Wednesday, May 23, 2012

3rd Anniversary

Today is my third anniversary. I would love to say that my first three years of marriage have been everything I thought they would be, but that's not true. There are a lot of things that haven't been at all what I would have thought they would be three years ago, but I am so incredibly grateful for all of those little surprises because they have created the path to the place where I am now, and I'm pretty darn happy with that place. The best part about it has been having Jeff by my side for each and every step of this journey!

This past year has been a big one for us! A lot has happened, so let's re-cap shall we?

We discovered Geocaching - while we haven't done a ton of this, it's been fun and we're anticipating many more adventures!

Jeff built me a workbench for all of my craft stuff in the garage so I have a space of my own.

I was hired as a weekend chaplain at Children's of Alabama.

We tried (and fell in love with) Fox Valley Restaurant - If you're ever in the area of Helena, you should check them out. AMAZING.

Jeff got a full-time job as a contract worker with Southern Company! Hip-hip hooray!

I completed my CPE Residency! Double hip-hip hooray!

We went on a 5 day Western Caribbean cruise.

We did some minor renovations to the kitchen and some major renovations to the basement!

We hosted Christmas Day celebrations for my extended family.

I was turned down for commissioning again and made the decision to discontinue as a licensed local pastor.

We took a weekend getaway to Nashville.

I was accepted for the Academy for Spiritual Formation.

We finally "finished" moving in and got the last piece of furniture - a china cabinet!

We hosted Easter celebrations for Jeff's extended family.

We made some updates to the back yard including a shed, flower garden, ceiling fan, and hot tub.

I moved into the empty room upstairs and turned it into my library/meditation space.

We replaced both vehicles - Jeff's truck with an Expedition and my car with a Mazda3

We are planning a 7 day Eastern Caribbean cruise for this fall.

I am really excited about embarking on the adventures of the next year! Thanks for joining us so far!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Formaggio's - Alabaster

We have been watching Formaggio's for months now. So long that I really kind of stopped watching because I had just given up on it. It looked like it opened for a couple of nights a month or two ago and just as we were getting ready to try it was closed again. We finally got our chance on Saturday, May 12th. I honestly have no idea when they officially opened or how long they had been open, but I will say the first impression was generally very nice.

The parking lot, both front and back, was pretty full. I was honestly surprised by how few patrons were in the dining room (I counted maybe 8 tables including us) so I can only assume many of those cars belonged to the staff.

In looking at the menu, the first thing that caught my eye was that they do pizza by the slice. I've always liked that idea, especially since Jeff and I like such different things. Then I noticed they do both thin and "Chicago style" pizzas, but it didn't specify which you could get by the slice. Common sense will say it's the thin kind, but the way it's worded on the menu isn't especially clear. I'm a big fan of chicago style pizza but obviously I'm not going to get one just for myself and Jeff was feeling pasta, so we'll have to save the pizza for another visit.

We got an appetizer of the fried ravioli, which were good but nothing especially outstanding about them. The one down side was that we didn't get any plates so we all ended up double dipping into the sauce (but since it was family I didn't particularly care!) Jeff ordered a side of meatballs with his entree (his favorite test of any new italian place) and those came out as an appetizer, but again, no plates! That was my biggest gripe about the whole experience, which I guess isn't so bad.

Jeff decided to get the Formaggio Combo Pasta which came with spaghetti carbonara, chicken parmigiana, and lasagna along with his side of meatballs. My mother-in-law got the spaghetti with meatballs. I opted for the pepperoni roll. Both Jeff and Barbara's meals came with salad, so Jeff got ranch and Barbara got the house vinaigrette. The other option was soup, but neither the menu nor our server ever said what type. We also got breadsticks, which were obviously made with the pizza dough and were quite tasty. Both had good things to say about the house vinaigrette, and I heard another table talking about how good it was, too.

The entrees came out and they were very good. I tried bites of all of it and was pleased. The one thing I didn't like was the green peas in the carbonara (which I know a lot of people do) and while several menu items included some sort of description, the carbonara didn't have anything. I almost ordered that as my entree but ended up being very glad I didn't because of the peas! My mother-in-law asked for more breadsticks when our entrees came but by the time we got them everyone was just about done with dinner! Nobody ever told us "we're making more" or what the hold up was so I don't know if the waitress simply forgot or what the problem was.

My biggest confusion was the Calzones and Pizza Rolls - Can somebody explain to me what the difference is (other than the shape maybe?) Both were described as having the sauce on the side, so why do both? There were more options for the calzones and their filling, but everything you can get in a pizza roll you can get in a calzone. And even more, why offer different sides? The calzone comes with pasta salad and the pizza roll comes with chips, but you can substitute pasta salad for an extra charge. We aren't talking homemade chips either, I got a small bag of Lay's. The price is pretty much the same (a pepperoni calzone is the same price as my pepperoni pizza roll) so what is the difference? Also, the sandwiches come with french fries with the option to substitute a side salad for an extra charge, but those aren't an option for either of the other two. Also, there's no "make your own" option for either the calzones or pizza rolls, but the menu said you can add extra toppings, so why not? Maybe I'm just over-analyzing this, but it takes up half the space on the menu so I'm curious.

We decided to also order dessert. They had lots of different kinds of cake, plus cheesecake, tiramisu and cannoli. I was excited about trying the cannoli, but just as we were about to order we were told they were out. Seriously? It was only 7:30 on Saturday night!?! Instead, I got orange creamscicle cake, Jeff got strawberry cake, and Barbara got cheesecake. While the strawberry and creamscicle were ok, the cake was a little on the dry side. The icing was good, though. The cheesecake was my favorite, but other than trying a cannoli I don't really see myself going to the trouble of saving room for dessert on future visits.

I'm sure we will return. I still want to try the chicago style pizza, the gnocchi, and the cannoli. However, as of right now, this is definitely not our first choice if we're in the mood for Italian.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day

This is a picture of me and my Momma from 2004. People say we are a lot alike, both in looks and in personality. I take that as a very high compliment. She was an amazing woman and I was a lucky girl to get to call her mine.

Mother's Day is one day that reminds me what kind of "non-place" I have in the world on this day. The first Sunday I was at my church, one of the members pulled me aside and asked me "Doesn't it make you sad?" and my response to her was a simple "No." My thought process was "Why? Because I'm not a mother? Or because I don't have a mother? Either way, no!"

One thing I really appreciate about my church is that they always honor every woman on Mother's Day and every man on Father's Day. I always acknowledge in the service the role of the people who have mothered us in a variety of ways, not only physically. 

This is one holiday that has gotten a little bit harder as the years have gone by. Not so much because of the death of my mother (although it does remind me of how much I miss her) but also because I don't have children. I'm sort of a "nothing" on this day. I do have my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law that we celebrate, but it's not the same thing. 

A part of me resents, just a little bit, the assumption that Jeff's family automatically "gets" that holiday and that compromise is not expected or required because there is no "competition" for our time and attention. The truth is, there is a lot of competition for my attention, but it's internal. I actually enjoy the chance to work, especially at the hospital, on Mother's Day because it gives me a little bit of time and space to remember and honor my mother in my own way. 

I saw a nice piece about "the continuum of mothering" so I will close with that food for thought. I found it as a part of this post, but I don't think that is where it originated. I have changed a little bit of it.

To those who gave birth or adopted a child this year - we celebrate with you
To those who lost a child this year - we mourn with you
To those who are in the trenches with little ones every day and wear the badge of food stains - we appreciate you
To those who walk the hard path of infertility, fraught with pokes, prods, tears, and disappointments - we walk with you. Forgive us when we say foolish things, we don't mean to make this harder than it already is.
To those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms - we need you
To those who have warm and close relationships with you - we celebrate with you
To those who have disappointment, heartache, and distance with your children - we sit with you
To those who have lost their mother - we grieve with you
To those who have experienced abuse at the hands of their own mother - we acknowledge your experience
To those who lived through driving tests, medical tests, and the overall testing of motherhood - we are better for having you in our midst
To those who will have emptier nests in the coming year - we grieve and rejoice with you
To those who are expecting new life, both expected and surprising - we anticipate with you.

This Mother's Day we walk with you. Mothering is not for the faint of heart and  we have real warriors in our midst. We remember you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"From Your Freezer to Your Family" E-Cookbook

If you have been paying attention lately, I have been singing the praises of Stephanie from Mama and Baby Love. I first discovered her blog thanks to Pinterest and her original post about freezer cooking only using slow cooker recipes and I kind of fell in love with her. She is a rock star in about a million different ways and she has sort of become my new P-dub! Her writing touches something in my heart and soul and I hope someday I can meet her "for real."

Recently, she published an e-cookbook with lots of her great slow cooker freezer meals. I purchased my copy immediately and I'm super-excited about finally trying some of these great recipes, especially the barbeque chicken. As if I wasn't enough in love with her and her stuff, she goes the extra mile to include grocery lists and printable labels for each of the recipes (and we all know how much I love organizing, lists, labels, and printables!

One thing that characterizes her recipes, and that she explains really well in the introduction to the cookbook, is the use of "real food." This is a very new concept for me since pretty much every meal I have consumed most of my life included at least one element that was processed. I am trying to baby step my way into some of this, and her recipes are a great introduction to this idea in a way that seems very approachable and pretty darn easy!

Right now you can get her e-cookbook for only $5.99. The price will be going up in a few weeks, so I would recommend getting it now! If you still need a last minute Mother's Day gift, this would be a great solution - you could put together a cute little basket with a new slow cooker (or even a cute serving bowl), a pot of fresh herbs, a couple of wooden spoons, and some cute towels.

You can get the book by clicking the new button on my sidebar (can I just say buttons excite me more than they probably should!) or by clicking here to visit Mama And Baby Love.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Five - Random

Today's Friday Five is a little on the random side, but that's fine by me because I tend to stay on the random side of life! To keep with the random theme, I just chose a random picture not related to anything else. In honor of Mother's Day this weekend, this is a picture of me, my mom, my grandfather (her dad), and my great-grandmother (his mom). I think I was about 3-4 months old in this picture.

1. What is the first thing that comes to your mind (right now) that you want to share about yourself? - I'm planning to spend the whole day today in slouchy clothes cuddling with my dogs and watching movies.

2. What is your favorite piece of jewelry or accessory? Why? - Probably my purse - It's the Eloise style from Vera Bradley. It's cute and a great size for pretty much everything. Right now I have it in a fun, funky pattern but when it is time to replace it I'll probably get the same style in black.

3. If you could have a starring role in a tv show/movie/series, which one would it be and what would your character be like? - I honestly have no idea. I am really not sure I would want that. I'm more of a behind the scenes person.

4. What is one thing you will eat this weekend? - Probably ice cream at some point.

5. How do you waste time? - Pinterest!

What kind of randomness is on your mind today?  Don't forget to leave me a comment and let me know you stopped by!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Photography on a Cruise

One of the best and worst things on a cruise is the availability of photos. There are photographers all over the place taking pictures all the time. There's no cost to you to have photos made, and there's no obligation to buy any of the pictures that are made. The pictures usually come out pretty nice, but they are very pricey. The "fancy" ones are generally about $20 each and only come in the 8x10 size.

I have been on exactly one cruise where I didn't buy a single photo. The reason we didn't buy any was because we didn't have any made. We knew we didn't want to buy any so we avoided the temptation. We skipped the embarkation photo before getting on the boat. We didn't pose in our fancy clothes on formal night. We refused to stop getting off the boat in port. We declined the photos at dinner. Because just as there are no limits to how many you can have made, there aren't any that are required.

On our last Dream cruise, we took advantage of something new that was being offered, and that was private sessions with a photographer to take pictures around the ship (and it was also available in port if you wanted a few beach shots), not just a quick pose in front of a fake backdrop. (That's where the picture at the top of this post came from) The pictures were beautiful and I was very happy with them, but they were pricey. The advantage to these was that, because we made a minimum purchase, we got the ones you purchased on a CD so we could share and re-print them. Even with that block of time, it was kind of chaotic because we had a group of about 14. I am not going to coordinate it again like I did last time, but if someone else wants to be responsible for it, they are welcome to it and I will be happy to participate. One day, when we're taking a cruise with our kids, I could definitely see doing this with them!

This is an easy way to spend a lot of money if you aren't careful because they do add up very quickly. If you're a scrapbooker, they're very tempting because they often have props, dates, place names, and other details that you might like to have included. They can be cute and funny, and they don't require you to keep up with your camera, especially if you're going on a water excursion where something might happen to it! There is something to be said for the convenience of it.

There is a down side to buying pictures, besides the price, and that is getting them home! Sure, they put the pictures in a heavy-ish folder to keep it from getting bent up, but you need a place to store it and then transport it home. I have found that, if you have a laptop sleeve in one of your bags, that's a great place for keeping and transporting them!

Being aware of all of the good and bad, Jeff and I are probably going to have a few made on this next cruise. I like having good family photos made at least once a year, and the timing on this next cruise will be perfect for Christmas cards so to me, it's worth the cost to get one or two good pictures. I always hope that I end up with a couple of good ones taken by family members, but I'm not going to expect that. We're going to budget for a couple of good photos, and if we end up not getting them we can spend that money on something else!

I have heard that some cruise lines have started doing a "buy a CD of all your photos for a set price" and I really REALLY wish Carnival would do something like this. Even if it was $250 I would probably buy it, which is more than I would normally even consider spending on buying the printed photos, but I would make it a point to have pictures made and get my money's worth out of it! Plus, it would eliminate the whole transportation issue!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Flower Garden

Before we ever bought this house, we talked about the idea of putting in a flower garden in this little back corner of the yard just off the patio.  However, our first summer here Jeff decided that the space would be better utilized as the home of an above-ground pool, so that's what we put in. We enjoyed the pool for two summers, but when we took it down last fall we decided that maybe it was time to consider other options.  After we got our basement room renovation completed, we got serious about doing things for the patio since we were now seeing and using it more. In the process of getting things situated in the garage, Jeff decided that he needed a small garden shed for all his yard equipment and tools and that nice, level corner of the yard was the perfect place to put it. However, that forever eliminated the option of putting back the pool and left us with a decent sized piece of yard that looked quite pitiful. It was flower garden time!

We had some lattice work on the side of the patio acting as a screen between the patio where our table and chairs were sitting and that lovely little corner of yard. When the pool was there it was fine, but since we wanted to put in something pretty we wanted to be able to see it, so Jeff cut three arches in the lattice to serve as window. One of the pieces we cut out was then mounted on the garden shed to add some detail and serve as a sort of background for our fountain. Jeff had bought this long before he ever met me, but never moved it from his mother's house because we never had another place to put it until now.

Then we created the garden itself. We made four beds around the perimeter with two openings that serve as entry points - one to the yard and one to the patio. The beds were lined with pavers and filled in with dirt. The area inside the beds was filled with pea gravel and 4 larger stepping stones. Inside the beds, we chose a variety of different plants and flowers. On the lattice wall, we got a jasmine vine. As it climbs the lattice it will hopefully surround those "windows." We also got a St. Francis bird feeder. (Apparently the chipmunks are quite fond of it because I always see them running past the door when Patches is inside and while most of the bird seed is staying, the sunflower seeds are being picked out!)

In the bed by the fence is a bush that is supposed to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. It is supposed to be a spring-blooming plant so it was on sale. I don't expect it to make it through the summer, but right now it's nice and I'm looking forward to seeing what it draws in next year. We also put a couple of (what are now small) cypress trees in the corners. Hanging on the fence we moved an old iron hook we found in the woods where someone had tossed it with a hanging basket. Right now it has miniature pansies, but I'm sure it'll get changed out periodically.

In the bed by the fountain we put some bushes that are supposed to grow to a "medium" size and will fill in under the fountain. Like most of the beds, it also got some ground cover/filler flowers that will add some color.

The bed by the yard has some flowers in it, although one is about dead because Patches has decided he likes to water that one himself! We'll probably eventually dig it up and replace it with a small statue of a fire hydrant! We put some light fencing on the yard-side of that bed just to keep the dogs from running straight through it and give it some definition. It looks very nice.

We put a small iron bench on the gravel that is big enough for two people. It's the perfect place to sit and think. I just hate that it's so blooming hot now! Still, in the evenings it's a nice place. Obviously it's not in this picture, but you can figure out where it goes.

I love that we can see this area from the patio and the hot tub. The fountain is on a timer so it's not running all the time, but it does turn on in the afternoon/evening which is when we are generally outside anyway. And in case you are wondering about the spare piece of lattice between the fence and the shed, we used that L-shaped area around the shed to make a sort of "play pen" for Cocoa. She now has a secure area outside where I can leave her during the day so she doesn't have to be inside in her crate for hours on end.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My New Freezer and Its Contents

Growing up, we always had a large freezer in addition to the freezer on the refrigerator (and truth be told, for as long as I can remember we had two of those) so we usually had plenty of frozen food because we had plenty of freezer space. Most of that was pre-packaged convenience food from Schwans or Costco which suited us just fine as kids, especially during school breaks. However, now that I am an adult I am starting to be a little more concerned about what I am eating. Thanks to all kinds of Internet influence, I have started to think the intersection of slow cooking and freezer cooking is the perfect solution for us.

Our freezer on our fridge isn't huge, but it has done okay for keeping meat and a few other things, but it's just not big enough for me to be doing freezer cooking regularly. Especially now that I'm starting to do more making my own components like stock and we will be freezing more veggies over the summer, it was time to get some more freezer space. We got a nice 5.0 cubic foot freezer from Lowes and it fits perfectly on the back deck tucked behind the little bar.

I have made a promise to myself - nothing pre-packaged "convenience food" goes in the new freezer. The goal is to use up what we have and then make home-made versions for the replacements so that eventually we have very little processed food but lots of things that are still super-convenient. I started with a couple of pinterest ideas - freezing yogurt into bite sized snacks. Instead of doing "dots" I put them into a little heart shaped ice tray so I have some nice warm-weather snacks. I also tried the idea of freezing wine into ice cube trays and it didn't go as well as I had hoped. Oh well, live and learn!

Last night we went to Sam's and stocked up on meat. We got one large roast that we were able to split, 4 sirloins, 6 lbs of chicken, 2 pork tenderloins, and 3 lbs of bacon. As easy as it was to boil and shred the chicken breasts last time, Jeff requested some grilled chicken to use on salads and I can still use that in casseroles, so I'll be firing up the grill today. I'm also going to pre-cook some of the bacon for whatever we may decide we need it for.

In case you haven't seen it yet, the e-cookbook "From Your Freezer To Your Family: Slow Cooker Freezer Recipes" by Stephanie Cornais of Mama and Baby Love  is a fabulous resource for tasty and healthy freezer meals for the slow cooker. I've already got my copy of the cookbook and I'm so excited about trying some of them! Stephanie is now topping my list of amazing women I hope I'm lucky enough to meet "for real" someday.

The one tweak I'm planning to make to her freezer meals is (for the ones that require broth), since my broth is already frozen into cubes, put the correct number of cubes into the bag with everything else so I don't have to worry about adding that on cooking morning.

 I'm not a "real food rock star" like Stephanie, but I am making an effort to make more things so I can eliminate at least a portion of the preservatives and sodium and other stuff that goes into all that handy-dandy stuff. I will probably never stop using stuff like canned tomatoes or mango chutney, but I figure one packaged component in an otherwise "fresh and real" meal is a great improvement.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Saving on Shore

I know I've posted about shore excursions before, but that was pretty specific to my last vacation. In light of the money-saving tips presented on the infographic from, I decided to re-visit the idea. This lovely photo is of me and Jeff (and several other family members) snorkeling in Mexico during our 2007 cruise.

Suggestion: "Booking private tours beforehand can be cheaper than taking the boat's tours" (section 5, number 5 on the infographic if you want to look at it)

Honestly, I'm not sure if this is referring to tours before and after the cruise itself or tours in the ports of call during the cruise. Here are a few thoughts on all of the above!

If you're talking about a tour before or after the cruise itself, this may be a true statement, and is generally going to be more applicable in the cases of cruises like Alaska or Europe/Mediterranean where cruise-tours are popular. Because I've personally never done one of these, I can't speak to it. Jeff has done the cruise-tour thing in Alaska. On the whole, he really enjoyed getting to see different areas he wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise, but there were definitely down sides, not least of which was the cost. However, there is an element of the convenience factor. You may can find a cheaper tour after you get off the boat, but you may be responsible for getting yourself to the start of that tour, taking your luggage, and other things that are worth considering. Do you have to get a cab? Is there a "missing meal" you'll be responsible for? Just factoring the cost of those two things can make a big difference in what is cheaper!

"Home Port" Excursions
If you're talking about single day "home port" excursions, chances are that you're going to be doing a lot of paying for convenience. I'm going to use the specific example of an excursion some of our family members are considering for our next cruise - going to Kennedy Space Center for the day after we get off the ship because the flight home won't be until 6pm.

  • It's something to with yourself between getting off the boat and getting on a plane
  • Carnival will get you to the space center and then back to the airport (this may or may not be a major cost contributor)
  • Carnival takes care of your luggage - not just getting it off the boat and onto the bus, but also checked to your airline. (You can do this without booking a tour/excursion but there is a cost for it!)
  • It's expensive (more than twice the cost of simply buying the tickets on your own, but may even out depending on transportation costs)
  • You're stuck on their schedule
  • Carry-on luggage is pretty much impossible unless you want to carry it around all day, and you have to pack up everything to be checked and have it outside your room the night before. (In my mind, all I can think is that I'll have to sleep naked and then toss my toothbrush in the morning!)
As you can see, there are some important things to consider both ways. For some people, the cost is worth it. For others, it may be cheaper (or simply worth the price difference) to do something on your own for the day. Another option (and one that is most appealing to me at this point) is to plan to stay in a hotel that night and go home the next day. Even if you can't check in first thing, many will let you leave your luggage and then you can do something cheap or free (like going to the beach) and then take a flight the next day.

Port of Call Excursions
I suppose it's always possible to make your own arrangements before you leave home, but this one is kind of an odd situation. Some people swear that the best time to take tours would be on your first visit to a new place. Others prefer to explore on their own during the first trip and then see what is interesting and book tours during later visits. If you want to make your own arrangements, you'd probably have an easier time doing this if you're in the second group. However, if you do this, it would definitely be worth knowing what kind of cancellation policy or insurance you have, but don't assume it exists. This is one area where, in my experience, excursions booked through the ship or cruise line have an advantage. I have had an excursion (snorkeling) cancelled because the ocean was too rough since it had been stormy. We could still use part of what had been purchased (going to a beach park) but we did got a refund on the cancelled part.

Now, that's not to say you can't make your own arrangements on your first visit to a new port. You would just have to kind of fly by the seat of your pants and look for something as you get off the boat in the port and have the cash on hand to pay for it. There is a little bit of risk in doing this because you are going to be on your own and responsible for getting yourself back on the boat in time to leave! But, you don't have the risk of losing out on something because of inclement weather or just not feeling like doing it because you haven't committed to anything!

I would say to just think logically about your own situation and what you think is right for you and your vacation. My personal preference is often to pay for convenience and book things ahead of time so that I can budget for it and plan for it. Often times I can pre-pay for it (sometimes getting a better rate) and it's one less thing to have to worry about having cash for. I know plenty of people who would rather haggle and wait for the last minute deals, but that also runs the risk that you'll end up having to pay more because of high demand and do a lot more sitting and waiting. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Onion Broth

I know I mentioned before about making onion soup. This is the original recipe I set out to make, but you know me and my crazy desire to make everything "my way". In the past I have made a court bouillon that was really great for other things, so I decided to try and combine the two recipes.

3 cups chicken broth
3 cups water
3 Tbsp whole black pepper corns
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
pinch of salt

The results weren't as good as I was expecting because I went a little overboard with the black pepper and it still tasted a little flat. I later learned that if I added a little more water it toned down the pepper a bit and I could dress it up with some herbs and it was quite tasty (and also stretched this already inexpensive dish even farther). However, even in its original form it has a great flavor for cooking. I froze most of it into cubes, popped them into a plastic freezer bag, and let them hang out in my freezer so they're there when I need them.

If you're going to freeze it in cubes, one thing I would recommend is to measure the size of your cubes and then write that on your freezer bag so that when you need them for something, you know how much you have and how many you should use. In my case, three cubes is equal to 1/3 cup of liquid.

Next time I'm going to add some more flavor with a few herbs and maybe a little bit of wine. This may actually cure me of buying canned chicken broth forever!