Sunday, May 31, 2009

5 Gifts Teachers Really Want (instead of those other things that just become clutter)

Lakeshore Learning gift card

Trying to decide what would be a good gift for a special teacher? Well, it's certainly not a World's Best Teacher coffee mug. Here are some items that teachers say they like getting. (You may notice some resemblance to my list of recommended Christmas gifts.)

1. Gift Cards

Leslie Madsen Brooks recommends "a gift certificate to a local bookstore (preferably an independent one)."

Over on the Berkeley Parents Network, a teacher mentioned getting a gift certificate for Whole Foods, and very much appreciating it, saying, " I purposefully went to the deli and bought all kinds of fancy foods I would never buy on my own."

The same teacher also said, "Gift certificates to stores like Lakeshore or other high quality toy stores, where I get items for the classroom, are also much appreciated."

Erin Rooney Doland, editor-in-chief of Unclutterer, said that when she was a teacher, one of her favorite gifts was a Visa gift card.

Scott Roewer, a professional organizer and former teacher, concurs. "I didn't want gifts - they were always clutter. Cash or gift cards - always the best option! Trust me!"

As always, when selecting a gift card, be aware of the terms and conditions (fees and expiration dates), and the gift card laws in your state.

2. Gifts of experiences

Gift certificates for massages got a number of mentions. Over on the Berkeley Parents Network, one teacher wrote: "I am a teacher that recently received a massage from some parents, and it was the best gift I could have asked for." It was something she couldn't normally afford on her own, "plus it is a perfect end-of-the-school-year, come down and relax kind of thing. It was special and extravagant (for me, anyway) whereas a gift certificate for Target or Costco would just pay for extra toilet paper or something. Go with the massage or another special service."

Leslie Madson Brooks recommends a gift certificate to a local spa or salon, noting that "you can go in on such a gift with several other parents from your child's class."

Teachers have also mentioned gift certificates to restaurants, certificates for manicures and pedicures, and movie ticket vouchers.

3. Donations to their causes

Here's Leslie Madsen Brooks again: "Donate money, in honor of the teacher, to a nonprofit organization that you're certain means something to the teacher. Note: This does not mean giving money to your favorite nonprofit."

4. Thank you notes
On the Berkeley Parents Network, David wrote, "My mom, a retired elementary school teacher, always said that the best gift was a thoughtfully written note of appreciation."

And a teacher wrote, "The gifts I did receive and appreciate the most when I was a teacher, and they are gifts that I still have, are letters from families expressing their gratitude for and positive observations of my work with their children."

The GreatSchools Staff quotes one teacher who wrote, "A supportive, positive letter, with a copy to the teacher's administrator and/or school board would be a wonderful gift."

5. Something the child made or selected

Teachers are mixed on this one. While none feel any need for more knick-knacks, coffee mugs or lotions, there are still many teachers who wrote of being moved by gifts that their students had made or carefully selected.

Here's one such story from a discussion of most memorable gifts: "One special gift that touched me was the year I found a neatly wrapped Easter mug on my desk. I puzzled for a minute and then realized the mug had a proverb on it. A few minutes later the mother of the student came by to explain that her son insisted on this particular gift as we had spent four days discussing and comparing African and American proverbs and he 'just knew it would be just what I needed.'"

And another wrote, "The best gift I ever got from a student was a cheap, black plastic jewelry box from a boy named Rodney Kennedy. He was one of those kids with a constant gleam in his eye, always up to something. We had gone a few rounds and finally made peace. The week before Christmas he presented me with a wrapped package and eagerly watched as I opened it.

"It was so clear that he wanted me to like it, that he had spent some time picking it out. This from a boy who didn't have much in the way of money, who I didn't think I was getting through to. It was clear to me at that moment I *was* making a difference."

As a teacher on the Berkeley Parents Network wrote, "If your child is old enough, let him/her help select the item and wrap it. Teachers love tokens of appreciation, regardless of how small, from their students. It is a big and demanding job, but it's amazing how a flower picked from a garden can renew a teacher's energy and enthusiasm."

[Thanks to Neat Freak Perri Kersh for posing the question that led to this post.]

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On - and Variations Thereof

original Keep Calm and Carry One poster

An old poster from wartime England has become a huge hit - the message must resonate with many of us. You can now find this slogan on t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, key rings, and much more.

This can certainly be good advice for those sorting through lots of papers, or other clutter. (But please also take this advice: Pace yourself. Take breaks. Don't try to solve months or years of paper pile-up problems in one marathon session. Keep on - day by day, week by week - and you'll get there!)

Keep Calm and Carry On laptop skin from Schtickers

What's new in the Keep Calm world? How about this laptop skin, from Schtickers.

Keep Calm and Carry On Lip Balm

And then there's the lip balm.

Keep Calm and Carry On Shopping tote bag

Of course, anything this popular is bound to get parodies. This shopping bag is clever - but since (unwise) shopping can lead to clutter, please be careful out there!

Freak Out and Cry a Little poster

And if you'd prefer a reminder that it's OK to lose it sometimes, this might be the poster for you.

Related Posts:
Words to Live By: Keep Calm and Carry On
Keep Calm: An Update
For 2009: Keep Calm and Carry On (or not)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Big Beautiful Boxes: Hope Chests

hope chest from Fine Ideas

What's the difference between a blanket chest and a hope chest? Organizer Julie Bestry asked this, and it seems there really isn't much difference. Take a look at these lovely options, and see what you think.

The hope chest above was made by Fine Ideas Furniture; go there for custom handcrafted furniture by Dan Rieple.

hope chest from MapleArt

And this stunning hope chest, another custom product, comes from MapleArt, in Canada. If you go to MapleArt's web site, you can see another remarkable piece that's quite different.

hope chest (from Julia Hope Chest) in living room

Don't want to go custom? Take a look at the Julia Hope Chest Company.

hope chest from Sticks Art, painted

Finally, you could get a very different style of hope chest from Sticks Art. This particular chest is significantly wider than most of the ones on offer - 61 inches vs. the more normal 35 inches.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

For Word Lovers and More: Decluttering and Dictionaries

Erin McKean

I've just spent some delightful time listening to Erin McKean. Erin is a lexicographer; she was editor-in-chief of The New Oxford American Dictionary, and is now the CEO of Wordnik - a new online dictionary that is still in beta. She's also a dynamic speaker.

First, I saw Erin's talk at the Gel 2006 conference, where she said:
A dictionary is a tool - it's a toolbox. The words in the dictionary are tools.

I put words in the dictionary based on one criteria only: Are they useful? ... If you have a toolbox that's full of, like, leftover parts from stuff you made from Ikea, and shiny buttons - that's not a useful toolbox. And if I keep words that aren't useful - even if they're beautiful - it's not a useful tool.
When Erin spoke at Google in July 2007, she was asked whether words get retired from dictionaries. Yes, she said, but The New Oxford American Dictionary is only in its second edition, so not much has been retired yet.
We haven't used up all the storage yet; we haven't had to rent a mini-locker for the words that we can't fit in any more. But really, it's the same decision about putting a word into the dictionary, in reverse. Is it useful anymore?
And here's a bit more from that talk:
Print dictionaries have an expiration date. ... If you got one for your high school graduation, or when you went to college, and you go to a reunion and everyone is bald, it's time for a new dictionary.

But you don't have to throw away the old one. A lot of people say, "Oh, if I get a new dictionary, I'll have to throw away the old one where I made all these notes." How small of a house do you live in? One does not replace the other; you get to keep it.
Edited to add this note: While some people may have good reasons to keep the old dictionaries, for others they are clutter.

If you want even more of Erin, you can also watch her TED talk from March 2007.

[photo from Wikimedia, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Repurposed Items: Cake Stands

Those beautiful multi-tier cake stands don't need to be used just for cakes - or cookies, candies, or fruits. They can also be used for something like jewelry. I first saw this idea in the May 2009 Family Circle magazine, but this photo comes from Flickr user letthemeatcake1. [Photo licensed under Creative Commons]

For more great ideas, see the other photos in this set, including the cake stand holding "life essentials" and the one holding other small objects.

And even a one-tier cake stand can be used creatively; take a look at this cake stand used as a bathroom countertop shelf.

plate stand

Judy Evans, who makes some lovely single-tier cake stands - also called plate stands - shows us some other ways to use those stands. They can hold bath products, or serve as a "launch pad" where you keep your wallet, coins, and keys. That's one of Judy's stands above; you can find her plate stands on Etsy and 1000 Markets. Update on Nov. 9. 2011: Judy doesn't seem to be making cake stands any more.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

You Don't Have to Watch a Bad Movie to the Bitter End

Mick LaSalle

How do we make the most of our time? We stop doing some things. I've written before that it's fine to stop reading a book you don't like. But you might also consider this advice from Mick LaSalle: "If a movie is bad, turn it off after 30 minutes or less."

Mick wrote that back in April, and he just elaborated on it this past weekend. For those who have trouble walking away after 30-40 minutes of a bad movie, he writes: "If it helps, get angry. Realize the movie is trying to steal your inner life, weaken your mind and take from a finite reserve of precious time."

May 2009 Organizing Tips and More

wastebasket made fro recycled cardboard

My May 2009 newsletter is now available.

Tip of the Month: Greeting Cards You've Received

Organizing Product of the Month: Wastebasket made from recycled cardboard

Recycling/Donation Idea of the Month: Patagonia's Common Threads Garment Recycling

Also Included: Quote of the Month

Friday, May 22, 2009

Twitter: Reading About Other People's Clutter

Twitter bird picture

People I follow on Twitter - and I'm excluding the other professional organizers - have been writing about clutter issues lately. Here's what I've been reading:

First, here's a quick note from @jjtoothman
Inbox zero is a distant memory. *sigh*
From @brianadreas:
pretending that all the piles of paperwork on my desk were left by the previous occupant & that I'm just here to bag it & toss it.

drawing down on our tea stockpile because I'm finally convinced that having a 20 year reserve of Earl Grey is a bit too much for anybody
The always-amusing @davidlebovitz:
7:04am. How anyone can sleep when their freezer needs cleaning is beyond me.

How does one lose a 17-inch baking sheet in a kitchen that's 2 feet by 4 feet?

I'm now storing pot lids on my desk. I really do think it's time to find a larger apartment.
And from @thebookslut, who is getting ready to move:
Today begins attempt to reduce book collection by 75% without slipping into suicidal ideation. (great books in mail this a.m. not helping)

First: books I have to admit to myself I will never read: War & Peace, P. Roth, Updike, Conrad.

Right now the strategy is to get drunk and start pulling books of the shelves before I can think about it. So far so good.

Related Posts:
Organizing Angst and Answers in 140 Characters
A Whole Lot of Organizing Going On

Big Beautiful Boxes: Blanket Chests

blanket chest

Combine fine woodworking and useful storage, and you've got my attention. So let's start our tour of notable blanket boxes with a lovely blanket chest from Falcon Designs.

blanket box from Australia

Staying with the fine woodworking for a while, let's admire this blanket chest from Australian Woodwork.

blanket chest

And what about a blanket chest with a green angle, from Rugged Cross Fine Art Woodworking? It's made from purple heartwood reclaimed from benches at the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin (and also wavy hickory), and can be seen on the company's Etsy store. You can also see blanket chests on the company's web site, including a lovely chest made from birdseye maple and cherry.

bamboo blanket chest

EcoDesignz provides a bamboo blanket chest.

blanket chest

And here's an eye-catching blanket chest created by Mark Del Guidice, available at Artful Home. Update on May 15, 2011: This is no longer available through Artful Home, but you can see it on Del Guidice's own web site.

painted blanket chest

Over at Russell & Mackenna you can get your blanket chest in your choice of 33 colors (and accent colors) as well as your choice "monograms" - or no monogram.

blanket chest

The American Blanket Chest Company, unsurprisingly, is dedicated to making blanket chests.

carved blanket box

And finally, here's one of the amazing blanket boxes made by George Storry.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Plastic Food Storage: OK or Not?

plastic food storage on display

Are plastics safe for food storage? I last addressed this question back in January 2007, so here's an update.

As you might suspect, there is no one absolute answer to this question. Much of the current concern centers around BPA, which is found in many hard plastic containers used for food. The FDA declared that BPA is safe, but recent disclosures show that the FDA relied on information from chemical industry lobbyists to reach that conclusion. Many are concerned about BPA's toxicity; some cities and states have banned the chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups, and now Congress is once again considering banning it in all food and beverage containers.

BPA is found in many polycarbonates; polycarbonates (and some other plastics) have recycling code #7. But BPA has also been found to leach from other plastics when microwaved. "There is no such thing as safe microwaveable plastic," said Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri researcher. [quoted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

Caroline Baier-Anderson discusses, a health scientist and an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore concurs: "It is best not to microwave plastics, particularly since alternatives are widely available."

BPA free plastic storage

If You Want to Use Plastic Food Storage

Based on what we know today, some plastics seem to be safer than others. The Green Guide will help you pick the best plastic products. And manufacturers are generally quick to tell you when their products are BPA-free. Update on July 20, 2011: The Green Guide seems to have disappeared, but over on GreenerPenny Mindy Pennybacker - the prior editor of The Green Guide and co-founder of - explains about safer plastics. For similar information, with an easier-to-read format, see Care2; the information here is adapted from

Rubbermaid tells you which of its products contain BPA; most do not. (The photo above shows just some of Rubbermaid's BPA-free products.)

While Tupperware claims BPA is safe, the company also provides you with the recycle code for each of its products. Update on March 17, 2014: As of March 2010, items sold by Tupperware US and CA are BPA-free.

OXO says all of the company's POP containers are BPA-free.

Preserve food storage is made from 100% recycled plastic and is BPA-free. It's a #5 plastic, one of the better options. [via Apartment Therapy]

GladWare containers do not contain BPA, nor do Ziploc containers.

If You'd Prefer to Avoid Plastic

stainless steel food storage, with stainless steel lid

One option is stainless steel. LunchBots are stainless steel containers with stainless steel lids.

airtight stainless steel food containers

And here are some airtight stainless steel food containers - unfortunately, round instead of rectangular. Update on July 20, 2011: The site that I found these on no longer has them - but they seem to be the ONYX containers, available here and here.

rectangular stainless steel food containers

If you're willing to have plastic lids (#4, one of the better plastics), you could consider these rectangular stainless steel food containers.

glass food storage

Another option is glass. Anchor Hocking's kitchen storage is glass with BPA-free plastic lids; if you want glass lids, too, look at the Bake 'N' Store bakeware, shown above. The Container Store also has glass storage with glass lids.

food storage containers, glass

And of course Pyrex has food storage products - with plastic lids, which the company says are BPA-free. For not-too-crazy prices you can also get vintage Pyrex with glass lids, such as the pieces above, found at Ruby Lane.

[photo at top of post by jerrroen / Jeroen, licensed under Creative Commons]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

4 Wonderfully Unusual Ways to Store the Wine

wine racks from Porsche parts

Porsche Part Wine Racks - it's hard to beat that for a unique wine storage solution! But let me share a few more products you may not have seen before. Update on March 3, 2011: I'm no longer finding the Porsche Part Wine Rack.

aluminum wine rack

The MuNiMulA Wine Rack made from anodized aluminum is an interesting product - but at $90 for each bottle, it's sure a pricey one.

wine rack made by metalsmith

For a less-expensive option, take a look at this handcrafted wine rack from Morrell Metalsmiths. Update on May 15, 2014: Morrell Metalsmiths doesn't seem to sell this any more.

wine cabinet

To get this stunning wine cabinet, contact the Adam King Studio. [I found Adam King through Alison Heath, previously of Hardwood Artisans.] Update on May 15, 2014: I'm no longer finding the Adam King Studio on the web.

Related Posts:
Two Unique Wine Cabinets
Seven Ways to Store the Wine
Ten Wine Racks for 3-20 Bottles

Monday, May 18, 2009

Three (More) Ways to Store a CD Collection

CD shelf, minimum depth

Not everyone is giving up CDs and moving to purely digital files - so how do you store those CDs, when you want to keep them in their jewel cases? I've addressed this before - but here are some new ideas.

From Pandiculor in Germany comes the Cainad modular media shelf. Each CD module is 90 cm (35.4 inches) wide and 16.6 cm high - and your filled shelves will only be as deep as a CD jewel case. Each module stores 74 CDs in their cases. I can't find any information on what the shelving is made of. [Found on DesignSpray; DesignSpray found via From Europe]

CD shelves

Another shelving system comes from Vitsoe; the CD shelves are 16 cm (6.3 inches) deep; there are other depths for other items. In North America, you can buy a Vitsoe system through Moss. [via MadeByGirl]

custom CD cabinet, closed
flat files customized for CD storage

And for a different approach, here's a custom CD cabinet from Frid Furniture, a maker of lovely wood flat files.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Let There Be Light in Your Closets

closet light fixture

It's hard to have an organized space without enough light, and closets are often a place where lighting is a problem. My first thought when seeing a dark closet involves either adding light fixtures with the help of an electrician, or using the battery-powered lights that are widely available. (Here's just one, and here's another.) If you want to add a wired light fixture, there are many possible designs; Rejuvenation has some suggestions.

lighted closet rod

But a few months ago, Closets magazine had an article on closet lighting which introduced me to an interesting specialty product. Hettich makes a battery-operated illuminated garment/coat rail that uses LED technology.

solar tube in closet

Another option for a dark closet could be a solar tube; this one comes from Solatube.

[Top photo by MBK (Marjie), licensed under Creative Commons.]

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Things You Find on Freecycle

album cover for Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield

OFFER: vinyl LP: Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield

Two LPs - these thing that they had before MP3s. CDs you say, no before that. Cassette tapes? No before that. 8-track. No before that. Ahhh, vinyl Long Playing Records. Yesss!

Neil Young - On The Beach
Retrospective - The Best of Buffalo Springfield

These are not in audiophile condition, but they were fine the last time I checked 'em out. -- Steve Portigal

I've mentioned before how much I like Freecycle as a way to find homes for new things, both for myself and my clients. I like Freecycle so much that I serve as a moderator for my local community.

But there's one added benefit of Freecycle; sometimes you see a post that just makes you grin.

[reprinted with permission from Steve Portigal]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beyond the Usual Suspects: Toy Storage Solutions

Looking for something beautiful in the way of toy storage? These wicker coffres à jouets caught my eye. (And who says these lovely baskets could only be used for toys?)

stacking toy baskets

And I was also taken with these toy baskets - how nice that they can be stacked! (And I love that one side has a face, and the other a tail.) They come in various animals, and there's also a lidded toy chest (which removes the stacking function). Update on August 24, 2011: I'm no longer finding these.

Note: While large toy chests often don't work well - little things get lost at the bottom - they certainly have their place. Just be alert to the safety issues with toy chests and small children.

wooden toy bench

What about multi-purpose products? Here's a lovely wooden toy bench. The site doesn't identify the manufacturer, so I don't know if this is the banc avec coffre à jouets by Pinolino (which I couldn't find on the Pinolino web site). Update on August 24, 2011: The site I grabbed this picture from no longer sells the bench, but the Pinolino bench is still available.

child-size armchair with toy storage

If you prefer upholstered furniture, Sigikid has child-size armchairs and sofas with toy chests. Update on Feb. 25, 2015: I'm no longer finding these products.

wood toy storage bins in rack

Oeuf calls this lovely product the Toy Store. It's gotten a lot of attention in the blog world; I heard of it from Cool Mom Picks, Better Living Through Design, and Apartment Therapy.

toy storage basket, looks like house

And then there are the wonderful toy storage baskets that look like houses or garages. [via Cool Mom Picks; sold by Nettle Green]

nursery rhyme design hand painted toy box

And finally, here's one of the handpainted toy boxes from With Hugs and Kisses. I just wish the pictures were better, especially for this nursery rhyme box.

Related Posts:
Tantalizing Toy Boxes and Bins
Tackling the Toys