Monday, July 30, 2012

Goals: Year Two - The Recap

Another year of goals to tackle complete. Well, the year is complete - some of the goals have a little explaining to do. Overall I am very happy with the results from this past year. That little thing called the wedding sometimes took over my weekends, my budget, my sanity. . .but it also gave me plenty of blog fodder for September and October wedding wrap up!

Here's the rundown. Do you have any suggestions for goals I should take on in this next cycle? I'm planning on learning how to use my sewing machine and taking a knife skills class, but other than that I need to put my thinking cap on! I also plan on meeting a few of the goals I didn't hit, like baking bread and putting video on the blog!

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"
We Need to Talk About Kevin - disturbing, but engrossing, emphasis on the gross. Not sure I am going to be able to stomach the movie.
Unbroken - great story, filed in the "can't believe it's true" category.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - very good book club discussion. Made science easier to read.
The Night Circus - Brought to mind one of my favorite movies, The Prestige. Magical enough, but in the end I wanted a little more from the story.
Catching Fire - good segueway into the final chapter.
Mockingjay - I think I read through this too quickly. This is a testament to how addicting they are, but I think I missed some nuances. . .
Bossypants - Tina Fey incites laughs, but in the end I wanted a little more (a repetitive theme)
The 19th Wife - Historical fiction around the subject of polygamy.  Hard to wrap your head around the way of life, but holds the interest.
Life of Pi - A second go round for me and I can't wait for the movie!
The Language of Flowers - A good book club pick. Who knew some flowers had such negative meanings.
Amsterdam - By the author of Atonement, didn't quite hold the same interest but a quick little novel (novella?)

I am currently reading the newest John Irving and will tackle our next book club pick soon. I am picturing a lot of reading and relaxing come Honeymoon time!

2. Watch 120 movies - time to expand the horizons even further! Maybe this will be the year I finish out the Woody Allen oeuvre.
119!! I'll fit another one in tomorrow, I promise :-) We're currently making our way through The X-Files on Netflix.

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!
We won't go before this goal year is completed, but tickets to Book of Mormon for next January have been purchased. We also took in the best Second City show I have seen yet over St. Patrick's Day weekend.

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!
April - Tate Modern in London. June - back to the Art Institute for the Lichtenstein exhibit.

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.
Consider me covered - Charleston, SC followed by San Antonio. Boston, New Orleans and London! Next up Montreal and Belize for the honeymoon.

6. Book an international trip - chant it with me now: London 2012! London 2012!
photo source
An amazing trip for the record books. Stay tuned for a write up.

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.
Not quite a full day, but I had the little one for a few hours one Saturday morning - we had crafty time and went to the playground. She tired me out.
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!
Thanks for the birthday treat, Bob!

How Entertaining
9. Make a cheesecake - I have already borrowed the springform pan from sister. Time to try my hand at this new endeavor!
Done. Thank you America's Test Kitchen.

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?
This has been on my list for the last few weekends, I just have not gotten around to it yet but intend to soon!

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.
Made Taco Soup and a Sweet Chili. Just tackled Chicken Divan with a brand new crockpot received as a bridal shower gift. Fancy! Looks like I need to find one more recipe to make in short order to make an even four.

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!
Housewarming party check. Hosted Thanksgiving and Easter for family. The wedding will not be at our house, but I think with the amount of work put into it I can count it! We're already looking forward to possibly hosting Thanksgiving again (new tradition?) and having another holiday party.

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.
Helped my sister plan a woodland fairies themed birthday party for my 3 year old niece. Check out the recap here.

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.
Been making a considerable effort to fill up the bottle at work. It stares at me from my desk, but I've been good!

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.
I haven't been running since November 2010. Major fail. I do want to pick it back up. Suggestions for motivation? Ice cream treat if I run? I know! No more trips to Michael's until I start running!

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.
Fail. Now, if going to the dentist was a goal I'd be the big winner. 2 root canals and a replaced filling and a crown in the last year. Ugh!

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?
My mother gave me a set of greens as part of my bridal shower decor. Our indoor only life here in the condo with no balcony hasn't proved as fruitful for this set up, but the sage is going strong and we recently used some of it in a foil packet of sweet potatoes, green beans and onions.

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.
It's done and it is wonderful! Check it out here

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, Plant Markers, Housewarming Party apps, Shag Rug, Paddle Board Chicken, Personalized Books, Homemade Snow Globes. This might only add up to 9 posted projects, but I can assure you I have at least a few more wedding projects inspired by Pinterest I'll be posting.

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. . .
All done! Check it out here

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.
Okay, not sure I am going to make it to 100. I have about 35 under my belt. Can I count our Save the Dates and our wedding invitations that we designed? If so, I made it to over 200 :-)

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.
The wedding put this one on the back burner. We do find ourselves trolling the appliance sections and oohing and ahhing over the fancy refrigerators.
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.
Hmm, did not really do this one. I am fulfilling a 2011 goal that was not met when I head to Montreal to participate in a panel discussion. Maybe that means I'll join a networking group next year??

24. Do something with the Wisconsin Alumni Association - I miss my Badgers!
I did go to a Badger game in October. Does that count??

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! I missed a couple months here and there and need to step it back up next year!

26. Donate to 3 charities/fundraising activities - Lets help some people out in the things they are fighting for, or fighting against.
Participated in a bowling event for Big Shoulders, an Alzheimer's Assocation happy hour and. . .and. . .did I really only do 2 this year? Okay, first person soliciting for donations on Facebooks wins!
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.
I just bought 500 one inch blocks to make a bunch of my holiday blocks. I have started making a few more sets and am looking forward to focusing on a game plan here.

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.
This one should have been easy but I haven't made it happen yet. Soon, soon!

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.
I did not hit 100, only made it to 75. But the quality and pin-ability of my posts have definitely increased which is a good thing (hello intensive shag rug, save the date and project table).

31. Develop Adobe skills - Photoshop, thy will be tamed.
A trial version of Illustrator proved necessary for me to make our wedding programs, our escort cards and our favors. I'll be documenting it all in the next couple months post-wedding.
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
Yes, new boots, jackets and sweaters have been finding their way into my closet. I have found myself at Benneton a couple more times over the last month or two as well. . .

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.
Done! We have complimentary access to UBS advisors through my work so I set up a meeting and re-adjusted where I was putting my money. Feeling smarter already.

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.
That new niece is here and she is quite something! And I think I'm starting to earn some cool Aunt points with Ella - check out the book I made her for Christmas here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Choice is Yours

This past Sunday morning we lazed about until 10am until hunger started to strike. The plan was to walk to Dunkin Donuts (less than 2 blocks away). No doubt we would have gotten 2 chocolate milks, a french cruller, a boston creme pie and 2 cake donuts. That's the usual. Donuts are not exactly an "every weekend" affair, but often enough that we have our standards.

As we locked the door behind us, Bob and I decided instead to walk to Whole Foods (about 5 blocks away), pick up pizza dough to make dinner that evening and in the process find something for breakfast.

This course correction got me thinking to choices that we make and the little to big impacts they can have on our lives. I can get very deep when I think about choices, in my own philosophicy way (if I may make up a word). Wondering where my life would be if my freshman year neighbor hadn't worn a Camp Bird shirt to a dorm meeting (prompting me to introduce myself as being from the town Camp Bird is found in, leading to a sophomore year roommate, leading to a college relationship, leading to Chicago, leading to. . .here.); where my life would be if I hadn't answered the ad for a job at the zoo the summer after freshman year (prompting me to meet some amazing people, leading to a trip to Australia, leading to roommates, leading to some very memorable summers); where my life would be if my company did not call my temp agency back (leading to a job for 7+ years, leading to almost every person I call a friend, leading to international travel, leading to. . .Bob). 

Deep stuff aside, lets focus on the immediate rewards of choices! 

By avoiding the donuts, here is what our Sunday became:
- a lovely morning walk before it became ungodly hot.
- a breakfast of delicious cherries, fresh mango and croissants.
- a stop on the way back at Walmart Express for Bob to buy more Lean Cuisines at only $2 a pop. His goal of eating smaller portions continues with success!
- a dinner of another homemade pizza (we're on a roll).
What other simple choices do you make that can have an impact? A partial list, feel free to add your own!
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator. When you have a job in which you sit for 8+ hours a day, a little bit of forced exercise is a good thing.
- Picking up the phone instead of sending an email. I would like to get better at this, as my email crutch is contributing to my thousand-email inbox....
- Making dinner after work instead of turning on the TV. I started getting more into cooking when I lived by myself and realized I would come home from work, switch on the tube and go to bed five hours later. Ugh. By checking out during the day, stopping at the market on my way home and popping in some music, my first hour at home consisted of experimenting in the kitchen. Fun fact: I tended to cook to the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. Strange.
- Getting an appetizer instead of an entree. Let's face it, restaurant portions are insane. Plus, you can never go wrong with quesadillas. 
- Saving as much as we're spending. This is a tough one and not always realistic, but to get to a place where the credit card can be paid off each month, the savings account grows and a bit can be put away for that coveted retirement is a good thing. Maybe one day our interest rates will bounce back....
-But spending on experiences. You can save and save and save, but if it wasn't for my trips to Australia, Egypt, London and more I think I would be missing out on quite a bit. 

Now, these choices don't mean that I am going to avoid the elevator and the donut shop at all times, far from it. And I certainly still get home from work, jump on the couch and turn on my shows a couple times a week. But, by mixing it up now and again you never know what you are going to end up with (or who you are going to meet!).

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Few Good Meals

Although the last thing we feel like doing in this ungodly heat is to turn on the oven and make a big meal in the kitchen, we have experimented with a few tasty treats over the last few weeks - here's the round up!

Homemade pizzas on the grill are nothing new to this household (check out this post here detailing our first foray). However, with our current living situation using the grill is not as easy as stepping out on the balcony. It's more like "take everything down three flights to the garage, drag the grill into the alley, get bemused looks from passers-by in the cars and bring everything back up to eat." So convenient it isn't. So when we hosted Bob's mom, aunt and grandmother for dinner a couple Fridays ago, we decided to try out the conventional oven instead of the grill. 

We picked up 2 units of dough from Whole Foods at $3.99 a pop. Apparently up one dollar from the last time we purchased! We learned you can stick these in the freezer and just take them out a day or so ahead of time to thaw in the fridge. After rolling out the dough, you do realize how big a pizza it can make but we were held to the constraints of our pizza pan and our largest cookie sheet. To not waste the extra dough for the round pie, Bob created a stuffed crust by lining the circle with lotsa mozza and then folding over the extra crust. As you can tell, it certainly puffs up!
I had a bit of fun in the grocery store trying to come up with toppings, we ended up with 2 options:
- Blue cheese, mozzarella, basil, black olives and thin tomato slices
- Pepperoni, black olives, mushrooms and mozzarella
We cooked them for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees until golden brown, keeping a close eye and turning once. The homemade kind are never going to be quite as symmetrical as your restaurant offers, but the taste is something special. Yum-o!

We had paired the pizza with a caesar salad of Parmesan croutons and romaine lettuce. Extra romaine and leftover pizza ingredients meant an experimental salad the next night. Bob sliced up mango, mushrooms and tomato. We added in corn grilled earlier that week and shaved off the cobs and made a quick southwestern dressing out of ranch, barbecue sauce and honey. A great fresh offering for dinner that really did fill us up. And is there anything better than grilled corn?
Lastly, and this is going to be a less than gourmet offering, I wanted to use some of our extra pizza toppings for a meal, but didn't have any bread, bagels or pita to act as a crust. Instead I grabbed a plateful of tortilla chips and topped them with mozzarella, pepperoni and blue cheese crumbles. Microwave it for 30 seconds and dig in! I actually make nachos like this all the time, but usually just with shredded cheese over the chips. Keepin' it healthy.
I hope you are staying cool this summer, I can't believe we're already headed into the end of July. Bring on sweater weather!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Slideshowin' Off

Part of our never-ending wedding planning includes the ubiquitous slideshow presentation. I am sure you have seen them in at least a couple of weddings - photos from birth to present of the bride and the groom, followed by shots of the couple since they started dating. Today's technology is making these a lot easier to create - I remember running an actual slide projector at a friend's wedding almost 10 years ago!

We knew we wanted a video element during the reception, but in the back of my mind I wasn't sure how we would work it out since we don't have any movie making software or a fancy Mac. Turns out, I didn't have to make things so complicated. After a bit of research and google searching this weekend, I realized that the slideshow could be done on my current computer with FREE tools!

The Software
After searching around for free downloads, I actually took a minute to look at what was already loaded onto my Dell. Wait a second - what was Windows DVD Maker and why had I never noticed it before?? I opened up the program and quickly caught on. By dropping all of the photos into the folder - and easily rearranging them - the slideshow built itself.
Within another menu, you can choose the music that accompanies the slideshow and set the timings of the slide transitions to fit the length of the audio. More on how the music choices were made and edited below. 
The menu choice for the "play" button could be changed to our preferred fonts for our wedding - Peignot Demi & Peignot Bold. Stay tuned for a full write up of how we created our invites, programs and more using this modern font. Fun Fact from Wikipedia: Peignot was used during the first three seasons of The Jerry Springer Show.
Background photos for the menu screen can also be customized in a lot of different ways. I just went with the standard full screen photo as opposed to some of the jazzier options.
The Music
Certain elements of our wedding were in formation long before the actual engagement. Nothing as vital as the dress I was going to wear or the ring Bob would pick out, but creative ideas for the Save the Date and music for the processional and recessional stuck in my head years earlier and luckily Bob has been amenable! Likewise, some songs that I knew I wanted involved in the reception somehow were also top of mind. The choices for our three song snippets for the wedding slideshow then came about pretty easily.

Bob's photos - God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. Bob has mentioned before that he loves this song and its lovely melody adds a nice pace to the photos without being too slow.

Lydia's photos - Romeo and Juliet by The Killers. Listening to Dire Straits always reminds me of my childhood ("I Want My MTV. . . "), but this rendition, from their compilation Sawdust, is pretty killer.

Bob & Lydia photos - Burnin' Love by Elvis Presley. We both love a good Elvis song and I think the lyrics and beat fit photos of a young couple falling in love over time pretty darn well.

My one goal with our slideshow was to keep it short. No one wants to sit and stare at the screen for 10 or more minutes. After all, that's precious time getting taken away from dancing! It just so happened that each song had a perfect fade out opportunity at around the minute and a half mark, which would make the total slideshow a little less than 5 minutes long.

Now how to edit the songs? I started with a go-to tool I have used for work projects called Audacity. A free download, this easy to use software allows you to cut, amplify, rearrange and more. My first challenge was the filetype. My music from CDs were in my iTunes library as .m4a. Audacity can play with .wav files. I thought for sure I would hit a dead end because the music industry needs to protect their songs, and rightly so. But after a little more google searching, the answer was right in front of me.

1. Open iTunes
2. File > Preferences > Import Settings > Import as: WAV encoder.
3. Find your song and right click on it. Now the option to "Create WAV version" should appear.
4. The WAV file will be saved just under the original file.

I opened each file in Audacity, zoomed in so the chopping points were obvious and cut out everything after a minute and a half. I then highlighted the last few seconds and chose the "fade out" option under Effects. You export the file as .wav and save wherever you need it.
Then, all you have to do is browse for your files and add them to the DVD project. I thought I might need to combine all three files into one song, but the Windows tool makes a seamless transition from one file to the next.

The Photos
Because I have not actually burned the project to a DVD yet, I am leaving myself some room to play with the photos that I chose for the slideshow. Knowing the length of time of the songs and the preferred length of each photo to appear, we landed on having 18 photos displayed for each section. This allows about 5 seconds of airtime per photo which is enough to digest the whole picture but not so long that you get bored. Using the feature "Cross Fade" for transitions - called "Ken Burns Style" on some sites - adds a bit of storytelling beyond the typical PowerPoint star wipes. Although, who doesn't love a good star wipe??

From birth to present can be a tall order, especially when dealing with boxes upon boxes of childhood photos and a limit of 18 photos. We tried to get a good mix of each age range, feature all the key relatives and friends and focus on life events like senior photos, graduations, travel and more. We averaged 6 photos ages 0-10; 6 photos from 10-20 and 6 photos from 20-30 (well, 30 for some of us, 29 for the younger of us two :-)
Bob is going to do a pass through when he is home this weekend to see if he can find some more options for his section, but using a scanner and a Shutterfly scrapbook his Aunt made for him a few years ago actually proved quite fruitful. A quality scanner is a good thing to have for a project like this.
The photos of Bob and I were a little easier to organize; meeting in 2007 meant all applicable photos have been archived on or on my computer network. Ranging from our first Halloween together (one month into dating) to a San Diego Padres game (9 months into dating) to rockin' it out in the photo booth of a friend's wedding (1 year into dating) to a pose in front of the Great Pyramids of Egypt (3 1/2 years into dating) to our housewarming party for our purchased condo (4 years into dating) it runs the gamut.
One outstanding item I stil have to add is an end screen. Rather than end with a photo, I am trying to find a quote or phrase to close out the slideshow. Something like, ". . .and many more memories to come." Any suggestions are welcome!

I'm saving the finished product for the wedding so no sneak peeks just yet! Our venue has a plasma television attached to the wall with DVD player so we'll test out the disc during an upcoming vendor walk through to ensure it will go off without a hitch. Fingers crossed the DVD burner works correctly and the finished product comes out well on the big screen.