Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Thing #355--Auld Lang Syne

I've done a variety of things on New Year's Eve. Many years we've gone to dinners, dances, and house parties with friends. When the kids were younger, we took them to our city's First Night. The last several years we've attended a lockin in conjunction with a group Sons Brian and Donald were involved in; there were parallel activities for parents and children, but both groups came together to celebrate midnight and the turning of the year. We wanted to do something different this year, so when I heard about a promotion by Wehrenberg Theaters, we decided to stay close to home and take in a movie. Tonight I welcomed in the new year by going to a movie, but actually celebrated New Years Eve by dancing in the theater parking lot.

The promotion was a good deal; the package included a movie ticket (for any "9:00 hour" movie), refillable popcorn and soda, and a goodie bag with hats and party favors. We purchased our tickets several days ago, to make sure we got our first choice of movies. When we arrived at the theater tonight, the ticket-taker stamped our hand, indicating that we were entitled to all the extras. It was great to not open my wallet again at the concession stand; carrying our sodas and Diet Cokes, we entered the auditorium and picked out seats.

The movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) ran for more than 2 1/2 hours, so it was close to midnight when it finished. In the lobby, our hand stamp got us plastic leis, party hats, and bags containing noisemakers, bubbles, streamers, and party poppers. Although the promotion had indicated that "guests are welcome to stay in the lobby to welcome in 2009", the lobby was practically deserted; everyone was leaving after they received their things. We put our hats and leis on, grabbed our bags, and left too.

Tony and I walked to the car, turned on the radio as loud as it would go, and rolled down the car windows. We danced to techno music for a couple of minutes until midnight, then shot our poppers, threw streamers at each other, and blew our noisemakers at the other people who were still in the parking lot.

After a few minutes of revelry, we realized it was cold! We got in the car, closed the windows, turned the radio down to a reasonable level, and drove away. It was a great night.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Thing #354--Talk To Me

Did you know that your computer can talk? I didn't until today, when I used the Microsoft Narrator utility on my computer.

Narrator is a basic Microsoft accessibility option that uses Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology to read what is displayed on the screen. It allows people with little or no sight to use computers that have Windows operating systems.

I had to do two things before Narrator could start vocalizing to me. First, I had to set up the speech properties for my computer, and then I had to configure Narrator itself. I found the Speech Properties folder in the Control Panel (because I still use Windows XP). In the text-to-speech tab, there were three voices to choose from-I picked "Microsoft Sam", and set him to speak at a normal rate of speed.

Narrator was in the Accessories menu, under the Accessibility category. Once you open the Narrator, a dialog box lets you select from several different TTS functions that include, among others:
  • Announcing events on the screen, where the narrator will read aloud new windows, menus, or shortcuts when they are displayed
  • Reading typed characters (including every keystroke you make, like shifts, spaces, backspaces, and deletes).
The Voice Settings box lets you adjust the speed, volume and pitch of the voice you've chosen. When the Narrator settings configured and the volume turned up, it was time for me to put Microsoft Sam to the test. I opened a Word document and started typing.

I found Narrator very annoying. It would probably be helpful to someone who couldn't see well, but the voice was way too slow-paced for my typing rate; it tried to keep up, but it couldn't, even when I put it on the fastest speed. When I tried to end the program, it asked if I was sure I wanted to exit; I didn't have to think twice before I clicked "Yes".

Monday, December 29, 2008

New Thing #353--Chill Out

I wanted a soda with my lunch today. There were some cans in the pantry, but none in the refrigerator, and I think nothing is worse than warm soda. I could have gotten a glass and poured the soda over ice, but today I used everyday ingredients to chill my can of soda in two minutes.

The principle is the same one that I used years ago when we made homemade ice cream. When you add salt to a ice and water mixture, the salt lowers the freezing point of the water, meaning it gets colder than it normally could. Agitating the can of soda makes the whole cooling process go faster.

The steps:
  • Fill a container with water and add ice to it. (I used a 50/50 mix of ice and water, and performed my experiment in a six-cup measuring cup since I was only chilling one can of soda.)

  • Add a handful of salt to the ice. (Rock salt would probably have worked better, but all we had in the garage was something called "ice melt"; I didn't know if it would have the same effect. I used table salt, and it did the trick.)

  • Place your drink in the ice water solution and rapidly stir it around. (My hands were already cold, so I used a wooden spoon for this step.)

  • Wait two minutes, then test.
I was skeptical that my room-temperature soda could get cold so quickly, but it really worked! Next time, though, I would chill the can another minute, because I like my soda really cold.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Thing #352--Measure Up

I've heard that cats can sleep eighteen to twenty hours a day. An intestinal virus has caught up with me, and I've been laying around a lot since yesterday. Today I compared my sleep schedule to my cats'.



7:30 AM--Woke up, rolled over, went back to sleep

Are you kidding? We got up at 4:30, ate breakfast, and then started our early-morning nap.

9:15--Pulled myself out of bed. Pepper was sleeping on my feet. Showered, dressed, and passed Jackson curled up in the hallway as I went downstairs.

Ahhh…nothing like a cat nap. Makes the day go so much faster!

9:45--Made some tea for breakfast, and ate a handful of Cheerios.

The cats thought the cereal sounded like kibbles, and came into the kitchen to see if there was anything for them. They walked under the table a couple of times, and then went to take their mid-morning nap.

10:30--I’m not feeling so good, so I go into the family room to stretch out on the couch. Pushed Jackson out of the way, and take the prime spot in the sun.

Jackson opened one eye, looked at me, and then went back to sleep. After a half-hour, he got up, stretched, and lay back down (with his head facing the opposite direction as before). Pepper tried to join us at some point, but decided it was too crowded on the couch.

1:00--Decided to go to church; although I couldn’t sleep there, at least I wasn’t exerting any energy.

Pepper joined me in the bathroom as I was getting ready, and then followed me into the hall. As I was leaving, he was getting ready to curl up for his early-afternoon nap.

2:00--Went in the car with Tony to run several errands. Dozed almost the entire time.

The cats got fed before we left; expending the most energy they had all day. Afterwards, it was time for the all-important mid-afternoon nap.

3:00--Fell asleep on the couch, and woke up about 4:00 to the sound of dinner preparations. Got up and drank a cup of coffee (which did not agree with me!)

The cats are still missing in action; based on past experience they’re on or under one of the beds in the house

4:30--Back to the family room to stretch out, although for variety I chose the couch on the other side of the room.

Jackson was taking his late-afternoon nap on a blanket which was thrown over the top of the couch. He passed on the opportunity to join me.

6:00--Dinner time. Eggs, sausage, and pancakes for everyone else; one dry pancake and tea for me.

The cats make a couple of passes under the table, looking for crumbs. They don’t find anything, so they left to go curl up together somewhere.

7:15--Finally starting to feel better.

Pepper joins me at the computer, sitting on the desk as I type.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Thing #351--Going Bananas

Today I used a food dehydrator to dry fruit.

Son Brian's is a pro with his food dehydrator. His specialty is beef jerky, but he's also dabbled with drying apples and other fruits. For Christmas I got a dehydrator of my own, and I was excited to try it out. I've sun-dried tomatoes a couple of times in the summer, but it's hard to do in the Midwest humidity, and a pain to bring the trays in each night and when it rains. It's also impossible to sun dry anything in our cold winter weather.

A food dehydrator has an electric element for heat and a fan for air circulation. Dehydrators work by increasing air current around food to remove the moist air, which makes the whole drying process is faster and easier.

My dehydrator fit nicely on the island in the kitchen. It has a lid that contains the heater and fan; the lid sits on top of four round stackable trays. (However, I can buy more trays and expand the tower up to 12 layers). It has adjustable temperature settings for herbs, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and meats. Another nice feature is a top handle that makes it easy to check on things by lifting up the entire lid.

Brian was full of information about the dehydrator, the operation of my setup, and the drying process. I barely had to read the manual!

I decided to dry bananas today. They're easily available, inexpensive, and wouldn't take as much preparation as some other fruits. The biggest problem with bananas is their tendency to turn brown. I peeled and sliced them, tossed the slices in an ascorbic acid mixture, then laid them out on two layers of the dehydrator. The slices completely filled each tray.

The directions indicated the bananas would dry in 6-12 hours. However, if the surrounding air is humid, then drying will take longer. Our weather forecast called for several inches of rain over the course of the day, so at the six hour mark the bananas were still quite rubbery. They were also a bit browner than I would have liked, but they tasted good. The fruit flavor was intensifying nicely.

After about nine hours the process was almost complete. I took most of the dry banana chips out, leaving a few that were still sticky. Ten hours after I started, I was cleaning the racks and getting ready to put the dehydrator away.

The bananas had shrunk substantially in the dehydration process. I started with a little over two pounds of fruit, and finished with two cups of chips.

I'm looking forward to drying fruits and vegetables, and making fruit leathers and jerky

Friday, December 26, 2008

New Thing #350--Next Blog

One thing I enjoy doing is searching within Blogger to find new and different blogs to read. There is a "Next Blog" link at the top of the page that leads you to a random writer's thoughts. Many of the pages are not in English, but that makes it more interesting. It's fun to try to figure out the subject of a post by picking out a word that may be familiar, or by the pictures that were added to a post.

Today I left a comment on a random blog I found by searching within Blogger.

The author that received my comment is a farmer who lives in the United Kingdom. The blog detailed his everyday life, and was written in quite an amusing style. In addition, the photos he posted were spectacular. I commented on a post from a couple of days ago when he wrote about some shenanigans his two dogs got into.

I hope the author enjoys getting a comment from someone he's never even met!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

New Thing #349--Swap It

Merry Christmas!

This morning we opened presents within our nuclear family; later in the afternoon the extended family came over for dinner and another round of presents. However, we changed things up this year and we did a rob-your-neighbor gift exchange.

There are infinite variations on the rules of Rob Your Neighbor, so we set ours before we started. Everyone had to bring a wrapped gift--with a price limit to make sure all of the gifts were of similar value. After dinner we gathered in the family room and put all the packages on the floor. There was a wide variety of sizes and shapes.

Each person drew a number from a basket; the person who drew #1 picked a gift from the pile. Starting with #2, each person had the option to select an already-opened gift or pick an unopened gift from the pile. If the person robbed someone of their gift, the one without a gift had two options--take someone else's gift or select a from the gift pile.

We decided that a gift couldn't be stolen more than two times each round, which led to some interesting strategies as the game unfolded. The game started out sedately, but soon got wild as people began to rob others. When all the numbers had been used, the first player got one last chance to take a gift, which led to a domino effect of robbing until all were satisfied.

The most fought-over gifts were a hot sauce set and a fajita cooking set. However, the box full of energy drinks went around the room a bit, and the Cars logo hot cocoa mix set had some fans too. I was satisfied to end up with a Dora The Explorer bubble bath set, and the cow I gifted, while not exactly sought after, made someone else's eyes light up.

After the game was over, there was a bit of unofficial trading going on. Everyone got something they wanted, and we agreed we'll definitely play the game again next year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New Thing #348--Dinero Deposit

Nothing says "holidays" like the Salvation Army red kettle; the unofficial start of the season is the sound of the first bell ringing outside a store. I usually try to put something in the kettle a couple of times each season, but today I put a big bill in the Salvation Army kettle.

Or at least it was a big one to me; the largest I normally carry in my wallet. Nothing like the anonymous donor in this story, who dropped $50,000 (five cashier's checks for $10,000 each) into kettles in Joplin Missouri. Having collected money for various charitable organizations over the years, I know that by far the most common gift is a handful of change or a dollar bill. Anything higher than that is cause for celebration.

However, this Thing almost didn't happen. I started trying to find a kettle last week, but there were none to be found! Although I saw stands for kettles outside a half-dozen stores, there was no bell ringer collecting donations at any of them. It turned into a game. What store could I drive by that might take my money? Tony said he saw one in Columbia, but I wasn't with him.

This morning, Christmas Eve, was my last chance. I went to a grocery store early, but once again I just saw an empty red kettle stand outside the store's door. I came home to drop off the first load, and headed out in a different direction to buy more food for dinner tomorrow.

Once again, I was disappointed to see a red stand with no attendant. On a whim, I drove to a third shopping center. This time, I heard the bell ringing as soon as my car got close to the store! I parked in the (very full) parking lot, walked up to the receptacle, and slipped my bill into the very full kettle. The bell ringer gave me a friendly smile, a genuine thank you and a warm Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New Thing #347--"...Merry Christmas to You"

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos..."

The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé and Bob Wells 1944)

Today I roasted (and ate) chestnuts.

Earlier this year, I read in the newspaper that Missouri produces a fair number of chestnuts, but they need to do a better job of promotion; nobody I know uses them. (According to this website, U.S. consumers consume 0.1 lb of chestnut per capita, Europeans average 1.0 lb per capita, and Koreans are the world's largest chestnut consumers at 4.0 lbs per capita).

After I read the article I added "roasting chestnuts" to my list of Things to do and promptly forgot about it until last week. I was in the grocery store, saw a bin of chestnuts, and added some to my cart.

The Internet was full of information about how to prepare chestnuts:
The most popular method of cooking chestnuts is roasting.

It's important to puncture or cut the shell before roasting. Use a sharp knife to cut a ½-inch "X" on the flat side of each nut, cutting down to the meat. DO NOT roast a chestnut until the shell has been cut; if the shell is not punctured, steam pressure will build up and cause the nuts to explode.

Preheat the oven to 425 °. Spread the nuts on a cookie sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes (or until the shells open and the nuts can be removed easily). Partially cool the nuts and peel them while they're still warm.
I only bought about a dozen chestnuts at the store, because I didn't know who'd be around to eat them. Turns out that was plenty, because there were only three of us. A couple of hours after dinner, I cut the shells, put the chestnuts in the oven, and set the timer. When they were done, I poured them in a bowl and carried them into the family room. Everyone grabbed a nut and started peeling; since it was my project, I got to peel the remaining ones!

The shells were much easier to peel then I imagined; I found out that the better the cut on the shell, the easier it was to take off. Hot chestnuts peeled easier than cool ones (but were harder on the fingers), so there was a fine line between tractability and comfort.

I was surprised at the texture of the nutmeat. It was much softer than a pecan or walnut, and not at all crunchy. The flavor was sweet and nutty. Overall, quite a treat.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New Thing #346--Towering

Thursday was the final day for my tutoring center. Although I had been bringing home extra supplies for a week or so, there was still quite a bit to move. At the end of the day, the students helped me load everything into my car before they left. When I got home, I brought it into the house and put all the boxes in a corner of the dining room.

Today's job was to organize the crates so I could take them all down to the basement. First, I took out the things that belonged to me and returned them to their correct place in the house. Next, I grouped the books by category and organized them in crates, and put all the office supplies in a box. The last activity was to take care of all the paper that had accumulated over the last three years. Most of it (student records and completed tests) needed to be shredded before I could dispose of it.

Scolding myself for leaving all of the shredding till the end, instead of taking care of it as I went along, I got out the shredder, set it on the island in the kitchen, and started on the task. Within minutes I had filled the shredder bin, an office wastebasket, with strips of paper. I emptied the strips into a bag and kept going. Soon I had filled every bag in the pantry, and I started stuffing the shreds into folders that were also being recycled. I filled one milk crate with paper-laden folders, then a second, followed by a third. The job took several hours, and every empty milk crate I had!

When I was done, there were paper strips strewn all around the kitchen. Milk crates and bags littered the floor. I swept the floor and threw all the stray shreds into an open bag before I closed it up. The last part of the project involved taking my handiwork to the paper recycling bin at our local elementary school. Before I put the paper in the car, I stacked it all up to see how much there was. Much to my surprise, today I made a tower of shredded paper taller than me.

The tower of paper was tall, but not heavy at all. I was able to take it out to the car in two trips. When I got to the paper recycling bin, I opened the lid, threw the bags of shreds in, and dumped the milk crates. It took all afternoon to create the shreds, but only a few minutes to dispose of them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

New Thing #345--Go Elf Yourself

Today I Elfed myself.

The ElfYourself site is a cute little site from Office Max. It lets you upload up to five photos, then the people in the pictures show up dressed as elves. After the characters are created, you can have them perform a dance, choosing one of several styles. (And if you don't have enough pictures to upload, the program will substitute "real" elves!)

Here's me as an elf doing my best Saturday Night Live imitation:

The biggest problem is that although you can embed a video, it's only available for about three weeks. If you want to have it for a longer period, you have to pay for the privilege of downloading it to your hard drive.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

New Thing #344--Commencement

Today Son Brian became a graduate of the University of Missouri.

Mizzou is a big school, and even though fewer people graduate in December, there would still be a lot of students for a campus-wide ceremony. Instead, each college has its own convocation ceremony. The one we went to was held this afternoon in Jesse Auditorium.

About 200 students marched in at the beginning of the ceremony, all looking proud to be there. After the opening ceremonies, speeches, and student presentations, it was time for the graduating seniors to walk across the stage and receive their diploma.

The presentations were done by department. As each department was called, the graduates lined up at the steps to the stage. The announcer was at a podium at stage left; at the other end the dignitaries and faculty lined up to congratulate the students. As each student reached the announcer, they gave their name card to her. After she read the name, it took a good 30 seconds for the graduate to walk across the stage and shake the hand of each of the people at the other end.

Some students had quite a cheering section. Others didn't have much at all. There were eight of us (family and friends) waiting to applaud when Brian's name was read. I clapped loudly and gave a polite "whoo hoo". Brian worked hard for his diploma!

After Brian crossed the stage, there were still several departments to go. I began to feel sorry for the students who didn't seem to have someone in the audience to acknowledge their accomplishments. I decided to be a one-person cheering section, and I clapped for graduates who didn't have anyone to clap for them. It actually made the ceremony go faster!

At the end of the presentation of students, they announced the "turning of the tassel", had a short benediction, and then it was time for the recessional song. All of the people in the audience hurried out to meet the new graduates.

Friday, December 19, 2008

New Thing #343--In Love With A Tub

We're in Columbia, Missouri for the December commencement of the University of Missouri. We will be attending the ceremony tomorrow afternoon, but tonight we're staying at the University Avenue B&B. Our room, the Blue Room, came equipped with a beautiful clawfoot tub in the bathroom. Of course I had to try it out, so today I took a bath in a clawfoot bathtub.

I love a nice hot soak, especially in cold weather, and this tub was long enough that I could stretch out completely. That's quite a contrast to the bathtub in my house, where you can have either your knees or your shoulders in the water.

Of course, what's a long soak without bubbles? Tony and I stopped in a Walgreens after dinner. I checked in several different aisles, but I couldn't find what I was looking for; there was an empty shelf where a selection of bath salts should have been. I had to settle for a small bottle of baby shampoo. When I added it to the water, it foamed up nicely, but the bubbles didn't last as long as they should have.

I filled the tub up as far as I could without water spilling out the overflow drain. The back of the tub was very cold to lean against at first; the water took a while to warm it up. However, once the tub warmed up, it really held the heat.

After I'd soaked long enough to turn into a human prune, it was time to get out. The tub was much higher off the ground than I'm used to. It took a bit of maneuvering to make sure I didn't end up falling on the floor.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Thing #342--Furbish

I have several black shirts that are still in good shape structurally, but they're quite faded. When I heard that adding coffee or tea a washer's rinse cycle would restore some of the color, I knew I had to try it. Today I rinsed black clothes with coffee to make them darker.

I didn't have a complete load of dark-colored clothes, so I decided to perform my experiment on a couple of black tee shirts. I wore one of them yesterday, so first I had to make sure it was clean. I got out a bucket, added some detergent, and hand-washed it. This shirt has never been treated so well! For comparison, I got a Mizzou tee out of my closet. The shirt is a few years old and pretty dingy looking.

I put both shirts in the bucket, poured a cup or so of coffee over the top, and agitated them with my hands until the coffee was incorporated. I let the shirts sit for a few minutes, then I squeezed all the excess water out and threw the shirts in the dryer.

I took them out when they were dry and hung them in the laundry room. I was pleased to find out there was no noticeable coffee smell. At first I didn't think there was a substantial color difference, but when I compared the "Before" (above) and "After" (left) photos I discovered the Mizzou shirt was quite a bit darker as a result of its coffee bath. The other shirt wasn't quite as faded to start with; its transformation wasn't as dramatic.

The darker color is temporary; it will rinse out the next time I launder the shirts. I can't see myself using a coffee rinse every time I wash something black, but it's nice to know how to do it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Thing #341--Egosurfing

Son Donald told me in that he saw his brother Brian's name and picture on the Internet (as a result of his participation in a contest for school). I asked Donald how he knew this about his brother; he said he often Googled people's names to see what came up. The concept intrigued me, and I wondered if I showed up anywhere on the Internet. Today I Googled myself to find out.

I typed my first and last name into the Google search bar and hit Enter. There were more than a hundred responses to my search. The first and second hits were profiles for a social networking site; the first was someone with my same name, but the second result was "me".

It was interesting to see other people that had "my" name. There were results for a business owner, a person who works in the medical field, a teacher's assistant, a photographer, and a woman who was inducted into the Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame. When I expanded my search to include alternate spellings of my first name, I also found a medical technician and a veterinarian.

I was glad to see that none of the sites I checked had mean-spirited or salacious information about anyone who shared my name. I'd like to think that all of the people who share my name are upstanding citizens who wouldn't do anything wrong.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Thing #340--When You Care Enough

We're going to a college graduation this weekend, and today I was looking for a card. I went to three different stores, but didn't have any luck. However, at one of my stops the clerk opened up the bottom of the rack and I browsed a "secret stash" of greeting cards.

Card manufacturers mustn't care about December graduates, because they sure don't have appropriate cards on their racks. At my first stop (a "factory" card store) I actually ran into another woman looking for the same thing I was. We commiserated about the poor selection of graduation cards available; I assured her the fancier "brand name" shop down the street would certainly have what we were looking for. Boy, was I disappointed!

The "brand name" store had a small selection of specialty cards in the last aisle, which seemed to be a catch-all category for anything that wasn't Christmas, birthday, wedding, anniversary, or get well. I was amazed at what you can buy a card for now: among others, you can give a card to someone going into the armed forces-a specific card for each branch, a Boy Scouts who's receiving his Eagle Scout award, a Girl Scout who's being awarded the Gold Award, a priest celebrating an anniversary, and cards for people undergoing chemotherapy.

When I asked about graduation cards at the cashier's desk, one of the clerks smiled sadly and said they didn't really have much right now. She walked back to the area with me, though, and showed me what they had. There were specific cards (one for each category) for someone receiving a bachelors degree, a masters degree, or a doctorate. However, I didn't care for "the" card. She also pointed out more generic "congratulation" cards, with no mention of what the person was being congratulated for.

When neither of these were acceptable to me, she opened the drawer underneath the display case and let me look down there. Sadly, there were still no graduation cards. I thanked her for her time, and went to a third store closer to my home, where I gave up my search and bought one of the generic cards they had available.

Monday, December 15, 2008

New Thing #339--Aerobic Advantage

It’s cold and icy out today, and my foot is still a little bruised and finky, so I didn't feel like going to the gym. I definitely needed some aerobic exercise, though, to counteract all the rich holiday food I've been eating. A little bit of Internet research allowed me to do aerobic exercise at my desk.

There were thousands of results for my search, but this article from GoodHealth.com was exactly what I was looking for. The exercises could be done sitting down; if I wanted to do jumping jacks and running in place (which was what several other articles recommended), I'd go walk on a treadmill!

The routine had seven steps:
Step One - PUMP. Pump each of your arms overhead five times. Pump both arms overhead five time. Repeat for three sets; this should take about one minute.

Step Two - PUNCH. Punch the air across your body 20 times with each arm. Repeat for two sets, which should take about one minute. (Punching has an added advantage - you can work out frustrations with an imaginary foe!)

Step Three - JOG. Point and flex your toes a few times to limber up your legs then jog in place while seated in your chair. If you need more challenge, lift your knees higher. Use a timer, and jog for two minutes. (Note: This is harder than you think! I started out too fast and had trouble finishing.)

Step Four - BIKE. Lift both feet off the floor and bicycle in place. This works better without shoes, so slip them off if you can. If you need more challenge, lift both knees higher. Use a timer, and bicycle for two minutes. (This one is harder than you'd think, too. I had to pace myself to complete the two minutes).

Step Five - JUMP. Cross your arms across your chest and cross extended legs about calf level. To jump, swing arms outward at the same time as you extend legs outward. Jump back to original position. If you need more challenge, lift your arms above your head. You will get even more challenge if you lift your arms above your head and your feet off the floor. Use a timer. Jump for two minutes.

Steps Six and Seven - REPEAT. Repeat Pump and Punch to cool down.

This routine (which I did two times in succession) definitely got my heart rate up! Since I was by myself, I didn't have to worry about looking funny as I punched at imaginary opponents and jogged in place. However, the cat that was sitting on my desk looked mildly alarmed when I started pumping my arms, and quickly ran away when the punching started.

The only problem I had was my vintage desk chair; it's getting pretty creaky and all the movement made it shake even more. I though it might fall apart, so I moved to a kitchen chair to complete my workout.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New Thing #338--Fun On The Freeway

Back in the summer, I took a walk on a closed road that was being rebuilt and wasn't open to traffic yet. That was practice for today's Thing, where I walked on an Interstate that hadn't been opened to traffic.

I had a lot of company today, though. Highway 40 (also known as I-64) is a major route through the St. Louis area. Parts of the road were built in the 1930s and were overdue for a renovation. The highway department decided it the whole job could be done faster and more efficiently if they completely shut down portions of the highway. They closed five miles at the beginning of this year. (Now that it's completed they're closing a second five-mile section until the end of 2009.)

Before they cut the ribbon for the new section this afternoon they opened the lanes to everyone but drivers. There were organized runs and bike rides in the westbound lanes, but the eastbound lanes were open for anyone.

It was quite a party; there were hundreds of people on the newly-constructed area. I saw people walking, running, bike riding, skateboarding, and even a man on a Segway. There were grandparents, teenagers, young children in strollers, and entire families out for a bike ride or stroll. A lot of people had cameras or video cameras to record the whole thing for posterity.

The highway pavement was in perfect shape. It was nearly white, with no skid marks or oil stains to dirty it. In some places the meridian walls had been chalked and were quite colorful. I found a piece of chalk and added a design to the ones already there.

Although traffic will be using the road starting tomorrow, there's still some cosmetic things that need to be done on this section. Not all the sound walls were up in the section we walked on, and there was some landscaping at the bottom of one of the exit ramps that was waiting to be installed. I'm looking forward to driving on this section soon to see what it looks like from behind the wheel.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

New Thing #337--That's Entertainment

When Tony and I plan our "date night" on Saturdays we always include dinner out, but the rest of the activities vary. In good weather we like to take walks; we often pick a neighborhood we're unfamiliar with to stroll through. When the weather isn't good for being outside, we'll watch a movie at home, go to a movie theater (rarely), or scan the Calendar section of the newspaper for a special event that catches our interest.

Although there's a wide variety of theater companies and venues in the area, for some reason that activity usually doesn't make the top of our list. However, tonight we decided to take in a live performance, and had it narrowed down to two. One was a conventional cabaret show; the second was a bit more edgy play. Tonight we went to a performance of Die! Mommie! Die! by the Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey.

According to the Website, the play is:
A campy melodrama evoking the 1960’s B-movie thrillers that featured aging cinematic icons like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner. Faded pop singer Angela Arden is trapped in a corrosive marriage to film producer Sol Sussman. In pursuit of happiness with her young unemployed T.V. star lover, Angela schemes to murder her husband. A resentful daughter, an emotionally disturbed son, and a botched acid trip eventually expose all of Angela’s dark secrets.
When we received our programs, we also got a brochure with information about this year's season for the Stray Dog Theatre (SDT), which has been around for six seasons. The plays are a good variety of comedies, musicals, and thrillers, but the troupe also seem to be interested in more than performing. The brochure stated they have a "mission of 'unleashing the art' both onstage and off" through education and community outreach.

Tower Grove Abbey, where SDT performs, is an old church. The Main Stage area had beautiful stained glass windows and comfortable pews with plenty of leg room arranged around the stage. The area wasn't very big; it looked like it could hold about 150 people, and the room was almost full for tonight's performance.

The fast-paced play was hilarious, but pretty R-rated. The two acts went quickly. As the house lights came up at the end of the play I realized I'd had a great evening. All of the actors were wonderful in their roles. They really chewed up the scenery, but in this play that was a good thing!

Friday, December 12, 2008

New Thing #336--Electrifying

Remember how I fell and hurt my ankle yesterday? It didn't get any better last night, although I figured out it was more my foot than my ankle. This morning walking downstairs from the bedroom was agony. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, but when I moved my foot the wrong way and it hurt so bad I started crying, I knew I should take the time to go get it checked out.

After two hours in the urgent care I found out all I had was a bad sprain; my instructions were rest and ibuprofen. I had big plans for the day that couldn't happen anymore since I couldn't walk. I rested on the couch and snoozed on and off. When it was time to think about dinner, I went to the grocery store where I used an electric cart to do my shopping.

This activity was actually on my original list of Things to do. The electric carts look like fun, but I wasn't sure if it was ok to use them since I'm not handicapped. There's no sign that lists any restrictions, but I felt funny unplugging one and driving away. Not today, though.

Tony came with me to help me pick out the food. He parked the car, and I hobbled into the store. There were several grocery-mobiles available in the lobby; I picked the one that was the easiest to get to, unplugged it and tried to it figure out.

The cart was easy to use. Pushing a lever forward sent the cart in that direction, and pushing it the opposite direction caused it to back up (while making a lovely beeping sound!). It took me several tries to figure out the speed control, as the cart went faster than I would have thought. Turns were easy; the cart just needed a little extra turning room. I actually mastered a three-point turn in an empty frozen-food aisle.

There were a couple of problems, though. It was hard to see things on the shelves unless they were right at eye level. Other shoppers didn't seem to see me; a couple of times someone walked right in front of me and I had to make a quick stop. Passing another cart in an aisle was difficult, especially if a shopper hadn't pulled it all the way over to the side.

Tony and I picked out our lettuce and frozen pizza, paid for the food, and returned the cart. I enjoyed my trip around the store, but I don't know if I'd want to do it on a regular basis.

* * * * * *

We forgot to even bring a camera with us, so enjoy this video.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Thing #335--In The Studio

I had plans to do something more spectacular today, but as I was walking to my car after work I tripped and fell. My hands hurt, my ankle hurts, and all I want to do is go sit on the couch.

So, for your consideration, here is the South Park character I created:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Thing #334--Note This

In every movie that involves a kidnapping, there's always a scene with a ransom note, where the kidnappers state their demands.

If the movie is really old, or takes place in the past, the note is made from random letters cut from a newspaper, to reduce the chances that the kidnapper's handwriting will be recognized.

Today I wrote a ransom note with letters cut out of a newspaper.

This activity was fun to do, but way too much work. It’s one of those things that seem real easy and quick, but it took me more than an hour to make a short note. I wrote out what I wanted to say, then grabbed the newspapers from the recycling bin and started looking for the letters I needed. I concentrated on letters from headlines, since they're larger and easier to read. A couple of times I was lucky enough to find two letters consecutively so I cut them out together.

As I cut the letters out, I arranged them on a piece of computer paper. Next, I used a glue stick to affix the letters. The last thing I did was take a marker and add punctuation to my letter; I don't think a kidnapper would worry about commas and periods, but I wanted to make sure my letter was correct!

Note: Today's criminals don't have to take the time to cut and paste letters together to make a note. Instead, they can use a Ransom Note Generator like this one to do it for them!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Thing #333-Giving Credit Where It's Due

On Sunday I wrote about my commitment to scale back Christmas, and included a list of free holiday gifts e-mailed to me by a friend. The e-mail credited the author, but failed to include the source of the list.

I tried Googling the list by name and the author's name, but came up short. After I published the post, I sent a link to the author, Melissa Mayntz, asking her where the original piece could be found so I could give her credit.

I received her response today:
I'm glad you enjoyed the list of free holiday gifts, and I want to say thank you for offering to give proper credit for the piece... Thanks again, and all the best for a wonderful (and frugal!) holiday season.
Today I went back and revised one of my posts to give acknowledgment to the author of something I quoted.

After I linked to Melissa's article, I wandered around the Website, The Dollar Stretcher, for a while. I found A LOT of tips that will come in handy!

Monday, December 8, 2008

New Thing #332--Slumber

I've been waiting all year to do this one since I read about it on In The New, the original new thing-a-day blog. Today I took a nap next to the Christmas tree.

We put the tree up in the living room yesterday. Although it's still missing some decorations (each of the boys has a box of ornaments they'll put on the tree as they arrive in town), it looks very nice.

I came home from work feeling like I really needed a power nap before I moved on to the evening's activities. When I nap, I curl up on the couch, snooze for fifteen minutes, and wake up feeling refreshed. Tonight, the soft carpet on the floor in front of the tree beckoned me to lay down and enjoy the glow of the lights, so I just slept in a different place!

I used a pillow from the couch, and spread a soft polar fleece blanket over my body. It didn't take long to doze off. I woke up right on schedule, put the pillow and blanket away, and started to get ready for dinner.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

New Thing #331--Give Presence

I received an e-mail that said:
Take a few minutes and check out this site--Advent Conspiracy. It could change your holidays!
Today I joined the Advent Conspiracy [AC] to do my part to de-commercialize Christmas.

Advent Conspiracy has four simple concepts. Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All. According to their Website, it started in 2006 as a collaboration of four churches (one of which is in Chesterfield, MO) that decided to try to bring back the true meaning of Christmas. The point is to spend less on Christmas to be able to give to others relationally and to the poor.

I don't get carried away at Christmas, but it's still a shock when the charge card bill comes in January. There are several people I exchange gifts with because I feel obligated to. Advent Conspiracy suggests buying ONE LESS GIFT this Christmas and reallocating that money to those who need help.

Another one of their ideas is to give the gift of time instead of tangible presents. A friend sent me this list that really sums this idea up:
10 Free Holiday Gifts
by Melissa Mayntz

Add more value to your holiday than any price tag can measure

Holiday gifts may be one of the last things to purchase on a strict budget, but they are often the first things that recipients notice missing, even without ill will. Gift givers whose budgets are stretched this year, however, do not have to play Scrooge with gift lists. These ten gifts are completely free to give and will make a lasting impression both on the giver and the recipient.

1. Companionship

Visiting an old friend or spending a chilly winter afternoon with someone who is unable to get out is a great gift to warm the hearts of both parties. A simple conversation, board game, shared meal, or watching a movie is a great way to spend the time together enjoying the holiday spirit.

2. A Letter

The "happy family update letter" is a popular feature for many holiday cards, but nothing beats a hand-written, personal letter. Longer than a quick note or signed greeting card, a special letter can be reread and enjoyed throughout the holiday season.

3. Coupons

It is easy to draw or print simple personal coupons to give as stocking stuffers or meaningful gifts. A free kiss coupon is perfect for couples, while kids will appreciate a "get out of trouble free" coupon or a "dinner pick" certificate to choose a favorite home cooked meal.

4. Services

Free labor is a great gift to share to help ease that special someone's holiday burden. Offer to shovel snow for a week, baby-sit during another holiday, or share special skills the recipient can use, such as professional advice or tips that are free to give but will be invaluable for them.

5. Quitting a Habit

Making a concerted effort to quit a bothersome habit like biting fingernails, interrupting, etc. is a thoughtful way to show someone that you've been listening to their requests for you to stop throughout the year. Stronger habits such as smoking and gambling may be more difficult to quit, but doing so is an even more meaningful gift.

6. No Arguing

The perfect gift kids can give their parents is a day free from petty arguments and fights. The same concept applies to tense family situations or any social occasion when not everyone may get along, but time free from that tension is a great gift to offer.

7. Pampering

Pampering someone special doesn't have to cost a mint. Offer a neck or foot massage, draw a warm bubble bath, or otherwise treat them like they deserve all of this and more for a thoughtful gift that will be thoroughly enjoyed.

8. Time Alone

Parents especially will appreciate the gift of time alone. Offer to take care of the kids, answer the phone, and deal with any emergencies that crop up in order to give the recipient time to enjoy whatever they want or to catch up with their own to-do list.

9. Day of Chores

A day of chores can be a useful and productive gift. Whether it includes daily tasks such as cooking a meal and cleaning the kitchen or too long delayed chores such as cleaning out the garage or attic, offering a 24-hour period of complaint-free servitude is sure to be appreciated.

10. Forgiveness

The holidays often bring family and personal problems into the spotlight when fights break out or estrangements become apparent. Make this holiday season extra special with the gift of forgiveness, and move past disagreements to welcome the new year with a new attitude toward one another.
There will still be presents under our tree this year, but I'll also be trying to rethink what I want Christmas to be about.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

New Thing #330--Fold "Em

Today I learned how to make animals out of towels.

I've been on a few cruises, and I always looked forward to seeing what and where our bath towels would be. The cabin stewards made great-looking animals, often incorporating things they found laying around the cabin. Once they used a pair of sunglasses and gave the animal "eyes". Most of the time the towel animals would be on the bed, but occasionally they'd be hanging from a towel rack or hanger, or laying on a shelf in the closet.

wikiHow had tutorials on making an elephant, monkey, cat, lobster, swan, or dog. Some of the animals took more towels than I had available, so I decided to make a swan and a dog.

The swan used just one towel:

The dog was made from one bath and one hand towel. My hand towel was printed on one side, so you can see a bit of the color peeking out:

It took me a while to get the hang of this. It was hard to roll the towels tightly and keep them folded when they were supposed to be. I guess those cabin stewards have a lot of practice to do such a good job!

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Thing #329--Beautify

I was shopping at the mall today. After I finished the things I had to do, I decided to do something I've always thought about doing. I made myself up using samples from cosmetics stores.

My "makeup" consists of sunscreen, mascara, and Chapstick. I haven't worn foundation, blush, eye color, or lipstick in several years. Cosmetic counters at department stores intimidate me, but I felt brave today. The store I picked sells nothing but cosmetics, and is known for having a lot of products (from different companies) on display, so you can try everything.

I stepped into the store, and was immediately greeted by a salesperson. After we exchanged pleasantries, I started looking at the foundations. As soon as my hand touched one, she was ready with a applicator. She squirted out a dab, rubbed it on my jawbone, and said it looked "great". I'm sure she had visions of ringing up the sale, but I couldn't see the part of my face she'd covered, so I asked for a little bit more to put on a visible area. She didn't hesitate, and gave me so much I was able to apply it to the rest of my face.

When I was done, I told her I needed to walk around for a while to see if the foundation worked well on my skin. As I was leaving the store, my skin felt oily and greasy. This foundation was certainly not for me! At the next store I went into, I was pleasantly surprised to see a self-serve makeup counter near the entrance. I used a few swipes of blush to complete my look.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

New Thing #328--It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

I was getting out the boxes of Christmas things this morning. There's one huge cardboard box that contains the tree, and quite a few plastic tubs that contain decorations, lights, and ornaments. Tucked way in the back of the closet is one box that has older things (most of which the boys made in preschool and elementary school) that I can't bring myself to get rid of, but that we don't use any more.

Because I didn't want to tackle the decorating job by myself, I opened this last box and took a trip down memory lane. There were an assortment of hand-made Advent wreaths, sock dolls, and pine-cone ornaments. However, one thing really caught my eye; it was a Christmas door hanger made with manila rope, red ribbon, and jingle bells. The rope was braided together and tied with knots on each end. I decided that this hanger would see duty this season; I went out to the garage and put a Christmas decoration on my car.

I draped the rope over the driver's side mirror, and secured it with some green garden twine. The extra color made it look even more festive:

As I was driving around today, I could see the rope clearly every time I looked in the mirror. Since the window was closed, I couldn't hear if the bells were making a noise, but they definitely jingled each time I opened and closed the door!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

New Thing #327--Incompatible?

When I opened the refrigerator at lunchtime today I heard the leftover pumpkin pie calling my name. However, I'm trying eat healthy meals at home to counteract all the holiday eating out (and I really don't think there's enough pumpkin in a slice of pie to count as a serving of vegetables) so I continued my search.

The fruit and vegetable bins were full, but the refrigerator shelves were pretty bare. One thing we did have was yogurt, both plain nonfat and fruit-flavored.

I enjoy eating yogurt. One of my favorite snacks is a cup of fruit-flavored yogurt mixed with uncooked oatmeal and a spoonful of cocoa powder. It keeps me full for a long time, and takes care of my chocolate cravings.

I also like plain yogurt. I use it in place of sour cream on baked potatoes and chili. Sometimes I add cut up vegetables, or mix it with salsa and cumin when I want a light meal. That's what I decided to do today; after the yogurt and salsa were mixed I realized I wanted to add some fiber. We were gifted with a "Sams-sized" box of instant oatmeal last weekend, so I grabbed a packet of Original flavor, added it to my yogurt, and mixed it in. Today I ate oatmeal with salsa.

It was ok, but not great. It's almost like a non-transitive paradox--if two pairs of food go well together, it doesn't necessarily mean that putting them all together will be good. I realized that I associate oatmeal with sweet, not savory seasonings.

I don't think I'll be recreating this dish any time soon.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New Thing #326--Fragrance

I have a problem with perfumes. When I'm close to someone who's drenched in scent I get a headache and feel wheezy. It even bothers me when the scent is on my own body; consequently, I don't wear fragrances. However, today I used the "cook's perfume" when I wore vanilla extract.

I love the taste and scent of vanilla, and usually add a dash in sweet dishes, even when the recipe doesn't specifically call for it. As I was cooking today, I wondered what would happen if I used the extract as a fragrance.

According to the label, my pure vanilla extract contained water, alcohol, and vanilla bean extract. I took the cap off the bottle and dabbed a bit of it behind my ears and on my wrists. At first there was no noticeable scent, but when I used a second dab, it smelled wonderful! A couple of times during the day I thought I smelled something baking, then I realized IT WAS ME!

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Thing #325--Otherwise Known As Braces

I got out a bag of Christmas clothes yesterday, and I found a pair of suspenders I'd somehow acquired a couple of years ago. They were adjustable, one-size-fits-all red elastic with Santa heads running down the length. I don't recall ever using them, but I did today when I wore suspenders.

I clipped the suspenders to my pants in the front and the back. My shirt needed to be tucked in, which was a problem after too much Thanksgiving! Thank goodness for stretch denim.

I didn't even have to unhook them when I used the rest room; I was able to slip them off my shoulders and pull them back up when I was finished.