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Simplicity challenge

Simplicity challenge

We watched a TV show last night that challenged families to live with minimalistic limits for a while and take note of how their lives changed, for better or worse. Some of the families were obsessed with name-brand clothes, some were in tons of debt, and some were major wasters of food.

The show’s challenges applied strict limits where each family felt them the most. The mom with the designer shoe obsession had to keep just a functional pair or two and pack up the rest. The coupon-obsessed family — with the miles of  shelved rice packets and granola bars, but fridge full of hundreds of dollars of expired food — was forced to spend a quarter of their usual food budget and actually use up every perishable before buying more. Whatever was a crutch or acquired through either wasteful or habitual behaviors, they removed and put in storage for the duration of the experiment. For some families, that was a week; others signed on to make the change for three weeks or several months.

Every family had its own Achilles’ heel to be addressed, but overall, the basic rules stayed in common.


  1. Keep the family food budget to under $100 a week,
  2. Limit kids’ access to TV,
  3. Eat in together instead of out,
  4. Walk, not drive, to wherever you possibly can,
  5. Get rid of any extra stuff, and REALLY evaluate what “extra” means.

From the far corner of the living room, our four-year-old G, who hadn’t really seemed to be paying attention, piped up and said, “We should get rid of all my toys, too. I don’t really need them.”

So, following much after-dinner discussion, we’ve decided to give it a shot. Most of the things, we already do. We had a crappy few years in recent history, and when that was going on, the limits came naturally. As we’ve rebuilt, we’ve kept them on purpose. We spend $50-100 a week for our family of three (and we’re a blended family, so some weeks, it’s a family of five); we’ve always had G watch just an hour or so of TV a night, and that’s prerecorded shows without commercials, most times; and we almost never eat out unless it’s with friends or extended family. Maybe once every two weeks, at the most. Walking everywhere we go isn’t realistic for us, since we live in the sticks.

Stuff, though?

Oh, that.


It’s still a problem. Watching this show, we realized, okay, maybe we don’t buy vast amounts of stupid stuff the way we used to, but we also haven’t parted with as much as we could stand to, either. There’s much room for improvement.

The other changes served us well when we made them a few years ago, so why not?

SO, we’re paring way down for seven days, and seeing how it goes.

One of the families on TV was allowed five toys per kid, and there were two or three kids in the family, total. G kept an even dozen, plus three stuffed animals (he sleeps with the same ones every night; they’re a single comfort-object unit, really.) He put everything else in big boxes and shipped it out to the garage. I’d have liked to go even smaller (I’d been thinking ten or so), but upped the number for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he’s an only kid, so it’s not like he can play tag in the yard like the kids on TV did with their extra time. Secondly, he JUST got all of it for Christmas, and he bravely let go of loads and loads. I figured twelve was already less than the zillion that had been in there previously; he’ll get the point. It will be a major adjustment, and that’s the point.

His room looks completely empty, comparatively speaking. The echo in there has even changed.

I kept feeling guilty, even though this had all been HIS idea.  (Jerry kept laughing at me, and reminding me of that.)

Obviously, I’m more of the problem than he is. I’m the purchaser. He’s the four-year-old. But whatever.

For my part, I hoard clothes. Most don’t even fit me, but I’m so paranoid of not having exactly the right thing to wear that I keep them just in case. I’m not a fashionista by any means. I have zero style. Seriously, ask anyone. But since I don’t trust myself to know the rules that well, I’m always afraid to part with anything in case I find out I should wear it with this outfit or that.  I never know, so I keep it ALL. (It’s lack of education, really.)

The point is, the clothes have now taken over my whole bedroom.  Piles. Everywhere.

So, in keeping with the spirit of the experiment, since those are hard for me to part with, that’s what we picked for my sacrificial collection. I threw most everything into laundry baskets and Jerry put it out with the toys. This morning? There’s still plenty on the rack; I’m in no danger of going naked. It’s all in my head.

We’re on day one, and there have been exactly two toys G has mentioned; a stuffed duck and a plastic sword. He didn’t dwell. It was just, “Huh, I don’t have those anymore. Guess I’ll play with this, then…” and he moved on.


  1. Halloween bucket half-full of Legos
  2. Small bag of Pokemon (he owns a truly giant bin of them, which was removed)
  3. Nabi tablet
  4. Angry Birds blocks
  5. Play kitchen
  6. Small bag of hot wheels
  7. Gumball machine (the little plastic kind)
  8. Robot guy
  9. Building truck (erector-style type, changes into different things)
  10. Cash register
  11. Imaginext castle
  12. Foam block puzzle pieces (AKA “ninja stars”, which we throw at each other and war with as a family at least on a daily basis. We’re weird.)

Typing all this out, it sounds like a lot. It doesn’t look like it. His shelves are pretty bare. (But then, maybe we have too many shelves?)

It makes me wonder.

What do most kids have?  How many toys is average?

I know the number of I toys my sister and I had as kids is way more than most people have. We were savers of things, and we had tons and tons of stuff, in a million different categories. My husband?  He said just about everything he owned as a young kid would have fit inside one half-size laundry basket. Some Christmases, he got one big present. I always got seventy or so, including one huge one (one year a stereo, one year a bike, etc.)

I am sure most people are in between. But the two of us are coming from completely opposite ends of the spectrum. We have no idea where to land, but we want to land there intentionally.

So tell me. I really want to know. I need some help here, as we think about all this.

What did YOU have when you were a kid?  How much stuff do your kids have? And most importantly, what are your thoughts on that? What’s too much?  Is there such a thing as too little?


A boy and his pillow casket


Pillow forts are all the rage in Europe.


One of G’s favorite games is to build a cube out of our square throw pillows and hide inside it in the corner of our sectional sofa. He sits in it all the time. Usually, it’s an alien spaceship or a Pokémon ball or a house or a bed.

Today, it was the casket for his baby-doll’s father. (Which, following standard toddler logic, means the resting place is his own.)

Disclaimer: It’s not completely unheard of for him to mention funerals and cemeteries in his play; we’ve had a freakish number of deaths in our immediate circle since his birth, and play is how kids work through things, I know, I know.

Still. Today’s adventure was detailed enough to be a bit disturbing.

Here’s the full transcript:

G: (mumble-mumble-mumble from the depths of the comfy-fied pillow casket)

Me: Hmm? What, baby?

G: Moopiter’s dad died.

M: What? That’s sad.

G: Moopiter’s dad died. Now he’s in the box.

M: What box?

G: The box. Like at the cemetery where they put the people.

M: (Intentionally not overreacting. See? I’m such an adult.) Aw, that’s sad. What happened?

G: Moopiter’s dad died. He was hungry, so he went in the kitchen and was making a salad. He was going to make it with spinach leaves, but he messed up and made it with poison ivy leaves, and now he is died [sic].


G: And I am Moopiter’s dad, and now I am in the box.

M: Um, why did you put poison ivy in your salad?

From the next room, my husband’s disembodied voice: Son, that’s why I always try to keep my poison ivy leaves somewhere other than the kitchen. Makes things easier.

G: Well, I went into the woods, and I got the leaves, and I cut them up, and I got the wrong ones. Because they are all poison ivy in the woods.


G: And I put them in the bowl, and I cut them up and they were not little, and I put bacon, and I put croutons, and cheese, and that white sauce — ranch dressing? I put that. And then I just eat it up and I died.

M: Ohhhkay. Um, well. That makes me sad.

G: Sorry.


M: Hey, G, if I go get it, will you tell that story to my camera?

G: (flatly) I already died. I can’t talk to you anymore.

And by God, he didn’t. Wouldn’t. Refused.

Well, until a little later, when he launched into a ghostly voice, allegedly mimicking one he says he hears from his grandmother’s vault at the mausoleum, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

Is it normal for three-year-olds to play funeral? I’m starting to wonder…


And there you have it.

And there you have it.

WTC: In memory of one.

When I think of the 2,996 individuals who died at WTC, I think of Sandy Brace — the only one I knew — and try to multiply that out.

I can never do it; it’s too big.

I try anyway.

She was an acquaintance at Writing.com back when I was an angsty, teenaged writer. She wrote about her family, her cats, the loss of her mother, staring out her office window on one of the upper floors and dreaming of what she’d write next. The need to live before time runs out.

Her time ran out way too quickly for way too little reason.

RIP, Bandit’s Mama. I barely knew you, but I’ve never forgotten.


Sandy’s writing profile (last login on 9/7/01):

About her life, and the day before her last:

Her 9/11 memorial page:


From Sandy’s poem “Transformation”:

As each of us grows ever older, we return to our childhood.
We return to the fragility and softness of those early years.
There, if we are lucky and search for it, we will find
The sweet wonder of our growing time and memories
That fill our throats with joy. We will feel again the laughter
And the peace of those distant years.

I wearily endure the weight
Of my time and a silence in my heart. I feel the stillness,
But there is not sorrow. I sense quiet, but there is not loneliness.
Withdrawing now from my world, I fold my soul into myself
On this day that is mine, and I hug my aching bones.

From “Sandra Conaty Brace: 25 Cats, 55 Words”:
(Source: http://memorial.mmc.com/pgBio.php?ID=30)

Sandra Conaty Brace might have appreciated a short biographical sketch about her. After all, she herself had mastered the 55-word short story — a challenge to the most diligent amateur writer. Mrs. Brace had published much of her work on Web sites dedicated to the genre.

Mrs. Brace lived in Stapleton, Staten Island, and took the 7:40 a.m. ferry across the harbor each day to her job at Risk Insurance Solutions, where she was an administrative assistant. She shared her house with a husband, David, and 25 cats. Well, maybe not exactly 25. “It’s probably more,” Mr. Brace said, “But I lose count.”

Dinner for the cats always caused a minor food riot, but even a riot can have its own poetry. Mrs. Brace placed cat food on seven plates on the kitchen and dining room floors. The groups of cats arrayed around each plate formed a furry constellation of stars, with the plates at the centers and the cats as the coronas.

On Sept. 10, Mrs. Brace, 60, took the day off from work to do chores, fix the carpeting on the stairs that had been torn by a cat, and watch “Judge Judy” on television. Mr. Brace came home at 5 p.m.

He asked her: “Why don’t you take another vacation day tomorrow?” She replied, “No, I think I’ll go to work.”

“And that’s what happened,” Mr. Brace said. “That’s what happened.”


(From the randomness of the Interwebs, thanks to Youtube.)

Some visual perspective on Bahrain

Before I was born, my parents lived in Bahrain for a two-year period. I grew up hearing stories and knowing the family they lived with in Manama as close, dear friends. They came to visit us stateside twice and taught me a lot as a kid, even though I was too young to realize it at the time.

We had a camel saddle in my living room, which we always used as furniture. I didn’t realize until junior high that nobody else in my school had one. My mother used to yell at me in Persian for misbehaving because she thought it would be less embarrassing for me in public, since the other shoppers probably wouldn’t understand what she was saying.

I’m utterly surprised and saddened at the news coming out of the kingdom right now because I always heard stories of it being a very progressive, fairly liberal Muslim country–and that was all the way back in the 1970s. My mother wore jeans and t-shirts. No one said a word to her. The younger members of the Bahraini family we knew did, too. It just wasn’t that big a deal; it was just a style choice as far as they were concerned.

There’s a big, long post I really want to write about Bahrain and the people who live there, but it’s going to take emotional energy, and I have none tonight. I couldn’t resist playing with some numbers, though, just to illustrate how closely-knit the citizens of this usually-peaceful kingdom must be.

Consider Tennessee. (Mostly because I’ve lived there a long time, and well, it’s my blog and that’s what I thought of first.) All of these numbers and images, by the way, are from Wikipedia.


Tennessee comprises 42,143 square miles.



Middle Tennessee, a region we locals are visually familiar with

(think weather maps and voting districts), measures 17,009 square miles.



Bahrain? The whole country? It’s 290 square miles.

(And yes, what you see here includes ALL of their main highways.)



That means Bahrain is 17 square miles SMALLER than

Cheatham County, TN, which looks like this:



That tiny, tiny sliver? Fits a whole freaking nation. Plus some.

Those people on the news aren’t just crying because of political upheaval. With every new death, they are losing family members, coworkers, and friends. Everyone in the country lives within 40 miles of everyone else.

I can’t imagine that.

But now I can picture it.



PS: And for my Nashville friends, your county gets 526 square miles. (The math on that makes Davidson County 236 square miles bigger than the whole of Bahrain.)

PPS: A Twitter conversation with Avery Oslo brought up the fact that Rhode Island, with 1,214 square miles is more than four times the size of Bahrain. There are four Bahrains in a Rhode Island?! I honestly didn’t think Rhode Island was bigger than anything but maybe a Wal-Mart.

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