31 October 2011

Happy Halloween!

I don't love Halloween. I know that's un-American and stuff, but it's the truth. I don't get excited about putting on costumes (and I'm pretty sure people wouldn't give me candy even if I did), and I'm not a fan of the orange and black color scheme.

But I definitely love seeing all of the kids who come by in their cute costumes, and I'm trying to embrace Halloween a little more. So I've been on the lookout for non-orange decorative items that will also work for Thanksgiving or can find extended life in a fall display. And that's how these twig pumpkins ended up in my life (from Crate and Barrel last year):

For height, I put one on top of a grey ceramic vase I picked up at TJ Maxx a few months ago for $5. In front of the fireplace, they add a little seasonal interest and balance out the garden stool and peace lily on the other side.

Then I bought four sassy ceramic pumpkins like this guy (from Hobby Lobby):

I love that they can stay out for the next month and maybe even work their way into a Thanksgiving tablescape.

Switching gears a little...we have also picked up some classically, kitschy Halloween items. There are these light-up ghosts that we put in the front windows (which I bought at Target year on after-Halloween clearance, and which are a hit with neighbor kids):

They didn't photograph well, but you can imagine how spooky they are in the dark:

Their red eyes mean business:

For purely decorative purposes, we picked up some candy corn:

(Although for decorative candy corn, they sure do need to refilled frequently....)

They are part of a larger tribute to candy corn (decorative and otherwise) in the entry...

...with these reusable candy corn decals (also Target after-Halloween clearance):

So that's a look at our first dip in the baby pool of Halloween decorating. It wasn't so painful, and we look forward to adding to the collection over the years.

Solar update: Yesterday afternoon (day 11) our solar panels reached a bit of a milestone: 300 kilowatt-hours generated, of which 101 kWh went back into the grid.

28 October 2011

Heck of a Week

I did the responsible thing and got a flu shot...and promptly got the flu. (Okay, someone is going to point out that you can't get the flu from a flu shot since there's no live virus in it. But it came on a mere four hours after I got the shot, and it was like the flu but worse, so it doesn't take a rocket surgeon....)

So I've been stuck in bed most of the week. But one good thing happened:

Our Italian parsley seeds started sprouting! Needless to say, the bunnies couldn't be more excited.

21 October 2011

Solar Day 1

One day in, we are very pleased with the solar panels. Today we generated 33 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity and used 15, putting the remaining 18 back into the grid (not to mention about fifty cents into our pocket, in addition to the two dollars or so that we saved by not paying for the electricity we used). Although we haven't needed air conditioning over the last few days (and won't need to turn on the heater for at least another couple of weeks), 33 kWh is just about enough to cover our electric needs on the hottest summer day, so it should be no problem to cover all of our usage pretty much all year.

So far, so good.

20 October 2011

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

...and when it does, our little power plant will fire up and serve all of our energy needs.

When I got home yesterday afternoon, this was on our front door:

The city finally came by to hook up our solar system! Oh happy day!

But...if you can't read it, the bottom half of the pre-printed form says, "Please take the following action(s):" and then the installer wrote in "set solar meters" (which I was pretty sure was what he did) and "turn on breaker + system."

Um...what? I thought we were just waiting on the city to install our meter, and then we'd be cranking out the power. While it was nice that they told us that something else needed to be done, more specific instructions would have been nice.

In their defense, it was entitled "Important Notice," not "Helpful Notice."

At that point it was a race against time, as the sun was setting and there were just a few panels that weren't yet shaded by neighbors' trees.

The sun was also hitting the panels at a pretty oblique angle at that point, so I wasn't sure they would be able to do much with it anyway, but I was still hoping to catch a glimpse of that meter-running-backward phenomenon before we lost all daylight.

So I started looking for the secret breaker and/or switch. After checking the main breaker panel to be sure nothing there needed to be turned on (nope -- all good), I went to the panel area...which has become a lot more complicated in recent months.

Before the solar panels, the service entrance consisted only of the meter on the left and the big panel next to it. The three boxes on the right are all new for the solar system. (After calling our installer, I learned that there were three switches/breakers to turn on. I had figured out two of them myself, but I lost some time tracking down the third.)

Anyway, here's our shiny new solar meter:

It will keep an ever-increasing tally of how much electricity we've generated. So far it's at zero (because, despite my best efforts, I wasn't able to turn it on in time to generate even a single kilowatt hour).

But the solar meter isn't our only new meter. They also swapped out our regular meter with one that's better suited to solar systems.

Since it's brand new, it also reads zero, but it will switch between three settings -- received energy, delivered energy, and net energy. Net energy is what our electric bills (or credits) will be based on.

Can't wait to have some meter reading data to share.

18 October 2011

Small Victories

Last week I posted about the guest room. (Well, the bed area.) I like how it's shaping up -- especially with a cousin coming to town in just a few weeks -- but there was a triumph hidden in plain sight in that picture that I think is worth a post of its own.

See the green pillow in the middle of the bed? Back when I bought the duvet, it was looking like this...

Or, unfolded, like this...

...which kind of reminds me of the elephant that was eaten by the snake in The Little Prince:

But never fear, it's just a Eurosham I got on super-clearance for $5 at West Elm, holding a pillow form I already had (actually a pillow I bought on clearance at Target because its $8.24 price tag was less than most similar pillow forms would cost on their own).

Interesting note: if you read down below the "UNDER PENALTY OF LAW THIS TAG NOT TO BE REMOVED EXCEPT BY CONSUMER" warning, pillows usually state their dimensions, which can be helpful when you're mixing and matching.

Anyway, here's the Eurosham on its last day as a Eurosham:

Taking that picture suddenly made me realize how wrinkled it was, so I stopped to iron it...and then never took any more pictures. But this should be pretty self-explanatory. Sewing it down to size was pretty easy. The Eurosham had a folding closure in the back, which I wanted to leave intact, so I planned to make the first new seam on the opposite side from the opening. After turning the Eurosham inside-out, I measured the dimensions of the pillow and measured in from the open side for the long seam, marking a line with my trusty blue sewing pencil so I would have something to follow with the sewing machine when I sewed the new seam. Sort of like this one:

(These pencils are great because they don't leave a permanent mark, and they even come with a plastic brush thing that you can use to wipe the line away if you're Type A like that.

I quickly turned the new cover right side out and tried it on for size, and the length was a fit, so I turned my attention to the other dimension and followed the same process.

I was hesitant to cut of the excess (maybe I'll want to re-sew it to a bigger pillow someday? I don't know), so I neatly folded it inside the "new" cover when I popped the pillow inside. And that's all there was to it.

I bought something that needed work, and sure, it took a period months for me to actually get around to making the modifications, but I did it. Small victories.

14 October 2011

A Step Toward Energy Independence

I just read about a new sidewalk design being used at the London Olympics that converts footsteps to electricity. These recycled rubber slabs made by PaveGen compress when stepped on, and the kinetic energy is converted to electricity (the company won't reveal the exact secret to how it works). The system has been in testing in England, including at a school where the kids apparently step on the slabs like it's their job. The developers envision that the sidewalks will be used primarily for outdoor lighting and similar infrastructure, but they could also be used for short-term projects like powering cell phones at music festivals (it takes about 25 steps to charge a phone -- not bad).

You aren't likely to see these sidewalks anytime soon -- they're cost-prohibitive for most applications at this point -- but hopefully this kind of technology will gain, uh, traction and someday help us to further reduce our reliance on traditional sources of electricity. For more information, check out the PaveGen website or the CNN article where I first learned about this innovative use of the bottoms of our shoes.

12 October 2011


With the weather finally down into the 80s and 90s, we're venturing back outside for exterior projects, but we're not opposed to crossing indoor tasks off the list whenever the opportunity presents itself (as I wrote about here), and the guest room has been on the receiving end of that effort lately.

It's becoming one of my favorite rooms in the house...mostly because it's one of the most finished rooms in the house. Here's an up-to-the-minute view, with new pillows, lamps, and wall art:

I guess I should have used non-glare glass in the frames over the bed (since light from the windows is reflected in them from pretty much every angle). Here are the pictures from a better vantage point:

The one on the left is a pen-and-watercolor piece we picked up on Kauai during our honeymoon cruise (and finally put in a frame after nearly nine years), and the right is a picture of my college campus that I took, developed, printed, and matted myself in a photography class. I don't love the imbalance between color on the left and black-and-white on the right, but I have a plan to deal with that.

Other (longer-term) parts of the plan? Different end tables, changes to the bed frame, a rug at the foot of the bed (ideally round, and possibly shaggy), and...and...and.... Okay, so maybe it's not that close to finished after all....

10 October 2011

Rain is the New Snow

Our neighbor, who is the mother of three little girls, said that yesterday in recognition of the fact that we haven't had a real rain in Austin since June. Two-year-olds likely have no concept of what rain is, and older kids have probably forgotten.

But let's back up. This weekend, I had just two things on the agenda. (1) Saturday I planned to plant some of the lamb's ears and sedums I bought a few weeks ago, and (2) I was registered to run a half-marathon Sunday morning. I invited the oldest of the neighbor girls to help me with the planting (she's been my apprentice before, and she thinks it's fun!). She was so excited about it that she was thrilled when her family's trip to the beach was canceled (due to a chance of rain on the coast) because it meant that she got to help in the garden. When I went to pick her up, with a chance of rain in Austin's forecast as well, her mom mentioned that our drought has elevated rain to a celebratory occasion for kids. For adults, too, I added, thinking about the last time we had a bit of rain and how I relished standing out in it.

So we put in some time in my backyard, and I planted three new lamb's ears and replaced one that didn't survive the summer. Here are the three:

(When I plant, I follow the conventional wisdom to dig a hole as deep as the pot and twice as wide, but I separate out what I remove from the hole into two spare pots. The top layer of good soil (that we trucked/bobcatted in earlier this year) goes in one pot, and the underlayer of rock-hard clay soil goes in another. After I put the new plant in the hole, I only use the good soil to fill in around it, keeping the bad dirt separate so I can throw it away. The pots of dirt in the picture are all bad dirt that I need to dispose of.)

My neighbor friend helped with watering the plants once I put them in, but mostly she worked on something a little different:

Steve and I bought these ceramic bunnies a while back with the intention of tucking them in among the plants. When I suggested that my little friend get started on the first one, she apparently had a different artistic vision. She wasn't too into actually gardening, but that's okay. We had a nice time together (and she even took that picture herself).

And just hours after we finished up, this happened (here's where I show you that I'm not above asking you to turn your head -- or your monitor -- to watch this because I couldn't figure out how to rotate a video):

And then there was TONS more rain Sunday morning (an inch and a half total, I think) -- so much that the half marathon I was very much on the fence about running was canceled. (I frankly couldn't have been happier.) The drought has turned every person in Austin into a weirdo who can't stop talking about needing rain...or, now, how great it was to finally get some. So hooray for that.

After (sort of) preparing to run a half marathon, I found myself with a whole day with no plans. It rained pretty consistently in the morning, and when it finally stopped, Steve and I walked down to the nearby creek to see how much water was flowing. After a summer of zero rain and zero water in the creek, we were delighted to see it raging. And somehow, seeing all of the rain (and expecting more later in the day, although it never came), we were inspired to do more planting. We picked up four little pots of Italian parsley (the bunnies' favorite) with plans to put them in a planter in the kitchen, but only three of them fit, so we had to divide them between two planters.

The second one, in front, is a bunny planter we picked up at Tuesday Morning a while back, just because it was so adorable. There's a teeny-tiny bunny trying to climb into it -- what could be cuter than that?!

And then, since we were on a bit of a roll, we finally got to planting some Italian parsley seeds we picked up forever ago. We googled around for tips, which led us to soak the seeds in warm water before planting them, and although we didn't want to use all of our seeds at once, we now have over fifty Italian parsley plants hopefully working hard to break out of their shells. We'll know if it was successful in a couple of weeks.

Oh, and in one final weekend gardening move, we relocated one of the ceramic bunnies to its rightful spot among the lantana in the backyard.

07 October 2011

Two For Two

Our record with city inspections has been...spotty. (Even for top-notch contractors, inspectors can be so persnickety that failed inspections aren't at all unusual.) It took a few tries to get a pass on the preliminary solar inspection, and we were a little apprehensive about the final. Plus, we've been needing to schedule our irrigation inspection, and since we needed to wait around at home for each of these inspections, we made some calls and managed to schedule them both on the same day.

And we passed...

...and we passed!

We're still waiting for the solar meter, which we need to actually start generating electricity, but passing the inspection means that we're finally on the list for one.

And the irrigation inspection was a bit of a process. When I called our irrigation guy to schedule it, he said he needed to bring some paperwork to us first. I didn't know why he didn't just leave it when he finished installing the system, but when he came to drop it off, I learned that the inspectors are really picky about needing very specific documentation right there next to the controller in the garage, and if anything was missing, we would fail. So he came back the evening before the inspection to get everything set up just so, and while he was here, he made some tweaks to the system and gave us some supplies to expand our drip system as we get more plants. (If you're local and want to install an irrigation system, I would totally recommend him. Although a lot of his work is at high-end homes for owners who probably leave everything to him, he's been really supportive of our interest in handling our own programming and modifications to the system.)

On a related note, the drip system has been in for about six weeks now, and we're really happy with it. This lantana in front of the house (a bandana rose variety) is, too:

By the way, although the days over 100 degrees seem to be behind us, we're still waiting for fall to really set in. Yesterday was the 160th 90-degree (or higher) day this year, which broke the record set in 1925.

05 October 2011

There Aren't Enough Hours in the Day

Or days in the week...or weeks in the month...or months in the year. So we're trying to make better use of our time. We obviously have no shortage of tasks on our mental to-do list (as I mentioned when I wrote this outside to-do post in July), but we're not the best at time management, and it helps to have a written list to refer to. And since we've found that the weather plays a part in what we can do when, we divided it into inside and outside tasks...and since we've been trying to make better use of even small slices of time, we also divided it into small, medium, and big tasks. And that's how this ended up on the refrigerator:

(If you're wondering, the "bunny box" at issue in the second bullet point in the "small/in" box isn't the litter box. We have no problem addressing that when necessary. It's the toy box where we store some of their things...and it's a mess.)

Now, when we have a spare few minutes in the evening or whenever, we can just look at that first box and find something relatively easy to get done and, more importantly, cross of the list. We add new items to the paper list as we think of them and print up a new list every week or two (reusing paper that's already been printed on the other side, of course). But I leave the crossed-off items on the new list for a little while to savor the feeling. (Doesn't everyone do that?)

I've been amazed at how much we can get done in tiny snippets of time...but so far, everything has been from the "small" column. After everything we did this spring, it's still hard to imagine finding the time or willpower to take on another big project. But I realized that the list can help with that, too.

See, every item in the "Big" column is really just a series of mediums, and every Medium is just a series of smalls. Take the mudroom cubbies, for example.

We want to elevate the cubbies so we can store shoes under them, and attach it to the wall so it's built-in. Big, daunting project, right? Certainly nothing that we could do in an evening, or even a week of evenings. But that one item in the "Big" column can be rewritten as medium tasks...

...each of which can be further broken down into smalls:

Not so daunting. We're still working on tackling small projects (which I deleted from the mock-up above so it would be easier to see the cubby project tasks), but it's easier to imagine tiptoeing back into a big project this way (although, with the weather finally reliably under 100, it's likely that our next big project will be outside).

In the meantime, I've wrapped up a handful of small projects that have actually made a decent impact around the house, so while we're waiting for the "Hooray for free electricity!" post, I'll share some of the highlights. So, uh, buckle your seat belt.

04 October 2011

How is Architecture Like a Triathlon?

They both involve bicycles. Or at least they did for us this weekend.

Saturday morning we decided to ride our bikes down to a house on the American Institute of Architects tour. The tour organizers were trying to promote seeing the tour by bicycle, so they advertised a free tour of one of the homes for anyone who rode from the AIA-Austin office a few blocks away. (One of our city council members also rode, and he noted that cycling and architecture are both, on a certain level, about being in harmony with your surroundings.) We didn't have the time to see the whole tour this year, but we were excited to see the free house (which was a huge turn-of-the-century brick home that had been remodeled in some way), so we rode the seven miles down there from home. And I'm glad we did -- not only was it nice to stretch my legs the day before my last triathlon of the season, but the house was pretty spectacular.

We had assumed that the architect's contribution would have involved an addition of some kind, but it didn't (although there was a guest house). The first two floors were updated in all the ways you'd expect for a 110-year-old house...and then I found the stairs to the third floor, which was a spectacular master bedroom attic conversion. Cameras weren't allowed inside, but the space was full of interesting angles (all clad in some kind of unusual wood treatment), as the ceiling followed the contours of the pitched roof.

Fortunately, I was able to get some pictures outside (which give no hint of what's going on in the attic).

That triple window up top provides a great view from the master suite.

Did I mention that the house was seriously fancy?

It was pretty neat to see how they (the owners and their architect) blended an extremely traditional house with a more modern aesthetic. This round koi pond, playscape, and barn-like guest house are just down a small hill from the back doors of the house.

The landscaping was also nice. Understated, but nice.

We've had eight lamb's ears waiting to be planted for a few weeks, so I appreciated seeing them arranged in random clumps (I had been planning to put them all in one particular area of the backyard, but this is much more natural and interesting. Score one for procrastination.)

Love plumbago. Love it.

And more lamb's ears. I guess I didn't expect that they would form such nice, round clumps. I'm rethinking everything I thought I knew about our backyard.

And then there was the triathlon on Sunday. I had a great swim, I finished the bike portion feeling like I had ridden as hard as I possibly could (riding is definitely not my strength), and despite exhausted legs, I was happy with my run. Plus I won an entry to next year's race, so the fun continues....

And mark my words, next year I'll have my fast back.