Sunday, October 31, 2010

A pumpkin-carving good time

When it comes to pumpkin carving, I have minimal experience. I have carved about four pumpkins in my life, including the one I carved today. I think it's fun to have our pumpkin reflect (pun intended) something about our little family. With Matt's 30th birthday six days away, I figured this year's pumpkin should be a tribute to that (scary) milestone.

I finally put to use some pumpkin carving tools from Crate and Barrel that Matt's parents generously gifted me with a couple years ago. Up until now I had used just a kitchen knife (probably a bad idea) and I'd never experimented with the wide world of sculpting with a v-cutter in addition to carving. The good news: it is a lot easier to carve a pumpkin with designated pumpkin-carving tools. All told, it took me about 45 minutes to prepare and carve my pumpkin. The other good news: now our house smells like roasted pumpkin seeds -- yum!

As I get ready for the little trick-o-treaters of our neighborhood, I'll let today's photos do the talking.

Hopefully our little pumpkin will make it through this upcoming Saturday when we have some friends over for a low-key 30th birthday party for Matt.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kansas City here we come

Once again, dear readers, I seek your advice.

Here's the end of the story:
Anyone who has lived in or traveled to Kansas City: what are some downtown, high-school-kid-friendly eateries you'd recommend? What about high-school-kid-friendly sightseeing? Any advice appreciated!

Here's the beginning of the story:
So, what's one thing that's been keeping me busy lately? Besides planning lessons, grading papers, going to lots of meetings, advising my newspaper and broadcast students after school...and the 40 other things I do on a daily basis at work, I'm also working with another teacher to plan a trip for 29 students and 3 adults to Kansas City, Missouri for four days next month. We'll be attending an annual scholastic journalism convention. The location changes every year, but the concept is generally the same: spend a few days with a bunch of high school students; have students get excited about journalism through various convention activities; make some time for sightseeing.

Planning trips such as these is absolutely draining. There are so many details, and it is not cost effective for us to work with a travel agent. (Case in point: our county's travel agent said the best airfare she could find from D.C. to Kansas City was $480...we beat that by a long shot.) Although it takes hours upon hours to plan these trips for my students, I get a great pay off: my students come back from the trip excited to be a part of the publications staff, they have lots of new ideas, and the program continues strong for yet another year. Added bonus: my students are pretty neat people whom I genuinely like.

After a jam-packed day at work with today's latest newspaper deadline, the yearbook adviser and I got together to hash out final details for the trip. Now the trip is pretty much ready to go minus two small details: sightseeing and food.

We are not going to plan out every meal in advance, but I would like to know of some options. Similarly, we don't have to finalize sightseeing this second, but we need to within the next week. Here's what I know: 1) Kansas City is known for its barbecue; 2) Hallmark is based out of Kansas City; 3) there's a college basketball experience interactive museum-y type thing somewhere in the city; 4) the Steamboat Arabia is on display; 5) there's a place called the Plaza. I realize this is all vague -- I haven't had time to do much research on this.

Thanks for your tips!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Happy thoughts: fall edition

After a totally exhausting week at work, I found a number of reasons this weekend to be happy and to stave off my desire to return to my open letter to myself.

First of all, in appliance news: Saturday morning was huge. Within three hours, the following took place:

1) We sold our old fridge on Craigslist for $250 to a woman who is moving in 6 months. Her fridge broke, and rather than dropping $750 or more on a new one, she decided ours was good enough (which seems like the perfect description).

2) Our replacement doors for our new fridge got delivered (and they are beautiful).

3) Our new dishwasher arrived two hours before the four-hour window the delivery people quoted us over the phone, so we didn't have to wait around all day.

Here's what I love about our new dishwasher: the manual comes with two pages of pictures outlining in painstaking detail all the ways you can load dishes. Some of the racks fold down, which is a nice feature, too. We still haven't run the dishwasher, but the man who installed our dishwasher tested it and had to lean really close to it to see if it was working because it is SILENT when it operates. Mission accomplished! I really feel like our kitchen is complete. You've come a long way since March, baby.

Old vs. new

Ain't she a beauty?

I love the hidden controls and all the space inside

Second of all, the landscaping in our front and back yards are working out great right now as well. Specifically, we officially have grass growing in the back yard. It sprouted up the other day, fitting perfectly into the 10-14 day germination period predicted by the friendly garden center employees. Now we just have to hope that after it goes dormant later this fall it will come back even stronger in the spring. Assuming that because new grass is shooting up that should also mean there's a developing root system, I'm hopeful now that all signs point to yes, we should have some real grass ahead of us.

Our tree in our front yard is about the prettiest it's ever been in the four years we've lived here.

Finally, I spent some time yesterday at the mall and today at Home Depot putting together costumes for Matt and me to wear this upcoming weekend. I'm not going to spoil the fun here, but I will tell you that we're dressing up with a big group of our friends from college as characters from one famous story. I like to wear homemade costumes, but that also means they require more work, and they're not quite done. I'll have to whip out some spray paint and some safety pins this week and get to work.

It's like late-October Thanksgiving around here!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ridiculous viral dog video

And now, we interrupt our regularly scheduled organizational focus to bring you this: Because I cannot resist and I am laughing too hard...thanks to my friend Diya for the link.

Pimp My Lunch

Is "Pimp My Ride" even a show anymore? This is how out of touch I am with the current MTV lineup. Anyway, today I come to you seeking advice, and I could really use your help. See, I am the ultimate creature of habit, and I am trying to do something crazy and break a couple habits. Lunch is one of them -- I eat the same thing every lunch.

Last spring I bought myself a new lunch bag to inspire me to be generally happier when packing my lunch every morning before the sun rises. It worked. I still get a little nerdy feeling of excitement out of my lunch bag, but the same cannot be said for my lunch.

When it comes to my lunch, I am horribly predictable:
  • Yogurt (Wegman's low-fat variety in any flavor except raspberry)
  • Fruit (usually an apple; sometimes I get crazy and have grapes or melon depending on the season)
  • Cracker-like snack (often Cheez-Its, sometimes Utz Honeywheat twists, occasionally a granola bar)
  • String cheese
  • Sigg bottle filled with water

It is time to bring some variety to my life. I'm in my eighth year of teaching and my eighth year of eating this way. I feel like I eat the lunch of a kindergartner. I probably should eat more, or if not more per se, at least something more substantial.

I will make your task a little more difficult, though, and present this reality check:
  • I need food that can be made/arranged quickly. My current lunch-packing routine involves throwing these items into my lunch bag approximately two minutes before walking out the door. I can try making something (incredibly simple) at night, but there's a chance that routine will go out the window once it's dark at 5 p.m. and I become dead to the world at night.
  • Matt eats our dinner leftovers for his lunch. Matt does a great job preparing weekday dinners for us, and then those turn into his lunches. On some rare occasions, I'm inspired to take leftovers, but as a general rule I do not eat leftovers.
  • My issue with sandwiches is that they require lots of ingredients than can spoil quickly if not used up. I'm open to sandwich suggestions, though, especially fun ideas that do not involve too many perishable ingredients.

Good news: I eat all kinds of food and I have no food allergies. Also, I have a small fridge in my classroom as well as a microwave.

OK, loyal readers, please share with me your brown-bag lunch routines and your suggestions for what I should be packing in my bag. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pledge Pet Hair Remover: just OK

As we march steadily toward November, I am reminded of my three New Year's Resolutions. Flossing in the shower is going great (daily!), and this blog is mostly doing fine, but daily dog Furmination is not exactly fitting into my routine lately. This is, of course, problematic, seeing as we are deeply into intense-dog-hair-shedding season.

One half of the guilty party

While searching for the perfect fridge on the Consumer Reports website, Matt stumbled upon a review for the Pledge Fabric Sweeper for Pet Hair. It's the most highly rated pet hair removal system on Consumer Reports. I trust these people. So, during my last Target run I picked one up.

Now after having used it a few times, I have to say, I am not thrilled. To use this product correctly, sweep it from side to side. Unfortunately, I had to put more vigor into my sweeps than I'd like, and even with the extra elbow grease more dog hair than I'd like remained on our couch.

Consumer Reports says this product is reusable, even though Pledge does not make the same claim. I generally agree with Consumer Reports that this product should be reusable -- you should be able to remove the rollers and then remove fur that has built up in the handle. I say you should be able to remove the rollers because after removing the rollers twice I broke ours. Why did I break it? Probably because the product is not designed to be reused. Oh well. I generally dislike the idea of a disposable plastic product.

The best solution to keeping pet hair off our furniture and fabric? Continue to vacuum our furniture every week. I don't think there's a product on the market that works better than the old Dyson used frequently.

Gosh, mom, could you stop talking about how much I shed? It's embarrassing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Label me satisfied

A month and a half have passed, and it's true what they say: once you buy a label maker, your life is never the same. What did I ever do before this little bundle of joy brightened my world?

Even though I knew that no matter what type of label maker I bought I would probably be satisfied, I have to say that my label maker (Dymo Personal Label Marker LT-100T) is truly gifted and talented and exceeds my expectations in so many categories (and it's smarter than your honor roll student, wah wah). Here's what makes my label maker truly special:

1) The labels come out clear and easy to read.

2) The labels can print in five sizes, with the option of printing two lines on one label.

3) There are six writing styles: normal, shadow, outline, italic, bold and vertical (an especially nice option).

4) The labels adhere easily to most surfaces (except wicker baskets, but I guess there isn't much that adheres temporarily to wicker).

5) The labels do not easily fade.

6) The QWERTY keyboard is a better option for me than the ABC keyboard of some of Dymo's smaller, skinnier models.

7) Although I haven't used many of them, the label maker comes loaded with lots of symbols, some useful, some simply fun.

I also appreciate that the refill cartridges are easy to find -- I got a packet of two white paper refills for a little over $6.50 at Target (though, somewhat surprisingly, a single clear refill cartridge costs almost the same as two white paper refill cartridges, so I'll be steering clear of those unless I need them for some really specific project).

I have two small complaints (everyone can stand a little constructive criticism, right? I still love you, Label Maker!):

1) There's a button on the left-hand side of the label maker that allows you to cut your label once it has been printed. For some reason, this was difficult to do with the first label cartridge, and all the labels came out with little nicks where I had to yank out the stubborn label. With my current cartridge, though, this doesn't seem to be a problem.

2) There is a number lock button you must press whenever you want to include a number on your label. I always remember to turn the number lock on, but I usually forget to turn it off, and then I get confused why the label maker is only typing numbers. This is, of course, human error, but perhaps it's not the best design either.

Perhaps even more shocking than the fact that 29 years of my life passed sans label maker is the fact that I have not labeled a single item in my home. Right now everything has its place and our house is pretty clutter-free, so labels seem redundant. I have, though, gone label-maker-happy in my classroom, as my journalism students can attest (hey, guys!). Specifically, I have labeled all their camera, tripod and microphone equipment; their press pass hangers; their computer monitors (we assign desktop stations to different editors); various bins in my classroom for all kinds of items: writing folders, newspapers, graded work, special pens for drawing cartoons, batteries, my lost and found...if I don't stop myself, every day I could find something else to label. Because one of my main goals as a journalism teacher is to encourage my students to become independent and self sufficient, labeling the supplies my students use limits the number of times I hear my name called across the room as another student searches for something right in front of her.

I am sure there are bigger, better, more expensive label makers on the market, but if you're looking for a moderately priced label maker, this Dymo Personal Label Marker LT-100T, my friend, is for you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Exciting news!

It is with hearts filled with joy that Matt and I announce the latest addition to our family. Delivered Saturday, October 16 at 5:25 p.m., weighing in at several hundred pounds, with a volume of 26 cubic feet: Mr. Samsung A. Fridge entered our world, and we were never the same.

Although he is absolutely perfect in our eyes, once the plastic coating came off and the delivery men had left, we discovered two major scratches on his right door and one less-significant scratch on his left door. We made a call about two minutes after the delivery men left, and next Saturday, when the dishwasher gets delivered and installed, we'll also be expecting replacement doors.

Matt and I love all the space inside the fridge, the fact that everything is at eye-level (yes, the freezer is on the ground, but we are not big freezer people), and we love the speed with which the water comes out of the exterior door dispenser!

We are simply in love.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Recipe tip: Basil garlic sauce

As the true fall weather makes its way into town, it's time to start using up the herbs that have survived a couple seasons productively growing themselves in my herb garden. I'm happy to report this year's herb garden was a major success, and we are managing to use up much of our herb supply before it starts dying. Basil in particular has flourished, so lately we've been making a lot of this basil garlic sauce.

Here's one of our six still-thriving basil plants

This recipe involves some of our favorite ingredients: oranges, ginger, CRP (that's crushed red pepper, for those of you unacquainted with my hot-food-loving husband) sauce?! Yes, we actually really like fish sauce as an ingredient, though clearly not as a stand-alone item.

We also like this recipe because it makes use of a food processor. When you're done, it is a little more to clean up, but throwing all your ingredients in there really makes food prep easier.

This basil garlic sauce would be great with a variety of dishes, but we find it particularly good with two of our weeknight favorites: salmon and pasta with vegetables. On the salmon, this sauce is a nice topping; in the pasta dish, this sauce is a sort of pesto.

This recipe came from (believe it or not) one of Glamour magazine's "How to do anything better guides" in the back of an issue. Enjoy!

Basil garlic sauce
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove, crushed
orange zest (one orange)
1/2-inch piece of ginger, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup orange juice

1. In a food processor, combine all the ingredients, except for the orange juice.
2. Run food processor to chop into a paste, pausing once or twice to scrape ingredients from the sides of the container. Add orange juice until you reach your desired consistency.

Be sure not to add too much orange juice. We got a little OJ happy tonight and had a runny sauce, which isn't pretty but still tastes good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making the most of Energy Star tax-free holiday

Appliances! New! Stainless steel! Energy Star! Not yet delivered or installed!

Over the weekend, while Virginia was having its Energy Star appliances tax-free holiday and Sears had its Energy Star appliances on sale for an additional 20 percent off, Matt and I made two major purchases: a dishwasher and a fridge.

"But Stephanie," you, loyal blog reader, say. "I thought you did not need new appliances. I thought you said 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'" Yes, this is all true. This was an uncharacteristic move. This, my friends, is what happens when your husband decides he would like to make a purchase. Matt, he-who-is-way-more-frugal-than-me, wanted to make a purchase, and I did not want to stand in the way of his joy, and I was not sure when this moment would repeat itself. He did thorough research, and he chose the dishwasher and fridge that came most highly rated for our target price range.

Truth be told, I really wanted a new dishwasher, and Matt was all excited for a new fridge. Our dishwasher is loud, so loud that I cannot be upstairs in our bedroom and not hear it banging around. It works perfectly well doing its job of cleaning, but because we plan to upgrade our kitchen over time to all stainless steel appliances, we figured now was the time to start. The fridge, on the other hand, was not as necessary of a purchase. The ice maker is a bit of a pain in that it gets clogged weekly, but otherwise it's good. Of course, as the largest appliance in our kitchen, no doubt replacing the fridge will have a major impact on kitchen aesthetics.

Here's our kitchen as it stands today with the white appliances:

The old GE Profile dishwasher...

And the new Bosch dishwasher. I am really excited about the hidden controls and sleek design!

The old GE fridge...

And the new Samsung French-door fridge (26 cubic feet)
The appliances are scheduled for delivery and installation on Saturday. Personally, I am not holding my breath for that, and I'll be pleased if they are set up within the next two weeks. Either way, I am thrilled to have these babies on order.

We did not take Sears up on its $10 haul away of old appliances offer. We plan to try to sell both the old dishwasher and the old fridge on Craigslist. We've had several friends manage to do this recently, so we figure that with two appliances in good working condition, we probably have a decent shot. Our buddy Bob gave us this piece of advice for selling old appliances: take photos of the appliances operating for potential buyers to see. So, next time I run the dishwasher, I'll be sure to snap a photo (and hold up the day's newspaper to show the date in time??? Still working on that one...).

Was this a bit of a splurge? A luxury purchase? Sure. But, all things considered, it was also a good enough deal. More importantly, though, by upgrading our house little by little, we won't have to spend a ton of money at once when we're ready to move. Perhaps most importantly, we get to enjoy some of the fruits of our labors while we live here rather than simply passing our upgrades on to the next owners.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Backyard redo: crossing fingers for grass

Back in April I was all excited about our outdoor spaces. Although our moderately sized townhouse gives us some outdoor space, it gives us only what I think we need: a nice deck, a cute-enough front yard with some plants and a tree, and a backyard that seems easy to deal with. Scratch that last one. In my experience as a child and now adult, backyards are a pain. When we moved into our townhouse, our little 18'x12' backyard was mostly mud. Some grass managed to grow, and I planted a successful herb garden.

Every spring or summer I kept trying to get more grass to grow, but I was going about it all the wrong way. With diminishing grass, our yard would get more and more muddy, and people and dogs would track more and more dirt into our otherwise-clean house.

After several years of trying and failing, I felt a little stupid. What was I doing wrong? Not enough watering? No, got that one right. Not enough sun? No, we get plenty of sun from noon forward.

Here's the real answer: I was always planting grass at the wrong time of year. I would plant in April, watch pretty little green shoots spring up, only to wither away during harsh Virginia summers. All this time, I should have been planting between late August and mid-October. By doing so, our grass would have a chance to develop a root system in the fall rather than the spring/summer, increasing the likelihood of grass returning next year.

So, yesterday, armed with this knowledge and a sense of urgency (gotta plant TODAY!), Matt and I visited two local nurseries, spoke to several knowledgeable employees to double-check our research, got our supplies, and got to work. In 80-degree October weather, we prepared our backyard.

We bought:
Five bags of McGill All-Organic Compost. (We used four of the five bags at $6.49 each.)

One bag of grass seed ($9.88), one half-gallon of Betty's Azalea Ranch fertilizer ($8.88), one bag of Greenview Grass Seed Accelerator ($9.88) and one Scotts Handy Green II seed spreader ($12.98).

I was a little concerned when I heard the word fertilizer. The folks at Betty's Azalea Ranch, a reasonably priced nursery in the area, make their own fertilizer, and they have an agreement with our county's water authority stating that their fertilizer contains an exceptionally low salt content (salt is apparently the worst environmental offender in fertilizers). We've never used a fertilizer of any kind before, so maybe this will make a difference, but I'm not thrilled about the concept.

Similarly, the Greenview Grass Seed Accelerator at first screamed environmental hazard. Turns out, though, that this product, which also helps keep grass seed in place while preparing to germinate, is made of recycled newspapers. Although some people, including the landscaping service that maintains the common areas in our neighborhood, put down hay to help protect new grass seed, this is apparently not the best option, as weed particles from the hay increase the likelihood of more weeds taking root where you're hoping for grass.

Armed with knowledge and equipment, we got to work.

The backyard: before

Close-up on some muddy patches

Step 1: Matt trimmed the existing backyard grass. Yes, we use a Black and Decker Grass Hog instead of a lawnmower because our space is so tiny. Although I've read complaints about the Grass Hog, it seems like earlier models faced a recall whereas ours has worked perfectly for several years. Yes, it's electric, so we plug it in behind our house and have no difficulties with the product.

Step 2: We filled our wheelbarrow with the compost and together shoveled a half-inch layer of compost over the entire yard. We did this to help improve our backyard's soil quality and also to even out some patches where soil has eroded.

Step 3: I used half a bag of grass seed inside the Scotts Handy Green spreader and aimed for about 4-6 seeds per square inch of backyard space.

Step 4: Matt used one-third of the half-gallon jug of fertilizer inside the Scotts Handy Green spreader and lightly fertilized the space.
Step 5: We spread the Greenview Grass Seed Accelerator by hand over the entire backyard. We used one full bag, and it was the perfect amount.
I wore gloves; Matt did not.

Step 6: I watered the yard.

Step 7: Now, we wait and water some more.

Will this seed survive? I certainly hope so. It also looks like temperatures the next 10 days should be conducive to germination, so we'll cross our fingers and hope this time our scheduling works out.