Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Free mulch

Last weekend, we took advantage of a brief interlude of nice weather in the middle of an unseasonably cold November to deal with some long-overlooked gardening chores. At the top of my list was tidying up the flowerbed in the front yard, which looked so promising last spring, but turned into a tumbledown mess by midsummer. I never did manage to get the flowers to stand upright again; some of the later fall blooms managed to grow straight up through the mass of flopped-over ones, but that just made the whole arrangement look even more disorganized. So it was almost a relief when the frosts of the past week withered all the remaining blossoms, leaving nothing but a drab, brown mass. At that point, there was no reason to leave them standing (or half-lying) any longer, and I could simply cut them down to the ground and start over in the spring. (The flowers we grew this year were all annuals; next year, the perennials in the wildflower seed mix are supposed to take over.  Those may be a little less subject to floppage, but just in case, I plan to build a support grid of stakes and string, as described in this article. Watch this space next spring for details.)

The other big task we had to attend to was raking leaves. We don't have any big trees in our yard, but our neighbors' send plenty of leaves our way—enough to make a huge pile on the patio. The big problem was not so much raking them as figuring out what to do with them all, as our compost bin was already full to overflowing. We could, of course, have just bagged them up and left them out on the curb for the borough to pick up, but that seemed like a waste of a lot of nice organic material. Since our now-denuded flowerbed was going to need a nice thick layer of mulch anyway, I suggested, why not put all these excess leaves to use for that purpose?

The simplest way to do this would have been to simply rake the leaves directly onto the flowerbed. That would have helped keep the bed tidy throughout the winter and warm the soil in the spring, but it could also have caused problems once the seeds started to sprout. Whole leaves probably wouldn't break down very much over the course of the winter; they'd just clump together in a dense mat, which might be difficult for the seedlings to break through. So if we wanted to turn these leaves into fluffy, nutritious mulch, we'd need to break them up somehow.

Fortunately, we knew of an easy way to do this. I forget where I first read about the idea of mulching leaves with your string trimmer, but it's simple enough. First, you fill a nice, big bucket (we used one of our trash barrels) about half full of leaves.

Then, you stick your string trimmer in the bucket, switch it on, and swirl it around to chop up all the leaves.

When you're done, you'll have reduced the half-barrel of whole leaves to a much smaller volume of coarse crumbs. You don't have to be a perfectionist about it: if a stray leaf here and there survives intact, it won't do too much damage. What you want to avoid is a solid mass of whole leaves that will just clump together under the snow, rather than breaking down.

It took about half an hour to process roughly half of the leaf pile in this way, producing enough mulch to cover the flowerbed a couple of inches deep.

The remainder of the pile can be tended to next weekend, or whenever we have a little free time. Depending on how much mulch we get, we can add that to the flowerbed or use it somewhere else, such as our briar patch. And if all else fails, we can just dump it into the compost bin; the finer leaf crumbs will filter down through the bulkier items already in there, rather than piling up on top and spilling over.

Turning waste into something useful: what could be more ecofrugal than that?

Monday, November 24, 2014

DIY tablet book-case

Last month, Brian decided to take the plunge and get himself a tablet computer. His work laptop had recently "bricked" (i.e., become a brick for all practical purposes), and he'd already disposed of his big old desktop machine, so he just needed something small to use for checking e-mail and other simple tasks at home. Rather than the el cheapo Android tablet from Wal-Mart we were considering back in March, we opted for the Google Nexus 7, which was rated the Best Android Tablet on ConsumerSearch. Since it was last year's model, we were able to pick up a refurbished one for only $75 on Amazon Marketplace, or less than $50 with some store credit we had, so we actually paid less than we would have for the Wal-Mart one. (By the way, yes, I'm still boycotting Amazon.com—but only the retailer itself, not the third-party sellers who do business through its site.)

Brian was pretty happy with his new toy, but he was missing out on one of its greatest advantages: its portability. The refurbished model didn't come with a case, so he hesitated to take it anywhere with him for fear it would be damaged. Of course, we could have just bought it a case for ten bucks or so, but I had a crazy idea that sounded a lot more interesting: why not pick up a cheap secondhand book and turn the book into a tablet case? The cover of a hard-bound book would probably provide perfectly good protection for the tablet, and from the outside, it would look just like a book—which would not only be amusing, but would also make the tablet a less attractive target for thieves, should any happen to spot it. Sure, neither of us had ever tried this before, but with books selling dirt cheap at our local thrift shop, what did we really have to lose?

So on our next trip to the thrift shop, we searched the shelves for something that was the right size to accommodate the tablet. Back in the "miscellaneous" area, we found a volume called The Drug Addict as a Patient that looked ideal for our purposes. It was just slightly larger than the Nexus in every dimension, so it would accommodate the tablet without adding too much bulk, and the title was so boring that no one who happened upon it would ever be tempted to peek inside. It was only 25 cents, and the store (which is apparently eager to get rid of its book inventory) has a standard "buy one, get two free" deal—so we also got a paperback copy of The Anubis Gates and a whimsical little volume called The Good Fairies of New York at no extra charge. Now even if our experiment was a bust, our quarter wouldn't have gone to waste.

Once we got it home, Brian got to work cutting out the pages. He traced around the outline of the tablet on the title page, and then he cut along that line with an X-Acto knife, trimming away the pages a few at a time until he had a hole deep enough for the tablet. This was actually a fairly tedious process, and he says it probably would have been a lot easier to clamp all the pages together and cut around the outline with a jigsaw, but he didn't want to risk it with this book because it was so small that he was afraid he'd cut it apart completely. So making a book-case for your tablet may be easier if you start with a larger volume, but then you'll also end up with a bulkier and heftier case. Depending on how much you plan to carry it around, it may or may not be worth the trade-off.

Once he had all the pages cut out, he needed some way to stick the edges together so the case would have some structural integrity. So he just applied a little white glue to the tablet-shaped outline and smeared it on with a finger. He also glued down the remaining pages that he hadn't removed from the end of the book, so they wouldn't flop around.

Then he clamped the whole thing shut for a couple of days and let the glue set.

Once it was dry, he found that the result wasn't exactly perfect. First, the glue had added a little bit of bulk to the pages, so the outline he'd traced now wasn't quite big enough for the tablet. So he fixed that by shaving away the edges of the pages with the X-Acto blade until he'd carved out a hole the right size. Also, gluing together the pages at the bottom had caused them to bubble up a bit as the glue dried, forming a sort of messy edge. But after a little consideration, Brian decided this was a good thing: it made it look like not just an old, boring book, but an old, boring, damaged book that really wouldn't be worth anyone's trouble.

The final step was figuring out how to hold the case shut. I'd imagined applying some sort of hinge to the outside to hold it in place, perhaps a scrap of leather like this person used or a Velcro closure glued to the front and back covers. But Brian simply cut that particular Gordian knot by slipping a large rubber band around the whole shebang. This completes the case's disguise as an old, disintegrating book: it now looks like it's so decrepit that it needs a rubber band to keep it from falling to pieces.

Then, when you open it up, surprise! It's not just a book—it's the whole Internet!

All  in all, I think this little DIY tablet case was worth the time it took to make it. It took a bit of time, and it may not be as easy to use as a tablet case designed for the purpose—but it was a lot cheaper, and it looks a lot cooler. Plus, it repurposed something unwanted that would otherwise go to waste (let's face it, who's going to want to read The Drug Addict as Patient?) into something useful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alternative Advent calendar

I'm starting this off with a disclaimer: normally I object to any material about "the holidays"—meaning Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, and the general December Madness—before Thanksgiving. But I'm going to make an exception for this little tidbit, because it's actually about preparing for the onslaught of the holiday season and coming up with ways to minimize the madness. So, since even I concede that the holiday season can be considered under way as soon as Thanksgiving is over, it follows that in order to plan ahead for it, you need to start planning before Thanksgiving. And ideally, rather than increasing your December-mas stress by starting the season even earlier, it will reduce it so you can enjoy both holidays more.

The folks at the Center for a New American Dream have been urging folks to "simplify the holidays" for several years now. The goal, they stress, is not to do away with the gifts, the decorations, the carols, and all the other things that people love about Christmas; it's to get rid of everything else, the extraneous stuff that just adds stress and detracts from the joy of the holiday rather than adding to it. So, for instance, rather than giving each child half a dozen presents, so that they spend hours opening them all and end up in a state of sensory overload where they can't really focus on anything, perhaps you could increase the joy by giving them each just one or two presents that they will really love and treasure, and letting them spend the rest of the day playing with and enjoying them. Instead of baking a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies (and then feeling compelled to eat at least one of each and ending the day feeling dyspeptic and guilty), maybe make just the few kinds that everyone in the family loves most. Instead of covering every inch of the house with colored lights, consider having just one tree in one room, where it will really stand out and look special.

The problem, as I've noted before, is that it's one thing to decide you'd like your holiday celebration to be simpler and more meaningful; it's quite another to make it happen. Especially when your holiday celebration isn't just yours, but your whole family's, and a lot of those family members are deeply attached to their current way of celebrating.

Well, this year, the Simplify the Holidays campaign is actually acknowledging that fact. The authors have put together a Simplify the Holidays calendar that's kind of like an Advent calendar for minimalists; each day, there's a different exercise, tip, blog entry, resource, or inspirational thought to help you turn your simplified holiday from a dream into a reality. Last week's entries included:
  • An exercise called The Big Picture, in which you list all the things you do each year to get ready for the holidays, then think about which ones you really enjoy, and think about ways you might be able to eliminate or reduce the ones you don't enjoy.
  • Guidelines for talking to your loved ones about the holidays and which parts are most meaningful to all of you.
  • One reader's story about how she reduced the emphasis on gifts at her family's Christmas celebration and focused more on "spending time with each other."
  • Links to the Simplify the Holidays pledge, a list of actions you can vow to adopt for de-commercializing Christmas, and booklet, which features a wealth of tips on planning a more meaningful and sustainable celebration.
  • An inspirational quotation on the True Meaning of Simplifying. 
As we approach the season of holiday joy and madness, I offer you this alternative Advent calendar in the hope that it will help you focus on what's important to you, increasing the joy and minimizing the madness. Or, if you like your holiday celebration just fine the way it is, thank you, then maybe you can pass it on to someone else who you think could do with a little less stress during December.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled Thanksgiving thoughts.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 2

After more than a month of working intermittently on the back room that we're in the process of turning into a guest room—pulling out nails, patching the walls where the nails came out, sanding down the patches, and peeling most of the paint off the walls in the process—we finally got the whole room primed last weekend. (Even this step took longer than we expected, as we ran out of primer partway through and had to make a trip to the home center for more, so priming turned out to be a two-day job.) Now, at last, we've reached the point where we can really transform the room with some paint—just as soon as we decide what paint to use.

I'd already decided that I wanted to keep the walls in this room fairly neutral, so they wouldn't clash with the brown-and-magenta quilt we plan to use on the guest bed. I'd managed to narrow my color choices from the assortment shown in this post down to three, opting for the slightly bolder middle shades from each card rather than the off-white shades toward the bottom. However, given what a hassle it was to get this room to the painting stage in the first place, I definitely wanted to be absolutely sure of my final choice before covering a whole wall with it, because I really didn't want to have to do this job more than once. So rather than just relying on the paint chips, I sprang for six dollars' worth of sample-size paint pots to check out how they looked on the actual wall before making the final decision. The three lucky finalists are are, from left to right: Flioli Antique Lace, a light yellowy beige; Sahara Sands, a more peachy tone; and Pacific Shoreline, which shades off toward pink.

If you enlarge the photo of the three swatches, you'll see that they came out rather streaky and uneven. We only had one big paintbrush, and I didn't want to have to wash it and wait for it to dry between uses, so I decided to put up my three test swatches with the cheap little foam brushes we use for staining furniture, which turn out to be less than ideal tools for putting paint on a wall. However, even these somewhat mottled test patches gave us a good enough impression of the colors to eliminate the middle hue right away, since Brian found it too "fleshy." He then used a little mini-roller we'd picked up at the store (technically meant for painting woodwork, according to the label) to reapply the remaining two choices to the wall a little more evenly.

Unfortunately, this just made the waters murkier still. It's not that we couldn't evaluate the colors properly; it's that, once we could see them clearly, we didn't quite see eye to eye on them. (Which isn't surprising, I guess, given that his eye level is about a foot above mine.) Brian was inclined somewhat toward the pinker Pacific Shoreline, while I thought the more neutral Flioli Antique Lace might make a better background for hanging art and suchlike. So in the end, the deciding vote may be in the hands of Their Honors Rock, Paper, and Scissors. But one way or another, we are going to get these darn walls painted before...well, before midwinter, at least.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Mix-and-Match Pasta With Greens

The Recipe of the Month for November is actually a variation on a dish we've made many times before. It's out of the cookbook Easy Vegetarian Dinners, from Better Homes and Gardens, where it's called "Cavatelli with Arugula and Dried Cranberries." However, even this version of the recipe notes that you can substitute rotini for the cavatelli, spinach for the arugula, and raisins for the cranberries. So all Brian really did when he made it last weekend was to substitute pecans for the almonds or pistachios suggested in the original recipe. However, he noted in the process that he had, at that point, replaced just about every ingredient in the dish; only the garlic, olive oil, and veggie broth remained unchanged.

I considered this point and realized that this dish is really, for all practical purposes, a fill-in-the-blank recipe. You can substitute in just about any type of pasta, greens, fruit, or nuts for any other, and it will still taste good. So I'm sharing the mix-and-match version of the recipe, with our latest version as an example.

  1. Cook 1/2 pound of any short pasta (cavatelli, rotini, rotelle, penne, orecchiete, bow ties, etc.) according to package directions. (The version shown here uses rotini.) 
  2. While pasta is cooking, mince 2 cloves garlic and saute in 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat for 1 minute. Add 4 cups of dark leafy greens (arugula, spinach, mustard greens, kale, etc.), torn into smallish pieces, to the pan and cook until just wilted—about 1 or 2 minutes more. (This version uses spinach.)
  3. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with 1/2 cup vegetable broth. Add the greens, along with 1/2 cup of any dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, cherries, sultanas, etc.) and 1/2 cup of toasted chopped nuts (sliced almonds, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, etc.) Toss to combine.
  4. Serve with finely shredded Parmesan cheese, to taste.
It's nothing fancy, but it's easy, quick, and almost infinitely variable. Whatever you've got in the pantry, you can make it work.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A futile gesture of protest

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Christmas Creep is the way it eats into Thanksgiving. It's bad enough that stores put out all their holiday decorations in October and are playing bad Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving, but now an ever-increasing number of businesses are actually starting their "Black Friday" sales on Thanksgiving Day.

Wal-Mart started it a few years back by moving its Black Friday "doorbusters" up by two hours, from midnight on Friday to 10pm on Thursday, and its opening times have crept ever earlier in the years since. Meanwhile, its competitors, fearful of losing out, have not only followed suit but are now jockeying furiously to be the first to open on what's supposed to be a national holiday. RadioShack is planning to open at 8am, just like any other business day; it was originally planning to stay open all day long, but after a spate of furious criticism, it's now giving its employees a break from noon to 5pm before they have to be back on the job. (Hope they can cook and eat their Thanksgiving dinner in that time.) But even that isn't the prize winner; Sears has announced that its KMart stores will open at 6 am on Thanksgiving Day, literally before dawn in many parts of the country, and will remain open through midnight on Black Friday—42 consecutive hours. Because nothing captures the spirit of Thanksgiving like elbowing your fellow shoppers out of the way to get your hands on cheap tablets and toasters. And one particular mall in upstate New York has announced that not only will it open its doors at 6pm on Thanksgiving, but every store in the mall must also do so or pay a hefty fine.

It's actually gotten to the point that the stores that are remaining closed on Thanksgiving are now trumpeting this decision as a marketing gimmick. Sam's Club, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx, and other retailers that aren't observing "Black Thursday" are loudly proclaiming their commitment to "family," bragging about how they're giving their workers a break by letting them spend Thanksgiving with their families instead of on their feet trying to stem a tide of frenzied bargain hunters. Even the Facebook group "Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day" is declaring that the stores on its "nice" list (the ones that won't be open on Thanksgiving) to be "worthy of extra business throughout the year"—as if these stores deserve brownie points just for staying closed on, again, a national holiday.

What's really baffling to me is why so many businesses are pissing off their employees, and at least a small percentage of their customers, by opening on Thanksgiving Day. The explanation that's usually given in news stories is that if one retailer does it, others have no choice but to follow suit; if Wal-Mart is open and Target isn't, then all the folks who want to start their holiday shopping before they've even finished digesting their pumpkin pie will go to Wal-Mart, and Target will lose out on sales. But as this piece in Time magazine points out, being open on Thanksgiving doesn't appear to boost a retailer's overall holiday sales. Rather than taking business away from their competitors, they're just cannibalizing their own Black Friday profits by moving some of them up to Thursday.

Apparently, the fact that Thanksgiving hours don't improve overall sales isn't a strong enough argument to convince companies not to do it. So it looks like the only way this trend will stop is if stores start seeing their Thanksgiving hours actually hurt their overall sales. The "Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day" group claim, "the solution is simple: If we don’t shop on Thanksgiving Day, it won’t be profitable for the retailers and they won’t do it again next year." But frankly, I have my doubts about this. After all, the only people taking part in this protest are the ones who object to the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving, and they presumably wouldn't have been doing it anyway—so simply declaring this stance to be a "boycott" doesn't actually cost the stores anything. To hurt their business at all, we have to refuse to shop there for the rest of the holiday season, as well.

So that's what I'm doing.

For the rest of this holiday season—meaning, until next year—I will not shop at any of the stores on the "naughty" list (the ones that are open on Thanksgiving Day). This means that my local Rite Aid, which I was already planning to boycott until after Thanksgiving because of their premature holiday decorations, is now off-limits for December as well. I also won't be paying any of my occasional visits to Target, Payless, Staples, or Michael's during the next six weeks. (I don't, however, plan on shifting my business to Hobby Lobby, which is on the "nice" list; merely closing on Thanksgiving doesn't make up for refusing to pay for birth control in my book.) And the new pair of sneakers I was planning to buy myself (to replace an aging pair that has lost all the spring from its step) will just have to be put on hold until next year. Even my beloved Dollar Tree, which was so much help with my last Thanksgiving post, is off-limits until next year.

Fortunately, most of the stores I shop at regularly, including Home Depot and Lowe's, PetSmart and Petco, and Aldi and Trader Joe's, will be closed on Thanksgiving, so I won't have to change my shopping habits too much. Barnes & Noble is still fair game for my holiday shopping as well. And I'm not planning to boycott any supermarkets (which, as far as I can remember, have always been open on Thanksgiving morning to accommodate last-minute shoppers) or online-only stores (which are open all the time, and which aren't actually pulling people away from their families).

I realize this gesture is probably futile on my part, since a one-person boycott isn't likely to do much damage (especially to stores I most likely wasn't going to shop at anyway). But if I can draw attention to the issue, and maybe persuade a few other people to follow suit, and they can persuade a few more, we might eventually be able to make a difference.

Alternatively, I could always try to petition my state legislature to pass a blue law like the one they have in Massachusetts, which requires all retail stores (with a few exceptions, like gas stations) to close on Thanksgiving. But I think that's unlikely to get anywhere while we've got a pro-business governor who's eager to become a pro-business presidential candidate.