Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pinterest Project - Balls in My Court

I think the Next Big Thing for blogs will be Pinterest Challenges. The pinning is easy, the doing is where we all need that extra push from the community!  I made one of my Year Two Goals to take on a Pinterest Project each month, so I thought I would start with one that has been catching my eye.

I stopped over at the host blog for the project to check out the details. Thumbtacks + Styrofoam Balls + Paint. . .easy enough!

First up was a trip to Michaels to get the styrofoam. I walked around with 2 packs in my basket for a good twenty minutes before my eyes landed on these Smoothfoam Crafter's Foam. Somehow they were even cheaper than the styrofoam packs of 6 and they seemed a lot more heavy duty. I was a bit concerned with some of the comments on the project blog post regarding tacks not staying in or the foam disintegrating with paint application so the tagline of "Paint It, Pin It, Glue It" had me at hello.
The next adventure was the search for thumbtacks. I bought out the last 3 packs of 200 at Staples and figured that would be enough to keep me busy.

This photo is titled, "oh, I guess 600 doesn't go as far as I thought it would." It is subtitled, "we have no place in our transition apartment to take an attractive photo so these blinds and the only vase we have unpacked will have to do."
And herein lies the challenge on not having a car and not wanting to take eight hundred bus transfers to get to the OfficeMax a few neighborhoods away. I headed back to Staples to see if they had restocked but they did not have any more. I got 200 for $2.49 at Staples so that was the price I was trying to beat and not having the easiest time of it. After trips to Ace Hardware (where the price was astronomical), Family Dollar and CVS, I came home with another 950 tacks.

The problem? The new tacks were flat headed as opposed to slightly curved like the silver ones. These definitely created a different look, not bad just not the same. I stuck with using the new type on the larger balls and the curvy ones that were more scale like on the smaller set.
 When it came to painting, I would have loved to take these out to the garage to apply a couple coats of colorful spray paint. A couple issues: a) I have no outdoor space and b) we can't get spray paint in the city and we didn't have a trip to the suburbs planned for the weekend. I tried my hand at using regular acrylic paint and while it worked out fine, I know that spray paint would have been the better option and I will probably try to re-do the paint job at some point.

Again, apologies for the poor photo quality - there is literally no light in this apartment. Can we move yet?
 The color scheme of berry and light blue comes from our plan for our library/fireplace/sitting area at our new place (you know, the place we haven't even gotten yet but we choose to believe the bank will approve the short sale). I found the color combo in my copy of The Nest Home Design Handbook and with a gray shag rug underneath (another Pinterest Project to tackle) the area is really going to pop.

So there we have it - the first of many Pinterest Projects. Really loving how these turned out. Granted, my per piece price ended up being just under $4 and I saw some decorative vase fillers on clearance at Pier 1 yesterday for $1.98 but doesn't homemade make it that much more fun?

Shared in the Young House Love Pinterest Challenge.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Goals Year Two

Well, well, Goals. We meet again. I finally got around to creating Year Two's list a few months after finishing a March 2010 - March 2011 journey. Ahh, it was magical, wasn't it? I drove a car, I ran a race, I flew to Egypt. Having the goals listed out publicly truly made me commit to getting through them in a year's time. After all, I had to 'fess up eventually to the ones I did not fulfill.

Culture Vulture
1. Read 15 books - I succeeded in this goal last year and thought I'd tackle it again. Between book club and random reads should hopefully not be a problem. Now as you read down the list at some of the other projects I am putting on tap for myself one might wonder when I will have time to read. . .
The Hunger Games - okay, consider me hooked.
The Paris Wife - Hemingway's First Wife Historical Fiction, call it "Loving Hem"
Unbroken - Can't Believe It's Not Fiction

2. Watch 120 movies - time to expand the horizons even further! Maybe this will be the year I finish out the Woody Allen oeuvre.

3. Two trips to the theater - My sister and I take an annual trip to see a show and this winter A Christmas Story is going musical! Methinks tickets shall be purchased!

4. Visit two museums - culture me, Chicago, culture me.
8/13/11 - a trip to the Art Institute turned a little special - Bob and I got engaged!

5. Travel to three new cities - Will this finally be the year I make it to New Orleans? What about DC? Or a road trip through Maine? Big plans in my head, lets put something on the calendar.
I've been to Charleston, San Antonio and spent time in LA (as opposed to driving through it.) Thanks work!

6. Book an international trip - chant it with me now: London 2012! London 2012!
photo source
8/16/11 - the trip is booked! April 2012 here we come. . .

7. Have a day of fun and culture with my niece - she'll be coming up on three years old in May - time she got familiar with downtown Chicago! I think we might put off a trip to American Girl Place for another year though. No sense starting too early on that money train.

8. Walk the Willis Tower Ledge - I've been to the observatory deck of the then Sears Tower, but not since the glass box had been added. Face a fear and take the step out!

How Entertaining
9. Make a cheesecake - I have already borrowed the springform pan from sister. Time to try my hand at this new endeavor!

10. Bake bread - After reading through some recipes at a friend's house, I started to think that baking bread (without a breadmaker) was quite doable indeed. Challenge accepted: will it be sourdough or pumpernickel?

11. Love the crockpot - I loves me my meatballs recipe and chicken enchilada recipe, but lets get creative with the crockpot. 4 new recipes in this next year.
Two down so far - Sweet Bean Chili and Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Soup

12. Host 3 parties - Last year I took on 4, but with our impending move and a few months of potential dissaray at our casa makes me rethink how many we should commit to. I will tell you this - I am already planning a massive housewarming/holiday party come December!
Check the housewarming party off the list.
13. Plan someone else's party - If I can't host at my house I'll take my business elsewhere. Calling on friends and family: bring on your baby shower, your bridal shower or your bar mitzvah and let me take a crack at it.
My wedding might take precedence over this one :-)

Health and Wellness
14. Drink more water - My name is Lydia and I am dehydrated. I have never loved water, the taste just doesn't appeal to me. But the positive effects can't be denied. I will try to commit to filling up a water bottle each day at least a couple times.

15. Run another 5K - time to get back out on the sidewalk and improve my game. When this intense heat finally goes the way of the buffalo I will strap back on the shoes and hit the pavement.

16. Go to the Dermatologist - This fair, freckled face should finally get checked out. Too many scary stories of skin cancer scares out there not to.

17. Build an Indoor Garden - is this health and wellness? I can't figure out what category it would go under. If the purchase of our next place goes through we may be sans outdoor space. How can I still incorporate some greenery?

Adventures in DIY
18. Build a craft table - because I can't bring myself to pay a fortune for this Pottery Barn beauty to the left, lets see how two bookshelves and my old IKEA Malm headboard look together.

19. Pinterest Projects - use the knowledge base and take on at least one new project a month based on the wonderful pins that make the world go round. 
Count 'em up with me: Thumbtack Vase Fillers, Egg Roll Wrapper Mozzerella Sticks, Yarn Wreath, Striped Vases, Housewarming Appetizers, Cork Plant Markers

20. Make a rug - Speaking of Pinterest projects, this one is a doozy. Do I have 60 manhours to commit to making this bad boy? Will I get two steps in and realize I don't know what I'm doing? We'll see what develops. . .

21. Make 100 cards - seems daunting at first, but considering I get about 25 out of the way come Christmastime I could be able to make this one happen.

22. Plan a renovation - this one has some considerations. a) We need to be in our next place. b) It needs to have enough wrong with it to look at totally rehabbing a room. c) we need to have some moolah saved up.

Professional and Personal Development
23. Join a networking group - For a person who works in association management, I haven't taken advantage of many career enhancing opportunities myself.

24. Do something with the Wisconsin Alumni Association - I miss my Badgers!

25. Volunteer once a month - keep it up with Chicago Cares, those little three year olds we read to are too adorable for words.
Knocked out signing up for three months at a time to close out the year with a Library Maintenance activity, Read With Me night with the little kids and making dinner at the Ronald McDonald House!

26. Donate to 3 charities/fundraising activities - Lets help some people out in the things they are fighting for, or fighting against.

27. Look into an Etsy shop - could I possibly turn some of my little endeavors into a selling opportunity? I'm not committing to anything, but will definitely look into what it might take to set up a shop and invest the time.

28. Learn how to use my camera - I really don't know what I am doing yet with my point and shoot. Time to make a change.
Oh my gosh - there is a setting for incandescent lighting! My indoor photos look 10 times better!
29. Implement video into the blog - I recently got a Sony Bloggie. Let's play.

30. 100 blog posts - with an impending home purchase this shouldn't be a problem at all. There has been a struggle to find enough quality stuff to write about the past few months once the old apartment was pretty much the exact way we wanted it. But the idea of a brand new place? Bring it on blog.

31. Develop Adobe skills - Photoshop, thy will be tamed.

32. Wardrobe rehaul - now this is a fun goal: spend lots of money on clothes! It has been awhile since I invested in some new pieces. Already got a jump start by finding the perfect pair of jeans for Casual Friday at Gap this week.
photo source

Money Matters
33. Pay off one student loan - Sort of cheating on this one because I already have a plan to get my ECSI loan out of the way come August 1. I decided to take a little bit of extra cash I had and put it towards my smaller loan. After putting the extra minimum payment against my larger loan I should be able to get that one done with in 2012!
8/2/11 - one is done. Ahh, that felt good.

34. Increase percentage of 401K savings - I believe I am already on my way to a healthy retirement considering I was able to start my account at age 22 and take advantage of a company match. However, there is always room for a little more. Look at increasing by a percentage point or two to bring even more money my way when I am in my wisened older days.

35. Assess the portfolio - Do I know what that 401K really means? Not really. I haven't readdressed the investments I am working on in quite awhile so it may be time to make sure I'm doing the best for myself.
36. Find three ways to earn extra cash - And no, I won't turn to a life of crime. Working a street festival weekend, market research studies or simply selling off unwanted stuff can help me pad the bank account little by little. Bob and I are going to be able to buy our new bed for the next place based off of a three day weekend working at Lollapalooza!
photo source

8/7/11 - Now that was an exhausting 3 days but the money earned on Lollapalooza weekend will help pay for our new bedroom.
9/10/11 - Worked another fest - this time the Wells St. Fall Fest in a beer tent. Not a bad gig when Sixteen Candles, the 80s music cover band, is playing on the stage right next to you.
9/13/11 - Those focus group sign ups pay off with another one! $150 free in my pocket!

36.5 Be an excellent Aunt to one - no, make that two - little girls! With a new niece on the way this fall I have plenty of auntie love to go around.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Getting Your Netflix Fix

A lot of ballyhoo in the last week regarding Netflix raising their prices. I think I might be the only one not feeling the hate! I don't typically use the blog for commentary, but as a customer for 5+ years to the service I thought I would share the reasons why I feel like I am getting my money's worth. If you regularly check the blog you'll see my sidebar of two-word reviews and get an idea of how often I find myself in front of the TV. What can I say, I love movies. Always have, always will.

Full disclosure, I have also scaled down to 2 discs at a time plus streaming from 3 discs at a time after the price changes so that my monthly fee stays just about the same. However, we were considering a move regardless because of the amount we take advantage of the instant options and the frequency we have been able to turn 3 discs around. Like a gym membership, a Netflix account shows its value the more you use it. And I work out a lot. Although I don't know that my consumption can compete with the $1 price of a Redbox disc, I am still all about the convenience with how long I can keep them, the ability to stream and the choices that go beyond the new release.

I have to wonder if some of the folks who do not feel there are enough options out there are mainly looking for new releases and mainstream fare. If so, I have to agree. Partnerships with Starz and other big name players means that as soon as Iron Man 2 or Toy Story 3 show up on the roster they are probably immediately watched and then gone from the queue.

Looking deeper at the instant options, you can will documentaries and biographies of all shapes and sizes (Ken Burns' Baseball, Man on Wire and Basquiat), more BBC shows than you can shake a stick at (The IT Crowd, Doctor Who and Sherlock), beautiful foreign films (Cinema Paradiso, I Am Love) and some of the oddest sounding independent movies around (Hump Day: great reviews, crazy premise). A great opportunity to give something different a chance.

I think some of my favorite points of Netflix are the increasingly specific categories that one's queue and ratings have formed for them. As a comedy lover, color me surprised when I find most of my recommendations centering around, "Military 20th Century Period Pieces" "Gritty Movies Based on Real Life" and "Melodramas Starring a Strong Female Lead" Made me realize I do mostly watch dramas when it comes to my Netflix consumption!

If you have a Netflix subscription, I suggest going off the beaten path and looking up a specific director to focus on (like my efforts to watch every Pedro Almodovar movie available), utilizing the Critics Picks area to add some Oscar winners to your list or picking out a few first seasons of television shows to test out and see which you will want to go the distance with (Mad Men is coming to Instant next week so we can fill up on Season 4.)

A few recommendations:

Sports Night (available on Instant) - Sorkin's dialogue hits home in a 30 minute show that is just as much drama as it is comedy which has you thinking the whole time, "why do they have a laugh track?"
The Wire - had to see what all the "#1 show of all time" fuss was about. You know what, it is pretty great. About to start Season 3!
Arrested Development (available on Instant) - I own these on DVD and still find that Bob watches them through Netflix. It is just too good.

The Red Violin (available on Instant) - beautiful music takes you through five seperate story lines spanning the ages. And Samuel L. Jackson as the most annoying hotel guest you will ever see.
City of God - terrifying depiction of the Rio de Janeiro slums that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Children of Men - amazing soundtrack, Clive Owen is at the heart of a tale of a world not so far off where anarchy has taken over when we are suddenly unable to have babies.
Inside Man - Clive Owen again. A Spike Lee Joint. A thinking man's heist movie.

. . .okay, maybe I do watch too many depressing movies. . . .let's look at a lighter side.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story - starring my new favorite Steve Coogan. I watched this through and then immediately watched it again with commentary.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - Robert Downey Jr. plays it cool. Val Kilmer with some killer one liners. Quickly became one of my top 3 favorite movies.
Two Brothers - a sort of ridiculous premise, but with two of the cutest tigers you will ever see.

For more movie recommendations check out my Pinterest board!

Thus endeth my commentary on how to use your Netflix subscription to its fullest potential. Happy viewing!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What a Trip: Rome if You Want To - Part 2

Back in action for another installment of our Egypt/Italy trip recap. This time, let's focus on a few days in Rome. . .I already wrote about our arrival and visiting the Vatican here and of course our FlorenceCairo and Luxor adventures in the days preceding our move to Italy.

After our Vatican day, we took the train to an area of Rome that held an American Express office - we had a set of travelers' cheques that were burning holes in our pockets because apparantly no one in the world takes them anymore (read more about the ordeal here). Needless to say, the office was closed and would be closed the following day (Sunday) which meant it wasn't worth going back at all with a departure date of Tuesday morning. Ahh well, as luck would have it, the office route took us right past a few gems of tourist must-sees.

The Spanish Steps - we ended up back at this area several times over the next few days and our penchant for long roundabout walks. Typically the steps were teaming with people draped all over them, but we got a rare glimpse of the steps themselves early one morning:
Bob had only a few things on his "architecture must-see's." One of those places was the Roman Catholic church, San Carlo alla Quattro Fontane (San Carlo at the Four Fountains) - a baroque masterpiece by Borrominni. True to its name, there are four fountains with statues on each corner of the street intersection.
Suddenly, and almost without warning, you turn a corner and find yourself at Trevi Fountain! We also kept heading back to this neck of the woods, yearning to see it both during the day and after sunset all lit up. Its scale is incredible - the people watching more so. We definitely sat here for at least an hour taking it all in.
We took a cue from every other person and threw a coin over our shoulder. Will wishes be granted? Only time will tell.
Moving on to the Pantheon - the temple to the ancient gods of Rome.
I loved how the light source once inside all stems from one skylight called the oculus (outside of the entry door of course).
My daily lunch pretty much always consisted of a coke and pizza. Hey, you can't go wrong! I stuck with more familiar ingredients like mushroom while Bob tried his hand at potato slices one day and apples and gorgonzola the next.
Mo' plazas, mo' fountains: here we have the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza Navona. Love the colorful buildings in the background.
Monday morning and our plans brought us to the Colosseum - not only planned in the intinerary but also pre-bought tickets. Color us excited to find out that our credit card was refunded because of Italy Culture Week and city sights being free! I can't believe that one actually worked out!

Unlike the Vatican where we had an audio guide and Egypt where we had a private guide, we went sans assistance for our Colosseum trip. Yes, we may have missed a few bits of trivia, but it made for a relaxing morning just taking in the sights.
If the outside is not awe-inspiring enough, seeing how much is still intact inside is amazing!
Soon enough though, it was time to say goodbye to Rome and back to reality. Not before a farewell dinner that included my favorite meal of the trip and the reason I have been ordering pasta bolognese at just about every restaurant that offers it since being back! Mmm...tortellini!
Well, it was an unforgettable trip - 12 days away from home experiencing a whole lot of new. As much as we will be focusing on home purchase, decorating and renovation in the next year or so we can't forget to set aside a budget for the next big trip - South America needs to be crossed off that continent list. . . hmmm. . .

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pic a Nic Baskets

We found ourselves with a gorgeous summer weekend recently, so I fought my usual "indoor kid" instincts and said we should pack up and spend some time at the beach/park not too far a walk from the place we currently call home. 

We stopped at the grocery store and picked up some snacky snacks: raspberries, crackers, a baguette and some creamy cheese. Our park time was going to be later in the day so it was not a full on lunch. Although when we staked out our spot we couldn't help but be jealous of the folks near us that were grilling some wonderful smelling meats on their mini-Weber.
One day I'm sure we'll get a real picnic basket to be all cutesy when we head out for an afternoon, but this time around all the (perishable) food and drink was thrown into our new cooler - a months-ago Costco purchase. I love it not only because it came with a detachable dolly, but also because it folds down into a quarter of the size for easy storage.
Our go-to blanket for any outdoor activity, a book, the iPad for some tunes and a camera just in case inspiration struck were all we needed for a serene couple hours out on the grass.

A few ideas culled from random websites on how to build the perfect picnic basket:
- Chop and divide up into servings before you go. Prep work should not be part of your relaxation! But if you must. . .
- Bring a small cutting board - if there is some prep work involved you won't want to use your lap or the blanket as a sturdy work surface!
- Move past the disposable plates and silverware and invest in a break-resistant set that can be reused - also perfect for outdoor dining on your balcony, deck or backyard! Target typically has some adorable sets each summer that regularly go on sale.
- If wine is in the cards, don't forget the corkscrew! Or just grab bottles that have twist off caps.
- Sunscreen! Although probably not stored in the same area as your food, just as important.
- an extra bag/container for garbage items or recycling.

And a few recipes that look oh so good you might not be able to wait to leave the house before you dig in:
- Avocado and Ham Sandwiches
- Curried Chicken Salad with Apples and Raisins 
- Watermelon (no recipe, just watermelon!)
- Black Bean Salad served with Tortilla Chips
- Puff Pastry Cheese Twists
- A Martha Stewart Picnic

Take advantage of your summer by checking out Movies in the Park, Concerts on the Square and other city run opportunities that are likely free of charge - its just up to you to stake out a spot for your blanket early! 

What other tips for al fresco fun do you have to share?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Block Party

About a year and a half ago I saw an advertisement in JC Penney for a set of blocks that spelled out Merry Christmas. Cute holiday decor that got me thinking . . .

At the time I thought I could make something similar but each side of the blocks would have a different Christmas phrase spelled out like "Feliz Navidad" and more. As I thought about the project more, it occured to me that "Merry Christmas" has the same amount of letters as "Happy Halloween" and "Happy 4th of July." Hmm. . . .
What about a set of blocks that adapted to whatever holiday was coming up next? Each side with a different color scheme and lettering applicable to the holiday on hand. Plus it cuts down on storage needs when you have 6 decor pieces in one! My constantly growing collection of holiday storage totes thank me for the idea.

I picked up the value packs of 1" blocks from Michaels which were perfect for my needs - although they seemed a bit on the small side at first, knowing that I would have at least 9 blocks in a row to spell out words like "Christmas," the one-inchers suddenly looked like they could take up a lot of room on the mantlepiece. My back up plan had I not found this value pack was to go to Home Depot and cut wood to size.
The next step was assigning each side a background color - I was very careful in this planning as I wanted to make sure every block was exactly the same (you'll see the effect this has in later photos) so behold: my sophisticated planning tool:
Slowly but surely, all of the sides got painted.
When it came to lettering, I scoured Michaels and really only found one set of letter stickers that seemed to be the perfect size: not too big, not too small, not too 3D (as they had to sit flush against the other blocks no matter which side they were on). I picked up packs in red, white, green and black - thank goodness for the 20% off entire purchase coupon!

For the fall-themed phrase, I wanted to have a darker font color, but not black so I tested out painting some of the letters. What do you know, it worked out perfectly!
Careful application of letters, sourcing of extra stickers and stamps for the extra spaces blocks and a layer of mod podge later and voila!
The camera seems to pick up every paint imperfection, so I swear these don't look as rough in person. However, in some cases the blocks look a little vintage-y when they are slightly off. This is most noticable in the orange blocks for Halloween where I messed up a stamp and had to paint over black ink. Then I messed it up again and had to paint over even more black ink. Wah wah.
The effect I alluded to earlier is one of my favorite parts of the project: since each block is in the right order no matter which side is facing front, the alternative sides spell out the other phrases. The back of this one says "happy fall y'all" albeit upside down.
I'm planning on finding an appropriate sized display box so that you don't always have to see the sides and the tops (it could get distracting to see a red and silver "Merry" amongst spooky Halloween decor). In the meantime, here is the rundown of all six sides.
I'm rocking a belated Happy 4th of July right now as fall is a little ways off!