Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Handmade ornaments and popcorn garland. Santa hats at the airport arrival gate. A Nativity scene. Packages arriving from UPS. Drinks with high school friends. Christmas cookies in a big red tin. Golden reindeer. Stockings hung by the chimney with care. Secret Santa gifts. Kansas City Plaza lights. A little bit of ice and snow. Christmas Eve 10 pm Mass. A basket of Christmas cards and letters. Shopping trips with sisters. Pajamas till 3 pm. Family dinner around the dining room table.

The most wonderful time of the year...

Merry Christmas!  No matter where you are, this time of year - when we visit with family and friends - is one to treasure.
Our collection of Christmas cards (as of December 22!)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Work Out with a Celebrity Trainer - Part 2

New Year's Day is still several days away, but I am heading things off with a little exercise.  I know that it's very easy to stay in my pj's and be lazy when I don't have anything planned.  But then I end up with zero energy, snacking all day out of boredom and wasting my time off.  Since Friday was my last day of work until the first week of January (yay!), I want to make the most of my holiday "break" and maybe reclaim my exercise routine in the process.

Perfect timing... my January issue of SELF magazine arrived last week and featured Jillian Michaels on the cover (love the purple dress!).  Inside is a "jump start diet" and a whole lot of inspiration.  Since the easy meal and snack suggestions would require a grocery store trip, which isn't realistic since I'm heading home to Kansas over Christmas, I tried out the toning routine.

Jillian demonstrates six yoga moves that work multiple muscle groups.  The routine looks easy since you don't need any equipment or even shoes... but that is deceiving!  After I held each pose for 30 seconds (or as long as I could!) and ran through the circuit five times, I realized how weak I was, especially in upper body strength.  As lame as it sounds, I visualized the contestants on "The Biggest Loser" and the trainers encouraging (or yelling?) at them.  I couldn't give up.  By working out more often, I can only get stronger...

*You can find the full Jump Start Diet plan on SELF's website.

I've also gotten my butt to yoga class twice since "break" started.  The results - a slightly sore feeling and a big boost of energy - motivate me to keep moving during my time off.  And it has made me a little more mindful of what I am eating.  Delicious lunch today - I baked a frozen chicken breast at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes and sprinkled Frank's hot sauce and grated parmesan cheese onto the chicken for the last five minutes of baking.  Yum!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Gifts - It's a Package Deal

I love the idea of care packages.  How fun is it to receive a mix of treats selected with "care" especially for you?  My mom would often send care packages when I was in college around different holidays or during finals week.  I have mailed packages to my sisters after a tough break-up, at the beginning of the school year, or simply as a surprise.  After gathering various things like magazines, candy, nail polish, lip gloss, a CD, tank top or fun undies, I just tossed everything in a box and shipped it off with a little note.

When it comes to birthdays, weddings, or holidays, I find joy in choosing items that are matched to the recipient.  Plus, with multiple items, I can tailor the size and value of the total package based on what I choose to include.  To start, I usually come up with a theme based in the person's interests.

For example, a friend of mine recently got married and among the gift ideas on her registry was a book embosser.  As a lover of books myself, and as a sentimental person who appreciates personalized gifts (especially when it comes to using a new "married" name), I decided that my gift would be built around this fun item.  I did a quick Google search and ordered the book embosser from a little company based in the suburbs of Chicago - it arrived a few days later.  Then I stopped by Borders to pick up a booklight (perfect for when one spouse wants to go to sleep while the other is caught up in a page-turner), a small collection of love poems, and a gift card good for a couple new books. *I just mailed this gift a couple days ago, so hopefully I don't ruin the surprise with this post...

For another example, a couple of years ago, I assembled a movie-themed gift for Scott's parents since they liked to watch movies together.  I filled a large basket with candy (the kinds that come in boxes like at the theater - Milk Duds, Twizzlers, Dots, etc), a 6-pack of old-fashioned Coca-Cola in mini bottles, different types of popcorn and a Blockbuster gift card (nowadays, it might make more sense to add some movie tickets or DVDs).

As we head into these last few days before Christmas, if you're still looking for a thoughtful and personal gift, consider what the recipient loves and build a gift around that theme.  What's most important is including items that the person will actually use!  Here are a few thought-starters:

* lip gloss
* nail polish
* set of makeup brushes
* hair accessories (headband, sparkly barrettes)
* perfume
* hair straightener or curling iron
* beauty/fashion magazine

* mug
* variety of coffee blends
* flavored powdered creamer
* Starbucks/Dunkin Donuts gift card

Cozy Relaxation
* blanket
* slippers
* candles
* tea
* soaps
* lotion

* wine
* nuts
* cheese
* chocolates
* appetizer plates

* cookbook
* utensils (wooden spoon, spatula, grater)
* mixing bowl or cutting board
* potholder/apron
* staple ingredients such as olive oil or spices
* homemade cookies, muffins, breads
* restaurant gift card (for those nights she/he doesn't want to cook!)

* iTunes gift card
* CDs
* headphones

* team jersey or hat
* tickets to a game
* baseball, golf ball, tennis balls

These ideas are only a start - let your imagination run wild!  What are you giving to friends and family this year?  What's on your own Christmas wish list?

And as a heads up, the blog might be a little quiet over the next couple weeks as I head home for several days to celebrate Christmas.  Hope you all have a wonderful holiday and get a chance to relax and celebrate the season!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fabulous Five-Minute Fudge

While Scott was busy hooking up his early Christmas gift (a Nintendo Wii!), I found myself with a chocolate craving and no chocolate. Take that back - we had a couple of bags of semisweet chocolate chips, but I wanted to make something yummy. Unfortunately, we were out of eggs, so cookies were pretty much out. Then in glancing through Better Homes and Gardens: The Ultimate Cookie Book, I discovered a section in the back with candy recipes.

Just what my craving needed - a recipe that takes five minutes of hands-on work and 30 minutes of patient waiting... Fabulous Five-Minute Fudge. Also, it only requires four ingredients and one of them is water (unless I chose to add nuts which would bring the total to five). Plus the directions call for making the recipe in the microwave. Ahh, a quick and easy path to chocolate deliciousness...

Fabulous Five-Minute Fudge
Prep: 5 minutes
Chill: 30 minutes
Makes: 24 pieces

One 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate pieces (2 cups)
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk (one-half of a 14-ounce can)
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted if desired
1 teaspoon vanilla

1) Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper; set aside. In a microwave-safe bowl, combine chocolate pieces, sweetened condensed milk, and the water.

2) Microwave, uncovered, on 100 percent power (high) for 1 minute; stir. Microwave about 1 minute more or until mixture is smooth, stirring every 30 seconds. [I only did 30 additional seconds, not a full minute.] Stir in nuts and vanilla. Pour onto the prepared cookie sheet and spread into a 9x6-inch rectangle. Chill about 30 minutes or until firm. Cut fudge into 1 1/2-inch squares.

Storage: Layer fudge between waxed paper in an airtight container; can store at room temperature for up to 1 week

Ideas for Variations: Wouldn't it be festive to mix in some crushed candy canes? Or what about trying different chips - milk chocolate, white chocolate, peanut butter?

Oh, and about the Wii... Scott impressed me by hooking everything up without me getting involved and all "control freak" with the directions.

We created our Mii characters, he sampled table tennis and basketball, and then I tried sword play. Definitely could let out some aggression with that game... especially if you made your opponent look like the person currently causing you frustration. Scott joked that during the next argument we have, we'll have to declare "To the Wii" and settle it with an old-fashioned sword fight. Well, once we purchase another remote...  And our verdict on the fudge: REALLY good!  It's hard to stop after one, or two, or three pieces...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Daughter, Friend, Sister, Wife, Small Business Owner

I often find inspiration in other people and their accomplishments, so if you are anything like me, you will find the three ladies featured below very inspiring!  They are all in their twenties, but each has taken the leap to follow her passion and start her own business.  Read on for more about these fabulous, talented women...


Celebrations of Love - Weddings and Events by Christine
Owner: Christine M. Saxer
Based in Overland Park, Kansas

What kinds of products and services do you offer?
I am a wedding planner, coordinator, and consultant. I also do the day-of coordination. There is a lot that goes into a wedding and having a person there that has done it several times in just the past month is very helpful for everyone involved.

Why did you start your own business?  How did you start?
I started my own company April 15th 2010 because I had been hunting and interviewing for a job after I was to graduate in May of 2010 but there was no luck with anything. So I thought I will pick up side jobs and then run my own company out of my apartment. I had had an internship with a venue and was very familiar with what all went into a wedding and started having my friends ask me to help them with their own weddings knowing just what I knew at that point. I have almost completed my certification to become a certified wedding consultant and have done many many more weddings since that date.

What are the most fulfilling and the most challenging parts?
The most fulfilling is watching the bride enjoy every part of her wedding and dance the night away. There is no telling the amount of joy I feel when the bride says to me "I could not have done this without you and you made everything just the way I wanted; Thank you." The most demanding/challenging part is balancing all of the responsibilities that a small business owner has on a day-to-day basis while doing the part that I love which is the coordinating with the brides.

What is one big thing you have learned?  What advice would you give someone else just starting out?
The biggest thing I have learned about myself is that I am stronger than I thought. What I have learned about the wedding world is that making relationships with a cake lady, for example, can open many many doors to other wedding vendors. Stay positive and many doors will open for you.

If I were to talk to someone just starting out, a piece of advice is that you better really love weddings because it is your life. Your boyfriend, husband or significant other better like hearing about them too. But really weddings never stops so you have to make time to turn off your phone, computer, email etc and relax/recharge.

What are your hopes for the future of your business?
My hope for my future is to have a great group of women that are all as passionate about weddings as I am; to work with all kinds of brides to make their dreams of their wedding a reality in every way they want plus more. I hope that I will convert a bedroom into a gallery of the beautiful weddings that I have done over the many years I will be doing them.

And just for fun... what is the top item on your Christmas list?
My top thing on my Christmas list is for [my newly adopted dog] Maxwell to have a good first Christmas with a family. I know it is cheesy but I really cannot wait for him to wake up on Christmas and open his presents. For myself, umm... I really do not know... a Sonicare toothbrush?

*Full disclosure: Christine is not only super creative and extremely motivated, she is also my younger sister!

Photo courtsey of Ryan Gladstone Photography

Photo courtsey of Ryan Gladstone Photography

Photo courtsey of Ryan Gladstone Photography


Little Yellow Leaf
Owner: Megan Ibarra

What kinds of products and services do you offer?
I offer custom handmade invitations and stationery.  I will never do the same exact thing twice.  The majority of the business is wedding invitations, and often I will end up doing an entire suite of items after the invitations (programs, escort cards, table numbers, etc.) It's so exciting to see all of the pieces coordinate together in the end.  I have also started doing cards in which I do the design and the client purchases the file to print on their own.  I think it is a good option for those who still like to do a little DIY!  I'm working on an Etsy store for semi-custom invitations and eventually, a few stationery sets.

Why did you start your own business?  How did you start?
I have always enjoyed art, design of all types, and dabbling around on the computer.  While going to school for Interior Design, I found that I enjoyed developing the project logos and design board layouts just as much as the project. When it came time for my wedding in 2009, it was a given that I would do all the paper details myself.  After completing those, I was hooked and had to continue.  I began doing things for friends and prepared sample pieces to represent different ideas and techniques, which served as a learning process as well.  After an unfortunate hit from this economy, the business started as a joint venture with another friend who is a photographer. I have since gone out on my own as Little Yellow Leaf.  I would have never thought I'd have my own little business.  It has all gradually fallen into place.  I've been very lucky in knowing some wonderful people already in the wedding industry, and lovely brides who have passed my name on!

What are the most fulfilling and the most challenging parts?
I'd have to say that I've found two big challenges thus far.  One being finding the connection with each client.  Each one is very different - different style, expectations, some know exactly what they want and some have no idea.  It's my job to pull that information out and make it happen!  I do think that what I learned in going through a design program in school has helped with this a lot.  Which I'm not sure I realized until just now :)  The other challenge is learning time management and how much I can take on, and how long projects realistically take.  There is always something new I come away with after completely each job - it's always a learning process.  As for the most fulfilling part, (warning: cheesy moment) it is seeing how excited a bride or client is when they receive their pieces.  I absolutely LOVE it. I love their faces lighting up, a little screech (think "eeeeee!"), some jumping up and down and even a hug on occasion.  It makes me feel extremely lucky to have that small part in such an important event.

What is one big thing you have learned?  What advice would you give someone else just starting out?
The administrative side of things is A LOT of work.  By far more than I ever imagined.  And I am not one for that kind of organization or numbers.  It's been a challenge, but I have come up with a little system that works so far.  I would tell anyone to do a lot of research and have your business plan all mapped out before you start taking on clients.  And ask lots of questions!

What are your hopes for the future of your business?
I just hope it continues to grow.  As said before - I've been very lucky with knowing people already in the industry who have been so supportive and helpful.  Along with my dear husband (who has been stuck with me on an evening or two of rounding corners or cutting ribbon) family, and friends.  I get asked a lot if I will go full time with this.  I always answer that if I am successful enough to be able to one day do this part time - I'll feel very accomplished! I get giddy over weddings and special events and having a little part in them makes me feel pretty great. :)

And just for fun... what is the top item on your Christmas list?
Sadly, I actually had to think about this!  My mom would probably never believe this, considering I had a 2 page list by Thanksgiving when I was younger.  It might be a tie between unrealistically getting our kitchen cabinets painted (ok, and maybe a new counter top too) and a YUDU screen printer.  I'd love to offer screen printed invites someday!


Samantha Louise Jewelry
Owner: Samantha Louise Larkins
Based in Denver, CO

What kinds of products and services do you offer?
I have a small collection of one-of-a-kind and limited production jewelry that is available to stores and individuals nationwide, but the biggest part of my business is custom design in which I collaborate with clients to design jewelry that is special and unique to them. Through this process, I create loads of wedding jewelry, engagement rings, etc.

Why did you start your own business?  How did you start?
I started my own business because I wanted to pursue a passion for creation... what I didn't know in starting the business was I would actually get a MBA in the process.

What are the most fulfilling and most challenging parts?
I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a part of the happiest and most memorable moments of people's lives by creating jewelry for a wedding, special anniversaries, graduations, etc.  It is amazing to be a part of those experiences.  The most challenging part of running my own business is the sales side.  I have truly operated under the "if you build it, they will come" mentality and have learned quickly that no matter how beautiful the jewelry, it takes strategy and drive to get them to come!

What is one big thing you have learned?  What advice would you give someone else just starting out?
My biggest advice would be to get advice!  I didn't even know the things I didn't know, but in the last 4 years I have assembled a group of people that have the answers and I am not afraid to ask them for help.  They are friends, teachers, shop owners and is because of their direction and advice that I am able to pursue my passion.

What are your hopes for the future of your business?
My biggest hope for my business is that I can continue to balance all that it demands of me alongside my duties as a mother, a wife and a friend.  Running a small business never ends and it is often hard to shut the door at the end of the day like you might be able to if you had a corporate position.  Being a business owner becomes intertwined in your identity very quickly.  I hope that my business can succeed and grow without sacrificing the other part of my identity that I hold so dear.

And just for fun... what is the top item on your Christmas list?
This might sound crazy but I really want a new vacuum cleaner... I have two big dogs and I have burned through 2 vacuum cleaners in the last 2 years because of their hair... I am looking for the deluxe of all vacuum cleaners... any suggestions on what kind to get?????

*Melissa's note: I was lucky enough to receive a set of pearl earrings and necklace created by Samantha Louise Jewelry as a bridesmaid gift.  Each bridesmaid in the wedding party had a unique, customized necklace that varied in length and the size of the pearls used, giving a modern twist to a classic look.

I hope you will check out what these ladies have to offer!  Though they all have ties to the wedding industry, their products and services are also perfect as we head into the holiday season.  If you need help party planning, creating invitations or holiday cards, or finding a gorgeous piece of jewelry for a gift, get in touch with these talented women. They truly have enthusiasm and passion for what they do!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I can allow myself to get into the Christmas spirit.  And with the craziness of the past couple weeks at work, it was a nice feeling to relax with Scott and decorate our place yesterday.  Since it's our first Christmas as a married couple, and the first together in our condo, we were excited to buy some new decor... and of course, a tree!

We started the morning with a peek outside and discovered the city had been transformed into a winter wonderland overnight.  A few inches of snow covered everything, and the bare branches of trees wore a blanket of white.  Since we didn't have to trudge through the cold to work, it was a beautiful sight and just the thing to get us in the holiday mindset.  We turned on the Christmas tunes and made chocolate-chip pancakes, a weekly tradition in my family (Dad, I'm getting better, but my pancakes are still not as good as yours!).

The view from our back porch

Our building's courtyard

Pancake ingredients

The last of the batter = one big pancake

Delicious brunch

If you need a little Christmas cheer, here's the playlist of my homemade Christmas CD, compiled by my dad a few years ago and lovingly entitled "Coming Home For Christmas."  It has a handwritten note on the cover list that reads "Can't Wait 'til You're Home. Dad," and the songs always return me to time in Kansas with the family, decorating the tree, eating Christmas cookies, and opening gifts.

1) Celebrate Me Home (Loggins)
2) White Christmas (Crosby)
3) Silent Night (Crosby)
4) It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas (Crosby)
5) I'll Be Home for Christmas (Crosby)
6) Christmas Song (Nat King Cole)
7) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Chicago)
8) Medley: Jolly Old St. Nicholas (Ray Conniff)
9) Medley: Let It Snow (Ray Conniff)
10) Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi)
11) Christmas Time is Here (Vince Guaraldi)
12) March (Nutcracker)
13) Christ the King (Fogelberg)
14) Ave Maria (Kenny G)
15) Auld Lang Syne (Kenny G)
16) Christmas Memories (Sinatra)

After a little shopping on Amazon (love gift cards to buy all the books I want - lots of writing related ones this time around!) and a little Christmas card ordering (ordered on Snapfish to be picked up at Walgreens and they were ready within a couple hours!), we headed out to Marshall's and Michael's for some decorations.  About $100 later, we had stockings, a tree skirt, tablecloth, striped ribbon, an angel tree-topper, a nutcracker, garland, a wreath, and lights.  Next stop was Home Depot, but the inventory of artificial trees was picked over... nothing in the size and price range we were looking for.  So it was decided... we would get a real tree!

The Christmas tree lot

The view from the parking garage at the shopping center

We headed home for some food to refuel and then went to the little school parking lot across the street that has been transformed into a Christmas tree lot.  It is the same place my roommates and I would go for our tree so it felt like a tradition to me.  We picked out a beautiful, well-proportioned tree, just right for the space we had.  Real trees require watering and dealing with needles, but the smell truly fills a home with the scent of the holidays.

With the addition of some ornaments and other small decorations we already had on hand, our main living/dining room is now ready for Christmas.  We sat back and admired the twinkling lights, and it finally felt like Christmas is near.


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