Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rethink the Big House as a Metaphor for Success

Should success mean owning a big house? Not according to Barbara Kingsolver, well known author of The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams. In her commencement speech at Duke University she stressed the need to "rethink the big, lonely house as a metaphor for success". A short annotated version of her speech follows:

"The rule of 'success' has traditionally meant having boatloads of money. But we are not really supposed to put it in a boat. A house would (be) the customary thing. Ideally it should be large, with a lot of bathrooms … but no more than four people. If two friends come over during approved visiting hours, the two children have to leave. The bathroom-to-resident ratio should at all times remain greater than one. I'm not making this up; I'm just observing, it's more or less my profession. … Rethink the big, lonely house as a metaphor for success. You are in a perfect position to do that. You've probably spent very little of your recent life in a freestanding unit with a bathroom-to-resident ratio of greater than one. … As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. … The way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community."

Until next time!


Monday, May 26, 2008

Its Memorial Day Weekend, Time to Garden!

The cone flowers in the picture above are from a small perennial flower garden I keep outside my kitchen door. For those of us that live in the Midwest, gardening begins over Memorial Day weekend. Its possible to plant before then, but the soil is not warm enough for plants to make any progress. This weekend I put in both my vegetable garden and flower garden and I'd like to introduce you to a little technique I like to call "clump gardening". I don't recommend this for vegetables, but it is wonderful for flowers, especially annuals. The idea is to group clusters of plants together to create high impact accents of color in selected areas of the garden. You can get a feel for this in the photo of my garden from last year. I "clumped" the geraniums so there would be splashes of red through out the green foundation plantings. The cone flowers shown above were also arranged for pops of color along my fence. I far prefer the bright showy shocks of color that you can achieve with "clump planting" to lonely flowers scattered sparsely throughout a bed.

Until next time,


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Introducing the Wine Guy!

"I know I don't have his looks. I know I don't have his money. I know I don't have his connections, his knowledge of fine wines. "
- Wayne Campbell in Wayne's World (1992)

Wine knowledge is not a skill set I possess. Oh sure, I know a white from a red, but that's because I can see the difference in color. This puts me at a disadvantage when I'm having a party. Many of my guests are true wine connoisseurs and I want to serve something they can enjoy. So what do I do? Turn to my good friend the Wine Guy! Mrs. Wine Guy is also a good friend of mine. We both are legendary for our shocking lack of ability to recognize fine wines. Many of our weeknight dinners have been unknowingly enhanced by a treasured wine our husbands were storing for a special occasion. Indeed, Mrs. Wine Guy once made a pot roast with a $150 bottle of cabernet from a case of wine bought at auction by Mr. Wine Guy. Her thinking, "there were multiple bottles of the same cabernet in the wine cellar so I thought it was OK to use."

With all the upcoming graduation parties - my older son is graduating from high school and my younger son from 8th grade - Memorial Day get-togethers and Father's Day celebrations, I asked the Wine Guy to recommend a few reasonably priced wines for those of us who are wine-challenged. Here are his selections.

  • Toasted Head Chardonnay - Available for $9-$12 at most major grocery store chains. This wine is described by the Wine Guy as toasty. I don't care much for Chardonnay, but I have tried this wine and really enjoyed it.
  • Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay - Available for $9-$14 , also at most major grocery chains. According to the Wine Guy, this used to be a more expensive wine, but the price was lowered without affecting the quality. He says there is some effervescence to this wine, so don't be surprised by a slight fizzy quality.
  • Montes Alpha Cabernet - Available for $10 - $15 at Costco and large grocery chains. To quote the Wine Guy, "this is a fruit forward, dark berry, large wine. In a blind taste test it was put in the same category as wines priced at $35 a bottle".
  • Barnard-Griffin Merlot - Available for $10 - $15. (I forgot to ask where to buy this wine but my guess is most grocery stores and any liquor store will carry it.) The Wine Guy calls this wine "easy to drink and mellow."

Now for my favorite wine, champagne! I absolutely adore champagne! If I could drink only one type of wine or alcoholic beverage for the rest of my life it would be champagne. I do happen to know that true champagne comes from the Champagne region in France. Everything else is sparkling wine. Beyond this tidbit of knowledge I am clueless. So what does the Wine Guy say about champagne? When it comes to champagne you have to splurge. He recommends:
  • Schramsberg Sparkling Wine - A California wine that ranges in price from $20 - $40. Wine Guy tells me that Schramsberg is the sparkling wine Richard Nixon took to Beijing on his historic visit to see Chairman Mao. Nixon gave Mao Schramsberg sparkling wine as a gift in exchange for the pandas which Mao gifted to the United States.
  • Domaine Chandon Sparkling Wine - For a more reasonably priced champagne, the Wine Guy suggests Domaine Chandon sparkling wine from California. He describes this as a tolerable sparkling wine that is greatly improved by the addition of flavored liquors such as, raspberry Chambord. He adds that its perfect for my Genny cocktail. (To find the recipe visit
I urge everyone to seek out and use your own local wine guy. And if you have any recommendations we want to hear them.

Until next time,


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Favorite Kitchen Things

This is my galley kitchen and it measures 8' x 8' from wall-to-wall. So how do I function in a space this small? Let me tell you about some of my favorite kitchen things that I couldn't live without.

  • My Step Stool. I have the most wonderful step stool that allows me to reach the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets without any problem. At 5'2" tall on a good day, I could not function in the kitchen without my step stool. It has a false front that looks exactly like my kitchen drawers and folds easily for storage in the kitchen kick plate when not in use.

  • Under Shelf Wire Bins. The wire bins in the picture below let me make use of the space above my dishes, glasses and mugs. I also use them in my pantry. They are available for a few dollars each at any The Container Store, a nation wide chain that sells organizational and storage tools. You can purchase these bins in white - which I chose - or silver. More colors may be available, I haven't been to The Container Store in awhile. And yes, call me boring, but all my dishes are white. I prefer a monochromatic goes-with-everything look.

  • Over-the-Sink-Colander or Strainer. If you read the Jewel Box Living newsletter you know that I love my large single bowl sink. But an over the sink colander lets me have it all. Whenever I need that "extra" sink for rinsing vegetables or draining pasta, I pull out my expandable colander/strainer. When not in use, I store it with my pots and pans. These colanders are available at Target for $20 to $25.

Until next time,


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Sleepy Baby c.1910 - Mary Cassatt (1845 - 1926)

Mary Cassatt is well known for her pastels and oil paintings of mothers and children involved in the rhythms of every day life. Cassatt beautifully captures the deep love mothers have for their children, as well as the warmth, comfort and security children feel in the presence of their mothers. It is almost as if we are intruding on an intimate moment between mother and child.

My mother passed away over 20 years ago. I am always reminded of her by the lovely expressions on the faces Cassatt's mothers. These are perfect replicas of my mother's expression while having dinner with her family or throwing a party for friends. She had created something beautiful and brought joy into our lives. Her family, her home and her friends were her life's work.

Although my mother died before I was married or had children, she passed on to me and my sister what she considered the foundation for keeping a beautiful home - a schedule/routine. During the week, establish a time and place for all basic household tasks. By keeping to this routine, family life runs much more smoothly than it otherwise would. Children know when laundry will be done - or for my boys, when they should do laundry. Everyone knows when grocery shopping takes place, when sheets are changed and when dinner is served. A routine is especially helpful in the case of a smaller home, where bathrooms and bedrooms are shared.

Basic tasks to include in your household routine/schedule:
  • grocery shopping
  • laundry
  • changing bed linen
  • dinner time
  • bed time for younger children
So how does my weekly schedule look?
  • Sunday - Grocery Shopping - Plan for two hours round trip to the grocery store and back, then another hour to put away groceries. I usually cook a very simple meal on Sundays, because I'm exhausted after the grocery store!
  • Monday - Bed linens are changed every two weeks - But don't beat yourself up if it slips to three weeks or more. No one is going to die because of dirty linen! And I usually have pasta for dinner on Mondays because its easy.
  • Tuesday - No big chores on Tuesday, but I cook a more substantial dinner. Usually chicken.
  • Wednesday - No big chores and I cook a simple dinner or we have sandwiches. At this point I have cooked three meals in a row and I'm ready for a break.
  • Thursday - No big chores, but I cook a larger meal. My boys enjoy beef, so I often try to serve that on Thursdays.
  • Friday - Take a break! Pizza for dinner and no chores.
  • Saturday - Clean the house and do laundry. This is a big day for chores, but I prefer to get everything done in one day. Usually I work with the kids cleaning the house and doing laundry until 3:00 pm. Then we are done and ready to entertain guests or go out. The laundry is usually not all folded, but that happens a little at a time during the week.
As for dinner, we eat very late, usually at 8:30 or 9:00. I always tell the children we are on European time! When they were younger, they ate and were in bed by 8:00. But now that they are teenagers, we eat as a family after they are done with sports, after school activities and homework.

Now back to Mothers Day. Those of you who visit the the Jewel Box Home website, know that I created a cocktail - The Genny - in honor of my mother, the original Jewel Box diva. So for Mother's Day, treat yourself to a Genny and give yourself credit for all the sacrifices you make and love you give without asking anything in return!

The Genny

Pomegranate Liqueur (I prefer Pama)
Strawberry for garnish

Fill a fluted glass 3/4th full with champagne.
Top the glass off with 1/4th pomegranate liqueur.
Garnish with a strawberry and enjoy!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Top Ten Reasons to Live in a Smaller Home

Who says you need a big house?
- My son Marc Ferraro at 12 years old asking me why I was obsessed with moving to a bigger house

As many of you who read this blog know, two years ago I was knee deep in big-house envy. And I'm embarassed to admit, but it touched practically every area of my life, including my relationship with my sons. I was convinced that they needed a larger house for their mental and physical health - separate bedrooms with separate study areas, a bathroom of their own to share, or better yet, a separate bathroom for each boy. This would give them their own space, they would be better students because they were more organized. They wouldn't keep each other up at night so they would get more sleep and be healthier. And when one of them was sick, it was less likely to spread across the shared bedroom to my other son.

Anyway, I complained about this endlessly and of course they both heard me. One day Marc had enough. He turned to face me and forcefully blurted out, "Who says you need a big house?" After I recovered from the shock of hearing him say this - up to that point both boys had humored my dream home fantasies - I said, "I want things to be better for my family, especially you boys". I will never forget what he said next, "Mom we don't care about the house. We like it here and don't want to move. This, is your problem and we are tired of hearing about it". This from a 12-year-old!

After feeling somewhat betrayed by my own son, and walking out of the room in a bit of snit - even though I'm middle-aged I can still throw a calculated fit like a pro - I slowly came to my senses and realized that my son was right. This was about me and what society advertised as important for a good life.

So why should anyone not only feel good about, but celebrate living in a smaller home? Here are the top ten reasons:


  1. Greater Financial Freedom. Super-sized houses come with hefty mortgages. Factor in property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, utility bills and maintenance costs, and most of your paycheck quickly goes into housing expenses. Buying a smaller home leaves more money for other investments and activities you enjoy.
  2. Less Maintenance. Big homes mean more space, more rooms, bigger lawns – all of which add up to more work. Choosing a smaller home gives you more time to do things you and your family enjoy.
  3. Closer Family Ties. Families living in a smaller home naturally learn to respect each other’s needs and wants. Children also learn the important life skill of how to share personal and communal living space.
  4. More Comfort. Most big houses are focused on size, not livability. The advantage of a smaller home is that living spaces are built to human scale. Rooms feel cozier, warmer and more inviting. Human needs take priority.
  5. Less Intimidating. The upside to a big house is having an impressive place to live. Larger houses make a grand display of space and luxury appointments. But this can be intimidating to guests and sometimes even younger family members. In a smaller home common areas are warm and inviting, retreat areas are relaxing and calm.
  6. The “Green” Advantage. Smaller homes have a smaller footprint. Fewer rooms and less space mean fewer resources are used for heating, cooling and lighting. Owning a smaller home is a great way to be responsible environmental citizen.
  7. Functional, Efficient Living Space. Because of their large volumes of space, many rooms in bigger houses aren’t used efficiently. This is especially true of formal dining rooms, oversized great rooms and two-story foyers. The functional layout of space in smaller homes allows the daily rhythms of life to flow more easily and naturally.
  8. Bigger Homes Don’t Necessarily Make You Happier. Many people think moving up to a bigger house will make them happier. But that happiness is never fully realized or is short-lived. Why? A larger home comes with a bigger mortgage and more upkeep. Nor does a bigger house necessarily satisfy more of our needs.
  9. More money for Education. A lower monthly mortgage payment means more money is available for education. This is especially helpful for families with college age children, but also gives adults the freedom to return to school and change careers or explore other opportunities after retirement.
  10. Decorating and Entertaining are Easier. Decorating a big house is expensive and professional help is often needed. When entertaining, guest may feel isolated and parties unstructured. By contrast, decorating the smaller takes less money and is easy when basic rules are followed. Also, the more comfortable proportions of the smaller home usually make for better parties.
Until next time!


Thursday, May 1, 2008

A New Washing Machine for the Jewel Box™ Home

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
- Margaret Wolfe Hungerford

This is an LG 4.2 cubic foot white front load washing machine. Isn't it beautiful? This past Saturday, water started streaming from our washing machine mid-cycle and flooding the laundry room floor. After charging us $139.00, the repairman said it was beyond repair. Not good news, but it also meant I could go out and buy a new washer. Why did I choose the one pictured? Not because its an LG, although I do like that brand. This washing machine is stackable, which means you can attach the matching dryer to the top of the washer and use one-half the space of a side-by-side unit. As those of us in smaller homes know, when space is at a premium, a smaller footprint is a plus. So did I also buy the matching dryer? No, that will have to come later when my current dryer goes bust. But I am considering asking my husband to make it my Mother's Day gift. I will keep you posted.

And before I close, I have to recommend ABT Electronics in Glenview, Illinois where I bought my new washing machine. Their service is excellent, they will match any price and they have every brand you could ever want. If you live in the Midwest, especially in the Chicagoland area, there is no need to go anywhere else for appliances other than ABT.

Until next time,