Well, another Thanksgiving has come and gone and I’m curious, were you a sleeves-rolled-up-sweat-dripping-from-your-brow-over-a-hot-stove-participant? Or did you just show up and start eating?
Thirty relatives descended upon my sister’s house on Cape Cod this year for the annual day of thanks. With 2 or 3 cooks milling about the kitchen, most of us, myself included, were the eaters. (My responsibility is on the other end. Organizing the cleanup is my specialty, after all.) As I washed and dried and put away, I couldn’t help but be amazed how quickly the gobblers gobbled up the meal compared to the hours spent planning, shopping, preparing and actually making it. This is no different for other events, like weddings or commencements. Months, weeks, if not years in the making, the event itself comes and goes in the blink of an eye.
Even though the time it took to consume the food was a fraction of the prep time, I now consider the entire day the “feast,” not just the eating part. Our Thanksgiving “feast” began around noon as cousins and aunts and uncles arrived, and talking didn’t quiet down until sometime after 10PM when the last home movie ended and my over-stuffed and groggy family members, ranging in age from 6 to 69 that were strewn across couches, spread out on the floor and slumped in chairs, got up and waddled off to their respective beds.
For many, Thanksgiving has become more like a speed bump until Christmas; a pause from the shopping and scurrying before dashing off to the mall for 50% off midnight madness sales. However, in our family, Thanksgiving is about the non-stop hugs, toasts made, discussions had, songs sung, presents distributed and jokes told making us thankful for each other. For me, Thanksgiving is not about the turkey or the vegetarian stuffing or the homemade apple pie on the table, but about the people seated around it.
Ever wonder how a guest prepares for a live TV interview? Some interviews take place on the street as you [try to] answer questions; others may be tightly scripted. My encounter? Somewhere in between.
Last Thursday a phone call came from out of the blue.
“Can you come to Washington, D.C. tomorrow?” asked the Al Jazeera TV producer for the show The Stream. “We’d like to interview you live about tiny living spaces.” Would I? I rearranged my schedule. After hanging up, I called my hairdresser and booked an emergency appointment. That evening, while out to dinner with friends, we mulled over my outfit based on the producer’s suggestions.
The next day at 2 o’clock the producer called to review the itinerary of what my next ten hours would include. No sooner had we hung up, did the itinerary begin.
2:15 pm A luxury black SUV magically appeared and whisked me from my apartment down to Penn Station for my 3 pm train to D.C.
2:55 pm An announcement: there was a train stuck in the tunnel, delaying my train. I texted the producer. He texted back. If the train doesn’t leave Penn Station by 4, I should return home and be interviewed via Skype. I wondered, what does one wear on Skype?
3:35 pm Train arrived! With the horde, I rushed to the platform. Even after we left I was concerned about any other delays, fearing I’d still be on the train when the interview began. Without me.
6:50 pm Driver at Union Station in D.C. was waiting. We zipped away from the curb only to merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic along Massachusetts Avenue. We were close, but time was running out.
7:00 pm The producer met me at the entrance and took me to the Green Room where a make-up artist turned me from “me” into “TV me.”
7:15 pm On set, I slipped a microphone up my shirt, before a sound engineer handed me an ear bud. I was introduced to the co-hosts, Lisa and Wadj. After a brief preview of what was to come and where I should look during the show, someone off to the side whispered, “Five…four… three…” (Two silent fingers, one silent finger and pointed to the host.)
From there it was mostly a blur. I wasn’t sure what questions about tiny spaces would come up, but realized no matter what was asked, I had probably already lived the answer.
8:00 pm Show concluded. Another black SUV to Union Station.
12:10 am Train arrived in Penn Station where I was grateful to find the fourth SUV of the day idling on 7th Avenue and 33rd Street.
12:25 am Home sweet home. It took awhile to remove the TV make up, but soon I was in bed. And as I drifted off to sleep, it felt like the day had been a dream.
(I’m not permitted to link to the show, but if you’re interested in seeing it, send me an email and I will send you the link.)
“What’s option B?” I wanted to know.
“Free up space.”
“As in declutter my e-clutter?” I asked. Smiling, he nodded.
It’s a daily battle to stay on top of the clutter that grows in closets, drawers and kitchen cabinets, but it’s that “out of sight, out of mind” clutter – like on computers, cell phones and iPads – we need to stay on top of too. Most of us forget about e-clutter until we receive those warning messages.
How to tackle e-clutter? Same way you tackle other clutter. Gather, eliminate and organize. Here’s how I did it:
- I created two folders on the desktop: PHOTOS and VIDEOS and within each went the hundreds of respective files; like gathering pieces to a puzzle. This first step is the equivalent of walking around your house and gathering all photos and videos from every shelf and drawer and putting them into two separate containers.
- Next comes the nitty gritty. Going through one photo at a time, we might think all our photos are “keepers,” but honestly, with thousands of photos being taken, whether they’re shared or “selfies” (Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year), there comes a point when too many are just too many. Keep only the ones that mean something special.
- Once you’ve culled the pictures (videos done the same way), it’s time to organize them into subfolders. You can do this by year, event, person, whatever you want, depending on what you plan on doing – Photo book? Holiday cards? Nothing? – with the photos.
- This process can be tiring, so it’s best to work in increments of 20 minutes. This eliminates the pressure of having to get it all done at once (not to mention the pressure on your back from sitting).
Last weekend, in between bike rides, yoga, cooking and an off-Broadway show, I sat through a number of 20-minute sessions, deleting and organizing photos and videos. After each cycle, I would “empty the trash” on my computer and then, with the same excitement as someone waiting to hear lottery numbers, watched the “available space” increase on my computer. I started the weekend at 3.94 GB and by Sunday night was up to 61GB of more space, which was all the incentive I needed to keep decluttering my e-clutter. Turns out, e-clutter is just as important to purge as regular clutter, and believe it or not, just as satisfying.
When one friend calls to say she’s in need of a life change, I listen. When two friends call with the same news, I take notice. But when three friends call in the same week, I take notes.
Natalie, in her 60s, lives in California. After visiting me last year she called and said, “Seeing how happy you are in a small place with not a lot of stuff and more time to enjoy life, that’s what I want. I’m selling my house.” Her home sold quickly and, faced with a looming closing date, began sorting through closets, cabinets, and a packed garage. “I kept a donation box by the front door and filled it every day,” Natalie said. She soon found a beautiful condo with “no pool to clean, no landscape to care for and a lot less rooms to clean.” Change, while scary, “Is so refreshing,” said Natalie.
Then Julie texted me. “Got time to talk? I need advice.” Julie’s in her early 40s and within four months sold her home, quit her job, lost 20 pounds and is, aside from being “happier than I’ve been in years,” added, “I’m ready for a real change in my life.” Now she spends her days writing and playing with her dog.
Finally there’s Ghia, in her mid-40s, who sent me this Facebook message: “I finally got rid of my four storage units as you suggested, but I’ve now got all this sentimental leftover stuff in my apartment. How do I get rid of it so I can have room in my home to do my work?” I called Ghia. “Your past is holding you back,” I told her. “Inanimate objects, while they can bring wonderful memories, will never bring the kind of happiness you get from spending time doing what you love.”
Human beings are creatures of habit. We eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and run the same Saturday errands. Some stick to routines because of comfort, but as scary as change can be, big or small, the challenge it presents is exactly what can make life so exciting if you let it.
Daylight Savings Time happens to be three of my favorite words. Daylight, especially this time of year when light is more precious, makes me feel better. Plus I’m more productive when the sun is shining as it feels like there’s still time to get things done. When it’s dark (and this time of the year it’s really dark) I’m prone to putting on my pajamas and curling up with a good book.
Then there’s Savings. Everyone knows the importance of saving, but not everyone follows through with it. Saving for a goal, like a down payment on a house, a trip to the Grand Canyon or a new bicycle gives one a sense of accomplishment from having been disciplined enough to save. That feeling is matched only by the appreciation of the purchase you saved for. As for the “Savings” in Daylight Savings Time, what, besides our sanity for not having to trudge to work in the morning when it’s dark out, are we actually saving when the sun begins calling it quits at 4:30PM?
Then there’s Time, my favorite four-letter word. Time is worth more than money and is a topic I refer to often because of its value. True, time flies when you’re having fun, but guess what, it flies all the other times too. Maybe not so much in the day-to-day, but looking back over the years I’m struck often – especially when seeing pictures on Facebook of childhood friends’ kids – just how fast the world is spinning.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the night my grandfather experienced his small town being set ablaze. And while 75 years is a long time ago, for my grandfather that night still shines brightly in his memory. He was a boy of 17 when the Nazis set fires and broke shop windows in his neighborhood. Now, at 92, he can recall events of that evening more clearly than he can remember what he ate for breakfast yesterday.
Time is the most precious gift we’re given. We don’t know how much we’re going to get and there’s nothing we can do when our time is up. Sure, there are ways we can prolong it, like eating healthy and not texting and driving, but, ironically enough, time is the one thing you can’t save.
My folks visited me this past weekend. No sooner did they step off Amtrak, did we get pedicures (my dad and I), eat Thai with friends, and look at sleeper sofas – our weekend’s main goal. And while I went into the weekend expecting to find one, what I found instead was much better.
Saturday we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge then strolled up through lower Manhattan, my parents delighting in the intricate details of the architecture. Zooming uptown in a cab, they gazed at the people, not used to the excitement. We soon found a comfortable sofa with a modern design that my parents convinced me to get in an oatmeal color in leather. Plus it was on sale, the salesman added. I decided to go for it. Yet my instincts said first check online reviews. They weren’t just bad. They were awful. “I need the night to think about it,” I said as we hurried out the door.
We ate a delicious Indian meal en route to Simon’s Hardware, the Disney World of fixtures, to look at knobs for a special piece of furniture made for me by someone just as special. Our last stop was at Fairway for groceries. Their eyes continued to bulge as they took in all the food, so instead of rushing them, I followed behind, enjoying them, enjoying the process. Living in NYC I’m used to having plenty of choices for everything, but life on Cape Cod has not as many, so for my parents, they were like kids in a candy store. We returned home as night fell. Still full of energy, they hung pictures and rearranged my existing furniture, taking liberties only parents can.
Sunday found 15 family and friends clustered in my apartment for brunch. That afternoon I took my parents to the Hudson River for a walk I’ve done countless times. They marveled at the view (much different from the Cape Cod Canal), pointing out sights I’d never noticed, amazed at the periphery of a city they’d only been in the belly of.
Monday morning, after tearfully dropping them at the train, I walked home up the west side admiring the sights I once barely glanced at twice. Back in my apartment, I had to double check I was in the right one. Seeing pictures in their new spots, a side table closer to the wall, a blanket draped casually over the window seat, my home felt homier. The weekend’s goal of finding a new couch may not have been reached, but my parents did leave me a new appreciation for everything else.
Crossing West 42nd Street the other day, a brochure was thrust at me. “Double decker bus ride?” asked a man wearing a jacket with the company’s logo emblazoned on the front.
Mortified, I looked at my friend. “Can you believe that? Did he really think I was a tourist?” Was I wearing a backpack across my chest? A fanny pack and white sneakers? A color other than black?
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, unless you’re wearing black, navy or gray, you might as well be wearing a sign that reads, “I’m from anywhere other from here!” As New Yorkers, many of us take pride in looking the part. But that doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a Prada bag slung over your arm or a yoga mat strapped to your back (I’m more the latter), but the most identifying accessory is, of course, your attitude.
This “don’t mess with me” expression can be seen all over the city, especially on crowded subways, busy streets and any Trader Joe’s. I think this stems more from survival than not wanting to interact with others. As New Yorkers, we’ve got a lot going on, but more so, getting from Point A to Point B takes enormous effort, day after day.
We’ve all heard the expression, “clothes make the man,” but aren’t we also told not to judge a book by its cover? Kids are bullied for wearing the wrong clothes. That happened to me. Summer camp, 1982. Girls had teased me because I didn’t own Guess jeans. When I returned home, my grandmother, having heard about Jeansgate, offered to buy me a pair.
“For your birthday,” she said. Nana always gave us checks for our birthdays and they rarely amounted to more than ten dollars.
“It’s okay Nana,” I said, knowing how much Guess jeans cost. “They’re not worth it.”
At that young age, my parents had instilled enough proper values in me that I knew that having a loving grandmother was worth a whole lot more than having the right jeans. Yet here I am, 30 years later, offended that someone misjudged me because of my clothes. Have I forgotten those early childhood lessons? Maybe I’ve just been in NYC too long. I mean, those girls from camp? They were from New York.
Dear Bobby (or Cindy or Greg or Marcia or Peter or Jan),
Just a note to say I’ve been thinking of you.
And so begin my letters.
A week ago I was in the middle of a scavenger hunt at Home Goods (isn’t that what the place is about?) and found this delightful stationery that put a smile on my face. “What is stationary doing in a home goods store?” you might ask. When you’re away from home because of work, school or ‘cause you’re now a grown up, reading a letter that someone wrote on nice stationary in the almost-forgotten language of handwriting can erase miles and even years, and make one feel, well, at home. At least it does for me.
When I saw the stationary (50 pieces for $4.99, a bargain) I was as excited to fill the note cards, as I am to go for a run when I get a new pair of sneakers. As a writer, my writing is not reserved for blogs or books, but letters too. When my grandmother, Nana Banana as we loved to call her, was alive, I’d write to her every few weeks knowing how happy it made her.
I’m the same way. Finding a personal note in my mailbox amid the bills and solicitations tells me that someone thinks I’m special enough to take time away from their long lists of things to do and write to me. Yes, emails and messages on Facebook are nice, but they’re not the real thing. Not even close.
That evening I returned from Home Goods, sat at my desk with my new stationery, a favorite pen, a roll of stamps and scrolled through my contacts (the ones in my mind, not my smart phone) of folks I hadn’t spoken to in a while. As faces came to me I began to write to those whose friendships mean so much. My goal is to use all fifty cards by the end of the month.
A few days later I received the following two emails within an hour of each other:
- I got home from the hospital last night and your note was in the mail. You really put a smile on my face!
- How you knew I needed that note, my dear friend, I do not know but you are the best! Love you and call you soon. xoxox
The next day my uncle called. “Papa’s been having trouble sleeping so in the middle of the night be rereads our letters and it cheers him up. Send him a letter.”
“No problem,” I said, stunned by the coincidence. “I’m already on it.”
When I first moved into the apartment, I set up a temporary desk (a side table actually) in the bedroom. It stuck out a little and if I wanted to shut the door I had to move the desk. Friends suggested not having an office in my bedroom at all saying, “You’ll never get away from your work.”
For many people who work from home, it is hard to make the distinction between “work time” and “me time.” I’m one of them. It’s not uncommon for me to be working at 6AM on a Sunday. On the other hand, I’ve taken many a bike ride in the middle of a Wednesday. I once had a boss who said, “When you’re on, you’re on, and when you’re off, you’re off,” meaning that when you’re working you give 100%, and when you’re not working, you should be fully off, renewing your energy. I don’t always follow that advice. But I should.
Now I can.
Last week I installed a fold-down desk (really a fold-down table) from IKEA that fits perfectly in my “office.” I did this to save space, but it turns out, when the desk is folded down it’s like a sign telling me, “Office is Closed.” After only a week, I’ve embraced this signal, feeling like I can actually “shut down” mentally, and am no longer tempted to get one more thing done. And sure, while I’ve gained back space in the bedroom, with the desk in the folded down position it looks like an interesting art installation on the wall.
Many folks today set up their “offices” in Starbucks, Barnes and Noble or even on trains. We open our laptops and voila, instant office. And when we’re done, we fold up the laptops and in that instant it’s like we’ve closed the office. Just as crossing things off a list may make you feel accomplished, “closing up” shop for the day feels pretty good too.
September was (you might have missed it) National Preparedness Month. While the focus was on emergencies, being prepared in more pleasant facets of your life can, believe it or not, allow room for spontaneity.
Last week I headed north to visit my sister Meredith and her boyfriend Mike (a.k.a. M&M) in Portland, Maine. As an event planner, former chief of staff and older sister, it has always fallen on me to prepare the agenda. But last week, my baby sister (she may be 31, but I changed her diapers for goodness sake) held the clipboard. And you know what? Someone’s been paying attention.
Thursday, no sooner out of the car, Meredith had us taking a walk along the coast, lunch overlooking the harbor, and a tour of downtown. Back home, I took the reigns briefly to reorganize the basement and some closets. Dusk approached and Mike lit the fire pit in the backyard where we sat, wrapped in heavy sweatshirts and ate homemade chili under a beautiful night sky.
Friday began with a 30-mile bike ride by rolling hills, farms and a country fair complete with a Ferris wheel, plus a stop at an apple orchard for cider donuts. The evening plan was another night by the fire, but on a whim it was back to the fair to catch the traveling rodeo with real cowboys and cowgirls and saddle bronc riding, the sun setting in the distance. Dinner was last minute at Gather, a restaurant located in a former Masonic hall serving locally grown foods. Delicious.
Saturday we hit the farmer’s market before heading north to hike Mount Battie, the name derived from early explorers who had to have been just that. Scaling the steep boulders, I tried not to panic as Meredith, having sprinted to the top, yelled down, “I took you up the wrong way. Sorry!” But the breathtaking view from the peak was worth every lost fingernail; mountains on one side and tiny islands dotting the coast on the other. Heading down a safer (saner!) trail, we passed other smiling faces on that glorious day.
Dinner was at Long Grain, the best Thai food ever; each bite made sweeter by the memory of that godforsaken mountain. After dinner we took a quiet stroll by the harbor, before it was time to hug M&M goodbye. Sleep came quickly at The Country Inn; the cool, night air the perfect tonic.
Sunday morning, a long drive ahead, we left early, making time to stop at Walden Pond to visit the spot Henry David Thoreau once called home. Stepping inside the replica of his tiny hut, I thought of my 90 square foot apartment, and understood right away the draw of that sanctuary. Like Thoreau, even when your days are as programmed as his were preparing food, gathering wood, and writing; when you’re living with less stuff, your days can be filled with so much more.