Monday, January 31, 2011

The rug debate is settled

After much deliberation (and several blog comments and email responses from you, dear readers, thanks!) we've reached a decision. It came down to option #3-- the Zinnia Rug in Grass/Cream by Thomas Paul on CSN -- and option #6 -- the Surya Mystique Collection M317 Green Rug from RugsUSA. Even though I was initially searching for a more aqua-colored rug -- which is why this Plain Jane from Crate and Barrel was promising -- the greens kept calling my name.

And, I kept coming back to the fact that I wanted a patterned rug. After all, our entryway is about as neutral as it can get.

So, I can't wait until this baby arrives later this week!
Go bold or go home, right?!

Without my influence, Matt also chose this as his favorite of the top two choices. This was, of course, before he knew that this rug costs twice as much as the runner-up. He asked me if I like this rug twice as much. I think I do.

But at least I got it at 25 percent off. And free shipping?!

OK, I'll just go ahead and label this one as "splurge."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Weekend update

Here are a few quick items of note from this weekend:

1) Rug update -- The West Elm beauty is officially out of the running. It was Matt's favorite, and I was getting pretty excited about it, too, but when we went to see it in person I realized that it is entirely too thin. As an entryway rug, I'm looking for something more substantial that can stand being kicked around. I had visions of the ends of this rug curling upward if it were to get stuck under a door or under feet -- not the greatest "welcome to our home" statement. I'd still love to hear your opinion about the remaining rug choices.

Sorry, buddy, you're out.

2) Missing our herb garden, I thought I would try potting some store-bought herbs and see if they'll last for any substantial length of time.  Have any of you tried this? Was it a success or a flop? Any words of wisdom?

3) In late November I had brewed up another batch of homemade laundry detergent, so I was surprised this weekend when I went to do laundry and was met with a powdery, dry and almost empty bucket of what should have been lots of laundry detergent. The DIY detergent should have lasted until April.

Now I have figured what I did wrong last time: I used only half the required amount of water.

This time I tried two things differently:
  • First of all, after boiling 2 cups of soap in one quart of water and mixing in 2 cups of Borax and 2 cups of washing soda, I simply put the bucket in the sink and ran the water until my 10-quart bucket was nearly full.
  • Secondly, I added hot water to the bucket. When I'd made this before, I had been adding lukewarm water. 

This time the detergent has truly achieved a gel-like consistency that's just a little more chunky than the Tide I used to buy. I think this accomplishment is mostly thanks to using hot water.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Snug as a bug in a...?

And so the great rug search of 2011 begins! I took advantage of yesterday and today's snow days to scour the Internet for rug possibilities for the foyer. You'll recall that a week and a half ago poor little Maxwell destroyed our old entryway rug through no fault of his own. Maxwell seems fully recovered, though this latest round of winter weather -- and the subsequent chemicals all over our neighborhood -- appear to now be affecting Doc's digestive system, though not nearly as badly.

Our latest winter weather has also demonstrated our need for a rug in our foyer. Even though we go through the garage and take off our boots before entering the house and even wipe the dogs' paws (mostly to avoid another major dog accident in the house) we are still traipsing chemicals and dirt around, and a new rug could help contain some of that mess.

The space we're dealing with would accommodate a rug no larger than 7' by 11'. Although we can go smaller, I don't want to go smaller than 5' by 8' because I want the rug to cover the space from the front door to the garage door on the side.

I also want to bring some fun color to the space, inspired by the pillows on the entryway bench. I'm thinking of matching the rug to either the blue/aqua color or the green, though I'm presently leaning toward the blue/aqua because it has a little more pop.
So far I've done in-store browsing at Target and Home Goods (no dice) and I also checked out IKEA virtually (no dice either). I also browsed online at Crate and Barrel, one of my go-to stores.

Then, inspired by Lauren at WithTwoCats who was fastidious in her rug search, I decided to branch out to some sites I've never tried before, namely West Elm, Dwell Studio, Overstock, CSN Rugs and Rugs USA. I have to say, I'm particularly impressed with the selection and search-capabilities of both CSN Rugs and Rugs USA's websites.

My browsing on CSN Rugs has shown me that I truly have an affinity for all things Amy Butler, but thankfully this pretty rug is not currently available and a little too small as well. I say thankfully because the price is definitely not right.
Here are the few that have tickled my fancy so far (paired side-by-side with the inspirational pillow!):
Option 1 from Crate and Barrel:
Option 2 from West Elm: UPDATE: After seeing this rug in person, it's out of the running. I love the style, but the rug itself is too thin for a substantial entryway rug.

Option 3 from CSN Rugs by Thomas Paul:

Option 4 also from CSN Rugs by Thomas Paul:

Option 5 from Rugs USA:

Option 6 also from Rugs USA:
So now I have two questions for you, and I'd love your feedback:
1) If you were picking one of these six rugs for this space, which one would you choose?
2) Where else should I look for rugs?

Thanks for any advice you can throw my way! Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another reason to love our dishwasher

I love sparkling wine. If we're ever at a bar together, this is the drink you can buy me. I do not, however, like to clean champagne flutes. These are those items that, after they get used, have been known to sit on the counter behind our sink for -- no joke -- a solid week before I feel like dealing with them. They're so delicate, and so narrow, and so generally annoying.

I thought of investing in a baby bottle cleaner, but then realized that wouldn't change the fact that I'd still have to carefully clean the outer edges of the flutes. I've tried soaking the flutes, thinking that might help, but that just left a yucky residue.

So, the other day, I had a revelation: see if they fit upright in the bottom of our new dishwasher. And they do. Happy day.

The top of our old dishwasher was just low enough that the flutes couldn't stand upright, and I've learned from experience (of Matt loading the dishwasher) that there's absolutely no point in putting flutes or wine glasses in horizontally as all the dish gunk gets stuck in them. In our new dishwasher, propped up against our dishwasher-safe cutting board and lodged in prongs that perfectly fit the width of the flutes, they've come out sparkling.

Ahhh, simple pleasures. This dishwasher has been worth the investment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rock your floral arrangement

(Excuse the pun; my students are in the midst of studying Shakespeare so it's been pun-central and oxymoron-ville over here lately.)

On those days in the dead of winter when I'm inside my windowless classroom from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., it's nice to come home to something that's not so winter and sterile. So, this week I've been happy that I bought some orange-ish roses over the weekend to display just in time for our neighborhood progressive dinner. These pretty flowers have made me smile -- even if only internally -- the last few days.

I also love this Iittala Aalto blue vase that is in the running for Best Wedding Gift We Received, but sometimes its wide base can make arranging flowers tricky. One day I will master the art of florist's tape and spend a long time weaving intricate designs on the tops of vases to create the perfect floral arrangement, but for now I have another simple fix: river rocks.

To keep the flowers from falling over, put just enough rocks in the vase to cover the bottom. No more falling flowers!

I bought these rocks at Michaels years ago and they've served me well. Have you come up with any other flower-arranging tricks? Tried your hand with florist's tape? Maybe one day...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

More containers for the pantry

Yesterday during my Home Goods run I also wandered into Target and picked up four cheap containers to help reorganize our pantry.

The thought occurred to me a couple months ago when I used an old plastic shoe box to corral all the small cleaning items thrown around under our kitchen sink.

See, I was getting annoyed with the way all the staples on the top shelf of our pantry were looking.

So I took stock of our current pantry and realized that our top shelf items could be mostly categorized into four groups: oils, vinegars and sauces; breads and spreads; Asian; Italian. Four bins it is! I had to find bins in two different sizes so they would: 1) fit in the space and 2) have various widths to accommodate the different sized objects.

One of the bins had a particularly difficult sticker to remove. Thank goodness for Goo Gone!

Somehow each bin managed to miraculously hold all the items I intended for it (though there were still a few items I couldn't quite categorize that are still hanging out solo in the pantry).

And, I'm happy to report that I finally had an excuse to whip out the labelmaker -- that had up until today only been used in my classroom -- for home use!

Because the top shelf of the pantry was by far the most disorganized I didn't really need to touch the rest of the pantry to make a serious impact on its overall look. (Our middle shelf carries mostly snack foods, and our bottom shelf carries bulk products: dog food, extra flour and sugar bags, bulk olive oil and canola oil jugs, a giant box of granola bars and cereal.)

Approximately 45 minutes and $13 later, I am quite pleased with the results. Even though our pantry is relatively modest in size and I can't fit everything together in one neat row, the reason I prefer this new system is I can now move an entire container out onto the counter when I'm trying to reach something in the back instead of having to move several individual items. Check out this easy-to-achieve after shot compared to the before.

In addition to this pantry space and our fabulous new fridge, I should also note that we have another cabinet space with a spice rack where we also store other pantry items, which mostly includes all our baking goods, but that space is already reasonably well organized.

What are your solutions for keeping your pantry organized?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

DIY dish washing liquid

I've been making my own dish washing liquid for handwashing dishes for a while now, and I realized I'd never shared the simple recipe. It involves just a couple basic ingredients: castile soap, water and essential oil. I found the recipe in one of my favorite domestic books, Clean Home Green Home, that I've referenced here before.

Although the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of castile soap and 1/2 cup water, I find that combination leads to an overly watery dish washing soap, so today when I made more dish washing soap I used the remaining 1 cup of castile soap I had and a little less than 1/2 cup of water. Then I added 10 drops of lavender essential oil.

This old Seventh Generation plastic bottle has been the holding ground for all my homemade dish washing liquid, but then today while I was at Home Goods looking for a new rug (no luck so far!) and containers (of course) I found a cheap glass dispenser for $4.99 and immediately thought of another organizing blog I read. Although the author just wrote about how this glass dispenser has not worked well for her dish washing liquid, I thought I would give it a try because having to reach underneath the sink to get out the soap has been keeping me from cleaning the kitchen counters more often. (As a side note, this DIY dish washing liquid is an eco-friendly way to clean granite counter tops as well.)

I also picked up this cheap glass tray at Home Goods to make the dish washing soap and hand soap dispensers a little nicer looking. And, yes, I totally ripped this entire look off of IHeart Organizing.

And, even though I got about 11 hours of sleep last night, for some reason I am exhausted, so I think I may need to take a nap before tonight's neighborhood dinner party commences!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Good dog

Today we said goodbye to someone who has been a loyal member of our household for the past four years. No, not the dog, though Maxwell is about to celebrate his fourth birthday, and Maxwell did play an important role in today's story. Fortunately, today we only had to say goodbye to our entryway rug.

Something has been up with the dogs' stomachs for the past few days. As I was leaving work today around 4:30, slightly later than I wanted to be there, I get a call from Matt saying something along the lines of, "Where are you?" followed by, "Well, I'm going to have to throw away the entryway rug."

Apparently this afternoon our entryway rug entered a small battle with Maxwell, and Maxwell won.

How then, you ask, could I name this post "Good dog"?

Because Maxwell tried so hard to be good. He really did. It is literally written all over his face. After clearly suffering through what must have been hours of intense intestinal anguish, Maxwell tried to dig his way out of our house to relieve himself. He tried to dig so hard that he scrapped all the skin off the top of his nose. He knows how much we value our clean house. He really wanted to be obedient. Kind of like the dog at the end of John Updike's incredibly sad poem "Dog's Death." Look it up when you're ready for a good cry.

 Those eyes really capture the sad puppy we came home to today.

We'll have to monitor both dogs closely the next few days. We called the nice owners of the pet store where we buy the dogs' Avoderm food asking if there had been any other reports about the last shipment being bad, and though the store owners said we were welcome to bring the food back and get our money back, they said the source of our woes might actually be the non-pet-friendly chemicals all over the streets of our townhouse development after Monday night's ice storm. Seeing as our dogs started acting a little funny Monday night, this seems like the best answer.

Although I'm still a little concerned for the dogs, there is a small silver lining, at least in terms of home decor. We bought that rug for about $80 at Home Depot, and the rug had seen better days. It was time to say goodbye. When we're ready to hunt for a new one, I think I'll liven up the space with something a little brighter. We have a lot of neutral tones in our home -- time for some fun, once the dogs recover.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reader tip: New year closet organization

Today's post is actually something my friend Dawn told me about many months ago, but with the start of the new year, now seems an appropriate time to share it with you.

Dawn's mom, another super-organized lady, uses this trick in her closets: When she has worn an item, she turns around the item's hanger in the closet. By the end of the season, if a hanger indicates that a clothing item hasn't been worn, she sends the item straight to Goodwill.

This is a great idea! For those of you who are maybe a little more sentimental about your clothing, you can try this modification: if you haven't worn an item in a year, you should put it in the donate pile.

I haven't tried this trick myself because I'm a pretty ruthless closet purger, and I transfer clothes to our guest room dresser (the staging grounds for our big purging pile) on an almost monthly basis. This is, of course, mostly to clear up space to justify making more clothing purchases.

If you're not as ruthless as me, why not take all your closet hangers, organize them facing the same direction, and if by the end of the year you haven't worn something, show you love it by setting it free.

Have you tried Dawn's mom's strategy? Do you have another strategy for keeping your closet clean? If you missed it, you can check out my master closet organization system here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I love the Magic Trackpad

A couple weeks ago, as I was in the midst of compiling my year-end Costco spreadsheet a curious thing happened: my mouse stopped working. Specifically, it wouldn't scroll. This has happened before, so I tried turning it upside down and rolling it across our mousepad, but it didn't fix the problem. I was prepared to simply use a mouse without scrolling features.

Then Matt, who loves all things technological, got his hands on our computer and announced that we absolutely needed a new mouse. OK, fine, I said, seeing as I leave all technology decisions to him as he leaves all decorating decisions to me.

We found ourselves in the Apple section of Best Buy, playing around with the Magic Trackpad, this funky computer mouse which is simply a large rectangle with extensive capabilities beyond that of the average mouse. It operates under the same technology of the trackpad on the MacBook Pro. With this clever invention, we forked over $70, Apple upsold us and we were hooked.

This super cool gadget lets you click with one finger, right click with two fingers, scroll through a page with two fingers, scroll through multiple pages with three fingers, and even pinch the screen to zoom in and out.

When we got home from Best Buy and Matt set up the Magic Trackpad, we ran into one minor glitch. In order for this mouse to work, you must be operating with Mac OS X Snow Leopard v10.6.4. This meant our slightly older and nonupgraded Mac desktop was not compatible. Matt announced he would return to Best Buy and buy the upgrade if it cost $10, but he would not pay $30. Of course, the upgrade wound up costing $30, and Matt paid it.

Ultimately this mouse set us back $100, so I like to think of it as the world's most expensive mouse. But it's one pretty fascinating little gadget, and because it's so awesome it has actually ruined my experience using my Dell laptop at work. I keep thinking that I can scroll on my laptop's trackpad only to be sadly disappointed by its totally pedestrian capabilities.

As Ferris Bueller would say, the Magic Trackpad is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tip 67: Slow and steady

All in all, I really like my job. But the worst thing about being an English teacher is grading essays (coming in at a close second: writing college letters of recommendation). Every year I try to come up with a way to make the task more manageable. So far, the best solution I have for this conundrum applies to many other areas of life as well...

Tip 67: When faced with a seemingly monumental task, try tackling a little every day for a week. If you set unrealistic expectations for yourself, you'll wind up feeling disappointed.

Right before my students left for winter break, I collected 72 3-page essays. Each essay takes me between 10 and 20 minutes to grade -- the worse the essay, the longer it takes. If you do the math, you'll realize that by assigning this work to my students and grading it thoroughly, I lose a solid 18 hours off my life. With only one and a half hours each work day devoted to planning rather than teaching, it's clear that this task isn't getting done in a timely fashion during the work day.

So, over winter break, I sucked it up and graded 26 of the essays (while also writing a couple college recommendations, creating the English teacher's double-whammy). I did between 5 and 10 per day for a few days. Between Monday and Tuesday this week I got another 18 done, and today at work I got through another stack. I'm down to 12 essays, or three more hours of work. Between tonight and tomorrow during the day I want to finish this work.

A true sign of accomplishment: Today I can fit all my remaining essays to be graded inside my fabulous new bag. Victory!

The point of all this is, in the past I've found myself staring dumbfounded at a seemingly endless pile of essays. But today I've moved beyond that attitude. Now I simply tell myself to do a little work each day. It really does make it much less painful.

Apparently there are some English teachers out there who can grade any essay in under five minutes. I've never actually met such a person, and if I did I'd have to question how thoroughly she critiques her students' work. To me, this is one task where there aren't many shortcuts, but at least I have a coping mechanism.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Good to know: Energy Star rebate in Virginia

Fellow Virginians (who do not read Young House Love, in which case you might already know...), lend me your ears.

When we were in the midst of buying our refrigerator and dishwasher earlier in the fall, I was under the impression that all Energy Star appliance tax deals/rebates were a thing of the past. But while scanning my Google Reader after a long first day back at work, I stumbled upon this post from the good couple at Young House Love. Apparently, they were not aware of the Energy Star Virginia rebate either until their readers alerted them to it.

So, I followed this link to the Virginia Appliance Rebate Program and plugged in my info into the "Request Rebate" link on my Matter O Fact machine (the new term Matt uses for computers). I went with the refrigerator rebate because it's a whopping $10 more than the dishwasher rebate, and according to the website's FAQs each household can only request one rebate. So, I'm crossing my fingers our furnace doesn't blow out, because replacing that's worth a solid $250.

Within two minutes my request was approved. It appears there must be a magical elf with incredible scanning skills at the other end of the Matter O Fact machine. Now I just need to dig up all the paper work and send off for our rebate.

When our check arrives, I'll be sure to put it toward my new bag. With $60 in my pocket, it will be like my bag only cost $92, right?

Does your state offer a similar rebate program? If so, please share!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New year. New attitude. New bag.

We just returned from our annual trip to the beach with friends for New Year's. This year we celebrated with three of my best friends from high school and their fabulous husbands. Along with ringing in the new year in the hot tub after a rousing game of Taboo, we also did some outlet shopping. As we were walking by the Coach outlet, my friend asked me if I had considered buying an expensive purse. I said I am always considering it, but it's impractical, and it's something I would have to devote lots of time to before making a purchase.

Fifteen minutes later, I made the purchase. I found the purse. I knew. I'm a decisive person.

Also, if my best buddies hadn't been with me, I probably wouldn't have bought it. The conversation went something like this:

Friend 1: "Stephanie, that purse is totally your style."

Me: "I know, I have really obvious style. I think I'm really easy to shop for. And that bag is adorable."

Friend 2: "I know this will blow your monthly clothing budget, but you can just buy less clothing to make up for it."

Me: "It's such a splurge."

Friend 3: "Uh, this is not a splurge; this is a deal."

With that, I walked up to the coupon lady standing at the store entrance and asked for the 20 percent off everything in the store coupon I rejected when I walked in.

And I walked out with this.

I love white bags, and the toffee (that's according to the tag) and white combo really did it for me. The top of the bag is cutely ruffled...just a little for visual interest. And the inside is perfect for organizational purposes. My friends also commented on the inside of the bag particularly suiting me. Again, my style is pretty obvious.
At originally $398, I thought the $152 I paid was a good deal. Matt said he can now justify getting an iPad this spring. We'll see. He did just get a new gadget I'll share more about soon. I'll also share my new plan for organizing my new purse soon.

In addition to having a new bag, I've decided that my resolution this year is going to be more all-encompassing than last year's highly practical and specific resolutions of flossing daily (check), Furminating the dogs daily (not so successful there) and starting a blog (here we go year two!). This year's resolution is unoriginal, inspired by the Serenity Prayer: I need to do a better job accepting the things I cannot change. Hopefully learning to follow this advice will help me personally and professionally, though it won't be easy. I know you must be shocked -- Stephanie has problems letting things go? Inconceivable.

One thing that remained the same this year in the midst of all this crazy bag/mantra change is the New Year's celebratory cake. We like to decorate a cake New Year's Eve that highlights the accomplishments of our friends celebrating with us at the beach. I'll let you guess which accomplishment below was ours. Here's a hint.

Here's to new beginnings and new bags in 2011!