Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A year in Review...

I seriously can't believe today is the last day of 2008. I feel like I just got used to writing 2008 on the rare occasion that I write out a check! And now 2009 is upon us.

Truth be told, I kind of hate New Years Eve. I think it is the most overrated holiday! Plus, to me, it's very much a couples holiday. I have gone out on NYE for the last couple of years, and without fail, the clock strikes midnight and everyone around me is kissing while I stand there, fidgeting and wishing I could sort of just disappear! It's not the best feeling in the world - kind of makes you feel more single than ever! So this year I am heading to my parents' cabin and will ring in the New Year with my parents, siblings, & nephews.

2008 was a big year for me! Here are some of the highlights:
- Became an aunt for the 4th time in April! Matthew was born on 4/2 and is a wonderful addition to the family!
- Traveled to France for 3 amazing weeks, which prompted me to start my first blog, which prompted me to do this blog since I enjoyed it so much!
- Abby got engaged and started planning a wedding for 8/8/09 - I'll be her maid of honor and have already started writing my speech!!!!

2009 is shaping up to be equally fabulous. I have lots to look forward to and countless things to be thankful for. While I don't particularly enjoy NYE, I do like how a New Year sort of forces you to reflect back on the past year and start thinking about goals for the following year. I'm not huge on resolutions but have a few goals for 2009:

1. Quit Mountain Dew for good!! Seriously, it is so bad for you... but it tastes so good and has always been a weakness for me. I am hoping to replace it with either coffee or Diet Coke... we'll see how this goes!

2. I want to try to cook at least one meal a week. I have gotten in the habit of eating things like a can of soup for dinner... which is fine, but not the most 'fulfilling' meal. I have lots of cookbooks so I need to start getting more adventurous. And I need to mentally prepare myself if it doesn't turn out perfectly!

3. I will be running a 1/2 marathon on May 3rd. I registered yesterday so need to start training for that. I used to run a ton. Even ran a marathon. Then I started grad school and running was something that just didn't work with the schedule! I need to start incorporating 2-3 runs/week into my week though, so hopefully it will help to have a goal to work towards.

4. The hugest focus of 2009 will be selling my condo & hopefully buying a house. I know this will be a huge undertaking, but I am ready for the responsibilty. I want a guest room for my parents to use when they are visiting. I want a dining room so I can host dinner parties. I want an area in the backyard where I can plant a small garden. And I actually sort of look forward to shoveling & mowing the lawn (ahem, you'll probably have to remind me that I said this if/when I complain about those chores down the road!)

That's it for now. I think those 4 goals are pretty realistic. I know #4 is sort of out of my hands. And #1 might just be impossible, but who knows. I wish there was a "Mountain Dew Addicts Annoymous" group to join. I need a sponsor or something! Maybe someone I could call when I am standing in front of the vending machine at work, trying to decide if I really need that Mt Dew.....

Happy New Year everyone!! I'll leave you with this great quote about New Years that I just found!

“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called ‘Opportunity’ and its first chapter is New Year's Day.” —Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tuesdays To-Read List...

So I have been slacking a bit on the reading front lately. I have been so busy around the holidays, especially with all the ornament knitting I was doing! Now that Christmas has come & gone, I am focusing on getting my condo in "showing" condition. Thus, I won't be reading at my 'book a week' pace, at least not during the month of January when I have 3 trips planned (Chicago, Phoenix, and Grand Forks)!

Since this blog is supposed to be about books and reading, I thought I'd start featuring books from my 'to-read' list each Tuesday. Lord knows the list stretches on and on, so I have plenty of books to suggest! I haven't read them, so can't speak on their quality, but they are books I hope to tackle in 2009!

Since it's cold & snowy here in Minnesota, today I am featuring two travel-related memoires that might help you "mentally escape" those frosty temps!

The Best of Friends: Two Women, Two Continents, and One Enduring Friendship by Sara James & Ginger Mauney - What can I say, I am a sucker for any book that involves travel. This books follows the 30-year friendship of the two authors. Sara is a NBC Network Correspondent who has covered stories in countries such as Sudan and Nicaragua, while balancing her career with a marriage and parenting. Ginger is a wildlife filmmaker who has raised her child in Southern Africa, but misses the USA, which she once called home. Sara and Ginger use the examples of their life to answer questions such as, When your heart is broken, how do you heal? How do you realize your dreams without compromising yourself? How do you tame ambition to make room for family & friends? And what does it mean as an adult to be a "best" friend?

Summer of my Greek Taverna: A Memoir by Tom Stone - The author, Tom Stone, travels to Greece for a summer to write a novel, and stays 22 years!! The book is the story of a man in love with a place, a woman, and a dream and also features a few of the authors recipes for Greek food such as Chicken Retsina and Moussaka.

* I had told myself that I couldn't buy any more books until I read the ones I have... but I am oh so tempted to purchase these today. It certainly doesn't help that Barnes & Noble is just a few blocks away and easily accessible through the skyway.....

Let me know if you check either of these books out!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Day 2008

I've just spent the last 4 hours transforming my closet into something "buyer friendly." Good thing I have some "cleaning genes" courtesy of the McDougall side of my family! It's something I sort of enjoy (when I'm in the mood), but 4 hours is a bit much to spend on one project, so I thought I'd take a break & do a Christmas Day post.

On Christmas Day, my parents and I went to Holy Family Catholic Church for Christmas Day Mass - it was gorgeous! I wish I had pictures! There were about 14 Christmas Trees on the altar, tons of red poinsettias, and a huge creche with near-life size figures!! My church's choir is amazing, so we really enjoyed Christmas Mass. My parents have also been to Easter Saturday Mass so knew they were in for a wonderful experience but were still blown away by the Mass. I usually go to church by myself so it was really nice to have my parents there with me.

After Mass, we headed back to my place, packed up, and headed to my Aunt Barb & Uncle Paul's house in Inver Grove Heights. This is the first Christmas my parents have come to Minneapolis - I usually go home, but since I am out of vacation time, they graciously agreed to come and stay with me. Which really worked out so well as my Aunt Mary Beth & Uncle Gary had flown back from sunny Florida to spend Christmas with my cousin & his 2 sons. So my mom & her 2 sisters would all be in Minneapolis for Christmas and Barb offered to host us. We haven't celebrated Christmas with my mom's side of the family for probably 15-20 years. It's been at least since my grandma passed away in 1992, but probably before that. We usually spend it with my dad's side, but my inability to go home for Christmas meant switching things up a bit!

Barb and Paul are recently retired and have chronicled their post-retirement travels on a fabulous blog. It's been so fun to read their blog - even though we live just 30 minutes apart, our schedules don't allow for us to get together as often as we'd like, so blogging is a great way to keep up on each others' lives!

Before dinner, we snacked on some homemade meatballs and an assortment of Cheese Balls - all made from my Grandma McDougall's recipes, which Barb has been putting on the Internet. I love the 21st Century. :) I'm hoping to get a little bit adventurous and try some in January. My sister Abby & sister-in-law Julie have both tried some of her sweets, which are tricky to say the least. Let's just say none of us have mastered the candy thermometer like our mom has!!!

They made a wonderful Christmas dinner which features brisket and all sorts of other goodies.

My mom and her 2 sisters were definitely in the Christmas spirit, as you can tell from the Santa Hats they donned during our Christmas Dinner.

After dinner I had a chance to talk to my cousin Suzanne about her experiences in Medical School. She came very close to making her slightly squeamish brother, Nick, lose his dinner while regaling us with tales from the trenches! Hearing her talk about some of things she's done sure make my job look pretty boring!! Suzanne found out this past year that she has Celiac Sprue. She also has a blog where she shares some of the glutten-free dishes she has made. I am hoping to try a few of her recipes as well - she is much more accomplished in the kitchen than I am!

A few hours later, it was time for the dessert buffet. Barb made a few of Grandma's candy recipes - my favorite was the chocolate peanut butter cups. Mmm.

Barb & Paul also experimented and made some 'sugar plums' - which were delicious. I had recited "The Night Before Christmas" many times and always wondered what the heck they were, so it was fun to sample them - they were delicious!!

They also made some Fruit Cake which was really, really delicious. Fruit Cake has gotten quite a bad reputation, but Barb & Paul proved it is actually a tasty treat when prepared right!

Mom brought some of her traditional Christmas treats, my favorite of which was the Heath Candy she makes!

It was an absolutely wonderful day! I am hoping that our families won't go another 10 years without celebrating Christmas together again. Perhaps I will have my own house and will be able to host some day! A formal dining room is on my list of "must haves" for my house search, so we'll see what 2009 brings!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Eve 2008

Mom, dad, and I headed to my brother Kevin's on Christmas Eve to celebrate with his family. As soon as my parents got there, there was quite a pile 'o presents under the tree, so we let Andrew open up a couple of things.
He opened the ornaments I knit for their family

And the hats the boys got from my parents!

The boys loved them - they will definitely keep them warm when they speed countless hours outdoors! Andrew and Matty are so used to all the posing they have to do for pictures - we didn't even ask them to hold hands in this picture, they decided to do that on their own. Andrew is quite the sweet big brother!

Mom read to the boys

while Kevin prepared the delicious appetizers we feasted upon.

The aps weren't exactly Matthew-friendly food, so he had his first course of yogurt (which he thoroughly enjoyed)

followed by a 2nd course of squash... which he didn't seem to like nearly as much as the yummy, sweet yogurt!

After a few hours, we had worked up an appetite for dinner so the preparation began. Mom showed Andrew (aka the next Bobby Flay) how to make our traditional Christmas dish of Oyster Stew.

After eating a fabulous dinner (you'll have to take my word for it, I got so excited about eating, I forgot to take pictures), we started opening gifts. Andrew helped Matthew open some gifts - I am sure this is the one & only year that Matthew will be willing to give up that task!!

Matthew's favorite gift was a little cookie jar that sings a song when you put a shape in the right slot.

Andrew's favorite toy seemed to be the set of dishes - he loves to cook, like his daddy, so it should be no surprise that he was most interested in culinary-inspired gifts. And he apparently has some McDougall genes - as soon as he opened up the dish set, he organized them quite well. Grandma was so proud!

We finished up the night with home-made ice cream, topped with an assortment of fresh berries. Again, my apologies for a lack of pictures. I was too distracted by the food to think of grabbing my camera!! I did manage to get one photo with me & both the boys, though!

Christmas Day will have to be separate post - my wireless network connectivity keeps failing every time I try to upload a picture... My patience has been exhausted so that post will have to come tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Traditions

Good Morning & Merry Christmas!!

Since I am out of vacation, I am working today but will be heading out at 2 pm for my brothers. I can't really extract much pity from people on the lack of vacation issue... after all, I did spend 3 weeks in France this year!

Tonight we'll have a small gathering at my brother Kevin's in Maple Grove. It'll just be my parents, Kevin, Julie, the boys, and I. My other 3 siblings are all with their in-laws this Christmas, so we will be celebrating with them in spirit!

Like many families, we have time-honored traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Christmas Eve is one of those evenings of the year whose menu is heavily influenced by these wonderful traditions. Every Christmas Eve, our meal features 'Oyster Stew'.

I'll pause for the inevitable gasps of disgust & facial expressions that will undoubtedly follow that proclamation.

I know. It's not something you will come across very often, but is something that makes its appearance once a year in the Dotzenrod house. I can't say that I particularly enjoy it myself, but I like that our family has this unique tradition.

Most of my family enjoys it, with the exception of my little sister Abby & I. In our house, if you didn't like what was being served, TOUGH! You ate it or went hungry and I personally think this is the best way to raise kids. As a result, I am one of the least picky people you'll come across. So every Christmas Eve, I'd have a small bowl of Oyster Stew, sans the oysters, and load it up with handfuls of Oyster Crackers... so many crackers in fact that it was almost a solid you could chew. Gross, I know, but it then tasted more like crackers than the cream/butter base of the stew.

But there's no need to call "Child Protection Services" - I definitely didn't go hungry. In addition to the Stew, we also had other hor'doueves, such as a meat & cheese tray, relish tray, and a fish tray, which features 'delicacies' such as kipper snacks, pickled herring, sardines, and smoked oysters. I actually enjoy kipper snacks - I have no idea what it is & probably don't want to know. It comes from a can & probably has a shelf life equal to my age... but it takes pretty snacky!

About 10 years ago, when sister-in-laws started to come on the scene, my parents felt it was time to introduce another dining option on Christmas Eve. Afterall, they didn't want to get things off on the wrong foot for these young couples, celebrating their first Christmas together. While I was initially a bit bitter about the fact that an optional pasta dish was made for them when this is what I had been asking for all my life, I was just happy to be benefiting from their presence!

Tonight we gather at my brother's house - he is quite the 'foodie' so the meal will definitely not disappoint! Our menu is as follows:

- Stuffed Mushrooms
-Artichoke & crap dip with pita bread
-meat & cheese tray
-veggie tray
-fish tray

-Oyster Stew
-grilled shrimp
-yellow rice
-steamed broccoli

-home-made icecream w/ fresh berries
-Christmas Cookies

I am confident that none of us will go hungry and that instead, we will all over indulge and retire to bed, a few stones heavier than we were at the beginning of the day! I'll be sure to post some photos of the food.

Oh, and if you read my post about the Christmas Ice Cream debacle - rest assured. I will not be manning the stove at any point this weekend! So it should be a cooking-crisis-free weekend for my family.

Merry Christmas to you & yours!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Designed to Sell - Part 1

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am preparing to put my condo on the market. I don't need to do a whole lot to it - just a few little tweaks and hopefully it'll look good enough to catch the eye of a first-time home buyer, hoping to take the plunge!

My parents introduced me to HGTV years ago. All I can say is that it's addicting. It's like crack cocaine for any person who owns a home or aspires to own a home. It's the gateway drug to all sorts of things... You start thinking - hmm, maybe I should swap out those light fixtures.... and while I'm at it, I might as well add some wall sconces... and jeez, maybe the ceiling fan should change too? And now if I change the light fixtures in the kitchen, I should probably replace the hardware on the cupboards, but if I am going to do that, I might as well gut the kitchen, right?

Ok, that is the path my mind takes after watching shows on that channel, but I also know that this condo is temporary, and I likely will lose money when I sell, so this prevents me from taking things too far.

So far, I've done one major project: I replaced the flooring in my living room/kitchen/dining room last May. I say I, but I should say my cousin Ryan. I was his handy assistant, but I can't take any of the credit. With his help, we transformed my living room from this

to this

and my kitchen from this

To this

Unfortunately, the pictures don't come close to doing the transformation justice! When I decided to change the flooring, I did it because I wanted to like my place better... but hopefully those changes will attract a buyer to check my little casa out.

After deciding to put my place on the market, the only change that my realtor suggested was the re-painting of my bathroom from a girly lilac to a gender-neutral blue. Best part is that he told me what color to paint it. You may know that I am sort of a control freak, but guess what - when it comes to paint colors, I can't make a decision on my own for the life of me. Seriously. I can make major decisions like buying a house or car, accepting a job offer, or picking a grad school without really batting an eyelash. But put me in front of a wall of paint chips and I am a picture of indecision. Which is really counter intuitive. You could easily change paint colors multiple times and really not be out that much money. Change your mind about a house or a car in 6 months? Ouch! I won't even go into the financial ramifications such as depreciation & Capital Gains taxes... So why can I make a decision that I can't really turn back on, but I can't make decisions that are very easy to reverse??? Anybody out there w/ a psych degree, feel free to hypothesize...

Luckily my friend Brooke helped picked out my kitchen, bedroom, and living room wall colors (thanks Brooke, I don't have to re-paint those rooms!). I told my mom I wanted a purple bathroom and she helped me select a color. Why purple? Dang good question. I think I went w/ purple because I had a purple robe. Yah. Makes sense to pick a bathroom paint color based on the color of your robe, right? What can I say - all rational thoughts go out the window when a color choice must be made!!!

So back to Zeb, my wonder-realtor. He told me what color to paint it & said it was very 'Pottery Barn' and had gone over well with buyers in the past. Then he sort of glanced around my condo, and said, 'um, so how are you at painting?' (he probably saw the touch-ups I had to do around the ceiling, and such). I told him, honestly, I suck. I think I got that from my Dad. My dad has many talents, but painting isn't one of them!!! My mom has a conspiracy theory - she thinks he does a REALLY bad job to ensure he is not asked to help again (smart move, dad)

After my honest reply, he recommended 'out-sourcing' it to a guy he knows. Part of me felt guilty about paying someone to paint my bathroom... but then I thought of how busy I'd be between now & February. Between Christmas/NYE and 2 out-of-town trips in January, time is going to be a precious commodity.... so I called him up, and he was able to come within a week. Sweet. He brought the paint with and everything. Love it.

So I left the house this morning not knowing what color my bathroom would be when I returned. I had googled the paint color online (Kentucky Haze by Benjamin Moore), but that doesn't really give you a great idea of what to expect. I came home and was pleasantly surprised!

My bathroom went from this

to this.

Again, the pictures don't do it justice... especially since it's tough to take pictures in my teeny, tiny bathroom!!! The color actually looks very similar to the bridesmaid dresses from Brooke's wedding, pictured below:

And yes, that is me on the left. Amazing how running a marathon will transform your body. Last night I dreamed that I ran a 3 hour marathon (practically impossible) so perhaps there is another marathon in my future... Marathon or not, I will look like that again, hopefully by 8/8/09 when Abby gets married...

Lastly, I had my paint guy change out the blinds in my bedroom. I have actually had some bamboo blinds for over a year. I bought them while at Ikea with a certain ex-boyfriend who, at the time, claimed he would hang them... but then, months down the road, he tried to argue that the wall would not support them. Right. Because they would manufacture blinds that were unhangable. I digress...

So my bedroom window went from this

to this (still have a piece that I need to stick on the front so ignore the black stuff at the top)

It'll look better once I get the curtain rod back up and find a different window treatment, but you get the general idea (the cloth of the roman blinds was stained from rain water that got on it, so they HAD to go).

So there you have it - round 1 of the improvement process. I am happy to say, the remaining work that needs to be done involves cleaning closets, decluttering my kitchen, and making the place look cozy... All things that don't require a steady hand or any power tools. Thank God. A girl like me needs a rent-a-husband or something...
** Disclaimer **

Since announcing my intent to purchase a home, I have been receiving some 'unsolicited advice' from men (and only men, oddly enough) who think buying a house and all that it entails is just something I'm not prepared to do. So I better make this clear: the post above is a dramatization of the events of my life, written so that you will hopefully laugh and enjoy this long post. Truth be told - I'm certainly capable of using a cordless drill. It's just not something I enjoy doing. I don't judge you for not reconciling your bank statement (to the pennny, as I do), so don't judge me for hiring out these sort of tasks.

When/if I purchase a home, I am probably going to ask my handy (and very patient) uncle Paul Geier to give me a 'Power Tools 101' course so I will be prepared to handle these home-improvement tasks on my own. And while we're at it, maybe he can teach me how to parallel park. Because I don't know how to do that either.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You might not know this...

Well, this is my 3rd post in less than 24 hours... I'm definitely getting side-tracked today! :P

Saw a tag on Lauren's tumblr page that I thought would be fun to do. The directions say, write a post on your blog telling your readers SEVEN things about yourself they are not very likely to know:

Here goes!

1. I am obsessed with Passport stamps. Seriously. When I was in Europe with Brooke, every time we took a train somewhere, I'd get excited and ask her, 'do you think we'll get our passports stamped when we cross the border?' Sometimes we didn't, but when we did, it absolutely made my day.

2. I usually start my day with a Mountain Dew. These days I am trying to watch my waist line since I'll be in my sister's wedding this summer, so I have switched over to Diet Coke. Which is so less fulfilling, but much less bad for me....

3. When I walk on a tiled floor, I try to step on every other tile. Yes, I realize this makes me similar to Jack Nicholson in "As Good As it Gets."

4. I love peanut butter, but HATE the smell of it if I am not eating it. It makes me nauseous actually.

5. I sit cross-legged (aka indian style) whenever possible. Like right now, at my desk at work. My legs are covered by blanket so no one can really tell. It's the most comfortable way for me to sit... I think I have funky hip joints or something.

6. I get major anxiety if I think I am going to be late for something. As a result, when meeting up with friends for lunch, I'm usually first there, and when traveling, I get to the airport super early since I'd prefer sitting at the gate for an hour vs. feeling rushed.

7. I think French Toast is disgusting. Soaking bread in an egg mixture & then cooking it on a griddle? Yeck. I actually just got the shivers thinking about it. I'll politely choke down a piece if that is what's being served for breakfast, but could go the rest of my life without ever eating this dish.

The Space Between Us

I finished "The Space Between Us" by Thrity Umrigar last night. I stayed up past 11 (which is late for me) so I could finish the final chapters. The book got off to a bit of a slow start but the last 100 pages were very good. It is set in Bombay, India and tells the story of two women: Sera, an upper-middle class Parsi housewife, and her domestic servant, Bhima. They belong to different classes of the caste system in India, but find themselves both enslaved. Sera is trapped in a marriage to man who frequently abuses her and also has a mother-in-law that is viciously mean. Bhima is trapped in a life of poverty.

Although their economic conditions are as different as night and day, their lives intersect through a course of events which are revealed in the final chapters of the book. It's a great story and worth checking out, especially if you have any interestbook in that part of the world (as I do).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent Week 4: Love

I just lit the final candle of the Advent wreath; Christmas is just days away. My presents are all bought and wrapped and I am knitting up a storm, trying to finish all my ornaments before Wednesday! I'm looking forward to gathering with family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Tonight I pause to reflect on the emphasis of the 4th week of Advent: Love. There are so many directions I could go with this post. Love, in my opinion, is the best gift you can give and receive. I am lucky to have been raised in a house filled with love. No conversation with a family member ends without an "I Love You," and my somewhat reserved father always says it when hugging me good-bye after a visit home.

This past year has taught me a lot about love. I went through a difficult break-up in January that left me feeling pretty hopeless. As the months passed by, I watched a couple of friends get married, celebrated a few friends' engagements, and learned that my baby sister was getting married next August. I was so happy for all of them but couldn't help but feel that while they were moving forward with their lives, I was standing completely still. There were a lot of tearful nights, phone calls to my mom and girlfriends, and some heavy conversations with my brother Kevin.

While I wouldn't wish to go through that break-up and its aftermath again, I have learned lessons that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. I have learned that I have a family that is truly there for me. I have grown closer to my brother Kevin, and his family, and now know that if I ever feel alone or lonely, I am always welcome there. I've learned that it's ok to reach out to family and friends and that I shouldn't feel guilty for needing to do so.

I don't know what path God has chosen for my life, but I know this past year has made me a stronger, healthier, happier individual. I'm so much happier and at peace than I was last year at this time.

The love and support I have experienced over the past year doesn't even compare to the love we receive from God. God's love is never-ending and He loves us for who we are, bad habits, sins, and all. I try to focus on that whenever I am feeling down. After all, through God, all things are possible. So I will continue to put my trust in Him and will remain hopeful that 2009 will be a blessed year for me.

I'll leave you with a line of scripture that sums up the meaning of the Advent season and God's love for us.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Holiday Books to get you in the Spirit

Is it just me, or is Christmas coming faster than ever this year? The older I get, the faster it seems to arrive... When I was a kid, it seemed like it would take forever for Christmas Eve to roll around. Maybe because my mom always had the gifts wrapped and under the tree so there was a visual temptation? I remember digging around the tree, trying to count the presents with my name on them. Now that I'm so much older wiser, I'm not nearly as excited about the Christmas presents! Don't get me wrong, I still love opening them, but I am much more excited about giving gifts to my parents and nephews and seeing my family. This year I will be spending Christmas Day at my Aunt Barb's which I am super excited about! I haven't spent Christmas with a McDougall relative for over 15 years!! So we are well overdue!

In case any of you are having trouble getting into the Christmas Spirit, I have a few holiday books to highlight. They are short reads so are perfect for this time of year!

"Christmas Jars," by Jason Wright, is a quick, easy read. This is a book you could easily read over the span of 3-4 hours. The main character in the book, Reporter Hope Jensen, has fallen on hard times. Her adoptive mother has passed away from cancer and then her apartment is broken into and the thief steals all of her emergency cash. Hope opens her door one morning to find that someone has left a mason-jar, filled with with money, labeled "Christmas Jar." Using her well-honed investigative skills, she finds that many others have received a Christmas Jar in the past, so she begins to search for the origin of this tradition. Hope's search leads her to the Maxwell family... and also reveals some information about her birth mother. After reading this book, you will want to start your own Christmas Jar!

"The Christmas Box Collection" features 3 books written by Richard Paul Evans: The Christmas Box, Timepiece, and The Letter. This trilogy about the Parkins family is such a great read. The first book is about a young family that goes to live with a widow. Together, they rediscover the first gift of Christmas and are reminded what the holiday is all about. The other 2 books continue to follow the family and are so wonderful. One of the book talks about a family who has lost a young child. I discovered this book on a plane ride out to Denver when I was in college. I was sitting next to a middle-aged couple and the woman was reading this book. During the plane ride, the woman set the book down and was very noticeably crying... I am usually not one to make small talk with people on flights, but it was awful seeing her so upset, so I asked if everything was ok. She responded by saying that they had lost a young child and reading this book hit close to home since the couple in the book also lost a young child. She highly recommended the book so I had to check it out. I loved it so much, I gave it to my mom for Christmas the following year! I hope you enjoy!

I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas. I'll be celebrating Christmas Eve with my parents and my brother & his family. He sent me a preview of the menu yesterday and we are definitely going to eat like kings!! Can't hardly wait!

PS - If anyone would like to borrow these books, I of course own them and am more than willing to lend them out!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Caution... Vent to Follow

I don't think I've done a full out vent since the entry about the frustrations of getting change in Europe... Which was around July, so I figure I'm about do for one. And a conversation with a co-worker has me worked up into a bit of a tizzy, so a vent is necessary. Plus, there is something about putting my feelings in writing that helps. I guess it's the acknowledgement or something?

Background info: I've done some serious thinking. And I mean serious. I'm analytical so there's really no such thing as a snap decision in my world most of the time. (Unless it involves the purchase of books or shoes.) So I have decided that with the housing market being so down, now might be a good time to try to sell my condo and buy a house. Yes, this means taking a loss on my condo, but if I wait until the market improves to a point where I won't take a loss on my condo, I will have to pay much more for a house. I'll save more by buying now than I'll gain by waiting for the market to rebound; so from a net approach, I'll technically be 'gaining' at the end of the day, even though it's an unrecognized gain.

Makes sense, right? Well today our friend Ben Bernanke and his other buddies decided to drop rates 3/4 of a point, moving the Fed Funds Rate to .25%. That is crazy low. Which is good for people buying houses. Which means, if I can sell my condo, I can get a really nice rate on my mortgage, which I mentioned in passing to a co-worker, we'll call him Tim. To which he responded -

"Really? You want to buy a house? Are you sure? Do you realize
you'll have to go home from work, clean the house, do the laundry, and also mow
the yard or shovel the snow on your own?"
And so on and so on... I explained that although I don't do any yard work now, I'm already cleaning/doing laundry/etc, and actually look forward to having a yard so I can have a little garden, etc. My co-worker, Pat, that sits next me piped in & said, "Lisa's an independent woman, I don't think you have to worry about her handling all that."

Well, this didn't stop Tim from continuing to try to convince me that buying a house was a really horrible decision to make. He continued by saying,

"You do realize you'll be paying for water, sewage, heat, and garbage now,
right? And insurance and taxes and ..."

This is when I cut him off and curtly reminded him that I worked in the mortgage industry for 4 years and UNDERWROTE PEOPLE'S MORTGAGES. Seriously. I looked at people's income, assets, and expenses, and told them whether or not they could qualify for a loan. I know the ins and outs of the application process. I know about dti ratios. LTV. PMI. Hazard insurance premiums. I can explain why the bank collects a certain number of months for your escrow account. I know how it works. I might know more about how it works than the person that processes my loan.

I have a college education and will have an MBA in about 6 months. If I can't figure out whether or not I can afford a house, then I shouldn't be working in finance.

I am sure he is looking out for my well-being and just wants to make sure I don't make a mistakes, but I just wanted to shout I am not an idiot. Above all, the most frustrating thing is that chance are, if I was married, he wouldn't be grilling me. But because I am a single woman, I need some guy to tell me that I have to pay for water (what? it's not free?). Gee, thanks for the reminder, captain obvious. And that I need to pay taxes and insurance (which I am currently doing on my condo).

I don't know why I even let what he say get to me. I know I shouldn't care what people think or say, but seriously. I'm almost 28. I don't need unsolicited advice.

* phew * Ok, got that all off my chest. You know what I am thankful for, though? I am thankful for the fact that I talked about all of this with my mom last night after I got home from meeting w/ my awesome realtor. And she didn't verbally ambush me and ask me if I needed to get my head examined. She listened to me and agreed that it sounded like I was going about this the right way. And trust me, my parents are not the kind of parents that agree with everything I say or do. If they disagree, they tactfully do so and explain their reasoning.

But my mom didn't disagree. She listened and I got off the phone as excited as I was when I called her. If my condo sells, I am going to have a house in a neighborhood I'll love! I can finally have dinner parties. I can finally own a grill! I'll have a spare bedroom for visitors.

So all I can say is, thank God I have the kind of parents that raised me to be independent. And thank God they are so supportive and helpful and encouraging. Clearly there are enough buzz killers around. And next time, I guess I'll just have to tell them to 'buzz off'.

Body Surfing

Wow, it's been awhile since I've done a book review! I've read a few books since my last review post, but nothing that I wanted to blog about, I guess! I just finished Anita Shreve's "Body Surfing." I've read a lot of Shreve's books, all but one, (I think) which is in my "books to read" pile. My favorite Shreve book is "The Pilot's Wife" - not surprising since that is one of her most famous books. If you haven't read it, check it out. It's a "stay up all night because I have to know how this all turns out" kind of read. Which are the best kinds, even though they leave you feeling darn groggy the next day!!

In "Body Surfing," we meet Sydney, a 29 year old woman who has already been divorced AND widowed. She spends the summer tutoring the daughter of a well-to-do couple that summers at a quaint Oceanside cottage. Sydney then meets the two older sons of the couple, both of which have feelings for her.... and so the plot thickens....

It was a pretty good book. The writing style was a lot different than her other books. The beginning of the book was sort of choppy. Lots of short sentences. Short paragraphs. Jumping around from thought to thought. But maybe her reason for using that style was to get the reader into the book easily (worked for me). I didn't want to like the book because of that writing style though, but I did read it over the course of 2-3 days, so I can't say it ruined the booked for me. The author's voice on this book was different. The whole book was written in 3rd person, but I kept thinking it was written in 1st person. I have never stopped and thought about the voice of the author, so something was a little different about this book. I can't exactly put my finger on what Shreve did, though, and I didn't really like it.

All in all, it was a good, quick read. I think the title of the book is representative of Sydney's life - body surfing can be a lot of fun, but like many adventure activities, there are risks involves and catching the wrong wave, or catching a wave at the wrong time can have some pretty painful outcomes.

As a side note - I have actually gone body surfing. When I was studying abroad in Australia, some of my Aussie friends encouraged me to give it a try. I dang near killed myself doing it. Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but it wasn't an enjoyable experience... My Aussie friend who was showing me how to do it neglected to tell me to arch my back when trying to catch a wave... Seems like a pretty insignificant detail, but trust me, it wasn't. Not arching my back resulted in now 'riding' the wave - instead I was slammed into the ocean floor each time. It was an interesting experience to say the least!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent Week 3: Joy

Week 3, with its emphasis on Joy, is upon us. This week, we light the only pink candle on the advent wreath. The purple candles represent the penitential focus of Advent. This penitential focus is usually associated with the season of Lent, but we are also called to repent and re-focus our lives during the Advent season. Week 3 comes along, though, as a sort of 'light at the end of the tunnel' - reminding us that the birth of Jesus is near.

When meditating on what it means to be Joyful this week, the bible verse that first came to me is from the book of John:

"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." (John 15: 9-11)

I hope everyone is having a wonderful Advent Season!

Friday, December 12, 2008

'Tis the Season!

So, I haven't been doing as much reading as usual. Wondering what I've been doing? Well, knitting. A lot. I took a class at Bella Lana where I learned how to knit these little ornaments. And I've become addicted!!

They are a little time intensive... But worth the effort, I think. Here are some pictures of what I've been working on!

I was showing some of my co-workers a scarf I had knit for myself and was explaining how knitting is such a good hobby for me since it so soothing. Which, I went onto explain, is really important since I am sort of a high strung person. I got blank stares back. None of them knew I was high strung. What? How is this possible!! Granted I don't work super close with them, but still... I thought I just exuded an aura of stress... Guess not!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dear Santa...

This book-lover gave "Santa" a wish list with the following books:

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman - This sketchbook is a whimsical book that would make a great "coffee table book." Kalman describes it by saying, "...This is a year in my life profusely illustrated, abounding with anguish, confusion, bits of wisdom, musings, meanderings, buckets of joie de vivre and restful sojourns." Doesn't it sound interesting? I adore coffee table books, so hopefully this finds its way under my tree!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath - I have been meaning to read this classic American novel for quite some time but haven't gotten around to buying it for myself (I am trying to cut down on my book purchasing sprees!). In this novel, Plath chronicles the break-down of the main character, Esther. Apparently this book is a fairly autobiographical work about Plath's summer of 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and went though a breakdown of her own.

Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch - Jillian Westfield, the main character in this novel, has a storybook life: perfect house, investment banking husband, and cherubic eighteen-month-old child. Her life appears perfect from the outside, but no self-help book or how-to magazine article can seem to fix her marriage or help her deal with the tedium of diaper changing... or help her stop asking - "what if?" Then one morning, Jillian wakes up seven years in the past. Before her daughter. Before her marriage. Armed with her 20-20 hindsight, she's free to make all of her choices over again. Will her choices change her level of happiness, or was she the problem all along??? This book is intriguing to me - being the analytical person I am, I often find myself asking, "well... what if?" What if I hadn't turned that date down? What if I hadn't gone to UND. I don't regret any of the decisions I've made but it is interesting to think how many choices set our lives down a completely different path than your life would have took had you made a different choice....

Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-over Novel by Heather Mcelhatton - This book is the answer to the dilemma above - if only you could go back and do things over. Well, with this book, you can. There are a total of 150 possible endings! You could end up in a mansion or alone and pecked to death by ducks in London; a Zen master in Japan or morbidly obese in a trailer park. Don't like how your life turned out? Start over again. Kind of reminds of the the game "M*A*S*H" that we played as kids - anyone remember that? You had a box, at the top it said MASH which stood for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House (I think), then you picked 4 kinds of cars, the names of 4 boys, and 4 options for the number of kids you'd have. Then through a process of elimination, you might end up in a Mansion with no husband or a shack w/ 15 kids. It provided hours of entertainment for me and my friends/sisters when we were little!! Ahhh, those were simpler times!! Do kids still play that game, I wonder??

Love Letters of Great Men - On Sex & the City: The Movie, Carrie Bradshaw reads a few letters from this book... and it went on my 'to-read' list on right away. I am a sucker for a good love letter. I love email as much as the next person, but there is nothing like getting a love letter from your betrothed (I assume... I've never received one! Someday, someday). Here's an excerpt from one by Beethoven - obviously, he could compose other art forms besides beautiful music... thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now and then joyfully, then sadly, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear us ...

Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul unwrapped in you into the land of spirits ...

...Be calm - love me - today - yesterday - what tearful longings for you - you - you - my life - my all - farewell. Oh continue to love me - never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved.

Ever thine,

Ever mine,

Ever ours.

* sigh *

I'll stop there... My to-read list on (awesome website, btw) has 137 books on it, so I could obviously go on and on!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A few of my favorite books....

You might have noticed that I have barely posted about books lately... I haven't been doing as much reading lately! I've had more social plans in the last 2 weeks than I did during the entire month of October! Plus, the last 3 books I've read were from the "Twilight" series, and I feel like I can only post about the first one. I will read the 4th book, but something about the 3rd book left a bad taste in my mouth. I still read it really quickly, but I didn't like it as much as the first 2.

The Christmas season is upon us so I thought I'd talk about a few books I love! Tomorrow I'll do a post about some books I am hoping to receive from Santa this year!

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom - You'd probably have to live under a rock to not know about this book. If you haven't read it - go buy it today. Or I can lend it to you. I read this book about once a year - it has so many great messages. It's written by Sports Writer Mitch Albom - he re-unites with a college professor, Morrie, and meets with him every Tuesday to discuss themes such as love, family, and forgiveness. Albom has gone on to write 2 other books that deal with similar topics (The 5 People You Meet in Heaven and For One More Day), but this is the finest of the 3 in my opinion.

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach - My friend Katie recommended this book - it is one of my favorites and makes a great gift since most people haven't heard of it. It's a travel memoir, so it'd be a great gift for someone who enjoys traveling! I re-read it this summer before going to France and it definitely got me more excited for my trip! The author, Alice Steinbach, considers herself an independent woman: she makes her own choice, shovels her own snow, and pays her own bills. However, she finds that she has become dependent on others in a different way. She had "fallen into a habit of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me." Steinbach decided to take a sabbatical from work and travels through Europe to find out who she is when away from the people and things that define her.

Love Walked In by Maria de los Santos - This certainly doesn't fall under the 'high-brow' category, but is a fun, light-hearted read. The novel tells the story of two women - one older, one younger - and the unexpected ways in which their lives are forever changed by chance. References to classics films such as "The Philadelphia Story" are peppered throughout the book. I need to go back and re-read this so I can write down all the movies she mentions and watch all since I love old, classic films! The sequel to this novel, "Belong to Me," is also worth checking out!

Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson - This book is a true page-turner. I read it in a day and stayed up until the middle of the night, finishing it. It is also a tear-jerker, so consider yourself warned. In the beginning of the book, we meet Katie Wilkinson - she has found the perfect man at last, but one day he disappears, leaving behind a diary for her read. The diary is written by a woman named Suzanne and is addressed to her new baby boy, Nicholas. Who Suzanne & Nicholas are and how they are related to Katie's boyfriend are revealed throughout the book.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer - Jon Krakauer, an outdoor enthusiast and contributor editor at Outside magazine gives a first-hand account of his summit of Mount Everest in March of 1996. By the end of the summit, eight people are dead. If you have any interest in what it takes to summit Everest, I highly recommend this book - it's another page turner.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advent Week 2: Peace

It's hard to believe that we are already at the half-way point of the Advent Season. Christmas is sneaking up on me!

The focus of the 2nd week of Advent is Peace. I must say, I feel more 'at peace' with where I am in with my life than I have in the long time. I don't know what God has in store for me - I certainly have a 'wish list' which includes a husband and children, but for now I am completely happy with where I am at. I have an incredible family, a great group of friends, and a career that is heading in the right direction.

When I was younger, I remember asking my mom want she wanted for Christmas & often times, she'd say: Peace in this house. With 5 kids, you are bound to have the occasional squabble... And all mom wanted was an Advent Season & Christmas Holiday with no arguing & fighting. 20 years later, we are usually able to give her this... usually!

I think the best reflection of this week is St. Theresa's Prayer:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing,
Dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.

Weekend Review

I had a jam-packed, fun-filled weekend! Christmas is coming faster than ever, and I have yet to buy any gifts... better get my rear in gear, maybe next weekend!

I started off the weekend by babysitting for Matthew & Andrew on Friday night. As usual, they were so easy to watch. I don't know why, but kids seem to behave better for their aunt/grandma than they do for their parents! Andrew has already learned how to detect behavior patterns: as soon as I got there, his first question was, "where's my present?" He's gotten used to little treats from his auntie, I guess! Luckily, I had picked up a new National Geographic DVD to keep him entertained while I was putting Matthew down. He was pretty excited about it since it had one of his favorite animals, penguins, on the front cover. He was happy about this gift so willingly posed in front of the Christmas Tree for me!

Matthew was his happy, easy-going self. He has learned to crawl and can blow 'raspberries' now! I felt like he had changed since I saw him a week ago at Thanksgiving!

On Saturday evening, I headed over to McGovern's in St. Paul for my cousin Missy's graduation party; she just finished the Nurse Anesthetist Program so had alot to celebrate! It was so much fun seeing the McDougall side of the family! We sat around, telling stories & reminiscing about Grandpa & Grandma McDougall. The night flew by - I was so surprised when I looked down at my watch & saw that it was almost 1 am!! The fact that I stayed out until 1 am just goes to show how much fun I am having since I am NOT a night owl. Apparently my cousin's baby, Meredith, is a night owl! She slept a little bit but was still wide awake when we were leaving! Her new nickname should be "Party Baby."

My parents are coming to Minneapolis for Christmas, and my awesome aunt Barb (in the picture below) has graciously invited us over for Christmas Day! I can't remember the last time I got to see the McDougall around Christmas - what a treat!!

Brooke, my personal interior decorator, came over to help decorate my tree. She's been doing this for the last three years. I love having a tree in my place but really don't enjoy actually decorating... it's such a time-consuming process for me since I hem & haw over every ornament placement & think about things like balance & ornament symmetry... Brooke loves it, is good at it, and doesn't over think it! So she came over & worked her magic!

After the tree was decked out with ornaments and lights, three more girls came over for what has become my Annual Christmas Cookie Decorating Extravaganza. I provide the cookies, frosting, and beverages, and the girls bring food to share. This is only the 2nd year we've done it, but I am sure it's a tradition I'll continue for years to come. I am by far the LEAST creative of the bunch, so it's fun to watch what they all come up with. I didn't get any close up shots, but did get a picture of the finished products! We decorated lots of sugar cookies as well as some cupcakes which I made in honor of Brooke & Leslie's birthdays!

We got some snow on Friday night and more today, so it's really beginning to look alot like Christmas. And I am loving it.
Happy Holidays!