Thursday, December 29, 2016

Before we start, I have to prepare you that this post is going to be heavy at the beginning, but I am going to to my best to climb up to the lighter fare by the end.  Spoiler alert, it involves the Thriller dance!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, I'm not sure if you noticed that I haven't been posting at the rate I produced in past years.  In fact, it was maybe a quarter of previous years, so yeah I definitely feel like I'm in an inspiration funk.  And I think that this year, while it has had some great moments, a consensus might agree that the good times got overshadowed in the last few months here in the U.S.. When I saw this cartoon in The New Yorker on December 8th and thought it was both funny and distressingly accurate for me at this moment:

This has been quite a year, especially with my proximity to the Nation's capitol.  It's hard to hide from the black cloud of what is mistaken for democracy and politics today.

OK, warning, I'm now going to step up onto my dais for a moment.  Skip this and the following 2 paragraphs if you're not into politics, the one after gets back to business. Alright, you're still here? Can we all agree that the Presidential election took a huge toll on 2016?  I'm not going to lie to you, I am seriously dismayed by all that occurred and all that continues to occur.  I know this isn't the forum for political discussion, but I am legitimately affected by the uncertainty that has been created by the election outcome and the behavior being displayed during this transition period, by my elected leaders and by casual citizens.  I am adapting to a position where, unlike every other election in which I voted, the person taking office (regardless of party affiliation) is someone that I don't respect as a person, is a blatant serial liar with no remorse, has not demonstrated a fitness or a willingness to become fit for the job of President, and has questionable motivations.  The elected President has promoted himself as a superior businessman when facts do not support that statement, has consistently shown his inability to read a news report and make an educated assessment as demonstrated by his moronic comments on Twitter of all places, surrounds himself with alarming advisors, stubbornly refuses to condemn the bad behavior of his hate-based extremist supporters, and in general does not seem to be taking the new position seriously.

Before Nov. 8th, as an independent person not registered with either the Democratic or Republican party I had voted in 5 elections for the person I felt best fit the role at that time, but I can say I've been aware of the President and the importance of the position as early as the 1988 election (who could forget those bushy Dukakis eyebrows!). Of those 5 elections in which I previously cast my vote, my preferred candidate did not always win. But despite not being on the side of the winning candidate, I still respected all of my President elects' fitness for the job, appreciated their consistency for acting maturely and thoughtfully with others and during public speeches, and had the confidence that they had the intelligence to comprehend and respect the severity and consequences of classified information, sensitive foreign policies, and expected norms of behavior when it comes to being gracious in other cultures.  The elected President hasn't even been sworn into office and my confidence in my country's future is dashed and my pride for my country bruised. Instead of surrounding himself with the best and the brightest to accommodate for his political (and general) shortcomings, he is identifying people with questionable histories and motives for the top positions who are unqualified. Meanwhile the rumors around D.C. suggest support staff who traditionally would jump at the chance to serve their president are apprehensive of the day they actually get the phone call to come interview. So basically, the best and the brightest are refusing to work for the administration.  No Toby,  no Josh, no Sam, and no CJ.  (Yes, I've been binge watching The West Wing this month.)

Perhaps this is why I'm feeling a bit melancholy because I spend so much energy trying to keep up with it all and educate myself on the policies and history behind the issues, being often crudely discussed over Twitter by the President elect, due to the shift in my perceived security. I can no longer profess confidence that my Executive Branch of government is capable of having "my back" in a crisis because the assembled team is so lacking and even if it wasn't, the final call comes down to someone who, thinking he's already in charge, is playing a game of "I'm not touching you" with China for the fun of it inappropriately over social media. Stepping off of dais now because it's starting to feel a very superficial in comparison to the atrocities happening just this month in Syria, the loss of life in some of my favorite European cities because of selfish terrorists, and the tragic losses of life here at home from gun violence and other unprovoked attacks.  Yeah, while not the worst year ever when put into centuries of perspective, it sucked!

Now that I'm back on the ground from my soap box, those who skipped the previous paragraphs were probably wise.  It was depressing!  To counter, 2016 was definitely not all doom and gloom, and it had some intensely bright highlights for me.  While adding to my tally of lifetime Mumford & Sons concerts attended (+4 and a solo Marcus performance!), my friends and I were shocked and amazed to see a photo posted after one of the concerts showing us cheering in the front row.  Ty Johnson is a fantastic photographer that often shoots the shows for the band, and it was at a concert in Queens, NY where he got the perfect audience perspective and captured pure joy on all of our faces.  I can't thank him enough for taking this shot and for sharing it with me.

Ty wasn't the only one getting some fun shots at the concerts.  I got some from my view as well!

I also got to further explore one of my other obsessions, Hamilton: an American Musical, by not only seeing it two more times on Broadway but sharing the "first timer" experience with my cousin and one of my best friends.  On top of the show itself, and I may have to say an even better experience than seeing the show again, was going to see Lin Manuel Miranda perform with his friends and improv group: Freestyle Love Supreme.  I had only seen one other member of the group perform before, the beatboxer Shockwave, and I was just blown away with Utkarsh (UTK) and Anthony (Two Touch) as well as Arthur Lewis and James Igleheart.  Chris Jackson, another founding member of the group, couldn't make it to the show because he was still performing as George Washington in Hamilton.

Rounding out the entertainment recap, what an enormously fun opportunity to see another of my favorite bands back performing in a small club where they toured in the early 1990s.  Yea Green Day!

Last year, I didn't really have a normal set of resolutions, rather a five item to-do list that I thought would generate big personal returns.

1. Travel to new places - check
2. Cancel my cable TV account - sort of check
3. Create a website for my photography - check
4. Bake more - I'm in a baking funk
5. Get healthy - sort of check

Hopefully you've seen my posts about these places already, but I'll give the quick and dirty review. This year I finally got to see, first hand, the beautiful Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada for the first time after lusting after photos for years on Instagram.  I went there expecting to be wowed by all of the turquoise lakes like Moraine Lake, Peyto Lake, and Lake Louise.

But, the photo I love the most from that week was from atop the Canadian Rockies, with Mt. Assiniboine peeking out from behind two peaks.  If you read my post from the other day with my favorite photos from the year, you may have already known this.

The year started off weird because I went back to the Sundance Film Festival and the vibe was really off compared to previous years.  The ticketing process was new and broken, so we weren't able to get passes or film screening tickets. The actors wandering about were scarce. The non-actor people visiting were there even less for the films and more for the Hollywood spectacle. At least the snow conditions were good, and as a bonus my friend and I missed out on having to dig out of 20+ inches of snow back home! The winter also provided a couple of other opportunities to get my skis onto some fresh snow, so I was really happy about that - especially considering that it was my first season back on the slopes after having ACL replacement surgery last Spring.  New knee worked just fine!

Let's see...Canada, NYC, Colorado, Hawaii, Nashville...yeah pretty awesome year for traveling. And the year rounded out with another new stamp on my Passport from New Zealand.

Cancel Cable:
I said this was a sort of checked box because my bill was cut in half.  Alas, I still needed internet, so there was a great package for super fast internet with standard definition basic TV that I chose.  I do find myself watching less live TV because I no longer have a DVR, so I have to watch all the commercials AND be home at the time the show.  Starting new shows basically presents more hassles and timing issues, which has resulted in less shows to watch.  Except for "This is Us" on NBC.  That show is outstanding!  Watch it if you haven't already!

Photography Website:
Here it is!  Please check it out.  I put new photos on there as much as I can.  I will post the New Zealand ones sometime in January.

Bake More: 
No really, I can't explain this one.

Get Healthy:

As is always the case, some progress made, but no goals met.

Starting Fresh in 2017

How cute is this planner??!!

It's got a monthly set of daily fitness and food trackers, places to set short- and long-term goals, and spots for inspiration and assessments.  It's also very aesthetically pleasing.

Here are a few other things I want to add to my to-do list for 2017:

I want to learn the Thriller dance

I want to take a storytelling class

I want to learn something new....maybe tap dancing?

I want to incorporate yoga more into my routine, or stretching at the very least.

And I want to get my belay certification at the local rock gym so I can climb again.

Then, of course, the standard annual goals for travel (I want to get more stamps on my passport and visit more national parks) and fitness still apply.  Currently, I'm getting into the workouts at Orange Theory Fitness, so that will probably dominate the first half of the year.  I've got a few other goals for 2017 that I can't share now, but I hope they will have some huge impacts!

Thanks as always for joining me on my journey.  Maybe some of my adventures and other posts have inspired you in 2016 or may make their way into your ideas for 2017.  Feel free to ask me questions and travel advice if you need some.  And now it's time to head to Disneyland to finish off 2016 at the "Happiest Place on Earth" and start 2017 with a little magic courtesy of Harry Potter and a mug of butterbeer.

Posted on Thursday, December 29, 2016 by Julie


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

While I didn't bake as much in 2016 as I have in previous years, I certainly did not slack on my photography.  In fact, I'm excited to take things to the next level in 2017.  My Christmas present arrived this month - a new and much better camera!  I also finally finished creating a separate website for the photos I believe would look great framed on a wall, and they are all available for purchase. Trust me, there is a rigorous decision process I go through to determine if a photo is good enough to post on that site.  On this blog, I'm not quite as picky on quality because I am primarily concerned about the photo telling the story of the event or the travel adventure.  Speaking of stories, here are some of my favorite photos from this past year and quick blurbs.

I'm starting off with a fantastic memory.  This photo was captured with a Panasonic Lumix point and shoot camera that I take with me to concerts to pass the no detachable lens restrictions on cameras.  For a point and shoot, it's pretty solid in the low light, with it's 1" sensor, but of course being close to the stage helps a lot!  The guy in the photo is Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and it was taken in Nashville last spring.  About a year prior, I met some lovely women at a very small Mumford & Sons concert, and we became - affectionately - "mumfriends." This concert was the first one where we all traveled to a destination to see a show.  My mumfriends are a little more die hard when it comes to location in the general admission pit, wanting to be on the rail all the time which, while it was a lot of time spent waiting in line, worked out phenomenally for me.  I spent probably too much time taking photos during the concert when I should have been dancing, to be honest.  I love this photo because it is capturing Marcus telling a funny story in retaliation for Winston, on his left on banjo/guitar, revealing an embarrassing tale about Marcus.  It really encapsulates the fun bond of friendship the two of them share.

My cousin came to visit me this summer for a long weekend, and she's been wanting to learn how to handle her camera a little better.  I took her to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens outside of Washington D.C. to shoot the July lotus blossoms in bloom for some practice.  Added bonus: we got to collect stamps on our National Park Service passport book.  There were a couple of resident dragonflies flying around the many lotus beds, so I was really tickled to capture one when it landed.  I wished I had a longer zoom lens though.

Speaking of NPS passport stamps, a fun national park to visit is the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument.  The gypsum retains moisture under the large dunes, and in the case of this photo, the sand was quite dense with water so instead of the wind blowing loose sand around on top of the dunes, over time the heavier particles made this gorgeous wave pattern.

I have been wanting to travel to Alberta for several years now, and this was the year I made it happen. This was shot at sunrise just off of the side of the road near Moraine Lake.  I love the summer mountain wildflowers, the cloud patterns, and the little bit of sunlight that is peeking through the horizon clouds to shine a nice highlighted stripe along the mountain peaks.

This shot of The Remarkables mountain range that borders Queenstown, New Zealand is a perfect example of both luck and being aware of your surroundings.  I was actually walking along the lake shoreline with my back to the mountains, and I stopped to turn around to see if I liked the composition.  In the few minutes I had been walking away from the town, this fantastic rainbow had formed.  It actually stayed for a good amount of time, which allowed the sun to set lower and provide a great glow on the mountains.

Shooting the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument provided endless opportunities because the sand was shifting constantly with the winds.  While the wind was helpful in clearing footprints, it made for some challenging photo conditions.  Fortunately, the last day I was there, the wind calmed down and the sun put on quite a show that evening.

Timing can be everything in photography, and while we can't control everything, shooting in the morning and evening light will provide a better chance of getting great light and interesting colors. When we drove down the road to a lake outside of Queenstown, NZ all we were expecting were some good pinks in the sky and maybe some morning mist lifting off the lake.  Little did we know we would be surprised by a hot air balloon launch as well!

And finally, the majority of photos that you see of Banff National Park on social media tend to be of the turquoise mountain lakes, like Louise, Moraine, Peyto, etc.  While that was what lured me up there, I can say without a doubt that my favorite experience and equally favorite shot was atop the Canadian Rockies shooting across a large green meadow with B.C.'s famous Mt. Assiniboine making herself known amongst the peaks.  This photo also demonstrates how expectations can still be exceeded when visiting a highly anticipated photography destination.

Posted on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 by Julie


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rounding out the holiday baking season, I was inspired to make these adorable melting reindeers by Living Locurto. One of my absolute favorite cookies is the soft peanut butter cookie topped fresh out of the oven with a Hershey's kiss, which slightly melts then is pressed into the cookie to secure it. These cookies are in the same spirit, but with Rolos instead and the dough is mini M&M.  The eyes are available by Wilton, the antlers are upside down Wilton gingerbread man candy sprinkles, and the nose is a red mini M&M.

Melting Rolo Reindeer

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 small package instant vanilla pudding
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 package holiday day colored miniature M&M candies
  • 1 bag rolos
  • Gingerbread men and eyeball sprinkles (mentioned above)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
2. With an electric mixer, cream together butter, sugars and pudding mix until smooth and fluffy
3. Add vanilla and egg, beat until combined and smooth
4. Add flour, baking soda, and salt and mix until well combined
5. Add mini M&Ms and stir by hand or on low speed
6. Roll dough into 1" balls and place on a lined cookie sheet
7. Bake for 8-10 minutes
8. Unwrap the rolos while cookies are baking and prepare all toppings
9. Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately top with 1 rolo
10. Add two eyeballs and red mini M&M, and gently press into the top of the softening rolo
11. Add two gingerbread men sprinkles head first into the top of the reindeer face
12. Gently press the mini M&M downwards, away from the eyeballs, if you want to make a more shapely nose
13. Let cool completely so that the chocolate hardens back up before storing or stacking

Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Julie


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Is there such a thing as method cookie decorating?  Even if there isn't, can we all agree things in miniature can be utterly amazing?  I was inspired for the cookies on a cookie sheet cookie (note: 50% of the last 6 words were cookie - impressive?) from a post by Munchkin Munchies in 2011.  Rather than try to imitate her post exactly, both the sheets and the cookies, I thought it would be more fun to make miniature cookies that I would actually take to a Christmas cookie exchange in real life.  Those cookies obviously included frosted sugar cookies, gingerbread men, mexican wedding cookies, decorated cookies (the wreaths), and peanut butter kisses.  I believe I posted on some or all of these maybe 3 or 4 years ago, in fact.

To make the cookies, I just used a simple cut out gingerbread recipe and a rectangular cutter.  The royal icing is a standard recipe I got from my mom, but I always refer friends to Sweetsugarbelle for her flawless recipes and tutorials. The piping tips I used for the mini cookies were a #2 round or a #1 round (for very fine work like bows).

Before piping any of the mini cookies, I lined a cookie sheet with parchment paper and taped it down. This is going to be your one spot to pipe all of the decorations separate from the iced cookies and allow to dry overnight or for several hours until they lift off the paper on their own. The base of the wreath is a Wilton confetti shaped sprinkle that came in a cylinder with green, purple, orange, and blue discs. Using a thicker royal icing, a green ring was piped onto the disc.  Simple.  The bows were piped in stages - two loops allowed to dry a few minutes, then knot in the middle allowed to dry a few minutes, then streaming ribbons on bottom.  Adding the drying time ensures that the shapes of each section don't bleed into each other and you end up with an abstract mess.  When the bow is completely dry, you can pipe a dab of royal icing on the wreath and attach the bow.  The whole cookie can then be attached to the cookie sheet.

Mexican wedding cookies are basically a butter cookie ball with pecan bits in it, rolled in powdered sugar.  FYI, they are a huge mess to eat! The mini versions were made by piping thick dots in the corner of my tray, then drowning them in powdered sugar to dry overnight.  I'm not sure if the powdered sugar would have stuck if I didn't do it when the icing was still wet.  I used the corner of the tray to try to keep the powdered sugar from making its way onto the other drying parts.

The peanut butter kisses are one of my favorite cookies in regular sized form.  These mini ones were created with a generous dot of royal icing, immediately topped forcefully by a Nestle Toll House miniature chocolate chip to get the smushed look.  I used Americolor warm brown gel very sparingly to create the tan color.  Start with a drop, then add more a drop at a time to get your desired color.

The frosted sugar cookie was more of the same tan royal icing for the base.  I let it dry a little before piping on the white "frosting" and adding sprinkles.

I also had some cookie sheets of gingerbread men in a couple of the photos.  It would be very easy to make gingerbread men the same way I made the other cookies using piped royal icing on parchment paper, but why reinvent the wheel when Wilton now has gingerbread men sprinkles?  Warning, the sprinkles do taste a little fruity, so they may not be the best pairing for the gingerbread base.

Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 by Julie


Monday, December 19, 2016

This time last year I cleared off my dining room table and started to build what became my first attempt at a Lego ski resort: Brickenridge (Get it? Like Breckenridge, Colorado!).  Come January, I tore it all down, except the ski lodge, and put it in a large plastic box in storage.  Well, it's ski season again, so I decided to try to redesign the slopes a little bit and get my crazy cast of characters out into the powder once again.  In this version 2.0, I tried to make some enhancements to the display as well by creating a nice border, a icy river that divides the ski resort from the holiday village, some rock bridges, a tubing hill, and better "rocky" details on the exterior of the mountain.  

Sadly, I had to abandon the motorized ski lift this year.  It didn't work that well last year, so after the first couple of attempts, I just made it a static display.  I considered putting in a hand crank, but I think I need to make the design a little more sturdy in general.

Of course, I had to bring the park features back from last year's design.  Again, I have one booter and jump for some slopestyle action, one flat rail, and two narrow rail features.  The skier is balanced so perfectly on the rail right now, but I've learned that any slight knock of the table and he's falling off.

No mountain scene would be complete without the guy who wasn't quite so lucky on the slopes.  I've been that guy before, though not quite as banged up.  I also kept the silly Game of Thrones Jon Snow in the scene making some s'mores by the camp fire.

The waterfall being conquered by a pair of ice climbers was enhanced this year to include space for the frozen river at the bottom and some better details on the side.  And as I mentioned already, this year there's a small tubing feature right by the lodge.

Across from Brickenridge, I've taken some official Lego holiday sets and expanded them into a holiday village.  My favorite part is the photo with Santa area where the kids are waiting in line (a BB-8 from Star Wars is at the front of the line) and the chair is next to a huge Christmas tree with tons of presents beneath it.

The tree farm and the outdoor holiday food stalls are new this year.  And the ice skating pond was expanded, the hockey sticks upgraded, and the cute penguin added.  So what do you think?

Here's a video of the whole set up with my not so smooth camera handling skills and some Christmas music on in the background, with N'Sync taking us home singing an unmemorable holiday tune. Previous takes of the video had Justin Bieber and Britney Spears songs - a pretty epic streaming music channel, I must say!

Posted on Monday, December 19, 2016 by Julie