Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Home Has Quirks

I'm adjusting to a few idiosyncrasies I've discovered about my apartment. The one requiring the most attention is the moisture build-up. During the night the insides of many of the windows get covered with condensation (primarily the ones in the bedroom and laundry room, but it happens to a lesser amount in the living room too) which runs down and pools on the windowsills. So every morning I have to go and wipe it up in order to prevent massive amounts of mold. It's probably time to look into some moisture-absorbing packs of some kind. My friend Bonnie was telling me about some reusable ones that you can plug in once they are full of water, and it dehydrates them again. Anyway, in spite of the decent insulation and the modern windows in my apartment, something in the design makes them prone to large amounts of condensation, which requires attention every day. Also, the floors are freezing. Lovely flooring, but really cold! I have a suspicion that the flooring was laid directly on a concrete pad, with no insulation in between.

The lighting was another issue. I've had to buy some tall floor lamps (thank you, Ikea) to help light the living room and kitchen, because the ceiling lights were dim and the beams in the ceiling blocked the light from half the room. Then, on Sunday, the main ceiling light in the kitchen went out, so I took off the globe and found that there was only one light bulb in there, when there could have been two! I took the globes off the identical lights in the living room and bedroom, and found the same thing- HA! I walked down the street to the hardware store and got some compact fluorescent bulbs- I thought I was getting the "soft white" ones, but accidentally got the daylight spectrum, which turned out to be a happy mistake. At first I was dismayed by the bright white light (an old coworker of mine referred to those as "alien autopsy lights"), but then realized just how much more they lit up the room. The floor lamps are still necessary, but the extra daylight-spectrum bulb makes a huge difference.

So now my bedroom has gone from this:

To this:

It's SO much nicer. I was lamenting how terrible the light in my apartment was for taking pictures, and this has improved it immensely. I never use the flash anyway, because it washes everything out, and now I really don't need to. In the kitchen, you can really tell the difference in the light quality:


The curry sauce is a super easy one from Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food. I made it with some delicious chicken from a stewing hen that was cooked up in the crockpot, and found that it keeps really well as leftovers too. I made the pie on Saturday night, in a fit of late-night baking. I still had two gallon bags of frozen apple pie filling I made back in September, and one of them sprang a leak in the freezer and left an ooze of gummy sugary syrup all over the other frozen things, so I decided to go ahead and bake it up. And then realized that it takes one person (even me!) a long time to eat through an entire pie, so I ended up taking some to friends. It turned out pretty good, even if the texture of the apples wasn't as nice as with fresh ones.

The best side effect of pie-making: the little strips of leftover crust, baked up on their own with cinnamon and sugar. Yum! 

Speaking of baking, I've also discovered that my oven bakes quite a bit hotter than the one I was used to. I haven't actually charred anything yet, but my latest batch of bread came out far crustier than I would normally go for. I'll need to experiment a little bit with the timing and temperatures and modify my recipe. 

One other quirk I ran up against is funny in retrospect, although I almost had a breakdown about it at the time. The second night I lived here, I went to use the shower for the first time, and couldn't for the life of me figure out how to turn the shower on. I could tell that the water pressure and temperature were great, but it was only coming out of the tap, and there was no little tab or thing to pull or push to divert the water into the showerhead. I tried everything I could think of, and looked everywhere, and began to wonder if I had inadvertently rented an apartment that didn't have a functional shower, and that the landlord hadn't informed me of this particular fact, and got really wound up about it. It was too late at night to call him and ask, so I took a bath instead, and called the next day. He directed me to pull down on the ring around the bottom of the tap, right where the water comes out. I had tried that numerous times, and couldn't make it work. Finally the maintenance guy came and manhandled it into position. I'd never seen a shower that worked that way, although in all of my efforts I had tried it--but the fitting was so very stuck I couldn't make it budge. The first few times after that, I had to really yank on it, but by now it has loosened sufficiently that it's not an issue at all.

Really, it's a good little place, just some new things to get used to, most of which make funny stories in the end.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Bits of Green

This is the time of year when it feels like it has been winter forever and spring will never get here. Our week of nice clear weather helped, but now it seems like I can hardly remember what trees look like with leaves on them. Realistically, a month from now Portland will start to see the first signs of spring, but right now it feels like winter will stretch on forever.

Bright, spring green has been one of my favorite colors for a long time, maybe because of the promise of green growing things that I like it so much. I'm desperately missing having a yard or garden right now, so I'm happy to find my green in any form.

After a few weeks of getting used to their new home on my north-facing windowsills, my geraniums have launched into a burst of new green leaves.

What I thought was an amaryllis has turned out to be a paperwhite, and has shot right up and is not far from blooming! 

This sweet green soap dish was a thrift store find while I was moving in. 

I stopped at the community garden last week and cut a big bagful of chard, and snagged this sprig of rosemary. It helps a little with missing being able to pop out the back door and pick any of six or seven different fresh herbs to cook with. 

Thanks to an unusual amount of clear, cold weather and a daily vitamin D supplement, as well as being on my bike at least four out of seven days every week, the weather hasn't gotten to me in the same way it has in winters past, but it's still never easy. What are your tricks to coping with the gray season?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Meet my Worm Bin!

I'm absurdly excited about the latest addition to my little home: 1,000 red wiggler worms! At this apartment there is no way for me to compost, not having any outdoor spaces and not qualifying for the city's curbside food scrap collection program. I can't abide the idea of throwing biodegradable food scraps in the garbage, so I decided to do what many green-minded apartment-dwellers before me have done: set up a worm-composting bin!

I did a little internet research, and discovered that I already owned everything I needed, apart from the worms themselves. So I went to work on an old rubbermaid bin with a hammer and a big nail, making air holes according to the specifications I had read about. It made an awful racket, but, not owning a drill, this was the next best option.

I put air holes around the rim of the bin, and in the lid, and drain holes in the bottom of the bin. It sits on another non-punctured lid, which catches any liquid and keeps it off the floor.

The basic layout for a worm bin involves a layer of damp shredded newspaper, then the worms and food scraps, then a layer of drier newspaper.

I ordered my worms online, and had them shipped to my office. I only have a tiny mailbox at home, and no porch or stoop for the postman to leave a package on, and anyway it's been so cold that it would be no good for a box of worms to sit outside for even an hour or two. They have to be taken out of the package, watered and put in their new home as soon as possible, having been packed in dry peat and in the mail for three days (they came from the east coast). Since I only work part-time, I put my coworkers on alert that I was expecting a shipment of live worms (thus simultaneously horrifying them) and asked them to call me if the package turned up when I wasn't at the office. As it turned out, I got the call early on Wednesday afternoon, when I was at my field work and in the middle of my busiest day of the week, when I am going non-stop until I get out of class at 9:30 PM. So I ended up on the bus back to my office at 10 PM to pick up my new friends, and finally got them into their new home at 11 PM that night!

Wetting down the newspaper- I put more in later, turns out this wasn't a sufficient amount.

Bag o'worms

Heap o'worms! I'll admit, there was a little squeamishness involved at this particular stage. Once they're all dispersed through the bin, it's much less apparent how many of them there are!

Leaving the bin in a well-lit area for the first 24 hours encourages the worms to spread out through their new home. 

There was some weeding of the gene pool during the first couple days, as about a 15 of the worms decided to go exploring, and were later found dried to the floor (Ew. Ewewewewewew!). My sources say that this is totally normal, and that there are always a few "dummies" who don't have the sense to stay where their food is. I added a bunch more newspaper (thank you, free Portland newspapers available on many streetcorners...) on top, and that really helps to discourage them from climbing up the sides of the bin too. 

Now, whenever I have food scraps (everything besides meat or dairy, which I still have to throw away, but I don't eat much of those things anyway), I can just pull back the top layer of newspaper, stick them in, cover them back up, and the worms will get to work!

You can see all the nice dark brown castings (worm poop) stuck to everything. It makes the best fertilizer there is, once it builds up a bit. 

Sources differ as to whether it's okay to give the worms citrus, because it can throw off the pH of the bin. I eat a lot of citrus, especially in the winter, and I hate to think of it going to waste, so for now I'll keep adding it, but monitor things closely to make sure the worms stay happy. 

The bin lives under the table/island in my kitchen, where it is easily accessible for me to throw scraps in. There haven't been any escapees in three days, so I think they're settling in well, and I'm very happy to have them here!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Re-budgeting Myself, Part 2

After evaluating all my expenses in my last post, this is what I've come up with for my actual monthly budget (sans rent, utilities, and subscriptions like Netflix, which are the same constant amount every month):

Groceries: $120
This will include food, of course, but also general household supplies and hygiene items. I think I'm actually over-budgeting here- I can't really see spending more than $25 per week, but I'll give it a try this way for a couple months and then possibly reduce.

Transportation: $100
This includes the cost of bus tickets and also my use of Zipcar. I'm curious to see if I'm over-budgeting here too. It depends on my motivation- if I keep up with biking on the days when I have simple commutes, and don't need to use a car at all, costs automatically reduce...

Entertainment/Incidentals: $40
This includes going out to dinner (striving to do this two times a month at most), to movies, going to coffee shops for internet, and any shopping I do that isn't in the grocery category.

Total: $250

I'm not including in my budget any medical expenses, which are relatively unpredictable, or things like textbooks for school, which are necessary but only occur every few months. I'm also not including any out-of-town travel, which is fairly rare anyway and will have to be evaluated on a separate basis. This budget is just for those things that I purchase very regularly.

The majority of my spending on transportation will go on my credit card, to keep my credit rolling, and because that is the only way to pay for Zipcar. I'm going to try to use a cash system for all of the grocery money and entertainment money. I did this before, a few years ago, and it worked really well. Plus research backs me up- you're much less likely to spend cash than you are to put something on a card. I don't know if I'll take all $160 out of the bank at once, or if I'll take $80 out every two weeks- I'll play that by ear and see what works best.

I'm planning to implement this whole deal starting February 1st, and begin tracking the results of each category in a ledger (I have a mostly-unused one floating around anyway). Any money left over at the end of the month I will put into my savings account, or else keep to save up for a particular item (something that pops into my mind is a candy thermometer and kitchen scales to complete my outfitting for soapmaking).

In addition to my regular spending, I have my student loans to think about, and also some personal debts. I took a small loan from a friend to help with moving costs, and I owe Matt some money for utilities, upkeep of the animals ("chicken support") and a few other things. I have been making payments on my unsubsidized loans here and there, to work down the interest, but I would like to be able to pay a constant amount every month. I would like to put a chunk into savings each month too, but on my small income I'm not sure how much will be feasible right now. The main reason I need to think about saving is because after I graduate (and a short grace period), I will have a large required student loan payment every month. Hopefully around that time I will also have a bigger income, but that remains to be seen.

How do you budget? I'm curious to hear more about how other people do it. The just "trying not to spend much" hasn't worked for me, which is why I'm trying to give myself some structure. What works for you?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Re-Budgeting Myself for the New Year, Part 1

It being a fresh year, and having just spent a largish amount of money on move-in costs and setting myself up for life in my little apartment, I am continuing building my routines for 2013 by making a concerted effort to hold myself to a proper budget. Throughout 2012 I spent more than I really should have, for many reasons. Part of it was not paying attention, part of it was being stressed out and busy, and part of it was the difficulty of navigating spending in a shared household. I have never spent exorbitantly (thank you, Scottish heritage) but I have rarely managed to save money the way I would really like to. So now that I'm the only person in this, I'm going to try and give it a real shot. Soon there will be income taxes to pay, so it seems like a good season to be putting a lot of attention on finances. Thanks to Rhonda for getting me to think more deeply about this.

My first step towards getting my finances under control was to finally make the change from a big, giant, corporate monster-bank to a locally-based credit union. I will be supporting a local business, getting better management of my money, and not enabling an already-giant company to profit from my membership. I am shutting down my old savings and checking accounts and have new ones open at the credit union. I am keeping the same credit card, which gives me lovely nice dividends at REI at the end of every year.

Saturday morning breakfast (and homework)

As one person on a limited income, I could have found a shared house with roommates and spent less on rent, but I really feel the need to be captain of my own ship, as it were, for awhile. My rent is very affordable for a 1-bedroom apartment at Portland rates, and I have the benefit of paying very few utilities. I only pay for electricity, which I don't use much of anyway. My apartment has cadet-style heaters, which aren't the most efficient in the world, but I only run one of them for a few minutes in the morning and for a few again in the evening on most days. Other than that, it's mostly the stove and lights and fridge. I have my own washer and dryer, which is so rare for an apartment, but I only use the dryer if I need to dry sheets or blankets. Otherwise I hang everything on two drying racks and just air-dry them and use the dryer as storage space. I have a dishwasher but don't use it. It doesn't make much sense for one person, and by washing dishes a few times a week using the tried-and-true two-basin system, I can conserve on water, and also on electricity.

Besides electricity, I pay $35 a month for my phone. My service is Credo, which I feel good about not only because their rates are so low, but because they constantly contribute a portion of their profits to worthy progressive causes. Also, as of a few months ago, I have been a customer for 5 years and so was given 100 extra minutes per month at no charge as a thank you. So now I have far more minutes or texts than I could ever use.

New (secondhand) pretty yellow plates.

In terms of transportation, I have some complicated, multi-leg commutes (to work, then to fieldwork, then to school, then home, etc) for which I take the bus all over town, and on most "there and back again" days I ride my bike. Portland's public transportation rates are pretty steep at $2.50 for a two-hour ticket, but it's still a great service and far more affordable than owning a car. I can get a day pass for $5, and I end up spending $15-20 per week on bus tickets while I'm in school. I don't ride often enough to make buying a monthly pass worth it, so I buy books of tickets instead, which makes life easier than having to constantly dig around for change. I anticipate I will use Zipcar for just a few hours every month, at $8 per hour. Biking is free (yay!), and I am going to consider costs like bike tune-ups or replacement parts as incidentals since they don't happen on a very predictable basis (case in point: the flat I got last Monday, when I managed to ride over a giant chunk of glass on the way to work).

In terms of groceries, I already have a big supply from splitting up what Matt and I had at the house. I am set for quite awhile in terms of pasta, rice, dry beans, baking supplies, spices, canned goods, and frozen foods. My little freezer is packed full of green beans, chard, zuchinni and tomato sauce from the garden, rabbit meat, several containers of stock, a few quarts of beans that I cooked up last week, and various and sundry herbs and a few quick-meal things like frozen soup. I also have half a dozen jars of canned peaches, several pints of dilly beans left, and a couple pints of jalapeno jelly from this summer's bout of preserving. I'm set in terms of snacks and sweet things too- everyone in my life seemed compelled to give me tasty things for Christmas (no complaints here), so one entire cupboard shelf is full of chocolate bars, caramel corn, snack mixes, granola bars, and one sweet little box of hazelnut roca that was left outside my door as a housewarming gift from a friend. Mom and Dad sent me home with two winter squashes, and in addition to the big Queensland Blue that I finally cooked up (and froze half of) last week, they will keep me well squashed for awhile. I have a big paper bag full of carrots and potatoes that were stored in sand at the house, too. Overall, in terms of groceries I will really only need to buy fresh fruit and veg (mostly fruit) every week, and things like milk, eggs, cheese, and small amounts of meat. I'm going to work on changing my shopping habits so that I replenish the dry, bulk things on a smaller and regular basis, rather than doing big bulk runs every few months like I used to. I'm one person, I don't need a whole lot at a time anyway.

I don't really have any other costs- the occasional copay for a doctor's visit, some yearly fees like my Zipcar membership and community garden fee, and out-of-town travel are things that happen rarely enough that I will consider them separately from my monthly budget.

This is already a novel, so I'll work out my actual budget next time. I'm going to take a lead from Rhonda and try the cash system for most things, I think.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rebuilding my Routine

This last month has been a major time of adaptation for me. Breaking up, moving, living alone, etc.  But it's also been a time of opportunity, of being able to change some things about my lifestyle in positive ways. I'm now living alone in a little first-floor apartment, having to get used to the noise of the person living above me -sharing walls, floor/ceiling with other people has always made me super crotchety. This time, I'm determined to get used to it, deal with it, and not let it get to me so much. The more I think about it, the more I think I want to just stay put for a good period of time. I've lived in Portland for over ten years (including college), and I've lived in about 8 different places. I seem to move every year and a half or so, and also change jobs pretty regularly. I think a new personal goal of mine is to stay in this apartment for a minimum of two years. Maybe more like three. And to look for a good full-time job as soon as I have my degree, and hold that job down for a similar period of time, if not longer. The plans I used to have for the future are in smithereens, so for now I just want to keep the ground steady under my feet and have some consistency to my life for awhile, rather than continuing my somewhat itinerant ways. Stability. I'm trying to get back into a routine of sorts, and figure out what works in this new phase of my life.

Poor, sad basil plant in my eastern window with the sun blocked by a cedar hedge. Sigh.

One of my biggest lifestyle adjustments right now is not having a garden, or even a yard, or even a lot of windows. I have been so used to being able to pop outside and do some yardwork or have a walk around the garden if I get restless, but I can't do that now. My neighborhood is lovely, and there's a nice big park nearby, so walks are still possible, but I miss having the garden. In the split, I kept the community garden plot for my own, so I will still be able to grow veggies and flowers this summer. That plot is still very near my work, and about a 15-minute bike ride from my apartment. I looked into getting a plot in the community garden that is close to my place, but it has a 3-year waiting list! I have barely given a thought to garden planning yet- there was been so much else to contend with. There won't be much space, but I'll probably still start some veggies in my apartment and transplant them out, and also grow herbs and maybe some veggies in containers out on the sidewalk. That's the north side of the building though, so I'm not sure how good of a spot it will be!

My amaryllis doesn't mind the lack of sunshine. Fun to see it grow at least 1/4 inch per day.

One of my other big changes is that I got a Zipcar membership. I no longer have Matt's car to fall back on, and while I'm very happy to commute and do most errands by bus and bike, occasionally the need for a big grocery run or hauling something larger comes up, and this is a great solution. It was invaluable while moving and shopping for small items of furniture in the last couple of weeks. I paid $60 for a year's membership on the "occasional driving" plan, and used a coupon that got me $75 of free driving right off the bat. After that, it's about $8 an hour for use of a car, and there are lots of cars available close to where I live and work. Plus, it's kind of fun to drive various different types of cars, all of them lovely and new.

My pot of spearmint will move back outside once it's no longer totally freezing out. We've had some snow flurries this week- very wintery for Portland!

Now that school is back in session, my schedule is nuts again, and I'm having to plan things out carefully to make sure I have enough food with me on the days when I'm away from home for 14 hours, and that I have time to get all my schoolwork done and remember to get all my readings downloaded to my laptop while I'm at school, and so on. I'm keeping up my old habit of menu planning, but now I'm only doing it for a week at a time- I think it will give me a little more flexibility based on what ingredients I have available. Since I am not at home for lunch except on weekends, I am planning those lunches too, based on making larger dinners in order to have sufficient leftovers. I've never included lunches in my menu plans before, so we'll see how that goes. I finally got myself a slow cooker, so that's a new (and wonderful!) thing for me too- putting something on to cook in the morning before I leave, and having it ready to eat when I get home. 

In many ways it feels nice to start the new year with new routines and some big lifestyle changes. Are any of you doing similar things this year?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Internet-free at home.

I write a blog. I bank online. I use email all the time. I need internet for my schoolwork. Apart from necessity, there are many things about the internet that I love. However, I decided that I would make a fairly large change concurrent with moving into my apartment, and I no longer have internet at home. I have internet available to me for free at work, at school, and at the public libraries, and I can also run around the corner to a sweet little cafe on occasion and have a coffee and use the wireless there. It is a huge savings for me, financially - the major companies are selling their wireless internet at between $45 and $75 a month. I would have to go to a coffee shop about 15 times a month (at $3.50 a time for a drink) to come close to that amount.

It's also a huge savings mentally. One of my worst habits of the last few years has been to get sucked into the useless parts of the internet for hours on end. Internet and TV are two things over which I have very little self-control (perhaps from growing up without either), and I have wasted countless hours of my life watching inane things on YouTube or looking at Failblog. Not good. It's only been a week and a half, and already I feel like my brain is in a better place.

I am building new habits as a result of this decision. If I am at home and think of something I need to look up on the internet, I just add it to the running list I keep in my planner. Then, next time I am somewhere with internet, I look it up. Instead of checking online for the next bus arrivals, I looked up and wrote down the ID numbers of the stops nearest my place. I can call from my apartment, put in the ID number, and figure out when the next bus will arrive. The main thing I miss about having internet at home is the ability to watch movies (I was using Netflix instant play). For $7.99 a month, I added the one-DVD-at-a-time mailing service, so I still have plenty of access to movies (and a far better selection available to me than what you can get through the streaming service) in addition to what the public library has to offer.

I also have to get out of the house more- if I need to use the internet on the weekend, I have to go to the library and be surrounded by people, or to a coffee shop or to campus. If I feel I need internet at night, tough luck- I can watch a movie or read a book (or better yet, do homework) to fill my time instead. It makes me plan ahead more, and think about what things I need to get done while internet is available to me, like online readings for school, or downloading articles in PDF form so I can read them later at home. It slows me down, and I like that.

I have also noticed that now, living alone, I am more likely to pay attention to those around me when I am in public, and to actually have conversations with cashiers or people on the bus. I used to always listen to my iPod on the bus ride, and to not really talk with customer service folks at stores, but now I find myself compelled to be more engaged with those around me. I have always been a bit old-fashioned, but lately I really have hated being "plugged in." I have no desire to have a smart phone (I still have a good old flip phone, and will probably have one for as long as they keep making them)--we got along fine before internet and cell phones, and while they are both ingenious and useful inventions, just because they are available doesn't mean we need to have access to them every second of every day.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Here I Am

Here I am, finally completely moved in. I did the last of my shopping yesterday, got the last few pieces needed to set my home in order (Ikea lamps, some artwork for my bright white walls, and a coat stand...), and spent the rest of the day organizing, cleaning, and getting everything into its place. The rest of today will be spent getting my school stuff organized, notes sorted out, etc in preparation for heading back to class this week. I'm six months away from being an MPH. It's getting very exciting, and I have been looking forward to this quarter very much. I'm taking a course in public health nutrition, which is one of my key interests, and also a social epidemiology class in addition to my fieldwork with the Oregon Health Authority, which begins on Wednesday. It feels like I'm really getting started on my future, in so many ways. Also time to start studying for the giant comprehensive exam that I must take in order to graduate. I have an excellent group of friends from the program that I will be studying with, so we should all be well-prepared by the time the exam rolls around in May.

Here's a little tour of my pad:

My little bedroom, which I am calling a glorified hallway. Well, it would be, except I blocked it from being a hallway by putting the bed up against the door to the living room. The apartment is a circle, with everything connected to everything else- for being very small, it is very well laid out. I don't need much space, and there is just the right amount of storage space too. Lots of things are stored under the bed, and in the closet (which is to the right in this photo). 

 Little kitchen with my mini-stove that works great! I've decided to go with a theme of emphasizing all the wood in the apartment- wooden cupboards, wooden floors in the bedroom and living room, and my new and old wooden furniture and accents. 

Teensy laundry room between the bedroom and bathroom. You probably wouldn't believe how much stuff I've got stored in this tiny space!

Looking through the kitchen to the bathroom. I put what used to be my sewing table in the kitchen for some extra counter space. It's too low for me to actually work at, but is good for my new crock pot and storing things on.

 The dining room side of the front room. The wicker hampers hold my sewing and craft supplies. 

The study side of the front room. 

Time to go take advantage of the rest of my Sunday, and get those last chores finished up before the week begins!

Friday, January 4, 2013


Just a brief post to say I'm getting mostly settled in, most of the purchases I needed to make have been made, and I'm starting to really enjoy my apartment and the neat little space that it is. Unfortunately the light is not very good for taking good photos- there are no windows in my kitchen, so natural light is limited. My front door opens right onto the sidewalk, and my front windows are right at passerby eye-level, so I end up keeping the shades closed most of the time, which is kind of a downer, but the place is lovely otherwise.

I've always wanted one of these bamboo dish racks...now was my chance!

New bookshelf to match my desk.

And a matching bedside table, some assembly required.

Successfully assembled. 

I made the decision to not have internet at home (more on that later), so I am writing this from the little coffee shop around the corner, although hopefully my visits here will decrease once school starts and I have access to wi-fi every day when I am on campus. Time for me to run- another day of errands and organizing. I'm almost there. Three more days until school starts, and it's going to be a doozy of a quarter, but I'm actually quite excited for it. 

I hope you all are having a wonderful 2013 so far!