December 05, 2016

Six Christmas Things All Catholic School Kids Will Understand

Thursday night, Derrick and I picked up our second annual live Christmas tree, which is no small feat for two people living in Florida. (It's a strange sensation picking out a tree while simultaneously being devoured by mosquitos.)

Also not a small feat: two very strong-willed people coming together to decorate a live Christmas tree.

Now, not only are Derrick and I two very strong-willed people, we're also two very strong-willed people with very different views on proper tree decorating. Let's just say that Derrick was not pleased when he turned his back and found my hedgehog ornament on top of the tree where the star apparently belongs. ("This is where I draw the line, Nicole.")

But despite our obvious differences in opinion on proper tree etiquette, we did have a good time hanging the bulbs and tying the ties with Justin Bieber's holiday mix in the background.

The best part of the evening, though, was Derrick's face when I told him that we should get ourselves an Advent calendar.

Now, I attended a Catholic school from kindergarten through my senior year of high school, so to me, an Advent calendar is about the same as eggnog in terms of familiarity. To Derrick, however, the idea was as foreign as... well, a hedgehog atop our tree.

I tried to explain the tradition of the Advent calendar, but I think the only thing he really got out of it was little holiday-themed chocolates. (Which, I guess to be fair, is often the most important part of any story that involves little holiday-themed chocolates.)

But once I got going on Advent calendars, I couldn't stop. What other seemingly run-of-the-mill Christmas traditions did Derrick not know about? I mean, the man lived in a world without Advent calendars and Christmas pickles before I came along—who knew what else he was missing out on.

Which leads me to this: 6 Christmas things all Catholic school kids will definitely understand.

1. Advent calendars. As discussed above. If you went to a Catholic school, you know the joy of opening that little cardboard door every December morning. Who cares if the chocolate inside tasted a little bit like glue? Each little gluey chocolate was one gluey chocolate closer to the big day.

2. Advent wreaths. No one is as pumped about lighting a candle as a kid who went to a Catholic school. And especially the pink one—the signal to kids across the world that we're sliding into the home stretch.

3. Homemade nativity scenes. Because all Catholic kids know that there is no more proper way to welcome the birth of Jesus than with a toilet paper roll replica of the scene.

4. Nativity plays. Similar to homemade replicas of the nativity scene, Christmas is just not Christmas until your elementary school-aged self has reenacted Jesus's birth. I personally never landed the coveted role of Mary, but one year in second grade I did wow the masses with my performance as the Christmas martian.

5. Christmas socks. Out-of-uniform days are not so much a rare treat to a Catholic school kid as they are a spectacle of sorts. It's the red carpet of elementary school, the three or four days a year when you have the chance to prove just how trendy you and your glitter jeans actually are. And while you might not always get an out-of-uniform day for Christmas, you will certainly get at least a Christmas sock day. And never is your sock game more critical than on this day.

6. Midnight masses. When I told Derrick about this one, he was positive I was playing games with his head. But, seriously, if you're going to do Christmas Eve as a Catholic, you're going to do it hard. 

Happy Monday, everyone!
It's the most wonderful time of the year, after all.

November 28, 2016

The Gift Guide for Those Who'd Rather Not

It's officially that time of year again. The season we love, the season we sorta hate, the season we spend between childlike giddiness and all-out panic.

Oh, the holidays.

For those with large families, it may mean trying to bargain off creepy uncle Sal as your Secret Santa recipient. For those with small families, it may mean you and your husband getting your stories straight for your Annual Christmas Dinner Interrogation. For the festive ones, it means cookie swaps and ABC Family marathons and hidden pickles. For the not-so-festive ones, it means wine and Netflix and all your condiments in plain sight. 

And for bloggers?

It means gift guide on gift guide on gift guide.

Now, I've been a "blogger" for several years but I've always felt like I—a girl who hasn't owned lip gloss since fourth grade—had no business participating in this trend. After all, one search through Pinterest and you'll see most gift guides have the same things: makeup palettes, bath bombs, those weird antler things that belong on your gallery wall.

In other words, things I know nothing about.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think those things are cute, just like everyone else. But I also feel like I'm not quite Susie McBlogger enough to actually put them on my site. I mean, sure, I could try to be a little more trendy, maybe use some makeup other than Maybelline mascara... but I'd rather not.

This year, though, I've done it. I've found the perfect solution. This year, I've put together one of those coveted gift guides—filled with coffee mugs and throw pillows and silver bangles—but I've mixed it together with a dash of "nope." The trendiest of trendy guides, for those who'd rather not.

Susie McBlogger will be so proud.

"Owner is shady. Dogs are cool." mat. For the person who doesn't like people-people, but can tolerate dog-people. Sometimes.

Milkshake anxiety tank. It's a rare occasion when the word "milkshake" and "anxiety" can be used in the same sentence. This is one of them.

"I Hate Everyone" bracelet. It looks so sweet, but that's just because people can't see what's going on inside. Sort of like you.

Fox mug. The pun is only the second best part of this mug.

"Nope" sweatshirt. For the one who doesn't necessarily wear her heart on her sleeve, but doesn't mind it on her chest.

"Because cats" pillow. Some days, you don't need anyone else in your life. Because, cats.

The face blanket. For the one who just can't on an entirely different level.

Happy Holidays everyone!
Let the madness begin.

November 10, 2016

Happiness Is a State of Mind

Since graduating from college, I've called "home" to a respectable variety of places. My favorite by far, though, has been the cities.

First, there was Chicago, where every Sunday I'd pick up quarters to use in the community washing machine and walk two city blocks to get groceries from Trader Joe's. And then there was Washington, DC, where I'd get lunch from the food trucks in Farragut Square and eat it across the street from the picketers at the White House.

Now, I live in southwest Florida, where no one pickets and I have my own washing machine.

But while you'd think these things would've made this move easy, the transition to southwest Florida may have been the hardest one yet.

You see, since college, I've decided that I'm a "city person." As in, I like living in downtown apartments with four bars within half a mile. I like taking the subway to work and watching St. Patrick's Day parades from my apartment window. I like having brunch joints and used bookstores and yoga studios all on my street.

I loved Chicago and DC because they were rarely ever predictable and definitely never boring.

But a city is the exact opposite of where I live now. Where I live now, there's a 6 PM rush at Carrabba's before everyone heads home to turn in. Public transportation consists of two Uber drivers and their minivans, and the only thing I can see from my window is hole 9 of the community golf course. My neighbors are retirees from up north, who come down every winter to congregate in driveways and gossip at the community pool. Every day is predictable because that's the way people here want it.

It's a much, much slower, quieter way of life in southwest Florida, one that I still don't think I'm used to.

But to be honest, I've never given southwest Florida much of a chance. Instead, I've spent most of my mental energy comparing it to Chicago and DC, a match-up I had determined Florida would lose from the start. I mean, I am a city person in a very un-city place. How could I possibly be happy with my living situation when I'm a zebra squished in a fish tank?

And the answer to that question is that I couldn't—it was just not possible for me to be happy.

But it's not because of what was around me—it's because of what was in my own head.

You see, it's like Dale Carnegie (and every fortune cookie writer ever) has said: It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.

Basically, I can decide my situation is great or it is horrible, that I am happy or I am not. Either way, I'll be right.

So recently, I've been working on changing my state of mind. I've been focusing on noticing—and enjoying—the great things about southwest Florida instead of what it lacks. I'm focusing on the fact that I live in a place that is warm and colorful, even in November.

And sure, there are a lot of old people here—but where there are old people, farmer's markets are sure to follow. And where there are farmer's markets, there are fresh vegetables, homemade sweet tea, and pineapples just waiting to be photographed.

And if a blogger can't appreciate a place like that, well, is she really even a blogger at all?

October 31, 2016

My Biggest Insecurity: Trying to Face My Melasma in Florida

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor and this post is not medical advice for you. Actually, it's not advice at all, since—as I'm sure will become apparent—I have no idea what I'm doing. So please, be smart, talk to an actual doctor, use your seatbelt, etc. etc.

Second disclaimer: I've linked to several products and companies, none of which have sponsored this post or anything like that. In other words, I'm not getting paid for this. (Although I wouldn't turn you down, if you're offering. Kidding, of course. Mostly.)

Almost two years ago, I posted this post about melasma. If you didn't read it, it's one of those triumphant posts where I tell you that I've defeated this awful little "friend" of mine, complete with a blog-worthy photo of me smiling in front of a red brick wall.

Unfortunately, two years later, here I am posting about this god-awful condition once again. (I'd never make it as a beauty blogger, I know.)

But here's the deal: when doctors say that melasma can't be cured, I guess they really mean it. And so while I was able to fade my melasma for a while in 2014, it's back now and better than ever.

Remind me what melasma is again.

I guess I should back up and explain who my a-hole of a little friend is: Melasma is a condition where your skin (usually on your face) develops uneven pigmentation. This pigmentation usually appears as large, symmetrical blotches on your cheeks, nose, forehead, chin, and above your upper lip, and can be anywhere from brown to sort of a grayish blue. 

The discoloration is due to the overproduction of melanin by the pigment cells in your skin, but doctors aren't positive why this happens. However, they are pretty sure the cause is a combination of several things, including genetics, sun exposure, and hormones (which is why it's common in pregnant women).

And because life is really fair and we have nothing else to worry about, women are way more likely to suffer from melasma than men (only about 5-25% of melasma sufferers are male). Oh yeah, and as of now, melasma is not curable. 

So can you treat melasma?

Now, although doctors keep reiterating that melasma is not curable (as of now), some people do have success fading the pigmentation. The problem is, since we don't know exactly why the skin pigment goes nuts, we also don't have a one-size-fits-all way of treating it.

Back in 2014, two things changed that could've accounted for my spots fading: one, my doctor switched my birth control pill to one with a lower dose of estrogen (since some doctors believe estrogen plays a big role in darkening melasma), and two, the Washington, DC (my home at the time) winter kept me almost completely out of the sun.

To be honest, it's impossible to say which one played a bigger role in fading my spots. But it's also sort of a moot point anyway since I ended up switching back to my original birth control pill (after a fun year of hormonal acne) and moving from DC to, literally, the sunshine state.

Did the melasma come back then?

Yes. And other than giving me more blog material, it has really sucked.

You see, the sun here in Florida is strong, so my melasma came back with a vengeance. My spots became even darker and bigger, and worst of all, new spots starting forming. It's now not only above my lip, but also on my forehead, cheeks, and nose.

If you think that sounds pretty depressing, you're right.

So what are you going to do about it?

I wish I could say I'm just going to embrace it, accept my flaws, and start making motivational posters.

But I'm not that inspirational of a woman, so instead I'm doing my damnedest to make it fade again. So what exactly does that mean? Well, let me tell you:

1. Limiting sun exposure. 
Which is a lot easier said than done, especially in Florida. I'm doing what I can, though, meaning a lot of floppy hats and a good physical sunscreen. (Doctors recommend physical sunscreens, like those having zinc oxide, instead of chemical sunscreens for people with melasma.)

I use this SkinMedica cream that my doctor recommended because it also supposedly protects against infrared light (i.e., heat), which some doctors believe is another influential factor in developing melasma. (And as someone who works out in a non-air conditioned Florida CrossFit gym, I'm no stranger to heat.)

2. Stopping hormonal birth control.
After almost a decade of taking the pill, I quit cold turkey about six weeks ago. Now, if you're reading this and thinking, but Nicole, aren't you worried about breaking out? Horrendous cramps and PMS madness? Getting pregnant?

Well, the answer is yes—but I'm willing to risk it if there's any chance that it'll help fade my spots (which should tell you something about how desperately I want this problem solved).

3. Getting chemical peels. 
Last winter, I did a series of SkinMedica peels (performed at my dermatologist's office, of course, since no one's got time for chemical burns). It was pretty pricey but I was happy with how my melasma looked when we finished.

Unfortunately, the results only lasted until summer, when all of my spots came right back.

Now that it's winter in Florida (i.e., sort of hot instead of oppressively hot) and I'm no longer taking hormonal contraception, I thought I'd give the chemical peels another shot. Only this time, the aesthetician I've been seeing recommended a little bit of a stronger peel, the VI Peel with Precision Plus. (I had my first one done four days ago, so the jury's still out.)

Now, to be honest, chemical peels make me wary. (No matter what the professionals tell me, spreading acid all over my face doesn't sound smart.) But based on my experience, peels do produce at least some good short-term results. So I'm hoping this round of chemical peels will jump start things while I wait for my no-synthetic hormones, no-sunlight lifestyle to kick in.

4. Taking supplements.
Taking supplements, especially those not prescribed by a doctor, is not usually my cup of tea. But based on the anecdotal evidence from women on different skincare forums, it seems like methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and pine bark extract could have some positive effects—so I'm willing to give it a try. I found a supplement called Melacor that has both, and while ordering a supplement online feels sort of like a recipe for disaster, so does spreading acid on my face—yet here we are. Go big or go home, I suppose.

So there you have it—a complete breakdown of everything you never needed to know about my face. See you again in two years, when I tell you how the only thing I got out of this was two pine trees growing out of my ears. (Totally kidding. I hope.)

Do you or anyone you know deal with melasma? Has anything helped, or am I stuck with this until I move to the Arctic?

October 24, 2016

Race Day

I've often been told I'm a bit too competitive for my own good.

And, to be fair, it's probably true. I mean, my budding relationship with my now-husband almost didn't make it through a few particularly heated games of HORSE in college. So yes, when HORSE almost destroys your marriage, you might have a problem.

But in my defense, I get it honestly. (You think these presidential debates have been bad? You've never seen my family play any sort of board game.)

So looking back on it, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised with how the bike ride with my mom last weekend turned out.

I guess I need to back up, though.

You see, my mom has recently gotten into bike riding, ever since she went on her company bike ride this past summer. And when I said "get into," I mean get all the way into. Fanny packs, bike racks, GPS attachments—she's all in.

So when my mom picked me up from the airport last Saturday, I asked her if she was planning on doing some bike races.

"No, Nicole. Do I look like someone who would do a bike race?!" she said before waving me off dismissively and stepping on the gas to pass the guy to her right. ("Where do you think you're going, Buster?!")

So I asked, "How about a less competitive race? A bike riding league or something."

"Nicole, I'm just doing this for fun! For leisure!" she said. And that was that.

So leisure is what I was expecting when I agreed to go on a ride with her Sunday morning at the NCR Trail in Pennsylvania.

Of course, knowing my mom, I don't know why that's what I had expected. I mean, sure, she said it would be leisurely. But she also said I absolutely needed to wear a helmet to "avoid traumatic brain injury," something that is generally not a risk when you're enjoying some leisure.

She also told me to bring snacks. Which, okay, could've been a good sign. However, the Pilgrims were probably also told to "bring snacks," and look how that one turned out.

Basically what I'm saying is that the signs certainly didn't point toward leisure, particularly coming from someone who has hand-written "extended guidelines" on the rules of our family's game of Clue.

So as you may have guessed, the ride was not leisurely.

By mile one, I had already taken off my jacket. By mile two, I could barely see my mom in the distance. At mile three, my mom (who had stopped and waited for me to catch up) told me that I could "change gears if it was too hard, you know."

At mile four, I realized exactly what I had gotten myself into.

We ended up stopping after eight miles at a cafe, my mom bouncing with endorphins and me slithering around on the ground in exhaustion.

But to be fair, even though I was woefully out of place among the serious, fanny pack-clad neon windbreakers on the bike trail, the ride was still pretty fun.

And as a bonus, it provided some solid DSLR-material. I mean, when you have a new camera, what more can you ask for than autumn leaves and old country buildings?

So I guess the moral of this story is this: Don't go bike riding with someone who has a fanny pack. And if you do, wear a helmet.

October 19, 2016

Big Exciting News

Big blog news today, guys. Big news.

You're looking at the owner (okay, the blog of the owner) of a brand new DSLR camera.

If you're like Derrick, this means absolutely nothing to you. But if you're a blogger, then you know exactly what this means: pictures for days.

Now, normally, when a blogger promises "pictures for days," she's promising pictures of blog-worthy type things. You know—festivals, doughnuts, festival doughnuts, floppy hats, smiling babies, etc. etc. Unfortunately, I don't have any of those things at the moment.

What I do have, however, is my parents' home in Maryland, where I am spending a few days this week. (I'm up this way for a few work-related things in DC.)

So while I don't have any doughnut picture for you guys (yet), I do have pictures of my parents, my dog, and me, almost nailing the self-timer thing:

Also, a very artful picture of this hose:

In other words, very important things going on around here. And that hose is only the beginning.

October 17, 2016

Should You Change Your Name After Marriage?

For many women, getting engaged is like opening the floodgates to an ocean they had never known existed, much less given serious thought.

One issue that I personally hadn't given much thought before getting married was the tradition of taking your husband's last name—a topic that turns out to be a pretty heated issue, at least throughout the wedding blogging community. (But then again, so are place cards, so take that for what it's worth.)

It does make sense, though: there are many factors—some merely practical, some based on deep-seated personal beliefs—a woman might consider when deciding to change her name. So it's not surprising that this issue can become a divisive one.

As someone who has only recently dived into this particular ocean, I find the whole thing particularly interesting (and, of course, relevant). So I'll admit, while I didn't really mean to stumble down this rabbit hole, I'm not doing much to get myself out. The more I read, the more I'm fascinated by what women on both sides have to say.

So if you're interested in coming down the rabbit hole with me, let me give you a crash course: here are some of the things you can expect to hear while you're down here with me.

Reasons women are against name-change

"I don't like the history."
For a lot of women, taking their husband's name symbolizes a history that they're not pumped about honoring.

For example, in the U.S., this tradition can at least partly be traced back to the doctrine of coverture—a legal doctrine where married women had essentially no rights. (Basically, coverture dictated that a married woman was a dependent of her husband, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings.) It actually wasn't until 1972 that a woman's right to use her maiden name in whatever ways she pleased was legally confirmed in the U.S.

Understandably, some women find this a bit—well, gross. So for many, keeping their birth name is their way of slapping a big fat "nope" on that chapter of history.

"I don't want to give up who I was."
Another reason women have for keeping their birth name is that they are really happy about who they were before they were married, and they don't want to "lose" that.

I put quotation marks around "lose" because different women seem to view "losing" their identity in different ways. For example, for some women, it is more of a symbolic thing; losing their birth name feels like losing the woman who owned it (and they want to keep her around).

Other women, though, feel they would be literally losing their identity by changing their name. And (especially in the age of the internet), this makes a lot of sense; if all of a woman's accomplishments—career achievements, athletic recognitions, etc.—are tied to her birth name, changing her name risks losing a large chunk of her portfolio to people not making the connection to her married name. This is a risk a lot of women, particularly those established in their careers, don't want to take.

"It's too complicated."
Last but not least, some women opt to keep their birth name to save their sanity. Because, sure, dealing with the Social Security Administration isn't always that bad... but that's only the beginning. Legally changing your last name means you also have to change your name on things like your passport, bank accounts, credit cards, leases, insurance policies, utility bills, student loans, retirement plans, voter registrations, even your subscription to Cosmo.

Of course, getting married is a lot of work too, so if a married woman wants to change her name, this generally isn't going to stop her. But for some women on the fence, this huge snowball of paperwork and seemingly boundless hassle is enough to tip them over the edge.

Reasons women are for name-change

"I like the tradition."
While some women don't take their husband's name because of the tradition's history, some women are able to separate the tradition today from the tradition's historical meaning. To these women, changing your name today has no more to do with coverture than engagement rings have to do with Pliny the Elder, who gave his bride a ring to signify her binding legal agreement to his ownership of her.

And in some ways, this makes sense: many of the today's customs have unsavory pasts, but they've evolved over time to simply be a tradition that we enjoy taking part in. I mean, not many people today wear Halloween costumes to "ward off roaming ghosts." No, we do it because, hello, costume contests.

"I want to have the same name as our children."
An obvious reason many women change their name after marrying is that they want to have the same name as their spouse. And it seems this is even more common when children are involved, since children often take their father's last name.

And this makes total sense to me: sharing a name with your family is a visual reminder that you are a unit and a team. (Plus, making DIY pinecone wreaths saying "The Joneses" is a lot easier than wreaths that say "The Joneses and Betty Garfunkel," if you know what I mean.)

"I like his name better."
Finally, one reason that many women seem to have for changing their name is surprisingly unsurprising: they just like their husband's name better. So cheers to you, Betty Jones. We all had a hard time spelling "Garfunkel" anyway.

Obviously, this rabbit hole has a lot more twists and turns than what you might've imagined. This decision can become a lot bigger than just what letters you have monogrammed on your beer coozies, after all. And what's more, I've only traveled down the rabbit hole relating to heterosexual couples; the name game for same-sex couples can be even more unclear.

But the good news is that it's a decision where you can't really go wrong: if you choose what feels right to you, then you've made the right choice.

What do you think about this? If you're married, did you change your name? Why or why not?

October 10, 2016

Liriodendron Fall Wedding: Getting Ready

I don't want to pick a part of my wedding that was my favorite—that'd be like picking a favorite child. But since all parents probably have a favorite child anyway, I'll just do it: getting ready for my wedding may have been one of the best parts of the entire day.

I decided to do things Pinterest style and get my girls robes to get ready in. But if you're wondering if we are always sitting in a Pinterest wedding pin, the answer is no.

You see, our photographer only came to the wedding venue (i.e., he didn't come to the hotel where my bridesmaids and I had spent the night before and had our hair and makeup done the morning of). Actually, a few hours before these pictures were taken, I was sitting on the ground of a La Quinta suite, eating a steak sandwich from Panera surrounded by the remnants of a six-girl sleepover.

But since I didn't ask our photographer to come to the La Quinta, he didn't capture that—or our amazing hair stylist and makeup artist transforming us from regular mortals to, well, what you see here. Instead, he only got shots of us fully made-up in the Liriodendron mansion dressing room, hanging out in robes looking like we owned the place.

I'm not upset about that, though, and I'm sure my bridesmaids weren't either. (No one really needs a picture of them eating Panera takeout on a La Quinta floor anyway.)

Speaking of my bridesmaids, I actually didn't hire models from Brides magazine. My friends really are just that pretty. The three blondes are my best friends from high school (Erika, Hannah, and Andrea), and the other two are my sister/maid of honor (Sam) and my best friend from college (Steph). We make a great group because we were able to get 80% of a good picture together, 100% of the time.

Actually, I take that back—we were able to get a few pictures where none of us were blinking or appearing to have a seizure. It only really happened when we were drinking something, though.

The big thing about getting ready in the Liriodendron was that the guys (including Derrick) were also getting ready in the other room. This was a "big thing" because Derrick was adamant about the fact that the first time he saw me would be when I walked down the aisle—which meant no first look, no passing each other on the way to the bathroom, no nothing.

This wasn't a huge deal, but it did become a little inconvenient when I wanted to take pensive photos of me in another room (like the ones below) since I couldn't walk from room to room without sending someone out ahead to survey the hall.

You will all be glad to know that Derrick's wish was granted, though, and the first time he saw me that day was when I was walking down the aisle towards him. Which was great, of course, except that I really wish he could have seen exactly what went into me looking the way I did.

Aside from having some extremely talented women do my hair and makeup, getting dressed in itself was quite the ordeal (at least for someone who spends 95% of the time in yoga pants).

The real MVP of the day, though, was actually Sam. You see, the lady at the bridal boutique told us that in order to button the approximately 485 million little jewel buttons on my back, we would need a crochet hook—just like the one we all forgot to bring to the wedding venue.

Sam and her feisty little fingers saved the day, though, and managed all 485 million little jewel buttons sans crochet hook.

In all honesty, the only part of getting ready that I wasn't too thrilled about was the waiting. We were ready at least 30 minutes before the ceremony began, which was mostly spent continuing to spy on our guests from the upstairs window.

That being said, looking back on it now, I would love to relive every single one of those 30 minutes, drinking Moscato from a plastic cup in a mansion with my best friends. I was nervous to get down the aisle in one piece (and then, you know, marry the love of my life), so I was anxious for the waiting to be over at the time. But now, with my friends back home, scattered across the country, I realize how special it was to have them all in one room with me.

But I guess you live and you learn. Plus, I would get to enjoy plenty of time with my friends anxiety-free later in the night.

But that, my friends, is for another post.


And now comes the part where I link to all of the lovely things you see here, in case you want these things too.

Photography by Patrick McGuire. || Makeup by Beauty by Anna. || Hair by Natalie Curry. || Flowers from Flowers by Katarina. || Dress from here. (This is the dress.) || Shoes found here. || Earrings found here. || Robes found here.