Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Money Bags

Plastic grocery bags are so money, and you don't even know it. Not that I agree with non-biodegradable bags being produced in the first place and collecting in landfills and into that huge garbage island in the Pacific, and yada yada yada.  But, being that the world is a flawed place, and plastic bags do exist (and seem to spawn in my pantry during the night), the least we can do is use them, preferably more than once, to the full extent of their capabilities.
No, I'm not going to suggest that you tie a bunch of them together to make a wind sock, nor film one floating in the wind while expounding on the beauty of the universe (wow- two nineties movie references in one post- I am on fire, today).  Here are just some of the ways you can use your plastic grocery bags (other than carrying groceries- that one seemed kind of obvious)- they'll save you money, and make you feel a little better about your carbon footprint and whatnot. Show me the money.

15 Alternative Uses for Plastic Grocery Bags

Plastic bags can be your best friend on a trip. Just throw a bunch in your suitcase and watch all the ways you'll end up using them. Best of all, they are super-lightweight, and take up hardly any space in your bag. And did I mention they're free?

1. Undies: The grossest thing about living out of a suitcase is when your clean unmentionables get mixed up with your dirty ones, and you aren't sure what's what. The solution to this vexing problem is to bring along some (lightweight, take-up-no-space) plastic bags. Once you wear a pair of socks or undies, throw them in the bag, and you'll never have to do the sniff test again.
2. Wet Bathing Suits: This one's obvious- double-bag your wet bathing suits and beach clothes to keep the rest of your stuff from getting mildewy or sandy (especially if you took your vacation on the Trash Island).
3. Shoes: My husband wraps each of his shoes in a plastic bag before he puts it in his suitcase. It keeps them from getting scuffed by zippers, etc, and keeps the rest of his stuff from getting dirty.
4. Toiletries: Even if you use my fancy "vacuum" trick, liquids sometimes have an uncontrollable urge to leak all over your suitcase. Rein them in with double plastic bags.

I don't even have a car, and I can still imagine all the wonderful ways plastic bags can help you on the road.

5. The Glovebox: Keep all your important car documents, maps, and other papers together and dry by tying them up in a grocery bag.
6. In The Trunk: Keep your emergency kit safe, clean and and together in a bag. Also, any greasy or wet car products (is it obvious I don't have a car?) like oil or wiper fluid can be wrapped up to prevent leaking.
7. Trash: When you finish that breakfast burrito on the road, wouldn't it be nice to have somewhere to put the wrapper without getting refried beans all over your upholstery? Voila- a grocery bag.
8. Car-sickness: It's always a good idea to have a disposable receptacle available should someone start turning green in the backseat. I'd double-bag.

 Your dog doesn't care about status symbols. You could wrap your dog in plastic bags instead of that fancy raincoat, and she wouldn't care (I'm not counting that as an idea, but it's not a bad one). That's the best thing about dogs.

9. Walks: If you live in a city, where you are required by law to, ahem, pick up after your pet, then you should have no problem using up those grocery bags. Just put it over your hand like a glove, hold your breath, and go for it.
10. Toys: Within a few minutes of entering our house, new dog toys are covered in slobber, caked in dog hair and filthy/gross/disgusting. When our dog is not playing with them, I wrap the toys in plastic grocery bags and stow them out of sight and mind.


11. Garbage Liners: I use old grocery bags to line to small garbage cans under the sinks in our bathrooms. No one sees them anyway, unless they are throwing something away, and that way I don't have to see their garbage up close when I empty it. So everyone wins.
12. Packing Material: I wrap delicate Christmas ornaments and other tchotchkes in plastic bags before storing them, and stuff extra bags in between. Much cheaper than bubble-wrap (although admittedly less fun).
13. Garbage Bowl: When I am doing something gross, like removing the narsty bits from inside a whole chicken, or trimming fat off a steak, and line my garbage bowl with a plastic bag. That way I don't have to touch the nastiness twice (when cleaning out the bowl), and it keeps the bowl from getting too much bacteria on it.
14. Fridge Clean-Out: When I steel up my courage and clean out the random leftovers and tupperwares in my fridge, I always dump the smelly, rotting food into a plastic grocery bag first, and then the garbage. It helps prevent your kitchen from smelling like someone died there, until you take the trash out.

15: Recycle: At the very least, if you aren't reusing your grocery bags, you should recycle them. Most major grocery and drug stores have receptacles to collect them.  If your store doesn't have one- ask a manager to get one. That way, your grocery bags really can spawn more grocery bags for me to use.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tired Out

When I was in high school, and friend of mine blew a tire down the street from my house. She called AAA on her car phone, but they were backed up and said they couldn't get there for an hour. So she called me and said, "Of all of my friends, you are the one I would expect to know how to change a tire". It was one of the nicest compliments anyone could have given me, and I was so flattered I said I'd be right there. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I really had no idea how to change a tire.  My dad wasn't home, and this was in the days before you could find the answer to anything on helpful blogs on the internet (If you're doing mental math thinking, "Hmmm... car phone, no internet... the mid-90s?," stop it, please). So I went in blind, fooled around with the jack, got my favorite Express jeans and my hands all dirty, and managed to get half the lug nuts off before AAA arrived. On that day, I vowed that I wasn't just going to be the kind of person who people think can change a tire, but would become someone who actually could.
And now I pass that can-do spirit on to you. Feel free to print this out and put it in your glove box. You'll be able to fix your tire and get back on the road in no time...flat.

Step 1: Get to safety. Pull the car as far off the main part of the road as possible, without allowing any wheels to go onto soft dirt or sloped ground.  Ideally you want all four tires to be on flat, solid ground, on a straight part of the road where approaching cars can see you from a distance. Turn on your emergency flasher lights, and get any passengers out of the car and safely away from the road. Secure the car from rolling- put on the emergency break, and, if you can find one, put a heavy rock or brick in front of the front tire (if you are fixing a rear tire) or the rear tire (if you are fixing a front tire).

Step 2: Get your tools out of the trunk.  You should find a spare tire, a lug wrench, and a jack (if it's after dark you may also need a flashlight). Place the jack under the frame of the car near the tire that you need to change. Make sure it is on the metal (NOT plastic) part of the frame.  When in doubt, get low and take a peek under the car- on most cars there will be groove marks just behind the front wheel wells, and in front of the rear wheel wells which indicate where the jack should go. Once it is in place, raise the jack so that it is supporting, but not lifting the car.

Step 3: Remove the hubcabs and use the lugwrench to loosen (but not remove) the lug nuts. (Remember: lefty loosey, righty tighty) The nuts might be on there real tight, so you might need to step on the wrench to get them loose.

Step 4: Raise the jack until it lefts the tire about 6 inches off the ground.  Don't stop just because the flat tire is off the ground- you will need more clearance to get the inflated tire on. As you lift, make sure the car is stable and not moving.

Step 5: Fully remove the lug nuts (you can use the hubcap as a dish to hold them, just make sure you don't pull a Christmas Story and send them flying into the road). Pull the flat tire off- it's easiest if you put your hands on either side of the tire and pull it straight toward your chest.

Step 6: Put the new tire on, aligning the tire bolts with the holes on the tire. Put on the lug nuts and tighten by hand. Use the lugwrench to tighten the bolts, but not all the way- tighten them a little at a time, going around in a "star" pattern, until they are equally tight.

Step 7: Lower the car to the ground, and re-tighten the lug nuts. Remove the jack and replace the hubcap. Put all your tools back in the trunk, and remove any blocks from the tires.

Step 8: Let your friends get back in the car, take off the emergency brake and get back on the road! Make sure to call me on the car phone and let me know you're okay.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Banner Day

Yesterday, I posted about my niece's 1st birthday party and the banner garlands I made to decorate. Today, I thought I would walk you through the super-easy steps to make one for yourself! What's cute about the banners is that they can be made in any color combo and instantly add a festive party vibe to any space, be it a Manhattan apartment or a suburban park (oooh, I just got cute tingles thinking about a bunch of these strung from trees over a picnic table). I could see them at a birthday, shower, or anniversary party, or even at a playful wedding. You could also add a letter to each flag to spell out a cute message ("Just Married"?), or the name of the birthday boy or girl.  I think they'd also make for cute decorations in a kid's bedroom, or as a pretty sweet alternative to a mobile over a baby's crib. But don't read anything into that- I'm still very happy just celebrating other people's banner occasions!

You Will Need:
Various colors and patterns of construction or scrapbook paper
Glue stick (if you are using one-sided papers)
Japanese or regular hole punch
Length of twine, cord or ribbon

Step 1: Make a triangle template for your banners. I used a junk-mail postcard to make mine. I simply measured the center of one side and cut diagonally to each of the opposite corners.  You could make your triangles longer or bigger according to your taste (or really tiny would be adorable, too).

Step 2: Use your template to trace your triangle shape onto your papers (hint: if you reverse the direction of the triangle each time, you will waste very little paper). If you are using patterned papers that are printed on only one side, use a gluestick to attach them back-to-back before you trace your triangles.

Step 3: Following your pencil lines, cut out the triangles. If you are a perfectionist, you can use an Exacto blade and a cutting mat, but I found that scissors did the job just fine.

Step 4: Punch a hole in each of the upper corners of the triangle. I used a Japanese hole punch to make a smaller hole, but I think a regular hole punch would be fine.
Step 5: Wrap the end of your twine, cord or ribbon with tape, and snip off the end to form a stiff end that won't unravel (like on a shoelace).

Step 6: Thread the cord through each of the holes on each flag, always going in on the left, and coming out on the right. Slide the flags to the end of your cord and space them evenly.  Try to create a random assortment of the colors and patterns- it will look cuter if you don't follow a set order.  Drape them from the ceiling and have a party!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

That's A First

Most of the time, it's hard to remember what it was like before my niece Sofia was in our lives. But, in reality, it's only (already?) been a year. To celebrate this auspicious birthday last weekend, I insisted that my brother and sister-in-law let me help throw a party worthy of this funny, fully-articulated little character.  I chose a (kind of crazy) color palette of red, purple, and pink based on the Paperless Post invitation we chose, and made paper banner decorations to tie the whole thing together. This being my first toddler party, I was worried there wouldn't be enough toys and activities for the little guests, but, happily, it turns out balloons are endlessly entertaining to the under-two set. And for the grown-ups, we provided enough liquid refreshment to make things fun (including cans of "Sofia" champagne).  In the end, the party was a huge success, and it was a day I am sure Sofia will never, ever, ever forget. 

 Clockwise from top left: I made paper banners using red, pink, and purple scrapbook papers (check in tomorrow for the step-by-step how-to); I had help hosting and setting up from Sofia's "uncles" (one by blood and the other by heart); the food table was decorated with 36" latex balloons from Balloon Ideas; the Paperless Post invitation that inspired the decor; We gave out decks of UNO cards as favors; The birthday girl stays cool in some pink shades; Blowing out the candle; Sofia rides on a cute (but scary) wooden ladybug toy; I baked #1 cookies using a cutter from Coppergifts.com; Refreshments included Izze sodas and Sofia sparkling wine.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On The Run

When spring comes around, it always feels like I have more to do and less time to do it. And with bikini season right around the corner i also feel the need to get in a workout daily (okay, a couple times a week). Plus, I feel an overwhelming desire to get outside in the fresh air, now that I can do that without risking frostbite. How do I balance these competing impulses? By running my errands. Literally.

Instead of taking cabs or the subway to run errands, I strap on my running shoes, grab my iPod, and run out the door. I map out a route that takes me to my furthest stop first, and I run there. I also put the errands that don't require me to carry anything (the bank, the post office) on the front end, and the ones that require me to lug (the drugstore, grocery) at the end. I bring some compact shopping bags with me in my pockets, so when I do end up laden with stuff, I can put it over my shoulder and speed walk home.

While I know it's not exactly the same thing as a spinning class at the gym, it's enough to get my heart pounding (plus an arm workout if I have to carry things).  I get everything done faster, and kill two birds with one stone. It's an excellent way to get everything done in one fell swoop- you might say I run a tight ship.

Note: While it may seem that this would only work for people who live in urban centers, my dad does this in my hometown in California. He drives his car to one end of the beach and parks, then walks about a mile to the produce store on the other end of the beach, and carries his groceries back. I guess genius ideas run in the family. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Branching Out

Not a moment too soon, spring has sprung and the dreary days of winter seem to be behind us (at least until next year). Somehow, it seems like those first rays of sunshine feel the warmest, the first ripe seasonal fruits taste the sweetest, and the bright blossoms that seem to be popping out on every tree are the prettiest. While it's fun to get outside during this time (I spent the whole weekend out defiantly revealing my blindingly-white legs in shorts), it's also nice to find ways to bring that spring cheeriness inside. And the best way to do that is to throw open all the windows and bring in a big blossoming arrangement of blooming branches.
Budding branches are available all over at farmer's markets and flower stands (I got all of these forsythia branches for $5!), or you can go out with your pruning sheers and lop some beauties off the bushes and trees in your backyard (attention city dwellers: do not try this in public parks- it's illegal). 
Here are some techniques to make a beautiful, long-lasting springy arrangement with blossoming branches, with enough drama to distract everyone from your pasty-white skin (trust me- it works!)
 1. Select your branches.  Try to find full, straight branches of approxamately the same length, with lots of buds on them.  Look for buds that haven't blossomed yet to get the most milage out of your branches.
2. When you get them home, use pruning or floral sheers to trim the bottom of the branches off. Because they came from a live tree or bush, sapped-over or dried-out stem needs to be trimmed in order for the branch to be able to drink water.
3. Fill a vessel with cool, clean water, and add 1 cap-full of pure bleach to the water (this will help keep the water fresh). Arrange the branches in the vase- don't worry if it turns out wonky or asymmetical- it's that kind of natural organicness that makes arrangements like this pretty. Don't crowd the branches too much- remember to leave room for the flowers to open.

4. That's it! Replace the water (and remember to add bleach) every few days, and your blooming branches should last for weeks- just as long as the ones still attached to the trees. It's certain to put a little spring in your step (and in your living room, too).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Color Me Badd

I lot of people have been asking me about my new banner (see above). Questions like, "How did you convince an incredibly creative and talented and famous artist to paint your blog banner?", and "What artistic genius came up with that gorgeous composition?,"  and "How come you don't have a nose in that picture?" The answer, I am sure you will be amazed to learn, is that I painted it myself! (And  I can't paint noses!)
I have long admired the charming and pretty pictures by watercolor artist Caitlin McGauley that appear in Daily Candy and Lonny Magazine, and I've always wanted to be able to paint like that. But I don't have such an inflated self image that I think I could just freehand it the way she does (okay, fine, I tried and I failed)- so I decided I would figure out a way to fake it. As long as I was already stealing her style, I figured I might as well cheat, too.
Here's my tutorial on how to paint your own pretty little pictures. It's easy (you really don't need to be a good artist), addictively fun, and I think the personalized paintings make for super-cute gifts, cards, or décor (imagine a series of paintings of your favorite objects framed on a wall). And somehow, rendering even the most everyday things (like my husband reading the newspaper, or my silly dog) in watercolor just make them really cute. I mean, even cuter than they already are.

Step 1: Take a digital picture of whatever you want a painting of, and open it on your computer. Or, as I did in this example, find one on the internet, and scale it to the size you want (if you are planning to scan your illustration, as I did with my banner, scale it bigger than you want to paint and shrink it on your computer after- you'll be able to get more detail). This time, I decided to paint a beer bottle, because I figured that if watercolor could make a beer bottle look cute, it would work for anything. And, also, I like beer.

Step 2. Go into a dark room, and put a piece of paper over the image on your computer screen.  I use white cardstock cards from Staples because that was what I had at hand in the dark room. I am sure higher-quality materials would make a difference, but I'm not going for perfection here. In fact, I sort of love the imperfections. Using a very sharp pencil, trace the image onto the paper. It should show through very clearly. The more detailed you are here, the less you have to improvise later. But try to keep a very light touch so the pencil doesn't show too much, and so you don't poke a hole in your computer screen.

Step 3. Using a small brush, start painting. Again, no need for fancy paints- I just have a Crayola palette that I got at the drug store, and a few cheap brushes. I have no technique to share here - just play with the colors until you get one you like and paint it on there- like coloring, only watery-er. Also, put lighter colors down first, and darker ones on top. Also, if you are doing something detailed, let it dry completely before painting another color nearby- they will bleed into one another.  That's pretty much all I've got. Just have fun!

Step 4. Step back and admire your genius. And maybe have a beer.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Less Is More

I have a very stylish and savvy friend who is a master of getting deals. Seriously, if discount shopping were an Olympic sport, this girl would be lousy with gold medals. She owns Black Friday, hacks Cyber Monday, and could write the book on discount shopping on every other day of the week, too. She goes into Lohmann's and Nordstrom Rack like a well-seasoned general going into battle, and always departs with the bountiful spoils of war (she actually expressed disappointment that, due to a short timeline planning her wedding this summer, she wasn't able to get her dress at the "Running of the Brides" dress sale at Filene's Basement in Boston).

While I admire, and frequently envy, her bargain-getting skills, I have come to terms with the fact that I just don't have it in me (whatever "it" is). I like what I like and if I can afford it, I'll buy it.  Ideally, I'd like my deals to come to me. And, that's why I love Yipit.com, a deal-aggregator website that was started by my friends Vinny and Jim. Yipit allows you to enter your location and interests (say, "Spas" and "Bars and Clubs", or as specific as "Teeth Whitening" or "Boot Camp"), and shows you the best deals relevant to you in your area, which are compiled from sites like Groupon, LifeBooker and Dealist. Instead of getting a ton of emails full of "deals" that aren't interesting to you, you get one email tailored to the things you like. Trust me- it'll fit better than an off-the-rack wedding dress.

Yipit is currently available in Boston, Chicago, LA, New York, and San Francisco and is coming soon to Atlanta, Las Vegas, London, San Diego and Washington, DC.

Want bargains in your neighborhood fast and cheap? Deal with it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Open Season

Unless you are under 21 years old, have never worked in food services, don't drink, AND have no family members or friends who drink, you have no excuse for not knowing how to properly open a bottle of wine. Yet, all the time, I watch otherwise-sophisticated people struggle and flail around with a bottle, straining like they are attempting to pull Excalibur from the stone, ultimately spilling on themselves or leaving little pieces of cork floating in the wine in the process.  If this sounds like you, and you wonder what others think of you during this process, let me answer that for you: We are silently judging you, and thinking that next time we will bring beer, instead.  Let's get your technique straightened out, shall we? Once you master these simple strategies, you'll find opening a bottle of wine can be almost as pleasurable as drinking one.

1. Get a decent corkscrew. There are thousands on the market, but I favor the manual kind waiters use (see pic)- they are easy to use and work well, but don't completely remove you from the process. Ours is this one (a little pricey- it was a wedding gift). Don't totally cheap out- you get what you pay for with corkscrews, as with everything else in life, but you can get great ones at any cooking store in the $30-40 range.

2. Use the blade on the side of the wine key to cut the foil from the top.  Usually there is a rim on the neck of the bottle- just place the blade right above that, and twist your hand and the bottle, using your thumb for pressure. Pull the little foil cap off.

3. Insert the screw into the cork by twisting it in, while very gently pushing down (don't push too hard or you'll push the cork into the bottle). The key here is to try to make sure you center the screw above the cork before inserting it, and that you screw straight down, not at a wonky angle.

4. When the screw is completely inserted into the cork, tilt the wine key up and place the metal lever on the lip of the bottle. If this is difficult, try unscrewing the corkscrew one turn.

5. While holding the lever and bottle steady, simply lift the handle upwards, which will leverage the cork right out of the bottle. This shouldn't require much effort at all, and the cork will usually come out with a satisfying "pop."

6. Voila!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Soda Damn Good: 7 Unexpected Uses for Baking Soda

In this topsy-turvy world, one thing you can count on is that there will always be scores of new cleaning and beauty products released to the market each year.  And most of those are overpriced and so full of chemicals and additives that they are secretly poisoning you and the environment while they do their job (which is fine if they actually work - I mean, I'll do just about anything for very white sheets). But, meanwhile, little did you know that there is a completely non-toxic, inexpensive cleaning and beauty product that has been in the market for years, and that you probably already have in your pantry: Baking Soda.  Your grandparents knew that there isn't much this miracle powder can't do around the house (but somehow they forget to pass that info on to you). Here's just a sampling of what it's good for- it's versatility will blow your mind. Oh, and it's good for baking stuff, too.

7 Unexpected Uses for Baking Soda

1. Smell You Later: For some scientific reason I don't entirely understand, baking soda absorbs odors. I explored it's incredible ability to de-stinkify my husband's boat shoes in a post last summer, and it also works to keep your fridge and freezer from smelling too foody (just open the lid of a box and place it on the shelf), can make your pet smell more bearable (just sprinkle it directly on them and brush it through their fur). Or use it to deoderize your garbage can, gym bag, or laundry hamper (just sprinkle directly in there, and wipe out a few hours later), or throw a layer down onto your rugs (then vacuum it up) to make them fresher. Basically, if something stinks, the answer is baking soda.

2. Don't Get Burned: When you accidentally overcook something, and it leaves a burnt-on crusty residue on your pans, you can either spend hours developing carpel tunnel syndrome scouring it off by hand, or you can leave the job to your new friend, baking soda. Simply sprinkle baking soda on the pan, fill it with water, put it on the stove and bring to a boil. The gunk will come right off. This method also works for the rack on your grill (no need to boil, just soak overnight). How does it work? I don't know! Stop questioning the baking soda!

3. Silver Metal: Baking soda works as a gentle silver polish, too. Just mix six tablespoons of baking soda with two tablespoons of water to form a paste. Rub the paste onto the silver with a soft rag, and then rinse. Oooh, shiny!

4. I Feel Pretty: If your hair feels weighed-down with product or artificial color, add a few tablespoons of baking soda to your shampoo to revitalize it. You can also pat some under your arms as a deodorant, use it as toothpaste, use it as a facial scrub, add it to your bathwater to soften your skin, or mix it with water and use it as a mouthwash.  Who knew one product could look so good?

5. The Best Medicine: Would you believe me if I told you baking soda can also work medicinally to cure what ails you? Well, it can. Mix a teaspoon of baking soda with water and drink it to relieve heartburn or indigestion, or make a paste with water and rub it on burns and bug bites to take out the sting or the itch. It will also dry out rashes from diapers or poison oak or ivy.

6. You're Fired. I know what you're thinking- "What else can baking soda do for me?" Don't worry, I'm going to tell you. You can use baking soda to put out small fires from grease, ashes, or candles. Just dump the powder on the flames to extinguish them (using water or trying to smother the fire with a towel might spread the flames).

7. Arrest Pests: Despite how awesome it is, not everyone likes baking soda. Sprinkle it on your window sills or near door jams to repel ants and other bugs. Sprinkle it around your garden plants to repel rabbits and other animals from eating them. Amazing!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Take the Plunge

I've been contemplating writing this post for months, but keep managing to delay its publication. Why? Because I like writing about pretty, pleasant things, and this is decidedly not that. But, on further evaluation, I have decided that this is a skill that every self-reliant person must have in his or her arsenal. It's happened to almost everyone (and probably will again) - you are at a restaurant or a friend's house, you put a little too much of something down the toilet, and suddenly you are trapped in a small bathroom with a rapidly filling toilet and a party waiting for you outside the door. Handled incorrectly, this nastiness can result an extremely embarrassing and, ahem, crappy situation. But handled correctly, you'll be back at the cocktail party in no time, with no one the wiser.

How To Unclog A Toilet

1. Don't Panic. Stop jiggling the handle and trying to flush- you'll only cause more water to fill the bowl and potentially overflow it. Resist the urge to climb out the window and run home. If the water level is still rising, look on the wall behind the toilet for a knob and turn it all the way to the right. This will turn off the water flowing to the toilet. Lift any rugs, mats or linens off the bathroom floor and hang them over a rod or hook, just in case things get messy.

2. Start Bailing. If the water level is full to the top of the bowl, you will need to remove some of it. This is super gross, but find a cup, dish or bowl in the bathroom to use as a bailing tool, and remove enough water bring the water level down a few inches.

3. Plunge In. Grab a plunger. You will want to use the flange kind (as opposed to the cup kind, which is for sinks). If you are at someone else's house, pray that they are well-prepared and that your karma is in order, so that there is already a plunger in the bathroom. Otherwise, use your cell phone to call your husband or closest friend at the party, and have them discreetly ask the hosts for one (I am literally blushing as I type this, I feel so sorry for you, and it isn't even happening for real). Put the suction cup end into the toilet, covering the hole forming as good a seal as you can. Vigorously plunge the handle up and down several times, as hard as you can. Really put some muscle into it. (You may want to run water in the sink while you are doing this to mask the sound). Repeat until the water starts to drain from the toilet (Congrats- that means the clog has cleared).

4. Clean and Clear. Turn the water back on, and flush the toilet until the bowl is clean and cleared out. Use toilet paper to wipe up any spilled water (ugh), return the mats to the floor, and then thoroughly wash and scrub your hands and arms up to your elbows. Take a deep breath, reapply your lipstick, and then walk out of the bathroom like nothing happened.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ask Me Anything: Wedding Daze

In case you are new here, Ask Me Anything is a feature on this site where I field reader questions to the best of my ability. The questioners get moderately useful information, and I get out of thinking up my own topic for one day, and get to act like a total know-it-all. So everybody wins. Email your own burning questions to lily@acharmedwife.com, or leave a comment on the site, and I will do my best to relieve the burning. Today's question comes from Chloe, who writes me on behalf of her engaged friend. I know what you're thinking- "Sure, Chloe. It's for your 'friend'" - But actually, Chloe is one of my lifelong besties, and she's already been married for years and has a baby, so unless she's leading some crazy double life, this one actually is for a friend. I hope her friend still likes her after she gets my advice.

Dear Charmed Wife,
I am a bridesmaid in a wedding this summer. The bride's parents are divorced and her mom is footing the bill for the wedding without her father's help. Her concern is that her fiance's family has not offered to help in any way. They haven't offered to pay for the rehearsal dinner or any portion of the wedding expenses, so her mom is bearing the burden for everything. How does she tactfully ask her soon to be in-laws to pitch in without coming across as a rude, spoiled bridezilla (which she is not)? Yikes, please help! Sincerely, Chloe

Chlo, I'm going to address this one directly to the bride, since I imagine you will probably just send her the link to this, anyway, right? Right.

On The Bright Side: First off, congratulations! I always say that one of the best things about weddings is that, through the process of planning one - working together with your intended and one another's families and taking into account all the relatives and wishes of the parents- you actually are forced to learn to BE a family. Without realizing it, this event that technically unites two families can actually serve to emotionally and spiritually unite them- it's the best kind of irony. So instead of chewing your fingernails and rolling your eyes over these interpersonal relationships, take this as an opportunity for you and your husband-to-be to hone your dialogue skills and connection and to forge an open line of communication with both sets of your folks. (Got lemons? Ta-Da: lemonade!)

Great Expectations: I'm guessing the reason your future in-laws haven't ponied up to offer their cash and their services is because they don't really know what is expected of them. Times have changed since the era in which our parents got married. Couples frequently front the cash for their own nuptials, and a lot of tradition has been turned on it's head. My parents had what was, in their day, a pretty large and elaborate tented wedding. But they had little input in the planning, it took place in the afternoon, and was a cocktail party- they tied the knot, took off for their honeymoon, and the whole thing was over before dinner. No seating cards, no favors, no "geegaws," as my mom calls them. When I got engaged, my folks and my husband's were incredibly generous and accommodating of everything we wanted, but they were a little surprised by the elaborateness and level of detail that has become the norm in today's weddings. It's quite possible that your future in-laws would be happy to help, but just don't even know where to start. Conversely, it's possible that they have reservations about the marriage, or have been feeling left out of the planning process. This might be particularly true if you and your groom have not sought their input into matters of tradition and aesthetic. In any case, the solution to this is to be open-minded and open-hearted and to open the lines of communication between you, your fiancé and them. One place to start the conversation is to include them in the personal side of the wedding plans- I invited my mother-in-law to go dress shopping with my mom and me and asked her to show me family wedding photos. If their religious or cultural background is different from yours, take the opportunity to learn about their traditions. Who knows? You might end up wanting to include a flower she had in her bouquet into yours, his favorite reading into your ceremony, or use family photos as decor at your reception. The more connected and involved they feel in the wedding plans, the more likely they are to want to help.

Money Matters: But, getting down to brass tacks, really, the responsibility of talking to the future in-laws about money should fall to your husband-to-be, not you. Assuming he has a decent relationship with them, he should just gently hint at the fact that the groom's family traditionally throws a rehearsal dinner, and that you guys would really love and appreciate their involvement in the wedding in general. If you would rather they contribute to the wedding costs, you can suggest that you and your groom throw a casual barbecue-style rehearsal dinner yourselves, and ask that they help host the wedding. An honest conversation about the pressure your mother is under financially should help motivate them. (Keep in mind that if they agree to co-host the wedding, you will need to include their names on the invitation, and incorporate their creative and traditional input into the event). Here's something important to remember- the amount of money or style of help they choose to give is entirely up to them. If you ask them to host the rehearsal dinner, then you must be prepared for them to do so how, where, and when they want. Ideally, they will seek your input, but don't expect to just be handed a credit card to throw the party you want for yourselves. And the same is true for the wedding- if you are getting married in a Wiccan ceremony and having a full bar (when they're Orthodox Jews who don't drink), it's not really fair or appropriate to ask them to split the check.

The Bright Side, Again: As awkward and stressful as this may feel, think of it this way: It's great practice. You may not want to have to hash things out with your fiancé's folks, but these people are about to become your family. Forever (hopefully). Down the road, when it comes time ask them to stop giving your kids candy and violent toys, or when you have to tell your elderly father-in-law that he can't drive himself anymore, you will be grateful that you built a foundation of open communication in the beginning. Good luck, and here's wishing you a lifetime of marital (and familial) bliss.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Mousse Is Loose

Remember that time you said, "I wish I could find a dessert that was as light and fluffy as a cloud, as rich and creamy as cheesecake and as zesty and refreshing as a glass of lemonade?" Well, I just happened to be hiding in the bushes outside your window that night and I thought "I will make that wish come true." Well, actually, first I thought, "This person has the soul of a poet,"... But then I thought "I will make that wish come true."
So I made my way through the gumdrop forest, across the Slurpee sea and then through the treacherous Marshmallow Mountains to the Molton Chocolate Volcano, where I finally found exactly the dessert you've been waiting for: Lemon Mousse.
It's not hard to make (unless you really hate juicing and zesting lemons, in which case this probably isn't the dessert for you), but the result is a tangy-delicious-cheesecakesque-lemonade cloud that is sure to send you to the moon.

Top it with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and a few blueberries or a butter wafer cookie. I can't wait to hear what you think of it when I listen in on your phone calls tonight.

You Will Need:
1 teaspoon plain gelatin
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from 3-4 lemons)
Pinch of salt
6 large egg yolks (save the whites to make healthy omelets or meringues)
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

1. Pour gelatin into a small bowl, and stir in 2 tablespoons water. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes, until a gel forms.

2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat.

3. Once the butter is melted, remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the sugar, lemon zest and juice, and the salt.

4. Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth.

5. Place the bowl containing the gelatin mixture into a larger bowl containing hot water, and stir until the gelatin has dissolved into a clear liquid.

6. Return the egg/butter mixture to the stove, and cook over low heat (being careful not to let the mixture boil), stirring constantly until it thickens enough to leave a clean path on the back of a wooden spoon when you run your finger over it. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the gelatin mixture.

7. Immediately pour the mixture through a fine sieve or strainer into a bowl, stirring, but not pressing through any lumps. Let cool to room temperature.

8. Beat the cream with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.

9. Add the cream to the egg mixture in several batches, gently folding each batch into the mixture with a rubber spatula. When just combined, divide the mousse evenly into ramekins or pretty bowls or glasses (this should serve 4-6, depending on your bowl). Cover loosely and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days, until set and thoroughly chilled. Enjoy heaven with a spoon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dude, Where's My Blog?

To My Dearest Darling Readers:
I just want to shoot a quick note to apologize for my absence this week. I've been (gulp) working on a last-minute freelance job outside my house, and by the time I get home I've been too zonked to write anything intelligible. I'm sorry, but in these difficult times I have to take whatever work I can get -- Self-publishing a blog on the Internet isn't free, you know. I have to buy... um, er.... okay, fine, self-publishing a blog on the Internet IS free. But wallpaper and vanilla extract are not, and what would I have to blog about without them (not to mention, why would I want to go on living on this earth)? So I stoically put on my hard hat and head back into the mines.
But, fear not, I'll be back tomorrow with plenty of excitement to share from all my adventures venturing outside the four walls of my abode. And I'll be living large with my hefty new paycheck: Extract shots for everyone!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Shear Thing

I love a good kitchen gadget- give me an apple peeler-corer, or an egg slicer or a whipped cream maker and I'll be entertained for hours. But the truth is that you don't ever really NEED any of those things, and you can get almost any cooking task accomplished, as long as you have a few solid and high-quality basics: a chef's knife, a paring knife, a serrated knife, and a good pair of kitchen shears. And (arguably) the greatest of these is shears.
You can use a sharp pair of scissors to do almost everything in the kitchen- butcher a chicken, mince herbs, snip the ends off green beans, cut parchment paper or twine, open packages, or `even cut wire or trim flower stems in a pinch (just don't tell my mom I do that). The trick is to get a good-quality stainless steel pair that come apart, so you can throw them in the dishwasher after every use without fear of rust, and sharpen the blades just like knives when they get dull from cutting wire (even though your mom told you not to). I also like pairs with non-slip handles (for when your hands are covered in chicken goo) and built-in bottle openers, for enjoying a tall frosty one when you're done. Here are three worthy pairs. Owning any of them would be shear luck.

Top left, Titanium kitchen shears, $13.50, from Williams-Sonoma; Right, Wusthof come-apart shears, $19.95 from Amazon.com; Bottom left, Shun Classic 'Taskmaster' shears, $39.95 from Sur La Table.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Don't-Bleed-Your-Wallet-Dry Cleaning

There's a reason the expression "taken to the cleaners" means ripped off. And that reason is that dry cleaning, while a necessary part of life if you want to look presentable, can be insanely expensive. Sometimes I literally find myself thinking, I bought this sweater at H&M for $19. Am I really about to spend $10 to get it cleaned? Because I'm cheap like that. It's a fierce battle, but usually my cheapness trumps my laziness, and I end up washing the darn thing myself. And while, for your sanity, certain garments are best left to the professionals (like suits, anything with heavy beading or embellishments or a ton of pleats) there are ways to limit the amount of dough you have to shell out, and take some shortcuts at home.* Plus, dry cleaning chemicals are toxic (do you really want them all over your clothes?) and harmful to the environment, so limiting your dry cleaning habit is good for your bank account, your health and the planet. Here are the techniques I employ at home to keep my wallet from getting cleaned out.

1. Read the Labels: If the label says "dry clean" that means you can definitely wash it at home. If it says "dry clean only" there's still a chance that you can clean it yourself. A general rule is that wool, acrylic, cashmere, cotton and polyester can be easily washed at home. Silk and rayon require a little more care, but can sometimes be hand-washed.

2. Use Your Dryer: If the clothes are unstained and just kind of maloderous (due to last night's trip to a cigar bar, or your sprint for the bus), you can use one of the at-home dry cleaning kits at work in your dryer: Dryel or FreshCare. Read the instructions, but they are generally safe with most fabrics, and will leave your clothes unwrinkled, and smelling fresher than if you spray them with Febreze.

3. Handwash Your Sweaters: Here's a secret- hand-washing actually will make your wool and cashmere sweaters softer. Just fill a deep sink or bathtub with room temperature water (not hot!), and add your sweater to it. Put in a small amount of soap (Woolite is nice, but you can also use a gentle shampoo), and gently spot treat just using your hands and by rubbing the fabric against itself. After the sweater has soaked for a while and is clean, rinse them with cool water and lay them flat on a clean towel, then roll the towel to dry. Allow the sweater to lay flat until dry. To save time, do several sweaters at once.

4. Silky tops: Use the same method as with sweaters to wash your silk items, but after you rinse them, pat them dry with a towel and hang on a padded hanger to dry.

*I also take personal umbrage that our dry cleaning establishment will wash and press my husband's shirts for $1.50 each, while my button-up collared shirts are categorized as "blouses" and cost $6. If I were less lazy, I would start a boycott based on the sexism inherent in that, but then I'd be stuck washing and pressing all JM's shirts myself. And they deliver for free, so I'll give them a pass.

photo credit: Nanopedia.case.edu - a site dedicated to the idea of using nanotechnology to create self-cleaning fabrics. So hopefully this whole post will soon be moot.