Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hello Again

Nearly forgot my login, it's been so long. Sorry, wasn't planning a blogcation, but got a bit swept up in work and Christmas preparations. To ease back in, I give you an entirely photo-based post. And by "post," I mean "no substance whatsoever beyond the actual photographs." Yeah, it's late, I'm tired, so no captions. I will say that the photos draw from the following events/activities: Thanksgiving with my parents, celebrating my dad's 60th birthday, child labor, "Captain Christmas," decorating the house for Christmas, baking and frosting 7 dozen cookies, and other random photos. Enjoy! Will try to be back soon with something a bit more substantial!



























Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Menu

We are hosting Thanksgiving dinner for my parents this year, a tradition that has been interrupted every now and then, but has been fairly steady for the last 8 years or so. This is our big "entertaining" holiday, since we travel for just about every one of the other ones. This weekend we had our big "Thanksgiving Dinner" shopping trip, which (unfortunately, because we've both been so busy) also coincided to the day with our "Thanksgiving Menu Planning" efforts. Sunday morning I spent a couple of hours scouring websites and recipes, and by 11:30 that day we were shopping at Wegmans. It was a rush job, and we forgot a few things, but I think (I hope) we are all set and ready for tomorrow. Here's the rundown of what we're eating:

APPETIZERS

Crabbies (similar to - but not exactly the same as - this recipe)

A dip made out of radish, plain Greek yogurt, walnuts, mint, cumin seeds, and some other stuff (M. is in charge of this one - it's a recipe from a co-worker of his and he has been raving about it since he tried it, sorry, I don't have the recipe in electronic format)

Figs stuffed with blue cheese and almonds and drizzled with honey (some will be wrapped in bacon - no real recipe here, either)

MAIN MEAL

Oven Roasted Turkey Breast (M. is in charge of the bird and is "winging it" - ha ha - sans recipe)

Sweet Potatoe Casserole (recipe from Epicurious.com)

Garlic Mashed Potatoes (from Alton Brown)

Green Bean Casserole with Madeira Mushrooms (from Cooking Light)

Roasted Baby Vegetables (no recipe on this one, just plan to toss with EVOO, S&P, and parsely and cook in the oven)

Rye rolls and cheese bread (not homemade, from Whole Foods and Wegmans, respectively)

Homemade cranberry sauce (no recipe here, either, just winged it based on the instructions my mom gave me over the phone. Cook 2 bags of cranberries in boiling water, drain and mush up/strain through a fine sieve - or use food mill, which would be easier, but I didn't have one - put back in saucepan and add 2 cups of sugar, cook until sugar is dissolved, pour in to glass containers and chill. I added orange zest and a little orange juice, too.)

DESSERT

Chocolate Pudding Pie (from Wegmans)

Homemade Pumpkin Pie (I married the filling from this recipe with the streusel top from this recipe, and cheated by cooking it in a store bought graham cracker crust. I made it last night, and it looks and smells heavenly!)

I am excited to see my parents, and eat yummy food until my sides split. And then try to motivate myself to exercise it all away later this weekend.

I can personally attest to the sweet potatoe recipe and the crabbies recipe, as I've made both before and they are excellent. I'll have to report back on the rest after this weekend. How about you - any awesome, time-tested Thanksgiving recipes to share?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Holiday Gift Ideas For Guys

Does anyone else find it practically impossible to shop for the men in your lives? I struggle with this every year. What to get M., what to get my dad, what to get M.’s dad, what to get the various other adult males on our shopping list. It’s difficult for me to come up with ideas that I like, and that I also think they will like. Likely because, well, I’m a girl, and I just have different interests/tastes than they do. So shopping for guys is definitely a step outside of my comfort zone.

Below I’m going to try to brainstorm a little, for my benefit, and hopefully for yours, too. For the most part, I’m going to ignore the electronics and gadgets that guys universally seem to love. Because those are some of the more obvious gifts that will ALWAYS please a man, depending on your budget and current electronics stash at your house. I’m talking about things like iPads, iPhones, flat screen TVs, gaming systems, games for gaming systems, etc. I’m also not going to attempt to list out, for example, specific golf clubs your golf-nut dad or boyfriend might like. In cases where a guy has a hobby or two that makes shopping easy, run with it! But this list is not a hobby-specific list, it’s for those of us who have nowhere to start and are already starting to panic a bit about the prospect of RUNNING OUT OF TIME due to lack of inspiration and/or indecision.

1) Alright, first up: Vintage Sports Posters. Now, M. and I both roll our eyes and snicker at the many, many House Hunters episodes that feature a couple focused on finding the perfect house with the perfect “Man Cave”, “Men’s Den”, “Guy Room”, etc. Why a room that is really just a playroom for a grown-up (and by "playroom," I mean place to watch TV and fart with abandon, or whatnot) needs to be front and center in the house selection considerations is beyond me, but apparently it is A THING TO HAVE. A guy space of some sort. This guy space needs to be furnished and decorated, like any other house space, no? And if left up to their own devices, a guy would probably decorate with... well, nothing. Or something, more likely, that the average woman in his life will find slightly off-putting. So if YOU know a guy with a "Man Cave" or other such "space of his own," consider giving the gift of taste by choosing something decorative. Something you and he BOTH like.

Here are a few wall choices from Allposters.com. I like the tin and wood signs they offer because no frame is needed, but a poster in a non-plastic (read: step up from the college d├ęcor days) is nice, too. For the football lover, you could get something like this vintage football player poster ($14.99):



They even have some choices from specific schools and teams - fun if you can find the right one for the sports nut in your life. Like this one, featuring a rivalry between Boston College and University of Texas (wood sign, $29.99):



There are posters and signs from all kinds of sports and hobbies to choose from - I especially like some of the cycling posters/signs, don't you? (wood sign, $29.99):



Allposters has many categories to sift through, and I’m sure other sites have some great options, too.

2) Another site that I just discovered is called 20X200 – it’s a website for artists to sell their art to everyday consumers like you and me, at affordable prices. This site would be great for anyone one your gift list, but I noticed they have some great pieces that fit in with today’s “guy” theme. And it’s REAL ART, by current artists, so you can feel all grown up and stuff.

Like this Las Vegas print by Corinne Vionnet:



Or this print of vintage cameras by Christine Berrie:



I could post a lot more of those, but I do want to move beyond “stuff for the walls,” as I realize that not everyone necessarily shares my view that art can make for a great (and likely unexpected) holiday gift. But I will point out that 20X200 has a nifty “Gift” section on their website to help you find the perfect match for your giftee, so if you’re interested, check it out.

On to a random assortment of other suggestions...

3) Whiskey stones - An innovative way to chill liquor drinks without diluting the flavor the way melted ice can. Could also be used by those wine drinkers that love a really cold glass of white wine (ahem, Mimi). Pair with a bottle of nice whiskey or bourbon and/or a set of glasses:



4) A little on the "gadgety" and "frat guy" side, but how about this iPhone Bottle Opener? ($19.99 when not on sale):


5) For those that already own an iPad or iPad2, the X Stand from Brookstone would make a great gift. It's a stand that allows you to use your iPad like a desktop computer, while giving you the ability to rotate it in any position you need. If I had an iPad, I would totally buy this ($49.99):



6) In terms of casual clothes, my favorite go-to outfit for men is to pair a waffle weave/thermal shirt with a nice pair of jeans or cargo pants. For the thermal shirt, make sure to get one that's not too loose/baggy - as with women's clothes, some things are meant to hug the form a little, even if you think your form isn't the sveltest one out there. Going large and shapeless is just going to make you look... large and shapeless. So I recommend, for this type of shirt, to select one that is a little stretchy, like the Urban Pipeline Thermal Tee from Kohls ($17.99 or 2 for $30). Sorry, no picture to share here, as I can't figure out how to save it to my desktop. But check out the link - these are great, comfortable shirts.

Pair the shirt with cargo pants, like these ones from Land's End ($44.95):



and, if you're feeling ambitious, some casual, stylish shoes, like these Skechers NORCO sneakers in brown ($49.98):



7) All of the guys on my shopping list are pretty active outdoors, and those outdoor locations they live in include lots of woods. Woods + Summer = Bugs, right? I'm intrigued by a line of Bug Shield clothing offered by Columbia. It reportedly keeps bugs away, is anti-microbial, and offers SPF 50 protection from the sun. I could see M. or his dad wearing this while they mow the lawn, or my dad wearing it as he moves rocks around up at his Maine lake house.

Columbia Bug Shield Long Sleeve Shirt ($49.99):



And the button-down version ($67.95):



8) A nice quality sweater is always a good gift - here are a few styles that appear to be all the rage lately (and look warm, too!). These are all from Land's End, and a little on the pricey side, but Land's End e-mails out coupon deals every day if you're on their mailing list, which might help some of these fit in your holiday budget a bit better. Other stores have similar styles to offer, too, so look around for the best deal:

Men's Donegal Button Mock Sweater - I'm oddly into the elbow patches on this one - very professorial ($99.50):



Men's Regular Knit Donegal Button Mock Sweater, featuring a hint of what I believe is called a "shawl collar," something Esquire magazine assured me is very much "in" right now ($79.50):



Men's Zip-front Drifter Cardigan - an update on the classic cardigan, a sweater my grandpa was never without during each winter, for as long as I can remember. This one looks great, for any age and dress situation. Comes in lots of colors, too ($49.50):



9) For a music lover, consider a box set. It's a bit old school in this age of iTunes and MP3 players, but my husband swears he likes having all the liner notes and discs from his collections, and I'm sure he's not alone. Like this upcoming release from Rush, Sector 1 ($46.89), and/or it's companion sets, Sector 2 and Sector 3:



A quick look through Amazon.com shows other great options in this category, like the Beach Boys, U2, Pink Floyd (several to choose from), The Smiths, and a whole lot more.

10) A product I can personally recommend is the Audiovox Acoustic Research Wireless Speaker - we actually have two of them. You plug your computer or other music-playing device (iPhone, iPod, etc) into the transmitter, which will transmit wirelessly to the speaker. It's an indoor/outdoor speaker, and very portable - we carry it around the house or outside so the music can follow us wherever we go. The sound is great, and the speaker runs on batteries, or you can plug it in if you're running low on size AA's. We ended up buying a second one so that we can play the same music upstairs and downstairs (one transmitter can transmit to multiple speakers). If you're looking for a cheap way to simulate a "wired" house, this is it! (on sale right now for $63.00):



11) A great book or collection of books is always a safe bet for a pleasing Christmas gift. Most of the guys I know like biographies and other types of nonfiction, historical fiction, and thrillers. A few current suggestions are:

The new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson (of course) ($14.99 on Kindle, $17.88 hardcover sale price)

11/22/63: A Novel by Steven King ($16.99 on Kindle, $19.25 harcover)

Einstein: His Life and Universe, also by Walter Isaacson ($14.99 on Kindle, $15.98 paperback, which seems oddly high)

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand ($12.99 on Kindle, $14.00 hardcover)

12) M. and I both come from places with hard winters and variable weather, so we're engrained with the idea of weather as an inevitable topic of conversation at any gathering. Plus, it's always nice to know what kind of weather you're facing for the day when you get up in the morning, without having to flip on the TV. There are many, many weather stations out there to choose from, with price tags from as little as $19.99, all the way up to multiple-hundred dollars. Most don't give you a forecast, per se - you won't see the anticipated high and low for the day, but they do give you the current temperature outside, and in some cases, a bunch of other information (like wind chill, humidity, pressure, etc). You can stick it in your bathroom or bedroom, and figure out how to dress for the day. This relatively inexpensive one from National Geographic will actually keep track of all recorded temperatures over the last 5 years, and provide you with the recorded highs a lows so that you can seem knowledgeable with all your coworkers about that trending global warming :-):

The National Geographic Wireless Almanac Thermometer ($29.99)


13) Encourage progress on that DIY home improvement project you’ve been craving by gifting this demolition tool – what could be more exciting than destroying something, right? He’ll be itching to find a way to use this (on sale for $22.65):



14) Magwear Magnetic Wristband -The plastic caddy is fitted with a strong magnet, a great place to keep all the nails and screws needed for a job without worry of dropping or losing them ($19.50):



15) Autel MaxiScan MS300 CAN OBD-11 Scan Tool – Ever had the Check Engine light come on in your car, with no idea why, but plenty of paranoia about whether to pull-over-right-now-OMFG-we-are-all-going-to-die? Just to find out the next day, and $150 later, that it was just a malfunction in (insert random car-talky language here) something that was not really a problem at all? This handy little tool can help you out, AND make it seem like maybe you actually know a little bit about cars after all. You can plug it in to your car, get a code read out, and look up the codes to see a) what’s wrong with your car; and b) sometimes, how to fix it yourself (on sale right now for $29.95).



16) And finally, here's where I would recommend some kind of power tool, like a reciprocating saw or whatnot (I think that's one of those tools that the typical handy guy really likes?). But I don't know much about that, so you're basically on your own there. Good luck.

Considering how much time it has taken me to write the above list (hours and hours, no joke), you'd think I'd have more than 16 suggestions to show for it. Which should give you an indication of just how challenging I find it to shop for guys! But rather than hunting down more items (and really, I could have put many more on, but copying and pasting all these links and photos is the biggest time suck ever), I'm just going to stop here. For now. And hope that this list helps you as much as it has helped me.

Feel free to add your own great guy gift ideas in the comments, I'd love to hear them!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dabbling in Decorating

OK, OK, so I haven't been great about following up on my series of "Holiday Gift Ideas" posts (the first, and only to date, post can be found here). I've been collecting ideas on my toughest Christmas shopping challenge - gifts for guys - and I hope to share that soon. But in the meantime, I thought I'd update you on a few home improvement projects we've recently done, and in the process, share at least one gift idea.

The pictures I'm about to show you fall under the "making the house look prettier" category. I'm not going to bore you with pictures of our new furnace and air conditioner, the new basement carpet, or the new windows in the kids' bedrooms. Even though *I* think they do wonders for the house (and better make some kind of difference when we sell this thing, whenever that may be), I realize they don't make for the most interesting blog material. Instead, I'll show you what we've done in our dining room area since we moved the kids' toys down to the basement (pictures of the new playroom are here and here).

First, I'll try to give you an idea of what the "Before" looked like - difficult, because this whole effort has taken place very gradually over the last 3 months. Also difficult because I never actually thought to take any official "Before" photos. I dug through my photo archives find pictures that sort of displayed the area, but they are definitely not perfect.

Our living room and dining room are actually one big room. A set of built-ins abutting a bump out/post-thing demarcates the end of the living room and the start of the dining room. The ceiling in the dining room is your typical 12-foot ceiling, but in the living room, the ceiling is lofted and rises probably 20 feet high. Because of this, we haven't attempted to do any painting - it's way too high/too much space to paint the whole thing, and because of the open floor plan, there wasn't a way to paint just one part of the space (we would then be faced with the "where do we stop" dilemma). Thus the whole area is a sea of off-white blandness.

Here are the built-ins in the living room "Before" (although this is after our yard sale, so I had already cleared a lot of the trinkets that used to sit on these shelves out - trust me, they were much, much more cluttered at one time).



The picture with the black picture frame is hanging on the bump-out/post thing, and to the left of that is the dining room (out of view).

This is the dining room without any furniture in it, the way it looked after we sold our dining room set at our yard sale and cleared all the kids' stuff out:





The doorway and cut out lead to the kitchen, and the stairs in the bottom picture lead down to the basement.

This is what our dining room table looked like, the one we sold:



We sold it because it wasn't meeting our needs anymore - too small, too rickety, etc. This is how crowded it looked when we had only two dinner guests - and THAT was when Lucy was still sitting in a high chair (Hi Jen! Hi Daniel! Sorry for the crappy quality of this photo!):



OK, here's what everything looks like now. We painted one wall in the dining room and the inside of the built-ins a bold color to break up all the overwhelming off-whiteness. My inspiration for painting the built-ins came from a project over on Young House Love. Ours doesn't look quite as stylish (and it's also not 100% finished, as you can see from the empty upper shelves and a few spots that need to be filled in a bit). But I'm pretty happy with it! Much credit goes to my mom, who helped me shop for and display some of the accessories that are on the shelves.

Here is the space after painting, but before accessorizing:






And here are the built-ins now:





I especially like my new owl picture (from Target) and the off-white wooden @ sign (TJ Maxx).

We have a new server to house our wedding china, which my parents were kind enough to haul around on their latest vacation so they could deliver it to us, 8 years after we received it. I love the server, I think it looks great, but the top of it already seems to be slated as the newest "miscellaneous crap goes here" spot. I'll have to try to do something about that, I suppose.

Up-close view

Wide angle

We actually ordered the table that matches the server from Target. Unfortunately, it arrived at our house broken, and it was such a pain in the ass to return it (mail return only, super heavy, unhelpful customer service, etc) that we decided not to try again/re-order it. We instead decided to use the extra dining room table we've always had. It's a drop leaf table, so it's been tucked away in our kitchen with the leaves down, mainly used as a place to hold my stand mixer and a couple other awkward kitchen items. The table is old, scratched, watermarked, and rickety, but with a few placemats and/or a table cloth, none of that is noticeable. Also, it seats 6 people, so it gives us more table space to work with. We purchased some simple, cheap chairs from Target (in person, at the store) to go around the table, and it has been working out pretty well. It's not a long term solution, as the table is less stable than we'd like it to be, but it's fine for now.





I hung up two ceramic bird pictures painted by my great-grandmother by the window, our prime bird watching spot in the house since it overlooks the woods. I love having them there, as it makes me think both of my great grandmother, who I remember, as well as my wonderful Papa (and Mimi) who gave them to me.





And the final touch, just completed this past week:









A sunburst mirror, framed on either side by wonderful canvas-printed photos of each of our kids. These canvases are the "holiday gift idea" I wanted to mention. They are GREAT! We got them from Canvas on Demand - I found a Groupon deal for something like 65% off. Each canvas was only $45, shipping included. They are 16" X 20", so definitely large enough to make a statement. The Groupon deal is not uncommon, I've seen it a few times, and there are typically other deals you can find, too, even if the Groupon isn't being offered. Of course, the canvases are only as good as the photo you send in, and for that I have to send out a huge thank you to Julie Blum for the wonderful, wonderful photos she took of us. We were so lucky to spend a morning with her and get those photos!

If you do decide to get a canvas done for a loved one's holiday gift, just note that Canvas on Demand is EXTREMELY popular right now - it will probably take about 3 weeks to get them printed and shipped out. I know other places offer a similar service (including Costco, apparently), but I can't speak to their quality. I can safely and highly recommend Canvas on Demand, though.

There are a couple of other details (moved the rug from our former office up and stuck it under the dining table, bought two extra fabric dining chairs), but basically, that's it - our big "Take Back Our Dining Room From the Kids" remodel, completed!

And finally, just another quick little decorating update to show you, this one in Lucy's bedroom. Lucy still sleeps in her crib, for now. We'll probably change that in the Spring when she turns 3, because she is starting to look ridiculously large lying in that crib. But we did get rid of her changing table, since it hadn't been used in over a year. To fill the space and provide a place for non-closet-appropriate clothing like socks and underwear, I found this adorable little table at TJ Maxx that Grammy immediately insisted she buy for me (erm, Lucy). I am not normally into shabby chic that much, but I must admit that I have a bit of a crush on this table. Its aqua color (the color in the picture doesn't do it justice - it's more aqua than it looks below) perfectly complements Lucy's hot pink curtains, and it's just so fun and girly!





In addition, my mom insisted on buying some decals for Lucy's walls that we found at Kohls. Since they have perfectly coordinating colors and have plenty of owls and birds, I heartily approved. Aren't these adorable?





Lucy, per usual, was not a willing participant in these photos, but she does love the new "big girl" touches in her bedroom, all appearances aside:



That's it for now. New gift post... soon-ish? Tomorrow?