Archive for the ‘Challenge’ Category

It was pretty successful, actually.

Of course, I like to clean (don’t tell my kids), and I get positively giddy over big reorganization projects. Some of the fussiness of the way Apartment Therapy goes about it (flowers! Frame That Art! Was there something about cute hand creams? I d’no) set my teeth on edge, but I get it. All clean and no play makes for a let’s-not-finish-the-January-Cure.

So here’s a day by day:

1. The First Step: Create a Project List
Yup. Did it. However, I must confess that I have on-going lists. I have a whole moleskin devoted to lists. One of the things I put on the list was painting chalkboards at strategic spots around the house so I could make lists.

2. Weekend Chores: Flowers & Floors
Well, you know my feeling about flowers. Expensive, chore-like, and unsustainable. Floors are the one big task of the cure that I really regret missing. That was the weekend of the 12″ snow, so I shoveled. Does cleaning the sidewalk count?

3. 10 Mindful Minutes: Get a Fresh Perspective
Loved this. Not sure how it affected the cleaning project, but I loved having an actual excuse to sit and stare out the window. “Hey, the Cure said…

4. A Simple Step to Success: Set Up an Outbox January Cure:
I don’t need an outbox. I need a time machine. My problem is not that I don’t get rid of things I don’t need. It’s that I get rid of things I shouldn’t. I spend a lot of time going through trash cans (yes, and dumpsters) for the stuff that I should not have thrown out.

5. You Can Do It: Pick a Project to Cross Off Your List
I managed to do one of them– cleaning the basement, including my list-ready chalkboards. Did not get to the other one, figuring out a solution for my several dozen necklaces.

6. Making Your Home Your Own: Prep Artwork for Framing & Display
I rolled my eyes at this one, but in fact I actually did do this, because when I was cleaning the basement I found a beautiful drawing by my old art buddy Karen Lyverse. It is now hanging in my foyer. Thanks, January Cure.

7. Weekend Chores: Flowers, Kitchen Organizing & Cleaning, Make a Meal
Sweetie, flowers again? Also, I make all my meals already. Do people who live in apartments not make meals?  But yes, kitchen organizing. I love kitchen organizing. Now, there wasn’t that much organizing to do this year, since my ex organized me out of most of my stuff already, but I did get a 20-year goal completed and managed to caulk behind the sink. Don’t ask.

8. Keep Yourself on Track: Get a Get-Together Together
That’s for today. But it’s not for the January Cure, it’s gathering a couple of girlfriends for a major rant on my evil ex.

9. The Clutter Filter: Create a Landing Strip
Sigh. Seriously, do grownups need a special place to put stuff until they put it away? Just for god’s sake put stuff away.

10. Unplug for an Evening: Try a Media Fast

11. The Halfway Point!: Project Progress
Oh, was I supposed to track this halfway through?

12. Weekend Chores: Flowers, Bedroom Cleaning & Wardrobe Organizing
Yeah, that was the necklaces (the rest of the bedroom got reorganized in the break up)

13. Less Mess & Stress: Getting Your Paperwork & Files Organized
From this I infer that people don’t routinely keep their paperwork and files organized.

14. Worth It: Clear Up Cord Clutter
I don’t have electronics, for the most part.

15. Declutter & Organize: Bathroom Cabinets Cleanout
I was into this, until I discovered that my medicine cabinet has almost nothing in it. Can’t decide if this is empowering or depressing.

16. Lightening Up: Declutter Media Collections
Also not a media consumer. I would love to get rid of Wei’s records, still in my basement, but that would probably not be in the spirit of “amicable divorce.”

17. Weekend Chores: Flowers, Outbox, Living Room & Lighting

18. The Assignment We’ve All Been Waiting For
No clue.

19. A Gift to Yourself: Hang that Artwork!
And it looks just great. Thanks for the push, JC.

20. Final Stretch: The 60 Minute Quick Clean
I have no idea what this was. Are you seeing a theme here? Towards the “end days” it begins to get difficult to keep going.

21. The Last Lap; 22. Weekend Chores
I think the Apartment Cure people were getting tired too.

I will definitely do it again next year.

Did you do the January Cure? Do you like it better than traditional spring cleaning?

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The problem with full time employment, aside from the annoyance of having enough money to pay the bills, is that macro-projects like the January Cure are hard to keep up with.

I’ve been telling myself that I did a major home reorganization last spring, so I don’t really need to go through my closets.

I don’t approve of cut flowers from an ecological viewpoint, but the bigger problem is that I live in the ghetto (ish), where there are certainly no florists, and now there are also no large grocery store chains. We are not the sort of neighborhood that the yuppie chains like Mariano’s find attractive. Buying cut flowers is a chore, not a joy.

I did of course do the kitchen, but not at the level recommended by the Cure. Although frankly, my kitchen is pretty clean and well organized as that’s where I spend most of my time. I think if I lived in a one room apartment, that room would have to be a kitchen, with the bed stuck in a little alcove.

I did not create a landing strip, but mostly because I’m not an accumulater. I just get rid of stuff I don’t need- papers, old clothes, cracked dishes, husbands…. In fact the moving on of the husband is the reason I don’t need to reorganize things like the kitchen and the bedroom and the paperwork. Been there, done that.

I also have not planned a get together, which is actually something I’d like to do.

Partly this is procrastination, and partly it’s fear, because the last get together I planned, half the people who R.S.V.P’d didn’t show up. I’m still getting through the leftovers, more than a month later. Who needs the stress, or the cost.

I am determined to get to my Goal Projects: boxing up my husband’s detritus from the basement (he is not someone who does not accumulate things), painting “blackboards” in key places, and organizing my necklaces (I have several dozen).

I figure I have 17 days before I have to admit defeat on that.

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I get it– spring cleaning because you can set the wash tub outside, and beat the rugs when it’s warm.

But my washtub stays indoors since, despite my pioneer-woman conceits I actually don’t use a scrub board to clean; nor do I beat the rugs. I vacuum them. I don’t want to be stuck inside cleaning when the weather is finally nice and I can get out of the cave for a few hours.

Enter the January Cure.  This is one of those internet things of which you’re vaguely aware for years.  And then a friend says “I’m doing this!” and you think, okay, why not. It’s great “Dark Days” therapy.

Last year my friend petered out after a couple of weeks, but I stuck it out and went the whole month. I confess some of the tasks struck me as silly (buy some mass-produced art), or inconsistent with the eco-friendly mandate (buy some cut flowers in the middle of January– they’re only the most ecologically disastrous industry on the planet!). But for the most part it laid a really useful and effective structure for cleaning. Last year I had an entire 10-room house to clean, which was a little more than the “Apartment Therapy” home site was geared towards. This year, I’ve contracted onto my first floor, so I should be able to keep up a little more.

I’m going to add my disaster of a basement to the mix (in fact I’m headed there right after writing this).

I’ll be going back to my regular Tuesday posting day for  reporting. (It seemed ridiculous to post about cleaning on New Year’s Eve- I don’t know about you, but on New Year’s Eve my aim is making messes, not cleaning them up!)  I hope you’ll join me in signing up through the Apartment Therapy site, and that you’ll chime in on the comments here about your successes, misses, and surprises.

Happy New Year!

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Eat sensibly

Buy one item from Eileen Fisher (and only one, as it eats up the clothing budget through 2023)

Local beer

Local whisky

Do every household project that costs under $50, seriously

Get out of town

Watch everything on the Netflix queue

Speak a foreign language to a native

Get over it

Homemade pasta (that’s for you, Susy!)

Find a nice girl for my son (any takers?)

Call my father

Write to Congress

What are your resolutions?

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I fasted this year for Ramadan.

Well, I fasted the first day of Ramadan.

Okay, I ate breakfast around 7:30 a.m. (well after sunrise), and then did not eat or drink anything until about 6:30 that evening (well before sunset). So I didn’t even do it right, and it was hard.

I’ve been trying to do this for several years (on the theory that I’m not Christian, and yet celebrate Christmas, nor Jewish yet attend Seders, nor Wiccan and yet spout nonsense. You get the idea.)

I’ve never made it past 3 p.m. before. It’s not so much going without food–that’s easy. No drinking, however, is murderously hard. I found myself thinking, hmmm if I take a shower and water flows into my mouth–who’s to know? (God, Xan. God will know.)  I figure, hey, if 1.3 billion people can fast for a month, I can do it for a day. And should– one should understand 22% of the world’s population I think. Next year I’ll add the prayers if I can figure out what they are, and maybe an Eid feast. Not sure I’ll ever make it a full month, even with the promise of a blow-out feast at the end.

Holiday rituals have always been an impenetrable mystery to me, growing up as I did in a household that maintained holiday externals, like decorations, while excoriating the religious underpinning (like God). Ritual is lacking in the lives of seculars like me. And rituals involving deprivation– Lent, Ramadan, Passover, Yom Kippur, are especially unavailable-it’s hard to deprive yourself in isolation. Deprivation binds you with the others thus afflicted; on one’s own it can seem a little silly. I guess this is what makes Weight Watchers work.

Next up on the deprivation list? There’s always No Buy February, but closer in the calendar is Yom Kippur. So–no activities “exercising control over one’s environment” on Yom Kippur? Impractical for me to follow that one every week, although weekly Shabbot proscriptions are a rather lovely binding ritual if done in community.  And then there’s Lent– surely I can deprive myself of something that I get to choose for a month? Even if it’s just me?

And I already know those prayers.

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I grew up on the prairie. Our house in central Illinois was literally the last house in town when I lived there, with a cornfield across the street. We walked through it, skated on it, rode through it on combines pulling tassels off every other row. Although my personal mythology maintains that I am from Philadelphia (where I actually only lived for 9 years as a child), in fact I’m a daughter of the corn. The other day some east coast transplant was “charmed” by my midwesternisms.

Blame it on the corn.

Corn is an amazing plant. For one thing, there is no wild corn. It is possibly the most domesticated organism on the planet. Archeologists have identified domesticated corn as old as the oldest identified human settlement in the Americas, but have never found its wild parent.

I first planted corn in my backyard garden 6 years ago for the  Growing Challenge, which is to plant something new every year. (This year it’s celery.) I made the classic corn newbie mistake–having grown up in corn country I naturally planted a row of corn. However, in a small backyard, you can’t plant corn in rows. It won’t pollinate properly.

Enter the Three Sisters, which is corn, beans and squash, planted together. It is a traditional First Nations companion planting technique (planting compatible plants together), using the attributes of each plant to strengthen all three. This is the grandmother of companion planting. Some plants go well together –carrots and onions love everybody; strawberries love borage; and of course the Three Sisters. Just google “companion planting” to find examples.

Some reasons to companion plant: nutrient enrichment, pest control, mechanical. (Um, mechanical?) Back to the Three Sisters: the beans are there because they restore nitrogen to the soil. But the corn and the squash also have “mechanical” purposes– the corn stalks act as bean trellises, and the squash acts as a mulch, keeping the weeds down.

Here’s the How To:


• Make a mound, about 12 to 15” across. Corn will send out “adventitious” roots, these are roots that crow from the stalk, sideways into the soil, strengthening the plant.
• Plant seeds or starts (corn starts shouldn’t be taller than about 5”) around the ring, about a hand span apart
• When you plant corn in a raised bed or other small area, it needs to be very dense to pollinate properly.
• Corn can be planted anytime from early May to early/mid June. Best are varieties that mature in 85 to 110 days.
• Corn is ripe when the silks are very dark and a little dried-out looking. You can tell corn has been properly pollinated because the silks will turn pale pink, and then gradually a deep mahogany.


• Plant seeds or starts directly into the center of the mound. I usually plant 3, and then thin them when the plants are about 3 weeks old, to get the strongest plant.
•It’s best to plant out squash after June 10, even seeds, because late May and early June is when the squash vine borer  (SVB)moths lay their eggs.
• In small gardens, you’ll want to train your squash. In large gardens you can let it go crazy.
• Squash will be the last thing to get ripe.
• You can use summer or winter squash. If you do a summer squash make sure it’s a vining one like Patypan, not a bush one like zucchini.


• Plant pole bean seeds directly when the corn is 8” to 10” high. If you plant your beans too early, it will get taller than the corn very quickly.
• Purple beans, with purple vines, are easier to see on the green corn stalks


• If you have SVB then you shouldn’t plant squash for two years. Use bush beans as the third sister.

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As I said on the 1st, local food is easy enough to come by in Chicago. I should mention that I use Joel Salatin’s definition of local– the truck that brings the goods has to be able to do the round trip in a day. For practical purposes this means about 3 to 4 hours away, or no more than 200 miles. This gives me all of northern Illinois, a good chunk of southern Wisconsin and northern Indiana and little slivers of Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota to call local. So plenty of farms in there, and lots of farmers markets, CSAs and local-savvy grocers to choose from.

Plus all the food in my backyard.

But no matter how much you swear you won’t buy a bunch of stuff for a party, you still need drinks.  Plates and napkins and cups. And of course we want to grill, so we need charcoal. A couple more chairs would not be amiss. And wouldn’t luminaries be cool.

I can make luminaries. I count resale shops as local, so I’ll start scouring them for trays, serving dishes, chairs, and other cool stuff.

As far as drinks I’m saved again because I live in a large metropolitan area that still has a local manufacturing base. I’ll probably have to buy from a national retailer, but I can get a terrific line of sodas from the WIT Beverage company, still bottled in Chicago as far as I can tell, with such brands as Jelly Belly soda (!), Goose Island Root Beer, Green River soda and more. Thank goodness for google, because while I knew about Goose Island (we’ll get some of our beer from them two, and from Two Brothers, a DuPage County brewery), I did not know that Green River, which I loved drinking as a child in Philadelphia, was a Chicago original.

Dishes and glasses are another issue. I don’t want to generate trash, which means buying glasses rather than plastic cups. Last year I got 50 glasses at the dollar store (5 for a dollar), but these are certainly made in some maquiladora or megamanufacturer in China. So, store’s not local, product’s not local. I’m still working on this one. Ditto plates–I got bamboo plates last year, but again, non-local product from a non-local shop (World Market) howsoever recylable and sustainable. Might have to relinquish my desire for matching plates and cups and head to the resale shop.

There’s another solution, but it brings up a localist conundrum. I live in Chicago, which has the world-wide corporate headquarters of Sears. Now, I can get what I need, at a good price, at Sears. Does that count as “local?” Target’s the same–they’re from Minneapolis. Not so far outside my 3 hour radius (okay, double the radius, but still). Are they “local” even though they are a world-wide entity and they only sell stuff undoubtedly made abroad?

Middle class Americans buy a lot of stuff. When you try to live locally, you start to realize how we have destroyed our local economies. I fear for a society that doesn’t even make dishes, for heaven’s sake. In the name of saving money, so that we could buy more stuff, we ruined an entire economic sector. After World War II we took the excess manufacturing capacity created by the war machine and turned those workers and those factories into the feed source of the Great Consumerist Maw that is the American Middle Class.

But now, aside from individual artisans-makers, who make very small runs, we not only don’t make junk that we don’t need, we also don’t make items for daily life that we do need–things like detergent, and pots, and t-shirts.

I’m aiming to make my party all local. My life? That’s a little harder.

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I’ve done this before. In fact I’m deep into the local economy–I avoid the big boxes and shop at local garden centers and hardware stores. I get my clothes at resale or buy fabric from a locally owned fabric store. I grow a lot of my own food, canned in jars from that local True Value. I don’t go to chain restaurants, even the good ones, if that’s not an oxymoron. I don’t need gas, technically, because I have access to a large healthy public transportation system, and because cities can be oddly “small,” so that there aren’t many places I need to go that I couldn’t reach on foot, or by bike.

The point is, I can.

I live in a major metropolitan area that has a population and economy that supports choice.

What I learned when I first started exploring a locally-based lifestyle was that the farther you get from big urban centers the harder it is to buy from your neighbor.

Last summer we did a road trip to Western Illinois, on the trail of family names. (That is, we went to towns with the same name as members of our family. Geeky, I know.) In Elizabeth (sister-in-law), we found a well-preserved Main Street filled with charming 19th century buildings. Sadly, they were all home to art galleries, dentists, real estate agents, and other service-type tenants. No drug store. No grocer. (At least they have a local dentist. There are now national dental chains as well.)  There was a little hardware store hanging on by its nails and two little restaurants, in keeping with the city’s obvious attempts to attract tourists like us to their historic sites. Nora, Illinois (daughter) had only a bar, and the headquarters of the fight against the CAFO they are trying to build just outside of town.

To get what you need to live in Elizabeth, you have to drive out of town (where they don’t have to pay local taxes) to the WalMart, Rexall, or Target. These places supposedly “create jobs” (yes, minimum wage, part time, retail sales clerk jobs). What they don’t do is nurture a thriving local economy of ownership, where fathers and mothers teach sons and daughters how to run a retail business, and people spend their money in town, so that the taxes they pay stay there, too.

There are things even I cannot easily purchase from locally-owned shops. Gas. Prescriptions (the last independent druggist near my home that I knew of closed two years ago). Large appliances (ditto, and right across the street from the drugstore, oddly) and most consumer electronics. But I’ll “try or not buy”. The google machine is my friend in this endeavor. I’ll be looking for one-off, independent gas stations, drug stores, et cetera, or “owner-operated” on the True Value model.

And I’ll let you know.

How far do you have to go to stay local?

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Local is the new black.

It goes with everything.

Or does it?

Here at Not Dabbling in Normal we want to know how far we can push this local thing. What can you buy locally and what can you really not? How local can you get? Your yard? Your block? Your neighborhood, your state? Can you tell if what you’ve purchased is local?

This month, we’re going to get “real” at Not Dabbling again. Emily B, Emily S, Suzy, Ryan, Xan, Miranda and DeeDee are going to buy local and only local. We’re talking food, transportation, underwear, cat food, clothes, you name it. We’re going to find out what can we buy that’s locally produced, and what we can’t. If it isn’t produced locally, we’re going to try to find locally-owned shops. And if we can’t do that, we’ll find out what can we live without, and what we have to have.


This challenge is perfectly timed for me, Miranda. I have been feeling utterly disconnected from my food lately, and recently had an epiphany of sorts. You can read more about my recent re-connection with seasonal food at Pocket Pause, and i’m looking forward to sharing my new found inspiration here at Not Dabbling.


Food is easy. It’s the other stuff. I need curtains, which I can make, but if there is a fabric mill or curtain rod factory within 2,000 miles of Chicago I’ll eat my hat. On the other hand, many communities have shops like this one– a locally owned, owner-managed True Value Hardware.


How close to home do you think you can get? Join the Challenge! Let us know in the comments;  leave us a link to your blog and we’ll create a participants blog roll.

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South Region


A few favorites from the participants in the Ohio Vally Region:

What was your favorite Dark Days meal?

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