The Meaning of Objects

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I’ve been following the Konmari method since last year, as originally outlined in the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up by Marie Kondo. When those that have not tried this method cover it in the media, there is often confusion about the basic tenant of the method, the idea of objects “sparking joy”. This morning my mind went on a circuitous tangent thinking about how objects seem to carry feelings and memories.

Some of you know that we are back in our house after two years of fighting toxic mold. Recently, I’ve struggled with some fear about dust. I’m reminded of the saying, “just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.” It is indeed justifiable fear; the mold toxin binding medication that I’m taking is causing some of the hypersensitivity to return, and indeed, it’s all over the place in one form or another.

This morning I had mistakenly worn my crocs outside in the wet grass and then through the contaminated garage and entry, and back through the house. I was bemoaning the unclean state of the floors and rinsing them off in the sink, which itself caused a small debate in my head over the advisability of floor dirt getting into the sink, but then I decided that indeed was paranoia, because I’m never consistent about separating the two at other times.

Over the past year I have cleaned every single belonging I have in the house. It became a habit when sorting through drawers of random unsorted stuff to have a rag and spray bottle nearby. Often I did this as I was trying to notice a spark of joy and gratitude in my body for the item. The two became interconnected in my mind, and I have begun to regularly notice an object’s joy when I am cleaning and taking care of it.

These particular crocs came from walking the Bolder Boulder many years ago with a group of close friends. I used them as house and travel slippers; they represented acceptance, support, and comfort. In 2014 when we began the process of evaluating each of our belongings for mold contamination, they were one of the few pieces of footwear that made the cut.

When I developed chemical sensitivity in 2015, possibly as a result of exposure while trying to remodel our house and clean our belongings from mold at the same time, There was a time that I believed I was having a chemical reaction to the plastic in the shoes, particularly the straps which are made up a slightly different material. In my 2015 Plastics Purge, I reasoned with myself that they were old and had had a good life. But I just couldn’t get myself to give them up, and so I tucked them away, feeling a little betrayed that even they would be a problem.

I later learned that some of my reactions including the numbness and tingling in my extremities, were actually autonomic nervous system dysfunction, and that my fear was actually exacerbating some of the symptoms, even more than the items I was afraid of. Feeling bashful and apologetic, I carefully pulled out my old friends.

We took a while to re-establish the relationship. For a long while, I felt crazy that I had misinterpreted my reactions so dramatically. Maybe all of my reactions were in my head; maybe I was just being a big baby or a nervous Nellie. The crocs, like other items in my life, bore a little piece of that distrust and guilt. I was nervous about reacting to them, and nervous about not reacting to them. I still only wore them with socks, since the strange texture reminded me of that pins and needles feeling.

At the same time, I was still trying to talk myself out of believing in symptoms that would prove to be legitimate. Most recently I eliminated one of the most insidious irritants that in hindsight, has plagued me throughout this process. As back story, my husband Mike has always used the same shampoo. He stopped for a while, at the worst of my chemical sensitivity, when the smell of it coming out the crack under the bathroom door was making me nauseous. Even if I were half-asleep, I would wake with my heart pounding and the feeling that something was wrong. I didn’t even want to hang my organic bamboo towel next to his regular one, as it might pick up an itchy feeling (though I thought that was chemicals in the cotton, back then, and then thought I was crazy after that).

After we found that my symptoms were not all chemical, I said he could try the shampoo again, and it didn’t seem to be a big deal. I still noticed it more frequently a year later, when the hypersensitivity came back as a side effect of the mold detox med, and I asked him to stop using it again. And then scrubbed the bathroom from top-to-bottom and washed all the linens and the pillows.

That was a few weeks ago, and allergy symptoms that I had had for the entire previous year, which I had attributed to dust in our sheets and pillows, to the vinyl in the new waterbed, the mold growth on the towels which got itchier and itchier through the week,even sneezing from toilet paper and tissues, all disappeared. Gone. (Until I was exposed to mold or something else).

Suddenly, with that irritant gone, like a bloodhound I could find mold contaminated objects that had slipped through my rigorous process. Being two feet away from a small fabric makeup bag brought on a sneezing fit, even though it had been living in my closet for a couple of weeks and never had before. I had always loved that little bag, but why I thought I could run it through the washer and keep it I had no idea. It’s like my eyes are blind to items I don’t want to give up.

Yesterday, I was sorting paper. Again. You know how that goes. My arms began to itch, which is usually a reliable symptom specific to mold residue, but is uncannily similar to a pins and needles reaction that can be a direct result of fear. I didn’t ignore it, but I didn’t go get a mask, either. I’m tough, right?  These were the “clean” papers. Perhaps they had picked up a bit of cross-contamination, but I could handle a little itching. I hadn’t gotten to the contaminated ones yet, which I would scan with my phone outside with a respirator if I knew what was good for me.

Then as I was going through old installation and care manuals for household appliances, I picked up one and immediately became woozy and off-balance. It was the installation manual for the air filtation system we installed in the basement; it had escaped the purge by being categorized as “post-remodel”. My anxiety skyrocketed and I went into Decontamination Mode and isolated it to the garage. I do have a headache today, and maybe I’ll learn from it this time and protect myself better. It’s taken me a long time to trust my instincts again. But as more of them are confirmed again and again, my hypersensitivity has become an amazingly accurate detection system, and I’ve become grateful for it.

As I stood and washed the crocs, I realized I had neither a reaction nor fear of one, only gratitude. Marie Kondo says to feel if there is a spark of joy more intensely, hug an item close to your heart. Even bringing them up from my feet to the sink had this effect. She was right, yet again, darn it. Konmari also recommends that you treat necessary belongings that may not be perfect and items “in the gray area” as favorite joy sparkers. Usually this makes it pretty obvious, one way or the other).

The unadulterated joy in my beloved crocs was shining through again. They have been run through the dishwasher and the washing machine; they have taking me kayaking and camping and to folk festivals innumerous times. Soon, they will travel with me as I become a T’ai Chi Chih teacher. Reliable comfort and self-acceptance.

So try Konmari or don’t, but don’t be fooled by what falsely appears to be a superficial criteria of “sparks joy”. The joy in objects isn’t really about their newness or beauty or monetary value, but about the relationships we have with them. They represent pieces of the puzzle of our lives; they have a purpose and a home. That purpose can be functional or purely joyful. Sometimes it takes time to discover it.

Most of my house feels clean now, and I’ll get to the floor soon. Likewise, I look around my serene space with most items consciously chosen to stay. Just like I’ve ferreted out (and never will stop doing so) the pockets of mold contamination that bring itches and headaches, I continue to notice the areas that need a little TLC and gratitude, or a new home. The joy is everywhere now. Well, almost – even Marie Kondo admits that papers hold little or no joy.

Discovery of who we are through our relationships with our belongings requires being engaged with an item, open to hearing what it has to say, item by item. This simple but not easy method challenges us to define how we relate to our own lives. And, I have to tell you, it truly can be lifechanging.

My Life in Books

This post is a tribute to some of the books that I’m finally letting go of. At first I felt “forced” to let the books go because of contamination from being in a house with toxic mold. I’m incredibly sensitive to even small amounts of mold, and though that should change eventually, I had to ask myself, do I want to keep something that has the potential to make me sick, in case it doesn’t later?

Books have a false sense of scarcity to me. Especially old books. They just seem like they should be precious. Like someday they’ll all be electronic and something will be lost. Maybe I’m just getting old.

After talking with friends on Facebook, I decided that any that I really wanted to replace I would just get new copies of, but a strange thing happened. When I held them one by one and fully processed what they meant to me, I found I didn’t need to.

The first step in the process that I follow, after gathering all the books, is to hold each one and note how I feel. Those that “bring me down”, making me feel heavier, more fearful, less competent, I thank and let go.  That part was easy. The difficult ones were those that brought on a smile, a feeling of connection. Usually, those would be the ones to keep, but in this case I needed to go deeper.

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Above were the books I had been hoping to keep when I did a first pass last year, out of the hundreds we started with. I’m going to put the interesting ones into the story they represent.

I grew up on a hippie community called The Farm. In grade school I had a teacher who would read to us from a book every day. One of the first science fiction books I was ever exposed to this way was The White Mountains, a dystopian, aliens-take-over the world coming of age story that felt life changing until I read it later with my son and it wasn’t all that compelling to either of us. Still, I’ve held onto these (not the original copies as I never owned them) as a reminder of that shift.

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People didn’t really own books on the community, not like we do in our society today. I remember the local bookmobile coming to our school every month or two and getting new books. Another teacher suggested I read “1984” several years before that year would arrive, and if I had a copy it would fit well, right after the missing third book in the above series.

Jane Auel’s series was an early favorite of mine, and this hardbound Valley of Horses is one of the only books I owned from my teenage years. The rest of the series were replaced later.  I had thought these would be a prime candidate for an Amazon wish list, but ever since being in a regular writing critique group, I have a hard time reading them without noting the sometimes poor and rambling quality of the writing. I realized I really just liked holding onto them, but didn’t actually need to own a copy when I can easily get them again if I want.

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This little booklet on shoeing horses hold lots of fond memories. But they aren’t from the book itself, just what it represents. Really, the only page inside that resonated was the anatomy chart below. Knowledge of horse anatomy charts was one of the requirements for getting to be on the “pony crew” and be assigned to a pony. Each pony would have three or four kids taking turns throughout the week caring for it and getting to riding it to school in winter, and to the swimming hole in the summer.

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Here are another set of old favorites that haven’t been opened in years. I loved this series (though different copies, I’m sure) as a teen. The writing was sophisticated, and so were the themes. Someday I’ll read them again, but electronically will work well enough. I don’t need them to sit around and wait for me.

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These weren’t even my books, but I had a hard time letting them go. Everyone else in the house had let go of the idea of owning old books, and these seemed like they deserved more respect than that.

These particular ones were my husband’s from before we met. I was a sci fi fan too when we met and loved his extensive collection. Decades later, our son and he read these, a little each night. Thank you, original LOTR books.

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Does this book look familiar to anyone? It’s from the community I grew up on.

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We had our son in 1997. I always wanted to be a household that had lots of books around. Trains, Boats and Trucks was Mike’s, I think, and these Richard Scarry books I bought used when they reminded me of my own childhood. I was happy to share them with our son, but they are really only nostalgic for me. It saddens me that he never picks up a physical book anymore. It’s all Reddit now.

I was going to keep them for the proverbial grandkids, but I don’t want to live my life waiting for things that may not happen anymore. The picture in my head of the future only gets in the way of it coming true. I’d rather live in 2016.

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Our son loved animals even more than he liked vehicles. Here is what I’d saved from that era.

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We loved “Good Dog, Carl.” Carl, the dog, takes care of the baby while mom is away. So sweet.2016-05-04 12.53.17 2016-05-04 12.54.19 2016-05-04 12.53.37

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“Only the Cat Saw” was such a sweet story. It also was one of the first books that I had which pictured a mom breast-feeding a toddler, and normalized getting up in the middle of the night to do so.

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This one brought up strong mixed feelings for me. It never was a favorite of Alex’s, but I found myself having a hard time letting it go. When I browsed through it, I realized why. It showed an idylic family with a little boy (with two dogs instead of cats, but I made allowances.) At the end, the little boy gets a sister. We tried for another child for years, and I secretly, desperately wanted a little girl to make our family complete. All of that desire has been gone for years, but the bittersweet feelings remained enmeshed in the pages of this book, probably along with some of the mold residue that was the likely culprit for the long series of miscarriages I suffered. I had already let go of the dream; it is time to fully let go of the vestiges of the path not taken.

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When my son was young, I so wanted to find the key to parenting just right such that the chaos and stress and hard would go away. I have so many areas that a subconscious part of my brain wishes I could do more perfectly, and it’s time to let go. Said kid is 19 and blooming into a caring, witty, and amazingly intelligent adult. It’s time that I let go of parenting books and stop taking it personally when he doesn’t shower or clean his room. I’ve done my job more than adequately and it’s time to move forward. But if I needed a parenting book, here are the first ones I’d reach for.

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I needed to have a similar conversation with myself about homeschooling regrets. It’s time to let go of the feeling that there was so much more we should have found a way to cover. We ended up with a guy that cares and analyzes everything deeply, caucuses for Bernie Sanders, and could teach a course on astrophysics based on his work in a video game. (Kerbal Space Program, also known fondly in our household as “the best $25 of homeschooling money ever spent”).  It’s enough. It really is.

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And of course, the same lessons apply to myself. I need to remember I’ve learned a lot over the years. Instead of looking for a book to tell me how to live, I need to simply take the advice I give everyone else.

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At the same time I was trying to learn how to do less, I was also trying to be good at everything. These books taught me that I don’t need to hold onto placemarkers to remind myself I can be creative (though the top two I may buy again someday…I did copy a few favorite pages for ideas.)

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I inherited this and a more recent cookbook and they are both adorable, and mold-contamination free so I could keep both if I wanted. But I realized although the pictures are great, I don’t need a collectible cookbook. For me, that’s not the point of a cookbook. I kept the more recent as it’s laid out better and has more content.  Luckily I have a sister that adores unique cookbooks.

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“So, what would you do with extra time?”  My acupuncturist asked me that recently, and for the first time my answer was unhesitant.  “Write.”

But instead of trying to read all the examples I find of memoirs that are in my genre, I just need to take the ….oh, my, it’s up to 166,000 words, that I’ve already written and pull them into a book. I’m letting these go, unread. They may be great books, I don’t know, but they aren’t mine.

Everyone raves over my excerpts and more and more I get told, “You need to write that story.”  I’ve already outlasted the problem of finding a publisher, which I spent way too much time worrying about in the past, a perfect example of my grandmother’s saying, “Don’t borrow trouble.”  It might not be this year, but it will be soon. And others to follow.

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And the results? I kept about 11 books. There are several in a shoebox-sized plastic box (not pictured) that are still mold-exposed but I’m not *quite* ready to let them go. Three are commune publications which are research for my writing and hard to find, and two were written by my grandmother, one of my strongest supporters when she was alive.

These keepers live in my closet for now (the cookbook is awaiting a home in the kitchen). The rest are ready for discard.

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Marie Kondo talks about not keeping items just as reminders of memories, and how they pull us out of living in the present. I believe it’s not the books themselves we are purging, but parts of ourselves that are no longer serving us. She says that we need to trust we got what we needed when we first read a book, and I was shocked to find how true that is.  My “must keep” pile really was a “mustn’t forget” pile, which is entirely different from “joy sparking”.

I’m not advocating anyone else get rid of all of their books, but for me, it feels like a burden lifted, a freedom I never thought I’d feel. I imagined heartbreak and instead I got reconnection with who I am.

Lisa, 5/6/2016


This is an article I wrote and never posted or published, in July of 2007. I came across it and wanted to share it with you, at the beginning of summer, so we can each picture how we want our summers to unfold.

Finding Flowers

Copyright July, 2007 by Lisa Stroyan

It’s the first day of a new ritual – going out into my garden each morning, before it gets hot, and puttering. Some days, I’ll work on weeding, I decide, and some I’ll pick and enjoy the flowers, and others I might bring out my computer, and just sit and write. I sense that this ritual is a big change for me somehow, yet it is still fresh and new, like the flowers opening around me; it holds that excitement of a new idea, the sparkle of morning dew.

There is green, lush growth everywhere. The first summer raspberries are almost ready to taste. The daylilies have popped into a profusion of blooms. My prized delphiniums are beautiful in their deep indigo purple spears, albeit upside down from toppling themselves over by their own weight. The basil is perfect for pinching; a spicy smell surrounds me as I put them into my basket. The pink yarrow is already scraggly and fading. How have I not seen this and let an entire month of summer go by? Sure, I’ve brought visitors out and we have petted the flowers and plucked bits of herbs. Yet, somehow my eyes, or perhaps my other senses, weren’t fully open. There is something magical about a morning garden. I’m energized to dig in.

I stand back and assess, trying to figure out where to start. The weeds have been just as happy with the weather as the flowers have been. I reassure myself that I don’t have to do it all today; every day I’ll make some progress. Because I love order, I choose the far corner, where the raspberries are surrounded by grass, and figure that over time I’ll work my way across to the main areas. I forget, even this soon, that this ritual was supposed to be for me, not for my garden.

Raspberries don’t mind grass around them, really, but it makes me feel better not to have it there. I realize I need gloves and scissors and a weed bag. Anxious to begin, I collect what I need and start pulling. It’s not long, however, before, I start to panic as I realize how small a corner I’ve cleared compared to the size of my garden.

It hits me. This is what I always do. I always start by trying to get rid of what I don’t want in the back corner where it doesn’t really matter. I tell myself that I’ll feel better when I have control of the edges of my life, so I should start there. This feeling of panic and overwhelm is coming from the knowledge that there will always be more weeds; their job is to fill in the space between the flowers so it doesn’t look empty. What I really want are those delphiniums. I can already picture them in my kitchen. And if I don’t get them soon, they won’t last long. I change gears. The delphiniums dare me to find a way to cross the tangle of growth in front of them. I start weeding, but this has a different feel than before. Rather than focusing on the weeds, I’m focused on the flowers, I’m focused on what will bring me the most joy.

First I need to clear a path through the spent flowers. Sometimes, the line between weed and flower is unclear, and I have to decide whether to add them to my basket. The overgrown foliage of yarrow and bellflower covers the path in a tangled mat. I cut back the entire mat, and gently remove the flowers that I’ll keep, recycling the rest. I taste a perfect raspberry that has raced ahead of the others, held up by the growth of flowers and weeds beneath it so it can reach the sun. I get sidetracked with weeds to the sides of the path now and then, but a deep purple color that must be the color of joy beckons me. Already, I have a huge pile of blooms that I’ve collected along the way, and I carefully add the rescued purple stems to the pile.

On my way in, I decide to tackle one more spot of weedy clover; my cut flowers will last for a bit on this cool early morning. These weeds are directly in the path back to the house, although low-growing so they’ve been allowed to sprawl. As I pull, I discover completely obscured flowering iceplant underneath. Perhaps there is a time for weeding after all, when the weeds smother the flowers. Yet, when I stop uncovering flowers and find myself focusing on “finishing” the weeding, I know it is time to move on. There will always be more weeds, and I have delphiniums to save.

Perfect Seed Starter Labels

I’ve been trying to find perfect labels/tags for starting seeds. I’ve seen plant tags made from old yogurt containers, which work well for once the plants are in the garden. That was my plan until I found this strawberry box in my recycle bin.

If you use a 1/4″ tape label maker or you write small, cutting up a strawberry box makes great tags for labeling the tiny compartments of a seed starting tray. First, they are clear instead of opaque which means the light will not get is blocked by the tags. Second, each tag has a little lip on which to place the variety of seed being planted. When the tag is slid into the top of a seed envelope, the lip stops it from falling all the way in.

To make the tags, first cut out the bottom of the strawberry box. Next,  cut wedges from the rest of the box. I’ve drawn lines on this box so you can see, but it’s easier to just wing it. Some of your tags won’t be perfect (you can choose whether to use them at the end when you’ve used the nicer ones, depending on how many you need). Lastly, trim the tags so they taper to a near-point for easier insertion.  Write or stick on labels. Voila!

Here they are in my envelopes, and in my seed binder, which is filled with sleeves designed for old-style floppy disks.

Leftover Turkey Pot Pie

I combined recipes to come up with this for dinner last night. My teen son said it was really, really good and why didn’t I make it more often? He even had it for breakfast. So I thought I would share.

You could just as easily use Bisquick or other baking mix for the topping. Just mix according to the package directions, but put enough liquid to be able to “glop” the topping onto the pie.(By the way, I use the same topping with a bit more sugar for fruit cobbler; it’s just an all-purpose drop biscuit ratio).

Leftover Turkey Pot Pie

2 cups frozen peas and carrots
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup onion, chopped
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon italian seasoning
3/4 cup chicken broth, or 1 cup
3/4 cup milk, or increase chicken broth and use cream
2 cups turkey meat, chopped
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons light olive oil
1 cup milk, as needed

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F (220 degrees C) or 350 convection.

Cook the peas and carrots. Drain the vegetables and set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and cook the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.

Stir in 1/3 cup of flour, salt, black pepper, onion powder, and Italian seasoning; slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk/cream until the mixture comes to a simmer and thickens. Remove from heat; stir the cooked vegetables and turkey meat into the filling. Pour into a greased baking pan. (I used a square, but you could double the recipe and it should still fit in a 9×13).

Whisk together remaining flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Form a well and add oil. Add milk in increments, using what is needed to make a gloppy mess.  Drop “crust” onto filling, spreading  out if you can.  It won’t be smooth.

Bake in the preheated oven until the crust is golden brown, cooked all the way through (just take a fork and test the middle to make sure it’s not doughy)  and the filling is bubbly, 30 to 35 minutes. If the crust is browning too quickly, cover. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

(credit for original recipe goes to

Cooking day!

Earlier this week I realized that if I wanted to get a freezer cooking day in before the end of the year, with the Hobbit coming up and then the holidays, :), I should do it this week.

My friend and I made six dishes today, with three more prepped and ready to put together tomorrow. We made a huge batch of granola, applesauce-kefir pancakes, ginger-apple oatmeal, frozen burritos, pineapple-ginger fried rice, and lower-oxalate pumpkin black-eyed pea chili. I thought I’d share a few of the recipes I chose here.

The granola was pretty simple, so I suggest you start with online recipes and customize. I used coconut sugar and maple syrup, coconut oil, and of course oats, fruits, and spice. For the pancakes I took an applesauce pancake recipe and put kefir and soured cream that was sitting in the back of my fridge, instead of the milk. (Note: I should have added a 1/2 teaspoon baking soda to counter the acid, but I forgot and they seem fine). The oatmeal was regular oats made with  a mix of water and milk (1:1:1 ratio) with whatever fruits etc I had on hand; in this case I put in shredded coconut, raisins, minced candied ginger, and almost as much chopped fresh apple as I put in oats. It came out wonderfully. The burritos also were pretty basic: ground beef with spices, rice, black olives, and shredded cheese. You can add salsa but it makes them a bit moist, so I suggest cooking it into the beef and draining well if you do.

The following two recipes, based loosely on ones I found around the ‘net, were fantastic enough to share in their entirety. The chili especially is a great new addition to my repertoire, as it’s subtly different than other chilis; sweet and a bit smokey.  For the pineapple rice, you might add ham, chicken, or shrimp. I didn’t, because a couple of weeks ago I bought a huge ham and divided it into steaks, so I’ll serve it with that.

(sorry about the formatting, I don’t have time to make it work right now).

Pineapple Fried Rice

Servings: 12
4 medium eggs, whisked
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 tablespoons coconut oil
4 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
4 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups cabbage, finely chopped
6 cups cooked short-grain rice, must be cold
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 cups coarsely chopped pineapple
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
4 cups peas and carrots, frozen
Optional: add 1-2 cups tofu, chicken, or shrimp
Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet or stir-fry pan over medium-high heat. Add eggs, and cook 8 lightly. Sprinkle
with salt. Remove from pan.
2. Heat coconut oil in pan over medium-high heat. Add ginger and garlic; stir-fry 2 minutes or until lightly browned.
Add cabbage, cook until slightly transparent. Add rice, and cook several minutes before adding remaining ingredients
except frozen vegies (if re-freezing).
3. To freeze, cool before adding frozen vegies.
Low Oxalate Pumpkin Chili
2 pounds ground beef
2 pounds ground turkey
1 pound bacon, cooked and drained
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups onion, roughly chopped
2 cups red bell pepper, roughly chopped
12 cloves garlic (6-8)
2 cups tomato juice
1 cup tomato sauce
3 cups cooked black-eyed peas
3 cups sweet corn
2 cans pumpkin
2-3 tablespoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2-3 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons fennel seed
2 teaspoons coriander
salt to taste
Brown the beef and turkey in a dutch oven or stew pot over medium heat. Pour off the grease (optional) and return to the stove [I used a crockpot]. Meanwhile, put the broth, onion, red pepper and garlic in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil until the peppers and onions are soft. If desired, use a soup wand (stick blender) to puree the vegetables or put them into a blender or food processor and blend until  well pureed. Add the pureed vegetables and tomato juice/sauce to the beef and simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour. Add the beans and corn and spices (no need to drain the beans and corn unless you want to) and continue to simmer until the flavors have melded and the chili has cooked down to your desired thickness (drain the corn before adding for a thicker chili). Serve with chopped cilantro, shredded cheese or a dollop of yogurt if desired.

Managing my life with MyLifeOrganized

I’m a huge fan of a software product called MyLifeOrganized (  MLO is an advanced task and workflow manager that supports various methodologies (GTD, Pomodoro, etc). It is fairly easy to use the basics, but has many advanced options for setting up your system.  If you haven’t heard of it, you probably should skip the rest of this post, and instead consider installing the trial version.  Play around with it a bit, then come back here and this will make more sense.

I use MLO both on Windows (Windows Vista in my case; it also works using Wine on Linux, but I’ve never tried that), and on Android (other mobile platforms are supported but I have no familiarity with them). I’ll use the term “Desktop” to mean the full product on Windows, and “Android” to mean the MLO Android app, which does not have all of the features of the Desktop version.

I get a lot of questions about how I set up my MLO system. I’m happy to share, but with a few caveats:

(1) I’m currently an at-home, homeschooling mom with health issues and managing health issues for my family as well. My task system is designed to be very interrupt driven and flexible. I worked as a software engineer for HP for 10 years. I only *thought* my job was interrupt driven then.

(2) I don’t use a particular methodology. I gravitate toward GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen), but never have taken the time to make it work for me. I find it tricky enough to actually have the brainpower to look at my task list. My “Start Weekly Review” task is about three years old. I’ve done informal reviews, but never enough to follow the process I tried to set up for myself, long ago when I read the book.  I’ve played around with layering Pomodoro technique onto my system and that was pretty effective when I was organized enough to use it.

(3) I change my system regularly. Part of this is to make it more efficient, but honestly another part is just to keep it interesting and “new,” — shiny. So my system when you read this may be much different than when I wrote it.

(4) I have not solved the perpetual “there are too many tasks in my system and I’ll never be able to do them all” problem.  My system seems to evolve to pushing more and tasks below the current priority line. The answer to the universe is 42. Other than that, I’ve got nothin’.

My Life Organized 5-Minute Primer

MLO allows you to structure your tasks differently than how you view them (slice/dice depending on what you want to see).  The tree structure, sometimes called the Outline, is static (stays the same unless you change it). Imagine this as similar to where your files are stored on your file system — the tasks “live” in the outline.

Each task has many properties that can be set or are calculated based on other properties. (E.g., “Active” is a property that depends on start date, whether it has children, and a number of other criteria that determine that this task is something you could work on right now). Views are basically saved searches for combinations of properties, and they update when a task’s properties change. An example of a view might be, “All active tasks marked as a Goal, grouped into Week/Month/Year Goals, and sorted by due date.”  Views are just searches and formatting of the data for display — they don’t change where the task “lives” relative to it’s parent tasks.

The Android app has a fixed set of views that are only partially customizable. The Desktop allows elaborate custom views to be created. For example, you could create a view that says, “Show me all of the active tasks which are due in the next week, except those that I’ve marked with a context (e.g., tag) of “@Home”.

I’m not going to explain all of my terms here in any detail, but you can look them up in the help or the user’s guide (, click on user’s guide for pdf).


Ok, that all said, here’s my current system.

My philosophy is to organize my outline tree based on where my brain feels tasks should live, similarly to how I organize my files or my kitchen (complete with a Junk Drawer, called Life Maintenance).  In general, my tree is organized by areas of focus (Life Maintenance, Home, Family, Work, Health…)

More specifically, my tree (outline) structure is flat at the top with the following folders:

  • <Inbox> – currently this has Goal=Week set, to force these tasks to show up in my daily lists (more on that later). Since Goal is inherited, as soon as I move new tasks to their proper homes, they will no longer be Week goals unless I manually set it.
  • 0 – My Routines & GTD – this is where I keep all of my daily/weekly/etc routines, so they don’t clutter other areas. One area of note, I have a subfolder called “Reuse” that contains common tasks, such as “return library books”. I just uncomplete and edit the existing task with a new due date instead of creating a new task. I put () in the title of each of these to indicate it’s recurring/reuse, to remind me not to delete it.
  • 1 – Life Maintenance – stuff that is not directly related to any of the other categories.
  • 2 through 9 Major life areas (3-Health, 4-Self, Community, Family, etc) numbered for quick access on the Desktop by typing that number
  • Templates–task trees that I want to use again. MLO has a setting called “Hide-in-todo” which “grays out” a branch and makes those tasks inactive.  They are visible in the outline structure, but not part of my working task lists. Because the Templates folder is marked with the “Hide-in-todo” setting, these don’t show up on any todo views, but if I duplicate a branch and move the duplicate to a new parent, it does show up in my todo views.

I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done concept of Someday/Maybe lists to keep my tasks manageable. For tasks that I don’t want to see in my task list but want to capture, I have a “Someday/Maybe” subfolder (branch) under each Life Area that has “Hide-in-todo” set on it. For me those are different than the tasks I actively intend to get to. I like to keep these in their general area, so that I can review them all at once, and move them in and out of the hidden branch depending on whether I want them active or not.

That’s pretty much it for my current tree structure. I’ve played around with marking tasks as Projects but haven’t found any use that I can maintain easily enough to make them worthwhile.


Contexts (basically, categories or labels) are something I’ve played around with for a long time but have a hard time making work for my system.  I recently partially gave up on standard GTD style contexts (where the context is the environment you do the task in, e.g., Phone Calls, At Computer, At Home, Outside, etc).  I have a phone and usually a computer nearby all of the time, so 90% of these tasks were “in Context” all the time. Not helpful.

I still have a few location contexts — Errands, ErrandsDowntown, for example. I kept Phone Calls because it is easier to bunch them up than to not. I use Home to group all the house related tasks. Then I created a bunch of contexts that contain tasks I would usually bunch together for some reason — same amount of energy required, etc. Examples are MaintainHealth, ResearchHealth, MaintainComputer, Housework, HouseMaintenance. If you look at these last two, you can get an idea why. Applying stain to the deck has a completely different level of energy, focus, urgency, and even importance than vacuuming before guests come.  @Home just doesn’t cover that difference.

One way I’ve found contexts to be helpful is combined loosely with the Pomodoro technique, where I focus on one task or area for a limited amount of time. Then I limit my view to a particular context, and work on those for the given time. For example, looking only at “Selfcare” reminds me to eat breakfast and shower, not check email or facebook. Focusing only on “HealthMaintenance” forces me to order more supplements rather than clean the kitchen counter (cleaning the counter is *so* much easier).

Since you can’t specify a context sort order, I order my contexts using prefixes. I’ve found that the following order sorts the same on both Windows and Android:

  • *!
  • *#
  • **
  • *
  • *z
  • @
  • Alpha

I use this to put my Pomodoro contexts above my location contexts. Some examples are:

  • *!DailyPlanning
  • *!Quick
  • *!Selfcare
  • *#Life (as in Life managment tasks…or as in “that’s Life” 🙂
  • *#PlanningActivities&Travel

I put those at the top because I tried to run through the categories each day, which was helpful when I was doing it.

Following that I have a bunch of other categories which all start with asterisks (*MaintainHealth), but are alphabetical, followed by my location based contexts (@Errands) and a few random ones I have.

My system for prioritization

I use the Goal property to narrow my field of view, and the Star property for even narrower. Every day I try to look through a “Weekly/Monthly” goal list to decide if there is something I should Star for the day. Theoretically I review all my Weekly goals daily and all my Monthly goals each week (changing some to Weekly), but when time is tight and tasks are piling up like a train wreck, I often find Monthly goals that I add a Star to directly from Monthly.

I use Star and Goals for my “importance/urgency”.  (I don’t use the built-in settings for this, nor do I use the built-in “computed-score”. I find that doesn’t work in my interrupt-driven world where what is important right now depends on so many different factors).

In MLO, it’s not specified how goals need to be used. You can use them however you want to since it’s just a property with four values. I’ve seen people define them as either “A weekly goal should be done this particular week” or a running “Weekly goal should be in the next week after today” .  I use the latter, the running list, myself.  Week goals are for tasks around one week out (always revolving, rather than ‘by Friday’), and I try to review my list of Week goals most mornings and see what should be bumped up with Starred. (If they have exact deadlines I use due dates as well, and multiple reminders for really hard deadlines).

Starred is currently the only way to define daily goals that I’ve found (at least, that ports to Android). Starred in my system equates roughly to today. I mark tasks with a Star to indicate I would like them in my daily view (which never does get completed daily, I’m afraid — it’s a running view as well).

Upon further reflection, though I originally intended to actually “complete” my tasks within their assigned timeframe (weekly, etc), in reality it mostly controls how often I review those tasks.


Because Android views are more limited, I started by figuring out how to use them to their best advantage for me, and then adapted my desktop system to be an expansion of this model.

On Android, I primarily use four views: Active Actions (sorted by Star, Goal, then Caption) for adding a Star to my daily tasks, Active Starred for daily work (manually sorted, based on my day), Active Goals (sorted by Star and then Caption, i.e., title) for moving tasks between Goals if my desktop is not readily available, and Active by Context, usually to focus on a specific context or to systematically work from my most important Contexts.

I keep a set of similar views on the desktop, though with more properties shown, so that I can do the same daily routines from either platform.

The main way you can customize an Android view is through sorting it using multiple criteria.  For example,  the Active Actions view shows all of your tasks in one big unmanageable list. But if you sort that list so that what you have to see is on top, followed by what you want to see later, followed by the tasks you might want to review at some point, it becomes very useful and you can ignore the 80% percent of the tasks you don’t want to see today at all.

So, I have the following sort in most of my active views (except for Active Starred View, which is only manually sorted on Android) on both platforms:

1) Starred 2) Goal 3) Caption (ie, title). This puts Starred first, Weekly unstarred next , etc.

Why Caption? Because recently I decided I want all of my recurring “routine” tasks together in my sort order, so I simply put (d) (w) (x) (y) in front of their titles. (x) is for month because it sorts alphabetically between the others 🙂  That way, my daily Starred tasks are at the top above the weekly Starred tasks, etc.

Additionally, I have a number of custom views on my desktop for more refined planning and processing of my tasks. For example, I have a view that shows only the Weekly and Monthly Goals that are NOT marked with a Star. That way, when I add a Star to one of these tasks, it disappears from the list.  When I’m reviewing all of my tasks (not just active), I use a desktop “All Unhidden Tasks grouped by Goal” view to drag tasks between Goals (on the Desktop, dragging a task to a new Goal heading will change the Goal for that task).


I do ad-hoc reviews weekly, monthly, and a couple times a year, when I start feeling like I’m forgetting things. Generally I review things one horizon out — daily I review the weekly tasks, weekly I review the monthly (though in practice I often combine these into my daily review).  I try to review the yearly goals monthly, all of the tasks without a goal set every few months, and the Someday/Maybes, yearly.

Another option for the weekly review that I used for a while was to review each Life Area once a week. For example, I had a task “Review Health Tasks” under the Health subtree which recurred weekly.  This broke up my review so it was not as overwhelming, but I found I couldn’t sustain it. It might be something to play around with again, though.

From a practical standpoint, I do most of my longer-term planning on the Desktop as it is fully featured and I have a set of custom views I’ve built over time.

Here’s a neat trick.  My inbox (which contains all my unprocessed tasks, those tasks I haven’t assigned properties to yet nor have moved into their proper tree branch) has Goal=Week set. This makes all of my unprocessed tasks show up in any view that includes Weekly Goals, so I’m forced to process those tasks to get them out of my face.

I set reminders for any tasks that I can’t afford to forget (especially those I don’t want to see in my daily views).  I set a Start time in the future if I want to ignore them until that date. In general, I set the start date at the time I want it to show up in my views, the Goal according to how urgent it will be, the due date for when it should be completed by, and the reminder about halfway between the start date and the due date.  That way, I have time to do the task before the reminder, which reduces greatly the number of reminders that actually pop up and bother me. (Reminders are basically my consequence for not doing the task earlier). For example, suppose that Friday I get a notice that I have one week (due date = next Friday) to pick up a library book that I’ve put on hold. I’ll put the start date based on the first day I might want to do the task –which is about three days before it’s due, if I’m waiting to see if other books come in soon after. So I set the start date for Tuesday. Then I set a reminder for Friday morning. If I pick up the book Thursday evening, and complete the task, I’ll never see the reminder.

Tip: Since I do this same process often, I reuse my “pick up library books” task, stored under my “Reuse” folder. I find it, mark it uncompleted, click “Lock period”, and change the due date. Because of “lock period” my start date and reminders are automatically set based on the interval they previously had.

Daily Maintenance

Working from a list of my Weekly Goals and sometimes my monthly goals, I add a Star to tasks I want to focus on. These are tasks that I should work on today, so they all show up in my Active Starred view on either Android or the desktop. I also use my Active by Goal list to look at my upcoming work.  On the desktop, I have a view “Daily Review” which I use in the mornings. It shows only Active Weekly and Monthly Goals that are not already Starred. When I click the Star column in this view the task magically moves to my Active Starred view. (MLO 4 will let me see these views in different tabs).

Because most of my routine tasks are not urgent, I don’t always Star them in the morning. I go back and forth and don’t have a consistent strategy here. On days where my health is crashed, sometimes getting through my daily routine *is* the main goal, and I add Stars to all of them.

When I process my inbox, I try to assign each task a Context (more later), a Goal status if needed, a start/due/reminder date if needed, and then I move it to it’s area of focus after those are assigned. On the desktop, I use Ctrl-M, <#> and MLO jumps to the task prefaced by this #.


Since I always have my phone nearby, I do a lot of my task completion and “let me see what’s next” on Android (though as described above, I have matching Desktop views for consistency as much as possible).

Since the Active Starred, my primary view for going through my daily tasks,  is a manually sorted list on Android, I take advantage of this and move tasks around in the morning to where I want them. (Unfortunately the order of Active Starred doesn’t propagate between Desktop/Android — it would be great if it did).

I’ve also taken to using three tasks as placeholders in my Active Starred view:

—– big rocks for today —-
—– daily maintenance —–
—– maybe today ——

I drag my Starred tasks around between these three placeholder tasks to further organize my day.

So in summary, I have some views that automatically sort based on my definitions, and a working view (Active Starred) that I move things around manually. Since the manual sort order doesn’t sync, I do this either on the desktop for the day, or on Android for the day, depending on my day.

Eliminating Excitotoxins

Welcome!  Much of my recent posts on this blog are about eliminating dietary glutamate and excitotoxins.  Because they are shown in the reverse order from which I wrote them, I’ve created this list of posts for quick reference. Not all posts on this subject are listed here; for the complete list click on “Excitotoxins” on the right.

Additional resources are listed at the end.

MSG, Excitotoxins, Glutamate, and FGA: A Primer

Where to start: The Big Five names for MSG – “Protein”, “Yeast”, “Malt”, “Carageenan”, and Artificial Sweeteners

Our Foods List – What we have found safe for our family

The Long List – All the glutamates and excitotoxins we avoid

Glutamate versus Gluten – They aren’t the same

Can’t I have just a little? – A question only you can answer, but consider the chronic effects too.

Sweeteners, including low-carb, that are glutamate free


The hidden sources list

Battling the MSG Myth discussion board

Battling the MSG Myth site and book

Emily’s Savory Seasoning’s blog with recipes

Freezer Cooking

Just wanted to share the success I’ve had lately with freezer cooking.   I’ve mentioned to a lot of people the amazing free site I found that had the whole foods menu rather than just “casserole” traditional style freezer cooking. (though they do have ways you can use some of those recipes too, like homemade cream-of-something soup:

In February, I did the January 2012 OAMM menu ( which went really well, and we have been enjoying the food from that a lot.

I didn’t make my own tortillas or bread since I have safe brands, but I did cut organic chickens to get all of the chicken breasts and meats. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought.

Here’s some of what I learned for our family:
– I was really surprised by how much we enjoy having breakfasts on hand, especially baked goods that have some protein in them (Ricotta pancakes, French toast, and recently, Sausage and cheese scones).

– The dinners are great. Many of them aren’t really saving me a lot of cooking time, because I need a lot more vegies than they include, and some aren’t cooked in advance (e.g., marinated chicken recipes). However, they are saving me a ton of frustration, because it’s easy to pull out several main dishes at the beginning of the week. They really solve the “I can’t think of anything to make for a family that all likes different things” issue.

– What I most learned is that we need a lot more “grab-and-go” foods, especially because my son pretty much lives on these for lunches, my husband eats some on weekends, and sometimes we need quick and easy dinners too.

So, what I did this month is a “lunches” menu that I made myself in Mastercook. Here’s my menu (ignore the “modified” — I keep a copy of the original from the source and then my version, without mushrooms, onions, etc, to match my family’s needs):

Simple Frozen Burritos
Bbq Chicken Quesadillas (modified)
Corn and Chile Quesadillas (modified)
Beef Chimichangas (modified)
Mini Deep-Dish Pizzas (modified)
Tex Mex Calzones (modified)
Super Calzones (modified)
Potato Goat Cheese Pockets (modified)
Stove Top Mac-N-Cheese (modified from Alton Brown)
White Cheddar Chicken Pasta

It went really well. I’m finding that I like to cook a lot more when it is a “craft project” than if it requires being creative every night. Plus, I feel so much “safer”. It’s really hard to describe, but I had a panic feeling because if we are tired and late home at the end of the day, we used to just eat out, and without that option I was feeling stuck / worried a lot about food. Food was scary. Now, food is not scary anymore which is a nice change.  Next week we are going on vacation, and a lot of my food for the trip (driving) will be pulling out frozen meals to cook in the condo!

Sweeteners & Low-carb, MSG-free

I get a lot of questions about sweeteners. Many people want to avoid sugar, or must avoid sugar due to other health issues such as diabetes.  Unfortunately, all artificial sweeteners are excitotoxic and should be avoided if you are avoiding free glutamic acid/MSG/glutamate.  Here are a list of my favorite sweeteners and some random thoughts about them. Please do your own research about whichever one you choose.

Sugar — Beet sugar sometimes has FGA and I avoid it, but cane sugar is only a problem when it causes hypoglycemia in the presence of other FGA.  Our family does fine with sugar if we balance it with other foods, and if we haven’t eaten FGA-containing foods.

Palm sugar — I just heard about this recently on Dr. Oz. It is a nutrient-rich, purportedly (though not uncontested) low-glycemic crystalline sweetener that looks, tastes, dissolves and melts almost exactly like sugar. It is gaining popularity in the progressive global health community as an alternative to agave. (

Lo-Han Extract (SlimSweet) — This is my absolute favorite all natural sweetener. With no aftertaste and an aroma of brown sugar, it makes a very nice coffee sweetener. A little goes a long way — you only need about 1/4 as much as you would otherwise use. My favorite brand is “Slimsweet”, available from .  I don’t bake with it, though I believe you can. I don’t think it tastes very sweet when baked.

Stevia — Stevia is touted by every naturopathic doctor I’ve ever talked to, and is generally thought safe for everyone. It’s not very expensive “per dose” and can be used in baking. However, it can sometimes have a strange aftertaste.  Some brands are better than others.

Xylitol — Xylitol is great for baking though if you use too much it can cause a little intestinal upset. .

Erythritol — A sugar alcohol, erythritol is used just like xylitol, substituted in recipes for sugar, but doesn’t have any of the intestinal upset. Unfortunately, erythritol can be quite expensive.

Sugar Alcohols (Xylitol, Erythritol, Maltitol) don’t have FGA in them from what I can tell, but are usually corn-based (for those with corn sensitivity) and are highly processed, so they may have some residual FGA in them. I couldn’t find any data.

Agave — I used agave quite a bit years ago, avoided agave for a while, and now use it again in small quantities after listening to Ray Peat talk about fructose not being so awful in small quantities. We’ve not experienced any issues with it.  Opinions seem to be mixed for diabetics.

Maple syrup/Honey — Yum!  Act like sugar so watch out for hypoglycemia, but no issues as far as I know with excitotoxins.

Molasses — Molasses is a “proceed with caution” foods. MSG is often made from molasses. It is likely to contain some small amount of free glutamate, and your degree of sensitivity plus the amount you ingest will determine whether you react or not.  I use a little for flavor here and there without problems, but I don’t use it as a syrup or sweetener. Avoid sulphured molasses.

Sorghum syrup — I grew up on this stuff and love it. I think it’s safe but don’t have any hard data.

Coconut flour — This is a high-fiber, very low-carb “flour” that you can use to bake with. It takes much less coconut flour to bake with than other flours. I have a great recipe for low-carb coconut flour, egg muffins. Here are some recipes (I’m totally trying that brownie recipe!)

For another perspective I found, here’s an article I found interesting: