Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Travel art: plans for the dining room

As our home's second owners we inherited a red dining room attached to our painfully white kitchen. We started our kitchen renovations by adding that slate backsplash we put so much work into, and we spruced up the dining room by slowing adding matching espresso-finish furniture and floating shelves. Now, the red walls are maybe not something I would pick myself, but they are a nice contrast to the attached still-mostly-white kitchen.

Something else that came with our kitchen? Giant bolts. Underneath these frames are giant bolts.

I did not pick the layout of these frames. I simply used these frames to cover up these giant bolts.

When we were getting ready to close on this house, the former owners said they would gladly include their dining room wall art in our deal. We declined; it wasn't our style. So, when we moved in and saw these giant bolts, we realized why they were willing to hand over their art, and we found all our frames that would fit and threw them on the wall. The resulting wall is not terribly awesome and it doesn't show much about our personalities (with the exception of the sign that says "Fresh Pie's," which satisfies Matt's love for pie and my love for grammatical mistakes).

So, my idea while in Europe is to take photos that could fill these frames. I'd also like to add bigger frames, or add more frames in general.

What kinds of photos would I like to see in these frames? Ideally, photos of colorful European kitchens. How can I realistically get these photos? I really have no idea, but I will be on the lookout. If nothing else, I'd love to snap some food-related photos, since that seems appropriate for the dining room.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wedding Regretsy

I just read April Winchell's first installment as a Brides columnist. Yep, April Winchell, mother to the ridiculous and ridiculously funny site Regretsy, is now writing for Brides for one year about planning her third "wedding." Although I love me a wedding and we had a beautiful one nearly four (!) years ago, I also believe they're one day in your life, and the marriage is the thing that matters. It's nice to read that same sentiment by someone way funnier than me. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Europe shoes!

On the last day of school on Thursday Matt and I did a little shopping. Emphasis on a little. Most shockingly, Matt wanted to go shopping, especially because he needed some items for our European vacation. I wanted some closed-toed shoes I could wear while sightseeing and not look like a total dork.

I found some affordable shoes at DSW. These are Privos, which are made by Clarks.

These have good ventilation -- let's be real, there is no way I'll be wearing socks at any point this summer, unless I go to the gym, and that will also likely be rare, given my track record. They also have good traction -- not that I'll be hiking anything serious, but I won't be falling down any ancient roads, either. And they have Velcro! Man, I haven't had Velcro since I was five. Most importantly, though, the shades of gray mean they won't show dirt too much during our three-week trip, and they will go with more outfits.

I'm breaking these in by wearing them on long dog walks. I'm also getting some Moleskin, at Matt's recommendation, especially because my left foot is slightly shorter than my right foot, so that foot tends to get more blisters.

I'll still be bringing flip flops and nicer shoes to wear when we're doing less strenuous tourist activities, like grabbing food in between siestas, but these will be good for staring at the Sistine Chapel and exploring La Alhambra.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Recipe tip: Gazpacho

I never liked tomatoes as a child (kind of like how I never liked Brussels sprouts). Then I remember a time at the end of junior year of high school when my friend Sam made me some killer gazpacho, and I was hooked. Then Sam served gazpacho in shot glasses as a passed appetizer at her wedding, and I totally copied her a year later and did the same thing.
Got some tomatoes? Try some gazpacho!

So, last week when we had an end-of-year work party and my section of the alphabet was assigned to bring a lunch dish, I opted to beat the heat with this chilled tomato soup. I made so much that I thought I would have plenty for leftovers, but I went home with about half a serving left. I guess it's pretty good!

Turns out this is also the recipe I was looking for when my friend Lindsay asked me for the gazpacho recipe I made for her wedding shower last summer. Sorry, Lindsay, here's the real recipe after all.

Adapted from the Wegmans menu magazine

1 cucumber, peeled
1 red pepper, ribs and seeds removed
1/2 onion
5 cloves garlic
46 oz vegetable juice -- I used a little less juice and added one more tomato I had already
3 (or 4) tomatoes
1/4-1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
juice of one lime
1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed
1/2 cup cilantro
1 tsp kosher salt

1. Chop up the veggies (cucumber, red pepper, onion, garlic, tomatoes, jalapeno, cilantro) enough so they can easily fit in a food processor.

2. Add all veggies to food processor. Pulse until veggies look a little thicker than salsa. (I had to put in half the veggies at a time to accommodate my food processor.)

3. Add the blended veggies to a large bowl. Stir in vegetable juice, lime juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt.

4. Chill gazpacho for at least two hours. Serve cold.

If you do not have a food processor, don't worry! I've also made this recipe in a blender. Technically, the recipe calls for the use of a hand-held blender, but we don't have one of those, and frankly I find a food processor or regular blender a lot easier anyway.

When I first tasted the finished product, before the gazpacho had time to chill, I worried that it was way too garlicky (and I love garlic). But as the gazpacho chilled, the garlic also chilled out, and the gazpacho was outstanding! Enjoy with a margarita or a mojito on your deck on a hot summer night.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Stick a fork in me

...I'm done!

Today was the last day of school for the students, and this year it also coincides with the last day of school for teachers, thanks to all the snow we had this winter.

I also made it out of work in record-breaking time this year. Kids left at 9:30, I left at 11:30, and I attribute this to, of course, being organized, but more importantly, not having to move classrooms next year.

Today marked the end of year seven of teaching. It was a lucky year, if I do say so. I had some pretty amazing students, many of whom I am fortunate to teach again next year. Also, it seemed appropriate that I spent a good portion of today throwing out papers and other random odds and ends that I no longer need. I managed to fill seven trash cans/bags. Seven loads of trash for seven years? Sounds about right.

As for summer work, I won't be doing much, but I did bring home three green bins with papers and notebooks. I have big organizational plans for these this summer, so stay tuned.

For now, though, I will go enjoy this most wonderful time of the year (last day of school through July 4 is always blissful). And Matt and I will do some celebratory shopping at DSW and Target.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Recipe tip: Brussels sprouts

One day about six months ago, as I was walking through the Wegmans produce section, I stumbled across the Brussels sprouts and thought to myself, "Hmmm, Brussels sprouts, that's something I never ate as a child." For what it's worth, I never had Brussels sprouts sent in my direction when I was a kid, so it's not something I flatly refused to eat like, say, broccoli -- something I still (mostly) hate.

I have to say: I love Brussels sprouts. The roasted variety, especially.

Here's what you do, on a weeknight when you don't feel like putting too much effort into cooking:

Roasted Brussels sprouts
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper.

3. While baking, every 10 minutes shake the baking sheet so that the Brussels sprouts can get evenly crispy around the edges.

4. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the sprouts have a crispy and golden-brown outer layer.

It's really the easiest thing in the world, and the crispiness of the Brussels sprouts coupled with the light saltiness of the seasoning is something delicious disguised as something healthy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Trendspotting, suburban edition: Pinkberry

During our walk tonight, Matt and I discovered that our very own open-air, suburban pedestrian mall, Fairfax Corner, is getting a Pinkberry this fall.


1. This trend is officially over, now that it has made its way to our open-air, suburban pedestrian mall.

2. Pinkberry is arriving about three years too late, and it is ironically going to be located next to a cupcake boutique, which arrived about five years too late.

3. Fall seems like an odd time to open a frozen yogurt establishment.

4. Even though it sounds like I am knocking it, I am still excited to walk down to the Corner, sprinkle some blackberries and Cap'n Crunch on my sour frozen yogurt, and indulge.

5. I know he has his own show now and all, but I wish Demetri Martin would still do his Trendspotting feature for The Daily Show.

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

The June book club book was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and although June book club happened a week and a half ago, I finally finished the book. This is unusual -- I am usually one of the two people who consistently finishes reading on time, but this one was 12 CDs worth, which I would argue is six CDs too many. So, on Saturday, I finally finished listening to the book, while on the way to a bachelorette party, no less.

If you're not familiar with this story, it's the nonfiction account of Kingsolver's family participating in a year-long experiment of eating locally. Just as eating locally was a family effort, three of the four family members participate in the writing of this book. Kingsolver is the main narrator, but 19-year-old daughter Camille writes little anecdotes from the young-adult perspective, and husband Steven adds sidebars about local eating research, trends and nutritional information that puts the family's experiment in a more global perspective.

Kingsolver and her family were not trying to say that this year of experimentation and lots of farming and canning and freezing is for everyone. In fact, toward the end of the book Kingsolver admits this lifestyle is for few people. I am glad she finally admitted that, because, frankly, that was the main thing going on inside my head as I spent a month listening to this story while driving to and from work.

Overall, I appreciate the concept of eating organically and locally. I also recognize, though, that local and organic produce can be a luxury for many. Working families have limited time and limited money. Local and organic produce is available at farmer's markets, but in my opinion attending those is a luxury for the upper-middle class. Moreover, organic produce at a grocery store almost always costs more than non-organic produce. Finally, growing the organic produce yourself requires time (another disadvantage for the working class) and space (something that even the wealthy may not have).

There are messages about the value of local and organic food contained within this book that most readers can apply to their own lives in however small ways, but these are messages I've read in other books about food, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma, Twinkie Deconstructed and Fast Food Nation. I guess I view her entire experiment as a luxury few people could realistically pursue. As a popular, accomplished author, Kingsolver has a lot more flexibility with her schedule. Kind of like a full-time blogger who writes about home improvement and can therefore spend time every day taking on home-improvement tasks, Kingsolver is ultimately getting paid to conduct this experiment.

The book is accompanied by the family's website, which features recipes from the book and resources about local eating.

I'm not upset I read this book, but I didn't feel overly connected to much of it. There was, though, somewhat randomly this one line I loved when she was talking about the winter holiday season, "We do not adhere to the admonition of any religion that encourages its followers to buy stuff no one needs." My sentiments exactly.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Salvaging flowers

Last Friday we hosted some of our neighbor friends for a birthday-anniversary-wedding-graduation celebration (everyone had something to celebrate, except Matt and me, who are simply happy to celebrate the impending arrival of summer). Matt bought us a Trader Joe's bouquet of happy yellow and orange blossoms, and our neighbor Mimi brought us another Trader Joe's bouquet of assorted buds. By this Friday, both bouquets were looking kind of sad, so I employed my favorite trick of salvaging the few good stems and transferring them to smaller vases.

So, here's what we have today:

Keeping the flowers going for another few days is always a nice way to maintain a little color in our home.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

31 proms

With my high school students' graduation this evening, I thought it was fitting that we just received our latest installment of prom photos. And by we, I mean Matt and me, and by prom photos, yeah, I literally mean prom photos.

One of the weird things about being a teacher is that you could, theoretically, go to prom 31 times (once for real when you yourself were in high school, and then 30 years of teaching, if any of us make it that long). Or you could be a teacher married to a teacher, so you could wind up going to 61 proms. Fortunately, Matt and I satisfy our prom quota only once a year. We opt for his school's prom over mine. He's involved in student government, so technically he has a need to show his face, and I operate under the philosophy that as the newspaper adviser at my school, I show my face plenty enough.

A hilarious aspect of faculty time spent at prom is the complimentary photo shoot you can engage in. Matt and I embrace this opportunity to take a ridiculous photo in front of a ridiculous background. We have seven years of teaching under our belts, and we've managed to attend six proms. We missed one year, and another year we left too early to get our lovely photo.

So, in the spirit of someone who keeps all her prom photos in one place, I thought I would present you with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

2004 -- the end of our first year of teaching. We are young and tired. It was a rough year.

2005 -- the end of the one year when we taught at the same high school, right before Matt went back to grad school. If is looks like I'm smiling sarcastically in this photo, it's because I am.

Better, though, is this cute candid one our yearbook adviser snapped of us that same year. A photo of us having a photo taken? Very meta.

2006 -- left early

2007 -- the old married couple...we approach our one-year wedding anniversary, and I think we look like real estate agents.

2008 -- no prom for us.

2009 -- repeat 2007's dress? Check! Also, I have a ghostly pallor.

2010 -- here we are a couple weeks ago, participating in what I like to refer to as "casual prom."

Maybe after 13 years of teaching I'll get one of those frames parents fill with their children's photos from kindergarten through senior year to proudly display these ridiculous photos. Until then, they will remain in a big envelope in my office closet.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tip 60: The up and down rule

We live in a very vertical house with three levels and high ceilings. I love the look, but I also know that not everyone loves stairs, and even someone like me who appreciates the free exercise some everyday stair walking can provide can still find stairs...well, a bit of a chore when handling your chores. Solution?

Tip 60: If you live in a house with multiple levels, help keep it tidy by getting into a habit of putting something back where it belongs each time you ascend or descend the stairs. Try not to move between levels without carrying something with you.

I really don't find stairs bothersome, but I do believe in efficiency ("kill two birds with one stone" being a cliche I can stand behind even though I teach my students to avoid cliches like the plague...ha). So, I try to put cleaning supplies that belong on the second floor under the kitchen sink away when I am heading downstairs to refill my water, or I take out the recycling bin on the second floor to the garage when I'm getting ready to leave the house. It may not be much, but for someone who likes everything in its place, these little straightening strategies can make a serious dent.

Even if you live in a house that's all one level, you can still apply this strategy when moving between different zones in your house.

I know of some people, moms in particular, who have baskets labeled for each level of their house, which helps teach their children to put things back in the right places. This sounds like a good idea, I would just have to think through the logistics on that one. My concern is that my house would get covered in baskets...wouldn't you need a set of baskets on each level of your house? In my case, I would need three baskets upstairs, three in the middle, and three in the basement, and then I'd need to make sure I put the baskets back after each use, essentially negating the purpose of the baskets. Or maybe I am just missing something.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Penny can update

A few weeks ago I wrote about how we're trying to teach our big dog Maxwell to stop jumping on our house guests by using the penny can method.

We've had a chance to test out this new method with real, live house guests this week. The good news is that Maxwell did virtually no jumping the two nights this week that we had friends and family over for dinner. I should add, though, that all the house guests we entertained this week are dog-friendly, and most of them are also readers of this blog, so they knew exactly what they were in for when they rang the doorbell.

Still, in these fairly controlled circumstances, Maxwell is learning to better control himself. He really does not like the sound of the penny can, so he seems to be trying hard to avoid having to hear its brazen rattling.

I am happy to reward some good behavior with some Frosty Paws dog ice cream.

Our next dog training, scheduled a week and a half from now, will involve having Maxwell meet up with some big "stranger" dogs in a public space. These dogs are strangers to Maxwell in the sense that he's never met them, but this is all being prearranged by our dog trainer, who will bring all these dogs she's working with together for a morning meeting. He'll have to see if he can control his other bad behavior, namely being too aggressive around big dogs he's never met.

Even though I face that dog meeting with some apprehension, I am proud of the fact that these pricey training lessons seem to be paying off, at least a little.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I love gift wrap

I love wrapping gifts more than receiving gifts. I know this is probably just one in a long list of items that makes me a weirdo, but I will shout out this fact (or blog about it). Maybe it's just the plethora of pretty patterns to choose from. Maybe, more likely, it's a physical manifestation of the fact that growing up we did not celebrate holidays and therefore did not give or receive many presents. Call it what you will, I love me some gift wrap.

And this weekend I was reminded of the fact that The Container Store not only carries one of my favorite items in the world -- containers! -- but also pretty gift wrap. Specifically, I was happy with this little find I picked up for a weekend baby shower (printed on recycled paper, no less).

Oh, and I'm also a sucker for some grosgrain ribbon to finish off the gift wrap ensemble.

There are few pleasures in life better than some adorable gift wrap.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Homeowner duties: window screen repair

You never really take a moment to reflect on every last detail that comes with a house until you own one, or at least I didn't. One of these discoveries happened this weekend, when Matt and I attempted to check off one seemingly small item off our home-improvement list.

I bet you haven't devoted too much of your life to thinking about window screens. Me neither.

We only had to think about window screens because we own dogs, and those dogs have long toe nails, even though we get them trimmed with regularity. Those toe nails create scrapes on the window screens, which turn into tears, which let in bugs and defeat the purpose of even having window screens.

Or, in this case, to be precise, two window screens and one sliding door screen.

Guilty: Window screen destroyers!

So we called Home Depot.

"Do you repair window screens?"

"No, but here's the name of a guy who does."

Then we called Lowes.

"Hey Lowes, do you repair window screens?"

Ten minutes later, same answer: "no."

We took the Home Depot suggestion and found ourselves this morning in front of a Public Storage unit where a man keeps all his window-screen repair supplies. One hour and one trip to Starbucks later, we had ourselves three newly covered window screens. The entire operation set us back $90. I realize this isn't chump change, and maybe with greater planning and research I could have figured this out and DIYed it, but it just wasn't going to happen this time.

A key to successful home ownership is knowing your strengths and what you can take on. There are lots of times when I want to do something myself, and with a little extra effort, I usually succeed. But then there are times like this when Matt and I find ourselves driving down the road, his hatch back completely up with three window screens sticking out the back on our way to some random storage unit because we'd rather let someone else do it.

And now, something you won't see in our window: unnecessary quotation marks!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

DIY daily shower cleaner

Back in February, when I wrote about how I use Method Daily Shower Cleaner and was looking for an alternative, reader Samantha suggested using a DIY daily shower cleaner of vinegar, water and tea tree oil.

Last month I finally ran out of my Method cleaner refill, so I bought another spray bottle (not the Home Depot brand spray bottle, which I've noticed stop working after about a week) and got to work. I tried half vinegar, half water, but I thought the solution was too vinegary even after adding some drops of tea tree oil.

You can find tea tree oil in the organic section of your grocery store (along with other essential oils). Yes, they can be pricey, but they last a long time because you only need a couple drops to create a fresh smell.

Then I read on another blog, and now I forget where that was, that another lady uses about 1/3 vinegar, 2/3 water, because over time she's discovered that a little vinegar can go a long way.

I have to say, I agree, and I used her solution. Over the last month, my shower has stayed just as clean as it did when I was using the Method cleaner. Plus, a DIY solution is always cheaper and has fewer chemicals, and you know that's something I care about.

Another DIY cleaning product victory!

(In case you're wondering, most of our cleaning products are now DIY. Two I have not given up are our wood floor cleaner and our liquid dishwasher detergent, and I'll write more about those soon!)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Part of being able to get stuff done is to figure out what motivates you.

Today I remembered something important about myself while listening to my book on CD (this month's book club choice) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She talks about farmers and gardeners who love the feel of soil beneath their fingers, who love to see the physical product of all their hard work. After three years tending to a humble herb garden, I can say that, while I never thought I'd be much of a gardener, I can relate to this concept.

Why can I appreciate gardening? Part of what motivates me are those tasks that produce tangible results.

But it doesn't quite stop there. I like tasks that produce longer-lasting tangible results. This is why I like cleaning and I hate cooking.

Clean = the item can be clean for a week or more.
Cook = the food may be gone in minutes.

I realize that liking to clean makes me odd, and many more people I know prefer to cook because, among other reasons, it's a way they display love for family and friends. I guess one way I show love is by giving you a peaceful, clean environment in which to eat that delicious food (that Matt) cooked for you.

Tangibility is why I prefer real mail to email.

Tangibility is why I take so many pictures. (And why I was the historian of the Spanish Honor Society in high school for -- not one -- count them: TWO years in a row. Big deal, I know. Matt makes fun of me weekly for this one.)

Tangibility also relates to being organized. I can see my organized closet, spice racks, pots and pans, bookcase, garage. With the occasional light straightening, those places stay organized, and with a little effort I reap maximum rewards.

Tangibility even relates to my career choice thus far. Now, I realize that teaching on a day-to-day basis can sometimes seem like running on a treadmill -- a lot of work, and you don't get anywhere. At times this is true. It's hard to see change in people when you see them every day. But, at times like today, when my students are finishing off their major assignments for the year, I watch the "ah-ha" realizations on my students' faces. I can see the product of their hard work, which is, by default, the result of my hard work as well, and I know we've made significant progress. Today my Broadcast Journalism students finished their short documentaries, their final project of the year. Today my newspaper students worked on their final deadline for their final issue of the newspaper. Today my freshmen worked on analyzing their last poem for their final exam. As they use skills I've taught them throughout the school year and they work fairly independently, I'm pleased with the tangible product I get to embrace after nearly 10 months of challenging work.

I value tangibility. Knowing this about myself keeps me going, even on the rough days. Even on the days I literally work for 12 hours nonstop, like today.

Tomorrow I will rinse and repeat, but the end is in sight, and I know that the tangible products I'll get to hold in my hands over the next week will make it all worth it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Holes in the soles of his shoes

She's a rich girl
She don't try to hide it
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes

He's a poor boy

Empty as a pocket
Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose

~"Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" by Paul Simon

I am not rich, but all my shoes have complete soles. My husband's shoes, though, do not. A month ago something funny happened...

Look for it...

Let's zoom in...
Matt's tolerance for this is exceptionally high. Mine, not so much. Of course, if he can stand a hole in his flip flops, so can I, but I could not deal with this if these were mine. We even took a rare trip to the mall over the weekend -- which I believe was mostly a way for Matt to play with an iPad -- and he even humored me and walked into a clothing store or two, but we didn't buy anything...

He's got holes in the soles of his shoes...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Tip 59: Simple syrup squeeze bottle

You know what I love about summer? Mojitos. You know what I hate about mojitos? Sticky simple syrup and all the work involved. Solution...

Tip 59: Make a batch of simple syrup you can store in an old-fashioned, restaurant-style squeeze bottle and store in your fridge for instant mojitos.

Aside from the simple syrup component, mojitos are actually a pretty easy-to-prepare beverage, but Matt and I noticed that the simple syrup is really what was holding us back. Who wants to boil sugar and water every time you make a mojito? (Our simple syrup is 2 cups water, 2 cups sugar.)

Oh little squeeze bottle. So humble, so efficient.

When Matt had the brilliant idea to store simple syrup in a squeeze bottle, it revolutionized our mojito experiences. Now the greatest amount of work that goes into making a mojito is muddling some mint from our garden with some limes, and the rest is cake (or club soda and rum, as the case may be).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

BPA update

In her comment on my post on Wednesday regarding the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, reader Mrs. B reminded us of the concern regarding BPA in plastic baby bottles. I'm glad she brought this up. Much of the BPA chapter in Slow Death by Rubber Duck focuses on BPA in children's items, baby bottles in particular. In fact, the authors successfully lobbied the Canadian government (both authors are Canadian) to ban children's items containing BPA.

Two years ago, when problems with BPA were really entering the national spotlight, I got rid of our BPA water bottles and upgraded to Sigg bottles. Of course, then about a year later Sigg announced a voluntary trade-in of its water bottles that may (or may not) be lined with BPA.

The couple that drinks out of Sigg bottles together stays together.

Thinking more about BPA got me thinking about my Oxo Pop Canisters that I love so much. These containers are made of hard plastic, so yesterday I flipped them over to find the number label. I suspected #7 plastic, the kind known for containing BPA, and I was right. But, I was pleasantly surprised to read underneath the #7 (found inside the recycling symbol) the word "other" and then below that the letters BPA crossed out inside a circle. No BPA! Hooray!

Can you spot the anti-BPA symbol? Look closely!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Matt's email archiving system

If you use Gmail, or at this point most email systems that are not my pathetic work email account that is always seeming to run out of storage space, you have a ton of online storage capacity. In fact, Gmail reminds me that I am only using 897 MB of my space, a meager 12% of my allotted 7461 GB.

Why only 12%? Because sometimes I throw emails away. Gmail even says to me, "Stephanie, you have insane storage capacity. Why would you ever want to throw something away?"

Gmail, you are right. I will archive for the rest of my life.

In fact, starting today, I am adopting my husband's archiving system. With his system, when he sends a message, he sets up his Gmail account to automatically archive his email. This takes the conversation out of his inbox, but keeps it easily accessible with nothing more than a simple search for a friend's name. It ensures that he never accidentally forgets to respond to an email, because he knows his inbox only contains emails he's waiting to respond to.

How do you get this Send and Archive system? Simple! Click on the Labs link at the top of your Gmail screen (it looks like a chemistry beaker). Scroll down until you see "Send and Archive. With this lab added to your Gmail account, your default Send button has now become Send & Archive.

 This is a much more efficient way to clean out your inbox by ensuring that you keep the messages you've responded to out of your inbox.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book review: Slow Death by Rubber Duck

I am certainly not a germophobe, but I am most certainly a chemophobe. That's why when I heard about this new book -- Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie -- I had to check it out (literally, from the library). Here's a book that further confirms my beliefs that we're all swimming in a pool of unhealthy chemicals that in many cases lead to an increase in various illnesses, most notably cancer.

This book spends eight chapters highlighting case studies dealing with seven extremely common yet ultimately unsafe chemicals we all encounter daily, along with the latest research by scientists and government agencies supporting that yes, in fact, these chemicals possess harmful side effects.

Here are the dirty seven:
  • Phthalates -- usually the chemicals that provide fragrance, but also present in some children's toys (like rubber ducks!).
  • Perfluorochemicals (PFCs -- aka Teflon) -- though normally just thought of in frying pans, these chemicals are increasingly in an array of products, including fast-food packaging (pizza boxes) and Gore-Tex clothing.
  • PBDEs (aka flame retardants) -- most infamously in children's pajamas, but also found on much furniture or in electronics.
  • Mercury -- found in large fish (think tuna), and also now being used in the popular compact fluorescent lights.
  • Tricolsan (aka anything antibacterial) -- found in many hand soaps and sanitizers, but also showing up in cosmetics and household cleaners.
  • Pesticides -- DDT is mostly a thing of the past, but others, such as 2, 4-D are popular and toxic.
  • Bisphenol A (aka BPA) -- a common component of #7 plastics.
Some of these chemicals have faced more regulation over the last few decades; some are being regulated in certain parts of the world or the country; some are hardly regulated at all.

The authors add a personal element to the book by experimenting on their own bodies using these chemicals. They don't do anything outrageous; they eat tuna, microwave food in plastic containers, and breathe in air freshener, among other everyday activities. Then they enlist several scientists to help them collect frequent blood and urine samples before, during and after exposing themselves to everyday toxins. The results are, of course, troubling when the authors provide charts illustrating their initial toxin levels followed by toxin levels after exposure that are sometimes several times the amount deemed safe by the Centers for Disease Control.

Chapter 9, titled "Detox," is the most practical chapter of them all. If you're already convinced that chemicals in everyday products are bad for you, you can just skip to this chapter. "Detox" teaches you how you can reduce these toxins. Realistically, you can't avoid toxins. Even Inuit people near the Arctic Circle have toxins, such as PFOA (aka Teflon), in their blood because this chemical lasts for centuries once it's in our environment.

So, "Detox" helps you live with toxins. Now, I am not giving up my shampoo and conditioner, but I am trying to be careful when it comes to many of the suggestions given in this book. Most of this chapter reconfirmed some of my beliefs, and other parts gave me some new suggestions. Some highlights:

  • Phthalates -- Eventually take down our PVC shower curtain liner and replace with a more natural product.
  • Perfluorochemicals (PFCs -- aka Teflon) --Dump our non-stick pots and pans if they show signs of scratches, which is when they become a more serious hazard.
  • PBDEs (aka flame retardants) -- Donate or recycle old electronics to avoid increasing the amount of PBDEs in the environment (check!)
  • Mercury -- In addition to not eating much tuna (done), always return mercury-containing products, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, to stores such as Home Depot that recycle them properly.
  • Tricolsan (aka antibacterial) -- Give up my Bath and Body Works antibacterial hand soap (but it smells so good...probably from the phthalates).
  • Pesticides --We can't afford to eat all organic, all the time, but we can do a better job of buying The Dirty Dozen in organic varieties.
  • Bisphenol A (aka BPA) -- Never heat up food in the microwave in plastic containers, which includes plastic wrap. (Side note: Plastic wrap is something I've always hated, mostly because I can't for the life of me figure out how to make it stick without using half a roll.)
Now, if you know me, you know I don't advocate getting rid of items that still function appropriately. So, I won't be throwing anything out or radically altering my existence as a result of this book, but I will try to make better choices whenever I plan to bring something new into our house.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Time to change your air filter!

I promised you on March 1 that I would remind you on June 1 when it was time to change your air filter, and that time has officially arrived. In case you missed it, here are some tips from the air filter world. I can tell you that a pack of three of these 3M air filters currently costs $39.99 at Costco (and I used my $19 Costco rebate coupon I'd had stored in my coupon file for the past six months, so I finally reaped that little price reduction).

I've already marked my Google calendar for the next September 1 air filter change, so stay with me and I'll help you keep your air clean :)