Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The local shopping challenge: Success!

Remember how, three weeks ago, I set myself a challenge to put together one entire new outfit entirely from items purchased (or otherwise acquired) through the very limited shopping channels here in Highland Park? And remember how, just one week ago, I was lamenting that I was having no success at all? At that time, I'd already checked every store in town I could think of that sold any clothing at all, and I'd come up completely empty. I even went so far as to venture into a local salon that had an outfit on display in its window, just on the chance that they also sold clothes there, and I discovered that they did indeed sell a small selection of what turned out to be very expensive, rather outré clothing (think vinyl pants and lamé bustiers). Since I had specified that the outfit had to be something I could actually wear, however, and since everything in the store was way over my budget anyway, it didn't do me any good, except to satisfy my curiosity. I was beginning to fear that I'd have to declare my local shopping challenge a failure—or else cheat by buying myself a big T-shirt from the dollar store and a pair of leggings from the drugstore, and saying that my new outfit was pajamas.

Oh, me of little faith.

What I hadn't realized was that, although I had already checked the local thrift shop several times, what was on the racks at the time was their winter inventory, which had already been thoroughly picked over. I'd already checked it out myself several times throughout the winter, before I even gave myself this challenge, and nothing new of interest had magically materialized on the racks since then. But that was because they'd stopped adding new winter clothes to the rack; they'd even held a bag sale to get rid of as much of it as possible and start making space for spring. When they reopened on the Thursday after Easter, I found myself facing a completely fresh set of clothes, items I hadn't already seen and rejected. In under half an hour, I filled up my bag with five items: a fascinating sort of batik-patterned handkerchief skirt; a nice silk-blend cardigan in a bright pink that matched the skirt; and three tops in white and black that I thought might serve to round out the outfit. The whole bagful cost me a mere three bucks. Cha-ching!

Unfortunately, the lack of dressing rooms meant that I couldn't really try any of these items on properly. Two of the shirts turned out, when I got them home, to be too big, and the third one didn't really work with the skirt. Fortunately, I'd already come up with a plan for this contingency. The local Rite Aid has a small selection of summer clothing in stock, including camisole-type tops in solid colors, so I just picked out a grey one that worked reasonably well with the grey in the skirt and wouldn't clash with the pink in the cardigan. And, since I'd specified that the entire outfit, including accessories, had to be new and locally purchased, I even treated myself to a new pair of simple teardrop earrings to round it out. Fourteen dollars and sixty-seven cents for both.

Unfortunately, no sooner had I succeeded in putting together this nice, summery outfit than the weather turned chilly and wet, so I haven't had a chance to wear it out in public yet. But I will certainly make a point of doing so once the weather warms up again, just to celebrate my feat of local shopping. A whole new outfit—a nice new outfit—in a town with no real shopping options for the fortysomething crowd, and all for just under seventeen dollars. Plus, since they're all separates, all the items can be worn with other items in my closet as well, giving me even more new outfits.

I'm so pleased with the results of my local shopping challenge, in fact, that I plan to set myself more of them in future, just as soon as I can come up with some appropriate themes for them. Clothing was an easy one, since it's something I can always use (my closet is far from overloaded with useful items). But thinking of other suitable challenges will be more difficult, since I don't want to go buying stuff I don't actually have any use for just for the sake of buying it locally. So what are some more items that I could always use more of, even if I don't absolutely need them? Books? Board games? Any suggestions?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Patch job

In the four years since we installed our brown-paper floor in the big room downstairs, we've been generally happy with it. It looks cool, feels reasonably comfortable to walk on, and doesn't require much more maintenance than occasionally running a broom over it. So far, we've found only two flaws in it:
  1. Rough treatment, such as dragging furniture across it, can occasionally leave small tears and dings in the paper surface. They're usually not big enough to be particularly noticeable, but over the past four years, we've accumulated a fair number of them.
  2. Over time, the finish gradually dulls. I knew going into the project that this was likely to happen: the sources I consulted said that the floor would need a fresh coat of poly "every couple of years" to restore it. Since this room doesn't get heavy use, we've managed to stretch that out to four years, but it was definitely getting to the point where it needed doing.
So we decided to set aside this weekend to rectify these two problems. First, we moved all the smaller pieces of furniture out of the room, stashing them in the shop or the bathroom. Then we cleaned the floor throughly and, as we went along, marked all the little dings and scratches we could find with sticky notes to indicate where patches were needed. We determined that most of the patches would be at the end of the room closest to the stairs (which makes sense, since that's where the table lives, and most of the tears in the floor have come from chairs being scraped across it), so we moved all the big pieces to that end of the room. Then we got out the big roll of paper we originally used to assemble the floor—which still had plenty left on it—and started tearing and crumpling pieces to put down patches, just as we did when we first laid the floor. Fortunately, since we only needed a patch here and a patch there, putting them down took much less time than doing the entire room. We put down all the patches and then spread a fresh coat of poly over the floor at the far end of the room. We left all that to dry while we headed off to check out the Rutgers Day festivities in New Brunswick.

When we got home that evening, I went down to check on the floor and made an interesting discovery. Although we were using exactly the same paper we used the first time, and exactly the same water-based oil-modified polyurethane finish, the patches looked very noticeably different from the rest of the floor. In some spots they appeared darker, in others lighter, but it was always quite obvious which parts were freshly patched and which were four years old. It's possible that the floor itself has faded somewhat from sun exposure in the years since we installed it; the area where we had a mat down in front of the door looks a bit darker than the rest. Or perhaps the polyurethane has darkened with age; the contents of the new can we bought looked quite a bit lighter than the old stuff, so that might be another reason. But whatever the reason, the new patches definitely stood out against the unfinished floor. Which is odd, because we've patched the floor before, not that long after installing it, and you can't tell the patches from the rest of the floor except by size.

Fortunately, as we put down a fresh coat of poly over the entire area this morning, the differences between the freshly patched bits and the rest of the floor became less obvious. It all just came out looking darker and glossier. It's not clear how it will look once everything dries, but we're hoping that the new patches will just blend into the overall mottled appearance of the floor. If worse comes to worst, we can always peel them up and redo them, but more likely, once the furniture is back in place, they won't even be noticeable unless you're looking for them.

So all in all, the maintenance on this paper floor isn't too bad. It took us a little time for cleanup on Friday evening; most of Saturday morning to move the furniture, lay down the patches, and coat one end of the floor; most of Sunday morning to coat the rest of the floor; and most likely we'll wait until Monday evening to move all the furniture back, just to make sure it's good and dry (though it should be safe to walk on after just a couple of hours. So all told, that's about seven hours of work once every four years, which works out to less than two hours per year. The bottom line: with a few reasonable precautions (like pads on the chair legs), a brown-paper floor really is reasonably low-maintenance. So for anyone out there who's been thinking about trying it but not sure how it would hold up over the long term, there's your answer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I Did for Earth Day

As usual, I didn't do anything particularly momentous for Earth Day this year. My behavior yesterday wasn't significantly greener than it would be on any ordinary Tuesday in April. However, thinking it over, I realized that I actually did do several things that would strike most people as "green", so I decided to list them all and see whether, taken as a whole, they add up to a proper celebration of green living. So here's what I did for Earth Day:

1. Dressed in my thrift-shop best. In fact, I realized that without intentionally doing so, I'd put together an outfit that would exactly fit the criteria of my local shopping challenge. The jeans, black shirt, and purple T-shirt all came from our little local thrift shop for $1 each; I added a sun hat from the local dollar store (though they actually charged $1.50 for it), on which I'd replaced the band with a scarf that we picked up at last fall's town-wide yard sale for 50 cents; and I accessorized with earrings from our local Ten Thousand Villages store ($20) and sunglasses from our local Rite Aid ($20). So with the exception of the shoes (which I specifically exempted from the challenge because there aren't any local shoe stores) and the purse (which also doesn't count, because I use the same one every day), my whole outfit was local produce, as it were. Which is a bit ironic, since in the past week and a half I've gotten absolutely nowhere with the local shopping challenge. Evidently it is possible for me to put together a decent outfit entirely within Highland Park if I spread the individual purchases out over a period of months or years; it's only when I try to find all the pieces on a deadline that I get stuck.

2. Accessorized with recycled style. Speaking of my everyday purse, it's the same Maggie Bags tote that I bought myself as a birthday present two years ago, which is a celebration of reuse and recycling because it's made from discarded seat belts. I'm pleased to report that it's holding up quite well after two years of steady use, so I guess it's a celebration of reducing waste as well; the cheap purses I used to buy would almost certainly have worn out by now. So I'd have to say that despite its relatively high price tag, this bag was a good investment. My only wish is that it had a few more pockets.

3. Got a quote on a high-efficiency boiler. As I noted in yesterday's post, though, I'm still not sure whether it's worth the money compared to its moderately efficient counterpart (especially considering how low our household's fuel use is already).

4. Checked my carbon footprint. I did this to put the difference between the the higher- and lower-efficiency boilers into perspective. I used this carbon calculator from the EPA, which is fairly simple to use if you have a year's worth of utility bills handy. Our household's carbon footprint turns out to be 13,575 pounds per year, which sounds like a lot, but is apparently only about a third of the average for a US household of two. (Which probably means that it still is a lot, on a global scale, but at least we're doing some things right.)

5. Ate vegetarian. It hardly seems fair to count this, since I do it almost every day, but I included some local and organic items in my meals as well.  Lunch included some butternut squash souffle made with a local, organic squash (not one of ours, which have all been eaten already, but a nice big organic squash from the Whole Earth Center). Dinner, in celebration of the end of Passover, was pasta, with pesto made from our own home-grown basil and topped with our own oven-dried tomatoes. And mozzarella cheese, which I guess is less sustainable, but tasty.

6. Shopped locally. A trip to the thrift store would have been appropriate, but it's closed on Tuesdays, so the best I could do was pop into the drugstore for some new underwear. (Hey, even the rules of The Compact concede that underwear isn't something you can reasonably purchase secondhand.)

7. Used my reusable shopping bag. Again, it's hardly fair to count this, since I do this every time I shop, but apparently most people still don't do it, since everyone else in the line at the store left with a plastic bag.

8. Decorated with fresh, organically grown flowers. I like to put fresh flowers from our own yard on the table whenever possible; my hope is that my new wildflower bed will eventually provide me with fresh blooms all season long, but right now I only have them some of the time. Fortunately, late April is one of those times, so I just replaced last week's cut forsythia branches with some tendrils of creeping phlox, which is just starting to flower.

9. Listened to my Earth mix on iTunes. This is a playlist of songs I created specially for Earth Day, putting together all the songs I could find that had any sort of an environmental theme. I don't seem to be able to post iMixes on iTunes anymore, so I'll just list the songs and artists here:
River Valley (Moxy Früvous)
Another Green World (Brian Eno)
Jack-in-the-Green (Jethro Tull)
Why Am I Painting the Living Room (Lou and Peter Berryman)
Wild Mountain Thyme (Broadside Electric)
Back to the Earth (Rusted Root)
The Memory of Trees (Enya)
Mother Nature's Son (The Beatles)
Days of Sun and Wind (Tamarack)
Forest Ballad (Hikari Oe)
Crowned in Blue (Akire Bubar)
This Is the Way the World Ends (Artisan)
Jerusalem (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
Prairie Song (Bill Staines)
Music in the Glen (The Bothy Band)
Rocks and Trees (The Arrogant Worms)
To the Last Whale/Wind on the Water (David Crosby and Graham Nash)
Appalachian Spring Suite (Aaron Copland)

10. Enjoyed human-powered entertainment. As usual on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month, we spent the evening playing board games with friends. We chose the game Power Grid, which plays out some of the consequences of various choices for power generation. (Wind power plants, for instance, have no fuel costs, but are somewhat underpowered compared to other options.) Our game even included a mini enactment of a peak oil scenario (except with coal).

So that was my Earth Day. As I said, there was nothing all that special about it, but I guess that's just proof that I have, to some degree, succeeded in making every day Earth Day. None of the tiny green steps I took yesterday would have much impact if I only did them once a year, but done on a regular basis, they all add up to keep my carbon footprint relatively lean (even if I've still got a long way to go to reach a truly sustainable level).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Earth Day dilemma

Last fall, when we had our boiler tuned up for winter, the repairman confirmed what we had long know was coming: our ancient boiler, probably installed when the house was built over 40 years ago, was slowly rusting to pieces. Rather than try to replace it in a hurry before the weather got too cold, we resolved to nurse the old one through one last winter and replace it at our leisure in the spring. So now that the weather has finally (finally) warmed up, I've lined up a series of appointments to get quotes on a new unit. In fact, the first contractor, who showed up today, gave us quotes on two: their standard gas boiler and their super-efficient condensing model. And, no surprise, there's a big difference in cost between the two. If we go with the plain old 83 percent efficient boiler, it costs us $3600; for the super-duper 93 percent efficient boiler, it's a whopping $7600. (We can get back $300 of that as a rebate from the state's Clean Energy Program, but unlike some other utilities, PSE&G doesn't give us anything extra on top of that, the cheapskates.)

Now, the contractor thought the more efficient boiler would pay for itself if we intended to be in this house long-term, which we do. However, based on my calculations, we're talking really long-term. I punched in the numbers on the manufacturer's energy calculator (which I had to use in Firefox, because it doesn't work in Chrome), and it thinks that the more efficient boiler would cost about $208 a year to run, while the moderately efficient one would cost $231 a year. So, if we're saving $23 a year, it would take about 160 years to pay for the $3700 difference between the two. Moreover, even these numbers may be highballing it, since their calculator shows us using 370 therms of gas each winter with our current boiler. Based on my back-of-the-Excel-spreadsheet calculations from our utility bills, our actual energy use is somewhere between 227 and 349 therms per winter.

So the bottom line is that, based solely on dollar considerations, we can't justify buying the more expensive boiler. Which brings me to the dilemma: is it worth spending an extra $4000 (well, $3700 after rebate) just for the sake of doing everything we can to curb global warming?

To make this decision intelligently, I had to ask myself just how big an impact the more efficient boiler would really have on our carbon footprint. Considering how little it saves us in dollar terms, I kind of suspected that it wouldn't be that much. So I found a greenhouse gas emissions calculator and punched in the 30 therms of natural gas that, according to the Weil-McLain site, is the amount we'd save per winter with the high-efficiency boiler. Burning that amount of gas, I found, would produce 351 pounds of atmospheric carbon. Then I calculated our household's current total carbon emissions using this other EPA calculator and found that they come to 13,575 pounds per year. So buying the more efficient boiler would reduce our footprint by an extra 2.5 percent. But given that we already buy carbon offsets every year to make up for the fossil fuels we burn, couldn't we just spend...lemme see here...an extra $1.64 per year on those to make up for that extra 30 therms of energy? I could pay that amount every year for more than two thousand years before it would add up to the extra $3,700 we'd pay for the pricier boiler.

But then, on the other hand, we'll probably have this boiler for at least 20 years. Indeed, if it lasts as long as our current dinosaur of a boiler has, we may never replace it again. And while the 93-percent-efficient boiler may be the top of the line right now, it's quite possible (likely, I would hope) that some time in the next 20 to 40 years, boilers that efficient will become the standard. So does it make sense to get the most efficient one that's available now, rather than risk ending up behind the curve in the future? Then, too, natural gas presumably isn't getting any more plentiful. People don't tend to talk about peak natural gas the way they do about peak oil, but it stands to reason we've got to hit it some time, and at that point, the price of natural gas could increase pretty steeply. So the $23 that the more efficient boiler would save us next winter might end up being more like $50 or $100 or $200 by the time this thing sees its twentieth winter.

But on the other hand (hey, where'd that extra hand come from?), using fossil fuels of any kind isn't really sustainable in the long term. This report from the unapologetically left-wing Center for American Progress concludes that "In the near term, natural gas presents opportunities to reduce carbon pollution" as a replacement for coal, but after that, "there needs to be a swift transition from natural gas to zero-carbon energy." Their definition of "near-term" is no later than 2030, well within the expected lifetime of our new boiler, whichever model we get. So does it perhaps make more sense to save those extra dollars now so that we'll have them to invest in a "zero-carbon energy" method of heating our home down the line, whenever such a method becomes available? (I'm not sure what such a future method might turn out to be—solar? geothermal?—but then, that's why they call it the future.)

I don't know yet what the answer is, and there's probably no point in jumping to conclusions until I've at least seen the quotes from the other contractors. Maybe one of them will turn out to have a high-efficiency boiler that's much less expensive, and the point will become moot. But thinking about it, I can't help feeling like we've made this same decision several times already: with our water heater, with our car, and even with our choice to continue using CFL bulbs until the price of LED bulbs drops. In every case, we ended up opting for the less efficient product because, as Brian put it, we don't want to "pay through the nose for immature technology." Why pay a huge markup for the best that's available right now, when the best that's available ten years from now is almost guaranteed to be a whole lot better—and possibly a whole lot cheaper to boot?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Spinach with Raisins and Walnuts

Our own garden isn't producing anything yet (though we do have a couple of promising-looking asparagus spears beginning to poke their way out of the ground), but fresh spring veggies are flooding into the market from parts south. Last weekend at the H-Mart, we found a good deal on spinach: just $1.49 for a nice-sized bunch, which actually plumped up quite a bit more once we got it into some cold water. About half of it got used last night, in a simple salad with some diced grapefruit and chopped walnuts (we've done this before with red leaf lettuce, and spinach turns out to work just as well). But that still left a reasonable-sized bunch, so tonight, when we were casting around for a veggie to accompany some leftover chicken and potatoes, I decided to consult our cookery bible (Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) for spinach suggestions. And in the section dealing with spinach, I discovered a recipe that we'd bookmarked but never actually made before: Spinach with Currants and Nuts.

Our usual practice with unfamiliar recipes is to make them exactly according to the directions the first time, then modify them as needed. This time, however, the recipe was simple enough that we felt reasonably confident making some alterations on the fly. For a start, we substituted raisins for the currants, which we didn't happen to have on hand. Also, the instructions, for some unfathomable reason, said to steam the spinach first, squeeze out the liquid, and then sauté it. However, we knew perfectly well that raw spinach will cook in no time if you put it straight into a pot, so we just sautéed up some minced garlic (the recipe said this was optional, but as Brian put it, "Since when is garlic optional?") and threw the spinach right in, stirring it around until it wilted. Then we just tossed in the raisins (soaked in warm water beforehand) and the walnuts (chopped and toasted), creating a nice gemisch that we stirred around for another few minutes before serving it up.

As Brian noted, our version probably ended up a bit heavier on the raisins and walnuts than the original recipe, since he used the full quarter-cup of each that the recipe called for, while the amount of spinach we had left was probably somewhat less than a pound—but that certainly didn't hurt it any. It made a tasty accompaniment to our leftovers, and we'd certainly have been happy to eat more of it if there had been any left. So I consider our modified Spinach with Raisins and Walnuts an unqualified success, and we'll certainly be making it again—ideally with a higher ratio of spinach to other goodies.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mugwort the Merciless

A supervillain has invaded our back yard. Its name is MUGWORT.

Mugwort, for those who don't already know it and curse its name, is the weed that makes all other weeds look cute and cuddly. As far as I can tell, it can grow just about everywhere and outcompete just about everything. It starts out fairly short and sprawling, but if left to itself, it will grow knee-high or taller, turning the whole yard into a jungle that has to be beaten back with a machete. But the worst thing about it is that once it's taken root, it's all but impossible to remove. It spreads by long, underground runners, so a single plant can send up dozens of new shoots. When you try to yank out a mugwort plant, instead of resisting until it finally comes loose, it will seem to come up right away—but then you'll find yourself dragging up a long attached tendril of root, like an umbilical cord, that seems to have no end to it. You just keep pulling out more and more of it until it eventually breaks, leaving a living end from which a new plant can grow. This makes trying to pull up these weeds by hand like battling a hydra: every time you remove one head, two more pop up in its place.

Unfortunately there's not much else you can do to remove them, either. A Google search on "how to control mugwort" yields a bunch of documents of varying credibility, but the gist of all of them is, "Well, it's not easy." This document from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, after noting that hand-pulling doesn't work well because "new plants quickly emerge from rhizome fragments, just like the brooms in 'The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,'" goes on to say that most herbicides won't work on the stuff either, and the few that do will kill everything else in sight as well. It suggests "mulching beds to reduce their growth," but based on my own experience, I don't think much of that strategy. See this fine specimen, here? It's growing up out of the slope on the northern side of our yard, which we pretty much smothered under a huge pile of dirt last year as part of our patio project. The grass and the other, tamer weeds haven't reappeared, but the mugwort has already pushed its way blithely to the surface, stretching its little green arms and singing, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!"

The only remotely helpful suggestion I've seen was in this article from the National Gardeners' Association. It says there are two effective ways to deal with perennial weeds like mugwort: smother them or crowd them out. Smothering the mugwort under heavy plastic won't really work for us, since it's spread all throughout the yard and we'd have to smother everything else along with it. However, the suggestion of "cover cropping" with another plant to keep mugwort out of garden beds caught my attention, because there actually are a couple of small spots in our yard where there isn't any mugwort visible. One is in a shady spot where most of the ground is covered by wild strawberries, and the other is in a sunnier area where all the microclover blend we planted last fall seems to have settled. I was initially disappointed with this stuff, thinking that it had only taken root in patches, leaving other areas bare—but now, seeing how thick is is in this low-lying patch, I suspect what happened is that the seed all washed off the slope and settled in this one area, where it eventually grew in thickly enough to crowd out even the mugwort.

So I suspect our best hope of dealing with this supervillain weed in the long term may be to try and wipe it out by attrition. Each spring and fall, we pull up all the large mugwort plants we can find, leaving bare patches behind; then we fill in all the bare patches with the microclover seed, spreading it as thickly as possible and giving it plenty of water and compost to encourage it to take root as quickly as possible, ideally before new mugwort plants can grow up from the broken-off runners. If we keep diligently following this program over the course of several years, we can at least hope that the microclover will eventually become well enough established to crowd out the mugwort completely. If it also crowds out some of the other weeds—the dandelions, the purple deadnettles, or even the wild strawberries—then we'll consider that a nice bonus, but frankly, at this point, we're not even going to worry about them. In the face of the Merciless Mugwort, all other enemies must be ignored as mere distractions.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The whipped cream dilemma

Our town has a pretty good recycling program. We have curbside pickup for all kind of paper, as well as glass, metal, and plastic; with the exception of styrofoam and plastic bags, anything with a numbered recycling code on it can go right in the bin. Moreover, we can take all kinds of electronic waste, including CFL bulbs and rechargeable batteries, down to the Public Works department for recycling, and there's a bin at the local grocery store for collecting plastic bags. So almost all packaging that comes into our house these days can be recycled.

The one unfortunate exception is whipped cream cans. Whipped cream is one of the few foods we tend to buy in its processed form, rather than preparing it from scratch, and for a simple reason: in a pressurized can, cream will stay good indefinitely. We once left a can behind at my parents' house for several months and found it was no good anymore, but we've kept cans in our fridge for a month or longer with no loss of quality. When you buy a little carton of cream and whip it yourself, by contrast, that whipped cream must be consumed immediately if you don't want it to go flat. Even if you whip only part of it at a time, the remaining cream in the container will go sour within a week if it isn't used.

Unfortunately, our efforts to avoid wasting the cream itself mean more waste where the packaging is concerned. You see, the whipped cream can isn't merely a steel can, which would be fine to recycle; it also has a little plastic nozzle on top, which isn't recyclable, and presumably there's also some kind of gas dispenser inside the can that's made of who knows what. I thought it might be possible to dismantle the can somehow to make it recyclable, but when I did a Google search on "recycle whipped cream can," I found that these cans fall under the category of aerosols, which are recyclable in some areas and not in others. It all depends on your local government, and our local recycling guidelines specifically name aerosols as one of the few types of container that can't go in the mixed recycling bin.

Now, in the process of searching for ways to recycle them, I also came across a couple of suggestions for ways to avoid having to buy whipped cream cans in the first place. One site recommends making all whipped cream from scratch (which doesn't work for us for the reasons named above) or buying Cool Whip in a recyclable tub (ugh). I also found a link to a site that sells reusable whipped cream dispensers, which contain a little nitrous oxide charger that inflates the cream just the way the single-use cans do. But while this sounds like an ideal solution in theory, in practice there are several snags:
  • First of all, our local grocery store only sells cream in cartons made of plastic-lined cardboard. It's not at all clear from the recycling guidelines that these are recyclable, and if they're not, we're stuck with the same problem we had before.
  • Second, while the NO2 dispensers are theoretically recyclable themselves, it's once again unclear whether we could put them out with our curbside recycling.
  • Third, the description of the whipped cream dispenser at Amazon.com says that cream stored in it will last "up to two weeks" in the fridge. It's conceivable that we might go through a cup of cream in that amount of time, but it's certainly not guaranteed, and I don't like the idea of having a deadline to use the stuff up before it goes bad. Especially since we wouldn't actually know it had gone bad until we went to spray some onto our pudding, possibly ruining the pudding in the process.
  • And fourth, there's the cost to consider. The smallest dispenser from CreamRight costs $23 and holds 1 cup of cream, which makes about 2 pints whipped. It takes one charger to produce this amount; the chargers cost $9 for a case of 24, plus $8 shipping, so if you buy two cases at a time, that works out to 54 cents per quart. A cup of cream costs about $1.29 at the store, bringing the cost up to $1.83 per quart. By contrast, a 14-ounce can of whipped cream from the store typically costs us $3.19 and makes 2.3 quarts, which works out to $1.38 per quart. So even with the cost of packaging, the canned stuff is about 25 percent cheaper.
So it seems the best solution would be to keep buying the canned stuff, but find some way of recycling the empties. So far, however, I'm having no luck finding a way to do that. If our curbside program won't take these cans, where can I take them? I consulted the Earth911 site and it said that the best way to recycle aerosol cans in our area is to take them to household hazardous waste disposal—but the NJ Hazardous Waste site specifically cites empty whipped cream cans as an example of "obviously 'safe' trash" that they shouldn't have to waste their time with. Well, okay, if they're not safe to recycle because they're "aerosols," but they're likewise not unsafe enough to go into hazardous waste disposal, then what do you do with them? Is the trash can the only option? And if so, why?

Maybe I'm just being unrealistic, but it really seems like there should be some way to have my whipped cream (without wasting any) and not have to keep throwing perfectly good steel cans into the trash. Does anyone out there in cyberspace know of an option I'm overlooking?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The local shopping challenge

The thing Brian and I like best about where we live is that it's so walkable. With a good library, a supermarket, a big drugstore, a post office, and a good selection of eateries all right here in town, we can actually run many, if not most, of our errands on foot. Sure, we probably hop in the car at least once a week in order to pick up something at a home center or a supermarket that's running a sale—but if we really had to, we could buy all our groceries in town and our hardware at either the tiny local hardware store or the bigger one about a mile out of town. (Well, I guess we'd need the car to haul home anything particularly bulky, but at least we wouldn't have to haul it far.)

One thing I can't really shop for here in town, or anywhere within a reasonable walk, is clothing. There are three stores here in town that sell clothing, but I haven't had much luck at any of them. Simuel's Closet on Raritan Avenue appears to cater to a younger and hipper clientele; on the rare occasions when I've seen something there in a size and style that I might conceivably wear, it's usually priced higher than I'm willing to pay. Covered Girl Clothing, by contrast, caters to "modest women and girls," which you might expect to be just right for my typical jeans-and-turtleneck style in the cooler months—except that they're using "modest" as a synonym for "ladylike," which apparently doesn't include jeans or trousers of any kind. So it's mostly below-the-knee skirts and three-quarter sleeve tops, which don't suit me at all. As for the third venue, our local thrift shop in the basement of the Reformed Church, I've occasionally found useful items there, but it's very hit-and-miss. The selection is quite limited and seldom changes, and it tends toward the heavily used or even slightly damaged (I guess a lot of folks around here are too frugal to discard "good" clothing). If I do manage to find something I like, I can pick it up for a song, but most of the time I walk away with nothing (or, these days, with a few cheap books instead).

Now, there are a few other stores in town that have a few items of clothing in amongst their other offerings. The Rite Aid, for instance, has a small selection of T-shirts and even a few cheap summer frocks on a rack at this time of year, along with such accessories as hats, sunglasses, scarves, underwear, and sometimes even cheap shoes. The dollar store has been known to sell little items like scarves or tank tops and, in the summer, flip-flop sandals, while the Ten Thousand Villages has much nicer (and much pricier) small items like scarves, bags, and jewelry. And it occurred to me, as I walked along the street yesterday peeping into shop windows, that among all these various stores, it ought to be possible to assemble just one decent outfit somehow.

The idea, in my mind, promptly blossomed into a challenge. Supposing, for some reason, that I absolutely had to have a new outfit, and that I was not able to drive anywhere or place an order online, could I do it? In my mind, I dubbed this the Local Shopping Challenge and started fleshing out a few ground rules:
  1. The outfit must be entirely new—in the sense of "new to me." Buying secondhand items is fine, but mixing in any items already in my wardrobe is not allowed. (The one exception is footwear, since there aren't any stores in town that sell it—aside from a few pairs at the thrift shop, and usually there aren't any in my size.)
  2. It must be an outfit I would actually wear. It can be for any occasion—formal or casual, winter or summer—but it must be something I would be willing to be seen in public in.
  3. All the items must be acquired in Highland Park itself (no fair going to a store in New Brunswick that's still within walking distance and calling that "local"). However, I am allowed to modify the items in any way I wish. For instance, if I find a jacket at the thrift store and I don't like the buttons, I'm allowed to replace them—so long as the replacement buttons also come from within Highland Park, either purchased at the drugstore or snipped off a different garment.
  4. Since price is always a consideration for me when shopping, there will be a price limit of $120 for the entire outfit, that being the maximum I can imagine spending on one under normal circumstances. (Actually, I would normally expect to spend quite a bit less than that, but setting the limit high allows me to pick one or more higher-priced items from local stores if I choose.) This price will include all the materials used to make the outfit, including anything I picked up at the thrift shop just to snip the buttons off and sew them onto something else.
  5. There will be a time limit of three weeks to complete the challenge, meaning that I must have the entire outfit by the end of this month.
So those are the parameters of the challenge, and we'll see how it turns out. If it's a success, maybe Local Shopping Challenges can become a regular feature on this blog, perhaps involving other shopping categories like books or home furnishings.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tackling the small room

Last week's bulk trash pickup went as scheduled, which means that Brian's old desk is finally gone from our lives for good. And with its removal, we're left with a more or less blank slate in our small back bedroom. This is another of those rooms, like our finished basement, that doesn't really have a name because it doesn't really have a specific function. For the six years that we've lived in this house, the small room has served as a catchall area for:
  • starting seedlings in the spring, since it's the sunniest spot in the house;
  • keeping a few house plants the rest of the year;
  • sorting our recyclables;
  • storing all our cookbooks, since there's no room for them in the kitchen;
  • storing additional books about gardening and home repair, as well as back issues of Mother Earth News;
  • displaying Brian's toy collection;
  • an extra closet in which to stash cat food and litter, assorted cleaning supplies, and our collection of wrapping paper and boxes;
  • and, most recently, storing all the books we've acquired recently that we haven't had a chance to read yet, as well as a big stack of books we're planning to remove from our collection and either swap or donate.
None of these functions, however, really fills up the whole room. The seedlings and recyclables all fit on a table against the outside wall, the cookbooks and other stuff fit on a bookcase along the front wall, and everything else is in the closet. We used to have our nice wooden table in there, surrounded by a few chairs, but we never really used it except to pile books on and to wrap presents before Christmas/Hanukkah. Now that the table is being put to much better use as Brian's desk, we thought perhaps it was time to put the rest of that room to better use as well. But what use would that be? There isn't any activity we do regularly that really needs a space of its own. We already have places in our house for everything we do at home: working, sleeping, cooking and eating, playing games by ourselves or with friends, reading, watching TV, working on DIY projects. For just the two of us, we have more than enough room.

The only time we could occasionally use a bit more space is when we have guests. Granted, this doesn't happen that often, and when it does, it's usually only one or two people. Accommodating a couple is no problem; in fact, we can even offer them a choice of accommodations, either on the futon downstairs (where there's more space and a private bathroom) or the one in the office (where the door can be shut against feline intruders). But in the hypothetical case that we wanted to invite, say, Brian's sister with her husband and four kids, or two couples we know in Virginia who have three kids between them, things could get a bit tight. So turning the small bedroom into a designated guest room is probably the most reasonable use for it.

The trick is going to be turning it into a guest room while still being able to accommodate all the miscellaneous functions that room has now. Given that we don't have guests very often, and that we have a lot of guests still less often, this room is going to get a lot more use as a conservatory/library annex/recycling station than it does as a guest room. We could, of course, just plunk down a guest bed in the corner where the table used to be, but having a bed in the room when it's not in use as a guest room just seems like it would look a bit odd. Some sort of daybed would probably be more practical; it can serve as seating most of the time, but still be made up into a bed to accommodate a single guest—or, if we get the right kind, pull out to turn into a larger bed for two. And with something like this little beauty from IKEA, we can even add drawers underneath to store the extra bed linens.

Before we go rushing off to IKEA to buy it, however, the rest of the room needs a little bit of work. Well, to be honest, all the rooms on the main level of our house need some work, since the last time they were painted, the painters simply slapped a heavy coat of one color over everything, willy-nilly, without bothering with such niceties as repairing sagging corners, taping off edges, removing outlets and switch plates, or even pulling out nails and other odd bits of hardware stuck into the walls. But for the past six-plus years, we've just lived with the flaws, because fixing them would require us to pull apart the room in order to do the job right—and as I've mentioned, we really do use all the spaces in our house on a regular basis. But since this one gets used less than any of the others, it's the ideal place to get started on the major project of redoing the entire upper floor. Since there's not that much stuff in the room right now, we can pull everything out without creating too much clutter elsewhere, and since it's the smallest room in the house, it should be the quickest one to finish. So it's obviously the best room to cut our teeth on before we tackle the living spaces that we actually live in.

We're not quite ready to start pulling all the furniture out of the room yet, however. Since it's spring, this room is currently in full seed-starting mode, and we don't really have another nice, sunny place to keep all those seedlings until they're ready to go into the ground. So we have about another month to plan before the seedlings are all out of the way and we can get down to the serious business of painting and furnishing the room. (For starters, we'll need to figure out what can be removed from the closet so that guests can actually use at least part of it for clothing.) But by May, if not sooner, we should be ready to start stripping this room down to the walls and then putting it back together, piece by piece.

And when we're done, even if we don't end up using our new guest room very much, at least we'll know what to call it.