Tag Archives: How To

5 Tips for Bike Commuting

This week in Flagstaff is Bike to Work Week and I have ridden over 70 miles to get to work and meetings and errands.  I have discovered the joys of bike commuting, like riding through a mist of water when the sprinkler system on campus is on next to the bike path.  From the seat of my bike this week I watched an osprey dive down to a pond to catch a fish.  I relish in the door to door convenience of bike commuting, and flying along on the bike path as traffic sits at a standstill waiting for a school to let out.  The school kids ride by on their bikes and we give each other the nod, connected by our shared experience of getting around town on two wheels.

Of course, with all the joys and benefits of bike commuting, there are also challenges.  So here are a few tips to help you overcome the challenges of a day in the saddle.

  1. Wear a helmet!  Seriously, no excuses!  If you’re concerned about your hair either go with a hairstyle that is not as easily mussed or bring hair products with you to work.
  2. Wear sturdy shoes.  Ideally a closed toed shoe with a good sole.  When you are just pedaling for a mile on an even surface without traffic you don’t realize the need for decent shoes, but the second anything unexpected happens, you are going to wish you had real shoes.
  3. Get a good map that shows bike routes and trails as well as roads.  Also, Google Maps has bicycle directions for many cities that are quite good.  Most maps produced by bicycle groups will indicate which areas are dangerous for bikes.  In general you will end up taking a different route on your bike than you would in your car, so if you are new to biking, ask around for the best paths and neighborhood cut-throughs.  On Wednesday, I had a 45 minute ride back from a meeting and only 5 minutes of it were spent on a street (even then it had a designated bike lane).
  4. Dress comfortably with layers.  In Flagstaff the temperature drops 20 degrees when the sun goes down.  I bring along a light jacket and wind breaker vest to give myself options.  I also love to bike in a skirt or dress with bike shorts underneath.  Just don’t forget to bring a pair of underwear to change into so that you don’t have to sit in a shammy all day.
  5. How to store your stuff?  There are lots of options for bike racks, baskets, panniers (bags that attach to your bike or rack), trailers, and backpacks.  Keep the weight as evenly distributed as possible and as close to the center of gravity of the bike as possible (near the frame or over the wheels).  A heavy basket on the front can affect your steering and balance and a backpack will put stress on your body.  I prefer a rack over the rear tire with panniers attached to it (see picture at top).  The panniers are nice because they are easy to pull on and off so that you can take your stuff with you into the office.

Have you biked to work or for errands?  What tips would you share?  If you haven’t started biking, what do you see as the barriers to biking?

Jay riding commuter bike with trailer

Jay doing a short test ride of the commuter bike with attached trailer — Note: he put on a helmet to test it outside.

How to Create a Free, Nice Looking Online RSVP (in 10 Easy Steps!)

This post is part of our semi-regular How To Series.

As regular readers know, Jay and I are engaged to be married and I am the project manager for this exciting event.  Planning our wedding has given me an opportunity to find creative ways to get organized and save money.  For both of those reasons, Google Documents are my essential allies in wedding planning.

Above is the finished example of the kind of free, nice looking online RSVP that you can create using a Google Form.  Below I will show you how to create one step by step.

1) In order to create a Google form you first need a free Google account.  If you use Gmail for email, you already have a Google account.  If not, just start at http://www.google.com, click “sign in” and then “sign up”.

2) To start the form, sign into your Google Account and go to the Google Documents home page (click on “documents” on the upper task bar).  Once in Google Documents, click on the red “Create” button, and then click on “Form”.  That will bring you to the screen shown below.

3) An online RSVP is basically an online form or survey.  You will need to think ahead of time about what you want to ask your invitees and how you want to ask it.  Typical questions to include, “Will you be able to attend”, “Name of guests attending”, and “Do you have any severe food allergies we should be aware of?”.  For each question you can choose between different types of answers, such as “text” or “checkboxes”.  I used checkboxes for guests to mark yes or no for attending (see below).

4)  For each question you can also choose whether or not it will be required.  Required questions will show up on your form with a red asterisk and the guest will not be able to proceed until they answer the question.  Sometimes it is helpful to offer the “other” option on a multiple choice question if the question is required.  This allows for any scenarios you may not have anticipated (such as yes I can come, but only for 30 minutes, or I would really like to come but will not know until the day before).

5)  In order to edit a question, click on the pencil icon in the right hand corner of the question box.  In order to add a new question, click on “Add item” and select the type of question you need to add.  When you are done editing each question, just click “done” and it will go from highlighted to white.  You can always go back and edit or delete a question after you have added it.

6)  Now comes the fun part.  In order to make your online RSVP nice looking, you can choose from over 60 “Themes” that are already in Google Forms.  Just click on the “Theme” button, next to “Add Item”.  For my RSVP I chose a very formal classic wedding theme, but they have a ton of different themes to choose from.

7)  By clicking on the theme it will generate a preview of your form in that theme (shown above).  If you don’t like the look, just click “cancel” and try another one.  If you love it, click “apply” and it will take you back to your form editing page.

8)  When you are done with creating your form, just close out the window to go back to your list of Google Documents.  You will see the name of your form at the top of your list of documents.  Click on the form and it will bring you to a spreadsheet like the one below.

9)  The spreadsheet is the tracking document for your form.  Whenever someone uses your form to RSVP, their responses will show up in this spreadsheet, including a timestamp of when they responded.  This is one of the best things about Google Forms since you can quickly and easily access the RSVPs and then you can even download the spreadsheet into Microsoft Excel or another data program to manage the list and create mail merges for name tags or thank you notes.

10)  In order to actually see your completed form and get the link to send out, click on “Form” and then “Go to Live Form” (from the spreadsheet screen above).  This will bring you to your form online (shown below).  You can then copy and paste the URL/web address for the form to send to your guests.  Of course, I would recommend creating a hyperlink if you are sending the link by email (LIKE THIS) or even creating a Custom URL through a link shortening site such as bit.ly if you will be writing the link on a paper invite.  If you have questions about that, please let me know in the comments.

And that’s it!  This process only takes a few minutes once you get the hang of it.  There are lots of additional tweaks and tips that you can use to enhance your forms, so I encourage you to experiment.  It’s free and easy and if you are a bride or groom to be this may be one big step on the way to wedding Zen!

10 Tips for Wedding Dress Shopping

This post is part of our almost weekly How To Series.  Since I spent most of last weekend on a marathon wedding dress shopping adventure, I decided to share what I learned.

Sharon enjoying a mimosa after finding the perfect dress

  1. Do some research online beforehand, but only to get an idea of the different styles that are out there.  I spent so much time looking online that I narrowed in on a certain style and then when I actually got to try on a dress exactly like what I had picked out online I didn’t like it.  There’s nothing quite like trying on the dresses in person so allow yourself time to do that.
  2. Know your budget ahead of time.  You need a very clear budget range BEFORE you start shopping.  This probably means you should wait to go dress shopping until after you have figured out some of the big budget items: venue, catering, photography.  Assuming that the dress is coming out of an overall budget, it needs to be dependent on the cost of other large ticket items.
  3. Bring your shape wear and heels, but realize that you might not actually need them.  Depending on the shop and what types of dresses you are trying on you may end up trying on dresses that have built in corsets in which case you don’t need shape wear.  If the dresses are new and you are trying on samples you also won’t need heels because they are made extra long and hemmed to fit you during alterations.
  4. Most sales people will ask you standard questions, “What silhouette do you like?”, “Straps or strapless?”, “What fabrics do you like?”.  I had trouble answering these questions and I was finally able to get to what I wanted when I started describing how I wanted to feel and what the wedding was going to be like.  For example, I wanted to feel feminine and romantic, so I ended up liking the silks and chiffons rather than the satin.  A good salesperson can help put your ideas about your wedding into an actual style.
  5. Try different types of shops to see the range of what’s available.  We went to everything from department store, thrift shop, David’s Bridal, off the rack discount wedding shop, and couture boutique.  I had initially shied away from the fancy couture boutique assuming everything would be out of my price range, but it turned out that the dress I ended up buying there was less expensive than some of the dresses I liked at the consignment shop and David’s Bridal.  
  6. Don’t bring your entire bridal party.  Dress shopping is tiring and the more people the longer it will take and the more drama may ensue.  For me, two guests was an ideal number.  This was very helpful because one would take notes while the other one took pictures.  
  7. Make an appointment (preferably not on a Saturday since they’ll be super busy).  Our appointments lasted between 90 minutes and 150 minutes.  Ask ahead of time how long you have for your appointment.
  8. Other things to bring: tissues and a hair tie.  You may cry, your mom might cry, or perhaps it will be the salesperson!  We saw a lot of people crying, but I only teared up a little bit.  Even if you normally wear your hair down it’s helpful to tie it back for trying on veils or hair accessories.  
  9. Ask about alterations and factor that into the overall cost of the dress.  Alterations generally run $200-500.  Some dress shops require that you use their alterations department.  Some places have a set cost and others are specific to your dress and what needs to be done.  Gowns with corset backs usually require less alteration where as a dress with a lace overlay or lace appliques may have expensive alteration costs.
  10. Bring a camera.  Most shops will let you take photos.  I found it very helpful to see myself in the dress in the photos and to compare photos from one shop to the next.  Especially if you are doing a dress shopping marathon, you may need a reminder of what you tried on and how it looked.

How to Write a Strategic Plan for your Wedding

When I tell people that I have written a strategic plan for our wedding they laugh and look at me funny.  I expect that, but as we move into the main planning phase and things start to go wrong or get complicated, I feel more and more that a strategic plan is not a laughing matter, it is vital.

When you are surrounded by vendors telling you about their vision for your wedding it is important to have done the pre-work and be firmly grounded in why you are having a wedding and what your first principles are.  This can be true of bringing family and friends into the wedding process as well.  Knowing why you and your partner are choosing to have a wedding (vs. elope or live together and commit to one another without a ceremony) and what is most important to you will help you immensely in making the thousand small (and big!) decisions in wedding planning.  By sharing your strategic plan with those family and friends who are helping to plan and execute you can keep everyone on the same page and feel more comfortable delegating.

Angela Valerino's wedding

Angela Valerino posing with her rugby friends (Photo by Jay)

So what goes into a strategic plan?

Mission –

The mission is the simple what of your wedding.  Try to state as plainly and concisely as possible what it is you are actually doing by planning a wedding.  You may get so lost in the tulle netting and silk flowers that you can find wedding zen by just reading your mission statement.

Example: Jay and Sharon are legally wed in the presence of family and close friends.

kate and seth osborne

Kate and Seth pose with a surprise wedding cake (they chose to do ice cream at their reception so Kate's mom got a wedding cake for the pre-wedding event to be able to use the family wedding topper and cake knife). (Photo by John Tewksbury)


The vision statement is aspirational, it is the picture you see in your head when you imagine your wedding at its most successful.  You strive for the vision, but outside forces may prevent you from actually achieving the vision.  It is sort of like running a race and keeping your eyes on something in the distance so that you do not slow down right before the finish line.


Our relationship is strengthened through the experience of making a commitment in front of those we love and who support us.  Our ceremony and reception reflect our values and provide an opportunity for both sides of the family to get to know one another better in a fun, beautiful, and comfortable atmosphere.

blitz torte

Beautiful blitz torte made lovingly by Cindi and Millie and Ken for Nate and Nicole's wedding


I think it is most important to include a statement of shared values when you are planning something together for the first time.  You and your future spouse hopefully have some shared values and these are what will be expressed on your wedding day.  You may also have areas where your values are not shared, so it’s important to discuss what is most important to each of you to find the common ground to build from for the first day of your life as a married couple.


Note: You may want to describe each value or discuss how it would be expressed in the ceremony or reception.
terri hugging mom

Terri Defazio hugging her mom while family looks on at the beginning of their ceremony


The goals are where we move from what to how.  Goals are behaviors or actions that you want to see based on your mission and vision.  Focus on no more than five goals.  Goals are different than action items in that they can be accomplished in multiple ways.  This is important to have in the strategic plan for when your action plan falls apart.  Maybe you decided to have your ceremony outside in a park because you value nature and want to connect to the natural world during this important ceremony.  Well, if it snows or there are hurricane force winds or the park kicks you out because you didn’t have a permit, it is important to come back to why you were getting married in the park to begin with.  Perhaps it’s time to bring live plants inside for the ceremony or get married in a green house or indoor garden.  If it was important enough to write a goal about it, do not just let it go, but find a new way to accomplish that goal.


We create a warm, welcoming environment where our guests can feel that we value their support.
Our wedding ceremony is an expression of our values and our relationship.
melinda bloom dancing

My mom in the conga line in a great Albert family tradition at Kacy Gerst's wedding (photo from Kacy Gerst's collection)

Indicators of Success

You’d be surprised how common it is for a couple to get to the end of their wedding day and not actually be wed.  There’s paperwork to sign and local laws to follow…  Maybe, you already know that you can not be legally wed in your state and that is not actually the point of your wedding day.  So what does success look like?


1.  Sharon and Jay are legally wed.
2.  We spend our wedding day smiling and laughing with our closest friends and family.
3.  Our wedding guests are active participants, telling stories or dancing, lending a hand because they are welcome to do so.

How To Pack for a Year Long Road Trip

We are counting down the days now until our 1 year anniversary of being on the road.  When we first left our home in Falls Church, Virginia we were cramming things in around the edges of our completely full Rav4.  For the first week we had to duck and dodge to avoid the avalanche of sh*t that would tumble out every time we opened a door.  A month in we re-evaluated the packing and were able to safely open all of the doors without fear of injury.  However, we were still stacking, restacking, and rearranging boxes on a daily basis.  I’m almost embarrased to admit that it took nine months before we had things arranged in an orderly fashion and had reduced the overall amount of junk so that we had a little visibility out the rear view mirror.  Finally, eleven months on the road and I actually like the way that things are organized.  So finally I am willing to share a few tips and this video tour of our Rav4.

Pulling out of the driveway of our old house

A few packing tips for the extra long road trip:

  • Arrange your belongings by how often you will use the item; organize items together that you will use together (i.e. kitchen box, “office”, and medicine cabinet).
  • Pack in a smaller number of larger containers (a reasonable weight and size to lift daily).  Originally we had our stuff in many many small boxes and bags, these containers just get lost in the jumble and are harder to keep organized.  Now we use crates that fill the whole space.
  • Pay attention to weight – both trying to reduce overall weight (we collapsed the rear springs on our vehicle right away) and distribute weight evenly and towards the front of the vehicle
  • Modify your vehicle to meet your storage and living needs.  When you are actually going to be living on the road you may need to modify the vehicle itself.  To see the modifications that Jay has made to our Rav4, check out this page.

And now a video tour of how we have our vehicle packed these days:

How to Set Goals for Weight Loss

This is part of our weekly How To series

Earlier this year I wrote about How to Lose 30 Pounds and Keep it Off, based on my experience in 2010.  Well, with January 1st just around the weekend and many of you considering a New Year’s resolution, I thought I would highlight how to set goals for weight loss that will actually stick.

sharon before and after

Before and after photos only 6 months into my weight loss

  1. Do Your Research:  What is a realistic weight or BMI for you?  There are tons of different height/weight charts on the internet to use to help determine a healthy weight and Body Mass Index.  I particularly like this chart because it takes into account frame size so you can finally tell if you are just “big boned”.  If you are currently overweight or obese, I suggest picking a goal weight in the middle or high end of the healthy range for your size.
  2. Give yourself plenty of time and then be specific: Want to lose 30 pounds?  Plan on losing 1 pound a week and then add in a few weeks for the inevitable plateaus.  30 pounds should take you at least 35 weeks.  The longer you work to lose the weight the longer you will have succeeded at keeping it off!
  3. Set action goals:  Instead of just making the goal all about the weight or dress size you are hoping to acheive, focus on the actions that you know will get you there.  When you are eating well and exercizing enough, what does that look like?  For me, if I eat 5 servings of vegetables a day I will end up eating a healthy diet overall.  Sometimes due to hormones and normal body changes you can not control the weight loss on a given day or week, but you can control your actions.
  4. Focus on the positive:  Setting positive goals like “I will walk for at least 20 minutes everyday” keeps you looking towards the healthy you.  When you focus on stopping bad habits from the past like “I will not eat chocolate” it keeps your focus on what you’ve been doing wrong instead of what the healthy you does right.  If you have a trigger food to avoid, consider reframing it as “I will save chocolate as a special treat for Saturday nights”.  Then you can look forward to this once a week indulgence instead of feeling guilty about enjoying something that’s delicious.
  5. Set up non-food related rewards:  Progress thrives on positive reinforcement.  Plan ahead to what milestones will be celebrated and how you can celebrate them in a healthy way.  Reward both the efforts and the results – for instance, consider giving yourself a reward for the first time you accomplish your action goal (walking 20 minutes a day) for an entire week.  Perhaps you get a massage or a trip to the movies or a new pair of running shoes…

Are you planning to lose weight in 2012?  What are your goals?  Feel free to announce them here in the comments so that we can offer our support and suggestions for how to make them stick.  Losing weight can be very difficult and it helps to have support from other people who have been there.

How to Write a Thoughtful Thank You Note

This is part of our weekly How To series

Boy do we have a lot to be thankful for this year.  We have been hosted by friends, family, and strangers all over the U.S. and Canada.  We’ve also received some individual sponsorships to defray our costs in getting to volunteer opportunities.  With all this generosity we have gotten good at writing thank you notes.

I imagine that with Christmas just 2 days away you may be writing thank you notes soon too, so here are some of my tips.

When do you need to write a Thank You note?

Thank you notes are always nice, so it’s never wrong to write one, but a note is especially called for if you were not able to thank the giver in person or if the gift has benefitted you in some way that you can share with the giver.  The best part about gift giving is seeing the joy on someone’s face when they receive your gift, but not everyone can give their gifts in person.  A nice thank you note that conveys that joy is a great way to reciprocate.

When should I send a Thank You note?

Simple, after you receive the gift and before you use the gift.  There are exceptions to the use clause, but in general it is a good rule of thumb so that you don’t forget to send the note.

What should I include in a Thank You note?

A simple layout would look like this:

Dear ….  (name the giver in whatever way you usually refer to this person)

Thank you so much for the …… (be specific about what they gave you).  I really appreciated the …. because …. .  (Include an example of why you liked the gift or how you plan to use it).  **** Note: Another approach would be to focus less on the gift itself and instead focus on thanking them for taking the time or thoughtfulness to send you a gift.  Even if you do not think you will use the gift or even plan on regifting it, be sure to thank the giver for their time and effort (and avoid lying about liking something that you really do not for risk of future embarrasment and harm).

Next customize with recent news or a wish to see them soon or asking about recent news with them.

Close by thanking the giver again and wishing them a Happy Holidays or another appropriate wish of good will.


Your name

Can you send an email or call instead of a hand written Thank You note?

Yes, but consider the circumstances.  In general, many people find a hand written Thank You note to be particularly thoughtful.  However, if you main way of communicating with the giver is through email, that may be an appropriate alternative.  Also, if you have not talked to this friend or relative on the phone in awhile, that might be a very nice reason to call and share your joy with them.  A phone can be particularly nice if you want to share an immediate reaction.

Well, those are my suggestions, what about you?  Do you write handwritten thank you notes?  As a gift giver what kind of thanks do you like to receive?



Suggestions for Packing a Healthy Lunch When You Have to Eat & Run

This part of our weekly How To series

So as my regular readers know, this month I have been earning a little extra cash as a driver helper for UPS.  One of the unexpected challenges of this job is figuring out what to bring for lunch.  During this busy holiday season you usually eat whenever you can along the route.  And of course, I don’t want to buy lunch since I got this job to make money, not spend money.

the UPS jumpseat

Where I sit (and occassionally eat) on the truck

Generally you have to put together a lunch with things that are:

  1. Easy to eat with dirty hands  
  2. A good balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates so that you can sustain energy all day long
  3. Easy to eat while sitting, standing or moving without making a mess

Here are some of the best things I have found…

  • Sandwiches or wraps that are cut so that you don’t have to eat it all at once.  I pack them in a sandwich bag so that I don’t have to hold the sandwich directly.  I find that peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese work well as a good balance of protein, fat, and carbs.  You may consider bringing two sandwiches instead of more snacks.
  • Nuts and/or trail mix in a container that allows you to shake them out.  Small boxes of raisins are easy to eat on the move.
  • Fruit with a peel – bananas are easiest to eat on the move.
  • Apple slices, baby carrots, or other fruits and vegetables cut into smaller snacking sizes
  • Granola bars or protein bars
  • Applesauce in a squeeze pouch – these are an awesome invention, designed for toddlers but useful for anyone that wants a quick healthy snack with no mess
  • Yogurt is a great healthy snack.  If you have time to eat it with a spoon you can avoid the really sugary types, but if you really need portability, try Yoplait’s Go Gurt
  • String cheese!  – since it comes in a plastic wrapper that peels back this is an awesome snack
  • Small cans of V8 Juice – if you can stomach it (I can’t) these are an awesome way to get a vegetable serving

Have you been faced with this challenge?  What foods do you recommend?


Ideas for Giving Gifts that Give Back

I don’t know about you, but I still need to figure out what I am doing for Christmas gifts!  For many years, Jay and I have looked for ways to buy or make gifts in a thoughtful way that keeps on giving.  Here are some ideas for how you can give gifts that give back.  These are only a few examples; I would love to know your suggestions in the comments.

Already know that your dad wants golf clubs or your sister would love a new top?  One of the best ways to support your local community is by shopping at a local trusted retailer who supports your community and provides decent jobs.

Give of your time in honor of a friend – Why not volunteer and take pictures or write about the experience to share it with your loved one as their gift.  Or maybe you have a family member that could use your talents or assistance and you can give a coupon good for your time.

To find volunteer opportunities, search these sites:

Tewksbury/Blooms at Ronald McDonald House

Mom, sister (Nora), and Sharon at Ronald McDonald House last Christmas

Shop online like normal, but have a portion of the proceeds go to a nonprofit:

The sites below (and others like them) have set up agreements with retailers that when you use their site a portion of your purchase will go towards a nonprofit.

Let your recipient have some say in a donation:

  • Donors Choose Gift Cards – with these cards the recipient gets to a pick a project at a school to donate the gift card to.
  • Kiva Cards – with a Kiva card the recipient can choose which entrepreneur to invest in

Make a donation to your friend or family member’s favorite charity.

  • If you want to look up a nonprofit in your family member’s neighborhood or find out the stats on how a nonprofit spends their donations, check out GuideStar or Charity Navigator.

Make a donation to a charity in your friend’s name:

  • Heifer International – Heifer is always a fun one because you can buy an animal in the name of your friend that will go to a family in an impoverished country.
sharon with America the Beautiful Federal Lands Pass

One of our best Christmas gifts last year, an America the Beautiful Federal Lands Recreation Pass!

How To: What Questions To Ask When Staying With Someone for the First Time

This is part of our weekly How To Series.

During our road trip we have stayed with family, friends, or couchsurfers over 150 nights.  Most of the time we are staying at a person’s home for the first time.  We have a few questions that we make sure to ask up front to avoid issues.

  1. Do you have any pets that I have not already met and are your pets allowed outdoors?  You do not want to be surprised by an animal on your way to the restroom in the middle of the night!  Of course letting a pet out who isn’t allowed outside is one of the worst things you could accidently do when staying with someone.
  2. What time do you usually get up in the morning?  It is a good idea to get a feel for the morning routine before everyone goes to bed.  Often we stay with people that have to work the next day, so we try to stay out of their way in the morning.
  3. Do you drink coffee?  Jay is a coffee seeking zombie in the morning so we have to have a plan before bed.  We always keep instant coffee with us just in case we are in a non-coffee household.
  4. How do you secure your house when you leave?  Usually we are staying with someone for more than one day and we are in the house after they go to work so we have to know how to lock up during the day.  Besides borrowing a key, it is important to know which lock they use and if there is more than one door that needs to be locked.
  5. Do you have any severe allergies or dietary restrictions?  If you are going to be using their kitchen, it is important to know if they have severe allergies, are vegetarian and do not use their cookware on meat, or are kosher and keep a kosher household.  We also often cook for our hosts, so I like to know what their dietary preferences are so I can prepare an appropriate meal.
  6. Where is the bathroom and is there anything I need to know about it?  There are often quirks to how things work in the bathroom and you don’t want to wait until you’ve got to go to find out.
Jay petting a dog

Jay always makes fast friends with pets

Other things to look for:

Do they take their shoes off in the house?  If they take their shoes off then you should as well.
Do they eat outside of the kitchen and dining room?  Some people snack while on the couch or even their bedroom, but other people prefer to keep food only in the designated eating areas.