I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving holiday and was able to take advantage of sales to get some gifts for your friends, family, and yourself!

If you are able to spend a little more time and money, please consider #GivingTuesday. 2016 has been a pretty crazy year (remember when we all wished 2015 would end?), but I think that sitting and feeling crummy about it for more than a few minutes isn’t the way to go. This year, I have been trying to at least actively think about what I can actually do to make the world a better place, rather than just thinking about how it isn’t better yet.

Giving is so important, especially during the holidays when those who are without may feel it more acutely. It connects us to other people and adds a little more goodness into our world that so desperately needs as much as it can get.

According to GivingTuesday.org:

#GivingTuesday is a global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration.

Celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season, when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving.

One of the best ways to get involved is in your own community. We’ve created a directory to help you find organizations, charities, events and more in your own community.

If you aren’t sure how or where to give, GivingTuesday.org has some resources to help you get started. To break down how you can give, roughly in order of time commitment, you can:

  1. Donate money – This can be a one-time donation or you can set up a regular donation with an organization you care a lot about. Think local if you can, as you can often more easily make a large impact on your local community, and you may be able to more readily see that impact yourself! GivingTuesday.org has a great resource to help you get started with finding local organizations. Even if you’re only able to donate a small amount of money, it counts. If you’re just saving pennies from your change to donate, it counts.
  2. Donate items – Whether you are leaving boxes of old clothes outside your house or organizing a canned food drive, giving items can be a really impactful way to give. I highly urge you to think a little bit outside the box with your donations. Check out this list as a place to start with items that are in high demand, and also please consider picking up extra feminine hygiene products to donate! It’s something that gets overlooked because we don’t like thinking about it, but imagine how difficult it is to not like thinking about it and not having options when you have to.
  3. Volunteer – One of the most valuable assets we are able to give is our time, along with our energy. A lot of folks will volunteer at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving, and I’d love to see that continue on. Sometimes volunteer work isn’t fun or glamorous, but you just need to remind yourself that you are giving your time for the sake of someone else and not for the sake of your own personal enjoyment. For example, I once volunteered at a pet shelter with a group that was disappointed to learn that we were not volunteering to play with dogs! Because the shelter really needed us to help with wiping things down and filing folders away, so that’s what we helped them do. You can do one-time activities or find a cause that you want to give your time to more often.
  4. Do pro bono work – Check Taproot+ to see what skills you can give and what organizations need. As a Ruby developer, I can recommend Ruby For Good, which gets Ruby devs together to work on projects for non-profits that can’t afford to spend their limited budgets on hiring developers to put together great tech solutions that they may really need. There are a lot of ways to work pro bono for organizations, and that can be an immensely valuable way to give your time and energy to groups in need.

Another thing you can do is make your purchase with an organization that gives back. Here are a few lists to start with, if you still need to buy any gifts. Giving a gift that gives back is nice because the recipient knows the impact of your gift is goes beyond him/herself and that’s very special.

When in doubt, reach out and ask how you can best help. The folks at the organization you are thinking of will know best what they need the most if you’re not sure whether you should be giving money or items or your time and know that you can’t do all three. And if you aren’t able to give any of those right now, think about at least giving these organizations your attention. Be aware of what their goals are and maybe promote them and how other people can help them through social media, so that someone in your network who is looking to give but isn’t sure how can get a little nudge in the right direction.

Sometimes giving can feel very overwhelming. You might need to research the charity you are giving to, to make sure it’s legitimate and using most (if not all) of their proceeds for the actual cause itself. (When in doubt, check Charity Navigator.)

What I find makes regular giving a little easier is not to think about it. I know this is counter-intuitive to what I just said about actively giving organizations your attention, but what I mean is try your best to automate your giving so that you don’t need to actively think about it – it just happens. Two ways I do this are through Amazon Smile, which lets you give by allowing Amazon to donate a proceed of your purchase prices to an organization of your choice, and Tab for a Cause, which donates a little bit for every new tab you open in exchange for showing you some ads that fund those donations. (I also just really love Tab for a Cause as a new tab page with handy widgets on it.) With these two tools, I am able to give a little bit without even having to change my routine. I just make my Amazon purchases at smile.amazon.com and keep opening a bazillion tabs and I am still able to do a little good.

What organizations will you give your attention, and possibly more, to this #GivingTuesday?
What was your best experience with giving? Remember that you can give to one single person and it still counts – a lot! As cheesy as it sounds, as long as you can help one person, you are making the world a better place.


White Elephant Gift Guide – Under $10

Secret Santa is fun, but my preferred gift exchange game is White Elephant. It can be a little stressful to get assigned a person to get a gift for, especially if it’s a group like coworkers or a large organization where you might not know everyone that well. Personal gifts are really tricky and you feel like you’re not able to get something a little more generic.

White Elephant is great because you don’t know who is going to go home with your gift. The rules vary from group to group, but it’s a lot of fun to see gifts exchange hands and the different reactions to gifts. What matters isn’t who bought what for whom but the fun in the game.

There are a few approaches to White Elephant. Some folks play the variation my friends call “Pass the Trash”, where you bring in a gift that maybe no one wants. This can result in some troll-tastic gifts. It’s also a great place for rejected gifts from past years to show up. One man’s trash can be another man’s treasure, so this could be great for some folks! It also results in a lot of laughs. Some examples I’ve seen from this variation include a $20 bill superglued in a mason jar, a signed photo of another participant, and the leg lamp from A Christmas Story.

I don’t like playing that way and try to think of something that people will like and have a fun with. (Just not a lot of troll in me…) Here’s three suggestions to help you think of things to pick up for a White Elephant exchange you might be doing that has a spending cap of $10. Remember, with a lot of deals coming up on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you might be able to make that $10 stretch quite far!

FUNKO POP! VINYL TOYS// Funko makes cute vinyl figurines for every franchise you can think of. Disney? Superheroes? Video games? TV shows? Movies? They’ve got ’em, usually for a little over $9. They can be tricky for White Elephant because Funko Pop! toys are one of my go-to gifts for friends who are in fandoms, and it’s harder to have any one toy appeal to every person participating in the gift exchange. You can pick something that most people are interested in — like a movie or show or game the group has discussed often — and hope that one of the folks who has an interest in it either chooses the gift or steals it! These can be purchased from a bunch of online retailers like Amazon or ThinkGeek and at physical stores like Hot Topic and Barnes & Noble.
Screen Shot 2016-11-21 at 11.34.34 PM.png
FUN DRINKWARE // A lot of us have too many mugs and cups, SO if you are able to find fun drinkware, this works out great! Again, this could be tricky because it can be easier to get a mug  or cupfor a specific person, but you are free to be a little more broad here. For example, if your Greek organization is participating, you can get a tumbler with your letters on it. Some fun options include those heat change mugs and cups that have a special shape to them, if you don’t want to risk it with the text or design that is printed onto the item itself.

Heat changing world map mug

NOVELTY CANDY // Along with that book, I felt the need to beef up that gift with some Pop Rocks, which, for the record, are always a lot of fun to watch people open up and eat and share. Things that fall into this category are sweets that you wouldn’t ordinarily get but are super fun and enjoyable anyway, maybe for their novelty. Other examples include Japanese Kit-Kat flavors you can’t find in your usual grocery, astronaut ice cream, and anything that tastes like bacon. (Why is there bacon-flavored everything??)

Before this post gets too long, I think I just want to say that White Elephant gift exchanges should not be stressful. If you get anxious trying to pick out the perfect gift for a specific person, this format of gift exchange should relieve a lot of that anxiety. As long as the recipient(s) can tell that you got the gift with their enjoyment in mind, they’ll have fun with it!

(And if it’s better than the box of condoms and can of Spaghetti-Os I once received, you’re solid.)

Note: Links in this post are affiliate links.

What’s the best and worst White Elephant gift you’ve ever received or seen at a gift exchange?

Oh Hi Ohio!

About a year ago, I started a coding bootcamp. Last week, I went RubyConf, an annual conference for users of the programming language Ruby. I applied to attend as a RubyConf Scholar, which is a program set up to pair first-time conference attendees with Guides who will mentor them and get the most out of their conference experience.

RubyConf 2016 was held in Cincinatti, Ohio. I have never been to Ohio before, and I was a little nervous because I didn’t really know what to expect…

Well, I had an incredibly lovely time!

The conference itself was great. I made a lot of great Ruby friends and heard some really amazing presentations about the language and about being a programmer and developer. Since I’m new to the field, it really does help to hear about people’s experiences with being new and becoming better.


The founder of the Ruby language, Yukihiro Matsumoto, aka Matz!

Can I also just talk about Cincinnati? I’ll be honest: I was not expecting much from this city.

But wow, the city is pretty.



I did a 7AM 5K run (haha, I know) that wound up being more of a 4.9K sunrise stroll along the riverfront. As I walked from Ohio into Kentucky and back, I was totally blown away by how gorgeous downtown looked in the golden dawn light.

A week before the publishing time of this post, I was sneaking off on my own to find the bench swings that I walked past during my 4.9K walk. As you might know, I’m a sucker for a swing. Smale Riverfront Park is a super lovely spot and well worth a visit. I could’ve sat on that swing for hours and hours basking in the sunlight…

This is the actual view of the “Sing the Queen City” sign


Are you watchig Westworld by the way…?

Also of visual interest is the Contemporary Arts Center, which is hard to miss thanks to its colorful facade.


Cincinnati recently underwent a beautification project that, I have to say, really nailed it. A lot of buildings that previously looked really run-down have been transformed by some amazing murals.


By the way, I ate a lot of good food while I was in Cincy.

However! The crazy chili — a more liquid consistency, a touch of cinnamon, just meat, and served over noodles! — was not my cup of tea. But at least I can say that I tried it!

My anniversary and Ben’s birthday were actually both over the weekend that I was in Cincinatti. I felt so guilty leaving Ben during this special weekend, but he really wanted me to attend this conference.

Bu what made me feel most guilty was just how much I wanted to share Cincinnati with him. I wish I had a day not at the conference that I could’ve spent walking around and exploring just a teeny bit more. Even just enjoying the view from my room could’ve used a few more hours. I guess I’ll have to come back with Ben in tow!


What conferences have you enjoyed attending?
What are some spots I should visit the next time I visit Cincinnati?
What are some weird regional foods that you’ve tried?
The chili was definitely out of my comfort zone. And can I confess something? I’ve never had Philly cheesesteak, despite having lived fairly close to Philly for most of my life! I’m not a cheese fan, so I’ve never felt so compelled.

Oh Shenandoah | Part 3

Last time in the Shenandoah Valley, Ben and I visited the Luray Caverns before our early anniversary dinner. Today, we finally see what we drove down to Shenandoah for…

By the way, here’s the song, “Oh Shenandoah”, that I hum every time I write these posts.

We awoke for our final meal at By the Side of the Road: the breakfast soufflé.


I sat on the porch swing one last time and we were off, back to Skyline Drive. We drove down Skyline Drive from the northernmost entrance southwards just one week prior, before a Halloween party, because we weren’t sure when peak foliage was going to happen. The reports were unsure, the leaves were already late with turning, and we didn’t want to miss it this year.


Driving up from the southernmost entrance, we were a little worried. While the trees were mostly green when we came down a week ago, most of the trees by this entrance were browned or, worse, bare. Did we miss peak foliage within just one week?

We saw a few disappointing views from the overlooks that indicated that, if nothing else, maybe the southern parts of Skyline Drive had already passed peak. This was terribly disappointing until we started seeing much more promising views.


While stopping for lunch, we noticed that one of the hiking trails had waterfalls! It was listed as a challenging hike, and Ben and I were literally both wearing jeans, but whatever! Hike for a waterfall!

This was indeed a very strenuous hike. It was about a mile to the first waterfall and very very steep. We don’t hike much at all, so I was definitely huffing and puffing on my way back up the steep incline. I only got a break to catch my breath because Ben finally got signal on his phone and was able to conduct some fantasy football trades. Whodathunk I’d be grateful for fantasy football?


After catching our breaths and letting our body temperatures come back down, we were in time for sunset! I really thought we would miss golden hour because I was so tired during the hike that I didn’t think we’d last long to still be in the park.

But we made it.
And it was so worth it.dsc02219dsc02229dsc02231dsc02246dsc02250

I have so many photos from the brief half hour when the sun dipped below the Blue Ridge Mountains. With everything bathed in this sumptuous golden sunlight, I felt so content and at peace with the world.

Happy anniversary, Ben. I had a truly fantastic weekend exploring Shenandoah Valley with you, and I look forward to many more adventures together.


Where are your favorite places to hike? I am super new to hiking and am not sure where to start, to be honest. Any tips would be really appreciated!

What are the best places to see foliage, aka “leaf peeping”? (I swear this is a term that I read on the foliage report and not one that I made up!) Next year, we might look into going up to New York to check out the gorgeous foliage in the Catskills. I remember the leaves looking spectacular back in New Jersey, too, so we’ll see!

Oh Shenandoah | Part 2

Happy Veterans Day. Thank you to those who have served to defend our nation and our freedoms.

The results of the US presidential election have people feeling a lot of things.

Regardless of who you voted for, it is important that we actively work together to effect positive change. Voting for president is not the best that we can do as far as making this country or this world a better place. Whether you’re happy or upset about the outcome of the election, we can all agree there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

I’d also like to recommend this post by Tim Urban on Wait But Why and this video by John Green on vlogbrothers.

Back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

After checking into our B&B and filling up on fried chicken, Ben and I were excited to explore the beautiful Shenandoah Valley to celebrate our anniversary a week early!

We set an alarm so that we’d be awake for the lovely breakfast set outside our door: apple & sour cream pancakes with sausage and fruit and orange juice.


If you don’t like thinking about what to get for breakfast and like the idea of someone making that executive decision for you and then bringing it to your door, you’ll love bed & breakfasts. 😉

This was a vacation, so Ben and I lazed about sleeping a little more and watching videos on our phone before we headed out to see the Luray Caverns! But first, lunch! And being able to finally see the B&B and the properties in the daylight!


Although we were tempted by the many Burger Kings we saw driving out to Luray (we just don’t have enough BKs near home…), we went to Triple Crown BBQ for a delicious barbecue lunch. While I was still shaking off the sleepy not-really-hungries when we arrived, by the time I was breathing in the smoky barbecue scent next to the truck, I no longer wanted to share a meal with Ben.


He got a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and I went in with the seasonal smoked turkey (with bacon!) with cranberry sauce served alongside two perfect little corn muffins and potato salad. All washed down with a cup of sweet tea. So tasty! (Really glad that Ben didn’t go to Burger King when I sleepily mentioned it as we pulled into the BBQ parking lot…) I perked up immediately after our lunch and was excited to hit up the Luray Caverns!


We were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to actually see the caverns because we wound up arriving quite late and the line was very long. However, we lucked out and managed to grab our tickets and hop on one of the one-hour tours.
Bonus: Your admission ticket includes admission to:

  1. Car and Carriage Caravan Museum – awesome museum with vintage cars, from old horse-drawn buggies to swagged-out Rolls Royces from the ’40s – definitely stop by!
  2. Toy Town Junction – collection of antique toys and trains throughout the years that we were unable to visit this time around
  3. Luray Valley Museum – learn the history of the this part of the Shenandoah Valley, including its role in the Civil War and how the people here lived


And of course, the actual caverns themselves! You can definitely spend a few hours here on top of the one-hour tour with the additional attractions that are included on your ticket, but this is what you came for:

“Fish market”!
This looks like an alien planet and I’m not convinced it’s not


“Bacon” in the curtains
A seasonal formation that I thought looked like an ice cream cone!
A wedding was being set up down here, surrounded by the stalactite organ
Wishing well (with a lot of paper money in there and even more gleaming coins)
“Fried eggs” that I thought looked more like oysters

So glad that we were able to visit the caverns on one of the last tours, we drove from Luray back to Harrisonburg while the sun set. It was a really gorgeous autumn day, and we were almost a little sad that we spent so much time in a cave! But off we went for our early anniversary dinner!


Dinner was at Local Chop & Grill House, which we found great reviews for when looking for places to eat in Harrisonburg. It was a really delicious meal and a super awesome value. You pick your meat, the way you want it seasoned, a sauce, and two sides for a very reasonable price. After a few disappointing higher-end meals, we were super happy with this one.


Duck rubbed with gremolata served with mushroom bordelaise, roast broccoli, and mushroom risotto
Filet with house rub served with gravy, mashed potatoes, and asparagus
Crème brûlée with a little message


Quick stop for some bubble tea before flopping on the bed after a big day!


I am currently in Cincinatti at a conference (and giving a quick 5-minute talk that I’m super nervous about!) but there is one more Shenandoah post coming your way!

Have you visited caverns like Luray before? I visited a really cool one in China once that had a lot of multi-colored lights to light up the formations!

What was your favorite nice meal out? This was a pretty good one, and last year was also very nice, but I want us to not do a steakhouse for our anniversary next year. (This year we had a geographical constraint to take into consideration.)