Friday, April 30, 2010

Simple fixes, part 2: oven cleaning

Yesterday I told you all about that leaky garden hose and the simple fix of adding the washer, and now I introduce you to...

Exhibit B: Oven cleaning
Simple solution: Using the self-cleaning setting.

Now, maybe this post just reveals the fact that my education included little to no education on domesticity, so I have been required to figure out a lot on my own along the way. But, I am guessing some of you are in the same boat as me.

After one-too-many sweet potatoes dripped onto the bottom of our oven and our kitchen smelled a little burnt every time we cooked, I figured it was time to finally clean our oven. I knew we needed to steer clear of those oven cleaners, as they are supposed to be some of the most intensely chemical household products out there. (And, when you have a self-cleaning oven, you are specifically not supposed to use cleaners inside it.) Yet, for some stupid reason, I was afraid to test out the self-cleaning feature on my oven because I knew it would get really hot, and I didn't know much else. The good news is that I did not need to know much else.

It takes very little work to get this oven clean! (This is an after shot; you'll have to imagine the oven with black-coated sides as the before...)

Well, here are the couple items you should know about using the self-cleaning feature on your oven:

1) Be sure you lock your oven before you use the self-cleaning feature. Mine locks automatically when I press "Self Clean," and there's a good chance that if your oven is from the past decade yours locks automatically, too.

2) Clean your oven on a cool day. I realize in many parts of the country it may be too late for that this season, but perhaps you've got a couple cool days left in your region. If so, take advantage will get toasty! We chose a crappy Saturday a couple weeks ago when the temperature barely reached 50 degrees. We also opened a couple windows for good measure.

3) Make sure you'll be around for at least four hours. It doesn't seem like a good idea to keep a self-cleaning oven unattended.

4) Most of the junk inside your oven will miraculously disappear once you have completed the self cleaning, and any larger residue will form an ash-like substance on the bottom of your oven. This can be easily wiped away with a cloth.

And, the mistake I made...
I took out our two oven racks, thinking that I would be able to scrub them better in the sink. I was wrong. In retrospect, I should have left the racks in the oven, and the self-cleaning feature would have taken off their grime just like it took off all the grime coating the sides of the oven.

Next time it's a chilly Saturday or Sunday in your home, take a few hours to clean the oven!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Simple fixes, part 1: garden hose

This will kick off the...wait for it...series of TWO whole posts about how taking a second (or 30 minutes, or one hour) to fix those little things around your house that have been bugging you can help you reach a zen-like state. This is partially inspired by an after-school conversation I had the other week with my friend Cara, as we caught up and compared notes on the little things we needed to finally handle in our lives.

Exhibit A: Constantly leaking garden hose
Simple fix: a washer!

If you know me or you've been reading this blog for more than a day, you might already know that I try to be green, and my husband Matt is even more environmentally conscious than me. So, it was wearing both of us down when we turned on our outside spickets last month and found them spouting lots of water that wasn't making its way into our garden hoses.

Now, this water loss was partially the fault of our old hoses, so we knew it was time to get some replacements. First, though, we tested the garden hose of our trusty neighbors Paul and Mimi. We took their coil hose and tried it in our spicket. It worked magically with absolutely no wasted water, so we knew a quick jaunt to Home Depot to find our replacement hoses would solve our dilemma.

We got two of these fun coiled hoses (regularly $19.97 each, on sale when we purchased them for $30.04 for two). They are awesome because they automatically save space without the extra work involved in wrapping up the hose on your own after every use.

We brought home two new hoses from Home Depot and hooked them up, only to discover -- no dice! We had a similar case of spouting water as we had before. We compared the hoses we bought to the one from Paul and Mimi, and we couldn't see a difference. Baffled, Matt drove back to Home Depot while I held down the fort.

A few minutes later, Matt returned with the solution: washers!!! We did not have a washer inside our hoses' connections to the spicket, and that was giving us our ongoing problem. By simply inserting this little washer into the end of the hose, we solved our problem.

Look at that beautiful, leak-free connection in our backyard!

We have one spicket and hose inside our garage, and this was proving to be even more problematic than the one in our backyard, but now we've solved that problem as well. What a little washer can do!

And our yard has been reaping the fruits of this hosing labor.

First of all, I planted some grass seed on April 3.

Here's what the grass looked like on April 16:

Here's what the same patch of grass looks like today

Pretty good for less than two weeks later, eh? I see the patchiness, which I plan to work on fixing this weekend with some more soil and seed in the patchy areas.

I've also got that scallion experiment update for you.

The scallions on April 9, right after planting.
On April 16

They're starting to look like actual scallions! They are not quite the height of the kind you buy in the grocery store, but I would bet that in the next two weeks they will be approaching their full-grown state. I have to say, I find it so awesome that all this came from the ends of the scallions we usually throw away.

Next up...simple fixes, part 2: oven cleaning.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Worst customer service ever: gas bill

I had a comical customer service experience this afternoon. I had contacted our gas company, Washington Gas, 12 days ago (and I know because I kept the email, of course) regarding an exceptionally high gas bill issued in mid-April for the month of March. I knew it was high because it was almost $100 higher than our bill that covered the month of February, and I knew that right on March 15 we turned off our heat, therefore thinking we'd save some money (and be green) because our heat is gas-powered.

Twelve days later, I hadn't heard back from the gas people (shocking, I know), so I made today my time to call.

I reach this lady, after having already entered my account number into the phone:

Incompetent lady: Washington Gas, how may I help you?

Me: Hi, I was calling because I entered a request on your website 12 days ago regarding an exceptionally high bill, and I never received a response, and I was hoping you could help me out.

Incompetent lady: Could you give me your full name?

Me: [name]

Incompetent lady: [silence, for more than a minute, to the point that I say...]

Me: Hello?

Incompetent lady: Yes. [more silence for another minute] What was your question?

Me: My bill was really high for the month of March, especially as compared to the month of February, and I don't know how that's possible because had our heat on for all of February but we only had the heat on for half of March.

Incompetent lady: [more silence, another minute]

Me: Hello?

Incompetent lady: Could you give me your full name?

Me: [this time I spell it, realllly slooooowwwly]

Incompetent lady: It shows you owe $218.07. Will that be all?

Me: I'm sorry, did you not hear me before? I'm calling because I want to dispute this high bill.

Incompetent lady: Could you give me your full name?

Me: You know what, can I please speak to a manager?

Incompetent lady: One moment please, I will see if anyone is available. [comes back a minute later] I'm sorry, no one is available. Can I have your phone number and someone will call you?

Me: I don't believe that anyone's going to call me, but here's my number anyway...

I wish I was making this up, but I think Washington Gas just won a special award for the worst customer service I've ever experienced.

So, of course, I waited a few minutes and called back again. I work by the philosophy that in the world of customer service, after you deal with incompetence, you must be blessed with someone who has some idea what he or she is doing. Fortunately, that happened, and the new guy said to me, "Yeah, apparently your January and February bills were estimates, but your March bill is supposed to be an actual reading. But I have a hard time believing that actual reading actually happened, so I am going to send someone over tomorrow to do a real reading of your meter, and then we'll adjust your bill accordingly." I found his honesty and problem-solving ability a breath of fresh air.

Then, I was probably pressing my luck, but I asked if Washington Gas could send me those old-fashioned meter-reading cards so I could do the meter reading myself every month (here's some info on reading your own meter from the Ohio Public Utilities Commission if you have no idea what I'm talking about). I remember when I was a kid my mom would do a meter reading every month, probably because she wanted to save money and she has trust issues when it comes to people who take her money, so that's something we have in common. The Washington Gas guy said no, they don't do this anyone. Personally, I find this hard to believe, so I will ask again when I call again.

After tomorrow's reading I have to call back on Friday to find out the results and get a readjusted bill issued. Wish me luck!

In the meantime, do any of you read your own meters?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Recycling experiment

I've got a couple experiments going on right now in our house, one of which you already know about (the great scallion experiment! I'll post more pics soon -- spoiler alert: it's going well). My newest experiment has to do with recycling.

Is my experiment simply participating in recycling? Oh no, no, no. I am an advanced recycler, quite in tune with what my trash pick-up company will and won't accept.

Instead, the truth is that Matt and I are such advanced recyclers, no doubt like yourselves, that we are entering recycling overflow. See, our neighborhood HOA (Home Owners Association, for those of you without one) gives us these giant, heavy-duty trash cans, and these standard-issue, measly recycling bins.

Itty-bitty recycling bin

(Sidenote: Our now-defunct recycling bin houses a box for a case of wine that we take with us when we buy wine in bulk so we don't have to keep using new boxes.)

Probably looks familiar, right?

Our recycling bin would overflow every week, whereas we only needed to put out our trash can about every other week. We remedied this problem by taking an extra recycling bin Matt's parents had (the one pictured above). For a few weeks we were in recycling bliss (sort of). Then we saw a sign in our neighborhood saying someone had a missing recycling bin. We checked ours. Turned out we had accidentally picked up this neighborhood's bin because someone else picked up ours. We returned the inadvertently stolen bin, never to receive our own back in return.

So, back to the drawing board.

Then Matt and I realized: We're wasting lots of plastic bags in our efforts to recycle. See, we had been storing recycling in plastic bags for two reasons:

Lesser reason: It made transporting recycling from the kitchen to the garage a little easier.

Much greater reason: On recycling day our neighborhood gets filled with empty plastic containers and aluminum cans and newspapers. Unless you put your recycling in a plastic bag in these pathetic little recycling bins, you might as well not recycle because that trash just winds up in your neighbor's yard (most likely ours) and never makes it to the recycling plant.

We decided to take matters into our own hands. Yes, we could petition our HOA to get us new bins, but they'd probably charge us more money than we wished to pay, or we could do a tiny DIY on a new bin.

At Home Depot the trash can aisle is truly amazing. I mean, I don't spend much time there, but I am shocked at how much these puppies cost. The big trash cans with the sturdy plastic and flipping lids that could house a small family cost about $70, and our HOA-issued can is sturdier than the one here. We were not ready to pay $70 for this blue recycling trash can.

We settled on the cheapest 45-gallon Rubbermaid trash can with an attached lid, ringing in at $27.99.

I made a recycling sign, and presto!

Here's the new recycling "bin" next to the recycling bin we keep in the kitchen, which is now bag-less.

And here's the new "bin" next to Gigantor trash can.
Now there is no longer a comical difference between the size of the trash can and the size of the recycling receptacle.

But this is still an experiment. Why? Because, we're still debating whether or not our recycling company will accept our recycling in this larger container. My hope is yes, but I really have no idea. If they accept it, then I'll paint the can with a more permanent recycling sign (instead of this taped-on, laminated tag). If they don't accept it....well, I don't know. I'm tired of using plastic bags to keep our recycling from blowing away. I will find out on Thursday when recycling day arrives!

Have you tried something similar with your recycling? Do you have another solution?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunshine award!

In an awkwardly disorganized way, I have failed to mention for many days this week that I received a nice blog nod over the Interweb from a hip lady named Susan over at Project Balancing Act. She sent me some sunshine (specifically the Sunshine Award below), and I hope as she enters the warmth of a Chicago spring that she's getting some sun, too. I recommend her site -- she's got a cute son, a neat job and a pretty condo.

As I get inducted into the blogosphere with this Sunshine Award, I thought I would introduce you to some of my favorite bloggers who are also deserving of recognition.

First, my buddies in real life:
  • Dawn over at The Gill Family, who blogs about her new life in Argentina (and I miss her terribly)
  • Katy over at The Katy Files, who blogs about her life as a mom and other random thoughts (and I realize she did a blog shout-out today, so that's another random reason why we're friends)
  • Lindsay over at Eat, Think, and Be Married, who blogs about food and her husband and how she's generally awesome (that last one is from me!)
And now some deserving ladies I've encountered in my short-ish time in this world of blogging:
With Two Cats
Decorating Obsessed
More Green for Less Green
What Claudia Wore
I Take Photos in the Bathroom
The DIY Showoff
Pewter + Sage
Pugs Not Drugs

Hope you found something new today, and if you received a Sunshine Award, be sure to pass it along to the blogs you like!

In other bits of sunshine, here are the things that made me happy tonight (in addition to my husband and adorable dogs): Thai takeout and Liz Lemon.

Inexpensive hydrangea!

A few weeks ago when I was putting together the planters on our deck, I mentioned that I might like to find one more plant to add to our collection. I think I found that plant last week.

I have a thing for hydrangeas. I love how one flower can make a huge statement by itself.

I had green hydrangea in my bridal bouquet

and pink and green hydrangea blooms made up our low, rectangular wedding centerpieces

So, you can imagine how pleased I was last week to find healthy looking hydrangea at Costco. I know I vowed not to buy flowers anymore at Costco, but I have not sworn off Costco plants, and I've even had positive experiences with Costco plants in the past. Best news: this plant only cost $15, and I found similar ones at Wegmans for a whooping $40.

Right now Miss Hydrangea (I call her this because her tag was really cutesy and told me I could refer to her this way) is still in her original Costco pot, and I even left on the wrapping. I will decide on a better potting solution soon, but for now she is resting on this cute little chair on our deck.

One other note about this plant: Also on the cutesy tag there is a line at the end that reads "This plant is not edible" (their quotation marks, not mine). This definitely puts the tag in the running for items that need to be added to The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, one of my grammar-snob favorites.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to organize a tailgate: take 2

This year's Foxfield was a great success, and the gods of horseracing smiled down at us, giving us just a few sprinkles of rain at 9 a.m. when were setting up, and then granting us clouds and a little sun for the remainder of the day. As our plot's people kept saying all day, it truly was a Foxfield miracle.

And, what you've been waiting for, Matt and me in 2010. I had to make a last-minute wardrobe change because of the weather and opted not to wear my nicer bridal shower dress in favor of this cheap Old Navy blue dress with a long cardigan (also Old Navy). And I wore sunglasses, but that was later in the day.

Before I share how all the prep work played out on race day, let me share my favorite Foxfield story. The best Foxfield stories usually involve the strangers you meet who are wandering around. This year my friend Christine and I had this awesome encounter on the way to the bathroom:

Me: Wow, that guy is kind of big for a jockey. [pointing at guy 20 feet away wearing riding boots, riding hat and jockey shirt and pants]

Christine: Yeah, maybe, but I don't think he's a real jockey.

Me: Really??? Why would someone do that?

Christine: Because he's a jerk?

[one minute later, standing in line behind  Fake Jockey]

Me: Are you a real jockey?

Fake Jockey: Do you really have curly hair?

Me: Yes, my hair is real.

Fake Jockey: Cool, I like it.

Me: So are you a real jockey?

Fake Jockey: [silence]

[now it's time for Fake Jockey to use the facilities]

Me to fake jockey: Move quickly in there, we're betting on you!
[passers-by snicker and comment on my funny joke, and I feel like I've beaten Fake Jockey at his own game]

But then two minutes later, as Fake Jockey emerges from the bathroom, a 20-something girl comes up, pats him on the shoulder and says, "Great job today!" Oh, well.

On to the prep work: 
We overplanned. Too much food leftover. Here's the most important thing I learned: when planning for Foxfield, take whatever amount of food you think you need, divide it in half, and bring that amount. I will say, though, that the hand sanitizer and toilet paper were huge hits. And I managed to cut my hand when opening a plastic container (ironic, because the Foxfield planners kept us from bringing glass for safety reasons) so I was glad I brought some bandaids.

Here's the food situation:
1) Case of bottled water -- about 5 consumed
2) Big bag of baby carrots -- barely made a dent in this
3) Two containers of hummus -- consumed one
4) Bag of pita chips -- partially gone
5) Container of honey wheat twist pretzels -- barely made a dent
6) Bag of tortilla chips -- half gone
7) Container of salsa -- barely consumed
8) Container of layer dip -- a big hit! All gone!
9) Package of brownie bites -- barely made a dent
10) Two packages of salami -- one consumed
11) Grapes -- all gone!
12) Three containers of cream cheese -- only used one big one
13) Two dozen Bodo's bagels -- about six left
14) Three bottles of lemonade -- all gone!
15) Four bottles of cranberry juice -- two consumed
16) Two bottles of orange juice -- one consumed
17) Three bottles of tonic -- one consumed
18) 2 liter of Diet Coke -- half gone
19) 2 liter of Coke -- unopened
20) 2 liter of ginger ale -- half gone
21) My friend Lindsay's pasta salad -- two-thirds eaten
22) My friend Lindsay's toasted coconut shortbread -- mostly gone
23) My friend Courtney's great peanut butter treats -- I don't know how much got eaten, but I know I had several

We also have some adult beverages to return. So I'd say that, at the end of the day, even though we overplanned, it's better to be in that situation than to run out of supplies.

We had no traffic arriving at Foxfield or departing, clean up and set up only took a few minutes with everyone lending a hand, and for yet another year the rain stayed away from Foxfield. A miracle, indeed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to organize a tailgate

Every year there has been a tradition to return to our old stomping grounds in Charlottesville for the annual Foxfield races. This is basically one giant tailgate and reunion, and there are some horses somewhere in the background. Matt and I aren't huge football fans, so we don't make it down to many games, and a couple years ago we missed our college reunion for a friend's wedding (which was more fun anyway!) so we take advantage of Foxfield weekend as a time to reconnect in the place we fell in love....with school, with friends, with each other.

Matt and me in 2004
Matt and me in 2005
Matt and me in 2006

Matt and me in 2007...the year that doesn't exist in photos because it's the year we lost the camera through a hole in Matt's pant pocket...but I can guess I wore a strapless dress and sunglasses, and Matt wore a button-down shirt.

Matt and me in 2008

Notice any patterns here? We are so predictable! Clearly we will have to get the same picture this year.

Foxfield is an awesome weekend, always the last full weekend in April. It's fun, but it requires some real organization. Here's where I come in.

In previous years our friends Alex and Megan have done the bulk of the group organizing, and they have done an amazing job. I felt bad, though, not being more involved, so I vowed that this year I would tackle the challenge with the help of my trusty husband.

So, in September I got a "deluxe" room at a hotel in the middle of all the action, and I told my friend Lindsay and her husband Jason to join us.

In February I sent out an Evite to gauge group interest. We got enough positive responses that I figured it was time to organize a plot.

Then I started visiting the annoying Foxfield website  (which at the time looked like it was designed by an 11-year old with minimal computer skills, but has since been redesigned) to figure out exactly when tickets and plots go on sale. The results were inconclusive, so I called the office to confirm that tickets do, in fact, go on sale on March 1 just like they do every year.

And, of course, on March 1, I called the office as soon as possible, spoke to a real, live human, and got the best possible plot in the entire field we'll be standing in on Saturday. I won't reveal that here, because we like to keep this plot in the family. Thankfully, Megan had the poor-quality, Xeroxed-one-too-many-times map that Foxfield distributes saved as an image in her computer files, so she sent that over to me to confirm that we were, in fact, getting the same awesome plot as in years past.

Then comes the physical planning. An event like this is tricky because:
1) The rules established by the Foxfield racing association are constantly changing regarding what we're allowed to bring, especially regarding glass items
2) The responses from potential guest are constantly changing. At this moment it looks like we'll have either 14 or 16 people at our plot space on Saturday.
3) It's outside in a potentially hot/wet/muddy field.

I started with the easy stuff, the stuff that doesn't change regardless of how many people show up at the party.

We hunted down the big items:
1) Two folding tables -- one from Alex, and one from Matt's parents
2) One giant tent that belongs to Megan and I promised to treat as well as my unborn first child
3) Folding chairs that my friend Christine will bring along
4) Two big coolers that Matt and I already owned (one was a recent acquisition from friends who were moving away)
5) Possible outdoor entertainment, like ladder ball and cornhole (or bag-o, or that bean bag game, if you're me), that will be provided by Christine if we have space in the car

Then, there are the smaller yet highly important items:
1) Toilet paper! A must when dealing with Port-o-Johns.
2) Hand sanitizer, for the same reason
3) Suntan lotion. If you're a Foxfield novice, you're going to get burned. After over a decade at the races, we've all learned our lesson.
4) Bug spray
5) Bandaids, because you never know when someone's going to punch you in the face, or, more likely, you'll get a blister from your shoes (wear sensible shoes!)
6) Name tags, because they're fun and a conversation starter
7) Markers
8) Trash bags! We get fined $75 if we leave trash at our site. We're supposed to even take a digital photo as evidence of our well-cleaned plot before we leave should there be any debate. We will do this.
9) Paper towels
10) Plastic tablecloth, because we're classy
11) Napkins
12) Forks
13) Lots of cups (this is Costco-sized)
14) Straws, because the girls in our group love them
15) Serving spoon
16) Super cheap plastic serving bowls
17) Spreaders for cream cheese/dip

Now, on to food.

This is another tricky part. You don't want to have much in the way of dairy that will spoil in the sun and turn into sweaty cheese (that your friends might later place all over the face of an unsuspecting friend napping in his hotel room post-race). You also want to be classy-ish, because, you know, you're not 18 anyone so you can step it up a notch. And you need items that will generally make it overnight in a cooler or, in our case, the mini-fridge in our hotel room.

I asked people to contribute a couple food items. My great chef friend Lindsay (who is not a professional chef, but she should be) is making a pasta salad and a dessert. My friend Courtney is bringing some amazing peanut butter dessert.

Matt and I did a big Costco run on Wednesday. We were going to initially do this earlier, but this was actually the perfect time because it gives us tonight to go to the regular grocery store and get anything we didn't need in Costco-size portions, along with anything we may have forgotten.

At Costco we made the bulk of our purchases (pun intended):
1) Case of bottled water
2) The aforementioned cups
3) The aforementioned sunscreen
4) Big bag of baby carrots
5) Two containers of hummus
6) Bag of pita chips
7) Container of honey wheat twist pretzels
8) Bag of tortilla chips
9) Container of salsa
10) Container of layer dip
11) Package of brownie bites
12) Two packages of salami
13) Four bottles of cranberry juice
14) Two bottles of orange juice

At Wegmans we bought:
1) The aforementioned straws
2) The aforementioned hand sanitizer
3) Tonic -- 3 bottles
4) Lemonade -- 3 bottles
5) Two-liter soda bottles (Coke, Diet Coke, ginger ale -- only one each)
6) Cream cheese -- 3 varieities

We also took a trip to Party City for the paper products (tablecloth, napkins, forks) and cheap plastic serving bowls, and of course we have adult beverages on board, but for fear of the wrath of the Foxfield board I won't cover those details. Let's just say Martha Stewart recommends that cocktail party planning account for guests drinking about two drinks per hour, and that seems excessive for a day-long event.

We'll divide up the cost of supplies, food, drink and the plot itself among all the people who show up, so I will do the tally and have the final results after the event. I assume I won't have to hire a bounty hunter to get this teacher reimbursed for her expenses.

One thing I did not do this year is buy a new dress. Instead, I'll be wearing the dress I wore to my bridal shower four years ago. It hasn't made an appearance in a while, so I think I'll be safe from the wrath of the fashion police.

When the event is over, I'll tell you if we ran low on any items and what items we bought too much of, which I will gladly return to the stores if at all possible.

Get out your straw hat, and enjoy the ride!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I love World Market jewelry!

It's a dreary day here in the D.C.-metro area, so let's liven things up with something fun: jewelry!

Over the weekend, amidst small home improvements and errands, I stopped in at World Market. Now, I was looking for a small rug for the basement, but I walked out with some fantastic, inexpensive jewelry. A few weeks ago when I took you inside my master closet, I said that World Market is a great place to buy chunky, inexpensive jewelry, but I did not back that statement up with evidence (tsk tsk, English teacher). Well, here's the evidence!

Exhibit A: Earrings

Here are the brushed, faux-gold ones I bought for $4.99

Exhibit B: Bracelet

Here is the wide cuff bracelet I bought for $9.99

Saturday night when we were out at dinner the hostess asked me if my bracelet was jade, and I proceeded to tell her, "No, it's a totally cheap World Market bracelet." She had never heard of World Market, but she seemed converted, so hopefully she'll enjoy some inexpensive jewelry, too!

Exhibit C: Necklace

Here is the long, faux-gold necklace I bought for $9.99

One note: I am fortunate not to have sensitive skin, so this kind of inexpensive jewelry does not irritate my skin. I know that's not true of everyone, and some ladies may not be able to make do with these purchases.

Another note: If you go to the World Market website, you won't be able to find these items. Instead, you'll find more expensive jewelry, most of which is not carried in stores (and frankly, most of which looks a little cheesy for my tastes).

I realize that these purchases are, by definition, impulse buys, but I don't make impulse buys often (shocker!) because I'm such a planner. I got all this jewelry for around $25, whereas I know I can easily pay $25 or more for one piece of chunky jewelry at a regular clothing store. So, with these thoughts in mind, I justify this purchase. Plus, I am trying to restrain myself when it comes to buying clothes. Accessories are a great way to make old outfits look new, right? Right!

Speaking of not buying clothes, here's something I fell in love with this weekend that I kept myself from buying. You can find it here from The Limited for $98 (again, I showed restraint). Maybe one of you can buy it for yourself (or send me a coupon, if you have one!).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Simple bathroom decor: shells!

After yesterday's post about re-caulking your bathtub, you may be ready to step your bathroom decor up a notch. A few years ago I lined our master bathtub (not to be confused with the master shower, which is one of the two items we re-caulked over the weekend) with shells. I have to say that this is something that, when I look at it every day, it makes me really happy. Seriously. It hasn't worn off. Kind of like an engagement ring, but about 1,000 times cheaper.

I suppose you could store these in a pretty, low basket along this ledge, but for me the shells work by themselves.

We painted our master bathroom a nice, soothing blue soon after we moved in, and these shells give the bathroom a beachy feel. I like the way the white towels we use also work against the blue walls and shell-lined bathtub.

The best thing about these shells is that they're a collection from my childhood. And with each beach trip I go on I try to pick up one new shell, so the collection is ever expanding, but not overwhelming so. As a child I had about 50 different collections -- keychains, stickers, rocks, candy, funky pens and pencils -- and I saved all of them. As an adult it's been fun to figure out how to repurpose these collections around our house. So far I'm loving the shells, but I'm looking forward to finding creative uses for the 79 keychains I have from when I was a kid.

We don't have shells on both sides of the bathtub. Instead, on the other side of the tub I have this basket that holds my different bubble bath products, and behind the basket I have two fans from my brother's wedding. This seems appropriate, given the fact that he and his wife had a beach wedding, so the fans not only add sentimental value, but they also keep with the bathroom's beach theme.

Are there any collections you've repurposed around your house? I'd be interested to hear your ideas!

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to caulk your bathtub

After tackling the big kitchen backsplash project (in case you missed it: step 1 -- choosing tile and measuring kitchen, step 2 -- getting educated about tiling, steps 3 and 4 -- buying materials and sealing tile, step 5 -- tiling and the results after day 1 of tiling, step 6 -- grouting, and the final reveal) Matt and I need to take on small projects around the house. One of these idiot-proof projects we accomplished this weekend involved re-caulking the shower in our master bathroom and the tub in our hallway bathroom. These are the two showers and tubs in our house that get the most use, and after three and a half years in our house, it was time for some improvements.

Matt uses the hallway bathroom every day when he showers, and I use the master bathroom every day when I shower. We don't share because we have the luxury of three showers in a house with two people (we also have a shower in our basement), and because we operate on the exact same work schedule, it's more convenient to have our own space. When guests come to town, though, Matt gives up his hallway shower, which is right off the guestroom, and he refuses to use the master bathroom shower and he heads to the basement to shower. Why? Well, frankly, I found it offensive he wouldn't use my shower because he found it to be "too dirty" (his words). Seriously? Me? Dirty? Turns out what he meant but never realized is that the caulk in the master bathroom shower was the problem. (Turns out it was also the problem in the hallway bathroom he uses daily, so there!)

Here's the evidence inside the master bathroom shower. Look away if you must. Oh, the humanity!

So, how do two people who know nothing (well, next to nothing) about home improvement go about taking care of this situation? Read on!

How to caulk your bathtub

Step 1: Get your supplies
The supply list this time is fairly simple. You need the caulk and some way to apply it and/or smooth it. We opted for a small 2.8 ounce tube of GE Premium Waterproof Silicone White II caulk designed for kitchen/bath/plumbing ($3.89 at Home Depot). (We also bought a tube in clear because we thought we might use it on the outside of the shower door...we did not.)

A helpful sales associate at Home Depot also thankfully told us to buy this pair of Hyde red plastic tools, one for caulk removal and one for caulking ($4.97 at Home Depot). And thank goodness he did! These tools made our task so much easier. I know we could have used a knife or a razor blade to pull up the old caulk, but we were going to buy a caulking tool anyway, and this was not cost prohibitive (and it was gentle on our tub surfaces). Note that because we bought such a small quantity of caulk that we did not need a caulk gun, though that is a necessary purchase for larger jobs.

Step 2: Remove the old caulk
This step was fairly easy because most of the caulk in both the master bath and hallway bath had worn away by themselves over time. Matt's hallway bathroom was the worse offender. There was basically a gap between where the tile ended and the tub began. For us this step only took about 5 minutes per tub. Simply scrape the caulk removal tool over the caulk surface, and it should flake off with little trouble.

I was too caught up in the project while it was happening to take pictures, so pardon these simulation shots (notice that the caulk in these photos is totally pretty after installation!)

Step 3: Apply the caulk
For our project, this was the equivalent of squeezing some toothpaste, with perhaps a little more resistance. It took only about 5-10 minutes to apply the caulk in each tub. One piece of advice: don't over-squeeze the caulk. You don't need that much, as you'll discover in the next step.

Step 4: Smooth out the caulk
Now, grab that other tool. This one comes with a rubber edge that makes it ideal for evening out the caulk you just applied. I had a paper towel handy so I could clean off the caulking tool periodically. I discovered here, as I alluded to a moment ago, that I sometimes had applied too much caulk. This step is probably the most time-consuming step, and by time consuming I mean it might take you up to 15 minutes to make each tub look great.

Step 5: Wait for the caulk to dry
Our caulk tube claims that the caulk will be shower-ready within three hours. We didn't want to put that to the test, though, so we gave the caulk at least eight hours before showering. The sales associate at Home Depot said that even after it's dry, the caulk remains malleable for several days. Again, not testing that theory.

Here's what our master bathroom shower looked like the next day

Major improvement, eh? And all for under one hour of work and $9 in supplies. If your bathtub is grossing you out, try this simple project. It's about as easy as home improvement projects can come, and the results will be worth it. Now hopefully the next time we have overnight guests Matt will use our master bathroom shower rather than showering in the basement.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Outerbanks restaurant guide: best restaurants

In the past week I've told you about my favorite specialty food stops as well as my favorite cheap eats in the Outerbanks, North Carolina. Now let's take a look at some special restaurants to try out when you want to get a little fancy, celebrate or generally step it up a notch.

Nice restaurants

The Blue Point
Location: Duck, in the Waterfront Shops
Food: modern American, seafood
Price: dinner entrees $23-$33; lunch entrees $9-$14

The Blue Point is my favorite restaurant in the Outerbanks. There, I said it!

This place has an amazing sound view as it rests literally on top of the water, and the interior decor is exactly what I would make my restaurant look like should I ever own one. The red leather booths and black-and-white checker floors give the restaurant a quaint ambiance, but the dark wood paneling and sophisticated light fixtures make the interior more upscale rather than diner-esque.

We usually go here for lunch, just because you can get many of the same, or quite similar, menu items for significantly less money, but we also discovered a Tuesday through Thursday bar menu, which offers upscale bar food for about $8-$10 per dish. When Matt and I went to The Blue Point over spring break we made a reservation and sat at the bar. We had to ask specifically for the bar menu when the bartender just handed us a regular dinner menu (we went on a Wednesday night). We ordered a crab dip that was 90 percent crab meat and therefore pretty awesome in my book. We also ordered a salad and a burger, both from the bar menu, both quite satisfying an both with some special ingredients that separated them from standard bar fare. We each ate half of each entree. It's true love over here. In the past I've had the crab cake sandwich for lunch, but we've been here so many times that I've lost track of everything we've purchased. This is a place where anything from the menu is bound to be good.

And if you're lucky, you'll get to eat your dinner as you watch an amazing sunset right before your eyes. Last time we were there we witnessed that very phenomenon.

The view outside The Blue Point, just not at sunset.

The Colington Cafe
Location: Kill Devil Hills, mile post 8.5
Food: classic American, seafood
Price: dinner entrees $16-$27

This pretty restaurant is set inside an old house, under the shade of what the website describes as "300+ year old live oaks." The trees are definitely a memorable landmark to help you find this restaurant.

The Colington Cafe is a great special-occasion restaurant, though the prices are reasonable for the quantity and quality of food served. I'm partial to the shrimp scampi, my go-to entree whenever I visit.

Roadside Bar and Grill
Location: Duck Village, appropriately on the side of the road
Food: modern Southern American
Price: comparable to The Blue Point in terms of both lunch and dinner, though Roadside has a constantly changing menu

Similar to Duck's Cottage, the independent book store/coffee shop, this Duck establishment is also a converted 1930s house. The ambiance is a little rustic and fitting for a beach town, but the cuisine is not your typical beach fare. As is the case with The Blue Point, we usually go here for lunch instead of dinner so we can eat basically the same meal for half the price. We also choose to sit outside on the patio, surrounded by shrubbery to separate us from the street, during nice weather. The best part about this restaurant is the ever-changing sign outside the restaurant highlighting the daily specials. Sometimes there is intentional humor, and sometimes the misspellings or grammatical mistakes lead to a chuckle from this English teacher. In the picture above, you can see how the restaurant highlighted the special "shrimp and rits" that day. (I know, I'm a grammar snob.) Fun place, if you're willing to spend a little more money!

Hope you enjoy your next vacation in the Outerbanks! If you have questions, leave me a comment and I'll see if I know the answer (or can find you the answer).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Scallion experiment revisited

Let's take a break from our Outerbanks restaurant guide to examine the bounty in our backyard. Specifically, check out the scallion experiment, one week later.

One scallion, one week ago

The same scallion today, one week later

Looks like it's growing!

Look what else is growing...grass! Really! It's remarkable, and sort of makes me feel a little like Mother Nature. I want to say, "I made that," but really I spread some seed and watered. Let's see if it survives the harsh summer.

Grass in the backyard!

And in less-surprising news, the potted plants are thriving on the deck.

Here's the round planter on the day I planted it 

And here it is today...the snapdargons really took off

Good to know we've made it this far. I'll keep track of these plants and herbs this year, and if the grass should ever come in across the entire yard, that will be a day to celebrate.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Outerbanks restaurant guide: cheap eats

In yesterday's post I introduced you to some of my favorite specialty food spots in Duck, North Carolina. Today, let's look at some cheap eats (full meals, this time, I promise) that you can find in Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills in the Outerbanks.  

Inexpensive restaurants
Bad Bean Taqueria
Location: Corolla, in the Timbuck II shopping center; new location in Kill Devil Hills
Food: Tex-Mex (or Cali-Mex, as they like to say)
Price: order-at-the-counter experience; inexpensive chicken and beef tacos, more expensive shrimp and tacos

This little taco store with a surfer-dude vibe just expanded beyond its one and only Corolla location and opened another restaurant in Kill Devil Hills. Matt is partial to the mahi tacos, we both like the shrimp tacos, and I could eat two baskets of chips and salsa by myself in one me.

Chili Peppers
Location:  Kill Devil Hills, mile post 5.5
Food: Tex-Mex, spicy American, seafood (and steamer menu)
Price: full-service restaurant; dinner entrees $8-$15

Keeping with the Tex-Mex theme, this is one restaurant you can count on being open year-round in the Outerbanks. In fact, over winter break Matt and I dined here twice for lack of other dining options, and also because it's just so consistently pleasing. I'm a fan of the chicken quesadilla, but you really can't go wrong with this inexpensive menu. You'll often find good beer specials as well.

Rundown Cafe
Location: Kitty Hawk, mile post 1, on Beach Road
Food: described as "Caribbean, Pacific Rim-influenced cuisine," but I can only really comment on their fried chicken...
Price: full-service restaurant; dinner entrees $7-11

Here's the thing...this place wins the "best place to eat fried chicken in the Outerbanks" award. Go here on a Monday night and you get a fried chicken dinner special that includes either a quarter-chicken or half-chicken plus garlic mashed potatoes, greens (last time I was there it was green beans -- with bacon!) and cornbread, all for a reasonable price I can no longer find online, but you'll just have to trust my frugality that it's cheap.

Kill Devil Grill
Location: Kill Devil Hills, mile post 9.75, on Beach Road
Food: American diner
Price: full-service restaurant; dinner entrees $8-17

Keeping with the fried-chicken theme, let's put it in a salad and get a Southern Fried Chicken salad, which comes with the accurate menu description: "The KDG [Kill Devil Grill salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cukes & croutons tossed with house vinaigrette] kicked up with corn, bacon, potato sticks, buttermilk garlic dressing and SFC [Southern Fried Chicken]." This concoction comes for the reasonable price of $9.25. And let me suggest getting blue cheese dressing on the side, because, you know, I love blue cheese, and I don't want to cry again. 

This restaurant is deceivingly large and super cute, with a classic diner feel and friendly service. And I think their adorable logo says it all...

But, you're ready for a night on the town, right? Good! Let's get classy in our final installment of the Outerbanks restaurant guide and blow all our money on some expensive meals!