Sunday, April 24, 2011

Best save the date ever

While cleaning out my Gmail account, I found this link Matt sent me a few days ago. He found it through Mental Health Break on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Beast, one of the countless blogs Matt frequents daily.

If you have two minutes, I highly recommend this best save the date ever. Enjoy the beautiful day!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taking root

Although today's weather got off to a crappy start, I still decided it was time to plant the items we picked up on Thursday. Then, around 1 p.m., the clouds parted and the temperature rose about 20 degrees, and I knew that I had picked the perfect day to plant some new life into our small plot of earth.

I've told you before that I make no claims at being a gardener, but as I prepared our outdoor spaces for spring for the fifth year of living in our house, I realized that I have learned a bit. The most important lesson I need to keep in mind: always dig deeper than you think is necessary before putting new plants in the ground. I always forget about natural erosion and how even though a plant may seem too far into the ground at first, that plant will quickly grow and the dirt around it will diminish, leaving me with plants whose roots are dangerously close to the surface. Lesson learned!

I started with a quick planting in the front yard. Nothing spectacular. Mostly wanted to fill in the gap left behind by the evergreen that bit the dust thanks to our bagworm visitors over the summer. So, I planted some snapdragons and a Caradonna Meadow Sage, something I've never planted before but excites me with its claim that it will bloom throughout spring and summer in full sunlight.

The deck is always my favorite space to spruce up once the warm weather arrives. The sight of blooming plants on the deck makes it feel like a little oasis. Over the years I've come to appreciate the hardiness of geraniums, but I am also a huge sucker for hanging vines, so I thought I'd try out the sweet potato vine this year (because I am also a sucker for bright green leaves). One of our neighbors had some in a container on her front stoop last year and I thought it needed to be replicated.

I'm pleased to report that a number of living things planted last spring returned, including the "Goldilocks" lysimachia that I was not expecting to see return. Of course, last year I made the really stupid decision to plant clovers in two of my planters, and those came back, too. I decided to dig out the clover today while I was planting, but then I kept finding so many four-leaf clovers that I thought it would be seven years of bad luck if I ripped out all of them, so I kept a few choice clovers at the front of the planter. (And, as you may notice in the photo, many of the clovers that stayed behind are -- coincidentally -- four-leaf!)

I also took the planter I bought last year for the failed Costco hydrangea and used that of the basil container experiment (and the leftover geranium and snapdragons that I over bought -- whoops!).Thankfully, we bought a drill for our home back in December, and I used it for the first time today when I realized that one reason the hydrangea may have died (besides the fact that I generally have negative feelings about Costco) is the fact that I forgot to add holes to the planter last year. (Whoops again.) After using the drill today, I can see why people get a rush from power tools. Sign me up for more!

As I moved on to the backyard, I discovered a couple more fun surprises. The spearmint planted last year actually returned this year! Grow, little man.

The scallion experiment of yore not only worked awesomely last summer, but it even added a fun twist when this twice-used scallion decided to return again. This is the scallion that refuses to die. I love that fighting spirit! And, you'll notice behind our little pride and joy that both parsley plants are returning to boot. I must have done something right last year.

Perhaps the greatest news, though, is that our grass we planted in the fall took root and is now in desperate need of a cut. (You can see where I trampled the grass today while planting additions to this year's herb garden.)

Gardening thought of the day: The other day I either heard on the radio or read in a book (it all gets muddled together) that earthworms only live two weeks, and they reach full maturity at day 4. Today as I was digging through lots of dirt and I kept uncovering earthworms, I kept trying to gently move them to another pile of dirt. After all, if these guys only have 14 days to live, might as well make it good.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Organized giving

Lately I've felt like I've been surrounded by charitable giving campaigns that extend well beyond the response to the horrible tragedies in Japan. These campaigns have been smaller and arguably less important (they don't exactly involve life or death). For example: prom.

It started with the Pi run to raise money for Jefferson's class of 2013 prom.

But then a couple weeks ago my neighbor Laura contacted me because in the midst of her spring cleaning she'd stumbled upon several formal dresses she wanted to donate to a good cause. Matt and I mentioned in passing a year or two ago that someone in our school system was collecting used dresses for girls to wear to prom, but we had trouble tracking down the details. This year, though, thanks to a nudge from Laura and my own desire to free up some crucial real estate in my own closet, I did some sleuthing and found out that the program is still taking place (yet it's oddly under advertised, if you ask me). After Laura dropped off her goods with me and I raided my own closet, I stopped in at my parents' house to pick up my own prom dress and a couple other formal-yet-still-fashionable dresses from my younger years before dropping off all the booty in Alexandria.

If you're local, here are the details for the FCPS Princess for a Night (PFAN) program that I received from the event's organizer:

This spring, dry cleaned formal dresses, shoes, handbags, jewelry, unused make-up (for example, sample cosmetics), and “nice” shopping bags (for example from Macy’s or Neiman Marcus) will be
collected between Monday, April 4th and Friday, April 29th, 2011. We are especially in need of dresses for petite (size 0-2) and full-figured young ladies (sizes 18+). (Please do not donate velvet or wintery dresses, soiled items, outdated items, casual dresses, or items for mature women as they can not be used.) Donations can be dropped off at four locations:

1)      Gold’s Gym, 7770 Richmond Hwy, Alexandria, VA  22306. Monday through Friday between 4:45 a.m. and 11:00 p.m., Saturday between 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Sunday between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m.
2)      Hitched Bridal Couture and Creative Planning Salon, 1523 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20007 ( Tuesday through Thursday between noon and 8:00 p.m., Friday between 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., and Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
3)      West Potomac High School, Main Office (Entrance #1), 6500 Quander Road, Alexandria, Virginia  22307. Monday through Friday between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
4)      T.C. Williams High School, Main Office, 3330 King Street, Alexandria, VA  22302. Monday through Friday between 7:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. 
If you know of a young lady in need of a dress, “shopping” and dress selection will take place at the following locations:

Mount Vernon High School 8515 Old Mount Vernon Road, Alexandria, VA 22309 on Saturday April 30th from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and on Monday May 2nd from 2:15 to 5:00 p.m.
T.C. Williams High School, 3330 King Street, Alexandria, VA  22302 on Friday May 6th from 3:30 to 6:00 p.m., Saturday May 7th from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., on Friday May 20th from 3:30 to 6:00 p.m., and on Saturday May 21st from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
West Potomac High School, 6500 Quander Road, Alexandria, Virginia  22307 on Saturday, May 14th from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and Monday, May 16th from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. 
If you live outside the D.C. area but you still want to donate your old-but-still-fashionable dresses, there are two other places I'd recommend checking out: and, or simply Google "prom dress donations" and your metropolitan area.

Thanks, Laura, for motivating me to follow through with the dress donations this year! I have officially crossed this task off my long-term to-do list.

All this prom giving has Matt and me seriously considering attending BOTH of our high schools' proms this year, which could actually mean that I might attend more than 31 proms in my lifetime.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ready to plant!

We're back from vacation! Left late Friday night, got to the beach late late Friday night (but not as late late late as our friends who stayed with us at the beach for a few days). Got back late last night. After a day of lots of errands today, we returned home with these...

This year we scaled back a bit, knowing exactly what works in our front and back yard space, and knowing that we (I) just need a little patience to let everything grow in and fill out over the course of the spring and summer. I also tried to get flowers that will bloom through the hot part of the summer. Last year's snapdragons did incredibly well, so I'm banking on them lasting all spring and summer long again this year. We're also going to try growing some basil in a container on the deck in addition to basil in our herb garden. I'm curious to see if the sunlight on the deck is better suited for growing gargantuan basil than the sunlight in the backyard.

Something else that makes me happy about this year's garden center run is that we actually had a Groupon for our favorite garden center down the street from our house. Once we factored in the cost of the Groupon (on top of the savings afforded by the Groupon) we spent about $100 for this year's bounty.

I am most excited to put an end to this eyesore on our deck: (plus obligatory dog tail)

Looks like tomorrow's weather won't cooperate for planting, but Saturday should be just fine. Tomorrow will be a nice day to finish reading this month's book club pick (A Visit from the Goon Squad -- I recommend!), grade some papers (necessary evil) and get back to blogging!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Signs of spring!

Today's perfect weather meant it was time to take some photos of our pretty outdoor space, even though I didn't get home from work until 6:30. Thankfully, those late nights (remember, I'm at work at 7 a.m.) are coming close to an end.

I'm also thankful for spring...and our home....and life in general (positive energy day!). Now, a pictoral celebration:

Inexpensive hanging plant (from Costco -- although I won't buy flowers at Costco, I will buy plants)
The front yard plants in bloom are absolutely beautiful. I just wish they would bloom through the summer rather than just 2-3 weeks in the spring.
And the other plants we put in two years ago are really taking off (you can check out the front yard evolution here).
The only new addition to the front yard so far this year is the hanging plant. Next week we'll be doing some planting of a few more flowers and our herb garden. In the meantime, I am counting down to tomorrow afternoon when spring break 2011 officially begins!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tip 70: Just Say No

Whatever happened to that classic anti-drug campaign of the 80s? Good news! I'm bringing it back, just in a slightly different format...Today someone tried to make me feel guilty for saying no, and it got me thinking about an important personal philosophy...

Tip 70: Know your limits. A key to staying organized is to prioritize your time and not feel guilty when you have to say "no."

As organized people, we are frequently bombarded with requests that pose an extra strain on our time. The refrain goes something like this: "You're so organized that I thought it would be easy for you to...." or "But come on, you're so organized! You'd be perfect for..."

A wise person told me when I was a first year teacher that I needed to be comfortable saying no sometimes to requests from colleagues to perform extra work (for no additional compensation). Of course, there are times when it's very appropriate to say yes -- when a new project sounds appealing, when you have a personal investment in something, when you just want to be a good person and help someone out. In some jobs new employees take on extra work to stand out or to try to move up the ladder faster. (This is more relevant in careers where there actually is a ladder. There's no ladder in teaching.)

But you only have so much time in the day, and -- as another wise and now-retired colleague told me a couple years later -- you have to take care of yourself because no one else is going to.

Learning to say no is a philosophy that extends well beyond jobs. How many times have you complained or heard others complain about friend or family "obligations"? Rather than dread a certain social engagement, just say no. I'm not advocating selfishness or a hermit's lifestyle, but I am advocating cutting ourselves some slack and allowing ourselves to be honest and unwind when necessary.

Ultimately, learning to say no requires:
1) Confidence
2) Recognition of your our self worth

If your value yourself, you'll value your time. You'll know what you're worth in a monetary sense as well, especially as you evaluate your career opportunities. It's not selfish to take care of yourself.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Taking the iPad 2 plunge

Two weeks ago I came home from work to see Matt salivating over his latest gadget -- his iPad 2. He'd been talking about getting one for a while, and I told him that he should just go ahead and do it. I did tell him, though, that as part of the Great iPad 2 of 2011 Purchasing Agreement he would have to write a guest blog reviewing the product.

And now I'm pleased to present Matt's iPad 2 review...

Thanks, Stephanie. I'm thrilled to be here writing for the best blog in the entire world...

OK, OK, I kid. Here's Matt's actual review:

Hi, I’m Matt and I will be your guest blogger today. My assigned subject: to discuss the iPad 2 that we purchased approximately two weeks ago. I had wanted an iPad for a variety of reasons, the most important being that I consume a lot of media.  A LOT.  I have a Google Reader account with blogs that I try to keep up with on a daily basis, I read a number of newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times) and I have an Instapaper account. (Hint: do you want to read long articles from magazines but can never get around to them? Use Instapaper. It’s free, easy, and works on any computer, Apple and Android devices, and it looks great.) The iPad hits all of those criteria. It also doesn’t hurt that you can use it as an E-reader, though it is not usable in direct sunlight the way that a Nook or Kindle is.  

I went to the Apple Store near my house on a Thursday after work, planning to take an iPad 2 home and start using it. The Apple Store employee told me, in a serious tone, that while they did not have any in stock, they received deliveries nearly every day.  I was welcome to arrive at 6 a.m. and wait in line, hoping that when they opened, they would have a black, 16 gig Wifi model.  Seeing that I have a real job and cannot wait in four-hour lines for uncertain outcomes, I looked for other means.  This Gizmodo post allowed me to find the model I wanted at a Target near my house.  I walked in, pointed to the one I wanted, and walked out with my new iPad 2!

The other major reason that having an iPad made sense for our house is that we do not have a laptop. We have an excellent iMac in our office, but it is not portable, cannot be read in bed, and cannot travel with us. The iPad can sit on the coffee table in our living room, and can be picked up for any of the reasons listed above, or just to check email or a quick Wikipedia search.  

We are also very lucky to have a setup where we can stream music from our iMac upstairs to speakers in our living room via an Airport Express. While it was possible to control this via our Android phones, it did not always work, and often required running upstairs to turn off the music.  The iPad can be used (via the free Remote app) to control the music and edit playlists, and it always just works in a way that the Android app never did.  In addition, we can stream music from Pandora (via the free Pandora app for iPad) to those speakers in the living room, giving us an unlimited music selection while we read.

We got upsold and paid the $40 for the magnetic screen cover. It's super thin and flexible, and it snaps on and off the device using a series of strong magnets. 

While the iPad is an outstanding device, there are a few downsides to using one.  First and foremost, it has an LCD screen just like that of a laptop, so it can produce eyestrain if you use it all day. Unlike a Kindle or Nook, which have E-ink screens that are much closer to printed text, the iPad screen is electronic through and through. Second, while the onscreen keyboard is fine for writing short emails/notes, it is not a keyboard for extended writing. (Guess where I’m writing this post from?  It’s not the iPad.) Third, the excellent Apple case that can be folded to support the iPad as a viewing device does not protect the back of the device, which could be a problem for some. Most importantly, though, if you already own a laptop that is not extremely heavy, I’m not sure that an iPad is necessary. But for anyone who wants a light device with excellent battery life that allows you to to do more than read books on an outstanding color screen, the iPad is exactly the product you want.

Lastly, if you do own an iPad, and you are not using Flipboard, you are missing out. Download it now. Angry Birds looks pretty great on an iPad, too. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Conquer the junk drawer

We all have them, and they can all get pretty unruly.

Too often I've found myself digging through that drawer at the corner of our kitchen island, furiously looking for a working pen while getting ready to jot down important information during a phone call, or wondering where all those stamps went when it's time to send out some mail.

After a while, for me, it was the cell phone chargers and headphones that really screamed out how badly this small but mighty nook of our home needed some organization. Somewhat miraculously, this also was about the time Jen at IHeart Organizing issued her junk drawer challenge. The photos of reader mini-projects on her post are totally inspirational, and there isn't much to be said here, so I'll let the photos do the talking.

Here's what I came up with after about 10 minutes and three inexpensive containers from Bed Bath and Beyond (all found in the kitchen gadget organization section of the store):

It's nice to know our spare keys, return address stamp, summer pool passes, mini flashlight and extra matches all have an organized home, but I'm most happy about the fact that when I open this drawer I no longer have to contain a tangle of cords.

Have you tamed your beast of a junk drawer? If you're looking for a place to begin organizing your home, this is an awesome place to start.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Something to smile about

I'm not going to lie, today I have been grumpy. And tired. And annoyed that so few students did their homework, even though they didn't go to school yesterday thanks to a teacher workday.

But at least I had these to come home to:

You may have spied correctly how I used my favorite rocks to prop up the short stems I cut for placement in a vase leftover from our wedding. I'm always fascinated by how quickly tulips grow even after you've cut down the stems significantly. I'm enjoying this sign of spring despite the fact that I can hear the cold wind howling away outside, and despite the fact that I had a kind of crappy day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

New duvet cover!

As spring set in, our old duvet cover decided it was on its last leg. Then this happened:

We lived with it for several weeks, then finally this weekend I decided I couldn't handle it anymore. I did some virtual browsing, I found what I liked and picked it up by venturing to two separate Bed Bath and Beyond stores (note to self: the Find in a Store feature on the BB&B website it totally accurate, so double check that before heading to a store). I went with Jaipur by Echo Designs, and I'm pleased with not only the duvet cover and matching shams' appearance but also the silky smooth feeling of them as well.

The new bedding definitely makes more of a statement than the previous bedding. Fortunately, the sheets I bought over a year ago still match the new bedding. My next step is to buy a sewing machine (I have my eye on one, just need to pull the trigger). Then I can figure out how to sew some basic throw pillows -- I'm thinking red!

Exercising my core

Although I could simply spend my 30-40 minutes Just Dancing every day and stay in better shape than I have been in a while, I decided to step it up a notch with the addition of the best workout DVD I've ever come across -- Core Fusion Body Sculpt.

My friend gave this to me as a gift, and I didn't take it personally because she gave it to several of us girls at the same time. Her philosophy is that we're beautiful women who want to maintain our beauty as we hit old age (or 30). I can get behind that inspiring message from a friend. The gift also came at the perfect time -- just two months after I quit my membership.

What I love about Core Fusion is that it divides the workout into five 10-minute segments, each focused on a different area of strength or flexibility. The Core Fusion philosophy that is repeated by the two trainers/narrators throughout the DVD is "strength within stillness." That is completely true. Keeping myself posed in a certain position during each strength workout is a challenge that literally allows me to feel the burn!

The table of contents includes:
  • An arm sculpt that requires the use of two light free weights -- I use 3-lb. weights, but when doing this workout with a friend I also discovered that I can handle the 5-lb. weights and hope to make it through a workout without them killing me. You can see a YouTube video of this workout (don't let those tiny movements fool you!)
  • A thigh sculpt that requires a chair or countertop
  • A gluteal sculpt that also requires the same chair or countertop
  • An ab sculpt that requires placing your legs on some wall space
  • A stretching routine that I have never actually attempted -- The other four workouts end with a 1-2 minute stretching segment, and I find that's sufficient (that, and the fact that flexibility is my one true athletic talent, so I don't get too many results from flexibility training).

The narrators describe the ab sculpt as the most difficult ab workout you'll ever do, and that's probably correct. Still, for me, I find the gluteal portion the most challenging, perhaps because it requires balancing on one leg while kicking the other leg into the air, then after five minutes shifting legs and performing the same exercise all over again. It's totally exhausting, and it makes walking down the stairs the next day rather difficult.

This workout DVD is also well designed for anyone trying to workout in a small space with limited equipment. You really only need to invest in a couple free weights and then you're set.

 Additionally, people of any fitness level can benefit from completing these routines. As with any fitness plan, it's easier to make it through the DVD as you build your strength, but you'll probably never outgrow this DVD because the narrators share ways you can adjust each workout to achieve a greater challenge.

I only complete Core Fusion 2-3 times a week. This, combined with almost daily bouts with Just Dance 2, has assisted me in losing the little jiggle I had in my arms, and I can already see a more defined line cutting through my abs. Not bad for just a couple months of effort. Feeling better and physically seeing results has been great motivation for me to keep this up, and I might be interested in checking out more Core Fusion DVDs. Thanks, Diya, for getting me hooked!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Will run for pi

I am proud to report that even though it was never a New Year's resolution, lately I have been doing a fantastic job exercising. Warmer temperatures (80 degrees tomorrow in the D.C. area??) means more long walks with the dogs, and they also signal the arrival of outdoor races. I have never claimed to be a runner, and about eight months ago I had abandoned my gym membership and consequently running on the treadmill altogether.

Then my buddy asked me if I was interested in running in a race at the high school we attended. How long of a race? You know, the length of pi, in keeping with our school's nerdy traditions -- we would run 3.14159 miles (or approximately a 5K, in normal-people terms). Now, I should have immediately leaped at the opportunity, seeing as during my gym-going days of yore I was running several 5Ks a week on the treadmill. But I've always hated running outside, and I hadn't run in so long, and I just sort of hate running in general. To be a good friend, though, I said yes, and I'm glad I did, because as with all things in life, it really wasn't bad at all. The anticipation of pain and general distress was much worse.

Matt agreed to run too, and as a result my friend's husband decided at the very last minute he'd run as well since I did not properly communicate that Matt would not be available for standing around and gossiping while the ladies ran. Matt even told his students on Friday that he would be running in this pi race, and with a line anyone who graduated from my high school can appreciate, his students responded, "Watch your back -- those Jefferson kids are competitive!"

We, of course, as a motley crew of four were not particularly competitive runners, finishing almost exactly in the middle of the 220-contestant pack with respectable times of about 33 minutes. An 11-minute mile is nothing to write home about, but my friend and I achieved our goal of not walking, we both ran our first 5Ks, and between the four of us we raised $105 for the class of 2013 to have a rockin' prom (which is a cause I can totally support since I attended many a car wash to defray the cost of our prom). Not exactly the world's most pressing issue, but a worthy cause nonetheless.

In summary, if you are worried that you cannot run 3 continuous miles, take it from the world's least-likely runner: you can do it! And, though I am sure you've heard it a thousand times, it's so true: If you're having a hard time motivating yourself to exercise, find a buddy who will help keep you on track.

Despite the fact that I had not run in months before I ran the pi race yesterday, I was still prepared to run thanks to the exercise routine I've been following this winter. I've already told you about my obsession with Just Dance 2, and I've added something else to the mix as well. More on that tomorrow!