February 17, 2015

An Open Love Letter to Talbots

It might seem like a crazy thing to write a love letter to a retail clothing store, but maybe I'm just feeling crazy enough to do it.

It all started with my quest for the perfect pair of pants. It was winter in Tennessee, but a sort of on-again, off-again winter with warmer than usual days and temperatures that felt like spring. And I needed some middle of the road professional looking pants I could wear to work for meetings as well as just around town. Not jeans and certainly not anything that might be construed as gym attire.

I had hit up all my usual shopping spots without any luck when I remembered my mom telling me how she had found a great pair of Talbots pants at our local Goodwill. I figured that since I didn't really have time to wait for the perfect pair of pants to appear at my favorite thrift shop, I'd head straight to the source.

This was my inaugural visit to a Talbots store. My first impression was how bright and clean it was, with neat rows of preppy clothing displayed around the walls. The next thing that struck me was how genuinely friendly the staff seemed to be, and how helpful they were.

As someone who mainly shops at thrift stores (and occasionally Target), I tend to forget (or never knew in the first place) what it's like to have salespeople actually pay attention to me and offer to help. Even though that first visit didn't yield the pants I was looking for (I'm so tall!), it made an impact on me.

The next time I stopped by, I took my parents along. My mom was looking for a dress to wear to my wedding and as someone who also mainly shops at thrift stores, she was impressed by how attentive the staff was and just how much they seemed to want to help. She mentioned to the saleslady that one of her favorite pairs of pants were from Talbots and the lady asked "which Talbots store do you usually shop at?" My mom and I looked at each other and smiled, knowing that the answer was none of them.

Anything we've ever had from Talbots (or any other "namebrand" stores) was thrifted. Growing up, we scoured the racks of our local Goodwill (aka GW Boutique) to find J.Crew, gap, and other seemingly fancy labels.

How else would an awkward 7th grader such as myself have gotten  a DKNY fashion week t-shirt? (this was before the internet after all). In all my life the only J.Crew clothes I've ever owned were second hand. My favorite pair of (thrifted) pajamas is from a store called J.Jill and I've never set foot in that establishment. Basically my experience has been that if I couldn't find it at a thrift store, I didn't buy it. And that has its definite benefits, including saving money plus the thrill of the hunt.

But thrift store shopping has its downsides too. If something you love doesn't fit just right, there's never the option of trying it another size. You just have to hope for the best. Finding something great at a thrift store in your size without a huge hole or stain is like having all the stars align.

And the experience of thrift store shopping isn't glamorous at all. If you're lucky, the thrift store has shopping carts. Otherwise, you have to browse while carrying your haul. There may or may not be a dressing room, which may or may not have a door that locks. And nobody waits patiently outside your door (on which they've written your name) to see if you need a different size.

Not so at Talbots. They whisk you into the lovely (well-lit) dressing room where you are checked on again and again to see if you need anything. Sometimes they even bring you clothing they think you might like just for the heck of it! That's how I ended up with a perfect chambray shirt (the last one in my size) which was also on sale (Praise the Lord!).

Then there was my most recent experience at Talbots....the one that cemented the store's place in my heart for all eternity. I needed a denim jacket for a western-themed event I was attending for work. But I didn't want it to look costumey. I figured if I was going to buy something, it might as well be nice enough to wear again and again. I was actually headed to the mall when I thought about Talbots.

Since my time was limited, I decided to call and see if they had anything before stopping by. A friendly salesperson named Katherine answered the phone and told me, "yes they had just gotten some denim jackets in stock and she would hold one in my size." When I arrived at the store, the doors were locked. Apparently they closed well before I called, but since they knew I was on the way, they waited for me. Not only that, but Katherine also gave me great advice about my purchase and offered me a special promotional price that was set to begin the next day.

Such a positive experience! I left there thinking about how I wanted to write a blog post about it, but got busy and moved on to something else. Then this week I received the loveliest handwritten note in the mail from Katherine saying she'd enjoyed helping me and she hoped my event went well. I was floored!

This is what great customer service is all about. It isn't kissing up to someone in the hopes they will buy something. It's about providing them with a service that adds value to their life. It's clear how much that matters at the Talbots in my neighborhood.

I'll probably always enjoy buying some things thrifted. And I might not be able to afford an entire wardrobe of clothing from Talbots. But when I want a certain kind of pleasant shopping experience, I know where I can find it.

February 5, 2015

How to Host a Valentine's Day Cookie Decorating Party

Baking has never been my area of giftedness. I love to cook, and feel like I'm pretty good at it (mostly), but practically every recipe I've ever attempted that involved baking was a disaster. I think it has to do with the fact that baking is more of a science and I don't like to follow recipes.

But I do enjoy the creative aspect of baking. I think it stems from my great-grandmother who baked and decorated beautiful celebration cakes for many years. Once she let me decorate a doll cake (where the doll's dress was the cake) and I was mesmerized by the piping bags and how the perfect streams of icing flowed out them, creating little squiggly lines and flowers.

Today I'm joining my friends at Knoxville's WTNZ-Fox43 to talk about Valentine's Day. But since baking up beautiful and delicious treats isn't my specialty, I had another idea. What if you could take the pressure off yourself, avoid the baking and just get to do the fun part: decorating!

I'm sharing my idea for hosting a Valentine's Day cookie decorating party using your favorite store-bought cookies. It might seem like cheating and if you're a baker extraordinaire, this might not appeal to you. But I think it combines my favorite things: an easy project + getting to be creative.

To host a Valentine's Day Cookie Decorating Party of your own, you might need:

- Cookies (of course!)
- Frosting (white)
- Food coloring (to tint the icing)
- Chocolate chips (for melting or decorating)
- Sprinkles, nonpareils, jimmies, colored sugar, etc.
- Candy (whatever you want)

It's really all about letting your creativity run wild. And with the cookies as your canvas, how can you go wrong?

For this cookie creation, I started with some chocolate chip cookies (from the grocery store bakery). I found some neon pink frosting (or you could get white and do a custom tint with food coloring) and spread it thickly between two cookies. Then I rolled the edges in sprinkles. Pop it on a skewer for a cute cookie pop or into a cellophane bag. Tie it up with ribbon and it's an instant Valentine's Day treat.

For something a little bit more fancy, you might want to create tuxedo cookies. I started with the grocery store equivalent of Thin Mints (grasshopper cookies?), and piped a line of white frosting down the center. The sugar bows were found in the cake decorating section of my grocery store. See how the white frosting makes the shirt and the cookie is the jacket? Too cute! 

Another easy cookie to decorate is the humble Oreo. I dipped some in white chocolate (tinted pink) and gave them a sprinkling of gold sugar. I think it has an elegant look, don't you? 

This was such a fun project because it let me get creative, but I didn't feel any pressure to actually bake anything. I think I'm onto something. 

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and it's such a fun holiday because it lets us celebrate love! Don't get stuck in a rut of boring candy or feel like you have to spend a ton of money to make someone feel special. DIY some decorated cookies as gifts or even invites a few friends over to decorate cookies together! 

February 1, 2015

What We Believe Shapes Us

Lately I've been saying I'm on a health journey, but in a lot of ways this sounds kind of funny. Life is a journey regardless of our health. But when I say I'm on a health journey, what I mean is that I'm more focused on my health than I might have been in the past. Maybe calling it a journey is fitting because I was at point A. and I'm trying to get to point B.

Also, it sounds better to say I'm on a health journey than I'm on a health kick, on a diet, or 'shedding for the wedding.' And while part of me is really excited to be able to say I'm on this journey, another part of me is just disgusted to be here.

My whole life has had lots of peaks and valleys concerning my health, specifically my weight, starting all the way back in 6th grade when a kid named Scott said I was fat. Who is Scott? Just a random guy I went to school with. He wasn't particularly mean or anything, but as fate would have it, his words helped to guide me down a path that I wish I'd never been on.

It was your average Friday night in 1994 and my friend Nell and I were calling boys. Before cell phones and the Internet (you probably remember it), pre-teen girls used to call boys from landline phones on Friday and Saturday nights. At least we did.

And this particular night, we called Scott.

Nell actually called him up to find out if he had a crush on our friend Jen. And while she had him on the phone, we decided to take stock of his opinions about other people we knew, if certain guys were dweebs, if particular girls were cute, etc. Then I pretended to get off the phone so Nell could ask him what he thought of me.

"Kate's fat," he said, nonchalantly.

I was devastated. This was a completely new revelation to me. Up until that moment, it never occurred to me that I might be fat. "Was I fat?" I wondered. And even if I hadn't been before, was I now that he said it was true?

I'm not sure why we cared so much about his opinions, although I think he just happened to be the guy we had called. And I'm not sure why his saying I was fat was such a big deal to me. But it was. I mean, it's obvious how much of an impact it made if I can still remember the whole experience in great detail.

It's hard to sum up the next twenty years after that night. Let's just say they included a lot of bizarre fad diets, shopping in the plus size department, well-meaning lectures from my dad about the importance of a regular exercise regimen, and cupcakes....oh the cupcakes.

It's not that I blame a 6th grade boy for my body image issues. There were plenty of other contributing factors that created a warped sense of my self-worth. But that's at least the first memory I can go back to where I felt like there was something wrong with my body and how I looked. Before that, I was just innocently oblivious.

What we believe about ourselves shapes us in ways we don't even realize. Growing up, I was made to feel pretty wonderful by my family. They told me I was smart and they told me I was talented. They told me I could do anything I wanted to do in life. And I believed them. Thank goodness I had such positive stuff poured into me from an early age. I like to think that carried me through a lot of other times, when I believed things about myself that were much less positive.

Like how I was surely fat, if a 6th-grade boy said I was. That belief took hold of me and hasn't let go. Which is why I'm on this dang health journey today. And seriously, I'm not blaming him. I was heavier than some of the other kids and I'm sure someone else would have made note of this eventually.

But what makes me the saddest is that this created a belief in me that my value was diminished.

And this is just ridiculous. Our value can't be diminished. Period. End of story. And even as you read those words and somewhere deep down in your heart you know they are true, there's still that small voice that says, "but if I were only [thinner, richer, prettier, more successful, etc] my value would be greater.

Not possible.

Your value couldn't be greater.

It's like infinity.

Nothing you do can add to it and nothing you don't do can take away from it. I wish I had understood this in the 6th grade.

And by the way, when I first sat down to write this post it was going to be about my first time taking a Zumba class. I guess some of this other stuff just wanted to come out. So there you go.

And that's where I am on my journey.

Where are you?