A History Lesson

FullSizeRenderWe study history so we don’t make the same mistakes twice. Our memories? They act like our personal history books. You could argue that one reason we remember things is so we learn from our mistakes and don’t repeat them again.

Turns out memories fade.

Exactly two years ago, I was laid up post-spinal surgery and in a state where I couldn’t really leave the house much or enjoy the sunshine that kept extending the hours in a day. It took me about three months to move from throwing tiny fits about not being able to do cool things with my friends to appreciating the newfound time I had to embark on projects I had always claimed I had no time for.

Fast forward to now. I am certainly not as laid up as I was after getting a few more inches of metal woven around my spine, but I have a broken foot that’s painful and makes it hard to do much other than go for short walks on the weekends. After two weeks of Netflix-binge-wallowing and entirely ignoring the lesson I learned two years ago, I hit a wall. My doctor took one look at my follow-up X-ray and told me that my foot was a bit more broken than she had originally thought. The punishment? I wouldn’t be able to fully dive back into my active life for another six weeks.

That was all I needed. A bit more not-so-great (but not the end of the world) news to remember what I learned after surgery: Use down time to catch up on life, not waste it.

This realization came recently and all at once. In the past week, I have started working out again (read: doing super boring, non-weight-bearing workouts), I’m reading two books at once, I am spending more time on editing the novel I wrote, I’m using my slow cooker to make actual dinners that are better (and cheaper) than Seamless — and you better believe that I am baking a hell of a lot more.

All of this is to say that slowing down is good sometimes. I wanted to put this second-time-and-late-blooming epiphany out there in the world because, I don’t know about you, but I always feel creativity bubbling up, right below the surface, clawing at my skin, eager to break through. But I push it down, tell it that I am too busy for it.

Maybe this soliloquy is just a public reminder to myself to make more time for creative projects when I am not injured, sick or recovering from some sort of mishap. But maybe it will also nudge my brilliant and creative friends to pick up a pen, a paintbrush or a cake pan and do their thing.

With that, I’ll leave you with three great recipes I’ve made over the past week that have satiated my creative (and literal) hunger.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream 

Double Chocolate Doughnuts (I topped with espresso sugar and mini chocolate chips instead of sprinkles)

Slow Cooker Hawaiian Tacos (Pairs well with a frozen margarita or Tropical Bitch beer)

 

2015 in 365

Jan 1

January 1, 2015 — slightly after midnight.

The dawn of a new year is a time to reflect on the past and look toward the future, so to ring in 2016, I wanted to share a photo project that I have worked on for the past year. Since 2014 consisted of two spinal surgeries and some of the more trying times in my life, I decided to document 2015 to capture what the road to recovery and happiness looks like.

I took one photo a day that I felt truly encapsulated the best, worst or most time-consuming parts of those 24 hours. As my friend who created a similar project for the New York Times learned, some days consist of working, eating and sleeping and nothing extraordinary happens. On those days, it was a struggle to figure out what to take a photo of. Other times, I was so lost in exceptional moments that I neglected to document them. But there were days in between when I reached a goal I was working toward and felt like one photo from that day could preserve that feeling of pride forever.

This past year had ups and downs, as any span of hundreds of days does, but I will remember it as the year I pushed myself harder and farther, and learned that saying “yes” only leads to great things.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Got back into media and got the opportunity to work with an organization that pushes me to work harder and be more creative every day.
  • Ran 5.5 miles (the longest I have ever run before) one year after my last spinal surgery.
  • Stood by my best friend’s side as she married the love of her life and watched another very dear friend on the west coast do the same.
  • Traveled to California, Canada, Martha’s Vineyard, Delaware, Niagara Falls, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
  • Finished the first draft of a novel.
  • Moved into a new, stellar role at my aforementioned wonderful job that I’m sure will challenge me to grow even more in the new year.

2015 in 365 photos

In 2016, I hope to push myself harder professionally, run farther, learn to be more patient and mindful, carve out time to volunteer, finish editing my novel and do at least one thing that absolutely terrifies me. I’ll check in at the dawn of 2017 to let you know if I accomplished any of these things. But, if 2015 has taught me anything, I now know there is little you can’t achieve with hard work and a positive attitude.

 

 

What it’s like to have a life-changing disability when you appear perfectly healthy

In June, I was sitting on the couch, covered by a light grey blanket to capitulate to my body’s desire to always be unreasonably warm, when a wave of nausea washed over me. There was a smell in the air, familiar, but disturbing. I realized within a minute that it was the stale odor of my sweat mixed with the wool blanket, and it all came back to me.

IIMG_0394 spent about half of last summer fitfully tangled in that blanket, sweating and sick. The opiates I was on post-spinal surgery were tearing at my insides. We didn’t know the drugs were at fault for three unbearably long months. During that time, the sweaty wool aroma seemed to coat everything in my apartment. And this summer, it lurks like a specter, sending me into bouts of anxiety.

This was all a result of the two spinal surgeries I had this past year to help alleviate the debilitating chronic pain that my scoliosis was causing me. I was born with it, but it didn’t become a literal pain in my ass until about four years ago. As soon as I decided to seek medical help rather than trying to tough it out for the next 70 years of my life, I took a journey down a medical rabbit hole that would have made Alice’s Wonderland look like Candy Land.

I had no idea that once the pain was gone, there would be social stigmas to face. And I was wildly unprepared until I stumbled upon the words “invisible disease.” After some Googling, I learned that thousands of people have invisible diseases that no one can see, and that can be tricky. I still recall one morning, soon after I returned to work post-op, when an elderly man asked me for my seat on the subway. (This was also the first day I left my cane at home – the one social marker that screamed “please God let me sit down before I collapse.”) I gave up my seat, not to be a martyr, but because I thought it would look like a mean lie if I uttered from the mouth that sits at the top of my healthy-looking 26-year-old body “sorry, I need this. I’m disabled.”

I was really excited to help elevate the conversation around invisible diseases in Julie Zeilinger‘s story this week: 6 things you must know about disabilities that we can’t see. If you give it a read, I guarantee you’ll be able to help at least a few people feel like they’re at their best when they’re at their very worst.

The Memorial Day cupcakes you didn’t know you needed

I planned to go to a BBQ on Saturday and wanted to bring something to the gathering, but didn’t have time to bake something elaborate or time consuming. I scrolled through Pinterest, hoping that it would once again be a reliable source for the exact type of treat that I was hoping to bake. I quickly found these Death by Oreo cupcakes and ran off to the grocery store to buy the ingredients.

The guy in line behind me peered into my basket and said, “everyone is getting cookout food today — you’re baking?” I scanned my basket containing powdered sugar, cookies, butter, cream cheese and and cake mix. “Yup! I’m making cupcakes,” I replied. The guy shook his head and looked at me like I was crazy while he loaded his frozen french fries and chicken wings onto the conveyer belt. This is why these are the cupcakes you didn’t know you needed, but everyone at the BBQ I attended definitely wanted them.

cupcakes

What you need

1 package Oreo Cookies, regular size
1 package Mini Oreo Cookies, for decoration (optional)
1 package chocolate cake mix (mix according to directions on box)*
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), room temperature
3 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
cupcake liners (I used colorful chevron ones to add an element of spring)

*I used a dark fudge mix here. I also broke my rule of using any kind of mix for baking, but this really helps make it a quick project if you’re in a rush. If you have time to spare, try this decadent chocolate cupcake recipe.

What you need to do

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix packaged cake mix according to directions (do not bake). Line cupcake tins with liner, and place a regular size Oreo cookie in the bottom of each liner. Take half of the remaining cookies and use a food processor to crumble, then add to cake mix. Fill the cupcake tins. Bake for 15 minutes (or according to box directions). While the cupcakes are baking, make the icing.

PRO TIP: Because I was in a rush, I put the cupcakes in the fridge as soon as they came out of the oven so they’d be at least room temperature by the time I iced them. You don’t want the heat from the cupcakes to melt the icing, and you don’t want to refrigerate the icing before piping it because it can harden quickly. 

Cream together butter and cream cheese. Add vanilla, then add powdered sugar slowly until blended well. Put the remaining Oreos in the food processor to crumble, then add to the icing. After the cupcakes have cooled, frost and decorate with Mini Oreos.

NOTE: Because the Oreos at the bottom took up space that the batter could have otherwise occupied, this ended up yielding 32 cupcakes. 

half

The entire process took about two hours since two and a half batches of cupcakes resulted from this. You might still have enough time before your Memorial Day picnic to whip these up and impress your friends.

The Best Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream You’ll Ever Eat

This Christmas, I was gifted an ice cream maker. The manual was rife with those warning symbols that imply that you will break something if you don’t read the instructions very closely. Never one who enjoys baffling instructions, I waited to use my ice cream maker until a day when I had a lot of time and even more patience so I could avoid breaking an entity that produces such a perfect treat.

It turns out, making ice cream is relatively easy and I didn’t break anything in the process. Below is the simple break down and the recipe I used to make the best peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream ever. I promise, this will easily impress friends, lovers and future in-laws.

What You Need to Know Before You Start:  0109

  • My ice cream maker is a bowl and fixture that attaches to my Kitchen Aid mixer. If you have another type of ice cream maker, these directions may not apply.
  • Leave the bowl (but none of the other plastic parts) in the freezer for at least 15 hours before you start. I have been leaving my bowl in the freezer when not in use so I can make ice cream at a moment’s notice (nothing bad has happened yet.)
  • There is one way that you can easily break your ice cream maker (which I will get to below). If you can follow this one instruction properly, your ice cream maker will stay intact and you will be rewarded with a frozen treat that takes about 20 minutes to make.

The Basics

IMG_1896The first step is to figure out what kind of ice cream you want to make. For my first try, I started with a sweet cream base that I pulled from Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream & Dessert Book. I chose their most popular sweet cream base that makes 1 quart of ice cream.

The second step is to figure out what mix-ins (if any) you want to add to your base. Because my mix-ins needed to chill in the fridge to harden, I made this first and then created the sweet cream base while these were stiffening.

The Recipe

I used a gluten free cookie bar recipe to make the mix-ins for my peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. The cool thing about this raw cookie dough (other than the fact that it is gluten free) is that it has zero eggs in the batter, so it is very safe to eat without cooking. I used this recipe I found on Pinterest to make the mix-ins by altering the final steps in the recipe, which you can see below.

To Make the Mix-Ins

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1/2 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. peanut butter
2 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. dark brown sugar
2 1/2 c. powdered sugar

1 c. chocolate chips + 1 more cup for topping if desired

In a large bowl, whisk together butter, peanut butter, vanilla, and brown sugar. Add powdered sugar and mix until combined. Fold in chocolate chips and press into a lightly greased pan. Chill the dough in the fridge for an hour or two. Once solidified a little bit, remove the dough and break into crumbles (think: pieces of cookie dough that you would normally find in your ice cream, but a little more rugged). Set aside.

To Make the Sweet Cream Base
 
2 large eggs
3/4 c. sugar
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. milk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy (1-2 minutes). Whisk in the sugar, a little at a time, and continue whisking until blended (about 1 minute more). Pour in the cream and milk and whisk to blend.

This Is The Part Where You Make the Ice Cream

IMG_1901Assemble your ice cream maker as directed.

THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART: once the ice cream maker is assembled, make sure the Kitchen Aid mixer is locked, and turn it on to the stir setting BEFORE adding the sweet cream base.

Once it is on and stirring, slowly pour the sweet cream batter into the ice cream maker. Add 2 tsp. vanilla extract.

Leave the device on the stir setting for 15-20 minutes as the ice cream freezes. After 12-15 minutes (or about 1 minute before the ice cream is done) add the cookie dough peanut butter chocolate chip crumbles.

When the ice cream is hardened to your desired degree, use a wooden or rubber spatula to scoop the ice cream into serving dishes. If you are not planning to serve it immediately, place the dessert into small, shallow containers that you can put in the freezer to allow them to harden a bit more.

This recipe is simple, quick and produces Ben & Jerry’s-quality ice cream that everyone will love. I added bananas, whipped cream and chocolate sauce to dress it up a bit. Bon Appétit!

Top 5 Tips from Social Media Week

IMG_1350Guys, I have to tell you all this up front: Social Media Week in NYC offered free coffee, Krispy Kreme doughnuts AND emoji cookies. EVERY. DAY. If this blog post reads like a very caffeinated person wrote it, then congratulations, you are very astute.

Okay, now that that excitement is over, I want to share with you the top 5 tips I learned after five days and three times as many sessions on digital and social media.

Also, I want to recommend this conference to everyone. While some sessions were duds (not a great sign when you are more knowledgable than the panelists), I found the majority of sessions to be worth my time. Pro Tip: get your passes on Cyber Monday for a pretty significant discount.

Onward with the learning!

1) Look to the future

Every digital media rockstar at the conference was talking about starting to use platforms like Snapchat and Slack. While many of us are familiar with the more public and widely used platforms like Facebook and Twitter, some of these public/ private platforms might sound unfamiliar. These platforms by no means would replace the ones that millions of people are using, they would help people continue a meaningful conversation about a topic in a place where 25,000 other people aren’t publishing content the same moment as they are.

2) Don’t target people with blanket marketing

Target people you already know care about an issue or are invested in a brand. They will then share, and it is this model of peer sharing that is highly successful for all types of businesses from corporations to nonprofits. This model is also aligned with human behavior. It has an “I will do it if you do it” mentality that actually motivates people to action.

3) Content is the honeypot

Gone are the days of using likes and followers as metrics of success. As the New York Times’ T Brand Studio team emphasized during several Social Media Week sessions, the metrics listed above are faulty; you can even buy clicks. Attention is something that you have to be worthy of to hold. In a world where attention spans are akin to that of a gnat, attention is a hot commodity. Knowing how to measure this and use it as a metric to improve strategy is key. How do you hold attention though? Look to no. 4 for the answer.

4) Tell compelling stories

Do I still have your attention? Excellent. Storytelling is important because If you are telling the right story in the right way to the right audience, you have the power to drive people to action. This action can be anything from buying a product to starting a social movement that saves lives, but the point is it drives people to do something. Action is also a great metric of success. This potential byproduct of strategic storytelling demonstrates that people are relating to your stories in a human way. They appreciate the raw and authentic tone of a story that often is tricky for brands or companies to have and use as a currency. But with newer avenues like strategically crafted branded content, even corporate brands can discover their story and use it to connect with their audience.

5) Use free tools that allow you to expand your social, storytelling and marketing efforts

Out of desperation comes innovation. We know this to be true, but many organizations still think that everything needs to be designed by a designer, coded by a developer and filmed by a videographer. As someone who has learned skills from basic Photoshop to basic coding and used tools like Canva, Piktochart, Google Fonts and more, I can tell you that there are a lot of free tools out there that merit your attention and testing. While at Social Media Week, I learned about Wirewax, a very cool interactive video tool that allows you to insert tags, photos, information and overlays into videos (there is a free version). The demo was mindblowingly impressive. Since we all know (now) that one minute of video can contain about 1.8 million words, we can acknowledge that video is a great storytelling medium; and interactive video, something that holds the user’s attention, is bound to be even more effective since it is driving the user to get involved and take some sort of action.

See how this all tied together so nicely? Now you can run off to write or film that compelling story that you have been sitting on for months and meaning to create. Just me?

There was so much to learn at Social Media Week that I couldn’t list everything here, but you’re in luck because I captured a lot of other knowledge through my tweets. I encourage everyone who wants to learn more to check out my Twitter feed @asanders88 and the hashtags #SMWNYC and #SMW15 for more nuggets of social and digital knowledge.

How to Become a Morning Person When You’re a Night Owl

With a background in journalism, I spent years keeping the same hours as bartenders, bakery owners and funeral directors. My body had always been the happiest when I could curl up in bed around 2 am and wake up around 10 am. I found that this rhythm not only allowed my body to feel rested, but also my mind. I tend to have creative bursts of energy and the urge to write a novel around 10 or 11 pm, so an early bedtime has a bad habit of stifling my creativity.

When I landed a new job and my hours shifted, I was able to adjust to a bedtime of midnight and a 7 am wakeup. Anything earlier gave me that heart-pounding, eye-drooping feeling that I hadn’t slept in a week. Recently, my boyfriend changed jobs and had to adjust to waking up at 4 am – the same time he went to bed during his previous shift – and my calendar suddenly got very busy between a graphic design class, a full time job and a rapidly filling social calendar. I decided that if I was going to fit exercise into my schedule and occasionally see my boyfriend, I would need to go to the gym before work.

I did the math. My calculator told me that I would have to wake up at 5 am to walk the 15 minutes to the gym, have an hour workout, walk back to my apartment, get ready for work and walk to the subway to embark on my Brooklyn to Manhattan commute to work. Wait, 5 am? I did the math a dozen more times and tried to think of ways I could wash my hair less to save time. In the end, I realized I would just have to suck it up and wake up early if I wanted to prioritize my health. I should note that I had two spinal surgeries in the past year so exercise not only makes me feel good, but it actually allows me to not be in as much pain as I am generally in on a daily basis.

I posted about my goal on Facebook and crowdsourced ways to get out of my warm bed and walk into the New York City air that freezes and chaps everything that it comes into contact with.

Here is what worked:

1) Drink as much water as you can stomach before bed. A friend told me about this trick and boy did it work. You will be scrambling to get out of bed when your alarm blasts Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ at 5 am. Once you turn on the lights and hustle to your bathroom, you will be awake enough to not have the urge to crawl back under the covers (though you may stare at your blanket-covered bed with longing).

2) Blast Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off.’ Not kidding. Have it cued up on your phone or ipod and hit play right after your alarm goes off. You can’t listen to that song and not want to move. Are you not familiar with it? Not to worry, here it is:

milton3) Wear something warm to bed or have a warm robe on the floor ready to be draped over you. Warmth is such a big motivator in my life. Are you warm right now? I will gravitate toward you without even knowing that I’m doing it. A big part of me getting out of bed involved wearing enough layers to bed that I wouldn’t be horribly distraught about walking around my apartment without tripling our heating bill.

4) Turn on lights. This could also involve looking at a phone or computer screen. The light from your tech devices disturbs sleep, as does flipping on a light switch or bedside light. This is generally not a good thing, but it’s excellent for waking you up when you’re trying to pry your less-in-shape-than-you-might-like body out of bed and to the gym in the morning.

5) Have caffeine! I shouldn’t encourage this, and I wasn’t even dependent on that wonderful and addictive substance before I started this crack of dawn routine. But honestly, black tea or one espresso shot is sometimes the extra jolt I need to not do an about face when I step out into the wind tunnels that are New York City side streets.

first-world-problems-coffee

6) Get enough sleep. Not only will you not want to get out of bed if you don’t get your requisite hours, but you will be miserable about 12 hours later and will be ready to fall asleep at 5 pm.

7) Prep your meals for the week on Sunday. This is actually a good thing to do to keep your stress low and your diet healthy always, but I only started doing this recently since I didn’t have time to make breakfast or lunch before work on this new schedule. I am now a huge fan of hard boiled eggs and overnight oats for breakfast, and different snacks for lunch (grapes, a KIND bar, cottage cheese, hummus and cucumbers, etc) so I can graze all day since working out this much apparently makes you ALWAYS hungry.

8) Have a motivator. Even though I wanted to do this for my spine health, I also wanted to get into shape. This involved googling photos of Kate Upton and making my morning alarm say BIKINI! instead of WAKE UP!

9gosling) Lay everything out the night before. The first time I was able to actually get out of bed at 5 am, I spent 45 minutes gathering my work clothes and food, and putting my workout clothes on. Trust me, it’s much more enjoyable if you don’t cut into your workout because you can’t find a water bottle or the lock to your gym locker.

10) Let yourself adjust to the new schedule. It was really hard at first to shift from a 7 am wakeup time to a 5 am wakeup time without being a horrible person all day. It’s okay to ease into it. The important thing is to try to wake up earlier and get used to that before making yourself get out of bed and actually workout.

Ok, now that you’re armed with these tips, go set your alarm for 5 am. You can do it. No seriously, you can. It just might take a few weeks.

Accomplish Your New Year’s Resolutions by Avoiding the Busy Trap

IMG_0736As soon as Christmas ends, I get the same feeling every year. That restlessness that resonates through my bones. The feeling that I need to step up to the plate and be a better person next year. I spent so many hours watching Netflix, I always think. Imagine what I could have done in that time!

I have six days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to come up with resolutions that I swear I will devote myself too, carve out time for and prioritize. No, seriously. I actually believe I can do this every year. And every year, I am not as dedicated to the things that I vow are so important to me. These things generally aren’t about losing 10 pounds or making it to the gym every day.

Last year I resolved to write a novel and learn how to better use Photoshop and Illustrator so I could improve the work I do every day (presumably helping further the mission of the nonprofit I work for by doing this). I wanted to learn how to code so I know more than the most basic commands. I wanted to volunteer at an animal shelter, work on my photography and enter short story contests until my ideas ceased to flow through my fingers and into my keyboard.

I didn’t do all of these things. However, I did accomplish some of these goals, even with a full time job and lengthy stretches of being laid out after two spinal surgeries. Reflecting on this past year, I realized just how I was able to accomplish some of the goals on my list, even during what I considered the toughest year of my life thus far. The one thing that was different this year was the lack of the busy trap. It didn’t exist because I physically couldn’t do a lot of the things that had previously trapped me.

I couldn’t go to the gym after work, cook dinner, clean or bake for a big stretch of this year thanks to overwhelming pain and a prolonged recovery. I couldn’t grab drinks with friends as much or go shopping. Even the frequency in which I did errands to buy basic household items decreased. Generally, I didn’t have the energy to do much more than lie on the couch, and conveniently a lot of my goals for 2014 involved doing just that with a laptop propped on my stomach.

A few of the things listed here are necessities, but even when I took those on, I did it in ways that were simpler and less time consuming. Dinner became broccoli and rice and friends visited my apartment so we didn’t have to trek somewhere that would inevitably cause pain (and where we would undeniably spend more money). I realized that I could get by with washing my hair with travel shampoo that I had lying around when I ran out of the supply that usually sat on the corner of the bathtub ledge. And frankly, after this year, washing my hair even seemed too time consuming. I simply didn’t put as much effort into things that now seemed insignificant in comparison to everything else I had experienced this year. That left a lot of time for the significant tasks like accomplishing the goals I had made at the dawn of the new year.

As we move into 2015 and I get stronger and more recovered every day, I remind myself to not get stuck in the busy trap when I am well enough to galavant around the city again and create reasons to procrastinate accomplishing my goals for the coming year. It took me being at my very worst to actually become the best version of me. I wish that 2015 brings out the best version of you when you’re at your very best.

Your DIY Guide to Christmas

One month before Christmas, I was being wheeled into the operating room for my second spinal surgery of 2014. I stared down at the tubes protruding from my arms and hoped that I would recover qIMG_0394uickly enough to enjoy my favorite time of the year, when New York City feels magical.

The only thing I wanted for Christmas was to not be in pain (and to get a puppy) but let’s be honest, one of those things is more realistic than the other. I was in luck – the surgery was successful and I was home from the hospital and recovering by Thanksgiving. The first three weeks leading up to Christmas were spent recovering couch-bound and fighting the omnipresent sickness that plagues me whenever I try to take (or stop taking) pain medication. Since I wasn’t up for leaving the apartment, I did my gift shopping online (using Amazon Smile so some proceeds go to charity) and kicked off the season with some DIY crafting as my boyfriend transformed our apartment into a miniature winter wonderland

IMG_0459Last Christmas, my craft of choice was burlap wreath-making, which took more coordination and patience than I had this year, but if you aren’t recovering from back surgery, it is a pretty easy and relatively inexpensive project that can really dress up a space for the holidays. I used this simple tutorial to create a wreath that has stayed in flawless shape from last season to this one. I would also recommend this tutorial on shaping burlap into roses – it’s much easier than it sounds.

This year, I needIMG_0437ed to take on projects that I could do sitting down and that wouldn’t take a lot out of me. The first thing on my agenda was making wrapping paper for my gifts. I ordered some plan brown craft paper and a snowflake stamp from Amazon, then proceeded to make the BIG mistake of wrapping the gifts before stamping them. It turns out that stamps work best on a flat surface, who knew? My snowflakes turned out a little broken in spots, but it created a vintage look that I ended up being pleased with.

IMG_0508I topped the wrapping off with homemade cards, using a simple silver and white chevron pattern for the back and a hipster santa image I found online for the front. After adding a few details in Adobe InDesign, I printed them out and glued the two images back to back. Double sided printing would also work well for this, but the printer wasn’t cooperating at all. I printed about a dozen of these at various sizes so they can be used as gift tags or full size cards.

I was determineIMG_0476d to do one more seasonal project this year that was more of a craft than a gift wrapping experiment. Since I don’t have a sewing machine, I ordered some pillow shams off of Etsy and bought some heat transfer material from Amazon. I used this craft blog as a guide, but the process is pretty simple. My tip would be to cut out a pattern that doesn’t allow a lot of room for error when cutting. After quite a bit of ironing, the pillows were finished and perfectly complemented our decorated living room.

The final project of the season was baking Christmas cookies, as I do every year. But this time, I couldn’t spend hours peeking into the oven to see if the macarons were cooking perfectly, so I chose some super low maintenance, yet elegant, recipes that would be sure to wow. First, I started with truffles, a really easy dessert to make that takes almost no time, but will impress at parties. Use this recipe or put your own spin on it by dipping them in chocolate or subbing out Kahlua for bourbon.

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Salted caramel recipes are everywhere these days – so much so that I hit three grocery stores and still wasn’t able to find any caramel. These ended up being my favorite baked good this year and they are also simple to make. Just melt some chocolate and caramel, and sprinkle sea salt over the mixture. Use this recipe as a guide and get ready to gain about 8 pounds.

The tartine brownie recipe that I stumbled upon sounded amazing. The batter is made out of a pound of chocolate and involves more folding than beating, so the texture is caky and airy. The tartine part comes in by placing Ferrero Rochers in the middle of each brownie, but as you can see here, even when you top the chocolate with batter, it is easy for the chocolates to burn. My friend suggested chopping up the chocolates and sprinkling them throughout the batter, which might be a better option for flavor and even baking.

My final cookie attempt was a BIG fail that I was able to somehow save. I took a crack at gluten free peanut butter blossoms using this recipe and it failed in both taste and appearance. The cookies were oily and the texture was very obviously just off. I refrigerated the dough overnight and threw in any ingredients from this recipe that I hadn’t yet used, making the dough not gluten free at all but looking like something that would taste better than my first attempt. Luckily, it all jived and the peanut butter blossoms turned out beautifully. If you want to take a crack at the gluten free version, I recommend using a different recipe.

It’s almost Christmas and I am recovering well and already planning next year’s craft and baking excursions. Happy holidays and happy DIYing! IMG_0454

An open letter to me (and you)

HospitalTwelve hours from now, I’ll be arriving at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York right before dawn arrives and that jazz blue color paints the City. Hopefully this list will stick with you, but if not, consider it a digital post it that I will re-read to myself as I head into the operating room for the third spinal surgery of my life and the second of 2014 tomorrow.

Sometimes tips like the ones below – no matter how cliché they may seem (they’re not when you have epiphanies about them IRL) – act as a flashlight when you’re heading down a dark road. That is a tree branch shaking in the wind and not a serial killer waiting to pounce. Catch my drift? Things aren’t as scary as they may seem when there is some light.

  • Never underestimate your support system. Since I got my drivers license, I had visions of being independent when it came to almost everything (except for changing the oil in my car and killing spiders) so it was hard for me to truly and intensely rely on people after my recent operation (and the only one I have had over the age of 12). In retrospect, I realize that without my family, friends, boyfriend and coworkers being as flexible, understanding and encouraging as they were, I would be in a very different place right now. Because of how exceedingly supportive everyone in my life was, I feel a lot more prepared for this surgery and my upcoming recovery. Read: I know I’ll kick ass this time around and never have to go under the knife again.
  • Take time to slow down. It is so easy to get sucked into the busy trap. You know what I mean. You fill your life with things until you’re tired and overwhelmed, and it feels impressive when a friend asks to get coffee and you can sigh and say “oh no, I’m just so busy!” For a while, I was in too much pain and too sick to be busy and it felt like a curse. I felt almost as if I had lost my identity because of the lack of that capital-B busy in my life. I don’t know how it happened, but one day, I learned to enjoy not doing anything. I don’t suggest you get surgery in order to feel this, but try it sometime. Buy the cake mix so you don’t have to slave away to make those crème brulee cupcakes from scratch, let the dishes sit in the sink for another hour and get some face to face time with people you love sans your iphone (unless it’s Facetime because they live far away. That’s legit)
  • Remember perspective. Sometimes things can seem really bad. Like, worse than ‘I just can’t’ bad. More like you’re living the plot of Gone Girl bad. Sometimes you have to step back and remember that while sometimes things are not as easy as you’d like them to be, the rest of life is pretty great. And things could always be worse. Usually my go to thought is that I can get water from a sink tap in my house that is heated instead of walking miles to a water source that isn’t even clean. And once I get my water, I can use my phone to order whatever food I’d like and it will arrive at my door within the hour. I don’t event have to talk on the phone or talk to an actual person! Makes you feel better about your life already, huh?
  • Never ever EVER lose hope. At the nonprofit I work at, we use the phrase Hope is inside. We work in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its high crime rates and even higher concentration of public housing. The narrative there is one of loss and conflict. The neighborhood also has immense assets and a community comprised of people stronger and more inspiring than most I have met before. Even when things get really bad, there is so much hope. If you don’t lose that hope, good things can happen. I briefly lost hope several months ago when it seemed the doctors could do nothing to correct an extremely painful error made during my last operation: twisting a screw into my nerve root, which prevents me from straightening my right leg fully and causes me constant pain. One of my doctors called around that time and said, “I refuse to believe that the only option is letting you suffer.” Sometimes it takes someone else rooting for you in a big way and other times, it is a matter of just having faith that things will get better. If you do lose hope, see no. 3.
  • Cut the crap. This is one mantra that I am trying to adopt more every day and will hopefully have mastered in the next few years. There are some legitimately tough things in life to deal with, why worry about the little things? I know drama is easy to get caught up in and life gets political, but it’s just not worth the stress. When the really tough things happen, you’ll regret nitpicking over something insignificant just because you happened to be hangry. Eat a doughnut and then see if you feel better.

So, cheers to the positives and the lessons learned. I will be reading this around 4 am tomorrow when I arrive at the hospital. My wish for you is that you read this at a less absurd hour of the day (and hopefully after more than three hours of sleep).