the puzzle like wild animals, confiscating colors and assembling them together before joining forces to put the entire carcass back together. When the clock crept close to midnight we called it a night, with only about 100 pieces left (which I finished the next morning). Everyone emailed the next day thanking me for the reminder of how much they enjoy puzzles. There’s a quiet peace that fills you up as you concentrate on nothing else but turning that mess under your nose into order. Maybe some of us love puzzles because life doesn’t always fit together as neatly.

20140620_225232I am one of those puzzlers who used to glue puzzles together. At one point I had a stack of 50 in my old bedroom closet. When it became apparent I wasn’t going to frame and hang them, I tossed them. And as I stuffed each puzzle into the garbage, I could almost remember the hours I spent studying their colors and shapes, kind of like how an attorney must feel shredding old files, each case sparking a memory.

At my puzzle party, as arms reached over arms connecting pieces, someone asked me, “What’s the largest puzzle you’ve ever done?”

“Four thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-eight,” I said.

“Not 5,000?” she replied.

In 1987 I began a 5,000-piece puzzle that I completed on New Year’s Day 1988. As ecstatic as I felt, I was devastated. There were two pieces puzzle copy

“I hid them months ago,” my dad said, as he trotted off to retrieve them from a high shelf in another room. But they weren’t there. Eventually I got over the missing pieces. In the last few years I’ve stopped gluing them altogether, and just break them apart and give them to friends. My enjoyment was never the end result anyway. Whether its puzzles or closets, connecting pieces has always brought me peace.




A Not So Happy Meal

“What is that?” my client asked. We were walking across East 73rd Street when we spotted a rather unappetizing sight outside a popular restaurant in a very wealthy Manhattan neighborhood.chicken restaur

“Looks like a rat’s Christmas morning,” I said, snapping a picture of the clump of raw meat on the ground adjacent to the barrel.

“Do you think we should tell them?” she said. Being the good Samaritans we are, we walked inside. After a few minutes of standing there being seen, but ignored by the staff prepping for the lunch crowd, we left, making note never to eat in that establishment.

A messy kitchen area is one thing. An unsanitary one is a whole other ballgame.

In the two years I’ve been in my new apartment, one of the best improvements over my old place is having a real kitchen. Living without one for almost five years, I can appreciate having space to cook. And the one thing I’ve discovered in learning  to cook is that it’s not so unlike organizing. The key is preparation.

First I set out all the ingredients on my large island: food, cutting board, knife, measuring cups, etc. Then I pretend I’m Rachel Ray, putting each chopped, diced or peeled ingredient in its own bowl before beginning the process. If a stray piece of celery, onion or one tiny grain of couscous hits the floor, I’m on it like white on rice. Knock on wood I’ve yet to see anything in my apartment with more legs than I have. We know the city has rats, but what helps New Yorkers sleep at night is that, for the most part, the (not so) little critters stay hidden underground.

I’d like to keep it that way.

In order to do that, if would be great if we all did our part. Lazily tossing food into the trash – only to miss – is like sending out invitations to unwanted guests. I’m not saying we need to keep our city spit shine, but raw meat on the ground? Not kosher.

Little Boxes

People, as much as I’d like them to, don’t always fit perfectly into boxes. Nor does their stuff. Yes, at one time I did manage to fit most of my stuff into a 90 square foot box; it’s the other “boxes,” the smaller (or if you’re a philosopher, perhaps infinitely larger) boxes that I’m talking about. It’s the ones we’re supposed to fit into, the ones that describe us.

little boxesJune is the month for my annual medical checkups. Every doctor’s office seems to want an update of my information. The forms are loaded with boxes. Boxes for name, address, birthdate, etc. I fill them out without a second thought. But there are some boxes that require a second thought.

  • Single
  • Married
  • Divorced
  • Widowed

Which do I check? In this case I’m “none of the above.” Not technically. Why are there no boxes for “In a committed relationship”?

I worked for years in undergraduate and graduate admissions offices. When applications come in, boxes are filled out: male/female, in-state/out-of-state, traditional/non-traditional, etc. Boxes are helpful in sorting information, but they aren’t always black and white. (And why is the phrase “black and white” in the first place? Why not beige or navy?) And what about folks who are of mixed races? Transgendered?

At a recent college awards ceremony, the emcee said, “This next award goes to Jackie, a non-traditional age…” At 39 (double the age of a traditional student), it’s obvious Jackie is not 18 (though she does look fabulous). But why focus on age in the first place? Jackie is married with two kids and is earning her nursing degree. Many students at the awards ceremony were also receiving second degrees, having lived in the real world in between age 18 and whatever. It’s obvious they’re not traditional age students, but since they fit in that box, somebody at the college must have thought it needed to be said. Why not point out other things, such as, “Jackie has an MBA with a 3.9 GPA”?

Another award recipient that evening was announced as, “Mary, a single mother of four…” As Mary went up to collect her award, Mary’s mother yelled from the audience, “She’s not single!” as any self-respecting mother would. As an organizer, I like the structure of things fitting into place, like puzzle pieces. But when pieces don’t fit together, you can’t force them. When it comes to people, I think it’s time we start thinking outside the box.

Life Lessons One Oh One

Catching up with my younger sister Jackie the other day, we got to talking about how we learn stuff. The mother of two kids, 10 and almost 7, Jackie knows there’s a fine line between telling kids what to do and teaching them what’s right. Such as:

  • It’s not good to talk with food in your mouth.
  • Brush your teeth.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Leaving wet towels on the floor makes your room smell.
  • Put socks on before your shoes.

While these basic lessons may seem obvious to most, there are some adults who never learned them. I’m sure you know a few. Then there are the other lessons, the adult ones, the ones we’re somehow supposed to instinctively learn along the way.

The first time I was pulled over, I was driving Edna, my first car, a blue Chevy Citation. Edna and I had been together only four months.

“License and registration,” said the police officer.

“Was I speeding?”

“Do you know that your inspection sticker expired three months ago?”

“My what?”

I got the car the summer I turned 19, a gift from my parents. Mom said, “Drive safely.” Dad said, “Peek over your left shoulder before changing lanes.” No one said anything about a sticker. And neither did the folks at Driver’s Ed, who seemed only concerned with the dangers of drinking and driving. girls

As the oldest of three girls I’ve made it my responsibility to pass lessons down to my younger sisters, learned from simply being around longer. These lessons run the gamut.

  • Never travel on a plane without a scarf.
  • Measure twice, cut once.
  • Avoid paying retail.

Some advice my sisters listen to, other times they think I’m just being the bossy oldest child. I don’t think they realize how lucky they are. I wish I had had an older sister to tell me stuff like “Oh that thing? That’ll go away.” How else do we learn if not from the experience of others who came before us?

But the best lesson, the one I’m constantly sharing? It’s that no matter how old we get, we never stop learning new ones.

Have any great life lessons to share? Please do!


Get A (Summertime) Clue

Days before I left for summer camp, my mom spent countless hours ironing my name onto all my clothes before packing them into the same trunk my dad used in the Navy. Yet today, some moms (and dads!) hire organizers to pack for their child’s summer camp. Are these parents too busy? Some may be, but according totrunk an article in the New York Post, parents want their kids to have the same comforts of home, including high thread-count sheets and lavender scented soaps. I’m sorry, but isn’t the point of summer camp to rough it a teensy bit? And by rough it I don’t mean a sleeping bag atop a hard rock, but high thread-count sheets? Mom packed old bed sheets and towels and told me not to bother bringing them home at the end of the summer.

Going to sleep-away camp is a huge rite of passage in a young person’s life. Shouldn’t part of that experience be planning it with your parents? Sitting next to that large trunk all those years ago I was filled with a mix of giddiness and fear as Mom added neatly folded piles and Dad took pictures to mark this momentous milestone, while they simultaneously doled out advice. “Don’t forget to floss,” Mom said, adding it to my toiletry bag. “And make sure to tuck your sheets in real tight so bugs can’t crawl in,” said Dad.

Then there was the arrival at camp and saying goodbye. Eyes brimming with tears, unpacking kept me grounded. As anxious as I was about not seeing my parents for an entire month, the one thing that comforted me was not high thread-count sheets or expensive soap, but finding handwritten notes from Mom and Dad tucked surreptitiously inside my trunk for me to find and read the first day (and the days that followed!) if I was feeling homesick.

What will today’s kids remember from their camp days? The satin weave of their bed sheets or knowing how much they were loved and missed back home?

Made Plan A? Great. Now enjoy Plan B.

“You’re making an itinerary for your parents visit this weekend?” my friend Susan asked me lastlincoln week.

“Of course,” I said, unabashedly. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Sure it may seem a tad extreme to create an itinerary for a weekend of fun, but it was more of a suggestive list than a cold stone agenda.

But let’s face it, New York City can be overwhelming, even for someone who’s lived here over 15 years. While I know my way around the city, am aware of fascinating sights and delicious restaurants, it can all go out the window for any number of reasons. Havingparade an itinerary gives options. While we did stick to some things, like a Broadway show Friday night with my uncles, the Dance Parade Saturday afternoon, and getting my dad a gelato, what we found – what I always find – is that the best things are those that are spontaneous.

Walking back from a late dinner Saturday we saw a poster for a Swing Fest going on inside the JCC on Amsterdam Avenue. My mom was a bit disappointed we had missed the swing dancers in the parade earlier that day, so this was too good to be true. After persuading the ticket sellers to let us in just to watch, we soon found ourselves seated in the balcony looking down onto dozens of couples dancing along to a live band. swingWatching my parents smile, tap their toes and even get up a few times to mimic the dancers below was priceless. We left close to midnight and as we walked back to my apartment I looked up “Swing” shoes on Zappos as my parents talked excitedly about signing up for dance lessons when they returned home, something my mom’s wanted to do for years. I couselfield not have planned that if I tried.

While I love making an itinerary or a To Do list, there are times it gets sidetracked. But what I’ve learned is that those times often turn out to be the best times.

The Power of One Minute

My friend Deb can’t stand emptying the dishwasher. “Not that it’s hard,” Deb says, “I just hate doing it.” Since Deb lives alone her only alternative is washing the dishes herself. To combat her annoyance with this luxury (yes, in Manhattan, a dishwasher is a luxury) she tries “to empty the dishwasher in the time it takes my coffee to percolate.” She’s simply taken the focus off the chore and made it into a game.

And who doesn’t love games?

With every organizing project I face, my aim is to create a challenge or at the very least, add some levity. Whether it’s cleaning out a closet (I must get rid of ten things!), reorganizing a garage (listen to music!), or tackle errands (soft ice cream when I’m done!), turning it into a challenge makes it feels less like work and more like play.

Deb’s aversion to emptying the dishwasher got me thinking. How long does it really take to complete most household chores and what other tasks do we put off that can be completed fairly quickly? Ironing shirts? Paying bills? Cutting up celery? Taking out the recycling? If finding a way to create a challenge (dare I say distraction?) helps you complete your To Dos, then why not? What you may discover upon finishing each task is that it didn’t take as much time as you thought, which may motivate you to tackle another.

I’m back in Florida this week spending precious minutes with my grandfather. Between doctor visits and evenings by the pool, I’m getting him to pare down paper, Tupperware (click here for video of our Tupperware Tango) and toiletries. Since these projects take me no time, with each completed one, I immediately start another, to which Papa says, “That’s enough for today, save the rest for another time. Slow down.” I can only smile back. How do I explain that, for me, this is slow?



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