Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to Kick the Winter Blues

Oh the winter blues, they really get me bad, and I don't even live somewhere that cold. When I lived in New York, I had to resort to some indoor tanning to keep my spirits up. I hope my skin has forgiven me, as I haven't tanned in a bed in 5 years. This is how I've been attempting to keep my spirits up:

Eat Healthy
I've lost 3.5 pounds in the last couple of weeks by trying to make healthy food choices. I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and 2 small snacks each day. I went a week without drinking alcohol and then started allowing myself a glass of wine at night if I want. I try to incorporate more fruits and veggies into my diet. I pay attention to my water intake, and aim for 8 glasses a day. The better I eat, the better I feel, and losing some extra pounds is good for my psyche, especially after eating whatever I wanted over winter break. My favorite foods: Grapefruit with eggs or cottage cheese in the morning, a few almonds, raspberries, and laughing cow cheese or apple with some peanut butter for snack, Amy's frozen meals for lunch at school, and stir fry with tofu and veggies and a salad whipped up by Brendan and I for dinner.

Get Moving 
My one pair of sweatpants has gotten a lot of use lately. Brendan and I have started taking walks together several times a week. Walking is a favorite activity for ours, and really the way we fell in love (aw). We aim to run a 5K in February, so we better get running soon too. I've also been doing quite a bit of yoga and pilates. The activity has been giving me feel good endorphins. It also encourages me to be social and serves as motivation to get out of bed early on the weekends.

Rise and No Seriously, Rise
I've attempted to curve sleeping in super late on weekends, unless I'm staying up super late at night. Waking up and seizing the day lets me get more accomplished and makes me feel better about my day. Also, when you wake up at 6:30am on some weekdays, sleeping until 8am is sleeping in. Win/win.

See Your Friends 
I feel lucky to have several friends in Midland to go grab lunch or coffee with. They have made adjusting to the desert much easier, and I'm thankful to each of them and what they bring to my life. We also took a trip to Lubbock, TX to see some old friends, the Shews, this past weekend. As always, it was great to see them, and we got out in Lubbock and explored the city. We played board games, went to a winery, cooked Indian and Thai food, and visited museums. Being around people you like is probably one of the most uplifting things you can do, so make sure to do that.
At the Buddy Holly Museum 
The sort of anti-climatic Prairie Dog Town 
Focus on Spring 
Spring is only 49 days away. Instead of thinking how much work lies ahead, think of how much progress you will make by then. It is all about perspective! Setting goals that you want to achieve by Spring is an easy way to make winter feel productive. Each day, pick something you want to get done (not something you have to do) in your personal life and do it. Today, my simple personal goals are to attend yoga and Pilates and to call my brother. It's important to dictate parts of your own day instead of letting the routine (work, come home, cook dinner, clean up, watch TV, sleep) take over for you.

We hope you keep your spirits up this winter,
<3 S, B, L&Z

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lessons From My Students

Today's post is inspired by lessons from my students. There has been a lot of excuse making going on lately, and "Ms. Austin" is not particularly happy about it. I will now share with you the mistakes my students make and what I've learned from them.

Disability as Inability

Some of my students do have disabilities. These could be physical, learning, or even just circumstantial (not speaking English as a native language or not being familiar with technology for example). Some of my students work past their disabilities. They do their best, turn in their work, try hard, and serve as an inspiration to me day in and out of how to overcome obstacles. Other students turn these disabilities into so called inabilities. "I can't do it. I don't have time to do it. I don't get how to do it." These phrases are uttered far too much inside my classroom. I know my students can do the work, but instead of spending their energy trying their best, they spend energy coming up with excuses for why they won't even attempt the work. In elementary school, I had a teacher who would say "Build a Bridge, Get Over It." She didn't just mean this as a funny expression, she meant it as a metaphor. Everyone has disabilities. There is not a single one of us who doesn't have a challenge or obstacle of some sort. But we all have to build our own bridges. We all have to do what we have to do in order to get ourselves through the class (or through the job, challenge, day, etc.) If we say to ourselves, "I have a disadvantage because of this, but I am still able to do that," we are on the way to success. If we say to ourselves, "I have a disadvantage because of this, so I will never be able to do that," then we never even give ourselves the opportunity to succeed.

But I'm Special 

I cannot even count the number of students I've come across over the years who feel they are exceptions to the rule. I can't do work because: I registered late, I'm a parent, I'm going through this tough thing, I'm an athlete, I'm injured, etc, etc. Today, a student told me he couldn't do his work because he plays golf a lot. I wish I was kidding. In order to make progress, we all must turn off our egos. Everyone has concerns, but everyone must be treated equal. For example, an employer will expect the same out of an employee whether or not that employee has children, hobbies, or problems, or whether he or she is single, has no interests, and lives a conflict free life. We cannot just stand idly by expecting others to accommodate our every want and need. Instead, we have to make due with what we've got and make choices about how we'll accommodate ourselves. For example, sometimes we may have to start work early, or stay late, you know, if our golfing schedules become really demanding.

I Didn't Try

Perhaps the worse choice a student (and person) can make is an utter and absolute waste of his or her potential. Today, some of the students in my literature and writing class flat out admitted, "I didn't read this. I didn't try to read this." They know how to read, but just decided not to. After the class discussion, some of them decided the stories sounded rather interesting, and they wished they had read. I've given the speech many times about not taking education for granted. Many people in other countries and our own have limited opportunities or access to education that others so readily take for granted. If you are lucky enough to be in school, or lucky enough to have a job, give your work a best faith effort. The world cannot function if we all just "throw in the towel." Some of my students apologized to me, and while I am disappointed in them, I had to point out, they really owe the apology to themselves. When you don't commit yourself to something that is important, when you slack off, or when you neglect your own development, who do you really disappoint? Yourself. At the end of the day, that is the only person we're all accountable too. And hey kids, Ms. Austin did all the reading. Multiple times.

Here's to no more excuses,
Ms. A, L&Z

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Simple Ways to Make Your Life Easier

Here are a few ways that I make my day to day life less chaotic. Put these tips to use when your life feels a bit crazy. 

1.) Write it Down 

In graduate school, we were required to turn in written schedules. Today, I still use this tip, which actually simplifies my life. Into the written schedule I plan: When I will work, have lunch breaks, write, and workout. If it doesn't get written down, it probably isn't getting done. My tip is to leave your weekends free though. You can't plan out every second of your life. If you have a general idea of the things that need to get done, keep them in mind, but there is no reason to schedule a grocery store trip. The point of a weekend is to relax! 

2.) Pre-Plan Meals 

Before going to the grocery store, I make sure to write down ingredients for at least a week's worth of dinners. We then use all of the food. This is nice because we can eat all week for about $115.00 (and leftovers at dinner make for great lunches). But, my meal planning goes beyond this. When I'm getting up early, I plan my breakfast the night before. Sometimes, I'll even pre-make it (essential if I'm going to do hard boiled eggs or something time consuming). If I have to eat lunch at work, I pack it the night before (frozen meals or leftovers usually), and I always, always pack a snack the night before, and put a water bottle next to my purse. This all ensures that I never become hungry (and thus totally grumpy) and that I eat healthy. 

3.) Pick Out Clothes the Night Before

I learned this tip from my college roommate, Lauren (Thanks!), who always planned out her outfits. Though I never mastered the art back then (and sometimes found myself running late), I now appreciate how much time it really saves. The night before, I look up the weather forecast, then I pick out what I'm wearing mentally. My days of trying on 4 outfits before leaving the house are pretty much over. 

4.) Learn a 5-minute Make-Up Routine 

I can do my make-up (foundation, bronzer, blush, eye-shadow, mascara, and lip gloss) in 5 minutes flat. Less time spent there means more time to sleep! Practice makes perfect, so on your day off, get out supplies and a timer. Remember, you might have to make some sacrifices, but some things aren't important anyway (like eyeliner and lipliner-too easy to overdo anyway). 

5.) Divide and Conquer Chores 

Brendan and I are experts at this. On the weekends, we each take on different chores to accomplish more. Today, for example, Brendan did the dishes, took out the trash, and made dinner, while I washed and folded laundry, swept and swiffered, and straightened up common spaces. We both went to the grocery store, a task that is easier together anyway, since we can take on different parts of the list. 

We hope these simple tips really make your life easier! 

<3 S, B, L&Z 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Resolution Ready

Today, I begin the process of making my New Year resolutions a reality. For most people, resolutions begin January 1st, but since I'm still on vacation for half of January, that isn't a realistic goal for me. I've rounded up all my supplies, and I'm sharing it with you. Haven't started your resolutions yet? There is still time. Just make like a college teacher and begin on the 17th! If desired, click on any of the pictures to order supplies straight from Amazon.

Running another 5K is one of my resolutions, but my 2 year old running shoes have bitten the dust. I ordered the exact same pair in a different color online for $59.95. The brand is Mizumo, the shoe is called "Womens Wave Inspire" and I ordered from Holabird Sports. The socks got me free shipping!

Next, to motivate my resolution to do more yoga is my lovely Yogitoes Mat, an x-mas gift from my mom.

I am so excited to have this. It helps your feet stay in position while in the postures, and also is machine washable.

My mom sent me this curves book. It has a pretty easy to follow eating plan that I am trying out. The plan appeals to me because you basically follow a simple eating plan for 1 month, but then, you can eat what you want (in the normal 2,000cal/day range of course) and only go back to the plan if you gain. This protects your metabolism from going into starvation mood and other adverse effects of "yo-yo dieting." For me, I just want to lose a few pounds to help make running/fitness more comfortable. I am not planning on losing a lot of weight, but just getting back into fitness after winter break hiatus. I'll let you know how it goes when I have a bit more experience with it. The Vera Bradley tape measure was a gift from Brendan's mom. Always motivating to track your progress, right?

I used my Bed, Bath and Beyond giftcard from my Dad to buy an electric toothbrush. Better dental care + more flossing is another of my resolutions (I've never had a cavity, and I'd like to keep it that way!)

This one by Oral-B is very affordable for less than $30.00 and comes with 2 brush heads (so both Brendan and I are using it). So far, it works really well, and we don't have to replace the brush heads for 3 months.

Finally, the notebook to help with my goal to write more is Carrot & Stick Press (my obsession). The stationary (for letter writing to my mimi) was a gift from my Aunt Annette.

Here's to resolution gear up!
<3 S (with support from B, L&Z)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Whoa My Winter Break

Winter break has been full force for the past month. Here are some of my favorite times:

Hiking in Palm Springs, CA 

Perfect place to watch a sunset

My favorite photographer :)
Actually got a little tan, honestly!
My brother and his ponytail I arranged, sorry Graham! 

My friend Cole came for one night! 
Pioneer town! 
Christmas morning in Austin, TX 

Being Brendan 
Showing off my "Magic Scarf" 

Letter to Santa 
First Christmas together 
Brendan's 30th

So full already from Uchi 

Handsome guy 
New Years Eve in Lake Charles, LA 

Sometime around Midnight 
Back in Austin, TX. Dinner with my cousins at Homeslice
The Gang from Left to Right: Graham (brother), Casey (Stephen's Fiance), Me, Brendan, Matt (Amanda's boyfriend), Amanda (cousin) and Stephen (cousin).
With Casey. Stephen couldn't have picked a better girl. Can't wait until we're Casey Austin and Stacy Austin! 
Tower of Terror bellman 

Rockin' Roller Coaster, no sissies allowed on this Disney trip! With Mom and her brother (Uncle Greg).
squeeze in! 

Still Christmas at Disney

Found some Wizards from France and Germany 

Actually yummy 
We've been to: Palm Springs, CA, San Angelo, TX, Austin, TX, La Marque, TX, Lake Charles, LA and me to Orlando, FL. Am I sad about winter break ending? Not really. I think after a month, you just get ready to return to the real world. I'm ready to remember what day of the week it is again. It's good to be back home in Midland with Brendan and the cats.

But waking up to teach at 8am?

That's probably going to hurt a little.

So, that's what I did with my winter break. What would you do with a month off?

Happy MLK day to all!

Here's to being back to "normal."

<3 S, B, L&Z

and my cousins A&M, S&C, and brother G (they wanted to be included in the signature).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Disney World Resort/Universal Studios Tips and Tricks

Taking a theme park vacation to Orlando, FL? I've been on trips to Disney World and Universal Studios 6 times (at ages 8, 12, 13, 15, 22, and just this year, at 25), and now I'll share what I've learned, so you can make the most of your trip and have a magical time. Sure, there are entire guidebooks written about this stuff, but my advice is free. So enjoy, and get ready for fun!

The Disney Queue Line Survival Guidebook

We'll start with some general theme park tips: 

Wear: Comfortable shoes, like tennis shoes or sneakers. Resist the temptation to wear cute flip flops or ballet flats...I've seen some miserable ladies walking around theme parks! You are walking on concrete all day. Wear sunscreen, no matter what time of year you visit. Your out in the sun all day, even if it's January!

Bring: Snacks and water (this tip will save you TONS of money, as you won't have to stop and buy expensive drinks and unhealthy ice cream and junk food every few hours).

Bring: Lip balm, Sunglasses, a hat (cold or hot weather appropriate, depending on when you come), and a light jacket (if you visit in the winter). Don't forget your money and ID (you may want to drink adult beverages or need to identify yourself for other reasons: lost child, lost park ticket, whatever). You will also want to pack a cell phone (in case your party is separated) and a camera.

A small backpack like this one makes for the perfect theme park bag (click picture to order for $10). Many organizations make these bags for free, so you may already have one. I just used my Nike one I take on runs.

When to Visit: I strongly recommend visiting during the off season. I've been at Disney when it's empty and when they close the parks because they are at maximum capacity. I promise the former is a much better experience. Consider taking off work or taking the kiddos out of school in January or February. The weather is perfect (high 70s/low 80s and sunny) and you'll have the run of the parks.

A Note About Lines: Disney uses the FASTPASS system for all guests, whereas universal charges extra for the Express pass. Don't buy the express pass unless you come in peak season (though in peak season, it is TOTALLY worth it). Fastpass is helpful, but you need to know how to use it (see tips for each individual park). I strongly suggest using the single riders line, which all parks employ for many popular rides-in exchange for your party being split up, you will have hardly any line. There is only 1 exception to this rule (keep reading).

Disney: Hollywood Studios 
A good day to visit: Saturday

When you get to the park (come as early as possible) Fastpass Toy Story Mania. This ride is a blast for adults and kids, and the Fastpasses go quick. Then, go back and ride Tower of Terror and Rockin' Roller Coaster (use the single riders line if need be). Those 3 attractions are the big ones...as soon as your eligible for another FastPass (2 hours after the first is distributed), you may Fastpass those again, just so you can ride multiple times. Other stuff in the park: Beauty and the Beast and Voyage of the Little Mermaid  are cute shows that kids will enjoy. The Backlot Tour is fun (but doesn't change much over the years). Star Tours has been updated and is cool! The Great Movie Ride is classic MGM and MUST be experienced in all it's cheesy but fun glory. American Idol Experience is pretty entertaining & Muppet 3-D shouldn't be missed. Finally, Fantasmic is the night show. There are typically 2 times. Go to the later show, as there is less of a crowd and you have a run of the park during the early show (which a lot of people leave after). The Hollywood Brown Derby is a really good, but expensive restaurant. Adults who are looking for an escape from traditional theme park food (read: pizza and burgers) will enjoy it. I treated my Mom and Uncle to lunch and they loved it. Tip: After the late Fantasmic, RUN and you'll be able to ride both Rockin' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror at night (Important: the lines close down at park close, not the rides, so as long as you're in line, you're riding).

Disney: Epcot 
A good day to visit: Monday 

When you arrive at the park, Fastpass Soarin', the lines for this are always HORRENDOUS. Then, go back and ride Test Track (use single riders line if possible). Spaceship Earth has a longer line during the morning, wait until later in the day and you'll walk right on. Mission Space has two intensity levels: Green is like 1/10 of the intensity as Orange (which isn't my personal cup of tea). Universe of Energy should also be checked out, it's pretty neat and you get to sit down for 37 minutes (a record for a ride, I think). Spend the afternoon at the world showcase: they have the best food of any theme park ever there. The sit down restaurant in Morocco or the Rose and Crown Pub in United Kingdom are both places I feel good recommending for a tasty lunch. Make sure to visit all the countries (it's fun) and you MUST ride the rides in Norway and Mexico. Now, back to Future land: make sure to ride Living with the Land, the Seas with Nemo is more for kids, but if the line is short, go for it. Spaceship Earth is a must do, and the lines should be down at this point in the day. Do Journey into Imagination, and of course, don't forget to go use those Soarin' Fastpasses at some point, it's a great experience. Finally, Illuminations is the big Epcot fireworks show. People say to go around the lake early, but I say that is silly. I always show up like 2 minutes beforehand and find a great spot (I think the same thing for all Disney night shows by the way--there really is no reason to go early unless the park is maxed out, you're getting in or seeing the fireworks!) One last thing: Coral Reef is a cool restaurant that is built around the aquarium. The food is pretty tasty, if you like seafood, but consider making reservations.

Disney: Magic Kingdom
A good day to visit: Thursday 

Magic Kingdom is my favorite Disney park and also has the most Fastpass attractions. Here is what I recommend: come early, it takes about an hour to get into the park by the time you park the car, ride the tram, and take either the ferry or the monorail into the park (we did the ferry, not sure what is fastest). Once there, Fastpass Space Mountain and then immediately ride Buzz Lightyear. While waiting for space mountain Fastpass, experience all the other fun in tomorrow land: Monsters inc. Laugh lounge, carousel of progress, and  the tomorrow land speedway. My advice: Skip the Snitch attraction, it used to be Aliens and both rides are terribly boring. After you leave tomorrow land, I recommend sending a fast person into your party into frontier land to fastpass splash mountain while the entire party by-passes fantasy land (come back later in the day, it gets less crowded). Go to Liberty and ride haunted mansion and check out the hall of presidents. Eat lunch at the Liberty Tree Tavern, I had a fantastic salad there. Then, you should be eligible for another fastpass. Send that fast person back to frontier to fastpass big thunder mountain or splash (whatever they didn't fastpass the first time). Go back to fantasy land and do small world, winnie the pooh, snow white, and philharmagic 3-D show. You'll need to use a Fastpass on Peter Pan or come back at night to avoid the 1 hour line. Here is a great Fastpass tip: As long as it is the same day, they don't really expire. You can't use them early, but you can use them late. After fantasy land, head to frontier land and use those fast passes. Onward to adventure land. Don't miss Pirates of the Caribbean, the tiki room, or the jungle cruise (Brendan also likes the country bears). We watched the fireworks in adventure land and could see everything. Don't miss them! Also, the electric light parade is a MUST do.

Disney: Animal Kingdom

It's been 3 years since my visit, so I'm less confident giving advice about this, but I do know Fastpass the new coaster first. It is one of the best roller coasters ever! Single riders line also works like a charm on this. The safari is really neat. The river rapids is one of those you will get soaked rides. The tree of life houses a cute Bugs Life 3D show, and Dinosaurs is the big thrill ride (again, single riders line).

Universal: Islands of Adventure
A good day to visit: Sunday, Wednesday (note: it is pretty cheap to purchase extra days at Universal, only a $15 difference between 2 and 3 day pass and a $5 difference between 3 and 4 day pass). 

Well, the advice I read all says to go directly to Harry Potter land. I don't think it matters when you go, it seemed more crowded at the beginning of the day than at the end in our experience. That said, kids will probably be more excited about this than anything, so if you can't wait, it's understandable! The big new Harry Potter ride is phenomenal, and if you use the single riders lane, you can ride 3 times in the amount of time you could ride once in the regular line. Though honestly, you need to experience the regular line at least once anyways, Hogwarts Castle is just as neat as the ride! The little roller coaster is fun and cute, you have to do it if you're a big H. P. fan because you can see Hagrid's hut, but let me warn you: it's a really short ride. The bigger Dragon roller coasters have been at Universal for over a decade, they just redecorated the line with Tri-Wizard banners, but those are fun thrill rides. There are also little "shows" around Harry Potter land (and of course, a million shops), and it's all so very neat. You can even eat at the Three Broomsticks (and the food is tasty). Don't miss strawberry/peanut butter ice cream and butter beer (which tastes best frozen by the way). H.P. fans rejoice, Universal gets it right! P.S.-parents prepare, there is a wand buying demonstration with lines over an HOUR (longer than any for the rides that day); beg your kids to skip the demo (where only 1 child per group is chosen to participate anyway) and take them to the Owl Post to buy the 30 dollar wands instead. Or, wait until night for the wand demo, we did and only waited about 5 minutes (the demo is really cheesy, but fun for fans).

Other steller rides: Jurassic Park River adventure, Spiderman (use single riders), Hulk (very scary coaster), Dr. Dooms Death Drop (scarier than Tower of Terror), Storm, Cat in the Hat, Popeyes (but warning, you will be SOAKED, Don't just DON'T go without a swimsuit), Ripleys Ripsaw Falls...I have to be honest, the lost continent is a sort of lame show, but at least the line is cool looking.

Universal Studios: Original 
(PS--I have some new insights in this post from November 2014). 
A good day to visit: Tuesday, Wednesday 

At the front of original universal, you will find the new roller coaster, Hollywood Rip RockIt, a fun and not as scary as it looks thrill ride. This ride is also the ONE exception to the single riders line that I have ever found. The single riders line moves slower than the regular line. Avoid it!

But don't miss: Shrek 4 D, Revenge of the Mummy (single riders line), Disaster, Terminator 2 3D (not in any way appropriate for young children), E.T. , Simpsons, Men in black (single riders line). The one missable attraction: Twister. It's a lame stand up and watch some destruction on a small scale sound stage. The one mystery is why universal closed Jaws and kept Twister. Another universal tip: pay the few extra dollars for park hopping abilities. Islands of Adventure has WAY better food than the original universal, and, as the Garden burger I consumed there taught me: you don't want to be stuck eating in original universal.

And now, some photos from our trip:

Electric Light Parade 

New Coaster: Hollywood Rip Rockit

Tower of Terror, night vision

I hope you enjoyed my tips and tricks!

<3 S (now home with B, L&Z)

Friday, January 6, 2012

And Disney It Is!

Austin has been grand, even though we only were here for a total of about 8 days, we packed a LOT in! Brendan was here for our Christmas Eve party and Christmas (the first one we celebrated being physically together). We now have literally a car full of presents to bring back to Midland.

We also celebrated Brendan's 30th birthday (fun fact: my mom's mother, who passed away in 2009, had the same birthday as Brendan, so we're happy to have a new reason to celebrate December 27th around here). I took Brendan out to a fabulous restaurant called UCHI (arguably the best restaurant in Austin) and it was possibly the best meal of our lives. We also had cheesecake at home, which Brendan's mom traditionally makes (I cheated and went to Cheesecake Factory though).

These past few days, we've managed to get a little work done for next semester, and we've seen LOTS of people. Wednesday night, we had dinner with my cousins and brother at Homeslice (arguably the best pizza in Austin), and last night, we ate with my family and Elda. Brendan says, "Okay, how many more visits do we have?" I think he might be a little exhausted! So it might be for the best that today Brendan heads back to Midland (though it sure made me sad to watch him go), but I'm off on a new adventure: Disney World.

Yes, I know, it's insane, and yes, this has been the longest winter break ever, but nevertheless, I'll be gone for a week. I'll be going with my mom and my uncle Greg (her brother). My aunt was going to join us, but she has been sick, so we'll be sending her our get well wishes. We scored a stellar deal on our hotel and airfare (no, we're not driving across the country this time) when we booked the California trip we took a few weeks ago, so when my mom asked if I was in, I said, "Why not!" So far, my big plans are: Harry Potter land (at Universal), splash mountain, space mountain, thunder mountain, Rockin' roller coaster, Tower of Terror, Soaring & all that Epcot stuff...oh, who am I kidding? I want to do it all! It has been exactly 3 years since my last Disney trip, and I think we can all agree, that's far too long!

This will be the longest Brendan and I have been apart since last January, but at least he'll have Lola and Zoe to keep him company. Also, I think he's really looking forward to having some productive writing time this weekend before he starts work on Monday (I don't start until the 15th). As for me, I will miss him terribly, but I also know a little time apart is healthy, and it will be good to spend some time with my Mom and uncle in the most magical place in the world.

So, that's what's going on with us lately. And if you don't hear from me this week, you'll know why, but I promise pictures, posts, and Disney tips are to come!

<3 S (B, L&Z just took off for Midland)

P.S.- PANK interviewed me for their Ask the Author series. Check it out here. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How To Write the Perfect Thank You Note

I'm about to write a thank you note to my grandmother, so I thought this post might come in handy for those of you writing your after holiday notes! Here are some helpful tips and rules of thumb for expressing your gratitude.

Step One: Who should receive a thank you note?

Here's a helpful rule of thumb: if you are not related to the person, you want to send a thank you note. If the gift giver is a relative, send a note if you believe that they would enjoy receiving it or if they are in the habit of sending you notes. If you didn't exchange gifts, but received a gift, send them a note. If you always exchange gifts and neither of you sends notes, it is okay to forgo the thank you note. Sometimes, you do them even if you know the person wouldn't care about receiving it, just because it's fun!

Now, make a list of the gifts you received from each person you want to write a note to.

Step Two: Aim for Writing in a Timely Manner

General rule of thumb: try to send your note no later than a month after the gift was received. Brides-don't fret, you technically have a year, but the sooner the better, right? When I graduated from high school, I wrote about 2-3 thank you notes each night. Setting a small goal helps the whole process seem less overwhelming.

Step Three: What to Say

This part is so easy!

Dear _(person)__,

I wanted to write and thank you for the __(gift)___________. A couple of sentences about why you love the gift and how you will use it (if the gift is money, make sure to detail how you will spend it). It was so wonderful to see you at ____(event)__________. Write about a special memory you have of the event with that person. Thanks again for your generosity.

_ (you)______

Remember: It's a thank you note, so you can keep it to the size of 1/2 a small card, but it can also be a thank you letter, if letter writing feels more natural to you.

Step Four: Do I Really Have to Do This?

If you were married or had a bridal/baby shower, or received graduation gifts from non-relatives, or a scholarship, etiquette says absolutely. In terms of birthday/Christmas: I'm sure your friends and family will love you either way, but it always feels nice to express gratitude. If you mess up one year, it's okay. No one is perfect!

I told you it was simple!
We hope it helps.
<3 S, B, L&Z

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Small Resolutions, Big Differences

Haven't made your new years resolution yet? Don't worry, there is still time to take advantage of the New Year and do something good for yourself. Many people I've talked to "don't believe in" New Year's resolutions. They've made big resolutions in the past, burned out early, and ditched the resolution idea all together. What if you did something small instead? Here are my top 10 ideas for manageable, attainable resolutions. Pick one or several and enjoy actually sticking to it!

1.) Take the stairs, everywhere

This resolution is simple to remember. Instead of taking an elevator, take the stairs. Do this everywhere you go, everyday. I swear, when I moved to Midland I lost a few pounds. We live on the 3rd floor, and all my teaching is on the 2nd floor, so everyday, I climb multiple staircases. I traded in my less practical footwear and save it for special occasions, and I try to wear shoes that don't make my daily climb too painful. Taking the stairs is an easy small change, and if you stick with it, think how many calories you'd burn? About 16 per flight of stairs. Over a whole year, that adds up!

2.) Become an Organ Donor

I became an organ donor several years ago. Did you know 18 people die each day waiting for an organ? One organ donor can save up to 8 lives. I know you probably know this is something you "should do," but why don't you take the time to do it today?  I think many people are afraid to make the change because it makes death seem more real to them. Becoming a donor doesn't increase your chance of dying, it just ensures that when you do die, you give someone else the gift of life.

3.) Stop Looking for the Best Parking Spot

Just resolve to park in the first spot you see. If it's far away, just walk. Do this all year and you'll add MILES to your personal pedometer.

4.) Read one book a month

Reading just one book a month can enhance your life so much. Check out a fiction recommendation from the blog, subscribe to a literary journal, or pick up a biography or book of poems.

5.) Have a Phone Date Night

Find a day/time in your week that you dedicate to catching up with people. For me, I have about an hour on Monday nights (which will probably switch to Thursday next semester). Call a different person each week and play catch up. Ask what is going on in their lives, and tell them about yours. The connection you will maintain with old friends is priceless. I have many friends that I frequently "phone date" with, and even though I haven't seen some of them in a few years, I still feel our relationship is very strong. Plus, scheduling a phone date helps you avoid annoying games of phone tag with your friends.

6.) Stop skipping breakfast

Seriously, if you've ever read a health and fitness magazine, you know breakfast is good for you, so stop missing out on it. My favorite easy breakfast options: a yogurt, a piece of fruit like a banana, apple, or pear with a little bit of cheese, a hard boiled egg (or two!), a granola bar, oatmeal, or an instant breakfast shake made with soy milk. Make sure you have lots of options so you can mix it up everyday.

7.) Go Through Your Closet

It will take a few hours one day. Go through your closet and weed out the stuff you don't wear anymore, then take it to Goodwill. (I have two bags at my Mom's house that are ready to go). If something is stained or torn, either fix it or get rid of it, but don't let it take up space. If you want to be really ambitious, go thorough your house and get rid of anything you don't use: old pots and pans, towels, sheets, toys (if you have children), all of these things can be donated.

8.) Stop Paying Full Price

Make 2012 the year of the bargain. Shop at your favorite online stores/mall stores only when there is a sale. Go to thrift stores for clothing and household goods (Brendan and I find all of our DVDs, lots of books, and most of our clothes used. I also love to brag that I bought all my furniture and my car secondhand). Find the cheapest grocery store and start shopping there. Look at the prices when you buy something. Brendan and I buy wine and beer on sale, we look for the best prices on an item before we put it in the cart. It takes a little time, but we want to save money for things that are important to us.

9.) Make a Plan for Paying Off Debt

So often, resolutions focus on what we WANT. What about about that stuff you already have that you still haven't paid for? I've never paid one penny in interest. I get cards with 0% APR, use them for a year, pay them off in full before the interest rate changes, and usually, never touch them again (unless I can pay off what I buy in full). Need help? Use this Debt Reduction Calculator to get started.

10.) Focus Inward

Everyday, I think of myself as a work in progress. I'm not perfect and no one can be, but I try to work on improving. Make a list of what you'd like to improve and strategies for how you'll do it. Things I'm currently working on: accepting conflict with others as an inherent part of all relationships and learning to live with conflict instead of trying to constantly to solve conflict (which is not only unproductive, but exhaustive), being patient (hard!), and coming to a greater understanding of my goals and values and a greater appreciation of my choices. When you can know why you do things and feel secure in those choices, you really don't feel the need to be defensive. Whenever anyone asserts that my choice is different from one they would have made, I feel fine about that. My choices feel right for me, because I make them with awareness!

Hope these resolutions help you see the New Year in a new light!
<3 S, B, L&Z

Monday, January 2, 2012

Book I Read in December

Pure by Julianna Baggott 
Release Date: February 8th, 2012

December was another busy month, and with the holidays and travels galore, I only had time to squeeze in one book, but luckily, it was a delightful one. In perhaps my first perk of blogging (if you don't count a 96 cent Amazon gift card), I received a signed advanced copy of the book, which will officially be released February 8th. There is a lot of hype about Pure, which is the first in a trilogy (Fox has already purchased the film rights and producer Karen Rosenfelt, of the Twilight movies, has already signed on). It is technically classified (if you care about such things) as a young adult dystopia novel (think Hunger Games trilogy, which I reviewed in September and October), but I think Pure will exceed expectations and please adult readers too.

Even though dystopias are a favorite genre of mine, I was skeptical when I heard the premise of Pure. There has been a kind of nuclear disaster, some people escaped to a protected dome while some are living in the aftermath of the apocalyptic event. The premise didn't sound very original, but Baggott made the idea all of her own, and I was blown away with the results.

The characters in Pure are so authentic that I couldn't help caring about them. The main characters are Pressia, a physically deformed but courageous and kind young woman, and Partridge, a naive and privileged, if neglected, young man. Their paths collide unexpectedly, and as the story of Pure unfolds, it becomes less of a  dystopia and more what Margaret Atwood calls "speculative fiction." As the story goes on, it gives glimpses into the complexities of what causes disaster and how humanity survives in its aftermath.

License must be granted to the author, and readers have to be willing to suspend disbelief as they learn the rules of this new world, but once you go there, the pay off is so worth it. Literally, every aspect of the plot pays off, and the world of Pure becomes so visual, I can only imagine that the film will need a very big budget if it is to capture the imaginative spirit of the novel. The writing itself is fantastic; though it is a young adult novel, it doesn't read that way. The chapters may be short and approachable, but the line by line writing is satisfying to the adult reader's ear that is looking for something that resonates long after the book is put on the nightstand. (In fact, I enjoyed Pure more than Baggott's books for adults published under the Bridget Asher pen name).

My biggest take away from Pure is what a deep emotional response I had to it. The book explores themes of what it means to be physical flawed, broken, or ugly; what defines family and to whom should one be loyal to? Can women and men truly achieve equality despite the challenges that multiple societies face? Most importantly, what makes us, as human beings, capable of making grave mistakes, and what do we do to pick up the pieces? Sometimes, frankly, this book gave me chills, because as far as the end of the world and what it would look like goes, Pure seems feasible.

If Pure receives the attention it deserves, it will be just as big a deal as Hunger Games. My recommendation is to pre-order this book. Click the picture to pre-order from Amazon (if you cannot see the picture, try using a browser other than Chrome to view this blog). Happy reading!

And Happy New Year!
<3 S, B, L&Z

Enjoyed this post? Check out Books I read in August, September, October, and  November too! 

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