Monthly Archives: April 2010

After the Easy Mac

I’m afraid I’ve become a cliche.

(You could argue that I haven’t become a cliche, that in fact I’ve always been one, but that’s neither here nor there.)

What I mean to say is that I cook.  Regularly.  Mid-week.  And I never did this before I was married.

And did I mention my husband never cooks?  That just adds to the cliche-ness of it all.

(I can hear him objecting, “Hey!  I cook breakfast!”  but we all know that’s a Saturday morning ritual that happens after 10 hours of sleep, rather than at 6PM after 9 hours of work.)

I have several clear-cut illustrations in my youth that explain just how inept I was at cooking prior to saying “I do.”  At the age of 12, while my mother was running an errand and my father was at work, I decided to bake brownies.  This should impress everyone, I thought.

Twenty minutes later I encounter the part of the recipe when all of the wet ingredients are in the bowl and the the box calls for the baker to “mix by hand.”

I took this literally.

Amelia Bedelia literally.


My mom walked into the kitchen to find me up to my elbows in cake batter, mushing my fingers through the brownie mix.

Turns out I’m not a baker.

At age 15 I felt sick and decided the greatest idea was to have soup.  Don’t all sick people eat soup?

I poured the clam chowder into a pan, heated it, and proceeded to eat it.  I did this for three days.

One day, my mom walked into the kitchen to see me sitting down to the bowl of soup.

“What are you eating?” she asked.

“Clam chowder,” I replied.

“It looks awfully thick,” she commented.  “How much water did you add?”

“How much…what?” I stammered.

I’d been eating clam chowder concentrate for three days.  No wonder I wasn’t getting well.

Experiences like this lead me to believe cooking wasn’t for me, so I never really attempted it again.

Until I got engaged.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find more than one “Bride and Groom’s Cookbook” in my bridal shower stash.  My mom even gifted me with the subtly titled, “How to Boil Water.”  While I should have been embarrassed, instead I wanted to weep with gratitude.  Surely there must be hundreds of people with similarly disastrous attempts at cooking if it merited the writing of a book!

Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, I began thumbing through my cookbooks, sticking post-it notes on the ones that seemed achievable.  And by achievable, I mean unlikely to prove fatal for whomever decided to partake of my meal.

For me, the lethal ingredient in learning to cook was perfectionism.  For instance, when one finds that one has overcooked the salmon to the point of disintegration, one should take note of the amount of time one cooked the fish and at what temperature, and adjust accordingly.  One should not burst into tears and commit to eating cereal for dinner for a month.

And, once married, I didn’t even have that option anymore.  I learned quickly that there’s a different level of  dietary accountability in marriage than exists in roommate habitats.  I once had a roommate whose diet consisted almost entirely of goldfish crackers and diet Pepsi.  Did I comment?  No.  Was she ashamed?  No; I was doing nearly the same thing, and so was our other roommate, who had toast every night for dinner.

Then I got married, and all of a sudden cereal or microwavable macaroni and cheese was unacceptable for dinner.  Neither Mike nor I could understand why, but it seemed necessary, important even, that we cook a meal and sit down to eat it together.

What’s peculiar about this is I used to think that I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself to be Rachael Ray just because I had a husband.  But it wasn’t just me; I discovered others expected it of us “married people,” too.

One day when I was still working at Microsoft, a coworker and I were discussing what we enjoy eating  for dinner.  She said, completely seriously, “Well, you’re married, so it makes sense for you to cook meals.  I’m single, so mostly I make sandwiches.”

I, the one who is obsessed with etiquette, could not for one second think of an appropriate response to this.  I wanted to yell, “Have some self respect!  This isn’t 1945!  You are an accomplished woman working at the most profitable company on the planet, and you’re eating cold cuts for dinner just because you don’t have a husband to cook for?!”

But how could I say that?  I had done the exact same thing.

So I tried.  I tried, and I failed, and I failed fifteen more times.  But then I started getting it right.  And even though I hated it for the first six months, once I got through the spills, burns, over-salting and under-peppering, I liked it.  And I finally understood what people mean when they say that it can feed your soul to watch a table full of people consume something you created.

Now that I am focusing on trying to cook new meals, eating healthily, and doing so regularly, it’s stunning to me that I waited so long to start.  When I think back to my days of dumping a can of soup in a pot, I wonder why I didn’t care for myself the way I now care for Mike.  I don’t blame myself, certainly, just as I don’t blame any of my friends who rarely cook. I suppose cooking is one of those things that falls into that opaque category of “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

But even now that I know, I’m still no June Cleaver.  Mike has plans tonight, and I am already hoping we’re not out of Aunt Jemima so I can pair it with that Eggo I’m planning on toasting.

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To my Grandpa on his 88th birthday

Last night I returned from a long weekend in Pennsylvania where I celebrated my grandfather’s 88th birthday.

He is not a man who seeks attention of any sort, but in this case he had no choice — all of his baby birds were flying home to the nest whether he asked them to or not.

And there are quite a few of us: four children (plus a spouse), seven grandchildren (plus 3 spouses) and three great-grandchildren.  It was semi-controlled chaos.

We grandkids gathered around the birthday boy and his darling wife for a multi-generational photo.

It’s easy to gather around the man who for nearly forty years has gathered his arms around his grandkids.  He’s the epitome of engaged; during our childhoods he intentionally orchestrated specific events that would be easy for our memories to grasp hold of.

My earliest days with him were long summer days spent at his and grandma’s house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  The fact that they moved within five miles of my sisters and me is demonstration of his dedication.  That he also made those long summer days a total kick in the pants is the icing on the cake.

For starters, he bought me a Powerwheels red Corvette convertible.  Any child of the 80s just read that and said to themselves, “Stop right there.  No need to continue!  He’s obviously the greatest grandparent alive if he knew to buy you the most royally awesome gift of all time.”

And it was! …right up until he was crusing through Toys ‘R Us one day and spotted a red Jeep Powerwheels that could not only seat two, but also had two speeds.   Needless to say, I was soon upgraded and flying across his backyard at mach 2.

But lest one should think all he did was spoil us, I offer this illustration.  A couple times a week while my parents were at work, Grandpa would take us on walks down the retired railroad tracks, where we’d skip along the iron rails and jump between the wooden ties.  This was particularly fun because we were usually fresh off the latest episode of Shining Time Station (Ringo Starr as miniature magic train conductor?  Of course!).

These walks always happened to land us at the local ice cream shop at the end of the tracks, where Grandpa would treat us to two scoops.  Hmm, this story was not supposed to be about spoiling the grandkids…let me try one more.

When we’d run to the grocery store to pick up something for Grandma, we’d stroll the candy aisle and he would lift the lid on a couple of the jelly bean canisters and tell us to grab one.

“How do you know you want to buy them if you don’t taste them first!?” he’d say as justification. We felt like we were being given permission to rob a bank — it was glorious.

But let’s be honest: any man who served in World War II deserves a few free jelly beans.

That’s him on the left, Mr. James McMurtry, Jr.  Quite the stud, right?

GP, as we call him (short for Grandpa…this isn’t complicated) taught us about life mostly by example.  I can’t recall him ever giving me a lecture on finances, but I watched him save and spend wisely.  From what I hear he was fairly frugal most of his life, but even that has its limits:  he’s been known to buy a new car rather than have the oil changed on the one he owns.  He’s owned ten Cadillacs in as many years.

When I got married a little over two years ago, he didn’t pull me to the side for some marriage advice.  He didn’t need to; his marriage of 65 years spoke for itself.

In 2004 when I was headed to D.C. for an internship, he and my grandma dropped me off and helped me get settled in my new dorm on Georgetown campus.  We quickly realized the dorm room didn’t come with plates, cups or utensils, so we headed to the store to buy some.  He and grandma started filling the cart with far more than I needed, and I said, “You don’t need to get some for my roommates!  Let them get their own supplies.”  He turned quietly from filling the cart and said, “That’s not a very good way to  start a friendship, is it?”

I couldn’t reply.  I honestly thought he’d be proud of me for trying to save him some cash, when instead he taught me that generosity is far more valuable than saving a dollar.

When I got into town last week, there wasn’t much for us to catch up on; we never let enough time pass between calls.  Most Monday or Friday mornings you can find me blithly breaking the law as I chat with GP and GM on my way to work.  That’s how it’s always been for us: casual, close, best buddies, really, rather than distant, formal family.

The most I can say is what he’s done for me is all I can hope to do for my grandchildren.  I’ll keep them close while letting them find their way.  I’ll never let them doubt that they are loved beyond their knowing, but that the world does not revolve around them.  And one day, when they ask me about when I was a kid, I’ll be sure to tell them about this man, this Grand Father, this patriarch of our family tree.

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Designing Woman: Part Deux

I finally know what the man on the lookout of the Santa Maria meant when he spotted the coast after crossing the Atlantic and shouted:  “Land ho!”

Modern translation:  THANK GOD THERE’S AN END IN SIGHT.  I CAME THIS CLOSE TO KILLING MY CREW.

Therefore, as I made progress on putting the den together, it felt appropriate to yell, “Land ho!” because I could finally see my ship coming in.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am trying to decorate our home so that it appears that actual humans live there.  My every instinct tells me to decorate as classily as possible, to fill the home with tasteful furnishings of modesty and restraint.  My human self, the one with a personality and a sense of humor, tells me to get a sense of style for crying out loud.

So I am pushing myself.  I’m pushing to be a little edgier, a little bit surprising.  When I get nervous or start to question myself, I say nine words aloud,  “You are 26.  You are not 66.  Decorate accordingly.”

With that in mind for the dining room, we decided to add two end chairs that are a departure from the rest of the chairs.  We wanted something to add punch and formality to the space, so we went with two white, full-covered high-backed chairs.  They grab at the white in the baseboards and chandelier and keep the room from being too dark.

Mike has always said that our home is dead if it doesn’t have anything living inside it.  I have repeatedly told him that both he and I are fully operational, living beings, but he still insisted on getting a houseplant.  So while at Ikea, we grabbed a leafy palm that serves as the third living thing in our home.  I told him I am creeped out by the thought of plants bringing bugs as their moving buddies.  I’m convinced that having one houseplant means all the bugs in the world will try to make their home in ours.  I turned out to be right; the plant is now on our patio.

A word about Ikea.  While Mike and I shudder sometimes thinking about the place (I think Fight Club did that for all of us, did it not?), we also can’t deny that it is unmatched in its ability to provide fantastic style at jaw-dropping prices.  Do we decorate entirely in Ikea?  Of course not.  Take our dining room — the table is from Dania, which is much more high-end and better quality than Ikea.  However, we decided to go with Ikea for the chairs since they matched Dania’s exactly but were half the price.  We realize that anything bought from Ikea has a shelf-life of about 3 years max, but we’re OK with that for now.

Only in Ikea do you have your furniture and a houseplant on a hand cart with a picture of Swedish meatballs in the background for $1.99.  But I digress.

Brace yourself…the den.  Before I reveal this, allow me to repeat my favorite nine words, “You are 26.  You are not 66. Decorate accordingly.”  We went Bold with a capital B on this design, and I am absolutely thrilled with the look.

We chose a shocking wallpaper from Daly’s to cover one wall, to give the room pizazz.  We put extra money toward the wallpaper because we wanted a high-quality, pre-glued paper with a dynamo black-and-white design.  It was totally worth the expense to get something better than Home Depot.  It was also totally worth the expense because we got a built-in stress-test for our marriage.

“Dip it in the water — don’t drench it!”

“Stop pulling on the bottom, it’s going to tear!”

“Is your side aligned?  Mine’s aligned.  Is YOURS aligned?”

Please refer to the first paragraph about the killing of the crew.

Since the wallpaper has a traditional print (very 19th century), I found a beautiful lamp to add softer lighting and texture.  We still need to buy a new desk and other shelving/filing unit.   But it’s taking shape.

In the living room, as I’ve said before, it was like the walls were begging for fig leaves just to cover their extreme nakedness.  I finally found something both warm and eclectic, and I’m really happy with how it looks against the chocolate-colored fireplace.  Instead of hanging it as instructed (either vertically or horizontally), we hung it at an angle to create interest.

I spiced up the couch with a punch of red and a touch of pattern.  It might just be me, but it looks like a completely new couch:

I think I am done until summer time, at least, because Mike’s aorta might burst if I ask for one more extension on the decorating budget.

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Roasted or Dyed?

Last Saturday night the Rephs gathered around the table and dipped matzo into fresh horseradish to taste the spice that brings tears to our eyes.

We celebrated Passover with the Seder, as we do every year.  We join the Jewish community in their practice of remembering God’s provision for His people, and in our case, we recognize that God already honored His promises by bringing Christ to be our ultimate Savior.

We read the Messianic Haggadah, dip our parsley in salt water, hide the matzo from the children, and raise our glasses of red wine in love of the Lord.  It is a tangible, intentional ritual that leads its participants in worship filled with verses read aloud and the sharing of food and drink.

Passover is as solid as the lamb bone shank on the Seder plank; you can rely on it, count on it, because it’s never going to change.  I believe that is my favorite thing about Passover — in that way, it mirrors the character of God.

My mother-in-love (synonym for in-law in our family) enjoys inviting extended family and friends to share in the delicious food she’s made while following my father-in-love’s lead in the reading.

As I’ve mentioned before, Mike’s family believes (as now do I) that we should celebrate the same holidays that Christ did when He walked the Earth.   In fact, the Last Supper was a Seder, and that evening is crucial in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection (known today as Easter).

Ah, Easter.

On Sunday afternoon after the Bergers get back from church, we gather with 18 close friends for a day of elation, rejoicing…and wine tasting.

Be honest: you were expecting me to say egg hunting.  If so, you were right — there is also an egg hunt.

On the afternoon of Easter we run, adults all, through my parents house scouting for 36 hidden eggs, which have been carefully numbered and colored the night before by my younger sister.  It’s a mad dash that is taken incredibly seriously — if you end up with just one or two eggs, you may as well have one on your face.

Then comes the wine tasting contest.  Every guest (or couple) brings a bottle of wine that pairs best with the Easter ham.  Then we host a tasting, take notes, and vote on the finest wine.  One year, Phil and Rachel brought Manischewitz, a joke which was lost on those who don’t also celebrate Passover.

To my mom, and to all of us really, Easter is the perfect day to welcome people into our homes in warm hospitality and celebration as we recognize that we serve a most wonderful God.  Many people who attend our Easter don’t know much about Jesus at all, and we’re hoping they may see a glimpse of the freedom and joy we have from knowing Him.

We’ve had atheists, agnostics, even a Buddhist monk.

Come on in!  Find an egg, have some wine, and feel free to say “Cheers!” when one family member says, “He is risen!” and ten more holler, “He is risen, indeed!”

Our president started an unprecedented tradition of hosting the Seder in the White House, despite being a Christian.  Later in the week he also hosted the White House Easter egg roll and hunt.  I identify with this dichotomy.

Where Passover is reflective, reverent and focused, Easter is triumphant, explosively joyful and full of freedom.  Three years of celebrating the two together has, for me, begun to turn the key in a door that has always been locked.  As a follower of Christ, I’ve never been sure of which attitude to embody: should my face be down-turned in reverence or upward in thanksgiving?  Should I solemnly acknowledge the immaculate perfection of my Creator, or stomp my feet and clap because of His shocking insistence on loving us?  Should I hone my discipline out of honor to Him or embrace my freedom to live outside of rules?

Celebrating Passover and Easter have shown me that it’s both.  Both holidays are about humbled gratitude.  God is not about either/or.  His capacity to be worshiped isn’t restricted to a single method.  I’m excited to carry on the tradition of showing gratefulness in such complimentary ways.

“Next year in Jerusalem!”

“He is risen, indeed!”

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