Monday, May 31, 2010

Penny can: correcting dog jumping

Last week we experienced private dog training, round 2: a class targeted on curing Maxwell of his jumping habit. When I say cure, I realize that it is an exaggeration. This is probably a bad habit we will fight until Maxwell is too old to jump anymore -- the dog trainer even said so. I went in hoping to cure, but now I am realistically hoping to lessen the jumping, and as for myself, freak out less when guests arrive.

The dog trainer's solution is a penny can, used correctly. More on that later in the post. To understand this story, though, you need to understand what we've attempted over the years.

A short history of Maxwell's jumping:
When Maxwell was a new puppy, he would excitedly jump when the doorbell rang or a guest entered the house. At this point, he was small enough that visitors would hold his legs, which probably assisted in egging on this bad behavior.

Then Maxwell turned into a full-grown dog over night. Not only does he weigh 85 pounds, but he's unnaturally long as well, to the point that when he jumps on his hind legs he easily comes up to my chin (I'm 5'3").  Maxwell jumps because he wants to be in a person's face when he greets. He wants to be loved, but he goes about it the wrong way.

Maxwell, black dog, is freakishly long. Matt calls him The Bullet.

One time he attacked our friend Jamie as she was walking up our entryway stairs and "made out" with her, as Jamie says (this is probably apt). Soon after, when meeting my sister-in-law Amy, the perfect storm occurred and Maxwell went in to jump at her just as she was bending down, bruising her nose on the first day of her one-year anniversary trip with my brother. I was absolutely mortified (unlike the owners of another dog who shrugged and said, "Sorry," when their little hellion bit my leg).

It was time to get down to business. 

How do you train a dog to stop jumping?

Solution #1: Penny can #1
Matt, an intrepid online researcher, much like myself, read that the best way to get a dog to stop unwanted jumping was to create a penny can. We love Eclipse mints, so we took an empty can, added about 20 pennies, and we would shake it anytime Maxwell jumped. We also shook it anytime he grabbed a throw pillow, one of his bad behaviors that he (mostly) stopped.

Here were our mistakes with this solution:
1) We shook the penny can like a baby's rattle, vigorously, too long and too often.
2) We used the penny can to correct two different bad behaviors.

Solution #2: Tempt Maxwell with cheese
We wanted our guests to enter our house like normal people whom we can greet, take their coats and then direct them upstairs for a drink instead of having to battle our giant beast, the guardian of our house, upon arrival. We thought by having pieces of American cheese in front of Maxwell, we could entice him/reward him with a high-order treat so he could ignore our guests.

Here's the problem with this solution:
Maxwell would ignore them as they entered, eat his cheese and then run upstairs to jump on guests, who were by this point likely drinking a glass of red wine. Awesome.

Solution #3: Keep Maxwell on his leash
We would put up the baby gate we have at the top of the entryway stairs so that guests could enter the lower level without Maxwell attacking them. I'd have Maxwell on his leash, and I'd keep it short so he couldn't jump. Guests would greet him when they were ready, and Maxwell would (mostly) not be able to jump.

Here's the problem with this solution:
If Matt and I are entertaining together, this solution could work. But if I'm entertaining a group of girls and Matt isn't around, I'll inevitably drop the leash in order to be a good host, and ironically by dropping the leash I turn into a bad host, as Max goes after the weakest links, the people who most clearly dislike dogs in general and Max in particular.

Solution #4: Train our guests
We've tried leaving a sign on our door when expecting company, something along the lines of,"Please ignore our giant, scary dog. Do not make eye contact. Do not pet him. If he tries to jump, turn your back to him and/or knee him in the stomach. You won't hurt him, trust us."

Here's the problem with this solution:
As with previous solutions, even if Maxwell managed to not jump on guests as they arrived, he would find a way to seek out the anti-Maxwell guests and try to win their love in the worst ways.

Current solution #5: Penny can #2
Last week our dog trainer asked us, "Have you tried...?" followed by all the items listed above. Yes, yes and yes. We have researched, we have been moderately creative, but we've had limited progress.

She spent some time getting Maxwell to jump on her. Fortunately, it worked, and first she tried grabbing his feet and pinching him between his toes when he jumped. He hated this, but the issue is that realistically our guests, particularly those who don't like dogs, are unlikely to agree to pinch our dog.

Then she brought out her secret weapon, her penny can, used correctly. We were thrilled when Maxwell jumped on her again, she gave the penny can a quick shake, and he cowered on the floor. She tried to get him to jump again, and he wouldn't.

Here are the rules you must follow with the penny can:
1)  Make your penny can correctly -- When creating your penny can, use an empty aluminum can approximately one-third full of pennies (throw in a couple nickels and dimes to add to the sound's intensity).

2) Be prepared -- hold the can tightly with one arm against your chest.

3) Prepare your guests -- Before friends come over, tell them: don't look at our dog; don't bend down to get closer to his level; I will be holding this loud penny can and staring at my dog's paws, so please don't think I'm being yourself to the beverages on the counter.

4) Be alert -- The second your dog's front paws lift off from the ground, you must give the penny can one immediate, fast shake. It should create a loud sound that scares the dog.

5) Don't put the penny can down too quickly -- In the case of Maxwell, if he doesn't get you in our entryway, he'll get you when you walk upstairs. We will have to keep our penny can with us and our eyes on Maxwell's front paws until Maxwell has completely settled down, which could mean not being very good hosts at first, but hopefully our friends will understand.

6) Don't use the penny can to correct more than one bad behavior -- In the same way that "sit" only means one thing, the penny can command can only mean one thing, "paws on the ground." We are allowed, though, to use the penny can if Maxwell tries to jump on guests when they're seated, or when Maxwell (rarely) tries to get on the sofa, as both instances still follow the "paws on the ground" rule.

The issue with the penny can #2 is that it can work great when Matt and I are working together, but if either one of us is alone it creates a range of difficulties. So, future house guests, be advised: the can of Fresca in my hand is not for you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

DIY laundry detergent experiments

I've wanted to try my hand at making my own laundry detergent for some time, but thanks to our Costco-sized Tide bottle, I didn't have a chance until a couple weeks ago.

Experiment, take 1
First I tried a recipe from my Clean Home, Green Home book. It is simply titled "Easy laundry soap," and it doesn't specify if that means liquid or powder detergent, but I should have realized it would be powder.

As the name suggests, it is quite easy.

Here's the breakdown. Mix together the following:
  • 1/8 cup castile soap
  • 1/2 cup washing soda
  • 1/2 cup borax
  • Optional: 1/4 cup vinegar added to rinse cycle

The instructions state you can add more castile soap if you aren't satisfied with the cleanliness of your clothing. Frankly, I just couldn't figure out what kind of consistency this soap was supposed to have when everything was mixed together. The castile soap is liquid, so it made everything a little clumpy.

I tested this out on towels we use for the dogs along with the dogs' bed covers. I figured if I failed I would have ruined some easily replaceable, inexpensive items. The laundry came out quiet clean, but there was no fresh-laundry fragrance lingering on the items.

Experiment, take 2
For round 2, I decided to change things up. I prefer liquid detergent, so I searched for a recipe for that. I found this post at a blog I read, More Green for Less Green. It directed me to this site, Tip Nut, and like the author of More Green for Less Green I decided to give the Recipe #1 a shot. I'm glad I did. This recipe is much better, it left my clothes with a nice fragrance, and it was kind of fun to make, too. And I better like it because I just made us enough laundry detergent to make it to next Valentine's Day.

To test this recipe, I had to buy a new ingredient: Fels-Naptha soap. I had no idea what this was, and before heading to the grocery store I figured I wouldn't find it and I'd buy some plain Ivory soap as the site suggests. I was wrong. Fels-Naptha was right there in the cleaning aisle, conveniently next to the washing soda, another new item I'd purchased for the first time last month. This land of DIY cleaners has introduced me to some things I never even knew existed. If you're wondering, Fels-Naptha has an intense smell, but it's an intense good smell, one that smells very...clean. It's kind of retro looking too.

Here's what I did:
Boil one quart of water while grating 2 cups of Fels-Naptha soap. I bought two bars of this soap because I had no idea how much would create 2 cups. Turns out I needed about 1/3 of one bar, so at this rate I could be in my mid-30s by the time I'm done with these two bars. Oh well.

Doesn't the soap look like cheddar cheese? I felt like I was about to make some mac and cheese.

Add the grated soap to the boiling water. Now it really looks like I'm cooking mac and cheese, right? Stir for only about a minute until the soap completely dissolves.

Transfer the water and soap mixture to a large bucket. Add 2 cups borax and 2 cups washing soda. Stir until combined.

Finally, add 2 gallons of HOT water to the bucket and mix well. (I learned that lukewarm water will make the mixture too dry.) This mixture is the laundry soap that will begin to take on a gel-like consistency. I almost needed a bigger bucket!

The instructions say you should use about 1/4 cup of this detergent in each load of laundry.

In the future, I will skip the powder detergent recipe and go straight for this liquid recipe. I am shocked at how inexpensive this homemade detergent is, especially as I walked by an $18 bottle of Tide while I toted around a couple items that cost a couple dollars each. I have leftovers of all products, and I know this will all last a very long time. At first I was also worried that even though I was saving money and being greener I would be wasting time, but it turns out that as long as you have the patience to grate some soap for about 10 minutes, you'll able to make some detergent that will save you several more trips to the store.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tip 58: Clean before your trip

With visions of myself relaxing during Memorial Day dancing in my head, I prepare to trudge through my final day of work and SOL tests (ridiculous acronym, I know -- welcome to government-mandated testing). Before we can head to freedom and the beach, Matt and I are doing a little tidying up around the house, following this advice...

Tip 58: Clean before you go on a trip out of town so that when you return to your home you'll get to feel relaxed for longer and have one less annoying thing staring you in the face.

I am not talking about any serious cleaning here. Let's face it, you're busy packing and running errands and taking care of things at work. In the middle of this, though, find about one hour you can spend tackling those unclean items you can't overlook.

Here's what Matt and I are doing:
  • Cursory vacuuming -- We're at the peak of shedding season in our house, to the point that I was so disgusted Saturday morning that Matt vacuumed a day ahead of schedule. So, by vacuuming today, it didn't take long, and we are making it so that we won't have to come home and immediately vacuum.
  • Mop hardwood floors -- It had been too long, and we tried something new. More on that later.
  • Wipe the dog wet-nose smudges from the front windows and door -- Notice I didn't say wash the windows, just eliminate the obvious offending marks.
  • Clean the bathroom counters -- For some reason, they seem really dirty.
  • Quick clean of the interior of my car -- We always take my humble 2003 Mazda Protege on our road trips because of its automatic transmission and extra space in the back for the dogs (this is compared to Matt's 2003 Volkswagen GTi, which is both smaller and has a manual transmission).

And here are a few other chores we always handle before running away:
  • Unplug all appliances, within reason (most are already unplugged, but I like to do a final check)
  • Empty trash and recycling, so as not to come home to anything smelly
  • Clear the sink 
  • Refill dog food container, if someone else is taking care of the dogs
  • Water plants inside and outside
Speaking of watering plants, it's come up in a number of conversations lately that many of my friends feel they can't keep a plant alive. I don't know if this is late-20s hyperbole or what, but if you honestly feel like you kill a lot of plants, maybe you should try a peace lily.

I got this one about eight years ago during college, and I've somehow managed to keep it alive. Yes, there have been times when it wilted and I felt like a bad mother, but it's always forgiving and it bounces back to life. 

But, I digress...

What are your get-out-of-town rituals?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Computer recycling: goodbye, old friend

With very little clutter in our house, this weekend Matt and I engaged in a partial attempt to rid our house of a few lingering items. This included recycling my Dell Inspiron 2500 that my parents bought me in 2001 as I entered my third year of college.

It has been out of commission for several years, particularly after it stopped connecting to the internet. Sitting in the back of our office closet, when I got it out this weekend I was reminded of 1) its incredible weight and 2) the fact that it is not a widescreen laptop. Being several years removed from this device reminded me of what a dinosaur it is and confirmed my feeling that this computer would not be of much use to anyone.

So, I Googled "computer recycling Fairfax" and the first site was the right site. I came across this Electric Sunday event that I discovered around 9 a.m. Sunday. The best news: Electric Sunday, while not every Sunday, was happening yesterday just an hour after I heard about it. This, my friend, is the organization gods smiling down upon me.

We drove up to the I-66 Transfer Station (near the intersection of 29 and the Fairfax County Parkway, if you're trying to place it). The workers won't even allow you to get out of your car for "safety reasons," which is fine by me. I handed them my laptop and power cord and bid them farewell.

I still had my laptop case, designed for older, bulkier computers, so I posted it for free on Craigslist yesterday at 12:30 p.m. I give you this time because, by 1 p.m., I had received 10 emails from people who wanted the item. The first person to respond sent his girlfriend driving toward my house before I could blink. It was unprecedented insanity, but I am happy to have given away something that someone can (apparently) actually use.

(On a side note, I also gave away a Belkin iPod FM transmitter -- dozens of responses to that one -- and I sold those two floating shelves for $15 total. From posting to pick up, all three items were gone within four hours. Craigslist victory!)

Now I've freed up some space in a closet, helped someone out, and I can sleep at night knowing that my laptop is (hopefully) not going to wind up in a landfill in Asia, leaking chemicals into the water supply.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Success x2: baskets and a frame

Last week I wrote about how I had been dissatisfied with the look of our entryway bench, specifically the storage bins, for a while. I've been looking for baskets for what feels like way too long in an effort to get baskets of the right dimensions, which, it turns out, is not easy.

After going to Michaels twice, Home Goods twice, Target, Pier 1, and combing through the Crate and Barrel website, I landed at World Market and found baskets of the perfect dimensions. They were originally $25 each and I had a 15% off coupon. I spent a little more than I wanted to, but I figure it's worth it for me to A) have a better-looking entryway and B) stop obsessively looking at baskets.

Here's the original

Here's the too-short Home Goods purchase

And here are the World Market perfect-dimensions baskets that have found their new home
Much better, to the point that even Matt said, "Wow, that looks a lot better." You know such a comment is a big deal.

In case you're curious, the baskets are Madras rectangular baskets in the medium size, but they are not available for purchase on the World Market site.

I also picked up a half-price 16" x 20" Michaels picture frame for the four seasons Jefferson Memorial art I bought at Eastern Market last weekend. This frame set me back $22.50, but I'm happy to now have the art in our upstairs hallway rather than resting on our dining room table.

Forgive the stark white of the hallway walls. We will paint the hallway one day, but it presents a serious design challenge with its ridiculously tall (20 foot?) ceiling. The other difficulty is painting the attached stairway, which requires not only reaching ridiculous heights but also balancing on stairs (or scaffolding, the more likely choice). This is one we'll probably leave to the day, not now.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Homemade baby carrots

OK, so maybe the title of this post is a little deceiving. I am not growing carrots in my backyard (that is solely reserved for herbs that are doing quite nicely, thank you very much). Instead, I am trying to completely remove "convenience foods" from our lives.

Overall, we are not suckers for packaged, pre-cut and pre-washed vegetables. We pick our green beans from the bin, we don't buy vegetable medleys or fruit, such as pineapple or melons, that have already been cut up and stored in plastic containers. We also don't eat frozen dinners, but that's an entirely different post about our attempts to cook as many meals as possible at home.

But we do eat (edit -- Matt eats) a lot of baby carrots. Last month I was thinking, "Baby carrots...what are baby carrots?" They can be one of two things: 1) large carrots cut down to a small size (that then take on the name baby-cut carrots) or 2) carrots harvested when they're young (true baby carrots). (Read more about this phenomenon at Snopes.) All this time we've been buying the "baby-cut carrots," which is just another way of saying we were buying carrots that a machine had cut up for us. And we were paying for it.

So, I've started buying full-size organic carrots and peeling and cutting them up into two-inch-long pieces to mimic the baby-cut carrot concept at a fraction of the price. This also has the added benefit that, for some reason, I really love peeling carrots.

Our only other convenience foods, besides baby-cut carrots, are packaged spinach or lettuce mixes for salads. We are trying to buy whole heads of lettuce that we then clean and store ourselves. I will say, though, that the potential downfall of this plan is that some packaged romaine hearts can last for a really long time. On the flip side, I sometimes don't like the taste. So, part of this experiment will be finding the right type of lettuce that tastes good and lasts.

What convenience foods have you tried to cut out of your life?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Friends near and far

I read somewhere a while ago...maybe in this book titled The Girls from Ames...that women in their 20s face some difficult times in maintaining close relationships with their girlfriends. Why? We're busy dating, getting married, getting settled in our careers, getting settled in our homes. With so much in flux, it's easy to let conversations and time spent with friends decline.

This week I've had a chance to reconnect with old friends and strengthen new friendships as well. It's just a reminder that I need to put "make time for friends" consistently at the top of my to-do list. This is especially true of me during the school year. I'm good at having super focus when it comes to my job, to the point that, if I'm not careful, I can find myself saying, "Well, I will live my life during the summer." How many other teachers out there do the same thing? I am making a conscious effort to make my life more important than my job, and I'm getting better at it every year. In fact, this is increasingly my new talent.

On a totally unrelated note, I just have to say that I am loving my latest new blog on my list: What Would Emma Pillsbury Wear? Thank you, Zoe!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Entryway bench: searching for baskets

When Matt and I moved into our house three and a half years ago, we went from a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment to a three-level, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom townhouse with two living spaces, two potential dining spaces, and some decent outdoor space to boot. We needed a lot of furniture for all the rooms, and even though we filled them slowly, it was definitely a big task.

Spaces got forgotten -- namely, the entryway.

A couple years later, I knew some work needed to be done. So, Matt and I painted and bought a big rug to cover some of the wood floor (in an attempt to preserve it -- especially from guests who don't remove their shoes even though I would clearly prefer it if they did). We hung some pictures, but we also hung some unsightly dog leashes on unsightly hooks left behind by the home's previous owners.

I finally invested in a $100 storage bench I found on Target online about a year and a half ago, and it's done an excellent job concealing what would otherwise be dog-walking clutter.

This bench is the perfect size for our space, and it's ideal for holding necessary entryway items, including:
  • Dog leashes and harnesses, of which there are several in our attempts to control Maxwell with the best possible equipment
  • Extra bags for the dogs
  • Extra umbrellas (for dog walking or for guests)
  • Sunscreen
  • Flip flops in the summer
  • Sneakers in the winter
  • Gloves and winter hats
  • A water spray bottle (for giving Doc a quick reminder that I don't like his barking)

This bench does its duty and then some. And I love it. It's just not that pretty. (The attempt to make it pretty is the two World Market pillows I added as a make-shift back support.)

This summer, one of my projects will be learning how to sew, and I plan to make a new cover for the bench. In the meantime, these cheap-o canvas containers that came with the furniture are getting dirty and bent out of shape, and I think wicker baskets would give the bench a more homey feel. The trouble is finding these baskets in the perfect size. I need to find the ideal height, width and depth to fit this space.

I've been to both Home Goods and Michael's crafts store twice, and I've made two purchases. I bought some slightly too expensive baskets at Michael's for $25 each (before the 40% coupon discounts) that I just returned Monday (before picking Matt up at the airport, if you recall). The baskets had ever-so-slightly raised sides with handles that made the baskets just barely not fit. Then I found baskets of the perfect width and length at Home Goods for $7 each (a price that makes me want to make all future purchases at Home Goods), but I brought them home and they're slightly too short.

What do you think? Should I keep these baskets, or keep looking? If you vote for keep looking, where else would you recommend I look? I tried Target, a no-go. I haven't checked out World Market yet or The Container Store, some of my other go-to locations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How to spray paint (kind of)

About six years ago my buddy Zoe gifted me with a fun little metal bistro table and little metal and wood matching chairs. She thought I might like this hand-me-down for my one-bedroom apartment's balcony, and she was right. It was the perfect size.

Fast forward to home ownership, and that table started to look a little silly by itself on our significantly larger deck. We bought a full-size patio set, and the bistro table became a side table/glorified plant stand.

Updating this table and chairs has been on my to do list for about three years, but last week I finally got around to making some updates, namely spray painting.

Here's the table before...note the rust and gray-blue color that doesn't exactly match our bright flowers and umbrella on our deck.

So I read online about what to do, and every site I visited recommended investing in a wire brush to help remove rust. I am pleased to report that I used my DIY intuition to track down the wire brush section of Home Depot without asking anyone for help. I figured they'd be near the sanding materials, and there they were! I left the store with my $5.97 wire brush and two cans of Rust-oleum Keylime spray paint at $3.44 each.

I laid down a tarp and went to work trying to tackle the rust. It was not an easy task, but it was in the same genre as picking dried glue off the outside of an Elmer's bottle, something I loved as a kid, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. (Also, notice all the grass in the backyard! All but a couple little patches are completely filled in! VICTORY!)

But then it got old quickly. I hit a wall and I could not easily remove any more paint or rust, and my thumb really hurt from the injury Maxwell inflicted on me a few weeks ago. So I decided it was time to paint. After all, this table will spend its days covered by a giant planter, so I don't necessarily have to strive for perfection.

If you're new to spray painting, you should know that it's critical to keep the can about 6 to 12 inches from the surface you're painting. It's also important to move the can in sweeping motions, never keeping the paint spraying on one area for more than a second. Here's a perfect YouTube video by Rust-oleum that illustrates exactly what I'm talking about. (I couldn't believe there was a video out there about spray painting metal bistro furniture...)

A short time later, I had an almost new (and exceptionally bright) bistro set. Yes, the paint color is bright, I realize, and I am not convinced I love it, but it's better than how it looked before. That table was on its last leg. As my friend Zoe said this weekend when she was visiting, "That table was on its last leg when I gave it to you years ago." Well played.

I even managed to finally repot that hydragena I bought at Costco last month. Notice how the planter from Home Depot ($19.98) and the spray paint are the exact same color. It's made by a company called Southern Patio, which makes these high-density resin planters, and they've got some cute, summery stuff.

Now I'm ready for this latest cold front and rain to go away so we can eat on our deck, but at least we enjoyed it this weekend when company came to visit!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Girls' weekend in D.C. and a purchase

Let the cricket noises stop! I am back from my (very brief and unprecedented) blogging hiatus and ready to explain myself. On Thursday night Matt went to San Francisco on a boys' weekend to visit his friend Craig (he really likes this friend Craig, as our friends who've joined us at the beach for New Year's for the last two years know all too well). So, as Matt and several of his Northern Virginia buddies crossed the country, my friend Priya came into town and we had our own weekend of fun.

Priya had visited the D.C. area before, so she was happy to skip the usual touristy locales on the National Mall and visit some places she'd never explored. With perfect weather, we made the most of the outdoor offerings of Northern Virginia/D.C. at their finest -- high 70s, sunny and no humidity (we'll enjoy that last part for this ever-so-brief period before the serious stuff kicks in soon).

Here are some highlights:

Old Town Alexandria
Even if you don't care for historic sites, Old Town offers plenty for the modern tourist, including a pretty little waterfront and park as well as the Torpedo Factory -- an art center where artists-in-residence have studios open to the public displaying their creations, and amateur students like myself can take classes. I've taken three classes at the Torpedo Factory through its school, The Art League, which included a drawing class one summer during college, a pottery class I took with my friend Laura about six years ago, and a photography class I took the summer after we got married. Classes are more expensive than what you'd pay through Fairfax County Park Authority or other local organizations, but in my experience the Art League classes are taught by better-trained artists and therefore worth the investment.

After we walked around Old Town, we had an afternoon snack of Asian appetizers at a place that offered outdoor seating. We ate vegetable rolls in our sundresses, and it was delightful.

Jaleo tapas restaurant
I love tapas. Jaleo is one of the two best tapas restaurants in my rotation. A Jose Andres restaurant, Jaleo has three locations in the D.C. area: Crystal City, Bethesda and downtown near Chinatown (across the street from Hotel Monaco) where we dined. We had a shockingly short wait Saturday night of about five minutes, and then we were seated outside to enjoy our patatas bravas and sangria, among other delicious items. I'm on a tapas kick right now, anticipating our summer trip to Spain and Italy.

Eastern Market
Just south of the Capitol in D.C., Eastern Market is this awesome Washington institution. I love everything about farmers' markets and craft fairs, and Eastern Market takes both concepts and rolls them into one. The best part is that it's an event you can attend frequently, unlike other craft fairs that come and go. Let me clarify: when I say craft fair, I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill-doily-and-wooden-bear-infested-junk-festival I remember from my childhood. This is a place to find beautiful jewelry, purses (by Elizabeth Designs, my favorite), homemade soaps, wooden cutting boards, and D.C.-inspired paintings and photography. I'd had my eye on the latter for the past year, and I finally decided to make this purchase:

In case you can't tell, this is a collection of four photos of the Jefferson Memorial as viewed from underneath the cherry blossom trees. It's classic D.C., and also the home of the American leader Matt refers to as "our boy" because he founded the University of Virginia, so this art holds some sentimental value too. It represents something I would love to create myself if I had better equipment and time to travel into the city at four perfect moments every year, but something tells me I won't be making it there in the snow. It's by an artist named Xiong Tan. I need to frame it and choose where to hang it among several spots in my house I've been itching to fill with art.

For now, though, I need to head to Michael's craft store before I pick Matt up at the airport. I know Matt won't want to go with me because it's his least favorite place on Earth. Girl time ends in T-minus two hours...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grammar snobbery: 2 tips

I read alot of blogs (j/k...a lot) as well as a lot of high school students' papers, and I've developed my fair share of grammar pet peeves. One that I bet you never mess up is the correct spelling of the word "grammar." Every September, when my freshmen English students are setting up their notebooks and I instruct them to make a divider in their binders for grammar, I write the correct spelling on the whiteboard. Every year I have at least two students per class who still label their section "Grammer."

Now, I realize we're all human, and I make plenty of grammar/spelling mistakes myself, but there are a few that I notice all the time that are fairly basic, and I thought I'd give out my first teacher tip, free of charge. Consider this at-home tutoring, round 1.

Grammar pet peeve #1: Its vs. it's

This is one I try desperately to teach all my students each year, and I may succeed in conveying this information to about 2/3 to 3/4 of them in reality.

Here are the basic rules:
  • Its = the possessive form of "it" (*I realize the problem here. This rule is counter intuitive, as it goes against the traditional possessive rule.)
  • It's = the abbreviated form of "it is"
  • A good rule of thumb: Ask yourself, "Am I trying to say 'it is'?" To find out, replace the "it's" in your sentence with "it is." If it still makes sense, it's right! (See what I did there?) If it does not make sense, no apostrophe.

CORRECT = The dog chased its tail. (The tail belongs to the dog.)
CORRECT = It's Thursday and we are going to watch Top Chef Masters on our DVR. (It is Thursday.)

Grammar pet peeve #2: Everyday vs. every day

This is the one I correct most often on signs when I'm out shopping. And by correct, I mean I shake my first and say a little prayer for that sign-maker's English teacher, who is no doubt rolling in her grave somewhere. I've never actually taken out a Sharpie to correct anything because 1) that's a little crazy and 2) even if I were driven to this extreme, I know someone who got a citation for this, and that alone is crazy.

Here are the basic rules:
  • Everyday = An adjective that means ordinary, normal, routine.
  • Every day = Each day.
  • A good rule of thumb: Ask yourself, "Am I trying to say 'each day'?" To find out, replace the "every day" with "each day." If it still makes sense, use "every day." If it does not make sense, say "everyday."

CORRECT = Juliet is so forgetful when she shops that she has to go to Walmart every day.
CORRECT = Juliet prefers Walmart to all other stores because it offers everyday low prices. When she shops there, she wears her everyday jean skirt.

So as not to overwhelm you, I'll end here, but get prepared for some lesser-known grammar rules down the road.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Recipes: Everyday Food and Lindsay

One of tonight's activities included grocery shopping that we did not accomplish on Monday (our typical grocery day) or Tuesday (because we were both dead to the world). We also watched not just one but two of my absolute favorite shows -- Lost and Glee! All I need is to watch Modern Family in the same night to make it the ultimate triumvirate.

Dreamy? (and mysterious!)
Dreamy?? (also, is it weird that I love Emma's clothes? Is it too librarian of me?)
Dreamy??? (also probably my favorite episode)

Tonight also involved a new recipe: Pad Thai from our latest edition of Everyday Food. Now, if you read my good friend Lindsay's blog, you'll notice that she made this last night. This was a fairly insane coincidence, seeing as it was on our menu for tonight before I read her post, and I got a chance to read about her experience before we tried this out ourselves. She forewarned us that the recipe would not be terribly spicy, so of course that meant my husband, he-who-loves-Native-Hot foods (a nickname he picked up on his trip to Thailand), had to kick things up a notch with our various hot sauces in our house.

Oh, and, tonight we used the scallions I planted (or perhaps it's more accurate to say replanted) in our garden last month. Somehow we managed to unintentionally cook food this month that did not require scallions until now, so we haven't brought scallions into our house for a while. 

So, while Matt cooked, I filed recipes from this month's Everyday Food in our recipe notebook. Although this was not my original Thursday night dinner plan, I did make the executive decision that we'll be having the fish taco recipe from this magazine, another dish my friend Lindsay tried out before me.

I could get used to this....Lindsay, perhaps the best cook among all my friends (though she and my friend Sam may tie for that title), can just tell me what to eat each week, and I can stay just one step behind.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tip 57: Rug pads

If you're annoyed with your rugs slipping around, the obvious solution is to invest in a rug grippy mat, those thin rubbery pads you place underneath your rugs to keep them secure. Here's a way to get the most for your money...

Tip 57: If you need more than one rug pad, buy one in a large size that you can cut down into smaller pieces. It will be cheaper than buying several smaller items.

I guess this kind of ties into yesterday's post about bulk foods in the sense that you can make the most economical choices when you adapt the product to fit your specific needs. In my case I bought one large rug pad a couple years ago, and by cutting it up into smaller pieces I've been able to use it in six different locations in the house, and I still have some left. This is even after I added another rug pad piece to our half bathroom last week after slipping on that rug one too many times!

You can buy several different sizes at Bed Bath and Beyond or on Amazon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tip 56: Bulk foods (and a cookie recipe!)

You may already know about my love/hate attitude toward Costco and unnecessarily out-of-control consumerism, and if so, you may find the title of today's post confusing. Let me clarify...

Tip 56: Make the most of your grocery store's bulk foods section. Consider dry goods you typically buy in packages, and see if it makes sense to purchase just the quantity you need from the bulk foods section. You will probably discover yourself being more economically and environmentally friendly.

At my grocery store's bulk foods section, I've always been tempted by the bulk candy, so much so that I often overlooked all the other treasures waiting to be uncovered.

See? I like candy and tiny containers, like these mini-gummy bears I picked up in the bulk foods aisle and stored in this small canning jar.

But then Matt started buying dried fruit and nuts in the bulk foods section, and I started to look at the section of the store from a different perspective.

Save money
Once we embraced the bulk foods section, we started saving a little money. This is partially because we started replacing some brand-name products with essentially generic bulk foods products. Before we would buy walnuts, pecans, almonds in the baking aisle in pre-packaged quantities. Then we'd put the unused pieces in the freezer, and two years would pass and we'd forget about those pecans in the freezer. Buying in bulk has helped us get what we need and use it while it's fresh.

Be green
Anytime you can waste less, you're being green in my book. Buying in bulk also helps cut down on packaging. We try to be painfully honest in our bulk foods purchases, so that we only mix together items of the same price in one bag. Even with separate bags, though, for items of different prices or from different categories, we still have less packaging on average than we would find in the regular grocery store aisles.

Welcome to the future: copious bulk foods
I'm also impressed by the variety you can now find in many bulk foods aisles. Besides dried fruit and nuts, you can also find grains, chocolate (great for baking) and snack items. Our Wegmans grocery store has an organic and non-organic bulk foods section. Whole Foods has even more selection, which includes beans (and I'm trying to get us away from canned beans thanks to their significantly higher sodium content and BPA-lined packaging). I know I'm probably not shocking you with this information, but if you're like me there's the possibility that you've never really appreciated the deals you might find in this area of the store.

And now, a recipe I tried out last week using items from Wegmans bulk foods section!

This recipe is from the September 2009 Everyday Food magazine, and though it is gluten-free, we did not make it because of any sort of dietary restrictions. This is a great recipe for anyone, but I could imagine it could be especially great for anyone who needs to avoid gluten.

Flourless Double-Chocolate Pecan Cookies
From Everyday Food, with my comments in bold italics
Makes 12

  • 3 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 3/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder (spooned and leveled)
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt [be careful not to add too much salt like I did accidentally]
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped [we found this item in bulk foods]
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts [our substitution...bulk foods was out of pecans!]
  • 4 large egg whites, room temperature

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, cocoa, and salt. Stir in chocolate and pecans. Add egg whites and stir just until incorporated (do not overmix). [This point about not overmixing is crucial.]
  2. Drop dough by 1/4 cupfuls, 3 inches apart, onto two parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets. [If you're like me, there will be more batter than seems reasonable for 12 cookies, so you'll wind up making much bigger cookies than you anticipated.] Bake until cookie tops are dry and crackled, about 25 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. [I cooked ours for a little over 30 minutes.] Transfer sheets to wire racks and let cookies cool completely. (To store, keep in an airtight container, up to 3 days.) [You can keep these way longer than 3 days...we're on day 6 over here, and those cookies are still great. They'll be light weight in your hands but heavy in your stomach, so proceed with caution!]