Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Christmas Message We Often Ignore

This is my husband’s first Christmas without his father. This is my family’s second Christmas divided by unresolved conflict. In my house, at least, some of the “magic” of Christmas has been usurped by another not-so-sparkly reality: The season of celebration often serves to magnify our suffering. Perhaps on this day more than any other, we notice the painful absence of loved ones, long for the way things used to be, or wish for things, often intangible, that we don’t have.

Likewise, the birth of Christ is inseparable from his crucifixion—Jesus’ joyous beginning, the day that we call Christmas, is eternally and inextricably tied to his agonizing ending.  Our Savior was born to suffer. In fact, even before he was born, Jesus knew that his Father’s will for him was rejection and death (Luke 24:26)—and although Jesus was God in the flesh, he still experienced the very human struggle with suffering, asking his Father if he might spare him, just hours before his crucifixion.

Coupling the beauty of Christmas with the anguish of the crucifixion is not a message that our culture of holiday excess encourages. But it’s a reminder I think we all need: When we were reborn—transformed into children of God through salvation in Christ Jesus—we also were promised suffering. That’s not the gospel most of us want to preach or personally embrace—it’s much more attractive to promise a life of prosperity. But let me say it again: As followers of Christ, we are called to suffering. (“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.” – 1 Peter 3:21)

The world is supposed to hate us, because we’re professing a perfect God in an imperfect world—and imperfection cannot stand to be in the presence of perfection, just as darkness cannot coexist with light. As children of the almighty, we are not of this world, so why should it embrace us?

But this isn’t suffering for the sake of suffering. It’s part of the process of sanctification—our purpose here on earth—leading to eventual glorification in heaven.

Here’s the part where some of us particularly struggle: We are called to not only endure our suffering, but to delight in it—to see our suffering as a symbol of our communion with Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take [the thorn in my side] away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong.”

Did you catch that? Our struggles are an opportunity to let Christ carry us—to bring us humbly before him, relying not on our own strength, but instead his inexhaustible supply. It’s also a chance to share in Christ’s death, and eventually, to witness his glory on the throne. So, yes, Christmas is a reminder of Christ’s birth and his death, but it’s also a reminder of the redemption we’re offered because of both—and that is the ultimate Christmas gift.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

What I Think Phil Robertson Was Trying to Say
I’ve been writing professionally for 7 years, the last several of which I spent as a sex editor at a national magazine. I’m also a Christian, which puts me in the minority in the liberal media world (especially among sex editors).

Writing about sex, while still being deeply devoted to my faith, has been difficult to reconcile (although God did create sex, and he did design it to be pleasurable. But that’s another article). Many editors have told me I’m too traditional or conservative over the years (and I’ve even lost out on work opportunities because of this, although no one would ever admit it). At the same time, I’ve been the subject of Sunday school chagrin because my beat doesn’t sync with what a Christian writer is supposed to cover.

I’ve also been in the position I imagine Phil Robertson believed he was in: being offered a rare opportunity to spread the message of my faith, through an outlet built on an entirely different (if not opposing) set of beliefs.

In my case, it didn’t work. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that trying to use liberal media as a platform for a conservative message rarely works. 

I’ve had an editor remove an unobtrusive reference to God (that was, by the way, totally appropriate to the story). I’ve also had views counter to my own injected into articles with my name attached to them. I’ve seen editors emphasize atheism, while watering down Christianity to vague, but widely palatable, “spirituality.”

As long as there is someone editing my work, my beliefs will be diluted, skewed, or just disregarded. That’s the way it goes.

Journalists have a story to tell. And a story is ultimately an argument: The language isn’t always incendiary, accusatory, or divisive, but the journalist’s job is to persuade you to believe (or least consider) what he’s saying as truth. This requires carefully selecting quotes—bits and pieces of often-lengthy conversations—to support the story being told. Quotes that further the argument, whether through content, tone, or just through an unfortunate lack of context, will be used; quotes that don’t convey the message will be ignored.

Which makes a liberal publication a dangerous place for an outspoken Christian like Phil Robertson. In his interview with GQ, I’m guessing—although I have no way to prove this—that Robertson made statements about his faith that the masses would have easily swallowed. But, then, what kind of story would that be? Would have gotten as many clicks? I doubt it.

Let me clarify: I don’t fault GQ for cherry-picking quotes. That’s journalism. But I do think this is a cautionary tale for Christians: A secular journalist is NOT going to be sympathetic to your message. Which means he’s not going to say, “Well, I know what he meant” and opt to leave out an easy-to-misconstrue quote that would undoubtedly raise a ruckus. (Not commenting specifically on Phil here, by the way.)

He doesn’t care if you meant “We’re all equal in the eyes of God” but it didn’t quite come out that way. He’s going to publish exactly what you said, regardless of the intention behind it, especially if it adds to the argument he’s making. Which I believe, in the case of GQ, was that Robertson is a backwoods Bible thumper, whose views are so off-color that readers should perhaps be amused even more than they should be offended. The Bible thumper part is by Phil’s own admission; the second part is the writer’s addition.

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in journalism school: Know your audience. In other words, balance what you want to say with what your audience wants to hear. In the case of GQ, much of the audience is, in fact, gay. A few years back, reported that GQ was “the gayest magazine” on newsstands (of course, excluding magazines like Out that are written specifically for a homosexual audience), with 10.35 percent of male readers identifying as gay or bisexual.

Now let’s rewind to the argument I believe the writer was trying to make—that Robertson is everything a GQ reader is not—which means the Duck Dynasty patriarch’s opinions about homosexuality would, of course, be emphasized. (I also think the writer consciously tried to distance himself from Robertson’s beliefs—lest the readers mistakenly assume he, a husband and father, was siding with his subject—by inserting curse words, like G-D, into the story. His only concession to Phil was that living on a farm really does seem nice.)

I think that what Robertson said was jarringly blunt, if not crude. But I don’t think he intended to spread a message of hate.

The Internet has been ablaze with stories claiming that Robertson equated homosexuality with bestiality. Let’s review what he said about his definition of sin: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards the slanders, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”

Nowhere does Robertson say that bestiality and homosexuality are one in the same. Yes, he mentioned them within a breath of each other, but he wasn’t equating the two. What he was saying: According to Christian beliefs, both are sinful acts. And while we, as humans, may categorize sin by varying degrees of wrong, God does not.

Why? Because Christian teachings say that any sin makes us unholy—it doesn’t matter how “wrong” or “acceptable” the world tells us it is. And Christians don’t decide what falls under the umbrella of sin. God does. (He also decided to send his son to redeem us.)

Here’s the part of the message that people miss: Just as God doesn’t have a hierarchy  of  sins (barring blasphemy), he also doesn’t categorize humans. He loves us all equally, no matter our sexual preference, our color, our gender, our line of work. That doesn’t mean he’s not grieved by our sins. Our sins just don’t make him love us any less.

And tolerance is not to be confused with love. You can refuse to tolerate, say, your teenager’s habit of getting drunk, but that doesn’t mean you love your child any less. Likewise, the Christian faith doesn’t condone homosexuality, but it also doesn’t condemn the people who practice it. I think that’s what Phil meant.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lemon Marshmallow Meringue Pie

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be writing about pumpkin, apples, cinnamon—not lemon, the most summery of fruits. But this recipe was practically begging to be made, all because of a bag of lemon-flavored marshmallows. And a slice of pie I ate a year ago.

Let’s start with the mallows: I’m a sucker for novelty foods, especially those involving marshmallow. So, naturally, when I spotted Lemon Meringue Campfire Mallow Bursts (i.e. off-brand fruity marshmallows) at Wal-Mart, I HAD to buy them. Usually, flavored mallows disappoint me. Take Jet-Puffed Pumpkin Spice Mallows, for example, which taste like plain marshmallows that have been spritzed with pumpkin-scented room spray. 

But, WOW! These no-name marshmallows are amazing. The lemon flavor is intense and authentic, so good, in fact, that I nearly ate the entire bag in an evening. Which is why I melted them down into marshmallow crème to use as a topping for my lemon pie.

That brings me to the actual pie: I once had a piece of lemon meringue pie with marshmallow fluff instead of traditional meringue on top. I’ve gone back to the restaurant that served it, hoping for a second slice, but the place never had it again.

So, I’ve been forced to recreate it. I started with a basic graham cracker crust, then borrowed a lemony filling from a Bobby Flay dessert. Finally, I whipped up a batch of homemade Cool Whip, which I combined with my homemade marshmallow crème (these are the things I do when my husband is out of town).

The final result: a tart, beautiful pie, with just enough sweetness to bring me back for more. 

Lemon Marshmallow Meringue Pie

What you need

The crust
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup white sugar
6 Tbsp butter, melted
½ tsp cinnamon

The filling
1 ½ cups white sugar
6 Tbsp cornstarch
¼ tsp salt
½ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup cold water
3 egg yolks, well beaten
2 Tbsp butter
1 ½ cups boiling water
1 Tsp lemon extract
1 Tsp lemon zest (optional)
3 drops yellow food coloring

The topping
1 bag of marshmallows (I used lemon-flavored ones)
2 tsp light corn syrup
1 pint heavy whipping cream
½ cup powdered sugar
1 Tsp lemon extract
1 drop yellow food coloring

Put it all together
  1. Make the crust: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Combine the graham cracker crumbs and sugar with the melted butter, and press into a 9-inch pie plate. Bake for 7 minutes. Cool completely.
  2. Make the filling: Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan, then slowly incorporate the lemon juice and cold water. Add the egg yolks, and mix until smooth. Next, add the butter; gradually stir in the boiling water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. After boiling for 2 minutes, remove from the burner, and stir in the lemon extract, zest, and food coloring. Allow to cool half an hour before pouring into the pie crust. Refrigerate for at least half an hour.
  3. Make the topping: Place the marshmallows in a microwave-safe bowl, and drizzle the corn syrup on top. Microwave for 30 seconds (no longer or the mallows could burn), and stir until the marshmallows are smooth and creamy. 
  4. Whisk the whipping cream until soft peaks form, then gradually stir in the powdered sugar until fully incorporated. Add the lemon extract and food coloring. 
  5. Use an electric mixer to combine the marshmallow creme and the whipped cream mixture. Spread evenly over the chilled pie. Chill for another 4 hours before serving.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Why Do We Yawn?

My husband and I often play a Google game: We type in the beginning of a question, then let Google fill in the rest. It's always funny (and sometimes disturbing) to see what's most often on people's minds. So, I figured, why not do a service to society, and answer these most burning questions? (I know this isn't about decorating or baking. But this interests me, so there!) 

So, Why Do We Yawn?

Just looking at this kitty may make you yawn.
Until recently, the answer to this eternal question would have made you yawn: Scientists simply didn’t know why we open wide when we’re tired. Lucky for you—you curious Googler, you—a 2013 study review from India summed up all the newest research that points to potential purposes of yawning.

Theory #1: Yawning is like a shot of energizing caffeine to your body. According to the researchers, “evidence suggests that drowsiness is the most common stimulus of a yawn." No surprise there. But bedtime isn’t the only time drowsiness sets in—it may also be induced by boredom, which stimulates your sleep system.

So, when you brain is nodding off, yawning may be a way to spike your heart rate and boost your arousal, much in the same way that caffeine does. How? The physical motion of opening your mouth compresses your “carotid body”—a small cluster of sensory receptors in your carotid artery—and this may trigger the release of alerting hormones.

Theory #2: Yawning is a way to cool down your brain. In a recent study, researchers found that three minutes before rats yawned—yes, they yawn too!—their brain temperature was higher than normal. After they yawned, their brains dropped a few degrees. Another study showed that as room temperature rose, parakeets started yawning more frequently.

And, finally, research in humans revealed that when people placed a cold pack on their foreheads, they yawned less than when they held a warm pack to their head. (The scientists note that it may not be so much about brain temperature, though, as the arousing effect of feeling cold.)

So how might yawning act like a fan for your gray matter? Simple: The contraction and relaxation of muscles in your face boosts blood flow, which helps dissipate heat. And if your eyes water during a yawn—as many people’s do—more heat may be drawn from your skull.

Theory #3: We yawn to bond. You know that annoying (and embarrassing) urge to yawn because your neighbor did? Well, you can pat yourself on the back, because it may be a subconscious expression of empathy. Seeing someone else’s mouth gaping open may activate your brain’s mirror neurons, which tell your body to mimic the behavior you're watching—especially if that person is a family member or close friend.

Theory #4: Yawning shields your ears from damage. When you need to pop your ears, what do you do? You open your mouth. Likewise, yawning may serve as a “defense reflex”—a way to protect your ears in situations (like rapid altitude changes) that could trap air in your middle ear. However, because swallowing can also offer this same benefit, this probably isn’t the sole purpose of yawning, the scientists say.

Debunked Theory: Yawning is a sign you're oxygen deficient. For centuries, scientists and laypeople alike thought that yawning removed “bad air” from the lungs and increased oxygen traffic to the brain. However, studies have now shown that people don’t yawn any more than normal when they inhale high amounts of carbon dioxide—which should trigger a need for oxygen, and therefore yawning, if this theory were true.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steal the Style: Cameron Diaz's Manhattan Living Room

I was particularly excited to read my last issue of Elle Decor, which featured Cameron Diaz's immaculately styled NYC apartment on the cover. Part of my pleasure was, of course, peeking inside a famous person's place. But even better, I recently interviewed her for a story...and she was in this very apartment while we talked on the phone!

What I love about the place: Diaz chose a warm, layered color palette, yet still managed to create a sense of spa-like calm, without the typical white-on-white sterility. As a commenter on the Elle Decor website wrote, "Her home is an aphrodisiac of gorgeous textures, making it impossible to feel cold." 

I'm not crazy about the custom wall covering, which says "cheap Mexican-inspired hotel" to me, as do the pleated lamp shades, with their outdated A-line silhouette. 

These transgressions can be forgiven, though, if only because the splashes of buttery yellow are so delicious. Check out that chandelier! Yellow Murano glass? Amazing.

Want to steal Cameron's style, without the million-dollar price tag? Here's how:

Chester Tufted Upholstered Chair

Murano Glass Style Yellow Pendant Lamp Chandelier

HeatherBrooke The Galley Cocktail Table in Glazed Gold Iron

I kind of hate the overbearing cocktail table in Diaz's design. It's clunky, and screams "hotel lobby" to me (notice a theme: Parts of this room is really bordering on La Quinta Inn for me). So, in keeping with the elements of the design that I do like, I'd opt for this...

Calloway Light Beige Linen Tuxedo Back Sofa

East End Imports Loft Wool Armchair in Orange Tweed

International Caravan Seville Ottoman

White Ceramic Buddha Head

If this creeps you out (as it does me), any solid white statue will work.

Image by Charlie Kenya Decorative Pillow

Untitled, 1957 Framed Art Print by Franz Kline

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My First Etsy Listing: Vintage Teal Dresser with Distressed Finish!

I've been interested in refinishing and selling furniture on Etsy for some time, and now that I've gone freelance, I actually have the time! I chose this adorable dresser as my first project for a few reasons:

1. That deer decal is precious! I'm always nervous about any business venture that involves throwing out money upfront (in other words, any business venture). But when I spotted the sweet deer on this chifforobe, I knew I couldn't leave it behind. So he came home with me. 

2. I won't be tempted to keep it. This is a nursery/children's item, and since I obviously don't have children (unless you count Kitty Adelaide), the urge to hoard my first piece is not strong. It's still there, but I'm fighting it.

3. Chifforobes are fantastic. You can find a standard dresser anywhere. But chifforobes are harder to come by...and so classy! They have a distinctly vintage feel, yet are still incredibly functional. 

4. It has a history. This piece was made by Lullabye Fine Furniture for Children, a company started in 1897 in the Wisconsin home of John Bukolt, the inventor of the first swinging crib. It was likely produced in the early- to mid-1900s, based on this advertisement, which features a similar 5-drawer chifforobe. (If you want to read the words, the ad is here.)

I wasn't crazy about the wood's color, so I borrowed my generous (and brave) husband's belt and orbital sanders and went to town. Then I painted it a pale teal with a satin finish, which I distressed and sealed with furniture wax. 

See the listing here! 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Oreo Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

This post is supposed to be about pumpkin cinnamon rolls. I stocked up on all the necessary ingredients this weekend, but every time I thought about dealing with yeast, my zeal for cinnamon rolls dissipated. 

Besides, I have a jar of Oreos getting staler by the second. (Without fail, my guests ask for an Oreo, and I have to warn them about the compromised quality, thanks to my non-air-tight cookie jar. That's what I get for buying a $4 jar.)

I wasn't sure how Oreos would taste with pumpkin, especially Birthday Cake Oreos, which have been lingering around my house for months. But I plunged ahead. (Don't be alarmed by the colored dots in the photos. Those are from the Birthday Cake creme filling.) 

I found the recipe on Something Swanky, but modified it slightly. The recipe calls for Oreos crumbled on top, which I did, but with an extra flair: I tossed the cookie pieces in butter, then covered them in yellow cake mix, creating a crumb-like topping. I ditched the chocolate chips on top, since that might be TOO sweet (if that's even possible).

My first tester was a sugar fanatic like me, so she, of course, wanted a second serving. But the true test was my husband, who had just eaten a steak (which to him is the definition of culinary heaven). He gave me a fist pump, which in Frank language means a job well done (and also means I'm apparently married to a teenage boy). 

Oreo Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

What you need

The crust:
20 Oreo cookies + 5 for topping
2.5 Tbsp butter + 2.5 Tbsp for topping
1/3 cup yellow cake mix 

The filling:
2 (8-oz) packages cream cheese (I used lower-calorie neufchatel) 
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
3 Tbsp flour
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice (I just used cinnamon)
1/4 tsp salt

Put it all together
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line an 8" square baking dish with foil, then lightly coat it with cooking spray.
  2. Crush the 20 Oreos for the crust in a food processor (I hand-crushed them for a chunkier crust), then toss with 2.5 Tbsp melted butter. Press into the prepared pan, and bake for 10 minutes.
  3. To make the filling, beat the cream cheese (at room temperature) with the sugar. Once smooth, add the pumpkin puree, followed by the eggs one at a time. Finally, incorporate the flour, spice, and salt. Pour the mixture over the crust.
  4. Crumble the remaining 5 Oreos, toss them in 2.5 Tbsp melted butter, then coat them in the cake mix. Sprinkle evenly on top of the pumpkin mixture.
  5. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Cool completely, then cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours before serving.

Monday, October 7, 2013

For Sale: Houses So Tiny They're Adorable!

When I was a kid, I fantasized about living in our laundry room. I imagined a twin bed tucked into a shelf, drawers under my box springs, shelves over my head. It seemed so cozy.

Now, my fascination extends to tiny houses. Like "under 1000 square feet" tiny. There's something so appealing about a compact space done right. It feels functional, yet whimsical. Conservative, yet playful. (And I like the idea of minimal cleaning!)

These listings from across the country fit the bill: super small, and super adorable.

11513 30th Avenue NE | Seattle, WA

670 square feet
2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom
Built in 1927

1850 Ardmore Road NW | Atlanta, GA

995 square feet
3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms
Built in 1942

2800 Westwood Avenue | Nashville, TN

723 Square Feet
1 bedroom, 1 bathroom
Built in 1940

189 Milner Avenue | Albany, NY

783 square feet
2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom
Built in 1940

706 51st St. S | Birmingham, AL

740 square feet
2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom
Built in 1940

4700 Portland Avenue | Minneapolis, MN

980 square feet
2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom
Built in 1924

You may also enjoy...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

My Color Obsession: Royal Blue

My whole life I have adamantly hated blue. Until I found this purse:

It was waiting for me on the T.J. Maxx clearance rack. (Side note: Has anyone else noticed how pricey T.J. purses have become? I miss the days of $25 bags.) I fell in love with the rich, sumptuous jewel tone, especially when paired with the slightly irreverent gold spikes. 

When I decided to refinish a credenza left behind by our house's former owner, I took inspiration from my handbag-of-the-moment. I opted for royal blue ("Royal Breeze") high gloss. This was going to be a statement piece (or as my husband might call it, a glowing blue beacon in the corner of the room). I love it. Which is a good thing, because Home Depot kindly gave me a full gallon of the paint, instead of the pint I asked for. 

Next came this Loloi rug, purchased from Tuesday Morning for just $150 (compared to a list price of more than $350). (The colors match in person. I promise.) 

Then came trouble. I realized it is almost impossible to find royal blue (or even cobalt) accessories. For months, my living room has felt incomplete, all of the blue notes clustered on one side of the room. 

At last, I found these Cynthia Rowley lanterns, which I hung from my mantel (again, they do coordinate in person). 

This still leaves one part of the room without blue. A few interesting possibilities...

Gates Lacquer Side Table

I've recently become obsessed with lacquered finishes (so Hollywood regency!). 
And I can't resist a funky end table, especially one that looks like a bird cage.

Hillary Thomas Rock n' Rolla Blue Velvet Finial 

I love unexpected flashes of color in a room. Even better if it's from a natural (read: non-gaudy) source, like these agate stones. What better place than the tops of your lamps?  

Anglepoise Original 1227 Desk Lamp

Industrial elements keep a room from feeling too frilly or contrived. A carefree color, like cobalt, keeps industrial accessories from feeling, well, too industrial.

Handwoven Stanza Cobalt Wool Rug

Coral pattern is as wild as animal print, but without the boudoir vibe.