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Friday, September 30, 2011

Salute Shuttle

I have given 5 1/2 years of my life to the Shuttle program. Or should I say, the Shuttle program has given 5 1/2 years to me. Over these years, this job has been such an integral part of my world. It has meant a lot of sacrifices and hard work, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I was blessed to be a contributor to a piece of the American Space Program. I would have been considered lucky to have worked one Space Shuttle mission, but I am truly humbled to have been chosen to work 21 Space Shuttle missions as a Shuttle flight controller. It's been an honor to serve my country doing work that I love. The blessings that have been granted and that continue to be lavished upon me cannot be ignored. I know that I am in Houston, far away from family, doing this work for a reason.
I will miss the Space Shuttle program. I will miss driving into work at 4am. I will miss working Holidays and getting "turkey dinners" delivered to mission control from our managers because we didn't get dinner with our friends and family. I will miss not being able to make personal plans because my life revolves around Shuttle launches. I will miss making last minute plans to go home for Christmas because a Shuttle flight slipped.  I will miss working 9+ hour shifts in a building with no windows and having no idea if it's day or light outside but not caring. My world was inside the mission control center, and it didn't matter what the conditions were outside that room. We lived by the orbit of the Shuttle where sunrise happens every 90 minutes. I will miss the camaraderie in the "back rooms" who support the Mission Control room... the group of devoted people who work tirelessly to support their "front room" flight controller. I will miss the pot luck dinners we had because we were not allowed to leave our posts, lest we leave our crew alone. I will miss having to pee so bad because 1) I can only use the bathroom when there is an LOS (loss of signal) with the crew where we cannot communicate with them and because 2) I was so busy during my shift that I forgot I had to pee... nothing else mattered besides getting my job done.  I will miss getting yelled at by flight directors because I hadn't studied hard enough and didn't know the answer, didn't respond quickly enough, or didn't answer with clear and precise words. I will miss watching other flight controllers get yelled at by flight directors for those same reasons. I will miss the sense of pride in their jobs that I felt from every single flight controller I have worked with because they know they do a job that no one else in the world has the opportunity to do. I will miss the chills I got on my arms when I walked into the mission control center.  I will miss the tremendous responsibility to the safety and the life of my crew and the weight of my decisions and my actions. Sometimes I could not believe I had been given the opportunity to work that job. There were many "pinch me moments". I will miss making a decision, telling my Flight Director what the best solution is, and hearing my words go up to the crew. At the time when I was newly certified, it seemed like a 26 year old girl couldn't have that much responsibility, but I did, and they listened to me. There is a way things are done. Tradition matters. Each of us were responsible, no matter our age or where we came from. We listened to the experts no matter how "inexperienced" they seemed. We trusted each other because we knew each of us had proven ourselves to be tough and competent. The standards were set high, and there was no room for error.
With that, I'd like to share a project I've been working on.

I guess you could call it a celebration for the end of the Shuttle program. I had accumulated a few things over the years, a few of which were gifts from a couple crews, so I decided to frame them to fondly remember the time I spend on a project I deeply loved.

From left to right: An STS-133 plaque from a mission where I was the lead planner, graciously signed by my crew. Below that, a montage from STS-127, a mission where I was a part of the lead team, with a patch flown aboard Shuttle, and signed by my crew. In the middle, one of my favorite shuttle pictures surrounded by all the patches representing missions I supported from Mission Control. On top left, the certificate from my flight director when I was chosen to hang the STS-133 mission plaque in the Mission Control Center and a picture with the STS-133 crew. Below that, a montage from STS-133 with a patch flown aboard Shuttle, signed by my crew.

I decided to frame and mat all these myself as it costs a small fortune to have it done professionally. I wrote a blog about this awhile back if you care to find out some tips. For this project, I purchased all the frames (ready made) at Aaron Brothers framing during their buy one get one for a penny sale. Notice I needed 5 frames (not an even number), so I ended up paying full price for one of them (I know). My total was $95. I ordered mats on Americanframe
The 4 frames on the outside look pretty straight forward, but I bet you're wondering how I made the center one... First I decided to go with a very wide mat in order to fit all the patches. I bought the frame and then laid all the patches out, measuring to figure out what size mat accommodated all the patches and what size picture I should go with. I tried two different layouts.
First I laid all of the patches out around the outside but that looked too scrunched to me. Another issue I had with this layout is that the center picture would look weird floating there in the middle and wouldn't be evenly spaced between the top and bottom rows of patches and the sides (ie. there would have been too much plain mat on the side of the photo)

I decided to use this method to make it more symmetrical.
 I then ordered a mat board to fit a 24x36" frame for a 9x12" picture. It was an extra wide mat (sides were 12 1/8", top and bottom were 7 5/8"). I bet you are wondering why all the 1/8" ? It's because you want 1/8" overlap on your picture. So if your picture is 9x12", you need to order a mat that has an opening of 8 3/4 x 11 3/4". It's a lot of math, I know. Use a calculator.
Once I got the mat, I just used double stick tape and a ruler to evenly space out the patches and stick them on the mat.
Also, I ordered my picture on I ordered it with a "metallic" finish so it's super shiny and pretty. Just perfect for the photo I think. Mpix does a great job. I've ordered many photos from there. Here's a closeup of the final product.

So I bet you're wondering how I got all these frames to hang so nice and straight with evenly spaced margins between all the other frames? Well it wasn't easy. I first had to draw a picture.
Real engineering girls have graph paper with pretty bindings...
And I had to use some tools.
A little kit with picture hanging nails, screws with dry wall screw things since you won't be drilling into the studs, a screw driver, a measuring tape, a hammer, a level, and most importantly - a Bosh power drill (small, lightweight and perfect for engineering girls like me)
All I can say here is MEASURE MEASURE MEASURE. And even after you do that, you still might mess up (I did), so don't get frustrated. It's all part of learning. You can do it girls!!

This was a really rewarding project, but it was definitely hard work to get all those frames to line up. I'm really happy with the results though. Let's see it one more time...

Does anyone out there have any tips for hanging things on walls? Any template short cuts or hints like measuring twice and drilling once? I'd love to hear about it...

NASA for Life!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

$HAMELESS $AVINGS - How I Saved 50% On My Monthly Alarm Service Just By Asking

People are always wondering how I get such good deals. One of the number one tips is: JUST ASK. People are generally pretty helpful, but they won't know  how they can help you unless you tell them. That's why you have to ask for what you want. Those of you who know me know that I'm a true blue couponer. But for items where I either cannot get a coupon or just don't have one handy, I usually just ask a few questions to scope out the situation. Here are some popular questions:

To store clerks at the checkout:
"I usually get the coupons in the mail for this store, but I forgot to bring them with me today (or didn't see this month's mailer), would you happen to have a spare I could use for today?"
When there is a tiny (but hardly noticeable) imperfection in an item and there is not another identical one in the store: "Is there any way I can get this item discounted for this scratch, tear, or stain? There aren't any more and this is the last one in the store."

To sales people on the floor of a store:
"Do you know if/when this item is going to go on sale?"
"Are there certain times of year when these types of things are discounted?"
"How long have you had this item in the store?" (another hint that it may be going on sale soon)
When an item isn't in stock but can be shipped from their online catalog: "Is there any way I can get this shipped to the store (instead of my house) at no extra charge so I can save on shipping?" :
"Is there any way I can get the shipping waived if this will be shipped to my house?" (I try to avoid the word "free". It makes you sound like you are cheap, and sale's people do not like dealing with cheapos)

To online ordering people:
"Is there any way I could save on shipping today?"

And in general:
ALWAYS ALWAYS use the person's name and ALWAYS ALWAYS be nice. On the phone or in the store. ..When the person on the phone says "Hello, this is Stacy with fill in the blank company" REMEMBER HER NAME IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE! You will get so much more accomplished that way. Start with "Hi Stacy, this is Lauren, I received this broken donkey stain rug in the mail from your company, and I would like a new one that you will replace for free of course, except for this time it will be covered in diamonds and delivered in a Ferrari. Oh and I'd like you waive that shipping for me too. Ok Thanx." Try it, and see how much more you can get done.

I've had much success with these tactics, but I was always a little apprehensive about using these saving techniques for services and utilities (cable, alarm, Internet, etc). However, I got my opportunity about a month ago...
I had previously gotten a letter/advertisement in the mail from my bank saying that members of my bank would be able to get a discount from ADT as an alarm provider. I was surprised to learn this, since I had ADT service and had been paying alot of money for it (about $43/month, which is crazy, I know). So I called the number on the letter and spoke with an ADT representative. They informed me that since I had previously been a Broadview Security customer, whenever ADT bought Broadview, my service had switched over, but I was still considered a Broadview customer. At that time, I asked questions and argued to the best of my abilities, but no dice. They were not able to help me.
Flash forward about a month, and I was feeling pretty ticked that I was not receiving the discounts even though I had ADT alarm monitoring and I was paying ADT monthly service fees. I was ready to cancel. I called ADT again and stated that I had previously requested the discount and since I was not eligible, then I had decided the alarm monitoring was too expensive and therefore I was thinking of canceling the service. Oh hold on there ma'am! I was informed that several people had been complaining about not receiving the discounts and so ADT was now doing the right thing by giving the discounts to all their customers. The discount was pretty sweet (about 50%), however I had to agree to a 2 year contract. Since I was not currently under contract with my alarm monitoring, and I did not want to sign another contract, I said I was not a fan of contracts and asked him what else could he do without me signing another contract. In the end, the representative gave me the discount without a new contract. My bill was just auto paid from my credit card account, and I noticed I received exactly a 50% discount! WOO to the HOO!!
I am now trying to psych myself out to give a call to Direct TV. I am currently paying waaaayy too much for satellite (even though I dropped my service down to only receiving the basic, non premium channels). I'm considering getting rid of the satellite and going with just watching Netflix and shows via the interwebs. But honestly, I do love my Direct TV (shhh... don't tell them that!).  I need to renegotiate that one next. My contract is up in Oct... Anyone got any tips?

Peace, Love, and Sweet Talkin' Discounts,

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Look For Less

Shells are all the rage these days. At stores like ZGallerie, decorative shells are going for anywhere from $60 - $120 depending on the size. I saw one similar to this months ago at ZGallerie.
Large Atlantis Clam Shell - ZGallerie, $60
I love the shell look to decorate around the house like these inspiring shots from Young House Love and Emily A. Clark:

I had been searching Home Goods and similar stores for months keeping my eye open for something similar.
And I found it! In Canada of all places. I found it while I was perusing an antique/thrift store while working in Clinton, BC in July. Here it is in its original form.
It's actually a man made shell. It looks like it was made from pottery and then glazed and put in a kiln for extra shine.

I got it for $15, but it was super shiny and definitely not the white ceramic look that I wanted.
So off to Lowes I went to find a solution to my problem. I came home with this.
Valspar interior primer in white and white gloss paint. My total was $8.19.
The paint guy at Lowes recommend I start with the primer since the shell was already really glossy. He said that would allow me to be able to spray the white spray paint and have no problems with it sticking. I laid down some cardboard scraps in my garage, making sure to stay as far away from my car as possible. If it hadn't been 105 degrees outside, I would have done this outside, but I immediately started sweating once I stepped foot into my driveway, so I set up shop in my garage instead. Here's what my shell looked like after the first coat of primer.
Pretty good!
After 2 more coats, it looked like this. I waited about 30 minutes between each coat. I will say I had to get kind of aggressive with it. Since the inside had been so shiny, I had to really get in there, and make sure the primer was going on really good in all the crevices.
I still see shiny....
I flipped 'er over and sprayed a couple more coats. I didn't want to risk any of the glossiness shining through, so I probably ended up with about 4 coats on the whole thing. I kept the project setup in my garage, and over the course of a few days, just sprayed a coat every time I walked in or out of the garage and had some extra time. Whew... finally it was ready for the real paint.
Primed and ready!
After a couple many coats of the white gloss paint, the final product looked like this:
I realize it's difficult to see the glossy-ness of the paint with the garage lighting
Here's the final product inside. I decided to put in on my kitchen table for now... I've realized that basically all I do to decorate my house, is bring in white ceramic items and move them around from room to room periodically.

I like the freshness of the white ceramic look on the dark table.

For now, I've put some wine corks in it. Eventually I'll figure out what to put in there... I hope.
The total for this project was just over $23 plus some of my time spent spraying in my garage.
So while I think about what purpose this project serves... Did I make a fruit bowl? A wine cork holder? Maybe a candy dish (Halloween is just around the corner)? Does anyone out there have any suggestions for how to use my bowl... or where I should put it?

Shiny Ceramic Love,

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Savings You Can Salute

I've been wanting a flag forever. It just feels so American you know? There's nothing like an American flag hanging proudly from the front porch. 
There's just something about a cute house with a flag...

I've thought about all the different flags I could hang: Indianapolis Colts, Purdue Boilermakers, Texas state flag, and of course the American flag around Memorial Day and 4th of July. I've got big plans for this project!

I went out to Home Depot and Lowes looking for one at the start of the summer and was shocked to learn it would cost me $46 for the flag pole, flag, and the hardware to mount it on the house. And, even worse, the flag poles were wooden or white with cheap looking hardware. Yuck!
So over Labor Day weekend, Malibu Ken and I tried again. This time we went back to Home Depot. Perhaps there were other flag pole options I hadn't seen? Nope. The options were still the same, and they were just as expensive as I had remembered. However, we did think the mounting hardware for mounting a 1 inch flag pole on the house was a good deal at $6. And even though it was painted white, Malibu Ken so smartly pointed out that we could spray the hardware to Oil Rubbed Bronze or "ORB". (Ever since he started reading Young House Love with me, he's been full of good ideas!).
With that piece of the puzzle solved, we started out for Micheal's Crafts hoping to find a flag pole. We scored a silver flag pole for $10 at Michael's, using a 50% off coupon, which I found using an app on my phone called Geocoupons. An American flag for $9 brought my total for the project to $25. Eat it Home Depot.
Malibu Ken got busy straight away sanding down the silver flag pole with some light grit sand paper I had laying around.
Real studs help their girlfriends with house projects ;)
Next it was time to spray the flag pole and the mounting hardware. We debated about spraying the screws that the mount came with, but decided against that as we thought it would make them "sticky" and harder to actually twist in place. They were a normal silver color after all, so I thought we'd just wait until we were done to see if something needed to be done about that later on.
First we laid all the items to be sprayed out on some extra cardboard scraps on the floor of the garage (far away from the car should the spray can go a little crazy... errrr the person using the spray can)

Then since the end of the flag pole which the finial attached to was actually just plastic, we wrapped it using regular masking tape. This way, it would stay clean, and we could spray the pole and the finial separately and then put them back together without the finial getting stuck on gooey paint.

Spray time using Rustoleum All Surface Paint in "Hammered Brown"
It ended up taking a few coats over the course of a week, and we sort of had a little crisis with the sprayer. See the sprayer is basically a trigger that allows the paint to come out. The trigger got stuck because there must have been a dried paint glob or something. When this happened, we had to stop paint operations. At that time, I thought I would just give Rustoleum a call as their paint can advertised a full refund/replacement if the product did not perform as advertised.
Flash forward to the following weekend when my dad was out visiting... We played around with some spray nozzles that were "borrowed" from other brands of spray paint. The winner ended up being a spray nozzle from some can of window cleaner. We just popped the new nozzle on and finished the paint job. Now that the paint was finished, we hung the mount on the house.
Charlie so graciously lent me his super man drill since all I have is the lady Bosch, which does a fantastic job on many of my projects, but probably wasn't going to cut it on drilling through mortar. So using the yellow super man drill with hammer setting (??), a special drill bit that goes into brick houses, and 1 1/2" special screws that fasten into brick and mortar, my dad put up the mount for me.
Apparently special strong screws must be identified by a neon blue color
So we cut out a mount sized hole in a scrap piece of cardboard, and using another piece as a shield from the wind, sprayed the blue screws to bronze

Now everything matches. Very important.

We still aren't done. Now we had to hang the flag. Who could have thought this would be such a complex project!?
Basically all that's involved here is sticking the flag on the pole and then sliding the flag pole into the mount. Seemed simple, and even though dad did it, I'm pretty sure I could manage in the future whenever I decide to change out the flag. Now picture time!

Pretty quaint huh? And I think just perfect for today 9/11
So what does everyone out there think? Should I stick with the American favorite? Or should I switch to something else for football season? Maybe a Colts flag or a Purdue flag?

Peace and Patriotism,

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gone Batty

I'm not sure how I feel about bats... generally I think they're pretty awesome. They eat bugs - A single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes in one hour! They fly in formation. And they have an acute sense of hearing because they use echolocation to find out where stuff is. Because of these reasons, I wouldn't mind if a bat or two wanted to hang out around my house. They could be my batty little pets. I think Lola would even like them.
eeee... I'm so cute! Let me be your pet!!

But on the other hand, bats are kinda disgusting... Some of them drink blood... gross. Also, some of them have rabies, super nasty. So, I'm on the fence about bats.

Meeeeaahhhh... I want a blood smoothie!!
So remembering my love/hate relationship with bats, I decided to visit a bat phenomenon when I was in Austin Texas last weekend. See the thing is, there are TONS of bats that live under this one bridge in Austin. Out of all of the bridges, they decided to make their home under the Congress Street bridge... no other bridge, just that one. There aren't any stragglers under the bridge next door... nope no bat step children that decided to run away... They're all under that ONE BRIDGE. Here's the deal, they get hungry at night time, and they go looking for food.... little insect snacks. But they go ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All of them... like thousands of them. Word on the street was they fly out around sunset, but I yelped it (I'm doing that now) and I read that the bats aren't really tied to that schedule exactly. So even though sunset was around 7:45pm, Malibu Ken and I headed to the bridge around 7:00.

Follow the bat signs

Just in case the big crowd didn't clue you in, there's bats up ahead
This is the bridge the bats live under. It's all about location with these bats. They had to pick the heart of the city (that's the capital building up ahead)

The crowd is for the bats

The sun was setting...

Here came the tour boats...

These people are about to get bat poop on them...

But the birds knew what up...
They all flew over into the tree so when the bats came out, then wouldn't be in the way. Plus they probably didn't want to get pooped on.
Then we waited... and waited... and waited...
These freaking bats were taking FOR-EV-ER
But around 8:15pm... Then they decided to come out!! In huge bat packs!! They all just started flying out looking for bat snacks. One weird tid bit... It smelled... Kind of like ammonia... That's not really a founded remark but that's what it smelled like to me. Like the smell of  bat BO.

It was kind of tough to get good pictures of the bats, but Malibu Ken did a good job of capturing them as much as possible.
Bat closeup.
Overall, the experience was bat-tastic. But I would recommend showing up a little later, like right at sunset. One thing we didn't end up doing was go to the TRIO bar at the Four Seasons right across from the bridge on the north side of the river. There was a dock down by the bar where you could enjoy your Bat-tini, a drink the bar created just to celebrate the bats. We were so full from dinner, we decided to pass on the bat-tini. Does anyone out there have any batty stories or secret bat viewing locations?

Peace, Love, and bat poop

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Best Things EVER - Kitchen Addition

If you've been reading this blog for very long, you may have discovered that I'm a tad OCD. I'm not making light of OCD at all... but I must admit I can be slightly unreasonable in the way I like things done. Maybe I'm just a bit detail oriented? Well it's out there now. I've got my favorite things figured out, and I'm pretty much set in my ways. I guess another way to look at it is I'm a marketing person's dream consumer. Once you have me, I'm hooked. But I have to admit I'm a pretty tough audience. Just because I try it once doesn't mean I'm a forever friend. But  once I find it, I'm a faithful consumer, and I'm not afraid to push share my ideas with others.

Let's start in the kitchen. I love Smart Balance. Vegetable oil for your cakes and brownies?... Smart Balance Oil. Butter for your bread or sauces?... Smart Balance Spread. You can use it and not feel like a fatty. I'm usually anti-substitutes. Like back in High School, my science teacher told me that Sweet n Low made flies grow like 3 heads or something when they were given it in one study. I don't know if this is actually true, but ever since then, I've stayed away from those substitute products. Also, anything that is "fat free" tastes like butt.  Another reason why I don't like that kind of stuff. But ... BUT!!  You cannot tell the difference between the spread and real butter or the oil and regular vegetable oil. I'm for reals.
Lastly in the trifecta of Smart Balance is the Smart Balance milk (lactose free version), which I've recently discovered. I've noticed that ever since I started using this product, I feel less bloated after having milk.

Smart Balance. You can get it at your grocery store, and I've found the best prices at Walmart. Also, these people are always putting coupons in the Sunday paper.

The best ingredients really do make a huge difference. Especially in baking. So splurge on the best flour. King Arthur is the best. Martha says so. It really does make your cookies and your cakes come out fluffyer and just overall... better. You can cut back on the sugar and buy the store brand, but spend the extra cash for the flour. You won't be sorry.

King Arthur All Purpose Flour. You can get this at any grocery store, including Walmart.

I find Turbinado sugar to be far supreme over regular sugar. It just tastes better. At good places like Starbucks, they have it out, but sometimes I ask for it especially at other restaurants and they do have it. I know I'm a freak.  

Sugar in the raw. You can get it at the grocery store.

Ranch makes everything better. The downside is it makes your butt fatter. Not this stuff. You totally can't tell it's lite.
Naturally Fresh Lite Ranch. Find it at Kroger (not HEB) in the veggie section with the refrigerated dressings.

Sour cream is a staple. You shouldn't deprive yourself from tasty sour cream on your chili, tacos, or potato pancakes. But you shouldn't ruin your food buy using nasty store brand light sour cream either. Wanna know a secret? When I get my weekly Bullritos to go, I leave out the sour cream, and use my own at home. Definitely do a dollop of Daisy. (Light)

Daisy Light Sour Cream. You can get it at any grocery store.


Investing in a good set of knives is the first step to becoming a good home cook (or chef). Time for an SAT analogy. Knives are to the cook like paintbrushes are to an artist. When chefs are dismissed on Top Chef, they are supposed to "pack their knives and go".... that's how important they are! They bring them everywhere. 
I'm in love with my Wusthof knives. Like any sane person, I did crazy amounts of research trying to figure out which were the best and which would meet my needs. I even took a knives class at my local Williams Sonoma to study the differences between Wusthof and Shun knives as well as the many uses for the different knives that come in a set. I figured out I didn't need a huge set, and a few would do. After about 5 years, my 8 piece set has been the best investment in my kitchen. The knives still cut the same way they did when I first got them. I highly recommend adding a good set of knives to your kitchen and buying no more than the 8 piece set, if not fewer. A good butcher's knife, pairing knife, and a serrated knife is all you truly need.

Wusthof Knives, 8 piece set (includes block, honer, and scissors). I got mine from Crate & Barrel. They were giving out a free cutting board with the purchase around Christmas time. Note Bed Bath and Beyond does not allow coupons on Wusthof.

You are not a chef (or baker) if you don't have one of these. It WILL change your life. period. First of all, it doesn't even need a descriptor. You say Kitchenaid. People know what you're talking about. Mashed potatoes? Kitchenaid. Cakes? Kitchenaid. Cookies? Kitchenaid. Don't even try to make whipped cream without one of these puppies. What did people do in the stone age? I don't even know. Life was terrible. Get one immediately.
Kitchenaid Mixer. They're sold all over the place. However, I notice Kohl's has good sales around Christmas time. 

The Cuisinart Food Processor is a life saver. You got 10 carrots that you need shredded at lightning speed? I've got a solution for that. Cuisinart. How about a Graham cracker crust that you want to make without getting arthritis? It's another one of those appliances that needs no introduction. Cuisinart. Everyone knows. 

Cuisinart 11 cup food processor. You can get it at Bed Bath and Beyond (don't forget to use a coupon!)

I love my Cuisinart Toaster Oven too. It's actually a convection oven, so it doesn't do that annoying on off on off stuff in order to maintain the temperature when it's heating. It keeps a constant temperature. It's like a little mini oven. I roast asparagus in there and just about anything that's small enough to fit. No sense wasting all that energy to heat up a big oven. I also am not fortunate enough to have a double oven in my home, so the toaster oven can be used as a back up oven for smaller projects. I also like using it to reheat pizza and stuff. I don't like reheating stuff in the microwave 'cause it gets soggy. The toaster oven prevents this from happening. Oh and it also makes toast.

Cuisinart TOB-195 Exact Heat Toaster Oven Broiler. I got mine at Bed Bath and Beyond.

Hopefully that was as helpful for you as it was fun for me. Even though I feel like a total wack job right now. It's scary to think that I might lose it if I weren't able to get Daisy light sour cream or turbinado sugar for my coffee. Is anyone else out there totally OCD when it comes to your favorites? Do tell!