Things I Will Not Miss From 2012

I feel both nostalgia and excitement around every December 31: nostalgia for all the memories made in the prior year and excitement for everything I’ll experience for the upcoming year. As this particular December 31 drew near, I reflected on all that has happened the last 365 days. My family has been through a lot but as devastating as that’s been, we’ve grown closer; I’ve made some professional strides and hope to continue doing so; Ryan graduated from EMT school and is half-way done with paramedic school; four of my best friends had beautiful, healthy babies…the list could go on and on. While I’m thankful for all that happened in 2012, there are some things I will NOT miss from this year. I really try hard not to rant on my blog, so the list below is a little out of character. But we all are allowed a some negativity every once in a while, right? 🙂 The list below is completely my opinion, so I hope no one takes offensive. In any case, I’m sure we all have a list of people, places and things from 2012 we can’t wait to close the door on and are excited to say “HELLLL-OOO!” to much better things in 2013.

1. December 21 / Doomsday / End of the world mumbo jumbo – to anyone who believed all the hype around this: I’m sorry but I think it’s completely moronic. The theory that the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world defies all the advances we’ve made in physics and just logic in general. I am so relieved this is all over – that is, until the next narcissistic wacko announces the next end of the world. On the bright side, the rest of us can take solace in this exhausting cycle as “survivors” of the end of time. Imagine the great “When I was your age” stories we’ll be able to tell our children and grandchildren. Really beats walking uphill both ways in two feet of snow.

2. Obama / Romney campaigning – wow, was it just me or was the 2012 presidential campaigning horrible this year? Both in volume and in pure nastiness, the political ads for the presidential candidates were cringe-worthy. According to data from the NY Times, both candidates spent close to $1 billion EACH on the campaign. Yowza. With the national debt at $16.3 trillion and climbing, perhaps we should consider some sort of cap on out-of-control political spending. And enough mud-slinging – it really makes BOTH sides look bad. Here’s to an election focused on ISSUES, not spending and name-calling, in 2016!

3. All things related to Ryan Lochte outside of his sport – Yes, Ryan Lochte is an amazing athlete. And yes, he deserves recognition as the holder of the second most Olympic medals of all time for a male swimmer. But should he be in the news for anything else.? Heck no. Ryan has proven that he’s capable of being a major tool in the public eye, so maybe it’s time to stick with what he knows best: swimming and all other activities that allow him to be shirtless and silent. (That is possibly the most sexist thing I have ever said. I am sorry for saying it and am even sorrier for really, truly feeling it.)

4. Gangnam style – the song, the dances, the tattoos…ugh. I’ll be glad to never hear and see these again.

5. The Fifty Shades series – I fear I’m treading dangerous waters with this one. I know how insanely popular this series was, which probably means most people reading this post not only read the books, but really, really liked them. I haven’t read the series, and since I don’t plan on ever doing so, my issues with the books might seem unwarranted. But when an author whose work is repeatedly slammed for its literary value is named the Publisher’s Weekly Publishing Person of the Year, I feel I’m allowed to have an issue without ever reading a page. I can definitely acknowledge the entertainment value of the series, but how can an author of a book with a “problematic” execution, writing, characters and plot (ouch) be given the same award as the founder and CEO of Amazon and the CEO of the Penguin Publishing Group? Even Fifty Shades‘s biggest fans should be willing admit that’s a shame. Plus…the subject matter just makes me uncomfortable. We are so blessed to live in a country where we can read whatever books we like, and while I’m glad women are not taking that right for granted, I’ll be so glad to see the hype around these books come to an end.

Happy New Year’s Eve!! I wish everyone a happy and safe welcome to the new year.

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Mom’s Birthday: A Celebration of a True FRIEND

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas – and enjoyed the monster snow storm that hit Northeast Ohio earlier this week. Whoever is praying for the snow, I ask that you please stop. Immediately. 🙂

The end of December is huge in the Harkcom household: not only do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, we also honor the day my wonderful mother was born on December 27th.

I’ve been looking forward to Mom’s birthday get-together for weeks. My sister and I came up with the PERFECT gift, and the anticipation of seeing Mom’s reaction was just about killing me. But more on the gift later…

Ryan, Sarge and I spent December 22 – 25 out of town, visiting friends in Columbus and Ryan’s family in Lima. All that fun had about worn out when we got home – but there was much to be done to get ready for the birthday par-tay! The snow storm all but forced me to stay inside on Wednesday, so while the errands I needed to get done had to wait, I had 8 miraculous hours to dedicate to everything that needed done. Gifts were wrapped, dinner reservations were made…and I pretended I know how to bake for an hour.

To be fair, I’m being pretty fast and loose with the word “bake”. Things are rarely made from scratch in my kitchen, which is especially true in the case of baked goods. Convenience is king for me – which is why I love making this “skinny” cupcakes. I first shared them with you here, but today I made a spice cake version with diet cola.

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All it took was two ingredients to make yummy, moist cupcakes that are under 100 calories. That is, until I added the frosting, smashing that 100 calorie mark. But oh well – frosting is what makes a great cake fantastic (in my opinion). And judging from the smiles and finger-licks later, I think they turned out well:

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Anyway, for dinner, Mom picked the House of Hunan, one of our family’s favorites. After we ordered, we got right to the important part of the evening: presents!

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Dad got Mom a beautiful charm for her Pandora bracelet. Vance loved it too!

Now – for THE present I could not wait for Mom to open. Kendall and I were so giddy waiting for her to open it…

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Vance wanted to help Grammie Jo open her present…

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I think she likes it! 🙂

For years, Mom, Kendall and I enjoyed the heart-warming, laughter-inducing wonder that is Friends. When the show ended, we felt like we had lost actual friends in our lives. I know that sounds a little strange, but that show was just amazing. If you’re a true Friends fan as well, I think you’d agree. The men in our lives have grown to love this show as well, and we often quote the characters in our “real-life” conversations. (That was my attempt to incorrectly use air quotes in print. For the clip from the episode that will certainly make you laugh, go here.)

Even though the show was no longer on air, my parents made sure we would always have access to the episodes. Kendall and I were so happy each year for Christmas and our birthdays when Mom and Dad would get us a season of the show on DVD. Before long, we had all 10 seasons, but it was hard to share since we lived two hours apart at the time. I needed my Friends, so I caved in a bought all 10 seasons so we would each have a set. All was good in the world, but when we both moved out on our own, it left Mom with no Friends to watch at-will.

I’m not sure why we didn’t think of this sooner – but I’m so glad we got Mom all 10 seasons of Friends this year for her birthday. The surprise and joy on her face is still making me smile. Happy birthday, Mom! You are and always will be our truest Friend.

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Our Favorite Breed is Rescued

Sarge (about six months old)

Every morning I wake up to those same brown eyes. His breath might stink and he is pretty hairy, but his big smile makes up for all that: my heart is his. And with a big kiss, he lets me know the feeling is mutual. “You’re my favorite,” I whisper to him.

“I heard that,” my husband, Ryan, jokes next to me. But I know he’s thinking the same thing: in our house, Sarge is number one.

In case you haven’t read all the other posts about my baby, here’s some background: Sarge is our two-and-a-half year old bull mastiff-boxer mixed breed dog. Ever since he came into our lives in the summer of 2010, our world has centered around that little guy. I’ve come to know what it’s like to ask yourself multiple times a day, “What did I ever do without you?”.

When conversations about getting a dog first started, I let Ryan know one thing: I don’t buy pets. I know and love many people who do, however, it’s just something I do not do. While I adore all animals, my heart longs to help those that are having a hard time being given away for free, let alone bought for hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. So, we turned to a local rescue and found our Sarge.

Rescuing animals can get a bad rap, but the truth is, there are many advantages to getting a pet from a rescue. First, it’s easier on your wallet: rescuing is usually much less expensive than buying a pure breed dog. This is especially true if the dog is older and has already been neutered or spade. For example, we paid $200 when we rescued Sarge ($100 to get him neutered, plus a $100 donation to the rescue), however, pure-bred bull-mastiff puppies sell for anywhere between $700 – $2,000 each. Boxer puppies can cost as much as $1,200. Sarge did not come with any official papers, but we have no plans to show or breed him, so those papers aren’t worth the extra $1,000. And Sarge is so cute that the photographer we hired to take his pictures two years ago used his sweet little face on some advertising materials:

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I might be biased – but this proves it: mutts are adorable!

Secondly, if you rescue a dog, you are not supporting puppy mills. Puppy mills are evil, “factory style” facilities that care more about making money than they do about the actual dogs. These dogs live in poor conditions, are not given the proper medical care and are deprived of human companionship. Sadly, many of the puppies sold from puppy mills have health and behavioral issues, which cannot always be treated. When you get a dog from a rescue, you know they are coming from people who love and nurture them. And because they are loved…

…Rescue dogs will unconditionally adore you. Dogs are pack animals, and when they do not have that bond with an owner, they are very eager to deeply and completely get that bond. According to the Humane Society of the United States, most animals in shelters are not from abusive homes or haven’t done something “wrong”. Usually the reason these animals are given to shelters is for “people” reasons – a move, divorce or financial hardship. The result is dogs from rescues are more than ready to have a family again.

We are so thankful this Christmas (and every single day) that Take Me Too dog rescue gave us the best gift ever: Sargie. He has brought so much happiness, so much love and so much laughter into our lives. So much that ever since we rescued him, we often wonder “Who rescued who?”

Another Last Minute DIY Christmas Gift – Distance Mugs

Want another wallet-friendly DIY gift idea like these cool coasters? Well, here you go!

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This week I got together with Emily, one of my closest friend I met years ago through work. When tax accounting had lost its luster (hard to imagine…), Emily decided to go back to school to be a physician’s assistant. I was and still am so proud of her bravery, but very sad that her decision meant a move from Ohio to Arkansas. I was used to seeing this girl every Friday morning for our weekly coffee dates, so I miss her tremendously.

I wanted to get Emily a Christmas present that was unique, fun and sweet – just like her. I was trolling around on Etsy, searching through “long distance friends” gifts when I ran across these mugs.

State or Country Heart Mugs-Going Away Present, Going Away Gift, Moving Away, Long Distance Relationship, Adoption- Customize

Perfect gift for my coffee pal! But yikes – $30.00?! Uh, Em, I love you – but that’s a little ridic.

When I couldn’t find anything I liked as much as these, I knew I had two options: suck it up and pay the steep price tag, or spend the time to do these myself. You can guess which one I chose 🙂

Do you have a long-distance friend or family member? This gift is sure to  make them happy! And since they cost under $5 to make, you’ll be happy too.

To make these mugs, you’ll need an afternoon and the following:

* Two porcelain mugs (I got mine for $1 each at Giant Eagle)
* A black Sharpie
* A colored Sharpie for the heart (I used red, but I think blue or pink would be really cute too)
* Paper towels and a small bowl of water
* Notebook paper or another kind of thin paper
* Eyeliner
* An oven

First step is to trace the outline of the states you need on notebook paper and cut them out. I used my phone as a guide, which worked out well:

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Of course, if you have mad drawing skills, you can skip this step.

Next, tape the cut-out state to a mug and trace with the eyeliner. Try to use as little eyeliner as possible – trust me, you do not want to deal with gobs of the stuff later. Set that mug aside to dry, and do the same thing to the other state and mug. Remove the paper when done.

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Now for the fun part: the Sharpie! Using the black Sharpie, trace along the eyeliner in the shape of the state. If you mess up, you have about 5 seconds to rub off the Sharpie with a paper towel. Any longer and you will REALLY have to rub to get the marker off. Dipping the paper towel in a little bit of water sometimes helps. Once you’ve traced the state with the Sharpie, let it dry for about 15 minutes and gently wipe off the eyeliner with a paper towel. If any of the Sharpie rubs off, carefully re-trace. With the red Sharpie, draw a heart over the city in which each person lives.

The next step took me the longest: drawing the dotted lines. I thought this would be the easiest part, but those little buggers are surprisingly hard to get right. The more of a perfectionist you are, the longer this will probably take. Again, if you make a mistake or don’t like how it turned out, wipe off with a paper towel.

When you’re done, set the mugs side by side to make sure everything lines up ok:

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When you’re satisfied with how they look, time to bake ’em!

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Bake the mugs for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. When they are finished, leave them in the oven with the door cracked to cool. Once they are cool, gently wash them.

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Give your faraway friend your state’s mug, and you keep your friend’s state’s mug. Add a bag of coffee or a bottle of flavored syrup, and the gift is complete! Now every time I use my Arkansas mug, I’ll think of Emily, and because I told her she has to, I know she’ll do the same. 🙂

**UPDATE** I used my mug today (it rocks), so I have some tips for cleaning these. I washed the mug in warm water using Dawn dish soap and LIGHT pressure on the part with the Sharpie. I would not recommend scrubbing the part with the Sharpie with hard pressure or putting these in the dishwasher.

Last minute DIY Christmas Gift – Coasters

Anyone else not done with Christmas shopping yet? I’m sooooo close!

If you haven’t braved it and gone to a mall lately, know this: stores are crazy right now. And shipping-time is making online shopping an increasingly less likely option. So, if you still have people to shop for, it might be time to consider making some hot chocolate, putting on some holiday music and getting your “crafter” face on.

These DIY coasters are doubly delightful: they are ridiculously easy and they cost less than $10 to  make. You’ll need the following supplies:

* Cork coasters (most craft stores should have them. I got these at Michael’s)

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* Mod Podge
* Small paint brush
* Map of your favorite place or scrapbook paper
* Stamp (optional)

First, decide what kind of coasters you want to make. For the ones for our library, I decided to make “map coasters” of all the places in Ohio that mean something to Ryan and me:

Akron – where we bought our first home and currently live
Tiffin – where we met at Heidelberg University
Ravenna – where I grew up
Fairlawn – where we got married
Lima – where Ryan grew up
Bowling Green – where I went to grad school (Bowling Green State University)
Lorain – the fire department where Ryan works
Cleveland – home to our favorite sports teams!

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I got this map of Ohio from a turnpike rest stop – but places such as Wal-Mart sell them as well.

As you will see below, if you just want to make decorative coasters with scrapbook paper, just pick out the paper and stamp (if you desire).

Once you have decided on the kind of coaster you want to make, trace circles around the paper, using the coasters as a guide, and cut out.

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Put a thin layer of Mod Podge on the coaster and immediately put one of the paper circles on top. Make sure the edges are lined up and set aside to dry. Continue with the rest of the coasters. When they are mostly dry, put a layer of Mod Podge on top of the assembled coaster. Again, do the same for all the coasters. This time, let them dry completely. I recommend putting at least another layer of Mod Podge on the coasters (I put two more). Once they are again completely dry, they are ready to use!

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I love these because they can be completely customized to fit any personality and any decor. And they are a great gift because who doesn’t need coasters as an ally in the battle against water rings? If maps aren’t your thing, try using fun scrapbook paper. A stamp finishes it off:

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I must have a “thing” for bird stamps

In any case, there is sure to be someone in your life that would enjoy these – even if that someone is yourself! We all deserve a little treat this time of year, right? Happy holidays!

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Party With A Purpose

Happy Monday! Here’s an easy question to start off your week: do you believe in giving to those less fortunate?

My guess is that almost everyone reading this would answer “yes” to that question (which is one reason why I love you all!). I certainly do, but unfortunately, I don’t have the unlimited financial means to donate as much or as often as I would like. But I got to thinking…

It was just over two months ago: I found myself getting caught up in planning for the upcoming holiday season (and all the social events that go with it). The holidays are so magical, and I love getting to spend time all of people I love so dearly. Even though we all complain about being so “busy”, I think we could all admit that having so many people in our lives worth running around to see is truly a blessing. So, why not make giving to those less fortunate a part of all the festivities? Why not help others while spending time with those we love? Why not party with a purpose?

My idea was simple: pick a charity and request that party-goers bring an item to donate. Since my sister was the first to host a holiday get-together, I brought up the idea to her. Thankfully, she was on board (which didn’t surprise me even a little bit – my sister has the biggest heart in the world). For her party, Kendall asked guests to bring an item that would be shipped to a child in a third-world country, as part of a program at her church. With all the items people brought, she was able to send care packages for TEN children. Even though the individual items in the packages weren’t overly expensive (pencils, toothpaste, small toys, etc.), it would have been a substantial financial investment for one person to buy all that. But as a group, each individual didn’t have to spend much to make a big impact.

The success at Kendall’s party got me really excited to try this out at my book exchange party.  I asked my guests to bring one item for a homeless shelter in Akron (for example, canned food, clothing, personal hygiene products). I must have extremely caring people in my life because these ladies not only brought one item for the shelter, they brought enough that I had EIGHT TIMES more items than people who came to the party. In addition, I gave them the option to leave their un-exchanged books as a donation. It shouldn’t come as a shock that every single person opted to donate their leftover books. Together, these wonderful woman donated over 50 books to another non-profit organization near and dear to my heart: the Akron Public Library system. Both the Haven of Rest and the library were so thankful for these generous donations.

I truly believe that the vast majority of people in this world want to help others. So my ask of you is this: when planning your next party, please consider partying with a purpose. You really would be amazed at how much good can be done while enjoying the company of your friends and family. What may seem like a big deal to one person is much more doable for a group of people. So spread some love and generosity this holiday season (and beyond)! That warm, fuzzy feeling you’ll get is sure to stay with you longer than the cold winter weather.

Christmas Tree Photos

As I mentioned before, I’m pretending I know what I’m doing with my new camera and taking pictures of any willing subject. Lately I’ve been motivated by the holiday season and have been focusing on the glittery lights of Christmas trees. Check out my works-in-progress here and here.

Happy holidays, and as always, I appreciate any feedback and/or suggestions!