Wednesday, September 29, 2010

October Days - Introduction

Fall is upon us once again! What are you doing to prepare - pulling the sweaters out of storage? Putting the kibosh on air conditioning for the rest of the year? Parking the convertible back in the garage?

I've got big plans for the next couple months that will be detailed here including:
Decorating - Get inspired by last year's decor at my house and my sister's house. I'm working on plans to change up the display while still using the same decorations. Stay tuned - the totes are coming out of storage this weekend!
Martha Stewart Challenge - I'm going to pick 3-4 projects from the vast photo gallery on the Martha Web site and see how they translate when real people try them out!
Hot Chocolate - 5K that is. I've started training for my first run and what better reward than a chocolate fondue fountain and as much Ghirardelli as I can eat? 
Pie Month - Originally September was going to be Pie Month but being out of town every weekend put a damper on those plans. Instead, I'll focus energies in October on making at least 4 pies. From scratch. I actually have not made a pie before, unless you count quiche! Look forward to lemon meringue (have to redeem myself after a disastrous first attempt that I burned), apple (straight from AppleFest), the perfect pumpkin ('tis the season) and a TBD variety.
Harvest Party - Looking to repeat last year's squash, pear and pumpkin filled dinner party and game night!

I've already made the first batch of Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies of the season - and bought 3 cans of Pumpkin in case there is another shortage like last year!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wedding Shower Games

Next month I will have the pleasure of seeing one of my closest friends walk down the aisle! This has also given me the opportunity to head to Wisconsin a couple times this month for celebrations including a recent wedding shower for the bride to be!

The maid of honor had picked up 3 prizes for game winners - target gift cards with little extras like Halloween-themed kitchen towels or fall-inspired lotions. I offered to help out in determining what those winning-opportunity activities would be.

How Many Kisses?
I tweaked the "guess the number of m&ms in the baby bottle" game that I had organized for my sister's baby shower last year by filling a gorgeous apothecary jar with silver Hershey's Kisses. The closest guess won a prize. And guesses were all over the board - someone put only 100, someone else put 1000! (correct answer: 473). 
Since the idea of bringing almost 500 chocolate candies home with me sounded like a binge-sure-to-regret, I picked up a 50-pack of favor bags from the wedding supplies aisle at Michaels and filled them up after the winner was revealed. Everyone was encouraged to take 1, 2, 3 or more so I wouldn't have to bring too back with me (as it is I still have a whole bag unopened at home!).
I will admit this gave me the excuse to buy the apothecary jar I've been eyeing for awhile at Michaels. . . .can't wait to share what decorating ideas I have for it come Halloween!

By quizzing the bride to be on courtship details or her and her groom, I wrote out the story of their relationship with a dozen or so blank spaces. Channeling the MadLibs we all filled out during childhood, the word category was then placed underneath the space for added direction. I tried to get a good mix of questions - her family members would surely know the bride's middle name, but would they remember where the groom went to college?
 To keep things casual, these were passed out with instructions while everyone was eating to fill out at their leisure until we gathered around for gifts a half hour later. The story was read aloud, with answer help from the bride and the winner was determined by whomever had the most right answers.

Message Me
When trying to come up with a third game, I thought back to a gift we bridesmaids put together for a friend of mine who got married a few years ago. We picked up a jewelry box with lots of little compartments and filled them with notes from us, other friends and the women in her family. Notes about how much she meant to us or messages with advice and well wishes for her marriage. I decided the third game wouldn't be a game at all, but a chance for everyone to write a favorite memory or message to the bride and have her draw one out as the winner of the last prize. The best part is that she could keep all the messages and read through them after the shower.
As you can tell, I like the types of games that are subtle and unobtrusive, not requiring everyone to gather 'round and wrap the bride in toilet paper or make paper plate bouquets. Of course, these types of activities are for some people and I say more power to you!

A few tips when planning games and activities like these:
- Be sure to have enough pens on hand for everyone.
- Make clear instructions to prop up in the activity station so you don't have be hovering near it explaining the purpose to each guest individually.
- Grab a bowl to throw the filled out guesses/memories into to keep the area clean.
- Add "Name: ________" to the slips of paper - I had a couple people guess the number of Kisses and almost forget to add their name so we knew whose guess it was!

And so I'll leave this post with a couple questions for you: what was the best wedding shower activity you experienced? What was the best door prize offered?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gift Cards

As the result of a recent whirlwind card making weekend, I've got a great supply of blank-on-the-inside cards for every occasion. The new Michaels that has opened along my bus route may have something to do with a sudden increase in rubber stamps, paper and other card making supplies lying around the house. . . 

As a birthday gift for my sister, I gathered a few of the cards into a set and tied them together with some ribbon and a card indicating what the selection contained.  Of course remembering to include the appropriate number of envelopes!
 These "wild card" gift packs don't have to be cards you made yourself - maybe you spend a chunk of time in the greeting card aisle and buy a smattering of birthday, thank you, good luck and more to make a grab bag for someone to use so they aren't scrambling the next time they have an occasion come up. Of course, if they start giving you the cards for your birthday you might have to question it!

I remember when a cute card shop was going out of business in Madison I bought up a ton of 50-75% off  cards and used them over the next couple years - something to look out for in your neighborhood!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Inch by Inch, Row by Row - September Update

In what is most likely the last entry in our 2010 balcony garden series, how about we look at how our herbs, veggies and flowers fared, what we spent and what we will look to do a little differently next year. Here's a quick shot of our tomato plants - bonus addition of cat in bucket.
We ended up probably getting about 40 or so cherry tomatoes and about 10 romas. They came in gradually and ripened at different rates which was good because we didn't want to be eating salad every single night.

The fruits of our labor were so small that salad was really the only option for them. Of course, we got creative one night and made "tomato, basil, mozzerella in a bowl" drizzled with balsamic when we didn't have any lettuce at home.
I think I've already shared that I won't be attempting flowers from seed next year - they just took too darn long to do anything and I want to be enjoying them in May and June! Luckily, our zinnias finally came in and I love how many colors sprouted out of the pot. Looking back I would have picked shorter plants for this pot as they gave themselves hunchbacks the bigger they grew.
Because it was our first real year of gardening, albeit on a balcony, I think we spent more than we would in a normal year. We had to pick up at least 4 large pots for the lettuce and tomato plants as well as seed starter kits and a couple metal staking systems. I also bought a few smaller pots for the extra basil plants I gave away to friends or kept up myself.

My sister and brother in law utilize this tomato grower extraordinare, the EarthBox Garden Kit. It helps control water distribution and also keeps the crazy vines in check with the staking accessories. We looked into this once our seeds started to turn into something bigger than our smaller pots could handle, but the $50 price tag made us hold off on going to that option this summer - maybe next year?

It was still fun to see some successes in going from this:

to this
and this
to this
and this
to this

So what's the plan for next year?
- Buy flowers at the nursery, not from seed.
- Set up a gro-light contraption over the seed starter kits during March/April timeframe when they are not getting a ton of natural light from inside the apartment.
- Try out peppers or one other vegetable, but probably continue tomatoes and lettuce.
- Plant cilantro early and carefully. After a month of nurturing, I realized I was watering a weed.
- Pick herbs I'll actually use. While basil is easy to find uses for, my chives remain almost untouched.

Now I'll just have to rely on my parents' garden for some fall goodies like squash, zuchinni and pumpkins!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Quarterly Goal Check In - September

It's time for another Goals check in. 6 months in, meaning half way done. How am I faring?

Culture Vulture
1. Read 15 books
Between book club and random reads, I think this is a pretty realistic number. I just read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer on my latest trip. I had previously read Everything is Illuminated so I had high hopes, although I'd still take his first novel over Extremely Loud, it was a great and interesting read.
A Year in Provence: Peter Mayle - I prefer to read books about travel and foreign adventures when I am taking a trip. This one made the 4 hour plane ride to Las Vegas rather enjoyable! Ash cloud, please subside so I can book a trip to France!
Last Night in Twisted River
 - Typical Irving: lots of untimely deaths, a bear and close-knit family. Happy to say I liked this one more than his most recent books- my all time favorite book is A Prayer for Owen Meany. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Seeing what all the fuss is about - can't wait to read the next one! 
Best Friends Forever - chick lit I didn't expect much from and was pleasantly surprised. Wrapped up a bit neatly, but doesn't that define chick lit? 
The Art of Racing in the Rain - narrated by a dog. who thinks he should be human. and whose owner has possibly the worst luck ever. yet I raced to finish it. . .huh. 
The Lost Symbol - Like DaVinci Code, entertaining and kept me reading, but a whole lotta explanations make up the story. 
The Girl Who Played with Fire - loved more than the first one, I think because I'm more invested in the characters. 
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - a little slow in the middle (they sure are all about procedure in Sweden!) but love the trial scenes at the end!  
Kindred - Time Travel to Slave Days for a Modern African-American Woman? Sounds crazy, but really holds your interest and is a good twist on sci-fi. My book club pick for September!
The Plantation - another about slavery - I've stumbled onto a genre without realizing it! Unfortunately, the dialogue leaves much to be desired, but I did want to keep reading to see what happened so I guess he hooked me there. . .

2. Only buy 3 of those books
Here will be the real challenge - our bookshelves are getting fuller and fuller and I am a little ashamed of how much I spend at Borders when I have a library card burning a hole in my wallet.
I have only bought one book since March, and it was a gift. Not too shabby. I did miss one of our book club books because the library hold never came through in time, although it was my own fault I did not check in with the other girls to see who finished the book early and could pass it along!

3. Have a "Day of Fun and Culture"
Take a day off work with the boy and take in the sights, sounds and food of Chicago like a real tourist!

4. Visit 3 museums
Sort of sad that I haven't been to the Art Institute in years considering I work down the street and I have a membership that will let me in for free.
April 2 - Half Day of work for Good Friday? That means a trip to the Adler Planetarium and a nice long walk around museum campus!

5. 2 trips to the theater
Check one off the list at the end of March - tickets to Billy Elliot have been purchased!
March 27 - Billy Elliot was great! I love a good Angry Dance (see also: Footloose, Flight of the Conchords)
June 2- Acrobatics galore! Scored tickets to Cirque Dreams: Illumination through work. Highlight of the night was Bob getting picked for an audience participation bit and performing in front of Chicago! 
Tickets are bought for The Lion King, coming to Chicago this fall!

6. Watch 120 movies
Now this is my kind of goal - sitting on the couch watching movies! Honestly though, films are my favorite ( has been my homepage for 14 years) and netflix has been instrumental in opening me up to Almodovar, Kieslowski, a slew of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and TV shows I now wish I had watched when they were on (hellooo, Battlestar Galactica!). One thing I wish Netflix had? A "shuffle" option - 5 or 6 David Lynch movies in a row and you start to get a little freaked out!
72 since March 17 - I'd say I'm on track to exceed the target. Although the impending new fall TV line up could put a damper on a few of those movie nights. . .

A few awards:
Best Movie I Wasn't Expecting - Hamlet 2
Movie that Made me Want my Two Hours Back - Paul Blart: Mall Cop
TV Series that I Can't Get Enough of - Flight of the Conchords
Advice - see Inception in the theater while you still can, rent In the Loop and put the subtitles on to catch all the funny.
Dedication - going to the movies in between the ceremony and reception in full sari-garb.
 New Love - Instant Netflix via the Wii. Was life ever this good?

7. Book an international trip
The travel itch has turned into a full on rash. Okay, that is some horrible imagery, but I am jonesing for an overseas trip!
The plane tickets are not yet in hand, but a trip to Egypt next spring seems to be taking shape!

8. See my best friends
They are spread all over the states, but the fact that I haven't seen my college roommate in over a year is just PATHETIC! Visiting is always fun for me, but I invite everyone to stay with me here in Chicago, or we could plan a trip together (like Kara and my annual NYC trips!)
With a certain wedding in October and a certain bundle of joy arriving soon enough I think the need to spend time with close friends is even more apparent!

9. Visit 3 new U.S. cities
I'll be headed to Nashville in May and Bob and I are trying to plan a trip to New Orleans, where might number 3 be??
May - Nashville was a heckuva fun time, despite major flooding issues just two weeks prior!
August - a weekend world tour of Colorado let me cross Vail, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction off the list.

10. Head up to Madison
Ahh, my alma mater. How do I love thee? Let me count the number of chairs at the Terrace, the steps it takes to get to the top of Bascom Hill and the number of bars that line State Street. . .it is time you and I had a reunion!

In the Home/DIY/Crafty
11. Redo bedroom
I discussed plans in this post - let's see what comes to fruition!
March 20: Jewelry Organizer, check!

12. One furniture redo
A la this coffee table or this nightstand or this bathroom shelf turned wine cabinet. Number one contender? A hallway table to replace a ginormous file cabinet we can't seem to sell on craigslist.
Our console table is still in the planning stages - although we did just buy some of the materials. In the meantime, a very recent update to the house included these revamped dining room chairs!

13. 1 room makeover for Mom
Redoing her kitchen with her was energizing and draining at the same time! I've got my sights set on a downstairs bedroom that could use a lot of fixing up (and will give me somewhere to sleep when the whole family is in the house!)

14. Mod Podge something
I bought a bottle a few months ago and it has not found a project yet! Thissign project from Young House Love is very inspiring. . .

15. 8 scrapbook pages for Ella
We have 4 down and want to add a few more to her scrapbook before her big 1 year old bday bash in May. This little girl is going to have so much documentation between her scrapbooks and her mama's blog she'll never have to wonder what she was like as a baby!
16. 100 blog posts
I am about to hit the first 100 in just under a year and noticed I have been cranking them out a bit quicker in recent months. I do not think I will ever be a post-a-day blogger - I just can't think of that much to write about and would rather have quality posts than quantity. At least I hope the posts I'm sharing have been viewed as quality!
56 since the goal post (ha - "goal post"). Pretty good for the halfway mark!

17. Redesign the blog!
Along with the goal of "Web Design Certificate" some new HTML and Photoshop skills should allow me to give Next Step a boost in both look, search options and organization. Stay tuned! 
Blogger is upping the ante by allowing me to add pages, play with the template design and columns and even improving the photo upload/posting section. Good on'ya!

18. Grow a Garden
Our ample balcony space means we should be using it for a container vegetable garden. I started small last summer with some herbs, but am ready to expand to tomatoes, peppers and 1 or 2 other endeavors. I've been soaking up blogs on balcony gardens like this one and plan on picking my mom's brain (and her seedlings!)
With summer almost over, our crisper has been chock full of tomatoes, granted they are all the size of a dime, but they are mighty in number. We also got a month's worth of salad back in June/July and lots of basil for all our recipes. Even the flowers eventually sprang up - though I don't think I would do those from seed again!

19. Throw 4 parties
We love having people over, but I think any more often than quarterly parties could stress me out! We will probably repeat our summer cook outand harvest party - maybe throw in an Oscar party and game night to round out the year. I promise lots of new appetizer recipes!
We held an almost-impromptu Memorial Day cookout (meaning we planned it in one day). We've been trying to schedule a Seinfeld Trivia Party but summer weekend craziness has been thwarting our plans. . .Our summer cook-out became a Sunday Funday over Labor Day weekend (appetizer recipes here!). Maybe our new thing will be Memorial Day/Labor Day parties. "Begin and end summer with us!"

Personal & Professional Development

20. Web Design Certificate
I only need to take 5 classes to fulfill this certificate at my local city college and have already completed HTML, just starting Photoshop. Short term, I can use the newfound skills to improve this blog and in some of the online work I do. Long term, who knows!
On Course #3 and really enjoying Illustrator. My newfound HTML skills have already been coming in handy for a work project!

21. Present at a conference or training
Since I work in education and directly with speakers, it is sort of funny to see myself on the other side of the coin - I'm usually the one making sure the microphone works, not the one clipping it onto my shirt. I have presented internal trainings before and would be game for another one within the company or look into presenting at an outside event.

22. Update resume
Okay, if any of my co-workers are reading this - don't panic! No plans to leave, but my resume hasn't been touched since I first moved to Chicago and was temping so it could use some sprucing up! In its current state, my biggest accomplish boils down to "filing properly."

23. Volunteer with Chicago Cares once a month
I get weekly emails on volunteer projects and have enjoyed volunteering at a nearby school library - there is not a full time librarian so volunteers help shelve books, re-label and organize where needed a couple times a month.
Overachieving! I've been volunteering every other week the library maintenance job and read-with-me nights with 3-5 year olds. Learning quickly how long a 3 year old's attention span lasts! I also participated in a Serve-a-Thon activity for all Chicago Cares volunteers in June.

Also having fun making dinners at the Ronald McDonald House in Lincoln Park!

24. Donate money to charity events three times, participate in a fundraiser activity once
My friends always impress me with the fundraising activities they are involved in and I've been glad to donate when they sign themselves up for crazy things like walking for 3 days straight (the Susan G. Komen for the Cure) , stair climbing in a 30 story building (to benefit the American Lung Association) and taking a Polar Plunge (for the Special Olympics). I will donate where I can and also help organize and/or participate in at least one activity (like the Bowling for Big Shoulders fundraiser I attended the other week).
Good luck with the Bike Ride, Claire!

Good luck with the Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society, Katie!

25. Stick with a workout plan
I'm in no shape to walk for three days, climb 30 flights of stairs or jump in ice cold water. I recently went through Wii Fit initiation where it deemed my Wii Fit age to be 41. I'm actually 27. Apparently, being underweight with no sense of balance and bad reflexes is NOT good for me. Whether it be actually dusting off that Pilates DVD, working with weights or - gasp - even joining in a gym, it is time to do something to build up some strength and flexibility. Oh, and did I mention I have high cholesterol? My all-cheese diet finally catches up with me. . .
I thought maybe yoga, a water aerobics class or maybe busting out the old ab roller, but I surprised myself by diving into. . .running! Based around a challenge for Bob to complete a triathlon and to get my family to stop hounding me to do a 5K with them I have begun training - check out the latest: me buying my first pair of sneakers since 2003!

26. Learn how to use the grill
While Bob's summer goal is to become a grill master, I am content with just learning how to turn it on and cook a piece of chicken!
May 4: Successfully grilled the brats we had for dinner! Wahoo!

27. Drive a car
This probably seemed like an unfinished sentence as you are reading ("drive a car. . .with stick shift, across country, in the Indy 500) but I really do just mean drive a car. It has been years since I have driven. Sometimes I wonder if I don't drive because I live in Chicago and there is plenty of public transportation or if I live in Chicago because I don't drive! City driving scares me more than it should and it is time to suck it up and get out there! Now, who is going to trust me with their car???
I'm not going to count this, but I did drive my sister's Tahoe from our parents' bar to their house. Half a mile in the backwoods. So, I still need the opportunity to drive to present itself!

Money Matters
28. Less spent on lunches
I originally wrote "bring lunch at least 3 times a week" but I know how hit or miss that can be depending on the type of week I'm having. Maybe instead this means getting a foot long from Subway and saving half for tomorrow or making sure to have leftovers from dinners we make. I will add up what I've spent via debit card for the past year and again after one year to see how I did. I'll also check my ATM visits in case I try to trick myself into just paying cash for lunches so it's no recorded!
Here's a start: Without fail, I buy a 65 cent can of soda every day at lunch. I just picked up a great deal from Dominicks: 5 12-packs for the price of 2. I paid $11 for 60 cans of soda as opposed to $39 on individual cans. The real savings would be if I learned to cut out soda and just drink water but I know my need for caffeine isn't going to let that happen.

Can you say nerd alert? I started a second Google Calendar to track lunches and am pleased to see my spending going way down vs. how often I used to buy! Instead of $20 a week I'm down to $20 a month.

29. Double amount in my ING savings account
Keeping up with established monthly transfers and adding in "extra" money like tax refunds, gifts and bonuses should do the trick. Of course, the ever-declining interest rate I am earning is not encouraging me at all. The challenge will be trying to stop myself from cashing it all in for around the world trips!
Some challenges along the way might cause me to tweak this goal. We have started a joint savings specifically for our planned trip to Egypt! By putting automatic payments on the money will add up without us even realizing it. And after the trip is done we can focus on the next big thing to save for - whatver that might end up being!

30. Create 1 place to track all finances, bills and budgeting
I just learned about and like what I see. So far I've been decent at budgeting, keeping up with bills and managing logging in to 50 different sites to view latest activity and assess what will be hitting my checking account when, but 1 snapshot could help me see things differently!
I tried out, but so far am not getting won over. I think I need to take a little more time to adjust and use it to its full potential.

31. Pay off one student loan
I increased my payments from the minimum for both loans a couple years ago and am well on my way to closing out one of them - the other should be done after another year. Wahoo!

32. Research buying a place
I don't want to commit to saying we will have bought a place in a year, but we have been talking about it as our next big step and I want to make sure we know what we are getting into!
We've named September "Research Month" so we'll see what nuggets of info we have to share after the close of the month.

33. Stick with an organizer option
I feel as though I've been getting busier and busier (birthday party here, class there, book club here, eye appointment there) my head is probably not the best place to keep all of the info. Either pull out the old Palm Pilot, beef up my Google calendar or carry around a handwritten journal.
Google calendar, you are already making things easier! It's amazing how full my month can look when I put it all down in one place. 

34. House purge
Part of this year's spring cleaning plan - are we using it? No? Get rid of it! I want photographic evidence of a decent pile of junk that will either be tossed in the dumpster, sold on Craigslist or given to Goodwill.
Thank you Craigslist: giant file cabinet, check! Old TV, check! Now we just need to get rid of our old computer desk chair thanks to the new one we picked up at an estate sale!

35. Replace wardrobe, not add to it
I just finished a spring purge of the closet - if I hadn't worn it since moving here (exception: some of the dress clothes) it was gone. I'm not putting the kibosh on buying clothes this year, in fact I would like to overhaul my wardrobe a bit, but I do want to make sure I'm replacing and not just filling up the closet. I will just have to keep asking myself, "If I buy a sweater, which one am I not wearing and can donate?"
2 bags of clothes gone to Salvation Army = 2 new dresses for weddings/summer fun, embellished tank tops for summer, a couple work shirts and - most exciting - a new suit! An ill-placed "pen in pants pocket" caused a dryer accident that inked a few of my work shirts beyond repair. The question is, why did my replacement trip to Benneton result in me buying no tops and more pants?

36. 40 new recipes added to book
My recipe book currently has about 45 typed recipes - once again, loose pieces of paper and printouts have been adding up and bringing me back to the brink of disorganization. Time to consolidate and fill up the rest of the book!
May 2: 15 added to the book! Realizing that if I am going to add 40 I may need a second book. . .

36.5 Be a good aunt to little Ella (look at that picture and tell me she's not the cutest thing ever!) 
Also, be a good sister/ daughter/ niece/ girlfriend/ friend/ co-worker/ etc. . .
While I can't really measure this one (unless all involved parties would like to take a written survey at the end of 1 year for me), I do hope that everyone I hang around with will want to be hanging around with me after a year of me talking about all of these goals!
Hope I'm living up to this goal!