Thursday, June 30, 2011

Celebrating Summer

Have you seen this?

Watch the video, too (although turn down the volume --- it's more beautiful in silence).

What a lovely, communal way to celebrate summer.

An Adventure in Moderate Couponing

I don’t have time to watch much tv. When I do watch, I try to make it count with a quality show like Modern Family or The Good Wife.  But a couple weeks ago, I accidentally found myself immersed in an episode of Extreme Couponing on TLC.  Have you seen this show?  People with apparent OCD spend dozens of hours a week cutting coupons and scouring sales to get as many groceries as possible free, or close to it.  Part of me wanted to argue with these folks and question whether their savings on cat food and shaving gel are worth the value of the time they spent couponing, time they could have spent with their families, or searching for/doing paid work.  This same part of me noted that for all their carts full of stuff, they seemed to buy very little “real food.”  Most of their coupon-discounted loot consisted of toiletry items and processed foods, no produce or fresh meat.  And as a general rule, shopping at several different grocery stores to save a few pennies doesn’t make much sense when considering the cost of gas.

But the competitive part of me wanted to try this couponing thing for myself.

As a lawyer, the notion of the billable hour is deeply ingrained in my psyche.  I value my time and try, most days, to use that time efficiently.  Time spent with my family is priceless, but beyond that, anything --- house-cleaning, cooking, yard work, home repairs, running errands --- has economic value, at least in terms of opportunity cost.  So to the extent that a particular chore or activity is worth my implicit hourly rate, I do it; when it’s not, I either don’t do it at all, or I outsource it to a pro who can complete the job more efficiently while I focus on something else.

In short, spending 30-40 hours/week researching coupons and sales in an effort to get $200 of “free” groceries is not worth my time.

One woman’s comment on the show resonated with me, however.  She said that not using easily accessible coupons is like throwing away money.  I don’t like to throw away money. 

So I decided to dip my toe in the couponing pool.  While at the store, I noted a huge promotion on Lean Cuisine entrees.  They were 10 cents off the regular price of $1.88, plus, if you bought 10, you got to use an in-store $6 coupon.  Then, at checkout, the register printed off another coupon for $2.25 off every four Lean Cuisines purchased. I like Lean Cuisines, and on days when I’m working at home, they make a quick and portion-controlled lunch.  And these coupons and promotions were clearly a sign.  So I went home and found additional Lean Cuisine coupons online at sites like Coupon Mom.  On my next regular shopping trip, I went back to the store with my manufacturers’ coupons, stacked those on top of the register coupons, in-store coupons, and sale price, and ultimately, I scored thirty Lean Cuisines for a total of less than $3!  That’s less than 10 cents a piece, or about 95% off the normal retail price.  I was quite proud of myself.  And my extra freezer was happy to have some guests:

Part of my Lean Cuisine "stockpile"
Of course, I then spent way more than my saved $53 online at the Mini Boden Fall Preview Sale (the purple, owl-embroidered skirt was a must-have for my purple-and-owl loving pre-schooler!), although I did use a 20%-off coupon there, too.

I doubt I’ll master the art of extreme couponing.  But I am promising myself to be more vigilant about planning meals around the weekly circulars, making my shopping list in advance, spending a few minutes online collecting and organizing coupons for those items, and most importantly, remembering to give the cashier my coupons at checkout.  I figure an extra 10 minutes of planning a week could translate into significant savings.  That is time well spent.

How do you use coupons efficiently?  And do you have any tips for a novice couponer? 

Fleeting Moments

Two news stories caught my attention yesterday.  The first was an MSNBC article on Dear Photograph, a site which features photographs of old photographs, shot in the same setting, and captioned poignantly.  This one, in particular, made me tear up:

"Dear Photograph: Thank you for everything we had"

Thanks to the powerful emotions these memories of fleeting moments evoke, Dear Photograph's founder, 21-year-old Taylor Jones, has gone from a regular young adult living with his parents to a social media darling, with impending book and movie deals and millions of website visitors.  In less than a month.  The dual powers of memories and media, at work.

The second story came from The New York Times and featured a woman who purchased and renovated a summer home on Nantucket, and then furnished the home with "instant heirlooms" --- other people's vacation mementos and antiques, all purchased on eBay. She said she "wanted a house that contained layers of memory, making it as otherworldly as summer....There is something in particular about summer that is poignant, because we all know that when we are in summer we are in a fleeting moment that will become part of memory."  Once more, old memories + new media, in powerful combination, help recapture the feelings of those fleeting moments.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Costa Rican Dreamin'

I've been blessed to travel to many beautiful and interesting countries, and I'm sure I'll occasionally reminisce about them on this blog, but one trip stands above the others: a 10-day vacation in Costa Rica in 2005.  Costa Rica is a beautiful, friendly country, and in addition to its affordability and accessibility, what I loved about this trip was the mix of activity and leisure-time, mountains and beaches, rusticness and luxury.  We can't wait to go back with our kids.

In honor of Censational Girl's "Favorite Destinations" link party today, I thought I would share a (rather lengthy) travel piece I wrote six years ago about our Costa Rican adventure. Some of the pictures are my own; the others are credited. Happy Dreams!

Costa Rican Dreamin' on a Winter's Day

The clock strikes two on a February afternoon, and as my mascara melts off my already-sunburned face, I begin to doubt.  Why did I choose a Costa Rican holiday, when I can perspire to my skin’s content back home in Texas?
Seeking an accessible, affordable, and active vacation, my husband and I landed in San Jose an hour ago. We breezed through immigration and customs, rented a compact sedan, and drove twenty minutes west through coffee plantations and river valleys to our first night’s destination — the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn. Located in the Alajuela Province and surrounded by lush coffee trees and Rio Grande canyons, the bed and breakfast promotes itself as “a little corner of paradise.” Tropical landscaping, an azure-tiled swimming pool, and mountain views do not disappoint. Neither does our room — a wonderland of arts and crafts architecture. Dark hardwoods, earth-tone fabrics, minimalist furnishings, open-air living spaces, and mosquito nets collectively evoke a luxurious campsite. I survey the space, appreciating the unlockable door, the Tiffany lamps, and the thoughtful library that matches my reading interests so precisely that it is if the books have been chosen just for me.
Blaming the altitude and humidity for my fatigue and glistening forehead, I retreat to the hammock on my balcony and collapse. Shaded by banana trees, orchids, hydrangea, bougainvillea, and azaleas, I sip an expertly concocted sangria and let the floral perfumes envelope me, before drifting to sleep, dreaming of the ten days ahead….

Wimbledon: Strawberries and Cream

Some foods taste better because of the accompanying experiences, or like Proust's madeleine, the memories they evoke.  For me, the combination of strawberries and cream recalls a drizzly afternoon at Wimbledon, fifteen years ago today, when I had the privilege of watching Steffi Graf play in a mixed-doubles match.  I was living and working in London at the time, and my friends and I queued for hours in the dampness to procure second-hand tickets for Court Number One.  Once inside the gates, tickets secured, we scurried to take advantage of every Wimbledon tradition, including and especially, strawberries and cream.

Food in hand, we watched the match.

(That's Steffi with the blond ponytail --- forgive the old 1996 pictures.)

The crowds were quiet and polite; the players, efficient in their business.  At moments, I probably could have heard a pin drop, had I not been so focused on my strawberries.

I still watch "Breakfast at Wimbledon" with nostalgia today.  And I still love strawberries and cream.

For those so inclined, here's Martha Stewart's spin on the classic recipe.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Butterfly parties

I love butterflies and the beauty, joy, and transformation they represent.  And with three girls, there are a lot of butterfly-themed parties in my life.

I've hosted a few butterfly-themed birthday parties (including one with silhouettes I featured previously):

And butterfly-themed baby showers:

And I've accompanied my daughters to a beautiful butterfly release party:

And I've loved every one.

Do your parties have a recurring motif?

Vendors whose work is pictured above include:

Butterfly birthday cakes and cupcakes: Polkadots Cupcake Factory
Butterfly applique tee-shirts: Maddie Bug Baby
Butterfly favor bags: Perideau Designs
Butterfly personalized stationery: Tiny Prints
Butterfly cake balls: Austin Cake Ball

(shared with Serenity Now)


Just as I was late to the Facebook and blogging parties, I am only now perusing Goodreads.  I'm an avid reader and am excited to discover and share good books, especially ones I can read on my iPad late at night, while nursing the baby. On my list to read in the next month:

I absolutely loved Nicole Krauss' "The History of Love," and Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto" and "Run," but authors Jennifer McMahon and Paula McClain are new to me.  I also think I'm going to read

because even though sci-fi/fantasy is usually not my preferred genre, I've had two very good friends recommend the series.

What's on your reading list this summer?

(Sharing with

Easy Summer Dinner: Roasted Halibut

I love easy summer dinners that are full of flavor but light on prep work.  Roasted Halibut is my go-to dish for entertaining friends or for quiet dinners with my husband after the kids are in bed.  This recipe is best with fresh, never-frozen halibut, for which I am lucky to have a convenient local source, but almost any halibut is better than none!  You can also substitute Chilean sea bass.  I love that roasting either of these fish doesn't make my kitchen smell bad!

Here's the recipe for two servings:

2 6-ounce skinless halibut fillets
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary*
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme*
1 teaspoon grated lime zest
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons of softened butter
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt
Rosemary sprigs (for optional garnish)

(*In a pinch, when out of fresh herbs, I've substituted herbes de provence with good effect)

Coat a glass baking dish with cooking spray.  Place halibut fillets in dish and season liberally with sea salt and lime juice.

Combine the butter, lime zest, thyme, and chopped rosemary in a small dish, and then spread the mixture onto each fillet.

Roast at 450 for 15 minutes, or until fish flakes easily.  Sprinkle parmesan cheese on each fillet and garnish with rosemary sprigs.

If you aren't afraid of fat and want to add a ton of flavor, consider wrapping the fillets in either a strip of bacon or a thin slice of prosciutto.  Roast as otherwise directed above.

I serve the fish with a simple side of crisp, steamed green beans and accompany the meal with a buttery chardonnay. Yum!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Iceland, Anyone?

Speaking of cool, The Wall Street Journal's Weekend Edition features a three-day trip to Iceland, which is only 6 hours from the East Coast.  I was captivated by the accessibly eclectic itinerary of geothermal springs, whale watching, waterfalls, Northern Lights viewing, wool shopping, art museums, and superb seafood.  I'm putting Iceland on my must-do travel list.

all three photos via

What outside-the-box destinations are on your list?

Cool Summer Treats

It's hot here.  Have I mentioned that?  But in keeping with this blog's focus -- finding moments to slow down, appreciate life's work and pleasures, and connect with family and friends -- I'm thinking of ways to savor summer.

Like...Enjoying cold watermelon after a dip in the pool.  Sipping cool mojitos with friends on a humid summer night. Or better yet, doing both at the same time, with Watermelon Mojito Pops, like these concocted by Sugar and Charm, which I discovered via Pizzazzerie:

Aren't they genius?  And gorgeous?  I can't wait to try them soon.  Check out Sugar and Charm for the recipe and much more inspiration; it's a beautiful blog.

Thinking about watermelon also brings to mind my other favorite summer treat: watermelon gazpacho.

A healthy and delicious menu item at the fabulous Lake Austin Spa Resort, which happens to be one of my very favorite places in the world, watermelon gazpacho is quick and easy to make.  The resort's master chef, Terry Conlan, has generously shared his recipe here.  Note that it makes a big batch, so you may want to invite friends to join you!

Happy Summer!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Planning a Christening Party

I am currently planning my third daughter's christening celebration, to be held this fall.  For my older daughters, we hosted brunch buffets at our home before the baptism, and then restaurant dinners after.  This time, the baptism will be in the morning, so we're planning a dinner the night before, and a restaurant brunch after.  My to-do list includes selecting venues, invitations, a color scheme, flowers, and of course, food.

The first two christening brunches I hosted relied on a chocolate brown and pink color scheme:

Because I use chocolate brown as a neutral in much of my home decor and am well-stocked in brown linens, and because by coincidence, many of the major celebrations I've hosted, including my wedding, were held in the autumn, it's my go-to base color. For other parties in other seasons, I've paired the brown with turquoise, red, lime green, fuchsia, cobalt blue, copper, silver, and orange.  But I'm finally tiring of the heavy brown and for this party, want something more simple and modern, maybe inspired by an invitation like this:

 via Minted

I absolutely love this party, which was featured on Pizzazzerie, and these ideas, from Modern Hostess, but I think the color palettes are too spring-like for a mid-fall event. What do you think? Any fresh ideas for autumn christening celebrations out there?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


It finally rained today, for the first time in weeks.  I love flowers, and I am embarrassed by my failure to nurture my own, even though the climate is (mostly) to blame.  My drought-ridden gardens have been desperate for water. Unfortunately, today's rain is unlikely to make a big difference, and so for now, I have to settle for memories of flowers I've seen in other, less arid places:

I absolutely love hydrangeas:

And lush hanging baskets:

These tulips were in Pike Place Market in Seattle:


A magnolia in Houston:

A blossom in Vancouver:

And these gardens in Oregon:

Whining Is Not Against The Law

A Conversation Yesterday Between Mother and (Five-Year-Old) Daughter:

“Stop whining, please.“

“I’m not whining.  I’m just talking.  And by the way, I know my rights, Mommy!  Whining is not against the law!”

“Maybe not, but it’s against my rules.  So stop.”

“The law beats your rules, Mommy! And by the way, I wasn’t even whining in the first place!”

Sigh.  She says she doesn’t want to be a lawyer like her parents because “law is boring.”  But her fate may be written.  And now, I’m off to investigate why they are apparently teaching constitutional law in her pre-k class.  Given that I believe that sometimes, a kid's ignorance = a parent's bliss, I sure wasn’t the one who informed her of her First Amendment rights!  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Go-To Gifts for Kids' Birthday Parties

With three kids, we spend most weekends chauffeuring them between their friends’ birthday parties.  They love a good party, whether at someone’s home, a commercial venue, or a park, and we enjoy socializing with the other parents.  However, these frequent appearances on the birthday party circuit mean that I have to always be prepared with a present.

As a working mom, I have little time or inclination for last-minute shopping trips to brick and mortar toy and book stores (my apologies to such merchants, but schlepping three kids around in a gas guzzling SUV in our town’s heavy traffic and hot weather is not conducive to maintaining my sanity).  I also strongly prefer to give personalized gifts, as most kids narcissistically love to receive things with their names on them, and presenting something personalized conveys a subtle sense of thoughtfulness, which a hastily purchased toy usually doesn’t.  I also don’t want to buy junk that will get thrown away or garage-saled immediately.  So, I employ some organizational strategies to plan and buy gifts ahead:
  • I keep an updated list of the kids’ closest friends and classmates on my iPhone, along with their birth months.  Since my iPhone and I are inseparable (unlike a paper list, which I would lose), I always have a gift recipient list handy.
  • I spend no more than 5 minutes, once a month, here, looking for can’t-miss deals on personalized kids’ stuff.
  • When I find a deal, I hop on it and order enough for all of the children on our gift list, for the coming year.   
  • I also take advantage of Amazon’s 4-for-3 deals and purchase budget-friendly and kid-pleasing items like Melissa & Doug sticker books and puzzles, to give as presents for acquaintances and unexpected party invitations.
  • I then store all of these gifts, personalized and stock, in a spare bedroom closet along with wrap.  It’s not well organized, but at least it’s all in one place.

And voila, I’m done with birthday present shopping for the year, usually in one or two quick and inexpensive online shopping sprees.  No frantic, last-minute, pre-party trips to the toy store on Saturday mornings!

Examples of my purchased-in-advance personalized presents:
  • Three years ago, I used the “secret sale codes” at Pottery Barn Kids and scored over two dozen kids’ beach towels for $6.99 each, including shipping and personalization.  They normally cost $31.  They were a hit each time, and my oldest daughter loves it when she often sees the recipients with their towels at swim lessons or a pool party.
  • I took advantage of a similar short-term sale at Williams-Sonoma and bought ten personalized pink kids’ aprons for $1.99 each, again, including personalization and shipping.  These normally retail for $26 each.  At the time, my oldest daughter and her friends were all taking weekly cooking classes at their school, so they made for timely and appreciated gifts, especially when paired with pink spatulas and signed cookbooks from our favorite local kids’ culinary expert.
  • This year, taking a cue from my oldest who loves to write her friends letters on her personalized stationery, I bought all the older kids on my list personalized notecards from Shutterfly during one of their awesome sales coupled with a free shipping promotion.  Because I ordered so many sets, the total cost was around $5 per gift recipient for a dozen personalized cards with envelopes.  I wrap each set in pretty ribbon and include a sheet of stickers.  Simple and easy. 
  • For younger kids, I buy personalized piggy banks in bulk during Nordstrom’s anniversary sale (which is obviously an annual event) for $10-11.  Nordstrom clerks personalize them on the spot, in the store, and do a lovely job.  I’ve bought so many dozens over the years that I am now referred to by name as “the piggy bank lady” when I walk into my local store.  There are worse nicknames, I suppose!
  • For parties where there is an express no-gifts request, or where charitable donations are preferred, we either donate online to our favorite local kids’ charity or arrange for a symbolic adoption of a dolphin or other popular animal through an environmental organization.
  • Finally, we often give close friends and family personalized storybooks (like these or these) or photo books.  Again, I wait for special promotions, and then buy as many as possible in advance of when I need them.  Next year, I’m considering giving personalized placemats or plates. I've also seen great ideas on Etsy, like personalized super-hero capes and library bags.

You may be wondering: Do I ever buy personalized gifts for children who end up not inviting my kids to their parties?  Yep, but because I’m judicious with my advance purchase birthday gift list, it’s only happened twice.  And both times, we just gave the birthday child the gift anyway -- after all, presents shouldn't be tied to parties, and vice versa.

Because I love to save time and money, I’d love to hear your gift-giving strategies, too!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Virtual Vacation

It’s hot.  Over-a-hundred-degrees-every-day hot.  And while we’re used to summer heat in these parts, this year, it started getting hot in April.  It’s only mid-June now, but already, it’s been a long summer of cabin fever interrupted only by quick respites in our pool or lake.  And it has me dreaming of cooler places. 

Last summer, we escaped to beautiful Cannon Beach, Oregon where we rented a house and reveled in the 50-degree temps and cloudy skies. We woke early in the mornings to walk the beach and spy starfish of all colors in the tide pools. In the afternoons, the girls wore hoodies as they built sandcastles, and my husband and I wrapped ourselves in wool blankets as we read novels on the deck. It was divine.

This summer, work and family obligations preclude our travel to a cool climate destination, so my getaway from the heat must be virtual.  Where to go on this daydreamy vacation?

Perhaps Bar Harbor, Maine, which we loved visiting on weekends when we lived in Boston:


Or Mackinac Island, Michigan, where I spent many happy childhood vacations:

Or maybe the San Juan Islands, where we vacationed three years ago:

And I always love the Northern Californian coast:

(my own photos)

Or maybe back to Cannon Beach, one of the most charming and lovely beach towns I’ve visited:

(my own)

For those of you in hot climates, where would you like to go to cool down this summer?

(shared with Censational Girl and Memories by the Mile)