Monday, December 27, 2010

All or Nothing

I have never been good at moderation. Downright terrible, in fact. It seems to be an inherent personality trait that I either put excruciating effort toward something or none at all. At seven, I used every cent of my Christmas and birthday money to buy the entire My Little Pony village - it stretched nearly eight feet in my room. Twenty years later and just a few months ago, I ordered every single Derian item I could get my hands on and have yet to find a place to actually fit them in the kitchen. A few years ago, I was regularly practicing yoga for 6-8 hours per week, even refusing to accept dates that interfered with the schedule, but have not stepped foot in a studio in well over a year. Ever taken a look at the pattern of my blog posts?
Housecleaning is another prime example of my propensity to bounce from extreme to extreme. An astute friend might observe that the first time she sees my apartment it is spotless. As in, go ahead, throw your food on the floor and eat it right there spotless or really, do look under my bed because you will not find a single dust bunny or storage bin spotless. But on her next visit she may notice it looking somewhat less clean, the next visit a little clutter here and there, and the next it being slap you in the face messy. The truth is, as much as I'd like to pretend I've got it all down, that the apartment is always immaculate, that lovely meals are served every evening at seven o'clock sharp, and my hair is always freshly shampooed, that's just not the case. I always strive for, well, perfection and do pretty well for a minuscule sprint of time but gradually slip. More like a landslide than a slip. The pursuit of perfection always ends in burnout for me.
I become acutely aware of this "all or nothing" trait of mine when it comes to making New Year's Resolutions. For as long as I can remember, I have made enormous lists of rather lofty goals every year and, surprise, do not really ever fulfill them in a meaningful, lasting way. I remember being stunned when my roommate in college stated that her resolution was to stop biting her nails. I thought, that's it? What about losing that freshman-fifteen, volunteering at a soup kitchen, getting better grades, or in my case, reading ten books with the goal to learn how to play the stock market and be a billionaire by thirty? Not biting your nails? That won't make you a better version of yourself.
I would assume that anyone who has actually read through this lengthy diatribe sees me moving toward the revelation that I should ease up, not bite off more than I can chew, maybe just try wiping the spot off the cupboard door next time instead of seeing the spot, emptying out all the contents of every cupboard, washing them inside and out with Pine-Sol, rearranging everything and labeling all the shelves accordingly thus rendering me unwilling to ever clean my kitchen again (sad but true story). Nope. The moral of this rant is that I am who I am. I don't think I'll change, and more importantly, I don't actually want to change. I don't want to be a whiskey that mellows with age. I want to be a bitchin' Cabernet that is more awesome with each passing year. Yes, I wrote "bitchin" and yes, I miss the Nineties.
I don't intend to pull any punches this year when making The List. The key to reaching my goals is having systems in place and, not to sound too fascistish (eat it, Palin), to be fairly regimented in daily life. When you're an ambitious but ultimately indolent dreamer like me, you just need that. Luckily, I have a pretty nice co-conspirator who has also resolved to lend a hand in keeping up with the household related resolutions.
The List to follow this week. Although I did write a novel above, so I shouldn't be due to post for another six months.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Daily Derian :: 2

Starting it off with a bang ... these were my must-have's from the new collection. Best. Coasters. Ever! I *heart* silhouttes.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Daily Derian

A few months ago, I received notice through a Gilt email that Target - possibly the best store of all time - was expanding it's line of collaborations with famous designers. They do this often, and more often than not I find the offerings somewhat "meh" as my interest in home furnishings and decor steadily supplants a dwindling obsession with handbags and clothes. In late 2008, they collaborated with John Derian, a famous designer and creator of some of the most fabulous eye candy in the world. Known for his decoupage designs using carefully curated antique and vintage prints, he has a large following of fans drawn to his beautiful cakestands, paperweights, bowls, and all sorts of lovely things (check out his website - screw Disneyland, this is the happiest place on earth).

His first collaboration with Target kicked off a frenzy among girls, well, just like me. Every blog was talking about it, everyone was waiting for the goodies to hit stores, everyone was growing frustrated with Target employees who would stare at you blankly when you tried to locate the items ("He's really quite famous - you should know who he is!"). It was tough to obtain anything in store, but somehow (and by somehow I mean I had to drive to Sacramento for a set of coasters) I managed to get my paws on a few treats. With all this madness in mind and furthermore more people exposed to Derian, can you imagine what it was like a second time around this year?

For brevity's sake, allow me to create an outline of how it went when I saw the email notifying me a BRAND NEW collection would be available PRE-SALE on the Gilt site:
  1. Elation! Fear! Joy! Panic!
  2. Set Outlook Calendar with 5 day, 2 day, 1 day, 2 hour, 15 minute reminders. Check.
  3. Perusal of financial situation. Is a savings account absolutely necessary in life? Creation of the Derian budget.
  4. Should I take the morning off work? No, don't be ridiculous. Just don't work at work from 9am until however long it takes.
  5. The morning arrives. Coffee consumed. At work an hour early. Waiting. Compulsively hitting Refresh starting at 8:57am. You must be fast. You must be efficient. Quick decisions or it will be gone within seconds at the hands of greedy girls who won't love it as much as you will.
  6. The virtual gates open! Cakestands! Coasters! Tumblers! Trays! It's all in the cart! What? Oh god! The last card I used on the site was shut down two days ago because of fraud. System not allowing me to upload my new card. SYSTEM CRASHING! A cyber-stampede of women has taken it down! PANIC! Did my cart save? What is the customer service number - why ISN'T IT LISTED?! (People like me is why).
  7. Google to the rescue. Dialing. 20 minutes with a sympathetic befuddled operator who can't help because *dun, dun, dun* it is the office network firewall more tech words not letting the page load to input new C.C. info. I SHOULD have stayed home!
  8. PANIC!!! Idea: WILL! Dialing. Honey, don't ask me questions. I need you to do this for me. (I'm later told Will heard the desperation in my voice and immediately took out his credit card without a word). Success! We're in. My stuff is in the cart - the same thing happened to everyone, so no purchases have gone through, it's all still HERE! JOY!
  9. Waves of relief. Heartrate returning to normal. Eruption of cheers from the small crowd of Special Events ladies that has assembled around my cube (it was just like Rocky!).
  10. Fabulous stuff arrives. All is there. But something's not quite right ... they've accidentally given me three sets of extra coasters that I didn't actually purchase. SCORE.

Later, I also picked up more stuff in-store and on the Target website itself. I know, I have a problem. But the fun (and nutsy) part is that I've photographed it all, and plan to share it with you piece by piece in a new feature I call "Daily Derian."

Day 1: The Desk Organizer

I honestly didn't think I needed this. I actually just bought it because, well, it was there. However, you can see for yourself that I really did not it afterall. My desk is so Zen-blissed out now.

BEFORE: The infamous middle drawer

ENTER: Pretty and functional thingy

AFTER: Awesome

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Baby Shower Sneak Peek

I had the pleasure of hosting my very first baby shower this past Sunday. What better way to celebrate new life than trying new crafts? The lovely mommy-to-be is our neighbor, Juliette, who is a photographer/graphic designer/impossibly cool person. No pink junk here! The pressure was on.

Given what mum does for a living, really nice pictures will eventually follow, but for now, here's an iPhone snap of our entryway, and my first attempt at tissue paper pom-pom dahlias!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I *Heart* Crafting

What I apparently do not *heart* is keeping up on my blog. :( For my teensy cadre of folks following, so sorry for the absence. Work, flu, life, etc.

Thought I'd dip my toes back in the water with something quick and simple: a Valentine's Day craft project I did (obviously awhile ago). Inspired by this incredibly beautiful storefront window that was featured on Design*Sponge, I spread some Valentine cheer of my own with paper rose adorned boxes, filled with some homemade sweet treats.

Scissors + paper + glue gun = surprisingly easy little paper roses!

No one likes an empty box, though - even a pretty one - so I whipped up two Martha confections: chocolate truffles and raspberry financiers.

Mmm, the financiers were so nutty and delicious! I need to make these again.

I experimented with two different types of chocolate for fun, but the real key is the different brands of cocoa powder that - all being different colors - create different color truffles once they are rolled in the powder.

*** I'll try to be better, scouts honor.***

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dunt, nah, nah, nah

(Why I don't go to Citrus Club for the noodles.)

For those who don't understand my sad little attempt to write out a beat, or who don't recognize the glowing orb of pink deliciousness above as a Cosmopolitan, I am writing to have an uber-girly, equally dorky moment of excitement over Sex & The City II coming out next month! I admit that I was not excited about the sequel at first. Have you ever seen the sequel to Bridget Jones' Diary? Craptastic. Alas, Jill and I were bobbing along on Friday night to the beatlicious sounds of "Empire State of Mind," and SATC II immediately came up. Prompted by Jill's insistence that the preview and naturally the outfits contained within were sensational, I had to take a peek ...

OMG! Phew, that's out of the way, now. While I liked the outfits just fine, I had a serious OMG! girl squeal moment when I saw that "Aidan" makes a significant reappearance. Officially excited.

Also, I wanted to give an update on my April goals; so far, so good!

  • Composting - I got a super awesome, tricked out new trashcan yesterday. Just need to get the Biobags to go in it and we'll be in the "Gooooood for yoouuuuuu" zone immediately. (South Park? Anybody?)
  • Knitting Class - I am all signed up for the ImagiKnit class that starts May 3rd. I'll be a knitting fool in no time! If you'd like to know why I chose ImagiKnit, please take a look at a picture of their head knitting instructor.
  • Posting More - I got off to a good start last week then dropped off ... My goal is to try to post on my lunch hour since it's challenging to carve out the time once at home. If you've ever tried to type with a 12lb. cat on your keyboard, you know what I mean. Also, I think I may have just set a record for my most vacuous post ever. Score!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who Are You Calling Chicken?

Adorable photo courtesy of the We Like It Wild post on Design*Sponge.

Sometimes The Universe tells me things. This week, it is telling me to keep chickens. Lest you believe I have meandered into a mental state similar to that of many Haight-Ashbury "residents," I will explain.

First, it was last week’s charming post by the ‘We Like It Wild/Studio Choo’ girls on Design*Sponge with a creative Easter decoration idea that I unabashedly cribbed for my table settings. They were inspired to create these tiny little arrangements after a visit with a woman who keeps chickens in nearby Marin County. Thus, it begins.
Photo from the Design*Sponge post

Second, it was strolling through the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market with Wilbat looking for brown eggs to replicate the goodness above and being bowled over by the price of a half dozen organic eggs. They were $4 for 6 little old eggs and I thought Will was going to flip out (and this was when he thought I was buying them for consumption – imagine when I told him my real plans!).

Third, it was checking out the Blogger feed this morning and seeing that Ashley English of ‘Small Measures’ has a book coming out on keeping chickens. Do I need it? No. Not only do I not have an outdoor space in which to keep a hen, I’m pretty sure it would be a serious violation of numerous zoning laws. Do I want it? Hell, yes. I would not mind getting her guide to home canning, either.

Photo from Ashley's post on her new books - check it out here!

Clearly, The Universe’s message to me is quite obvious. Though, I know what you’re thinking: "Oh, Nicole. Dear silly Nicole with your odd plans … You believe you want a chicken to lay you fresh eggs every morning and name Bess or Ruth or something classically 1950’s sounding, but be reasonable. You’d most certainly find yourself in over your head with the care and maintenance of a clucky hen." And perhaps you’d be correct. But perhaps you would be surprised to know that I have some chicken-raising experience, or at least more than your average bear. What might not surprise you would be to hear that when I owned the aforementioned chickens, I owned ten. Really, though, when a little girl visits the Fisco in Chico and stands before a giant aluminum basin loaded with adorable yellow chicks peeping away and scrambling around and over each other for the prime heat lamp spot, can she be expected to take less than ten? As can be expected, ten chicks were darling, ten teenage chickens were a bit precocious, and ten grown chickens (particularly those that turned out to be roosters) were a bit much. Luckily, my Dad found them new homes on a local chicken farm.

The moral of this little peep (pun intended) into my childhood is to reveal that I both have chicken-related experience and have learned my lesson about reasonable quantities. Regardless of that important lesson, I believe I will find myself Rhode Island Red-less, Hippy-Chicken-less, and otherwise hen-less for quite some time. Thus, I will leave you with some lyrics from my apparent anthem, Feist’s "Mushaboom."

Unpacking the bags and setting up
And planting lilacs and buttercups oh
But in the meantime we've got it hard
Second floor living without a yard
It may be years until the day
My dreams will match up with my pay…

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why, hello. I didn't see you there.

The date of my last post? February 19th. Shameful and without excuse!

So, here is an update of the past 1.5 months ….

What I’ve Done:

  • I found gainful employment (and a paycheck). I work for a non-profit. Shocking! In fundraising. Unheard of! For a cancer organization. Get out of town! Yes, I have indeed landed in a lovely position at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and, YES, I work in San Francisco. Finally, after almost 5 years in Oakland! I now coordinate the Light The Night Walk in San Francisco. I work with absolutely lovely, fun people towards a great cause within the confines of my home city. What more is there to say? (Except, "Nicole, quit asking me for money for your blasted fundraisers …")

  • I mastered another recipe courtesy of Ms. Martha that Will loves: Roast Pork Loin with potatoes, shallots, and mustard gravy. Post and photographic evidence to follow.
  • I have become acutely aware that Spring has sprung in San Francisco. I have always been an Autumn-lover, but something about this Spring has really struck my fancy and made me feel awake and rejuvenated.

  • Today is Will and I’s 2.5 year anniversary. Past this point, I will no longer be counting half years because it’s just silly. The apartment is loaded to the gills with flowers from Easter, so you’re off the hook, buddy.

  • Learned about wonderful baby news from a friend who inspired me to blog in the first place. Congratulations, Brooke!!!!

  • Explored the finest craft supply places in SF with an unscathed Jill following her safe return from South America.
  • Saw Alice in Wonderland in 3-D with my mom. Quiet, haters, I loved it!

  • Raided the Farmer’s Market for an Easter feast.

  • Successfully re-habbed a piece of furniture from Craigslist. Future career? You be the judge. (Post and pictures to follow!)

What I’ve Not Done:

  • Ride that bike.

  • Decorate my new office (ok, cubicle).

  • Used the ridiculously cute knitting patterns from the ridiculously cute book I bought when Jill and I visited ImagiKnit (because I do not know how to knit).

Goals for April:

  • Ride that bike (helmets be damned).

  • Do the "House Tour" posts I have always meant to do.
  • Start composting.

  • Drink 64 ounces of water every day.

  • Back-Post like gangbusters:
    *The remainder of my Golden Gate Park pictures from my brief yet blissful time of unemployment.
    *Valentine’s Day crafty mccrafty-ness.
    *An intriguing (to me) examination of neighborhood displays.
    *Other stuff upon a more careful perusal of my iPhone snaps.

  • I would not mind using that canner I bought in, umm...., September? Apple butter? Strawberry jam? Who knows. I just want to use it.

  • Not posting about a bike-related injury would be grand. No seriously, last time I was on a bike I broke my elbow and it made for a pretty lame post-high school graduation summer.

  • Maybe just a little tinge of slightly-less-white from a fabulous Vegas getaway with my best girls!

  • Take a knitting class from ImagiKnit (chance this could fall into May).

  • Keep smelling all these beautiful Spring flowers that send me into a dreamy daze of happiness.

Incidentally, the picture above is of Peter looking longingly at Hugh Grant. No obvious connection to the post that I can see, but let's face it, we all stare at Hugh.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Haute Wheels

Through fortuitous means, I may now call myself the proud owner of a sweet bicyle -- and some would say a true San Franciscan. Will's boss happened to be looking to pass along his wife's beautimous and barely used bike and I just happened to be in the passive market for one (passive due to the hefty price tags at huffy SF bike shops). The price? Gratis because, well, they are just about the nicest people ever.

I love the retro seat, the handle bars, the BASKET (!!!), but most of all, I just might love the glorious story of its homecoming. As it turns out, you cannot actually take a bicycle on the usual train Will takes and the bus wasn't coming for awhile .... so he rode it home. This bike. This exceptionally girly bike. In his work clothes (no helmet - eep!), all the way up crazy Market Street from the Financial District to the Haight. Boyfriend of the week award goes to the Wilbat!

(Jill, is this perhaps Will's attempt to break even with Dave's miraculous, self-initiated toile pillow purchase?) :)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cherry Blossom Monday

Every year that I have witnessed Winter slowly transition into Spring in San Francisco, I have admired the plethora of beautiful blooming cherry trees dotted all around the city. You may not have noticed before, but there are loads of them absolutely everywhere you turn. Empirically, cherry blossoms are dandy to look at, but put them against the backdrop of some pretty Victorians I could never afford to own and you have yourself quite a pretty picture. I have always wanted to take a shot of them before - just as quickly as they appear - they disappear in a torrential downpour and/or a windstorm that *almost* makes you miss living in San Diego. So, four years later, I finally took a picture.

Per the scattering of petals, here is Elwood demonstrating the absolute necessity of timely cherry blossom capturing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is There an App for That?

You would think that the sheer virtue of being unemployed would yield a greater output of posts, but obviously that has not been the case for me. My first week of unemployment was absolutely packed with a phone interview, two in-person interviews, more job applications, a birthday facial and massage, a long overdue haircut, Super Bowl party planning and shopping, and house-cleaning ad infinitum.

Rest assured, I'm not complaining about the interviewing (except for having an in person interview on my very first day of unemployment - what's with the no sleeping in??), and I am certainly not complaining about the birthday pampering; however, I was starting to wonder when this fabled Being and Nothingness would kick in.
At long last, this past Monday I found that my laundry list was absent of anything (even laundry) and I was free to do one of those "something I've always wanted to do but never had time for" things. Enter the tales of Adventure Dog and Nature Girl. Elwood, my aging digicam, and I struck out for Golden Gate Park in search of fresh air and a few good shots. I have to jet off for a second round in-person interview shortly, after which I will post more pictures from GGP.

For now, here are a couple mystery pictures. And by mystery, I mean I don't know what the hell kind of plant or bird that is. When I'm in the store and I hear a song I don't know, I can whip out the dilapidated iPhone, fire up the "Shazaam" app, and have an answer to my query in seconds. Duran Duran, a-ha! Not so much with the unidentifiable flowering shrub or the cute birdie in the Shakespeare Garden. For now, I will call that plant Butterfly Brush and the bird a thrush - mostly because I like the words. If anyone can better inform me, by all means, DO!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bon Anniversaire

Today, I am officially in my late twenties. I have been a bit of a moper about that fact for the past few weeks, but I am over it. Instead continuing my woe-is-me routine about not feeling like I have a direction or clear plan in life right now (which is never too much bother to anyone usually until these silly birthdays come along), I am going to embrace the moment, toss on my stillettos, have some cake, and a few too many cocktails.

In a few hours, off to Zuni Cafe for a nice dinner with my Wilbat.

In a few days, out of this deplorable office on and to better things!

Thomas - completely unrelated, but he's cute, and unlike the rest of us, has learned to embrace the aging process and his love handles.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Merde, Il Pleut!"

Earlier this afternoon, I drew down my office blinds to combat the sunshine glare (yes, I am awkwardly still working here 'til the end of the month). About twenty minutes ago, when I realized how ridiculously dark my office had become, I reeled the blinds up to see that the formerly sunny sky had blackened with the most sinister looking storm clouds I have seen in quite some time. Seriously, I keep expecting to see a dementor or Helena Bonham Carter on a broomstick whiz by. It's hailing like mad right now, and I'm looking at my pathetically miniscule umbrella that practically folds down to a teacup and wondering how it's going to hold up in 1.5 hours. I am seriously wishing I had the following bad-ass model .....

It's amazingly cheeky and I NEED it! What does it mean, you ask? "Merde il pleut" translates to "Shit, it's raining!" Obviously, I'm in love with it. It comes in about twenty different vibrant colors, but why in the world would I want any other than canary? I saw a girl carrying it this morning at the bus stop and am now thoroughly puzzled as to how she came about owning it. After a quick Google search, I found that though The Umbrella has had much deserved adoration heaped upon it throughout the fashionable blogosphere, it can only be purchased in Montreal or on a singular low-tech Canadian website. Not convenient. Merde!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Everytime God Closes A Door ...

He opens a window. His heating bill must be outrageous!"

--Stephen Colbert.

A. I think Stephen Colbert is hilarious. B. I got laid-off today, so it's rather appropriate.

As I am still processing this new development, I am not going to write much other than to say that everything is fine and I am viewing this as a wonderful opportunity. I have always played it safe and done the responsible thing (like being employed full-time before I even graduated college), so maybe this is my chance to do something uncharacteristically brash. What that is, I have not quite flushed out yet, but it looks like I will have some time on my hands coming up shortly to do just that. :)

Favorite Recipe: Italian Pot Pie(s)

I got brave and switched this one from Martha Stewart up a bit. If you link to the recipe you will notice that it calls for onions and carrots. Don't like those - they have to go. Secondly, to make it more hearty and substantial, I added some al dente elbow macaroni to the pie. I also made life just a teensy bit easier by putting this in one properly sized casserole dish - the fewer dishes to do, the better. Lastly, if you're wondering, I most definitely did make my own sauce. :)

Recipe Favorite: Saffron Orzo with Asparagus

Thanks to the invention of the internet (you always did have my back, Al), I have tried to expand my culinary pursuits beyond the usual sauteed chicken breast with rice, or perhaps sauteed chicken breast with potatoes. Everyday at about 3pm (or sometimes as early as 10:30am), I am asked the question: "Umm ... so what do you want to do for dinner?" Translation: "What are you going to make for dinner?"

When posed this question, I have been more recently turning to my two favorite sites for recipes: Epicurious and, you guessed it, Martha Stewart. True, I have a plethora of fabulous cookbooks at home, but they don't allow me to easily search for recipes containing certain ingredients or, more importantly, help cure worktime boredom. It has been fun to expand my horizons and try my hand at new dishes, so I thought I would start sharing some of my favorites that have actually turned out.

I have already made Saffron Orzo with Asparagus (three times now due to popular demand) and it has become a favorite dinner staple already. I love cheese, Will loves prosciutto, and it makes a nice, comforting hot meal. I recommend doubling the recipe because it's delicious reheated the next day for lunch. Also, I have found that it tastes pretty much the same with or without the saffron, so no worries if you don't keep it in the house.

Link to the recipe here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Actually, just the opposite. That title would more appropriately address my complexion. Over the holiday break, I took some time to turn our coffee table into a slightly darker shade of brown.

For some reason, I convinced myself that only an oval coffee table would do for our living room, so when I snagged this one off Craig's List for only $20, I was pretty stoked. Not only does it fit the bill shape-wise, it is perfectly on the demure side for the limited space we have. The only problems were the plethora of scratches and ring marks and the not-so-yummy honey colored stain that was clashing with our mahogany entertainment console a mere 2.5' away. My solution was same one that I bring to most problems: paint it glossy white! All scratched and banged up? Paint it glossy white! We're ending fiscal year 2009 in a $110K deficit? Paint it glossy white! You get the picture.

Will? Not so much a fan of all the glossy white in our home. He really wanted to keep it the original wood and thought it would be nice to match the entertainment console. And so, in an act of selfless love and devotion, I let him get his way on a decor thing just this once, and set out for Cole Hardware for varnish stripper, a drop cloth, stain, and varnish. Regrettably, what I did not buy was a facemask. Still getting sawdust out of my ears and nose. Amazingly healthy.

With cats properly secured away from my work area (the kitchen table - ironic?), my drop cloth in place, and the mouse sander on stand-by, I went to work .....

BEFORE: when will people learn to use coasters???

STEP 1: letting a thick coat of varnish stripper do what it does best. Later I noticed that a little of it had eeped out around the bottle and eaten off the label. Very glad I had some yellow rubber gloves on hand.

STEP 2: no picture of this one because I probably forgot due to being loopy off the toxic fumes .... Though this varnish remover was an absolute miracle potion/toxin, it took some serious elbow grease to scrape off the varnish. It was actually decently effective to get it off the tabletop, but it was almost impossible to get it off the curvy (but adorable, nonetheless) legs, which meant extra sanding later.

STEP 3: bring on the sanding! While the stripper effectively removed much of the varnish, it of course does not remove the wood stain. It needed to go! Enter more elbow grease. Here's the table after over two hours of sanding. It took about another hour to get it completely polished off around the legs. Poor naked coffee table...

STEP 4: this is just one coat of stain! In the store, I was actually unsure whether or not the stain would be dark enough, but it sure as heck as was due to my sanding method (see "Lessons Learned" below). Please note that it is dark outside ... still working ...

STEP 5: in the morning, once the stain is nice and dry, I applied the first coat of varnish. Then I continued to do that every morning for the next two mornings, for a total of three coats.

Overall, I am extremely happy with the final result and so glad I did not take the easy way out by painting it white. Sure, it has a few imperfections, but they are reminders of a novice project well done.

1. They are not kidding when they say wear a mask and ensure ample ventilation.
2. Varnish stripper is good at removing stuff. Like skin. Wear gloves!
3. Using coarse sandpaper for the entire project takes less time, but the rough surface soaks up more stain than a smoother one, yielding a darker color than you may have intended.
4. Sometimes boys are right.