Thursday, June 30, 2016

Crimes against language—what you can do to help

We live in a violent society—people are murdering the English language on a daily basis. Sometimes the pressure of witnessing it all gets too much to bear. But there are things you can do to help. Things that you can do to turn this trend around. Even one person can make a difference, and today, I'm going to show you three little ways you can try!

Use some discretion

This is mostly a spelling issue, but an issue in which a different spelling denotes an entirely different meaning! If you do not know the difference between discreet and discrete, I urge you to just use the words "subtle" and "separate" instead.

Don't use the third wheel

"Third wheel," is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot without anyone considering what it really means. I myself am guilty of using this phrase, to refer to the odd one out in a group of three people. From the way the term is used colloquially, one would assume a third wheel on any sort of vehicle is not only unnecessary but downright detrimental—which is, of course, a fallacious assumption! A bicycle, the quintessential two-wheeled vehicle, certainly functions quite adequately on two wheels, but the addition of a third wheel would certainly add stability. And a car with only two wheels would be in sorry shape indeed, but with three wheels it might even be able to get around. So why is a third wheel approached so negatively?

Misplaced decimal points

This problematic usage of syntax transcends languages and sticks its dirty toes into the pool of mathematics. 

I have lately been overwhelmed by the number of shopping stories I read on the Internet describing prices as something like ".50 cents." While there is a chance that someone purchased a dress for 50/100ths of a cent, it seems a lot more likely that the price was actually "50 cents" or ".50$" (Lest you wonder why I have committed a syntactical sin in this very rant, please see more on my unconventional placement of the dollar sign). Let's make it perfectly clear. A decimal point indicates a fraction and should be pronounced if it is written. So unless you actually bought something for "point fifty cents" you should leave the dot out of the equation. 

By the way, one of the most useful tricks I ever learned in writing was the Windows shortcut for the cent character: Hold down ALT while typing the numbers 0162 on your numeric keypad. Tada! Magic cent! I also use these shortcuts for the em dash (— ALT+0151) and en dash (– ALT+0150) – which litter my writing – on the regular.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

While I was waiting

As you might recall (from way back in November, ugh!), when my original plan to buy a house last July backfired the following month, I signed a 3-month lease at an apartment. Obviously my three-month estimate was way too optimistic, because – even though I'm a homeowner as of June 10 – that's the same apartment I'm living in now. In the 9 months that I've (begrudgingly) called this place home, I've renewed my lease twice, but every time, I always thought I wouldn't be here much longer. And that's resulted in some interesting living situations.

I refused to update my address. Though many of the companies that send me mail got my forwarding order and proactively changed it themselves, many others still think I live on 49th Ave. This proved to be quite confusing when it actually came time to fill out my loan, since I had different addresses on different documents and no one was actually sure where I lived.

My apartment came with a standard-issue manual thermostat. But you can't save on your heating bill when your furnace is constantly running even when no one's home! So I purchased a programmable one, intending to take with me when I moved out...which was going to be sometime soon. However, the original thermostat was basically painted onto the wall, and I didn't want to risk damaging the paint job for just a month or two of programmable climate control. So I just let the old thermostat stay there, while the new one dangled from its wiring for 9 months.

In a similar vein, I didn't want to get billed for repairing a bunch of holes in the wall if I was only going to be a short-term tenant. So when it came to hanging things, I relied on lots of Command adhesive and a couple of existing nails. Resulting in interesting decor such as this one-nail bulletin board.

In the epitome of bad timing, only a couple weeks before my original landlord gave me notice, I had bought a lawn mower. Any other lawn mower, I probably would have just sold and tried to replace whenever I moved into a real house again. But this was brand-spanking new and 400 dollars! So I did what any obnoxious person would do: I enlisted a friend with a house of his own to store my lawn mower for the (undoubtedly brief) time I would be living without a yard. And since he was already storing my mower, why not have him store all the other contents of my shed? I put it all in the box the mower had come in and entrusted it to his care. For a couple months that turned into 9. Surely, I owe this friend a home-cooked meal for his trouble, but since he never reads this blog, he's not going to know about that!

While I was living in an apartment, I turned into a box-hoarding packing-rat, because someday soon, I was going to be moving out. Whenever I got a shipment of multiple shoes (oftener than I should have), I would save the big outer box and stash it away, empty, somewhere in my apartment, to use as a moving box. When our office flooded a few months ago, a mold restoration company came to clean up and had us pack everything in big cardboard boxes. When the restoration company left, I kept the boxes, storing a few choice things inside so no one would be tempted to throw them away. Everywhere you look, I have boxes within boxes within boxes. Boy, it will feel good to be getting rid of them!

Except now I'm moving. I won't be getting rid of my boxes, I'll just be storing them in a different location! I see ahead of me, several more weeks of living with my boxes. But they will finally be full of the stuff they were intended for!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

And you may ask yourself, "How did I get here?"

One year and 3 months ago, I began shopping for houses, and I am infinitely relieved to say I finally bought one. Yes, the predominant emotion that I feel as I prepare to move into my new home is relief. I can't say I'm excited – there's still too much work ahead of me for that – but I am so happy I no longer have to live in suspense any more!

I started out last February of last year, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing I had all the time in the world to find the perfect home at the perfect price. I spent a year and some change progressively lowering my standards while increasing my price limit, and in the end, I was so exhausted by the whole process that I ended up buying pretty much the most expensive house in the whole neighborhood, even though it had many issues ranging from mold, failing appliances, antiquated electricity, and deteriorating plumbing, just because I was tired for looking for something better.

I regularly question my decision to make this purchase. I am, after all, Mrs. Thrifty (no one calls me that, but they should!), and here I just blew my life savings on an arguably overpriced home. I have talked to people who, unreasuringly, give me looks of shock when I tell them how much I paid (I will tell you a little bit later, in an entire post dedicated to the financial side of this escapade). I justify the expense with my insider knowledge of just how competitive the market in my target neighborhood is. Let's have a look at my seven purchase attempts (of course, I toured many more houses, but rejected them outright for a number of reasons).

The first 4 offers I made were detailed in a past blog post, but I'll briefly summarize them again:

  • July 2015 - The house in Hyattsville - my first offer, remains probably the best value on this list, in the best condition for the most reasonable price (and the only one with a completely separate and ready-to-live-in basement apartment), but I felt like I was getting cheated, and I had a strong incentive (in the form of a 15,000$ forgivable loan) to buy in College Park.
  • August-October 2015 - The short sale - In retrospect, this was one of the best-priced houses out there, and I should have snapped it up when I could have bought it for 220,000. But I was being greedy (and perhaps still a little ignorant of the highly competitive market) and tried a bit too hard to negotiate the price down, losing my chance to purchase it when the sellers decided to start paying their mortgage again (I console myself by saying that that would have happened even if I had accepted their counter-offer).
  • October 2015 - The fakeout - When talking with my boyfriend, I call this one "The One with the Collapsing Basement." Having a dangerously flawed foundation is kind of a dealbreaker, but even knowing that, I spent many months thinking fondly of how perfect that house was in all other respects.
  • November 2015 - The Last Resort - The last house I blogged about, I think of it now as "The One with the Orange Kitchen." Let's face it; even though I claimed to be so desperate I'd take it even though it wasn't quite what I wanted, when I learned I couldn't get any heat to come into the basement bedroom (my anticipated rental cash cow), I had to let it go.

After this point, I vowed to not blog any more about my dismal housing search, because the public admissions of failure were really starting to get me down. I kept silent when I heard the disappointing results of my next two offers:
  • February 2016 - The One Next to REI - This house was so cute! It was nicely landscaped, it had a basement with a couple of (not-legal) bedrooms and a mini kitchen. It had two bay windows (not a trifling matter to someone who loves both sun and houseplants). Alas, I still hadn't learned my lesson about the competitive market, and I made a too-low offer. Someone outbid me by offering the asking price (which I totally would have paid if I had been given the opportunity to increase my offer!) This one was a heartbreaker.
  • April 2016 - The One with the Blue Room - It didn't have a basement, it didn't have an upstairs. The only thing it had was a nice secluded bedroom with a bath, and a refrigerator in the laundry room, so I thought I might rent that part of the house out. I wasn't really crazy about this house, but I was desperate. My offer (equal to the asking price after you take into account my request for closing cost assistance) was rejected, and I was disappointed, but I think I would have been more disappointed if I'd actually ended up owning the place.

And that brings us to May of 2016. By this time, I had saved 19 houses on Zillow and seriously considered buying all of them. I was a house-shopping expert. But I was losing hope. I had previously promised myself that if I hadn't found a place by the beginning of May, I'd apply for one of the cheaper apartment buildings in the area. Still, I was procrastinating. More houses were finally being listed. Maybe I really would find something. I would make my rental application at the end of the month.

And it's a good thing I waited, because on May 1, I put in the offer on the house that I would end up owning. This time, I decided to pull out all the stops. I offered the asking price AND threw in an escalation clause that would increase my offer by 10,000 dollars if there were other offers. And there were. Six others. But somehow mine was the one that made the final cut.

The next few weeks were a poorly timed whirlwind. I actually received the phone call telling me my offer was countered while I was in New Orleans—a trip which, as you know, was followed almost immediately by trips to Richmond and Hawaii. The majority of the negotiations happened while I was on vacation. Can you imagine trying to make sound business decisions while shouting into your cell phone over the sound of hundreds of revelers dancing through the streets? Or trying to shop around for the best possible deals using crappy hotel wi-fi? I am sure that if I had had more time to myself between making my offer and my astonishingly early closing date, I would have been able to save a buck here and there. But because I didn't get enough opportunity to do a lot of extensive research, I basically just had to accept whatever was offered to me as far as my mortgage, my pest inspection, my title company, my title insurance, and essentially all things you are technically allowed to choose for yourself as a home buyer.

I also almost missed my opportunity to apply for that 15,000$ forgivable loan I mentioned, because I was so busy surfing and attending weddings that I neglected to read the deadline information. There were a lot of money matters that didn't go exactly as my usual stingy self would have liked. In fact, to this day, I don't know what monetary value the other offers were, and I wonder if the sellers were able to just milk me for all I had because they knew I would be willing to pay it...Well, I can go around with myself forever about whether I got the best deal possible, but in the end, I paid an amount that I could afford, and after 9 months of struggling, I guess that's all I could hope for.

Besides, there's something to be said for just not caring. Because I wasn't able to take control over the little details of my purchase, I was able to cultivate an almost Zen-like attitude (at least as Zen-like as the constraints of my admittedly high-strung personality would allow) about the whole deal. Matters were mostly out of my hands; I just had to let go and let God, as they say. Because of this, the weeks preceding my closing were actually surprisingly low-stress—you'd never guess it from the way I talked, but complaining is my middle name. I was actually getting plenty of sleep, finding plenty of time for fun, and basically going on with life, as opposed to frantically scrambling to make this the best real estate transaction that had ever occurred.

Now that the dust has settled (and more is probably being kicked up as I write this; I had mold remediators come in yesterday to begin treatment of the basement and attic), I am able to sit down and write a nice long epic about the last year-and-a-third in my housing life. It's not the most chipper way to begin my next chapter, but it is something I need to get off my chest. In the future, I'm sure you can look forward to many more posts about my home.
Here's a sneak peek:
Somehow I got suckered into dog sitting the inimitable Bubalou on the day of my closing!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bon Apetit Deep Dish Chocolate Chip cookie

There's nothing like long-haul air travel to mess up your eating schedule. On the way home from Hawaii a few weeks ago, we stopped in Phoenix for a couple hours. I was hungry, but not hungry enough to eat a whole meal (nor pay through the nose for airport food), so I decided on a meal of Giant Cookie!

I photographed it dutifully and gobbled it down in the terminal while waiting for our connecting flight to begin boarding, and I took a few notes as I did so.

As for the taste, I found it: "underwhelming, a little too sweet, not salty enough."

And the texture: " soft but very crumbly around the edges. The middle was pretty good."

That is all I wrote, and considering that I ate it several weeks ago, under the influence of sleep deprivation, I don't really remember more than that. I do recall that it had the shape of a muffin top—that is, it looked like it had actually been baked in a round flat mold, and the parts that had overflowed the mold were the ones that were too crumbly, while the inside was quite acceptable.

Probably the most notable thing about this cookie was that it actually called itself a "Giant Cookie" on the back, which most Giant Cookies don't do.

I paid 2.74$ for this 113-gram cookie, putting it at a slightly-above-average 2.42¢ per gram. Not bad for an airport purchase. Now if I only just had enjoyed it more.

The Bottom Line

Taste: 2 out of 5 stars
Texture: 3 out of 5 stars
Price: 2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I like it, I love it

Most of my blog consists of me talking about things I either like or hate, in some way or another. But once every year or thereabouts, I get real lazy, think up a whole bunch of things I either like or hate, and put them in a list. This time, this list is just about loves, which just goes to show you that I am nothing if not a bucket of sunshine!

  1. Hills in a Forest

    As a sometimes nature lover, one of the things that thrills my easy-to-please heart is a combination of two great things: a hill, and a bunch of trees. The hill adds an air of mystery (what's over that rise? It could be a golden city of magic! Or even...another hill!) while the trees add the texture (let's face it—a hill covered with trees is a little more interesting to look at than a hill covered with grass, though they both have their appeal). Because of the configuration of the hill (if you're looking at it from the bottom), you can see more trees than you would if they were all on the level, which just makes everything even better.
  2. Moss

    Since we're on the topic of forests, one of my favorite things to be found within them is a soft lush mat of green moss growing all over a boulder. How it sparks my imagination! These are the places where fairies play!

    Here is a watercolor close-up of moss I created for my student teaching. Since I love moss a lot more than I love being a teacher, I might as well share it here, because it certainly won't ever be seen in a classroom!
  3. The sound of old recordings

    Once in a list like this one, I explained how much I enjoy the sound of music played from a long distance away. This sound is a similar one (muffled, scratchy, not the crisp clean sound you'd get from a modern recording or a close-by performance), but different in its own tantalizing way. While music from afar seems to trigger my own memories, music from the past makes me imagine a time beyond my own. When I hear old music (or really any type of recording including jst , it's almost as good as a time machine—at least for my imagination!
  4. Organizing

    In case you hadn't picked up on it, this post has so far seemed to follow a theme of imagination. But one thing I enjoy that is decidedly unimaginative is organizing. I get really excited about this activity. Like, once, I had this cardboard box. Cheesecake came in it. When I took out the cheesecake, I saw that the box hadn't been stained or damaged in any way. And I was like, "I could use this box in my sock drawer!" I couldn't wait to finish eating my cheesecake, so I could try out my new organizer box. I was legit more excited about organizing my sock drawer than I was about consuming my favorite food.
  5. New anything

    Everyone likes new things. But I've never mentioned it in my Like posts, so I might as well mention it now. The thrill of having something clean and unused! The thrill of trying something you've never tried before! The delight of possessions! I love new things so much, I even get excited about starting a new bar of shower soap. This might explain why I keep accumulating free T-shirts even though I never wear them.
  6. Getting a pickle with my sandwich

    Sometimes when you order a sandwich, you get a free side of fries or chips. Sometimes you get nothing. But sometimes, you get a pickle. And then choirs of angels sing in the background while you eat that delicious excessively salted briny vegetable...or more likely, hoard it for later!
  7. The place where a river ends

    To end this list, we're going to talk about endings, which are also, conveniently, where we started: in nature. Just as it's exciting to see the place where a hill meets the sky, it's exciting to see a place where a river meets a larger body. I still remember the first time I experienced this singular sight: I was 11 years old, maybe 12. I was tubing down the Platte River  when all of a sudden the whole of Lake Michigan opened up before me! It was fantastical to see the buildup of sand that formed the river's last-ditch (or last-rampart?) effort to remain an independent body of water. Since then, I've been able to visit many more river mouths, but I never get tired of seeing them and wading the border between river and sea.

I saw this particular end-of-the-river while driving along Oahu's North Shore
and made a special trek down to the beach to meet it in person.
You can just barely see it in the background of this splendid selfie!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

How to make strawberry shortcake and cookie bars from leftover wedding cake

By the title of this post, I bet you are reasonably certain that this is an Adventure in Cooking!

You are correct, but this particular adventure has a backstory. It begins with wedding cake. I never thought anyone actually likes wedding cake (in fact, I think the custom of making the bride and groom eat more of it, after it has been sitting in the freezer for a year, is a pretty strong argument against ever getting married). But apparently both my brother and his new wife not only tolerate wedding cake, but actually like it! They were so excited about being able to eat wedding cake that the only thing they asked their baker to do was bake them wedding cake. No decorations, nothing, just the cake and the white buttercream frosting.

Sadly, they and everyone else at the wedding were let down by the baker's poor excuse for a wedding cake. The cake itself was actually nicely dense and rich. Normally I only eat cake for the icing, but I actually thought this cake was pretty good—good for me, but not good for someone who wanted your traditional dry and boring wedding cake. The buttercream frosting, we all agreed, was terrible. Though it tasted sweet enough, the texture was like it was all butter and no cream. It was almost flaky, which is not how you want cake frosting to be.

So when all was said and done, the disappointed bride and groom didn't want to have anything to do with their wedding cake (year-old frozen cake tradition be darned!). I didn't either, but in thinking about how buttery the frosting was, I realized I could probably use it as a base for cookie dough! So I became the proud owner of part of a wedding cake. And this is where the Adventures in Cooking begin!

Phase 1: Separate the cake from the icing

You will need:
  • 1/3 of a terrible wedding cake with weird frosting
  • A knife
  • Miscellaneous food storage containers
Keep the cake in the refrigerator until you are ready to begin. This will ensure that the frosting retains its rigidity for easy removal. Use the knife to pry the frosting off the cake. If you have succeeded in finding the right weird cake, the frosting will just separate from the cake in big sheets.

Press the icing into plastic food storage containers, and place the now naked slices of cake back into a 9-inch cake pan. Tada! It looks practically like you just baked it!

Phase 2: Bake cookies with the icing

For this phase, you're going to loosely follow the Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe, which you can get off any bag of Tollhouse chocolate chips, or you can use this handy recipe card that I am too lazy to transcribe for you.

 Make the following alterations to the recipe.
  1. Since you're not sure if it's actually going to taste good, only use half the recipe.
  2. Instead of 1/2 c. margarine, 3/8 c. white sugar, and 3/8 c. brown sugar, use 1/2 c. + a-little-extra weird icing, no white sugar, and 1/4 + approximately 1/2-of-1/4 c. brown sugar.
  3. Don't bother mixing the dry ingredients separately. This is an Adventure in Cooking, and you're lazy, and who wants to dirty two bowls anyway?
  4. Forget the vanilla.
  5. Add a handful of crushed walnuts.
  6. Don't bother measuring the chocolate chips. Accidentally add a little too many, but that's OK because anyone who likes chocolate chips wants more chocolate chips!
  7. Instead of dropping the dough onto a cookie sheet by rounded teaspoon (which is not exactly clear in the recipe, because you're the one who wrote it on the recipe card, and you make so many cookies that you don't need a lot of verbose instructions to get it right), spread it into an 8x8-inch square pan.
  8. Since you're still not sure if this is going to taste all right, you need to distract people from the actual cookie with lots of delicious candy. Top the dough with generous handfuls of butterscotch chips and white chocolate chips.
  9. Don't bake it 8-10 minutes at 375°. Instead, bake it at the classic 350° for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool before cutting into bars. might taste terrible, but at least it looks pretty!

Phase 3: Make the cake into strawberry shortcake

This is definitely the easiest part of this Adventure in Cooking, because the cake is already in cake form. All you need to do is top it with sugared strawberries and whipped cream, and you'll be done! In fact, you can just bring all of the ingredients to a party and have the guests top it themselves! The ultimate in lazy cooking!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The strange phenomenon of Game of Thrones

A while back, I pondered (briefly) why most fantasy stories like the ones I read are considered the province of losers and geeks, while somehow Game of Thrones has seemingly taken over the world.

That was a year ago, and it's only grown bigger. 

My first experience with the series was sometime during its early life on HBO, when a friend who was avidly following it told me it would be right up my alley—since it involved princesses and dragons and stuff. Once or twice, I had the privilege of being present while it was playing on his television, and in that time I watched the grisly sight of a girl being forced to stare at her father's head on a stake. In another scene, I witnessed a woman being burned alive. At that point, I decided Game of Thrones was most definitely not right up my alley.

Nonetheless, the rest of the world seems to be enthralled with the show. The majority of my office-mates watch it, gathering regularly to discuss what's going on with the plot. Even the fashion publications I receive in my email regularly devote column space to the topic of GoT (sometimes they even abbreviate it that way, because everyone knows what it means). While the world around me endlessly discusses Game of Thrones, I try my hardest not to get involved—a challenging prospect when my own boyfriend is watching the show very loudly just 4 feet from me.

Yet in the recent past, I've gotten an even stronger incentive to avoid seeing the show that's all around me: spoilers. 

For Christmas, I received a 5-book set of the series that spawned the TV show. The name of the book series is "A Song of Ice and Fire," which I mention only because everyone knows the story as "Game of Thrones," but as a book nerd, I am compelled to represent it accurately. Knowing my opinions on the TV show, I was hesitant to start the book series, but I can't help but read everything that's put in front of me, and besides, while graphic depictions of violence literally make me feel ill, it's a lot easier to skim past violence when it's just words on a page.

So I began reading, and I'm glad I did! I could go into why it's such an excellent tale, but being a member of Goodreads has taught me that whatever I have to say, hundreds of other people have already said it and said it better. Instead, I'll just talk about how odd it is to be reading a story while, simultaneously, bits of its future plot are unfolding through popular culture all around you. 

Thanks to my early experiences with the show, when I began the first book, I knew enough not to get too attached to Ned Stark. As I continue to get exposed to people's opinions, I know enough not to get too attached to anyone. From conversations I've overheard, pictures I've seen, and things I've read, it looks like Jon Snow might not be long for this world, but at least he won't die a virgin. By happenstance, I've gleaned that eventually I might have to feel sorry for Cersei. Yesterday, though I couldn't tell what was happening from what I heard through the bedroom wall, I think I accidentally learned the meaning behind Hodor's name.

And so it goes.  I can't unhear what I've heard, and nor can I, in honesty, resist the temptation to sponge up all these little secrets as they are prematurely revealed to me...but still! Spoilers! I feel like I'm a time traveler. Or more like I'm able to see the future but not quite sure what it means. In the world of Ice and Fire (the book), the ubiquitous Game of Thrones (the show) would be like my own little version of greensight!