Friday, December 30, 2011

This holiday, I decided to go the traditional route with some handmade gifts for my friends.

I saw this photo on Pinterest of a cute cabled mug cozy.  I can't remember how many times I've reached in to grab a cup of hot water from the microwave only to quickly withdraw my hand when I accidentally touch the super hot mug.  So this idea is both adorable and functional.  Plus, seeing as my friends are all either coffee or tea drinkers, and that I'm still officially a beginner at knitting, a small project like this was perfect.  Unfortunately, this specific pattern was a little beyond the reach of my current skill level, so I explored Ravelry for some patterns I could make for the tea and cocoa drinkers, as well as perhaps a replacement for the Starbucks addicts' cardboard sleeves.  Actually, now that I think of it, Caribou Coffee sells reusable coffee sleeves, but they are not as fantastic as mine, of course!

For the tea and cocoa drinkers, I used the Button Up Your Cup pattern.  I had to learn how to crochet for this one, and I think I have lots of room for improvement on that skill, but it still came out great, considering!  I added, to the side, a personalized touch with a little felt tea bag tag that I "embroidered" (in quotes because I officially don't know how to do it and it looked like a kid did it) a little message, like "Isabel's Tea."

Then for the coffee drinkers, I could not resist the trendy, supercuteness of this Owl Coffee Cup Sleeve pattern!! 

As a bonus, I made this fun sock monkey sleeve too!

Posted on Friday, December 30, 2011 by Julie


Friday, December 23, 2011

Wow!  What a year!  After all the stress and juggling of multiple tasks, looking back this year seems like a recordbreaker in accomplishments, as far as expanding my world view, having new and unique experiences, introducing new and expanding existing knowledge, and pursuing interests more actively.  All of this in addition to selling my first home, moving to a new state, and my first time building a home.  I swear there must have been more than 24 hours in each day this past year.

Best of all, I started this blog to share all these experiences with you in the hope that it inspires you to break away from routine and bring new adventures to your life.

Highlights of the Year:

  • Ran two big races - Miami Half Marathon and Marine Corps 10K
  • Continued my improv comedy with a short form improv class at DC Improv and performed in Washington Improv Theater's Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament (FIST)
  • Saw four great author book presentations: Demitri Martin, Ashley Judd, and Bill Bryson at Sixth and I Synagogue and Bethenny Frankel in Baltimore
  • Saw some of my favorite bands: Panic at the Disco, Simple Plan, and Glee Live tour
  • Tried new exercise classes:  Barre3 and yoga
  • Read some great books - recommend anything by Jonathan Tropper, loved Tina Fey's Bossypants, Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, and suggest anything by Wall Street and financial topic writer Michael Lewis
  • Tried new restaurants, including Hill Country BBQ and Central Michel Richard in D.C. and Tom Colicchio's CRAFT in NYC
  • Musical Mania (and one play) in NYC and DC -- How to Succeed in Business with Daniel Radcliffe, American Idiot with Billy Joe Armstrong - Closing Night show with impromptu performance by Green Day, The Submission with Jonathan Groff (Glee), Eddie Kaye Thomas (American Pie), and Rutina Wesley (True Blood), Follies with Bernadette Peters, Wicked, Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchett, Les Misérables, and Oklahoma
  • Finally got to watch my favorite, Rafael Nadal, play tennis live in Cincinnati
  • Attended the Army Navy football game in D.C. and saw the President of the United States, Barack Obama, for the first time
  • Visited my first Caribbean island - Grand Cayman - thanks to an award I won at work (wahOOO!!!)
  • Went to New Orleans for the first time and took a voodoo and traditional NoLa cocktail tour
  • Took my Grandma to NYC for her first visit in over 30 years
  • Visited all three 9/11 Memorials
  • Wandered around central Pennsylvania for two events, stumbling upon a great example of what I love about road trips: Summit Inn Resort - a very interesting historical hotel that provided lodging to Henry Ford and the Firestones as they brought their cars and tires up to the mountains for testing, in addition to Thomas Edison and others
  • Saw my first Formula One race and visited Montreal, Quebec for the first time
  • Returned to Spain to attend the Opening Ceremonies and first day of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona - also known as the main running of the bulls event - and visited several new cities, including Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, and Granada.
  • Explored D.C. like a tourist on a segway, revisited popular museums (Smithsonians, Spy Museum, Newseum), and discovered new points of interest (Lincoln's Cottage)
  • Returned to my alma mater for homecoming in Chicago for the first time since I graduated and took great tours (Bike and Architecture) that exposed me to new and interesting facts about the Windy City
  • Gained access to see the West Wing of the White House for the first time and saw the Oval Office
  • Started to learn more about my new home, Old Town Alexandria in Virginia, through several walking tours and tours of historical sites - Gadsby's Tavern, Carlysle House, Lee-Fendall House, Apothecary Shop, Fort Ward, Christ Church, Old Presbyterian Meetinghouse.
  • Hunted for ghosts in Gettysburg on, what happened to be, Remembrance Day in November, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
  • Finishing off the year spending the holidays across the world in Cambodia and Indonesia
Phew!  I'm exhausted just writing that, and a little overwhelmed with how I could possibly top these lists in 2012.  But looking forward to it, nonetheless.  And looking forward to documenting the journey on this new medium! 

Happy holidays and New Year!  Here's to a great 2012 of more learning, living, and exploring!

Posted on Friday, December 23, 2011 by Julie

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Over the past two months, I've participated in several opportunities to learn more about the history of my new home - Old Town Alexandria, Virginia!  I've learned so much that I'm finding it a challenge to organize my thoughts and write it all down.

First, I can't recommend Footsteps to the Past enough as a way to gather a general overview of the long history of the town - from colonial times and George Washington, through its four year occupation by Union troops during the Civil War, then its period of neglect through the 1970s, ending with revitalization efforts that keep pushing out from the city center to create a destination town for tourists, new residents, and history buffs alike!  My introduction to Footsteps to the Past was through Groupon, as they had a special for the nightly ghost tour.  Since I joined the tour later in the season, our group was very small, so I got a lot of opportunities to pepper the guide with questions, making the tour a great history lesson, with fun ghost stories as well.  The 1 hour ghost tour leaves the Alexandria Visitor's Center at Ramsey's House every night from April through November.  The tour I joined covered stories of: the most famous couple in Alexandria -- but no one knows their name; the curse of the Carlysles; the role of historic homes during the Civil war - specifically the hotel built across the front lawn of Carlysle house that was used as a hospital; the Carlysle house used as a Union Army leadership meetingplace; and, the confederate espionage disguised as courtship.  What would a ghost tour be if it didn't end in a cemetery, at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House? 

Alexandria was once a part of D.C. - old water drain
Following that tour, I also scheduled the 90 minute history tour with Footsteps that fit with my parents' schedule while they were in town.  I won't go into the details of all that I learned about, such as George Washington and his favorite spots, notable residents like the Lee Family (as in Robert E. Lee), the story of the first Union officer killed by a confederate sympathizer during the war as he tried to steal a confederate flag, that could be seen from the White House, on the first day of wartime occupation, etc.  Just too much to talk about, and I don't want to discourage people from taking these great (and cheap) walking tours because they are a can't miss attraction, in my opinion.

Rounding out my unofficial Alexandria History Month, I purchased a discount admission from LivingSocial to attend the Alexandria Holiday Candlelight Tour.  Held every year on a December weekend, the tour allows you to explore the interiors of four of the town's main attractions:  Gadsby's Tavern (and attached hotel), Carlsyle House, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, and Lee-Fendall House.  All of the historic buildings were decorated in period appropriate holiday themes.  This year, as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War, the period celebrated is the 1860s.

The tour was fantastic.  Getting suckered into participating in a group period dance while at Gadsby's Tavern wasn't my favorite activity, but one of my favorite stories to tell.  I actually spoke with a couple dressed in Civil War formal attire and discovered that they participate in dance lessons at Gadsby's every week, mostly to prepare people who may be attending one of the major balls held at the building, including George Washington's Birth Night ball, other 18th century and Civil War balls, and a Jane Austen ball - now that's more my style! 

Here is my list of must not miss historic sites in Old Town Alexandria:

Gadsby's Tavern (scafolding from recent earthquake)
Gadsby's Tavern - The tavern was built c.1782 and the hotel was built c. 1795.  Like Starbucks today, back in colonial days, there seemed to be a tavern on every corner.  This one was conveniently located across the street from the Alexandria jail, at the time.  Gadsby's was a favorite of George Washington when he was in town on business from his estate just 8 miles south at Mount Vernon.  He also enjoyed Wise's Tavern a block down the street on the corner of Cameron and Fairfax.  One of the reasons for Gadsby's popularity was their vast ice cellar and, consequently, the offering of a colonial delicacy: ice cream.  Before you get excited, one of the most asked for flavors of ice cream was.....oyster!!  Ew!

Carlyle House with Holiday Interior
Carlysle House - Completed in 1753 by a wealthy Scottish merchant, John Carlysle, for his bride, Sarah Fairfax.  Sarah was the cousin of Lord Fairfax, one of the largest landowners in the region and, subsequently, very wealthy and influential.  There are some interesting stories about the construction of the home, including a roofline that is not even, mismatched brick sizes on the house exterior, a cat entombed in the foundation, and how Carlyle got around the rule that all homes had to butt up the front of the house to the street - not set back like Carlysle house.  After the Carlysle family line died, the house eventually was owned by a gentleman who also owned the two buildings on the sides of the house.  He proceeded to build an extension between the two buildings on the front lawn of Carlyle House, essentially removing the home from sight.  During the Civil War, the house became a headquarters for the Union Army, and the hotel surrounding the property became one of Alexandria's largest hospitals for wounded soldiers coming from surrounding areas, including both battles at Manassas/Bull Run.

Apothecary - Founded in 1792, this is Alexandria's longest continuously run business (1796-1933).  Martha Washington used to write to the owner to send her medicines down to their estate.  Robert E. Lee was also a customer.  Now, it houses the store display and a museum upstairs.  I didn't get to see the museum, as it was not a part of the Candlelight tour, so now I have an excuse to go back!

Christ Church - This adorable church, built from 1767-1773, has name plates on the pews were the Washingtons and the Lees sat during their worship. 

Lee-Fendall Dining Room
Lee-Fendall House - Built in 1785 by the cousin of "Light Horse Harry" Lee, father of Robert E. Lee and Revolutionary War hero, this house sat across the street from Robert E.'s boyhood home.  The home is now a museum open to the public.

George Washington's Town Home - This is a replica built on the spot where the original stood, using materials from the dilapidated structure, like the foundation stones.  This was George Washington's place to stay when he had business in the city and could not go back to Mount Vernon.  The modern word "townhouse" most likely has its origins here, as Washington referred to it in letters as his "town house." 

Captain's Row - Between Union and Fairfax on Prince St, this original cobblestone street, now brutal on your car's axles, indicates you are among a great collection of well-preserved historic homes.

Lyceum - Home to Alexandria's official history museum.  I have not gone yet, but it's on the near-term to do list! 

So go to Alexandria!  Make a day of it, maybe on a Saturday to visit one of the world's oldest continually operating  farmer's markets on Market Square, then visit some or all listed above.  Maybe take an early afternoon history tour from Footsteps, then finish off the day window shopping or browsing the merchandise at the cute businesses that line King Street and cross streets.

Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 by Julie


Sunday, December 18, 2011

I officially declare Washington D.C.'s new secret to be Lincoln's Cottage!  When I bought a Groupon awhile ago to tour the Lincoln Cottage, I had no idea what to expect.  All I thought was that this would be something different to do when my parents were in town.  I was also concerned because there had been some comments on TripAdvisor that there was nothing to see, no furniture in the rooms, just audio visual presentations.

Boy were we surprised!  To start with, the site of what is now known as Lincoln's Cottage is actually one part of the Armed Services Retirement Home campus.  That campus name is only a recent change, as it was formerly called Soldier's Home.  From what I read, and from the stories that we were told, it seems to me that this is the first attempt at creating a facility for disabled Army veterans of war and is essentially a foundation for what is now the Department of Veterans' Affairs.  It was founded in 1851 after years of petitioning for a retirement home for homeless and disabled veterans of war, specifically the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.  On the property, there were, originally, three large homes and a dormitory-like structure for the veterans, called the Scott Building.  In order to gain financial support from high ranking officials for the Soldier's Home, these officials were invited to stay in one of the large cottages as they pleased.  This cottage was originally named Anderson Cottage.  According to Wikipedia, "Built initially in 1843 by the banker George Washington Riggs as a summer cottage for his family, it was a part of the first parcel acquired by the U.S. Military Asylum. Renamed Anderson Cottage for co-founder Major Robert Anderson, it housed the first residents of the home. It is now known as President Lincoln's Cottage."

It is thought that President James Buchanan first introduced Lincoln to the cottage, as Lincoln was quick to inquire about it soon after taking office.  It did not become the summer home for the first family until 1962, when Mary asked for refuge from the noisy preparations for war of the soldiers camped out in Washington, all over what is now the National Mall, and the constant foot traffic at the White House, which she saw as more of an office than a home.  Both Mary and Abraham were also mourning the loss of their son, Willie, in 1962.  So the Soldier's Home became an ideal compromise of a quiet home away from the wartime hubbub that was still within a reasonable commuting distance -- 3 miles or 30 minutes, which is ironically probably the same amount of time it would take to travel that distance in D.C. today with all the traffic -- for Lincoln to travel down to the White House daily.

Opened in 2008 after extensive renovations, the Lincoln's Cottage tour is fascinating.   First, you have the opportunity to browse a small gallery chronicling the events, challenges, and motivations during Lincoln's presidency.  Then you are led to a small room to watch a short introductory film.  After this, your docent leads you to the house, itself, and tells you the stories of 1861-1865, with the help of some video and audio.  Each room serves a different purpose in telling the story of the importance of the cottage and the impact of Lincoln's term in office, including his views on emancipation and on the war.  It is important to note that one of Lincoln's best known documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, was drafted at this cottage. 

While the entrance fee may seem steep, the docent experience makes it worth your while if you have any interest at all in President Lincoln and the Civil War.  I am so glad that Groupon allowed me stumble upon this hidden treasure, that it will remain high on my list of recommended things to do in Washington, D.C.!

Posted on Sunday, December 18, 2011 by Julie

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Friday, December 16, 2011

OK, still anxiously awaiting my new house!  To occupy myself, I've been wandering home shops and browsing the internet in my free time to get cute decor ideas.  Of course, I've mentioned it before and will mention it again, has truly been a fabulous resource.  So great that I'm convinced it is one of the major contributors to my new 2-3am bedtime and constant lack of sleep.  But so far, it's worth every REM minute lost!

The problem with all this online browsing and local shop exploring, and the associated spending of money, is that I can't remember what I put in storage almost a year ago.  I fear that when I finally move in, I'm going to have a big surprise due to the absolute volume of stuff I've accumulated, combining the old and the new.  I see a garage sale in my future! 

Here are some of the highlights my recent home accessorizing searches and finds:

An addition to Pinterest, another website I keep returning to for ideas is one of my favorite stores: Anthropologie!  How adorable are these vases?  And what about these berry baskets?  They look so real!  Supercute!

Z Gallerie is another fun resource for home decor.  From umbrella stands, wall art and decor, amazing large scale mirrors that are approachably priced

On Small Business Saturday, this November, I discovered one of my new favorite stores in Old Town Alexandria:  Random Harvest.  I had some restraint that day, which shocked me,  and only walked away with two small pear accents and an unusual vase.  Random Harvest has just four shops in the Washington D.C. area

For the kitchen, I have my eye on this retro looking espresso maker by Espressione that would look amazing on my countertop, but am stuck on the idea of it in turquoise, and I can't find that color! Sad!  Also, it's a little on the spendy side for me, especially considering I'm an occasional, not regular, latte drinker.
That's it for now!  Can't wait to see everything in the new space!  I'll try to take photos when I get things all unpacked and put in exactly the right spot, then write a follow-on post....a Post-post!  Haha!

Posted on Friday, December 16, 2011 by Julie


When I signed up for a Le Creuset class at Sur la Table, I imagined the recipes we would be preparing would be limited to lasagnas, gratins,  and that "everything but the kitchen sink" leftovers combined with rice and creamy canned soup casserole no one likes.  I came to this conclusion because this particular class came with a free Le Creuset 14" casserole dish and a Le Creuset spatula, making the class a great value, I thought, regardless of the menu.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in addition to taking this great baking dish home, I really liked the four recipes we made -- and two were not even casseroles!  During the two hour class, we made:
  • Walnut Pesto Stuffed Pork Roast
  • Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna with Four Cheeses
  • French Country Chicken Gratin with Cognac
  • Biscuit-Topped Apple and Cranberry Cobbler

Le Creuset is a manufacturer of high end enameled cast iron cookware and stoneware.   Cast iron is a good cooking metal because it tends to heat soups and cook meats more evenly in order to enhance the natural flavors and deliver more delicious meals and desserts.  Due to this result, cast iron tends to be more expensive than other stovetop cookware - like stainless steel.  The added bonus of the Le Creuset brand is that they come in a variety of fun colors, so you can choose the monochromatic path or can have all different shapes, sizes, and colors in your collection!  Both have a high visual impact, on top of their functionality.

Since the pesto pork is simply a roulade, or rolled, pork with pesto inside, and the chicken was my least favorite, I'm going to give you the other two yummy recipes because it's good to know how to make a béshamel sauce for homemade mac and cheese (this version is a white béchamel, so use cheddar for orange) and who doesn't love fruit cobbler??

Next class, I need to remember to bring my good DSLR camera with my 40mm macro lens, because the photos from my iPhone above are not doing these dishes justice!!   Enjoy the lasagna and cobbler!

Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna with Four Cheeses(8 servings)

1 (2 1/2 pounds) butternut squash, quatered, seeds and membranes removed
1/4 cup water

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, plus more for dusting
2 (10 ounce) packages of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
2 large eggs
Freshly ground pepper

1 (10 ounce) box lasagna noodles (plain or spinach), cooked al dente, drained, blotted dry
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded fontina cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled gorgonzola cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place rack in the center.

Place squash quarters, cut side down, in a large baking dish and add the water to the dish.  Roast the squash for 30 minutes, or until firm but tender when pierced with a fork.  Let cool, peel away the skin with a paring knife, and cut each quarter crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices.  Set aside and turn oven off or down to 375 degrees.

To prepare béchamel sauce, create a roux by melting butter in a large saucepan over medium low heat.  Add flour, stir with a flat whisk until the mix is smooth, and then continue to cook, stirring for 5 minutes.  Gradually, add the milk and half-and-half while whisking constantly until smooth.  Continue cooking over medium heat, whisking gently, for 5 minutes, or until the sauce boils and thickens.  Remove pan from the heat.  Stir in parmesan cheese, salt, and nutmeg.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the spinach and 1/2 cup of béchamel sauce, set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, eggs, and a generous grinding of pepper.  Stir with a sauce whisk until well blended.  Set aside.

With oven preheated at 375 degrees, generously butter a 9 1/2 x 14 inch baking dish.  Add a ladleful of the béchamel to the prepared dish, spreading it evenly over the bottom.  Arrange 1/3 of the noodles side by side, or slightly overlapping if they are wide, on the bottom of the dish.  Spoon about half of the ricotta mixture on top and spread evenly.  Top with half of the squash slices, arranging in a single layer.  Sprinkle the squash with salt and pepper, dust lightly with nutmeg, and scatter 1/4 cup each of fontina and gorgonzola cheeses evenly over the top.  Add the spinach mixture by well-spaced spoonfuls and spread in an even layer.  Arrange another 1/3 noodles on top and repeat the layering process with the remaining noodles on top at the end.  Poor the remaining béchamel sauce evenly over the noodles.  Sprinkle the top evenly with the remaining fontina and gorgonzola cheeses.

Bake until the top is browned and bubbly, about 45 to 50 minutes.  Consider baking on a sheet to catch any cheese overflow.  For a lighter brown top, prop a tent of aluminum foil over the baking dish, perhaps using upended pyrex mesuring cups.  Remove from the oven and let stand for 15 minutes before serving.

Biscuit Topped Apple and Cranberry Cobbler (8 servings)

1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 pounds fresh Braeburn, Roma, or Gala apples, halved, cored, and cut into 3/4 inch thick slices

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter; cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons turbinado or Demerara sugar, for garnish
Whipped cream or ice cream, for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place rack in center.  Lightly butter an 11x7x2 inch glass or stoneware baking dish and set aside.

To prepare the fruit mixture, combine cranberries and 1/3 cup of the granulated sugar in a large mixing bowl, tossing well to coat.  Crush cranberries using a potato masher, listening for popping noises.  Allow the mixture to sit for 5 to 10 minutes.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon, whisking gently to combine.  Set aside.

Add apple slices to the bowl with cranberries and sprinkle the sugar and cornstarch mixture over the fruit, tossing evenly to coat.  Allow the mixture to stand until additional juices begin to form, tossing occasionally, about 5 to 10 minutes.  Arrange fruit mixture and any accumulated juices into the prepared baking dish and set aside.

To prepare biscuit topping, place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.  Process for 10 seconds to blend well.  Add the cold butter pieces and pulse 5 times at 1-second intervals, or until the butter is cut into pieces the size of large green peas.  Add heavy whipping cream and pulse another 20 times, or until the dough holds together in small, thick clumps.  Use a silicone spatula to scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface.  Gently squeeze the clumps together until they form a cohesive dough.  Pat the dough into a rough rectangle about 1 inch thick.  Using a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut the dough into 8 equal squares and gently place atop the fruit mixture, spacing them evenly over the surface without touching.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk the lightly beaten egg with the remaining 2 tablespoons of heavy cream and stir to combine.  Brush the tops of the biscuits with a thin coating of the egg mixture and sprinkle evenly with turbinado or Demerara sugar (think Sugar in the Raw).

Place the assembled cobbler on a rimmed baking sheet and place in preheated oven.  Bake until the fruit mixture begins to bubble up and thicken, and the biscuits turn a light golden brown color, about 45 to 50 minutes.

Remove the cobbler from the oven and allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes.  Serve warm with a dollop of fresh whipped cream or scoop of your favorite ice cream.

Posted on Friday, December 16, 2011 by Julie

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

With less than two weeks until Christmas, to help you cope with your calendar of multiple holiday parties and casual visits with friends, I've compiled some of my favorite holiday ideas found on Pinterest - 5 each for Decor, Treats, and Hostess Gifts - to help you survive and surprise your friends with your amazing talents and thoughtfulness!

Decor Ideas

1. White Christmas -  Monochromatic table decor in cute jars displaying snowy christmas scenes

2. Because Santa and his Reindeer shouldn't get all the food - Elf Doughnuts!

3. So people can feel comfortable knowing what they're eating, and what recipes to ask you for later, this Chalkboard Buffet runner is genius!

 4. Non-Traditional Wreath to add a pop of color in bright cherry and lime on your door

5. Sparkle Pears - put in a large hurricane vase or bowl on your table for simple elegance

Yummy Treats

1. Santa Hat Party Mix using Bugles - so clever!

2. Sugared Cranberries and Brie - Delicious and holiday appropriate with its festive colors

3. Apple the apple! Now this is my kind of going green!

4. Melted snowman cookies - So simple to make a batch for your friends and get a bunch of "aw, how cute!" responses.
5. Because no list is complete without a bacon treat - bacon wrapped dates!

Hostess Gift Ideas

5. The Gift of Pampering: Sugar Scrubs

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!!!

Posted on Sunday, December 11, 2011 by Julie

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Midshipmen and Black Nights saluting the flag during the Star Spangled Banner
For the 112th time in U.S. college football history, the Westpoint Black Knights and the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen met on the football field for the annual Army-Navy game tradition today, December 10th, 2011.  Not only is this an annual tradition for the two military colleges, but it's also an annual television watching event for my dad, a former Navy officer himself!  So, when I heard that they were going to be playing the game at FexEx Field in D.C. this year, I got on the phone and told him he should come out.  True, the best seat for the game is always the one at home, especially with a DVR, but there's just something special, that I love, about experiencing things in person, if only just once.  Aside from the chilly temperatures, an unrelenting wind, and pocket hand warmers that didn't want to work, the game was fantastic.

There were all the traditions, starting with the Brigade of Midshipmen and Corps of Cadets marching into the stadium (that we, unfortunately, missed because we didn't want to arrive that early in this frigid weather).  Then, for the coin toss, our 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, plus VP Joe Biden and other high-ranking officials in the President's Cabinet and in the U.S. Military arrived on the field to handle the toss.   After 10 years living in D.C., this was the first time I've seen a U.S. President in person, and it was something I'll always remember. 

Of course I celebrated this monumental event by ordering a flyover of the stadium by four Navy fighter jets and four Army helicopters - no, just kidding, they were part of the traditional opening ceremonies as well.

I also want to mention how much I enjoyed the various traditional fight songs and cheers from both sides.  Although I'd have to say that the award for the most spirited section definitely went to the men and women in gray.  Maybe it's an underdog thing.  As for the football, the first half was exciting, with several turnovers due to fumbles and a tied score at halftime: 14-14.  In fact, it wasn't until the middle of the fourth quarter that the Midshipmen began to feel a small sense of relief, as their team started to play a little smarter and pulled ahead for good.  The final score was Navy, 27- Army, 21 - the closest game in a decade and the record 10th win in a row for Navy!  

 In case you ever get a chance to see a future game live or just watch it on TV, look for these other fun traditions we observed:
  • The President's halftime symbolic walk across the field to show his support for both teams, watching one half of the game from each side.

  • The Prisoner Exchange - Selected juniors at both schools spend the first semester of their school year attending their rival institution, ending with a "prisoner exchange" during the football game to symbolize their return to their respective schools.
  • Navy's Bill the Goat and the Army Mule - I went to a high school with no real mascot and had a Wildcat at college, so clearly I had never seen a live mascot before!  Cute!
  • The Go Army! and Go Navy! spirit spot videos on the big screen created by servicemen around the world to mock their rivals and show their spirit.  I think Navy got the award this year for the funniest spot - a parody of a charity infomercial, set to the classic Sarah McLachlan tune "Angel," pleading for the adoption of disheartened, crying Army cadets after 9 (now 10) straight losses. 
  • Final Respects - in a show of solidarity and mutual respect, after hours of being rivals on the field, at the conclusion of the game both teams walk to the losing academy section, line up and sing that school's alma mater.  Then the turn around and go to the other side of the field to sing the alma mater for the winning institution's students. 

It was an honor to be a part of this annual Army-Navy game, and to witness these two military institutions at their finest.  While I also appreciate the more common collegiate football experience, especially having attended a large school with a relatively good football team, there's something different about these young men and women at West Point and USNA, standing tall and sharp in their uniforms, that makes you proud to be a part of the game that day, regardless of which team you're supporting.  Go Navy! Beat Army! ..... Go Army! Beat Navy!

Posted on Saturday, December 10, 2011 by Julie


Friday, December 9, 2011

Now that I've lived in Washington DC for 10 years, when my parents visit, I am forced to become more creative to find new and interesting things for them to do or see.  I lucked out this round because Groupon came out with a discount admission to the Newseum - a museum in DC dedicated to chronicling: the role of journalism in history; the continually expanding reach of news outlets through technological advancement and elimination of international barriers and restrictions; and, the addition of new media to improve delivery speed, level of impact, and volume of reports available from all points of view.  OK, that description just bored me as I reread it, but trust me, the Newseum is quite interesting and memorable.

Rated in the Top 5 of Recommended Attractions in Washington, DC, the Newseum is popular for tourists and student groups alike.  Personally, I find the regular adult admission of $21.95 for a 2-day (consecutive) pass to be a bit steep, so the only two times I've visited have been with a Groupon, lowering the entry to fee to $10 - much better!

Once you get through the entry process, either find the local elevator or head down one floor to catch the express elevator to the 6th Floor.  You're going to start your tour at the top because the floorplan showcases the downward spiral design of the museum, with ramps and stairs leading you logically through the exhibits.

Here are my Top 3 Things To See (based on my two visits):

My #1 Favorite: 6th Floor Pennsylvania Avenue Terrace - go outside and get some fantastic photos with the U.S. Capitol in the background and read about the history of Pennsylvania Avenue below, most notably the protests and marches and, of course, as the one mile Presidential Inauguration parade route to the White House.

My #2 Favorite: News Corporation News History Gallery - Spend most of your time here at this collection of newspapers.  The design of this permanent exhibit is spectacular.  Travel down one side and back up the other of this row of temperature-controlled, soft close glass drawer stacks - presented in chronological order, with the most famous headlines appearing in the top box.  Wars, assassinations, monumental events, tragedies, triumphs, etc. are all represented.  You will find yourself oscillating between thinking "Oh I know about that!" and "Oh that's so neat, I never knew that!" at every stop.

My Favorite #3: 9/11 Exhibit - reprinted front pages from around the world, unforgettable and horrifically tragic photographs documenting the day's events, and a few artifacts, including part of the North Tower's antenna.  While this exhibit is small, it packs a big punch.

If you're short on time, I recommend fitting these three stops into your visit, then choose other exhibits based on your preferences.  For kids, the interactive newsroom looks fun.  One area to skip, if you're short on time, is the 4-D movie.  True, it is only 15 minutes, once you get into the theater, but the movie is mediocre.  It highlights three journalists: Isaiah Thomas, a patriot and publisher of the pro-independence Massachusetts Spy newspaper before and during the Revolutionary War; Nellie Bly and the introduction of detective journalism, as she conspired to get herself committed for 10 days to a notorious womens' mental institution to expose the poor living conditions and treatment of  patients; and Edward R. Murrow's effort to get permission to be the first journalist to broadcast live, over the radio during the height of the London Blitz.  While the main attraction of the theater is the moving seats and other special effects to create that 4th dimension,  overall, the addition of both the 3rd and the 4th dimension elements did nothing to made it more than just a gimmicky experience.  But that is just my opinion!

So, if you're looking for something to do in DC that is off the "beaten path" of memorials and Smithsonians, check out the Newseum, conveniently located by the National Archives and the Smithsonian Art Museums.

Posted on Friday, December 09, 2011 by Julie

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