2015 Book Challenge Results

keep-calm-and-love-reading-64Happy New Year, friends! I hope everyone has had a wonderful first few days of 2016 and that you are keeping on track with your New Year’s Resolutions. I have a few health and wellness goals this year (don’t we all?), but one of my annual goals is to make time for reading.:)

Reading a variety of genres and authors exposes you to new perspectives and can make you a better writer! Every year, I share my recap of what I read the year prior, as well as links to the blog posts that some of these books inspired.

Below are the books I read in 2015. (Click for recaps from 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.) You can keep up with the current list for 2016 by visiting the Book Challenge page at the top menu or by clicking here.

Books I Read in 2015:

1. The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero (1/12/2015)
2. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick (1/29/2015)
3. How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (2/3/2015)
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (2/9/2015)
5. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (3/21/2015)
6. The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom (3/22/2015)
7. Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth (5/18/2015)
8. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (5/22/2015)
9. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan (5/24/2015)
10. Why Men Love Bitches by Sherry Argov (6/4/2015)
11. Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell (6/6/2015)
12. Winkie by Clifford Chase (6/11/2015)
13. I’m Only Here For The WiFi by Chelsea Fagan (6/18/2015)
14. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (6/23/2015)
15. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (7/6/2015)
16. Dating Up by J. Courtney Sullivan (7/24/2015)
17. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (9/23/2015)
18. The Mathematics of Love by Hannah Fry (10/1/2015) — Unique Holiday Gift Guide for All Friends
19. When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (11/12/2015) — Adventures in Florida: Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
20. Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle (12/11/2015)
21. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (12/13/2015)
22. Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich (12/29/2015)

Have you read any of these books? Any suggestions for 2016?

Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments section below!

Blog It Forward: Spreading Acts of Kindness

oscar-wilde-smallest-act-of-kindnessI am constantly amazed by the acts of kindness people bestow upon the world.

We often notice the darker side of humanity, as stories of discrimination, assault, murder and other atrocities flood our news channels. The media rarely covers those happier moments, the beauty beyond the madness, and so we tend to overlook all of the wonderful things that people do to help one another.

We’re a little jaded that way.

Like many of you, I often lose sight of the goodness in others. But on one especially stressful day at work, as I waited in line for lunch, I was reminded of that goodness in a small but powerful way. I was picking up food in the cafeteria of my old university, when the customer at the register had his credit card declined multiple times. As he fumbled around in his wallet for any spare change he could find, the cashier asked him to step aside while she took care of the next student in line. When that customer went up to pay, he said to the cashier, “Please add his meal to my tab.” The first student (a total stranger) thanked him profusely and offered to pay him back, but the second student replied, “Don’t worry about it. I hope you’ll do the same for someone else one day.”

His words resonated with me and helped renew my faith in others. Sure, his actions only cost him about $10, but their impact was much greater than that. By paying for this student’s meal, he made a stranger’s day even a little bit better.

bif_badge_250x250Acts of kindness have always been important to me, which was why I was extremely excited when Wayfair.com invited me to participate in their Blog It Forward Challenge. I have been asked to share one of my latest experiences of giving back during the month of December, and in return, Wayfair will donate $50 to Habitat For Humanity. How cool is that?:)

Earlier this month, I read about Safyre, a little girl who lost her family in an arson attack and was left severely scarred. I cried when reading her story — losing your family at any age would be incredibly painful, but I can’t imagine how that would feel to an 8-year-old girl. This year for Christmas, all Safyre wanted were some Christmas cards to fill up her tree.

Of course, I had to send Safyre a card. Her story went viral, and she has now received millions of cards, gifts, a trip to Disney and even gifts from Katy Perry. My card is just one of those several million, but I still believe that each and every one of those cards made a difference in that girl’s life. It brings me so much joy to see how many people around the world came together — often with seemingly small acts — to do something so big for this girl.

As the final part of Blog It Forward, I have been tasked with tagging two blogger friends to share an act of giving back on their blog before the New Year. Nicole and Jen, are you up for the challenge?:)

I encourage everyone to be a little kinder in the new year. Volunteer your time. Pay for the person behind you in line. Talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. Donate to a cause you believe in. Look for new ways to make the world a better place, and always look for the good in others, even when it’s hard to see.

bif_badge_600x220

Adventures in Florida: A Night at the Planetarium

As some of my readers know, I created a 25 at 25 Bucket List for my 25th birthday back in September, consisting of 25 things I hoped to do over the next year. (Want to know how it’s going so far? Click here!) One of those adventures included a trip to the planetarium – something I hadn’t done since elementary school. I’ve always been interested in astronomy, as well as the mythology used to explain many of the stars in the sky, and I thought that a planetarium visit would be the perfect opportunity to learn something new.

Imagine my excitement when I found out that there was a planetarium just a few miles up the road at Seminole State College! The Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium costs just $6 for an adult ticket (free for SSC students and $4 for seniors, K-12 students and students from other colleges), and offers a variety of public shows to choose from.

Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium

Two weeks ago, my friends and I decided to get into the holiday spirit and attend the planetarium’s Star of Bethlehem show, which we learned is one of the most popular seasonal shows for planetariums worldwide. The show focuses on the story of the Magi and the birth of Jesus, as well as the scientific theories behind what the “star of Bethlehem” could have possibly been.

I enjoyed the mix of science and religious folklore throughout the show, and appreciated that the narration never became too preachy or alienated any of its audience. Instead, the show allowed for viewers to decide for themselves what to believe about the star, and encouraged viewers not to turn science and religion into a mutually exclusive either/or scenario. My friends and I are from different religious backgrounds, but the show appealed to all four of us and we all left having gained new historic, religious and scientific knowledge.

Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust Planetarium

Based on my experience at the Star of Bethlehem show that night, I will definitely be returning to this planetarium for other shows in the near future! In January, I also hope to attend the free Winter Sky Festival that the planetarium will be hosting. What a perfect way to enjoy a winter night in Florida!

What’s on your bucket list this year? Have you visited the planetarium recently? Share your latest adventures in the comments section below!

Sautéed Green Beans & Diced Tomatoes

In many circles, I am known as a picky eater. This is sort of a silly thing to be known for, and I hate when family members bring it up, but since childhood, allergies and food sensitivities have made me hesitant to try new foods. (I’m also half convinced that I am a super taster!) However, several rounds of Whole30 have opened me up to a lot of new foods, especially vegetables, that I never really bothered to eat in the past. Green beans are a veggie that – when prepared the right way – I have grown to love!

Sautéed Green Beans with Diced Tomatoes

For those of you who still are skeptics when it comes to green beans, test out this recipe as soon as you can! Green beans are a great source of nutrition that can take on a variety of flavors, and this recipe is a great way to incorporate a few different veggies into your diet. I love sneaking extra vegetables into my side dishes! This dish serves one — adjust your quantities accordingly!

Sautéed Green Beans with Diced Tomatoes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup green beans, stems removed
  • 2 tbsp petite diced tomatoes (for convenience, I used the canned kind)
  • 1 tbsp diced water chestnuts
  • 1 tsp ghee
  • Salt and garlic to taste

Instructions:

  1. Bring a pot of water to boil and add in your green beans. Cook on medium for 10 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat and strain. Pat green beans to dry.
  3. Over medium low heat, melt ghee on a skillet.
  4. Add green beans, tomatoes, water chestnuts, garlic and salt.
  5. Cook on medium low for 20 minutes or until desired consistency.
  6. Remove from heat and serve!

If you try this recipe, let me know what you think! Please share and subscribe to my blog for more recipes, Whole30 resources and other goodies!

Adele, Please Stop Calling

ct-hello-video-from-adele-20151023Dear Adele,

Hello. How are you? I’m doing really well, but I’m a little sick of your popular single, Hello. I’m a longtime fan of yours — we’ve chased pavements together and even set fire to the rain (which I never thought was scientifically possible until I heard your song). I love your music. But the overall message of Hello is a little unhealthy, no? If no one is picking up, maybe it’s time to stop calling. Thanks!

Your Fan and Disgruntled Blogger, Valerie

*

UnknownIf you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of Adele’s incredibly popular new song, Hello. Don’t get me wrong. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, and the song is certainly catchy. It’s the message I’m concerned with.

For those of you who don’t listen to the radio or aren’t familiar with Adele’s music, Hello tells the story of a person who is still heartbroken years after the relationship ended. She continues to reach out to her ex to apologize for the things she has done to hurt him (she “must have called a thousand times”), but he never picks up the phone.

What alarms me is the number of people who really seem to relate to Adele in this song. Don’t get me wrong – I completely agree that breakups suck, and I know that people deal with them in different ways – but when you want to get over someone, calling them constantly is not the way to do it.

There’s a lot of passive aggression in the lyrics of this song, regarding the fact that her ex is no longer torn up over whatever she did to wrong him in the past. In my experience, time and distance are the best ways to get over someone, and continuously reaching out to that person will only set one or both of you back in the healing process.

o-GHOST-570It comes back to a few age-old questions: Can we create closure while keeping our exes in our lives, or will this only create more heartache? Is it better to talk to them periodically, or completely shut them out?

I’ve been in both situations, as both the heartbreaker and the heartbroken, and closure hasn’t always been possible. I’ve had exes who tried to contact me multiple times after the relationship was over in order to reconcile in some way and apologize for wrongdoings, but at that point I had either moved on or was in the process of moving on, so meeting up with them for coffee wasn’t going to do me any good. While in some situations it’s okay to remain friends with an ex, I also don’t see the point in trying to rekindle old flames when things didn’t work out the first time.

On the flip side, one of my exes completely vanished after our breakup, and as difficult as that was for me in the moment, the lack of communication made the breakup that much easier to get over. It was like ripping off a Band-Aid — the pain was immediate and intense, but then it went away and I moved on. If he had started reaching out to me to say “hello from the other side” a la Adele, it would have been a lot harder to get over the whole ordeal. Instead, the disappearance was a blessing in disguise because it gave me a healthy dose of reality.

Closure comes in many forms, but sometimes a lack of closure has its own way of closing a chapter in your life. Adele’s narrator calls her ex under the pretense of closure, possibly without realizing that her call could open up a whole lot of wounds for him. The song is a one-sided conversation of which I’ve been on the receiving end one too many times, and it’s ultimately never particularly helpful for either party.

Friends, readers, and Adele: Stop calling your exes. If you’ve done something wrong, use the lessons you’ve learned to find ways to better yourself for the next relationship, and let your exes do the same thing.:)

Unique Holiday Gift Guide for All Friends

Unique Holiday Gift Guide for All FriendsNow that Thanksgiving is over, the holiday shopping season has officially begun. Hopefully all of you have survived Black Friday! Even I managed to brave the mall and come home with a few goodies this weekend. Of course, as Hanukkah and Christmas loom near, it’s important to start shopping for our friends and loved ones as well.

I absolutely love gift-giving. With so many cool and customizable products out there, I enjoy putting thought into the presents I buy rather than slapping a bow on something really generic and calling it a day.

This week, I’d like to share my holiday gift guide for all types of friends. Most of these products are ones that I either personally own, have sampled, or have purchased for someone else in the past. The best part? You can purchase any of these online in the comfort of your own home! No need to start any fist-fights at the mall this year.:)

  • Unique Holiday Gift Guide for All FriendsThe Animal Lover: A custom-made shirt from Pop Your Pup!
    Pop Your Pup creates graphic T-shirts featuring pop art designs of your pets. Choose a shirt style and background color, submit a photo of your/your friend’s pet, and the graphic artists at Pop Your Pup will work their magic to make a one-of-a-kind shirt that really does look like your pet. The turn-around time is awesome, and 10% of proceeds are donated to local Humane Societies. I’ve ordered two of these shirts for birthday presents already, and they were a huge hit!
  • The Friend with School Spirit: A bottle of his or her school’s Masik Collegiate Fragrance.
    Masik Collegiate Fragrances is the brainchild of Katie Masik, who wanted to create perfumes and colognes that evoked memories of certain colleges and universities. Last year, I reviewed their University of Florida perfume and their Florida State University cologne, and even though I’m not a Gator fan, I still sometimes wear the UF perfume! The scents are inspired by the buildings, traditions and local plant-life of each university. Click here for a list of all schools represented so far to see if your friend’s school is listed!
  • Unique Gift Guide for All FriendsThe Sweet Tooth: A box of Wondermade‘s handcrafted marshmallows.
    (Paleo readers: You may want to shield your eyes for this one!) I stumbled into Wondermade one afternoon on one of my walks through downtown Sanford. The café is a local one, where patrons can buy marshmallow skewers and s’mores of all flavors that they can pair with coffee or hot chocolate. Wondermade also has an online store, where consumers from near and far can buy boxes of marshmallows in Christmas and fall flavors, as well as other unique flavors. I love to support local businesses, especially ones with such delicious products!
  • The Healthy Chick: A piece of (totally inedible) Organic Fruit Jewelry.
    Okay, paleo friends, you can start reading again.:) Organic Fruit Jewelry is exactly what it sounds like — real fruit dried and preserved into jewelry! This is an eclectic and fun gift, and no two necklaces/earring sets are exactly alike. I’m obsessed with the lemon slice necklace and will definitely be investing in mine soon!
  • The Single Friend: A copy of The Mathematics of Love by Hannah Fry.
    I’m a nerd at heart, so reading a book that relates mathematical concepts to dating and marriage was obviously right up my alley. This is a great read for anyone — single or not — who wants to see just how applicable these theories and formulas are to our lives. I was never a math lover in school, but I really enjoyed this book! (Check out the related TED Talk if you’re curious.)
  • il_570xN.436081413_kwxfThe Sports Fan: A personalized highway distance sign to your friend’s favorite team’s stadium/arena.
    I absolutely love these stadium signs as a way to support your favorite team! You choose your team’s venue from the Travelsigns Etsy shop, and plug in the number of miles between there and your home. This a great gift for that guy in your life who still hasn’t put anything up on his wall.
  • The Harry Potter Nerd: This Golden Snitch bracelet from Ashley Bridget.
    Seriously, have you seen anything prettier? The Ashley Bridget website features other Harry Potter jewelry as well, along with other gorgeous pieces from their NFL, collegiate, sorority, fairy tale and other collections.:)
  • The Career Guy or Girl: A customized business card case.
    You can find these anywhere, depending on your friend’s preferences, but I purchased mine from the ChicMonogram store on Etsy. This is a great gift for someone who recently graduated from college and is just starting a new job. For nearly my entire first year at my current job, I didn’t have a business card case, and instead found myself carrying the cards around at networking events like the unpolished peasant I was. With my personalized business card case (featuring my full name, not just my monogram), I have something to store my business cards and it makes for a great conversation piece!
  • The Fancy Friend: Anything from the Downton Abbey collection at World Market.
    I am in love with this collection’s 2-tiered serving stand and tea spoons, and I don’t even watch Downton Abbey! Buy a few items from this set for your tea-loving friends who like to entertain.

How are you shopping for the holidays? Share your favorite finds in the comments section below!

Easy Whole30 Sweet Potato Recipe – Perfect for Thanksgiving!

Get excited, friends – Thanksgiving is almost here! You might not have realized that, with all of your neighbors’ Christmas decorations already up, but it’s time to break out your favorite stretch pants and start fighting fellow shoppers for the best turkey in the store. (At least I think that’s how people celebrate?):)

In all seriousness, Thanksgiving is a time to remember all of the wonderful things you are thankful for, and in my case, I’m thankful for being able to spend the holiday with my family. I’m also thankful for this easy and fabulous sweet potato dish I’m about to share with you today!

I’ve always loved sweet potatoes, but I’ve never really understood why people were so quick to add sweeteners and marshmallows to theirs. Aren’t sweet potatoes sweet enough on their own? My method takes very little time to make, includes no added sugars, and is so simple that I almost feel guilty calling it a recipe. I love to make these sweet potatoes when the weather starts cooling down – it’s a great way to warm up for breakfast, lunch or dinner! They are also paleo and Whole30 compliant. How much better can life get?

My recipe serves one, so adjust your quantities accordingly!

Whole30 Sweet Potatoes - No sugar added!

Ingredients

  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1 cup applesauce, unsweetened (read your labels!)
  • ½ tsp cinnamon

Directions

  • Peel your sweet potato and roughly chop into a few medium-sized pieces.
  • Bring a pot of water to boil and add in your sweet potato pieces. Cook on medium for 5 minutes.
  • Drain, then add the sweet potato pieces to your food processor.
  • Pulse for a few seconds until it starts to reach a desired consistency.
  • Add in 1 cup of applesauce, and pulse again.
  • Add in cinnamon, then pulse one more time.
  • Transfer to bowl, add a little more cinnamon for garnish (optional), and serve.

If you try this recipe, let me know what you think! Please share and subscribe to my blog for more recipes, Whole30 resources and other goodies!

The Weekend Five: Networking Tips for Introverts

246Six years ago, if you came up to me and said that networking would be one of the keys to my success after college, I would have slapped you across the face.

Okay, I definitely wouldn’t have slapped you across the face (that would be pretty awful, wouldn’t it?), but the idea of networking was terrifying to a shy college freshman like me. The word “networking” evoked images of ill-fitting professional attire and awkward encounters with high-level executives who would never give a college student the time of day. To me, “networking” required an overly assertive, almost aggressive demeanor. How could an introvert like me ever compete with those big personalities?

What I didn’t know at eighteen years old, however, was that networking was not limited to professional development events and a formal exchange of business cards. By joining clubs on campus, making friends in my classes, participating in internships and getting to know my professors and advisors, I was actually building my network without even realizing it.

Networking ultimately led to my first job out of college and continues to play a huge role in my career today. I may be an introvert, but I have found ways to network that have worked well for me. To all of my shy or otherwise introverted readers out there, this article is for you!

The Weekend Five: Networking Tips for Introverts

awkward-small-talk1. Don’t think of it as “networking.”
Think of it as relationship building. By genuinely getting to know people, you not only create a stronger network, but you also improve your own quality of life! Your conversations don’t have to revolve entirely around a business pitch. As I mentioned before, networking doesn’t always take place at a formal networking event — a lot of times, it can happen in a classroom, an elevator, a club meeting or your dorm building. Talk to people and get to know them one-on-one. Start with people you may already cross paths with or with whom you may share a few mutual contacts. A lot of times, this is far less intimidating than walking right up to a complete stranger from the get-go.

*

2. Get involved in an organization.
Whether you enjoy professional student organizations or community service projects, join a group (or two) that introduces you to new people. By working toward a common goal or sharing a similar interest, you have an easy way to break the ice while doing something you enjoy. I still keep in touch with many of my fellow officers from the organizations I was involved with in college, and today I am getting to know new people in my college’s alumni association by attending their events and meetings as well!

*

49d6977a63d509aaed85f0147d44ba793. Find commonalities.
Networking doesn’t have to mean diving headfirst into a conversation about your company’s products and services. Sometimes, a great way to build your network is to start by finding things you have in common. At one networking event, I found myself talking with a guy about our recent travels, and by the end of our conversation, I was invited to be a guest speaker in one of the classes he taught. At another event, I bonded with the lady behind me at the buffet over our shared interest in some of the food. It turned out she was a very important person on the board of an organization that I worked with, and now she knew who I was! Pro tip: If you’re feeling really lost at a formal networking event, head over to the food table and strike up a conversation with one of the people nearby. People love talking about food (and trying to guess what some of the interesting looking appetizers are!).

*

4. Attend events.
Leave the house. It’s not easy to meet people and form lasting connections from the comfort of your couch. (If it were, Tinder would have a much higher success rate!) Attend events that interest you – not just networking events, but professional development workshops, guest speakers, social events, etc. Find a friend to attend with you if it will bring you out of your shell a bit more, but if your friends aren’t interested in the types of events you like, go by yourself. Because most of my friends did not have my major in college, I attended a lot of club meetings and agency tours on my own, and I don’t regret it for a minute. I made new friends that way, and learned a lot about my major and the industry that I wanted to go into!

*

Comfort Zone5. Get out of your comfort zone.
Sometimes you will need to do the things that scare you, and that’s okay. I say “yes” to opportunities constantly, even when they seem intimidating, because I know they will help me to grow. That’s why I take on so many public speaking engagements and try to break out of my shell at events — I never want my nerves to keep me from meeting people or from growing personally and professionally. I draw my energy from within and require that time to myself to recharge and refocus, but that shouldn’t limit me from getting to know others and setting goals for myself outside of my comfort zone. You don’t need to do anything that conflicts with your personal values, but I challenge you to get out of your comfort zone the next time you attend an event and get to know someone new.

*

What are your networking tips for introverts? Share yours in the comments section below!

Link Love Wednesday: David Beckham and Old Hollywood

026-ginger-rogers-and-fred-astaire-theredlistGood evening and happy Friday to all of my lovely readers! I hope everyone is having a wonderful month of November and getting excited for Thanksgiving next week.:) I’m fighting a sinus infection, but I’ve still had my share of adventures lately — some community service projects, a local jazz festival, and even a couple of items crossed off of my bucket list! What have you been up to?

As always, enjoy this week’s roundup of link love, and share your own favorites in the comments below!

Things I’m Loving Lately

What links are you loving lately? Share your favorites in the comments section below!

Adventures in Florida: Central Florida Zoo

12227904_10156151550775627_712913309_o

Squad goals.

My inner child had the time of her life over the weekend when I took my very first trip to the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. As some of my blog readers know, I’ve been dying to visit this zoo for quite some time — it’s practically in my backyard and it made its way onto my 25 at 25 Bucket List! (To see my progress so far, click here.) I was overcome with excitement when I convinced a few friends to tag along, and I enjoyed every minute of my visit.:)

Total disclosure: I’m an unapologetic nerd when it comes to my love for animals. I know there are a lot of pros and cons when it comes to zoos, but there’s no denying that zoos can instill in us an empathy and love for all creatures from a young age. You gain exposure to species you’ve never even heard of from areas of the world you’ve never been. If you live in Florida, a giraffe is probably not going to wander in front of your window one morning, so seeing one in person can be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, I had a great time at the zoo.:) It was Lemur Conservation Day, which meant that we learned little factoids about lemurs throughout the day and even observed part of a zookeeper talk on lemurs.

Red Ruffed Lemur at Central Florida Zoo

Aside from lemurs, the Central Florida Zoo features a cheetah, leopard, cougar, dromedary camel and many other animals, as well as a fairly extensive herpetarium and a variety of birds. The adorable otters were swimming when we arrived in their area and were possibly the happiest animals in the entire zoo, followed closely by this boer goat (who just might definitely be my spirit animal).

He seriously might have been my favorite animal of the whole day.

He seriously might have been my favorite animal of the whole day.

I was also enamored with these two Indian rhinos, Jahi and PJ, and compared them to two of our family dogs throughout the visit based on their proximity to one another.:)

Rhinos at Central Florida Zoo

For those of you who live in the Orlando area or are making a trip out here, the Central Florida Zoo is well worth the visit. I’m so happy I was able to finally experience it after years of living only a few miles away! It is a relatively small zoo, but it has a good variety of animals and plenty of activities for children as well.

This llama hopes you had a nice day!

This llama hopes you had a nice day!

What’s on your bucket list this year? Share your latest adventures in the comments section below!