December 30, 2008

In 2009, I will...

Last year, I made my New Year's goals public. I'm doing it again this year. But before I tell you what I have in store for 2009, let's review what I did (or did not) accomplish in 2008.

Goal 1: Do a physical activity lasting at least 20 minutes, four times a week.
This goal was up and down, but I can't say I tracked it enough to know how consistent I was. I think the percentage of weeks I made this goal is incredibly low. But I feel like I worked out more this year than the previous one. Plus I found a new gym and a routine that seems to work for me. So I may have not been strong with this goal the entire year, but I'm ending strong. For that, I'll give myself a .4 on my success rate.

Goal 2: Make an educated vote for president.
Done. And if you read this blog at all from September to November, I hope I helped you make and educated vote too. My success rate equals one.

Goal 3: Volunteer one day out of the month at a charitable organization.
I did not volunteer one single day at any charitable organization, so this one was a big fail. But I do donate to Chicago Public Radio on a monthly basis, so I gave a little. I give my success a 0.1.

Goal 4: Take violin lessons.
Done. I took two fiddle classes, so this was a completely successful goal. I get a one out of one.

Goal 5: Learn about my family's history.
This one is hard to define in terms of success. I remember having conversations about my family with my family this past year. I learned I'm one than one-half German (I always thought I was a quarter), my great grandfather on my mother's side used to smuggle alcohol from Canada during prohibition and my dad is actually a second, having been named after his grandfather. The thing is I know I learned more than this, but I have forgotten most of it already. At best, I can only rate my success at 0.4.

I've given myself a 2.9 out of five for my goals accomplished. Better than 50 percent, but not as good as I'd hoped. Here's hoping 2009 is more successful. I've once again, set five goals for myself. I've tried to make these as concrete as possible so I'll know for certain if I've reached them or not.

And now, my list.

Goal 1: Find out and fix my credit score.
It is absolutely terrible, but I have no idea what my credit score is. I've never looked into it, mainly because I haven't had the need. And given the number of credit card applications I receive on a weekly basis, I've always assumed my score is pretty good. But I don't know my score. Nor do I know what errors it may contain. I have friends with horror stories about fixing their credit ratings. These stories generally are set under dire circumstances, like buying a house. I figure before I make any major purchases (nothing planned now) where my credit may be a factor, I'd like to get my credit score in order.

Goal 2: Learn the history of my violin.
My violin wasn't purchased by me or my parents. It was passed down in our family and eventually rescued by my mom years ago from my grandparents garage sale. The story I know about its history is vague.
Some grandfather (great or great-great) on my mom's side ran a hotel and a man
came to stay one night. The man couldn't pay so he left his violin as payment. He said he'd come back with cash in exchange for the violin. He never did.
See vague. I'd like to know names of people, locations, the name and location of the hotel, when exactly this all happened, etc. This goal stems from my fifth goal of 2008, but it's a little more concrete this time around.

Goal 3: Run the Shamrock Shuffle in under 50 minutes.
I am nervous just typing that. I've run the shuffle two other times. I came in around 57 minutes both times. It's my standard, jogging pace of 11+ minute miles. By cutting my time to under 50 minutes I will need to cut more than a minute off my per minute mile pace. I don't know if I can do this, but I'm sure as hell going to try. My inspiration is my friend Kelsa who is running her first marathon in less than three weeks. We used to run at the same pace, but now that girl can sprint past me. That's because she's diligently trained and cut down her time. I plan to do the same.

Goal 4: Play vibrato.
This is an extension of my fourth goal from last year. I have gotten back into playing violin this past year. A lot of my skills have returned but I'd like to expand my playing abilities. One thing I've never been able to do is play vibrato. Vibrato is the difference between long flat notes and the sweet, pretty vibration of a note. For some reason, my wrists and fingers have never been able to move in a vibrato motion. I've wanted to know how to do this ever since I started playing. My main motivation now will be the wedding I'm playing at in September. Wedding songs just sound so much prettier with a vibrato.

Goal 5: Cut my student loans in half.
I owe close to $9,000 in student loans. That is not a lot compared to what most people owe, but I'd like it gone sooner rather than later. I've always paid more than the minimum, but I can contribute more. And really, it's the only debt I have so why not get rid of it.

So that's it. Stay tuned in 2009. I'll be sharing my triumphs and challenges as 2009 progresses. Wish me luck!

December 24, 2008

Silent Night at Home

I am sitting on the couch right now wrapped in a blanket. In the apartment, there's a soft glow from my mini-Christmas tree and my laptop. Mike's watching ESPN, and I'm putting off packing right now. Hence, this post.

We were supposed to be on our way to Michigan right now. The forecast, however, scared us in for one more night. The thought of fighting traffic on Christmas Eve all the way to Michigan while driving through a wintry mix was too much. It made sense to wait it out one more night.
Waiting comes at the expense of one of my favorite Christmas traditions, though. My sister and her family attend a beautiful, old church in Detroit, and it holds an absolutely lovely Christmas Eve service. I look forward to attending this service as a staple of my holiday traditions. Nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit more than ending the service by singing Silent Night with candle in hand. It warms my soul.

This year though, there won't be any of that. I'll have to settle for the glow of my few decorations and a silent night at home.
Happy Holidays to you all. I wish you the happiest of holiday celebrations.
I'll be in Michigan through Sunday and off work Monday and Tuesday. Expect some posts then of my holiday hi jinks.

December 22, 2008

Somewhere Far From Here

I love this photo. I especially love this photo right now. It was taken about six months ago, on the fourth of July. It was a day that was about 80 degrees warmer than today, which is to say it was 80 degrees that day. It is bitterly cold in Chicago right now, but this photo takes me back to a sunny day spent with my family on a lake in western Michigan.

My family has gone to this particular house on this particular lake for many Fourths. It belongs to friends that my parents have known since high school. We have a lot of memories associated with that lake. I remember the year my dad cut his ear sailing the Hobie cat and had to get stitches. I remember the Fourth a storm swept across the lake so quickly we almost lost our tent to the elements. I remember several frustrating games of tether ball with my sister (I just couldn't win!). Memorable also was the summer my dad got a bunch of illegal fireworks and lit them off over the lake. As kids, we used to color the "Happy Fourth of July" sign every summer. We were greeted by one of these relic signs this year (with dot matrix lines still intact). I could pick out my wobbly, bubbly markings on the "4."

I loved going to the lake this year because it was the first time in quite a few years that my entire family made it. Mike and I came from Chicago, and my parents and sister's family came separately from the Detroit-area. We had a fabulous time, and I hope my nephews associate that lake and the fourth of July with happy memories like I do.

This photo above was made possible by my six-year-old nephew Jordan. He went hunting for snails in the lake and started lining up the empty shells on the dock. He aligned them just so. So perfect to my eye that they were photo-worthy.

December 20, 2008

Cats, You've Been Warned

Holy crap. I'm not going to lie. I've spent all morning playing with my new toy, and holy crap is it awesome. You know what this means? More and better photo shoots with the cats. Because I don't have enough photos of the cats already.

I just realized, this post currently makes it the third cat-related entry on this page. Whatever, call me a crazy cat lady all you want (Nicole!). I can take it.

December 19, 2008

Just As I Suspected

Mike and I did get our helicopter toys this week. I haven't played with mine yet, but Mike couldn't resist opening his as soon as he got it. Before he burnt out the motor (after 15 minutes of play - stupid cheap POS's!), he had some fun. And just as I suspected, it was the at the cats' expense.

(I'd suggest turning down the volume before you play these. The sound it set pretty loud. Also, even though only Mike can be heard laughing, please know that I was as soon as stopped recording.)


I was going to blog about how terrible this week has been. How I haven't worked out in almost two weeks. About how I'm just now finally getting over a cold that set in shortly after my cookie baking commenced. How Mike and I slept in different rooms all week on account of all the sneezing and snoring attributed to our colds (he was sick too). How two snow storms struck Chicago and the only upside to that was testing out my new kick ass snow boots. Other than that, this week pretty much felt like a wash. It was just a blur of sneezing, sniffling, restless nights, lazy evenings, unproductive work days and a home that would not clean itself.

Then Mike and I exchanged our Christmas gifts tonight. And when I saw he got me a fancy new camera I had been molesting in electronics stores every chance I got, it all melted away. My week was over. Sure it wasn't great, but it sure as hell ended on a good note.

December 15, 2008

Not Like Mom Used to Make

My mom makes the best sugar cookies. I am sure your mom makes some type of delicious dessert, perhaps even sugar cookies. But I can assure you that my mom makes the best sugar cookies. Ever.

Christmas is always the best time of year for almost any child. Presents and candy and songs and pretty dresses and all that. Secretly though, I also loved it because it was the time of year when my mom would make her sugar cookies. These cookies I believe were actually my grandma's recipe, but in the years my mom's had the recipe, she's mastered it. I cannot stress enough how good they are.

As much as I love these cookies, I had never attempted to make them on my own. I'd helped my mom on occasion, my sister and I offering our sifting or rolling skills. And of course, there was always the matter of decorating. We were master decorators. Sprinkles, red hots, icing, you name it, we could decorate with it.

I have not done a lot of baking in recent years. The main reason for this is my last two apartment kitchens were so old, I don't think I could have fit a baking sheet in the tiny ovens. Not to mention, they just looked like fire hazards. This year though, I am living in Mike's place, on his kitchen surrounded by cherry wood cabinets and stainless steel appliances. It's heaven. So if there were ever a year to tackle my mom's sugar cookies it was this year.

This past Sunday, I took out my mom's recipe and followed it to a tee. But that is not to say it was without mishaps.

My first problem came with mixing. I added the egg, sour cream, butter, sugar and mixed with Mike's electric mixer. No problem.

And then I slowly added the flour mixture I had previously sifted. I added bit by bit and by the time I got to the last of the flour, the mixer was barely moving under the weight of the dough. Then it stopped all together and started to smoke. It was at this point that I remembered there was a mixing part in the recipe that involved a wooden spoon, not electric mixer.

I put the mixer on the concrete back step (less of a fire hazard)...

... and grabbed a wooden spoon.

The next step was easy. I let the dough refrigerate for a five hours.

The day before I picked up all the appropriate supplies at the grocery store. I needed a sifter, a rolling pin, a big cookie sheet and lots of cookie cutters. The cookie cutter supply was disappointing, to say the least. The store only had Christmas trees so that was the only shape I could make. I made up for it by buying different color sprinkles and sugars.

The first batch of cookies went into the oven and I set my kitchen timer. When the minute warning beeped, I started to smell the cookies. But by the time I got them out, the bottoms were burned. Completely burned.
I threw those out, considering them a test run. I got the next batch ready, put them in the oven and set my timer for two minutes less than the first batch. They turned out so much better. And by so much better, I mean edible.

I repeated this a few more times to great results and in the end wound up with about 30 cookies to take into work. I tried one of my cookies this morning just to make sure they were edible, and they tasted OK. Only OK because they didn't taste as good as my mom's. There's something to that special mom touch I wasn't able to recreate. It's probably all the years of wisdom gained from outsmarting your kids. That and maybe better sugar.

I plan to make these cookies again but I'll tweak the recipe slightly. Next time I'll use granulated sugar and try to ground fresh nutmeg. That makes the difference according to my sister. I still don't think they will taste as good as my mom's cookies, but I'll get as close as I can. Even if I don't, they are apparently better than edible because my co-workers devoured them today.

This is all that's left. Just some crumbs and sprinkles.

Stimulating the Economy, One Brookstone Purchase at a Time

I just bought two of mini helicopters (see photo) from Brookstone - the store of miscellaneous crap you don't really need. That may not be its official slogan, but it sure as heck should be with stuff like this and this and then of course this.

I was not at all in the market for toy helicopters, but Mike was. He almost bought one while we were in Radioshack the other day, but my quizzical, furrowed brow talked him out of it. However, when I got a reminder email from Brookstone yesterday regarding my $25 off gift card, I told Mike to see if there was anything he wanted. I bought Mike a really nice barbecue set this fall from Brookstone for his birthday, and thus began the multitude of Brookstone catalogs beings delivered to our home. With that BBQ tool kit also came a $25 gift card to use toward my next purchase, so long as it was made before Dec. 24.

Mike took a look through the miscellaneous crap we do not need at Brookstone and settled on this remote controlled helicopter. The kicker, though, was a deal for one at regular price or two at a discounted price. So of course, I got two. What's better than miscellaneous crap we don't really need? Double the miscellaneous crap we don't really need.

I already suspect the main use of these mini helicopters will be freaking out the cats. Because the loud noises, sudden movements and plastic bags that already scare the living piss out of them on a daily basis just aren't enough.

December 12, 2008

Grade A Winnings

Last night was my firm's annual Christmas party. It was held at a colorful, loud Latin restaurant just west of downtown. There was food there was drinking, there was dancing, general merriment, and of course presents. You can't have a Christmas party without presents.

The firm has always been exceptional at showing its appreciation for the support staff (all non-attorneys), but never more so than during the month of December. At the party, two of the top partners raffled off several prizes to the staff - $250 gift cards to various department stores, box seats to Cubs or Sox games, six month wine club subscriptions and the big one, two round trip tickets to anywhere in the continental U.S. Even though I did not attend the Christmas party last year, I still won something. I won meat. This year. I won something again.

I won meat.

Something I did not know about myself until last night? I have a knack for winning top quality animal by-products.

Mike won something too. He won an overnight stay in a downtown hotel and theater tickets. Something there got mixed up. Mike is not a theater goer. My mom took my sister and I to see The Phantom of the Opera before I hit my teens. And sure, I'll eat a steak here and there, but only if Mike makes it for me. Mike on the other hand, eats steak at least once a week. We're already negotiating trades. More than likely though, we'll end up dining on steaks together, seeing a show and sharing a hotel room - not necessarily all in the same day. So even though neither one of us won the prize that suited us best, together we cleaned up at the holiday party.

December 9, 2008

Say It Ain't So

Every evening on my way to the train station I cross a bridge over the Chicago River. And almost every evening on the bridge come rain or shine, sleet or snow there is a man banging away on a homemade set of drums. He's pretty good, this man with his drumsticks and plastic buckets. He always does his best to get the passersby involved by chanting "Go! Go! Go! Go!" or shouting something topical at a pause, like "Cubs win!" or "It's the weekend!" (on Fridays). Today it was "Blagojevich sucks!" Pretty fitting on the day when our governor was hauled into court by the feds. See, he's topical.

For any of you who did not catch any portion of any news segment today, Illinois' governor Rod Blagojevich and his Chief of Staff John Harris were arrested at their homes around 6:15 a.m. on fraud and conspiracy charges for things like.... well, oh, you know nothing too big he thinks. Well except the gov he a huge fan of bribery. He then well he tried to get dissenting editors of the Chicago Tribune fired in exchange for help with the sale of Wrigley Field (owned by the Tribune) to the state. He also threatened to rescind state funds to a children's hospital because he didn't get the $50,000 in campaign contributions he wanted

The worst by far though was his attempted sale of the president-elect's vacant senate seat - a seat he and he alone can fill via appointment. His pay to play agenda for this seat was the straw that broke the camel's back. The feds had been investigating the gov for more than three years and his comments regarding this seat were what sent the feds to his home. According to Blagojevich, this seat was his golden goose. In his words, "(It's) a f*cking valuable thing. You just don't give it away. ... I've got this thing, and it's f*cking golden." Aside from a corrupt moral character, he's also got a bit of a potty mouth.

As a Chicagoan, it's embarrassing. I am incredibly proud to live where I live. Nov. 4 was an amazing day for this city and the state of Illinois. To have our image tarnished a little more than month later makes me angry. My mother called me tonight to talk about pretty boy Rod's arrest. My Michigander mom, fresh off Detroit's coverage of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's obstruction of justice conviction, pointed out that at least Michigan's corrupt politics stay at the city level. We're big time here in Chicago though. Our corrupt politics are statewide!

But the really embarrassing part is that Blagojevich ran on a election platform of cleaning up corrupt Illinois politics. This was a winning slogan because his predecessor, former Illinois governor, George Ryan, is barely into the second year of his 6.5 year jail sentence on federal corruption charges. It cannot be proven that Illinois is the most corrupt state in the U.S but as Robert Grant, special agent at the FBI Chicago office said today, "If it isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor."

As I listened to NPR today, coverage of the governor's arrest was thorough. It was the second story on the BBC's 10 a.m. new hour, for Pete's sake. This overabundance of coverage left me a bit peeved as I walked home, so that's why as I passed over the Chicago River on my way to the train I couldn't help but shout out "Blagojevich sucks!" during the drummer man's pause. I still think this is an amazing city in a wonderful state. Most days I will talk up its attributes to anyone who'll listen but today it was easier to scream that in fact our governor does sucks.

December 8, 2008

One Cat With Many Names

This here is Mozzarella.

Or Fruit Loop. Or Fatty Paddy. Take your pick. He goes by all three. Currently though, his alias is Fatty Paddy due to his very large mid-section. You can't tell by the photo, but he’s 85 percent belly.

He lives on Mike’s sister's farm in Wisconsin with fellow cats Smudge, Tiger and Whiney. Mike and I met Fatty Paddy the last time we were in town, but he stole our hearts again over Thanksgiving. And if we didn’t already have three good-for-nothing cats at home, Fatty Paddy would have been ours. It was really hard to look into his two-toned eyes and say no. I mean, look at that sweet, little precious face.

Fatty Paddy is an outdoor cat, and he's pictured here stealing some warmth on a chilly November day while nestled in Mike's coat.

December 7, 2008

My Absent Week

Where on earth has this week gone?

I'm sitting on my couch. It's Sunday night, and I can't believe I have to go to work tomorrow. I was just at work. On Friday. And on Saturday. Yes, I went into work yesterday morning. Yuck. Saturdays at the office always throw off my internal clock, but I saw no way to avoid going in. I had too much to get done this week even though I worked 8+ hours each day including one that was closer to 12 hours. This past week I had a lot of bonding time with my office but not really my home.

As a result, I haven't left home at all today. I've done a lot of couch bonding, some movie watching, Internet surfing and I talked to my mom about Christmas plans. My family may go skiing! I did manage to peel myself from the couch long enough to clean, fold laundry, make dinner and get out Christmas decorations.

We've got a few Christmas trinkets here and there and my mini-tree is lighted and decorated. I was a little hesitant to put it up after the melee that ensued last year. This year though, the cats will have a hard time reaching it. It's on the top shelf of a six foot tall shelving unit in our living room. And for those of you who remember, the baby Jesus is on the tree. A few months after I took down my tree last year, I found the baby Jesus under my couch. Oscar will hopefully have no contact with the baby Jesus this year. Amen.

As productive as I managed to be during my day at home, there was something I did not do. I didn't work out. I'm not beating myself up too terribly though. Even without making it to the gym this weekend I did still accomplish one personal goal. I worked out before work three times this week. I went Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, and I'll be going again tomorrow before work. I plan on this being my regular routine. It amazes me to say it, but I think the reason I didn't make it this weekend is because I couldn't go either Saturday or Sunday morning. I am a morning gym attendee, and I would have it no other way now. I still want to hit my four days a week gym goal so what I may end up doing is trying to go four days during the week and taking the weekends off. Thoughts? Encouragement? Discouragement?

So now with the waining hours of my weekend, I'm going to lay out my gym clothes for the morning and read my new Health magazine. Speaking of Health magazine, if you don't have a subscription and would like one, let me know. I can sign up four people for free when I renew right now. If so, leave me a comment and I'll get in touch with you.

Hope you all had relaxing, fun weekends. Or you know, maybe instead of fun and relaxing, you added a new member to your family. Congrats again, Lexi! I'm overjoyed for you all.

December 2, 2008

The Paper Trail

I save things, lots of things. I've always been a pack rat by nature. It's a bitch when moving, but my tendencies to hoard have helped me a few times. I'm not saying that I save everything. I don't hold onto nick-knacks and trinkets until they've lost all meaning and I no longer know what they are. I save useful things. I save paper.

I am the kind of girl who saves credit card payments to credit cards that have been closed for years. I have a paper copy of several of my old newspaper articles - some back in my college newspaper reporting days. I have kept old apartment leases, paperwork to any membership club I ever joined, and insurance policies for a car I haven't owned in years.

When I moved into Mike's place, I sorted through some of these old files in their appropriately labeled folders and found pay stubs and tax returns from 1997. I threw these away but with some hesitation. Yes, I know you can only be audited for the past seven years, but old habits die hard. Another set of docs I kept without fail are old utility bills. I had ComEd and People's Energy bills and payment receipts that went back as far as three addresses ago. I didn't feel the need to keep these in my and Mike's home so once I had paid my final bills, I threw these old ones away.

I hesitated when I threw these away too. But I have reason to hesitate. Hoarding paper has proved beneficial to me because I seem to be one of those people whom other people try to take money from, many times over.

Let me provide a few examples, if you will.

There was the time I unknowingly joined a Bally's gym and then had to fight my way out of paying for the first month. Seeing as I didn't know I was a member, I didn't think it was fair I paid for something I didn't even know I could use. Then there was the time I joined another gym with a seven-day trial period. I canceled after seven days but it took two months to get my $100 deposit back. I practically had them on speed dial that last month. Then there was the time I was charged a late fee three times over by my credit card. I had paid off said card and was trying to cancel it for months. The only thing stopping my cancellation was a service fee for a service for which I had not signed up. I canceled the service and then accumulated three months worth of late fees while they took their sweet time removing those fees from my account. That was fun.

The worst though, by far, was Cognitive Arts.

I worked for this evil company in 2005 on a six-month technical writing project. To make this very long and complicated story short(er), let me summarize this way: Girl works for evil company. Girl signs "Independent Contractor" contract. Girl files taxes in 2006 and pays lots of money because she was an "independent contractor." Girl goes to paralegal school and finds out that according to employment laws, she was not an "independent contractor." Girl was an employee. Girl submits paperwork to the I.R.S. saying she overpaid her taxes because she was an employee, not an "independent contractor." Six months later, government sides with girl (not evil company). Girl gets tax money back. Six months later in 2007, girl gets W-2 from evil company. W-2 claims girl worked for evil company in 2006 and earned thousands of dollars in wages. Girl files 2006 tax return saying she did not work for evil company that year. Approximately one year later, girl gets certified mail from the IRS saying she did not claim thousands of dollars worth of income she made in 2006 at evil company. Girl files amended tax return saying evil company is wrong AGAIN, and she did not work there in 2006. Government sides with girl AGAIN. Currently, girl hopes saga with evil company is over.

Yeah. All true.

I don't even know how many hours of my life were spent dealing with all the crap in the paragraphs above. Between the evil company, my gym misfortunes and credit card problems (not to mention all the other things I'm forgetting), I have probably spent at least two month's worth of lunch hours dealing with other people's clerical errors. So when I received a "priority message" on Nov. 10 saying I was delinquent on my ComEd account by $21.25 I had to chuckle. Really? That's all you got ComEd? Bring it. I've beaten a truly evil company many times over for thousands of dollars. I see your $21.25, and I will not pay it!

It needs to be said that I have been successful in dealing with the many minor and major headaches mentioned above because I have held onto my precious paper. I save bills, receipts, correspondence and anything I sign. And when I make calls to get something straightened out, I always ask for the name of the person and then record the day and time I spoke to them. Then I save those notes in my appropriately labeled file folder. Yes, I am that girl. I have learned it pays to be that girl. As I said I did throw away all my old ComEd receipts but I've managed to trace my story through old bank statements and the company's own reimbursement checks made out to yours truly.
Tonight I composed my letter to ComEd's collections people. They will be receiving my one page letter complete with six attached exhibits tomorrow morning via fax. I am ready to fight this. Granted it's only $20, but darn it, it's $20 worth of my money that they do not deserve. So I'll take on yet another company, just little, old me and my paper.

December 1, 2008

Rocky Mountain High

While tooling around Colorado in our rented H3 Hummer, Mike and I saw a lot. We rented a room out in the mountains in the small town of Dilion, not too far from Keystone and Breckenridge. Driving from Denver into the mountains to south of Denver and then back again, we logged around 1,000 miles in our rented car during our four-day stay.

As we drove back and forth and back and forth again on I-70, Mike told me stories from his childhood. He spent part of his youth in Colorado. From his time in Colorado he came away with stories of camping the mountains, chasing and catching critters and playing pee wee football in the snow. He mentioned that one of the greatest things about growing up in that setting was the abundant wildlife.

On our first night in Colorado during the drive to Dilion we passed a herd of mountain goats. They looked amazing but we couldn't stop in time to get a picture. I spent the rest of our trip in the Hummer looking for more goats. It wasn't until our second to last day in Colorado, as we were driving by Vail, that we saw another herd. Mike did some maneuvering in the Hummer and got close enough for me to get some shots. This ram was the only one in the herd, but it worked because he was magnificently photogenic.