Semester 3: The Summer of New York

There I was, sitting at Maddy's kitchen table, drinking the nth cup of tea of the evening, trying to figure out what touristy London thing to do the next day.

"You know, I should just plan days and just tell all my friends I'm going to go to Hampton Court and all of this fun stuff," she said. Apparently London is just like New York in that if you live there, you never do anything native.

So... I'm stealing her idea. Semester 3 is going to celebrate the wonder, the insanity, the terror and the magic that is NEW YORK CITY! And since The Winter of New York sounds a whole lot like sitting in warm Starbucks for 3 months and watching the hipsters pass by, let's do this the summer way, shall we?

Saturday Night Fever (waaaaaait... this was set in Bay Ridge?? wtf.)

Readings (choose 4 of 6)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Selected chapters from Gotham by Edwin G. Burrows

Assignments (at least one of these open-invite to all blog readers!)
Visit 5 places that were written about on Daytonian in Manhattan 
Visit Governor's Island
Eat a NY hotdog
Take the Staten Island Ferry
Bake a NY Cheesecake
Interview a few people and make a little video about why they love New York
Write a visitor's guide to NY for the blog
Once-a-week photographic posts of NYC


Soul Stories: What I've learned.

Looking absurdly happy during the recent 4-miler race.
Well, it's been quite the semester. I started out in a leotard and I'm ending up pulling the white cat hair of our second cat off my running shorts. Here are some things that got me out of my comfort zone over the past three months:

  • Ballet classes (especially the jumps!)
  • Running. Almost every single time I leave the house to run, I am scared of it. So, new runners, don't be faked out by how excited I am to sign up for races. I am still scared.
  • Cooking lessons. Or should I say, the food I cooked before cooking lessons made me uncomfortable? 
  • Uhhh does wedding planning count? Because then I would include keeping on a budget. 
  • Adopting a second cat. 
  • Applying to speak at a conference this fall about user experience design.

And coming soon, three 10ks in the month of May!

What prompted me to dive into the notion of discomfort, though, was Ingrid Betancourt's book about being held hostage. And as I read Matt Long's book about being hit by a bus and A Rope and a Prayer about being kidnapped in Afghanistan, I found the underlying stories resonating. These people dug deep because there was one goal: to stay alive.

And suddenly we're full circle to the running conference from last week, aren't we? That when we are focused on a goal, we find reserves of energy in depths we did not know existed. When our life has direction, we stop sweating the small things and start feeding the only thing that matters.

Of course, I didn't spend my semester in life-threatening situations. But I do know that the biggest challenge I faced with all of the things listed in those bullet points above was: am I the kind of person who ____? Who does ballet? Who runs? Who knows enough to speak at a conference or get married? The hardest thing about all of these actions was not the action itself, but the mental barrier of getting over feeling like a fake, like a hack, like someone who did not belong.

I found myself saying "well, why not?" about each one of these things. Am I the kind of person who learns to cook on the internet? Well, why not? Did they give out permission slips for that sort of thing when I wasn't around? Obviously not. So I gave myself permission. I gave myself the go-ahead to wander into any sort of classroom or arena and say "me too, I want to try this."

And I suppose, when it comes down to it, my ability to give myself permission to try it all, the whole damn buffet table of life, is what I feel hums deep in my soul. Whatever a soul is and wherever it lives, mine is one made of possibility and opportunity. And so long as I continue to feed it, I believe it's going to take me wherever I want to go.


Les livres de 2011: round 3

I feel like I've written less about this Soul semester than I did about Memory, but don't take that as a sign that I haven't been thinking about it. I have a wrap-up post scheduled for later this week because my third semester starts on Sunday (!!) and I can't wait to dive into that one.

But let's do some book reviews today, shall we?

16. Reading Jesus by Mary Gordon
One afternoon, in a cab, it occurred to Mary Gordon that she'd spent a lot of time analyzing literature and barely any time analyzing the Bible. She set out to read the four gospels and write about them in her new book and let me tell you - if you have ever enjoyed the experience of dissecting words in a literature class, you're going to appreciate this book. 

Shelves at Shakespeare & Co in Paris.
Having read it, I feel like I can now say that John is a writer who goes for the intellectual storytelling and that Luke is a bit more descriptive and poetic. And why shouldn't they have different tones and styles? The writers of these four gospels were recounting what they had heard themselves, with tone and voice specific to their personalities. 

"I am uneasy calling myself a person of faith," she starts her book, and I appreciated this candor, as I myself am somewhat uneasy about it. She's never preachy and is very honest about what moments in the text are troubling to her as a reader. But she's also honest about what aspects of religion she's drawn to… and for that, I found it to be a really balanced read.

17. The Girl who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
What a strange premise for a book! The narrator, the daughter of a Danish woman and an African-American man, lives through a family tragedy and is sent to live with her grandma in Portland, Oregon. Race tensions, emotional trauma and a couple of thought-provoking coincidences make up the ingredients of this plot.

I loved the writing in this book. I read a lot of non-fiction lately and it was so lovely to dive back into pure story. I especially loved all the references to Danish (language, cooking, etc.) because I grew up with a couple of guys whose mom is Danish… and because I'm a cultural junkie and will take foreign-ness when I can take it! 

18. Mary by Janis Cooke Newman
I will also take President Lincoln when I can! If you liked reading Loving Frank when it came out several years ago, you might like this book. Loving Frank told the story of Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress; Mary tells the story of Lincoln's wife - her shopping addiction, her mental illness and the world she lived in.

I think Historical Fiction is becoming one of my most favorite genres. I learned so much about Lincoln, the Civil War, Chicago in the 1800s and (obviously) Mary Lincoln. I'd love to do a presidential road trip one day, wherein I drive around a bunch of the middle states and visit libraries and original presidential homes. 

Warning: this book is BIG. That said, it flies and does such a nice job integrating early life and modern life for the Lincolns that you speed right on through.

19. The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball
When I told Kelley I was doing a semester on discomfort, she jumped on it. "You HAVE to read this book called The Dirty Life," she said. "It's about this woman in NYC who falls in love with a farmer and ends up living on this amazing farm and loving it!" Then she bought it for me for my birthday. 

I liked this book a lot and not just because it constantly reminded me of my summers working at Muscoot Farm. (No joke, I really miss milking cows!)  I really felt like I learned some things about growing vegetables and farm life and the debate between tractors and horses. And though it didn't tempt me to move out of the city and up to nowhere, NY, I did talk with Chris about doing a vacation to a farm with our kids one day. Planned!

20. The Wheel of Life by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
When you grow up with a mom who's a cancer nurse, you've heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Sitting at the dinner table with my mom gave us a daily dose of how someone died and who they saw on the way out. Sometimes it was Jesus and sometimes it was a loved one and sometimes it was just a bright light. These weren't religious recounting, but rather matter-of-fact responses to "how was your day?"

Ironically, I was hunting around my closet for the Bible the other day to read the gospels for the Soul project and I found this book instead. It's Kubler-Ross' final book after a long career of writing about and researching death and dying. This memoir tells her life story, from growing up in Switzerland, to putting herself through med school, to volunteering with Holocaust victims in Poland, to an unexpected career in the U.S. She's the one who identified the 5 stages of grief and she's the one who interviewed over 20,000 people who had near-death experiences. 

This book comforted me. It gave me this sweeping, enormous perspective on life and death and though I know there are tons of skeptics out there, it seems a bit presumptuous to judge a lady who witnessed thousands of deaths when I have witnessed zero. Without using religion to argue the existence of an after-life, Kubler-Ross comes at it with data and if your mind is just a tiny bit open to the magic of the world, this book is going to give you some great food for thought.

21. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Alright, what is on your nightstand? What are you reading? PUT IT AWAY! This is totally the next book you should read.

It's fiction and it's so, so, so lovely. I borrowed it from the library (per usual) and I'm totally going to go buy it so that I own a copy. It's the story of three grown sisters who end up back at home in Columbus, Ohio. The characters were so real to me that I felt like she was describing aspects of my siblings and me perfectly. 

The voice in this book is also amazing. She tells it from the collective sisters' point of view and it's so unique. Oh! And also! The thing is littered with Shakespeare quotes because the father in the story is a Shakespeare professor. Eleanor Brown literally uses the Bard's citations as almost a mini-language in this story. So impressive.

On another note, the author has an awesome little blog! Isn't she adorable? Go read about how much she loves Gone with the Wind. I totally want to hang out with her. And re-read her book immediately.

Excerpt alert!

"What do you think all those years were if not for this?" our mother asked. "We don't just come from the womb bearing our talents. They grow from all the things we learn. And if you hadn't worked at restaurants, or you hadn't learned to throw together meals from whatever you had, you'd never be the kind of cook you are now." (307)

22. On Life After Death by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Right. So now I'm obsessed with this after-life stuff. After reading The Wheel of Life, I needed to track down this short little book of her essays. I highly recommend if the following quote resonates with you:

"We have to accept, in humbleness, that there are millions of things which we cannot understand. This is not to say that those things which we cannot understand do not exist, or are not real simply on the grounds that we are not able to understand them." (5)

What are you guys reading lately?

From the front lines: life as a 2-cat family.

First things first: our expectations.

We expected higher vet expenses to budget for. That we'd go through more food. That we'd need to scoop the litter box daily. That we'd have more fur flying around.

We expected snuggling brother cats though, a younger buddy for Oscar who would get him moving a little more often and provide company while we work long hours and travel all the time. We expected adorable photos of two cats sleeping curled up, Oscar giving a kitten a bath, two buddies crowding the bed but so cute that it didn't matter.



Second things second: our realities after 9 days.

1. There is litter everywhere. EV.ER.Y.WHERE. And where there is not litter? Furballs, tall as tumbleweeds, rolling through the apartment. We have to brush our feet off before we get in bed because of the littery-furry-mix that sticks to them. Does it sounds gross? OH IT IS.

2. They are not yet friends. They're no longer enemies and most importantly, Ollie is no longer the wuss who hides under the covers if Oscar so much as looks in his direction. But they continue to have little scuffles, sometimes at 4am (WOOO. THAT'S FUN.) and while it's mostly playful, we still monitor to make sure no one dies.

Carnage in the living room this morning.

3. Where Oscar has been the perfect first pet (no scratching couch, doesn't jump on furniture, eats/pees where he should, etc.), Ollie is... well, he's a little special so far. Here's what we woke up to this morning:

How does a cat manipulate blinds?! He also trashed the bathroom the other night, scratching the hell out of the toilet paper and spreading litter around like confetti.

And then last night, we were sitting on the couch watching TV when the cats got into one of their tumbling matches. They wrestled across the room until they came to a crashing halt into the end table, sending a glass of water crashing to the floor. "DAMN IT!" we yelled, and banished them both far away from the crime scene while we toweled up 8 oz of water.

Two hours later, the SAME thing happens with a full glass of water on Chris' nightstand. He flew up out of bed, screamed about the wet bed and the damn cats and I couldn't help it- I burst out laughing. I'd had a glimpse of what my future husband will look like in 15 years, when the neighborhood kids are on our lawn or our own kids are making a racket. All he needed was an old ratty robe and a rolled up newspaper and the cliche would be complete.

Here Ollie watches birds, flicks his tail and chatters:

Ollie watches birds from Jen Epting on Vimeo.

So we're hanging in. We worry about Oscar and we worry about Ollie and then sometimes we pull one onto our laps and give him some individual attention. We trust that they will continue making progress towards becoming good cat friends and only fight like raccoons once a month.

That could happen, right? (Right?)

P.S. Because I'm that cat lady now, I've been posting daily pix of the boys on Flickr. Here's the set!


The NYC Running Show

JackRabbit Sports hosted a running show this past weekend. I saw it on someone's blog a few months ago; it boasted an entire afternoon of sessions about how to start running, doing your first half marathon, how to avoid injuries and... Matt Long.

I read his book, The Long Run, earlier this spring for the Soul Semester. You remember- the guy who was crushed by a 40,000 lb bus and then ran the NYC marathon less than 3 years later? Here's what he looks like today:

Matt Long, giving the keynote.
Before he took the stage, they showed a 10-minute video about the accident, his recovery, and footage of him running the marathon (and a recent triathlon). There wasn't a dry eye in the place. Since I'd read the book, it meant even more to know the struggles he's gone through to get to this point, cracking jokes about dating in front of a roomful of people at a running conference. I mean, how do you come back from so far gone?

"You have to have a goal," he said. "When you wake up in the morning, you have to make a plan, a commitment to that plan, and then you have to sacrifice to get it done."

I mean, holy YES.

Matt described the depression he went through during physical therapy, 9 months after the accident. He wondered why he had lived at all and finally one day he sat down and realized what he was missing was goals. He'd previously been a runner and had set goals in terms of races... but he wasn't just missing the athletic goals. Matt owns three bars in New York too and he'd had business goals as well. He was a fireman and trained every day, knowing that his training could mean the difference between life and death in a fire.

The more he spoke about goals, the more I started getting it. "If you don't have goals, you have no forward progress," he said. "It's not going to be easy, so when it gets tough, you gotta find something else to focus on."

Goals! Forward motion, creating, direction, succeeding... I mean, this is it, isn't it? This is what life is about. If you're waking up every day merely to exist, to feed yourself three meals and get yourself tucked in at night, then you are MISSING OUT!

I started to classify the people in my life into two categories: those who have goals (or share them publicly) and those who don't. And I started realizing that it's harder to connect with people whose goals are hidden. If I know what you're striving for, I know you. I see the fire in your eyes and I can understand what you're fighting hard for. Because I'm fighting hard too.

The funny thing is, goals represent the kind of life you value, the kind of life you want to leave. The depth of your person. What do you want to achieve? What do you wake up every morning thinking about and what are you doing to get it done?

When it comes to running, Matt cited a frequent excuse for why people skip their runs. "You say it's too cold out to run. Well, it's always going to be cold out. The only way to warm up is to get out there, get moving. You'll warm up."

You'll warm up! So true, metaphorically and physically.

I find myself somewhat at a loss when it comes to my career goals. I'm still pretty confused about where I'm headed, whether technology is something that is a lifelong pursuit or a phase that brings me somewhere else. And then I realized that maybe I should be thinking about it another way. Instead of feeling the absence of career goals, maybe the goal is figuring out what my career will be. See how I turned that around?

So what are your goals? And if you're not working towards them, what baby step can you take towards accomplishing them? Who in your life is the negative voice, the person whose poison you need to steer clear of? Cause you need to drop them like a bad habit.

I watched this man stand in front of us, someone who basically came back from the dead. And I thought, "there is nothing we can't do." And I swear, I really believe it.

More photos of the running show here.


Easter 2011

I love spending holidays with my family. After an entire month of cruddy April weather, we had a beautiful, warm day today at my parents' house.

This afternoon we took Steve over to Lasdon to take a look at where the wedding will be. It totally solidified our decision to get married there- it was beautiful!

Hope you all had lovely Easter weekends!


Adopting Ollie

So it's Tuesday night and Chris has drinks with some work contacts. We'd made plans to visit another shelter on Wednesday, but I decided to stop by the Petco in Union Square on my own. Chris and I have been stopping there once a week for the past month or so; we've seen a lot of cute cats, but none that felt like a perfect fit.

We wanted a male cat, preferably one younger than a year, and one that was good around people and other cats. Since finding Oscar had been so serendipitous, I knew I probably wouldn't be comfortable adopting anyone unless they had a damn compelling argument.

Enter Mr. Draper.

This was the sign on his cage, but it wasn't what I saw first. No, what I saw first was a little white paw coming out of the cage and what I heard first was a nice, big "MEOW!" I was looking in the cage above Mr. Draper and suddenly heard someone trying to get my attention below. I knelt down, and there he was, snuggled up against the front of the cage, happy to see me.

Meeting Mr. Draper from Jen Epting on Vimeo.

I texted Chris a photo of myself holding this Oscar look-alike with three words: "Omg. Call me."

I put in paperwork that night to hold Mr. Draper for another day so that Chris could meet him because part of this getting married thing? It's about not bringing home new members of the family without a group consensus. I spent Tuesday night snuggling Oscar more than usual, my mind spinning with questions of how they would get along and what would happen over Easter and where we would introduce them for the first time.

We'd been brainstorming names and both liked Ollie. Oscar & Ollie... kind of like a TV show or a coffee shop or THE BEST PETS ALIVE. Ollie was just as friendly as he'd been the day before.

So we did it! We adopted him and brought him home. The introductions went fine and we're able to have them in the same rooms when we're paying attention. Ollie spent his first night in the bathroom and last night we decided to let them both have free reign... good idea until 12:15 when we woke up to a cat fight in the bathroom. Ollie spent his second night in the bathroom too.

But truthfully, he's a little peach. I worked from home yesterday and spent part of the day sitting on our bed with my laptop; Ollie burrowed down under the covers and slept for 5 hours. FIVE HOURS! I kept checking on him to make sure, you know, he had OXYGEN down there, but he was really exhausted and just wanted to nuzzle my hand and go back to sleep again.

This morning he found his place under the blankets again and there was a funny moment when Ollie and Oscar were both in the bed, one under the covers and one sleeping on top of them... both seemingly unaware of the other. We can't wait until they're friends.

Here's a little video of our new buddy. He has the cutest little feet. OLLIE!

Where's Ollie? from Jen Epting on Vimeo.


Code name: Mr. Draper.

Is Oscar behind bars??

NOPE! That's a little someone I met tonight at the Union Square Petco! But he sure does look a lot like he could be Oscar's little brother... doesn't he??

We think so too! Chris had a work thing tonight and wasn't able to come with me to check out this week's cats, but he got a frantic text after my photo shoot with this little snuggly bear. I put in paperwork and we're headed back tomorrow at 6pm so Chris can meet him. He's 3 years old, loves other cats and people... and his shelter name?

Mr. Draper.

There's (obviously) an awesome story about how he got my attention, but I don't want to jinx things so this little sneak peek is all you get for now. Doesn't this remind you of another blog post I wrote not so long ago???

And yes, to answer your question: I am freaking out. Squeeeeeeeeeee!

A hearty laugh at 7:30am.

"Do you ever have a dream that you meet someone else?"
"Like, a girl?"
"No. Why, do you?"
"I don't know. I just did this morning."
"I'm so jealous right now."
"Well you weren't in existence!"
"Tell me about him."
"It was just at a party and he came in the door and I showed him where to throw out his beer bottles and where to put his coat."
"Wow, he sounds like a winner."


4 miles? No problem.

Earlier this week I took a 3-mile run down to Dumbo and back. It was a warm night and I liked running in a neighborhood that I didn't know like the back of my hand. I had just finished 2 miles when I realized that I had sort of forgotten that I was running. My legs were just moving beneath me, propelling me to check out the shops and restaurants along the streets, almost as if I were on a bike.

It was amazing! And I noticed that my ass was not clanging on behind me, the way it feels when you start running, the way that your lumpy body reminds you that it's not yet in the shape you hope it to be. Nope, my body was a little running machine, all tucked in and thriving on motion.

I'm now about three and a half months into running and this morning I ran my second race of the year with my running buddy, Kelley. Here we are after a strong four miles in Central Park this morning:

We are doing it! After 14 weeks of training schedules and long runs and putting races on the calendar, I think it's safe to say that we're becoming real runners. This morning we even passed a bunch of people, as in, we were going faster than they were. (Somewhere a pig just took flight.)

This signing up for races is getting addictive and somehow I'm doing three 10ks in four weeks between May and June. What! That was my goal for the year, to run a 10k, and I'm going to smash that goal pretty soon. Feeling the need to stretch further, Kelley and I decided to start training for a half-marathon. Screw it, we thought. We ran 6.2 miles last Sunday together and we can just work up to 13.1. Right??

This morning as we hit 3 miles and had 1 to go, I remember thinking "I'm having fun!" Unlike my first race of the year, I wasn't worried about my shoelaces (double checked!), my iPod (I no longer use music to run) or wearing the right amount of clothes for the weather. I felt strong and capable and I can't even wait for the next race to come.

More pix here.


Rouxbe meal 1: Easy Broccoli and Chicken Stir-fry

You GUYS! I just made the most delicious dinner of my life! Take a look at this:

I'm so damn proud of myself. Broccoli and chicken stir-fry, check!

Since it was giving some kind of wind/rain/lightning/apocalypse storm this afternoon, I decided to start cooking school today. Chris and I went shopping for our wedding bands this morning in Park Slope and ate a ginormous brunch afterwards at Moutarde (hellooooo banana pancakes!), so we weren't too hungry. I knew I had a few hours before dinner and it's a good thing I did... cooking school takes time!

I did two lessons today: Poultry Fundamentals and Pan Frying. Along the way, I learned some good fun facts. Here are my top three:

  • The darker the poultry meat, the more it means the animal used those muscles! Chickens don't fly (hence the white breast meat), but they run around quite a bit (hence the dark thigh meat). Pheasants and quails and ducks have darker breast meat because they take to the sky more often. Cool!
  • When you start cooking meat in a frying pan and it sticks to the pan despite the oil you're using, it means the pan wasn't hot enough when you started. 
  • You should always defrost poultry by putting it in the fridge. Leaving it at room temperature to thaw is a no-go.

Interesting, no?

So the way Rouxbe works is that there are currently 72 lessons to get through. I did Pan Frying and Poultry Fundamentals today because they seemed like decent places to start. I have pans. And sometimes I have poultry. Check! Some of the other lessons I'm looking forward to doing soon are How to Cook Premium Steaks, Cooking Fish Fundamentals, Cooking Vegetables in Water and Stages of Bread Making. Although seeing as how the only part of our meal that failed tonight was the rice, I better get to Rice Basics sooner rather than later.

I braved the wicked weather and did our grocery shopping, making sure to get the random stuff I needed for tonight's stir-fry. I found oyster sauce and sambal oelek (I know, what the.) at our local veggie store where they have a ton of Asian sauces. It made a huge difference- in the taste and in my confidence- to not be lazy and piece together substitutions in this recipe.

Cooking dinner tonight was also a different experience because I got everything ready before I started cooking a thing. This is called "mise en place," and it was a huge help. Here are all of my little bowls of prepared ingredients, ready for me to work my cooking magic:

From there, I followed the recipe, watching the videos again as I went along to make sure that my stuff was looking like the video chef's. I enlisted Chris to take some pix as the drama unfolded and now we have a cute little Flickr set of our first Rouxbe meal.

Even though it took a while to get this dinner cooked tonight, it's a very simple recipe and I'm optimistic that I could get a pretty good handle on it if I repeat it a few times. My goal is to have a core set of recipes that are so second nature to me that, no matter how tired I am when I get home, I'm not bothered to throw them together and have a good meal. This recipe could definitely be one of them.

More pix here.

P.S. So it looks like you guys can totally access the recipes on Rouxbe, just not the video lessons if you're not a student. I'll be sure to link to whatever I write about here in case you want to try it yourselves. Here's Easy Broccoli and Chicken Stir-fry... go nuts.


Soul Stories: on mentors.

Me and one of my old residents, Lindsay-
we were invited to her wedding! 
When I was a freshman at Muhlenberg, I spent much of Thanksgiving day crying. I was totally depressed; I hadn't yet made great friends, I felt like the loser of my hall, I missed my boyfriend (who was across the state at CMU) and I missed High School. Though I was never voted prom queen at YHS, I had a good bunch of friends by senior year and felt genuinely comfortable wandering the school halls with members of the school newspaper staff late at night. At Muhlenberg, I hadn't yet found my niche... and by Thanksgiving break, I was worried that my niche was totally unavailable in Allentown, PA.

By the end of my first year, I was in a better place and was even looking forward to coming back in the fall. So what happened? I got involved with activities, started seeing the opportunities that awaited me as I put my time in on the newspaper and at the Writing Center... and I became an R.A.

It is one of my core truths that helping someone through a difficult situation allows me to get through the very same scenario. One of the ways I felt socially fine with not joining a sorority and getting wasted all the time was by reassuring other new freshmen that there was more to life than sororities! My room became the safe haven of 32 girls (and a whole bunch of dudes from down the hall) and my life at college was so fulfilling. My role was to coach, to cheer up, to mentor... and I absolutely loved it.

Tonight at dinner I told Chris that I would love to one day host a "young superstars" dinner at our place. We'd invite a bunch of the amazing younger people we've come to know throughout our lives, cook them an amazing dinner and let them get to know each other. Providing social opportunities for people to gather is something that's really important to me - because I really value the random meetings that happen when wonderful people converge.

On that note, we started talking about people who were our mentors. "How amazing would it be to each pick three people who have had huge impressions on us and fly them to our house one day for dinner?" I asked. We talked about who we'd pick and shared stories about how these mentors inspired us and got us through difficult moments.

This is the beauty of being 30 years old. I simultaneously know older people who influence and inspire me on a daily basis and younger people who I can help to inspire. I'm here, right in the middle, tucked in amongst people who would make distinguished dinner guests.

I don't know how it could be possible, but I'd love to make this happen someday.


Practice, practice, practice.

Lemon butter cookies that came out OK.
I've been reading a few books about people who learn how to cook lately. It's not really by design; I finished The Dirty Life earlier this week and I'm now a few chapters into A Tiger in the Kitchen and both were random selections, a gift and an impulse grab at the library. I like books about cooking but I'm learning that I have a threshold for them. The drippy and romantic language gets irritating after a while. I don't know about you, but I've never cooked a luscious beet.

Maybe I'm just not a foodie.

What I am is a girl who does not feel very confident in the kitchen. I cook on a pretty regular basis and, of that cooking, I'd say that 70% of the time I end up cooking from new recipes. Maybe this is great for a more experienced person, but for me, it feels like starting over as a beginner every single day.

So yesterday as we were walking home from the subway, I mentioned to Chris that I've been thinking about the fact that cooking the same foods, over and over, might be a good way to feel more confident. Baking banana bread, for example, is something I feel totally in control of and even feel free to experiment with. But I've made banana bread probably 50 times in the last couple of years. Just like anything, the repetition makes it so I'm better at it.

A cookbook, a solid, basic, no substitutions, no frills cookbook, was what seemed in order. Cooking my way through one of those occurred to me, though I didn't know which one it would be. My parents got me the red and white Better Homes and Gardens cookbook when I was just out of college; that's the cookbook that lives in our kitchen at home, the one whose pages are stained and torn after more than 30 years of marriage and use. It seemed like a good candidate.

But then as we were getting ready for bed last night, I found a Groupon deal. I like to check out the Groupons in other cities in case there are cool things my friends might want to know about (or I might want to gift them!). And lo and behold, in Portland's Groupons, I found A YEAR OF ONLINE COOKING SCHOOL.

I know. Online. Meh mehhh, not authentic, who do they think they are, food was meant to be smelled, felt, tasted. I had that feeling too until I watched some of their sample videos and realized that they teach you how to use pans properly! And knife skills! And they provide recipes based on the skills they taught that day. Did I mention they have practice sections and quizzes? (Swoon.)

I got more and more excited and then I turned to Chris and said, "I think I'm going to do cooking school for a year!" He laughed, but to be fair, he would have had the same reaction if I'd said "Elephant training school! I'm in!" What can I say, the man knows who he's marrying.

The thing is, when I think back, my parents cooked dinner for us almost every night of our lives growing up. They both had full time jobs and we ate homemade meals every night. I don't even understand how they came up with the time, energy and skill to do it, but I know that I don't feel prepared at this point to consistently deliver food to a family. I'm hoping that cooking school is going to get me in shape in the kitchen.

I'll most definitely be posting about this and I've even been considering some little videos with fun facts about the stuff I'm learning. Won't that be fun?! I know. I can't wait, either.


An alternative to pre-marital counseling.

We're talking 'bout the MAN IN THE MIRROR!
I don't remember when we first talked about pre-marital counseling, but I think it was back around the time we were getting rejected right and left by ministers. (Kidding. Sort of!) One of the things I value most about my relationship with Chris is our communication. You have not heard two people talk more on a day to day basis about how we're really feeling, how happy we are, what isn't making us very happy, etc ad nauseum. The idea of pre-marital counseling didn't come up because we were having trouble talking about our futures.

Rather, it came up because we know that we don't know everything. From living wills to who knows what, the one thing that's certain is that our lives will not always be rainbows and ponies. What better time to talk through the Big Issues than this preparation period before we make a big commitment to each other?

First, we emailed the awesome minister who's going to marry us to see if she does counseling. She doesn't, although she does conduct the Meyers-Briggs personality tests and discuss the results with the couple. She recommended us to a therapist in the city and things were going swimmingly. We felt responsible and on track! And then the therapist came back with $125 an hour and 15 sessions and holy, moly. That wasn't exactly in the budget.

Let me say this: writing an email that tells a therapist that you don't have the cash to spend on your future happiness and well-being? Yowza.

And so we got creative. I found a list of Questions to ask before you wed on A Practical Wedding and we're starting a tradition of a homemade dinner on Sunday nights, over which we discuss a few of the questions each week. Is it the same as having an outside person asking probing questions? Probably not. But is it making us talk about the kind of marriage we want to have, the way we want to parent and what we see for our respective careers? It is. Is it even allowing us to talk about the hard things, like spending money and divorce? It is. And I can't say that those things would all organically come up otherwise.

We also emailed our minister to set up the Meyers-Briggs test. That conversation will be interesting, shed light on our personalities and help explain why we react differently to the same scenarios. I'm excited to have a third party person in the room, even for a small part of this process.

So! Should you find yourself desiring some pre-marital counseling without a budget, I totally recommend piecing something like this together. Don't sweep it under the rug, don't assume that you won't have issues. Cause you will - any time two independent beings try to become one anything, there's bound to be some friction.

Talk it out! It won't kill you! And it will probably be awesome.


The secret weekend.

We were supposed to be in Wisconsin this weekend. We had the plane tickets booked, the hotel booked, the wedding RSVP'd to. We had a rental car. And then last week, we decided we weren't doing any of it.

I don't know why but I have never imagined canceling plane tickets as a possibility. Something about my Very Practical Self does not allow me to imagine scenarios in which fees are involved. Fees are companies' evil ways of getting at my hard-earned cash and I refuse them! Every time I pay my credit card bill in full, each month, I get a sick little satisfaction about sticking it to The Man.

"HA," I think to myself. "I just earned air miles for free! You credit card guys get NOTHING from me because I have no balance!"

Yes. I'm badass like that.

So anyways, we're tired. We are tired of traveling and we're tired of not spending quality time together. We've been talking about adopting a second cat for six months now but haven't had the time to look for one. I've been trying to plant a garden for three months now and haven't had time to buy soil or seeds. And so, last week, we said NO.

There was a fee to change the tickets (bonus: we traded them in towards honeymoon tickets later this summer!), but it was worth it. And it was also worth it to not tell anyone else that we weren't going away. Because what good is a weekend at home if you're not spending it, you know, at home? (Leigh, I feel totally guilty that we didn't come to your bday party... I will make it up to you.)

So I cleaned up the garden and got it ready for this year. Chris coded a secret project. We visited some cats that were up for adoption (no luck so far) and we finally started watching The Wire. We even took a walk in our own neighborhood! And we haven't done that together, really, ever.

Here are some pictures from my gardening yesterday on the deck. It was supposed to be cruddy all weekend but then Saturday arrived, all full of sun and warmth and so we took advantage. Oscar spent so much time on the deck that he must have thought he died and went to heaven. I can't wait to see the seeds start growing and the deck come alive again, this time with lettuce and peas and beans and tomatoes and herbs. We're growing fewer things, but in bulk this year. The summer of 4 snow peas a week is over! Hooray!

P.S. Don't let them tell you otherwise- sometimes it pays to pay for a weekend at home.


Two pieces of advice.

1. Do not see that movie Super. Don't do it! It looks hilarious. Dwight is in it! And Liv Tyler. (And that Juno girl, who I think is meh, but mostly because I am the only person on earth who hated Juno (I won't get into it now, but it has something to do with abortion and brainwashing teenagers into conservatism. Ahem.)).

Anyhoo. Don't see it! It was not worth the cash. Very unfunny and very stupidly violent and just overall a total disappointment.

2. If you ever decide to stay on the 6 train past Brooklyn Bridge (you know you want to...), make sure you're looking out the LEFT side of the train as you go into the tunnel.

I'll explain. For those of you who do not live in NYC, the 6 train normally stops (and starts) at the Brooklyn Bridge stop. But in order for it to go from the downtown track to the uptown track, it must turn around somewhere. The conductor makes an announcement about it being the last stop, then drives the train around some kind of magical tunnel and it comes out on the other (uptown) side.

EXCEPT THERE IS ALSO A SECRET STATION. There used to be a station nearby at City Hall and if you secretly stay in the 6 train after everyone else exits, you can see it!

After our disappointing movie date night the other night, we decided to cheer ourselves up by finally doing this. Unfortunately, we were looking out the right side of the train car the whole time and totally missed it. Suddenly we found ourselves back on the uptown platform without a glimpse of the secretness. So we did what anyone would do. We did it again- and looked out the left side this time.

And people? It was pretty cool.

The only photographic evidence of the old station.
There's probably a ghost in this picture.