Friday, June 15, 2018

This story holds water

In case you weren't aware yet, collecting water runoff in a rain barrel is an eco-friendly way to prevent erosion and provide a water supply for your outdoor needs. I first started considering a rain barrel when I moved into my house, but after thinking about the amount of water I spend on my lawn and gardens (none), I decided a rain barrel probably wouldn't be the most worthwhile investment. Last spring, that all changed when I planted some seeds in the backyard and had to water them a handful of times. This got me to thinking that maybe a rain barrel wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

The timing was perfect. That summer, I learned that if I installed a rain barrel outside my home, Prince George's County would reimburse me the cost of the rain barrel, as part of the Rain Check Rebate program. If the rain barrel cost me nothing, well, that was a horse of a different color! At minimum, it would create at least one spot in my yard where the gutters don't run directly into the ground next to the foundation. So I bought and installed a rain barrel.


A lot of time passed. Summer turned to fall, fall turned to winter, the water in the rain barrel alternately iced up and overflowed out the overflow hose (right into the ground next to the foundation, SMH), and I still hadn't used a drop of the water I collected. I needed to step up my rain game.

Other than watering the plants in my landscape (of which there are few, and which I have very little interest in watering after their planting day), the first use I came up with for the rain barrel was to hose off my bike after riding it home in messy weather. For this, I tried to use the garden hose I already have attached to the front yard spigot, but it was too long and too high off the ground to produce enough gravity-powered pressure to blast the gunk off the bike. So I was obliged to purchase a hose, naturally the cheapest one I could find: a 15-dollar spiral hose that also failed to produce enough pressure to blast the gunk off my bike (I should have expected that, but optimism won over my tenuous grasp of hydraulic flow). Oh, well, at least I now have a hose for watering the plants in my landscape, should I suddenly develop a passion for gardening and a boatload of patience (watering a single plant takes forever with the trickle that comes out of the hose).

The second use I came up with for the rain barrel was to source the water I use on my houseplants. Unlike my lawn and yard, my houseplants are cared for more or less faithfully, and as they continue to grow in number, I need increasingly large vessels to water all of them efficiently. For the past several months, I've been using my boyfriend's beloved VitaMix blender cup, as it's the largest easily poured container in the house, and it's always sitting conveniently on the counter.

However, the first time I used the rain-barrel water for my indoor plants, I realized I needed another container. As I watched the water flow out from the spigot labeled "non-potable," I realized I probably shouldn't be using a food preparation vessel to haul around water of questionable purity. Of course, I washed the blender cup thoroughly after that, but as if to remind me that the water from the rain barrel was just about as sketchy as water can be, my Norfolk Island Pine sprouted a magnificent garden of neon yellow fungus just a few days after watering.

That's not the kind of mushroom I want touching my kitchen equipment, so I vowed not to water the plants with the Vitamix any more.

But what to use, then? A sensible person would advise me to use a watering can, but I have never owned a watering can in my adult life, and I've never even run across one on Freecycle or at the thrift store. They must be the kind of thing that once you have, it's til death do you part. But my conscience (scientifically proven to be one part Extreme Cheapskate, one part Tree Hugger) wasn't really too keen on the idea of buying one new. Watering cans are outrageously expensive, apparently starting out at well over 10 dollars for a decent size. For something whose basic purpose is just to carry a couple liters of fluid, they seem exorbitantly priced compared to, say, a 2-liter bottle of soda, which can be less than a dollar in the right stores, and already comes with the fluid in it!

The compulsive crafter in me tried to devise a clever solution that I could construct from, say, a gallon milk bottle or one of the aforementioned 2-liters of soda, but ultimately, I decided I really wanted a watering can. I needed something with a spout that could get down to the base of my plants without spilling on the leaves (and thence to the floor, as such things go), that was sturdy enough not to collapse no matter what part of it I held onto, and that was graceful enough that I could maneuver it around my window fence without spilling or stabbing myself on a cactus. I needed an honest-to-goodness watering can, and I needed one now, before my plants dried out and I was forced to load up the Vitamix with fungus spores again. Finally, I acknowledged that, barring a miracle (perhaps a rain of watering cans instead of water?) I was going to need to pay money for this new necessity.

And this is when the other half of my conscience revved into action—the tree-hugging one. After reading a lot of recent news about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I'm more depressed about the environment than ever, and, consequently, trying extra-hard to avoid buying new things made out of plastic. But sakes alive! All the steel watering cans out there are like 3 times the price of an equivalently sized plastic one...and the plastic ones are already exorbitantly priced, as I might have mentioned. I decided to search for a watering can made of recycled plastic, and I found one—one of the cheapest cans of its size, even, and made in the USA! Wow! Practically everything an ethical miser could ever want! I put it in my Amazon cart, and when I came back to make my purchase the next day, I found an even cheaper version of the same can! So, for 9.63$ (3 times as much as I'd originally hoped to have to pay, but less than I'd resigned myself to paying), I had a watering can of my very own.

When it arrived at my doorstep, I took it out of the box and was instantly worried because it looked smaller than the blender cup, and I'd really been hoping for an upgrade. But once I filled it with water, it became clear that looks are deceiving. It held as much as the Vitamix, and then some! I watered half my plants, did not stab myself with a cactus, and considered the whole endeavor a success. The can even makes an acceptable addition to my decor!


I usually like my stories to have a moral, but this one doesn't really, except perhaps to illustrate that even if you get a rain barrel for free, it's still going to cost you at least 25 dollars in new things that you didn't need before. However, if you are still looking for a more meaningful takeaway, let it be that if you're in the market for a botanical hydration vessel, perhaps you should consider this one.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Rat Tale

The latest of my adventures in home ownership is a short one—about four inches, to be exact.

I speak of none other than Rattus norvegicus, a single creature that terrorized me like a plague for months on end.

I might have had a rat in my home as early as last November, when I first noticed chew-holes in a bag of coffee in the basement. At the time, I blamed it on my last Airbnb guest, a particularly negligent fellow who had left spilled food all over the carpet and a window open to the bitter cold when he checked out—I wouldn't have put it past him to have also somehow mutilated the bag of coffee. But as time went on, the evidence began to mount that I had some kind of vermin problem.

At first it was just noise—occasional scratchings from the attic that were so rare, I was sometimes able to convince myself they were nothing more than the neighbors working outside, somehow acoustically reflected to sound like they were coming from above.

One time in early March, I had to purge my basement renter's refrigerator during a 2-day power failure, and I found a bunch of bags of potato chips at the bottom of the fridge. I never asked her, but why do you keep chips in the fridge, unless you're trying to keep them safe from rodents?

The noises continued, and I was pretty sure we had mice, except that they were unusually loud for such small animals. "Do you think we have a rat?" I asked my boyfriend one day when the scratching was especially noisy. "Nah," he said. "People usually only get rats in the city."

Unfortunately, he was wrong.

One day in March, I stepped into the basement storage room, turned on the light, and saw a grey creature streaking along the floor and into the space behind the drywall. That was no mouse! At the speed it was moving, it looked positively enormous. There was no doubt about it; we had a rat.

Although I said this adventure was a short one, I'm lying. From the moment I discovered the rat to the day I finally rid myself of it, approximately a month and a half passed. The intervening time was a long journey of frustration, which you now have the pleasure of viewing, in timeline form.

  • March 19-ish: I see rat in basement, and my life changes forever. On this date, I also find the place where I presume the rat originally entered the house: an exhaust vent leading from the basement stove to the outside. The flexible ducting that connected fan to the the wall had been torn to pieces, basically leaving a huge 4-inch hole in my house just above ground level.
  • March 20-something: I get crafty and make a pitfall-style trap out of a five-gallon bucket, some ramps, and a cardboard seesaw. Spoiler alert: While this trap will remain in place over the next several weeks and even get triggered twice, it will never succeed in catching the rat.
  • March 24: I order a catch-and-release wire trap from Amazon.
  • April 2: All quiet on the basement front, I begin to believe that maybe the rat is gone. Or, possibly worse, dead and rotting in the walls. My bucket trap hasn't been touched in a while, so I disassemble it.
  • April 3: I see the rat again! Same rat time, same rat place! I begin to suspect that this rat is cleverer than I give it credit for. It's been deliberately avoiding my trap!
  • Date unknown: At several points during this month and a half, I realize that the various repairs I've made to the entry hole have been unsuccessful. Stuffing the ducting back into the hole does not seem to last long, even when using rags to press it in more firmly. Closing the flap from the outside with a tile works, until the tile slips out of position. My last fix, wedging the tile into the ground before pressing it onto the flap, stays where it's put, but it's frustrating to think that the rat could have been exiting and entering my home multiple times during this ordeal, possibly mating with other rats and getting pregnant! For my own peace of mind, I decide the rat is a male.
  • April 14: Where the heck is that trap I ordered from Amazon!? I check, and the arrival estimate is not until late July / early August! Amazon failed me! I cancel my order.
  • April 15: I ask my boyfriend to order the same trap using his Amazon Prime account.
  • April 17: At around midnight, the rat begins his invasion of the upstairs kitchen, tearing into a bag of tortilla chips and leaving havoc in his wake. I move all foodstuffs off the counter and into hard-to-reach places.
  • April 18: Boyfriend's Amazon order arrives, but the rat trap is not part of it. I suspected this might happen, and wonder if I am meant to fail at this endeavor.
  • April 19: Around midnight, the most horrible scraping noise emanates from somewhere near the kitchen. It sounds like the rat is trying to chew the house down. In the morning, I find puffs of pink insulation all over the floor of the basement storage room, indicating that he has been burrowing inside the wall.
  • April 20: Taking boxes outside for recycling, I find the rat trap in one of them. My boyfriend just did a terrible job of opening them, and completely missed the most important part of the order! I set up the trap in a corner of the basement storage room.
  • April 20 - May 7: I check the trap diligently multiple times a day...then every day....then every couple of days. It has not even been touched. Again my optimism gets the best of me, and I wonder if I might have gotten lucky and sealed the rat outside the last time I closed off the vent.
  • May 7: I see the rat again! He runs right past my trap, and has clearly been doing so for weeks, so either the trap must be in the wrong place, or the rat has lost interest in peanut butter and tortilla chips (for the record, he never seemed interested in peanut butter, despite all the Internet advice to the contrary). I take the trap upstairs to clean and re-bait with something more tempting.
  • May 8: By this point, several friends know about my rat situation, and one has been encouraging me to "borrow" one of the kill traps that are all around our buildings at work. Upon hearing of this third sighting, even the friend who has patiently indulged my desire for a humane catch and release is now suggesting that I just put out some kill traps. But no! I stand firm! I will take this rat alive! I bait the trap with buttered popcorn and painstakingly maneuver it into a dark cranny behind some plumbing, where I saw the rat emerge from last time. Later, while doing laundry, I see a patch of paint scraped off the basement outer wall that I swear wasn't there a few days ago. The patch is in the same place where we had a water leak repaired a few years ago, so this gets me to thinking that maybe, the rat might be thirsty and trying to get at the moisture behind the paint. So I place a dish of water inside the trap as well.
  • May 9: Success at last! When I get up in the morning, I check the trap to find the rat inside it.
OMG!! For such a thorn in my side, the rat sure was cute! With his bulgy black eyes and soft grey fur, he looked like he would make an adorable pet. However, after all the damage he did to my house, I was happy to get rid of him. After taking a couple selfies, I carried him off into the woods at the end of my street.

For the record and others who would rather put 1.5 months of effort into humanely catching a rat rather than just poisoning it and being done, PETA says that you should release a rat no more than 100 yards from where you found it, because putting it in unfamiliar surroundings might confuse it and ultimately lead it to die of starvation anyway. The woods at the end of my street just squeaks into that radius, and there are plenty of unguarded garbage cans in the vicinity!

I never knew rats could jump (and I'm glad I didn't, because I would have been terrified to even enter the basement!), but they do! When my rat exited the trap, he took a couple of hesitant steps and then bounded away, leaping into the air every few feet in an impressive display of acrobatic activity. Well, that explains why he didn't stay in my bucket trap! 

Afterword

If all this action in this tale seems to take place in the basement storage room, that's because it is the least finished area of the house. A flood a few months ago resulted in the bottom 3 feet of drywall being removed from this room, making it basically the only place where the exterior walls, and insides of the interior walls, are exposed. I never thought I'd be grateful for this disaster, but it proved instrumental in identifying and catching the rat, since the room is now basically a window into the guts of the house.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Help, I'm dating a dog person

Although in my entire adult life I've never owned a cat of my own, I've always considered myself more of a cat person than a dog person...or rather, more of a cat.


However, as they say, opposites attract, so somehow I found myself sharing my home and life with an undeniable dog person. Not only is he a dog person, but he is bound and determined to make me into one, too. He regularly foments chaos in my calm and peaceful existence by bringing home new, increasingly disruptive dogs every couple of years.

The newest one is, fortunately, not a lazy, grumpy, foot-piddling cat-dog, nor a yapping, anxiety-ridden bundle of health problems. It's something much worse: a puppy.


Cuteness not withstanding, there are many irritating things about having a puppy, but anyone who's had a puppy probably already knows what they are. What you might not know is that the most irritating thing about having a puppy has nothing to do with dogs at all—it's dog people!

People in general love dogs (even I, a certifiable antisocialite, love dogs, in a commitment-phobic kind of way), but dog people not only love dogs; they act like dogs! And when you're out and about with a cute puppy, you're bound to attract at least a few dog people—that is to say, people with no sense of boundaries.

Here's a typical exchange:

Cat person: [Walking dog, enjoying the weather, generally minding her own business]
Squealing girl: Can I pet your puppy!!!1!!???
Cat person: [only hissing mentally] Of course!
Girl pets puppy. Puppy loves it. Other dog people descend like wolves, eager to get in on the action. Puppy is ecstatic. Cat person is hovering awkwardly nearby, trying to suppress the instinct to flee.

This is a best-case scenario. In a worst-case scenario, the dog person will want to do the unthinkable: engage in conversation.

The conversation is always the same: What's your dog's name? How old is he? What's his breed? After running out of standard questions, the dog person will then begin to rhapsodize on how cute the puppy is, how he is making her day, and/or all the ways the puppy reminds her of her own dog.

This may sound like one-way nattering, but when two dog people get together, just like dogs, they both feel the need to get in each other's faces and yap. A simple encounter can easily turn into an endless exchange about the characteristics of the dog in question, the characteristics of every participant's every pet since the time of their infancy, and the defining characteristics of every breed known to man.

It can really get annoying. And I know, because my boyfriend is a dog person. I've watched him get mired in conversations with other dog people that lasted so long, I had to walk away. There's only so much smiling and nodding a cat person can force out before she has to return to solitary pastimes. Being a cat person in a dog person's family is not unlike being a cat in a bathtub: sometimes you just want to run away screaming.

Yet, as a responsible pet owner, you know you have a duty to to treat your dog with loving kindness, and meet its needs. Even when those needs involve...(dum dum dummm)...going out in public!

Every day, the puppy must be taken on a seemingly infinite number of walks. Of course, I could just hustle him out for a quick potty break and dart back inside like a ghost, as would be my preference...but the less you exercise the puppy outdoors, the more he wants to run around the house or office, barking, digging at the carpet, and chewing up the couch.

So instead, it's long tedious walks around campus—walks which inevitably lead to hordes of dog people wanting to meet the puppy. 

I thought this ordeal was inevitable, and as a cat person, I was uncertain if I could survive it on my own. But in only one short solo excursion with the puppy, I learned a trick for tolerating walks when feeling antisocial (which, if you're a cat person, is all the time). It even comes in the form of a game, which should make even the most hardcore dog people happy. I call it "Dodge the Humans!"

The rules are simple:
  1. When out and about with your dog, try to only walk where other people are not walking. This may mean eschewing paved pathways, and suddenly changing directions when you see a crowd.
  2. Be especially wary of children and groups of female humans. These are the ones most likely to attempt to approach you.
  3. When forced to cross paths with a human of any sort, don't make eye contact! I find it helps to stare intently at the dog while continuously uttering a stream of commands and praise. That way you can at least pass for a fellow dog person, and not some humanoid robot that hates all living things.
By following these rules assiduously, I was able to survive an entire walk around the mall (and then around a couple of extra buildings to avoid a school group) without once having to tell anyone my dog's age! We even made it almost all the way back inside when I started to feel sorry for the puppy, who seemed sad about not getting all the pats and attention he is used to whenever he goes out....So I let him run up to someone entering the building, slip through the door, and nearly escape out the other side. This resulted in a flurry of apologies, an even more awkward interaction than any silly dog-talk chat could be.

From now on, I think I'll stick with what a cat person does best. I'll continue Dodging the Humans and only participate in puppy play when it suits my mood. I'll leave the socializing, the endless activity, and all the yapping to my boyfriend. After all, if there's one good thing about being a cat person stuck in a dog person's family, it's that you have a dog person to do all that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Putting the War in Wardrobe

The week before last, my boyfriend was away, visiting with a friend in China. Since the two of us spend approximately 22 hours a day within a 40-foot radius of each other, I thought it would make for an amusing tale to chronicle my experiences with the single life.

And it was, at first. I humorously (so I'd like to think) photo-documented my glee at finally having a clean house, my efforts to get the dog to eat dog food, my attempt to drown my loneliness (mostly hyped up for dramatic effect) in a pint of ice cream, and so on. But then, I decided to get a wardrobe.

As you might recall from the distant past, I've always had a wardrobe, but since my clothing collection grew bigger and my closet grew smaller, I felt the need to supplement it with a second identical one. But soon those two wardrobes and tiny closet became no match for my still growing collection, so I began to entertain dreams of maybe, someday, buying a newer, larger, better wardrobe. Now, I don't buy big things often because there's a lot you can get for free if you're just willing to wait, but I do make exceptions for wardrobes (My boyfriend's wardrobe was the only home furnishing item I've purchased since 2010), so I started planning my dream closet on the IKEA Pax Planner. My dream closet ended up being almost a thousand dollars, and I decided I could not waste my money on such a frivolous purpose when I really needed to improve and repair certain essential parts of my house. So I did. For months, I ignored my wardrobe plans in favor of focusing on home improvement.

However, the first weekend that my boyfriend was out of town marked a tipping point in my financial priorities. I finally had a solid 15,000$ squirreled away in my basement remodeling fund and a contractor friend working on it in his spare time; I had recently bought a truck, which had been an additional big purchase I was conserving my money for all winter; and then that Saturday, a different friend helped me finally fix my leaky bathtub faucet handles. (In my "single-life diary," I introduced this story with, "The men are already flocking by to assist a lady in distress.") Suddenly, all the pressing maintenance tasks were well in hand! I could finally spend big money on clothing storage without feeling like an irresponsible homeowner!

So I returned to my Pax Planner...and instantly balked. 855 dollars just for an upgraded closet? It wasn't even all that great of a closet, I now realized, with dead space hidden in a corner that I wouldn't be able to use for anything. People sell Pax wardrobes on Craigslist all the time. Surely a used wardrobe at a hefty discount would be a better investment than a brand new one that suddenly wasn't my dream closet any more. So I ran a Craigslist search for "wardrobe," and instantly found one for sale in my own neighborhood. Since this is a long story, I'll shorten it by saying I bought the wardrobe. It was rather impulsive, not my usual carefully considered decision that typically involves changing my mind several times and missing out on multiple opportunities while I'm deliberating. The only deliberation I did was to go home and measure my wall to ensure the wardrobe would fit, and then head out in my pickup truck to bring it home.

My single-life diary had this to say about the purchase: "Day 5: No longer content with a clean house, I have decided to sabotage my tidiness by buying furniture. Now an entire disassembled IKEA wardrobe adorns the wall of the living room." I thought I was making light fun of a messy situation that I'd surely resolve the next day, with a triumphant "who needs a man of the house—I just assembled the world's biggest wardrobe on my own!" type of follow-up.

But no.

It was at this point that the war began. 

My Day 6 diary entry started out with its usual tone of playful self-mockery, but ended on a much darker note that was to foreshadow the struggle to come: "The net result is even more destruction of my hard-won cleanliness." If you couldn't guess, my attempts to build the wardrobe that day were disheartening. I was trying to tell a funny story, but it had stopped being funny.

I didn't record every step of the process, but the battles I fought were many. First there was the usual oops-I-put-that-part-in-backwards moment, which everyone can expect when building modular furniture, but immediately following that was the oops-that-peg-just-snapped-in-half-and-oh-no-now-all-the-pegs-have-snapped-in-half moment, which made it a little harder for me to maintain my optimism.The end result of that fiasco was me having to hold that part of the wardrobe together with a couple of L-shaped brackets I was fortunate to scavenge from other parts of the house.

There was the time on Friday night (Day 7 of my Single Life, Day 2 of trying to assemble the wardrobe), when I realized that the legs that level the wardrobe were missing their plastic tips, necessitating a trip to IKEA and a consolatory Chipotle burrito. There was that depressing moment when I realized my measurements must not have been precise enough, because the edge of the wardrobe overlapped the sill of my window, looking less than pretty and preventing the wardrobe from sitting flush with the wall. (As a slight victory, I rectified this by putting some shims against the baseboard in a few strategic places. I've never used shims before, but I bought them recently for another project I haven't started yet, and I'm really pleased at how they worked!)

There was the time when I realized the doors that I had received did not seem to have an assembly guide on the IKEA website, resulting in a moment of despair when I thought I was just going to have to scrap the whole project and buy a new set of doors from IKEA. Fortunately the doors still had their original stickers on them, so I was able to Google their name and find an older manual that was apparently not listed in the product catalog. This, of course, resulted in the realization that I was missing a metal bracket, a couple of bolts, and two door-length edge pieces.

Some emails with the seller ensued. She didn't have any of the missing parts, but I was able to determine from the patterns of discoloration and indentations that the missing bracket and bolts had never been there. Likewise, I guessed that the enormous edge pieces were more for aesthetics and probably weren't essential. This concluded the eighth day of my Single Life, and fortunately the last. I had given up on my cheeky diary, as by this point, it mostly consisted of hopeless statements like "Now on Day 3 of trying to assemble wardrobe on my own. Time for a second trip to IKEA."

My boyfriend returned home the following day, a Sunday, and we spent that morning waiting a very long time at IKEA customer service to get the parts I needed. We were only able to get the bolts, so it was with a certain sense of doom that I returned to my project. But (again in the interest of making this long story shorter, I will skip over the decisions I made about how to handle the missing parts and get right down to the end), I succeeded in finishing the doors at last, and finally had a big (slightly too big) wardrobe to contain all of my clothes! The war was over, and I guess I won it!

As always, I'd like to offer a few pointers for anyone in my position in the future, and they are:
  • Don't buy any used furniture that's already disassembled. It makes it hard to figure out how to put the pieces back together, and you have no way of knowing if the pieces are really all there or not!
  • If you insist on buying used disassembled IKEA furniture, make sure you live less than 2 miles from an IKEA. Had I been unable to take a quick jaunt to the store for missing pieces twice during this process, I probably would have had a catastrophe on my hands!
  • No matter how many times you look over the manual, you are going to do it wrong the first time.
  • In spite of all this, and the big cartoons on the first page of the manual that say you should work with a buddy, it is totally possible to assemble IKEA furniture all on your own. Even after my boyfriend returned home, I still finished the project alone when he was out of the house. And when I did, I was so proud of myself that it was almost all worth it!
I doubled my closet space, and the mirror door doubles the appearance of space! Wins all around!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Adventures in Cooking: Peanut Butter Pi

Happy Pi Day! Once a year, on March 14, I put on my chef's hat and pretend I know how to make pie. This is mainly so I can show off my Pi Day masterpiece on social media, because everyone else does it. But I'll share a secret with you—I don't actually know how to make pie!

What I do know, is how to have grand Adventures in Cooking! This year's Adventure will take us into the depths of the kitchen, to use two of the best ingredients ever invented—cream cheese and peanut butter.

Please enjoy this peanut butter pi recipe!

Ingredients

4 oz. cream cheese
1 c. confectioner's sugar
1/3 c. peanut butter
1 c. whipped topping (semi-optional)
1 9-inch graham cracker crust

Steps

  1. Whip cream cheese until light and fluffy. There is a lot of room for interpretation in this statement, but I take it to mean you should use an electric mixer. You should probably have a brand new hand mixer for this purpose, particularly one that likes to fling tiny particles of food all over your kitchen.
  2. Beat in sugar and peanut butter. The addition of sugar will make the batter extremely dry, resulting in even more food particles flying everywhere! Wheee!
  3. Fold whipped topping into peanut butter mixture. If you don't have whipped topping, don't worry; it's not like it's an essential part of the recipe or anything!
  4. Since you don't have whipped topping, the batter will still be extremely dry and crumbly at this point. To help it soften up, add a hearty dollop of more peanut butter.
  5. More peanut butter is not enough to liquify this recipe! Add an arbitrary amount of more cream cheese, until the mixture is soft enough to hold together.
  6. By now, you should realize that you don't have a 9-inch graham cracker crust. That's the kind of thing that people who know how to make pie have around, and you are none such person! That's OK, though, because a graham cracker crust is basically just graham crackers and some other things, right? You can make one from scratch.
  7. Start with four graham crackers. Crush them into crumbs with a rolling pin and pour them into a bowl. Make sure it's one of those bowls that gets blazingly hot in the microwave—this will be important later.
  8. Add 2 teaspoons (or thereabouts) of sugar to the graham cracker crumbs.
  9. A graham cracker crust needs something to hold it together, and that something is butter! Since you're just guessing at quantities by this point, grab a couple of those foil-wrapped pats of butter you get at restaurants (you do save those, right?) and dump them into the mix.
  10. Microwave the mixture to melt the butter. Cook it in 30-second intervals until you get bored and the bowl has reached the temperature of lava, but the butter is still not melted.
  11. Remove the still-solid butter from the bowl and place it in one of your measuring cups instead. Try microwaving it again, this time succeeding in melting it.
  12. Mix the butter into the graham cracker mixture. 
  13. This is not enough butter, so then add in a melted blob of butter that you took home with the bread from Cheesecake Factory. Waste not, want not!
  14. Dump the the graham cracker mixture into two 5.5-inch pie tins, gingerly pressing it into the sides. Since you didn't use enough butter (even with the help of the Cheesecake Factory), it barely sticks to the sides, but that's OK. It will stick to your ooey-gooey pie filling.
  15. Divide the pie filling into two portions, and dump each portion into a prepared pie crust.
  16. Carefully press down the filling until it covers the crust, and you're done!
  17. That is, unless you want to turn your peanut butter pie into peanut butter pi! In that case, you should use some chocolate chips to make the pi symbol on the top of your crust.
  18. Refrigerate for a few hours, until the texture turns rather like cookie dough. Eat straight from the pan like some kind of heathen. Makes one 8-to-9-inch pie, two 5.5-inch pies, or 2.828 3.14-inch pies.

I actually had to do a lot of geometry to figure out if two 5.5-inch pies are equivalent to a 9-incher (they're not, but it works because I modified the recipe so much!), so let's all give 3.14 cheers to the number that made this Adventure in Cooking! possible!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

More winter biking secrets: Three years' worth of wisdom

Every fall when the weather starts turning chilly, and I start showing up to work on my bike in increasingly noticeable layers of cold-weather gear, I get some pretty predictable reactions:
  • "Aren't you COLD!?"
  • "Wow, you're biking in this weather!?"
  • And my personal favorite, several variations on, "That's hard-core!"
Since people seem to be shocked by the very idea of biking on anything less than a balmy spring day, I'm here to share, with all those who might be on the fence about taking the chilly plunge, that it is indeed possible, and not nearly as bad as you might imagine! It's been three years since I first started riding my bike in cold (sub-40) weather and shared my tips with the Internet. That's 3 years of learning experiences, and I've made a lot of adjustments since then to the way I ride in winter. Here's an updated guide to cold-weather biking.

On keeping your head warm

They say that most of your body heat is lost through the top of your head. Of course, the enlightened among us know that silly statistic is based on bad data, and that you really lose about the same amount of body heat through any area of exposed skin. Thus, the majority of us who are not bald are actually less likely to lose heat through our heads than any other part of our bodies...and that means that wearing a hat is actually one of the lower priorities for keeping warm in any weather.

The takeaway for bikers is, don't bother with a hat! It's a lot simpler to wear a helmet if that's your inclination, and if you're not a helmet-wearer, it also makes it less likely that you will show up to your destination with the dreaded hat hair!

On the other hand, covering your ears is a must! I don't know about you, but I start experiencing dizziness and headaches when my ears are exposed to temperatures below 60, compounded when there's wind, as there always is on a fast-moving bike. So I cover my ears while biking pretty much 8 months out of the year. When I first started winter biking, I wore a full-coverage balaclava for all weather below 40°F, but I've found since then that I can get by just fine with my oversized earmuffs alone, in temperatures well below thirty. The nice thing about earmuffs, as opposed to headbands, the other non-hat ear-covering option, is they do less damage to a hairstyle, especially if you have bangs.

Normally not worn with pajamas
In frigid weather like what we had the early part of this January, I did find that the earmuffs weren't enough, because the sub-zero wind chill was freezing parts of me that I never before thought about, like my forehead. For that weather, I decided I'd have to embrace the balaclava, in spite of it making me look sinister and inhibiting my respiration. I couldn't do anything about the former (except maybe top it off with a cute hat just for effect?), but I didn't have to let it suffocate me.

I marked where my balaclava's mask met my upper lip, and poked three holes below that, using a pointed-tip soldering iron (I removed the mask from my face for this process!). The heat melted the polyester fleece, making perfectly round sealed holes that shouldn't fray. I haven't had a chance to wear the newly perforated mask while biking, but I can already see that it allows for an improved airflow.

On keeping your feet warm

The nice thing about biking in winter is that your feet actually get less cold than they do while walking, because they aren't in direct contact with the frozen ground. But there's still the wind to contend with, so your everyday (probably quite ventilated by design) gym shoes will not suffice.

One of the most annoying things about a bike commute is having a cold wind slipping into the tiny space between your pants and socks (I call it a wind gap). Even if the rest of me is warm, that tiny uncomfortable distraction can totally ruin my mood on a ride, so I almost always wear a pair of warm mid-calf boots I got from REI when it's below 50 out. I would advise against fur-topped boots because the fur might touch your chain and get damaged.

On keeping your hands warm

Aye, and here's the rub! By which I mean, unless you've got your biking thermoregulation down to a science, you'll probably have to rub the life back into your hands after every ride. While your feet are probably getting a fresh supply of blood with every turn of the pedals, your hands are remaining entirely motionless, which can only exacerbate problems with the cold. Plus, as the foremost part of your body in a riding posture, they take the brunt of the wind.

While in my previous winter post, I recommended a pair of thick skiing gloves, I retired those because of their significant hindrance to my dexterity, plus the fact that they still allowed my fingers to get cold! The following winter, I made, as I'd planned, a pair of pogies (a.k.a handlebar mittens, if you're me) from my old white coat. Although they are far from fashionable, I detailed the story of their making in my fashion blog. 
I loved them! They blocked out every hint of wind and kept my hands warm and toasty every time I tried them. However, when I made and tested them, I was still storing my bike in my apartment, so I didn't get to experience how they performed when the bike had been sitting out in the cold all night. That didn't happen until the following winter, when I was back to living in a house and storing the bike in a shed.

At that point, I learned the literal hard cold truth: A bike that's been sitting outside all night in 20-degree weather will inevitably have 20-degree handlebars! No matter how thick my pogies, they couldn't protect me from the cold that was already within! Over that entire winter and a significant portion of the next (that's now the current winter), I tried various things to keep my hands warm for my morning commute:
  • Wrap the handlebars with faux fur to provide a little extra insulation against the heat-sucking metal (Perhaps helped a little, but not enough)
  • Make microwaveable handwarmers out of sacks of flax seeds (Were very warm, but hard to keep attached to the handlebars and in contact with my hands. Also tended to get in the way when shifting and braking).
  • Attach disposable adhesive toe warmers to the handlebars (Took too long to warm up, did not stay warm enough, tended to fall off)
  • Attach disposable adhesive toe warmers to the inside of a pair of mittens (Worked very well on my fingers, but, still could not keep my thumb warm enough. This is one of the most effective options thus far, but I have ethical and financial issues with having to use a new pack of disposable toe warmers every day, just for a 20-minute bike ride).
  • Buy heated gloves (I shopped online, but couldn't find any pair with the heating elements all the way down the palm side of the fingers and thumbs, or that didn't cost a fortune)
  • Buy an electric handlebar heater online. (This is the best solution yet, thus it warrants a whole paragraph of its own! See below.)
Electric handlebar warmers. I can't believe it didn't occur to me to look for this sooner. I guess I just assumed they wouldn't exist, but after exhausting all my other ideas, I searched for some on a whim, and eventually found a pair that's powered by USB, meaning it would work with one of the many USB portable chargers we have at home. I ordered the cheapest one I could find, naturally from a Chinese seller on eBay, which took 3 weeks to arrive. There's a good chance that it's a knockoff, but it did work. The only problem was, it didn't work with any of my portable chargers. They did not produce enough current, so next I had to order a 2-amp power brick, which took another week.

Once I finally got them running, the handlebar warmers proved pretty effective. I plug them in a few minutes before I leave, to give them a chance to warm up, they stay warm the entire ride, and the brick retains its charge for at least two rides. Probably longer, but I haven't tried to run it to empty yet. They produce a comfortable level of heat, and do help with keeping my thumb warm (though I did have to position them very carefully as the actual heated surface is not that big).

Of course, like all the solutions I've ever explored, they aren't perfect. I wish the power cord were a little shorter (it's 1 meter long, which is a little excessive considering it only has to reach between two handlebars!) and the warmer pads were a little bigger, as they don't completely wrap my large ergonomic grips. To connect the power brick to the warmers, I must suspend it, in a vinyl pouch, from my handlebars with two shower curtain rings (one would suffice, but I like the security of two).

Hard to tell the electronic cable from all the other cables, but it's the one
that's one-freaking-meter-long folded up into a bundle.

There are many flaws with this setup, the obvious one being that it looks silly! But as someone who bikes around with diapers on my hands all winter, that is the least of my concerns. What's more important is the fact that a delicate piece of electronic equipment is dangling down where it bangs into the frame of my bike with every bump. I wrapped it with bubble wrap for the time being, but my next project is to find a way to attach the power brick securely but removably. I tell you, it's always something! If you give a bike a pair of handlebar warmers, she's going to want you to provide an endless stream of complementary accessories! Someone should write a children's book about this!

Since I mentioned the diapers I wear on my hands, I might as well add that this year, I discovered a new way to wear them. Rather than keeping them on the handlebars at all times, and trying to force my hands into the openings while really just futilely pushing the floppy things backwards, I discovered that I can wear them much like actual mittens.

 
I put them on before I start my ride, using both hands to position them securely around my sleeves, and then slip the open edges around the handlebar and brake lever. The benefits of wearing them this way are enormous. The long portion now goes up my arm, keeping me warm and preventing that loathsome wind gap at my wrists. The short portion covers the handlebar and brake lever, but not the light or bell (which used to be inaccessible in the old configuration). Better pogies, better life.

On keeping your body warm

This is actually the easiest part of a warm winter biking plan, because when you're exercising, you naturally produce enough body heat to keep you comfortable in almost any temperature as long as you have a thin insulating layer over the top.

You will need much lighter clothing while biking than you would use for just standing around in the same weather. I've worn a puffy coat for walking around outside in approximately 11-degree weather and still felt cold, but have worn the same coat, in the same weather, while biking, and found it to be stiflingly hot once I got about a mile down the road. Puffy coats are a no-no, unless you're biking at a snail's pace! What works best for me is a zippered hoodie, for temperatures down to the upper thirties, and a light wool coat for anything colder than that. I strongly advise you get a coat that covers your butt even when you're bending over, because, wind gap!

For the coldest weather, make sure you have something that covers your throat and exposed areas of chest (if you're fond of scoop- and V-necks, as I am). Wearing a scarf while biking is just not worth the hassle (flapping ends and such), so I made myself a simple turtleneck dickey out of pieces of an old sweater, but I don't wear it often because my most worn coat buttons all the way to the top.


While we're on the subject, I also recommend a buttoned coat rather than zippered, because that way if you get too hot, you can easily unbutton some of the lower buttons while still keeping your neck covered. But conversely, some button plackets let in too much wind even when closed, so maybe a zipper would be preferable to that. Really it's just a matter of finding the right coat for the right weather, and making sure your layers can be adjusted mid-ride.

So let's review the entire biking outfit! Cozy winter boots, cheap leggings, a lightweight but long button-up coat, a pair of lightweight hand covers, and over that, some removable pogies (shown with my hand poking out the opening, which is a useful trick for when you actually need some dexterity while dressed up for a ride), and a pair of ridiculously fluffy earmuffs! Bonus fact! I'm standing next to my new bike storage solution, which consists of a retired old air mattress stapled to the fence. This keeps me from having to walk all the way through the minefield that is my backyard (consequence of having dogs, if you know what I mean) to the shed.


I wish I could say that I've figured out all the secrets to winter biking, but after three years of it, I'm still banging out the details. Now that the weather has taken a turn for the warm, I probably won't get many more opportunities to perfect my system this winter, but if there's one thing certain in life other than death and taxes, it's that winter will come again. So we'll see what new tricks I figure out in the next year!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Bye Bye, Bubalou


My Worst Dog / Best Dog, Bubalou, succumbed to his heart condition a week ago. His death was not unexpected, yet I've had more trouble coping with it than I have with the deaths of any of my multitudinous  childhood pets. While we knew from the moment we met him that we wouldn't have long to know him, when his moment came, it was quite sudden and far from the peaceful end we would have wished for him. In attempting to come to terms with my seemingly bottomless sorrow, I wrote a very long story of how he died and all the ways I failed him at the end.

But guilt would be wasted on Bubalou, as forgiveness was all he knew. If you stepped on his paw, he would lick your hand. And probably start jumping up and down on his hind legs, already amped for his next adventure! Happiness was more his style, so I'm tossing my self-flagellating tale to the curb and instead crafting a memorial that I hope does justice to the joyful dog I loved.

In the grand tradition of myself, I have written a poem for my dear departed pet.

A puff of fur, a winning smile,
A face without a trace of guile,
A happy greeting at the door,
A tummy rub upon the floor.
These are our memories of you,
Our loving dog, our Bubalou

Your squeaky toys and Denta-sticks,
Your sneak attacks of friendly licks,
Your eagerness for any walk
To distant lands or 'round the block!
These are our memories of you,
Enthusiastic Bubalou

Mistakes, you made them every day,
But mad at you we couldn't stay.
You'd wiggle up with smiling face,
To show your heart was in the right place.
These are our memories of you,
Our dumb but charming Bubalou

You loved to spend your time outside,
Escape and wander far and wide.
It scared us, your Houdini act,
We'd fret, but always got you back.
These are our memories of you,
Adventure-loving Bubalou

As your last day on earth arrived,
You still were full of love for life.
But all good things must meet their end
And yours had come, our happy friend.
When once you strayed, we brought you home,
But now at last you're free to roam.
Though you have passed beyond our plane,
We know we'll see your smile again!
Til then, we've memories of you,
You're always with us, Bubalou.