One-Day Drab-to-Fab Bathroom Makeover with Chalk Paint

IMG_2305Our basement bathroom was until recently a rather drab affair.

Since it’s not an area we often use, though, I really didn’t want to spend any significant amount of money to make it more cheerful. Instead, I was on the hunt for more modest upgrades: When a friend, awhile back, was looking to sell a sleek new sink fixture set she chose not to use in her own renovation, I replaced the rusty drain plug and awful plastic knobs.

But I was stymied for a long time by the cheap finish on the fake-oak vanity and built-in medicine cabinet, which was not even a wood-like veneer but was, on the sides anyway, a wood-image sticker. The deadly dull, cheap light fixture also did nothing to improve the room.

IMG_1644IMG_1643(Sorry for the cloudy pictures. It’s not an attempt to make it look worse, I swear! My camera got jammed and needed repairs, so these were done with my phone. Anyway, you get the gist: fugly and totally uninteresting.)

Then I discovered chalk paint. Because it sticks to most surfaces, is low-emissions and relatively green, and can be sealed for repeated use with wax, it can be used to create a fresh look for little cost.

And obviously, this is far less hassle, dust and expense than replacing the vanity, cabinet and light. Most vanities and cabinets are press-board and composite woods anyway, which off-gas glues and just generally annoy me. And repainting saves our current stuff from becoming trash.

I chose a green-blue tone for the vanity and light, Florence, from Annie Sloan because its intensity was a nice pairing with the navy tiles in the standing shower, but was still bright enough to create interest and pop. For the medicine cabinet, I used a bright white, called Pure. Because the fixtures couldn’t be easily fixed if I made a mistake, I also enlisted some help from a friend, also named Laura, who knows what she is doing and has done a ton of work refinishing pieces with chalk paint.

In terms of equipment, I used:

We started by washing all the dust off the vanity, light and cabinet. After that dried, we removed the handles from the door and other fixtures and began painting.

Laura showed me how to thin the paint with water by dipping it in a cup of a water prior to dipping it in the paint. A small amount goes a long way.

IMG_1647We did three coats on both the vanity and cabinet. When it was dry (which took only 20 minutes or so), we used a fine-grade sandpaper block in between coats to smooth the paint out further.

Multiple coats make a real difference, and, as Laura told me, thin layers sit better than laying it on thick. Laura had a much more meticulous eye than I do for uneven areas that required more sanding as well as spots missing paint.

IMG_1652 IMG_1656IMG_1658The light fixture was tricky, because the paint didn’t go on in layers easily. The chrome kept popping through, and all of the corners and edges required a careful touch-up.

But after a few layers dried, and with lots of angling of the brush, the paint eventually held on. I originally had in mind to distress it a bit to see the silver. We tried that, then decided it looked better with the color uniform.

IMG_1659IMG_1663 IMG_1660After we were happy with the colors and when the paint had dried, we moved to the wax stage. Using a dry round brush designed for wax application, we added a fairly thin coat of clear wax to the entire surface of the vanity, cabinet and light. We let it sit for just a few minutes, and then buffed it using a large round brush as a drill attachment. (For the sides that were closest to the wall and unreachable with the drill, we didn’t bother buffing the wax.)

IMG_1662 Last, we cured the wax for a few days by cutting several large garbage bags along the seam and taping them along the edges of the sink to protect it from water.

I was very pleased about the result. And with the cost. Because I had help from Laura, who brought along her drill brush attachment, the cost for the new-but-used sink fixtures, paint, some tape and my brushes kept the whole project under $100. Which helped to pay for the new camera!

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DIY Furniture Re-Do: Breathing New Life into Furniture with Chalk Paint

IMG_2294One of my beefs with cheaper types of new furniture is that it’s more or less designed to end up pretty quickly in a landfill. Some of the press-board stuff that you have to assemble can’t even be moved once!

Other pieces, even from higher-end stores, have press-board backs as well as drawer bottoms and sides. Under current law, sadly, companies can call things “solid wood” even when they are made of medium density fibreboard (MDF), particle board or other types of composite materials, yet this stuff is basically chemicals and pressed sawdust, and off-gasses formaldehyde, glues and other nastiness.

Enter chalk paint. With a can of this low-VOC paint and a little wax, even the most dinged-up old wooden pieces can get a new lease on life. The paint is self-priming, so there’s no need to strip the finish from furniture beforehand. It could also be used to seal exposed parts of pieces that have dubious materials inside, to prevent more off-gassing.

Needless to say, this is a huge problem solver for me. Although I have a soft spot for some mid-century design, pieces that are in great condition are expensive. Furniture strippers and refinishing materials are aromatic solvents and are generally toxic, so I don’t really want to mess with them. And nothing’s more green, potentially funkier, or easier on the wallet than upcycling lovely old real wood furniture.

There are a couple of high-end brands of chalk paint, like Annie Sloan and CeCe Caldwell, and there are also recipes online to make your own with a variety of additions to any paint. If you decide to make your own and use the Plaster of Paris method, be sure to follow all safety precautions and do not inhale it. Also, it may help to ensure the base paint is a truly zero-VOC paint like Mythic. One furniture redo diva I spoke with uses baking soda in regular paint as in this how-to, and claims it works like a charm, though others think it’s best for distressed finishes.

I originally played around with some Annie Sloan paint and wax, because I found a local “stockist” for it. It isn’t cheap, though, and the colors are limited (though gorgeous). In addition, the wax comes with a troubling warning under Prop 65, California’s labeling law for hazardous substances, and has a bit of an odor at first. I turned on a fan, opened the window, and wouldn’t let the two-year-old near the final project until the wax was cured.

Since my experiments below, I’ve found a company selling their own DIY chalk paint powder that claims to have a greener wax, Fiddes & Sons. I’m not thrilled with their vagueness about their ingredients, but I’m inclined to give it a go. They also have some helpful supplies, like a wax brush attachment to use on a drill that finishes larger projects in no time. I haven’t yet tried their stuff, so I’ll keep you posted.

Since I discovered the magically transformative properties of chalk paint, I’ve purchased two painted pieces made by local furniture folks (one found on my favorite new mid-century furniture site, Krrrb, and another from Craigslist). The pictures are here to give you an idea of the “looks” that are possible with painted pieces.

Here’s a romantically shabby chic drop-leaf desk that fit perfectly in a small corner of the bedroom:

IMG_2296And a groovy re-do of a mid-century dresser in which the new white paint covers over numerous scratches flawlessly and makes the piece pop, from Salvage Modern, a mom-owned local business whose owners are just lovely:

IMG_2287 IMG_2289I also used chalk paint to add a more fun and decorative element to the elephant insets on my nightstand (matching it to the drop desk). The insets were dull, and no one could see the elephants on the piece as they were too dark. I decided it would be funky to add a bit of relaxed color. The new friend who sold me the desk was kind enough to donate a small amount of the chalk paint she used, and some wax, for the project.

First, I taped up the back area. Then I added two coats of paint and a very light coat of wax, just using a paper towel. Next, I buffed the wax for a good little while with an old cloth diaper, and last, I distressed it lightly with fine sandpaper.

Another easy project was to use chalk paint to jazz up a small, cheap thrift store purchase of a bookshelf for the playroom. For this, I involved my trusty assistant, and we yukked it up while making potato stamps in a star and heart shape, and dipping them into contrasting white paint after painting a few base coats in Annie Sloan‘s Florence paint.

The end result was cute and gives me a little storage for art supplies.

The upshot? Chalk paint provides a fun and easy way to upgrade your existing or used furniture, saving it from an untimely trip to the landfill and making it your own.

As I’ll explain in my next post, I also recently used chalk paint to add a pop of color to a basement bathroom by refinishing and updating a hideous faux-wood bathroom vanity and light fixtures, saving tons of money and giving the whole room a much fresher look. I can’t wait to show this to you, as I’m so happy with the “renovation.” More coming soon!

While you’re waiting, here are a few other posts you may like:

Ten Easy Tips for Hosting a Greener, Healthier Kid’s Birthday Party

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I like parties. I always invite most everyone I know, and find it a wonderous thing to get invited to them as well (hint, hint).

Nonetheless, for the first two years of Maya’s existence, I thought a birthday party was unnecessary, given that she wouldn’t really notice one way or the other. But by the ripe old age of three, well, she’d already attended a bunch, and she was quite specific about her desires for a cake in the shape of a bunny. (As luck would have it, my always-helpful Mom happened to have just such a cake mold on hand, left over from some ’70s baking adventures. It’s aluminum, but I let it go, just this once…I did use raspberries to color some of the frosting, which ended up a light pink.)

IMG_1580So this year, a party it was. And for the first time I had to tackle the problem of hosting a gathering that met my newly adopted standards for organic most-everything. In the end, we definitely blew our budget, but it was delightful. I really enjoyed the from-scratch but low-key nature of the gathering. Most importantly, Maya had a wonderful time, and so did the people who delighted us by coming to celebrate.

IMG_2064So here’s a summary of lessons learned, tips and links for hosting your own greener gathering!

Top Ten Tips for Hosting a Greener Kid’s Birthday Party

Given the higher cost of hosting with organic and nicer foods, I’ll start with a few ways to keep the budget lower on other items:

1) Pick an affordable spot to have it, which may require some searching. We would have hosted it at home, but felt compelled to invite too many people for our wee abode. So we comparison priced local spots at parks. While County parks where we live wanted $100 for a picnic area, the National Rock Creek Park was $8 for a grove. Hosting it in a spot where we didn’t pay per-child also was a relief when extra kids wanted to come, and we could accommodate anyone we needed to.

2) Use seasonal decorations that you can eat or enjoy later. We ditched the plastic decor and kid themes and put squashes, pumpkins, and pomegranates on the table instead, along with a fall-colored orchid. We stuck dried colorful leaves and acorns in a pumpkin vase, and brought out serving plates we use for the holidays, which fit the autumnal theme perfectly. We’ll carve the pumpkins, cook the squash into soup, and enjoy the plants over the next weeks and months.

3) Find some of what you need for entertaining at the thrift store. I hit a local thrift store’s Labor Day sale and found great items for cheaper than you would pay for disposable tableware, including a punch bowl with 14 cups for $5 and a large serving platter for $7. For a tea party theme, mismatched plates from delicate sets work great, and if you pick up these kinds of things, they can be used year after year, or even for playtime with little concern given their affordability.

4) Keep the menu simple, and make it from scratch. For an early afternoon event, I made only four things: mostly-organic hummus, some homemade pickles, guacamole, lemonade and cake. For the rest, I put out fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced or chopped as needed, a few chips and nuts, crackers, olives and cheese. It was plenty! Simple menus allow you to shop for nicer ingredients, and to put care into what you prepare. The biggest hits were the lemonade mixed on-site from organic sugar, water and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. In keeping with the DIY theme, for future parties, I would consider letting the kids decorate their own cupcakes with icing tips on (PVC-free) plastic baggies of frosting, or having guests mash up their own guacamole from a table with all the prepped ingredients and a molcajete.

IMG_20685) Use toys you already own for amusements. Last year, I scored a bunch of costumes and dress-ups at a yard sale for a only a few bucks, and they made the perfect side activity in a corner of the grove. The kids enjoyed messing around with those and a box of puppets I’ve collected from thrift stores and yard sales.

6) Make the crafts part of the favors, and let the kids decorate the favor bags. We used simple brown lunch bags for decorating at the craft table, along with wooden eggs and doo-dads I ordered directly from a great low-cost supplier in the woods of Maine. The kids had a ball painting the eggs, gluing feathers to them, and building items out of the wood. Their creativity was amazing!

7) Pick simple games from your own childhood. There are a ton of simple games, depending on the ages involved — like boiled or raw eggs on a spoon races, gunnysack races, three-legged races, musical stepping stones, water balloon toss or horseshoes and bean bag toss. You can use craft store felt squares to mark out spaces on the grass if needed, and then keep them for felt crafts like these. Some games, like Mother May I, Red Light, Green Light, Duck, Duck Goose and Simon Says require no props at all. If you want to take it up a notch, Green Planet Parties has a number of lovely game options and birthday favors that can work well, especially for smaller parties. (Just allow plenty of time for it clear customs if in the U.S., as the mostly handmade goodies ship from Canada.)

8) Having a “no gifts” rule is a nice touch, if your kid can cope. It’s kinder to other parents and also ensures you won’t be dealing with unwanted items that aren’t as green as the things you prefer for your home.

9) Keep it on the small side — or at least, don’t sweat the small stuff. File this one under “do as I say” but of course the recommended size for children’s parties is modest, and many folks follow a rule to invite the number of children that corresponds to the age of the child. This reduces costs, as well as the number of pricey biodegradable or green tableware items you might have to buy.

We’ll aim for this in future years, as this year’s was a bit ridonculous (though great fun). I did manage to shrug it off when the much-coveted bunny cake actually was dropped into the dirt and obliterated en route to the picnic table. This helped Maya move on as well. It appeared to make some sense to her when I said the bunny had returned to the woods from which it came. It’s always nice when a child’s capacity for magical thinking can help save the day…

10) Pick up the right stuff for entertaining that you can use again and again. In keeping with the greener kitchen list I posted earlier, here are some (un-commissioned) links to greener items for entertaining I found:

IMG_2066On the cake, which is always the most fun thing to think about, if you are as timid a baker as I am, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozens of wonderful cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. That is, you can’t unless you ignore Deb’s careful and detailed instructions as I once did to my profound sorrow. I’ve made her scrumptious apple cake before, and for the birthday I loved the vanilla-buttermilk cake from her new cookbook.

Ms. Smitten is far more meticulous about stacking layers and the like (mine happened to both be lop-sided in ways that perfectly mirrored each other, so it turned out alright), but she does have sound advice on this score if you need it. If you run out of time to decorate more inventively, as I did, I also recommend having some nice-ish fresh fruit on hand, as a few thinly sliced kiwis and some berries are a great cheat and dress up a cake with little fuss.

For gluten-free cake, I did use a mix, and found that Pamela’s Chocolate Cake Mix (which I found at Whole Foods) worked well when I substituted coconut oil (using a little less than called for) for vegetable oil. The cake was very moist and slightly coconut-y, which was appealing with the chocolate.

A few notes on things you may want to avoid:

1) Most bouncy huts and the like are made of PVC, a poison plastic, and some are even likely contaminated with lead. There’s no need to put kids inside these for any real length of time, particularly indoors. Balloons are also PVC, as are many “party store” decorations like banners, etc., so keeping these outdoors is a good idea to the extent you may want to use them. The mani-pedi party one 5-year-old girl I know got invited to is also just a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons.

2) In a 2009 study, 100 percent of the face paints tested came up positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin that is now thought to be harmful in much smaller amounts. We use Giotto Face Pencils, which the company claims are lead-free, but they are no longer available from any vendor I’ve found in the U.S. (you can get it shipped through ebay from Europe). MightyNest also sells Glob, another lead-free brand, but it contains phenoxyethanol, which gets a 4 on Skin Deep, as a preservative.

Most of all, do try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can! This time is so fleeting, really, and nothing marks time for all of us like a birthday!

If you have tips from your party hosting (or party-going) experiences, please share!

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Easy DIY Toy: How to Turn an Old Sweater into a Cuddly Snake

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I love hand-made toys, and this one, an adorable and not-at-all menacing crafted sleeve snake we dubbed Sammy, takes only an hour or so. Ergo, it’s yet another low-risk high-reward DIY adventure. And it’s a form of recycling to boot!

The basic idea is to felt a sweater in the clothes machine and cut off a sleeve, which minimizes (much to my relief) the sewing involved. A needle felted set of eyes, pointy tongue and optional rattler tail completes the project.

Even if you’re not super-crafty, this project is totally possible. So let me bend your ear a sec about why you should bother throwing together some hand-made toys for your home.

Our kids have been born into a world in which most things come from a store. Virtually everything has been designed for them and assembled by machines. The stuff of their lives is mass-produced, mass-marketed, often plastic, and sometimes (like most dolls) made of toxic materials like PVC. It beeps or has buttons that allow only certain interactions. It needs batteries and can break.

But the nicer toys that don’t fit this mold (literally) can be pricey. So we use “un-toys” from the thrift store, upcycle what we find (like these classic blocks or this dollhouse), hunt through yard sales for good finds (like this awesome handmade truck), or try to make our own (like these discovery jars, needle felted animals (including a sheep!) and felt boards).

This is both a practical choice and an aesthetic one focused on simpler, more natural, open-ended materials. The things that kids are surrounded by do inform the way they operate in and learn from the world – after all, that’s what toys are for. Objects that are more like things that we find in the natural world make space for them to notice and appreciate things that aren’t all hot pink and beepy.

Another benefit is that our kids see the care we put into these kinds of toys (choosing or improving them) and the process and patience it takes to make something. Imperfections and flub-ups become opportunities to learn, and signs of something produced by humans. Choices – of color, material, shape – arise, and children can be consulted as participants and co-creators. Most importantly, kids notice when things are handmade, and know that is a form of love.

And sometimes they can even help! Here’s my daughter running her hands through the buckwheat stuffing for the snake.

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So make something, or find something and do it up, or even just paint a picture or make playdough together, as your time allows. It’s all about sharing the act of creating with your child, and having a little something to show for it afterwards.

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What you’ll need to make the cuddly sleeve snake:

  • An old sweater (if not from your own closets, check thrift stores or even ask the neighborhood list serv, where I got some generous and free donations)
  • Some wool roving in contrasting colors to the sweater, including a little white, black and red
  • A needle and some thread
  • Stuffing for the snake and a funnel to fill it (I used leftover buckwheat hulls from another project, rice or dried beans or lentils would also work well)
  • Felting needle and felting block

First, shrink the sweater in the washing machine. You can find a few more details on how to do that here, but the basic concept is to wash a mostly natural materials sweater (more than 75 percent wool or the like) with hot water, a little soap and, optionally, a few tennis balls until it has shrunk considerably and you are happy with the result. You may have to keep an eye on the washer and check on the shrinking progress, repeating the cycle a few times before letting it go to rinse. Pop it in the dryer when done.

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Next, pull your materials together and cut the sleeve off at the shoulder. At the wider end (mine happened to be the end of the sleeve, due to the design of the sweater, but yours is more likely to be the shoulder), bend and tuck the ends into the inside of the tube formed by the sleeve, and experiment with the form until you have a diamond-shaped head with two slanted sides.

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When you’re happy with the shape, sew up the mouth by starting at one corner and doing a simple stitch through the turned-in parts. It’ll look a bit messy until the shape returns, but just keep adjusting until you get it back into the diamond.

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Once it’s well closed up, use the funnel to fill it with your stuffing material. This can be done with a helper to keep filling the funnel. Do leave a little play so that it’s floppy and cuddly when done.

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Next, close up the tail by starting an inch or so inside the tail end and anchoring the thread inside. Stitch around in a circle, cinching it tight as you complete each circle around the tube, and stitch it all the way down to the end.

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Then needle felt in some eyes, using a small amount of the contrasting roving directly on the snake, and then the white and black. It helps to make balls of roving before felting to get the basic shape, and then use your needle to create a circle by poking repeatedly within the shape.

Keep the needle straight up and down, and poke it in the spot you’d like the material to go, picking up stray threads as you work. More detailed instructions on needle felting are here and here, but it’s really very easy and intuitive.

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Buttons would also work for the eyes, of course, if the child recipient is old enough not to worry about choking.

Last, use a little red roving to roll in a line and form a forked tongue, and either needle felt or sew the tongue onto the “mouth” of the snake where you closed. If you like, you can add a black “rattle” wrapped over the tail by needle felting a little roving around it.

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And there you have it: your own Sammy, a ssssimple ssssssssleeve ssssssnake.

You may also like the following crafting and up-cycling ideas for greener, more sustainable living:

Making a Spartan Dessert Sing: Chocolate Squares with Lemon Curd

Lately, I’ve noticed that anyone who seeks to join an Upright Citizens Brigade of self-satisfied health types is told they should happily be willing to make do with a “dessert” of monastic simplicity: a naked square (or two, for shame!) of ultra-dark 78% cocoa chocolate, unadorned and unimproved. They reason, sensibly, that this treat is healthy-ish, as it contains all the helpful flavonoids in cocoa, and only a little of the bad stuff.

I have tried to like this. I truly have. But there’s really no way of getting around the fact that I find it only a tad less depressing than having no dessert at all. It reeks to me of silly, self-imposed deprivation, of nutritionism, and, even, of injustice, because the very notion of dessert has been unfairly stripped of toothsomeness.

However, when out of desperation last week I paired the aforementioned lowly chocolate square with some lovely fresh-made lemon curd from local food-shop extraordinaire, Seasonal Pantry, the chocolate and the lemon both sang. Unadorned no longer, its monkishness replaced with kick and verve for the sweet vagaries of living, the chocolate square was, at least for me, saved.

Now I can have my square, and eat it, too, at least for as long as the lemon curd lasts.

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Parenting with Neuroscience, and a Laugh

Parenting via infographic, #8.

I’ve recently read two helpful books that use the latest findings by neuroscientists to help parents — more to come on those soon.

In the meantime, here’s the most helpful tip I learned. While I’ve long had the urge to tickle my daughter mid-fuss, and found it often took the tension out of the situation, now I have the science to know why it works… at least some of the time, when the fuss is basically over nothing much at all.

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If you feel a little at a loss when irritated to reach for the funny, and tickling is not working or feasible, here’s a few more tried-and-true mommy stratagems from my own personal arsenal:

  1. Scold an inanimate object, the fake-meaner the better (“Diaper, why are you so uncomfortable?” “Door, why do you keep slamming yourself so hard? You know that’s not allowed…”).
  2. Sing a song the child knows well, but make the words super-silly (“Pi-ickle, pi-ickle, little star…”) If you can get them to correct you or quiet down to hear your next silly substitution, storm over.
  3. Make up a silly simile to communicate what you need to change about the situation (“Is that whiny noise the creaky door? Do you hear a creaky door? ‘Cuz that can’t be a child that sounds like that….” or “You are clinging to my back like peanut butter on a rice cake. Peanut butter, you are toooo sticky.”)
  4. Bumble something. Play like you are trying to reach for them but miss and end up hitting your own nose instead. Nothing is funnier than a grown-up missing the mark.

And here’s 7 more great ideas from another toddler mom. Chances are good that if you can get a child to crack a smile, the emergency will dissipate a bit, giving you both a chance to start over.

And the bonding from laughing together is the best stuff there is, really. It’s magical. Then you can have a conversation about what needs to happen next, with less rigidity from either of you and a little more fun.

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California Dreamin’

IMG_1659I spent last week in California, traveling for work. I was lucky enough to be staying in Aptos, on the coast. We saw dolphins swimming by the shore, and the weather was perfect.

I was talking about the surreality of California’s climate and the oddly filtered quality of the light there with a new friend, when I suddenly recalled a poem I wrote many years ago on the exact subject, right after moving to California to go to law school and finding the adjustment from the East Coast a bit more than I expected.

So here you are, a displacement poem. Let’s say it’s to note the pleasure of making a new friend, of the kind that instantly leads to candid, vulnerable conversation.

Living in California

Orion is not where I left him, wistfully boarding my plane to the West.
At dusk, the Palo Alto air surprises, dropping ten degrees,

erasing daylight with a chill. Winter brings green tendrils to these starving hills like some absurdist variant of spring.

Among the jagged palms and eucalyptus, sawdust tricks the air
with pine and musty rot.

I’ve lost some paper that explained all this to me — when and why to tilt my head, bring a sweater or wear shorts.

Visceral signs of my curious fit with the weather, drenching storms that have no rage, no crystal shocks of lightning, their flair and mortal flash.

Sun is leveraged here against a spotless sky. The clarity of things is no surprise, and few remark on gorgeous days.

This diffuse, democratic light induces generosity, but seldom edges, or a need for hats, for gloves, a million

useless things, my understanding of the permanence of stars, a spatial lesson that I did not know I knew,

that somehow still displaces me within this wider sky,
these well-intended, lovely days.

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Safer Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Avoiding the Dreaded “Icky 11”

IMG_1559If you’re on a search and destroy mission for toxins in your home (and you are — right, friend?), a pretty good place to start is the bathroom.

Personal care products are rife with nasty and suspect stuff. If you still harbor any doubt we’re all citizens of a Chemical Age, just try reading aloud the ingredients of a typical bottle of shampoo. Then, when you’ve finally untwisted your tongue, you may want to reconsider your beauty routine.

Not So Pretty in Pink

In 2007, Stacy Malkin sounded the alarm with her landmark book about the “ugly side” of the beauty industry, linking common products to cancer and a host of other serious health problems. Since then, the cosmetics industry has been on notice that consumers want better, safer products in cleaner, greener packaging. The good news is that even in comparison to a few short years ago, many better options now exist, some of which are listed below.

Still, many products are still loaded with suspect chemicals. An environmental health group just last week sued several retailers for allegedly failing to label shampoos and otherproducts that containing a known carcinogen, cocamide diethanolamine (cocamide DEA). The Center for Environmental Health said it has a list of 100 offenders which allegedly run afoul of the excellent right-to-know label laws under Prop 65 in California.

For another example, here’s the list from a “natural” oatmeal lotion marketed for use on babies that contains at least 4 chemicals of concern (the “ick” you’ll soon learn how to spot yourself!):

IMG_1618 Under the government’s watch, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way to store shelves. While many of them remain untested, some of them have known links to cancer and reproductive health impacts. Shockingly, the FDA can’t require companies to test for safety.

Some unlucky folks also have far greater exposure to harmful beauty products on the job. Salon workers, for instance, face many of the nastiest chemicals—formaldehyde, pthalates and others—hour after hour, day after day. Grassroots groups have started pushing for safer working conditions in salons, and wonderful, active coalitions like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are doing great work to make products safer for consumers. Congress is taking note, though the bill currently being proposed to fix the problem still needs some work.

IMG_1573Revenge of the Nerds: Becoming a Label Scanner

In the meantime, you should know what’s safe and what’s, well, not so much. So I’ve compiled my own list of the worst offenders, as a rough guide. I also recommend checking on stuff in the incredible database on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website. It allows you to search for products, providing a detailed analysis of ingredients and any chemicals of concern. You can also search by ingredient if a product’s not listed.

Because it’s hard to shop for better products when you have a toddler nagging at you, I’ve found that committing a few key abbreviations for certain chemicals to memory and learning how to do a quick label scan is an invaluable asset. Although its not an exhaustive list, the below is a half-decent crib sheet for when you’re standing in the makeup aisle cursing under your breath. (That’s probably me next to you, squinting at the teensy print and cursing audibly.)

Like with food, better products these days often have fewer ingredients, and organic ingredients, labeled as such. Their labels tend to include parentheticals with real words in them like (coconut) or (flax oil). On the other hand, if you see a long list of chemicals (especially those with numbers or a string of capital letters), that tends to be a good product to avoid. I read up from the bottom of the list, because that’s where the worst offenders often hide out.

IMG_1575 Key Chemicals to Avoid: The “Icky 11”

1) Phthalates

Phthalates are widely used in perfume, nail polish, soap, shampoo, moisturizers, soap and hair spray. They’ve been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and can cause reproductive and developmental disorders. They are listed under a variety of names, and two of them—dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate—are banned from cosmetic products in the European Union but are still used in products in the U.S.

Pthalates are also used to make plastics more pliable, including in polyvinyl choloride (PVC), as in this staggering list from the National Library of Medicine:

flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.

So they’re everywhere, and worth avoiding when you can. As to cosmetics, here’s what’s tricky: sometimes they’re added to products under the generic term “fragrance,” so in addition to avoiding any ingredients with “phthalate” in the name, you should also steer clear of products containing “fragrance.” This is especially true for pregnant women, pre-teens and young adults, and babies, who are more vulnerable to their health hazards. Pick “no-scent” or “no fragrance” as your go-to whenever possible, and stay out of the department store perfume aisle! 

2) Parabens

Like phthalates, parabens come under a variety of names. The four that most commonly appear in cosmetic and bath products are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. They’re added to shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions to kill microbes.

Parabens are found in adundance on store shelves and have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. They’re absorbed through the skin: U.K. researchers found detectable levels of six different parabens in twenty human breast tumors in a 2004 study.

3) Lead or Lead acetate

Lead acetate is a toxin that affects reproduction and development. It’s not as common as parabens or phthalates, but it’s a doozy. It scores a terrible “10” in the Skin Deep Database, and has been linked to cancer and is banned from cosmetics in Canada. Currently the FDA allows it in the U.S. except in products applied around the eyes. Do not buy any products containing this chemical and toss any you might own.

In addition, a recent study found shockingly high levels of lead in lipstick (especially the dark reds and browns I wore all though the late 1980s and early ’90s, trying in vain to steal Molly Ringwald’s look from “the Breakfast Club”). I will just note that this puts a potent neurotoxin on your lips, kinda’ close to your brain.

Kids shouldn’t play with your lipstick, either. And while we’re on the subject of lead, I have more bad news. Face-painting make-up used for kids has been found to have dangerous lead levels and should be avoided: a 2009 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 10 out of 10 face paints tested. This is a hard one, as it’s on offer at every durn festival we go to and is popular at Halloween. If you want to pack your own safer stuff or have it on hand for dress-ups at homes, you can make your own or buy this product, which looks to be the safest I’ve found.

4) Formaldehyde and toluene

Formaldehyde and toluene are found in nail products like polish, treatments and strengtheners. They’re also found in hair dyes and the now-notorious hair-straightening products called “Brazilian Blowouts.”

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory toxin. Toluene is a neurotoxin that can impair breathing and irritate the skin. They’re both terrible for you, and pregnant women should be especially careful about exposure because of the threats they pose to developing fetuses. Staying out of salons while pregnant is a great idea for a number of reasons.

5) Coal tar

Coal tar is found in a number of dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and skin lotions. It’s a black, viscous liquid that’s produced during the distillation of coal. It’s a known carcinogen and bioaccumulating respiratory toxin, but despite these health concerns, it was deemed safe for consumers at typical levels of use. Because it poses such grave consequences for health, I would highly recommend avoiding it.

IMG_15706) Aluminum chlorohydrate

Aluminum chlorohydrate is used in anti-antiperspirants. It’s suspected of causing breast cancer, and subject to restrictions in Canada. While EWG only gives it a 3, a raft of finding linking effects on breast cancer tumors to aluminum are worrisome enough to include it as a precaution.

7) Triclosan

Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent found in many deodorants and soaps. It’s been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin irritation. It also can encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria. Definitely to be avoided.

8) Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)

These chemicals are used to adjust the pH in products like shampoos and hair dyes. Each carries a number of concerns, but DEA (including cocomide DEA mentioned above), is a likely carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory toxin, and is the most dangerous of the three.

9) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)

EDTA is found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, soap, body wash and moisturizers, to prevent spoilage and as a way of keeping clear liquids from getting cloudy. It makes chemicals more absorbable through the skin, which is a reason to avoid it as well. It has a low hazard rating from EWG but has been classified as expected “to be toxic or harmful” by Environment Canada. It is known to cause liver damage and skin irritation. It has killed patients in large doses using it for chelation in alternative medicine and appears to increase lead absorption in patients.

10) Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate (SLS)

Along with other sulfates with very similar names–sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance—SLS is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to cause the product to foam and remove debris. SLS has a bad reputation but EWG gives it a relatively low hazard ranking. Though it can cause skin irritation, the primary concern is that SLS can be contaminated with two really nasty chemicals—ehtylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer and is banned in Canada.

11) Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene glycol can be found in makeup, sun screens and body washes. While it gets a relatively low hazard score from EWG, like SLS, there’s a chance of contamination with ehtylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which pose grave health concerns. It’s often followed by a number.

IMG_1561Weird Science: The Label Lies

So there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there. And the “good guys” are hard to find. Due to lax marketing laws, many items labeled as organic actually contain few organic ingredients. Even worse, some more natural products, like those deodorant stones, are not as green as they seem.

Second, there is massive greenwashing in this area: terms like “all natural,” or “green” or “nutrient rich” are not defined in law, and therefore should not be taken seriously by you at all. (Just do as I do and pronounce aloud “wah wah wah wah” like the teacher in Charlie Brown’s class while standing in the aisle. Stores love that.)

Third, some prominent “natural” brands have actually been acquired by much larger companies, including Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine, and some of the products have been reformulated to be less of a sure thing (though both companies remain far better than the average).

Sadly, the medical establishment is of little use here. When I took Maya to a skin doctor recently, I was shocked to see that the lotions with medication in them the doctor was handing out samples of all contained some of the worst offenders on the Ick List. Then I went home and read the bottles of our other children’s products, like the liquid suspensions of ibuprofen. All of them had suspect dyes and parabens. Nothing like dosing children with a sip of potentially hazardous yuck to fix a minor health problem!

toxic-docBecause of all this, the best approach is to simplify your routine. Just decide what products you really need on a daily basis and for the occasional special event, and toss the rest. I use much less stuff than I used to, and really, truly don’t miss it.

Then you’ll also have more time to look up the facts on what you do need: just check in the EWG database. They have great lists by product category starting with 0, or no known risk from chemicals. I aim personally for nothing higher than 2, and mostly 0s and 1s. I’m even stricter with kids’ stuff, and prefer 0s or 1s for that. I also check the individual listings for each product so that I know all of the ingredients are a-OK.

Of course, you can always make stuff yourself. There are a ton of great recipes on the interwebs for everything from toner to lotion, bath salts to body scrubs. There are also suggestions about cleaning your skin with honey, which was lovely when I tried it, or with food-grade oils, which I also found to be easy and effective when I gave it a go. And it works for babies too!

Olive and coconut oil make great hair conditioners (and detanglers for kids’ hair), and organic shea butter has been a life-saver for us for treating Maya’s mild eczema. Farmer’s markets are another good source for simply made products and home remedies.

IMG_1568Some Kind of Wonderful: Products We Actually Like

Below are a few of my favorite companies. These are items we’ve actually used and liked. In addition, I’ve indicated some more widely available and affordable substitutes from major retailers as stuff I’ve used in a pinch or when I wasn’t feeling spendy.

The blog for one of my favorite companies, Bubble & Bee, is amazing and very much worth checking out for its wealth of interesting information from Stephanie, the company’s thoughtful founder.

Baby and kid products:

Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:

A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):

Note: None of these links are commissioned, though Sappho Cosmetics was kind enough to send me free samples of their make-up when I returned to work. While much appreciated generally, this did not influence my evaluation of their products.

Additionally, for reasons that elude me, the headings all ended up referring to ’80s movies. If you have more to suggest on that score, or products you personally use and like — no commercial posters allowed — then please weigh in! If there are other chemicals you avoid, I’d love to know that too.

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Judgmental Mommy

Parenting via Infographic, #7.

I’m having so much fun playing around on Toondoo, a site that lets you make a cartoon.

Don’t tell me this isn’t you. I won’t believe it.

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Why Telling Working Moms to Lower their Standards on Parenting Is Actually a Bit Insulting

cartoon made using Toondoo

cartoon made using Toondoo

An acquaintance from law school recently posted the following on Facebook:

Just wondering – are there any parents out there who work full-time and don’t constantly feel like they are coming perilously close to failing at everything? If so I would like to know your secrets, especially if they don’t involve substance abuse.

My friend is an accomplished legal professional and mom of three. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability, so I weighed in with my own 2 cents about the challenges of work and parenting.

Including mine, there were about 25 responses. Most were kind attempts at reassuring my colleague that she has high standards and is doing a great job. One suggested that she might ease off at work at times (alternating by easing off at parenting). Others chimed in to say, with sympathy, that they experience the concern about failing at parenting as well. But what struck me was the unmistakable sub-current through the comments that parenting — of the two “jobs” — was the one she should worry less about.

One friend said: “Parent” is more or less a pass/fail course, and failure is a flexible concept.” Another came outright with: “Lower your standards. Do not let the great be the enemy of the good.” Another, sweeter version, was:

I think that parenthood, by definition, means feeling like you are, or are about to, fail. But, you aren’t! You are doing fabulously. But, when you feel like you aren’t – cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission to let go of things that don’t have to be done, ask for help when you need it and know that as long as your kid is clothed, fed and loved you have done your job. Oh, and wine.

I have no doubt that the intent of these comments was entirely positive. They were merely trying to cheer up a friend: one with high standards for many aspects of her life and aspirations. And the last one was funny, and had some sound advice. I happen to agree, among her other points, that wine is a necessary aid to family life.

But I came away wondering whether a quiet but clear devaluation of the skills and time needed to be a great parent is in fact one of the problems working moms face. It’s so much a part of the culture it’s an essentially invisible bias. Just ask yourself: of the jobs that working moms have today — is it really the case that their paid work is more important? To whom? Even those of us (like me) who find tremendous satisfaction in our work, and work on issues we find meaningful, still love our kids more than our work. Of course we do.

Just at the level of practical demands on parents, here are the tasks involved to do that job:

  1. Finding affordable, reliable, safe and appropriate child care arrangements, schools, after-care, holidays and summer activities;
  2. Attending events related to the above, paying bills on time as needed or volunteering as expected;
  3. Cleaning the house, doing laundry, dishes, etc., or paying others to help with same;
  4. Shopping for groceries, seasonally appropriate, suitable and correctly sized clothes, any needed sports equipment, car seats or other gear, as well as developmentally appropriate books and toys;
  5. Making breakfast, lunches, snacks, dinners;
  6. Celebrating birthdays and holidays;
  7. Finding suitable, well-located physicians that accept your insurance, including pediatricians, eye doctors, dentists, and any other specialist needed; oh, and…
  8. Playing with, talking to, and reading to your child.

Even if we were phoning it in (and let’s face it, none of us really are), this is a ton of real work. Yet the hard truth is that you could do all this and still feel like, at some level, you are failing. Does that mean that the folks on Facebook are right to tell my colleague to let her hair down a bit?

I’m going to climb out on a limb here and say, no. While it shouldn’t be about generating anxiety, thinking hard and carefully about how well we did today (or are doing generally) at this most important job — helping to guide a human being in formation — strikes me as, well, another job of parents.

If we feel something isn’t right with how we are making choices, or in our conversations with our child, or how we structure the time we do have with our kids, we need to take a closer look at see if something large or small should shift to make it better. The intuitions involved here are important, and should be valued. Our gut is telling is something about our relationships, or what our child needs. There are no do-overs on this one: paying attention in real time is the best guide we have to what’s going on, what could be improved, and when we need to call in the Calvary.

There is a tremendous amount to learn in parenting, from the practical to the emotional, and thinking about parenting (and unpacking our own inherited family baggage) is an important part of the learning process. All of us intend to be great parents, but it’s a job that changes rapidly all the time, often without notice, and that inevitably triggers left-over stuff from growing up. There’s almost always things to notice about your child and yourself that surprise, challenge and humble you.

Yes, trying to be good at it (as my friend clearly is) matters, and keeping kids clothed and fed and safe is essential, but trying is not enough, and those other pre-requisites are not enough either. It’s not a surprise to me that women who are high achievers in their professional lives want to reach for more with parenting, too. Creating a real, stable bond with any child requires responsiveness, patience, steadiness around limits, highly intentional communication and a crazy-making level of tolerance for needless emotional outbursts over the wrong shoes. At least if you have a kid like mine.

And our lives are hectic, ruled by contradictory impulses and goals. A parent’s time and level of availability to accomplish these moods with our kids are under constant pressure. Even when we do have time together, slowing down to have a sense of ease, to allow for play, and to create calm is often not easily accomplished. Becoming a parent who says less, but is emotionally present, who observes more, who is earnestly delighted by their child, who finds pleasure in between the hassles and deadlines and schlepping, this is the goal, and everything about the way we live inveighs against this connection.

There are also steep — even untenable — political costs to the pretense that the current situation is acceptable for working parents. We are the first generation, really, of women committed equally to work and family. What we are discovering is that there is incredible meaning in both work and parenting (which is one reason I object to Sheryl Sandberg’s framing: “leaning in” and “leaning back” implicitly assumes the thing that matters most is work).

Yet there are not supports for parenting that both value who we are — and what we aspire to — and hold open space for us to do other things when we are ready. The New York Times piece last week on the shrinking options for women who left the workforce to have families a short decade ago made maddeningly clear the punishment they face for their choices.

Add to that the grotesque over-burdening of families from the lack of reliable, affordable and safe daycare and preschool options, the anemic child care tax credits, the inflexibility of employers on workplace policies, including flex-time and part-time work, and the generally terrible economy, and you have a recipe for trapping women (and men) in ambivalence, feelings of incommensurability, and yes, even failure. Other countries have solved these issues far better than we have here. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic social science.

It is up to us, then, to talk clearly, even angrily, about the impossibility of our lives in this uniquely American and ruthless economy. Given all this, I don’t want to be told, even by sympathetic friends trying to be kind, to lower my standards on parenting. I want a system that works for everyone — working moms and dads, work-at-home moms and dads, and those without families too.

The kids we are raising today in this stretched-tight world are the grown-ups of tomorrow. They will inherit a complicated world, and have much repair to do. They need what we have to give them, as parents, and as people who speak up for the significance of parenting. Let’s not accept less on their behalf, and reassure each other it has to be enough. Instead, let’s make space to make sure they get what they need, first, and aspire also — dare we dream? — to love our lives as parents and workers, both.

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