Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A year of Costco

Matt and I have shared a Costco membership longer than we've been married, and every year -- after rolling my eyes during what feel like excruciatingly long visits to a store than reeks of mass consumerism and a parking lot full of people who cannot drive -- I wonder, "Is it worth it?"

So, during 2010 I saved all receipts from our Costco trips, which tallied up to an underwhelming 15 visits where we spent $1,699.64. Three of these trips were for special occasions (Foxfield, Matt's 30th birthday party, New Year's Eve entertaining) and a couple trips involved some out-of-pocket teacher expenses, but the majority of the Costco spending this year was for our daily at-home consumption.

Now, back to the question, "Is it worth it?", especially after factoring in the $50 annual membership fee.

The short answer: Yes. We buy enough items that collectively save us way more than $50 per year and therefore justify the membership fee.

The longer answer, one detailed Excel spreadsheet later:

The savings afforded on the purchase of the Izze 12 bottle variety pack during its brief stint at our local Costco is enough to validate our membership. At 99 cents per bottle, it's the cheapest deal around.

Speaking of good deals, the 3M Filtrete Ultra Allergen filters we buy at Costco average a little over $13 per filter, also making them cheaper than any deal I can find online.

Our most often purchased item? Coming in at 18 bottles, I give you wine. Apparently this should not be a surprising statistic, as Costco is the largest wine distributor in the world. I can't say we got any incredible wine deals, seeing as we almost always buy $10 bottles (or cheaper) no matter where we buy them, but it feels more legitimate buying wine in bulk at Costco.

More than anything, the Costco experiment has been a small window into how we lived our life this past year. Most notably:
  • Matt eats a lot of dried fruit (15 bags). I eat a lot of kettle corn (4 enormous bags, but Costco only started carrying it mid-year).
  • We also eat a lot of apples, but we only buy them at Costco when they carry organic gala apples. 2010 was the year of organic apples.
  • Matt has always been a big cereal consumer, but this year I vowed to eat healthy cereal with milk every day at home before work (as opposed to digging into a Ziploc bag of dried cereal on the way to work). This move resulted in Kashi cereal being our third-most-often-purchased item behind wine and dried fruit.
  • Once Costco started carrying organic chicken breast halfway through the year, our intake of chicken skyrocketed. Additionally, once we got wise to the fact that uncooked frozen shrimp at Costco is significantly cheaper than uncooked frozen shrimp at Wegmans, we bought many bulk bags of Costco shrimp. Overall, 2010 was the year of more meat in our diet, mostly because I thought Matt's semi-vegetarian ways of 2009 were not sufficient for my protein intake.
  • This year we've done a better job stocking up on compact fluorescent light bulbs and making our own vinegar-based cleaning products.
  • We buy toilet paper three times as often as we buy paper towels. As much as I'd like to in theory, I don't know that I can ever completely break my paper towel habit.
  • We should have bought toothpaste yesterday during our final Costco trip of the year, but one Costco-sized pack of toothpaste can last a family of two almost exactly one year.
  • We did not make a single major purchase at Costco this year. No electronics, no furniture, no vacuum cleaners or small appliances. This was the year of the European vacation and few additional purchases.
As much as I hate the mild headache that I get every time Matt suggests it's time for a Costco run, I recognize that smarter daily spending habits on even the seemingly smallest items has been one reason we've been able to triple our monthly savings over the last two years.

So, if you're debating whether a Costco (or Sam's or BJ's) membership is worth it in 2011, you could break out a spreadsheet and get to work, or you could take my word for it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Taking the plunge: Custom framing

Although the subject of today's post is by no means a last-minute gift idea, it is about a splurge I finally made for Matt and me that's been a great gift for us the last couple weeks.

Over the summer in Florence I stumbled upon the world's most adorable stationery store steps away from the Duomo. In addition to vintage-Italian-inspired greeting cards and gift wrap, the store also carries replica old-fashioned Italian prints. I fell in love with an awesome map of Italy, knowing it would be a great reminder of our trip. It's one of the few souvenirs I brought back from Italy -- the map, along with my red leather gloves from Venice, have been nice to break out this winter.

Of course, as luck would have it, the map is totally odd dimensions -- at 15" wide and 12" high, it doesn't exactly fit any pre-made frames.

So, after letting the map sit in our office closet for five months, I finally bit the bullet and took it to Michael's in late November when the store was in the midst of its 60 percent off custom framing sale. I know they have custom framing orders on sale year-round, but this was legitimately the best sale of the year (and the only remaining sale for anyone who wanted their orders back in time for Christmas).

Even with the fantastic discounts and my tendency to still select the "cheapest" variety of everything -- mat, glass, wooden frame -- I still managed to spend $72 for the finished product, but the reminder of our most amazing trip of our lifetimes hanging on our bedroom wall is a priceless way to warm up the dead of winter.

Walking into Michael's, I didn't have a serious vision of what I wanted the finished product to look like. I only knew I wanted a brown wooden frame to match all the other frames in our bedroom. So, I let the sales rep guide me through the process, and together we got to this. I'm satisfied with the quality of work and the speed at which it was completed, though it was done about four days past its due date. I cut Micahel's some slack, though, knowing this is the busiest retail time of year. I would go back for future custom framing needs, though I might splurge for the glare-free glass in the future (as you can see, it was very difficult for me to photograph this piece of art!).

And, when we have children, I will totally be that mom who gives her children standard 11" x 14" paper for them to draw their masterpieces so as to reduce the need for any future custom framing orders. Because, any way you slice it, this stuff is expensive.

Now off to do some serious bathroom cleaning. Today was dog washing day, and dog washing day = messy bathroom day.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to organize gift bags

Tis the season of bags. Lots of them. Everywhere.

No doubt as you finish (or start, as the case may be) your holiday shopping, you'll next be grabbing all the wrapping items you can find. If you're like me and most people I know, you already have a ton of gift bags lying around your home, waiting to be re-gifted. So, time to get organized.

Although I love perfectly wrapped presents more than just about anything else in the world, I recognize there is a time and a place for re-using old gift bags, and this is of course way more environmentally friendly to boot.

We have approximately 70 gift bags in our home, so I rounded them up and organized them by type.

Our groups divided up nicely into these eight categories:
  • super small bags
  • medium-sized bags I like
  • medium-sized bags that are more plain/boring
  • medium birthday/balloon/celebratory bags
  • large bags
  • wine bottle bags
  • Christmas bags
  • non-Christmas other-holiday bags
I used to have a bunch of wedding bags, but over four years into our marriage and about 35 friends' weddings later, our supply has been depleted.

A few rubber bands transformed the neatly organized piles into neatly organized packs.

A clear plastic under-the-bed container I've held on to from my childhood became the free carrying case for our newly organized gift bags. I keep my pile of medium bags I like at the front of the container so it's easily accessible. Holiday bags can stay in the back.

For now, this solution works for us. Of course, at some point I will need to do more than just simply re-gift gift bags. I'll need a more creative solution to what could become gift-bag overload. Here's a list of 10 ways to re-use gift bags, some of which may work for you.

Have a happy and calm Saturday, especially if you're planning to do any shopping!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Simple holiday card display

OK, after hanging up the ornaments on the fan this weekend, I got a little more festive with some additional decorating around the house. Specifically, I figured out a way to display our growing collection of this year's holiday cards in the easiest way I could conjure up.

In the past I've displayed our holiday cards on the shallow shelves in our dining room. But after replacing those shallow shelves this spring, the new shelves are no longer as conducive to showing off our friends' smiling faces. I kept envisioning a clothesline-type display, but I didn't want to put any new holes in our walls and I didn't want to buy anything new, like those easy-to-remove Scotch hooks. Then, while looking at our banister, a moment of inspiration struck me, and I whipped out some spare ribbon and clothespins we never use.


I think I just started a new holiday tradition in our house.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A fan of the holidays

When it comes to the holiday season, things are pretty low-key around our house. Because neither Matt nor I grew up celebrating Christmas, we feel odd fabricating a huge to-do about decorations and gift-giving this time of year. This doesn't mean, though, that we don't do a little something to jazz up our lives every December. Besides celebrating with friends and family at various holiday parties, and sending and receiving holiday cards, we put up a few winter decorations as well.

We don't have a tree, special servingware or a bunch of knickknacks, but we do have some simple, sparkly ornaments that I've gotten into the tradition of hanging from our dining room fan with the help of some clear craft floss.

Do you have any out-of-the-ordinary holiday decorating traditions?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

White elephants

This weekend I'll attend two parties with White Elephant games. At one party I'm expected to bring the worst item imaginable, and at another party I'm expected to bring a gift for under $10. Matt and I always discuss is how "White Elephant" has various interpretations depending on the crowd. The dilemma we face is always unless we've been clearly told in advance to bring the world's worst gift, we don't want to give something nice and end up with a dud. Three years ago, when the party pickings were clearly slim, we wound up choosing our own gifts and feigned surprise when we opened them. We are highly practical gift givers and seekers.

In an effort to reduce your chances of getting a half-burned candle at your upcoming gift exchange, here's a list of some tried-and-true small gender-neutral gifts that have broad appeal:

A $10 bottle of wine. Even if someone doesn't drink, it's always nice to keep a bottle handy for guests. And $10 can get you a good bottle.

Movie tickets. You could buy them in bulk at Costco.

A Starbucks gift card. Boring? Perhaps. Utilitarian? Absolutely.
An iTunes gift card. It's so much fun to see a credit in our iTunes store account.

Non-perishable treats, like gourmet hot chocolate or pre-packaged chocolate-covered pretzels. (I believe chocolate-covered pretzels was one of the two gifts we brought three years ago and took back home with us.)

A Restaurant.com gift certificate or another pre-paid special through a site such as Groupon. Yes, the winner will have to inevitably spend money to get the deal, such as $50 worth of food for $25, but I'd be pretty excited if I opened that gift.

A magazine subscription. Find a cheap online deal, and have the winner give you her address. Here's one example of Everyday Food for one year for $8.99.

Now, what did I leave out? What are the best (or worst) gifts you've seen at a gift exchange party?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ditch your Google Reader web app

You all know that as I much as I enjoy writing blogs, I equally enjoy reading blogs, and Google Reader is the perfect way to keep up-to-date with blog reading. But the Google Reader web app is not the greatest, so I was thrilled when Matt introduced me to my new favorite Droid app, NewsRob, and today you can now download the official Google Reader app as well.

I haven't had time to experiment with the new official Google Reader app, but I've been using NewsRob for a couple months, and I've grown partial to this program.

Why is the free NewsRob app worth downloading?

With the Google Reader web app, you have to click on every single post. You can't simply scroll through your posts, as you can through the regular Google Reader site. Thankfully, though, the NewsRob app allows you to easily move from one post to the next simply by hitting right and left arrow buttons that show up on either side of the screen. This means way less clicking overall and less back and forth.

Additionally, I always found myself getting frustrated with the small size of the buttons on the Google Reader mobile site. I'd be trying to click on one blog, but I'd inevitably hit the one above it or below it, often several times in a row. The layout of NewsRob is much more user friendly and makes me more likely to hit the right button the first time.

If you decide to use the official Google Reader app, leave me a comment to share how it's working out for you.

And, on a totally different note: in case you forgot, today is December 1, which means it's time to change your air filter! Not on a schedule yet? Change yours today, and I'll alert you on March 1 when it's time to change again.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Recipe tip: Shrimp with white beans and bacon

In the spirit of healthy weeknight eating, I thought I would share with you our attempt at making up for the starch-heavy Thanksgiving Round 1 and Round 2 we observed over the weekend.

As is the case with many of our recipes, we cannot take credit for this genius combination, but we did make a couple modifications, some of which involve making the recipe easier. The original recipe in Men's Health called for seared scallops, but because I'm not much of a scallop eater, we substituted in shrimp instead. Additionally, as often as possible, we try to use dried beans as opposed to canned beans to cut down on sodium and BPA, but tonight's meal included canned beans because apparently everyone cooked dried white beans as part of their Thanksgiving meals, or something, so the store was out.

Matt further simplified the recipe by turning a two-pan recipe into a one-pan recipe that makes for easy weeknight clean up.

Shrimp with white beans and bacon
Slightly adapted from Men's Health

2 strips bacon, cut into small pieces
1/2 red onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
A couple shakes of crushed red pepper
14 ounces white beans (1 can or equivalent of dried beans)
4 cups baby spinach
1 lb. shrimp
Salt and pepper
Juice of one lemon

1. Cook bacon in saute pan.

2. Pour off half of bacon fat and add onion and garlic to saute until onion is translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Add a couple shakes of crushed red pepper.

3. Add white beans and spinach; cook until beans are warm and spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes.

4. Add shrimp and cook shrimp a couple minutes until they turn pink. Season with lemon juice and salt and pepper.

Eat this while crying during the conclusion of Toy Story 3. Youth is, indeed, fleeting.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Experiments in stainless steel cleaning, take 1

Last month when Matt and I made the decision to splurge on some stainless steel appliances, I did have one concern: How would we keep them clean? I've heard plenty of stories of people complaining about how stainless steel shows every little imperfection (which, of course, sounds like a White Whine).

Fortunately, I have a husband who is more cleanliness obsessed than me, and before I even had a chance to bring up the topic, Matt had already purchased these Method Steel for Real Wipes.

The verdict? I'm pretty satisfied.

We've only used them a few times, thanks to the fact that we have a relatively low-traffic fridge, with just two clean adults in our household. Still, our fridge does show fingerprints and sticky food residue, so I've found myself reaching for these once, maybe twice, every two weeks.

The trick to using these wipes appropriately is to move your hand in the direction of the grain. Our stainless grain is horizontal, and vertical swipes clearly show. Additionally, another trick is patience. The first time I used these wipes, I was a bit dismayed because I could see the residue the wipes left behind. Give the wipes about 30 seconds to do their magic, and any leftover residue should disappear.

Streak-free and ready to party

Overall, I like Method products, though I do recognize that despite the company's best environmental efforts, disposable wipes, like paper towels, can only be so green. So, I will continue to experiment with other options, but I'm pretty happy with this product.

In the meantime, do you have any stainless steel secrets to share?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thank goodness for Thanksgiving

Of course I love the opportunity Thanksgiving affords us to catch up with friends and family, and I'm looking forward to all the social events scheduled over the next few days. But this year, what I'm perhaps just as thankful for is the opportunity to catch up on sleep.

Ever since taking a bus load of students to Kansas City, I've been exhausted. I guess midnight curfew checks will do that to you when you're used to being in bed around 9 p.m. Then add to that all the work I fell behind on while away plus newspaper deadline week, and you can imagine I've been craving some sleep.

So, I'm thankful that yesterday afternoon work ended early, and I could take a two-hour nap when I got home. And I'm thankful for the fact that after I fell asleep last night in the middle of Toy Story 3 I got 10 hours of sleep.

As for our actual Thanksgiving day plans, this afternoon and evening will be a laid-back affair with Matt's parents and Matt's brother and his wife. No one has to travel now that everyone lives in the same 15-mile radius. Lovely. And thanks to my friend Lindsay, I now have a new recipe to try out as an appetizer -- the Miraculous Blue Cheese Ball with Walnuts that she brought to our November book club. It truly was a book club miracle, and you know how much I love blue cheese.

Have a happy and restful day, wherever you may be!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Eye cream: don't get too attached

I already alluded to my brief mall excursion on Saturday (you know, when I got cut off by the Baby on Board guy). One of the two main reasons for my trip was to finally replenish my totally used up supply of eye cream (or eye depuffer, as I more affectionately call it).

The good news is that my new-found favorite Korres Sugar Crystal Antioxidant Collection Regimen Kit lasted me about ten months. The bad news is that Sephora no longer carries this product because it was, of course, a limited edition. Add this one to the list of products I fall in love with only to discover they've been discontinued (insert many curly-hair products of the past here, though thankfully at this point I can still get my hands on these).

Thanks to my success with this Korres product, though, I figured I would give another Korres product a shot and settled on Evening Primrose Against Fine Lines and Dark Circles Eye Cream. I like a descriptive product, and this sounds like exactly what I'm looking for. At $35 for a tube that looks like it should last me many months, this seems like a reasonable solution.

After I've had more time to experiment, I'll let you know how this new product is working out for me. In the meantime, does anyone have a favorite eye cream? Or a favorite product that got discontinued?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good to know: homemade laundry detergent lasts!

Back in May I wrote to you about my DIY laundry detergent experiments. After making a huge batch of laundry detergent, I predicted I might have enough to make it through February. Well, that was hyperbole, but it turns out that this DIY detergent managed to last for over six months! And, it is getting our clothes just as clean as the chemical-laden store-bought stuff. Victory!

One of Matt's colleagues laughed at him when he found out we make our own laundry detergent. He said, "This is how I know you all don't have any children." All I have to say is that spending 10-15 minutes every six months doesn't seem like a big time commitment, kids or no kids.

Now that I've made my second successful batch of laundry detergent this weekend, it's time to find a better storage solution. The aluminum foil lid is not working out too well, but at least the detergent is pretty great.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Moment of irony: Baby on Board sign

You know that I love useful signs and labels, but I loathe the Baby on Board sign. It might as well read, "I've been fortunate enough to procreate (even though the jury's out on whether that was a good idea); therefore, you need to be extra cautious when driving around me." As if I should try harder not to hit you. In other words, I kind of want to punch these people in the face.

Today, after a quick jaunt to the mall to pick up some necessities (read: nothing glamorous here) I got cut off while entering the Beltway by -- you guessed it! -- some jerk sporting a Baby on Board sign.

I'll keep this in mind for next September when I introduce a new crop of freshmen to the concept of irony.

Monday, November 15, 2010

We're not in Kansas anymore

Literally. We have left Kansas (City, Missouri), and we are back in the good ole VA.

After four nights and four days, we managed to bring 29 journalism students and three teachers half way across the country, safe and sound. This officially makes this my most successful overnight field trip with students.

On top of this, I think my kids actually had fun. I actually had fun. Yes, we took them to the College Basketball Experience at the Sprint Center and ice skating at the Crown Center and we ate BBQ dinner at Gates and Mexican at Los Corrals, but I think they had legitimate fun through the journalism activities during the trip too. They traveled to Kansas City, but city and activities aside, it's there that they really bonded with each other, fulfilling Dorothy's mantra "there's no place like home."

And while most teachers might find their students' gift of a magnet reading "If I only had a brain" mildly offensive, this teacher appreciates the fact that her students tied her souvenir into her Halloween costume. Thanks, guys!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Forcing ourselves to save

Money has been on my mind a lot in the last few months, so I figured it was about time to blog about it. Way back in January I blogged about my semi-obsession with Mint.com and its budget tools. Now that I've been using Mint for almost a year and a half to track our household spending and set realistic monthly budgets, I am happy to report the way in which this site has fundamentally changed our habits. We are saving more than ever before.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me clarify one huge point: Matt and I are saving more than ever before, even though we are currently making the same salaries we've been making for the past three years. Our district has frozen pay increases for teachers. Determined, though, to not let this dampen our financial futures, I decided to give us a "raise" by saving more each year than we did the year before.

A quick diversion...look how well our plant on the deck is doing in November! Talk about longevity.

So, in the last few months, I have been over our budget on Mint with a fine-tooth comb. I've looked at our spending trends and found areas where we were spending too much. This is where I really examined our budget dollar by dollar and decided, for example, to cut down our Netflix account from two movies at a time plus unlimited streaming (for about $14/month) to one movie at a time plus unlimited streaming (for about $9/month). Five dollars a month is only $60 per year, which obviously isn't going to change our lifestyle, but by examining and adjusting each budget accordingly, I have been able to triple the amount of money we save each month between 2008 and today. That's right -- right now, we're saving three times what we saved two years ago, and we didn't get raises or even cost-of-living adjustments.

It's also important to note that we would not be doing such a stellar job of saving if we did not have an automatic savings plan in place, so that almost as soon as our paychecks clear our checking account we whisk away a big chunk of money into our savings account, never to be touched.

Here's what our monthly budget looks like:

Monthly spending:
  • Mortgage -- high (in an effort to keep some things personal, I'll keep the dollar amount out here)
  • Savings -- second highest "expense," which I have automatically direct deposited into our savings account each month
  • Groceries -- $600 allocated, though we've never spent that much. In October, we spent $500.
  • Bills and utilities -- $450 allocated, average cost is around $400 for Internet, cable, cell phones, gas, electric
  • Restaurants -- $250 allocated, and we always spend this much. This is one of the main areas where we've cut down in the last year or two. Any prepared food we buy goes into this category, whether it's a sit-down meal at a nice restaurant or grabbing a sandwich from Potbelly.
  • Gas -- $175 allocated, which is almost always what we spend.
  • Homeowners Association dues -- $101, never changes.
  • Auto/home insurance -- $95, never changes.
  • Home furnishings/supplies -- $75 allocated, and I have this budget carry over from one month to the next to account for months when I spend a lot versus months when I spend little to no money on our home.
  • Clothing -- $75 allocated, and this is another budget that carries over from month to month to account for the fact that I usually buy several items of clothing at once. Take, for instance, today: I had only bought one clothing item in three months until I bought six items this afternoon!
  • Health and fitness -- $60 allocated, which includes gym memberships, pharmacy purchases, doctor's visits.
  • Pet food and supplies -- $50 allocated
  • Cosmetics/toiletries -- $25 allocated, another carry-over budget. I formed this one out of shear curiosity, not because we spend much money in this area. It's a way for me to see if I can continue to justify more expensive hair product purchases. I think I can.
  • Education -- $15 allocated for classroom supplies/books we might buy for ourselves. We try not to do this, though sometimes it's inevitable.
  • Newspapers/magazines -- $15 allocated. Matt reads a lot.
  • Movies -- $10 allocated, Netflix.
  • Coffee shops -- $10 allocated, for those times when we haven't been gifted with a Starbucks card.
Infrequent spending:
We also have budgets in place for those items we pay every other month, every three months or even  once a year. Mint calculates these items as budgets we're saving for a little every month so we don't have to tempt ourselves to draw from our savings for infrequent expenses.
  • Auto maintenance/repair -- $33/month (spend ~$100 every three months between our two cars)
  • Pet medication -- $25/month (spend $50 every other month)
  • Veterinary -- $50/month (because we spend a ridiculous amount each year that I don't even want to think about)
  • Water -- $26/month (billed every three months)
  • Heating/AC maintenance -- $23/month paid once a year to fulfill a yearly contract to service our HVAC
  • AAA membership -- $7/month, paid once a year
This exercise in meticulous budgeting has helped me maintain my sanity when I get worried about the lack of raises in our foreseeable future. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I've taken control of our finances, our savings and therefore some of our happiness as well. If you haven't tried this out with your family's budget, now would be a great time to look at your trends to get you off to a fresh start as the new year approaches!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An organized costume pair

After Saturday afternoon's disorganized rally we attended a highly organized Halloween party. Before I go any further, let me clarify: About 10 of our friends dressed up as characters from the Wizard of Oz. For this plan I can take absolutely no credit, although I will say that when the group settled on the Wizard of Oz theme I was thrilled because it is my favorite childhood movie. I can only take credit for the costumes Matt and I showed up in Saturday night -- he was Tin Man, I was Scarecrow.

I'm a real believer in home-made costumes. I think they can be even more ridiculous than store-bought costumes, as our costumes this year demonstrated. It always takes some extra planning, but I think it paid off.

As the Scarecrow, my costume was inherently less exciting than Matt's, but I made the most of it. I attached patches (actually pieces of old rag) to one of Matt's olive green sweaters; stole straw from the watershed behind our neighborhood; bought some rope at Home Depot to attach as my belt and around my legs; purchased a pirate-like hat at a Halloween costume store; attached two creepy black birds I found on clearance at Pottery Barn to the hat; made myself a Bachelor of Knowledge diploma; and painted my nose and cheeks brown. In summary, I looked not at all attractive, which of course sets me apart from every other female on Halloween, when everyone else is trying to look her sexiest.

Matt's costume involved almost all hand-made items. We bought a large red funnel at Home Depot that I spray-painted gray; I made a heart, bowtie and ax out of cardboard; I painted Matt's entire face using silver face paint; and, oh yes, we wrapped him in tin foil. In retrospect, we could have bought him a gray sweat suit, but where's the fun in that? As I was wrapping Matt in foil initially, I had to stop every 30 seconds because I was laughing so hard I was crying. Then, as the night continued, particularly as we were walking around the streets of D.C., Matt's foil kept falling off or apart, requiring me to repair him many times. Everywhere our group walked, people would look at us, no doubt trying to figure out what we all were, and then someone would shout, "TIN MAN!" I guess it's hard to miss a man covered in foil.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A disorganized rally

This weekend involved a series of organized activities. Saturday in particular was packed with events, first at Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and then celebrating Halloween with some friends from college.

First off: the rally -- a fun, disorganized mess
Here's the rally in a nutshell:
The good:
  • good weather
  • hilarious signs

The bad:
  • bad job on the part of the organizers underestimating crowds
  • bad sound
  • transportation issues
  • rally-goers who don't understand subtle irony and instead created signs bashing Republicans (not the point of the rally)
Matt and I made our own moderate, rational sign
Of course, while there were strangers who enjoyed the sign and asked me to pose for a photo, there were some who came up and asked, "So, are you a Republican?" Work with me, people!

In case you haven't heard, the rally on Saturday afternoon was not exactly what it was cracked up to be. Specifically, the good people at Comedy Central underestimated the crowds they would draw by a long shot, planning for about 60,000 when figures suggest that approximately 215,000-250,000 people flooded the National Mall.

Matt and I made plans to attend the rally with his brother and our sister-in-law, who live much closer to the city than we do. We were not determined to get up early or be on the front row, both of which seemed to be in keeping with the spirit of sanity the rally was trying to promote.

Once we got on 66 eastbound heading for D.C., though, we could tell immediately that our chances of Metroing into the city from Arlington were highly unlikely. Traffic on 66 was at a stand-still as people with license plates from all kinds of east-coast and mid-western states tried to get in the line for the Metro exits. When we made it past the Fairfax County traffic into Arlington, though, there was basically no traffic, but there was no chance we were going to get on the Metro either. Most people who managed to squeeze into the packed cars on the train had gotten on the Metro at the end of the line in Vienna and/or rode the Metro west-bound from Arlington to Vienna, where they then changed trains and headed back into the city. I wasn't shocked this morning when I heard on the radio that Metro ridership set a new 19-year record.

So, we went with plan B: we walked from Arlington.

And then, after walking for about 15 minutes, we found a cab (plan C).

We got to the National Mall around 12:35, just in time to hear The Roots finishing their set to open the rally. (I kept calling them Rusted Root, though, which seemed like an even more appropriate band for Saturday's festivities.) The crowds kept pushing us all closer to the stage, but no one could hear anything. All speakers and jumbotrons were way out of sight. The only thing we could hear was everyone near us chanting, "Louder, louder, louder" and then people started chanting, "Yes you can" to other rally-goers who started climbing trees to get a better view. (I do not endorse climbing the trees on the National Mall.)

After a little more than one hour we decided this wasn't going to work out, so we started heading back home. The crowds were really thinning out, too. A bunch of our friends were at the rally independent of us, and it turns out all of us had virtually the same experience. Everyone had trouble getting there, no one could hear, no one stayed very long, but everyone enjoyed looking at the fun signs in the nice weather.
You can check out more user-uploaded photos of signs here through the Washington Post.

The day before Obama's inauguration Matt and I attended the free concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- "We Are All One." That was impressive and overall well organized with lots of jumbotrons and great sound quality. The "We Are All One" concert put the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear to shame with its skillful organization. As our friend Courtney, who also attempted to attend this Saturday's rally, pointed out, Saturday's Stewart/Colbert failed rally in light of the "We Are All One" concert was, if nothing else, an example of big government trumping private industry.

Next up...our organized Halloween.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A pumpkin-carving good time

When it comes to pumpkin carving, I have minimal experience. I have carved about four pumpkins in my life, including the one I carved today. I think it's fun to have our pumpkin reflect (pun intended) something about our little family. With Matt's 30th birthday six days away, I figured this year's pumpkin should be a tribute to that (scary) milestone.

I finally put to use some pumpkin carving tools from Crate and Barrel that Matt's parents generously gifted me with a couple years ago. Up until now I had used just a kitchen knife (probably a bad idea) and I'd never experimented with the wide world of sculpting with a v-cutter in addition to carving. The good news: it is a lot easier to carve a pumpkin with designated pumpkin-carving tools. All told, it took me about 45 minutes to prepare and carve my pumpkin. The other good news: now our house smells like roasted pumpkin seeds -- yum!

As I get ready for the little trick-o-treaters of our neighborhood, I'll let today's photos do the talking.

Hopefully our little pumpkin will make it through this upcoming Saturday when we have some friends over for a low-key 30th birthday party for Matt.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kansas City here we come

Once again, dear readers, I seek your advice.

Here's the end of the story:
Anyone who has lived in or traveled to Kansas City: what are some downtown, high-school-kid-friendly eateries you'd recommend? What about high-school-kid-friendly sightseeing? Any advice appreciated!

Here's the beginning of the story:
So, what's one thing that's been keeping me busy lately? Besides planning lessons, grading papers, going to lots of meetings, advising my newspaper and broadcast students after school...and the 40 other things I do on a daily basis at work, I'm also working with another teacher to plan a trip for 29 students and 3 adults to Kansas City, Missouri for four days next month. We'll be attending an annual scholastic journalism convention. The location changes every year, but the concept is generally the same: spend a few days with a bunch of high school students; have students get excited about journalism through various convention activities; make some time for sightseeing.

Planning trips such as these is absolutely draining. There are so many details, and it is not cost effective for us to work with a travel agent. (Case in point: our county's travel agent said the best airfare she could find from D.C. to Kansas City was $480...we beat that by a long shot.) Although it takes hours upon hours to plan these trips for my students, I get a great pay off: my students come back from the trip excited to be a part of the publications staff, they have lots of new ideas, and the program continues strong for yet another year. Added bonus: my students are pretty neat people whom I genuinely like.

After a jam-packed day at work with today's latest newspaper deadline, the yearbook adviser and I got together to hash out final details for the trip. Now the trip is pretty much ready to go minus two small details: sightseeing and food.

We are not going to plan out every meal in advance, but I would like to know of some options. Similarly, we don't have to finalize sightseeing this second, but we need to within the next week. Here's what I know: 1) Kansas City is known for its barbecue; 2) Hallmark is based out of Kansas City; 3) there's a college basketball experience interactive museum-y type thing somewhere in the city; 4) the Steamboat Arabia is on display; 5) there's a place called the Plaza. I realize this is all vague -- I haven't had time to do much research on this.

Thanks for your tips!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Happy thoughts: fall edition

After a totally exhausting week at work, I found a number of reasons this weekend to be happy and to stave off my desire to return to my open letter to myself.

First of all, in appliance news: Saturday morning was huge. Within three hours, the following took place:

1) We sold our old fridge on Craigslist for $250 to a woman who is moving in 6 months. Her fridge broke, and rather than dropping $750 or more on a new one, she decided ours was good enough (which seems like the perfect description).

2) Our replacement doors for our new fridge got delivered (and they are beautiful).

3) Our new dishwasher arrived two hours before the four-hour window the delivery people quoted us over the phone, so we didn't have to wait around all day.

Here's what I love about our new dishwasher: the manual comes with two pages of pictures outlining in painstaking detail all the ways you can load dishes. Some of the racks fold down, which is a nice feature, too. We still haven't run the dishwasher, but the man who installed our dishwasher tested it and had to lean really close to it to see if it was working because it is SILENT when it operates. Mission accomplished! I really feel like our kitchen is complete. You've come a long way since March, baby.

Old vs. new

Ain't she a beauty?

I love the hidden controls and all the space inside

Second of all, the landscaping in our front and back yards are working out great right now as well. Specifically, we officially have grass growing in the back yard. It sprouted up the other day, fitting perfectly into the 10-14 day germination period predicted by the friendly garden center employees. Now we just have to hope that after it goes dormant later this fall it will come back even stronger in the spring. Assuming that because new grass is shooting up that should also mean there's a developing root system, I'm hopeful now that all signs point to yes, we should have some real grass ahead of us.

Our tree in our front yard is about the prettiest it's ever been in the four years we've lived here.

Finally, I spent some time yesterday at the mall and today at Home Depot putting together costumes for Matt and me to wear this upcoming weekend. I'm not going to spoil the fun here, but I will tell you that we're dressing up with a big group of our friends from college as characters from one famous story. I like to wear homemade costumes, but that also means they require more work, and they're not quite done. I'll have to whip out some spray paint and some safety pins this week and get to work.

It's like late-October Thanksgiving around here!