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Saturday, August 27, 2016


I am a proponent of the "a place for everything and everything in its place" policy of homemaking. Containing the clutter in a neat, organized, easy-to-access fashion is particularly important in small spaces where storage is at a premium.

Baskets are my favorite storage solution, and they feature prominently in our home. Brick and mortar stores such as Pier One, Home Goods, and TJ Maxx often have sales on their baskets and online venues like Overstock and Amazon also have reasonably priced basketry. Aside from their affordability, their wide variety of shapes and materials make baskets a practical storage option for almost any space and content.

In our living room a large grass basket is perfect for holding magazines while a ceramic bucket holds dog toys. As opposed to a true basket, the weight of the ceramic bucket keeps it from tipping over when the kids root through it.

On a bookshelf a lidded, braided basket serves as a catch-all for sunglasses, wallets, and others odds and ends as we come and go from the house. This makes it easy to keep track of our items while also keeping them safe from doggy teeth. From an aesthetic point of view, it also adds some nice texture to the shelfscape.

In the laundry alcove, matching baskets keep laundry supplies, household cleaning items, and pet supplies easily accessible yet out of sight. These medium-sized baskets are surprisingly spacious, making them the perfect choice for organizing an abundance of items this tight space. A fourth, smaller basket holds cleaning rags.

However, the pièce de résistance of basket employment in our house is the hall "closet" space. This series of open shelving offers much needed storage, but as a person who hates clutter the idea of open shelving initially horrified me.

Finding a way to keep all our linens, extra blankets, towels, medications, and medical supplies out in the open -- without looking cluttered -- was key. Fortunately, my little binder of inspiration came through once again with this organizational gem from the January 2015 issue of Southern Living.

Reassured that open shelving can be both functional and attractive, I set to work translating this idea for our own home. Ultimately, a combination of neat folding and basketry created an easy to maintain storage space.

On the lowest shelf a basket reduces confusion by keeping sheets for the guest bed separate from the master bedroom sheets. Baskets on the middle shelf hold medications, medicines, vitamins, and all the items our small bathroom cabinet cannot accommodate: spare razors, lint rollers, sunscreen, and so forth. On the top shelf a round, linen-lined basket holds bubble bath, essential oils, and other pampering materials.

The curtain on the bottom, made from leftover upholstery fabric, hides the baby gate protected litterbox (or, as the dogs view it, "treat box") along with spare litter and scoop.

Overall, employing baskets to organize my clutter has been one of the smartest organization decisions I've ever made. I have owned almost all of the baskets featured here for years, and in every apartment and house I've lived in they have proved both versatile and essential. 

So join me on Team Basket and see for yourself why baskets have been used for centuries and across civilizations: they are awesome. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Grad School: It Ain't Glamorous!

The view from my window. Note the missing
screen, providing an unobstructed view of this
cement wonderland and a point of
ingress for inquisitive squirrels.
I spend about 20 hours a week in my office on the university campus. Located in the underbelly of the football stadium, the student offices for my department come with all the amenities one would expect from the underbelly of a stadium built in 1921 that routinely hosts crowds of over 100,000 people: mice, cockroaches, and asbestos warnings. It may not be pretty, but it certainly has plenty of character.

I share my office with up to 3 other people at any given time, so carving out a personalized spot is key for keeping one's sanity. There isn't much I can do about the dried-blood colored cinderblock walls, teal trim, fluorescent lighting, 1980s industrial furniture, or my wonderful office mate's views on "office organization," but I am working on making the most of the space.

Seriously, Tyler. What is this??

My little corner of paradise may not look like much, but it happens to be the premium desk space in the office. Seniority has its perks. It boasts both a radiator and a window, its own private filing cabinet, an easily accessible wall outlet, and is on the opposite side of the room from the pipe with the asbestos warning.

I consider myself a very lucky girl.

The lack of color coordination borders
on the perverse. I admit the red
microwave was my doing, though. 
A new building is being constructed for our department, but for decades we have been housed beneath the football stadium. Ergo, for decades the student offices have collected hand-me-down items left behind by former graduate students. In my office, dorm room-esque decor left behind by a 2014 graduate furnishes a reading nook while various office mates have contributed to a kitchen area complete with microwave, mini-fridge, electric teakettle, and no less than 2 coffee makers.

As a side note:
In my 3 years here, it has become clear that there are 3 types of office mates: those who leave useful items behind (like our reading nook furniture and books), those who leave their crap behind (like old exams and half-eaten tins of peanuts), and those who take everything with them. A 2015 graduate even took the lightbulbs from the lamp by her desk, which is a level of thriftiness that deserves respect. Don't be a #2, folks.

When spending so much time in such an unappealing space, keeping up morale is key. For me, this means surrounding myself with pithy humor and reminders of all the cool fieldwork I get to do.

This doesn't cancel out the threat of industrial-sized cockroaches dropping from the ceiling, finding a mouse infestation in your desk drawer, or returning from the bathroom to find a squirrel perched on the radiator (all of which has happened to me) but it helps remind me why I put up with all that. And think of all the character I'm building!

Original art, photos, and souvenirs from fieldwork and travel around the world are mixed with family memorabilia. The handwoven blanket that covers my filing cabinet belonged to my grandmother.

As I write this post it occurs to my that I really need a potted plant here. Some sign of life that can't be classified as "vermin."

The Far Side comic that my mother sent me on my 19th birthday my first year of college is one of my most prized possessions. It has taken pride of place in every office space I've had since. I may study post-conflict zones rather than ancient Egypt now, but the sentiment still applies!

A sign with dark humor and a series of original  3-D art pieces found in a downtown Kansas City art gallery add visual and textural interest without competing with the -- let's call it "strong" -- wall color.

My point here is that sometimes carving out a tolerable, personalized haven in a less-than desirable space is enough to make that space enjoyable. In the case of my office, I think its crappiness ends up being part of its appeal. This funky, filthy, eclectic, shared space filled with hand-me-downs is a reminder that graduate school is still "college." I am grateful for this opportunity to continue my education and I know I'll look back at this time in my life with great nostalgia. I might even miss the stadium when we move into our shiny new building next year.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Bubble Baths and Balance: Redefining Bliss

Sometimes it feels like everyone is in a competition over who is the busiest. My friends with small children one-up each other by competing over who showered the longest ago. My graduate school peers compete over the number of looming deadlines for publications, grants, or job applications. My friends with jobs compete over who works the most hours in a week or whose boss is the most demanding.

At the same time everyone is fascinated with stories of people who quit their corporate jobs to "follow their bliss" and are now private yoga instructors in some fabulously exotic tropical place. They only own 1 pair of shoes and live in a shack on the beach and they are the happiest they've ever been. At least twice a day I see sponsored stories like this on my Facebook feed with the promise that I, to, could achieve this kind of life.

There is a perversity to this dichotomy. Do we really have to go to either extreme to feel satisfied? To feel accomplished and happy? Whatever happened to the search for balance?

Recently I've been feeling particularly overwhelmed. The end of the summer semester is coming to an end with just one week left before the start of fall semester. There are lesson plans to make and papers to grade and exams to write and books to order and start-of-the-year newsletters to put together and mentorship programs to organize and budgets to set. I bounce from my teaching job to my office job every day in a mad dash between downtown and the western suburbs. In between I'm supposed to find time to do international research and write a dissertation. I'm sure this sort of schedule sounds familiar to many of you; even if the particulars aren't the same the general sentiment is.

I firmly believe that everyone needs a refuge to keep their sanity. A hobby, a quiet place to contemplate life, a passion they pursue just for sake of their own happiness. This blog is one of my self-care indulgences. My garden is another. Both have ended up neglected of late. As I grow overwhelmed and put all my attentions towards school and work, the things I do simply to bring me happiness somehow get pushed aside. It's been almost 2 weeks since my last blog post. As for my garden, caterpillars moved in and in one day decimated my kale crop. My blueberry bush is refusing to fruit. White flies killed 2 of my 4 green bean plants and my dill plant bolted. Half my cucumbers turned yellow before they were ready for picking, and my bell pepper plant has acquired a blossom rot problem. My little sanctuary isn't faring so well.

Many of us put ourselves last. Our hobbies are labeled "less important" than our jobs. But am I doing myself any favors by neglecting to invest in self-care and feeling burnt out? Alternatively, if I gave it all up to live in a shack on the beach and own 1 pair of shoes would that bring me bliss? Probably not. What really makes me the happiest is when my life has balance.

In an attempt to regain some balance before the impending school year I set aside Wednesday night for some "me" time. No checking my email, no tweaking my syllabus or thinking about data collection methods or grant deadlines. I did some work in my garden then poured a glass of wine, downloaded a new mystery on my Nook, and ran a bubble bath. It was heavenly.

Saffi, the bringer of gifts.
As I marinated in my bath one of our dogs, Saffi, nosed her way into the bathroom. Looking very pleased with herself she dropped a gift into my bath. A chewed up, still twitching cockroach floated on the cloud of bubbles next to my shoulder. The conditions for relaxation no longer ideal, I concluded that "me" time was over. I praised Saffi for her thoughtful gift, disposed of the bug, poured a much larger glass of wine, and tried to convince myself that cockroaches are loners and always live by themselves.

Self-care can be difficult. It always feels like there are more pressing matters to attend to than ourselves, but even a few minutes a day can make a difference. My relaxing evening may have been cut short, but even the hour I managed to fit in left me feeling re-energized. Indeed, I'm not sure I have ever moved so quickly in my life as a I did to exit that bath. I set aside time for myself for the first time in a while, and that's a step in the right direction!