Wednesday, December 24, 2014

List #14 - Favorite Reads of 2014

 UPDATE:  Linking up this post here:

Several blogs I follow have posted lists of their favorite reads of 2014.  I thought I'd join in that mix.  I looked at my goodreads account, and apparently I've read 66 books this year.  These were my favorite ten of those 66 (go top 15%!).

  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettI took a class at A&M about Children's Literature. I remember re-reading the book then and enjoying it. Unfortunately, I was too hungover most lecture days that I don't remember much else about the class. I'm glad I re-read it again. It's even more delightful of a story the third time. I'm a sucker for a transformation story, and the combined transformations of characters and the garden is a winner.
  • One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper - About 40 pages before the end of the book, I was torn - I wanted to know what happens to the characters, but I didn't want the book to end. I love this book. The characters are well-developed, and I enjoy the writing style of the author. Cast well, it would make a great movie. The combination of mortality, relationships, and introspection packaged in a has-been musician worked well for me. It won't work for everyone.  The lead character is flawed, and not everyone is going to warm to him.  The ending won't work for everyone either.  But, it all worked for me.
  • If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch - I found this book in the YA staff recommendations at my local library.  If you like YA, I recommend it.  The lead teen girl is one I felt for emotionally and wanted to wrap my arms around her and give her a big hug.  A book that attacks topics such as neglect, abandonment, and abuse coupled with acceptance, sibling bonds, and self-discovery.  
  •  I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb - This book is an emotional journey. There are truly some gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, cringe-causing moments. After such a journey, the ending felt a little rushed for me, but that's my only critique. Overall, a great read.
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow RowellI adored this book.  Eleanor and Park were such endearing characters.  There's not many books that I'd read for a second time, but this is one that I will keep on my shelf to read again in the future.  If you like teen fiction, love stories, awkward but adorable characters, and an emotion-filled read, then this book is for you.
  • The Son by Jo Nesbo -  A GoodReads Choice 2014 award in Mystery/Thriller - I like thrillers, and I liked this book so much that I'll go back and read every book that this successful Norwegian author has written.
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent - I'm certainly glad I didn't discard this one just because it is based on a true story set in Iceland in the 1800s, and I was slightly intimidated by it.  What a beauty of a book; heavy with dark imagery, but beautiful nonetheless.  As I was reading, I wanted to know more and more of Agnes's story.  I became emotionally invested in her and other characters.  
  • Field of Prey by John Sandford - I've been reading Sandford's 'Prey' series since the very beginning (the early '90's).  There are many, many thriller/mystery series that feature a lead cop.  Lucas Davenport is my favorite of the bunch.  The bad guy is disturbing (as our most of Sandford's bad guys), and this book kept me guessing throughout.  
  • In Case We Die by Danny Bland - Well-written flawed characters and difficult lives intrigue me; I am pulled into their stories.  Although I've never been a drug addict, I could relate to the hurt, fear, and damage felt by these characters.  I enjoyed reading their path to overcome their demons.
  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - What a gem of a book!  After several readers in my last book challenge raved about this one, I knew I needed to read it.  I found myself laughing out loud at times and squirming with discomfort others.  A sequel has just been released.  Hooray!
If you're an avid reader and want to join a book challenge - join mine!   

What were some of your favorite books that you read this year?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Longest Christmas Day Ever!

I'll be home for Christmas, and not only in my dreams!  The last Christmas I spent in Texas was 2006.  This year, for a combined wedding & Christmas & birthday present to himself (my dad's birthday is Christmas Day), my dad and stepmom paid for my guy and I to fly home. 

We work until 4:00pm Christmas Eve.  We'll spend the evening of Christmas Eve with Neil's parents, kiddos, and our fur babies with presents and pancakes.  Yep, we decided pancakes for dinner this Christmas.  Christmas morning we'll squeeze in a little more time with the kids, then we head to the airport.  We fly out Christmas Day direct from  Sydney to Dallas/Ft Worth.  We'll be in the air 15 hours and 20 minutes.  You think that sounds bad?  Try 16 hours and 55 minutes on the return flight.  It is the longest running commercial flight going.  I'm good.  I watch a movie or two, and I sleep.  Poor Neil.  He doesn't sleep on any kind of transport. 
Photo credit
 With the crazy timezone difference, we arrive Christmas Day too.  We spend Christmas in Sydney, Christmas in the air over the Pacific Ocean, and Christmas in Texas too!  Threeeeeee Christmases!!!!!!  We'll be in Texas for less than two weeks, but we've crammed as many family get-togethers in that time that can possibly be scheduled with parents, step-parents, brother, sister-in-law, step-brothers, step-sister, nieces, nephew, cousins, aunts, uncles, kids of my cousins.  Oh, I mentioned it's my dad's birthday on Christmas Day.  Also, it's my niece's birthday and my mom's birthday while I'm there.  More celebrations!  (more cake!) 

I pretty much invited myself to my aunt's and uncle's for New Year's Eve at their farm.  And, I'm going to squeeze in a day at College Station, an Aggie basketball game, a day in Fort Worth, a few stops at Buc-ee's during the road trips, Tex-Mex and more Tex-Mex, and somewhere, we'll find time to sleep. 
In honor of my dual continent Christmas celebration, I share with you these white trash Texan and bogan-tastic Australian Christmas songs.  I love them both!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday's Seven Snapshots #7

Christmas cheer in the city from this beautiful old theatre. 

I watched my favorite movie. It makes me laugh, cry, think, dance, hurt, and smile. Every time I watch it, I try to decide what character, what storyline, and whose acting performance I enjoy the most. I can never decide. I enjoy them all. 

I'm such a good little wife. I cooked dinner for my new husband while he worked late. 

Scenes from Martin Place when I went to pay my respects to Tori Johnson, Katrina Dawson, and the hostage survivors. 

I watched a young girl around 7 or 8 place her artwork (top right corner). 

Christmas in North Sydney is not complete until having a rum ball from Red Mango patisserie. 

Christmas party love!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts #21: Courtesy

I know that common courtesy from customer service people can be lacking.  Common courtesy from customers need help too.  I have a couple of rants from today's personal experiences.  And, I have a couple of Maury Povich memes.  This is sizing up to be a very entertaining blog entry...

Christmas shopper rant from a retail salesperson:  Guy comes in...
Guy: "How much are watch batteries?"
Me: "We don't sell individual batteries.  We supply and fit battery by a qualified watchmaker.  It's either $18 or $24, depending on the watch"
Guy: "Why? I just want the battery.  Why does it cost so much for a watch battery?"
Me: "We've charged the same price for a battery change for 8 years.  We offer the service to have the battery changed properly done by professional tradesmen."
Guy (aka Ebenezer Scrooge now): "Fine. How quick can you do it? I don't really want to pay that much, but..."

Comes back 15 minutes later...
Me: "Your watch is ready, set to the correct time, day, and date."
Guy: "Oh, thanks.  I never could figure out how to change the date."
Me: (what I wanted to say): "Maybe you shouldn't complain about paying for a service when they can provide a little something extra like setting the date on your watch that apparently you could never figure out for yourself."
Me (what I really said):  "No worries.  Have a great afternoon."

Another guy comes in...
Guy: "Do you have silver necklaces?"
Me: "We have a variety of sterling silver necklaces over here, and throughout the store we have many options of necklaces and pendants in white gold."
Guy: "Do you have one with a heart?"
Me: "Sure, let me get it out for you.  It is in 9karat white gold with a small splash of diamonds"
Guy (cuts me off): "Diamonds.  I don't want to pay too much."
Me: "This has a very small amount of diamonds, and 9k gold is a more affordable option of gold.  Also, it is discounted, so this necklace cost you $279.)
Guy: "Do you have one with more diamonds?  Do you have one that is bigger? Do you have one where the heart sits straight instead of at an angle?  But I don't want to pay too much, but I want bigger diamonds."
Me: "Do you mind if I ask your budget to point you in the right direction?"
Guy: "Well, $279 is more than I want to spend, but I want bigger diamonds, and a bigger heart, but I don't want to spend more than $200."
Me (I want to stare at him like the dumbass that he is until he leaves the store)
Me (what I actually do): "I can offer you an extra 10% savings on this piece that I'm showing you.  That helps you get closer to your budget.  Unfortunately, bigger diamonds in a larger heart is going to cost more money.  I'm happy to help you with that if you'd like."
Guy: "I think I'll look somewhere else for something cheaper."
Me (what I want to say): "I'm sure your girlfriend will be thrilled with that decision."
Me (what I actually say): "No worries.  Have a great afternoon."

Photo credit

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best Wedding Ever*

A few months ago, my guy and I decided to make it official and get married.  There was no debate, no question, we were going to the registry office (similar to the Justice of the Peace in the US) and attempt to have the easiest, most relaxed day possible.  In Australia, you have to apply for an "intent to marry", then wait 30 days before the actual wedding day.  You go to the office of "Births, Deaths, and Marriages" (I'm not pregnant, and we're not dead, so gettin' married it is!), show your passport and/or birth certificate, sign a few papers, and schedule a day.  We booked for Sunday, the 14th of December.  At the time, I didn't realize that the exact date and time we'd get married, we'd have these super cool dates = 12.13.14 in America and 14.12.14 in Australia.  (Making that connection, I should never forget our anniversary, because I'm a girl who doesn't always remember important dates).

I challenged myself to spend less than $100 on my dress.  That was going to be tough in Australia, but I still thought I'd set the challenge anyway.  I went to a few stores, looked around, tried some stuff on.  Nothing.  Then, through the window of Dotti, I saw a dress that looked casual, comfortable, and it was even white (not that I had to wear white).  I tried it on, and guess WAS casual, comfortable, and $65!  I told the shopgirl** that it was for my wedding, and she gave me 10% off.  Bonus.  I had gold wedges already that would look perfect, and I designed my own necklace with smoky quartz, rutilated quartz and pearls to coordinate.

I reserved space at a pub in The Rocks (a pretty popular area in Sydney).  The pub is in a heritage building that was originally built in the 1800s.  They serve boutique type beers and yummy food.  Plus, I discovered this little gem when I joined a group of Texas A&M grads to watch a football game earlier this year.  The pub is owned by a couple, and the wife is an A&M grad herself.  We Aggies like to network and support each other.  (shameless plug: Harts Pub) I created a facebook event, invited folks, sat back and relaxed.

So, Sunday rolled around.  Neil's kids stayed with us the night before.  I got myself dressed.  He got himself dressed.  I had a chat with Astro about mommy & daddy getting married.  (Yes, I talk to my cats.  Yes, they understand.  Yes, I'm a crazy cat lady.)  It was all pretty easy.

 I rode to the ceremony with Neil's mum.  He drove his dad and kids.  We had a couple of close friends join us to be witnesses.  (In Australia, you're required to have two people over the age of 18 to serve as witnesses).  One of our witnesses has been such an amazing friend to the both of us that Neil credits her with the fact that we probably wouldn't be together today if she hadn't been there for us, supported us, advised us through a particularly rocky time in our relationship.  That was then, this is now......

We arrived all present and accounted for.  We got both sets of my parents on skype from Texas (awww the wonders of smartphones and technology).  We met the celebrant, went upstairs to the ceremony room, declared that we weren't related to each other, were over the age of 18, and legally not married to anyone else.  We said some vows, we exchanged some rings (handmade by Neil himself and provided by the best little best man/ring bearer ever), we signed the marriage certificate, the witnesses did too, we kissed, and TA DA!...we're married!  All this happened in about 15 minutes and cost about $500.

We went to the pub, were joined by approximately 40 people; a fun, loving, supportive, eclectic group.  I loved the fact that we were a multi-national crowd with Australian, American, English, Kiwi, Polish, Greek, Italian, and Eastern Europeans. Everything was totally laid back and casual.  I didn't have a photographer, but I did take selfies with all the guests.  A girlfriend of ours asked to bake a cake.  I was amazed when she showed up with a croque-en-bouche!  We may have almost set the place on fire with the sparklers, but it's all good.  And, I may have eaten all the caramelised sugar toffee that was drizzled on it.

A friend of mine described me as "(t)he most RELAXED and non traditional bride ever" and said it was "such a lovely afternoon".  I'm pretty happy with both of those descriptions.  And, I'm pretty happy with this guy of mine.  We have been through a lot, put each other through a lot, committed ourselves to fight for each other and our relationship, have grown into true and equal partners. Overall, it was the best wedding ever*, and I'm grateful to all of those that joined us to make it a wonderful day!

*admittedly, I'm slightly biased.
**I do not use shopgirl in a derogatory way because I am a shopgirl.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thoughts #20 - Sydney Siege

I wish this entry could be articulate, poignant, and thought-provoking. I'm just not prepared to write that piece. I'm going to write based on my own personal experiences of the day, so those who care can experience today with me.

For those unfamiliar, here's a tiny geography lesson: I work in North Sydney which is situated on the north shore of the city. We are on the other side of the Bridge and the Sydney Harbour is between North Sydney and downtown Sydney, the CBD, which is where Martin Place is located. Martin Place is a bustling area filled with shops, kiosks, offices, a memorial statue, and cafés.  

I went into the city this morning to pick up some small diamonds, chains, and silver cleaner (typical jewellery store errands). As I left my last stop of the list of errands at 155 Castlereagh (red pin on map below), I walked towards the train station at Town Hall. I noticed a couple of news vans and a police officer walking purposefully in the opposite direction I was going and thought "something must be going on". I continued to walk enjoying the bright, yet relatively comfortable summer day. 

I reached Town Hall Station and received this text from my guy: "Stay away from Martin place and come back here ASAP."  I read that as a train was pulling up, so I responded that I was heading back to North Sydney. As I stepped on the train, I read the news. A gunman or gunmen were holding hostages at a café at Martin Place, possible connection to terrorist group. 

Honesty time: I was on a train from one of the busiest stations in Sydney. I felt uncomfortable. The thoughts entered my mind that terrorists target public transport. The thoughts entered my mind that there have been coordinated terrorists attacks that hit multiple targets. The thoughts actually entered my mind "I don't want to be the news story 'Married Sunday; Killed Monday". I admit these are extreme thoughts, but I'm being honest. I prayed. I felt a sense of relief and safety when I got to the north shore side of the bridge. 

Throughout the day, I watched and read news reports, social media, and even an Emergency Announcement from the US Embassy in Canberra, Australia. A half-hearted comment was made for me not to talk today, for fear someone would hear my American accent.  Again, an extreme reaction, yes, but I'm sharing honestly. I have firsthand knowledge of friends who were in lockdown or forced to evacuate their offices and workplaces. 

As I type this, police and authorities are still in the midst of negotiations. Five of the hostages are free and appear physically free of injury.  There is no confirmed tally of how many hostages or perpetrators are still inside. There is no confirmed motivation or specific group that is to blame. I feel, and I ache for those involved. Imagine the fear and panic. Imagine the thoughts for 8 plus hours, and it's still going. 

I shared texts and emails with my parents. I checked on a girlfriend here in Sydney who is an American.  I heard from a few friends back home. A friend from high school who works in Washington D.C. intelligence reached out to me (which really meant a lot). 

I often talk on this blog about spreading kindness. Today is a day to remember that there are some evil, messed up people in this world. Don't contribute to the ugliness. Be thoughtful. Be kind. 

Whatever your beliefs, send prayers, good thoughts and vibes and power to those involved and impacted by today's events in Sydney. 

(Taken on my train ride home as I type this piece)

I love this amazing, wonderful adoptive city of mine...Sydney. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday's Seven Snapshots #6

I'm photo bombing Ricky. 

Flowers from a mystery sender. 

My hair colorist is a-may-zing!

The destructive duo strikes again - this is what happens when two Great Dane mix sisters are left unsupervised. 

Ready for a special day. 

Liam, Chelsea, and me

Mr. & Mrs.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thoughts #19 - Stepmoms

With my wedding day approaching (it's tomorrow), I am having a lot of thoughts and reflections. One extremely important part of my life with this monumental occasion is I officially become a stepmom (or stepmum). I can't help but reflect about the stepmoms I've had in my life and what kind of step-parental figure I want to be.

Short history: My parents are divorced. My mom is a wonderful, loving, caring, crazy, energetic, fantastic, fun woman. You can learn more about her here. My dad remarried (to Barbara) when I was 16 and sadly, was widowed when I was 30. He remarried again to Helen, and they are happily married today. 

I sent my dad this email:
"(t)hank you for picking women who have gone above and beyond to be wonderful step-mothers and female role models. My life is enriched for having both Barbara and Helen in it."

Barbara could sew a mean Halloween costume after spending the day fighting legal battles as a highly respected corporate attorney. 

Helen ran her own insurance agency but hosts a fantastic dinner party as well. 

Barbara could canoe a river; Helen can golf. 

Barbara took my dad fly-fishing; Helen got my dad to go to Italy.

Barbara would beat me at Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit; Helen can talk books and American Idol with me. 

Barbara wore signature red lipstick; Helen has signature red hair. 

Barbara battled brain cancer with a spirit and determination that inspired all around her; Helen is a survivor of breast cancer. 

Barbara fiercely loved and encouraged her children and step-children; Helen unconditionally loves and supports her children, step-children, and grand-children. 

They both love and value my dad.

Barbara and Helen exemplify strong, courageous, supportive, intelligent women, friends, family members, and stepmoms.  I hope I can continue their legacy and give as much to Neil's kids as they gave to me. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thoughts #18 - Pay It Forward

Wikipedia says (and we all know how reliable Wikipedia is):
Pay it forward is an expression for describing the beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others instead of to the original benefactor. The concept is old, but the phrase may have been coined by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book In the Garden of Delight.

For the last few years, I've seen the concept of "pay it forward" floating around more often.  There was a rather emotional movie titled Pay It Forward.  There have been a few initiatives on facebook encouraging people to "pay it forward" that I've participated in.  I think it's great.  Doing something for someone and expecting absolutely nothing in return.  Others have done nice things for me as well.  It's a super nice feeling. 

I have been fortunate enough to receive care packages from a few people since moving here.  My mom and my stepmom have both sent things.  That's sweet, and I love them for it...but they are moms.  They are supposed to do things like that :)  I still get super excited to open one when it arrives.
Typical care package from mi madre
I had an acquaintance that I knew in Houston.  She's pretty crafty.  She saw me make a couple of comments about the Houston Texans football team, and she sent me Texans earrings that she made herself.  Another friend that I knew in high school sent me a care package with books, handwritten messages, favorite movies, and crunchy Cheetos (man, I love myself some crunchy Cheetos).  Another girl I knew in high school sent pasta shaped like Texas and pasta from my university, Texas A&M.  All of these packages have been so thoughtful and meant a lot to me...someone taking the time out of their day to send something to brighten my day.  Just fantastic!
Texas pasta from Barrie

So, this year, I saw something on facebook again about a "pay it forward" group. I decided that I wanted to pick someone that would not expect it and send a care package to them from Australia.  Honestly, I didn't think too hard about it.  I was scrolling through facebook and stumbled upon a picture that I just love.  In fact, I love almost all the pictures that Shelby posts.  I think the wacky, wonderful, fun relationship that she and her son share just jumps out of the pictures and grabs me.  I wasn't particularly close to Shelby, but she's one of those people that I reconnected with on social media, and I wish we lived in the same city because we'd totally hang out.

I reached out to Shelby and told her that I was wanting to "pay it forward", that I thought Preston looked like a cool kid, and that I thought she was the type of mom to teach him about "paying it forward".  She was appreciative and thrilled.  Months went by, and I did nothing (because I am a procrastinator and can have great intentions that don't always get acted upon).  Then, Shelby posted about some medical challenges she's been facing and how that has affected her son as well.  I thought "dang, Erin, send that boy his care package." So, I gathered a few odds and ends from Australia - a magnet, a keychain, some Tim Tams (which are like the Australian go-to biscuit/cookie), a Christmas ornament, and a super cool shirt with the Aussie flag in the Superman logo.  I should've taken a picture.  I didn't.  I wrote him a card and sent it through Australia post.

The reaction from Shelby and Preston since receiving the package has been phenomenal.  Not over-the-top.  Just totally, sincerely appreciative.  Shelby tells me that Preston is already coming up with ideas of how to "pay it forward".  I stand by my belief that he is a totally cool kid, and she is a special mom.

I am not writing this to receive any "way to go, Erin" comments.  I am writing because I challenge you to "PAY IT FORWARD".  If you are reading this, do something, anything, that is nice to someone that is not expecting it, and you expect nothing in return.  Buy a cup of coffee for a person in line at Starbuck's.  Send an actual handwritten card to a friend "just because".  Bake cookies and take them to a neighbor.  Send a care package.  Volunteer.  Whatever you feel motivated to do.  If each person who reads this (even if it's only two people) do something like this, then that is two nice things put out into the world.  And, I think the world needs more nice things in it. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday's Seven Snapshots #5

The tree is up, and one member of our household is particularly pleased about it. 

It's summer summer summertime in Sydney.

This bag decided to go on a train ride by itself (because I left it on a seat). CityRail gets a lot of flack, but the two times I've left something on a train, the employees have been extremely helpful.


It was my brother's birthday this week, so I was looking at old photos. Here's a little gem. I had a red rabbit's foot pinned to my overalls. I was stylin'.

My girlies

Sunday nap day

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Bloggess, Memes, and Me

The Bloggess is pretty close to being the supreme queen of all bloggers.  I've read her book.  I've read her blog.  She rocks.  She posted this and specifically said WE "should totally do this".  By "we" she means me, right? 

On facebook and other forms of social media, you're told to google your first name and "meme".  Well, yes, there are some rather interesting images......

Well, you doin'?

Thank you, Adam.  It's not my birthday, but I certainly appreciate the sentiment.

Huh?  Well, thanks...I am pretty awesome.

Hey.  That's not nice.  Was it because I said I am awesome?

Uhm, no thank you.  Not even with your term of endearment are you going to win this one.

Yep, getting weird and slightly inappropriate.

And, getting creepy.  Super creepy.

Enough.  At least I'm not from Jersey (in case any of you were confused and thought this actually may be me.)

Well, Bloggess, this did not fail to disappoint.  Thanks for letting me play along.