Hot tips for keeping your house warm this winter


By the looks of all the people on the streets wearing scarves and down parkas, Southern California is deep in a cold spell, with temperatures sometimes plunging below 65 degrees. Brrrrr! Let’s face it, we’re just not used to the cold here in L.A. And to be fair, temperatures do drop into the 40s at night, and even lower in the Valley. So how can we keep our houses and apartments warm without cranking up the heat? Follow these helpful tips to stay warm and cozy all winter long while saving money on your energy bill.

Let the sunshine in

Natural sunlight is free, so open the drapes and blinds during the day to let in the warmth. It does seem counterintuitive because the tendency is to close up everything during the winter to keep out the cold, but sunlight will warm up things no matter what the temperature is outside. You can also open certain drapes during different parts of the day to follow the sun. For example, I expose my east-facing windows in the morning, and my west-facing ones later in the day. 

Bundle up the windows

Of course, close the drapes at night. Drapery fabric acts as insulation for your windows. And when it gets really cold, consider layering on top of the drapes additional curtain liners, fabric or blankets. I lived in Boston for two years while attending college, and I fought off the cold there by hanging a Miss Piggy comforter in my apartment window. I didn’t care what the neighbors thought. 

Winterize your bedding

On chilly nights, getting into bed can feel like jumping into a cold pool. Change out your crisp, cotton sheets for velvety-soft flannel bedding. (I have a set of flannel sheets on my Amazon wish list — hint, hint.) Make use of the blanket or a faux fur throw at the end of your bed that you’ve been using just for decoration. Or warm up your bed before you get into it with an electric blanket. There are differing opinions about the safety of electric blankets, but it’s fine for taking the chill off of the sheets — you can turn off the blanket as soon as you climb into bed.

Get a humidifier

You know how in the summer people say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”? Humidity makes you feel warmer. Put a humidifier in your room, and the moisture helps retain heat — while helping your sinuses. You can also put a pot of water on the stove at a slow simmer. I add orange peel, cinnamon sticks, cloves and a touch of vanilla extract in the water, and the scent adds to the warm feeling.

Reverse your ceiling fan 

Most ceiling fans have two settings so that you can change the direction the blades spin. In the summer, the blades should turn counter-clockwise to blow cool air downward. In the winter, set the blades to turn clockwise to take up cool air and push the warmer air that’s near the ceiling down into the room. Put the ceiling fan speed on low so the room doesn’t get too drafty.

Use incandescent light bulbs

I know it’s not very eco-friendly of me to recommend incandescent light bulbs when there’s such a big push right now for fluorescent or LED bulbs. The thing about incandescent bulbs, though, is that they are warm. They’re downright hot, as a matter of fact. So, just for the winter, switch out your bulbs to incandescents, and let their heat radiate in the room. I have a soft spot for incandescent light bulbs. After they stopped making the 100-watt version, I bought a case of them to stock up. That should do me for a few more years.

Cover bare floors

Rugs aren’t just for decoration. They insulate our floors to keep the warmth from escaping. And besides, they feel great against our cold feet. So if you have hardwood or concrete floors, make sure you have area rugs covering them. I got rid of all my carpeting years ago and installed hardwood floors throughout my home. With area rugs, I actually feel even cozier because they are more plush than the carpet I used to have.

Start baking

Wintertime means baking time, and whenever you whip up a batch of cookies or brownies in the oven, you’re heating up your home as well. When you’re finished baking, leave the oven door open so you can make use of the heat that’s still emanating from inside after you turn it off. 

Shower with the door open

If you live alone or live with someone who doesn’t mind, leave the door open when you shower to let the heat and moisture spread outside the bathroom. You can also close the stopper to trap all the hot water in the tub (if you don’t mind standing in water). The tub of hot water acts as a heat source that gradually cools down, at which time you can drain the tub. 

Test for drafts in windows and doors

Hold a candle around doors and windows, and look at the flame to see if it moves because of drafts. Besides installing some good weatherstripping, you can stop drafts with some door and window snakes — those long tubes of fabric with padding inside. They’re available in stores, but you can take a DIY approach and make your own with rolled-up towels or T-shirts. 

Close the doors to unused rooms

If there are rooms that you rarely enter, close the doors to keep your home’s heat contained within the areas you are in. The reverse also holds true: If you’re staying put in one room, close the door and keep all the heat to yourself.

Hold on to something warm

Fosse and Gershwin, the author's personal heaters. Photo by Jonathan Fong

A portable heat source that you can carry around the house is indispensible on cold nights. Sure, it’s fine to have a sweetheart to keep you warm, but sometimes a good, old-fashioned hot-water bottle is even better — especially if it’s got a cashmere wool cover (which I have). I have also used a microwaveable neck wrap, and that feels like a big, warm hug from your favorite nana. And, of course, dogs and cats are snugglers that are bundles of fur-covered warmth. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

DIY: How to make blue and silver faux mercury glass


I love mercury glass. With its characteristic metallic shine and distressed finish, it goes with any style interior. What I don’t like about it is the cost. Even in discount stores, mercury glass items can be expensive. That’s why I like making my own. Using dollar-store glassware and just a few simple supplies from the crafts store, you can create spectacular faux mercury glass in just minutes.

Mercury glass is typically silver or gold, but I’ve made faux mercury glass in all sorts of colors, including orange for Halloween and red for Valentine’s Day. For Chanukah, I’ve gone blue and silver with these vases and candleholders. The mercury glass may be faux, but the stunning results are real.

What you’ll need:

  • Glassware
  • Mod Podge
  • Acrylic paint (in blue and silver)
  • Plastic cup
  • Wooden stir stick
  • Foam brush
  • Sponge
  • Glitter (in blue and silver)

 

1. Mix Mod Podge and paint

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How to make a birch branch menorah


While the lighting of the Chanukah candles has been a tradition for centuries, menorahs themselves are constantly being reinvented. Do an online search for “menorahs” and you’ll find literally hundreds of styles, from traditional to novelty. (One that’s getting a lot of attention this year is the Menorasaurus Rex, which is a menorah shaped like a dinosaur.) This DIY menorah made from a birch branch and copper is both rustic and modern, and its unconventional charm will be sure to brighten your Chanukah celebration.

What you’ll need:

  • Birch branch, around 16 inches long
  • 2 smaller birch branches, 4 inches long
  • Nails
  • Hammer
  • Pen
  • Drill
  • 1/4-inch copper tubing
  • Tubing cutter
  • Multi-surface glue
  • 5/16-inch washers

 

1. Attach feet to the wood branch

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How to make a floral turkey centerpiece for Thanksgiving


For me, decorating the table is the best part of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner celebration. I love arranging the dishes, the sparkling glasses, the starched napkins — and, of course, making the centerpieces. 

Centerpieces are a great way to set the mood, a way to tell your guests right as they walk into your house that they’re in for a festive time. But depending on how you’re planning to serve your Thanksgiving meal, you will have to make the centerpiece work for you. If you’re planning a buffet, then most of the serving platters will be on a separate table, and your centerpiece can stay put on the main table, to continue to delight your guests. But if you’re planning to serve your dishes at the table, you’ll likely need the extra space, in which case you can remove the centerpiece before you bring out the dinner and place it elsewhere, such as on a coffee table or mantel. 

I’ve run the gamut on centerpieces, from simple bud vases to elaborate creations that can take over an entire room. Last Thanksgiving, I spray-painted 600 pingpong balls shiny gold, suspended each one over the dining table with thread, and then lined the table with branches decorated with twinkling lights. This year, I’m making our life a lot easier with this simple floral turkey centerpiece. It’s easy to make, yet so adorable you’ll be gobbling up the compliments.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED:

  • Floral foam
  • Knife
  • Mums
  • Wheat stalks
  • Bird of paradise flower
  • Real or artificial fall leaves

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How to set-up a guest room for out-of-town visitors


With the holidays just around the corner, some of us are getting ready to welcome out-of-town guests coming in to join the festivities. Having guests stay at your house can be fun, but it can also be stressful for both parties. Whether your guests will sleep in a spare bedroom or on a sofa in your living room, there are many easy ways to make their stay comfortable. You don’t have to follow all of these tips, but adopting even just a few of them will go a long way toward making your guests feel pampered. That way, they’ll be longing to return the favor one day. 

Let them know what to expect

It’s a good idea to manage guests’ expectations in advance, so let them know if they’ll be staying in their own room, taking over the home office or crashing in the living room. This could help them to know how much they should pack. It also gives them a chance to reconsider staying with you if they’d prefer the privacy afforded by hotel over a living-room sofa.

Make the bed comfortable

If your guests will be sleeping on a bed, maximize their comfort by adding a mattress topper. A memory-foam topper, or even a featherbed, can make even an old mattress feel new. Toppers also vastly improve the comfort of a sofa bed and, yes, even sofas. Instead of asking extra guests — or their kids — to sleep on the floor, consider purchasing an air mattress, which is not at all expensive and easy to store for future visits. 

Upgrade the bedding

Think of your guest room more like a boutique hotel and less like a roadside flophouse. Invest in soft, high thread-count cotton sheets and pillowcases. Try to offer two pillows per guest, one firm and one soft, as well as a couple of throw pillows for back support while reading. And iron the pillowcases for a fresh, clean appearance. In addition to a cushy comforter, make sure to have an extra blanket available, and leave it on the bed from the start — guests often feel bad about asking for things, so it’s better to anticipate their needs.

Have storage options

Although most guests expect to primarily live out of a suitcase, it can help them feel more civilized if they get a closet or other space to hang or store clothes. If you don’t have extra closet space, find creative options, like storage ottomans, over-the-door organizers or even clearing a shelf on a small bookcase that can double as a dresser. You can also insert a tension rod or pull-up bar in a doorway where guests can hang clothes — and remember to supply the hangers.

Get rid of clutter

Clear the area where your guests will be staying. Having your personal items around — be they clothes, tax statements or your collection of baseball cards — gives them the impression that they are imposing on your personal space. Let them know they’re welcome by offering a clean, minimally decorated haven.

Pamper them in the bathroom

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family of five kids, two parents and two grandparents sharing one bathroom, but one of my first questions when staying at a hotel or a friend’s house is always “What’s the bathroom situation?” Ideally, your guests will have access to their own bathroom, but if they will be sharing yours, make room so they can store their toiletries. Prepare a basket of essentials like a toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo, and splurge on a few luxuries like scented soap or lotion. Provide a stack of plush towels, including washcloths. And if you’re sharing a bath, make sure the guest towels are a different color from yours so they’ll know which is which. 

Include the must-haves

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How to season and care for your cast-iron skillet


Earlier this year, in a column about what every home should have, I listed a cast-iron skillet as one of my household essentials. For those unfamiliar with cast-iron cookware, it is known for its black coating that develops over time as oils are polymerized on its surface. 

This process is known as “seasoning,” which gives the cookware its nonstick finish. Honestly, I will sometimes just stare at the pan, running my fingers along the surface, admiring how the seasoning has built up over the years. (A little obsessive, I know, but other cast-iron skillet fans will know what I mean.) 

Besides its wonderful nonstick properties, a cast-iron skillet has other advantages.

Virtually indestructible

Cast as one piece of iron, there are no parts or screws to come undone. You can bang it around and drop it on the ground and it will not dent. It’s no wonder slapstick cartoon characters whack each other over the head with them (don’t try this at home).

Retains heat

Because of its thickness, a cast-iron skillet takes a little longer to heat up. But when it’s hot, it stays hot. So even if you’re adding cold items such as raw meat to the skillet, it remains at your desired cooking temperature. 

Affordable

Unlike some premium cookware that can sell for hundreds of dollars for one pan, a cast-iron skillet can be yours for about $20. Avoid any fancy options that increase the price, such as a wooden handle. If you’re paying more than $40, you’re paying too much.

Versatile

You can cook practically anything in a cast-iron skillet. It sears meats like no other pan, and you may be surprised how well it roasts vegetables. The heat of the pan gives vegetables such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts a nice char that a cookie sheet can’t. It’s also great for baking cornbread and cakes that fall right out of the pan when they’re done. The only thing I don’t cook in the cast iron are dishes with tomato sauce or wine, as the acidity can break down the nonstick surface.

Into the frying pan …

Despite the virtues of cast-iron skillets, a lot of people are reluctant to use them. You may even have one tucked away in a cabinet collecting dust. One of the complaints I hear is that they’re too heavy. Personally, I feel that heft is a good thing in a pan, but if the weight of cast iron is a deal-breaker for you, keep in mind that most cast-iron skillets have an assist handle at the opposite end of the main handle so you can lift the pan with two hands. 

What keeps most people away from cast-iron skillets, though, is the perception that they are too hard to care for. Part of the problem is that there are so many theories on the best way to season cast iron, and just as many recommendations for cleaning it.

The plethora of opinions can be intimidating for the cast-iron novice — whom do you believe? What if you follow the wrong advice? The good news is that practically every method of cast-iron maintenance you hear about works. It’s really a matter of preference. Remember that your cast-iron skillet is a heavy-duty workhorse — you won’t break it.

How to season cast iron

The majority of cast-iron skillets available in stores come pre-seasoned, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to use. The coating that’s been applied by the manufacturer is very thin and barely enough to create a non-stick surface. 

I recommend additional layers of seasoning before you use your pan for the first time. Using a paper towel, rub a thin layer of vegetable-based oil on the inside and outside surface of the pan. Then, wipe the pan again with a clean paper towel. It looks like you’re removing all the oil, but don’t worry, it’s still in there. You just want a very thin layer. 

Then place the skillet in a cold oven upside down with a cookie sheet or foil underneath to catch any drips. Turn on the oven to 450 F, and heat the pan for an hour. Turn off the oven and let the pan sit in there while it cools. Repeat this process at least five times before using the skillet. The first few times you use the pan, food may still stick to it. Rest assured, the more you cook with it, the more nonsticky it will become. 

Types of oil to use

Some people like to use vegetable oil, while others prefer vegetable shortening. One oil that has received a lot of recent press is flaxseed oil, which some cast-iron enthusiasts swear by. I use plain, store-brand vegetable oil, and it’s given my pan a nice black patina. If I get a second skillet, I may try the flaxseed oil to compare.

Ways to clean it

The most important tip for cleaning a cast-iron skillet is to start cleaning the moment you’ve finished cooking. While the pan is still hot, scrape off any food with the flat edge of a metal spatula. Then sit down to eat while the pan cools. After your meal, the pan will still be hot (like I said earlier, cast iron retains heat like crazy) but cool enough to clean. 

One cleaning method is to pour kosher salt into the pan and use a folded paper towel to scrub the salt around the pan. The salt works as a scouring agent to remove burnt bits of food. Then rinse the pan in hot water. This method does work, though I don’t like wasting all that good kosher salt. 

Another method, though controversial, is to use a sponge with soap and water. Some believe soap should never touch the surface of the pan for fear of damaging the built-up seasoning, but based on my own experience, a little soap and water doesn’t damage the pan, especially if you dry it immediately afterward. I just don’t find it necessary to use soap to scrub out the pan.

What I use to clean the pan is a stainless steel scrubber called “The Ringer,” which I found on Amazon. It is an 8-by-6-inch piece of chainmail, like something you would see worn by a character from “Game of Thrones.” It scrubs off all the cooked-on food, leaving it spic and span without harming the nonstick surface. There’s usually an oily residue still on the pan, but that’s OK. 

The Ringer chainmail cast iron cleaner

I wipe the pan dry with a paper towel, place it on the stovetop and turn on the burner. When the pan starts smoking, I turn the heat off. The oily residue then becomes polymerized, adding to the layers of seasoning. I finish by wiping a thin layer of oil onto the pan with a paper towel before storing it.

A note on keeping kosher

If you have a kosher household, you may want to kasher your new skillet before using it, especially if it’s been pre-seasoned. Check with your rabbi for a recommendation on the best way to do so. It would also be a good ideato have separate skillets for different food
categories. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Home: How to make a throw pillow from an old shirt


I have trouble donating old clothes to charitable thrift shops because I always want to up-cycle the pieces and use them in crafting and decorating projects. All those fun fabrics are just too good to give away. No wonder I have cabinets full of clothing castoffs waiting for a new life. 

One of my favorite things to up-cycle is a shirt. I’ve repurposed them into cloth napkins, wine bottle wraps, lunch bags — and this decorative throw pillow. This pillow is not only stylish, it’s really easy to make because it requires no sewing. 

What you’ll need

  • Old shirt with buttons
  • Scissors
  • Fabric glue
  • Rectangular pillow form

 

Step 1:

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HOME: Eco-friendly disposable tableware for Sukkot


When you’re dining under the stars in your sukkah, the last thing you want to think about is washing dishes. Fortunately, an array of stylish, eco-friendly, disposable plates and cutlery is available to dress up your table while making cleanup a breeze. 

Because Sukkot is a harvest festival, it’s only right that we consider environmentally friendly alternatives for setting the table. How can disposable dinnerware be green? There are three primary ways:

• Biodegradable: The product will break down within a reasonable amount of time in a natural outdoor environment.

• Compostable: The product is not only biodegradable, it also releases valuable nutrients into the soil as it breaks down.

• Sustainable: It is made from resources that are replenished as quickly as they are consumed. 

Now, instead of paper plates, you can find dinnerware made from bamboo, sugarcane, palm leaves and even tapioca starch. 

Wasara (above)

This elegant Japanese line of disposable plates, bowls and cups, with their wavy, minimalist shapes, is more beautiful than most ceramic or glass tableware. Only nontree, renewable resources are used to make them — sugarcane fibers, bamboo and reed pulp. They are also compostable, so they don’t have to end up in the landfill.  (Photo from Verterra.com

VerTerra plates and bowls are made from palm leaves and molded into their shapes with steam, heat and pressure. No trees or branches are cut in the manufacturing process; only leaves that have fallen to the ground are used. The product naturally biodegrades in less than two months after disposal. (Photo from bambuhome.com

A popular line of disposable dinnerware you’ve probably seen at Whole Foods, Bambu Veneerware is made from 100 percent bamboo and certified organic. The Bambu line is extensive, including round and square plates, forks, spoons, knives and even “sporks.” And you can wash them and use them more than once. (” target=”_blank”>worldcentric.org)

Dahlia by EcoProducts

Photo from ecoproductsstore.com

Made from a premium blend of sugarcane and bamboo, which are 100 percent renewable, Dahlia plates and bowls are known for their signature leaf shape. They are compostable and surprisingly sturdy, as the surface is grease- and cut-resistant. (Photo from sustyparty.com

At first glance, Susty Party tableware looks just like any other colorful paper plates you would find at a party-supply store. The difference is that all the products in the line, which include plates, bowls, cups, straws, cutlery and napkins, are made from renewable or sustainably harvested materials. They’re compostable, nontoxic and made in North America. (” target=”_blank”>bambluware.com

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Home: 10 Common decorating mistakes and how to fix them


Decorating your home is a very personal thing — we all have different tastes. There are some common design mistakes, however, that many of us make. The good news is that even if you’re guilty of one or more of these faux pas, they’re easy to fix.

Pushing all the furniture against the wall

People seem to think that if you push everything to the four walls, there will be more room in the middle. What are they making room for — a dance floor? 

The fix: Move furniture away from the walls, and arrange the pieces together to encourage conversations. If as a result, say, a sofa or chair seems to float in the middle of the room, anchor it with a console or side table.

Poor lighting

Even a well-appointed room can look dreary when there’s not enough light. Just as bad is a room lit by one super-bright overhead lamp that reveals every fine line on our faces. 

The fix: Try to have three sources of light in each room at different heights and diffuse each with shades so that the light is soft and flattering. Also, use dimmer switches so you can vary the mood.

Not planning ahead

Don’t fall into the trap of falling in love with a piece of furniture in the store, but finding that it’s too big for the room when it’s delivered. 

The fix: The next time you consider new furniture, take measurements of your room first, and draw a diagram of your room layout on graph paper, with each square representing a square foot. Use the graph paper to help you plan how different furniture pieces will fit — before you buy them

Being too matchy-matchy

Don’t buy sofas, loveseats and armchairs in matching sets. Ditto for bedroom sets with matching dressers and nightstands. Your home is not a Sears showroom. 

The fix: Incorporate pieces that coordinate with each other, rather than match exactly. Also, feel free to mix up wood finishes in the same room. They don’t all need to be the same shade of brown.

Looking like a catalog

Some rooms are almost too perfect, like they’re straight out of a catalog. The result is a sterile environment that doesn’t reflect your own personality.

The fix: Go ahead and order from catalogs. Just be sure to include furniture pieces and/or accessories that have a backstory and special meaning to you.

An over-reliance on white walls

Unless your home is a sleek, modern work of architecture that looks like a gallery, white walls are boring. Colored walls add warmth and provide a more pleasing backdrop for your furniture and accessories.

The fix: If you’re afraid of colors, go with neutrals. Even a light tan is preferable to white. My secret weapon for color-phobic clients is the Restoration Hardware paint fan deck. Every color is a soothing neutral.

Over-accessorizing

If you’ve ever sat on a sofa or gotten into a bed with too many throw pillows, you know there can be such a thing as too many accessories. The same goes for too many picture frames, candles and other tchotchkes, which make your home look cluttered. 

The fix: Remove half of your accessories and see how the room breathes. Put the extras in storage, and rotate your accessories every few months so it always feels like there’s something new.

Hanging art too high

In almost every home, there is at least one picture that is hung too high. Artwork that is higher than eye level feels disconnected from the rest of the room. 

The fix: Position your framed art so that the center of it, measured vertically, is between 57 and 60 inches from the floor. That’s eye level for the average person who’s not a basketball player.

Hanging curtains too low

The tendency for most people is to hang curtain rods right above the window frame. Doing so makes the windows look shorter and the ceilings lower. 

The fix: Install the curtain rod as high as you can, right below the ceiling level, assuming you have a standard 8-foot ceiling. (Vaulted ceilings are a whole other discussion.) Higher curtains draw the eye up, making the room look more expansive.

Forgetting about the ceiling

Poor ceilings. They are typically an afterthought, or worse, just ignored. Having a white, unadorned ceiling can be jarring, especially when the rest of the room is drenched in color. 

The fix: Consider painting the ceiling a shade lighter than the wall color. This way, it makes visual sense with the surrounding walls and furnishings.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Home: How to make your own French memo board


Maybe because it’s back-to-school season, or because people are in fall organizing mode, but I’ve been getting requests about ideas for bulletin boards. Well, when it comes to bulletin boards, nothing combines style and practicality like a French memo board. Covered in decorative fabric, French memo boards use crisscrossed ribbons to hold photos, invitations and notes — so you don’t have to use pushpins. That’s particularly useful when you don’t want to put holes in your valuable pictures and cards.

Perfect for a dorm room or a home office, they’re surprisingly easy to make with inexpensive materials. I assembled the memo board shown here in less than two hours. 

(And to those holdouts who still won’t part with their utilitarian corkboards: You obviously didn’t get the memo.)

What you’ll need:

  • Foam-core board
  • Hobby knife
  • Scissors
  • Batting
  • Fabric of choice
  • Ribbon
  • Pins
  • Buttons
  • Needle and thread
  • Duct tape
  • Hot glue gun
  • Felt

Step 1

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Home: Five ways to trick out your backpack for school


For me, one of the perks of going back to school every fall was getting to start the year with a brand spanking new backpack. The thing about backpacks, though, is that most are not too exciting to look at. They’re usually plain or utilitarian or they have cartoon characters emblazoned on them.

This year, instead of sending the kids off with another boring backpack, try customizing the bags to reflect their interests. A backpack is a blank canvas (literally, backpacks are made of canvas). And there are so many fun and easy ways to decorate them, as you can see here. All the embellishments can be purchased at crafts stores and party stores. 

THE ROCKER

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Home: Back-to-school floral arrangement with pencils


Throughout my high-school years, I was a straight-A student. My only B was in driver’s ed (and that was a miracle, given my car accident the first day of driver’s training). Letting your teachers know you appreciate them can help your standing, too, and starting the year off with a gift on the first day of school never hurts. 

Here’s an idea that could get you an A+ for creativity. It’s a vase made of pencils covering a cylindrical container, with a tape measure as a ribbon. You can fill it with any flowers you’d like. It’s sure to cheer up any classroom. 

What you’ll need:

  • No. 2 pencils
  • Small glass/vase/can
  • Double-sided tape
  • Rubber band
  • Colored plastic tape measure
  • Fresh or artificial flowers

 

Step 1:

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8 Easy ways to conserve water right now


As you probably know, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a mandatory water-use reduction of 25 percent across California back in April because of our state’s historic drought. It has been up to the individual cities and communities to implement the reduction efforts, so you may have received a letter from your local water utility company about how much you are required to conserve. Where I live, we have been told to reduce water usage by 20 percent from 2013 levels. 

Saving 20 percent can seem daunting, but when I think of it in increments, it seems more doable. Every little bit of conservation adds up and makes a difference. Here are some tricks I’ve implemented in my own household that are simple and do not require a lot of effort. I’m eager to get my next water bill to see how much I’ve saved. 

Check for leaks

There could be a leak in your home, and you might not even know it. To check, note the numbers on your water meter, and then don’t use any water for two hours. If the numbers have gone up, you have a leak and it’s time to hire a plumber.

Shower power

A whopping 75 percent of indoor home water usage happens in our bathrooms, and a lot of that is from the shower. According to the American Water Works Association, a typical shower lasts eight minutes. With a standard showerhead that uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute, each shower can add up to 20 gallons of water. So if you reduce your daily shower time to five minutes, you will save 225 gallons every month. If everyone in the family does this, imagine how much water you’ll save. 

Stop flushing so often

At the risk of being too graphic, you don’t really need to flush your toilet every time you use it. Some older toilets use up to seven gallons of water per flush. Even the newer ones, which are required to consume no more than 1.6 gallons per flush, make up a substantial part of our water usage. By flushing just one time less each day, we can reduce our monthly water usage by a minimum of 584 gallons a year.

Make your older toilets flush less water

A simple way to reduce water use is to minimize the amount of water that goes into your toilet tank. To do so, fill a plastic half-gallon bottle (such as an orange juice or bleach bottle) halfway with rocks to weigh it down, then fill it with water and tightly close its lid. Place the container inside your toilet tank, and you will save a half gallon each time you flush. Note: sometimes people put a brick in the tank for this same purpose, but bricks can erode and add sediments to your toilet.

Turn off the tap 

This one seems really obvious, but leaving the water on while brushing your teeth is a bad habit many of us can’t seem to break. However, when you remember three to five gallons of water come out of the average faucet every minute, you’ll realize this is another simple opportunity to save water.

Use the dishwasher 

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, using an automatic dishwasher is more efficient than hand washing. New Energy Star dishwashers use three to five gallons of water per wash, compared to up to 27 gallons used by traditional hand washing, counting for those who let the water run the entire time. Even older dishwashers that use up to 15 gallons per wash beat traditional hand washing. Just be sure to run your dishwasher only when it is fully loaded. And scrape your dishes first, instead of rinsing them before putting them in the machine. 

Only wash full loads of laundry

The Alliance for Water Efficiency estimates the average American family washes almost 400 loads of laundry each year. Make the most of each load by making sure the machine is filled, even if the washer has adjustable load settings. And avoid the permanent press cycle, which adds up to five gallons for the extra rinse. If you’re planning to replace an older washing machine, which typically uses 40 to 45 gallons per wash, consider either a front- or top-loading high-efficiency model, which generally uses only 14 to 25 gallons. 

Keep a bucket handy for reuse

Don’t let water go down the drain when it can be used for other purposes, such as watering plants or cleaning. If you have to let the water in your sink or tub run for a few seconds to heat up, collect the cold water in a bucket to use later. You’ll be amazed at how much water you collect — all of which would otherwise just disappear down your drain.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

How I created America’s most hated kitchen


You have not lived until you have been called “tacky and tasteless,” or been labeled as someone who has created “the ugliest thing I have ever seen.” But those are the sort of comments I get every time my Warhol-inspired kitchen appears on a decorating website. 

The first time it happened, I have to admit, I was taken aback. A popular shelter magazine website featured my kitchen and gave it a glowing write-up. I was hoping for some positive feedback, and lo and behold, I was thrilled to see that in a few hours, my article had racked up five pages of comments. Five pages! But then I read them. Uh-oh. Commenters had their pitchforks out for me. They were so offended by my design, they not only attacked the kitchen, they skewered me as a designer. Although one out of every 50 comments was a positive one, saying something like, “I can appreciate the creativity,” the mob became further incensed by any compliment, and voted thumbs down on the comment so it would be downgraded and deleted. I felt like a Kardashian.

I did not create my Warhol kitchen to make people vomit, as some commenters have suggested. I wanted a fun, colorful kitchen that would make me happy. My kitchen used to be all white. It had that clean European look, which was one of the reasons I liked it. But as I added color to the rest of my home, the kitchen remained white — and sterile. And when my condo was filmed for the HGTV show “Kitty Bartholomew: You’re Home,” the kitchen was the one room they did not film because, compared to the rest of the house, it was boring. The host, Kitty Bartholomew, pulled me aside and told me I had to do something about that kitchen. 

Fast forward a few years, and I was at the closing day of the Andy Warhol exhibition at MOCA. I was very inspired by the artwork, and I stopped in the museum store to get some souvenirs. It being the last day, all the Andy Warhol posters were 40 percent off. Standing in the middle of that museum store, inspiration hit me: I decided right then and there that I was going to buy one of every poster and decoupage it to my kitchen cabinets. 

I don’t know why I thought that would be a good idea, as I didn’t know whether the posters would even fit the cabinets, and, more important, I had never decoupaged anything before. For those of you unfamiliar with it, decoupage is the art of applying decorative paper to a surface. You typically see it on smaller objects such as boxes and trays, but never on such a large scale.

So, I did what any intelligent person who wanted to learn how to do something would do — I Googled it. And I found the nation’s leading expert on decoupage, Durwin Rice, author of “New Decoupage.” I emailed him, asking how I should go about putting the posters onto the cabinet doors. I wanted it to look like the artwork was printed on the cabinets, not merely glued on. Would that be possible?

Rice kindly replied, explaining the process for what I wanted to do. I was most skeptical of one of the steps — soaking the poster in water to relax the paper — because I was afraid the water would ruin it. But his directions worked! I’ve illustrated the steps above to show how easy it really is. And I’m happy to report that people who’ve followed the directions on my website have created their own versions of the Warhol kitchen, albeit with posters that reflect their own personal styles. One person, after she got tired of her decoupaged cabinets, even replaced the images with new ones by soaking the cabinets in water, scraping off the paper and starting anew. I’ve also become a decoupage fiend, decorating chairs, tables and even toilets. I haven’t shared those yet on social media — they would break the Internet.

Nowadays, I take negative online comments with a grain of salt. And I actually appreciate the really nasty ones, because at least they mean my work got a reaction. As an artist, I’d rather be hated than ignored. And you can’t ignore that kitchen.

CREATE YOUR OWN WARHOL KITCHEN

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Getting the hang of it: Helpful hints for displaying artwork


People love having art on their walls, but they’re often not so keen on hanging it. I understand. It can be intimidating just to get started. How do you decide what goes where? How high do you hang it? What if you put a hole in the wall then want to change where the picture goes?  So, instead of displaying their art on the walls, many people leave their precious paintings, prints and photographs in a closet or the garage to collect dust. That’s a shame. Even Velvet Elvis deserves to see the light of day. 

Well, fear not, my art-loving friends. It’s really easier than you might think to hang pictures like a pro. Just knowing the basics will empower you to turn your walls into a gallery.

Hang the art at eye level

The most common mistake people make is hanging art too high. Artworks should be at eye level, meaning that when you’re standing, you should be looking at the center of the picture. Although the size of each work varies, as well as each person’s height, a good rule of thumb is to position the center of the picture (measured vertically) between 57 inches and 60 inches from the floor. Of course, if the work is mural-sized and takes up most of the wall, then this rule doesn’t apply.

Work with the scale of the furniture

Another common mistake is to place artworks that are too small for the space allotted. Pieces that hang above a piece of furniture, like a sofa or a console table, should be at least half the width of the furniture, and preferably even three-fourths of the width, or more. It can even extend past the furniture. It’s better to be too big than too small. And if you don’t have a piece of artwork that’s big enough? Then group two or more pieces together so that, in total, they occupy enough wall space to balance the scale of the furniture.

Map it out first 

One of my tricks in hanging artwork, especially when grouping multiple pieces together, is to trace the shape of the works on a piece of butcher paper or newspaper, cut out the shapes, and tape them to the walls. This enables me to experiment with the placement of the art, moving it around without making any nail holes. 

Mix and match frames

When hanging multiple pictures together, give yourself permission to mix and match frames. I know stores often sell frames in sets with identical styles so you don’t have to think about it. But it’s actually very pleasing to the eye to mix up colors and textures — black, light wood, gold leaf, aluminum, etc. And don’t feel you need to match the wood finish on the frames to the wood finishes in your furniture. You don’t live in a Marriott.

Include mats

Mats set off the work to make it look its best. If you compare a picture with a frame alone to that same picture surrounded by a mat and frame, the one with the mat will almost always look better. I remember a recent visit to an art show in which an artist’s scribbles on index cards were framed for all to see. They were scribbles! Yet, because they were framed with a mat, they were suddenly elevated to art. (Sorry, my populist self could not deduce the deeper subtext, and I was left appreciating only the mat.) Although frame shops charge a hefty price to include a mat with your framing, it’s quite economical to buy pre-cut-to-size mats at stores like Aaron Brothers and install it yourself. 

Go nail-less

Some people who rent their homes are not allowed to put holes in the wall. Thanks to removable double-sided adhesive tabs such as 3M Command Strips, renters can still put up artworks without using nails. I was once decorating a client’s bathroom with several framed pictures. As I got out my hammer, I realized the walls were made not of drywall, but concrete. There was no way I was going to be able to put a nail through that concrete. With the client expected home in just a few hours, I quickly drove to the hardware store to pick up some 3M Command Strips. They did the job perfectly. Just be sure you check the package for the weight limitations; there are strips for lighter objects as well as heavier ones. 

Get high

One question I am often asked is how to hang artwork in a room with high ceilings. Again, work with the scale. Rather than hanging art that is proportional only to the width of, say, a sofa, you should aim to display art that is proportional to the height of the room. Tall, vertical pieces work well. My living room has 14-foot ceilings, so I have hung two 8-foot street banners to adorn the wall. Once I was helping a client move into a loft that had one very tall, skinny wall. She owned several paintings she had accumulated through the years, so I displayed them in a vertical line, reaching all the way to the ceiling. The height of the art accentuated the height of the ceiling and made the room look even larger.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Professional tips on clearing clutter and getting organized


There’s a post that’s going around Facebook right now about how creative people have messier workspaces. That certainly fits me. I would show you a picture of the desk I’m typing at right now, but it would ruin your image of me as the consummate style guru. (OK, that may not be your image of me, but let’s move on.)

And don’t even get me started on my closet. It is so packed with clothes, that I can squeeze a shirt in there — without a hanger. Feeling I needed some professional help to get rid of my clutter and get more organized, I consulted with Christel Ferguson of Space to Love, a Los Angeles-based interior decorating firm that specializes in organization and decluttering (” target=”_blank”>jonathanfongstyle.com.

How to make rose ice cubes


Could this be the coolest idea ever? Ice cubes with roses frozen inside will add a glamorous and festive touch to any summer party. They’re also ideal for bridal and baby showers or a romantic dinner for two. Place them in an ice bucket for chilling wine, champagne or sodas, and get ready to melt some hearts. 

The trick to making these ice cubes is to freeze the rose buds while they are submerged in water instead of letting them float on top. Otherwise, only part of the rose will be encased in ice. When I first featured this idea in my book “Flowers That Wow,” I devised a complicated system of wooden skewers, twist ties and tape to keep the roses submerged. I’ve since created a much easier process.

The question that always comes up is whether these ice cubes are edible. While most roses are indeed edible, many growers use pesticides, so I would avoid putting these ice cubes in drinks unless you’re sure no chemicals were used. Just use the ice to cool the bottles of wine or sodas.

What you’ll need:

  • Ice cube trays
  • Distilled water
  • Small roses

 

Step 1: 

Picture this: DIY photo books


We love taking photographs, don’t we? According to Yahoo, 880 billion photos were taken in 2014. Sadly, most of the photos we take remain on our smartphones or SD cards, never to see the light of day. My mother, who witnesses her five children busily snapping photos like paparazzi at every family get-together, constantly complains that although everyone’s taking photos, she never gets to see any of them. 

In our digital age, photos aren’t printed — they’re shared on social media. And even when we do have our photos printed, they typically end up in shoeboxes rather than being displayed in photo albums. 

Thanks to a growing number of online book-printing sites, however, more and more people are compiling their pictures into photo books. And this is not your bubbe’s photo album. The new generation of photo books are bookstore-quality, bound publications that can look like coffee table books. You can create them with drag-and-drop ease, incorporate text, borders and backgrounds, and choose from various binding options. 

Following is a comparison of three popular photo-book publishing services. There are, of course, many more, but rather than confuse you, I am comparing three services I have personally used, so I can speak from experience. 

Shutterfly 

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I have used Shutterfly.com to print photos from my digital camera for more than a decade. When it first launched its photo-book capabilities in 2004, I was an early adopter and became a book-making fiend. Even though the technology was so new at the time, Shutterfly managed to make the creation process extremely user-friendly, easy enough for a novice to figure out  — for we were all novices at the time. 

Fast forward to 2015, and Shutterfly is the dominant player in the photo book market. In fact, when I did an unscientific survey of my friends and family, almost all of them use Shutterfly. Part of the reason is that the site, with its many premade design templates to choose from, is geared to the beginner. 

I would recommend Shutterfly to anyone who’s new to photo books, although I have been using the site less frequently, as I don’t use its pre-designed templates, and other sites offer more design flexibility at a lower price.

Presto Photo

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I was also an early customer of Presto Photo, then known as viovio.com, back when it was run out of the founder’s house in North Carolina. At the time, I was actually not looking for a resource to print photo books, but rather to print press kits. I had been making press kits by making colored photocopies and placing them in a pocketed folder, but the photocopies were expensive, about $1 a page. With Presto Photo, I was able to create a soft-cover, professionally bound press kit that looked like a booklet, or an annual report for about half the price of color photocopying. 

A few years ago, when I was taking a furniture history class at Santa Monica College, our final project was to write a paper comparing and contrasting four pieces of furniture from two different periods. Not content to write a simple paper with some photos attached, I created a hardbound book through Presto Photo using photos I’d taken at the Getty Center and adding text and other illustrations. Needless to say, the other students really hated me for that.

One advantage of Presto Photo is its huge selection of sizes to choose from. Unique to them are mini-sized albums as small as 3 3/4-by-
2 1/2. I’ve made them for unique and memorable party favors. 

While Presto Photo is not as easy to navigate as Shutterfly, it does have drag-and-drop features. I like it because it also allows me to design my book in Photoshop or InDesign first, then upload the PDFs.

Blurb

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Jaws drop when people see the books I’ve had printed through Blurb — they are absolutely gorgeous. Blurb offers hard-cover books with dust jackets, so they look like professionally printed books you would find at a bookstore. I have made coffee table books with my vacation photos, wedding photo books for friends, even cookbooks. And the price is surprisingly affordable. A 100-page hard-cover book with dust jackets costs less than $50. 

What I like about the Blurb book creation process is that you can assemble the book using Blurb’s free downloadable software. Then you upload the book when you’re ready to print. I’ll admit, it’s a little tricky to work with the program. But once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty manageable. They do offer an online bookmaking tool as well.

Not only does Blurb make books that look like they belong in a bookstore, it also functions as a retail site from which you can sell your book. You can set the price mark-up you want and keep the profits. They will even help you sell your book on Amazon, or as an e-book through the Apple iBook store. 

6 things every home should have


Whether you’ve just moved into your first home or have been living in the same house for decades, there are certain home essentials that just make life so much better. 

Everybody has their own “must haves.” (For example, my mom can’t live without a rice cooker.) My suggestions here are certainly not definitive — they may even inspire you to think of more. How many of these essentials are in your home?

 

Nine ways to display your books on a shelf


I recently received a decorating S.O.S. call from a friend. She had just bought a beautiful set of bookcases, and as soon as they were installed in her living room, she eagerly placed all her books on the shelves. But something wasn’t right. It all looked a little blah. Unfinished. Even haphazard. Could I do something about it, she asked.

After staring at the bookcases for a few seconds, I made two quick fixes that took just seconds to do, without rearranging any of the books. And the difference was like night and day. First, I moved all the books forward. Just because a bookshelf is 16-inches deep does not mean you should push all the books to the back to make use of that depth. Next, I lined them all up about an inch from the front of the bookshelf. All of her books, of course, had different widths, but lining them up to the same point gave them a uniformity that was really pleasing to the eye. It’s amazing how those two simple adjustments could so change the look of the bookcases.

After working with design clients over the years, I’ve realized that a lot of people are at a loss when it comes to appointing their bookshelves. Sure, you can just cram a bunch of books in a row, like most people do. But is there an artful way to display your books so that you can show you’re as stylish as you are well read?

Beyond pushing your books forward, let’s look at some different ways to arrange them. Because a picture is worth a thousand words (sorry, books), I’ve photographed nine display configurations — some you undoubtedly already know about, and a few new ones that might spark some design inspiration. 

The Classic Vertical

Is an IKEA Sofa for You?


I have a confession to make. I own an IKEA sofa. 

When I disclose this little tidbit of information, people think I’m kidding. IKEA is great for bookcases and office furniture, but there is still a stigma attached to IKEA’s more substantial furniture pieces, like beds and sofas. So when I was in the market for a new sofa sectional a few months ago, I initially did not consider anything from IKEA. 

The new sofa I was buying was replacing an old sofa from Z Gallerie that was on its last legs. The upholstery was shot. And because the cushion was attached to the frame, I couldn’t just replace the cushion; the entire sofa needed to be reupholstered. 

From my experience with the Z Gallerie sofa, I knew the one most important feature I wanted in my new sofa — removable covers. Reupholstering a sofa often costs more than buying a new one. Slipcovered sofas made sense for me, but I did not like the style of traditional slipcovered sofas I was seeing in stores. I’m just not a shabby chic kind of person. If only I could find a modern sofa with removable, replaceable slipcovers.

That’s when a nagging voice in my head kept telling me (in a Swedish accent) to think about IKEA. Because IKEA offers its sofas in a variety of colors, yet aims to keep inventory and its signature “flatpacking” manageable, most of its sofas come with removable covers. Eureka! But how’s the quality? The comfort? The style?

Knowing you can’t judge a sofa by an online photo, I ventured to the IKEA store in Carson to give it the old Goldilocks, trying every sofa to see which one — if any — felt just right.

At the top of my list was the Friheten. It is a thoughtfully designed, compact sectional that folds out into a bed, and best of all, is available in hot pink. Hot pink, people! There’s even a hidden storage compartment under one of the cushions. I was ready to buy it … until I sat on it. The cushions are so stiff I could not imagine lounging on the Friheten for more than a few minutes. In a way, it would be ideal for out-of-town guests because it would make them want to leave.

Next, I tried the Ektorp, which was actually quite comfortable. I could picture it in a cozy Scandinavian farmhouse. But comfortable as it was, the traditional style did not go with my modern décor. 

Then I sat on the Karlstad. Now this was more like it. Here was a sofa that had clean, contemporary lines. The cushions had just the right amount of give. And it had a wide selection of cushion-cover fabrics. I really loved that these cushion covers were form-fitting and did not look at all like slipcovers. The one minus of the Karlstad was the ugly legs. They are rectangular light-wood blocks that scream “cheap.” Fortunately, IKEA sells modern aluminum legs that go with the Karlstad for only $20 per set of four. 

So, after more bouncing up and down on the showroom pieces, I purchased my first IKEA sofa — the Karlstad chaise/loveseat combination. I selected the Isunda Gray fabric, which is a beautiful tweed that seemed very durable. And the retail price of my configuration was just $829.

I was warned that assembly was required on the sofa, but I figured that meant I would just have to screw in the legs and put on the cushion covers. Oh no, was I mistaken. When the delivery people dropped off the multiple boxes in my house (I recall there were at least seven different boxes I had to take apart), I realized I would have to basically assemble the whole frame, connecting the seat, back and arms. Fun.

But you know what? It wasn’t that hard to put together. It did take me almost three hours, because we’re talking four separate assembly manuals totaling 64 pages, but each individual step was easy. And I’m not that handy.

So how is the sofa holding up? Sofa, so good. The cushions are holding their shape quite nicely, and the fabric still looks new. It has not pilled, even with the dogs’ occasional scratching. I am actually not that worried, because worst-case scenario, if the upholstery is destroyed, I can buy replacement covers at IKEA for about $200. 

Is an IKEA sofa for everyone? Of course not. But if you keep an open mind, there are several benefits to an IKEA sofa that you won’t find with other brands. I find it interesting that while there is a perception that IKEA furniture does not last, the ability to change out the upholstery in many of its sofas actually gives the furniture a longevity lacking in more expensive options. 

And one more nugget of information: I wrote this column sitting on the Karlstad, using one of the sofa arms as my laptop table. Like I said before, IKEA’s always been great for office furniture. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” ”Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on

Decorating to improve your love life


Admit it. The first time you visit the home of someone you’ve just started dating, don’t you love to snoop around the place to get some clue about this potential mate? You might look at the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, maybe the style of furniture to get an idea of their interests and tastes. But a home speaks volumes more about a person than that.

A home reveals your personality. It says where you are right now in life. And it reflects how ready you are for a relationship.

So what is your home saying about you? Is it saying you’re a real catch? Or is it telling the world you’re stuck in the ’90s? 

Even if your home is sending out distress signals, you can decorate and accessorize to invite love into your life. Here are just a few tips to boost your home’s romance quotient. Because when you make a few changes to where you live, you’ll be making big changes to how you live. 

Get rid of white walls

If you ask people why they have white walls, they’ll probably say, “I don’t have time to paint” or “I didn’t want to pick a color and then see that it was a mistake.” Think about it. Don’t these excuses sound like reasons people avoid relationships? Write this down and put it in your fortune cookie: If you can’t commit to a color, how can you commit to a relationship? 

You’re probably a pretty good judge of color already, you just don’t know it. Go into your closet and pick out your favorite items of clothing. What do you wear over and over again? Which outfits do people always seem to compliment you on? If you look so good wearing these colors, you’ll also look good with these colors surrounding you. 

Sampling colors on your wall doesn’t have to be risky. Many companies like Home Depot sell little jars of their paint colors that you can try out. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. If you don’t like it, try another, and then another. It’s just like dating. If it doesn’t work out, just move on to the next one. And you don’t have to worry about hurting the color’s feelings because you didn’t call back.

Lose the clutter

Before you get into a relationship, you need to get rid of your emotional baggage. The same thing goes for the unnecessary physical baggage that’s cluttering your home. From the looks of all their out-of-date magazines, you’d think some people were dentists. Throw all the junk away. This goes especially for items that remind you of a past relationship. That stuffed bear your ex won for you at the arcade? Dump it. Those maracas from that party you threw together? Hasta la vista! From this day forward, you are starting with a clean slate, so let your home reflect that. Then you’ll be open to filling your home with new souvenirs, new memories and new relationships.

Get comfy

Male or female, everyone loves a softie. How inviting is your furniture? Does it allow people to kick their feet up and stay a while? Without having to make big purchases, just incorporating some pillows and throws with luxurious, soft textures can help make up for a lumpy sofa. Area rugs will warm up a space, especially if you have hardwood floors. And soft lighting not only makes you look better, it casts a glow that puts everyone at ease.

Buy housewares in complete sets

When you’re buying dishes, buy the complete set for eight with the salad plates and those cups and saucers you’ll never use. When you’re buying towels, buy the whole set with matching hand towels and washcloths. (And buy more than one set.) Why? First, it shows that you are now an adult. You’re not a college student anymore, so don’t accessorize your home like you’re still in a dorm. 

The most important reason, though, is because it used to be that people waited until they got married before they got these items (and usually they were gifts). But by owning them before you’re married, you’re telling the universe that you are comfortable as a single person. You have a life. You are not waiting to get married to feel complete. And, ironically, it’s usually when you accept that you’re already a whole person that you happen to find your other half.

We spend so much effort on new hairstyles, clothes and teeth-whitening kits when we hit the dating scene that we forget it’s our homes that are the true reflection of ourselves. So the next time a date comes over, remember that your home is an open book.

Make it a book with a happy ending. 


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls that Wow,” ”Flowers that Wow” and “Parties that Wow,” and host of “Style with a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on

Confessions of an ex-hoarder


I’ve run out of excuses for hanging on to stuff.

No, I haven’t achieved Zen non-attachment to material things, but I’m no longer on the road to “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”

It was easiest to get rid of the piles of unread magazines.  Those now get the heave-ho every few months.  The fear that had made me their custodian, which I’d confused with the theoretical pleasure I’d have when I’d eventually read them, was the chance I’d miss something important.  The reality, it turns out, is that if I do overlook some essential, or just juicy, journalism, I’ll hear about it from a friend, or online, and saving a link to it for reading later, even if later never comes, requires no real estate from my non-virtual life.

Clothes were harder to let go.  I didn’t really believe that wide ties would come back, or that someday I’d be glad I saved those tap shoes (don’t ask).  But it was easy for me to mistake my closet for a scrapbook, to treat old clothes like souvenirs of where, when and who I was when I got them. When that happens now, I remind myself that if I’m warehousing something I haven’t touched for years in order to keep alive the guy who once wore it, it’s less punishing to put a selfie of it on my hard drive than to be sentenced to a lifetime of curating my personal wardrobe museum. 

Book-hoarder has been an even tougher role to jailbreak.  It’s intellectually respectable to have your own library.  I love looking at all those spines on all those shelves; they map the cultural journey I’ve taken, and no Kindle can duplicate that experience.  But shelving books three-deep, which I’d been reduced to, was a labor of guilt, not love.  I still can’t throw books away; it feels sinful, even if I didn’t like them, even if I never have or will read them.  But I’ve learned that I can drop off cartons of books at the local public library with a perfectly clear conscience.  If they end up in a dumpster, my hands are clean.

But these were all baby steps.  My big problem, the ball I’ve chained myself to for decades, is the stack of boxes, currently numbering 33, in my garage.  Every move I’ve made – from my parents’ home, to dorm rooms, to apartments and houses and homes of my own – has included the fiction that it’ll be easier to deal with those multiplying cardboard boxes at the other end, when I unpack.  Of course, I never do. 

At first, it was just mail that I saved.  When I was a kid, getting a letter was as unusual, though for different reasons, as it is today.  I loved mail.  Corresponding with someone beyond the bounds of my family bunker was evidence of my growing autonomy, a validation of my nascent identity.  I could no more throw letters away than I could toss a Kodachrome in the trash.  Yes, I saved pictures, too.  And postcards.  And comic books, baseball cards, Mad magazines, geometry projects, ticket stubs, lists of books I’d read and places I wanted to go – anything that testified to my existence.

In college, I couldn’t bear to throw away the spiral notebooks I had filled so carefully with notes, not to mention the course catalogues, term papers, student publications that ran what I wrote, calendars, address books, I.D. cards. Travel added new categories of ephemera to save – odd matchbooks, cool baggage tags, train schedules, hostel receipts, shells from Greek islands and sand from Israeli deserts.  I don’t think it was OCD; it was proof of my cosmopolitanism, and prophylaxis against amnesia.

Once in the work world, it was effortless to justify the files I kept amassing.  Those pieces of paper made up a personal archive, priceless material for the memoirs I’d one day write and the biographies that would doubtless be written about me.  Surely future historians would be grateful for the 18 drafts of Vice President Mondale’s acceptance speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, the relentless pre-production script notes I wrote on “Three Men and a Baby,” the letters I got from baffled friends and newfound fans when Time published a piece I wrote in praise of mysticism. 

It’s a wonder I was able confine this monument to me to 33 boxes. 

Today I’m on the road to recovery.  Marvels like document scanning and cloud storage are enabling my rehab, and though I suppose there’s still the risk that I might turn Dropbox into my digital garage, I’m now throwing away more stuff than I’m converting to PDFs.  But it isn’t technology that’s motivated my self-intervention, or the panic of seeing myself in the mirror of a Discovery Channel hoarding show.  It’s the freedom I’ve given myself to entertain some humbling thoughts.

The truth is that pretty much no one is going to need this stuff I’ve saved, least of all me.  I’m not going to use the 1978 White House phone directory to recall the names that will trigger the anecdotes that will make Chapter 4 of my hypothetical memoir sing.  (Those 18 drafts, though, are going to the Minnesota Historical Society.)  Shakespeare’s tax records may be gold, and Ben Franklin’s juvenilia may inspire entire dissertations, but the list of dishes I ate on my first trip to Italy are biographically fascinating to no one.  The day when I finally have the time to savor the call sheets of the first movie I wrote will likely also be the day I’m evaluated for dementia.  Maybe, out of all the mail I’ve hoarded, there’s a way to reconstruct who I was then to the person who wrote it, but I’d rather give those packets of letters back to their authors – which I’ve actually begun doing – than disappear down the forensic rabbit hole of reading them.

There’s no mystery why I’ve saved so much stuff: to prove that I’m alive, that I’m someone, that my trail on this earth is worth preserving.  My fear of letting go of those boxes is the fear of mortality, the fear of not having become worthy enough to investigate and document.  What’s taken me too long to recognize is that the present moment is more than enough time to manifest and appreciate that worth; that its measure is not what some stranger may someday find riveting; that its meaning and poignancy derive not from the fear of death, but the love of life. 


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

A realtor with Knack


Sharona Alperin “sold” her first home while still in her late teens. 

At the time, Alperin was several years away from gaining her Realtor’s license, and both the circumstances and the client were a bit unique. Doug Fieger, the lead singer of the rock group the Knack, was looking for a home base in Los Angeles. While actual Realtors searched for listings, Alperin was the one who showed more than a dozen properties. 

She had what might be considered a stronger-than-average interest in this process. Alperin was Fieger’s girlfriend, and they were planning on living in it together. (That never happened — there were issues with the house and then they ended up breaking up — but she is that Sharona, the one immortalized in the Knack’s 1979 No. 1 song, “My Sharona.”)

Picture, then, a young woman in denim, sunglasses and a black motorcycle jacket being picked up by real estate professionals and driven around to million-dollar homes. Even as a teenager, the yeshiva-educated Alperin had a talent for going room to room and conveying a property’s possibilities.

“I grew up in sales,” said Alperin, who now lives by Hancock Park. “I was in my father’s furniture showroom when I was 13 and 14. I sold clothes [on Third Street as a high-schooler]. And it wasn’t just that I had the art of selling. I think I had an affinity for architecture, for a house being a home.”

The Realtors who accompanied her noticed Alperin’s skill and urged her to consider home sales as a career. She agreed, eventually falling under the mentorship of Alan Long, founding partner of Dalton, Brown & Long Realtors, which later became DBL Realtors. More than two decades later, she is routinely one of the top-selling agents for Sotheby’s International Realty, which acquired DBL in 2004. A few times a year, she teaches a training class titled “Sharona’s Street Smarts.”

“Everything has changed,” she said, “except the true soul of real estate, which is finding a home.”   

One of the basic tenets of being a successful Realtor, she says, is the ability to listen to your clients, to hear what they want rather than to impose your vision upon them. 

“Sometimes as an agent, we’re there to facilitate and to open their minds to possibilities, but we need to hear what they’re really asking for, what they’re identifying with and what’s really important,” she said.

When not out in the field, she can be found at Sotheby’s Sunset Strip office or through the Web site mysharona.com. Not only was she the namesake of the hit written by Fieger and Knack guitarist Berton Averre, but her image — wearing a white tank-top and jeans and clutching the album “Get the Knack” — adorns the single’s cover. Through the song’s longevity, her name has become her professional calling card. 

“I want to say 90 percent of my life over the last 30 plus years, when I say my name, someone says, ‘Oh like ‘My Sharona’? Even if they don’t say it, I can tell in my head that they’re humming it,” Alperin said. “I don’t always say, ‘Yes, that’s me. I’m “My Sharona.” ’ I don’t always engage, but many, many times, of course, I do.”

Many of Alperin’s clients are celebrities, and her experience with Fieger and in the rock world helped her get in tune with the unique needs of her clientele. Perhaps a client may need a special media room, a secluded backyard or extensive space for entertaining. Privacy can be needed as well. 

“We can have paparazzi issues,” Alperin said. “I could be showing a property on the Sunset Strip, and in the final moments, security comes up and points out a building on Sunset that could be looking into the bedroom or yard and it nixes the whole thing. Some very famous clients may need an egress gate in the back or a way of getting from their garage into their house without having to walk through the front door. They all have different needs, and not just the stars.”

The daughter of Marvin and Miriam Alperin, she grew up near the Fairfax District. Educated at Hillel Hebrew Academy, she jokes that she followed the usual path of a young Jewish girl, going from yeshiva to sites around the world for four years with a rock ’n’ roll band.   

Now married to Jason Aizenberg and the mother of 14-year old Eden and 10-year-old Adam, Alperin still loves to travel, but maintains, “I live and breathe real estate.”

Eco-friendly home reveals ‘greener’ pastures ahead [SLIDESHOW]


As scientists continue to warn us that our over-consumption of natural resources is putting too great a strain on our planet, the idea of sustainability — of reducing one’s carbon footprint, recycling and finding a cleaner, greener future — has never been more popular. And while the green trend has been picking up steam in the home-building world, there aren’t many places where it’s been more evident than at the new Vision House in Pacific Palisades, and in the work of its interior designer, Jill Wolff.

The Vision House is a concept of Green Builder Media, a leading national North American media company focused on green building and sustainable development, who previously constructed Vision Houses — state-of-the-art, environmentally conscious dwellings — in cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Aspen, Colo. Two years ago, Robert Kleiman, one of the co-founders of Los Angeles-based Structure Home, was looking to become more green in his own home designs. He noticed Green Builder’s leadership in the area and contacted the firm for help.

“It’s easy to learn individually how to build green,” said Kleiman, speaking by phone from his offices, “but it’s hard to teach a whole culture.” Kleiman knew that with Green Builder’s help, Structure Home could learn from the best, and so the Vision House Los Angeles was born. 

Wolff, the owner and founder of Jill Wolff Interior Design, has worked on more than 300 homes in the Los Angeles area over the past 25 years. The Vision House, however, presented a new challenge for her, and a learning experience. “I learned so much about green design and sustainability on this project,” Wolff said. 

Touring the home, which sits on a gently sloping residential street in Pacific Palisades, offers a master class in the use of space. The house sits on a long, narrow lot that “was actually the swimming pool for the house next door,” according to Wolff, who tailored much of her design, in concert with the architects, to make “it feel like it’s not just a skinny, narrow, bowling alley kind of house.”

The main entrance is at the center of the home, leading on one side into a spacious living and dining area with tall, movable glass walls that open onto a carefully landscaped back yard. On the other side, a downstairs office sports huge glass doors that let in ample natural light. Nothing about the home feels cramped or narrow. 

“From the exterior you have an anticipation of what it’s going to be,” Wolff said. “But when you walk through the door and you see the comfort level and the coziness and the warmth of the materials that are used, it takes you on a different trip.” Much of the home’s colorful and often-whimsical art was made by graduates of Otis College of Art and Design.

Wolff said she got her start in design at an early age. “I decided that I wanted to be an interior designer when I was 8 years old,” she said, laughing. “I decided that because my mom’s best friend was an interior decorator, and she had decorated our house, and I had loved the whole process of it. I thought it was so fun and so creative.”

After high school, she studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “I was lucky enough to intern with a big-time Hollywood designer named Barbara Lockhart, and that just clinched the whole deal,” Wolff said. “I had all these great women that influenced me in my career, and I’ve been working ever since.”

The Vision House was an unusual project for Wolff, she said. “Since it’s a spec house, and I didn’t really have clients, I created a faux family … a kind of fantasy of who the family is going to be.” The house abounds with recycled materials, including a wagon wheel that has been turned into a mirror and corrugated cardboard shaped into surprisingly beautiful light fixtures.

The home also showcases technology such as hydronic radiant heating, solar panels and a gray-water system with ultraviolet disinfection. “The Vision House has the latest in technology, but I want people to see that if they’re clever and if they think about it, they can bring a level of sustainability into their own homes,” said Wolff. “Anything is a start.”

Most of all, Wolff shows that green living can be fun and fashionable: “I really want people to see that it can be comfortable, it can be cozy … and it can be unexpected,” Wolff said. “It’s not just green to be green. It’s green to create a better life for someone.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s home vandalized again


The northern California home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Tikkun magazine, was vandalized for the fourth time in the last year.

In an e-mail sent to Tikkun supporters, Lerner said that on Tuesday evening, two black-hooded men pasted signs on the outside of his house and garage saying that “Palestine is an Arab fantasy.” The statement was a reference to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who called the Palestinians an “invented” people.

Earlier in the day, Lerner had appeared on a local National Public Radio affiliate to discuss his book “Embracing Israel/Palestine” and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“It seems obvious to me that the attack, while responding to the NPR interview with me this morning, is part of the same attempt to terrorize me and my family as the past three assaults,” Lerner wrote in his e-mail. “As the police made clear to us the last time, the goal is not to destroy property as much as to remind us that they know where we live, and that we are not safe.

“Needless to say, in a world where Israeli right-wingers this past week burned a mosque and assaulted an IDF (Israeli army) post for allegedly being too pro-Arab, there is no way to be sure that all these warning shots at me are only meant to scare and do not suggest that worse may be coming if my book gets more attention.”

Lerner said that he would not let the incident intimidate him.

Never Too Old to Write a Letter … of Torah


The Jewish Home for the Aging has never had a Torah it could call its own. Since the home first opened in 1912, synagogues or individuals have donated Siferei Torah to the senior-living community, but the scrolls were often old and tarnished, with faded letters or finger smudges on the parchment. These Torahs are considered pasul, or unfit for public reading, but they were the only ones available to the home for religious services.

Now the Reseda-based home, which provides care to about 2,200 seniors through its in-residence housing and community-based programs, is in the process of creating its own kosher Torah — a “Torah for the Ages,” as the project is being called.

“It’s upsetting to this point we haven’t had our own Torah,” said Corey Slavin, vice president of fund development, who with home CEO Molly Forrest conceived the project.

Slavin said the $200,000 raised for the project more than covers its costs, and remaining funds will be dedicated to various programs and services at the home. The home expects its Torah, begun April 13, 2008, to be completed sometime in 2010.

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, who has worked locally as a sofer (Torah scribe) for 15 years, was commissioned to write the Torah, which will rotate between the home’s synagogues at the Eisenberg Village and Grancell Village campuses when finished. Officials hope the Torah will inspire its residents and their families to remain or become connected to their faith and community.

The Torah’s production is quite a community effort. In keeping with the 613th and final commandment mentioned in the Torah — “Now write this song for yourself and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19) — residents, family members, sponsors and anyone else who wants to may write a letter in the home’s Torah. Thus far about 100 people have written in the scroll.

Rabbi Sheldon Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said that writing in the Torah is considered the responsibility of each Jew.

During a writing session on Feb. 22, 101-year-old Cedelle Weiner found herself up close and personal with the Torah for only the second time in her life.

The first time was a year ago.

She said she did not feel very Jewish until coming to the home and found she was inspired to study with Rabbi Anthony Elman, who works at the home’s Grancell Village campus.

“This is a completely new life for me,” Weiner said as she underwent the ritual hand washing and said the appropriate blessings.

After sitting down next to Rabbi Miller, the scribe, Weiner put her hand on his and watched as he filled in a silhouetted letter from the word hamoftim (“wonders”) from the Torah’s penultimate sentence: “He had no equal for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants….” (Deuteronomy 34:11).

“The home is fantastic,” Weiner said when she was done. “I have been entertained, and now I’m getting a Jewish religion I have never had. At 101, I’m doing something different, and I am now writing [in the Torah], which I never did before.”

Rose Bentow, 86, almost couldn’t contain her excitement as she fulfilled the commandment. She was one of several Holocaust survivors who were sponsored by family members, community members or total strangers to come and write a letter in the scroll.

The moment harkened her back to her small Polish town, circa 1928. Her grandfather told her to stay out of a particular room because a man was writing the Torah and couldn’t be bothered.

Little Rose’s curiosity got the better of her, so she quietly opened the door.

“I said, ‘He’s playing with a feather. He’s not writing,’” she recalled. “I asked my grandparents, ‘Why can’t I go in?’ They said, ‘This is how you write the Torah.’”

Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said everyone experiences the moment differently.

“It looks like just someone writing letters on a piece of parchment,” he said. “But it’s a spiritual event. People feel it spiritually, emotionally. It’s hard to put into words.

“Children see it simply. But when you’re older, you appreciate it differently, especially when we recite the Shehecheyanu. The idea of living to this point is amazing. That process heightens sensitivity to the mitzvah that’s about to happen.”

For more information about the Torah for the Ages, visit http://www.jha.org.

This time, I remember


We’re sitting around my parents’ dining room in Century City for Shabbat dinner, and the conversation veers toward our childhoods in Iran.

My cousin, who’s a few years older than I (though you’d never guess it by looking at her, because she has that remarkable ability to forgive the world instantly for all its cruelties), is talking about the big house on Shah Reza Street where I grew up — how grand and magnificent it had seemed to her in those years, how every time she came over with her parents and sisters, she felt awed and startled by the vast garden with the many pools, the high, forbidding walls of yellow bricks, the outsized halls and heavy velvet drapes and 12-foot-high French doors that opened onto tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings.

Across the table from her, another cousin, this one from the other side of the family, concurs. “We were scared to talk or move or, God forbid, play there when we came over,” she says. “That just wasn’t the kind of place where you did silly childish things,” she says. “It seemed like everything that happened there was serious and important and dramatic.”

They go on like this for a few minutes while my mother fusses with the dinner.

They’re playing that “Do you remember?” game I dread because I’m so bad at it, because I don’t remember anything — ever — unless I’m writing about it; it’s like I read a book of stories once and memorized every line, and after that I stopped seeing or learning anything ever again. So I never participate in these reminiscences and certainly never encourage them; I try to slip away unnoticed when the conversation begins or, if that’s not an option, I explain that I’ve been in a coma my whole life, I’m brain-damaged, yes, I’m sure I was there, right along with you, when all this happened but I might as well have been on Mars for all the impression it’s left.

Except this time, I know exactly what they’re all talking about.

I remember the house — every corner and back door and hidden stairway in it, every ancient tree and life-sized statue and fresh-water pool in the yard, every rusted metal gate, razor-wired brick wall, secret passageway and narrow tunnel and dark alley. I remember all the rooms, the kitchens, the servants’ quarters. The French, hand-carved furniture, Czech crystals, Persian rugs, Italian marble floors. To me, it had the aura of a place in decline — a fortress of pride and vanity, built with the kind of care and attention that implies unwavering faith, unabashed arrogance, a certain confidence in one’s immortality.

Built by my grandfather when his children were very young, it had stood stalwart against the decades and the many turns of history, resisted the carnage of time and the pull of entropy, the many upheavals in the city’s constitution, the decay of the streets, the onslaught of traffic, the mass immigration from the countryside to the city. And yes, it was indeed the scene of great drama and outsized stories, not the kind of place that tolerated childhood. So when my forever-young cousin turns to me with a bemused smile and asks, “Do you remember?” I can actually say “Yes, I do remember, this one I remember well.”

What I can’t say is how shocked I am to learn that we all have such similar impressions, all these years later, of the house on Shah Reza Street. That I never thought anyone else would remember the place as I did, never knew how much of what I remembered was factually correct. I never knew how much larger, more theatrical that house had become in my imagination, how different — smaller — I would find it when I went back to Iran.

It’s been 30 years since I saw the house, I want to say, and this is the first time I realize that other people saw it as well, and perhaps in the same way. It’s been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I’m going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it’s indeed 12 feet high, or if I’ve imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street. Everything else I knew or thought I knew about Iran has changed with time; even my sense of belonging, my sense of familiarity with the people and the language and the customs of the place, has faded beyond recognition, but somehow, I know it will all come back the minute I see the house, that I will recapture all my lost memories, be able to tell truth from fiction, to put together the many pieces of myself that now lie across the landscape of time.

I would go back to the house some day, I’ve always thought, and no matter how old it’s become, how many other families have lived in it and how many changes it has undergone, I will walk into the first floor hallway and smell my grandfather’s cigarette smoke, climb the steps to the second floor and find my older sister, so quiet and innocent the teachers call her “the holy mother,” listening to Barry White while she does her math homework. I will walk into the bedroom where the three of us girls sleep and see my old bed just where I left it the day we flew out of Iran for what turned out to be the last time. I will open the closets and find my old clothes, pull the drawers and rescue my plastic dolls from their 30-year slumber.

My childhood. My parents’ youth. My little sister with the hazel eyes and the red hair and the tiny hands holding popsicle sticks as she walked around the house on scorching summer afternoons, the orange ice melting against her impossibly white skin. My beautiful aunt with the dark brown eyes and the short, short skirts, the red patent-leather boots, the fearlessness with which she announced one day she was going to America — “to New York, or L.A., or whatever,” she said — to study.

Half an hour into the meal, my mother has finally finished running back and forth into the kitchen, bringing out a new dish every three minutes and chiding the kids for not eating enough, all this dieting will make you sick your bones will hollow out you won’t be able to study your skin will turn grey hasn’t anyone warned you about the dangers of malnutrition?

“You have,” my little niece whispers quietly, “just about every week.”

My mother ignores the response, sits down at the table and overhears the conversation about the house. She puts a plateful of rice in front of my younger son and says, as casually as if she were still talking about food, “They tore it down.”

The others are too engrossed in the chatter to take note of what has been said, but I turn to her and ask, “What’s been torn down?”

“The house,” she says. “They tore it down.”

She has said this too matter-of-factly, with too little emotion, so I don’t believe we’re talking about the same place.

“What house?” I ask. “Who’s ‘they’?”

At the other end of the table, my cousins and sisters have stopped talking; my daughter, who’s been taking Farsi lessons at UCLA and is therefore more attentive than usual to family talk (what she calls “Persians’ strange stories”) is looking at me as if to glean the importance of some house being torn down somewhere in the world.

“I don’t know who ‘they’ are,” my mother says. “But they tore down the house on Shah Reza Street. My brother drove by the other day and saw it was all gone, the whole place has been leveled, probably a while ago already.”

For a moment, no one speaks. I don’t know what the others are thinking but for me, the news has repercussions greater than can be processed in the course of one evening or one whole day. I’m not sure what it means, or why I hadn’t been told sooner, or why my parents don’t seem particularly disturbed by this.

I don’t know why my sisters don’t ask, why my cousins slowly pick up the conversation and go on in the same vein, playing the “Do you remember” game about a place that, until minutes ago, had been eternal, everlasting, my true North.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Where Is Home? U.S. or Israel?


One, two, tree.”

“No, dad! It’s one, two, thhhhreeee.”

Growing up with Israeli parents in Los Angeles was often uncomfortable. I never felt completely at home. My parents were not locals, yet I was. They pronounced things differently with heavy accents: “Thhhhreeee,” not, “tree!”

It was funny, but awkward. Here I was correcting my father’s English. I got a real kick out of it, but deep inside I was confused. Where was home?

Every summer we would visit Israel, yet I did not feel entirely at home there either. I was a spoiled kid from ritzy Los Angeles who found Tel Aviv dirty and hot. I loved spending time with my cousins at Gordon Beach and hiking around the Negev with local Israeli summer camps. Nevertheless, during these visits, I was convinced that home was a plane ride away. Home was in Encino or Santa Monica, even LAX. Back in Los Angeles, though, the same sense of uncertainty waited for me patiently at the terminal.

My Israeli background did not usually serve as a source of pride, but rather a cause of confusion and even embarrassment. I even refused to speak Hebrew with my parents, answering in English whenever I was asked something in this foreign tongue.

Trying to blossom without roots can be very frustrating, and I would often be angry with my parents: Why were my roots so far and distant from me? In Los Angeles I lacked that deep connection to place, people and heritage. My parents sent my brothers and me to Hebrew school and surrounded us with their Israeli friends and their kids. But these efforts to create a Jewish/Israeli identity always seemed forced and unnatural to me — as if we were trying to import roots from Israel and plant them in foreign soil.

When I turned 15, my family and I moved to Israel. The first years were hell. I didn’t understand the language and even failed many of my classes. I felt frustrated and alone. How could my parents do this to me? Right when high school was getting exciting we move to this crazy country where I wake up in the night to the sound of the neighboring Arab village’s misgad (mosque). In the morning, I would wake up to the sound of a donkey — where the hell was I?

In the army, my connection with the land, the people and the country began to flourish. I was forced to question why I lived in Israel, why I served in the army — why was I ready to die for this country? Over time, a strong sense of belonging and identity grew within me. I began to feel passionate about Israel, and six years, later I left the army as a captain commander, after stressing to hundreds of soldiers that Israel is our home and that we must fight day and night to protect her.

Now I study at Columbia University. Is it hypocritical to educate soldiers to serve their country and then get on a plane to NYC for four years? Today, I know it is not. Growing up in Los Angeles and studying in New York has broadened my mind. I am able to appreciate what other Israelis often neglect, and I don’t take Israel for granted. I’ve worked hard to build my sense of home and reconnect to my roots, similar to the way my people have, after thousands of years, built their home and reconnected to their ancient roots in Israel. Now that I have such a connection, I am able to derive strength from it, regardless of my physical location.

It brings me both pain and joy to see Israelis in the United States searching for stability and identity, as I once did. Many are driven by economic goals and dreams; others arrive because they are sick and tired of a country that is so complex and intense.

Through my experiences, I was forced to search for the roots I felt I was lacking. Maybe other Israelis in America and other Americans in Israel are experiencing something similar. Whether I choose to live here, there, or in both countries, one thing I’ve learned for sure is that the search never ends.

Edoe Cohen is studying political science and economics at Columbia University, and modern Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Saying Goodbye 101


On Sept. 1, my husband, Larry, and I will move our son, Gabriel, into his dormitory room at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he will begin his freshman year.

How do we formally honor this important rite of passage that, more than a bar mitzvah and more than his high school graduation, marks Gabe’s entrance into adulthood, with all the concomitant responsibilities?

Let me say that another way.

How do we kiss Gabe goodbye without dissolving into pitiful, sobbing fools who will undoubtedly embarrass our son and ourselves?

Judaism gives us plenty of advice on child-rearing. Proverbs 22:6, for example, says, “Train a child in the way he should go, so when he is old he will not depart from it.”

But what Judaism doesn’t give us, when a child is old enough to depart from us, is a ritual to mark the sanctity of the occasion and, no matter how much we anticipate the eventual prospect of an empty nest, to contain our overwhelming emotions.

“By its very nature, this is something that can’t be contained,” Gabe insists. “I just have to go out and live it.”

But how do we live it?

We, who know from experience — our oldest, Zack, is beginning his senior year of college — how gut-wrenching the actual leave-taking is.

We, who know from experience how permanently our family configuration will — once again — seismically shift.

What can we do beyond opening a new checking account and beyond ordering, among other things, two sets of extra-long sheets and a hamper?

And beyond playing Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” over and over in the car and hysterically crying, a form of implosion therapy recommended by my psychologist friend Jody, whose oldest child leaves for college this month.

Surprisingly, Judaism offers a number of leaving home ceremonies. The oldest I discovered, dating back to the 1970s and found in “The Second Jewish Catalogue” (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), is called “On Leaving Home: A New Rite of Passage.” It recommends several home rituals, since Judaism places so much emphasis on the family, that range from hosting Havdalah, the quintessential Jewish separation ceremony, to invoking the traditional Jewish blessing over the children.

Others can be found on www.ritualwell.org, a Web site that collects and makes available a variety of innovative Jewish ceremonies and traditions. One includes a father’s prayer to be read at the Shabbat table while another provides a ceremony for affixing, if permissible, a mezuzah on the child’s dorm doorpost.

And the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) publishes “T’filot HaDerech,” “Rituals for the Road to College” (available at www.urj.org). Part of the Packing for College Initiative, proposed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the union’s 67th biennial almost two years ago, the booklet includes rituals and readings for congregations, families and individuals to celebrate this modern life passage.

Additionally, a few congregations have moved confirmation to the end of 12th grade, enabling the students, according to Rabbi Fred Guttman’s article in the spring 2005 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “… to intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults — the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.”

But why haven’t these leaving home ceremonies taken off? Why aren’t we gathering together as families, as day school classes and as congregations before sending our 18-year-olds off to college? After all, we Jews are adept at marking life transitions that challenge and overwhelm us — birth, adolescence, marriage and death — with ceremonies that comfort, contain and sustain us.

“Perhaps it’s because we tend to focus on b’nai mitzvah, confirmation and graduation,” Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs at URJ, says. “As a whole, we see [leaving home] as a natural progression that just sort of happens and doesn’t need something to bring it home spiritually.”

But he recognizes the need, along with the beauty and power, of a ceremony to bring parents and young adults together at this moment.

And so, on Aug. 26, the Shabbat prior to Gabe’s departure, Larry and I will integrate a small ceremony into our Shabbat dinner, something to give voice to our excitement and our pain, our pride and our fears.

“What do you plan to do?” Gabe asks suspiciously.

“We will each say something nice about you and talk about what we will miss most,” I answer.

“This is serious, isn’t it?” he says.

And Larry and I will bestow the traditional blessing: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face give light to you and show you favor. May God bestow favor upon you and give you peace.”

Carleton College has given us parents a graph to show just how bumpy a student’s adjustment to college can be — from honeymoon to culture shock to initial adjustment to mental isolation to acceptance and integration.

We parents have an equally bumpy road ahead.

And so, on Sept. 2, when Larry and I say our final goodbye to Gabe, no matter how meaningful our last Shabbat dinner and no matter how many times we have cried to “Forever Young,” we will undoubtedly fall apart.

Then, as Gabe says, we will just have to go out and live it.

 

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