Author Archives: Erin E.

On being a foster (dog) parent

On this woman crush Wednesday (that’s still a thing, right?), I’m dedicating this post to my current foster dog, this lovely lady Lucy.

Lucy sleeping

Can #wcw apply to dogs?

Just when I thought I’d gotten over my jet lag from our two-week trip to Germany and Belgium, my foster dog decided she needed to wake me up at 4AM to go to the bathroom. After she chased a bunny in around the yard. After I let her out, wrangled her inside, and crawled back in bed, I started thinking of all the things I need to get done today and couldn’t fall back asleep. So, naturally, I crawled back out of bed and instead of doing any of those things keeping me awake, am writing this blog post.

My husband and I foster dogs through the Safe Harbor Lab Rescue organization, based out of Golden, Colorado. I started fostering dogs when I lived in DC (and my husband – then boyfriend – lived in Connecticut) and long hours during busy seasons kept me from having a dog of my own. After we moved to Colorado, I did some research and submitted a foster application to Safe Harbor, and I’m now on my 5th Colorado foster. To paraphrase Dickens, it’s the best of times, and it’s the worst of times.

Lucy is my current foster and she’s amazing. In addition to being adorable, she’s fully house-trained, knows lots of commands, and likes to snuggle but isn’t glued to your side 24/7. I suppose I should counter all this praise with reiteration of the fact that she might also wake you up at ungodly hours of the night/morning to take a bathroom break, but I’d much prefer that to discovering a puddle by the door later. Plus, I can’t make it through the night without a trip to the bathroom, so it’s hard for me to criticize.

And this face! How could I ever be mad at this?

Here she is with her stuffed duck

Here she is with her stuffed duck

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the dog fostering process, here’s a quick breakdown; it’s pretty similar across most organizations. When the organization (in my current case, Safe Harbor), takes in a dog (this could be from another shelter, the pound, or an owner surrender), the dog is vetted and screened to make sure they don’t have any serious behavioral issues (aggression towards people or other dogs, food guarding, etc.) that would need to be addressed by a trained professional. The dog is tested for any diseases or illnesses (heartworms, rabies, all the good stuff) and is proscribed medicine if necessary. Safe Harbor pays for all vet bills and medications. Another volunteer evaluates the dog to (try to) determine whether the dog is potty-trained, good with other dogs, knows any commands, and other information that a prospective foster parent or adoptive family would need to know. Then foster volunteers (like me) are matched with a foster dog.

Foster parents are responsible for paying for food, treats, and toys, and are charged with providing their foster dog a safe place to call home (temporarily), teaching them basic commands and manners, and – most importantly – giving them lots of love. Lucy is an owner surrender and hasn’t been majorly traumatized, but some of the other dogs I’ve fostered have come from deplorable circumstances.

Jack, my first Colorado foster, was left in the care of a mentally-handicapped family member after his owner died. The family member was utterly unqualified to care for a dog and simply didn’t feed him for weeks and kept him locked up inside. When a neighbor finally realized he hadn’t seen the dog in a while, Jack was rescued and brought to Safe Harbor 20 pounds under weight. Despite having been horribly misused by humans, Jack was loving, sweet, and pretty perfect. I managed to add 10 pounds to him in the week he was in my care, then his adopted family rechristened him “Waffles” and proceeded to feed him and love him back to his healthy weight.

The day Jack was adopted, I cried for 2 hours. Happy tears, sure. But also selfish, sad tears. I fall in love with these dogs and then they leave. I’m now on my 10th foster. It doesn’t get any easier. Every time one of my fosters is adopted, I tell the family how happy I am for them (and I wholeheartedly mean it), and then run inside and sob. The rewards outweigh the heartbreak, for sure, but man that heartbreak is real and it is painful.

My current baby, Lucy, is no different. She’s going to be hard to let go. We’ve had her for just over a week and my husband and I are pretty smitten.

This is my husband's work glove. She appropriated it from the garage and when he's at work, she carries it around. I'm pretty sure she buried the other one.

Here she is with my husband’s work glove. She appropriated it from the garage, and when he’s at work, she carries it around. I’m pretty sure she buried the other one.

I always try to go into fostering with the mindset that this is not my dog. This is someone else’s dog that I’m babysitting for a bit. I cannot have a dog right now because of XYZ. Sometimes these mantras work. Sometimes they completely fail.

Does anyone have any tips for hardening your heart against adorable labs?

At the end of the day, though, we foster because we know that we are making a difference. We’re taking in dogs who might have run out of time in a kill-shelter, who might have languished in a kennel, who might have never been rescued, and allowing families to see their true potential so they can find homes. Forever homes. With amazing families. And if heartbreak is what it takes to get them there, then heartbreak is worth it.

Lucy + hubby

A man, his (foster) dog, and his scotch. Pure love.

With that, I’m going to stand on my soapbox just briefly.

If you are planning to bring a dog into your life, please, please, please consider a rescue dog. Go through your local humane society or another rescue organization. There are dogs of all ages, backgrounds, and dispositions available, just waiting for you. If you’re interested in a certain breed, there are breed-specific rescue organizations for almost every breed under the sun – just do a quick Google search to find one in your area.

If you have any questions, about fostering, about labs, about adopting a dog, about what I’m going to eat for breakfast, about whether Lucy was able to fall back asleep after waking me up at 4AM (spoiler alert: she was), I’d love to answer them!

Let’s do the timewarp

Right now, I have no fewer than four posts, all about 95% complete, that have been sitting in my draft folder for the past week. They’re all perfectly mediocre, yet somehow I couldn’t bring myself to hit publish on any of them, and now it seems pointless to post about things I was experiencing or feeling almost a week ago.

But never fear, I’ll do it anyway. And just to keep things nice and confusing, let’s go in reverse chronological order, shall we?

9/04. Yesterday.

I spent most of the morning making my husband’s birthday cake, this German Chocolate beauty from Annie’s Eats (originally from David Lebovitz). It was my first experiment with high altitude baking, and although it required a fairly heavy amount of math first thing in the morning, this chart from King Arthur Flour made it pretty straightforward. I have a few pictures, but those will have to wait because I’m desperate to get this post (finally) published and I can’t bring myself to hunt for my iPhone right now.

9/03. Thursday.

Breakfast of champions – oatmeal with (slightly over) toasted pecans and coconut, and cherries, raspberries, and pomegranate.

I crave oatmeal about 3 times a year – when I’m sick. In true my body hates me fashion, that usually happens around the holidays or on vacation. We have big plans for this holiday weekend, including a request by the birthday boy to hit up a lumberjack show and a wings & whiskey festival. I was hoping this big bowl of oatmeal and a full pot of coffee would kick my immune system into gear, and it mostly worked (hallelujah!). Because lord knows I’m not missing the opportunity to wear my flannel button-down in an appropriate setting.

9/02. Wednesday.

Overall, Wednesday pretty much sucked. I spent my morning waiting in line at the post office in an attempt to track down a package that was supposed to be delivered by 9/1, but wasn’t, because USPS. (They, of course, DID deliver another package that we didn’t pay to have overnighted). The package contained a power cord and water hose, which we needed for our washer/dryer that were getting delivered that morning. So, after waiting in line at the post office for 45 minutes, I was told that the package had already been sent out on a truck (despite their promises to Amazon that it would be there waiting for me to pick up in person) and that they had no idea when it would be delivered. That led to a very frantic run to Home Depot, which is not a place where you can find what you need quickly and escape. Despite the stressful morning, everything worked out and our 29-inch-wide dryer even fit through our 29.5 inch doorway. The helpful delivery people set everything up, turned it on to make sure it worked, and were out within 20 minutes. After hauling our laundry to the local laundromat (full of colorful characters, as you’d imagine) for the past month, I am THRILLED to have in-home washing and drying capabilities! Plus, I’m pretty sure these babies have more technology than my family’s first computer back in the 90’s.

I never thought I'd be so happy about doing laundry

I never thought I’d be so happy about doing laundry.

8/31. Monday.

The suckiness of Tuesday was balanced out by the awesomeness of Monday (how often does that happen?), and I accept that. A few months ago, I found out about the Film on the Rocks series at Red Rocks Amphitheater. The overall movie lineup is pretty good, but when I saw they were screening Guardians of the Galaxy, I knew I had to buy tickets. Hubby is a huge comic book nerd and GotG is one of his faves (I even bought him this bobble head Groot for his birthday, shh don’t tell!), and I’ll admit that GotG is not a typical comic book movie (as in – it’s actually good). The doors opened at 6:30 and the movie started around 8:30. Red Rocks lets you bring in your own food and drink (but no alcohol), so we packed a picnic dinner and for $15 a ticket, we got to see two awesome bands, a decent stand-up comedian, and a hit movie, all in an incredible setting. Seriously, photos do not do this place justice.

Movie at Red Rocks

Rocket Raccoon

8/30. Sunday.

Sunday is usually our get shit done around the house day, but we took a break from cleaning and organizing to visit a local distillery. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest whiskey drinker, but the tour at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was a lot of fun and actually quite informative, so the nerd in me was happy, plus it was free, which is hard to beat. On our tour, we learned that Stranahan’s is made using scotch ingredients, rather than whiskey (malted barley, rather than corn), but aged like a bourbon, in a new charred oak barrel. We got a sizable taste at the end of the tour, and while it won’t be my go-to after-work drink, I understand why there

Mmmm whiskey

Mmmm whiskey

8/29. Saturday.

Being the responsible employee that I am (total sarcasm, you can read more on that below), I boycotted the mountain of work I have left (because there’s always Monday), and we went shopping for snowboards, boots, and bindings. After one season of skiing in Colorado, my husband is convinced that we’re proficient enough at that (he’s actually quite a good skier; I’m just happy I haven’t broken anything yet), and we’re ready for our next adventure. Which will basically be us eating shit for 3 days of snowboard lessons and then hopefully being able to make it down the mountain without dying.

Because we’re both snowboard n00bs, we opted for more simple, less in-your-face snowboards. But in the extremely unlikely event that I become a bad-ass snowboarder, here are some boards I have my eye on:

Capita Defenders of Awesome

DC Hell City

Oz Wonder Shred (“Best thing since sliced bread! Greatly paired with classic deli meats, epic jibs, huge airs and our special sauce!”)

8/28. Friday.

I’ve been in Chicago all week for work, and despite hauling my personal laptop along with me, I was so busy that it did nothing but sit on the hotel desk all week, untouched. After working 12 hour days crunching numbers, the last thing I wanted to do when I left the office was go back to my hotel and boot up another electronic device. Which means that I was “that person” in security with two laptops (work and personal), for pretty much no reason.

I did make time to venture out into the city with my boss and his wife (who was also in town) to Kingston Mines, a famous blues club, and we were out until 2 in the morning. On a work night, which is at least 3 hours later than I’m ever up on a weeknight. Doesn’t that make me sound old, complaining about being up too late? To make matters worse, I also had to sneak to the bathroom multiple times in order to dump out half my drink because I couldn’t keep up with them, and “no thank you” isn’t an option when the boss’s wife insists we order another round (and another, and another). Pouring out free alcohol?! WHO AM I? But it turned out to be a good life decision, as I was exhausted, but not hungover, the following morning. My boss appears to be just as chipper as ever this morning, and he’s 30 years older than I am, so I need to learn his secret.

I also had the weirdest cab experience of my life, in which my cabbie blasted the Christian rock radio station for the duration of our trip, sang along with his favorites (at times, with both hands in the air – Jesus, take the wheel), asked if I wanted to read his Bible (kept on the armrest in a bedazzled leather case) aloud, and told me he would pray for my soul.

But hey, my flight landed safely and 30 minutes early, so I guess I shouldn’t complain about the extra prayers.

Favorite Healthy Recipes

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been on a Weight Watchers kick recently, in an effort to lose the 5 pounds I’ve gained since marrying the love of my life (who also happens to have the metabolism of a body builder and can eat whatever he wants without gaining an ounce) along with an additional 5 just because. I had a rocky July, with 2 weddings, a vacation, a few beer festivals, sporting events, and moving into our new house, but somehow (seriously, how?) I still lost weight and am now only 1.5 pounds away from my goal.

I’ve always loved to cook, but have never been a big recipe follower. My style of cooking is much more haphazard than that, and I prefer to simply throw stuff in a pan and see what happens. With Weight Watchers, though, I’ve been forced to measure and weigh everything in order to track what I’m actually consuming. These recipes are not only healthy, they’re easy to follow and made out of (mostly) pantry staples and items I usually have around, which makes meal prep so much easier.

Happy eating!

Coconut Lime Cauliflower Rice (with Sweet Chili Coconut Lime Grilled Chicken) from Iowa Girl Eats.

Coconut Lime Cauliflower Rice from Iowa Girl Eats (she serves it with Sweet Chili Coconut Lime Grilled Chicken, which I have made for hubby and is also delicious). I omit the coconut oil and mist the pan with olive oil instead (I have this mister and love it) in order to cut down on the calories/points. No, it’s not actually rice, and if you don’t like cauliflower, this probably isn’t the recipe for you. I love cauliflower, though, and cauli-rice is a diet-saver, giving me a “base” for sauce and toppings without using tons of points. With 3 Tbsp of light coconut milk, 1 serving is worth 1 point (the recipe makes 4 servings total).

Egg Drop Soup from Paleo Takeout by Russ Crandall (recipe via Veggie Staples). Adam and I don’t follow the Paleo diet, but I’ve been reading Russ’s blog for a while now, and I was lucky enough to be selected to taste-test and provide feedback on a few recipes earlier this year when he was developing the cookbook. Every recipe of his that I’ve tried has been delicious, and his egg-drop soup was no exception. One serving of egg drop soup is 2 points; I bulk it up with 3 oz of tofu (2 points) to make a full meal.

Mango with Turmeric Smoothie from the Food Network.

Mango with Turmeric Smoothie from the Food Network. I have a small container of turmeric in my spice pantry from an Indian recipe I cooked last month, and I’ve been trying to figure out additional ways to use it up, since I hate having spices waste away, unused and unloved. I’m not sure I quite buy into all the hype over turmeric’s miraculous healing powers, but adding a pinch to my morning smoothie gives it a delightfully sunny color and doesn’t impart any sort of savory taste. I tweak the FN recipe based on what I have on hand at the time – usually omitting the OJ and using almond milk rather than coconut water.

Vegan Pesto (also known as food crack) from Minimalist Baker.

Vegan Pesto (as part of the recipe for Vegan Pesto Parmesan Breadsticks) from Minimalist Baker. Holy bejezus this stuff is good. Good, as in – I hesitate to include it on this healthy recipes roundup because I tend to eat it by the spoonful and before you know it, I’ve consumed an entire meal’s worth of points in pesto. I’m going to admit, I love regular pesto so much that I didn’t have high hopes for the vegan variety, but now that I’ve made this recipe, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Vegan pesto is cheaper, better for you, and every bit as good (if not better) than the original. To reduce the calorie/point count, I halve the olive oil and walnuts (because I’m too cheap for pine nuts). With those adjustments, 1 Tbsp comes out to about 1 point and goes a long way.

Black Bean Patties from Annie’s Eats. Whenever I turn to Annie’s blog for inspiration, I am never disappointed. I only made 1/2 the recipe, because I only had 1 red pepper and 1.5 cups of beans, and they were delicious! 1/2 the recipe made 8 patties and 1 patty equals 1 point. 2 patties was the perfect serving size for a healthy, but filling lunch. I found they cooked better from frozen, which is perfect because I can never have too many quick and easy things to pull out of the freezer when I don’t feel like cooking.

Photograph by Love and Lemons.

Healthy Loaded Sweet Potatoes from Love and Lemons. Traditional baked potatoes are one of my comfort foods and were on my short list of go-to cheap, filling meals in college. These days, I swap out the white potato for a sweet potato, and omit the butter, cheese, and sour cream in favor of filling proteins and deliciously spiced veggies. I love baked potatoes because they are a “clean out the fridge” meal that can be stuffed with almost anything, and this combination of black beans, spices, and lime juice is hard to beat.

How to plan a trip to Europe – Part II

I interrupted this series to share our big news (we bought a house!), but now I’m back with Part II of How to Plan a Trip to Europe.

The first part of this series was all about getting together a vague outline, and we determined, generally, the who, where, when of the trip. This part is all about drilling down to specifics to end up with a moderately detailed daily itinerary.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Although first, I suppose I should convince you of why you need to go through all this effort in the first place? Couldn’t you just buy plane tickets, make some hotel reservations, show up, and figure it out once you get there? Well, sure. It’s your vacation, so you do you.

But consider this. In Florence, there are five sites that are widely considered “must-see” (the Duomo, its bell tower, and Baptistery; the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David; the Uffizi Gallery, which displays countless Italian masterpieces, including works by Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and the like; the Palazzo Vecchio; and the Ponte Vecchio bridge). Then you have the other blockbusters (the churches of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco, the Bargello museum, and Piazzale Michelangelo and nearby San Miniato church), and even more amazing museums, churches, markets, bridges, and shopping districts. Then consider that lines for the blockbuster sites can be hours long, even during the off-season, and that certain sites are open early, some stay open late, and they all close on various days of the week. How in the world would you keep that all straight? And wouldn’t it be a shame to spend all that money on a trip to Florence and not be able to enjoy as many of its amazing sites as reasonably possible?

Lines at major European sites can be hours long. Don’t waste precious time during your vacation standing in line behind a bunch of sweaty, smelly tourists. You’re better than that! (Image source here.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your- trust me. A little planning before your trip will make your vacation so. much. better.

Trip Planning – Part II

(Remember, steps 1 – 5 were covered in the Trip Planning – Part I post.)

6. Finalize travel dates, make a list of cities, and buy flights. Now that you’ve decided on a general destination, confirm travel dates with everyone in the group (plus or minus a few days to allow for savings on airfare). Make a list of cities that sound interesting, then do some more research, considering where you could fly into or out of. Go through and prioritize the cities you’ve written down – which deserve more time, which can be done as day trips, which can be cut? Keep in mind airfare costs, distance between cities, balancing busy cities with relaxed towns, and practicality of transportation. Booking airfare is my least favorite part, but it’s worthwhile to investigate several different options on multiple carriers and websites. Remember that it’s usually better to fly “open-jaw”, into and out of different cities; not only do you get to see more without having to return to a city you’ve already visited, it’s usually cheaper. I prefer to visit fewer cities for longer periods of time to cut down on moving between hotels; for a two week trip, I would do no more than 7 overnight cities, and even less than that if we were a larger group.  For our two week trip to Germany and Belgium this fall, here’s our plan:

Munich – 3 nights

Staufen – 2 nights

Baden-Baden – 1 night

Bacharach – 2 nights

Bruges – 3 nights

Brussels – 3 nights

Italian Monastery, Assisi.

Italian Monastery.

7. Lock down hotel reservations (maybe). If you’re traveling during a large festival or during peak season, make sure to book rooms as early as possible. For travel during the off-season, you can leave this step until later or even book as you go, depending on how comfortable you are with spontaneity. When it was just Adam and I traveling through Italy in the winter, we emailed hotels a few days in advance or our arrival and never had an issue. We were also able to save quite a bit of money. However, for our trip to Germany in September, I’ve already booked all hotel rooms for the entire trip, since we’ll be traveling during shoulder season and will need two rooms (one for us, one for my parents) in each hotel.

8. Sketch a daily itinerary, but remember to be flexible. A daily itinerary is much more important for big cities with major sites (London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin) than it is for small towns. For each city on your list, determine which attractions you’d like to see, then go through and prioritize (sense a theme?). You likely won’t be able to see everything, so don’t even try. Tell yourself you will return. I’ve been to London, Paris, and Rome multiple times and haven’t even come close to crossing everything off on my list. Take advantage of sites that are open early or late, and buy advance tickets if possible, but don’t try to cram in too much! My general guideline is that we spend half the day doing planned sightseeing in museums, churches, etc. and the other half soaking up the local culture in parks, cafes, or wandering in back alleys. In Florence, for example, I wouldn’t plan to visit the Accademia, Uffizi, Bargello, and Duomo all in the same day. That leaves no time for enjoying la dolce vita! Rather, we’d visit the Accademia in the morning, have a relaxing picnic lunch, escape the afternoon heat by wandering through the Bargello museum, and finish the day by watching the sun set over the city at Piazzale Michelangelo. For major sites, definitely buy advance tickets unless you plan to buy a city pass that allows you to skip the lines. And don’t be afraid to switch things up once you arrive! Maybe the weather today isn’t ideal for wandering through the gardens of Versailles, or you just don’t feel like stepping foot in another museum. European vacations are about so much more than the sights – it’s about the experience, the food, the joy of the unknown and unfamiliar. I believe that the best travel recommendations come from people you know, so be open to changing your itinerary if a coworker, friend, or favorite blogger who has recently visited your destination tells you about a spot they particularly loved.

View over the Seine, Paris.

View over the Seine, Paris.

9. Read up on your destination and get excited! Your trip is mostly planned, so now you can move on to the fun part. I love reading books and watching movies about the cities or countries we’re visiting, whether they’re historical fiction or current documentaries. In my opinion, the more you know about a destination, the more interesting it is when you visit. Read the news and stay informed about national events. Most European citizens (especially in larger cities) speak at least some English and would love to discuss current events with you. There’s also a somewhat negative perception among Europeans that all Americans care about is their own country, so let’s all work to change that image. Most importantly, get excited for your vacation! Not only will you not be working (the best part about vacations, in my opinion), you’ll be broadening your world and expanding your horizons, and all that research will certainly pay off!

What do you think? Is my trip planning overkill? How do you go about picking a vacation spot? Have your favorite trips been planned or more spontaneous? Where should we travel next?

We’re officially broke – aka we bought a house

Well folks, we finally did it. After months of sorting through MLS listings and bemoaning the state of the Denver housing market, we found a house and put in an offer, which was accepted. Then we had a minor panic attack when the home inspection revealed a horizontal crack in the basement. Which led to us shelling out $500 to a structural engineer to examine the foundation for about an hour and tell us that it likely won’t be collapsing in the next 5 years. From there, we submitted every financial piece of paper and scrap of information to the loan officer, signed away our lives and those of our unborn children, and acknowledged no less than five times that our loan could be packaged up and sold (because 2008 never happened or anything). Then we were given the keys to our first home.

The front of our house.

The front of our house.

Although built in the 60’s, our home was purchased by a flipper, who majorly updated the kitchen (which is what sold me on this house), bathrooms, and basement. All the windows and the roof are brand new, and extensive work was done to make the basement water-tight and the back yard was properly graded to help keep it that way. Nevertheless, we are quickly learning that an updated home is by no means a cheap home. Upgrading from a 1 bed/1 bath 700 sq. ft.  apartment to a 5 bed/3 bath 2400 sq. ft. home is expensiiiiive. We’ve racked up $1000 in Home Depot in the first week alone.

Did you know that a watering hose is $50? Or that a gallon of paint is $45? Or that a ladder to get onto the roof and trim overhanging tree branches is $150? Or, or, or…I could go on and on and on.

My happy place! We also convinced the seller to swap out the electric stove for a gas model, and I am beyond thrilled to finally cool on a gas range!

My happy place! We also convinced the seller to swap out the electric stove for a gas model, and I am beyond thrilled to finally cool on a gas range!

In addition to the Home Depot supplies, we are paying a lot of people a lot of money to do incredibly un-sexy maintenance projects on our house. The sewer scope we had done as part of our home inspection (side note: have you ever seen one of those being done? They put a camera down your sewer pipes and then send you a video of it. Seriously. I’ll be happy to share if you’re curious. “Now these are deposits of fats and oils…” Blech. Anyway….) revealed some tree roots growing into our lines as well as some buildup of the aforementioned “fats and oils”, so we spent $250 for a man with a big machine to go into our sewer lines and scrape the walls of the pipes, ensuring that we should be clog-free for another year. As I type this, I’m sitting at our thrift-store dining table (more on that below), waiting for another guy to come clean out our air-ducts, because we’re pretty sure that’s never been done and with all the recent remodeling/construction work, we’d feel better knowing we’re not breathing in 8 pounds of dust every time we run the AC. His price? $100 + $20 for every vent. We counted last night and we have 15 vents total, so uhhhh….you do the math because my head is about to explode.

Our front room - living/dining area. The kitchen is on the other side of that wall/counter thing. In this photo alone, there are four visible AC vents. Let's count together! Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-chinnnngggg...

Our front room – living/dining area. The kitchen is on the other side of that wall/counter thing. In this photo alone, there are four visible AC vents. Let’s count together! Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-chinnnngggg…

On top of the services and general maintenance, there’s painting to be done. The paint in these photos looks far more gray-toned than it actually is. In reality, everything (including the ceilings) is a beige-khaki color. Nothing against a nice neutral palette, but when we first walked in, it felt like being trapped in a beige box. Not my idea of relaxing and, let’s face it, seeing beige everywhere you turn is flat out boring. Over the course of three days (and $200 in paint and supplies), I painted the walls and ceiling of our living room a gorgeous blue gray color and painted our master bedroom a darker blue gray from the same paint strip. At the time, painting the ceilings was the worst (I have never before has so much empathy for Michelangelo and all that time he spent on the Sistine Chapel), but now that it’s finished, I am in absolute love. Once we get the boxes unpacked and actually furnish the space, I’ll take some photos to show off my mad painting skillz.

The basement (another big selling point of this house) has so many garden-level windows that it doesn't feel like a basement at all. There's one bathroom (farthest door on the left) and two bedrooms (on the right - one door not pictured), in addition to a lot of open space and what will eventually be our laundry room.

The basement (another big selling point of this house) has so many garden-level windows that it doesn’t feel like a basement at all. There’s one bathroom (farthest door on the left) and two bedrooms (on the right – one door not pictured), in addition to a lot of open space and what will eventually be our laundry room.

[A note about these photos – they were part of the MLS listing and I did not take them, but I figure that since I purchased the house, I have also purchased the right to use them on my blog. Internet, please don’t sue me.]

There is so much we want to do to this house to make it our own, but it’ll come in stages as we save up enough money. Our first “big” project is having a contractor finish a utility closet in the basement to make into a laundry room. Right now, the washer/dryer hookups are in the basement, directly outside the second guest bedroom (not pictured in the photo above), and there’s not enough space to install a full size washer/dryer with the way the bedroom door is set up (the door opens out toward the washer/dryer hookups and the hallway isn’t wide enough to accommodate both a dryer and the open door). We have a contractor set up to complete that project later this month, which will align with the (hopefully major) Labor Day sales on appliances. (If you love your washer/dryer, I’d love any recommendations!)

Also high on the priority list are painting (2400 is way more square footage when it comes to painting), furnishing the main living areas, and installing an electrical outlet so we can have the TV against that middle wall in the basement. The back yard also needs some major TLC and we’d love to have chickens and bees back there (our neighborhood is zoned for chickens, goats, bees, and ducks), in addition to a banging vegetable garden.

DIY diva I am most certainly not, but with our budget (minimal), I guess I’m gonna figure it out. I found a small table (with a hideous laminate top – the one at which I’m currently blogging and drinking my morning coffee) and 4 wooden chairs at the thrift store yesterday ($16 for the table plus $13 for each chair) so my first DIY attempt will be to stain the chairs, then spray paint the table and give it a concrete top, similar to this gorgeous dresser. Depending on how disastrous the results are, photos to come!

Or maybe I’ll give up and wait 20 years until we can afford to buy new things that don’t require any artistic talent on my part. Only time will tell.

How to plan a trip to Europe – Part I

As I’ve probably mentioned before, travel is where Adam and I spent the bulk of our disposable income, and we save all year in order to afford it. Generally, once a year, we take two weeks off and head to Europe. In 2013, we spent a month in Italy while we were both between jobs. In 2014, we visited Iceland, London, Paris, and Normandy. For 2015, rather than receiving a Christmas gift from my parents, we’re heading with them to Germany and Belgium this September.

I’ve spoken to so many people who treat trip planning as the worst part about vacation, but for me, it’s one of the most exciting. It helps that I am almost too Type-A to function (name that movie), and that I read travel guides like some people read mystery novels. When a friend’s trip to Japan had to be postponed due to family issues, she and her husband decided to switch their plans and travel through Europe for 2 weeks instead. I practically begged her to let me plan their trip. Dazed and confused, she agreed, wondering why anyone would want to do all that work for a trip they weren’t taking. But for me, trip planning isn’t work, it’s fun. (I know, it’s a problem, send help.) It seems overwhelming at first, but it helps to break it down into multiple steps.

My strategy is to start with the big picture, and work down into the details, similar to starting with an outline for an essay and filling in the specifics later. I also start trip planning months in advance. This gives you lots of time to delve into it slowly and to adjust as the situation changes. I have been planning our Germany/Belgium trip for the fall of 2015 since Christmas of 2014. That’s not to say that a trip can’t be planned in less time – my point here is that it’s never too early to start. With that said, let’s get going!

Trip Planning – Part I

The initial phase of trip planning should be very, very vague, and is actually the most difficult. Ideally, this phase happens at least 4 months before your trip, though up to a year is not uncommon for me (see above). Just keep in mind that plans change, and remember to be flexible. This is your vacation – not an obligation – and it should be fun!

1. First things first – who, when, how long, how much? Determine your trip length, timing, rough budget, and number of travelers, before you even start considering destinations. Two travelers have significantly more flexibility than a group of eight. Only have a week? Maybe you want to go somewhere with a shorter flight time – like London or Dublin. Tight budget? Travel during the off-season and avoid more expensive countries (England, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries). Keep in mind that Adam and I spent the same amount of money ($6,000) to travel to Italy for a month (that’s our total cost, including airfare, hotels, meals, etc., for both of us) in the winter as we did to travel to Iceland, London, and Paris for two weeks during the fall. I do my best to avoid Europe during the summer, as it’s generally more hot, more crowded, and more expensive, but if summer is the only time you can fit in a trip to Europe, it’s still doable. Just consider that planning will be more important that it would be for traveling during the off-season, as hotels, flights, etc. are going to book up more quickly.

Sunset in Assisi, Italy. January 2013.

Sunset in Assisi, Italy. January 2013.

2. Generally, where do you want to go? Consider the items discussed in 1, above, and keep in mind that this should be an extremely vague region or country – not a list of cities. (Patience, young grasshopper – we’ll get to that part!) I find it helpful to pull up a map of Europe so I have a better understanding of the layout. Due to geographical configuration, some countries may work better as their own destination (Italy), while others could be combined (Belgium/The Netherlands). For our upcoming trip, my husband knew he wanted to travel to Germany, so we used that as our starting point and worked from there. If you’re open to a variety of countries, check out Google Flights and do an open-ended search to Europe to compare flight prices to all sorts of destinations. Or visit your favorite airline’s website to see if they’re offering any deals. Lufthansa regularly has good deals during the off-season, and is by far my favorite international carrier.

London, England. October 2014

London, England. October 2014

3. What kind of traveler are you? Spend some time reflecting on the travel style and likes/dislikes of the individuals going on the trip. Are you traveling with kids, older adults, or a large group? Consider establishing a “home base” for most or all of the time and taking day trips from there. Is this your first time to Europe or abroad, or are you a group of fairly experienced travelers? For newbies, maybe it’s best to start somewhere familiar (London) and gradually work east as everyone becomes more comfortable.

For the upcoming trip, our group’s “travel profile” looks something like this: 4 able-bodied adults, experienced travelers, selective cultural highlights (not too many museums or churches), prefer a mix of big cities and small towns, need plenty of time to drink beer. 

My husband, the carnivore. Bolzano, Italy. January 2013

My husband, the carnivore. Bolzano, Italy. January 2013

4. Investigate logistics. Once you have a general idea of where you want to go, do some research to make sure it’s feasible for your group. Can you find flights within your budget? Are there any conferences or festivals that are going to make certain cities more crowded/expensive on certain dates (i.e. Oktoberfest)? (I find the Rick Steves website helpful for this purpose – from the homepage, click on Explore Europe, then your country of choice, then Plan. For each country, you can see a listing of upcoming holidays and festivals.) Remember that airline prices can change drastically from one day to the next, so I like to check several times over the course of a month to and from various destinations to get a general idea of flight costs. Once I’m mostly sure that flight prices are going to be reasonable, I move on to the next step.

5. Do some research! For me, this translates to – buy a guidebook! This is, far and away my favorite part (if you couldn’t already tell from the double exclamation marks). Of course, you could use all the wonderful free resources that are available, from the internet, your local library, and friends, coworkers, and acquaintences. But for me, buying a new guidebook is like getting an early Christmas present. Once I’m reasonably certain about our travel destination, I like to skim through the guidebook to make sure I’m not missing anything. Maybe I thought I wanted to visit Frankfurt but once I read more about it, I decide that it’s skippable. Either way, I’ll need my own guidebook eventually. I’m almost embarrassed to share this with the internet, but this is what my books look like when I’m done with them.

Guidebooks

Yes, those are color-coded sticky tabs and yes I did make my husband appropriate them from work. Just be glad you can’t see the inside pages which are full of highlights, underlines, and hand-written notes.

Now that you have a rough outline of the trip, the next stage is to fill in the details! Stay tuned for Part II of the series on how I work through the rest of the trip to come up with a detailed daily itinerary.

Books I’ve read this year – Q2

This post is a follow up to my earlier Books I’ve Read This Year – Q1 (which was inspired by Maggie’s post documenting all the books she read during 2014). Sadly, I haven’t had much time to ready any new books over the past month; most of this list is the result of a week-long beach vacation in March, during which I read a book a day. These days, I’m spending all my time working or house-hunting, which is even more stressful than work and takes up almost as much of my time. (Thank goodness pot is legal in Denver, otherwise I’m not sure I’d sleep at night – just kidding! Mostly. But that’s another story for another day.)

Aimee Leduc Investigation books 3 – 7 (Murder…in the Sentier, in the Bastille, in Clichy, in Montmartre, on the Ile Saint-Louis) by Cara Black. Rating: just the right amount of predictable. The first two books of this series were included in my earlier post. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about the series (the lead character, Aimee, swears she’ll stay away from police investigations and focus on the cyber security business she has with her partner Renee, but inevitably gets pulled into murder investigations anyway), the plot lines are absorbing, the characters are likable, and the descriptions of Paris make me want to travel back. They’re great beach/pool reads; perfect for when you want to be entertained, not necessarily educated or surprised.

The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott. Rating: highly recommended, if you have the time. At a whopping 912 pages (which I didn’t realize when I downloaded to my Kindle), this book took me awhile to get through. In the fictional world of Tira Virte, contracts are painted, not written, placing the artistic Grijalva family in a uniquely essential position in society. When a talented young painter discovers lost magic, he becomes powerful beyond his wildest dreams. The story spans centuries and weaves in various story-lines skillfully, introducing new characters and tackling issues like arranged marriage, discrimination, coming of age, familial loyalty, religion, and class oppression. My favorite part of the book was the character development – people were neither wholly good nor wholly bad, they were simply people making choices.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Rating: not what I expected at all; pass. This book showed up on my “Amazon Recommendations” list, and based on Amazon’s description, I gave it a shot. “Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.” I guess I should have read a bit further, because it turns out this was romance novel, not a sci-fi book. Maybe the Jane Austen reference should have clued me in? Or the sappy title? There were a lot of clues here, not sure why I thought this was a good purchase.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Rating: pure childhood bliss. This was one of my absolute favorite movies growing up, and I can’t believe I hadn’t read the book until now. It’s the famous story of spoiled, unloved children learning to love a garden and each other. The characters are realistic, quirky, kind, and a little bit magical. I love this book. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy. I will stop gushing now. But seriously, go read it now.

So, I joined Weight Watchers….

My husband has a legendary sweet tooth. Though I don’t keep desserts in the house, he gets his daily fix at work. Donuts, cupcakes, or candy bars from the vending machine if he’s really desperate. He and a few of his male coworkers regularly take afternoon field trips to the local bakery and stock up on all kinds of confections, none of which are the low fat, good for you variety. At home, his favorite snack is half a jar of Nutella on a slice of white bread. Or a tortilla slathered with honey and dusted with cinnamon. A gigantic spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar if he’s in a rush.

Now let me describe his basic physique. 5’11, 190 pounds – all muscle, with the exception of a little pooch around his midsection because I’m married to an actual human being, not a Michelangelo statue.

I say all this to ask – can you really blame me for having gained 7 pounds since we’ve been married?

Maybe you can understand my struggle, but my skinny jeans sure don’t. They, along with a significant portion of my clothes, were being quite unforgiving.

Enter – the battle to lose weight.

I have a few girlfriends who have had success with the latest Beachbody (same people behind P90x, Insanity, etc.) craze, the 21 Day Fix. I was lucky enough to borrow her one of my friend’s set of containers for a week, and I’m glad I tried before I spent the money. The idea is that you don’t have to measure anything – except, you do, because that’s essentially what the very expensive colored containers are – and that you get to eat some of everything in moderation. You eat 1 orange, 2 blue, and 3 purple (I’m totally making these up because I can’t remember what the colors mean) containers every day, with each different color representing fruits, vegetables, protein, carbs, and fats. Sounds easy enough, but I found it exceptionally difficult to know whether I was eating too much or not enough of certain food groups, especially when cooking for myself and my husband. Plus, as a (mostly) vegetarian, a significant source of my protein (beans and lentils) was classified as a carb, which left me with only eggs, tofu, ricotta, or Greek yogurt as options. Additionally, the resources are incredibly limited. You’re given a short list of which foods count for which color, a few recipes, and that’s it – no advice on how to handle eating out or traveling. My girlfriend lost 20 pounds in 2 “cycles” of the program and loved it, but it was not the weight-loss option for me.

Then I decided to try Weight Watchers. My husband was a little dismayed that I, a fairly knowledgeable and health-aware foodie, would need to pay money in order to drop weight. But in my mind, although there are free programs that imitate Weight Watchers services, paying for it makes me commit. If I’m shelling out $20 a month to track my food, then dammit – I’m going to track my food!

Keeping some sort of food diary tops the list of pretty much every “how to lose weight” article I’ve ever read, and for good reason. Once you start realizing you’re using a tablespoon of olive oil every time you cook, or that those four “tiny” slices of cheese you snack on add up to a full ounce, or that you’re eating pasta for 2 meals a day, suddenly you see how the calories add up. The first step towards change is awareness, as the quote goes.

With Weight Watchers, food is assigned a certain number of “points”. For example, a 3 oz portion of salmon is 3 points, 2 oz of dry pasta is 5 points, a serving of egg drop soup is 2 points, etc. Fruits and vegetables (with the exception of potatoes and corn) are “freebies” and have a points value of 0 (this is my favorite part about WW). Then you’re given a certain number of points to consume daily, plus a weekly “reserve” amount, based on your height, body weight, daily activity level, and how much weight you want to lose. You can earn extra points through exercise and redeem them for more food or alcohol. As a 5’4 woman weighing 145 pounds who wanted to lose 10, I’m given 26 points a day, plus 49 extra discretionary points a week. In general, it’s plenty as long as I stay away from gorging on cheese, alcohol, and everything delicious pasta.

It’s been 5 weeks and I’m thrilled to report that I’m down 5.2 pounds! The best part, is that although I’m eating healthier overall, I don’t feel deprived (until I start looking at mac and cheese recipes) and I’m allowed to prioritize my calories however I want. So on nights when I’m feeling exceptionally lazy and want to have popcorn for dinner, I do. When I’m really craving a bowl of pasta, I fix it. I’ve gone every week without using up all of my reserve points (although I came close a few weeks ago when we went to a local beer festival), and sometimes (but not often) I even have leftover points at the end of the day.

The biggest dietary changes I’ve made have been replacing pasta and other starchy bases with vegetables, cutting way back on cheese, and breaking myself of the glass of wine (or two or three orrrrrr….) a night habit. Cauliflower “rice” is my new jam and I live for spiralized zoodles. Rather than throwing cheese on everything, I have it only when it will make a big impact. And wine. Oh, how I love wine, but sadly, it goes straight to my thighs. So now I use it as motivation to exercise. If I earn the extra points exercising, I pour myself 5 ounces (measured on my food scale). It makes killing myself at Crossfit slightly more bearable!

I’m half-way to my goal weight of 135 pounds, although I may decide to keep going until I hit 130, which would be just 5 pounds off my high school weight. We’ll see how much longer I can put up with rationed wine consumption!

The Incline at Manitou Springs

A month ago, my husband and I tackled the Incline, which is something of a Colorado hiker’s rite of passage. To say it is a hike, however, is rather misleading.

Not exactly your average hike in the woods.

Not your average hike in the woods.

The Incline is a mile-long staircase that takes you up 2,000 vertical feet, from a base elevation of 6,035 at the start to 8,035 at the top. Think stair-stepper, not treadmill.

Some locals climb the Incline every day, and there are insane people who can run it in under 30 minutes. For some perspective, it took us 1.5 hours. Towards the end of the “hike”, as oxygen became increasingly scarce, we were taking a break every 20 steps, and that was a struggle.

History

From The Manitou Incline Website: “Completed in 1907 the Manitou Incline was a 1 mile cable tram built to support the construction of a hydroelectric plant and it’s waterline.” Once the plant was completed and the cable car’s function complete, an enterprising man named Dr. Brumbach (fun name, right?) purchased the line and marketed it as a tourist attraction.

Click for source.

Dear old Dr. Brumbach took the cars that were used for dragging construction equipment up the mountain, added benches, and voila! Instant money maker. Eventually the cars were upgraded, a station house was built at the top, and the Incline remained a popular tourist attraction for many years. At one point, a competing Incline opened on another mountain, but the views and hiking trails weren’t nearly as good, so that business went under.

In 1990, a severe rockside damaged the tracks and put the cable cars out of service, so locals began using the newly abandoned trail for a tough workout. Until 2013, it was privately owned, and hiking up the line was technically illegal, not to mention more than a little treacherous, as those pesky mudslides frequently washed away steps and walkways. Finally, in 2014, the trail was closed for extensive repairs and then reopened to the public. The Incline is now once again marketed as a tourist attraction and is just as popular now as it was in its heyday.

Logistics

To “hike” the trail on a Friday, we left Denver around 7:30AM and arrived at the Incline just after 9. It was already busy, but not too crowded. We came prepared with water bottles, Cliff bars, and sunscreen. There’s a paid lot at the base, but we were lucky enough to find a metered spot, which was considerably cheaper than the $10 being charged in the lot. There is a free shuttle service if you want to park farther away for less money, but we didn’t want to deal with the hassle.

From the parking lot, you can follow signs and people towards the start of the climb. There are port-a-potties at the base, which I suggest you take advantage of, because once you start your ascent, there aren’t any facilities.

Though the Incline was recently repaired and improved, the stairs are quite steep and missing or broken in places, so wear good shoes, pay attention, and take your time. “Thin air” is a real thing at 6,000 feet above sea level, so if you aren’t acclimated to the altitude, go slow, and drink lots of water. There’s a “bail-out” point about half way up, where you can cut over to the winding, gently-sloped trail that will take you back to the base.

Barr Trail

Once you reach the top (don’t be fooled by the false summit), there’s a 4-mile path that will take you first to the bail-out point mentioned above, and then all the way down to the base (and some actual bathrooms). This was a great relief for me as I can’t imagine having to descend back down the stairs with legs of jelly.

The Incline

The hike up starts at a moderate pitch, and gets steeper as you go. For the first few hundred steps, we had to make ourselves take breaks to save our legs. I quickly learned that it’s all about pacing, and it was better, for me at least, to take short climbs (50 steps or so) followed by short breaks. That number quickly dropped to 30 steps, then to 20 by the end. Groups of people were constantly leap-frogging each other as we climbed and rested, climbed and rested. (With the exception of a group of middle school boys who passed us with ease, never looked back, and as far as I could tell, never stopped for a break. Damn children and their endless endurance.)

At the half-way point, still smiling.

At the half-way point.

For the most part, everyone is concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, and there’s too much huffing and puffing to be doing much conversing. Despite the crowds, it’s a peaceful climb with great views, not to mention an awesome workout. At the end, everyone who has finished it stands at the top of the staircase and encourages you on; there’s a very real bonding experience that occurs between people who have just climbed 2,000 steps.

We made it!

We made it!

After we’d chatted with a few other Incliners, we walked around the summit, my husband peed behind a tree (because men can do that, the bastards) and found more stuff to climb on (he’s half-mountain goat, I swear), and then slowly made our way down the 4-mile trail. We made it back to our car right at lunch time, and our first priority was to consume all the calories we had just burned in the form of beer and pizza!

Total time, start to finish – just under 3 hours.

If you ever find yourself in the Denver area looking for a an excellent Colorado workout, check out the Incline!

Memorial Day Murph

One mile run

100 pull-ups

200 push-ups

300 squats

One mile run

Complete while wearing a 20-pound weight vest, in as little time as possible

We’re now just one day away from one of my favorite holidays of the year. While most people associate Memorial Day with cook-outs, pool parties, and beach days, the thing I look forward to most is the workout above, named “Murph” in honor of U.S. Navy SEAL Lt. Michael P. “Murph” Murphy.

If you’ve seen the movie Lone Survivor or read the book by the same name (I haven’t), you’re already familiar with Lt. Murphy and his story of heroics. Or maybe you remember hearing his name in the news back in 2005 when he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Or maybe you’re like me, a year ago – completely new to this workout and this man’s story.

His acts of courage and valor are well documented on the internet, so I don’t feel the need to recount them here. I doubt I could do his story justice. Suffice it to say that the man gave it all for his country, and died in order to save his team.

When you read the workout, you might be like me and think – hm, that doesn’t sound so bad. Then, Memorial Day arrives and you start the workout. At the 15 minute mark you’re only 1/10th of the way through the rounds of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats, and you think – wow, I’m never going to finish. At the 30 minute mark, you can start to see the finish line, but your legs are burning, your shoulders are like jello. Eventually, eventually, slower than you even thought possible, you finish the 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats. The last push-up took all of your strength. But now. Now you run another mile. You’re not even sure you can walk any more, but you head to the door and on to the sidewalk. You take a right, following the designated 1-mile course, and start to jog, slowly, painfully, legs moving awkwardly because your body has no idea why it still has to be moving, after all those squats.

And somewhere along the way, during the 1+ hour workout, after your 50th pull-up, or your 227th squat, or maybe after the first 1/2 mile of the first run, you realize – this man, Lt. Murphy, did this workout. All the time. In a 20-pound weight vest. In the dessert. And that wasn’t even his biggest accomplishment.

He didn’t do this workout to look better in a bikini. He didn’t do this workout because a bunch of his friends were doing it, and there was a cook-out after it. He didn’t do it on his day off and then limp home to recover poolside with a few cocktails. He did this workout to survive.

And there are thousands of men and women, all over the world, away from home, away from family, away from almost anything familiar, doing similar workouts, in similarly horrible conditions, so they can survive the demands of combat. To protect this country. To protect me. And if you’re anything like me, and a good workout gets you a little emotional, you have tears streaming down your face as you finish that last mile. Tears of pride, tears of gratitude, tears of sadness, for all the Murphs who have dedicated their lives to protecting our freedom.

Tomorrow, all over the country, gyms, Crossfit “boxes” (a weird Crossfit term for gym), and community centers will host the Memorial Day Murph challenge. Thousands of people will participate, and (hopefully) thousands of dollars will be raised for scholarship funds, PTSD research, and other veteran’s programs.

“Murph” is a long, grueling, painful workout, but it is do-able and infinitely scalable (I do ring rows rather than pull-ups and use a box for push-ups). Most people forgo the 20-pound weight vest, myself included. Other scaling options include half-Murph, and no-run-Murph. It’s not about doing the workout as written, it’s about gaining perspective and completing the workout, in any form, with a grateful heart.

You certainly don’t have to do this workout, or any workout, in order to properly observe the holiday. But all too often, we, myself included, seem to treat Memorial Day as a holiday dedicated to shopping and grilling, without giving pause. Tomorrow, let’s all take a moment to remember, to reflect, and to be grateful. If you can, please consider donating to the Veteran’s charity of your choice (the Wounded Warrior Project is ours).

And then go out and enjoy that pool party 😉

(Click for source)