Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 - The Highlights!

2011 was a BIG year for us. I feel like so much happened this year, most of which was so, so good. If 2012 is anything like 2011, we're in for a good year.

Here's a recap of my year:

Zac got a new job! He officially has 9-5 hours and gets to work from home a lot of the time. And it's been a very good thing for us! It took us a while to adjust, but I think we're finally in the swing of things.

Funny side note - the first weekend after he started there and didn't have to work, we just sat there looking at each other. We had no idea what married people did on weekends together. So we went to IKEA, which seemed appropriate. We've figured it out now, I think!

We got married! I was definitely looking forward to this, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be as much fun as it was! It was one of the best days - just magical from start to finish. Just looking at how happy we are in the pictures makes me all teary. I wish we could bottle that feeling and just sip a little bit of it from time to time!

We went on the best vacation (honeymoon!) of all time! We're scheming hard about how we can get back there as our last hurrah before we think about kiddos...Oh how I wish I was there RIGHT NOW.

I survived the craziest semester of my life thus far. Full time job + volunteer activities + two classes + a 20 hour a week internship nearly kicked my butt. Thank goodness for a supportive husband who picked up all the slack at home and hardly ever complained. Only one more to go until I'm finished!!

We tackled some house projects, some of which I've shown you and others I haven't blogged about yet. We're about halfway to making it totally ours.

We adopted this sweet little puppy...

Who has since grown up to be this guy.

I am NOT a dog person. I don't just love all dogs, just because they are dogs. But oh my goodness, I could not love this ball of fur any more. He has the sweetest temperament, is SUCH a good listener, and is a general joy to have around (most of the time!). I get this whole why-people-have-dogs-thing now. For sure. 

We made a budget - and we stuck to it. Even in a year of so many awesome things, this might be what I'm most proud of. It wasn't easy, and it involved about 6 months of buying nothing we didn't absolutely need. But... we've established an emergency fund (that made a $600 car repair bill last week not a huge deal), we bought everyone Christmas gifts with pre-saved moolah, we're saving for a vacation that is actually a possibility, and I no longer flinch when I check our bank account balance. We worked hard to get here, and it was worth every sacrifice along the way. I don't know if there's any better feeling (at least to anxiety ridden people like myself) than feeling financially secure.

The wrapping up of an old year and start of a new year is always so exciting for me. I just love new beginnings I guess. Here's hoping that 2011 was as wonderful of a year for you as it was for us. I'm so excited to see what 2012 brings!!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

We Wish You a Merry Christmas...

Today officially starts our Christmas festivities, and I cannot wait!! We'll have a busy but fun next few days. We start out at my parent's house for Christmas Eve and part of Christmas Day. Late afternoon, we'll head to my in-law's house for Christmas, Part II. It sounds like a lot of traveling, but it's really not too bad. They only live about 2 hours apart, so it's nice to see all of our family on Christmas.

I won't be posting for a few days, so here's our 2011 Christmas Card. I hope you like it!

Here's wishing that Santa remembers to visit your house, and that you spend the holiday surrounded by people you love. I hope all of you have the happiest of holidays and the merriest of Christmases!!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What's Your Christmas Kindness?

Hopefully you've been adding some extra nice things to your list this year. I've been hearing a lot recently about the amazing things that people are doing for others this holiday season. Have you heard about the people paying off stranger's K-Mart layaway purchases? Such an inspiring story!

When my friend Alison heard the story on the news, she was sitting in her car with a flat tire, waiting for AAA to come change it. She was frustrated (I would have been too!) and running late. As she put it, "I sat in my car feeling grateful for having a car, being able to afford AAA, and for being able to afford Christmas gifts for my girls. So, late and behind in everything today, I went to Kmart and paid off layaway items for 2 families. My house is messy, the dog waited too long to go out,my husband is bringing take out for dinner, and I still need to pick up my repaired tire later tonight. It was worth it. I was going to keep this part of my day to myself, but maybe my flat tire will motivate one of you too."


Whoa. The coolest part? She posted this on Facebook and because of her post, at least 3 others went to K-Mart and did the exact same thing.

A few hours after I read this story, a friend of mine called needing some last minute help sponsoring some kids at the school where she works. I work with some of these kids as well, and I was eager to help! We supplied Christmas for one of the (small) families, and it felt wonderful. I didn't mind fighting the crowds and spending my Saturday running around to find what was on their wishlist. 

We went out to dinner with my family a few days ago, and my mom picked up the bill for a young couple next to her. She'll be mad at me for telling you, but it was such a cool thing to do that I'm telling you anyway! They were college kids and were really nice, and she did it as a Christmas Kindness. The sweet kids got her phone number from the restaurant staff (who had it for the reservation) and even called to say thank you one more time. That is super duper classy. 

Lindsey at the Pleated Poppy made presents for homeless adults (bags with scarves, coffee gift cards, baked goods, gloves, handmade cards, and ponchos). She and her children walked around their downtown area and passed them out to whoever they came across. 

                                                 Image from Lindsey's post at the Pleated Poppy

This time of year, the possibilities for helping others are literally endless. I'm sharing these stories because hopefully they'll inspire you to do something for others this year, even if you haven't already. It is truly so much better to give than to receive. If you find yourself feeling extra blessed this time of year, I hope you'll fit in a last minute "for others" activity.

So what's your Christmas kindness? 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

One of Our Favorite Holiday Traditions!

I don't remember exactly when this tradition started, but we've been visiting the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens to see the Festival of Lights at least since I was in high school. The highlight of the trip is always a yummy dinner at Benihana, which is a hibachi grill.

This year was no exception! The weather ended up being unseasonably warm (close to 50 degrees), which made a big difference in our zoo experience. Usually we feel like we have too much time because we're absolutely freezing. This year, it felt like we didn't have enough time because we weren't so cold!

The zoo does a really nice job with the light displays, and you can ride a little train and a carousel. Tons of fun!
We didn't get any great pictures of the lights. It was drizzley, and we didn't want to take our good camera with us in the rain. So, instead, you can see shots of my pretty family!

Zac and my mom waiting to ride the train

Beth, Nick (Beth's boyfriend), and Emily ready for a really fun 7 minute, 7 mile an hour train ride!

Mom and I playing around in the Lollipop Forest

Dad and Emily

Zac missed a UK game for this, which is a HUGE sacrifice for him. Hence our picture in front of the blue UK lights!

My mom and sisters

The cutest picture of my parents ever!

Ours isn't quite as cute, but I love Zac's face in this one. He looks so happy! Don't be fooled though - sticking his head in a wreath for a picture is not his idea of a great time. This is likely his "wedding face," which is a smile he can turn on and off. He's crazy.

And what visit would be complete without a merry-go-round ride??

Confession. I didn't ride the horses on the merry-go-round that go up and down until I was 10. Because I was too scared. I am the world's biggest scaredy cat. You couldn't pay me $1 million to ride a roller coaster. Seriously.But look! Here I'm riding with no hands!! Though I'm obviously wearing the seat belt, because while I'm not scared, I'm also not a risk taking crazy person like some of my family members.

Emmy rode some sort of gazelle like thing that no one could name.

And now - the best part! We've been to a hibachi grill quite a few times, but this was the best trip. Our chef was just adorable, and so so funny. He even had some new tricks we'd never seen before!

"No way Jose" in action

My mom can make friends with anyone, so Kayla and Brandon, who sat at our table, even got included in our family picture! 

It was SUCH a fun trip! I think this was one of the best years ever. This is such a fun family tradition that lets us spend time together before the holidays officially start. What about you - do you have any similar traditions?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 Resolutions -- How I did!

I made a list of resolutions last January that I shared here. I remembered that I made this list today, and checked it for the first time. Oops. I might have done a better job if I'd checked it more often.

Oh well - water under the bridge now. Here's the list I made last year and what I managed to unconsciously accomplish:

  • Get married! Check! We are super duper married. Read about that here, here, here, here, here, and here!

  • Organize all of my craft ideas into a binder, so I can actually create! Uncheck. Though ironically, I had written this down on my I'm-not-working-next-week-and-want-to-be-productive list a few days before reading this!
  • Donate a quilt to a local fundraiser Done!

  • Start an exercise routine (about 3x/week)  About halfway done (get it?). I did a lot more exercising this year than I've done in the past, but didn't get on a permanent 3x/week schedule. I have big plans for this year, though! Oh, don't we all...
  • Re-connect with old friends with whom I've lost touch This is an ongoing goal, but I'm happy to report reconnecting with a few old friends and also purposely staying in better touch with current friends. I think this will re-make it onto my 2012 list.
  • Visit my grandma in New York for a sewing weekend Done!! And so much fun!
  • Make an album of all of our pictures from 2010. Not even close. But I added it to my list for this week!
  • Pack my lunch / eat lunch at home as much as possible.  We did a great job with this one. We did a better job creating menus, and I've eaten a lot of leftovers for lunch (yum!). Packing my lunch the night before was the biggest helper here.
  • Make time to read. Sort of! I've read more than I was able to last year, but there were still a few book club months that got away from me. Re-adding this to the 2012 list.
  • Make smarter food choices like wheat bread over white. This has become pretty standard for us now. Whole wheat bread, cutting calories where possible. Always room for improvement, of course, but definitely a step in the right direction!
  • Stick to a cleaning schedule The biggest help here was that we gave in earlier this year and hired a cleaning lady. She is such a blessing to us, and worth every penny. We just had to accept that we aren't good at keeping our house clean, and with my crazy schedule this year, it wasn't worth using our little bit of time together to clean. Add to that how cranky I get when the house is messy and yeah, worth the money! Our end of the bargain is keeping our house picked up between cleaning sessions. We've made leaps and bounds in this area - hoping it's become a habit at this point!
  • Stop worrying about what other people think and whether I'm doing things the "right way." I can't imagine I'll ever be able to really check this one off, but I've definitely made substantial progress here. Maybe it's just part of growing older, but I've spent a lot less time this year worrying about what I should be doing or stressing about what other people will think. That doesn't mean I haven't done it at all, of course, but less often counts as progress!
  • Make the most of my wardrobe. I tend to be a lazy dresser - I have great clothes, but I usually can't be bothered to put an actual outfit together. Another halfer. I haven't bought a single new piece of clothing since April, and I've still gotten dressed every day. This is another one I want to continue to focus on in the new year, but I think I've done a better job with it this year.
So there you have it - a sort of productive 2011! Of course, I did a lot of other things this year as well, but it's fun to check back and see what I accomplished. Have you re-visited your resolutions from this year? Were you more successful than I was?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

3rd Annual Friends Christmas

We are really lucky to have a great group of friends from college that isn't mine or Zac's - it's ours! A few years ago (three, to be exact) we decided to start a tradition of getting together at the holidays. Now that we all live in different cities, we hardly ever see each other anymore. It's sad.

To be completely honest, one of our reasons for starting this tradition was so that our kids would be impressed when we had our 19th Annual Friends Christmas. Only 16 more years to go until that milestone!

This year's get together was in Louisville. We started at our friend Katie's house for some yummy pre-dinner appetizers and drinks.

Katie made these yummy caprese salad bites. So good!

We went to a fun local Louisville restaurant that happened to have 1/2 price wine nights (score!). Katie and I split a bottle of wine, but since we were across the table from each other, this is the best picture we could get!
Just use your imagination.

The highlight of the night was definitely our Secret Santa gift exchange. We should have known that everyone would be terribly awesome gifts.

Don't let the pretty wrapping fool you. Or the bow that Joe put on a free briefcase he got for buying cologne. Don't pick that gift, either.

Mandy opened a fireplace DVD. Daniel was creeping behind her.
Matt got this sweet iPhone case. It's an ear.
Kristen opened two (regifted) games - Animal House Trivia and Poker for Lovers, which was way too funny looking not to open! Made for some good laughs.
Katie rocking her new mustache glasses (definitely the coolest gift).
Joe got spy glasses. He is watching Zac over his shoulder through these little mirror things in the sunglasses. Totally inconspicuous.
Daniel was SUPER excited to open presidential PEZ dispensers. You're welcome, Daniel!

Brendan specifically requested this item when he saw a picture of it online. It's a willie warmer, which is a totally inappropriate sweater that I knitted. So worth it when tears ran down his face as he opened it.

Friends Christmas 2011 was a huge success, though I'm officially old enough that staying up until 2 AM hurts for a few days afterward. Thanks to all of our wonderful friends for kicking off the holiday season in such a fun way!! I wish every day could be Friends Christmas... but I guess that was called college, right?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Homemade Caramels

You're probably knee deep in holiday baked goods, but I made these delicious caramels tonight and wanted to share the recipe with you.

I remember my mom making these when we were little, and they taste just as good when I make them. They're pretty easy to make, but definitely a pain in the butt. Worth it in the end, but not the easiest holiday yummy to make.

Homemade Caramels

1 cup butter
2 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla
dash of salt

Melt butter in saucepan. Add sugar and salt, stir in syrup. Mix well, gradually add milk and stir constantly. Cook and stir over medium heat to firm ball stage, or 245 degrees. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour into well buttered 11x17 glass pan. Cool, cut into squares and wrap.

That's the official version of the recipe. But in case you're actually going to make it, here's the real deal stuff you need to know:

1. This is a STICKY endeavor. Be prepared.
2. Get the ingredients ready ahead of time. The caramel takes all of 20 seconds to burn on you.
3. Don't stop stirring this thing. Ever. Because it will burn on you. (Yes, this happened to me!)
4. Over butter that pan. There is no such thing as too much butter in that pan (see #1).
5. It doesn't matter if you accidentally add the milk before the syrup, or forget the vanilla completely. Because I did that today and they still taste good!
6. If you don't have a candy thermometer and don't know that 245 degrees looks like, stir until your arm goes numb. That's probably about the right temperature.
7. Cut them small. These are super duper sweet and you don't need a huge piece.

I wrap mine in squares of wax paper that I cut myself. They are all so mismatched. I would suggest cutting them on the longish side so you can twist the ends all pretty.

There you go. Did I frighten you away from ever making them? They really aren't that bad, and the recipe makes A TON. Great for parties and neighborhood gifts!

Are you still baking/cooking for the holidays?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A very holiday mantle

I have a love-hate relationship with our fireplace and mantle. I love that we have one, but I hate that it has these ugly half columns that break up the entire space and make it really hard to decorate. I suggested to Zac that we try to remove them, using the "how hard can it really be?" argument. He didn't fall for it - maybe it was the idea of smashing bricks and replacing dry wall that didn't appeal to him.

So... I took on the challenge of decorating and disguising. Here are before pictures of the mantle.

Believe it or not, this room has flat paint, so I'm not sure why it has crazy flash bounces on the walls. Oh, and it's since much cleaner than in these pictures.

See what I mean about the columns?

I'm going to skip a bunch of steps and just show you our finished holiday mantle. I finished some of our permanent, all year round additions just before Christmas, so I'll give you more details on those once we take down the holiday decorations and make it "normal" again. 

But in the meantime... it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

We still need to get a stocking for Derby! The bride and groom English Carolers were a present from my mom last Christmas. The mirror and N were DIY projects that I'll tell you about later (they're part of the permanent collection. Like our mantle is a museum). Oh - I've also since watered the poinsettas and they're slowly coming back to life!

I'd love to see your holiday decorations too. How long do you leave them up? These bad boys will find themselves living in a box by December 27 at the latest. As soon as Christmas is over they start to drive me crazy - and funny enough, both my mother and my mother-in-law do the exact same thing! My co-worker who leaves her tree up until Easter is a whole different story...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I was born in New York, but we moved away when I was two years old. For as long as I can remember, we've lived far away from our extended family during the holidays. When we were younger, our aunts and uncles used to send gifts and they would arrive a few days before Christmas. My mom used to let us pick one present to open each day while my dad was at work (he is a lunatic about not opening presents one single second early).

When a present arrived for me this year from my godmother, I apparently still thought those rules applied, and I opened it right away! I'm super glad I did - because what a fun present! She sent a whoopie pie pan, and a cute recipe book for different whoopie pie flavors.

If you've ever had a whoopie pie, they're sort of like cupcakes that are way easier to eat.  They're supposed to look like this:


There's no limit to the different cakes and fillings you can use, which makes them extra fun. My book club came over last weekend for a Christmas book exchange / potluck, and I decided to make them my whoopie pie guinea pigs. Funny enough, almost everyone brought a recipe they had never made before (and they were all delicious).

I made red velvet cakes with buttercream icing. Nothing too fancy. Apologies now for my lack of food photography skills.

The batter is definitely more cake like than cookie like.

These first scoops turned out to be too big. If I had them to do over again, I would do about half as much batter in each one. The pan looks like a shallow mini-muffin pan.

You're supposed to brush the bottom of the pan with butter, but of course I didn't, so mine stuck. The nice thing is that it doesn't really matter, since they become a sandwich. I slapped some icing on those bad boys and turned them into cute little sandwiches.

They got good reviews and were pretty easy to make. Because the cakes are so tiny, they only have to bake for about 8 minutes. Apparently you can make them without my fancy pan, but that sounds overwhelming for this non-baker.

Have you ever made or eaten whoopie pies? What flavor combinations can you dream up? I think my next batch will be salted caramel filling on a chocolate cake... yum!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can we really have it all?

There's no question that the past year and half have been extra busy for me. The addition of graduate school on top of work and everything else has definitely been a challenge. I'm thankful everyday for a husband who has stepped up to the plate and taken over way more than his fair share of the housework, cooking, and errand running. He doesn't even flinch anymore when I text him and say, "I need a favor. Like, today."

I don't know if this is something others in our generation relate to, but I want to have IT ALL. Like, absolutely everything. A few weeks ago, the following conversation happened at our house:

Zac: You know you can't possibly do everything right?
Tara: Well I'll be damned if I don't die trying.

And I'm serious. Because I can't say no to anything, and I don't want to say no to anything. I've had fantastic opportunities in my life because I'm willing to say yes and get involved in things. I've met amazing people, learned crazy awesome things, and had unique experiences.
Someone should get me this as a mug.

And I want to keep doing all that stuff. While always having a spotlessly clean house, looking slender and put together, and throwing fancy parties with napkins that look like this.

                                             Pinned Image

I want to do it all while blogging about how creative and frugal I am. I want to have sweet little babies running around who are always well behaved and smart. I want to be around for everything important in their lives while having a meaningful and valuable career. And be the kind of mom my mom was, and make everything feel special and fun.

I want to be the kind of person who writes thank you notes in a timely fashion, and brings meals when people have sick family members or new babies. I want to have time to sew/craft/crochet/paint/decorate all of the projects I've found on Pinterest. I want to never forget a birthday, and give thoughtful gifts like Leslie Knope (any other Parks & Rec fans out there)?

I also want to read books, take walks, better my community, have enough money that I don't have to worry about money but can add central A/C to my house, and snuggle with my cute puppy (and husband!).

I get that this is an unrealistic list. A friend once told me that you truly can have it all, just not at once. She's probably right. So the question becomes - will striving to have it all give me a fulfilling life or hospitalized with a mental breakdown within weeks? But what would I give up or put on hold? I don't want or need to be perfect, but I do seem to want to cram three lives into one.

                                              Pinned Image

Thanks for listening to the madness that is my brain. And yes, this is what it's like to be me. 24/7. Or to be married to me. Zac appreciates that I'm writing this to you instead of talking about it to him, probably.

How do you balance everything? How do you choose what's the most important, and what you can give up? Does it change for you depending on the time in your life? If I can't have it all, how can I have the most all at once??

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