Thursday, June 30, 2011

Planning for Awesome-rod

Because I am an insane planner (and my husband is too) we approached getting ready for a baby in a very systematic way. Take what you see on Sixteen and Pregnant and do the opposite and that would be us. So what kind of planning went into leading up to this moment? Let's get in the time machine and travel back to 2006.

House preparedness:
Right after we got married in August 2006 we started looking at houses. We quickly discovered we did not want to purchase a condo that we could have maybe one kid in, so we focused our search on three-bedroom townhouses that we could live in for at least a decade and that could easily accommodate two kids. By November 2006 we found our home and by December 2006 we were moving in. Back in 2006 we said we would live here at least seven years. Now that we're approaching the five-year mark we are saying we'll stay here for at least another 10 years. Of course, who really knows. Right now we love our house's size, the location, the design, the outdoor space. And we hate moving.

Financial preparedness:
After spending a huge chunk of our life savings on the down payment and buying the requisite new-house furniture, we realized we needed to get back into the saving game. So we started keeping a budget (which is difficult to do until you've lived in your new home for at least six months, we discovered, at which point we had a better idea regarding how much we'd spend every month not just on big-ticket items like the mortgage, but smaller, flexible items like the gas bill, the electric bill, the water bill that change seasonally). We started saving a little. Then I freaked out and made a spreadsheet titled "Can We Ever Afford Kids" where I tracked our monthly spending down to every last penny. The answer, of course, is that yes, we can afford kids, but we'd probably be happier if we saved more money. So by mid-2009 I signed up for (you can read about my experiences here) and started playing around with the budget again. With discipline and a little healthy financial obsession, eventually we tripled the amount we save every month.

We also met with our financial planner. We showed him the "Can We Ever Afford Kids" spreadsheet that tracks our proposed financial lives through 2020 (which is easier to do when you're both teachers and you know that even when you do get a raise, it won't be that significant of an improvement from year to year). One of the best moments of my financial life came when our financial planner asked me if I teach economics courses because the numbers he came up with regarding our financial futures were nearly identical to what I calculated. No sir, I don't teach economics, but I do invest a lot of time in my money.

Mental preparedness:
My greatest fear in life used to be childbirth. So I decided I better find out What to Expect before I agreed to take this plunge. I spent winter break of 2008 reading the pregnancy perennial classics, What to Expect When You're Expecting and The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy. I knew it wasn't glamorous, I learned a decent amount and I was happy to be informed (though, frankly by paying careful attention any time a pregnant lady/lady with children bemoaned pregnancy, labor and raising children, I listened intently and asked lots of questions and probably learned more from that than from these books). I also read everything I could find on sites like The Bump and Baby Center, though I exhausted those resources rather quickly (in the last couple of years both sites have added way more specific content).

Physical preparedness:
In August 2009 I made doctor's appointments to make sure everything was OK with my health and that my immunizations were up to speed. I also talked to my doctor about trying to conceive, and she went ahead and had me do the blood work to confirm that I am not a carrier for cystic fibrosis.

Emotional preparedness:
Right around the same time as my appointments I told two of my best friends about our plans. I knew that this would all be too much information for me to keep to myself, and I wanted to share my experiences with a couple trusted, close ladies who were of course fascinated to vicariously experience this.

If you've been following the timeline, you may have figured out that not everything went according to plan. And that's where the story takes its inevitable twist. More on that tomorrow...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer bucket list

For the last two years it seems that some of my high school students have become obsessed with the concept of the bucket list, devising senior year bucket lists and summer bucket lists like there's no tomorrow. Today marks the end of week 1 of summer vacation, and we just got back from six days at the beach. I can cross two items off my summer bucket list:

1) See wild horses.
These were spotted while driving on the beach in Carova, North Carolina. I guess that's actually two things I've never done: driven on a beach and seen wild horses.
2) Get Maxwell to swim/overcome his fear of the water.
It all started when Max was about six months old and Matt threw him into his parents' beach house pool. Since then, Max has been terrified of water, and he especially shows it when he runs around the pool, furiously panting and generally acting like a maniac. Something snapped this week, though, and Max just jumped right in and started swimming laps. He still hasn't achieved a calm attitude about water, but he is voluntarily swimming, so that's a start. For your viewing pleasure, here's an 18-second clip of Max swimming with me, complete with me weirdly cackling at the end.

This is all well and good, but to keep the organizational focus of this blog, you've probably guessed that the 20+ list of items Matt and I compiled that we plan to complete this summer really involve boring adult things, like home improvement and furniture purchasing/rearranging. I've divided our list into things we need to hire someone else to do and things we can do on our own.

Let's start with the complicated tasks real professionals will be doing for us:

1) Add lighting and mirrors to master bathroom.
Last summer's addition of nicer lighting to the upstairs hallway bathroom made us realize that we needed to upgrade the master bathroom, too. We will be using a similar style light fixture as the one we installed last summer, but this time it won't be as easy. We purchased two smaller fixtures that we plan to hang over two new mirrors we bought. The only problem is that this requires cutting holes, patching holes, and rewiring, things we cannot accomplish on our own (we can, however, paint over the holes left behind).

Additionally, the shower in our master bath is painfully dark thanks to the angle of the ceiling and placement of the one recessed light, so while the electrician is here (ideally tomorrow) he will also install a second recessed light directly above the shower.

2) Add a backyard patio.
Although the grass we planted in the fall is thriving, the space underneath our back deck is a glorified mud pit. The soil is uneven and eroding, the dirt bounces onto the house every time it rains, the dogs track all kinds of dirt into the house, and the 250 or so square feet is generally wasted space.
After getting four estimates and weighing the pros and cons of a paver patio versus a stamped concrete patio, we chose the stamped concrete patio option. Our deposit is in. Now we're just waiting on HOA approval, and we hope this task can get accomplished sometime during July.

3) Fix the toilet in the lower level.
This is one of those items that has never worked correctly the whole time we've lived in our house. One plumber looked at it; Matt and various male friends looked at it many times; we need to finally get this settled.

4) Fix wobbly ceiling fans.
There are three in our house (dining room, guest room, master bedroom) and all of them wiggle if set on anything higher than the lowest setting. This obviously defeats the purpose of a ceiling fan.

5) Get carpets cleaned throughout the house.
We've done this a few times ourselves, but we found a reputable company and a good enough deal that the cost of having someone else clean the carpet is almost the same as what it would cost us to rent a cleaner and soap ourselves. While we're at it, we'll have them clean the downstairs sofa and loveseat where Max and Doc spend about nine to ten hours each day we're at work.

Then there are the items we can handle ourselves:

1) Empty backyard shed and transfer contents to garage.
This shed we inherited from the previous owners takes up a lot of space, blocks the window in our lower level, and isn't really something we need. Once we Craiglist/throw out/consolidate items, everything we actually need will fit in a corner of our otherwise underutilized garage. We've already agreed to give the shed to the owner of the stamped concrete company that will be installing our patio. We're just happy for him to take it off our hands.

2) Buy actual bed frame for master bedroom.
Seriously people. We have been living with an el-cheapo metal backless frame for years. Time to upgrade to something with a soft headboard.

3) Buy/make dark curtains for master bedroom.
Something to match the new duvet cover would be ideal. The window treatments we have now are not blocking out that summer light (and we would like to sleep past 6 a.m.).

4) Buy smaller desk and sell old desk.
It's big. We need something smaller (and we generally don't need a big desk). Move new desk to main level.

5) Move bookcase from office to lower level.

6) Move table and chairs in living room to garage.
We never use this seating and we could use the added floor space.

7) Move contents of office closet to guest room closet.

8) Complete steps 4-7 before taking the additional steps to convert the office to the nursery.
That's right, people, we are procreating! I am happy to report that I am 13 (and a half) weeks pregnant, just having excitedly exited the first trimester. Baby Awesome-rod is growing up a storm and I am feeling great. We are absolutely thrilled by this otherwise unreal event taking shape. This is without a doubt the happiest time of our lives. We are hoping baby Awesome-rod will enter the world sometime around his/her due date of January 2, 2012. We'll find out the sex on August 15, the day before my 30th birthday.

Over the next several posts I will share pregnancy-related news before resuming the summer bucket list progress posts. I do not intend to turn this into a baby blog, but with a little addition to our family we will no doubt be making lifestyle adjustments, taking on new organizational projects, experimenting with new products and the like that I will have to report on here. I'll be back tomorrow to share what I did for an organized pre-conception.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

No more fingerprints

I suppose it's appropriate that I post this today, seeing as I am no longer the newspaper adviser at my school, but a few weeks ago Matt and I cancelled our Washington Post subscription and nothing has made me happier around our house for a while.

The discussion with Matt, the primary reader of the paper-version of the Post, centered on the fact that all the content in print can be read online for free (and then some) but also Sunday's paper was staying out on our coffee table until at least Tuesday, and there were lots of black fingerprints on our walls, outlet covers and white cabinets. So, he eventually agreed this is something we can do without.

I called the Post -- they are sneaky and let you do everything with your subscription online except cancel it. So when I called I had this funny epitomizes-me-perfectly conversation with the customer service rep:

Post: may I ask why you are cancelling your subscription?

Me: yes, my husband leaves the newspaper out on the coffee table for too long and he gets black fingerprints all over our house.

Post: I'm sorry, could you explain that again? (I imagine her searching for the button to press to enter the cancellation explanation)

Me: it's making our house dirty.

Post: I'm sorry, do you mean you're not reading the paper anymore?

Me: sure, that's why.

Regardless, I have to say that we are now saving a little more money and we have one less item to recycle each week. And I am saving time not having to wipe up smudges! Like Matt says, he'd be happy to pay to read the newspaper online, but that's not the route the Post has chosen as of yet.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

To my students

Today marked an end of an era: my last day as a journalism teacher. Tomorrow marks another end of an era as my beloved senior class of 2011 graduates from high school.

Although I can be pretty good at hiding it at times, I am a sappy sentimentalist. So, as a school year and a chapter of my professional career comes to a close, it's impossible for me not to reflect.

I started teaching journalism five years ago in the fall of 2006. From the beginning I loved being back in a newsroom setting, guiding students in what I believe is an important life skill, a crucial community service and arguably the single most important high school co-curricular activity. I have not lost my zeal for teaching journalism or working with my amazing students.

But last summer and into the fall I realized I wanted my after-school life back. And I wanted change. And I wanted to go out on top -- and I think that I did. This was the best year for journalism at my school in recent history. Just as I firmly believe a sitcom should end while it's still funny and a wedding should end right when a bunch of people still want to keep dancing, I feel you should make professional changes when you're still enthusiastic about the job. It's scary to replace my reliable and fun(ny) journalism students with two new classes of students I've never met, but I look forward to the chance to experience some professional growth and to cheer on my kids from the sidelines as they produce what will no doubt be incredible work under the guidance of a new, enthusiastic and talented teacher.

Each year I offer my graduating seniors some parting words of advice, most of which have to do with making the most of college because those are the most amazing four years of your life and you need to soak up every opportunity. But I didn't leave my underclassmen with advice today on our last day together. So, I'll leave them with this:

1) Do your research. Remember that when you write your articles or produce your broadcasts you need to be an expert on your subject. If you don't know your subject it will show. When you write an editorial, there is such a thing as a good opinion and a bad opinion. A bad opinion is an uninformed opinion, so don't be that guy.

2) Be nice but be firm. At interviews, ask the tough questions. When working with each other enforce deadlines. Hold each other to high standards. There's a time to be a friend and a time to be a leader; you can be both but you will have to learn to balance those roles.

3) Be nice to your new adviser. It is difficult to walk into this job. Few people in the world know what it's like to take on this job. Don't make her regret it :)

4) For the love of journalism, clean up after yourself! Put your trash away. Push in your chairs. Put your laptops away NEATLY. (That's the last time you'll hear that from me!)

5) Make Stax proud and win a Pacemaker.

I am grateful to my students for the fun times they've given me. Although it's a ton of work, I've never disliked a moment working with these students. They also have been really generous at the end of this year, writing me a surprise goodbye message in the senior issue of the newspaper, giving me beautiful bouquets of flowers and several gift cards to some of my favorite places (including a certificate to The Container Store with an attached note telling me to stay literally organized...and I will blog about what I do with the certificate when I use it down the road). They have also left me with some of the nicest comments and notes I've received in eight years of teaching. These are all tucked away in my file of feel-good teacher notes, possessions I will always cherish and pull out in November when things aren't looking so hot.

After eight years of teaching, it's easy to identify those stellar students. I have found them, and I can give them no greater compliment than this: If Matt and I are fortunate enough to have children of our own one day, I hope they will be like one of my journalism students.

And in the spirit of my journalism students' obsession with Twitter, #loveyouguys, #staxout.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Experiments in stainless steel cleaning, take 2

I can't believe it was back in November when Matt and I purchased these Method Steel for Real Wipes and I blogged about my experience. Yes, they worked well in the beginning, but then I went to reach for one a couple weeks ago and they were completely dried up. Clearly, these wipes are good if you're going to use them often; if you're like us, and you use about half the package between November and June, they're not the best.

So I was happy to discover the Method Steel for Real spray bottle in the grocery store the other day. Granted, I had not tried very hard to look for it, and it was sitting there all along next to the wipes.

This spray bottle is definitely the way to go for me. Spray on a cloth, clean with the grain of the steel, then buff with a dry cloth (or the other side of the cloth you used if, again, you'd like to channel my minimalist energy).

One 12 oz. bottle should last me through 2014!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Happiness Project: Clutter = energy-zapper

This month's book club pick, thanks to my friend Lindsay, our host for June, is The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This book, in keeping with of other books I've read in the last few years such as The Year of Living Biblically and A Year Without Made in China and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is another one of those books in the author-does-a-year-long-project-so-she-can-write-about-it category. But I still really like it, perhaps because it inspires me to tackle long-term projects or at least keep resolutions. This book involves 12 chapters each focused on one month's particular goals.

The first chapter of the book, after she sets up her philosophy for her project, is set in January when she decides that her month's task will be to focus on improving her energy levels. She writes about exercising giving her energy, which is something I can totally relate to, but she really brought me on board in the second half of chapter 1, when she started preaching the gospel of organization. Declutter your house and your declutter your life, she believes. Sing it, sister!

As you may recall, we don't deal with much clutter in our house. We are vicious donaters and recyclers, seasonally clearing out any unused goods from our home. This year's spring cleaning, like last year's, involved another six large garbage bags of items donated to Goodwill. Last weekend I bought four new items of clothing and promptly removed a couple items from my closet that are no longer fashionable or flattering. If we get a gift that doesn't suit our tastes or lifestyles, we immediately put it in the donations pile -- which is why it's best to give us either alcohol, experiences, or nothing at all.

Rubin starts out much less ruthless with her clutter-cutting strategies, but once she discovers the addictive nature of purging and the freedom of newfound space in her New York City apartment, she is converted to my team.

Here are some other gems she shares regarding clutter:
"One study suggested that eliminating clutter would cut down the amount of housework in the average home by 40 percent" (25). This perfectly describes our home life. I feel like we clean a lot less than the average Americans not because we let our house fall into shambles but simply because we just don't have that much stuff (comparatively speaking) to maintain and clean around.

As she surveys the clutter of her home, she divides it into several categories I think many of us can relate to. See which of the following apply to you, and if you're like me you'll get a kick out of this, too:
  • nostalgic clutter (27) -- yes, I have two Cabbage Patch Kids in our house and one giant stuffed Fievel doll from An American Tale fame in our master closet, but these were my dearest childhood possessions and I can justify keeping those. But those Doc Martens in the corner of our master closet now officially need to go.
  • conservation clutter -- items we keep because we think they'll be useful but they wind up being useless to us (such as light bulbs that do not fit any fixtures in our house...those need a new home, stat) (27)
  • bargain clutter "which results from buying things simply because they're on sale" (27) which is one reason why I loathe trips to Costco, but I'm thankfully so hyper-aware of this pitfall that I don't fall into this trap.
  • freebie clutter (27) -- another thing I despise and another reason why I tend to not be a sucker for items that are otherwise crappy but perhaps evolutionarily appealing because they are free
  • crutch clutter (28) -- worn out items we need to get rid of. Aside from the now-ratty Google sweatshirt my brother gave me while he was still working there upwards of a decade ago, I don't believe I have anything else that falls into this category.
  • aspirational clutter (28) -- "things I owned but only aspired to use" -- this is why I still haven't bitten the bullet and purchased a sewing machine. I still have a nagging feeling I might never bother learning how to sew.
  • buyer's remorse clutter (28) -- "when, rather than admit I'd made a bad purchase, I hung on to things until somehow I felt they'd be 'used up' by sitting in a closet or on a shelf." This is one that, like bargain and freebie clutter, I tend to avoid because I've learned from past mistakes and over analyze most purchases.
When she gets her apartment in order, Rubin then talks about a strategy for maintaining such order. She takes on one her Commandments, "Do it now," meaning that if there's something she can accomplish now in one minute rather than postponing it and letting it fester, she should just go ahead and do it already (33). Again, I wanted to shout, "Preach, girlfriend!" Sort that mail when you get it, empty the dishwasher when it's clean, put away your coat and shoes when you walk in the door, make the bed, floss daily, file that paper, shred that document, send that quick email. She also applies an "evening tidy-up" principle to her new daily maintenance routine. This reminds me of my 5-45 rule, whereby I spend just a few minutes each daily on simple household tasks and then devote about 45 minutes once a week to bigger-ticket items, such as bathroom cleaning or dusting.

I know that the rest of Rubin's book has plenty of great advice in it, but this chapter especially spoke to my organizational side. What are your reactions to Rubin's strategies? Have you found other secrets to decluttering your home?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Neutrogena Naturals purifying pore scrub

I was pretty excited a few months ago when I saw a coupon for a new line of natural beauty products from Neutrogena. This company's products have consistently been my favorite drugstore brand since I was a teenager, and I was really excited to find another product with fewer harsh chemicals. I've been using a natural body wash for several years, I switched to a zero-sulfate shampoo a year and a half ago, so a healthier face wash was the next logical step.

Of course, I still consider it a bit of a gamble waiting to see whether or not a green beauty alternative is actually as good as the chemical-laden stuff. I am happy to report that this Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Pore Scrub is as good, if not better than, the Neutrogena acne wash I used in the past. (Yes, I will take acne to my grave, let me tell you.) The fun part I've discovered is that my skin doesn't care if I am using an acne wash or not, I will still break out, so why add more unnecessary chemicals to the mix and why not just let nature run its course?

The bottle claims that this product contains no "harsh chemical sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, dyes, phthalates." The product is also not tested on animals.

Besides these great features, I really like the pleasing smell of the face wash. It must be the jojoba oil. Whatever it is, it's refreshing during that 6 a.m. shower. It's also reassuring to feel those tiny exfoliating beads -- it at least feels like something's working!

Finally, the price is right. A tube of this face wash lasts me three months and costs $6.99 at Ulta. You can often find coupons for this line of products in Sunday circulars (or wait for a buy one, get one 50% off deal at Ulta as I did this weekend).

Recently I've been thinking a lot about how much I spend on beauty products, and as I finish compiling my results I'll share them with you in an upcoming post. In the meantime, thank God it's June!