Sunday, February 27, 2011

Jeans victory, clock defeat

First, the bad news. 
A year ago I blogged about a wonderful new alarm clock I ordered from Hong Kong. This little green gadget is nearly perfect. But there's one small engineering defect that has officially made me groan at least five times in the past year and most recently on Friday morning.

The problem rests in the back of the clock.

If you look closely, (besides seeing dust) you'll notice that the on/off button is right next to the reset button. Every morning after I finally make my way out of bed I turn off the clock. If I didn't turn off the clock, it would defeat its entire purpose as a green product. But about once every two months or so I lose my edge and accidentally press the wrong button, which is inevitably the reset button. This is especially annoying because once I press the reset button there's no going back, and this clock takes a solid five minutes to program because it contains so many pieces of data. Definitely flawed engineering!

Now, on a happier note...
As we were packing for Mexico a week and a half ago I noticed that my beloved Citizens of Humanity Dita Petite Bootcut jeans had a massive hole in the crotch/butt region. Not only did I blog about these jeans days after I bought them, but I also saved the receipt in my long-term receipt file so I knew I bought them in mid-March 2010. I bought the jeans at Nordstrom, so I had a good feeling this would work out well in the end (pun intended).

Today I experienced the joys of Nordstrom customer service. I simply brought my jeans and receipt to the check out counter, explained that I bought the jeans less than a year ago and expected them to withstand less than a year of wear and tear. The girl said she would gladly take them back if I had my receipt. While she was issuing my refund, she said that sometimes the jeans simply don't hold up if they're washed and dried too often. Looking back, I only washed those jeans a handful of times because I really only wore them once a week max and basically never wore them over the summer, my prime time for casual dresses, skirts and shorts.

Overall, I appreciated the no-questions-asked approach to taking back my expensive purchase that in my mind was obviously defective (I may have a big butt, but it is not that big). I did try on a slightly different pair of Citizens petite jeans and they fit perfectly, so today I basically broke even. Bottom line (pun intended again): I love Citizens jeans because they fit me perfectly, and I hope this pair will out last the previous one.

Two more feel-good Sunday thoughts:
1) In today's 60-degree weather I was thrilled to see buds prominently visible on trees. That just makes me happy.

2) A-la my friend Lindsay's experience, I also planted an amaryllis bulb this winter (my first one ever thanks to a gift from my friend Zoe) and it is in full double-flowering bloom. Such a nice treat after about six weeks of TLC.

Hope everyone's gearing up for a good week!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Everyday Food fairy

Last month we received a copy of Everyday Food magazine in the mail. You know how much I love that mag, but I had let my subscription expire many months ago. I can't remember renewing it.

So unless I was sleep walking and my over-productive mind logged on to the computer and renewed my subscription, someone else bought this for us. The question is: Was it you??? I've been asking around and can't figure it out.

Fess up, Everyday Food fairy! And, thank you! Now I have a number of new recipes to add to the recipe notebook, which has been hungry for some new dishes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A new tradition?

My husband and I love creating traditions. Because we grew up in non-mainstream religious traditions and as adults have lived a secular existence, we believe in making our own memories that often rest outside traditional American/religious holidays. This is why we celebrate 31 proms, Foxfield, New Year's at the beach. This past long weekend we may have started a new tradition: a mid-February tropical vacation.

When Matt's parents suggested a tropical celebratory trip to honor Matt's belated 30th birthday, we were ready to pack our bags. Now we've returned from five days and four nights in paradise recharged and ready to take on the world (once we sleep off last night's brutal midnight return and this morning's 5:30 work wake up we're still recovering from).

The purpose of this post is not to give you extensive details regarding our resort and its amenities -- though I would definitely recommend Hotel Riu Playacar in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, about 30 miles south of Cancun for your mid-winter tropical getaway, and I'm happy to share more of our experience if you'd like. Frankly, at this moment, I'm too relaxed to harp on the details. Here's a quick pictorial review.
The resort's main thoroughfare
The outdoor restaurants where I ate a lot of nachos with really spicy (in a good way) salsa
The pool and swim up bar (that I shockingly never swam up to, though I surely did consume from)
The awesomely awesome beach

I think that as long as we have the means and the time (at this point my 76 days of accumulated sick leave indicate I can probably take a day or two off each year -- something that up until now I've never done) there's a lot to be said for three or four nights somewhere tropical in February. It really can change your outlook on all the otherwise petty things in your life.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Easy phyllo/fillo entertaining

Last night I hosted book club, and as host it's typical to make some extra food even though we still handle our book club food assortments pot-luck style. Also, last month I brought a pathetic block of brie with me as my book club contribution, so I really needed to redeem myself.

I made cookies, my favorite blue cheese dip with veggies and chips; I heated up some Trader Joe's lemongrass chicken spring rolls; and I arranged some chicken salad in phyllo dough cups. Emphasis on arranging here. I neither made the chicken salad nor the phyllo cups. I hadn't used this strategy in a while, and I thought I'd share it with you if you're looking for a fast way to prepare some finger foods.

I discovered these wonderful frozen phyllo/fillo dough cups about four years ago thanks to my cousin Melissa. She served them filled with chicken salad at her daughter's first birthday party, and they were such a hit that I knew I'd stumbled upon a savvy entertaining idea.

Each box comes with 15 shells, and at a few dollars a pop they make an affordable way to simplify your entertaining prep work. The instructions say to keep the shells frozen and then defrost before serving -- but these shells as so thin that just a few minutes is all you need.

Have you used these phyllo shells before? Have you used any other easy techniques for preparing appetizers lately?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Potted herbs: Well, that didn't work

Of course, it could not have been that easy. I figured there was a reason why most people do not have potted herbs in their homes. Even though I appreciate the fact that I tackled this experiment, I now know that basil is seemingly impossible to maintain indoors. The mint has lasted and even proliferated, which isn't shocking seeing as mint is a hardy weed that will grow just about anywhere, but the basil died rather promptly.

Two weeks ago the great herb experiment looked like this...
...and today I finally snapped a photo before laying the basil in its final trash-can resting place...
The basil actually died within a week of me repotting it, but I kept hoping it would somehow rejuvenate.

Sorry if this is a Valentine's Day downer, but I figure you've read enough blog posts about V Day, and I have nothing to add to the mix but some dead basil. I really wanted this to work! Has anyone had any success growing herbs indoors, aside from using one of those Aerogardens?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rug arrival: leash the hounds

Our precious rug arrived in the mail last week almost immediately after we purchased it. I hesitated to unfurl it in all its glory until we made some other adjustments around our house. Namely, I needed to devise a way to keep the dogs from destroying another rug. Given my love for this rug and my dogs' tendency to destroy the items I love, I've erred on the side of extreme caution, which also took some extreme patience seeing as I couldn't wait to display our latest acquisition.

Our townhouse is divided into three levels, and our dogs hang out on the bottom level during the day while we're at work. This area is not a basement, and there is no door separating the bottom level from the rest of the house. Because Maxwell is an odd dog who absolutely despises his crate (and destroys more things when he's inside his crate than when he's hanging outside the crate) we knew crating would not be the solution. A neighbor gave us an old baby gate that we have propped up on the stairs connecting the first and second levels that serves as an easy blockade to keep the dogs contained. We've used this baby gate for years, but there are a couple problems.

Exhibit A: It's ugly
When it's doing its job, it looks like the image above. When it's not doing its job, it looks like the image below, which is perhaps even more unattractive and in the way.

Exhibit B: It's precariously placed
We never got the baby gate properly installed, so it sort of teeters in place, resting ever so slightly against the wall....
...and wedged into the banister

Another problem with the baby gate, which may not be totally apparent from the photos above, is that it's really difficult to keep clean. The black marks that show up on the white plastic every Sunday morning as Matt blazes through the Washington Post has me reaching for my Scotch-Brite Easy Erasing Pads.

And, perhaps the most significant problem is that the old baby gate does nothing to keep the dogs from making another future mess on our new rug. The baby gate is too small to contain the dogs in our downstairs living room.

So, taking a note from our neighbors Joe and Laura, we invested in a gate play yard that can be shaped to fit our space and contain our dogs like one giant baby gate. Specifically, I found the North State Superyard Classic on Amazon for about $50. I showed restraint and waited for it to arrive in the mail instead of seeking instant gratification by purchasing the exact same play yard for $70 at the Toys R Us down the street. The gate itself is a bit cumbersome, but for us we just molded it in an open trapezoidal shape to fit the entry from the downstairs living room to the entryway, and we'll keep it that way until we have some need to move it, such as guests using the downstairs living room.

Now when you open our front door, you'll see this:
The other positive improvement with this new system is that it gives us a place where we can confine the dogs when guests arrive. We have fallen out of using the penny can with Maxwell when guests arrive, but Maxwell has also (mostly) gotten better about not jumping. He's still a work in progress.

Of course, as much as I like the new dog-confinement system, I am most in love with the new rug. It is a tiny bit small for our space, but the issue is that we really need a 7' x 10' rug, and those are difficult to come by in the styles we wound up liking. Now that the rug is in our space, I'm really happy I went with the bold pattern choice.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Morning blues

Getting myself organized and out the door by 6:40 on school mornings is a constant battle for me. This is one area of my life where I am not particularly strong and I'm always trying to find ways to get better. Well, now that we're officially at the halfway point in the school year, I can say that I'm making progress. Specifically:

1) Thanks to a tip from my friend Cara I am now no longer sitting in traffic for an extra 20 minutes each morning. Just a quick change of driving route has made me so much happier each morning. (Managing my response to frustrating traffic is one of those items in the category of "accept the things I cannot change," but turns out I CAN change it!)

2) Thanks to the clock gods, someone finally changed the clocks at my school so that they're no longer an extra five minutes fast. Now our school clocks are actually in sync with my cell phone's time -- praise the lord. This, coupled with my new morning driving route, gives me an extra 25 minutes each morning.

3) I'm sticking to my morning non-negotiables so that I can come home to a clean house each evening.

4) I am eating a full breakfast every morning at home as opposed to eating my breakfast out of a Ziploc bag while I drive to work.

In the last couple weeks, thanks to a sign at Trader Joe's, I've even changed up my early morning breakfast routine. While scanning the produce section, a little sign underneath the blueberries said, "Throw some blueberries in your cereal each morning for more antioxidants!" I actually said out loud, "Add blueberries to my cereal? I think I will, thanks!" The woman next to me started laughing, but then she too picked up a pint.

This is such a simple way to add more fruit to my diet, I can't believe I hadn't thought of it on my own. Now you can envision me every Monday through Friday at 5:30 a.m., sitting down to my bowl of Kashi cereal with blueberries, along with some orange juice, a banana, and some tea or coffee. The best way to enjoy this meal is while watching last night's Conan monologue and cackling (this is the term Matt uses to describe my laughter while Conan is on). In case you missed it, I particularly recommend this clip.

Have you made any simple adjustments to your life and thought, "I should have come up with that?!"

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Just dance

I am not an athlete, and I've never claimed to be one. That's why I was so proud of myself over the summer when I had worked my way up to running several 5Ks a week (on a treadmill) along with other cardio and (minimal) strength training. But once the school year returned in full force and going to the gym became a once-a-week trip at best, I decided to give up the pricey gym membership. This also meant I wasn't working out for several months.

Lately, though, I've found a few at-home workouts to get me back in my groove. The most fun, by far, is this little gem: Just Dance 2 for Wii. Over New Year's at the beach my friend Susannah introduced me to this game that her sister had introduced her to just days earlier. Right after we returned from the beach, Matt snagged me a copy on Amazon, and I have to say, I am hooked.

Move over, basement furniture, there's a new workout in town.

If you're not familiar with the game, Just Dance 2 (I can't comment on the original Just Dance, though I'm guessing it's similar) requires the player to copy the dance moves demonstrated on the screen, and players earn points for synchronizing arm movements with the computer. This does, of course, mean that a player could win without technically moving her feet (and I know this from experience), but that would be cheating and it would defeat the whole purpose of exercising. Players can compete against the computer or against friends; there's even a duet option for teams to compete against other teams. This also means next time you come to my house I will probably force you to play this with me.

The game includes music and accompanying dances from diverse genres and ranks each song in two categories: level of difficulty and level of sweat. A song rated one difficulty star and three sweat drops means the choreography is relatively easy, but following the moves will still get your heart rate up.

Just Dance 2 has a system that allows you to track your workout routine. I know it may sound silly -- and maybe I'm just horribly out of shape -- but doing several of these more cardio-intense dances in a row really is a workout. I've programmed my game to follow the "intense" workout (I use that term loosely, even though that's its technical name). This means I need to do six high-intensity dances in a row each day to meet my weekly goal. The best part of all this is that there's a little graph that pops up after each dance to show you how much progress you've made toward your goal. Each dance allows you to score several hundred "sweat points." I have to say, that graph provides me with some serious positive reinforcement.

Promptly after meeting my daily objective I may have cracked open a Woodchuck Raspberry Cider, but at least I earned it.