Friday, December 31, 2010

Miracle on...22nd?

Growing up, I had heard about the "Miracle on 34th Street," but it wasn't until yesterday that I came across the one on W. 22nd.

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a story about two men who mistakenly received hundreds of letters addressed to Santa at their NYC apartment. They still can't explain how their address was confused with St. Nick's, but the pair didn't let the mix-up ruin the children's Christmas. They mobilized their network of friends and co-workers to respond to the letters and give the kids the Christmas they asked for.

While they couldn't answer all of the requests, they made a difference for hundreds of kids who wouldn't have had a Christmas otherwise. I would highly recommend watching the clip for the whole beautiful story.

What would you do if those Santa letters mysteriously arrived in your mail box? I'd like to think I would do something similar, but it's hard to know for sure. One thing is certain; the selfless giving of these two men is extremely touching. Though Christmas day has already come and gone, the Christmas spirit lives on through their generosity.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The holiday season

After nearly a week of blog silence, I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas! My holiday season consisted of 4 family Christmases over the course of one week, not to mention the holiday work parties thrown in for good measure. I very much enjoyed seeing family and exchanging gifts, but all of the holiday hustle and bustle was just a tad bit stressful to manage, especially with multiple families and work schedules to accommodate.

My favorite Christmas celebration this year was the one spent at home with my husband--our first married Christmas. As nice as it was, it certainly wasn't your traditional Christmas! Taylor worked overnight on Christmas Eve but we still wanted to establish some sense of tradition and open our gifts together on Christmas morning. So around 6:45 a.m. I woke up extra early to cook a big pancake-bacon-egg breakfast (which I have never done before), light the Christmas tree, and get everything ready. Taylor arrived home from work about an hour later, and we quickly ate breakfast, chatted about his shift, and opened presents before the drowsiness set in. Taylor gave me a lovely Eucalyptus stoneware bowl and a cool old ladybug brooch, and I gave him an ice cream maker attachment for our stand mixer and a Dremel rotary tool kit. By 8:20 a.m., Taylor couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, so he made his way to bed while I cleaned up all of the dishes and packed up the presents for the next party. Then I took a nap until it was time to leave for Urbana in the afternoon. Less than 24 hours after arriving at my parents' house, we found ourselves back in Cincinnati so that I could make it into work on Sunday evening. Talk about a whirlwind!

It might not have been the most traditional Christmas Day scene, but it ended up working for us. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I was worried about all of the details and how everything would come together--that our Christmas would be ruined from our jumbled schedules.

But now that it's over, I wouldn't have had it any other way. I started a Christmas Journal so we can look back and remember this and future Christmases for years to come. It wasn't perfect--what holiday really is?--and that's okay. As I reflected on and wrote about 2010, I realized just how fortunate I am not only for my beautiful gifts from family and friends, but for my wonderful husband, adoring kitties, and a house full of love.

I hope the magic and love of the season linger into the new year for you and your family, too!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Greenery in the scenery

Though it's hard to believe, it's already Christmas Eve in our first house! It seems like just last week we were signing hundreds of papers and carrying all of our boxes into our empty house. Now it's December 24th and we've been here for nearly seven months.

When we were buying our house, I daydreamed about all of the things that would make our house a home. I pictured growing vegetables in our garden, painting every room in our house, chatting with our neighbors in the driveway, participating in trick-or-treat night in our neighborhood, and decorating for Christmas, namely with a wreath on our door. I don't know what it is, but every time I smell fresh evergreen, I feel an immediate sense of comfort, security, and warmth. I know I'm home.
Our fresh wreath is a tradition I hope to continue for many years in the future. We sure have come a long way and we have so much to be thankful for, including our Christmas wreath!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fight hunger in our community

This morning I received an e-mail from Tina, the executive director at Shared Harvest Foodbank (where I used to be a VISTA, remember?), about a social media campaign to support agencies in the Cincinnati-Middletown community. According to Tina, Shared Harvest Foodbank is competing for a portion of the Walmart Fighting Hunger Together Facebook Challenge Grant, in which metropolitan communities across the country rally to get the most votes on Facebook for their community. The winning community shares a $1,000,000 grant, with five runners-up each sharing $100,000.

There are 100 metropolitan communities in the running for the grant money, and the Cincinnati-Middletown area has moved from 60th place to 33rd in just seven days. Tina says we need at least another 30,000 votes to move to the top, and that's where you come in.

If you are on Facebook, all you have to do is click here and press "Like" for the Cincinnati-Middletown community. That counts as your vote for our community. Easy, huh? Then we need you to spread the word and tell all of your friends--you can post the link on Facebook and have all of your friends vote, too.

Please help out our community by voting! It's so easy, and only takes about a minute to do. We all see these social media campaigns and think how great they are, but then we end up ignoring them and don't take action. Don't let that happen to you this time! Make sure your vote counts by December 31st.

Participate, get involved, and help strengthen your community--PLEASE and THANK YOU!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Giving gifts

I am pleased to announce all of my food dishes made it to all of those holiday parties with no spillage. (At least not that I noticed! Sorry, Taylor.)

Now the next item on the holiday agenda

I know that Christmas is not about giving gifts. It's about sharing joy and giving thanks with friends and loved ones. For some, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ who saved the world from sin and despair. So why is it that so many of us end up focusing on the season's materialism instead?

I'm guilty of this, too. Last year Taylor and I had hardly any money so we made the majority of our gifts. And you know what? That was okay. The gifts ranged from homemade magnets, to personalized calendars, to jars of homemade cookie mix, to crocheted scarves (lots and lots of scarves). I really liked giving these gifts because they were meaningful and personal. The recipients knew a lot of time, thought, and love went into the gifts if not a lot of money.

This year, I was in graduate school and Taylor was working an average of 50+ hours a week throughout November and into December. This year we didn't have nearly as much time, but we certainly had more money, so our gift-recipients are getting stuff we bought. I still think the gifts are special but they certainly aren't as meaningful as something handmade.

And of course, the more focus there is on store-bought items, the crazier this season gets.

"Do we have enough presents?"

"Did we spend enough?"

"Is this gift good enough?"

These are questions I've been asking all month--I've definitely been stressing out over our gift-giving tradition. And I bet I'm not the only one. Anyone else out there stressed out by this holiday ritual? Look at all of those hands.

I've heard some great remedies families employ to curb the stress of the season. Some families opt out of gift-giving all together, deciding to sponsor a family in need in the community instead. Others donate money to a charity in honor of their family instead of spending money on material gifts. And others pool their money to provide a meaningful experience for the family, such as a vacation, instead of filling each others' homes with more goods, more clutter.

These are all great ideas, but some families just can't part with the idea of giving gifts. And that's okay! Instead of buying another pair of socks or another knick-knack for the house, though, maybe you want to go the homemade route. Here are 34 ideas for some personal, handmade items that are sure to be a big hit. And here are gift ideas for the social justice-minded individual wanting to make a difference in the world.

Maybe your holiday shopping is already finished for this year, and it's too late to reconsider your gifts. But remember these tips aren't just pertinent for the holiday season. We give gifts all year round--for birthdays, weddings, showers, anniversaries, etc.--and we tend to stress out at each of those happy occasions, too. It's something I'm definitely going to keep in mind as we head into 2011!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday party animal

I have 3 Christmas parties in 4 days. All require some kind of pot luck food dish, and all are at least 45 minutes away from home. Ack!

Today was party #1 at the Oxford Community Counseling & Crisis Center. Because I signed up to bring a dessert, I decided to make an easy, yummy favorite recipe in our house--lemon bars. Fortunately, I was able to make the dish ahead of time last night, but I wasn't able to guard them from my hungry husband when he came home from his shift at 4 a.m.! Still, most of the lemon bars successfully made it to the party, and we all had a great time chowing down on the spread of food.

Tomorrow is party #2 with my mom's side of our family. This one requires a 1-hour and 45-minute drive to Urbana, and I agreed to make a hot dip for crackers and chips. Hmm...I didn't really think this one through... Ultimately, Taylor and I decided to mix up some artichoke dip tonight and bake it when we arrive in Urbana tomorrow.

And the third party is on Monday with the House of Peace staff. We were asked to bring our favorite recipe along with the recipe card and a $5 gift to share. Well it just so happens one of my favorite recipes is turkey pumpkin chili, which is what I signed up to bring. As delicious as it is, it's not the easiest to transport to a party 45 minutes from home. Didn't really think that through either. Still, I am sure it will work out and will be as fun and delicious as all the others!

The holidays are a time for lots of celebrating, lots of eating, and lots of time together. In other words, I've got lots of good times ahead in the next week!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stressed out students

Today Taylor came across a very interesting radio show on NPR about the stress students experience in the American education system. Vicki Abeles, a filmmaker and mother of 3, created a documentary called "Race to Nowhere," which captures the stories of students, parents, and teachers caught in a system the demands educational quantity over quality. Essentially, the American educational system is test-oriented and not centered on the student's whole development.

This perspective is particularly interesting as world education reports show students in China and other Asian countries are out-ranking their American peers, who were deemed "average" in most recent studies. Policymakers believe this is evidence to push students even harder with longer school days, longer school years, more extra-curricular activities, and tougher assignments and classes.

But at what cost? Students are stressed out and crumbling under the pressure as they desperately try to keep up. They are loading up on college prep courses and filling the rest of their schedules with sports, arts, volunteering, etc. There is little "free time" for students to learn through play and discovery, and students are missing out on their childhoods. As a result, students are not prepared for the "real world." Abeles says it best with this statement:
“I think today’s system isn’t generating kids who are independent thinkers and ready to contribute to the world,” Abeles says. “So I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are wanting to create a generation of test-takers and resume-builders, or do we want problem-solvers and life-long learners and healthy young adults.”
If you click on this link, you'll find the complete radio show on this topic, as well as the trailer for the film. I haven't seen the movie, but from what I have heard, read, and seen, it's definitely worth a look. As a high-performing student myself, I know firsthand the pressures kids in America experience in the schools in the race to "get ahead." In fact, I recently wrote a post about this very issue as an adult in graduate school! As much as I say I am going to relax and let myself off the hook, the reality is I am pushing myself just as hard as I did in high school and college.

Good grades are certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but they aren't the only indicator of success, as they only measure one aspect of a person's intelligence. We need to realize test scores and grades aren't everything, and adjust the way we structure our educational system accordingly. After all, what good are straight As if you can't think critically and creatively to function in the "real world?" The grade at the end of the term isn't nearly as important as the knowledge I have gained, and I need to keep that in mind as I approach the winter quarter.

Now if only I could get the scholarship people to recognize that fact...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cinci Christmas

In our continued quest to fully experience our first official Christmas as Cincinnatians (read about our first adventure here), my best friend and I journeyed to Fountain Square on Saturday night for the annual Macy's Downtown Dazzle in which Santa rappels down the side of the Macy's building.

It rained pretty much all evening, and we were uncertain about weather Santa would "fly" due to the weather, but we decided to brave the elements and go anyway. After all, Santa is only scheduled to appear on the roof of the building 3 times this month, so we didn't want to miss him.

We left with plenty of time to navigate all of the one-way streets and find parking downtown. When we emerged out of the parking garage, we were greeted by this lovely figure on Fountain Square:

And this majestic Macy's tree at the U.S. Bank Ice Rink:

But the best sight of all was Santa, Rudolph, and a little green elf rappelling down the side of the Macy's office building. They broadcast the action on a big screen above the square, which is what my BFF photographed in this shot:

Can you believe Rudolph is going down head-first? They were all little daredevils, doing flips and hanging upside down along the way, and it was a lot of fun to watch! When they reached the next rooftop, there was a big, spectacular fireworks show to end the night, even in the rain.

Afterward, we walked a block or so to the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza to see the gingerbread display, and a couple of blocks in the other direction to the Duke Energy Building for the model train display. And by that point we were rain-soaked and ready to leave for dinner at Frisch's in my neighborhood!

Despite the rain, a lot of people came out to see the show, and it felt really good to be part of a community in a big city. We also learned more about what the Central Business District has to offer and we plan to take part in the downtown hustle and bustle for a little Christmas shopping this week.

If you are in the area, I would highly encourage you to make your way downtown for these holiday events. Santa will make one more appearance on the roof of Macy's next Saturday, and the other sites last all month long. All of the links in this post contain information about each event, and they are all well worth the trip!

A special thanks to my dear friend for the use of her photos for this post (and this post)!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

TV Land Transformation

After sharing our office and dining room transformations, as well as my dresser renovation, I might as well share our latest decorating update; this one is in our living room. First, the drab before shot taken just a couple days after we moved in:

Note the little red end table is a hand-me-down from Taylor's parents, and while it's solidly built, it doesn't quite work as a TV stand. So earlier this week, we journeyed to IKEA for a new look. And this is what we came up with:

The TV stand is made of solid pine and is the same style as a coffee table we bought from IKEA a few months ago. On Thursday night I finally managed to put the TV stand together and I did it all by myself. It only took me 4 hours and 3 tries, but I finally got it.

Okay, actually, I only managed to get to step 34 out of 35 before giving up and waiting for Taylor to get home to put on the finishing touches, aka the drawers. Still, I am mighty proud of my handiwork. If you've ever put a piece of IKEA furniture together, you know the directions contain no words, only pictures, which aren't always the easiest to decipher.

Here's a closer look at the 'after' shot:

Oh and in case you were wondering about the cast iron on the staircase, that's where we are hanging our stockings this year, considering we have no mantel or fireplace. The little green stockings are for Thelma and Louise.

Slowly but surely we're making little changes around here, which are adding up to make a big difference in our home!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday in Lights

On Wednesday night I attended my second annual Holiday in Lights tour at Sharon Woods in northern Cincinnati. Last year I went with Taylor and my parents; this year I spread the cheer by taking my best friend through the display.

But display doesn't even begin to describe it. Holiday in Lights is a paved, mile-long trail with all sorts of little lighted figures dotting the path. 120 lighted scenes to be exact.

For instance, here is a charming little scene of two elves decorating a Christmas tree:

The lights moved to show the elves picking up ornaments from a box and throwing them onto the tree.

The displays were also clever. Here is a play on the Goodyear blimp, which we photographed as an homage to my husband's childhood hometown of Akron, Ohio:

Cute, eh?! And then some of the displays were just plain weird. Like this little guy:

His friend Godzilla was also nearby. Not exactly the type of scene you would think should be depicted in Christmas lights, but hey, it works!

Holiday in Lights was international, too, with many bright holiday greetings in lots of lights and languages. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dutch Santa, complete with wooden shoes, is probably my favorite scene on the trail, largely because of my husband's Dutch heritage (which he is very proud of, I might add).

Holiday in Lights at Sharon Woods is a fun tradition I hope to continue every year I'm in Cincinnati. If you live in the area, I would strongly encourage you to get out in the community and see it. You pay by the car load, so pack your car full of family and friends and head on over for a great evening. If you click on the link above you can even print a coupon for $2 off!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dining room re-do

As you might recall from my 200th post, goal #5 on the list was to continue the process of making our house a home through home renovation projects. So I thought I would share our most recent renovation endeavor in our dining room.

Back in September, Taylor and I removed the carpet, tack strip, and staples from our office floor just hours before my first class of graduate school. So we thought it would be fitting to remove the dining room carpet just hours after my final exam on Monday evening.

Let's start with the very first before shot, taken just a couple days after we had moved into our house:
Certainly not much to write home about, but after a little paint and some new furniture, the dining room was starting to take shape:

It's hard to see in pictures, but there were numerous old pet and food stains from the previous owners and no matter what we try, we can't seem to remove them. So the only way to take out the stains was to tear out the carpet.

It was a bit of a process but we tackled it together with teamwork. Taylor cut up the carpet, I rolled it up and took it to the basement, and then Taylor got to work pulling up the tack strip and I removed the staples from the floor. Before long we ended up with this:

What a big difference! We did find a few damaged boards from old termite damage, but we can replace those. Soon we'll finish this project by painting the trim and chair rail, adding a filler piece to the baseboard to fill the gap the carpet left, and ultimately sanding and refinishing the floor. Until then, this is the after shot:

What do you think? Do you prefer carpet or hardwood floors in your own home? I think it's clear where our preference lies!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Baby it's cold outside

Today marked the first official snow fall of the season! It snowed overnight, through the morning, into the afternoon, and the flakes are still falling as I type this tonight. The ground is still fairly warm, so only a few inches are sticking, but still it makes for a beautiful scene outside our window. This is a view from our kitchen (note the difference a couple of months makes):

As temperatures dip into the 20s, our impending heating bill has been increasingly on our minds. We've never had a gas furnace, so we're not sure what to expect, but we're bracing for the worst. To help lower our utility costs, we're doing the following:
  1. Turn down the thermostat. Most of the time you can find ours set somewhere between 68-72 degrees, depending on the time of day and whether or not we're home.
  2. Dress in layers. Because we don't live in a sauna, we are sure to have a sweater or light blanket near by whenever we're feeling a little chilly. This prevents the urge to crank up the heat.
  3. Close off unused rooms. We have one guest bedroom that is rarely used, so we see no point in heating it all the time. The floor vent in that room is closed off, and the door remains shut.
  4. Insulation. We live in a brick house built in the late 1940s, so there isn't a whole lot we can do about our walls, but we can insulate our pipes. Taylor wrapped the hot water pipes in our basement in foam so that they would keep their heat longer.
  5. Seal drafty doors and windows. We were lucky our house had all new windows when we moved in, but we recently discovered one drafty old door in our kitchen. Taylor lined the door with this clear, gel-like "Seal 'n Peel" stuff, which as its name suggests, seals the door for the winter and can easily be peeled away in the spring.
We'll have to let you know how well these tips work when we get our first big heating bill this month. Until then, we do have one more strategy for keeping warm this winter.

6. Keep the floor vents clear to maximize air flow. That includes all furniture, rugs, and other obstructive objects:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The end is near!

It's hard to believe that ten weeks ago today marked my first day of graduate school. And yet, here I am, almost on the complete other side of my first quarter of my MSW program. Tonight was my last class of the quarter and next Tuesday I'll take my last final exam to officially end the quarter.

I thought it would be fitting to do a brief recap of what I accomplished this quarter. Let's see how much $4,412 gets you in the School of Social Work:
  • First and foremost, I secured my internship for the next 5 quarters at Santa Maria Community Services. Read about that process here, here, and here.
  • I took a ten-hour online course on Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Theory and developed a set of therapy sessions using the TF-CBT method for treatment of a hypothetical rape victim.
  • I analyzed and wrote about the role the media plays in perpetuating crisis in our daily lives.
  • I learned several different approaches to crisis intervention with a variety of people in a variety of situations.
  • I researched and created a presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of the Over-the-Rhine community in Cincinnati.
  • I researched the topic of same-sex marriage and presented it as part of a larger project on GLBT clients and how their issues pertain to social workers.
  • I interviewed a key staff member at Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and wrote about the advocacy services they provide in the community.
  • I researched and summarized a qualitative community study on community-based loans for expectant mothers in rural Nepal.
  • I critiqued a news article that surfaced around the mid-term elections this fall on the Obama Making Work Pay tax cuts.
  • I researched and critiqued a journal article describing culturally competent strategies for use with African American rape victims.
  • I interviewed my nine-year-old friend to learn about developmental tasks and the psychosocial crisis of middle childhood.
  • I wrote a final paper about the experiences of a member of a racial minority group and how they have affected his human development.
  • I researched, wrote, and presented my first ever policy brief. The topic: Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
  • I took 3 regular in-class exams; one open-note, open-book final in-class exam; and 4 online exams.
So there you have it. One quarter's worth of work--and that's just the big stuff. This isn't counting the hundreds of pages of reading or the countless hours of studying or the endless nights spent staring at the computer screen. I can't say I've loved every minute of it, but I certainly have learned a lot.

Now for a well-deserved break and a little R & R.