Murder Among the Geraniums

Murder Among the Geraniums

Last summer on my terrace, bugs murdered a lovely, overflowing plant of geraniums — don’t ask me how — only days after I brought it home. I suspect budworms were the culprits since they immediately attacked my next pot of geraniums, subjecting it to a much slower death. First they gobbled up all the tiny flower buds, stealthily destroying them from the inside out. Next they stuffed themselves silly decimating every single geranium blossom, while simultaneously chowing down on the plant leaves, leaving behind only a few pathetic, stripped leaf skeletons.

Surrounded by numerous tall apartment houses with MANY windows, I had no doubt numerous neighbors had witnessed my ineptitude in the plant kingdom. Not looking forward to being dubbed the neighborhood plant killer, I prepared a three pronged attack for dealing with the pests this summer.  Unfortunately my newest geranium purchase happened BEFORE my research, which informed me budworms had become such a raging scourge in the northeast, many gardeners have totally dispensed with growing the bug’s favorite targets — petunias and geraniums. Swell. Although the worms, which turn into large, fat green caterpillars, apparently also have the hots, though not so passionate, for plenty of other flower species too.

But this time when I purchased my new plant I had at least spoken to the grower about my pest problems. His solution? Beer. Works every time, he claimed. So following his advice, I placed a small shallow dish of beer in the planter on top of the soil. So far, at refilling time all I’ve seen in the dish are a dead fly, some unidentifiable fuzzy white things and small black streaks that could be either soil or extremely skinny budworm corpses.

If the beer fails to eradicate the budworms, my next move will be to concoct a “ruthless murder spray” of garlic, chili peppers, vegetable oil, detergent and water.

And if THAT odiferous brew fails to bring the budworms down, it will be on to Plan Three, which entails taking out my wallet and plunking down greenbacks for an organic pesticide called BT. As it happens, this product also has its tricky side. More than just whiffing the BT spray, the bugs must actually eat the stuff. So it must be applied early, before the budworms begin their drilling-and-disappearing-into-the-flower-buds routine.

And how’s your bug situation these days? Dealt with any troublesome critters of your own this summer?

When Does an Internship Become a Slave Ship?

Internships don’t usually come with position titles, so the ad on Craig’s List for an Intern – Gallery Photographer and PhotoShop Editor, caught my eye. The internship called for a student who owned and was an adept user of a DSLR camera with on-board flash. This pricey piece of equipment would have set any student back at least $600 to $3000 in the lower price range. Additionally, the job required good digital photo editing skills and the availability to work 8 to 12 hours a week for 8 weeks or more.

The intern’s job duties entailed photographing numerous antiques (with the intern’s OWN CAMERA), editing and retouching the photos, then uploading them to websites where the antiques were to be sold. Rather than assisting, the intern would essentially be doing the exact same work as a professional photographer, retoucher, editor and digital production team whose services could easily total many thousands of dollars for this kind of job. The intern, on the other hand, was to be paid the exultant sum of zip-zilch-nada. Actually it was more like MINUS zip-zilch-nada, since the employer made no mention of paying the intern’s expenses. Assuming the intern worked three days a week for 8 weeks, the transportation tab alone could total a minimum $120.00. Tack on the cost of camera batteries, memory cards and that intern was about to PAY up to $300 bucks for the privilege of saving that antique broker a huge hunk of money.

But hold on, you say, what about the professional experience the intern would receive? Along with the portfolio boost of published photos and online exposure to potential clients?  Yes, the ad also pointed out these advantages — along with words that are magic to a beginning photographer: “Full Photo Credit.” Curious, I visited the employer’s website and there — Among zillions of small, crowded photos of antiques — not a single photo credit was visible. Of course the employer hadn’t specified a “visible” photo credit, so a photo credit could certainly have been buried deep somewhere inside the text.

As to the style and quality of the photos — they appeared to be strictly low-end, catalog shots. The lighting in all the photos was identical and every antique was silhouetted against an identical white background. So not only would a photographer’s skill and style not be further developed on this job, they could easily be set back some.

Nor did any other of the usual advantages of internships — like networking and learning from experts in one’s field of interest — appear to apply here. Because the intern was going to be working pretty much alone, taking the photos and editing them (on a slow, cheap version of PhotoShop, it turned out, known to crash a lot), there would be few, if any, people to network with. And with no other photographer on the scene, let alone one with expert ability and experience, the intern would have no mentor to help sharpen photo skills.

From where I sit, it looked like this employer was taking advantage of a tight, super-competitive job and intern market. What do you think?

Delicious One Dish Meals for a Song!

Delicious One Dish Meals for a Song!
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I like to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible, so economical one dish meals are by far my favorite to cook. My ideal recipes contain three key ingredients: a protein, a carb and veggies. Also required is simplicity. I want to get that grub together in that pot one two three and I don’t want to run all over town searching for ingredients. I also want plenty left over to freeze for additional meals. The icing on the cake, of course, is ending up with only one main pot to clean.

Here are five recipes that hit my culinary spot. Their ingredients may be simple, but their combined textures and flavors are full bodied and heartily satisfying:

Beef and veggie stir-fry: Southern Living~ Featuring a colorful combo of veggies: asparagus, carrots, bell pepper, mushrooms and scallions and flavored with garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce, this stir fry meal takes only minutes to cook. Served over rice, it’s also versatile. You can substitute your favorite veggies or even omit the meat if that’s your pleasure. Unlike restaurant take-out, you can be assured all the ingredients are of super quality and prepared with your own high standards of care and attention.

Lentil stew with butternut squash: Good Housekeeping ~ Around since Neolithic times (don’t ask me the date, but it sounds like forever), super economical and healthy, lentils are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.They’re also an excellent source of protein and dietary Fiber. This stew paired with butternut squash, another healthy heavyweight, packs a powerhouse nutritional punch. The only herb called for is 1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary. While it does have Romano cheese shavings for zing, I’d sample it for flavor and if it seems a little too tame I’d add some additional favorite herbs — maybe thyme, basil or cumin — a bit at a time. Not having a slow cooker, I’d simmer this on the burner and start testing it for tenderness after about 30 or 40 minutes.

Potato, sausage and kale frittata: Food and Wine ~ This gem of a recipe can be put together, cooked and brought to the table in 30 breezy minutes. Bursting with the protein of both eggs and sausages, it also incorporates potatoes for stick to the ribs carbs along with kale for a gutsy veggie. Parmesan cheese adds a pop of flavor. This is one of those rare satisfying meals that seems both light and robust at the same time.

Skillet lasagna: Food Network ~ This dish appeals to me for 2 big reasons. I adore lasagna, but rarely use my oven (it’s a pain taking out and replacing all my pots and pans every time I use it) so employing a skillet to cook lasagna on top of the stove has my name written all over it. I see the recipe calls for fresh tomatoes which might be a little tricky in the winter, so if it were me I might substitute canned tomatoes or (let me whisper here) prepared tomato sauce. Because the ingredients are all yummy to begin with, I can’t imagine even a neophyte cook messing up this one.

Short ribs, carrots, leeks and rice with lime: Robin Miller ~ If you’re looking for a perfect winter night meal, this hearty dish of slow-cooked braised ribs, carrots and leeks simmered with sherry, honey, garlic and ginger over brown rice is the ticket. Cooking can be done either in a crock pot or if your kitchen is bereft of that appliance, in a dutch oven on top of the stove which will take about half the time — three or four hours. The brown rice calls for the painless instant variety and the lime zest is a snappy flavor addition.

20 Lowest Sales Taxes in USA

Before exploring the country’s lowest sales taxes, I always assumed New York was the primary sales tax monster, hitting us up for 8.875% sales tax* every time we New Yawkas made a purchase. But lo and behold, another state turns out to be an even bigger tax biter: the gentle state of Tennessee charges its southern citizens a whopping 9.41% combined state and local sales tax, the highest in the country.

Of the 20 lowest sales taxes in the U.S., the residents of five states are fortunate enough to be charged zero state sales tax. But of those five states, two charge local sales tax which leaves only three, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon, with a combined state and local sales tax of absolutely zero. If you live in any of these three states and decide to purchase some new furniture for $3,000 bucks you will not have to tack on a penny for sales tax. But if you buy that same furniture in pricey Tennessee, you’ll have to cough up a whopping $282.30 to cover the sales tax bill. Quite a difference, especially if you’re on a super-tight budget, retired or thinking of furnishing an entire new home.

One reason why Alaska has a zero state sales tax rate (though it charges a local 2.15% sales tax) is Oil. Companies happily enrich the state coffers for the privilege of drilling for the stuff.

Combined State and Local Sales Tax Rates from Tax Foundation (September 2009)

  1. 0%       Montana
  2. 0%       New Hampshire
  3. 0%       Oregon
  4. 1.13%  Alaska
  5. 1.92%  Delaware
  6. 4.38%  Hawaii
  7. 5.00%  Maine
  8. 5.00%  Virginia
  9. 5.38%  Wyoming
  10. 5.42%  Wisconsin
  11. 5.52%  South Dakota
  12. 6.00%  Connecticut
  13. 6.00%  Idaho
  14. 6.00%  Kentucky
  15. 6.00%  Maryland
  16. 6.00%  Michigan
  17. 6.00%  North Dakota
  18. 6.00%  Vermont
  19. 6.00%  West Virginia
  20. 6.15%  Alabama

Check out Tax Foundation for the ranking of every state’s combined state and local sales tax rates.

* Includes 3/8% for the benefit of the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District.

Phooey to New Year’s Resolutions and Goals

Phooey to New Year’s Resolutions and Goals

I’m not keen on celebrating New Year’s Eve in public places with raucous crowds, revelers determined to have a BIG night, dining room prices jacked up to the ceiling and food poorly prepared thanks to over-worked, over-steamed chefs. To this, add wobbly merrymakers weaving through the city on their way to getting blotto and it’s definitely not my idea of a fun way to start the New Year.

As for the New Year’s Resolution Bandwagon, I’ll give it a pass. I’m less than thrilled at being informed NOW is the time to sum up the past year. NOW is the time to set goals for the New Year. Who says? To me New Years Day and the next day are interchangeable. As are Valentine’s Day and Halloween and Ground Hog Day. The only difference between them is a date written on a calendar. So why make resolutions at the exact same time every year just because the community at large and a bunch of articles are saying it’s the time to do so. Why can’t resolutions be made any old time of the year?  If you’re living and thinking at your fullest every day, you’re probably making resolutions and setting goals left and right all along. Ideally I am.

Still, as we wave Sayonara to 2010, I happily sense positive vibrations rolling our way. For months the economy and the stock market have been bubbling northward, something we haven’t seen for quite awhile. Hopefully 2010 washed away the last of bad feelings about bleak, black 2008. We’re finally past all those tankers of red ink and sinking financial ships.  We’ve started peeking over the barricades, looking to see what’s coming up the road and maybe even thinking about loosening up our purse strings.

So bring on 2011. Don’t know about you, but after austerity’s extended gray stay with us, I’m ready to rumble. Aren’t you?

Sweet Potatoes – Numero Uno over Potatoes!

How many pesticides do you consume in a day? If you eat potatoes, instead of sweet potatoes, you chomp on lots more of these nasty chemicals. In fact potatoes contain so many pesticides (the EPA lists 90 for spuds) that removal of the skin, where the contaminants mostly hang out, is recommended. In an EWG list of the “Dirty Dozen” vegetables and fruits MOST contaminated with pesticides, potatoes come in at number 11.  In a superior list of the “Clean 15” LEAST contaminated veggies and fruits, sweet potatoes are at number 14.

On top of this, guess which one of the two veggies ranks number one in the nutrition department?  Yep, sweet potatoes. Based on a system of points given by CSPI for dietary fiber, natural sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals and after deducting points for fat content, sodium and cholesterol, sweet potatoes score a whopping 184 points. This is FULL 100 points over the next nutritious vegetable, making sweet potatoes the undisputed Ruler of the healthful vegetable kingdom.

A 6-oz. sweet potato contains 214 calories.  With its’ super high nutrient value, it’s considered a beneficial substitute for starches and carbs and is recommended in three popular diets: the Atkins, Sugar Busters and South Beach Diets.

And when it come to comparing the taste of the two veggies, a baked sweet potato is delicious on its’ own, unlike a potato that cries out for the oomph and extra flavor of high calorie butter or sour cream.

Though potatoes in big sacks do have the edge on lower cost, the two root vegetables are pretty budget friendly.

Traveling both sweet and savory routes, cooked sweet potatoes also star in far more versatile dishes than potatoes. In the Epicurious recipe collection below, the Roasted Spiced Chicken with Cinnamon- and Honey-Glazed Sweet Potatoes sounds like a flavorful combo. Ditto for Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Onions with Rosemary and Parmesan. In the Atlantic’s 9 Sweet Potato Recipes, Sweet Potato Fries (actually baked) with Thyme, Parsley, and Garlic could be a winner for both meals and snacks. Among the yummy Sweet Potato Dessert Recipes are some pies that make my mouth water. Though I have been hearing about their luscious appeal for ages, I still have never tasted a sweet potato pie — an oversight I hope soon to correct.

Moving to NYC: Plum Job, Tiny Salary and a Flasher

Moving to NYC: Plum Job, Tiny Salary and a Flasher

When I first moved to New York City I had a job at Harper’s Bazaar that paid a salary in the pitiful peanut range.  But thanks to miniscule living expenses, I had plenty of cash to splash around on eating out, weekend trips and all around fun stuff. I shared the rent on a two room, kitchen-in-the-living-room, fourth floor walk-up apartment with two, sometimes three, roommates in Greenwich Village.

So stoked was I about landing a plum job and finally moving to the big city that I slept every night without complaint on a rickety cot beneath a window with a wide open shade.  With the torpid heat that summer, we only pulled down the bedroom window shade when dressing.  We had no air conditioner and the coolest spots in the apartment were at the windows.  But sitting in a window seat facing the street had turned into a tricky proposition.  Directly across the street from us lived a pale, shadowy, hard-to-guess-age-guy who rarely left his small one room. Dressed in frowsy, shapeless old shorts, he always seemed to be fluttering around his windows so I thought of him as Moth-man. He had taken an acute interest in our apartment to the tune of flashing one of my roommates when she had been home alone. Not wanting a repeat performance in my memory bank, I rarely looked in his sleazy direction.

With everyone in the apartment now pretending he didn’t exist, the flasher, bereft of attention, started printing poster board signs with juvenile salutations and his phone number and flapping them in our direction. Still new to the city and all its dazzling enticements, my roommates and I barely noticed, rating him pretty much at the bottom of our interests.

That changed, however, when we arrived home one evening and discovered he had crossed the street, entered our locked lobby without a key and somehow got a note into our mailbox. On it was his name, phone number and a super-sleazo invitation to get together. Now having entered Creepy-land, we called the police. That night two amiable young detectives showed up and informed us that there was nothing they could do unless he was caught committing some unlawful act. As for the flashing — they needed witnesses for an arrest. Perhaps, they suggested he could be enticed into flashing while they were there. Our most outgoing roommate jumped right in and offered to stage the scene.  A few minutes later, she strolled into the bedroom and started opening drawers and removing clothes from the closet as though preparing to undress, leaving the shade wide open to give Moth-man an unobstructed view. With the detectives hiding below the windows, my other roommate and I checked Moth-man’s reaction out of the corners of our eyes. Though clearly interested, he made no move suggestive or otherwise. As a further enticement, the detective suggested our femme fatal remove her shirt. Which she did. Still no action from across the street. Then, for the first time that summer, as though somehow alerted the police were watching him, Moth-man suddenly pulled his window shades down.

On their way out, the detectives said they were going to pay him a quick visit on their way downtown. Conveniently for us, Moth-man hadn’t lowered his window shades all the way down so we had a ringside seat of his bare white legs nonchalantly walking across his room to answer the detective’s knock at his door.  Four trousered legs advanced into the room as Moth-man’s legs, stiff and tense, suddenly backed quickly away. We couldn’t see anyone’s face nor hear what the detectives were saying, but whatever they were saying was causing Moth-man’s movements to get jerkier and more agitated by the second.

A few minutes later the detective’s legs vanished from the room. Almost immediately the shades were slammed down all the way and the room went dark. The next day when we got home from work and looked across the street, Moth-man’s room was empty. We never saw him again.

Have you also had an offbeat first apartment situation?  I’d love to hear about it.

Shampoo Your Hands – Spare Your Cash

You can’t wash your hands with anything cheaper than bar soap. But ick – that slimy soap scum floating in the soap dish. If you’re a clean freak and get some kind of kick out of removing that scum on a daily basis, then okay – stick with your bar soap. If, however, household cleaning of any sort is something you endeavor to do as little as possible, consider instead washing your hands with an inexpensive – and much neater – alternative. Shampoo!

In place of far more costly liquid hand soap, I’ve been washing my hands with shampoo for years now. And if you buy 15 or 16 ounces of shampoo on sale for less than a dollar, as I always do, you’ll be paying less than half the price of liquid hand soap.

The other plus along with saving money is the great selection of fragrances. Partial to coconut, I also like aloe and almond. I was surprised to discover that shampoo is easy on the skin too. Normally I buy a moisturizing shampoo, both for my scalp and mitts. This seems to contain just enough moisturizer to keep my hands from drying out, yet not so much it leaves them feeling sticky.

Shampoo also appears to cleanse hands every bit as thoroughly as soap. And, living in New York City with its’ over the top energy and who knows how many strains of world class germs and oddball bacteria lurking on every block, bus and subway, I wash my hands a lot. So far, nothing I have heard or read contradicts shampoo’s effectiveness at removing these big city germs.

To those who claim washing hands with anti-bacterial soap is superior for removing bacteria, I’ve heard Dr. Oz (an Oprah favorite) claim that isn’t so. Our bodies are covered, he said, with good and bad bacteria and the anti-bacterial soap unfortunately removes all the good bacteria with the bad. And we need that good bacteria to constantly battle the bad.

So spritz some nice smelling shampoo into your hands and give it a lather. Your nose, good bacteria and piggy bank will thank you.

Scouting the Thrifts for Gems

Scouting the Thrifts for Gems

When I was a fashion illustrator, one of my models, looking as usual like a million bucks, told me that she usually shopped for clothes in thrift shops. With that knockout recommendation, I finally ventured into a Goodwill thrift store in my neighborhood, plucked a navy blue Christian Dior blazer with a $6.00 price tag off a jam packed clothes rack and silently yelled “WOW”!

Shown here are some of the goodies I have unearthed in thrift shops over the years — some brand new, some barely used:

  • Bracelets fashioned of vary-colored twisted metals – more refined versions of bracelets I saw in African markets. $2.00 each.
  • One of three different Portuguese hand painted dishes that hang on my kitchen wall. $3.00.
  • White cotton shower curtain sprinkled with multi-colored flowers in original package. $4.00.
  • A box of coasters From the Museum of Metropolitan Art – a steal at a tiny fraction of their original cost.

At neighborhood thrift shops I have also been lucky to find:

  • A blazing red Bognor ski jacket that kept me toasty warm against the iciest winds on walks around the reservoir. $8.00.
  • Glass candlesticks embedded with hand blown teardrops: $6.00 each.
  • A lush, black cashmere tunic cardigan $8.00.
  • A weightless Natori caftan, perfect for travel. $6.00.
  • Designer silk scarves for a fraction of their original cost.
  • A Kenneth J. Lane gold and enamel bracelet for a few dollars.
  • And most recently an Armani jacket for a big splurge of $25.
  • Plus a zillion books and music CD’s and movie cassettes. Each costing a greenback or two.

Also a fan of thrifts, my sister made a great catch recently. Spotting a dull, blackened bracelet in a pile of costume jewelry, she looked on the inside and found the silver mark, “72.5” that she suspected might be there. It meant the bracelet contained 72.5% of silver. Once the ancient tarnish was removed, she had a glowing silver bracelet for the princely sum of $1.00.

I usually come up with my biggest hauls on Thursday and Friday nights, before the weekend hoards gallop in. And gallop in they do. These are the no-fooling-around Saturday-day-off-from-work shoppers determined to wrestle fashionable wardrobe bargains from their working sisters.

If you’re furnishing your first home or apartment on a budget, be sure to check out the thrifts before dropping your cash at full price stores. You may hit the jackpot with needed kitchenware, furniture, rugs, prints and posters and small appliances.

Keep in mind that not all visits will be successful. Sometimes you’ll walk away with a basket full of bargain goodies and sometimes you may not spot a single thing of interest. Thrifts feature an enormous variety of stuff to zip through, with quality ranging from dreary to dreamy. You need a speedy search technique to cover everything. Not places to linger, thrifts are places to zip in and zip out, hopefully carrying away some exciting gems found hidden in the jumble.

Storage for Pennies

Let’s say your wallet contains a meager collection of moola. And you live in a smallish apartment or house that others call “cozy”. Or you have limited storage space—as in zero. And you need to store some items that absolutely cannot be squeezed into already jam packed cabinets, shelves, closets, under-bed-spaces and every other possible nook and cranny. Forget storage containers. Not enough floor space. Forget additional shelves. Not enough wall space. Forget cartons. Too depressing–plus too Collyer brothers (if you don’t know who they are and you’re a bona fide member of the pack-rat kingdom, better read up on them before it’s too late).

Enter king size bags…Not the gray plastic, bursting at the seams variety rolled around in shopping carts by the homeless. And not the big brown kind toted home with groceries. No, I’m talking about large, king size gift bags–bags constructed of strong, heavy weight paper in graphic patterns and fresh colors.

The large gift bag I have in my bathroom contains bottles, extra combs, toothbrushes, toiletry travel containers, surplus cosmetics and items I’m not too thrilled to have on display. It fits perfectly into a narrow little corner floor space that could have been designed for it. With its clean, upbeat design, it visually lights up that area. For practicality and a neat look, I snipped off the carrying cords and closed the bag top with clips.

My kitchen gift bag (containing a super duper size package of paper napkins, paper plates and cups) is filled to overflowing, but since it’s on top of a tall cabinet, no one can see all the items jammed inside and sticking out the top. Sandwiched between the wall and glass jars, not enough of the bag is visible to make it particularly noticeable.

I found these gift bags at the dollar store. At a buck a shot for a storage container, they are a great buy. And they’re practical too. Their glossy, heavy weight surfaces make them easy to dust and wipe with damp cloths. And when they wear out, all it takes is a single dollar to cart home another change of pace design.

The strong graphic designs that I prefer seem to be produced mostly in China. With so many of that country’s factories closing left and right these days, especially the ones catering to overseas exports, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the manufacturers producing these tough, good looking bags keep on humming.

More inexpensive storage ideas: Straw Basket Storage in the Bathroom. And another great Dollar Store find: Cape Cod Memories in a Dollar Jar.