April 30, 2014

Making a functional kitchen apron

I needed a distraction and had the opportunity to make a one-of-a-kind apron for a friend to give as a gift to her fiancé. She was looking for something that was visually appealing but durable and practical and that would fit him well. I followed a traditional apron shape but chose to cut the top half on the bias for visual interest and lined the apron in a smooth, but washable satin. Clothes are protected but the apron won't cling, so it'll still look good while pulling a pan out of the oven.

There are plenty of pockets and long ties. I included a clip for hanging a potholder or towel (apron-clipped towels are SO handy). A unique feature is the overall style neck strap. Rather than a two-piece tie or the usual adjustable sewn-on strap, I used overall clasps so it's super easy to adjust but if you like having the apron higher up on the chest, it can come off and on with a simple clasp - no adjustments or retying needed. It looks cute too. My husband is modeling the apron below (note: the straps aren't adjusted).

I packaged the apron up, wrapping it in a stretch satin with a fabric bow and padded the box with sequened fabric rather than packing peanuts. The great thing about using fabric as gift wrap is that the recipient might find a use for it. There's enough here to cover one or two throw pillows or make a fun halloween costume.

April 23, 2014

Belitae Organics FRESH-C Vitamin C Serum

Belitae Organics sent me a bottle of FRESH-C Vitamin C Serum a few weeks ago to try. I was really excited to try it because after checking out the ingredients, it was clear they've really been thoughtful about choosing those truly beneficial to the skin and leaving out those that cause a lot of irritation and fragrance.

Ingredients like STAY-C50 (Vitamin C) and hyaluronic acid, L-Arginine and gotu kola can help your skin feel brighter and tighter, which may help reduce the appearance of fine lines and long-term, a great way to prevent future lines from forming. The STAY-C50 is a very potent antioxident and does not oxidize in the bottle.

After using FRESH-C for a few weeks, what I noticed was my skin was definitely feeling tighter. On those mornings when I looked a bit tired, a few drops helped me look more awake because my skin was brighter and more firm. While I can't speak for reducing wrinkles and lines just yet, I do feel like I'm doing great for my skin by using this serum to slow down the aging process. I know that line and wrinkle reduction doesn't happen overnight but based on how much more firm my skin feels and the anti-aging ingredients in the bottle, I'm really confident I'm doing something great for my face and certainly going to keep this as part of my daily skincare routine. I've used other serums, but this is the first that gives me a noticeable feel to my skin and that's important to me.

I was chatting with my mom about Mother's Day and offered to order her a bottle as part of her gift this year. She's always complaining (sorry mom!) about wrinkles and talking about face lifts and Botox so perhaps this will help her feel as beautiful as she is without the cosmetic surgery.

If you're looking to try a Vitamin C serum, definitely look for Belitae Organics' serum on Amazon. You can also learn more on the Belitae Organics website and by following Belitae Organics on Twitter.

I received one or more of the products mentioned above for free using Tomoson.com. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

April 15, 2014

Special K™ Coffee House Breakfast Shakes

I hadn't heard of Special K™ Coffee House Breakfast Shakes before a recent BzzAgent opportunity to test a couple of samples. I've tried other breakfast drinks, including a Special K™ protein shake, but I don't like most of them. I drink Instant Breakfast a few times a week to help increase my vitamin D and calcium intake, but otherwise, I find these drinks usually thick, chalky, and terribly sweet.

My husband and I both tried the Coffee House Breakfast Shakes. The chocolate mocha flavor isn't bad. It's more palatable compared to the typical protein drinks my husband is used to and doesn't have the chalky texture he can't stand. The flavor and texture is fine, but there is a lingering aftertaste that reminds my husband of artificially sweetened drinks, which isn't so good.

I tried the vanilla cappuccino flavor Special K Coffee House Breakfast Shake. I really liked how it reminded me of vanilla bean. Subtle, not artificial, and not so strong that it was unpleasant. The flavor profile was nice and a lot better than the vanilla Instant Breakfast shake. Overall, the texture was good. Still thicker and heavier than I like to drink in the morning (I don't even like a glass of milk that early), but sipping slowly, I did enjoy it and didn't feel like it was as heavy as if I had drank it quickly. I work from home, so it's nice to grab a bottle and head into my office to get to work earlier because I'm not wasting time prepping a breakfast meal. Also convenient as a snack on the go, so if I have a lot of back-to-back meetings, I only step out for 30 seconds to run to the fridge. I'm not using these for weight loss since I'm a bit underweight, but it's a good way to add a few calories if you're like me and need to consume more, not less. Add it as an extra snack to your usual meal plan!

The downside is like any liquid diet drink, you really do still have to exercise some self-control. We were both still hungry after drinking one, so it doesn't fix that problem. I am not looking to lose any weight but my husband talks about losing a few pounds, so I think these would be a good breakfast or lunch option if he can handle avoiding unhealthy snacks in between.

As for the caffeine, we didn't notice anything but we both drink a good deal of caffeine (2-4 cups of soda or coffee per day), so we are probably a bit immune to small doses of the stuff.

Overall, it's better than the competitors in terms of taste and texture, so if you enjoy breakfast drinks, I think you'd want to try the Special K Coffee House Breakfast Shakes. But keep in mind that it's not radically different from other drinks. It's a variation on a theme.

April 10, 2014

Smooth, Moisturized Skin with EltaMD AM Therapy

I used the Paula's Choice website to pick a daytime moisturizer without sunscreen to try. I like the idea of a separate sunscreen so I can use the moisturizer any time of day and choose the level of sun protection I'd like. Most moisturizers don't offer very much protection, so if I have to add more sunscreen, I may as well skip the combo products.

EltaMD offered a moisturizer without sunscreen that is fragrance-free and safe for sensitive skin. It's really light and absorbs quickly so I'm not bogged down waiting before applying makeup. AM Therapy Facial Moisturizer has done wonders for my skin's hydration. I look less blotchy and don't have dry, flaking skin, even in my worst areas - around my forehead and cheeks.

after applying EltaMD AM Therapy
I have been hoping that it will not only be awesome as a product but that it will last a while so I'm not having to buy it too often and so far, so good. I use it once a day and bought my bottle in mid-December. It's almost mid-April! And at just $25 (on Amazon, prices may fluctuate), I don't mind ordering it a few times a year.

I've been trying other moisturizers at night, but eventually, I'm hoping to order both the PM Therapy Facial Moisturizer and the UV Facial Broad-Spectrum sunscreen. With an SPF of 30+, it's a better option than a combo lotion with SPF 15.

EltaMD offers certain products direct from the dermatologist as well. If you've had skin treatments and need a specially formulated sunscreen and lotion, EltaMD has a good selection.

I've been really happy so far and plan to keep up with EltaMD. I have been itching for someone to gift me the Paula's Choice Resist Anti-Aging Kit though, so if that miracle happens, I may have to make the switch. That's a long-term goal, maybe a Christmas gift to myself later this year.

April 8, 2014

Strongly Scented: Estee Lauder Resilience Lift Firming/Sculpting Face and Neck Creme

I went for the free gift with purchase deal from Estee Lauder recently. I couldn't resist because the eye and lip colors in the gift kit were perfect for spring and I wanted to try Estee Lauder's skincare line.

One of the gift items was a .5oz jar of Resilience Lift Firming/Sculpting Face and Neck Creme. Don't get me started on the product name. I find long product names irritating. But the truth is, the name isn't what is important. What matters is whether the product works for me and if there are aspects I don't like, I'll share them. The reason I mention the long name is that this makes it less sharable. I can't easily tell my mom to go buy it when we're chatting on the phone. I'll need to email a link to be sure she knows exactly what to look for.

Resilience Lift (this particular formula) promises a more lifted and sculpted look. There are "light-responsive enzymes" which I'm assuming is related to the "photo-activated lift complex." I sometimes laugh at the marketing phrases used to sell a product. I'm sure the phrases work, but I honestly prefer to know what the moisturizer is going to do for me in a way I can understand. Seems like the more you have to pay ($78 for a 1.7oz jar in this case), the harder it is to translate the product claims.

I've been using this every night. It's technically a day creme and offers SPF 15 sun protection, but it's a bit greasy and very fragranced, so it's more practical for me to use it as a night creme. The formula I'm using is normal/combination skin. Estee Lauder offers a dry skin formula as well, but given that I have seriously dry skin and find this formula greasy, I'm not sure I'd want to use the dry skin version.

What I really like is my skin does feel more nourished and tighter. It's not as firming as another product I've tried recently, a vitamin C serum which I'll share later this week. I can't stand the fragrance, which my husband called "old."

There is a fragrance free version of the Resilience Lift Creme that is also oil free. The jars all look the same so it would be easy to mix up what you order. If you plan to try Resilience Lift, be sure to read the product description to ensure you get what you want - oil free, regular for dry skin, regular for combo/normal skin.

Personally, I wouldn't choose to buy this moisturizing creme. I'm pretty happy with Elta MD and find Paula's Choice also to be an excellent moisturizer. Both are fragrance free and non-greasy, and also cost a lot less. Both also come in a pump, which means less likely to make a mess or introduce germs and such into the product.

April 5, 2014

I'm So Busy and Lovin' It!

My spring is full of amazing products to try, crazy home projects to finish, a garden 5x the size of any I've planted before, and plenty of upcoming events. I can't wait for the weather to be warm so it will match my glee!

Upcoming Product Reviews

1. Belitae Organics Fresh-C Vitamin C Serum
Every time I plan to buy or review a skincare product, I look up all the reliable information I can find on ingredients and product claims. I just got my bottle in the mail and can't wait to see what happens as I try this vitamin C serum because it has some amazing skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid, L-Arginine, Gotu Kola, and of course, vitamin C. The outstanding customer reviews support the company's claims for smoother, more vibrant skin and a reduction in fine lines.

2. Estee Lauder Resilience Lift Firming/Sculpting Face and Neck Creme
I really wanted the free gift from Estee Lauder in March, so I bought a powder foundation and received this creme as part of my bonus gift. I've been using it primarily at night since it is a bit greasy and highly fragranced.

3. Special K Coffee House Breakfast Shakes
BzzAgent sent me a promotional review kit so I could try out vanilla and chocolate flavors of Special K's new Coffee House shakes. My husband and I have each tried the samples and have a few coupons to pass out. I have some feedback to share, so look for a post on this soon!

Events and Travel

1. California, here I come!
eSalon totally surprised me with a trip to visit their company and have a tour and meet the staff. I'm totally psyched to see the behind the scenes aspects of an organization that makes the products I've tried and reviewed. So far, they've been quite generous with the planning and coordination, so all I have to do is block my calendar and pack my bags! More coming soon…

2. Graduation Days
My youngest nephew is graduating from high school soon, so I'm expecting my in-laws for a visit and planning a trip to Green Bay for the graduation party. The older nephew is also headed off to college this fall, so it will be a bittersweet visit to wish them both the best as they grow up and move out of their parents' house. WJ is off to UW-Eau Claire and GJ is considering either UW-Green Bay or a wonderful small college about an hour from Albuquerque, NM.

Around the same time, my amazing little sister graduates from Carleton College. She's worked so hard the past four years and will soon be relocating to Madison, WI (yippie, she stayed near me!!) for a job in software development. I'm working on an heirloom quilt for her first apartment and a silk dress for me to wear to the graduation ceremony. Then, it's time to talk about cars with her because she's gonna need one!

3. Work-Life Balance
I actually didn't know what to call this section. I have no problem with work-life balance because I love my work and it's flexible enough that I don't miss out on family life. My daughter has a gymnastics event in May. This will be her second event in her first year of the sport and I can't wait to see her show off the new leotard I got her. She has such fun in gymnastics, it's really wonderful to watch her face light up when she see the trampoline.

I have interesting projects at work that will have a real impact on many, many lives, and I'm planning a trip for my husband and daughter to go to visit family in Fresno and possibly a mom-daughter trip to Boston near the end of summer. I'm sure I'll go to Madison to help my sister move into her apartment and we have a couple of camping trips planned, including one with my sister-in-law's family at Whitewater.

The garden planning is coming along, which I'll be blogging about at The Perfect Tuna intermittently. If all goes well, I'll hardly need to buy produce this summer. An occasional trip to the farmer's market should do it. This assumes we have a growing season, however. This weather isn't looking good.

April 3, 2014

Off the Edge of the Map Book Review

I rarely review books because the book review industry is very competitive. I get nervous about my informal approach and the many years that have passed since I've published anything of note. Sometimes, I can't resist a review opportunity and the chance to check out Off the Edge of the Map: Marco Polo, Captain Cook, and 9 Other Travelers and Explorers That Pushed the Boundaries of the Known World by Michael Rank was too good to pass up.

Perhaps you didn't know but I am a total geek when it comes to history and biography books. I majored in art history and took enough English classes that I should have minored in it (I'm still not a great writer). While I occasionally read my husband's Robin Cook books, what's often by my bed is a biography a notable historical figure or era in history.

The problem with many non-fiction leisure books is that they are long, too academic, and don't feature engaging aspects that turn non-fiction into enjoyment. I love books that offer a broad and condensed view of several lives because I can pick the book up and put it down without getting lost and I can simply enjoy a good, quick read.

Off the Edge of the Map offers the experience I desire. Chapters include a lot of interesting detail, but aren't so long that I grow bored. I can easily finish a chapter having learned exciting facts about a particular explorer one night and pick up the book to read about another explorer the next night.

Unlike more formal history books, Rank's writing is casually readable, but is by no means "Explorers for Dummies." Students may also find this book a valuable resource while studying world history as a way to learn about explorers they haven't heard of and perhaps learn unusual facts about the more famous explorers.

Author Michael Rank is also responsible for the #1 bestseller, History's Greatest Generals and hosts a podcast, History in Five Minutes.

I have been so pleased with Rank's book, Off the Edge of the Map, that I've decided to pass it along to a good friend who enjoys literature and have read a few pages to my pre-K daughter without her getting bored. That should say something!

Please visit Michael Rank's website for more information about his writing and podcast and be sure to grab a copy of his newest book for your Kindle on Amazon.

Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book for free as part of a review opportunity. The above review is my honest opinion and was not influenced by having received a free copy of the book.

April 2, 2014

Roger Love's The Perfect Voice

Disclosure: I got this product as part of a review opportunity. 

A month ago, I agreed to have a go at trying Roger Love's The Perfect Voice, which is a voice coaching series that helps with improving how your voice sounds. My thinking was that I'm a terrible singer and if I can sound even halfway decent (like perhaps not tone deaf), my family will thank me.

While Roger Love is a real vocal coach who has worked with some super famous people like Tyra Banks and Reese Witherspoon, I quickly got the sense that this program is aimed at people who are looking for ways to better communicate at work or in life as a means to get ahead and be noticed. This marketing aspect of the program feels a bit shady to me, reminding me of those terrible "get rich quick" and "buy my program to make more money" infomercials of the 90s.

As the program is promoted as a way to get more dates or make more money, you can see how I'd feel this way.

The thing is, as a vocal coach for acting or singing, this program totally makes sense and has some value. It's the "make more money" aspect that irritates me. It cheapens the program, in my opinion.

It was nice to be reminded how to properly breath and learn a few vocal warm up exercises, but it is hard to know if I am following along correctly since there isn't anyone actually hearing me. This program isn't an alternative for an in-person vocal coach, but it is an interesting alternative for those who do not have the time or money to invest in live coaching, or for whom live coaching isn't necessary, like me - a total non-singer.

I wanted to know what singers feel about Roger Love's coaching program, so I did a Google search and found several positive reviews. If you have a background in voice, there may be some value here and I would say that vocalists are more familiar with what Roger Love is teaching and consider his techniques spot on and very helpful.

At Shaping Up to be a Mom, the reviewer is trained in musical theater and found The Perfect Voice program very educational. Like me, she felt there is nothing better than the face-to-face experience, but for working on expanding her range, this program was valuable. She noted there is an advanced course that allows participants to send a recording for real feedback. That's an opportunity to pursue if you have a real interest in voice training.

In full disclosure, what I reviewed was a web-based program that was created to allow people who order the CDs a quick way to get started without having to wait. I found the web experience disappointing and frustrating because I really didn't want to sit in front of my computer screen. I'd much rather be practicing in my car, or on the go. Paying customers will receive a CD set with the complete course and the instant access to the audio courses online.

As a UX designer, I find the web experience could use a design overhaul, but I understand it's likely used by a small group of customers and only temporarily. That said, the audio plays in what looks like a video format, so it's a blank box with audio playing, set inside a basic website template. A redesign of the layout and look & feel would really improve how approachable and engaging the web experience is. It's hard for me to ignore this, but that's the designer in me talking.

Overall, this program turned out to be "not for me." That doesn't mean it's not for you, just that as someone who isn't strongly seeking to improve my personal or financial situation, which are just fine as is, and not looking to be a professional vocalist, I don't think I'm the target customer.

The starter pack, with four CDs and instant online access is available for purchase for $97, or for $146.90, you can get The Perfect Voice Training Collection, which features the starter pack plus Love & Relationships and Money & the Workplace.

I received online access to The Perfect Voice for free during the review period using Tomoson.com. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.