Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Selling your home? 10 staging hints that will make it stand out

According to, there are more than 4.1 million homes for sale right now in the United States. Here are 10 ways you can make yours stand out in the crowd.

Go for neutral
Remove highly personal items like family photos and artwork your kids brought home from school, and consider painting any brightly colored walls a more neutral shade. Personality is important, but you want prospective buyers to be able to imagine themselves in the space without feeling like they’re invading yours.

Spruce things up
Shabby furniture should get a makeover. Sure Fit ( suggests covering up worn, outdated, or loud furniture with tailored or fitted slipcovers in a neutral shade. New area rugs (to cover worn or stained spots on the floor), throw pillows, and flower arrangements can make a space feel fresh without costing a fortune.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Need motivation? Keep a "have done" list

During that last blast of summer-like New England weather, I spent a lot of time with a few good friends, chasing after our kids and keeping up with them in (and out of) the pool. Before the weekend officially started, though, I was dreading the thought of my to-do list. How on earth would I stay on top of it?

Saturday morning, I was up early. (Not earlier than my 3-year-old, who thinks sleep is for sissies. But early.) I started writing down all of the things I needed to get done before Monday, but I kept getting interrupted -- by the laundry, by kids who need breakfast (didn't I feed you yesterday?), by phone calls. So I stopped with the nagging to-do list, and started writing down the things I'd managed to get done already that day.

It was long. Longer than I thought it would be. Encouragingly, mood-boostingly long. And instead of feeling guilty for not crossing enough stuff off the to-do list, I was motivated to see how many things I could add to the have-done list instead.

How do you motivate yourself to get things done? My readers at The 36-Hour Day came up with some great ideas; please share yours, too!

Monday, September 27, 2010

For some kids, "OK" is hard work

Two blog posts today hit home for me, and made me stop and think about kids on the autism spectrum and how adults sometimes perceive their quirks.

At Woulda Coulda Shoulda, Mir describes how her son reacts after a wonderful but non-typical weekend. "Maybe you don’t see it, but he’s working so hard to stay 'okay' while his slightly miswired brain is trying to tell him that this is HARD and WEIRD and DIFFERENT," Mir writes. "It’s not that he doesn’t love it, on many levels. It’s not that he didn’t have a blast, because he totally did. It’s just that it’s hard work for him."

At Squidalicious, Shannon details what goes on behind the scenes when you see her out and about with her son, and points out how many of his sucesses are hard to see. "My behavior probably appeared very odd and controlling -- a helicopter mom hand-feeding her chubby son -- yep, that family's got some food issues," she writes. "But there was actually a lot of work, progress, and practicing going on, for those who knew what to look for."

The bottom line? Shannon sums it up nicely: "Perhaps instead of thinking, 'Why is that kid behaving so strangely,' you could ask yourself, 'I wonder just how hard that kid is working.'"

Click through to read Mir's and Shannon's posts.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cutting yourself some slack isn't the same as quitting

My friends think it's funny that I write about work-life balance when I obviously have so little of it myself. I tell them that I really write about juggling work and life, my full-time career and full-on family, which means that when it comes to balance, I'm the fulcrum on which it rests, not the one who actually achieves it.

A few months ago, I was asked to be part of the "You. Reinvented" project at Yahoo!'s Shine. My reinvention? The way I deal with my work-life juggle. My most important tip, though, the one I really struggle with, didn't make it into the video: Allow yourself a treat, cut yourself some slack, and give yourself permission to take a break.

In spite of our parental superpowers, we are simply human. It took me a long time to understand that having to say "this much of my to-do list is just not going to get done today" was OK and sometimes necessary and not at all a sign of failure.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Are you a homebody or always on the go?

I have to admit it: In spite of my crazy-long commute and sometime-hectic schedule, and in spite of my tendency to clutter and my inability to stay on top of the housework, if I had to choose between being all "Go, go, go" and spending a quiet weekend at home, the quiet weekend would win. In general, I mean, not just right now. Especially if I didn't feel obligated to clean.

I've always been a bit of a homebody and bookworm. So when my kids -- big and little alike -- ask me, "What are we going to do today?" I often catch myself wondering, "Why do we have to *do* anything?"

(Actually, our big kids ask far more often than our littles do, probably because they're usually with us during their vacation time, not all-year-round. Maybe that's a blended family thing; different households have different expectations and different definitions of "normal" and "ideal.")

For a long time, I avoided scheduling anything on the weekends. But then Tae Kwon Do creeped in. And then my youngest daughter morphed into a social butterfly, and my youngest son followed suite, with birthday parties and playdates to attend. And now I find myself scoping out events and destinations, because having a ready answer to "What are we going to do today?" is better than feeling frustrated by the question. (Back-up answer: "Make a list of what you'd like to do, and we'll try to make at least one thing on that list happen.")

Sometimes, honestly, though, the answer is "Laundry party!" and other times it's "You're big! Amuse yourselves!" I'd like to introduce them to the quiet pleasure of a sunny day, a hammock, and a good book -- but to them that sounds more like boredom than peace. That's not to say that I'm completely inactive. It's just that a quiet day at the little local lake (which is where I took my youngest kids recently) is more interesting and relaxing, to me, than a day spent shelling out money for amusement at Six Flags.

Some people are energized by activity and stimilation. Others need quiet to recharge. Which do you prefer?

The little things in life are the big things

I spent Sunday at the Life Is Good Festival, where my youngest kids rocked out to their favorite band (They Might Be Giants) and got so caught up in dancing to Galactic that they nearly forgot about Laurie Berkner over on the kids stage. Almost.

Throughout the area, Life Is Good had posted big signs with upbeat sentiments like “Do What You Like. Like What You Do” (their motto). But the one that really struck me was over in the kids’ area, a backdrop to the games and activities there, right next to the huge tent where Laurie Berkner was performing. It said “The little things in life are the big things.”

I know it was meant to refer to kids — the two-day event was to raise money for Life Is Good’s Kids Foundation, which is dedicated to helping kids overcome adversity. But the phrase applies to so much of my life right now, it felt like a message from the universe, somehow.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stepparenting mistakes, challenges, and advice from three experts

Stepparents don't get a lot of positive press. Faced, most of the time, with two myths -- “Your partner’s kids will/should adore you!” and “Your partner’s kids will/should hate you!” -- stepparents in general (and stepmothers in particular) find themselves struggling with unrealistic expectations, all-to-real frustrations, and a divorce rate that's higher with each subsequent marriage.

In honor of National Stepfamily Day (Sept. 16), I asked three experts to tell me what they think is the biggest mistake step parents face, and how to avoid it -- or fix it, if it's already happened. I also asked them what they think is the biggest challenge faced by step moms and step dads, and how to address it. An edited version of my interviews with them ran in my "In the Parenthood" column in the Boston Globe's Living/Arts section today, but of course what doesn't make it into the newspaper is as interesting than what gets published (if not more so). Here's the advice they had to offer:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Women, the workplace, and two kinds of power

Dory Devlin has a terrific piece up at Yahoo's Shine right now, off of the latest episode of Mad Men. In it, Peggy -- a young executive -- fires a male creative after he sexually harasses Joan, the office secretary, by putting a pornographic cartoon on Joan's window. But instead of being pleased that the only female boss had fired the guy, Joan is angry. Dory writes:

Why? Because she had “already handled it,” and she did so in a way that was right for her mid-60s time, in a way that steadied the power she held in the office, the power so blatantly challenged by the young guy in the office, and unintentionally challenged by Peggy. Joan was angry with Peggy for wielding a new kind of power for a woman manager, the kind that will surely make her own extinct soon. ... And she’s right, of course, when she tells Peggy: “You want to be a big shot. Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless b----.”
It's a striking moment, and one that rings true -- unfortunately -- for many women, even in this day and age. Read the entire piece at Shine and join the discussion: What kinds of power do women wield at work, and how does that affect the way women work together?

(Photo from

Monday, September 13, 2010

Things I wish I knew the first time I traveled abroad

On my very first solo overseas trip, I spent three hours standing around a deserted airport in Bombay (it was still called Bombay, back then), waiting while my luggage sat, unattended, on the tarmack. On another trip, I plugged a borrowed laptop computer into the wall in Hyderabad and watched while the outlet popped and sizzled before I yanked the power cord out of the wall.  On other trips over the years, I've ripped my luggage, misplaced a passport, lost my purse, been unable to change money (pre-Euro), had killer headaches, and been inappropriately dressed while sight-seeing -- all things that could have been prevented, if only I knew then what I know now.

But you can learn from my experience (and, of course, share your own in the comments!). Here are some other things I wish I’d known the first time I traveled abroad by myself.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Any fool can destroy"

From "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Sept. 20, 2001:
The reason I don’t despair is because this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King's dream. Whatever barriers we've put up are gone even if it's momentary. We're judging people by not the color of their skin but the content of their character. You know, all this talk about "These guys are criminal masterminds. They’ve gotten together and their extraordinary guile…and their wit and their skill." It's a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets rebuilding. That's extraordinary. That's why we've already won. It's light. It's democracy. We've already won. They can't shut that down. They live in chaos and chaos... it can't sustain itself. It never could. It's too easy and it's too unsatisfying.

The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center and now it's gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty.

You can't beat that.

True Prep: Relax, Muffy, you're going to be just fine

Click over to to read my review of "True Prep: It's a Whole New Old World," which was published in The Boston Globe yesterday. It was a fun read for me, given my own preppy upbringing. (I lost most of my preppy street cred when I went to Syracuse and then became a journalist who doesn't write about banking or celebrities. On the other hand, while I stopped playing field hockey long ago, I do still fence, so maybe I've maintained a tiny bit of a preppy pedigree, after all?)

"True Prep," written by Lisa Birnbach (with great illustrations by designer Chip Kidd -- yes, that's his real name), is the follow-up to "The Preppy Handbook," the guide to everything prep that Birnbach wrote 30 years ago. The update still helps the reader how to navigate (or avoid, if you're so inclined) the world of prep, and it's packed with facts, lists, interviews, and hilarious send-ups of what some might call Preppy Sacred, like the dress code.  My Top-Siders may be long gone, and I no longer own even a single LaCoste shirt, but I still have a thing for argyle, pearls, and other prep accessories. You can take the girl out of the world of prep, but I guess you can't completely take the prep out of the girl.

Here's the review:

TRUE PREP: It’s a Whole New Old World

By Lisa Birnbach, with Chip Kidd
Knopf, 248 pp., illustrated, $19.95

Preppy update: But what's new?
By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

Growing up in Princeton, N.J., in the 1980s, my friends and I turned to “The Preppy Handbook’’ for advice on fitting in. We had the Top-Siders (laces permanently knotted), the wide-wale cords (jeans were against the dress code at school), and the Lacoste shirts (collars popped, of course). I’d go on, but I became a journalist and eventually lost my preppy pedigree.

It’s been 30 years since “The Preppy Handbook’’ came out, and times have changed. Or have they? Lisa Birnbach revisits all things prep — this time with designer Chip Kidd — in “True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World,’’ offering guidance for a new generation of preppies and a handy reference for those seeking to become (or avoid) one.

First, let’s be clear: Preppy is a lifestyle. There’s a kernel of truth in the first chapter (“Manifesto: What’s it all about, Muffy?’’): “It’s about ease and confidence. It’s about fitting in when you do and even when you don’t.’’ Beyond that, though? “True Prep’’ is a hilarious send-up of the frills and foibles of the elite and privileged. It’s satire, of course, but it’s cringe-inducingly on target at times.

It’s a bewildering, technologically advanced world out there, but Muffy can take comfort in knowing that some things are still the same. The dress code for that newfangled casual Friday at work, for example, is only slightly different from a standard preppy Saturday; remove the impeccably dressed “portable child’’ from Mom’s — sorry, Mummy’s — grasp and substitute a briefcase for the tennis racquet and a coffee for the gin and tonic and dear old Dad is ready to go. Not-for-profit jobs are still more prep than private-sector jobs, because, as Birnbach points out, “Any job that has a vaguely helpful purpose is preppier than a job that is just about earning money. (Earning lots of money is fine but a little bit obvious and therefore embarrassing.)’’ And the cardinal rules of prep still hold true: No talking about money, all of the family photos go on the piano, fly coach unless someone else is buying the ticket.

Then again, a lot has changed. Polar fleece, though not a natural fiber, is nonetheless very appealing. The Wall Street meltdown forced people to question what it is that a banker does all day, and the guide offers one explanation. The tweens are texting at the kids’ table during dinner. And Mummy has many more options when it comes to finding her true calling (“Do I look like a docent in my cashmere twinset? I feel like one.’’)

Scattered liberally throughout “True Prep’’ are reams of real-life prep-world trivia: Who went to school where; a state-by-state guide to the best vintage stores in the United States (both Boston’s and Cambridge’s Second Time Around stores make the list); and recipes like “The Ultimate New Canaan Nibble’’ (Ritz crackers + cellophane-wrapped cheese slices + a dab of yellow mustard) for when the cook is away. Interviews with people who are unexpectedly preppy or who have had an impact in the world of prep, like David Coolidge, the Muslim chaplain of Brown University, and the Murray brothers of Greenwich, Conn., who started the necktie company Vineyard Vines, are truly interesting.

And wannabe preps know that this book can be your modern-day preppy bible: It has a master reading list, a guide to loafers and trench coats, suggestions for thank-you notes for all occasions, and even a fill-in-the-blanks eulogy that can be customized as needed. Muffy, I think you’re going to be just fine.

Review © Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is providing child care equal to providing child support?

There a fascinating discussion going on at, where Dr. Leah and Rachel Sarah share the story of a single mom whose ex-boyfriend is providing child care for their baby -- in lieu of financial support -- while she works full-time outside of the home.

The question is whether he's also obligated to provide financial support. The single mom and the ex have never been married; his only income is from online trading, the folks at Singlemommyhood point out. “My ex says that I should feel lucky to have him watching our son,” the single mom says. “He never misses an opportunity to tell me how much money I’m saving in child care costs.” While she's glad that their child is spending time with his father, she can't help but wonder if she's missing something, given their unorthodox arrangement.

My take on the matter? Every situation is different, and I’m sure there’s more to this one than we've been told (there always is), but at a very basic level, do the math. If the support payment for one child is less than the cost of a good day care provider, then the single mom is coming out ahead. (In my area, daycare for a single infant can cost as much as $300 a week.)

But after reading the entire post, I can’t help but wonder: If the roles were reversed — if the single mom was staying home with the child while the ex boyfriend worked full time outside of the home — the person who went to work every day would be paying child support. And no one would question it.

Why isn't that the case here?

Readers, what do you think? Is providing child care equal to providing financial support, if you don't have a job outside of the home? Do men have a greater responsibility to provide financial support than women? And if so, does that undermine women's value in the workplace in general?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Survey: Coupon clippers use savings for necessities

A survey released today by coupon company RedPlum found that more than half of those who used coupons put their savings toward buying basic necessities. Another 26 percent of respondents said that they use the money they save to pay down debt.

They're not just saving chump change, either: Sixty-five percent said they save as much as $50 a week. Not a bad payback on an hour or so worth of time.

RedPlum's "Mom Saver-in-Chief" Lisa Reynolds, host of radio show "Viva La Value," says she saves about $30 per shopping trip by using coupons, and invests only about 20 minutes of time each week searching for savings. "You look for the categories you care most about," she suggested during an interview in New York. Before coupons, she used to spend about $500 per shopping trip on her family of four. Now? "About $325," she said. "It's all about choices."

Another trick is to be aware of what you buy and where you shop. "Big warehouse stores don't always make sense," she pointed out. "Canned goods may actually be better at the grocery store."

The RedPlum Purse String Study, which was based on information gathered from more than 16,000 participants, shows that people are more money conscious than ever. While so-called "coupon queens" may rack up some spectacular savings -- Kathy Spencer of How to Shop for Free says she ends up spending less than $10 a week to feed her family of six, including pets -- their techniques might not work for everyone. "I don't think most people can do that," Reynolds said. But searching for coupon codes online and spending a few minutes paging through the circulars can make sense. "With about 20 minutes of work per week, you can samve more than $1,000 a year," Reynolds pointed out. "Frugal isn't a bad thing any more."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Climbing out of the downward spiral

So often, we're down on ourselves for what we didn't do right, what we couldn't get done on time, what we wish we could do but don't. Inspired by a blog post at Mocha Momma -- a letter to herself at age 20, I recently asked my friends over at The 36-Hour Day: What do you think you do well?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Five ways to use up leftover roast chicken

One of my biggest Supermom time-and-sanity savers is making meals that multitask -- that is, deliberate leftovers that can be transformed into another meal later in the week. Even though I love to cook, there are definitely days when I feel all cooked out — when the very thought of planning and thawing and cooking makes me not want to eat for a week. Makes me look at my kids and ask, “Didn’t I feed you earlier? What do you mean you want dinner now?”

We deal with some food allergies at our house, so stopping off and picking up a pizza or fast-food isn’t an option. But roasting an extra chicken and stashing it, in advance, in pieces, in the freezer, is. If you’re more gastrointestinally normal than we are, you can pick up a supermarket-roasted chicken on your way home instead. Either way, once you have that bird in hand, you have plenty of options.