December 23, 2012

Naughty to Nice Cookies

This has been a slow blogging month for me as the Hubs and I cram in some time together before his upcoming deployment (you can check out some of our Christmas photos here). I'm hoping to be back in the swing of things soon, but I couldn't let Christmas pass by without even one recipe post.

The Hubs and I don't normally exchange gifts. Instead, we like to create memories. You know the stuff I'm talking about... driving around to see the lights, taking the dog to visit Santa (yes, we are those people!), and watching Christmas movies while drinking hot cocoa. 

Another of our traditions is eating like pigs, then groaning about the weight gain. We like to spread the love around by delivering cookies to all our friends too! This also provides the Hubs with an excuse to "taste-test" all the cookies. After all, we wouldn't want to deliver a poor quality product, now would we?

Because I appreciate your readership so much, I'm going to let you in on my extra-secret, extra-AWESOME chocolate chip cookie recipe. Take these to any gathering, Christmas-time or not, and I guarantee you'll be the hit of the party. These are also the best way to get yourself off of the 'naughty' list and back on Santa's good side... even the big guy in the red suit can't resist my chocolate chip cookies! 

Mmmmmm..... cooooookieeeeessss. I know you can buy the pre-made cookie dough and have baked goodness in minutes, but trust me... these babies are worth a little extra effort. I usually make a double (even triple!) batch, they go that fast. Try the recipe just once. You will never go back to the pre-made junk.

Here's your ingredients:

All the basics: Flour, sugar (brown and white), vanilla, butter, baking soda, salt, eggs, walnuts, cream of tartar (that's my secret ingredient!), and...

... zee chocolate chips! I use three different kinds: regular-sized semi-sweet morsels, chocolate chunks, and mini chips. You can pick just one if you really want to, but I have to warn you...

The cookies won't be the same.

I could lie and say it's no big deal, but the truth is the chocolate chip variety is part of what makes this cookie special. Don't screw it up people!

Let's start simple. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Easy, right?

Next, you're going to cream together a cup of softened butter with 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup brown sugar (packed). This step is VERY important to a light and fluffy cookie. There is a handy video tutorial on YouTube if you'd like to watch, but basically: beat the softened butter until fluffy, then slowly add in your sugars. Continue to beat until completely incorporated, being careful not to overmix. I really meant to take photos for you, but...

I forgot. I blame it on the cookie madness. I was too anxious for warm, ooey, gooey, yummy deliciousness!

Next, beat two eggs into your mix one at a time, then add in 2 teaspoons of vanilla. This recipe does contain nuts (later), but I know many people don't like the texture. If you're one of those, you could leave out the nuts altogether and substitute 1 teaspoon of your vanilla for a teaspoon of almond extract instead. That way, you get a light nutty flavor without the actual nuts.

Now, mix together 1 teaspoon of baking soda with 2 teaspoons of hot water. I don't know why we do this technically, but I do know it's some sort of chemical reaction necessary for good cookies. Yours will look a little something like this (though not exactly like this since mine settled a bit while I fumbled with the camera):

Add this mixture to your batter along with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and beat to combine.

At this point, I put my mixer down. I don't know if this makes a difference in the cookies, but I like to work the rest by hand. You do what you gotta do folks, but don't blame me if you continue with the mixer and your cookies turn into mutants, kay?

Stir 3 cups of all-purpose flour, along with 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, into your batter.

If you don't have the cream of tartar on hand, no worries. It doesn't change the flavor of your cookies at all. However, it does make them all puffy like those cool cookies you see at fancy bakeries. I like being fancy once in a while. Plus, I look like a genius to all my friends, when the cream of tartar really did all the work.

Now, we get to add the good stuff. Use a combination of chocolate chips (remember: semi-sweet morsels, chunks, and mini chips), about 2 cups. If you're going to add walnuts (I always do), use about 1 cup.

As you can see, I pretty much pulverize the walnuts. This would be a whole lot easier if I had a food processor, but I don't (not yet anyway!). I like some of the nuts to be powder-like, and the rest to be itsy, bitsy pieces. This adds great flavor without all the crunchiness larger pieces can add. You can chop yours however you like, but try this method once and see what you think.

About now, your dough should look something like this:

Try not to eat all of it before baking, ok?

You'll also notice there is a large proportion of chips to dough. This is a good thing! After all, it's called a chocolate chip cookie, right? Right.

At this point, most recipes will tell you to drop the dough by rounded tablespoon onto a cookie sheet.

I'm not going to tell you that.

Instead, I'm going to tell you to make great, heaping balls of dough, easily two tablespoons. They should look a bit like this:

If you want to make the smaller kind, that's ok too. But I like 'em big, like the bakery, remember?

Bake the cookies for 8-12 minutes (depending on size) until the edges are lightly browned.

Remember: Your cookies continue to bake after they leave the oven. Don't overbake!

Cool 2 minutes on the cookie sheet, then remove to a wire rack.

Eat half a dozen cookies, then feel guilty and bake more.

Ok, you don't have to follow that last instruction, but it's usually what happens in this house! Your cookies should look a little something like this when they're done:

NOM NOM NOM NOM... oh boy, now I want cookies!!

To store, place your cooled cookies in the container of your choice and cover with a bit of plastic wrap. On top of the plastic wrap, place a piece of bread torn into pieces.

I KNOW this sounds weird, but it works! The bread will keep your cookies moist and delicious, I promise. When the bread is dried out, you know it's time to replace it. Of course, the cookies never last long enough to actually need the bread replaced, but it's good to know anyway. This trick works with all kinds of baked goods. Just be sure not to place the bread in direct contact with your goods, or they could become soggy.

Viola, you have naughty to nice cookies ready for Santa's visit! These are also great for bribing husbands and kids. Or taking to a neighbor as a homemade gift. Or to a party. Or you could hoard them all for yourself, you wouldn't be the first to do it!

I love the versatility, seriously.

I hope all of my readers have a fabulous Christmas this year. Bake cookies with your kids, snuggle on the couch with your significant other, love just hanging out with the family... soak up every minute! We military spouses know that each second is precious, because you never know when your loved one will be called away to do his (or her) duty.

I appreciate each and every one of you, thanks for reading and keeping up with my crazy life. Happy cooking and merry Christmas! As always, I've included the standard recipe for you at the end of the post.

Busted, kissing Santa Claus! I told ya these cookies would get you on the nice list ;)

Thanks for reading, everyone!
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The Standard Form:

Chocolate Chip Cookies


1 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons hot water
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups semi-sweet chips (use a mix of chips, chunks, and minis)
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon cream of tartar


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla. Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water, then add this mixture to the batter along with the salt. Combine completely.

Stir in the flour, cream of tartar, chocolate chips, and walnuts.

Drop the dough by the heaping tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 8-12 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Cool 2 minutes on cookie sheet, then transfer to cooling racks.

December 4, 2012

Bosque del Apache

The Hubs and I love to get out and about, exploring our world. We've seen big cities, and will likely see more, but what we really love is the great outdoors.

Now, I'm not exactly an outdoors-woman. I'd be perfectly happy to... ahem... "camp" at the lodge. What I enjoy most is the hiking, and an opportunity to photograph the wildlife. And then I want to sit in front of the fire at my lodge, with a cup of hot cocoa, and a great book. This makes sense to me. 

Sleeping in a tent, with bears and spiders and God knows what out there? Not so much.

There are many places, no matter where you live, to explore the great outdoors. Heck, even if you're in Manhattan, get out and wander Central Park! There are always ways, you just have to look for the opportunity. 

A few hours from our home is a bird sanctuary. The Hubs and I have driven past it on various road trips, but never taken the time to stop. Until, our recent trip to Albuquerque where everything went wrong. Since we couldn't see what we were there for, we adjusted our plans to stop at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge instead. 

We enjoyed our short stop there so much, we decided to go back again during the winter months, when the Bosque is home to thousands of Sandhill cranes, snow geese, and a variety of other wildlife. Although we didn't attend the Festival of the Cranes, there were still thousands of birds to see every day. 

For my first visit back to the Bosque, I made the road trip with my gal pals, Abby and Becky. We left in the middle of the night, hoping to arrive in time for sunrise. 

We made it! 

The Flight Deck

Our journey began at the Flight Deck, just a short distance down the 12-mile tour loop. A thick fog blanketed the water, providing cover for the cranes we could hear, but couldn't see. Dozens of photographers were scattered in various locations around the loop. Avid bird watchers came armed with binoculars and cameras.

Photographers and bird watchers waiting for a glimpse of cranes 

The heavy fog prohibited even the most basic photography. We couldn't see the cranes with the naked eye, but we could certainly hear them calling to each other. Becky, Abby, and I were struggling with our disappointment. We had hoped to see the cranes take flight, a common occurrence at the Bosque.

Just as we were about to give up, shadowy figures emerged from the fog. The sun rose higher, clearing our line of sight.

The cranes! Rather than take flight, the birds were walking across the shallow water, in search of their breakfast.

Our excitement returned. Camera shutters clicked. Our middle-of-the-night, impromptu road trip had been worth it!

The plan was to stay for a few hours only, then return home. Becky was due back at work, and we were all running on very little sleep. Instead, we began the tour loop. How long could 12 miles really take, especially by car?  

Um... it takes a lot longer than you would think!

Every pull-off offered new views and different wildlife. The cranes weren't the only creatures awake. Snow geese, mule deer, hawks, eagles, and coyotes... these are just a few of the species we spotted.

Thousands of snow geese take flight 

Hours later, we finally started the journey home. Becky and I had plans to return later in the week, with the Hubs in tow. This time, I couldn't wait to see sunset at the Bosque!

I wasn't disappointed. Not only did we see sunset, but the sunrise as well. AND, I tried my hand at star photography for the very first time!

Highway 1, leading to Bosque del Apache 

Granted, it's not a perfect picture, but I think it's ok for my first time. The experience was the best part.  Driving into the middle of nowhere, in the dark, and listening to the coyotes howl... quite the adventure!

During the daylight hours, we spent more time photographing the birds. I quickly grew to envy some of my fellow photographers, with their giant lenses that could reach out and touch someone. My 18-250mm lens was a baby in comparison.

Lucky for me, the birds flew overhead so often, I had plenty of opportunity to capture their images.

A Sandhill Crane in flight 

The Hubs (without a camera) was enthralled with the birds too! The binoculars seemed permanently glued to his eyes. Several times, he referred me to The Big Year, a movie we recently watched together. I'm pretty sure he wants to try for a Big Year himself once he retires (If you're wondering what a Big Year is, check out the movie)!

He took a few breaks to film the birds. Their calls pierced the air, soothing at times and annoyed at others. When a coyote (or a stray human) came too close, the birds screeched their displeasure, even taking to the air at times. When not in sight of the birds, you could still sense their mood easily, simply by listening to the pattern of their calls.

The video shows the snow geese flying in at sunrise, a gorgeous sight.

After repeated trips to the Bosque, I can now say it's one of my favorite places we've visited. I might even let the Hubs talk me into that Big Year one of these days!

I'd love to show you all my photos from the trip. If you'd like to see more, be sure to check out the Facebook Photo Album!

As always,

Thanks for reading, everyone!
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Snow Geese in flight 


December 3, 2012

CBS Baking Show

It was just an ordinary day as I sat at my computer, working on a new blog post (it's coming soon!). Imagine my surprise when I opened my email and found...

An invitation to audition for a baking show!

As excited as I was, I am unable to audition for the show myself (for various reasons). HOWEVER, there is no good reason why YOU can't!

Are you a home baker with hidden talents? Have you always wanted to be on tv? Well, CBS is hosting an open casting call for their new show... you should check it out!!!

To apply, or just to gather more information, check out the website at:

I hope some of you take the chance... get out there and audition! If you decide to go for it, please let everyone here at Army Life know how your experience goes.

Happy auditioning, my friends! As always,

Thanks for reading, everyone!
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November 27, 2012

Zuppa Toscana

There are so many times I've eaten in a restaurant and wished I could make a certain dish at home. Over time, I realized I could have my favorite dishes at home. All it took was a little perseverance and a lot of experimentation.

This soup isn't actually my favorite dish, it's the Hubs'. I can't count how many times I've asked where he wanted to eat, and he always answers, 'Olive Garden, soup and salad!' Specifically, he wants Zuppa Toscana. 

Naturally, I went to work, determined that I would outdo Olive Garden's recipe.

The Hubs thinks I succeeded, and that's good enough for me!

Of course, now he requests this soup every week. Though I love this zuppa (did you know zuppa means soup in Italian?), I don't want to eat it every single week. I like variety in life! The Hubs, on the other hand, will eat the same thing over and over until he never wants to eat it again.

It's a rough life, but I manage somehow.

Haha. Ok, so it's not that bad. But I do regulate the frequency of our zuppa intake, otherwise we'd be eating this all the time.

So let's get the party started! The ingredient list for this soup is simple:

The ingredients, minus one (as per the usual) 

Start with 1 lb. of Italian sausage. I like to use the 'mild' version, but you can work with the 'hot' if you prefer. The reason I like the mild is because I want to control the spice level myself. I do this by adding a bit of red pepper flakes to the sausage as I cook it (The red pepper is the ingredient not pictured. It wouldn't be one of my recipes if I didn't forget at least one ingredient in the picture).

Brown your sausage in a skillet, adding red pepper flakes if you choose. I only add 1/2 teaspoon (sometimes a little more, I don't always measure!), but you can add as much or as little as you want. The Hubs likes his extra spicy, so we add more to his soup at the end.

Once brown, drain the fat, then set your sausage aside. Pull out your soup pot. Add 4 slices of bacon (chopped into bite-sized pieces) into the pot. I have to be honest, we usually add an extra piece of bacon. Everything is better with more bacon!

Cook the bacon over medium-high heat. When it's about halfway done, add 5 cloves of minced garlic and one white onion (diced) to your soup pot. Continue to saute until the onions are translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.

Next, add 8 cups of low-sodium chicken broth to the pot, along with 2 cups of water. I suggest the low-sodium broth because the sausage and bacon are both salty already. You can always add more salt later if you like, but you can't take it away if it's already in there!

Bring the broth to a gentle boil, then add 3 large Russet potatoes (peeled and chopped) to the pot. Keep in mind that your potatoes should be chopped into similar sizes so they cook evenly. Continue to boil until the potatoes are tender, about 25-30 minutes.

Boiling broth

If the potatoes are tender, you're almost done! Stir 1 1/4 cups heavy cream into the broth, along with your cooked sausage.

Picture courtesy of Abby, from 1,000 Miles on my Own Two Feet

Allow this mixture to heat through before adding the final ingredient: freshly chopped kale. Kale is a wonderful green for soups, but there are substitutes if your local grocery doesn't stock it. Look instead for Swiss Chard or spinach (Don't use the spinach from a bag, use the fresh bundles instead). I actually just tear my kale into pieces, rather than chopping it. So much easier! Stir in as much or as little as you like, but we use about 3 cups or so.

The kale takes no time at all to wilt, so simply stir and you're done. Test your zuppa for seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste. And, viola! Zuppa Toscana at home.

Zuppa Toscana

The Hubs and I sprinkle our soup with a bit of fresh grated Parmesan cheese right before serving. It's the perfect final touch! For those of you (like me) who cook in advance when they can, this soup freezes well. Just let the zuppa cool to room temperature, then add to freezer-safe ziploc bags. Freeze the bags flat on a cookie sheet, then store until you need them. I like to make single-serving sizes as well, especially for those times when the Hubs is away. Just because you're cooking for one, doesn't mean you can't eat well!

What are your favorite restaurant recipes that you wish you could make at home? Please share in the comments, especially if you have a recipe! I've included the standard form recipe at the bottom of this post for you.

As always, happy cooking!

Thanks for reading, everyone!
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The Standard Form:

Zuppa Toscana


1 lb. ground Italian sausage
1/2 - 1 ½ teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 large white onion, diced
4 slices bacon, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 ¼ cup heavy cream
3 large Russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
3 cups kale, washed and roughly chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Fresh grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish


Sauté the Italian sausage with the red pepper flakes until done. Drain any fat from the pan and set aside.

In a large soup pot, sauté the bacon. When the bacon is a little more than half-cooked, add the onion and garlic to the pot. Sauté until the onions are translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the chicken broth and water to the soup pot. Bring to a gentle boil, then add the potatoes. Boil until the potatoes are tender, bout 25-30 minutes.

Stir in the cooked sausage and the cream. Heat through before adding the kale. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot with fresh grated Parmesan. 

November 12, 2012

The "Everything" Book: Deployment

Before I begin, fair warning to you: There is a LOT of important information in this post. I decided not to divide the post into parts, so everything would be located in one convenient place. That means this is quite a bit longer than normal, but it's worth it. Particularly if your spouse is deploying, this is a must read.

Now that that's out of the way...  I can begin for real!


The "Everything" Book... I'm sure you're wondering what this is, right? Well, it's exactly as it sounds... literally everything you should need for deployment.

Ok, maybe not everything. But it's pretty close! The book can't provide companionship, or a hug when you're feeling low. It can't provide a phone call from your spouse on those days when you just need to hear his voice. It doesn't give your kids a bath, or have dinner ready when you get home...


The book will contain every scrap of paperwork you can imagine, every phone number you may need at a moment's notice. And trust me, you're going to need it.

When you're preparing for an impending deployment, you don't always think about the things you might need while your spouse is gone. I completely understand! You want to soak up every spare bit of time you have. And who wants to spend that time dealing with the what ifs? Nobody.

However... you need this. Once your spouse is gone, he's gone. If you can't find a birth certificate, and you gotta have it today, you can't just call and ask where it is. Dealing with these issues when you're thousands of miles away from each other is near impossible. The stress of not knowing has caused many a fight.

But you can avoid all of that!

For example, does your hubs generally handle your car repair needs? I know mine does. So what do I do if I get a flat tire, or my radiator starts leaking?

The Book will tell you. If you've made your book, then your mechanic's phone number will be conveniently located in the maintenance section. Handy, yes?

The #1 most important thing you need to know about this book?


Got it?


So let's get this party started then!

First thing first: supplies.

All you need is a three-ring binder, some inserts, a hole punch, and some pens. Oh, and the cool PDFs I'll provide you that can be printed right at home.

For the inserts, you have options. You can use sheet protectors, which are clear and already punched. You could also use two-pocket folders, which are also pre-punched, and you can label the front. OR, you can go with my preferred method, which is letter-sized manilla envelopes.

I like the envelopes for one major reason. They can be sealed shut! I'm pretty clumsy, and I know I will drop this binder at least once. With the other two options, all my paperwork can slide right out if I tip the binder the wrong way. I'm not taking any chances with all those sensitive items. Remember: this is your whole life in a three-ring binder! (Tip: Use your hole-punch before adding documents to your envelope, otherwise your birth certificates will have holes in them)

One other item you will definitely need is this: a safe place to keep your information once completed. 

Again, your life in a book! You don't want to keep this anywhere it might be stolen or otherwise lost. I like to use a home safe. It's a good idea to have a fireproof safe anyway, so this won't be a waste. You can find one reasonably priced at Walmart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot, and a variety of others stores.

Once you've got your supplies, it's time to start the everything part. I'm going to arrange this into sections to hopefully make things easier for you. If I've left something out, please let me know and I will update the lists, so everyone has the information.

Ok, here goes! A list of everything that should be in your "Everything Book".

1. Copies of ORDERS - These are necessary for almost EVERYTHING (hence the name of the book!) Want to lower your credit card interest rates for the duration of the deployment? Yep, you need orders. Want to use the military clause to break your lease? You need orders! Need to deactivate your spouse's cell phone for deployment? You still need those orders.

There are countless uses for your spouse's deployment orders. Keep several copies on hand, and be prepared to use them often.

2. Legal Documents - This includes so many things. Several of the items MUST be obtained before your soldier leaves. Here's your list:
a) POA (Power of Attorney) - There are two types of POAs, general and special. You and your spouse need to decide which of these you need. Make an appointment with JAG to discuss your options. You may have several of these! The Hubs and I had seven different POAs! You may need a medical power of attorney, or one to file your taxes. Take advantage of the free legal assistance available on post.

b) Wills - Both you and your spouse should have a will. Don't think that it could never happen to you! It's better to be safe than sorry.

c) Copy of your soldier's SGLI - This is your Servicemember's Group Life Insurance, in case something should happen to your soldier while overseas.

d) Court Paperwork - Such as marriage certificates, divorce papers, adoption papers, custody papers, and immigration paperwork.

e) Lease / Mortgage Documents - I think this should be obvious, but I could be wrong. It is always good to have these, whether or not your spouse is deployed.

3. Identification - Are you starting to see why this book should be kept in a safe place?! You definitely don't want anyone having this information, much less all of it together. Be smart, don't leave your "Everything Book" lying around.

a) Birth certificates - Keep one for every member of the household. Be sure it's an original and not a photocopy! Many government agencies will not accept the photocopy. If you don't have an original, you will need to contact Vital Statistics in the county and state where the paperwork was originally filed. You can find your state's information here.

b) Social Security Cards - Again, you want to have one for everyone in your household, including your spouse. If you need to obtain a new social security card, you can find all pertinent information here.

c) Copy of Driver's License / State ID - Also for everyone in household. Your spouse may not even take his license with him. Check your expiration dates... do you need to renew your license while your spouse is away?

d) Passports - I know I'm repetitive, but again... everyone's in the household. If you use your passport to travel at any time, leave a copy of the passport in your "Everything Book" at home.

e) Copy of Military IDs - If your ID will expire before your spouse returns from deployment, have it renewed before he goes! Be sure you know where you can obtain a new ID if yours or your children's is lost during his absence. Write this information down and keep it here as well.

f) Copy of Green Cards - the same information applies here as with driver's licenses and military IDs

g) Voter Registration Cards - Your spouse may have to vote with an absentee ballot while gone. So may you.

4. Finances - Talk with your spouse BEFORE he leaves. Decide how you're going to handle your bank accounts, bills, investments, and budgets. In a civilian marriage, it's hard enough to handle these issues. You add the military and deployment to that, it's a huge cause for concern. Don't wait until it's too late and you're arguing with your spouse via email!

a) Budget - Keep a copy of your budget on hand. Refer to it every paycheck, every time you pay bills. There are a number of free budget forms you can print online. In fact, your bank may even offer one. If you can't find one, you can look here for a free PDF from Freddie Mac.

b) Monthly Bills - A list of all your bills that includes the monthly payment, due date, account number, password, website, and phone number for each company (you may also want to keep a paper copy of each bill in this file). You need this not just to pay each bill, but also for the contact information. I've created an easy, fill-in-the-blank chart for you that can be downloaded here. I will also provide a complete PDF list at the end for easy reference and download.

c) Credit Cards - You also need a list of all your credit cards which includes: the issuer, account number, password, credit limit, authorized users, website, phone number, and bill due date. I've included the PDF chart for you here.

d) Banking Information - Do you and your spouse share accounts? Are they separate? Will you manage the accounts? All of this information needs to be discussed before your soldier leaves (I bet you're really tired of hearing me say that, but I'm sure I'll do it again!). If you are not listed on your spouse's accounts, you must have a POA in order to access those accounts while he is gone. Keep a list of where your accounts are, what type they are, the account numbers and passwords. Also make note of the bank's website (or address) and phone number. I've made a chart for this too, you can get it here!

e) Insurance - This particular information may be used in several categories. For the financial aspect, keep a list of all your insurance payments, including automobile, home/property insurance, medical, and life insurance. Again, include all providers, policy numbers, passwords, due dates, payment amounts, and contact information. Naturally, I've included a chart here.  If you don't know how to file a claim or what your insurance covers, talk about it!

f) Copy of LES (Leave and Earnings Statement) - Have your spouse teach you how to access this information while he is gone. Make sure you have a POA that will allow you to deal with the finance department on post, in case there is a problem with your spouse's pay. You will also need to access these in order to file taxes. Don't wait until it's too late, and you're struggling to get the information via email or Skype. Get it now!

g) Tax Returns - The IRS recommends keeping your returns anywhere from 3 years to forever. Unless you've been cheating on your taxes, you're likely safe with the last 4 or 5 years worth of returns. If you're audited while your spouse is gone, believe me, you're going to want these!

5. Contact Information - This is not just for you, though that is the primary purpose. You should also keep a copy of this information in a location where it can be easily accessed by someone else. For example, what if (God forbid) you were in a car accident? You might not be able to tell your best friend how to call your mom, but she can use this list if it's pinned to the refrigerator, right?

a) Family Contacts - Your parents, siblings, in-laws... they should all be included. I, for one, would be screwed (excuse my language!) if my cell phone suddenly lost all that information. In addition to phone numbers, include addresses and your relationship to each person (again, for others to use easily). Feel free to use my handy, dandy form here.

b) Military Contacts - This is NECESSARY. Do not, under any circumstances, leave this information out of your book. You should include you Rear Detachment Commander and NCOIC, along with the phone number for the staff duty desk. Know the information for your FRG leader and Key Caller. I even keep a list of basic numbers like ACS (Army Community Services), Legal, Red Cross, the spouse's club, my church. Not only have a copy in your book, but pin a copy to your fridge. I have a basic form available for you here.

c) Spouse Information - Something you will hopefully use often, the address for your spouse. Before too long, you'll have sent so many care packages, this will be easy to remember! Along with the address, write down all of the unit's information.

d) Babysitter List - Don't be scrambling at the last minute to find an emergency babysitter. Keep several on hand to call if the need arises. Check them out before you need them! Be sure to include their names, address, and phone numbers on your list. Here's a handy printable for you!

e) Maintenance - This is HUGE. Maybe even MEGAhuge. Because we all know what happens the minute your spouse leaves... everything falls apart. Decide beforehand who you will use for repairs, both household and automobile. If you're in an apartment, know the number for your office, both regular hours and the emergency line. If you're a homeowner, keep a list of plumbers, electricians, and other home repair technicians. Know who your mechanic is and where they are located. Who services your security system, and who mows your lawn?

Other good things to know... where is your fuse box? How do you turn off the water or gas? Do you have a fire extinguisher or escape ladder? Do you know your security codes? Talk with your spouse before he goes!! Here's a quick chart to help you keep up with all the information. Remember, these printables will all be listed at the end as well.    

6. Records - Always good to have!

a) Medical records - keep for everyone in the household. While much of your information is kept electronically on post, this doesn't always hold true and it doesn't count for doctors you see off-post. Always get copies of these records for yourself.

b) Dental records - Same as above. Most dependents use dentists off-post, so keep your records handy.

c) School records and Credentials - For younger children, you likely have their records anyway since the military family moves around. But you also need to include high school and college diplomas for you, your spouse, and older children. Any credentials you've earned should also be here.

d) Military Awards - whatever awards or recognition your spouse has received, maintain a copy of it as well.

7.  Automobile - There is lots of information to keep track of here. Some of it may overlap with other information, but that's ok.

a) Insurance - Keep a copy of your insurance cards in the car, in your purse, and in your "Everything Book". If your policy covers roadside assistance, save the number to your cell phone and also keep a written copy in your glove box. No one likes to be stuck on the side of the road!

b) Car Titles - If you own the car (no loans) then you should have your title. If the car isn't yet paid off, then the bank has your title. In this case, keep a copy of your loan agreement here.

c) Scheduled Maintenance - keep a list of all your regularly scheduled maintenance. When does your oil need to be changed or the spark plugs replaced? I found a guide here that allows you to type in your car's information, and then the site explains what maintenance is recommended.

d) Vehicle Registration - Make a copy for your "Everything Book", but keep the original in your car. Know when the renewal date is, and how to go about it.

e) Vehicle Inspection - This is different for every state. You may also need an emissions inspection. Know what date the inspection is due, and be sure to complete it before then! Your regular mechanic can perform this task for you.

f) Extra keys - Keep a set of extra keys in your "Everything Book", just in case. You can also leave a set with someone you trust.

To help you keep track of your basic vehicle information, I've made a chart (of course!) here.

8. Family Needs - This category can encompass a lot of issues, especially if you have children.

a) Medical - Keep a list of all your doctors (for you, your spouse, and your children), along with their contact information. I also keep handy the phone number for Poison Control, because you just never know!  Along with that, keep a chart with any medications you or your family members are taking. This should include the the medication, dosage (and times per day), the doctor who prescribed it, their phone number, and the pharmacy you fill at. You can get the form for doctors list here, and the medication chart here.

b) CYS (Child and Youth Services) Paperwork - This is specific for families with children. I'll be honest and tell you that I don't know a whole lot about these programs. BUT, I do know there are extra advantages for families of deployed soldiers. CYS can provide child care, student services, and sports programs, to name a few. Check out Army OneSource's information page to see what your facility offers.

c) Family Care Plans - What happens if you need to be hospitalized for any reason? It's good to have a plan, ready to put into action, if the need arises. Keep a list of pertinent details for whomever will take care of your children. For example, what is their favorite food? Do they have any allergies? Do they need a special stuffed animal to fall asleep? When is bedtime, what is their routine? This is also handy to have for a regular babysitter, even if you're only going out for a girls' night. I created a basic form for you here. You may want to customize this for your needs.

d) Disaster Plans - Unfortunately, these things could happen anytime. Mother Nature can put a hurricane in your path, or your plumbing could go and the whole house floods. Where do you go? What is your back-up plan? Is there family nearby, or will you stay in a hotel? Who will you definitely inform of your plans, someone that will always know where you are? I've provided a basic list here, but you may want to expand on this.

e) Extra Household Keys: Keep a copy of these with your "Everything" Book and also with someone you trust. These can include door keys, mailbox keys, garage keys.

9. Household Pet Information - If you're anything like me, then your pets are people too! It's important to keep track of their information, the same way you would keep track of any family members'.

a) Veterinary Information - What is your vet's name, address, and phone number? What are their hours of operation? The best way to keep this handy is a business card. I keep one in my wallet, and one in my "Everything" Book. Also, keep the information for an after-hours, emergency vet clinic. Trust me, you'll be glad you have it.

b) Records - Keep an up-to-date copy of all your pet's medical records, the same as you keep yours. This especially comes in handy if you're traveling, or visiting with family, and your pet suddenly needs to see a foreign vet. For some travel, you may even need a recent health check before your pet can go with you.

c) Vaccinations - Along with your pet's basic medical records, be sure you keep a separate vaccination record. This should include your basic vaccinations, as well as your rabies certificates. All kennels will require this information before you can board your pet with them.

d) City License - Your pet should have a tag on his/her collar, but you should also keep a copy of the paperwork. This helps if you lose a tag, and also helps you remember the renewal date.

e) Microchip Information - Many companies provide an information card, along with the chip's tag. Keep a copy for yourself!

f) Kennel Information - Like your vet, the easiest way to keep track of this is with a business card in several locations. If you don't have a regular kennel, find one! Even if you don't think you will need it, it's better to have the information on hand. You never know when you will have a family emergency and need to travel out of town.

g) Pet Sitter Information Sheet - Even better than the kennel, it's nice to have someone you know who will keep your babies while you're gone. I've had many excellent friends care for my fur baby. But no matter how awesome your friends are, they still need basic information about your pet! What time do they eat and how much? What type of food? What commands does your pet understand? Keep a list of this information to pass on. I've had a basic form on hand for years, and all my pet sitters get a copy. Though not all the information may apply to your pet, you're welcome to use my form for your babies!

10. Calendar of Events - This may seem a bit unnecessary, but you won't believe the kind of things you'll forget while your spouse is deployed. And who could blame you?! Running a household by yourself is no easy task. So, make it easy on yourself.... fill in a calendar with all your important dates. Not just birthdays and anniversaries, but also your 6-month dental checkups, when the oil should be changed, when to renew your tags, etc. Keep track of your care packages here, what you've sent and when. Organizing these items will relieve plenty of stress, I promise you!

So, that about does it for our "Everything" Book! I hope you've learned a few new things, and this post helps you create your own "Everything" Book. I know it's a lot of information to process, but get it done now! Please don't wait until your spouse is gone. Even if you never need some of this information, remember: It's better to have it and not need it, instead of needing it and not having it.

I've compiled an "Everything" Book checklist for you here. The rest of the PDFs are linked below. Feel free to print anything you need! If you think of anything I haven't included, please comment below and I'll be sure to update for future users.

As always... thanks for reading!

Printable PDF List:

Budget from Freddie Mac

Monthly Bill List

Credit Card Information Sheet

Banking Information Sheet

Insurance Information Sheet

Family Contact List

Military Contact List

Babysitter Contact List

Maintenance Contact List

Vehicle Information Sheet

Doctor Information List

Medication Chart

Family Care Plan

Disaster Plan

Pet Sitter Information Sheet

The "Everything" Book Checklist

 Thanks for reading, everyone!
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October 30, 2012

Fall is in the Air...

Fall is in the air! This is the Hubs' favorite time of year (and mine!). He loves everything about it, especially Halloween and all the festivities that go along with it (more about that coming soon). I love the crisp bite in the wind, and the smell of autumn. We pack our fall dates full of as much fun as we can. Haunted houses (ugh!), pumpkin patches, hiking, apple picking... the list is endless.

However, we've made a few dicoveries along the way. Where we are stationed can determine our fall activities. Apple picking in the desert? Not so much.

Over the years, we've learned to adjust to our surroundings. The leaves don't change colors when there aren't many tress. Adaptation: Drive a few hours into the mountains, or take a long weekend away (check out our recent adventure to the Santa Fe National Forest)  No apple picking? Adaptation: purchase store apples and make apple cider at home.

You get the picture, yes? Bloom where you're planted!

In recent years, we've devolped a new tradition, one I know we'll miss when we're restationed again. We've grown to love our outings to the Mesilla Valley Corn Maze.

This outing is MUCH more than a maze... there are games, contests, and rides. Pumpkin and gourd picking, fresh food, and of course, the maze itself.

We've gone as a couple, and we've gone with our friends. I have to say, the bigger the group, the better! This year, we introduced my good friend Abby, and her husband Paul, to the maze. I'm sure you remember Abby, yes? Not only is she awesome in every way possible, but she writes an excellent outdoorswoman blog. It's all coming back to you, isn't it?

There we all are! Ok, so I'm behind the camera, but I'm there too. Technically.
Since the Hubs and I stop here each year, we already know our favorite pasttimes (Big Wheel Racing!). But Abby and her hubs have yet to explore. Sometimes I miss out on all the other games, since the Hubs and I make a beeline for the race track. It was great exploring with some newbies! We saw all our favorite things, and we experienced all the games we sometimes forget. We started at the beginning, wandering through the entrance and stopping at each attaction along the way.
First stop?
A giant tic-tac-toe board, using tires... I mean, what else would it be?!
I know it seems simple, but we really got into this old-fashioned pastime. I mean, REALLY got into it. As in, we all played several games apiece.
No, we're not OCD (except for me, ha). The real reason we played so much is because nobody could beat this guy:

Yes, Paul is the champ. But I think he cheated. (Is that even possible in tic-tac-toe??) Regardless, we all lost miserably, or else we tied The Man. Of course, I'm used to losing at these types of competitions, since the Hubs regularly kicks my butt in all things game-related. It's sad, but true.
Moving forward, I was looking for a little activity. Something that required a little less strategy. Something I could hope to win.
Something like... Giant hamster wheels for humans.

Turns out, giant hamster wheels are AWESOME! Especially when you're racing. The Hubs and I raced too, but I'm on vacation as I write this post, and I'm completely scatterbrained. The end result is I left those pictures halfway across the country, so this is all you get. I'll be posting the complete set of photos to my Facebook page as soon as I get home, I swear.
Except the ones that make me look like an idiot.
But you can see all the rest! (Or, you can check out Abby's blog post from the same day and see my silliness).
Needless to say, we spent quite a lot of time on the hamster wheels. Boys will be boys, and when it comes to toys, the men are still little boys. They raced, climbed, and jumped. The tried different techniques, and compared wind speed. The womenfolk (me and Abby), shouted words of encouragement and then words of caution. We played too, but mostly with our cameras! It was an exhilerating half hour. Seriously.
After all that spinning, we were feeling a little goofy. We relaxed with a few more candid pictures of each other...

(See, I was there, for reals!) We meandered around, enjoying the day and the atmosphere. Of course, the boys found plenty to keep them amused:

I just shake my head and repeat my mantra, boys will be boys. Apparently, being a boy involves riding a miniature tricycle, but what do I know?
Abby and I didn't ride the tricycles, but that's because we're smart enough to know they were for children, and we let each of ours run ahead to play, haha! We did have fun recording their silliness (By the way, doesn't it just make you smile to see your hubs so happy? I know it totally gets me).
There are so many fun activities here, it's hard to keep track. But, I know we hit up the store for snacks and drinks, the food booths for lunch (Omg, the corn on the cob was to die for!), the big sack slides, Scotty's Scoopers (playing in the dirt, great for the boys!), Paver Mazes, and all the photo ops.
The BEST part though??
The Jo-Jo-A-Rama Speedway!
Two tracks, side by side, armed with grown-up Big Wheels for racing!
So comletely cool.
Of course, we had to race. Several times, in fact, both against each other and sometimes just for fun. I gotta say, this track is hard work! After a few laps, you find yourself wearing down, ready to man the camera for a while instead.
We all had a turn, on the track and as the photographer:
The best race, though, was between the Hubs and Paul.
The Hubs was just a little too cocky... laughing as he rounded the corners, cackling when he pulled ahead...
He was in the lead as they screamed around the last curve (easily doing 3mph, hahaha)...
The Hubs looked behind him and laughed... and then he CRASHED. Paul raced into the lead at the last moment, fist pumping as he crossed the finish line.
Don't worry, the Hubs' ego was more bruised than anything else. And this picture was priceless, yes? Totally worth it.
ANYWAY, I know you're wondering by now where the actual 'maze' is at the Mesilla Valley Corn Maze. There really is a corn field, with a fun maze cut into it. Actually, the shape of the maze changes every year... this way, you never know from one year to the next how to get through it.
I'm not sure that knowing ahead of time would have helped us at all...
 Which way do we go???? No one knows.
The boys braved out the entire maze, determined to complete the whole thing. But Abby and I dipped out early when we passed close to the beginning again. The pumpkin patch was calling our names!

Granted, we didn't actually pick any pumpkins. We took the hayride just for the photographs and the spin around the fields!
For normal people, the patch offers not only pumpkin picking, but also gourd and squash picking too. If you're not into the whole pick-it-yourself adventure, Pumpkin Junction has a great selection of already harvested pumpkins (and gourds, etc.).
By this time, the boys had worked their way through the maze, and they were tuckered out. Plus, Abby and I were a bit sleepy ourselves!
The Mesilla maze has been a tradition with the Hubs and I since our first year at this particular duty station. I think we've now converted Abby and Paul into avid maze goers as well.. If you're ever in the area, be sure to check it out, and don't forget a spin around the Jo-Jo-A-Rama Speedway!
The Facebook photo album will be coming soon, with even more pictures for your viewing enjoyment. Until then, happy Fall to you... make the most of it before the winter comes!
 Thanks for reading, everyone!
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