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.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Setting the Thanksgiving table on a dollar-store budget

I've complained many times about Christmas creep, the phenomenon of jumping ahead to the "holiday season" earlier and earlier each year, leaving Thanksgiving (and now, it appears, even Halloween) in the dust. As Alexandra Petri of the Chicago Tribune points out, this devalues not only Thanksgiving, but Christmas as well; by the time the holiday actually arrives, everyone's already sick of it.  ("I complain about it every year," she laments, "and it still happens. It is almost as though writing about things on the Internet had no impact on them whatsoever.") The solution she proposes is to keep the focus on Thanksgiving as much as possible: "Buy Thanksgiving greeting cards. Insist on turkey garlands. Dress up as a pilgrim. Dress up as a turkey. Clap and shout, "I do believe in Thanksgiving! I do! I do!" Anything you can think of."

So, as my contribution to this movement, I'm going to do a post on Thanksgiving entertaining. I already did one three years ago on how to throw a great holiday party on a reasonable budget; now it's time to give Thanksgiving its fair share of the attention.

The idea behind this post came from an article I saw in the November issue of Good Housekeeping, which, to be fair, is actually all about Thanksgiving (though it was undermined somewhat by the fact that the "fabulous holiday issue," decked out in red and green, arrived at the same time). The article bills itself as "An Easy Lesson in Beautiful Table Settings," showcasing four different styles for decking out the Thanksgiving table. The four place settings, which you can view in a slideshow on the Good Housekeeping website, feature distinctive styles of dishes, glassware, flatware, and napkins or other decorative objects, with accompanying text telling you where to buy them and how much they cost. The cheapest of the four place settings—a "fresh modern" look in stark, minimalist white—cost $55; the most expensive was $117. That's for one place setting, mind you. If you had a dozen people at your holiday table, as my family does, you could spend over a grand just to set the table, before you even put a scrap of food on it.

Even more irksome, to me, were the cutesy place cards accompanying each table setting. For one thing, I've never been at a Thanksgiving meal where we actually needed place cards, and frankly, I'm not sure I'd ever want to spend the holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know well enough to sit down to a meal with unaided by formal seating arrangements. But even supposing, just for the sake of argument, that I decided to make place cards for our Thanksgiving gathering just because I thought they would look cute, why on earth would I need to attach each one to a colored glass bottle (for which the article advises you to "hit up your local flea market"), or a faux pheasant feather, or a spray-painted pear? (That one probably bothered me the most of all, because a pear is food, and spray-painting it so that it's no longer edible is wasting food, which is about as un-frugal as it's possible to be. If you want to stick your guest's name on a pear, then for heaven's sake, why not just use the pear in its natural state? It looks just as nice that way, and after the meal is over, you can remove the little tag and save the pear for breakfast. Spray-paint it, and all you can do with it afterward is throw it out; it probably isn't even safe to put in the compost bin.)

So I decided to put together an elegant place setting to rival those featured in Good Housekeeping on as low a budget as possible. Of course, in real life, I'd simply use the dishes, glassware, flatware, and napkins I already own, and if I wanted to dress up the table a bit, I'd do it by folding the napkins into fancy shapes and making a nice centerpiece of some kind. But assuming I didn't actually own any of that stuff, or didn't own enough pieces to host a large group, how would I build an elegant table setting from scratch on a bare-bones budget? To me, there was just one obvious answer—one that started with "Dollar" and ended with "Tree."

I don't get out to Dollar Tree very often these days, since the one closest to us closed down, but it's actually one of my favorite places to browse aimlessly. They have such a huge variety of stuff there, from food to cleaning supplies to housewares and even clothing. You never know just what you're going to find there, but you know that anything you find can be yours for only one dollar. And I remembered quite distinctly that, on previous visits, I'd seen plates there, and glasses, and maybe even utensils. If I needed to outfit a table for a big party in a hurry and on the cheap, it's certainly the first place I'd look.

So, on Wednesday, while running another errand, we stopped in. I headed for the tableware section and quickly discovered that the problem with this plan wasn't going to be finding something I liked; it was going to be deciding which of the many styles available I liked best. They had a remarkable variety of dishes, plain and patterned, in white and every color of the rainbow (plus a few that the rainbow leaves out).

Glassware, too, was available in a vast array of styles: stemware and tumblers, colored and clear, delicate and hefty.

With all the choices there, I could easily have put together four place settings in different styles, just like the folks at Good Housekeeping. But I decided to show some restraint and limit myself to two. For a simple, elegant look, I chose these white plates with a gold-edged rim:

And to go with them, a set of tumblers with a matching gold rim:

Then, for a more colorful and festive look, I chose these casual dishes in a vivid, country-themed pattern:

And, to play up the color scheme, stemware with a clear bowl and a green stem:

My job was only half done, however. I'd found dishes and glasses, but the Dollar Tree couldn't help me with either napkins or flatware (except the disposable variety, which, aside from being wasteful, don't cut it as elegant in my book). To round out my place settings, I'd have to turn to the Great Marketplace of the Internet.

Fortunately, finding these items cheap online was pretty easy. A quick search turned up a wide selection of napkins at a site that supplies the bridal industry. I figured satin napkins in "champagne," at 62 cents each, would go well with the gold-rimmed plates, while more casual polyester napkins in dark red, for 53 cents each, would complement the multicolored ones. These prices don't include shipping, because I didn't want to put the items in my cart to calculate it, so I just rounded up and assumed the napkins would cost a dollar apiece with shipping.

Flatware was a little trickier. On the restaurant supply sites, it was mostly sold by the piece, and I figured it would be cheaper by the set. So I tried eBay, where I found this 44-piece set—8 place settings—for a "Buy it Now" price of $41.50 with shipping. That's a little over $5 per setting, and the simple "New Century" pattern looked like it would go well with either of my place settings. Add it all up, and the place settings come to about $8.33 apiece—less than one-sixth the price of the cheapest setting in the Good Housekeeping article.

There was just still just one little detail left, though. Since Good Housekeeping included place cards in its photo shoot, I figured to be fair, I should come up with ideas for some as well. But I certainly didn't want these to add to the cost of the place settings, so that ruled out any ideas that would require buying supplies from a craft store or "scouring" flea markets. Instead, I stole an idea from party planner David Moen, whose plan for a $30-a-head holiday party, as outlined in the New York Times, inspired my earlier post on holiday entertaining. His place cards were simple teardrop shapes cut out of card stock, with names written in gold marker. I thought for a Thanksgiving meal, you could go one better and cut the cards out of brown kraft paper, since everyone has a couple of brown paper bags lying around somewhere—and instead of a teardrop shape, pick up a nice fallen leaf from your yard and trace that shape onto the paper. The only cost would be a couple of bucks for the marker, which could be reused after the holiday. I even mocked up a little prototype to show what it would look like (though I had to use green marker, since we didn't have a gold one).

That one, because of the gold color scheme, seemed like a good match for the white-and-gold place setting. For the more colorful one, I figured I could do the names on white paper, in colored marker—maybe even a different color for each person—and simply tuck them inside the wine glasses. Maybe even tuck a colorful leaf in there with them, for an extra touch of fall splendor.

So there you go: a choice of two place settings, one traditional and elegant, one cheerful and casual, for under 10 each, with the place cards thrown in. Let's see the Good Housekeepers beat that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fighting the draft

Our house was built, as far as we can tell, in 1970. That means it's not nearly as drafty as a really old house, and much better insulated, but it has had over 40 years for bits of the house to settle and leave gaps that can let the winter in. So after Brian finished dealing with the rain barrel last weekend, he turned his attention to weather-stripping our two main entrances to keep the cold at bay.

Last time we applied weather-stripping, we used foam tape (the cheap stuff), and as it turns out, we probably applied it wrong. The instructions in my trusty home maintenance manual say the place to put it is along the inside edge of the doorstop, so when the door, the foam compresses to form a nice, tight seal. However, as you can see in this picture of the front door, we actually pressed it up against the side of the doorstop. It still helps block out drafts that might come whistling through the gaps, but it doesn't actually fill the gaps.

Now, on the front door, the foam tape had actually held up fairly well, despite our little goof in applying it. But on the side door, where we used a narrower strip, the adhesive backing on the foam had gradually lost its stickiness, letting the foam peel up and away from the door jamb. Largish chunks of the foam were missing altogether, leaving gaps in the doorframe were big enough to let ants into the house all summer long. So rather than just buy another roll of the foam tape, we decided to try something that looked like it might hold up a bit better: a felt strip that attaches with nails or staples.

Well, it turns out that this stuff doesn't go in the same place as the foam tape—not the place where it's supposed to go, nor the place where we put it. Instead, according to the picture on the package, it's supposed to be nailed directly to the inside of the door jamb, where it will press up against the edge of the door when it's closed. Brian did this on the side door, but he couldn't do it on the front, since it would interfere with the door hardware.

However, there was still quite a bit of felt left, so he figured he might as well try to apply some on the inside edge of the doorstop, the place where you're actually supposed to put the foam tape. The felt was too wide for this narrow surface, but he just cut it lengthwise and stapled it in place. One narrow half-strip covered two edges of the doorstop on the side door, and he still had the other half left over to do the front door.

This experiment was a success, more or less. Both doors are now very snug indeed—so snug, in fact, that it takes a good hard slam to get them to close. Before, you could just push the door into place, and it would stay put; now you really have to throw your weight against it to make sure that it catches and stays caught. With the side door, it's usually obvious if I haven't managed to get it closed fully, because the added thickness of the felt against the door jamb pushes the door back open again. The front door, however, occasionally looks like it's fully closed, but isn't actually secure. Once or twice, I've failed to notice it until it starts to get dark and the light of the setting sun shining through the gaps in the doorframe. So I've now gotten into the habit of relying on my ears rather than my eyes; even if the door looks shut, I don't assume it is until I hear the click of the latch in its groove.

These newly tight-fitting doors will take a little adjusting to, but it may get easier over time as the felt compresses. In the meanwhile, it's worth a little extra effort to dodge those drafts. It probably won't make a bit difference on our gas bill, but it'll keep us a bit cozier through the long winter months.

UPDATE (11/18/14): The felt weather-stripping on the front door proved to be unworkable. After I accidentally left the door not-quite-shut for the third time, Brian removed it and instead installed a different kind that we picked up at the same time: a simple plastic strip, folded lengthwise. When you close the door, the fold automatically closes up enough to let the door stay shut, but stays open just enough to fill the gap. This stuff may not provide quite as tight a seal as the felt, but it's definitely better than a partly open door.

He also used the same stuff to jury-rig a fix for the bottom sweep on our storm door, which had partly crumbled away with age. The ideal solution would have been to replace the whole sweep, but we weren't sure we'd be able to find one the right size for our particular storm door (which is likely original to the house and may not even be made anymore). So Brian cut a piece of the V-shaped weather stripping to size and slipped it into the gap, and while it may not provide a perfect seal, it blocks out most of the wind and insects.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rain barrel economics

With the first frost already past and the first blast of real winter weather already on its way, Brian devoted a good chunk of last weekend to getting our house and yard ready for winter. At the top of his to-do list: packing up the rain barrel. This is the first year we've had it, so we weren't altogether sure what to do with it during the cold months. If we just left it out in the yard, the water inside would freeze and thaw repeatedly, weakening and possibly cracking the plastic barrel. We thought of draining the barrel and then covering it to keep it from refilling with snowmelt from the roof, but it seemed like once we'd gone to the all trouble of emptying it, we might as well just move it out of the weather altogether. It might last a bit longer without being exposed to freezing temperatures, even when empty—and it would actually be a bit easier to reroute the flow of water from the drainpipe with the barrel out of the way.

The barrel took quite a while to drain, even after being regularly tapped throughout the summer and fall for watering the garden. Once it was empty, it turned out there was a fair bit of sludge in the bottom, apparently dirt that was small enough to slip through the mesh on top. Brian gave it a bit of a scrub to clear this stuff out, but the hardest part of the job was rearranging all the clutter in the shed to make room for it—along with our newly refinished patio furniture, which we figured would probably keep its nice finish longer if it weren't exposed to another winter outdoors.

After removing the barrel, Brian reattached the end of the drainpipe, which we'd removed to divert water into it. The pipe now reaches nearly to the ground, but it's still a bit closer to the house than it probably should be, so we need to buy a little elbow piece to stick on the end and divert water off into the yard. (We have a short straight piece already, but we can't just stick that on the end because the concrete pad is a bit too high.) When spring arrives, we can put the barrel back in its place, rearrange the drainpipe to drain into it again, and stash away the extra bit of pipe for winter. I guess reconfiguring the drainpipe is now one of our regular spring and fall chores, like changing the clocks (and can probably be done around the same time).

Now that the rain barrel has made it through its first summer, I can give a preliminary report on how good a job it did of saving us on our water use. We haven't received our water bill yet for August through October, but I went out and checked the water meter, and I found that since the start of August, we've used 840 cubic feet of water, or 6284 gallons. Add that to the total on our last water bill, and we've used 11,370 gallons of water since early May. In 2013, by contrast, we used 12,866 gallons between May 13 and October 30. Now, we probably can't give the rain barrel full credit for this 1,500-gallon drop, since we also installed a new showerhead last spring that probably deserves a bit of the credit, but I think the rain barrel definitely accounts for a good chunk of it. If we use, say, 30 gallons every time we water the garden, and we watered it from the rain barrel twice a week from July through October, then that's over 1,000 gallons right there. Not too shabby.

Unfortunately, the savings in dollar terms are a little less impressive. Our town doesn't bill us by the gallon for the water we use; instead, it puts our household water usage into one of three tiers. If we use less than 800 cubic feet of water in a billing period, we pay the minimum, $48.73. Anything between 800 and 1000 cubic feet puts us in the second tier, for $62.96. If we use over 1,000 cubic feet, no matter how much or how little over, then we pay the maximum bill of $77.70. So our 840 cubic feet of water use, as you can see, puts us just over the limit for the bottom tier. (Of course, this might also have something to do with the fact that it's been 104 days since our last water bill, while last year the billing period was only 86 days. If we'd had the same billing periods this year, we'd have been well below the limit. I sometimes rather cynically suspect that the borough deliberately tweaks the dates each year to try and put as many households over the limit as possible. But realistically, I doubt that they could actually be bothered to do the complicated calculations necessary to maximize their profit. More likely, they just send out the bills whenever they happen to get around to it.)

In any case, using the rain barrel this summer obviously wasn't quite enough to keep our bill down to the minimum. But on the other hand, last year at this time, we were all the way in the top tier, so the barrel has still saved us about 15 bucks in its first summer alone. Maybe next year, with a little more tweaking, we can actually manage to keep it below the minimum all summer long.