Weekend Projects

It was a pretty busy weekend in the Julie-Conservative Boy household. Here's a look at what was accomplished:

  • A trip to the library for the following must-reads: Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver; and Adoptable Dog: Teaching Your Adopted Pet to Obey, Trust, and Love You. Who's excited about this week's reading selection? I sure am.

  • Bathroom cleaning, which was done by Conservative Boy for the first time since we moved. He did a swell job except for the fact that I yelled at him for using paper towels rather than the nice pile of cleaning rags in the closet. I felt bad after I yelled when he told me he didn't know that was an option because he'd only ever used paper towels. But now he knows. And I promised to work on not being such a green-nazi. Oh, and he, of course, used the random bottle of Fantastik in the closet rather than my Seventh Generation supplies. I don't think the bathroom has ever smelled that chemical-y (well, at least not until Sunday ... more about that later in this post). When Conservative Boy got done cleaning, he was complaining about being dizzy. And even later, when we were shopping and passed some cleaning supplies, he said he still felt weird. "Hmm," I said, very kindly now that I'd turned over a new leaf and put my green ranting behind me, "I wonder why." He still insists, though, that the green cleaning supplies won't work well. But I'm thinking this might be an easier sell than I originally expected—now that C.B. discovered how terrible the chemicals in normal cleaning supplies are, it's only a matter of time before I convert him. Muahaha. I don't know about you, but I prefer not passing out, coughing uncontrollably, and losing a copious amount of brain cells unnecessarily every time I scrub the shower.

  • The purchase of some swell gardening and dog-owning supplies (nope, not spilling the beans yet ... evil, aren't I?)

  • Some yard clean-up (man, we have a lot of sticks in our yard!)

  • A trip to Ace Hardware, which involved, among other things, the purchase of an aerator for the bathroom faucet so I can reduce the amount of water we use for toothbrushing and other faucet-related duties.

  • Some grill fixing (it works on propane now, which means we also were able to have a crowd of basketball fanatics over for some grilling, NCAA tournament watching, and washer throwing Saturday night)

  • Bathroom painting. Yep, I painted the bathroom walls white to cover up the dingy, smudged, rather sad-looking paint from before. This new white paint really accentuates our fabulous aqua-color wall tiles and fixtures. Let me tell you. I will say, however, that I made a boo boo that I'm incredibly mad about. I bought my usual Sherwin-Williams Harmony no-VOC paint, and I thought I was getting the low-VOC primer too (had to use primer in this room because I was painting over glossy paint, otherwise I wouldn't have messed with it). But after I started applying the darn primer, I realized it wasn't low-VOC after all. The realization was instant the moment the fumes overtook me. Terrible. But at that point it was too late to return the paint, so I forged on. (Side note: Using regular primer with no-VOC paint is like installing your incredibly eco-friendly flooring with the same chemical-loaded adhesives used for normal flooring. Just stupid.) I suppose the scent would've been even worse had I not followed the primer with no-VOC paint, but I'm still mad because I can just imagine all the chemicals that will be offgassing from the walls for the next five years now. Not happy. Not healthy. And it still stinks—literally.
Despite the chemical-related setbacks, not a bad busy weekend, eh?


Dog Sitting (Part 2)

So the great adventures in dog sitting have come to an end. Walker is back at his own house now, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his parents later tonight. OK, realistically he probably has no clue they're on their way home. But he'll greet them with absolute joy when they walk in the door, that's for certain. That's just the way he is.

It's actually a bit lonely and quiet in here now that he's gone. I got used to Walker sitting beside me, staring up at me with his "what are you doing" eyes and looking so darn excited to see me every time I walked into the room.

I hear that for those who know Walker personally, my last post on him came across as a bit negative. That's not how it was supposed to sound at all! Sure, I was poking a little bit of fun at him (actually, more so at his family than him). But can anyone really disagree with this statement: he's spoiled. It's true. He's the baby of the family. That's usually how it works.

But Walker is also a very well behaved, well mannered, wonderful dog. (And he's beautiful to boot.) We developed a nice routine this week, from our 6:30 a.m. wandering around the front and back yards to our lunchtime walks down the alley to our after-work jaunts around the neighborhood. He was absolutely sweet the entire week except for (1) when someone would come to the door—then he'd go into guard-dog mode unlike any I've seen from him before, but I guess that's a good thing and (2) when we came back from the animal shelter and he smelled another dog on me ... shortly after that, he pounced on my computer cords while I was working and almost pulled the entire computer off my desk. Other than that? He was an absolute angel.

In fact, I wouldn't mind keeping him. Although I don't know if Conservative Boy would go for that. He still harbors older brother resentment. Although I think after the last day or so they're on better terms—he even got up and took Walker for his walk this morning. (Although it wasn't, of course, at 6 a.m.)

All in all? It was good practice. And we'll only be dog-free for a few days anyway. Why, you ask? Well, you'll just have to wait and see and stop back later this week to find out!


Going Green Around the House

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I’ve been bitten by the “green” bug and am always looking for ways that I can conserve energy and water, reduce my environmental footprint, and save money too. Moving from an apartment to a house has opened up a ton of new possibilities for ways that I can “go green” at home. But I’m finding that although I have a monstrous wish list of things I want to do, finding the time, money (yes, some of these changes can be expensive), and energy doesn’t happen overnight.

Still, I think I’ve made progress. In the few months I’ve lived in L-town, here’s a sampling of what I’ve done:

Painting with low-VOC products. I will say this: standard paints offgas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are bad for the environment and bad for your health (paint is one of the leading causes of indoor air pollution, people!). But low- or no-VOC paints release few (if any) of those nasty pollutants and are almost odorless. I won’t go into the details of my personal experience here though, because you can learn all about how I (along with Conservative Mom) painted with low-VOC paint by checking out my post about it on The Home Know-It-All.

Replacing burned out bulbs with CFLs. Let’s see. I have compact fluorescent lightbulbs in all my new lamps, in the garage, and the overhead light in my office. It’s a start. I refuse to replace bulbs that are still working (wasteful!), but as soon as more burn out, you can bet that CFLs are going in their place. Why? Because they use approximately 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than standard incandescent bulbs. Even Conservative Boy sees their value (as I mentioned here).

Unplugging, unplugging, unplugging. Why? To ward off phantom loads, people. All those chargers and appliances you have plugged in are sucking energy—even when they’re not in use. Don’t believe me? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 75 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed when they’re off. Really. But all you have to do to stop those nasty energy suckers is unplug them! Learn more (again, from me!), in this post.

Running only full loads. This applies to both the dishwasher and the clothes washer. I don’t run either machine until I have a full load. And when it comes to the dishwasher, I always air dry (it can cut dishwasher energy consumption by as much as 50 percent). With the clothes washer, I wash everything on cold. And air dry whatever I can get to fit on my drying rack and the ironing board.

Full disclosure: Although I will admit that I’ve read about and even recommended just scraping, not rinsing, dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, I don't follow this recommendation. Rinse first and you can waste upwards of 20 gallons of water unnecessarily. But I’ve discovered that with our old dishwasher it doesn’t work. If I don’t thoroughly rinse first, I either have to re-wash a bunch of dishes by hand or send them through another load. Hah. That saves a lot of water. Looks like a new Energy Star dishwasher is moving up on the appliance wish list.

Recycling. Of course. Even though I’ve discovered that not many people here know this, you can get recycling bins in L-town, and they do curbside pickup every other week. Needless to say, our bin is always loaded full with newspaper, magazines, cardboard, plastic, and cans. And I have quite a collection of glass bottles and jars that I need to haul to the recycling center in town since we can't put those out with the rest of the recyclables.

Reusing. I reuse the back of printed paper like it’s my job. And I rinse off plastic baggies, aluminum foil, you name it to use again—until Conservative Boy catches me, gets annoyed, and throws my reused packaging away. I also used old dish towels and washcloths past their prime for cleaning rags. I’m still working on more ways to reuse more items around the house before discarding them, so if you have other ideas let me know. Oh, and you already knew this, but I’m a big proponent of reusable shopping bags.

Buying organic. There’s actually a decent organic selection at the Kroger in town (surprised? I was), so I’ve been buying a lot more organic products (milk, eggs, produce, coffee, whatever I can get) now. Conservative Boy’s friends made fun of my organic ketchup, but whatever.

Cleaning green. I use green cleaning supplies for almost all of my cleaning (except the floors; our laminate and tile floors are still babies so I’m carefully using the cleaner that came with them until it’s gone). Once this batch of green cleaners runs out, I’m going to try making my own. (Wanna learn more about why you should clean green? Just check out another one of my The Home Know-It-All posts!) Oh, and my personal cleaning is green too—I use natural hand soap, body wash, shampoo, and conditioner now.

That seems like a pretty hefty list, but honestly, it barely scratches the surface of what I could do. I have a long way to go. Conservative Boy set me back a bit by turning up the water heater, much to my chagrin. But for now I’ll just have to make up for that extra energy use in other ways (you can only do so much with a man who refuses to take anything but scalding hot showers).

You think I’m done rambling? Ha. Think again. I could go on about this stuff for hours. (Which is probably why, whenever I spout off another random fact related to energy or water savings, Conservative Boy makes a comment like: “What’s that for? Chapter 22?”) So expect more soon.

Oh wait, I almost forgot to ask. What are YOU doing?


Dog Sitting

After having never really dog sat before, I’ve become the Queen of Dog Sitting in the past two weeks. (Admittedly, I named myself that just now. But all hail the queen anyway.)

First, it was Murphy, a sweet golden retriever in Des Moines, for about a week.

Now, it’s Walker. A beautiful, rambunctious black lab in L-town, for just short of another week.

Let’s take a look at these two lovely (and incredibly distinctive) creatures:

I don’t know Murphy’s age, but she has definitely been around for a while. She’s a mellow dog who’s outgrown the boundless energy of a puppy—but give her the chance to go for a walk and she’ll take off running as fast as she can get you to go. As with most golden retrievers, she’s always excited for a little interaction and absolutely loves spending time with people. Yet she’s also perfectly content to sprawl out on the floor and relax, preferably with a human nearby.

Talk about obedient—Murphy dutifully went into her crate each time I asked, bounded out excitedly when I came home, and knew exactly when to make a beeline for the garage for food. And as soon as she was finished doing her business in the backyard, she was ready to come back inside and hang out. Feeding Murphy was a breeze too—two scoops of dry food in the morning and the same at night. (As I learned when I plopped down on the floor in Borders last week with a book on golden retrievers, they’ll eat whatever you put in front of them, so you have to feed them with moderation.)

Then there's ...

Walker. Oh Walker. Now here’s a lively fellow. Walker is only a couple of years old and is the baby of Conservative Family. The other dogs are gone, the kids are grown. So Walker is the pride and joy of Conservative Parents. And it shows.

Whatever Walker wants, Walker gets. This includes, but is not limited to: riding in the front passenger seat of the car (even if it means somebody else has to sit in the back), hanging out at the law office with clients all day, sleeping on a human bed in his own room, and hopping up on the bench at the banquette in the kitchen for meals with the family. I exaggerate not. Walker rules the roost.

Although he may be spoiled, Walker isn’t a bad dog. He’s just used to having his way. I don’t know if Conservative Boy is going to last this week with Walker at our house (some older brother resentment, perhaps?). But we’re giving it a try. After only a couple of days, Walker is already learning that some of his home behaviors (jumping up on the couch, racing across the kitchen floor, and sleeping on a human bed) aren’t going to work out here. And he’s doing just fine. (Although I believe Conservative Boy won't be taking Walker back to the office anymore this week—he's refusing to, because Walker doesn't know what to do without his dad there and has been misbehaving—so Walker and I will be spending lots of quality time together.)

As long as Walker has someone to give him attention occasionally and gets his super-special meal (one cup of dry dog food, one can of special wet dog food, plus one cup of rice made with love by Conservative Mom before she left on vacation, all mixed together in a big silver bowl with some water) twice a day, he’s set.

Conservative Boy and I are hoping to get our own dog very soon, so I’ve decided dog sitting is the perfect way to ease myself into the notion of having a dog around all the time. This whole owning a dog thing will be a new experience for me, so baby steps are good, right?

(Oh, and Conservative Boy promises our dog will not annoy him like Walker. Again, I think he’s just bitter because the baby of the family gets all the attention. And Walker knows it too. He whimpers like a sad pup when Conservative Boy is around—probably because he can be a meanie to the poor pup, like big brothers can be—but is perfectly content when Conservative Boy leaves. Kids.)


Easter Dinner

This is not just any Easter dinner. This is M.B.'s Easter dinner.

We're talking mouth-watering flavors and a setup that would have Hostess with the Mostest saying "wowee, M.B."

We're talking cooking how it should be—with lots of real butter and a large serving of love. That's because, for M.B., cooking isn't a chore. It's an act of love. And anyone who's invited to spend holidays dining with the Sparks gets to reap the rewards.

When I moved to L-town, one thing I knew for certain was that anytime we dined at Q and M.B.'s, we'd be in for good company and a spread that was breathtakingly delicious (read: impossible not to overindulge).

This Easter dinner delivered on both (of course).

The menu went something like this:

Ham with a mustard aioli for dipping

Mashed sweet potatoes (perhaps the sweetest I've ever tasted)
Corn (with lots of real butter, of course)
Creamed peas and new potatoes
Some sort of tasty baked pineapple dish
Giant Great Harvest Bread rolls

A beautiful custard with kiwi and raspberries

And, of course, desserts (all homemade, but you probably guessed that by now, right?).

How was I ever supposed to decide between little chocolate cups filled with mousse, giant cream puffs drizzled in chocolate sauce

and a lemon tart topped with raspberries? I couldn't. So I tried them all.

If M.B. had a cooking blog, I have no doubt people would read it by the thousands, gazing in awe at her mouthwatering creations.

In fact, if Mom and I hadn't been sworn to secrecy, I'd share the recipe M.B. generously passed along for her cranberry bread pudding drizzled in vanilla sauce. Absolutely. To. Die. For.

But it's top secret. Sorry!

(Oh, and sorry there aren't more photos, but somebody got too excited about the spread and took a bunch of shots that went straight to the trash. Hmm. Wonder who that was?)


Revisiting Valley Junction

Whether you live in the Des Moines area, visit it occasionally, or just might make a stop there at some point in your life, be sure you spend some time in Valley Junction.

A quaint warren of streets tucked amidst a rather unpretentious residential area, not downtown but not quite to the strip mall sprawl of West Des Moines, historic Valley Junction is one of Iowa’s “Main Street” communities. An area once frequented by railroad workers, the area morphed into a bustling downtown—in the late 19th century, you’d find horse-drawn carriages, a trolley line, wooden sidewalks, and a sprinkling of banks, drugstores, and boarding houses. Now, it’s teeming with interesting shops worth a stop.

Regrettably, I didn’t spend much time in Valley Junction until the last year or two I lived in Des Moines. Sure, I’d heard about it from my first year at Drake, but never really knew where it was or bothered to go until after I’d graduated (except for one dinner with my fellow “magazine people” at Cafe Su, which is delicious, by the way).

Once I spent time wandering the neighborhood though, I fell in love with its antique stores and quirky shops. This is a place loaded with genuine personality.

That’s why the opportunity to spend a bit of time wandering Valley Junction again the other day was too good to pass up.

A warning: As is the case with most independent shops in Des Moines, these stores close early, so if you’re thinking of spending a Saturday evening wandering you’re out of luck. Most shops we went into closed by 5 or 6 p.m. But at least that gave us enough time for a bit of exploration.

Some of the highlights:

  • Buying a chai tea at Fifth Street Fountain, which boasts an old-fashioned soda fountain (you can even get phosphates!) and yummy ice cream.

  • Wandering, while sipping said chai, through the antique store attached to Fifth Street Fountain. This is one of my favorite stops—it’s filled with antiques of all sorts, collectible odds and ends, jewelry, a massive selection of old magazine covers and advertisements, and more. Best of all, the ceiling is covered in an array of distinctive chandeliers and glittering lights (all for sale, of course). On this stop, I tried on the same sparkling silver heels I’ve tried on every time I’ve gone in the store for the last year and a half (still waiting for them to magically fit), found a lamp that I would’ve snatched up if I had an extra $137 lying around, and ended up buying two terrific Saturday Evening Post magazine covers from the '30s to frame for my office—one of which is shown below (thanks for the idea, Mom!).

  • Across the street, The Lagniappe offers a random amalgamation of art, jewelry, and accessories from local artists spread across three floors. A couple of my friends bought terrific rings there on this trip; last time I was here, I bought my sister a fabulous statue of a figure doing tree pose (yep, Coley, this is where I bought it, and those terrific handmade mugs too). The top floor is now a wine bar too, so if you visit at the right time you can sit and sip a glass of wine in the bar or on the deck.

  • Nearby, I always have to stop in Fair World Gallery, which sells fair trade items from around the world. (That means the workers who create the products are paid a fair wage and work in safe conditions). The selection is random and terrific, ranging from beautiful wooden tables and handmade bags to greeting cards made from elephant poop (really—they’re cute!), children’s toys, and funky jewelry. Of course there’s also the requisite selection of liberal bumper stickers. Of course.

  • Then there’s my favorite retro store, A Okay Antiques. It’s loaded with retro signs, jukeboxes, great dishware from the fifties and sixties, and the midcentury modern furniture I’m absolutely in love with right now. If I had a million dollars, I’d buy everything in the windows and a good portion upstairs. I also stumbled upon a great magazine I must start reading on my quest to go midcentury in mi casa: Atomic Ranch.

  • Be sure to stop in 2Au Limited, if only for a minute, to check out the absolutely amazing jewelry she designs. Everything is one-of-a-kind—buy a ring here, and you can be pretty certain the woman sitting next to you won't have the same one. If I had anything left from that million dollars after cleaning out A Okay Antiques, I’d definitely spend it here.

  • One of these days, I’m actually going to spend time in Artistic Bead, where you can make your own jewelry. I’m not talking cheesy plastic beads, but real gemstones, pearls, you name it. Just wandering the store and touching all the strands of stones is fun, even if you don’t have time to whip up a funky necklace of your own.

  • I didn’t have time on this trip, but I also love browsing the vintage clothing at Atomic Garage (yep, that’s the store with the tie-dye front), The Theatrical Shop for all sorts of wonderful and wacky costumes, and a handful of other antique stores for odd finds. There are a slew of art galleries too, Three Dog Bakery (I have a feeling I’ll be interested in frequenting it soon ... hint, hint), and more.

What are you waiting for? Go visit!


Midnight Broomball

Yep, nothing like a little midnight broomball to get a visit to Des Moines started.

Broomball? you ask. What is broomball? And why the heck were you playing it at midnight?

First thing's first. Broomball is played on the ice. Yep, ice. Without skates. You run around on the ice with your teammates (six players, including a goalie), hitting a ball with a stick that has a rubber triangle at the end (called a broom). The purpose? To score more goals than the other team. Aside from the lack of skates (and padding), it's a lot like hockey. And it's awesome.

Really, it's just a lot of running around on the ice, trying to stay on your feet, hitting the ball, body checking your opponents, attempting to score goals. If you're lucky, you have special broomball shoes to wear, which have rubber soles to give you a bit of traction. Otherwise, expect to spend a lot of time sprawled on the ice. (Although even with the shoes, falls are common.)

When I lived in Des Moines, we got a co-ed broomball team together to play in a city league. We were a bunch of rookies running around on the ice in tennis shoes with sweaty used helmets, competing against teams that had been playing together for oh, seven plus years, who all came decked out in matching jerseys, with their own helmets and shoes and brooms. Needless to say, the first year, we got slaughtered in every game. These teams were intense. Even the all-women team—you wouldn't want to meet those girls in a dark alley, trust me. So we got destroyed every week. But man, it was fun.

Enter year two. We recruited some new players, started to acquire broomball shoes (yep, I have a pair, along with some cheap knee and elbow pads that probably saved my life, or at least a few precious body parts), and got a bit more serious. We even won a few games. I attribute it to three things: (1) the broomball shoes, (2) they started serving beer at the arena, and (3) we got a new team name: Team Topanga. (Yes, after the girl from Boy Meets World.)

How can you not win a game or two with a team name like that?

Broomball was great. We'd play on Sunday nights, and as much as I dreaded going (Sundays are supposed to be lazy days, not days for intense games on ice), we always had a blast. We'd walk off the ice sweaty, out of breath, bruised, battered, and sometimes even bloody (if you've ever been whacked full force by a broom, fallen on the ice, or blocked a speeding broomball with your body, you'd understand why). But man, it was fun.

Now, next question. Why was I playing it at midnight?

Why not? It was a Team Topanga reunion, outdoors on the ice of Brenton Skating Plaza in Des Moines. We met up in sweats at the bar at 9, headed to the rink to take the ice at 11, and played until well after midnight. Full court. Ended up being an intense game too. I, of course, didn't score a single goal. Defense is my game, folks. I can't hit the ball worth a crap unless I'm trying to stop you from hitting it. That's just the way it is.

If you ever get a chance to try broomball, do it. Whether it's at midnight or not. You can borrow my shoes if you want.

(By the way, that isn't us playing above. But those mad defensive skills are so like mine. Photo: dailyinvention.)


New Blogs

I love discovering new blogs—especially ones that I end up coming back to over and over again. Such is the case with the first selection on this list, which my friend Cara (thanks!) clued me into last week.

It's called Stuff White People Like and it is devoted, as I'm sure you can guess, to stuff white people like. It's absolutely hilarious—and right on—so if you have a few minutes (or a whole hour) to waste, you have to check it out.

As you may know, there are two very white people living in my house in L-town. And in case you're wondering what that entails, I've decided to give you a glimpse of our life, via Stuff White People Like. It goes a little something like this:

Julie: #82 Hating Corporations, #81 Graduate School (more on that soon, really!), #76 Bottles of Water (specifically a Sigg bottle, of course), #65 Co-Ed Sports (specifically broomball), #64 Recycling, #53 Dogs, #44 Public Radio, #40 Apple Products, #24 Wine, #15 Yoga (that's lulu in the picture!), #5 Farmers Markets. I could go on. I sure to like a lot of these things.

Conservative Boy: #86 Shorts (I'm surprised they weren't on today, with his suit coat), #56 Lawyers (although he actually doesn't care for overanalyzing things) #69 Mos Def (OK, not really ... just seeing if you were still paying attention ... his friend T-Lew would though), #39 Netflix, #35 Colbert Report (Colbert singlehandedly got Conservative Boy through studying for the bar ... seriously, he loves the guy), #30 Wrigley Field (uh, hello, he still thinks the Cubbies might actually win a World Series this year), #4 Assists (and Adam Emmenecker, who's a bit old-school like Steve Nash).

Hmm. I actually love a lot more of these things than Conservative Boy. Interesting. I must be really white.


Figuring Out What to Try Next

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, this blog is all about trying new things. Yes, I realize to this point I haven’t tried anything too out-of-the-ordinary. But I hope that you’ll keep reading to see what things—large and small—I try next.

At the end of this week, I’m headed back to Des Moines for a week. So expect to hear about what new restaurants and neighborhood explorations I’ve tried. (Don’t worry, Des Moines is cool now people. Really. This article proves it—by the way, that photo was taken a block from my old apartment ... she says somewhat wistfully.)

Then, once I’m back in L-town, it will be time to get down to business. In the near future, I expect to try: natural beauty products, making my own cleaning supplies, composting, organic gardening, refinishing furniture, replacing faucets and showerheads. And that’s just the “around the house” stuff.

I also want to find a pottery class, keep trying new yoga studios, and—once the weather warms up—get my kicks on route 66 (which runs right through L-town, in case you were wondering).

After that? How about more cooking, meditation, jewelry making, maybe writing science fiction. Then again, maybe not writing science fiction.

And, yes, once the farmer’s market starts, being vegetarian.

But what else?

Feel free to throw suggestions out. I can’t promise I’ll do all—or any of them—but I am open to ideas. If you tell me to try, say, motocross, street fighting, or cheerleading, I’ll probably just tell you to shut up. But I’m curious anyway: What should I try?


Doing Taxes

Tax time stinks. It really really stinks.

It’s not that my personal taxes are all that complicated (although I do have to mess with freelance income and attempts at writing off business-related expenses the right way). It’s just that I really hate doing taxes. And I’m always consumed by this fear (unfounded, I hope) that I’m going to do something wrong and royally screw things up. That the big bad IRS men are going to come after me because I wrongly wrote off that ream of recycled paper I bought. Scary.

I was fortunate enough that my parents had my taxes done with theirs for a couple of years I had an income. Then I successfully did them on my own. Then, the first year I really had freelance income, I got finished the online filing process and was horrified at how much I owed. More than horrified, really. The number was big enough I had no idea how I was going to pay it! Plus I was worried I’d screwed things up with how to take a deduction for my laptop. And, as I think I may have already mentioned, I was incredibly horrified about how much I owed.

So I took everything to H&R Block and asked for help. And help they did. Wow, that woman came up with things I never would’ve thought of—like the fact I could still write off some of my college expenses, and all sorts of other things I hadn't had a clue about. I walked out of there still owing money, of course, but less than a quarter of what I would’ve owed had I done the taxes myself (even including the cost of hiring her to do them for me).

I was relieved, although I admit at the time I was nervous she’d gotten out of control and taken deductions she shouldn’t have. But I guess that’s what I paid extra for—the guarantee I wouldn’t be penalized for her mistakes.

If you're not sure whether you should do your own taxes, I recommend checking out this MSN article, which can help you figure out the best move.

For a number of reasons, I chose to do my own taxes again for 2006 and 2007. With online programs like Tax Cut (which I keep using because it imports info from the last two years and is accessible from any computer), I can sit on the couch with my laptop and get things taken care of by doing little more than answering questions the program asks and filling in answers.

But as easy as answering those questions may be, the end result this year was still painful—even though I finally got smart and filed estimated taxes, I made more freelance income than I'd expected so I STILL owe a bunch. Maybe that crazy woman who did my taxes two years ago was right when she told me I absolutely should stop doing freelance work. I thought she was rude and she should mind her own business, but when I see how much I owe I wonder if maybe that wacky lady was on to something.

So much for buying a new car right away.

I guess on the bright side, I should be getting a tax rebate this year, right?

Maybe I'd like doing taxes better if I could buy some pets 'n bait while I got my taxes done.

photo: romanlily


Shopping with Reusable Grocery Bags (Part 2)

Funny thing happened at the grocery store tonight. I placed my shoppings bag on the conveyor belt next to my groceries as usual and the guy sacking groceries ...

... was really excited about my reusable bags! Can you believe that? And not just intrigued by them, but really excited. He couldn't get over how cool my lululemon bag was (thanks, sis!), for one thing.

And then he said something that I took as a great sign—he said my bags were the coolest he'd seen all day. Which means other people are using them in L-town. Who knew!

We talked about shopping with reusable bags for a few minutes and he said he's been pushing for them in their store for years. He talked about how they just make sense because plastic bags have such a negative impact on the environment. As we talked, I just kept thinking: yes! This is good!

Even better, I asked that he fill the bags as full as possible, and he very strategically packed them so that everything fit into the two bags I brought. And when the cashier tried to wrap something in a plastic sack, he told her not to—and even reminded her it would defeat the purpose of the reusable bags.

It sounds silly, but it was great. Small steps, people. Even small steps have a big impact.

(Oh, and a side note: I'm back from the Missouri Valley Basketball tournament—during which I got to see some great basketball. The best part? Drake is going to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1971. Go Bulldogs!)


Riding the Train

All aboard!

In about two hours, I am going to ride Amtrak for the third time in the history of my short life. (Unless, Mom or Dad, you can fill me in on a childhood trip I have missed.) I am actually very excited about it for a number of reasons:

1. I think trains are a swell form of transportation that don’t get enough credit
2. The train is taking me to St. Louis to see the stellar Drake Men’s Basketball team (go Bulldogs!)
3. I am somehow really excited at the prospect of three uninterrupted hours of reading

Until last week, when we took the train to Chicago, the only time I’d ever ridden on one (that I can recall anyway) was in Italy. The boy says it sounds snotty when I say the only time I’ve ridden a train is Italy, so when you read the first sentence of this paragraph be sure you’re imagining me speaking in a conceited, preferably nasally voice here. But it’s true. That’s why I was excited to board the Amtrak train for Chicago last week, and why I’m excited to hop the train today too.

I’m sure many people (the boy included) would roll their eyes at me and say: but they’re slow. They’re dirty. They can be noisy, and filled with people who are less than pleasant. What’s to love?

Well, for one thing, when you’re going to an expensive city like Chicago, a $14 train ticket sounds pretty good compared to the amount of gas it takes to get there, the time you spend in traffic, the amount it costs to park in the city. Then there’s the fact that I was able to work on the train to Chicago, so I didn’t have to take vacation time. And if the roads are bad or you’re tired or you have an unreliable vehicle like the Space Turtle, why wouldn’t you want a worry-free means of travel?

Granted, there are increasingly long delays on many Amtrak routes. And you risk getting stuck in a car with lots of screaming children or obnoxious talkers or any number of less-than-savory characters. But that’s a risk you take on a plane too; and at least on the train you have more freedom to get up and move away from them.

Plus, at least here, to ride the train you don’t have to arrive hours early and deal with all the security B.S. of the airports. Arrive 10 minutes early and you’re fine. No worries. Just hop aboard, sit back, and watch the countryside roll by.

And if you want something more than the five peanuts you get on the plane, you can have that too—if you’re willing to pay for it in the dining or snack cars. But at least it’s an option if you’re hungry! Bring on the king-size peanut M&Ms, thank you.

Train travel has, supposedly, been dying for years now. And it’s true it doesn’t get much credit—at least not in the United States. I hope it doesn’t go the way of the woolly mammoth though. How sad would that be? Train travel is part of our history—not to mention the fact traveling by rail is preferable to traveling by car environmentally speaking (and I hear rail travel uses approximately one-half the energy per passenger mile of planes, at least if the train is full, which it has been when I’ve ridden).

I don’t think I’d rely on trains for all of my travel. But for getting to Midwestern cities with minimal headache and expense? Sign me up.

(Photo: Andy_pants_in_Fred)

Not Becoming an Eco Snob

Let’s face it. I’ve been bitten by the green bug. It’s why I’m (hopefully) going back to grad school—more on that soon. It’s why I do all the annoying things I do around the house to Conservative Boy (thanks for the moniker, Chops). It’s why I think “green” most of the day at work—fortunately, a lot of the time, it’s allowed.

But there’s a fine line between being an eco fan and an eco snob, as I was reminded of in a post on the topic in Treehugger today (titled, fittingly, “Enough Pious Eco-Snobbery”).

I want to make steps to consume less, conserve more, and all that good stuff in my own life. And I want to tell people why it’s important to go green. (Hint: It’s about more than the environment—it’s also about your health, the health of future generations, your pocketbook, and slew of other things.)

At the same time, I don’t want to be preachy or judgmental or come off as someone who looks down her nose at people who aren't "going green." Because it’s not like that at all.

(Side note: Check out these fake Prius ads, which poke fun at the holier-than-thou image of Prius drivers by showing them doing morally reprehensible things. Funny stuff.)

Anyhow, back to the topic at hand. It’s certainly not a competition to see who can be greenest. I admire the steps other people have taken that I haven’t taken yet. It compels me to want to do more. And I admit that I’m far from living a totally eco-friendly life at this point. I make mistakes—as Conservative Boy quickly reminded me when I accidentally left a light on in the closet the other day. (So wasteful, he said disdainfully, then reminded me how often I get after him for leaving lights on. I deserved that, by the way. If you’re going to dish it you have to learn how to take it. But we’re all human and even the greenest among us sometimes forgets to unplug the toaster. No eco-pariahs here, please.)

I don’t want to be one of those people who walks into someone’s house and judges them because they’re not using organic produce or they haven’t taken steps to improve the energy efficiency of their home. Rather, I want to show people how easy it really is to reduce their negative impact on the environment—and that it doesn’t have to involve prancing around in organic cotton jeans or installing composting toilets. I want to make going green a real, honest-to-god good move that anyone can do, not something for an elite few who have the time, the money, and the knowledge to do it right.


Teriyaki Salmon and Zucchini

Here's a yummy recipe that's definitely on my make again list. It's flavorful, healthy, and perfectly sized for two—which I'm particularly excited about because I almost overwhelmed our fridge with leftovers last week because I tried too many new family-size recipes.

(Disclaimer: The digital camera still sucks, but don't let that stop you from trying this recipe!)

First, gather the ingredients:

Low-sodium teriyaki sauce
2 salmon fillets
Sesame seeds, toasted
2 small zucchini, sliced

4 scallions, chopped
Cooking oil

Combine 5 tablespoons of teriyaki sauce and fish in a plastic bag; marinate for 20 minutes. Then drain the fish (toss out the marinade) and place it in the skillet. Cook for 5 minutes, turn and cook 5 minutes more. Looks good, doesn't it? (Blurry, but good.)

Remove the salmon from the skillet, place it on a plate, and wrap it in foil to keep it warm. Add the zucchini, scallions, and 2 teaspoons oil to the skillet. Saute until lightly browned. Stir in 2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds and serve with the salmon.

I served ours with rice pilaf. Yum yum. (Although, admittedly, the other plate looked prettier and would've made for a better picture but the boy was hungry so I think half his meal was already gone by this point.)


Shopping with Reusable Grocery Bags

This isn’t a new one. In Des Moines, I regularly shopped with reusable bags. I have a handy little one that folds up in its own pouch and fits in my purse, so I’m never without one when I get in the checkout line. And I have a couple of other trusty bags I’ve acquired—one from a grocery in California during our girls’ trip through Wine Country, another a shopping bag from my sister’s store, lululemon, that is, of course, covered in inspiration sayings about living life to the fullest and flossing—that can be loaded with tons of stuff.

It took a while, but by the time I left Des Moines I rarely got funny looks when I loaded up reusable bags at the store. The biggest challenge was getting sackers (is that the correct term?) to fill the bags as full as possible. For some reason, there's this mentality among people bagging groceries that placing more than four items in one bag is bad for business. So it took a while to break them of the notion that they could fill my reusable bags up—really fill them up—and not use any plastic bags at all. And, now that I've left Des Moines, the grocery stores themselves are realizing the power of reusable bags and are selling their own.

But now, sadly, I’m starting from scratch. When I moved to small-town Illinois, I knew from my first foray at the grocery store that reusable bags would be a foreign concept.

The people at the checkout look at me like I'm crazy when I place the bags down with my groceries. They'll throw a couple of items in each, then whip out their trusty plastic sacks to take care of the rest. At first I was hesitant to say anything—when you're new in a small town, you don't want to piss off the people at the grocery store! So now I try, very politely of course, to say, "Go ahead and fill them up as much as you can." I think I might have to get a bit more firm with them on this point though, because every time I go armed with all three of my reusable bags I still end up coming home with at least two plastic sacks. And it's not necessary.

The worst was the other day, when a woman at IGA placed each piece of produce in an individual plastic sack, then placed it in my reusable bag. I don't put my fruits and veggies in those clear plastic baggies in the produce section—they're hearty little creatures who don't need that level of protection to get home, and I'm going to wash them anyway. But she wasn't having it. So she made sure every last apple and zucchini was covered fully before it went into the reusable bag. And she even—accidentally—stuck about six extra plastic sacks in the bag too. Great. Just what I needed.

And so the ever-expanding sack of plastic sacks in the cupboard is growing, much to my chagrin.

One of the very customer-friendly things IGA does is have high school kids who will sack your groceries and carry them to your car for you. One day, as one such kid was carrying my reusable shopping bags to the Aztek, he asked me why I used them. I made some general remark along the lines of, "Oh, they're easier to carry and then I don't have all those plastic grocery sacks piling up at my house."

"Oh," he said, as he placed the bags on the seat of the car. "I thought maybe it was because you were one of those environmentalists."

To which I laughed. "Oh, yeah, that too."

He headed back in the store without another word.

It's true that my reusable shopping bags with their nice long shoulder straps are easier to carry. And they hold a lot more food than the average plastic sack. Plus they do prevent that massive buildup of plastic sacks in the cupboard from growing any more than it already has.

But it's also because plastic and paper sacks both have a considerable—and unnecessary—impact on the environment.

Both paper and plastic require major resources for production—and most end up in landfills or litter the side of the road after they’re used. In fact, each year Americans toss an estimated 100 billion plastic bags—and less than one percent are recycled.

And that's just the effect of the bags after they're produced—it doesn't even take into account the impact producing those bags (which require plenty of oil for plastic and wood for paper) have on the environment. This Washington Post graphic provides a nice breakdown of the impact each has in regard to consumption, production, pollution, and more.

Don't have your reusable bag yet? What are you waiting for! If your grocery store doesn't sell them (although many are starting to—even Target!), you can always buy one from reusablebags.com. Or better yet, just use a canvas tote or whatever other bag you might already have at home.

Oh, and if my arguments are falling on deaf ears, think about this: Wouldn't you look so much cooler carrying a bag like the one shown above (photo by inju) rather than a crappy plastic bag? (Sadly, sometimes you have to do what you can when the environment argument falls on deaf ears.)


Chocolate Chip Cookies (Mrs. Fields Style)

This is another one that falls in the "yes, I admit I've actually tried this before category." But this is a recipe made famous by my little sis when we were younger and I haven't made it in years so I figured it was about time to share it.

First, gather the ingredients:

1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
1 c. brown sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

2 c. flour

2.5 c. oatmeal (measured then blended)
1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda
chocolate chips

(Was that bowl I poured the chocolate chips in necessary? Not really. But I've decided to start collecting them to help make my retro kitchen a bit cooler. This one cost $4 at an antique store here—the price tag said $8.50 but the owner—without my asking—though I should have it for

Anyhow, I digress. So after you've blended the oatmeal, mix all the ingredients together.

Add the chocolate chips, then bake golf ball-sized cookies on a ungreased cookie sheet at 375 degrees for 8 minutes—preferably in a super-special retro oven like this. (Or, I guess you can use a regular oven if you aren't blessed with an oven like mine!)

Voila. Eat before they're all the way cool. And after they're cool. And three days later, if there are any left. (There might not be.) Any questions?


Working in the City (Part 2)

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent a couple of days working in Chicago. The views got even more interesting on day two, when:

1. There were bears.
2. It was sunnier out.
3. Did I mention there were bears?

It was still awfully windy from my fifteenth-story vantage point—so much so that I expected to see the sturdy brick buildings that surrounded mine begin to sway. Fortunately, they didn't move. I guess that's why they call this place the Windy City, eh?

The views improved even more in late afternoon, when a blue sky and less wind motivate the bears to come out and play. No, not the Chicago Bears. If they were out playing I imagine there would've been a bigger crowd. But when I looked down, typing away, I saw a black bear pacing back and forth around a little pond. I didn’t even see the bears last time I was here and went to the zoo, but there one was, right in front of me (well, 15 stories below that is). He looked even more restless than I felt.

Here he is:

(Looks pretty good, eh? That's what I get for taking a photo of him from 15 stories and a half a block away, through a window, with an incredibly cheap point and shoot digital camera.)

After I get done staring at the black bear ... OK, that’s a lie. An hour later and I’m still staring at him. But anyway, an hour later, I realize just how inextricably linked sky and water are. If one is moody, the other feeds off it. Today, whichever one runs the show is serene, even happy, although most certainly cold. And so they are, both smooth blue, a few fluffy clouds above and a few instances of ice below, otherwise like friends—brothers maybe—united.

And just before I finish work for the day, still the black bear paces. I spot something—sea lions, I think—swimming. And what looks like dogs–maybe wolves?—chasing one another.

This is the way to work in the city.


Working in the City (Part 1)

I spent most of last week in Chicago, where the boy took the Bar, working from "home" in the apartment his parents' vacation club owns. It's spectacular, and if I had a million dollars (or maybe two) I would live there in a second. It really, truly is city living at its best (or, should I say, richest). Here's what I wrote last week about it. (I was too busy working and staring out the window to actually post it then.)

I have the most spectacular view from my “office” windows right now. Straight ahead: The Lincoln Park Zoo across to Lake Michigan, everything coated in a layer of the pristine white snow that fell last night. Things haven’t taken on that mucky city slush yet. It’s just frosted white trees and roofs all the way to the icy lakefront. And if I lean forward in my chair or stand up to stretch, I catch glimpses Navy Pier jutting out into the lake (well, I could if it wasn’t so cloudy and snowy out right now!) and of the downtown skyline to my right. Out the window behind me: The city stretches out, in its icy windy early-morning glory.

OK, so maybe it’s not really working in the city—I'm not venturing out to any of the towering buildings I see on the skyline for meetings and power lunches. I’m still sitting in my residence of sorts, typing away on my laptop. But it’s a different setting, new scenery. I have leftover (authentic!) Chicago-style pizza from Giordano’s to eat for lunch. And if this damn wind stops blowing, I’m going to wander around the city on my lunch break (not promising, but we’ll see). That’s city living enough for me on a dreary day like today!

Here's a windy snowy morning view out the window (that's the Lincoln Park Zoo, then Lakeshore Drive and the lake beyond):

By late morning, the clouds clear away, the snow stops, but the wind continues to blow full-force. I can see the water dancing in the lake as it recedes from frothy white to gray to pale green, getting progressively darker until it touches the now-blue horizon. Now I can see Navy Pier and a few brave boats (you'll have to look hard in this picture—past the big buildings), which makes the skyline-watching that much more enjoyable:

It’s interesting to observe how the lake changes personalities as the day progresses. By mid-afternoon, only the patches of ice right by the shore are gray. Then the water assumes a consistent, deep blue hue until it reaches almost to the horizon, where it once again takes on its paler green shade. And still the wind blows. (Here's my best attempt at showing what I'm talking about. It doesn't do the depth of color the water has justice, but it will have to do!)

Then, of course, by afternoon it’s back to the murky, indistinct hue—that in so many ways characterizes the mood of the workers driving beside it on their evening commute—from shore to horizon.

I think I could sit here all day and stare out the window at the way the colors change—at the buildings across the street, as they emerge from their early-morning fog and the snow blows off all but their rooftops, of the lake beyond, of the people wandering by on the sidewalks below.

Fortunately, I’m a speedy typist, and when I’m writing I rarely even need to look at the screen or the keys, so I was able to be pretty darn productive today even though I did spend a good portion of my time gazing out the windows. Isn't that what you're supposed to do when you're working in the city?