Monday, June 21, 2010

A Forest in the Bedroom

This was my first ever stencil project, but it worked out beautifully. It sort of looks like wallpaper... but I can't afford the wallpapers I love, and I cringe a little at the thought of taking it down again when I get tired of it. It just seemed a lot simpler to paint what I wanted.

This Ansel Adams print of aspens has stuck in my mind since the first time I saw it. I think it would be incredibly calming to wake up to a forest every morning.

This is a doodle I did in my sketchpad during a long, drawn-out faculty meeting.

There are a couple readymade stencils out there. This is one by Cutting Edge Stencils has a bit too much detail for my taste... and it is only 48 inches high, so I was afraid there would be an obvious line in the middle of my wall. And, I wanted to paint the negative spaces between the trees, not the trees themselves. The Stencil Library has one that is larger and paints the negative spaces, but once again, it is too busy, I wanted a simpler design. And, the wall size size stencil... which is enormous... is 140 euros.

I decided to make my own. I found this plastic posterboard at the local craft store, and it is just the perfect material for making a stencil. Blank stencils only came in a tiny 10x10 sheet, but the plastic posterboard is 22x28 inches. I taped a couple sheets together with packing tape to make a 44x28 inch sheet.

I drew with a dry erase marker, so that I could just rub away a line and redraw it. I drew the lines freehand, without a ruler, so that they would have an organic character.

I cut out the space between the trees with a small boxcutter knife.

So there are my supplies... a 4 inch foam roller, a regular paint tray, paint stirrer and an opener for the paint can.

I decided to use Sherwin Williams Translucent Metallic Technique Finish. They're actually discontinuing this paint, so I got it on clearance for $5!! But they say they have a replacement metallic paint, so if they are out of this one they can probably still help you out. Lowes also carries a metallic paint, but they wouldn't give me a sample, and there is all this oddness about the fact that their metallics need to be paired with other colors... so I decided to pass on $20 for a little can that I wasn't sure would work.

Since this is the first time I've ever stenciled, I decided to try it out on a piece of brown craft paper.

When you're stenciling with a foam roller, you want to load it up so that the entire roller gets an even coating, then squeeze most of the paint out of the roller by rolling it back and forth along the ridges of the paint tray. You roller should be almost dry.

Peel the stencil away, and there it is! Perfect!

I'm glad I did a test, because I ended up changing a few things. My initial idea was to stencil the bottom of the wall, then the top. But I decided there was no way that was going to look seamless. So I made my stencil twice as large. I used 4 sheets of plastic posterboard, and my finished stencil was 88 inches tall and 28 inches wide. The wall is actually about 102 inches high.

But it actually worked out that the stencil was smaller than the wall for two reasons. First, there was a radiator in the way along part of the wall. And more importantly, the extra room at the top of the wall gave me space to use lots of painters tape to hold the stencil in place. I had planned to use Scotch Repositionable Adhesive, but my stencil was just to large and heavy for that to work. Instead, I used lots of painter's tape, and the tape actually became extensions of the trees at the top and bottom of the stencil. Sometimes I even made an extra branch with tape.

BTW, I painted the wall a few days ago with two coats of Behr Premium Plus Ultra, in a gray-blue color ("Windsurf"), in Eggshell finish.

Here is the finished wall. I even went over the doorframe.

Okay, so it is a little frivolous to stencil a closet... but isn't it romantic to have a forest behind your clothes? It reminds me of the C.S. Lewis's wardobe that lead to Narnia. And I was on a roll, it only took another 45 minutes to complete.

Home Made Yogurt

Ever since I started making yogurt, I just can't eat store bought yogurt anymore. The yogurt I make at home is tart, fresh, and has a consistency like pudding... I just can't find any that yummy in the store! Here's how I make it...

I start with a half-gallon of organic milk. My current favorite is 2% because it has just enough fat to give it consistency without heaviness, but both whole and skim milk work fine, too. I heat it up to just below scalding (between 150 and 200 degrees F). Lots of people say you can skip this step, but I find that I get more consistent results when I heat it up past 150, it kills any residual beasties so that the yogurt cultures can go to work! Then I let the milk cool down to 115-120 degrees F. Any warmer and you risk killing your yogurt culture. If it is too cool the cultures will take longer to get to work.

While you're waiting for the milk to cool, you can get your jars ready. I like to use 500 ml canning jars. I think the jars that come with yogurt makers are too small... I like to have room to add a heaping pile of fresh fruit, and still have a hearty serving of yogurt. The canning jars are practically indestructible-- I take them to work for lunch on a regular basis, and haven't broken one yet. They're also great for other lunch items, and I love that they are all glass (no questionable plastics to leach chemicals), they almost never leak, and you can replace the lids when they get grimy.

You don't really need things to be sterile to make yogurt, just clean. But I hate being disappointed by a bad batch of yogurt, so I err on the side of overly clean. Since the lids have all sorts of little ridges that are hard to wash, I drop them in a pot with an inch or two of water, and steam them.

So when your milk is between 115 and 120 degrees F, you're ready to make yogurt. Skim off the skin on the top of the milk. I tried once to mix it in... bad idea. It just broke up into pieces, and there were little papery pieces of it all throughout the yogurt! Definitely skim it off, and discard.

Then, pour off a cup or so of milk into a small bowl, and add a heaping teaspoon of your favorite yogurt to be your culture. I use Fage greek yogurt, because I love the texture of it. The finished product isn't exactly like the greek yogurt because I don't strain it (I plan to try that someday!) but it is still pudding-like, not slimy like some other yogurts. You can freeze the rest of the starter to use in another batch, or you can just eat it! You can also use some of a previous batch of yogurt, but tend to forget to leave any behind. I'd rather start with an uncontaminated culture, anyway.

Add the one cup of milk that has the starter in it back into the main batch of milk, and stir well.

Pour the mix of milk and yogurt into your jars. I use 6 or 8 jars, depending on how large of a serving I want to make.

My filled jars. Now all you need to do is find somewhere warm and quiet to let the yogurt cultures do their work for 8 hours or so.

Dala is checking out my system. I use a styrofoam cooler-- the kind that drug companies use to send temperature-sensitive pills to patients-- and a heating pad on LOW. Many people suggest using an oven with the pilot light on, but I found that mine didn't keep my yogurt warm enough.

Here's the hard part-- wait for 8 hours! Sometimes I start my yogurt at night, and then it is done in the morning. The longer you let it culture, the more tart and firm your yogurt will be. Within reason... things start to get a little odd past 10 hours. If you like mild, soft yogurt, you can try 4 or 6 hours.

Here's the finished yogurt. The whey has separated and is on top, and the yogurt is nice and firm.

You can eat it right away-- there is nothing like warm, fresh yogurt. But if you plan to save them for a later date, refrigerate immediately. The yogurt will get even firmer in the fridge. I find that my unopened jars will keep for weeks in the fridge. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Filing the First Time Homebuyer's Credit

I've been procrastinating on this one, big time. I hate even thinking about taxes-- even when I know I'm getting money back. I even thought about paying someone to do this for me, but I figured it can't be that hard, and I want my full $8,000! But I just did it, and it's not that bad, really. Here's how I did it, step by step. By the way, I'm clearly a first time homebuyer, and I was in contract before April 30, 2010, and closed in May, 2010. I decided to file the credit as an amendment to my 2009 return.

1) I dug up a copy of my 2009 tax return. That was pretty easy-- I efiled with Turbotax, so the PDF was right on my computer.

2) I found the envelope with all of my closing documents, that my lawyer handed to me after the closing. I know this is totally negligent-- it's been floating around on the backseat of my car since my closing, almost a month ago! I'm going to file it away properly right after I finish this, I promise. The form you'll need is the HUD-1 form-- which, thankfully, was clearly titled and happily sandwiched away among all sorts of other incomprehensible documents.

3) I needed two forms from the IRS website: the 5405 and the 1040x. I printed out the forms, and downloaded the PDF instructions (i1040x) and (i5405), just in case.

4) Filling out the 5405 was really easy. Answer the questions, find your purchase price (it's on the HUD-1), enter your "modified adjusted gross income" from your 2009 return, make some calculations, which happily add up to an $8000 credit!

5) Next, fill out the 1040x. A little more complicated, but not so bad, if you have your 2009 return in front of you. Basically, it asks you to re-enter a bunch of the number from your 2009 return. Then on line 14, you get to check the box next to 5405 (which you just filled out) and enter your $8000 credit. And if you got all the numbers right, it all adds up to an $8000 credit in the end.

6) So in reading the directions, I discovered there is one more document you want to include-- your original contract, which shows you were under contract before April 30th.

7) Then, you just put everything in an envelope-- the 1040x, the 5405, a copy of your HUD-1 and a copy of your contract (if you closed after April 30, 2010) and mail it to the IRS. The mailing address is on page 5 of the 1040x instructions. Why they can't put it on the form, or at the end of the instructions, I have no idea...

Hopefully I'll get a check in awhile... the directions say 8-12 weeks, but I've heard that it can take up to 4 months.

My disclaimer: I'm definitely not an expert on taxes-- I'm just sharing my own experiences!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Craigslist Scam!

I've been trying to rent out the upstairs apartment in the house to make up for the lost June and July rent. I've had some interest, and I thought I had found a great couple who wanted to use it for a long weekend during a vacation to the US:

My name is Bob Draper,I will like to know if my Wife and i can spend 3 nights at your place.We will like to know if you have July 7 to 10 available.I will like you to get back to me with the cost and availability.


Sounds good, doesn't it? So I emailed him back, we negotiated a price, he asked for more details and I sent him a loooong email describing the apartment in detail. Then I get this email:

How are you today,i am happy to inform you that the payment has been sent to you and will deliver to you soon.I was informed that our travelling funds was included to the money that was sent to you for booking and this was supposed to come in a different check that was supposed to go to our travel agent.But since it has been sent,as soon as you get the check,i will like you to deduct the full cost for the booking and get the excess money to our agent and due to the short time before our arrival,i will like you to send the money to the agent through Western Union so that she can do all neccesary things pending the time of our arrival.I hope you understand this and we can be able to depend on you.


At the words "excess money" and "Western Union" my scam-radar went off the charts! It goes without saying that I put an immediate end to communications with this individual. But it piqued my curiosity... how exactly does anyone make money off of a scheme like this? The best I can figure is that he would have sent a fake cashier's check, and apparently some banks will cash these and then hold you liable later when they are discovered as frauds. I guess the schemers hope it will all come down on you long after you have wired them funds. It's still sort of baffling to me that anyone falls for these things...