31 December 2011

Our Five-Star Green House

...finally is!



Despite construction wrapping up a year and a half ago, we just got our five-star plaque (plus a certificate) this week. We actually have four-star documentation that was sent to us about a year ago, but now that our landscaping has been done to five-star standards (including bringing in good soil and compost, limiting our lawn area, and using only native and adapted drought-tolerant plants), we've finally gotten that last star.

Sometimes, when I tell people about our five-star green house, they ask what we get for going to the trouble to build green. The answer is, pretty much, that plaque. Back in 2009, as we started researching the construction process, it quickly became clear that a sustainable, energy-efficient house was the only option that made sense for us, so the green designation is largely just a bonus. However, there are certain things we did purely to get that fifth star (four stars was a given based on a variety of features we would have opted for anyway). In particular, we wouldn't have spent the money to recycle our construction waste (for which we paid nearly 1% of our total construction cost), and we likely would have had a larger lawn. But we're happy with the choices we've made...and it's exciting to finally have that plaque.

It WORX!

Just wanted to share the awesomeness that is our (Steve's) new WORX Trivac leaf blower/sucker/mulcher. After strong winds a couple of weeks ago, our entire yard was blanketed with leaves, and picking them up the old fashioned way was pretty tedious. The Trivac saves all of the trouble of picking up the leaves, maneuvering them into the garbage can, and packing them down into our single yard waste garbage can. (I know I sound like an infomercial -- in fact, that's where we first saw it, although it's available at regular home improvement stores -- but it's really great to have found a good way to manage the gazillion leaves that land in our yard in the fall/winter.)

Since there are two of us, it's easy enough for one of us to rake the leaves into piles before (or while) the other works the WORX. I got outside first and made these four piles (about what I thought we could fit into our garbage can, which the city picks up on garbage day and turns into compost):



Then Steve came out and started sucking:



The Trivac has a shoulder strap attached to the collection bag to take the weight off of your carrying arm.



It probably took about a minute to suck up each pile, and thanks to the mulching function, we could fit about a pile and a half into the bag before we had to stop to empty it.



I recently saw one of our neighbors using a similar leaf sucker, but it was HUGE and looked really heavy. The Trivac is easy to carry, and although the bag needs to be emptied a lot, it's a good size to unload into a regular-sized garbage can or lawn bag.

After dispensing with the first four piles, Steve turned the Trivac to the blower setting to try to make the next pile without using a rake, but it wasn't wildly successful. (It's probably easier to use the blower on a hard surface; too much got stuck in the grass.)




So I used the rake again, and we probably collected about four more piles worth. And thanks to the mulching feature, they all fit in our one average-sized garbage can!



I'm pretty sure our neighbors have noticed our frugality and wish we would just buy another so we could finish the leaf collection now, instead of having to wait until garbage day next week for the next batch.... Still, we got the leafiest parts of the front yard cleaned up, and we're probably just half a garbage can from finished for the season.



And since none of the trees are ours, well, you're welcome for cleaning up your leaves, good neighbors. (Kidding. We totally appreciate that our neighborhood is full of trees. Picking up leaves up once a year is a small price to pay for all of the benefits that we get from having so many trees around.)

30 December 2011

Work in Progress

Our great room looks like a Patios Galore showroom.



Hopefully we can wrap this up quickly. (Famous last words, I know....)

28 December 2011

It's Go Time

Tonight's the night that I get back in the saddle. Er, back in the running shoes.

To be clear, I've been running...some...but it's been short and slow and miserable. Tonight I'm going to haul myself to the track, where the Austin Runners Club has a weekly track workout (generously coached by my friend Matt). Track work is THE single best thing you can do to get faster (and I need some serious faster). In an hour or so, you can do about four miles of speed work, plus some warm-up and cool-down. I haven't been to this workout in forever, so I'm not too sure what it will consist of, but the intervals will probably be 200s up to maybe an 800 or two, at paces from perhaps mile pace (for the 200s) to 10k pace (for the 800s).

On a related note, back when I used to be really good about going to the track on my own, some of my favorite things to do were running backwards (so much harder on your quads than you expect -- it's like running straight up a big hill) and interspersing sets of five push-ups between intervals (really tough when you're out of breath, so there's something kind of awesome about having done it).

But back to tonight. It's going to be in the mid-50s -- perfect to get back into the swing of things.

And now, to drive the point home -- I'm going for a run! -- a picture of me running a few years ago.



I'm the smiling one. (But not on the inside, I assure you.)

Update: It was a relatively short one. One mile warm up, one mile cool down, and three sets of 200 sprint-100 rest (walk)-400 sprint-200 rest (walk). Less than two miles of main workout, but it was hard and it felt good(ish).

26 December 2011

Kick in the Pants

This Christmas Steve and I didn't give each other any particularly earth-shattering gifts. (That's the beauty of being a grown-up -- with a driver's license and a wallet, we can buy what we want, when we want, so there isn't much that has to wait for gift-giving occasions.) When we give each other gifts, it truly is the thought that counts (like with the cork letter I gave him for our anniversary, which cost about a dollar to make).

This Christmas, though, it was less about creative, thoughtful gifts in the traditional sense and more about just finally buying things that we've just been needing for a while but hadn't gotten around to picking up. (Um, that's "needing" in quotes...none of this was truly needed.) Anyway, that's how we ended up with...

...a WORX Trivac leaf sucker...



(like a leaf blower -- and indeed it has a leaf blower function, but we look forward to using it to suck up leaves and turn them into mulch)

...a pretty new umbrella (my old one only sort of worked)...



...that collapses up teeny-tiny...



...more memory for my computer...

...a new Hello Kitty towel for triathlons (I lost my old one at a race last season)...



...some slimy keyboard cleaner...



...an Eye-Fi wireless memory card for our camera (which automatically downloads pictures to the computer -- awesome!)...

...organizers for computer cords...



...a magnetic cord holder for Steve's iPod earphones (for running)...



...an Obihai OBi device (which lets us answer calls to our cell phone numbers on regular house phones -- even though we haven't even run phone lines to or in the house! -- saving us minutes on our prepaid phones and running across the house to grab the cell phones...

...and new spoon rest (that's a much better match to our kitchen than our old blue and white one)...



Gotta go install some software, suck up some leaves, and tidy up the computer!

25 December 2011

The Official Merry Christmas

Isn't it amazing how Christmas comes and goes so quickly? And I haven't even posted about my Christmas card mailing yet. But with about an hour and a half left of Christmas, I'm getting it in just under the wire.



Like last year, we used our Three Designing Women return address stamp (and the coordinating holiday set for the deer stamp on the back of the envelope). We used brown ink in the stamper and brown ink on the letter to tie the picture, paper, and envelope together.

The picture itself was the biggest challenge. Believe me, it was hard-fought. We started working on it the first weekend of December, but there wasn't a single sunny (weekend) day all month...until finally, last Saturday, we were able to sneak up on the sun, get the final shot, and pull the whole thing together. Here's an outtake from the first attempt, a few weeks ago, when we were starting to think we might have to settle for a cloudy sky:



Gosh, I love those guys. But given our plan to focus on the solar panels in the picture, the cloudy sky (and the way it made the panels difficult to see), that wasn't going to cut it. (We also used too high a film speed, so those takes were far too grainy.)

Then, last weekend, we caught a tiny bit of sun and rushed to catch it...without success. More cloudy sky.



But we stayed on high alert, and as the sun crept out again later in the day, we pounced. We had set the self-timer function on the camera to give us extra time to get into position and to take ten shots at a time so we could maximize our options. Still, though, there were times when it took longer to get the guys into position, leading to odd shots like these:











By the end of that third shoot, we had over a hundred sunny shots, which we narrowed down to the final picture.



Then we rushed to get the cards printed, finalized the letter, stamped and labeled the envelopes, signed, licked, sealed, and put the letters in the mail. (Read about how we use a spare photo card and letter each year to make a special keepsake here.)

Merry Christmas!

We've been working on our holiday decorations since just after Thanksgiving, and although I don't think we quite got as much done as we wanted...we're at the deadline.

So, after a few sneak peeks over the last couple of weeks, I present the very best holiday merriment we could muster.

We continued last year's Christmas card management strategy:



Some favorites from the year (man, we have photogenic friends...):











Moving along...I put some interesting multicolored mercury glass ornaments in the glass terrarium Steve gave me for my birthday (from Crate and Barrel...the kind of thing I would never have bought for myself -- at least not at full price -- but I love love LOVE):



The tree was an ongoing effort (I realized that I didn't pack up the ornaments very well last year, so finding things wasn't as easy as I would have liked). We used our Swarovski crystal ornaments and the mercury glass I picked up on clearance after Christmas last year, plus a few other coordinating ornaments.





Last night, circumstances put us way behind on dinner preparation, and since we still had a bunch of ornaments that hadn't made it onto the tree, my brother, Kevin, and his girlfriend, Jenn, added the finishing touches (an exciting first foray into tree decorating for Jenn, who is new to Christmas):



I think we have a Christmas convert on our hands.

I attempted some night photography...you be the judge of how well it turned out:



But for all of the decorating and shopping and wrapping and baking...this morning it all boiled down to this:



Quality time with the little ones....

24 December 2011

Neighborly Treats

Last year I really wanted to make cookies for our neighbors. We didn't know a ton of people yet, so I envisioned delivering a cute little bag of treats to everyone on our block (20-30 houses). Even setting aside the fact that, in retrospect, that would have been about a zillion cookies, we just weren't together enough to make it happen (for anyone, not even our favorite neighbors).

This year, with a few more neighbors we count as friends, we scaled back our plans and aimed to deliver about 8-10 little bundles of treats. They have come together over about four days, as I made gingerbread dough the first day, made the cookies the next day, made sugar cookie dough the following day, etc.

In the meantime, similar neighborly well-wishing was visited upon us. First this batch of Scottish goodies arrived (I had assumed that the husband of this couple was English, but it turns out he's Scottish. British accents are hard!):



I love the coordinating plaidware, plus the card identifying all of the foreign goodies. So far the whiskey tablets are my favorite.

Then a family a few houses down brought this over:



In addition to an adorable card full of pictures of their boys, there's some festive wintry Chex mix and cocoa with chocolate-covered peppermint swizzle sticks. Mmmm.

And yesterday I was invited to decorate cookies for Santa with my favorite little girls. They had made three bunny cookies and insisted that I decorate them as Millie, Dash, and Benny:



(I had total artistic freedom on the Christmas tree cookie.)

But back to my effort at neighborly merriment. In addition to the aforementioned gingerbread cookies (all men...couldn't find my gingerlady cookie cutter)...



...and the sugar cookies (including the obligatory bunny cookies)...



...I also made fudge (from this unbelievably easy recipe)...



...and Steve added his specialty, chocolate chip cookies:



We packed them up in cute holiday bags and took them to a handful of neighbors.



And while the whole endeavor was, obviously, more about giving than receiving, I scored lunch and some intel on a new baby on the way!

23 December 2011

Stick a Cork In (On) It

For our anniversary yesterday, I made Steve a cork initial letter to display on the great room shelves.



I've saved the corks from pretty much every bottle of wine we've ever had, which isn't a ton of corks, but some friends who are serious wine connoisseurs saved some for us for, oh, probably a couple of weeks, so we're well-stocked in the cork department. So I decided to make an initial letter for them, too.

Here's how it all went down:

I started with these particleboard letters from Hobby Lobby (about a dollar each after a 40% off coupon).



I attached the corks with a glue gun, but I dry fit them first:







Then I carefully removed the corks, one by one, and glued them in place. Some helpful hints (that I wish I had figured out sooner):

1. Have a phone on hand, ready to dial 9-1-1 when you slice a finger off. Just kidding. Sort of. Cutting the corks can get pretty dicey. Maybe there's a better way than using a bread knife (although it did make nice, even cuts).

2. There are more cuts than you probably realize. In addition to halving the ones that stick up from the letter (or, for the longer corks, cutting them shorter than half), I notched several corks to get them to fit better. Eventually I figured out that eyeballing where the cuts should go didn't cut it, and I started marking the notches with a red pen:



3. Whenever possible, make the cuts on the upper side of the lower cork so the cut is less obvious. For instance, with the corks above, I could cut a diagonal sliver off of the end of Barcelo S.A. cork, but instead I notched the Clos des Mouches cork so someone looking at the letter from below (the most likely vantage point) would see less of the cut.



4. Champagne corks are too bulky to use as-is (they would stick out a lot farther than wine corks), but cutting them in half lengthwise (in cross-section, if that makes sense) make them too short/skinny. Our wine enthusiast friends do not discriminate, so we got a fair number of champagne corks, too. I didn't anticipate using them on the letters, but the layout on the vertical part of the letter wasn't working out with regular corks, so I decided to throw in two champagne corks (and then some others worked their way into the layout as well). My first effort to cut them down failed -- they were so much shorter than the other corks, and the gaps between them were really pronounced...



...so I started over with two new champagne corks and only sliced off a sliver from each (no more than a quarter inch):



Much better.

Here are the finished letters:




Some of my favorite corks? The Saintsbury ones (in honor of the bottle we shared on our first date -- a 1998 pinor noir):





And this bunny cork my mom sent me for my birthday last year:



Other ways to use these cork letters? Trivet (greater care would have to be taken to ensure that the corks are a more regular height) or wall hanging -- or wall hanging in the kitchen that comes down for use as a trivet.