Thrift Share Monday: Back in the saddle

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I haven't participated in Thrift Share Monday for quite a while. The reason? Not because I haven't been thrifting--I have--but more because I haven't been excited about what I've been thrifting. Several months ago, I set some pretty strict (for me) guidelines for myself re: what I was and was not allowed to thrift. Basically, I decided I was only allowed to thrift things with an immediate use, either for myself or for a specific other person. No thrifting just because things are cool. And these rules were necessary--I was thrifting at least once a week, and there was simply too much stuff coming in and too much money going out. But thrifting with rules? Not as much fun as thrifting without.

Now that I'm back to have only occasional opportunities to hit the thrift stores, I decided to lighten up on the rules and allow myself a few purchases that might not have an immediate or obvious use. A huge cleaning and decluttering spree that has left me with a ton of storage space also made this possible.

And y'all? Thrifting is fun again.

A few recent finds:

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These nearly perfect condition Keens were marked $9.99, and shoes were half off the day I bought them, so I brought them home for $5. They are a size too small for me, but that makes the the perfect size for my mom, who has back and foot issues and can always use high quality shoes. Score! I can't find this specific style online, but similar ones seem to retail for $70-$90.

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As per the tag, this is a Karoff Cotillion Swinging Serving tray. I can't find one like it anywhere online, but a fancier version showed upon A La Modern, which says it's from the 50s or 60s. I doubt it's worth much, but I may put it up on Etsy and see. Or I may keep it, because really, isn't it awesome?

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I'm guessing this Korres set was somebody's Christmas present, and it clearly hadn't even been opened when I picked it up for $2 at the thrift store. Korres is one of my favorite beauty brands, and this set retails for $30-$40, depending on where you buy it.

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One of my thrift wish list items for this year is awesome baby stuff for my friend E., who is due with twins this spring. On my last thrift trip, I managed to nap three excellent used (if used at all) condition Kushies Ultra-Washable Diapers, a pair of new with tags Gymboree baby socks, and a new with tags Gap baby hat!

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This pen came into my life at just the right time. It's a Vera Bradley pen, new in the box, retail price $19. And I have a new coworker who collects cool pens, who has been invaluable to me in my first few weeks of work! A perfect thank you gift for her, for $.99!

This isn't all I've thrifted recently--I've had good luck with paper products (and I have such a soft spot for stationary) and small home goods, as well. Clothes have been more difficult, but that, I think, is largely seasonal. All in all, I'm really glad to be back in the saddle with regards to thrifting. Now to keep it under control...

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2011 Goals Check In #1

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Wow, a month into 2011 already! Let's see how I did:

1. Read 30 books.
I'm making great progress here. To meet this goal, I need to average 2.5 books a month. I read five books in January, as well as finishing one audiobook. Another book and audiobook are underway.

Books I read:
1,000 Artist Journal Pages: Personal Pages and Inspirations edited by Dawn DeVries Sokol
Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Handmade Home: Simple Ways to Repurpose Old Materials into New Family Treasures by Amanda Blake Soule
Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life edited by Elrena Evens
Half-Broke Horses (audio) by Jeanette Walls

In progress:
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (audio) by Randy O. Frost

2. Get at least one new stamp on my passport.
No progress here as yet.

3. Blog 5 times a week.
Over the course of January, I blogged 21 times here at WINOW and once at Heroine Content. That's an average of about 5.5 posts a week. Go me!

4. Journal every day.
I started out really well with this one, but fell off drastically when I started my new job. I'm going to try to re-commit in February.

5. Cook dinner at least once a week.
I cooked dinner four times this month (not counting leftovers): crockpot curried chicken, beef & Guinness pie, crockpot black bean and chicken chili, and pot roast. Tha'ts about once a week, and each of those meals actually fed us for at least two nights!

6. Fully fund my 401k.
Nothing doing here yet--gotta start pulling down a regular paycheck first and erase the debt built up while unemployed.

7. Save $15,000.
See #6.

8. Excel at my new job.
Things are going great so far. I'm not sure I've been given enough to do yet to really excel, but I feel competent and like I'm making good progress with what I have been given.

9. Make one positive health change per month.
I actually made two changes this month--I started exercising regularly (I joined the YMCA) and started keeping track to make sure I reached 5 vegetable/fruit servings per day. I've been very successful thus far with keeping to the exercise schedule (two days on, one day off), and have been meeting the fruits/veggies requirements about 2/3 of the time. I'd call that success with both goals. Since I think these two goals are key, and since I started two at once, I am going to keep going with the same two in February and hopefully by the end of next month they'll be habits.

10. Re-institute monthly date night.
I don't know if it has quite been "date night," but Mark and I went to the movies together twice this month, and that is definitely a start. We're planning partake in a fancy meal to celebrate my new job, too, just as soon as I get paid!

All in all, I feel like I've been extremely successful in progressing towards my 2011 goals in January. I only hope to do so well next month and keep the momentum going!

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2010 Giving Round-Up

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A year or so ago, I made this post about philanthropy and how to best go about giving. My plan, at that time, was to decide on a charity or group of charities that best met my giving priorities and set up a monthly gift, to be automatically deducted from my account. In this way, I hoped to both help the organizations to the greatest degree possible and meet my personal goal of giving 5% of my income.

Though I didn't blog about it anymore after that post, I did follow the steps I laid out. I identified my priorities, identified the charities I thought best spoke to each one, and set up monthly gifts. The charities I selected for monthly/regular giving were:

Heifer International

Heifer's mission is to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.

By giving families a hand-up, not just a hand-out, we empower them to turn lives of hunger and poverty into self-reliance and hope.
With gifts of livestock and training, we help families improve their nutrition and generate income in sustainable ways. We refer to the animals as "living loans" because in exchange for their livestock and training, families agree to give one of its animal's offspring to another family in need. It's called Passing on the Gift - a cornerstone of our mission that creates an ever-expanding network of hope and peace.

Kiva

Kiva's mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending

ASPCA

The ASPCA was the first humane organization in the Western Hemisphere. Our mission, as stated by our founder, Henry Bergh, in 1866, is "to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States."

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is a global movement of 2.8 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights.

Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.

Bitch Media

B-Word Worldwide, doing business as Bitch Media, is the nonprofit organization best known for publishing the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Bitch Media's mission is to provide and encourage an empowered, feminist response to mainstream media and popular culture.

Engender Health

EngenderHealth is a leading international reproductive health organization working to improve the quality of health care in the world's poorest communities. EngenderHealth empowers people to make informed choices about contraception, trains health providers to make motherhood safer, promotes gender equity, enhances the quality of HIV and AIDS services, and advocates for positive policy change. The non-profit organization works in partnership with governments, institutions, communities, and health care professionals in 25 countries around the world. Over 65 years, EngenderHealth has reached more than 100 million people to help them realize a better life.

Center for Constitutional Rights

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

Trust for Public Land

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national, nonprofit, land conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, community gardens, historic sites, rural lands, and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come.

The Elephant Sanctuary

The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, is the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically to meet the needs of endangered elephants. It is a non-profit organization, licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and accredited by the Association of Sanctuaries, designed specifically for old, sick or needy elephants who have been retired from zoos and circuses. Utilizing more than 2700 acres, it provides three separate and protected, natural-habitat environments for Asian and African elephants. Our residents are not required to perform or entertain for the public; instead, they are encouraged to live like elephants.

I supplemented my monthly gifts with a few one-time donations, as things came up. The organizations to which I made one-time gifts were:

Farm Sanctuary

Farm Sanctuary was founded in 1986 to combat the abuses of factory farming and to encourage a new awareness and understanding about "farm animals." At Farm Sanctuary, these animals are our friends, not our food.

ACLU

The ACLU is our nation's guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.

National Women's Law Center

Since 1972, the Center has expanded the possibilities for women and girls in this country. We have succeeded in getting new laws on the books and enforced; litigating ground-breaking cases all the way to the Supreme Court, and educating the public about ways to make laws and public policies work for women and their families. Today, an experienced staff of nearly 60 continues to advance the issues that cut to the core of women's lives in education, employment, family and economic security, and health and reproductive rights--with special attention given to the needs of low-income women and their families.

National Sexual Violence Research Center

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center serves as the nation's principle information and resource center regarding all aspects of sexual violence. It provides national leadership, consultation and technical assistance by generating and facilitating the development and flow of information on sexual violence intervention and prevention strategies. The NSVRC works to address the causes and impact of sexual violence through collaboration, prevention efforts and the distribution of resources.

Scholarship America

Scholarship America mobilizes support for students getting into and graduating from college. The movement began in 1958 with the first Dollars for Scholars chapters. We became a national organization in 1961 -- and since then, we've helped more than 1.7 million students follow their dream of getting to college.

Though I didn't do quite as swell a job keeping track as I'd planned, my estimates show me giving about 4.5% of my pre-tax income. This doesn't quite meet my goal, but it comes close, and it's better than I have done in previous years.

In 2011, I want to follow the same pattern. The monthly deductions were barely missed when I was working full-time (and I, probably stupidly, kept them up when I was unemployed). If all goes as planned, my income will be substantially higher this year, so I should be able to either add some new organizations to my list or increase the amount I am giving to the ones I already have. This is where you come in--what do you think of the organizations I've selected? Do you see any glaring omissions? We all have different priorities, obviously, so if you're going to say something like, "it's dumb to worry about animals when people are starving," please just don't. If you have any helpful thoughts or advice, though, or if you know of a reason why any of the organizations I've selected SHOULDN'T be receiving my giving dollars, please do let me know.

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Flats flats flats!

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I've lately been giving a lot of thought to flat shoes. Needing a more professional wardrobe, I've lately been wearing a lot of heels, and I am just not down with wearing heels every day. However, most flats have very little support, which is bad for my plantar faciitis. Or, they're ugly. So the search for decent flats has been long and hard. I wanted something with some support that still looks streamlined. Ideally, colored--I love colored shoes. And, of course, they have to be available in size 12.

Here's what I've come up with:


LifeStride Donovan in Venom, $49

I like the color and shape of these, as well as the fact that they seem to have an actual sole. The squarish toe is neat, too.

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Aerosoles Becreation in Dark Blue Suede, $59

These are super cute with the simple detailing on the top, and I love the blue suede. The patent trim is nice, too. However, they look a little thin-soled, so I'd have to see them to figure if they provide any support or not.

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Naturalizer Miriam in Veggie Green, $69

I love the color of these, as well as the little studded bow. I'm not sure about the thin sole, though. Again, I'd need to see them.

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Naturalizer Capri in Dark Grape Metallic, $69

I'm sold on these just due to the color. Isn't it great? I don't like the elasticized sides, though, and once again, I'm afraid they'd be too flimsy.

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Softspots Presto in Dark Purple, $80

I love the color of these, and the buckle, and the suede. I also think they look pretty substantial in the sole.

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Sofft Polina in Dark Purple/Violet/and Jewel Red Suede, $100

I probably wouldn't pay $100 for flats, but aren't these color block ones adorable? Sofft are so comfortable, too. Love them.

Those are the best options I found. How about you? Flats for spring? Hook me up with some suggestions!

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Thrift Wish List 2011

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I've been adding some new thrifting blogs to my reader, and one I am really enjoying is Angela's Austin-based Bounty Huntress. The other day, Angela posted her Top 10 wished for thrifted items for 2011. So I thought I'd do the same.

My Top 10 Most Wished For Thrift Finds for 2011
1. A mid-century lounge chair (like this one).
2. The perfect tea pot. It must be just the right size, just the right color, and have interior straining capacity. I've bought lots of almosts, but I want the perfect one.
3. A vintage multi-tiered tea cake stand.
4. Lots of new, high-quality baby stuff for a friend expecting twins this spring.
5. A classic leather Coach bag, preferably blue.
6. Vintage wooden Weeble people.
7. A handmade quilt in usable condition.
8. A Moka pot.
9. Wooden animals to go with my existing pig and rhino.
10. Reasonable quality faux pearls in many sizes.

What would you love to find resale this year?

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Kings of the Earth

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kings of the earth.jpgOnce upon a time, I read a book called Finn, by Jon Clinch. And I loved it so much I came here and told you all about it. Then, Jon Clinch wrote another book, called Kings of the Earth. Which I loved, and came here to tell you about.

Except that while I was looking for a picture of the cover, I found this review of it at Like Fire. And this review kindly provided a very good synopsis of the plot, as well as some kudos for the feeling of the book. So now I don't have to. Go there and read that. I'll wait.

OK, you back?

The only thing I'd add to Lisa Peet's insightful comments is that I loved every page of this book right up until the last few. For some reason, the ending felt very abrupt and cut-off to me, and I found that unsettling. Really, though, given the nearly 400 pages of pure fantastic the novel was, I can't complain too much about that.

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Big Lots and my bad habits

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First, let me just get the defensiveness out of the way: Yes, I realize that convenience food is not good for my budget, my waistline, or the environment. I realize that individually packaged mass produced crap is not not a good bargain, even on sale. I realize that I am single-handedly ruining the world by purchasing this crap. I got it.

Now then. Today I went to Big Lots. I went for two reasons. The first was that I bought a package of socks on my last trip that I loved and I wanted to see if they had anymore available, and the second is that I need some food for work. For the first week, I bought my lunch each day. That's not a reasonable long-term plan. The right thing to do, of course, would be to get my butt out of bed earlier and make myself a healthy lunch of whole foods. But I'm not going to get there overnight. I know myself, and I know that, ridiculous as it is for a 31 year old woman, I'm more likely to pack lunch if I can grab it on my way out the door (or better yet, store it at work) and I'm more likely to eat it if it's...not something I'd normally buy. So where do those in the know go for individually packaged junk food? Big Lots.

Though I'd come for food and socks, my first stop in Big Lots was in the crafts/office supplies section. It always is. I'm a sucker for that type of thing on my best day, and I've been really bad lately, as I've been almost obsessively collecting materials for art journaling. It will surprise almost nobody, I'm guessing, when I tell you I'm doing a lot more collecting of stuff than I am actual journaling. Today was no exception. I got:
-A package of Martha Stewart chipboard animals for $1(regular price $3)
-A package of Martha Stewart icon labels for $1 (regular price $2)
-A Martha Stewart black dual-tip marker, $1(regular price $3)
-A package of Best Occasions vellum quotes, $1.50 (regular price $4)

After I'd exhausted that section, I hopped over to see if they still had my socks, and they did! They are a package of six pairs of Champion Elite Low Cut Cool & Dry socks. They retail at about $16 for the package and at Big Lots, it's $4. The really exciting thing for me, though, was that Big Lots had several packages of them in extended size--meaning I could buy socks that would actually fit my size 12 feet, and were clearly women's due to their colored writing (and thus won't get mixed up with Mark's socks). Score.

Next, I finally made my way to the grocery aisles, where I am slightly ashamed to admit I bought:
-Four microwavable Health Valley Organic soups, 2 each in minestrone and lentil, for $1.30 each (regular price $4.39 each)
-An 18-count variety pack of Quaker's Chewy granola bars, $3 (regular price $4)
-A six-count box of Ritz Four Cheese Crackerfuls, $1.80 (regular price $4.39)
-A six-count box of 100 Calorie Right Bites Grasshoppers, $1.50 (regular price $3.37)
-A four-count box of Kashi GoLean Roll! Protein Bars in Caramel Peanut, $3 (regular price $5.23)
-Two six-count boxes of Kashi TLC Trail Mix Chewy Granola Bars, $2 each (regular price $4.49 each)
-Two six-count packages of cherry passion Tic Tacs, $2.80 each (regular price $4.31 each)

Finally, before I left the store, I scoped out the health and beauty section, where I picked up a Bathery (Target brand) spa headband (to hold my hair back when I wash my face or put on my makeup), for $.80. I can't find it online, but similar stuff at Target is usually $3-$5, to my recollection.

I didn't actually find as much fun convenience food as I'd hoped, but this lot will certainly get me started, and as usual, Big Lots was worth the trip. For those who are concerned about my nutrition, I promise I do eat actual meals, too. Not all of my calories come in bar form!

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Bring on the honey love

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Here's something you may not know about me: I love honey. The stuff itself is pretty good, but honey scented products of all kinds are really the way to my heart. Something about that sweet, fresh scent makes me think it's spring and all is happy. So, since it's something like 12 degrees here today, I thought maybe I'd share some honey love with you all. Some of my favorite honey things:

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Lush Honey I Washed the Kids soap, $7.95/3.5oz

My love for honey bath products began with this soap from Lush. A friend recommended it to me, and I was in love at first whiff. Lush describes the scent as honey infused with bergamot and sweet orange, and it's simply the perfect honey scent--sweet, not cloying, and so warm and sunny and smooth. I also love the layer of beeswax on each bar. Honey I Washed the Kids is my all-time, hands-down favorite soap.

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L'Occitane Honey and Lemon Lip Gloss, $12/.8oz

Honey lip gloss is great in theory--smells great, tastes great, moisturizes well--but sometimes it can be sticky and cloying. This L'Occitaine gloss is the exact opposite--the mix of light honey and citrus makes it smell and taste great, without being a Lip Smacker, and it doesn't go on goopy at all. It's spendy, but it's worth it.

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Burt's Bees Naturally Nourishing Milk & Honey Body Lotion, $10/8.6oz

I avoid most Burt's Bees products, as many of them contain lanolin, to which I am allergic. This fantastically (though strongly) scented lotion, however, gets its moisturizing properties from sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, and beeswax--no lanolin needed! It's a very light formulation--almost runny--so it's not hearty enough to stand up to my winter dry skin, but it's great in the summer. It is also really affordable, usually $10 or less for a bottle. The bummer? The buzz is that this stuff is being discontinued. I need to stockpile a few bottles if that's really the case.

Violette Market Vintage Beekeeper perfume, $15
In my searches, I've found two really great honey perfumes. The first is Violette Market's Vintage Beekeeper. The scent is described as "Honey absolute, golden resins, clove bud, cinnamon bark, creamed vanilla accord, and weathered wooden hive." It's perfect. The clove and cinnamon undertones keep it from being too sweet, and the vanilla is very subtle. I can't smell the wooden hive in specifically, but there is definitely a note that keeps the whole scent grounded. I've been using it for more than a year and I adore it.

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The Poison Apple Apothecary Queen Bee perfume oil, $13/5ml

Poison Apple Apothecary's Queen Bee is my other favorite honey perfume. It's a less complex scent, more straight-up honey, and it layers better with other scents. I'm not sure I like it quite so much as the Vintage Beekeeper, but I do wear it often.

Haunt Batik Skin Glossing Oil, $12/4oz

Sometimes, I just don't feel like messing with lotion. On those days, I turn to body oils, and my favorite is Haunt's Skin Glossing Oil in Batik. Batik is described as "smoky beeswax & resin darkened honey," and that's exactly what it smells like. The smell a bit smoky and a bit stronger than I'd usually choose, but I like it a lot on occasion, especially before bed.A little goes a long way, so the 4 oz bottle for $12 is actually a pretty good value, too.

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http://www.lushusa.com/shop/products/bath-shower/shower-gels/its-raining-men

I'd be remiss in ending this post without telling you about the new honey product that has me thinking about my honey love in the first place. I went to Lush the other day and immediately fell in love with the limited edition It's Raining Men shower gel. The gel is formulated with actual honey, for cleansing and moisturizing, then the scent is supplemented with the same yummy formulation as the Honey I Washed the Kids soap. This stuff is fantastic, and I'm very tempted to buy a case before they discontinue it after Valentine's Day.

Do you have any honey-scented favorites? Tell me in the comments--I'm always interested in trying something new!

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New beauty product loves

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There's just something about January that makes me want to replace makeup. Well, my desire to buy makeup isn't really specific to any month, I guess, but January also makes me want to throw the old stuff out, so I guess that's progress? Anyway, I've tried a few new products over the past few weeks and I wanted to let you all know about the winners:

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NARS blush in Deep Thoat, $26

I've long been a fan of NARS blush--I've been working on a container of the same blush in Orgasm for at least two years. Lately, I've been thinking I should move on to a new color, both because what I have is past its expiration date and because the color is looking a bit too pink on my winter pale skin. I went with the next lightest shade, which is described as "peach with shimmer" but goes on pretty pink for me, and so far I like it a lot. I'd love to try one of the bright pink blushes, like Desire or Mati Hari--Carmandie on What Not To Wear is always saying to use a bright pink blush with a very light hand--but I'm still chicken.

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Make Up Forever Aqua Cream in 13 Warm Beige (clearly not the color shown), $22

I've been curiously eying Make Up Forever products at Sephora for years, but I've never tried them before. However, I'd exhausted the colors of my beloved Benefit Creaseless Cream Shadow (though I do love the new Purple Snap), and I couldn't resist when I saw all the great shades MUFE's Aqua Color cream shadow/lipstick/blush comes in. I picked a fairly neutral shade to start out--not really beige, but more champagne--and it's wonderful. I can wear it all day, it doesn't crease, it doesn't smudge, and it doesn't come off until I wash it off. I'll definitely be getting more colors--right now I have my eye on the 5 Peach, 16 Pink Beige, and 19 Purple.

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Smashbox Lip Enhancing Gloss, $18

A while back, I bought the Smashbox Burlesque Beauty Collection. One of the things in the collection was a double-ended lip gloss in Peep (a bubblegum pink) and Show (a dark berry). It's great gloss, and I've used both of them a lot. I was sad to find out they don't seem to be available as single glosses. However, I like the formula so much I think I'll be trying some other colors (even though I already have a staggering amount of lip gloss). Fame, Radiant, and Tease all look pretty good...

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Lush Sweet Lips Scrub, $8.95

I realize it is absolutely ludicrous to pay $9 for a tiny pot of sugar and jojoba oil, and it's unlikely I will do it again. However, I have to give Lush props for introducing me to the very idea of lip exfoliation. I have chronic and irritating flaky lips in the winter, and rubbing some of this stuff in (and then licking it off, it tastes great) makes them feel absolutely amazing. The tingly good feeling you get from exfoliating is, it turns out, even tingly better on your lips.

Tried any new products lately? Re-kindled your love with any old ones? Leave a comment and share!

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Adventures in growing up: unemployment insurance

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I'm realizing, now that I am once again gainfully employed and looking back on my several months of unemployment or very little employment, that there are quite a few things I didn't blog about having to do with the whole unemployment experience. In truth, the reason for that is that I've been a very uncomfortable combination of embarrassed and worried, and nothing I tried to write, or even thought about writing, came out sounding anything but whiny. I think the experiences were important, though, and worth writing about, both for my own information and for an audience. So, I'm going to attempt to give them their due with a little retrospect.

Probably the very weirdest thing, for me, about this whole experience was navigating the unemployment system. I went about it all wrong, which resulted in my getting only a few weeks of benefits, which didn't start being paid out until I had already secured another job. Next time I'll know better. In the meantime, for the sake of public service, here are some things I learned:

1. Yes, unemployment IS for you.

I never thought unemployment was for me. Growing up, I had a parent who was quite often unemployed seasonally, for weather or job availability reasons. He drew unemployment during his laid off periods. I was totally aware of its existence, and of the safety net (limited as it may be) that it provides. Why, then, didn't I think to apply for it the moment I found myself without full-time work? I have no idea.

2. Apply at the beginning.

Or maybe I do have an idea. Maybe it wasn't that I didn't think of applying, but that I thought I shouldn't apply because I might not be eligible, or because other people needed it more. Certainly by the time I was a month or so into my job search, I knew I could apply, but made the decision not to because I was afraid of being or seeming greedy. That's stupid. The unemployment insurance system is one my employers have been paying into since I began working at 14. It is available for everyone who meets the criteria (has the necessary working hours, wasn't fired for cause, etc.). I really wish now that I hadn't been so stupid and waited so long to apply. For the sake of full disclosure: my full-time employment ended August 31, I didn't apply for UEI until December 5. I did work some hours during some of those weeks, so I can't tell you exactly how much money I was entitled to and didn't get, but had it been 13 weeks worth of full-time benefits, it would have totaled over $5,300. Could I use $5,300 right now? You bet. Would that take care of the credit card debt I've racked up while being unemployed? It certainly would, and then some. Instead, I ended up drawing six weeks' worth of benefits, only two of which were not reduced due to part-time hours I worked, for a total of just under $1,700.

3. Be patient.

Another reason to apply at the beginning is that it takes a while to get approved, and, at least in the state of Texas, your first week's benefits are withheld until you've received three full weeks' benefits, or until you go off the insurance. I have no idea why. In my case, my claim was complicated quite a lot by the two days I worked for a new company in November, and it was sent out for review, the employer was contacted, etc. Since I wasn't fired for cause and didn't really quit, I was never rejected, but the decision making process was lengthy. My original application was on December 5 and I didn't start receiving benefits until the first week in January.

4. Read the rules.

This isn't something I'd do differently if I could go back, but if one was depending on unemployment to live on (i.e. wasn't relying on a combination of partner's income and savings, with a bit of credit card), it would be important to know that you are allowed to draw unemployment while working part-time, but that above a given threshold, your part-time earnings will reduce the amount of your weekly unemployment check. I suspect the rules vary by state, but in my case, if I worked more than four hours a week, my $415 weekly benefit started to go down.

5. Expect to pay taxes.

Unemployment insurance is taxable income. You can choose to either have the taxes taken out when you receive your benefit or pay them at the end of the year. In my case, it's not going to make a huge difference, since the total amount isn't much. However, if you were on UEI for very long, it would change your tax status, so that's something important to plan for.

The real lesson for me in this unemployment insurance adventure, though, has been a smaller part of the whole larger lesson of being unemployed: things are really really rough out there. When I think about what a hard time I've had, being unemployed for what amounted to four months, with a ton of support and resources, I can't even imagine how bad it must be for those who have been without jobs for much longer. And for those who have to make unemployment into something to live on. The $415/week benefit I received was the state of Texas maximum. That's just not much money. As is the case with pretty much all the safety net programs we have in this country, UEI isn't enough, it doesn't go far enough, and it doesn't last long enough.

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mamaphdcover.jpgHow proud of myself am I to still be ahead of the 12 Books, 12 Months game?

My latest read, Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant, was one I'd been putting off since I got it, because I knew it would depress me. And depress me it did! The book is a collection of short essays by women in academia, all centered around having children (or not, there is one essay from a woman who has decided not to have kids, and one from a woman who is as yet undecided). Though the details of each story are different, the themes are very similar: being a female academic with children is hard. Academia has no respect for the body in general (as opposed to the mind) and even less for outside time commitments. None of it is surprising to me--it's similar, in a lot of ways, to what women with kids face in any career. But that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

One thing reading this book did was spark a lot of discussion at my house. I am not an academic--I wanted to be, at one time, but I have since realized it's not for me, and even though I still plan to get a PhD one day, I never plan to teach. Mark, however, is a lifer. I can't imagine him doing anything else. And he's in a field with very few women. However, he currently has a lab mate who is both an impressive scientist and a mother of two. The most amazing thing about that, of course, is how unusual it seems to be.

I'm deep in the throes of new job brain sludge at the moment, and can't think of a single intelligent thing to say about this book, so I'm afraid you'll have to forgive my lack of insight. It's worth reading, if this subject interests you, just as a collection of anecdotes, but there isn't really anything new here for those of us who who are already well-versed in the mommy wars and the second shift. These things may look a bit different in academia, but they are part of the same beast.

Next up, another cheery read: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic. But I am currently in the middle of Jon Clinch's phenomenal new one, Kings of the Earth, so I'm going to finish that first.

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Once upon a time, a long time ago, I didn't drink coffee. Or I did, on occasion, but not in any serious way. Perversely, at that time, I lived in the Land of Real Coffee Shops. In fact, I lived for more than a year only two blocks away from the best. coffee. ever. And went there less than a half dozen times.

Then, I moved to Austin. I went to graduate school. And I started drinking coffee like an actual coffee drinker (read: addict). The pickings were pretty slim, but there were some okay options, and one that even felt a little bit like Portland (though the java wasn't anywhere near as good).

Over the years I lived in Austin, my coffee addiction grew stronger. I became a lover of the French press. I stopped using sugar, and often went without cream as well. I began to learn what I liked in a coffee bean.

Then I moved here.

And I wept. Seriously. There is no independent coffee here. None. A search for coffee houses in my town turns up just one name:

Starbucks.

As a Pacific Northwest native, you are expected, early in life, to take a position at Starbucks. You either love it or you hate it, it's really that simple. And, to the extent that I cared either way when I lived there, I was a hater. Indie forever, fuck the man, all that.

Then, in Austin, I learned that Starbucks has it's place in the world. Not for drip coffee--good God no, just don't, it's awful--but for a foofy coffee-esque drink, when one is required, and possibly some sort of pastry. The green and white sign is especially handy when one has ventured into a neighborhood without an easily identifiable independent coffee shop (such a neighborhood does not, as far as I know, exist in Portland). I became an occasional Starbucks consumer, all the while rolling my eyes.

Here, though, the sad fact is that Starbucks is the best I can do. Not only are they usually the only coffee to be found, they're the only reliably decent coffee to be found. I still won't touch the drip--that stuff is just foul--but I am a more-than-occasional latte drinker, and have even gotten fond of some of the sweet not-really-coffee holiday confections. I understand, now, why Starbucks is what so many people think of when they think of coffee--there are many parts of the country, like here, where it's the only place anything even close to real coffee is found. I'm not rolling my eyes anymore.

I'm still not going to set foot in a Starbucks while visiting home, nor am I going to start buying their beans. I'm not under the illusion that they make good coffee. But I am, begrudgingly, grateful to them for existing. If they hadn't swept the nation, I'm not sure there would be any coffee shops at all out here.

All that said, my preference is to make coffee at home. With beans I order from Oregon. So the snob is still alive in me.

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I made pecan rolls again this week, and I also made a dinner of black bean and chicken chili with cornbread, which we ate for two nights. I didn't use a recipe for the chili, and I was in a hurry when I made it, so it's a very easy and quick version, but it turned out pretty well.

I had to two large skin-and-bone-on chicken breasts in the fridge, so I thawed them a bit in the microwave, then removed the skin and bone and cut them into cubes. I salt and peppered the cubes and and browned them in a nonstick pan with a little bit of olive oil. When the cubes were browned on all sides, I threw them in the crock pot. Then I added a big can of whole tomatoes with their liquid, two cans of black beans with their liquid, some chili con carne seasoning (not sure how much...a tablespoon? maybe less) and a few dashes of Cholula hot sauce. Mixed it all up and cooked it on low for about four hours (maybe longer). I smashed up the tomatoes a little bit while it was cooking, though not as much as Mark would have liked (he's not a fan of big chunks of cooked tomato).

I served the chili with cornbread, which is a favorite item around here and I ought to make more often. I make it using this recipe, except that we never have buttermilk around, so I use a tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice in a cup of milk instead and it works just fine.

I'd make this again, though next time I'd take the time to saute onions and peppers for it, and probably add corn, as well. It definitely did the trick to tame my chili craving on a cold couple of days.

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New job survival kit

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As I've mentioned a couple of times, I got (another) new job. I'm really really excited about it. I start on Tuesday, and it's in a professional environment at a big national company. It will be very different than what I've been doing for the past eighteen months (i.e. working from my couch), and pretty different from what I did before that (work at a state agency, a university, etc.). This job will be, for better or worse, my entry into "corporate."

For the past two weeks, I've been lining up my ducks like only a semi-neurotic can. I have been to the dentist, the eye doctor, the gynecologist, the dermatologist. I have purchased new glasses, new tires, new shoes. I have made lists upon lists upon lists. And now, as my final unemployed weekend begins, I find myself putting together my job emergency kit, to take with me on my first day and stash in my brand new cube.

Everybody's job emergency kit is going to be a bit different, I'd think, and just like peeking into someone else's purse, peeking into someone else's emergency kit should be fun. So here's what I've got ready to go in mine:

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Caldrea Hand Balm (Mine is actually from the Caldrea Target line, in the Olive Oil scent. I love that stuff, and it is on clearance right now for $2.99/tube.)

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Listerine Zero No-Alcohol Mouthwash (A small bottled picked up for $2.50 at Big Lots.)

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Orange Tic Tacs (Like Paulie Bleeker, I'm obsessed with them. They taste like Tang! I got a 4 pack at Target for I think around $3.50)

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Shout Wipes (A little pack of four of them was around a buck in the travel sized section at Target.)

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o.b. Tampons (Exciting contraband, I know! I only have one box left, and it's coming to work!)

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Degree Ultra Clear in Pure Satin (Again, Big Lots--$1.50, I think.)

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Tweezerman Slant Tweezers (TJ Maxx or Marshall's, I'm sure--I always have an extra tweezers or three around. I think they're usually $5 or so.)

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Tarte Natural Lip Stain Pencil in Enchanted ($24 at Ulta)

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Cover Girl LashBlast Length Mascara in black (I got a two-pack for around $5 in the Target clearance section. Not what I'd usually use, but no way I am letting expensive mascara dry out at work.)

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NARS The Multiple in South Beach (from a past Birchbox)

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Hue Tights in Black (purchased, I'm sure, in a two-pack from Marshall's or TJ Maxx for $9.99)

There are a few more things I know I need to add: dental floss, a hair brush and hairbands, and drugs (Midol, Advil, etc.). But other than that, I feel like I'm covered. What do you think? What's missing? What's in your work emergency kit?

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TJ Maxx, you disappoint me

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Remember, just a few short weeks ago, when I told you how much I love TJ Maxx and Marshall's? And how it was the second time in a month I'd bragged on those stores? Those were completely sincere posts. I had a great time shopping at my local discount retailers in the weeks before Christmas.

In the weeks since Christmas, I've visited the local Marshall's and TJ Maxx stores several more times. The new job I'm starting next week is going to require a somewhat more formal wardrobe than that to which I've become accustomed, and both my coat and my gloves are on their last legs, so I've been hoping to do some shopping for myself.

No such luck.

It's like they are completely different stores. Since Christmas, not just one, but ALL of my local discount retailers have taken a deep nose dive. They don't seem to be getting restocked--the merchandise is the same one week as the next, and it mostly seems to be the leftover stuff that wasn't purchased before Christmas. Making matters even worse, the stores aren't being kept neat and organized--the shelves are partially empty and a lot of them have damaged merchandise on them.

This seems like a really bad business plan to me. I mean, I know the pre-holiday time is probably more profitable, but people still shop in January. What about exchanges and spending holiday gift cards? What about a shopper like me, who built up quite an attachment to the magical discount store retail therapy before Christmas and is now having her hopes dashed? Are these stores always like this, only really worth your time in-season? Is it something I've just missed until now?

I've decided to send an email to TJ Maxx and Marshall's and let them know about my disappointment, with a link to this post and the past posts I've made about how much I love them. I'll let you know if I get any explanation.

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In order to keep myself honest about cooking a meal at least once a week, I'm going to try to post each Sunday about what I cooked the previous week (we'll see how that goes). This week, I am happy to report, I cooked THREE times. And each of the two dinners I cooked fed us for two nights, plus two more nights of frozen! That's a lot of meals courtesy of moi!

The first thing I cooked was crockpot chicken Makhani (Indian butter chicken). I used the recipe from A Year of Slow Cooking, with the following modifications:
-2.5 lbs, rather than just 2 lbs, of chicken thighs (since that was what I had)
-no cayenne pepper (because Mark doesn't do spicy food)
-a can of diced tomatoes rather than a can of tomato paste (because it's what I had)
-no yogurt at the end

Overall, it was good. We ate it over rice noodles, since I discovered at the last minute that we didn't actually have any regular rice. Next time, though, I'll definitely use the tomato paste rather than diced tomatoes--the diced made it too watery. I'll also use curry paste rather than powder, for a more intense curry taste--this was fairly bland. It was very easy to put together, though, and with a few tweaks I think it would be really good. It made about eight smallish servings.

The second dinner I cooked was beef and Guinness pie, with the recipe from Epicurious. I made the following modifications:
-I used 2.5 lbs of kosher stew meat, rather than 2 lbs of boneless chuck (it was what was available at Trader Joe's)
-dried rather than brined peppercorns (brined peppercorns is not something I've ever seen in another recipe, so we don't have them on hand)
-four rather than 2 sprigs of thyme (more thyme=more good!)
-pre-made frozen filo dough, rather than making my own

The other thing I changed was the ramekins--the recipe calls for four 14-oz ramekins. Why has 14-oz ramekins? I made mine in three ovenproof Pyrex dishes--one six-cup rectangular and two-four-cup circles. I cooked the rectangular one (it made four smallish servings of the pie) and put the two round ones in the freezer for later.

This was absolutely fantastic. I will make it again soon--like maybe next week. The flavor is SO good. It's not super bitter, but the gravy is this intense, peppery, piquant thing. When I make this again, I think I'll fill the pies out with some veggies--maybe some potatoes and carrots--and some dried mushrooms. Other than that, I won't change a thing. We ate ours with spinach salad and braised carrots on the side and it was a fantastic winter meal.

The last thing I made was actually last night/this morning, for breakfast. Caramel pecan sticky buns from Little Blue Hen. It was actually my second time making these, and they are so good. They improve our Sunday morning coffee and soccer watching time immensely. The modifications I made to the recipe are:
-double the topping recipe, the recommended amount isn't, I don't think, enough for two pans of rolls
-use 1.5 or so cups of pecans
-melt the butter for the filling and spread it over the dough, then sprinkle the sugar/cinnamon on--it's just easier to get it even that way

This is a bit time consuming, but fairly straightforward. Rising times are long right now, at least here, because the house is cool and dry, but if you build enough time into making these, that's fine. I make up the pans of rolls (one for us now, one for the freezer), then stick our pan in the fridge until bedtime. I take it out right before bed, and in the morning they're quite well-risen and ready for the oven. Same thing with the frozen ones. Next time I make these, I think I am going to substitute maple syrup for the corn syrup and see how that tastes, since I don't love cooking with corn syrup, but the consistency is necessary to get the sticky topping right.

I'm very happy with the first week of my "cook once a week" experiment. Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of the year!

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Living Out Loud 24: Total Recall

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Back on track this month with Genie's Living Out Loud, #24: Total Recall. Here's the question:

I'm curious what moments in your life are vivid. What are your personal snapshots where you could describe the scene down to everyone's wardrobe and the song on the radio? Was there a particular scent in the air? Was it hot or cold? When it was happening did you think it would be a moment you'd never forget or did your sharp memory surprise you? Do you generally trust your memory?

I don't have a particularly good memory, at least not for my own life. I'm excellent at remember song lyrics. I can remember the phone numbers of all of my high school friends. But that's where it ends. My autobiographical memory is pretty sketchy.

That said, there are snapshots. Little pieces of memory that come through clearly. Mostly, I remember clearly how I was using my senses, more than remembering the scenery. And I almost always remember the smell. I walked through a department store men's section once recently and smelled the cologne my first high school boyfriend wore. That took my directly back to that time, in a really sensory way. I could suddenly remember how this black bodysuit (remember those?) with a waffle pattern I wore at that time felt against my skin. I could remember the exact taste of Big Red chewing gum. I could remember the cool smoothness of the beads on a necklace he gave me. But that was it. No actual events. No conversations.

Another example, and the one that hits me most often, is the smell of wet rubber industrial flooring, like is found sometimes in the stairwells of office buildings. That smell puts me in the stairway of my dorm my first year at Reed, every time. I don't remember doing anything particular there, I don't remember conversations, or even the stress and insomnia I know I was feeling at the time. I remember the ways my other senses were being abused, though. I can taste clove cigarettes in my mouth when I smell that wet rubber smell. I can feel the way my stiff BDU pants hung on my bony hips. I sometimes instinctively shake my head when I this memory hits me, fully expecting droplets of rain water to spray out all around my hair.

Not all of these sense memory snapshots are pleasant. I was sick a lot as a kid, and had pneumonia several times. Every time I get sick in any way that constricts my breathing, I go right back to that time. Unfortunately, I don't remember the warmth of my blankets or the taste of hot soup--I remember the constriction of my chest, the fear of not being able to breathe before I had a good vocabulary to share that fear. I remember the incredible ache in my bones. The smell of Vicks Vapor Rub is suddenly in my nose, and it's all I can do not to gag.

I really wish I had more clear memories. It's part of the reason I am crazy about taking a lot of pictures of things--I'd like my memories to be a bit less fractured. And they fade so quickly. To remember Leo, to see his face in my mind, I have to concentrate. I can remember the roughness of his fur under my fingers very clearly, and can even come up with his not-very-pleasant odor pretty quickly, but to actually remember how he looked, or any specifics about what he did, I already have to try. The visual memories I have--of him or anything, really--are almost all like still pictures, not like movies. I think some people are really lucky to remember things more clearly.

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Tracking the trackers

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I realized, while writing my technology post the other day, that I use and enjoy an awful lot applications to track things. I've always been like this--for years I kept lists of Oscar nominees and winners (this was before such things could be looked up online--I'm old). Did I need these lists? No, I just wanted to keep track. I also saved every movie ticket stub I got from 1993-2000. No idea why. I just like to have records of things. Now, though, I don't have to keep endless notebooks full of lists--I can use a world of online tools. So let's discuss them, shall we?

Books
The first thing I remember tracking online was books I'd read. My mom is a big book tracker--she uses a little notebook, making notes of when she started a book, when she finished it, and what she thought. This helps or not to accidentally pick up books she's already read, and it really helps her find titles when she wants to recommend something. I use GoodReads do to basically the same job. I don't use the community aspects much--I rarely write reviews (though I do use star ratings) or make recommendations--but I use it to keep track of what I read in a given year, as well as what I start and don't finish. I have a list of "to read" books there too, though I rarely look at it. I use the iPhone app as well, so I can look things up on-the-go. Finally, I use use a widget from GoodReads to publish "What I'm Reading" section on my sidebar here. Other sites that I know people use for similar purposes are Library Thing and Shelfari, neither of which I have used.

Movies
I track the movies I've watched on All Consuming, where I also give a very basic review (just good, bad, or neutral) and use a widget for my sidebar here. I don't love All Consuming--seems like there are quite a few problems with the way the interface works, and I don't like that you are supposed to track all kinds of consumption there--I'd rather have something just for movies. I've thought about switching to something else, but I've never gotten around to it. Other sites that track movies you've watched are Coollector, iCheckMovies, Movie Tally, and Flixter.

Food/Exercise
There have to be a million places you can track what you eat and how much and how hard you work out, and I think I've used most of them. The one I used for the longest time, and first, was FitDay. I found it to be really useful and easy to navigate, but I ended up having to put a lot of things in manually. Then again, that was several years ago, so the library of foods may have been improved since then. Other options include Livestrong, Sparkpeople, Calorie Counter, Nutridiary, My Fitness Pal, My Food Diary, and on and on. Weight Watchers online has their own system as well, and I would bet other diet programs do, too. I've had it with all of these--turns out my food intake is something that I really don't want to track long-term. But the tools are certainly available if you do.

Money
The only thing for which there are more trackers than food, I think, is money. The web and smart phone world offers 101 ways to track your spending. The two I use are Mint, which I love because I can tie all my accounts together in it and see everything in one place, and Money Engine, which I've recently started using on my iPhone to manually log the purchases I make throughout the day, as a means of keeping myself accountable. Something about the way Money Engine looks just works for me--it's very simple. However, there are a million options. Some of the more popular ones are Mvelopes, Electric Checkbook, Budget Pulse, and Expense Register.

Housework
I've actually never used a tracker for household tasks (which you can probably tell if you've ever been to my house), but I know a lot of people do. The ones I've heard mentioned the most are: Chore Buster, Chore Wars (for the WoW crowd), Remember the Milk, and My Job Chart (for kids). People have also been raving about Home Routines for the iPhone.

Menstrual cycle
Since I stopped using hormonal birth control, I've been attempting to track my menstrual cycle. It only recently occurred to me that (duh) I didn't need to do it on my calendar by hand--there's an app for that! First, I used My Monthly Cycles, which I found kinda tedious. Then I switched to Monthly Info, which is a lot more user-friendly and much simpler. I realized, though, that what I really wanted was something on my phone, so I downloaded Period Tracker Lite (the free version), with which I am very happy. If and when I start temping, I may upgrade, but for now, this does everything I want it to do. Other similar apps for iPhone are iPeriod, Aunt Flo, Lady Biz, and Ovulation Calendar. If you want to go old-school, Fertility Friend also has both online and mobile applications. There are also some apps for men to track their female partners' periods, but I am not going to say anything about those.

I *think* those are the only things I am currently tracking electronically, though I'm sure I've missed something. Hit me in the comments--what do you keep track of? Where?

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Getting my frugal on: the monthly Big Lots trip

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I have been reading a ton of money saving and frugality blogs lately. In part, this is due to my plans to cut back spending drastically in order to meet hefty savings goals in 2011, and in part it's because I have this fascination-horror thing with extreme frugality that keeps me coming back for more even when I don't want to. Still, I had these blogs in mind when I headed over to Big Lots today. I generally go about once a month, just to see what is there and to restock the things I know I can get more cheaply there. Last time I went, I posted about it. I was awfully proud of my discounts that time, and I *think* I may have done even better today, so I thought, in the spirit of the frugal bloggers, I'd tell you about my trip again.

Today's haul included:
-1 box Kashi trail mix granola bars, $2 (regular price $3.89-$4.69)
-4 boxes Annie's Mac N Cheese, $1.20 each (regular price $1.99-$2.99)
-4 tubes Tom's of Maine toothpaste, $2.50 each (regular price $3.74-$5.34)
-3 cans organic Del Monte diced tomatoes, $.80 each (regular price $1.69 each)
-3 bottles Green Shield organic cleaner (bathroom, kitchen, and all-purpose), $2.50 each (regular price $3.95)
-1 package 38 Hefty UltraFlex 13 gallon trash bags, $6 (regular price $6.99)
-1 50 square foot roll Reynold's recycled aluminum foil, $2 (regular price $4.10-$4.99)
-3 15 ct tins Zhena Gypsy Teas Superberry Pink Tea, $2 each (regular price $4.90-$9.99)
-1 32 oz bag Aunt Jemina yellow cornmeal, $.80 (regular price $1.98)
-3 packages 4-count Fuji AA batteries, $1.70 each with $1 each rebate (regular price $3)
-2 packages 4-count Fuji AAA batteries, $1.70 each with $1 each rebate (regular price $3)
-1 3 pack Scotch Brite scrub sponges, $3 (regular price $3.99)
-1 2 pack Mr. Clean latex gloves, $1.20 (regular price $2.70)
-1 4 pack Bridgeport glue sticks, $1 (regular price $1.99 for similar)

I know what a true frugalista would say looking at this list--most of it I didn't need to buy at all! Granola bars and mac and cheese are convenience foods, I can make my own vinegar-based cleaning products, and I ought to be saving aluminum foil and trash bags. And I hear that, I really do. But the reality of my life is that some level of convenience is required. Besides, lots of things on this list are necessities--canned tomatoes and cornmeal are both whole foods, and I'm not about to go toothpaste free!

My favorite find today, though, was the batteries. Like many people, I'm sure, we go through a ton of batteries--remote controls, Wii controllers, electric toothbrushes, and on and on. And yes, these are modern, non-frugal luxuries, but since we have them and use them, it's better to get cheaper batteries than more expensive ones, right? After the rebates, the batteries I bought today were $.70 for each package of four. You can't beat that!

The other thing that impressed me was the tea. I'm going to be trying to cut back on my coffee consumption in the next few months, and I am hoping to meet some of my hot beverage needs with green tea. The problem is, I don't like unadulterated green tea, I think it tastes like dirt. My fingers are crossed that these teas, with their berry flavorings, will go down a bit easier.

There you have it. Me, moonlighting as a frugality blogger! How'd I do?

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Getting the most from my technology

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I'm one of those people who gets comfortable with how something is and loathes to change it, even if I am vaguely aware that there is a better way to do things. It's not a trait I love in myself, so I'm trying to branch out a bit.

One of the arenas in which I know I could be doing things more efficiently if I stepped outside my comfort zone is my technological life. I have these tools--my laptop, my iPhone--that I know can be used to do far more than they do, but I am hesitant about how to maximize their value.

So, I'm trying to consciously make an effort to get more out of my technology. Right now, I'm focusing on addressing issues I know I have or things I know I wish I could do more easily, and looking for solutions.

Some examples:

I'm a long-time user of Google Reader. And I like it, but it doesn't do everything I wish it did. I don't love the way things are displayed in it, and I'm not able to save things for use later the way I'd like to. So, last night I downloaded Feedly. I definitely prefer Feedly's interface to GReader's, and the preview window, which allows me to view entries in their original on-blog format, without actually going to the blog, is great. There is also an easy way to save entries, and (I think) even categorize saved entries. Plus it worked in sync with Reader, so anything you do in one, you've done in both. It's going to take a bit to get used to it (I've used GReader for a long time), but I think I'll end up sticking with the upgrade.

Another thing I wanted to do starting in this new year was track my online time. I know I spend too much time online, but I don't really know how much it adds up to. So, I started with the simple Firefox add-on Time Tracker. All Time Tracker does is install a little clock at the bottom of your browser window that keeps track of how much time you're active in the browser--it times out if you don't do anything for 60 seconds. It doesn't keep track of where you're active, just that you're online. That's helpful, but I'd really prefer something that shows me where I'm spending all that time. So, I'm trying out Rescue Time. Rescue Time shows you how much time you're spending at a given website. Or, at least, that's what it is supposed to do. Thus far (and it's only Day 2), I haven't been able to figure out how to get it to show me specific sites, and not just browsers versus utilities versus finder. I think the problem is me and not the tool, though, so I'm going to keep messing with it.

For several weeks, I've been trying to make another Firefox add-on, CoComment, work for me. What it's supposed to do is keep track of the blogs where I leave comments, and notify me if more comments are left, so I can check for responses to what I said. However, only about 1/3 of the blogs I read seem to support it, which limits its utility. I'm also not particularly happy with the layout--I find it unwieldy and confusing. That said, I can't find anything better to do the same job, so I'm trying to work with it.

Another thing I use, and have for quite a bit, is StumbleUpon. I love StumbleUpon. It allows me to easily share the great blog posts I come across and see what my friends have recommended. I have no gripes at all about how it works, either--it's totally easy to use and I use it every day.

I've recently been downloading iPhone apps like a madwoman. I have no idea how many of them I'll use long term, but I have to admit I kinda like seeing the little buttons on my screen. I've downloaded the mobile version of Mint, which I have used online for a couple of years. For a more interactive spending tracking experience, though, I'm also going to try Money Engine. I have this theory that I am going to track every penny I spend in 2011--so we'll see how that goes. I have to say, the interface for Money Engine seems really user friendly to me, so hopefully that will encourage me to use it.

I also recently downloaded Period Tracker Lite, to keep track of my cycle. I've been using Monthly Info online, but it's more convenient to have something on my phone.

What else...? Hipstamatic, which everyone seems to be wild about, but I'm not finding much of a use for. Toodledoo, which I will theoretically learn to use rather than just making shopping or errand lists in Notes. And Gaia GPS Lite, which I plan to try out on the next occasion I am failed by Google maps. My favorite new find, though, is this little set of instructions, allowing me to sync my beloved Google Calendar with my iPhone calendar.

Finally, I recently started using FlickrImportr to move photos easily from Flickr to Facebook, which is nice, as it allows me to categorize and edit photos in Flickr and then move as few or many of them to Facebook for sharing as I'd like.

So help me out--what am I missing here? What should I be using to better my technological life? I'm not opposed to paying for things, if they're worth it, but bonus points for free. Leave suggestions in the comments!

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New Year, New Goals (plus vision board!)

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For the last several years, I've made treasure maps in March or April, when it's astrologically advised to do so. Though the timing is different, the project is the same as the vision board project Karen Walrond writes about at this time of year. This year, I decided to forgo astrology and make my board on January 1. I did this, in part, because I identify with this as the time where the year changes, more than in the spring. I also did it because I felt there should be a connection between my vision board and the goals I set for myself this year. So, this post is both my vision board post and my 2011 goals post. Are you ready?

My process for creating the board is pretty similar to what Karen describes, except that I don't do any embellishment. I simply cut images and words from magazines that strike me as representing something I want in my life this year, then layer them up on a canvas. I don't like white space, so I start with a layer of full page articles, most of which get mostly covered as I add the next layers. Supplies are simple: old magazines (if you aren't a magazine saver, check to see if your library has a free bin, or pick them up for $.10-$.50 each at your thrift store--they don't need to be current), Mod Podge, scissors, and some sort of backing (I used cardboard the first few times I did this, but recently have graduated to the cheap canvases from Michael's, so these will hold up better and be easier to hang).

I actually took a couple of days to go through magazines and pull pages out, but I didn't put the thing together until this morning. It was important, for whatever symbolic reason, to do it on the first day of the new year.

This is the finished product:

2011 Vision Board

I'm not going to go into what each element means to me, I'll leave that to your imagination. What I will say is that looking at this board, I feel pretty clear on what I want out of 2011. And that's the whole idea.

So on to the more quantitative side of things--the goals. I realized when summarizing last years goal progress that I am the sort who really needs concrete markers. Goals like "create something" and "join something" are never going to work for me. So, this year, as I thought about what I wanted to accomplish, I did my best to attach numbers to everything. I know this isn't how some people prefer to do this, but I think it's really a to each her own kinda thing. I need to be able to decide whether I've accomplished something by counting it all up.

2011 Goals

1. Read 30 books.

I'd love for this to be a book a week, but honestly, I know I won't get there. I didn't even get to 30 last year. But this year, I want to read 30 books--on paper. No more counting audio books.

2. Get at least one new stamp on my passport.

This one, I think, is going to be an every year goal.

3. Blog 5 times a week.

Yep, 5 days/week blogging. Not necessarily all here--I have another blog idea cooking, and I have to do a better job with Heroine Content in 2011--but 5 times a week somewhere.

4. Journal every day.

Even more than her vision board description, I was really taken with Karen Walrond's recent post on journaling. Once upon a time, I was an avid journaler, but I haven't put literal pen to paper in years. I love the idea, though, of a journal as not just a place to write, but as a record of your life--your to-do lists, phone messages, and collected ephemera. So I bought a new notebook and some new pens and started this morning.

5. Cook dinner at least once a week.

This goal was on my list in 2009, but fell away after a few months. I'm re-instituting it this year, as part of my "be a grown up, for reals" campaign. Mark bought me this slow cooker cookbook for Christmas, so I'm going to start with that.

6. Fully fund my 401k.

My new job offers 6% matching, so I'll be starting with that as soon as I am eligible.

7. Save $15,000.

This goal is subject to change once I get rolling with my new job. But it's the minimum I need to save this year.

8. Excel at my new job.

This one is hard to quantify, but it's really important to me this year, so I'm including it anyway. Ideally, I'd like to do well enough to merit the highest bonus possible at my year-end review, but I want to be able to measure my progress more regularly than just at year end. If I think of a way to quantify this, I'll amend it. If you have any ideas, please comment!

9. Make one positive health change per month.

This goal is the hardest one for me to figure out--both in terms of quantifiables and in terms of what I can realistically stick to. But I've heard a million times that the best advice for diet and exercise plans is to create new habits. So, I'm going to attempt to make one new healthy habit per month. Examples could be anything from cutting back on coffee in a measurable way to adding a vitamin to my routine to taking the stairs. When you're where I'm at with health and wellness goals, every little bit helps, and a goal like "lose 30 lbs," or last year's more vague "get to a healthy weight" is clearly not going to work.

10. Re-institute monthly date night.

For a while, Mark and I had a monthly date night. I don't know when exactly we stopped, but we shouldn't have. This year, I want to get back into to the routine of a night a month where Mark and I do something together, whether it's a movie or dinner or something more interesting (we really ought to be going into DC more and seeing what the city has to offer).

I think that's a pretty good set of goals with which to begin this new year. I may add one or two along the way, but these are the places I'm going to focus my energy right now. I know some people don't like resolutions, and really I guess that's what these are, so no pressure for you to make your own, but if you do, good luck!

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