Monday, May 30, 2011

Air Conditioning Woes

While I was sitting here at my computer, enjoying my morning coffee and contemplating the newest LOLcats, I heard a "plunk" sound. And then another. Looking around, I didn't see anything plunking, until I noticed Horton pawing at a small puddle forming on the table. I looked up and saw this on the ceiling, directly underneath the new air handler we had installed at the end of last summer:

Hooray, a leak! I shut off the a/c immediately, and Dave investigated the area in the attic and found that the drip pan under the air handler was completely dry. So where's it coming from? Condensation where there shouldn't be any? Was something not hooked up properly? We can't really get up there, and we're not experts, so we need to call the guys who did the installation and have them take a look and try to fix it so it stops raining inside. Of course, it's Memorial Day and everything is closed, so in the best possible scenario we'll see them tomorrow, but trying to get HVAC people out during a heat wave is like... I don't know what it's like, because it's too damn hot to think, but suffice it to say we probably won't get an appointment for a week or two. I am praying we don't need to take apart the closet again to fix this.

It could be worse - the leak could have gone on all day while we were at work and we could have come home to a horrible mess. It could have leaked onto our computer equipment. Honestly, an ugly patch on the ceiling isn't the end of the world, and living in the heat for a few days won't kill us either, so I'm trying to keep some perspective. It's hard on us, though, because we keep having really rotten luck with this house and it's discouraging. We love this place, which is why we bought it, but I'm almost ready to believe the place is cursed. Between the ants and the leaks and the temperature problems, I think it's possible the house doesn't like us and wants us to leave.

Does anyone have an exorcist they'd recommend?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sonoma

Even in the rain, Sonoma was gorgeous. We stayed at a sweet little bed & breakfast place called the Sonoma Chalet, where most of the guest rooms consist of stand-alone cabins on the edges of the property.
We stayed in Sarah’s Cottage, which was set far back from the main house and fairly isolated. The d├ęcor was country-antique-eclectic, with mixed fabric patterns and odd ceramic figurines, and the walls (and floor, and ceiling) were all wood-paneled, like we were living inside a hollowed-out tree in a room decorated by someone’s Great-Aunt Mildred.

I was dismayed to see that we had no TV, because I’m so used to having something to watch, even if it’s in the background and I’m not paying attention to it. How did we pass the time? After trekking around to a bunch of wineries and finding a spot for dinner, we didn’t have a ton of evening left before going to sleep, so we opened up the beat-up Scrabble box under the coffee table and gave that a whirl. We’re not very good at Scrabble. I love word games, but I’m not good with this one, unfortunately. We decided to throw the rules out the window and use abbreviations, acronyms, and I’m pretty sure we made up a couple of words but since we didn’t have a dictionary we just went nuts.


There was a mourning-dove-filled aviary in the yard, and I was woken up at 5:30 by their soft cooing rooster impressions on both of the days we stayed there. I also saw what I think was a quail, and there were cows browsing in the field next door. The porch and garden were beautiful, and it’s really too bad it was raining, because I would have loved to sit out on one of the chairs with a cup of tea and enjoy the view. The place was lush with plants both inside and out, and it was relaxing to be surrounded by so much green.


We ate well in Sonoma. The town square is beautiful and covered with shops and restaurants of every conceivable type, and so we wandered in circles (squares?), reading menus and trying to decide what to try. The first night was good, but not good enough for me to have remembered the name of the place. I had a mushroom and roasted garlic pizza and we ended up snacking on leftovers the next day because it was so huge I couldn’t even imagine finishing it at dinner. The second night was the best meal, at the El Dorado Kitchen on the town square. We sat in the lounge area because we showed up without reservations, but the food was the same and the service was excellent. I tried the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with polenta and pickled onions, and it was beyond fabulous. It was plated all elegantly like on the cooking shows – not quite Iron Chef fancy, but definitely a nicer presentation than I ever manage at home or see at any of our regular places. It was delicious. If you are ever in Sonoma, go there!

Meanwhile, the wineries in Sonoma were wonderful and we saw a lot of them, but that’s for another post.

Jen's Library: The Hedgehog's Dilemma

The Hedgehog's Dilemma: A Tale of Obsession, Nostalgia, and the World's Most Charming Mammal
by Hugh Warwick

I know nothing about hedgehogs besides that they are small, spiky, and a friend of mine has one as a pet. His name is Hitch (the hog, not the friend) and while I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, I’ve seen him on his webcam and he’s definitely cute.

This book is by a biologist who has researched hedgehogs for quite some time and has developed an affection for them. Apparently hedgehogs are huge in the UK. Well, they themselves are still small critters, of course, but they’re quite popular and common. They’re not often pets, though – they’re wild animals who wander around in gardens and eat slugs and get squished by cars if they venture out onto the roads.

Across the Atlantic, there’s a whole Hedgehog Preservation Society, and some people are so dedicated that they've converted their homes into rehabilitation hospitals for the little guys when they’re found sick or injured. If you go by this book, most folks in the UK are in love with these animals, and frankly, I can’t see the appeal. Sure, they’re cute, but why love them and not squirrels or field mice? The author claims that hedgehogs have more distinct personalities than mice, and they’re a lot more like cats or dogs, but I don’t know how true that is. I guess maybe I could see myself putting out a hedgehog feeder if they were native to the area, the same way I put out a bird feeder for the cardinals (which ended up being a squirrel feeder for the squirrels), so I could see them more often. But they’re not native to Maryland, so their charm will remain a mystery to me. Maybe if I finally meet Hitch in person, I’ll become a convert.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Jen's Library - How to Be an American Housewife

How to Be an American Housewife
by Margaret Dilloway

Sometimes, I get a book recommendation from one of the trashy magazines left in the lab break room. This was one of those times. I can't remember if it was People magazine or US magazine, but I think it had "insider's secrets about the upcoming royal wedding" all over the front cover.

I tried very hard, while reading this novel, not to compare it to Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, one of my all-time favorite novels. To a degree, they're similar. They focus on mother-daughter relationships between Asian women (in this book they were Japanese, and Amy Tan's characters are Chinese) and their American-born daughters, and the cross-cultural conflicts as experienced by both sides. They're both good. But while the plot is interesting enough, Margaret Dilloway's characters feel flat and lifeless and predictable. It's hard to see them as anything but characters in this book, because they don't feel real enough. I'm not sure if that's because I'm comparing them to the women in Joy Luck Club, but either way, I had a hard time really enjoying the book. I finished it, and it kept my interest through the story, but it was predictable and didn't leave me with that sense of satisfaction as I shut the book at the end.

I can see why it got a good review in the magazine, because it's not a bad book., and I did enjoy it. But I feel like it's not the book it could have been. There was a lot more potential there and I wish it had gone a little deeper and given me more. Woman falls for the wrong man, repents her sins by marrying someone her family approves of, tries to adjust to a new country as an immigrant and struggles to raise her kids in America with her Japanese values. And the daughter of course doesn't understand her mother's weird old-fashioned ways and struggles with being neither Japanese enough or American enough to make anyone happy. So much to work with, but I wish it had lived up to my expectations.

My favorite part of the book was the little quotations at the start of each chapter, from a handbook issued to Japanese war brides, entitled "How to be an American Housewife". But sadly, this is also fiction. How awesome would it be to read that handbook, if it were real?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Golden Gate Bridge

I knew the bridge was huge. I mean, it's this world-famous giant orange suspension bridge, with San Francisco Bay on one side and the Pacific on the other, so you know it's not going to be a dinky little thing swaying in the breeze. But seeing it is not at all like imagining it. It even looks huge from miles away, and it positively looms as you approach it.

Driving across it, I didn't even feel like we were on a bridge. It was wide enough that it seemed like it was just a road, up really high. Yes, I realize that's essentially the definition of "bridge", but I'm bad with heights, and driving on most bridges makes me a little nervous. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore, for example. Butt clenched the entire way across, every time I've had the happy opportunity to cross it. The Golden Gate bridge didn't give me that "OMG I'm going to plummet and die" feeling. Until I tried it on foot, that is.

There was an observation area by the highway on the north side of the bridge, so we got out and enjoyed the view for a few minutes while I rustled up some courage for the big walk. The walkway is nice solid concrete, and wide enough for me to be able to stay on the roadway side of it so I wouldn't feel like I was falling off. I was surprised that the railing was so low along the edge - the big bridge in Montreal has a "cage" to keep people from jumping. Maybe they don't have as big a problem with jumpers in SF?

There were lots of other people on the bridge, and I got a good giggle out of the one girl who decided a mini and go-go boots were just the thing to wear for a windy walk - hope she was doing it on purpose, because a whole lot of people were enjoying views of her undies! We walked all the way to the first giant upright section you can see in the picture, and at that point the wind seriously picked up and I started to feel nervous, which was expressed by my death grip on the railing and my shrinking towards the ground. I kept unconsciously folding up into a crouch as I walked, like I was trying to crawl back to the car, and even though I kept catching myself and telling myself to stand up and stop being a chicken, it kept happening!


I will say that it was absolutely worth the terror, though, because it was a view and experience I'll never forget. The sun was out, the city was beautiful, I was on the Golden Gate Bridge with my husband, and that is a memory to cherish.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Punch Buggy

It didn't take long for us to notice the increased presence of VW Beetles in San Francisco. They were everywhere. This led to us quickly reverting to our most childish selves, whomping each other in the arm and giggling. After an hour or two on the roads, it was apparent that continuing in this manner would lead to suspicious and painful bruising, so we switched to a game of "poke-buggy". I'd say we averaged four pokes an hour while we were on the road.

Some of my favorite moments of the trip were when we'd both spot one at the same time and jostle in the car frantically trying to poke each other. Or arguing about whether that one is the same one we saw a few minutes ago or if it's a new one - because of course you can't double-poke on the same Beetle. When we had my cousin in front passenger seat in the car so he could give us a tour of the city, my dedicated husband reached into the back seat to attempt to poke me for a classic Beetle. Needless to say my cousin was confused. Explaining it to him probably didn't help and he likely thinks we're completely insane. But I can live with that.

I'm pretty sure we've called a poke-buggy truce now. But maybe that's just because we haven't seen one since we've gotten home.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Back from the west coast

That was a week well spent. I'll be making a few posts about the trip over the next few days, because there's too much to squash into one and I need to spend at least part of today doing laundry anyway so I can be ready to go back to (ugh) work.

San Francisco is a great city, and wine country is gorgeous (not to mention overloaded with fabulous wines). We got in on Saturday and managed to see and do so much over the course of the week that it felt like a longer vacation than it was... except that it was too short, like all vacations, in the end.

Since the time change gave us three extra hours in our day, we wanted to take a drive through the city, just to see it. The plan was to leave for Sonoma in the morning, and not be back in SF until Thursday afternoon, but when we realized how much time we had left on Saturday, it seemed silly to spend it at the hotel near the airport. We only planned on a drive-by, because we were warned about exorbitant parking rates in the touristy areas, and we didn't want to spend a ton of money just to get an hour or so in town. Well, the parking gods were smiling on us and we found street parking right near Fisherman's Wharf, so instead of a drive, we went for a walk. I know that area is designed for tourists and isn't "authentic", but I'd have felt silly about going to SF and not at least seeing it.


It was cold and cloudy and very windy, but the rain stayed away and we had a great first afternoon, walking around for an hour or two and having a snack at Boudin Bakery. SF is famous for sourdough bread, and while this particular place is a bit of a tourist trap, I think they make some damn good bread. I almost bought a little sourdough turtle, but he wouldn't have made it home uneaten. Bread is my weakness. I never net a carb I didn't love.

All we really did that afternoon was sit around for a while enjoying the view and the air. We could see Alcatraz across the water, then turn around and see the city, with the Coit tower and Transamerica pyramid poking up, with a soundtrack provided by the wind, the gulls, and the sea lions barking over at Pier 39.

Stay tuned for the wine country portion of the trip!


Friday, May 13, 2011

Surprise irises!

I found the leaves for these earlier in the spring and didn't think anything would come of them because they're in a messy overgrown area of the yard and completely choked with weeds, but look what they are now!


They're gorgeous! I'll move them later this year, so they have their own space where I can enjoy them. I'll be needing good gloves, though, because their current home is basically a bed of dandelions and poison ivy.

This yard has had so many surprises!

DIY Egg McMuffinish things

We're leaving before the sun even considers coming up tomorrow and won't really have time to think about breakfast before we have to hit the road. I know I'm never happy with just a granola bar, and stopping for fast food breakfast costs money and takes time. So tonight, I took a few minutes and I made a yummy reheatable breakfast for tomorrow!


It's the easiest thing ever - just English Muffins, eggs, ham, and cheese. It's best with nice sharp cheddar, but I only had Kraft singles on hand, which is why you see that unnatural yellow layer in my sandwiches. I fry the eggs, trying very hard to keep them restricted to a small round footprint in the frying pan so they won't flop over the sides of the English muffins later. I assume it's much easier with a silicone egg-ring, but I haven't gotten around to buying one yet since I don't make these often. I sprinkle them with salt and pepper as they cook and then I plop them onto English muffin halves. I added a few ham slices and a slice of cheese, and stuck them into a plastic container in the fridge for tomorrow morning. They only need about 25-30 seconds in the microwave to get melty and delicious.

When I'm making them for immediate eating, I heat up the ham in the pan while the egg cooks beside it, and then layer it on top. I put the cheese on top of that and let it melt a tiny bit before transferring the whole thing to an English muffin. That way everything is melty and delicious without the need for a turn in the microwave.

Jen's Library - Little Princes

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
By Conor Grennan

This falls squarely into the "couldn't put it down" category.

This guy volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal and learned that most of the children there weren't orphans at all. Apparently, there was a lot of child trafficking happening in Nepal during the civil war of the late 90s and early 2000s - fearing that their children would be recruited into the insurgents' army, poor rural parents paid people huge amounts of money to take their children out of danger and into the city, where they would be safe. Sadly, many of these children were dumped off and left homeless in Kathmandu, or sold as servants. Some were told their parents were dead, killed in the war.

When Conor Grennan discovered this sad truth, he made it his mission to find the parents of the "orphans" and give the families a chance to reunite. His story is fascinating and terrifying - hiking through the Himalayas to remote villages where nobody speaks his language and the answer to "where is the toilet" is "no", finding himself waylaid by armed insurgents demanding to know why he's there, and fighting against a powerful ring of child-traffickers in a country where the government has little power to help him.

As sad as parts of this book are, it's an inspirational and uplifting story about a man who finds his purpose in life and dozens of amazing kids who are getting their families back. He writes well, and his book is a smooth, funny, exciting story that reads almost like a blog. You're a friend and he's telling you about these awesome things he's done.

If you're interested in his story and his cause and want to learn more, his website and nonprofit organization is Next Generation Nepal. Check it out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Public Service Announcement

If you or a loved one is ever in the hospital and is scheduled for surgery, please ask your nurses and doctors whether the blood bank has an in-date specimen in case you need blood.

Most surgeries won't even be big or bad enough to need blood, and most of the time everyone's on top of things and the blood bank has a "type and screen" on surgical patients long before they make the trip down the OR hallway. But sometimes, especially when it's a patient who's been in the hospital for a few days already, they can end up on the OR table, needing blood, and the blood bank has to tell the surgeon they can't have it immediately because the old specimen is expired. Trust me, that's no fun for anybody. Least of all the poor patient.

And when I say a specimen is expired, I don't mean it's gone moldy or anything. But your body is not static. Every single unit of blood you get challenges your immune system, and increases the chances that you'll form an antibody against a foreign protein on donor cells. So we ask for a new specimen to be drawn every 3 days, so we can catch any changes and detect antibodies before we give you incompatible blood. Blood that was fine for you three days ago might not be fine for you now, if your immune system made an antibody against something in it.

Antibodies aren't necessarily a big deal. In the majority of cases, we can still find compatible blood pretty easily, but the problem is time. A normal type and screen, where we confirm blood type and screen for antibodies to red cell proteins, takes a little over 30 minutes. Once we have that done, adding on units of blood takes 5 minutes. It's really that fast - once the OR calls to ask for blood, we have it ready before the tech shows up at the door to pick it up. But in a situation with a new antibody, even the simplest work-up will take over an hour, and most of the time it's a little more involved. We have to test the plasma against a panel of known donor cells to figure out what specific antibody is present, then we have to pull units from our supply and type them for the corresponding antigen - only those that are negative for that antigen will be safe for the patient with that antibody. That can take up to a half hour. If there's more than one antibody present, the typing takes longer, and sometimes we need to ask the Red Cross reference lab to check their rare donor stash to find us some blood and send it to us, which takes hours. Once we have the right kind of units, the crossmatch itself takes 20 minutes.

Imagine trying to do that, under pressure, knowing the patient needs blood now. When we have advance notice and get the specimen early enough, we always set up extra blood on antibody patients so it's there quickly if it's needed. In a desperate situation the doctor can opt for uncrossmatched units, which can be risky, but the doctor weighs the risks of not transfusing vs the risk of the patient having a reaction, and makes that call. Obviously, we all hate the idea of uncrossmatched blood in principle, and we try to only give patients the safest blood possible after crossmatching it. So we like to avoid unnecessary surprises, like when a patient gets all the way to the operating room for a major surgery without anyone checking on the blood bank.

Be your own advocate, and ask. Worst case, you'll irritate a nurse or doctor. Best case, you'll be sure you won't get in trouble mid-surgery because the blood bank needs a couple of hours to find safe blood for you under pressure.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Mother's Day flowers

This year, we came up with the idea of buying flowers for my mother-in-law for Mother's Day - but not the kind that get delivered in a vase. I know she'd have enjoyed them a whole lot, but she had been talking about how she never gets around to fixing up her front garden. So, she and I went flower-shopping on Saturday to choose some plants for her garden, and we headed back to her place so I could do the dirty work and get them planted. When we got back, she found a box of flowers on her step, a pretty bunch of tulips sent by my brother-in-law and his wife, so I guess it's good we didn't do the same thing and look like copycats. They were really pretty, though, and I'm a little jealous - my tulips are all done and I have none left to bring inside for my table!

We tried to find a plant nursery my neighbor told me about, called "Ten Oaks", but when we finally saw the sign for it, we were blocked entry by a chained-off driveway and some construction equipment. So we took a scenic drive and ended up at a great little plant-and-produce place called Frank's - right near my usual shopping area, and I'd never known about it! They had half a dozen large greenhouses full of annuals, perennials, and vegetables, and their selection was huge. We had to get a wagon to hold everything we bought!

I was amused at how we have different favorites - she wanted dahlias and begonias and verbena (all annuals) and I was attacking the perennials section to find stuff I could plant and forget about. I managed to talk her into a perennial Dianthus and I hope she's happy with it! As is usual with my mother-in-law shopping trips, I found more for myself than for her, but that's ok. We laugh about it - if we go to the mall so I can help her find a dress, I leave with full shopping bags, but if we go shopping for me, I never find a thing.

As I build my garden, I seem to be choosing many of the same plants my mother had in her garden when I was growing up. I saw a beautiful "silver mound", and just had to have it. Because I like it, or because Mom had one? Not sure, but it's living behind the Rabbit Crossing sign now. I also bought some white Echinacea, some yellow Oenothera (evening primrose) and a yellow daylily. Oh, and a sage plant, and two Gaillardia (blanket flower), and some brilliant red verbena to fill in the gaps. I'll take some pictures when everything settles in, but this is how it looked at the end of the day:


I'm surprised at how much fun I'm having with the garden, since I loathe being dirty and I am terrified of bugs. I was on my knees in the dirt, digging holes for these plants, and had a short moment of not quite recognizing myself. But maybe it's genetic and inevitable and I'm just falling into my role in the world. Who knows. At least my backyard is starting to look good.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

What's for Dinner - Fish with tomatoes

I'm not a huge fan of fish in general, but I have discovered a way to cook it that I actually enjoy, as opposed to just tolerating it as I choke it down "for my health".

I bought a big bag of tilapia fillets at Costco, because tilapia is a pretty non-fishy fish to start with and it's easy to cook. This time I thawed the individually-wrapped fillets in the fridge overnight, but in a hurry I sometimes thaw them in a bowl of water in the sink, which takes about half an hour if I replace the cold water a couple of times.

I cut about 20 grape tomatoes in half and put them in a small oven-safe dish with pepper and olive oil, and left them in the oven for 20 minutes or so at 375, stirring them after a while. When they're soft, they're done, so put them aside for a bit while you get the fish cooked.

Meanwhile, I got the fish settled in another dish lined with foil (trust me, use the foil, or you will regret it) and smeared it with a couple of tablespoons of sundried tomato salad dressing. A tablespoon per fillet is plenty, just smear it around with your fingers, or the back of a spoon if you're squeamish. I cooked the fish according to the package directions, taking it out when there were 5 minutes left on the timer so I could top the fish with the tomatoes and put it back in.



Doing it this way produces a fish dinner that I actually look forward to. And that's saying a lot!

It's a great way to use up squishy tomatoes you find in the fridge, because they're going to get soft when you roast them anyway, so it doesn't make a difference. As long as they're not moldy, go ahead and try.

On the use of aluminum foil: I hate using foil because I feel like it's wasteful, but the one time I tried to cook this without it was disastrous and I ended up losing some of the nonstick surface of my pan. Now I use my white Corningware dishes and I line the bottom with foil to preserve my sanity and make my cleanup manageable. They sell recycled aluminum foil now, which helps me feel less guilty about using it.

Fun note: my spell check must be set to British, because it's yelling at me to change it to aluminium. And.... now I have the Barenaked Ladies song in my head. Enjoy!

Monday, May 02, 2011

Jen's Library - The Complete Tightwad Gazette

The Complete Tightwad Gazette - Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle
By Amy Dacyczyn

A good friend lent me this book when I mentioned that I was trying to grow my own tomatoes, learning how to do home improvement stuff on my own, and cutting back on unnecessary expenses to save money for the aforementioned home improvement projects. She said "Have I got a book for you!" and she brought it along the next time we met for coffee, which, incidentally, is a necessary expense since Panera Bread dates with my friend are good for my mental health and cheaper than therapy.

The author, who is apparently known as the "Frugal Zealot", published a series of Tightwad newsletters in the 1990s, helping people save money with a series of tips and advice. This huge book is a compilation of all of her articles and it's taken me forever to read, but that's mostly because I'm taking notes on the good parts. Some of it is incredibly outdated and makes me smile - like when she suggests a place to buy a certain product, and gives you a mail-order address so you can write to the store with your order. I wonder what a store would do with such a letter now? I bet they'd be a little confused.

There's a lot of sensible advice in here, both about basic rules for not living beyond your means, and about ways to cut corners where it doesn't matter, and to make the most of what you have. the beauty of this book is that you can just take away from it whatever will work for you and ignore the rest. I won't be making tomato soup from tomato paste and evaporated milk, but I plan on putting up a clothesline in my yard or sunroom, and I love the ideas for simplifying Christmas and other holidays with homemade and/or edible gifts, because most people don't need a ton more stuff to deal with.

Her emphasis is on preventing expenses by taking very good care of what you already have, and keeping an organized inventory so you don't go out buying duplicates when you can't find something. She's also incredibly anti-waste, and has ideas for making old clothes into potholders or shopping bags - after they've been worn to death and handed down to everyone possible, of course. She advocates shopping at yard sales instead of buying new things, and using every last crumb of food in the house so you aren't throwing anything away. I think her best suggestion is making a price book to compare staples at the stores you usually shop at, so you can figure out when and where you should stock up on butter. I think I should do that, because I recently noticed that the pasta sauce we like is much cheaper at Target, but cake mixes are cheaper at Giant (when they're on sale) and it's hard to keep track of what's cheaper where, which leads to me just getting everything in one spot because it's convenient, even if it costs more. I wish I had a fancy smart phone and an app for that, but I'm thinking the 15c savings on pudding won't really justify the expense of a fancy 4G phone contract.

It's hit-or-miss, for me, because some of the ideas are beyond cheap. I won't be shredding used mylar balloons to make streamers, and I don't plan on buying my whole wardrobe at yard sales. And because I'm a shy type, the best tip of all is very difficult for me to put into practice - the "just ask" technique. You see someone throwing out shoeboxes and you need some for storage? Ask for them. The worst they can say is no, right? Or if you need a new printer, put the word out amongst your friends, so if anyone hears about one on a huge sale, or one someone's getting rid of, the information can make it back to you.

I don't think I'll be rolling in dough after reading this, but it's full of great ideas and some of it is actually very useful. The hard part is getting past the "cheap" stigma and deciding there's nothing wrong with sticking soap slivers together to get some more use out of them, or buying your dining room table used on Craigslist.