Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Through the Ages

Everyone in our house enjoyed Christmas this year. But I think we all enjoyed it for different reasons, and there were different aspects of the celebration that stood out for each of us. At different ages, each of us loves certain things about Christmas. Here are a few of the things that make Christmas special at various ages.

Age 0-2
Babies younger than age 2 don’t have much of a concept of Christmas. They don’t really know that it’s coming, they don’t understand that there will be presents, and both Santa Claus and the story of Jesus’ birth are beyond them. But they love the pretty lights and decorations. They love the cheerful and beautiful music that is always around during the Christmas season. And they love the crunch of wrapping paper and the pile of boxes and packing material they get to play with.

Age 3-6
In this phase of life, kids are very aware of the magic of Santa Claus and getting presents. They love getting to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas, they love performing in Christmas pageants, they love helping to pick out a Christmas tree (especially if they get to feed some reindeer while they’re doing it), they love helping to bake and decorate Christmas cookies, they get excited about helping to make a few special presents for family members, they love counting down the days until Christmas comes on an advent calendar, they love driving around town to look at Christmas lights, they love putting out milk and cookies for Santa, and most of all, they love unwrapping their presents on Christmas morning!

Age 7-12
Most kids at this age have stopped believing in Santa Claus, but they still look forward to making a list and getting presents. Since they’re “in on the secret,” they often love getting to help pick out presents for other family members and they adore getting to keep secrets from their parents. They like to help decorate the tree and wrap presents. They love watching all the Christmas movies and specials that they remember from past years. And they still love opening presents, especially special ones that they’ve been longing for all year.

Age 13-21
This age is all about the gift cards. Sure, presents are nice, as are cookies and decorating the tree (not that they’ll admit it at this age), but the teenage and college years are all about the cash. Also, having the freedom to go and hang out with your friends during school vacation without having to have a parent tagging along is awesome.

Age 21-28
The best part of Christmas in your 20s is the parties. Most 20-somethings finally have a little bit of disposable income as well as a home of their own (even if it’s only a studio apartment in a questionable neighborhood), and being able to host and/or attend Christmas parties togged out in a great dress and fabulous shoes is a definite highlight of the holiday season. Plus, Christmas is a very romantic time and it’s a great season to be in the throes of new love, which is likeliest at this age.

Age 29-39
Most people this age either have kids or are on the verge of having kids – or their friends and siblings do or are - so a highlight of their holiday season is getting presents for the children and watching the kids’ amazement and excitement about the holiday. At this point, many of us also have our own homes and we get to set new traditions for decorating and celebrating with our families. Our kids are old enough for a family outing to see the Nutcracker, or to catch a movie on Christmas night, or to go see a local production of A Christmas Carol. The best part of Christmas at this age is definitely spending time with your family.

Age 40-60
This is when many of us begin to step into the family patriarch/matriarch roles. We’re the ones organizing and hosting the family gatherings, taking over that duty from our parents. And in turn, we’re starting to pass on some of the holiday responsibilities to our own adult and nearly-adult kids: they may be the ones doing the bulk of putting up and decorating the tree, baking the Christmas cookies, finally shopping (and paying!) for the presents they’ll be giving. This is the time of life when we get to sit back and enjoy seeing the bustle of the holidays without having to be as much a part of that bustle.

Age 60+
This is the age when Christmas truly becomes about giving instead of receiving. By this age, most people have all the “stuff” they need and are, in fact, trying to get rid of stuff. So we can give not only new gifts, but we can pass along family heirlooms with sentimental value beyond measure. And aside from tangible gifts, this is the time of life when we can share our own childhood memories of Christmas with the next generation.

Yes, Christmas is wonderful at every age. From all the generations in our house to all the generations in yours, a very Merry Christmas season to you!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keeping Santa's Secrets

When I was a little girl, my parents never made a big deal about Santa Claus. I knew that he gave me some of my Christmas presents and that my parents gave me others, and I knew that I had to go to sleep on Christmas Eve or Santa wouldn’t come. And we always left him milk and cookies by the fireplace on Christmas Eve. But that was about it. We didn’t write letters to Santa or go to the mall to sit on his lap and tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

When I got older, however, I realized just how much my parents had done to maintain the illusion of Santa Claus for me and my sister. My mom carefully block printed every gift tag from Santa so we didn’t recognize her handwriting. She was careful to never wrap a present from Santa in the same wrapping paper as one from her and my dad. My dad always remembered to drink Santa’s milk and eat his cookies before we got up on Christmas morning. And although some of the gifts from family were left under the tree before Christmas Eve, the ones from Santa never appeared before Christmas morning.

My son, at age 3, is just starting to have a concept of Christmas, and of how Santa fits into the whole scheme of things. He knows that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and he recognizes a manger scene as being where the baby Jesus was born. And he also knows that Santa will come on Christmas Eve and leave him presents. We’ve brought him to visit Santa at the mall in years past with mixed results, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts this year. He was pretty indifferent when we introduced him to “Santa” in the lobby of our Christmas show last weekend, but a Santa decked out with the whole red suit and attendant elves may be a different story.
But already I am discovering that I have to be a bit stealthy this year. Instead of asking him what he wants for Christmas, I asked him what he’s going to tell Santa he wants when we go visit him. I bought a bunch of wrapping paper while he was with me, and then realized that now I won’t be able to use that for presents from Santa. I have a box in my bedroom with all the Christmas presents I’ve gotten tucked into it, and I’m realizing that I have to be more careful to hide it from prying eyes. I remind myself that on Christmas Eve I need to drink the milk and nibble the cookies. I make a note to myself to practice some disguised writing for the gift tags. And I am even considering figuring out how to leave a few reindeer footprints on the porch if there’s snow on the ground on Christmas Eve.
It’s a weighty responsibility, keeping Santa’s secrets. But I think I’m up to the task. After all, I learned from an excellent elf!

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Swing Time

Although I know that many of my friends who read this blog are theater performers, I’m sure that some of you reading this are not, so let me give you a bit of background on today’s topic: Theatrical understudies. Actually, not just understudies, but also standbys and swings.

As you all probably know, an understudy is someone who learns a major role in a production in order to provide coverage if the original actor has to miss a performance. Most major roles in professional theater productions have an understudy. Sometimes the understudy knows well in advance when he or she will perform; for example, if the star is going on vacation for a few weeks. Sometimes he or she gets a few hours’ notice if the star is ill and unable to go on that day. And sometimes he or she gets tossed onstage mid-performance because the star begins a show but can’t finish for whatever reason. Some stars are afraid to let an understudy go on for them for fear that the understudy’s performance will be better than their own, and some stars are such passionate work-a-holics that they don’t want to miss a moment in the spotlight even if they’re not feeling well. The result of both situations is that occasionally the star will start a performance and not be able to finish it.

But besides an understudy, there is also a job called a “standby.” Much like an understudy, a standby learns a role and is prepared to step into it at a moment’s notice. The main difference between an understudy and a standby is that an understudy is generally a member of the cast, whereas a standby is an outsider. A standby is usually required to come to the theater (or at least be nearby, much like a doctor who is “on call”) just prior to a performance and stay until intermission. An understudy, being a member of the cast, is of course already at the theater for the performance. But when an understudy steps in for a lead, the understudy’s role – usually a small role or featured ensemble part - is often left open, which brings us to the third category: swings.

A swing is a member of a cast, usually someone in a minor role or part of the ensemble, who learns multiple other minor chorus or dance roles. Sometimes a swing will step into a role because the actor in that role is ill or injured, but most often a swing covers the role normally played by an understudy who is stepping into the star’s shoes. Unlike an understudy or a standby who usually gets the opportunity to perform their role during a rehearsal or two, a swing is pretty much expected to pick up his or her covered roles by seeing the show and reading the script. A swing often steps into a role for the very first time in front of an audience.

Being an understudy or a standby is a tough job, because you’re always stepping in for the star, and often people are disappointed by your mere presence, regardless of how talented you are or how fine a performance you give. But to me, the toughest job of all is being a swing. Not only do you have to know two or three (or even four or five) different roles, you don’t get to rehearse any of them, you don’t usually have costume fittings so if you don’t happen to be the same size as whomever you’re covering you wear whatever the costumer has on hand in your size that sorta kinda suits the period and the character; and worst of all, nobody really notices how amazing you are when you do all that.

And yet, if I had to choose whether I wanted to be an understudy or a swing, I’d be a swing every time. How much fun to be able to play a whole bunch of characters in a show! What an adrenaline rush from jumping into a role cold in front of an audience and knowing that you’ll either sink or swim! What fun to know a show so well that you can step into any of a number of roles and cover their vocals, their blocking, their choreography, and their character so perfectly that no-one in the audience will know anything’s different. I know someone that has performed in the Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera for 20 years. He is a swing who covers half a dozen roles, but I have no doubt that at this point he could successfully step in to any role in the entire production, including the Phantom and probably even Christine. I’m sure that after 20 years, he knows every nuance of every performance in the show and could mimic each one faithfully. How much fun to know a show that well!

This may not be true of non-theatrical types, but I bet that all my theater friends, just like me, have at least one show that you’ve seen or listened to the cast album of enough times that you can recite the entire script and score verbatim. And be honest: you’ve totally acted out all the characters in your living room while you were home alone, haven’t you. Yes, yes, you have. And so have I.

And that’s why it’s so fun for me to be in Reagle’s annual Christmas show – we’ve all done it so many times that 90% of the cast could be swings for any given role. And the best part of it is that we often are! Sometimes someone needs to miss a performance or two, or someone gets ill, and whomever is available to fill in for that bit part just steps up and does it. No hoopla, no curtain announcement, often no chance to run it through ahead of time. Just remember what you’ve seen dozens of times, do the best you can, and trust everyone around you to steer you in the right direction if you’re off.

I haven’t had much opportunity to be a swing so far. I think my second year I filled in for one of the “girls wearing the same coat” – a role that lasts for all of 12-1/2 seconds, but it was fun and gave me a taste for it. A couple of years ago I got to be a swing in the barbershop quartet of the Irish show. But this year I get to be a swing for a slightly more featured role: “Second Clerk.” I get to sing in a quartet that repeats 8 bars of music four different times. It may not sound like much, but it’s still pretty exciting! There are an awful lot of people in that scene that I need to work around and with and fit into traffic patterns. I need to hand off a prop (to my own husband, of all people, so I’d BETTER NOT screw it up). And I need to wear a microphone, something I’ve never had to do before in the Christmas show. It’s very exciting.

It’s swing time!

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Can You Bake a Pie?

My 3-year-old son loves to help (or, more accurately, "help") in the kitchen, so it's nothing unusual for him to ask me if we can make cornbread, or pancakes, or lemonade. We make those things together on a regular basis. But today he made a different request: he asked me to make pumpkin pie with him.

We did have pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and he did like it. A lot. I haven't mentioned it since, though, so I have no idea what made him suddenly decide that he was hungry for pumpkin pie. (Actually, the word he used was "starving." Yes, he informed me, "Mama, I am STARVING! I am STARVING for pumpkin pie!") But in the realm of snacks and treats, he could do much worse than pumpkin pie, so I said sure.

And after I thought about it, I realized that pumpkin pie is one of the first things I remember making with MY mom. My special task in the process was cutting the shortening into the flour for the pie crust. I remember it being a somewhat challenging task for me, as coordinating two large butter knives with my small hands was not easy. But Mom was patient and let me take as long as I liked to get it done. (I didn't realize at the time that the longer I took to do that task, the longer I was out of her hair for the more complicated - and messy - parts of the process. Smart cookie, my mom.)

I also remember being allowed to make the scraps of pie crust into a cinnamon roll. I was proudest of that because Mom let me do it all by myself. I squished the scraps together and rolled them out, dotted the crust with butter, sprinkled it liberally with cinnamon and sugar, rolled it up and pinched the ends together, then laid it on a cookie sheet and tucked it into the oven alongside the pie. I probably peeked through the window in the oven door every 15 seconds until Mom finally pronounced it done and set it on the table to cool. And then it seemed like hours before she said it was cool enough to eat. But when it finally was cooled, there was nothing that had ever tasted to wonderful to me than my own culinary creation.

So I'm looking forward to giving my son that same sense of pride this afternoon when we make our pie. It may not taste perfect, but it will taste even better than perfection. It will taste like independence.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Curtain Up, Light the Lights

Tonight is opening night of Reagle Music Theatre’s annual production of “ChristmasTime.” It’s the 5th time I’ve performed in the show, and I know it well. I know where my entrances are, how much time I have for each costume change, and which props I carry in each scene. I’ve memorized my music and I know my blocking. I’m even solid on my choreography (which is officially a Christmas miracle). I have no fear of making a mistake or not knowing what to do if something goes wrong. And yet, I still have butterflies in my stomach.

The first time I performed in this show, I was terrified on opening night. But that time, I wasn’t entirely sure of my entrances, I depended on others to tell me what costume to change into next, I still wasn’t solid on all my lyrics and blocking, and I was definitely shaky on some of the choreography. But I got through it with the help of veterans who nudged me into position, made sure I was in the right costume, whispered upcoming dance steps, and just generally shepherded me around. And each succeeding year, I was more comfortable and more confident, and the terror subsided into fear, then jitters, and now, it’s pure excitement.

It’s exciting to be a part of a performance that plays such an important role in so many people’s holiday seasons. There are audience members who have seen this show every year for the past 20 years or more. There are people in the audience who used to come with their parents and who now bring their children. There are parents in the audience watching their children play elves who used to play elves themselves. There are new audience members who, by intermission, have already decided to make the show an annual tradition with their family. I have never yet not been thanked by someone in the audience for making their Christmas extra-special.

What a joy to be a part of something with such a rich tradition! What a blessing to be a blessing to others during this holiday season. What a privilege to bring a message of hope and joy and thanksgiving at a time of year when that message is so often lost in the busy shuffle of shopping and entertaining and chauffeuring kids to parties and activities. We may be up on stage to bring joy to the audience, but we can hardly help bringing joy to our own hearts, as well.

No wonder it gives me butterflies.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is a Puzzlement

A few weeks ago, my husband gave me a Kindle Fire for my birthday. I made the mistake of showing it to my 3-year-old son and downloading a few games for him, and I’ve hardly gotten to use it since. I know – I’m the mom, I can just take it away from him. And sometimes I do. But I’m so amazed and impressed at how well he can use it that sometimes I’m just as entertained watching him use it as I am using it myself.

At one level, it’s impressive because he figured out how to navigate around so easily. He knows how to close a game, go back to the home screen, and choose another. He knows how to go from level to level and screen to screen within a game. He knows how to turn the volume up and down. He knows how to pause it for a minute. He knows which button is the “Play” button even though he can’t read.

But at still another level, it’s impressive because of the games he plays. Especially puzzles. I downloaded a few puzzles that I figured he’d eventually be able to learn, or that maybe he could manage if we did them together. Nope. He’s mastered them all on his own. He puts together jigsaw puzzles of trucks as easily as a truck mechanic rebuilding an engine. That didn’t surprise me, since he’s such a truck aficionado. But then I saw him putting together puzzles picturing random things like Disney characters or plates of food or forest scenes just as quickly and easily. Every once in a while, he’ll come to me and say with a sigh, “Mama, this is hard. Can you help me?” But even then, I give him just a few hints (“Look for a piece with blue sky at the top”) and he’s off and running on his own again.

It’s so amazing to me to think how much this kid has learned in such a short time. Not much more than two years ago, he couldn’t even walk on his own and he couldn’t say a single word besides “up.” And now he’s running around, using a computer, solving complicated jigsaw puzzles, and narrating himself through it all.

He is a puzzlement. A wonderful, wondrous puzzlement.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Suffer the Little Children

No, this blog is not about the suffering OF little children. It’s about the suffering CAUSED by little children. No, not human suffering. Yeah, yeah, I suffered a little during childbirth (and a LOT during pregnancy), but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how much your STUFF suffers when you have little children.

We don’t call my son Destructo-Boy for nothing. He has broken more toy trucks than you can shake a stick at. He has ruined book after book. He's broken several window frame inserts. He’s written on the walls and the TV with crayons. He’s spilled nail polish on my desk. He’s poured lemon oil and WD-40 on the carpet. He’s gotten into Sharpies and scissors and straight pins and Desitin. He pretty much leaves a wake of destruction wherever he goes.

Because of him, my couch will never be the same. The list of fluids with which it has been doused could go on for pages, not even including bodily fluids. Among the things he has spilled or wiped on it are milk, chicken soup, toothpaste, suntan lotion, cranberry juice, gravy, chocolate, and frosting. He’s drawn on it with DryErase markers, washable and non-washable crayons, pencils, and ballpoint pens. There are a number of stains on it that I have no idea what they are and I probably don’t want to know. He’s stuck his fingers inside the ½-inch hole in the back and pulled out enough wads of stuffing to add half a dozen extra sheep to our manger scene. I won’t dare replace that couch until he’s about 12, and even then I’ll probably hang onto it because it’s likely to need to make a reappearance when he’s about 16 and starts having friends over to hang out in the basement.

And the couch isn’t the only piece of furniture at risk. He’s pulled knobs off of several drawers, and managed to wrench an entire cabinet door off the entertainment center. Lamps have come crashing down with various levels of resultant damage.

Appliances are vulnerable, too. We had to replace a VCR because he shoved a DVD into the slot. The DVD player in my car barely survived having him stick a bunch of pennies into it (I brace myself every time I go up a steep hill, lest the pennies reposition themselves out of the harmless corners into which they’ve apparently settled).

With Christmas coming in a few weeks and many breakable – even for the average human, never mind Destructo-Boy’s powers – decorations within arm’s reach, I keep my teeth gritted for the inevitable crash. So far, the only casualties have been the sword hilt of the giant nutcracker (repairable) and one of the figurines from our Christmas village (not repairable), but I’m sure they will not be alone before the end of the season. There are too many glass icicles, delicate train conductor figurines, and ceramic Nativity characters around for that not to happen.

But when it comes right down to it, it’s just stuff. He doesn’t break it to be destructive; he’s just curious. What would it feel like to stick my hand into a jar of diaper cream? Does crayon look different when you write on the table or the wall than it does when you write on paper? What happens if I stick this into that? What will I find if I stand on top of that thing? What kind of noise does this make when I drop it on the floor/hit it with this other thing/throw it against the wall? I’d rather have a curious child than a clean couch.

I’m sorry for your suffering, though, couch. Next movie night, I promise I’ll share some of my popcorn with you.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

There's a Day for That

I realize that I’ve blogged on this topic in the past, but since I saw that today is “National Mousse Day,” I decided it is time to revisit the topic. I understand that with 365 days to fill, the National Day determiners (who are they, anyway? Hallmark employees, I suppose) must get a bit desperate once they pass Day 300. But I find it hard to believe that they can’t come up with anything better than National Bavarian Cream Pie Day (November 27), National Cognac Day (June 4 and I can’t believe my husband didn’t know about that one), National Worship of Tools Day (March 11 and I can’t help wondering if that’s Tim Allen’s birthday), and National Dice Day (December 4). I may not be a highly-paid Hallmark employee, but I came up with a list of a few suggestions that I think would be better “Days” than some of the ones currently on the calendar.

National Admit Your Real Size Day
This day is pretty women-oriented, I will admit. What woman out there over the age of 30 doesn’t have a bunch of clothes in her closet that don’t fit anymore but that she can’t bring herself to give away? One day a year, we should all admit to reality and donate those too-small clothes. There are certainly enough women around – especially in this economy – who could use them.

National Cook Like Your Mother Day
Some moms may not be great cooks, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a mom out there who can’t make at least one decent meal. And chances are, she passed her recipe along to her kids. So flash back to your childhood and make that tuna casserole or meatloaf or baked mac and cheese. And thank your mom that you always had food on the table as a child. And if you didn’t always have food on the table, be thankful that you do now. And if you can, drop off some of the ingredients at a food pantry for those who don’t right now.

National Cut Your Toenails Day
This Day would have to be scheduled in the early summer, when we all start to break out the sandals and run around barefoot. Which of us hasn’t been grossed out by someone’s horribly neglected toenails at this time of year? We could all use a little reminder that a decent pedicure is in order when the warm weather rolls around.

National Learn Something New Day
It doesn’t matter what you learn about, but I think we should have one day a year when everyone comes up with some topic to research and learn a bit about. It could be anything from how to build a model rocket to the history of the Olympics to how to make tiramisu to what makes a Slinky work. It should be a topic that you find interesting but that you wouldn’t ever learn about otherwise.

National This is Not a “Day” Day
Having some kind of National “Day” on every single day, 365 days a year, is simply exhausting. So once a year, we need a break from days when we just have a non-day Day. If that seems like too much, maybe we can make this Day on February 29th, so it’s only every four years. With apologies to Sadie Hawkins, of course.

But until these days get instituted on the calendar, I guess I’d better go make some mousse. It is National Mousse Day, after all.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Same Time Next Year

Five years ago, I performed in the Reagle Players’ annual production of “It’s ChristmasTime” for the first time. I was newly in love with the man who would soon become my husband, and that new love was imprinted on every scene that we did together. And every year since, re-staging those same numbers brings back the thrill and excitement of falling in love, truly in love, for the very first time.

I’ve often said that because we were older when we got married (I was 39; he was 45), we cherish our relationship more than some. People who marry young and who have been in the same relationship for basically all of their adult lives must find it so easy to take that relationship for granted. And as the often-exhausted parent of two small children, I can see that it is also easy to let the husband-wife relationship fall to the bottom of the priority list once you’re busy playing mom and dad all the time. So I am thankful that I have this event every single year that brings back to my mind everything that made me fall in love with my husband.

This show is really the perfect venue to sum up our relationship. Since it’s a similar production from year to year, it’s put together very quickly with a minimal rehearsal schedule. Which is great for the veterans, but it means that the newbies get a LOT of stuff thrown at them in a very short time. Those of you who know me personally know that I don’t do well with last-minute information, and any of you who have ever performed in a show with me know that I totally stress out about last-minute changes to blocking and choreography. So to get music one month before the show, learn choreography a week before the show, and see a costume plot two days before the show was incredibly stressful for me. Not to mention not knowing the order of the show until dress rehearsal. Most men would have been ready to wring my neck with my constant questions and anxiety, but my sweetheart was patient and understanding, and constantly reassured me that I would be just fine – and, more importantly, assured me that he would be by my side to make sure nothing went wrong. During that first production, I learned that I could trust and rely on him. And he learned that I was willing to step out of my comfort zone to make him happy. Interestingly enough, we now have several scenes where I arrive on stage first and look around for him, then he comes from behind and takes my hand or puts his arm around me. That, too, is a good symbol of our relationship: I was right where I was supposed be, but I was alone and looking for someone, and as soon as he appeared I felt happier and had more of a purpose.

So every year, as we once again step on that stage, my heart goes back to the place where it was all those years ago seeing my husband through the eyes of love, fresh and unspoiled. It’s good for me, and it’s good for US, to be able to remember so clearly what our love was like before it was clouded with the cares of children and money and jobs and reality. And so every year, I look forward to that magic reset button. What do you say, sweetheart? Same time next year?
In 2007, we were newly in love

In 2008, we were newlyweds
[In 2009 I didn’t perform because I was busing having a baby the day of the first rehearsal]
In 2010, we found out on opening night that we were expecting baby #2
In 2011, we were officially "married with children"
And in 2012, we will be happily continuing the tradition in a few short weeks!

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Something New’s in the Kitchen with Dinah

The week before Thanksgiving, I started my dishwasher and noticed that it sounded louder than usual, so after a few minutes I opened it to see if something was wrong and was greeted by a large puff of acrid smoke. Considering that the unit was at least 14 years old and probably 24 (it came with the house and we’re pretty sure it was installed when the house was originally built), it certainly didn’t owe us anything. And since the broiler on our stove hasn’t worked in years, we figured we’d take advantage of the Black Friday deals and replace both units at once.

Being the Queen of Research that I am, I immediately made myself a spreadsheet of all the features I wanted (or wanted to avoid) on each appliance, and began collecting information. I read consumer reviews on store sites as well as independent reviewing webpages. I compared prices, I compared availability, I asked friends for recommendations, I went to the store and kicked some figurative tires. And after much deliberation, I am now the proud (and satisfied!) owner of a new LG gas range and a Maytag JetClean Plus dishwasher.

For those of you wanting specifics, the range is an LG Electronics 5.4 cu. ft. 30 in. freestanding gas self-cleaning convection range in stainless steel (single oven), model #LRG3095ST, from Home Depot.

In the ad and in my kitchen

It has five burners, including a “Superboil” burner which boiled a large pot of pasta water in less than 5 minutes, and a small simmer burner for sauces or warming. The center burner is an oval burner with a built-in (but removable) griddle. Since we constantly kept a griddle on our old stove, I knew I’d get lots of use out of the griddle. The main drawback to the griddle is that it doesn’t run especially hot. The highest setting is about equivalent to the medium setting on my old stove. It’s hot enough for pancakes and grilled cheese, but I wouldn’t use it to sear meat like the manufacturer suggests. The burners all light on the first click of the igniter, and I haven’t had a problem with any of them going out accidentally when set to the lowest setting, which was sometimes a problem with my old stove. But even if that were a problem, there is an adjustment on each burner to tweak the flame, which is a nice feature.

Moving on from the stovetop to the oven, let me start by saying how spacious this oven is. Most standard ovens are 5.0 cubic feet, and you wouldn’t think that 0.4 cubic feet would make a difference, but this oven does feel really roomy. My old oven could handle a large turkey but this one seems like there’s much more room for air to circulate, and I could even tuck in an extra pan of stuffing or another side for warming. There are 7 different rack heights, which gives a lot of flexibility for fitting in different dishes. The oven comes with two racks, but with all this room it might be nice to have had a third. The racks slide in and out easily. The included broiler pan is a bit small for a large turkey, but plenty big enough for most uses. It also fits nicely into the roomy storage drawer, still leaving space for several cookie sheets and cooling racks. Another nice feature of the oven is that the light comes on automatically when the door is opened but it can also be turned on manually with the door closed so you can check on your meal (through the beautifully oversized window) without opening the oven door. And the girly-girl in me loves the cheery bright blue interior. The practical advantage of the blue interior – although some might disagree – is that it will shows spills better than a standard black interior, so you can scrub them off before they get charred on. Even during the self-cleaning cycle, the exterior of the oven stays relatively cool, which is a great feature for users with small children. And it pre-heats so quickly – only about 10 minutes to get up to 350! It even shows the actual temperature on the readout, so you know exactly how close it is to being ready.

The control panel is nicely designed and well-organized. The digital readout is large and bright enough to read at a glance from across the room. The oven can be set for standard bake, broil (high or low), convection bake, convection roast (not sure what the difference between those two is), or proof (for raising bread dough). There is a thermostat adjustment if the temperature seems to run high or low, but my oven seems to be consistently spot on. I haven’t tried the convection modes yet, but if they cook as evenly and consistently as the standard bake, I’ll be thrilled. And the sound of the controls is very pleasant – instead of an annoying, shrill beep like most stoves, the LG plays a pretty melody when it’s pre-heated, which has the added advantage of being several seconds long so you have a better chance of hearing it. And the entire range, including the control panel, is modern and sleek-looking.

And now on to the dishwasher: the Maytag JetClean Plus top control dishwasher in stainless steel with stainless steel tub and steam cleaning, model #MDB8959SAS, from Home Depot.

In the ad and in my kitchen
We were originally looking at the next model down in this series, but this higher-end model was on a special sale that made it even cheaper than that model, and I’m very pleased that we ended up with this one.
The first thing I noticed about this dishwasher the first time we used it was how incredibly quiet it is. With as little noise in the room as a radio on at a normal level, I had to check twice to even be sure it was running. The adjustable/removable top rack is a nice feature if you need to wash large items like serving dishes, cutting boards, or vases, although if you lower it slightly, even dinner plates are too tall for the lower rack. You need to be careful to pull the upper rack out evenly, as it comes off the track easily, but it's very easy to pop it back into place. The silverware holders have removable covers, which is nice because the slots are really too small for standard silverware. The cup racks are handy, and the cup racks in the lower rack have holders for stemware – no more washing wineglasses by hand, hooray! I love that feature. The first load that we ran did leave some residue on the glassware, but since then we’re used the autosensor feature that determines how much scrubbing a particular load needs, and everything has come out sparkling clean since. I’ve even washed some baking dishes with baked-on crud that I scraped and rinsed only minimally, and even they came out perfect. The organization of the racks and tines works well for combinations of plates, pots and pans, and serving dishes. Unlike our old dishwasher, which always seemed to have one rack full and the other empty, this unit can accommodate enough items in either the top or bottom rack that it seems to fill more evenly and therefore needs to be run less often. The cycle takes more time than our old unit (about 2-1/2 hours), but it is supposedly more energy-efficient, and if you’re in a hurry there is a quick wash cycle that takes about an hour.
The controls are tucked on top of the unit and are partly hidden under the counter when the door is closed, but I consider that a good thing for avoiding curious little hands. Some reviewers complained that they couldn’t see the buttons at all with the door closed, but our unit has just enough clearance under the standard-height counters that I can still see them. They are also designed so you can push Start, for example, with the door open and as long as you close it within three seconds the cycle will start as soon as the door is closed. There is a control lock in case the kids do manage to find and push the buttons, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a door lock. Even when the unit is running a wash cycle, you can open the door. Handy when you find one more spoon that needs to be thrown in, but kind of a pain if you discover one of the kids has opened it a crack and it’s stopped mid-cycle. The unit itself is very sleek and nice-looking, and the brushed finish cleans off nicely with just a quick wipe with a damp rag.
The bottom line is that our kitchen now looks beautiful and unified. Even though all three major appliances (refrigerator, dishwasher, and stove) are from different manufacturers, they’re all stainless steel and have similar styling that makes them look uniform and coordinated. It’s such a pleasure cooking a meal on a stove that heats quickly, cooks evenly, and cleans up like a dream, and then tossing the dishes into the dishwasher without having to scrub them first, knowing they’ll still come out clean and sparkling. I love my new kitchen!

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tradition and Technology

I started to title this blog entry “Tradition Vs. Technology,” but then I realized that it isn’t really a case of one against the other; it’s a case of combining the two. Let me back up a bit and explain.

Tomorrow, of course, is Thanksgiving Day. Since we are hosting dinner this year, this means that I get to make a full-scale, turkey-and-all-the-fixins dinner. This is not said with this slightest bit of sarcasm; I honestly love making Thanksgiving dinner, and I often wish we had a larger family to share it with. We have five adults and two kids for dinner and I’m thrilled to death that my sister-in-law and her family (who are usually out of town on Thanksgiving) will be joining us for dessert, for a total of 11 people.

I’m just old-fashioned enough that feeding people a fresh, home-cooked meal satisfies my desire to be hospitable. I made a pumpkin pie from the recipe my mom and grandmother used to use. I cut in the Crisco with a pair of butter knives, just like they used to, and just like my mom taught me when I still needed a stepstool to reach the kitchen table. The dishes on the menu are exactly the same dishes that my mom made for Thanksgiving dinner throughout my childhood: turkey, real mashed potatoes, gravy from a powdered mix, squash with butter and brown sugar melted into it, a giant bowl of green peas with a big pat of butter melting on top, creamed onions in a simple white sauce, bread stuffing made from the family’s recipe.

But I’m not too old-fashioned to take advantage of some modern technology to make my life easier. I made the onions in advance and will be warming them up in the microwave. Instead of squinting to read recipes written by hand on index cards now splattered with turkey grease and squash, I read them from my Kindle Fire. I kept my kids busy and out of my hair while I cooked by putting a Disney movie in the DVD player. My mom kept lists of her annual menu along with cooking notes in a faded wire-bound notebook; I keep mine on my computer.

And I love the way tradition and technology work together. By saving family recipes on my computer and my Kindle Fire, I am preserving my family traditions for my children and my children’s children. They might not have the experience of cooking a meal from recipe cards stained with physical evidence of Thanksgivings past, but they will have the experience of enjoying the same meal that their forebears did. The more that technology worms its way into every facet of our lives, the more important it is to find ways to use that technology to preserve history, both general history and our own personal histories. My children may not have had the opportunity to know my mother personally, but they do have the opportunity to know her through the legacy that she has passed along through her recipes, her traditions, and her hospitality. And I can’t wait until I can teach both of them how to make pie crust by cutting in the Crisco using two butter knives.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

The 2012 AMAs: Fashion Review

Let me begin with the disclaimer that I did not actually watch the American Music Awards last night. However, since I know that my fashion reviews are appreciated by some of my blog readers, I took one for the team and perused some online photos of the stars in their red carpet couture. Here is my review of some of the notable fashions. And since I’ve been immersed in 5-star ratings of late, I have given each performer a fashion score out of 5 stars.

Justin Bieber
This ensemble isn’t especially offensive. The pants aren’t overly baggy or hanging halfway down his butt, and all-black is (almost) always classy, but the low scoop neck showing a peep of tattoo is a bit tacky and what is up with the string of pearls? If he weighed more than 120 pounds he might have been able to pull it off, but since that baby-face still makes him look like he’s 14, it just wasn’t working for him. Final score: 2.5 stars.
Carrie Underwood
Carrie would look adorable wearing a sack, so it’s hard for her to make too severe of a fashion misstep. The royal blue of this dress looks smashing on her, and the zig-zag cut is interesting without being too wacky or distracting. I’m not a big fan of the Sharpie eyeliner and nude lips, but her mega-watt smile makes it work for her. Small deduction for the clunky shoes. Final score: 4 stars.
Carly Rae Jepsen
I’m not sure how old Carly Rae is, but I’m guessing well under 18, so kudos to her (or her stylist) for dressing her in a stylish, age-appropriate dress that manages to flatter a figure that hasn’t quite developed yet. It’s sparkly yet subtle, plunging without being inappropriately sexy, and feminine pink without being too girly. Not loving the mussed-up ‘do, but the subtle eye makeup and bright pink lips pull the whole look together in a fresh, innocent but not na├»ve look. 4.5 stars.
In theory, this black-and-gold salute to ancient Egypt should have worked. But instead, it comes off as grandma’s old shawl tucked into a belt over a boring black sweater-dress. It’s lumpy and bulky in all the wrong places, and the weirdly finished neckline and zigzag gold hem make it look like mom didn’t have a chance to finish sewing it in time. Final score: 1.5 stars.
Linkin Park
I’m not sure if grunge is finally out or if these guys cleaned up for the show, but either way, they’re looking pretty good. Their facial hair is neatly trimmed, their hair looks like it’s been washed within the past couple of days, and they all seem to be wearing some semblance of a jacket. The guy on the right looks a bit like he just wandering in from changing a tire on the tour bus, but on the whole they’re looking stylish and appropriate. Final score: 3 stars.
MC Hammer
Crisp black and white is always a good choice for the red carpet. The snow-white suit, relieved by black cuffs and a single black lapel, impeccably shined shoes, and a modified version of the star’s signature parachute pants are the perfect mix of classic formality and personal style. Final score: 5 stars.
Luke Bryan
I have no idea who this guy is, but I like his style. Classic black tux with a long black tie over a crisp, deep navy shirt, just a hint of casualness in the turned-back cuffs, a bit of a scruffy beard, and the requisite big pearly grin. Bonus points for bringing back the tie clip. Final score: 5 stars.
Cyndi Lauper
If Cyndi Lauper isn’t dressed a bit wackily, she’s not Cyndi Lauper. However, she’s got a little too much disconnected wacky going on here for my taste. It looks like she let a 3-year-old cut her bangs - and her leggings - with safety scissors. I love the flared black leather jacket with the attached tartan drape, but the lack of pants is a bit disturbing. The bright red lips are as adorable as they’ve been for the past 30 years, though. Final score: 3.5 stars.
Tyler Glenn
This look came sooo close to being a big hit, but he should have taken Coco Chanel’s advice and, after he got dressed, taken one thing off. And that thing should have been the jacket. I love the bold purple shirt contrasting with his white hair and dark brows, and the studded collar adds the right level of bling. I’m not sure why, but I even really like the skinny, shiny, just-a-hair-too-short pants, and the black shoes with studs echoing the shirt collar. But the girl-cut silver jacket is a bit too early Elton John and spoils the effect. Final score: 4 stars.
Nicky Minaj
This dress makes my eyes hurt. The color is just painful. Plus, it’s too long and too bulky for her, and although the chunky, contrasting jewelry is the perfect proportion, I can hardly tear my eyes away from the dress to look at it. She manages to make the heavy eye makeup and cotton-candy pink lips work, but the painfully platinum, giant hair is all out of proportion. Final score: 1 star.
Lance Bass
Not many men could pull off a skinny, shiny, cobalt blue tux, but Lance does it with style and ease. From the casually open color of the black shirt to the artfully tamed fauxhawk, Lance oozes style and class while still being funky and unique. Final score: 5 stars.
Jordin Sparks
Jordin is a beautiful, young girl with a lovely figure, but you’d never know it to see her in this dress. It looks like her grandmother’s afghan, with angular stripes that do not flatter her hips, a plunging neckline with a modesty panel that’s a little TOO modest, and severe, slicked-back hair and minimal makeup. Her beautiful smile saved her from a complete failure, though. Final score: 1 star.
As my mother would have said, “He’s just a mess.” Leather pants are hot; baggy leather pants are not. His droopy, zipper-front jacket looks like the lining of the jacket he was supposed to wear. Although the fanged hat is the absolute envy of my 3-year-old, it’s not particularly appropriate for the red carpet. And I’m not sure what the red stripes at his ankles are, but I think they might be the remnants of the restraints from when he broke out of the crazy farm. Final score: 1 star.
Karmin (Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan)
Ladies first: Amy Heidemann’s dress is a beautiful shiny print fabric with just a hint of peplum, a big keyhole cutout that shows off a cute figure without being too cleavage-y, and a vintage 40s starlet hairdo that complements her retro red lips and catseye makeup perfectly. The coordinating cobalt nail polish and clutch are the ideal finishing touch. Final score: 5 stars.
And now the gentleman: Nick Noonan wears a coordinating deep blue tux made a bit more casual by a white cotton shirt (it's a pity the lapels weren’t just a bit crisper), and grey-blue suede shoes adding a retro touch. The hair and beard could have been a bit neater, as could the lumpy pocket square. Final score: 4 stars.
Bottom line? A few stars need to find a new stylist, including 1-star-ers Nicky Minaj, Jordin Sparks, and The perfect 5-star winners of the night were MC Hammer, Luke Bryan, Lance Bass, and Amy Heidemann, with Carly Rae Jepsen a very respectable runner-up with 4.5 stars. It’s not often that the men are the fashion stars at an awards show, but the men did themselves very proud last night.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thanks. Giving.

My pastor opened her sermon today by recalling a Thanksgiving season a few years ago when she was idly reading magazine headlines in line at the grocery store. The giant banner headline on one of the magazines proudly proclaimed: “Happy Thanksgetting!” The associated article encouraged readers to splurge on themselves as a way to celebrate the holiday. Our society, which is so focused on getting things for ourselves, and on getting more and more things, has one day in the year when we focus on being thankful for what we have and on sharing our bounty with others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves, and this magazine was attempting to turn it into yet another day of self-centeredness, consumerism, and greed.

Instead of changing the holiday from Thanksgiving to Thanksgetting, the pastor went on, we as Christians should change the day from Thanksgiving to “Thanks. Giving.” We should not only be giving thanks for what we have, but we should be sharing what we have with others. After all, the first Thanksgiving was a meal where the Pilgrims shared the bounty of their harvest with those who had helped them attain that bounty, and also where the native Americans shared the bounty of their own hunting and agricultural skills. They were thankful for what they had, and they were sharing what they had with others.

There is nothing wrong with spending the Thanksgiving season being grateful for our health, our family, our jobs, our homes, and our clothes. But how much richer the holiday is when we also share what we have. This Thanksgiving, as I think of how thankful I am that my children are healthy, I will take a few dollars that I might have spent on buying them yet another toy or another outfit that they really don’t need, and give it to a cause that will help other children stay or get healthy. As I buy all the fixings for our Thanksgiving dinner, I will buy some extra for those families who struggle to put even a simple meal on the table. As I enjoy having my husband home from work for the holiday, I will remember all those who are home every day because they can’t find jobs, and I will search through my closet for my “work clothes” that I no longer need and give them to someone who doesn’t have appropriate clothes for a job interview.

I will be thankful, and I will give. Because that’s a wonderful and meaningful way for me to celebrate this holiday: Thanks. Giving.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

You Say It's Your Birthday

Today is my birthday. I am now 44 years old. A nice, symmetrical number. Half a lifetime ago, I was 22. Another lifetime from now, I’ll be 88 (God willin’ and the crick don’t rise). I spent my 44th birthday with my grandmother, my sister, my husband, and my kids. For presents, I got earrings and a CD.

The way we celebrate birthdays changes through the years. When you’re age 1 or 2, there’s cake and balloons and your immediate family and that’s kind of fun but you don’t really get the significance of it. Once you hit age 3, you’ve very aware that the day is all about you and that there will be cake and presents and balloons. At age 6 or so, the party changes from family to school friends and the presents are really all that matters to you. Once you hit age 13, birthdays become not about the presents but all about the money that comes inside the birthday cards. That lasts until about age 21, when you start getting mostly dull, practical presents like clothes and stuff for your apartment, and the most exciting thing about your birthday is going drinking with your friends.

And then you turn 30 and birthdays begin to remind you that time is passing. And it’s passing faster and faster every year. You have enough of the basics that the presents turn from practical to fun again – instead of the sweater you got from your girlfriend and the lamp you got from your folks when you were 23, you get concert tickets from your wife and a night of free babysitting from your mom. And the fun stuff kind of makes up for the rapidly advancing numbers on the calendar.

And then you hit 40 and maybe you’re not so excited about birthdays. Eh, it’s just another day on the calendar. Nothing to be upset about, but nothing to make a big deal about, either. It’s much more fun celebrating your kids’ birthdays. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have living parents and grandparents, celebrating their birthdays and the fact that you ARE fortunate that they’re still around to celebrate birthdays.

And it stays this way until you’re 70 or so. And at that point, birthdays become something to celebrate and be excited about again, because you are aware that each one is a gift, and that you never know which one will be your last. And because birthdays are a reason for your kids and your grandkids to come and visit. The cake is nice, and the presents are nice, but the family is really what makes your birthday happy at that point.

So half a lifetime ago, I probably had a party with my parents and my sister at my folks’ house, and maybe I went out to dinner with some friends, and I likely got presents like a slipcover for my couch and a bag of potting soil for my window boxes. And a lifetime from now, I’ll probably have a party with my children and my grandchildren in the private dining room at Shady Pines and my presents will be things like the good brand of denture cream and a box of designer Depends.

But I’m glad to know that I’m in the very happy middle right now, where I can enjoy spending time with the generation ahead of me and the generation coming up behind me, and that the presents I get are purely for my enjoyment, and that time is passing but that there’s still lots of time left that hopefully I will use as successfully as I’ve used the time gone by. In the words of Dr. Pangloss, this is the best of all possible worlds.

Happy birthday to me!

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Angel Kisses

One tradition I love to do with my son is what I call “angel kisses.” Just before I go to bed at night, after he’s been asleep for quite a while, I tiptoe into his room and give him a kiss on the forehead. He’s a pretty heavy sleeper so he rarely even stirs, but he knows that I do it. If my husband and I are going out for the night and a babysitter will be putting him to bed, I can often quash his protests by reminding him that I will come in and give him an angel kiss when I get home, while he’s asleep. So even if he doesn’t wake up to feel it, he knows I’ll check on him before morning.

One of the reasons I love angel kisses is that they give me the chance to see my son when he is quiet and peaceful. At the age of three, he is often rebellious and petulant and disobedient and frustrating to be around. But seeing him asleep lets me imagine him as his most perfect self: calm, unresisting, and sweet. It reminds me of his potential, and it reassures me that he has that calm, sweet boy inside him who someday will once again emerge from the rebellious tot. After a particularly frustrating day, I look at his sleeping face and think, “Why aren’t you like this all the time? Why can’t you stop fighting against me and obey? Why can’t you trust that I’m doing what’s best for you? Why can’t you just submit your stubborn little will to my greater wisdom?”

And then I realize that God must look at me and think the same thing. But then I also remember that He always sees me through the blood of Christ as that peaceful, obedient servant that I could – and should – be. And I forgive my son for his stubborn spirit, just as God forgives me for mine. And I thank my Father above that He loves me infinitely more than I am humanly capable of loving my own dear children.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:9-11)


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