Highlights from our “Nevertheless, She Persisted” Postcard Party

This past weekend, we invited several of our more liberal-leaning friends over for a slightly different kind of social event: a postcard party. The purpose of this sort of gathering is to get individuals together to write their elected officials, but in a way that’s fun, social, and builds up our community.

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The planning for the party was fairly straightforward. I scheduled the event for 3pm on a Sunday, so that meant I’d only need to provide light snacks and refreshments. We opted for a mimosa bar (much like our New Years Day brunch) along with iced tea, homemade salsa and guacamole with tortilla chips, chicken salad tea sandwiches, my homemade pepper jelly over cream cheese with crackers, and cookie-brownies. (The cookie brownies came from a box…baking isn’t really my forte.)

Then, there were the logistics of the postcards themselves. Assuming I’d get 10-20 people in attendance, and that the average person could write about 30 coupons in a 2-hour span, I went ahead and ordered 500 postcards from Vistaprint. (Don’r forget to check for coupon codes!) It only cost me about 10 cents per card, and here’s what they looked like:

As for the postcard designs, I found a few that were made available for free, specifically for this cause, by their designers. Others, I ordered digital downloads from Etsy, each for less than $5 a piece. I’d highly recommend this route if you decide to replicate this yourself — don’t forget to pay your artists!

Next came setting my attendees up for success. I gathered addresses for all of my area representatives at both the federal and state level (President, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, 2 US Senators, US Representatives from our area, Texas governor, Texas Lt. Governor, Texas Senators from our area, Texas Representatives from our area, and our city mayor. I also wrote a list of “conversation starters” — ideas for what folks could write to their reps at each level. (I’ve made both of these documents publicly available on Google, in case anyone would like to use them!)

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Then, I cut down an Amazon box into small pieces so that everyone could have a piece of cardboard to write on, gathered pens, printed out multiple copies of my documents, and we were ready to go!

As everyone arrived, I gave them the rundown of how to proceed: they could write up to 3 postcards to each rep, and I would collect them in three separate batches, for mailing on consecutive weeks. Guests were instructed to bring personal address labels, postcard stamps, and like-minded friends.

Midway through, I gave a quick speech of other upcoming activism opportunities, and overall I’d say the event was a huge success! We’re thinking of hosting another such party next month as well.

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Postcard parties are a fun, easy, and social way to stay politically active. They don’t replace more direct activities like calling and visiting your reps or going to town halls, but if you’re unahppy with the current administration, they can be just one more way to make sure your voice is heard.

 

 

Our Living Room Remodel Revealed: Before & After Pics!

It’s finally done! After my annoying back-and-forth with West Elm, and scouring my garage for interesting mantle items, my new living room is finally finished!

And I’m loving it. Our room before was just a hodgepodge of things that we had both brought into our marriage, but now we have a single defined design for the whole space. Our house feels more airy, open, and full of light.

So what do you think? Check out my before and after photos below, or look at my list of vendors toward the bottom of the post!

Before:

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After:

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Before:

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After:

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Before:

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After:

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Vendors:

  • Couch – West Elm
  • Rugs, Drapery – Wayfair
  • Coffee Table, Chairs, Dog Bed – Overstock
  • Pillows, Wine Rack – Amazon
  • Botanical Prints – Etsy (Artist)
  • Frames – WalMart

And everything else was just “recycled” from stuff we already had. We can’t wait to start entertaining in the new space!

Trip Review: All-Inclusive Resort in Cancun

We’ve just returned from our first “real” vacation of the year, a four-day trip down to Cancun, Mexico. It was a fantastic little getaway, and once again, the out-of-pocket cost of our trip was almost entirely FREE, thanks to our use of points and miles strategies.

We got our free flights, direct on Southwest from Austin to Cancun, as I’ve previously described in this post. Then, using points we earned from the sign-up bonus of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, we booked our resort via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

Booking via the portal was a great option for us, as you can can choose from nearly any property you can find on sites like Expedia or Travelocity; this meant we weren’t locked in to a particular hotel brand or chain. And in Mexico, when you look beyond the main American hotel brands, you open up an additional option: all-inclusives!

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The hubby with our beachfront resort’s mascot.

We had just under 60,000 points left in our Ultimate Rewards account, and thanks to the enhanced redemption rate you get as a Sapphire Reserve cardholder (with each point valued at 1.5 cents per point, as opposed the 1.25 cent rate with the Sapphire Preferred or a flat 1 cent with other Chase cards) that was enough to book 3 nights at the GR Caribe All-Inclusive by Solaris in a Deluxe Oceanview room (plus free premium wifi as part of the package).

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We were just about $40 shy of covering the total cost — not bad for a little Caribbean getaway!

And the resort turned out to be a good choice for us. While the GR Caribe itself is fairly small, it’s connected to the much larger sister property, the Royal Solaris Cancun, and guests receive full privileges at each resort. That means we got access to a total of nine restaurants, four bars, multiple pools and hot tubs, a marina full of non-motorized activities, and plenty more that was all included in the price of our stay.

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The courtyard just outside our room was comfortable and airy.
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The light on the adobe walls at night was particularly beautiful.
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Our Deluxe Oceanview Room featured a breakfast nook area and traditional accents.
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A rose and towel animal from the housecleaning staff.

I liked the GR Caribe in particular for its traditional Mexican adobe-style architecture. Our room, a Deluxe beachfront room on the ground floor, was spacious, nicely decorated and clean. Our only complaint is that, despite making our reservation for a King bed, we received two Queens. In the end, this wasn’t a big deal, but sleeping in separate beds did put a bit of a damper on the romance element.

Still, we made the best of it, and there was plenty to do. We visited the ocean, swam in each pool at least once, tried all myriad of frozen alcoholic concoctions, and even took the bus into Downtown Cancun to visit the large traditional Mexican market, Mercado 28, for some sightseeing and souvenir shopping.

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We enjoyed morning walks and afternoon swims on the well-kept beach (despite the red flag warning; we’re both very good swimmers.)
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One of the many pools at night.
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We also took advantage of the on-site mini golf course featuring Mayan-style sculptures.

As with many all-inclusives, however, there are a few a trade offs for not having to open your wallet from the moment you arrive. The restaurants were all pretty sub-standard in our opinion; even the fancy ones that required a reservation were pretty bad. We actually thought the best food came from the pool-side snack bars and the buffet; most days I ended up just loading up on chips, fresh salsas, and guacamole.

Additionally, you have to skillfully avoid the timeshare sellers. We knew to expect the sales pitches, and after a few tries, they recognized we were a lost cause and stopped bothering us. (As it turns out, telling them that the vast majority of your vacations are free because of points and miles is a pretty good deterrent — they had no counter to the fact that their “vacation club membership” wasn’t free.)

But overall, we really enjoyed our trip, and the fact that I resisted my normal urge to schedule every-minute of every-day made sure we had plenty of time to just relax. If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Mexico, now’s definitely a great time; the exchange rate is hugely in favor of Americans at the moment with the US Dollar equaling roughly 20 Mexican pesos. And besides, who wouldn’t want to take a picture like this?

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Those are some relaxed faces right there! That one’ll make the Christmas card for sure.

Styling a Mantle with (Mostly) Found Objects

As part of our ongoing living room redecoration, it became evident that my old mantle styling (which centered around a tile mosaic of one of my favorite vintage Italian alcohol posters) could use an update as well.

I’m a big fan of the “asymmetrical balance” approach to mantle styling, and I also don’t like the idea of spending a fortune to style a mantle; I feel like what you display there should tell a story about the room’s occupants, or highlight some of your favorite things.

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The old mantle styling highlighted a favorite artwork and a small wine rack. 

So, I went on a treasure hunt throughout my house to see what I could come up with that might work within the new mantle decor. First, on the left, I re-discovered a pair of candle stick holders my grandmother had given me well over a decade ago.

Next, I repurposed our large living room wall clock; we like having a clock in the room, but it wasn’t going to work anymore in its old location and would be needing a new home anyways.

On the right hand side, I pulled out a large white ceramic vase that had been hiding in our garage for many years, and to help give it a little height, raided my bookshelf until I found a couple books with pretty, embossed spines that also fit the room’s overall color palette.

At this point, I was just about finished. I headed off to my local crafts store to gather the finishing touches: new candles for atop the candle sticks, a complimentary vase and some flowers to fill them. I discovered the crowning touch, my silver rhino statue, on sale for $12 at At Home. The hubby and I have a running joke about putting a giant rhino statue in our front yard to scare the neighbors; as such the rhino fits here because it’s not just a decorative object, but one that connects to us as the homeowners.

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To me, this all works because of that asymmetrical balance – you have two similar, but slightly differentiated, items (candlesticks) on the left side, you have two similar, but slightly differentiated, items (vases) on the right side. You have a large round object on the left (clock); you have another round item (round vase) on the right. The heights, materials, and colors all vary. It looks composed, without looking cluttered.

And the total cost in new object to bring this together? Only about $30. Win!

Healthy Recipe: Easy Tuna Poke Bowl

I’ve always been a huge fan of sushi, but I’ve never actually tried making it at home. It just seems like a lot of work. Who has time for that on a week day?

But when we did the Meal Kit Review Series a couple months ago, one of the recipes was for a “poke bowl.” *Lightbulb moment*

I love poke. Essentially a rice bowl topped with marinated raw fish, it’s like a deconstructed version of all the best parts of sushi. We’ve made a few different varieties now, and it’s officially been added to my ongoing rotation. And the secret is really just the sauce/marinade. Here’s what goes in ours:

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sriracha sauce
  • 2 tbsp black vinegar
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (sesame oil works too, if you have any lying around)
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 a scallion, finely chopped

You can adjust the quantities to your taste, but that works quite well for us. Pour half the mixture over your fresh, sushi-grade fish (tuna or salmon both work well; make sure your fish has been previously frozen so as to avoid any parasites, since you won’t be cooking it) in a Ziploc bag, and let marinate about 20-30 minutes, while you cook your rice.

You can use either traditional white sushi rice for this recipe, or go with a brown rice alternative for a healthier dish. If you go with brown rice, don’t rinse it as much, as the starch will give you that “sticky” texture that you’re looking for. If you want to be truly low-carb, skip the rice altogether and substitute mixed greens.

My favorite toppings are seaweed salad, shredded carrots, avocado, green onions, mango, and sesame seeds. Other ideas include nori pieces, fish roe, cherry tomatoes, red onion, pickled ginger, edamame, cilantro, red cabbage, wonton strips, etc. You can really include anything you like!

Finally, add the remaining sauce to your masterpiece to your own taste, and dig in. You’ll spend 1/3 of the dough you’d shell out at a sushi restaurant, and still get all the satisfaction!

Try This, Not That: An Alternative Travel Guide for Austin, Texas

After publishing my last post, about the steps and sites I frequently use to plan our vacations, a friend was surprised to learn that I don’t often look to travel guides like Fodor’s or Lonely Planet for advice.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just start with one of their frameworks?” they wondered.

Well, yes. It probably would. But in my experience, a lot of things that make it into the guide books are popular only *because* they’re popular. But if you follow their advice, you often will end up solely in the touristy parts of a town, without ever getting much chance to meet actual locals or experience the places they frequent.

My friend wasn’t convinced, though. So I went ahead and pulled up Lonely Planet’s Top Things to Do for Austin and showed them how a lot of the entries were pretty overrated. It’s why I’m much more apt to trust bloggers, vloggers, and ‘grammers who know a destination well.

Which got me thinking — I’ve lived in Austin more than a decade now, and been writing this blog for more than three years — yet I’ve never done a “trip review” of my good ‘ol hometown. So without further ado, here’s my alternative list of places to visit in Austin that you won’t find in a standard issue guide book.

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Round Rock Bat Bridge; Photo by Flickr user Henry Huey under a CC license.

The Round Rock Bat Bridge (instead of the Congress Avenue Bridge, as recommended by Lonely Planet & U.S. News)

Ahhh, the most touristy of all Austin activities, where on spring and summer nights, hundreds of tourists line the sidewalk of the Congress Avenue Bridge in hope of seeing a majestic show of the country’s largest urban bat colony streaming out for their nightly hunt.

But here’s the problem: over half the time, the bats won’t fly until after the sun has set, and standing on top of the bridge, you’ll be looking down at dark water instead of up and the still-light sky. That makes it damn near impossible to see the small dark flecks streaming out from the bridge. Moreover, you’re looking at at least a couple hour wait to get a good spot, standing in zero shade on a narrow sidewalk, as rush hour zooms by you on one of Austin’s busiest streets.

But just up the road 30 minutes in the suburb of Round Rock, there’s a much better option. A slightly smaller bat colony dwells beneath the Highway I-35 overpass at McNeil road, and there’s a nice grassy area where you can settle down on a camping chair or blanket to wait for the bat’s arrival. Few tourists means you won’t have to compete for a good spot. Plus, since you’ll be looking UP at the overpass, the bats will be much easier to see against the backdrop of the sky.

Make a trip of it and grab some happy hour wings and beers at the nearby Pluckers Wing Bar, and you’re guaranteed a better experience than you’ll get over on Congress Avenue.

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LA Barecue; Photo by Flickr use Egoiste under a CC license.

LA Barbecue (instead of Franklin Barbecue, as recommended by pretty much everyone)

Yes, we know you’ve heard about Franklins. You saw the Visa commercial. You read about it in every travel article ever. We know. And if you want to get up and get in line around 8 am, go for it.

But if wasting a whole morning of your vacation in line for barbecue in a town positively swimming in barbecue joints doesn’t sit well with you, there’s another option, but it’ll require understanding a bit of Texas BBQ history. LA Barbecue is owned by LeAnn (hence the LA portion of the name) Mueller, granddaughter of Taylor’s famous Louie Mueller, and sister to John Mueller, Austin’s bad boy of barbecue and former boss/teacher to Aaron Franklin. Moreover, the pitmaster at LA Barbecue is John Lewis, who used to work at…guess where? Franklin Barbecue.

So you can just as easily head to the LA Barbecue trailer, not wait in line for 3 hours, and still get some outstanding Texas-style ‘cue.

Of course, if you really, REALLY want to go to Franklin’s? Pro-tip: you can order a whole brisket (enough to feed 6-10 people) exactly one month in advance of the date you intend to pick it up. If you do that, you’ll get to skip the line.

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East Sixth Mural; photo by Flickr user 4ELEVEN Images under a CC license

East Sixth Street (instead of Dirty Sixth Street, as recommended by U.S. News)

Are you really excited at the prospect of drinking well liquor or mass-market domestic beers? No? You haven’t been since you were about 19? Yeah. Me neither.

“Austin’s Famous Sixth Street” aka Dirty Sixth is geared towards this kind of drinking, though. While there may be a few standouts establishments, most are there to serve a Fireball-swilling crowd while cover songs blast much too loud in the background.

Try East Sixth, the part of Sixth Street east of I-35 if you’ve outgrown the former scene. You can nab good cocktails or craft beer, nice drunk food, and avoid the amateur-hour type crowds.

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Curra’s Exterior; photo by Flickr user by Chris Gallevo under a CC license.

Curra’s Grill (instead of Guero’s Taco Bar, as recommended by Lonely Planet)

In my opinion, Guero’s is the absolute most overrated restaurant in Austin. It’s just entirely average Tex-Mex, that happens to be in a good location. Owing to the good location, tourists have been flocking here for years, when a far tastier (and cheaper!) alternative is only a couple blocks away.

Curra’s Grill, meanwhile, serves all the same dishes, just tastier. And they offer something you can’t get at Guero’s: the avocado margarita. Trust me, if you’re a New Yorker that spent the last year or so freaking out about Avocado Toast, you’re going to pee your pants over avocado margaritas. You’re welcome.

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Comic wall at Cap City; photo courtesy of Cap City Comedy’s Facebook page

Cap City Comedy (instead of Esther’s Follies, as recommend by U.S. News)

Austin has a really great live comedy scene, y’all. There are some damn funny people in this town. But Esther’s Follies is downright cheesy. If you’re 50+, get nervous when people use foul language, and don’t want a show that gets “too political”, head on over to Esther’s Follies and shell out $35 for the privilege.

But if you want to see real stand up, try out Cap City Comedy, especially on a Tuesday night for their Punch showcase (which features local comedians) and you’ll be able to use the $20 you saved on tickets to buy yourself some drinks instead.

What are the tourist “favorites” in your town that you’d actually tell people to steer clear of? Tell us in the comments. 

Header photo by Flickr user Katie Haugland Bowen under a CC license.