Sunday, January 30, 2011

In preparation for Thing-A-Day 2011

One of the items on my grand 30 in 30 list was to participate in Thing-A-Day this year.

Thing-A-Day is a big online project encouraging people to take a few minutes out of their busy lives each day in February, and create something. Break out of the winter blahs by giving your creative side a chance to play, for half an hour a day. It's not supposed to be symphonies and grand canvases - although my hat's off to you if you can pull that off in 30 minutes - but more like poetry and sketches and craft projects.

I heard about this project through one of the message boards I very frequently frequent, and I spent a lot of time last year looking through all the amazing things my online friends were creating and feeling jealous that I didn't have that creative spark. I often want to be creative, but my inner critic tells me to shut up and sit down before I ever get a chance to start. This year I've duct taped my critic and I'm going to jump in and create stuff. I am under no illusions that I will win any accolades for my work, but maybe by letting go and messing around with pencils and glue and paper for a few minutes every day this month, I can start a habit of being more creative. You don't get good at something by watching others do it and then sighing and wishing you had their skills, after all.

I signed up on their site and I hope to be able to upload one project a day to add to their collection. I will probably post my creations here as well, except for those that are destined to be gifts for people, because I don't like to ruin surprises! I'm nervous about sharing, because I have a horrendous fear of judgement and failure and general mocking, but I need to get over that sometime.

Have a look at the creations from last year on the Thing-A-Day 2010 site and think about whether you want to come along for this year's ride.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

What's for Dinner: Hamburger Stroganoff

Hamburger stroganoff is a comfort-food classic for me, something that's un-fancy, very yummy, and easy to make. Some nights - ok, maybe most nights - I don't want to make a fancy filet au poivre with gorgonzola mashed potatoes and green beans almondine. Actually, now I do want to make that, so I'll have to add that to my to-do list.

Back to the program!

Hamburger Stroganoff

1 lb lean ground beef
1 small onion, diced
1 package mushrooms, sliced
8oz of medium-wide egg noodles, cooked and drained
1 cup beef gravy made from a powdered mix (I have a "Roast Beef" gravy mix from Canada (Berthelet brand) and I've never tried with any of the kinds available here, but that stuff is AWESOME and you all need to import some.)
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or more, to taste)
1/2 cup sour cream

Using a deep skillet or frying pan, fry the mushrooms in butter until they're brown and soft, and set them aside. Saute the onions until they're soft, then add them to the mushrooms. Brown the ground beef, draining off any fat if necessary. Add cooked and drained egg noodles to the pan, and then add the prepared beef gravy and bring to a boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes to thicken slightly. Grate nutmeg into the mixture and stir. This really is best with fresh nutmeg - the taste is very different compared to the ground stuff in the jar. When you're ready to serve dinner, stir in the sour cream.

I personally love adding canned peas to this. Don't ask.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Project: Red Room

Red. It's a lovely color for lots of things. Apples, lipstick, Corvettes... but not an ideal color for a small bedroom.

Even the radiators were painted red! Who does that?

Since I designated this a snow day and I didn't go into work, I made myself useful and covered the walls with primer. I used the "High Hiding" interior latex primer from Valspar (in the red can - ironic!), which we had really good luck with in the past when we had to paint over the black baseboards and molding in another room. First I did the edges with a paintbrush, which is my favorite part:

And then I went nuts with the roller to get the walls done and ended up covered in teeny speckles of paint like I always do. I managed to avoid the carpet for the most part, thank goodness, and none of the cats got painted, either. I'm not very good with roller technique, but I get the job done. I learned somewhere you're supposed to paint in "W" shapes to prevent striping, but I somehow always manage to make everything uneven and streaky. For that reason, I don't think my husband will trust me do the final, pretty coat in the color we've chosen. Here's how the walls look all primed and ready for real paint:

We bought three sample cans of yellow paint to see which we like best, because yellow can veer towards "banana" or "big bird" really easily and we'd like it to be a more buttery shade. Mmmm, butter room.

Snow Day!

We've already gotten almost 2 inches of snow, and they're calling for a whole lot more over the course of the day. After several near-misses, it looks like this storm is going to hit us head-on and bury us. I don't feel safe taking my tiny car into work and back in 6 inches of snow, especially since the worst part is predicted to hit just before I'm headed home, and I do not feel like camping out at the hospital overnight. So, I called out and I'm declaring this a snow day. Hopefully I can get some stuff done and then come tell you all about it. But first, I figured I would surprise my husband with a cleared driveway, since he was up most of the night and will probably have no energy for shoveling once he wakes up.


All by myself! I think I may have had half a heart attack in the middle there, but I recovered. I know it doesn't look like much of an accomplishment, but it's the heavy, wet, snowman-making snow, which is fun to play in but hell to shovel. And since the snow was right and I needed company, meet Lumpy, my snowman.

His eyes are cherries and his nose is a carrot, so he's probably going to be pecked to death by birds before the end of the day. Poor snowmen, such short, tragic lives.

Now it's time for a cup of coffee and a to-do list.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blood Bank - Expiration Dates (Red Cells)

I'm going to start answering lab questions bit by bit - I'll try to be as clear as possible and as detailed as necessary without putting anyone to sleep!

Let me start with the question from Anonymous:

Does blood go bad if it's kept in the fridge too long?

Short answer, for those too hurried to read on: Yes. Yes it does.

Now, let me get a little deeper into this, for those who may care.

Your blood is made up of different components - red cells, white cells, and platelets - floating around in a liquid called plasma. The components all have different functions in your body. Red cells transport oxygen to your tissues, which is why folks who are severely anemic will be exhausted and weak, and be short of breath as they try to get enough oxygen to keep going. Platelets stop bleeding by making a plug at the site of an injury to a blood vessel and sealing it up, while plasma contains soluble (dissolved) factors that also participate in the clotting process, along with a host of other proteins, including antibodies. These are the main three components we use in the blood bank: Red cells, platelets, and plasma.

Here's a tube of blood that's been spun in a centrifuge:

Red cells are down at the bottom, plasma on the top, and the fuzzy white layer in between them is a mix of white cells and platelets. The percentage of blood that's made up of red cells is called your hematocrit - a normal number for that is around 35-45%. This patient's hematocrit is about 21, which is very low, and probably what's bringing them to the emergency room.

Way back in the old days of blood transfusions, they would take a unit of blood from a donor, and then give it to a recipient, whole. You'd get the package deal, all the components for the price of one.

This is a unit of whole blood:

Notice how the top is clear fluid - that's the plasma. You can see it because the unit has been sitting for along time and the cells have settled.

As we got smarter about the details, we figured out that the different components could be separated out and given separately, to treat patients more effectively. Giving entire units of whole blood to a patient can easily throw the body in to circulatory overload, which means the heart can't pump properly because there's too much blood volume for it to handle. You're also giving the patient components they don't need and can possibly have a bad reaction against. So there was an eventual shift towards transfusing patients with only the component they needed, instead of whole blood. Running out of hemoglobin because you're not making enough red cells? You'll just get red cells. If you're bleeding, you'll get platelets or plasma (depending on various lab tests and the type of bleeding, one or the other, or both, may be indicated). This way we're giving much smaller volumes, exposing patients to less foreign material, and treating specific problems with the right products.

So when blood is initially processed from a donor, it gets split up - the blood is centrifuged so the heavy red cells sink to the bottom and the plasma floats on top, with a layer of white cells and platelets in the middle. The bags that the blood is collected in are coated with anticoagulant to keep the blood from clotting, and additives to keep the red cells alive longer. Depending on the mixture of additives and anticoagulants, a unit of red cells will have a different lifespan, between 35 and 45 days. Why do they eventually expire? Well, red cells are alive. After a certain point, the cells will die and no longer be of any use transporting oxygen - not to mention the fact that when they die they release some nasty stuff like free hemoglobin and potassium, which aren't very good for you when they're not bundled up and safe inside a red cell membrane. We keep them cold (1-6C) to keep their metabolism slow and also to prevent any bacterial growth - while every effort is made to clean the site before inserting a needle for a blood donation, bacteria are sneaky little things and may get in, and keeping everything cold will retard their growth if they're in there.

This is a unit of what we call "packed red blood cells" - the plasma has been taken off and it's been filtered to remove white cells, which can cause transfusion reactions.

So, blood is good for a little over a month in the fridge after it's taken from a donor, because studies have shown that not enough red cells stay alive past that point to make the unit a useful therapy, and the stuff leaking out of the cells gets to be in too high a concentration to be safe. The pros call that the "storage lesion". When transfusions are needed for babies, we always make sure to have very fresh blood (under 10 days old) because of those products that dying cells leak out. An adult can handle a small increase in potassium, but an infant's system could easily be overwhelmed, so we reserve very fresh blood for infant transfusions. Another option is to wash the unit to remove the bad stuff, but that gets expensive and increases the chance of contamination since you need to open the bag. When we do need to open the unit for any reason, we need to change the expiration date to 24hours, because of the possibility of contamination.

Tune in soon for an expiration date lesson on plasma and platelets!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jen's Library: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - a Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
by Anne Fadiman

When I first read a blurb about this book and added it to my "to-read" list, I was given the impression that it would be an examination of the differences between "Eastern" and "Western" medicine, and how immigrants to America may not accept "modern" medical explanations and treatments and choose instead to rely on their traditional ways of healing. And it is about this, but only in part.

We follow the story of Lia Lee, infant daughter of Hmong parents recently arrived in California's Merced county, as she is diagnosed and treated for severe epilepsy. While the doctors try her on several combinations of anticonvulsants, her parents feel like the medicine is making her sicker, and they decide to give her only some of them, some of the time, while consulting with healers to bring her "wandering soul" back to her body. It doesn't help that the Lees can't speak or read English, and the constant changes in medications and dosages, and increasingly complicated medical instructions, get to be too much to handle. The side effects of the medications are sometimes severe, and when she is hospitalized she sometimes gets sicker from hospital-acquired infections, so it's not difficult to see why they would resist trusting the doctors. They love Lia like crazy and try to find ways to heal her, but eventually, social workers take her away from her parents because they feel that she is not getting the medical care she needs. It's a tremendously sad story, with the frustration and pain very clear on the sides of both the doctors and the family, both of whom think the other side isn't listening to what they're saying and are going to hurt the child.

This touching story is told in small pieces, while the rest of the book drifts towards educating the reader on Hmong culture and history, which, while interesting, wasn't what I expected. I was really hoping for more of a comparison between the cultures in terms of medical beliefs and practices, but that topic is only lightly explored here, which is unfortunate, because I think there was probably a lot of material to work with. It's more of a historical look at the Hmong people and their arrival in America in large numbers, and the culture clash they've experienced. Still worth reading, but know what you're getting before you jump in.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A day in my blood bank life

My day started with an antibody problem. A double antibody, actually, but luckily for me only one of the two was showing up, which made my workup much easier. I got that done quickly enough that I only delayed my dinner break by half an hour, so my tummy rumbles didn't deafen anyone. My coworker helped out while I was on break by typing 8 units to look for compatible blood, but only one was negative for what we needed, and the patient needed three units set up, so when I got back from my break, I had to phenotype the rest of the units on the A-negative shelf to find some that we could give this patient - I could have called the Red Cross for units instead but it's cheaper for us to do it.

While that's happening, STAT specimens are coming in from the emergency room. Some are pregnant women who are bleeding, and they need their blood type to see if they need a shot of Rh immune globulin. Some are GI bleeders. Some of them are cancer patients whose blood is delpeted after chemo and they need a transfusion because they're weak and having trouble breathing. I'm doing my best to prioritize as they're coming in one after the other. Things marked "routine" are sitting in the rack, waiting until I have time to get to them. I'm also in charge of all the rapid testing for influenza, mono, strep, and RSV, and we're in full blown flu season so those swabs are starting to pile up. While my latest type & screen is incubating, I start a batch of 3 flu and 2 RSV, and then a few minutes later they bring me a new handful of swabs so I set up 2 streps and another flu - now I have several timers set for different tests, so things are beeping everywhere. I hate beeping.

So, while I'm calling a positive flu result to the pediatrician in the ER, someone shows up to get plasma on a patient. I don't see any thawed, so I look up the patient in the computer - no, nobody called to say they wanted a unit of plasma, so I need to call the floor and tell them it'll be a half hour while it thaws. I pull a unit out of the freezer to thaw, and oh, now my timer's going off for my type and screen, so I need to move that to the centrifuge. Oops, forgot to put that flu result in the computer. And looks like those strep tests are done too, better result those. And there are two papers in the fax machine asking me to add on more units to a couple of patients.

Phone's ringing, now a patient in critical care is crashing and they want 2 units NOW and then 8 for the OR because they're wheeling her down the hall to surgery almost as we speak. Yessir! I'm on it! Once I find the specimen in the fridge, I see there's not much left, those tubes must have been only a quarter full when we got them yesterday. I can crossmatch 6 units, tops, before I run out of specimen, and that will leave them stuck with needing to get a new specimen in the middle of surgery. I tell the nurse I'll give her those 2 units now, and she should get a new specimen right afterwards so I can get ready for the OR. She agrees and hangs up. So I go back to working on another ER Stat and those two add-ons, and they call back to say the Dr does not under any circumstances want her redrawn now. Get as many as I can ready and he'll make do. I don't like this idea, but there's not much I can do other than document that this was his call and he's aware of the situation. So I get those ready while I get back on the phone to call Labor and Delivery with a result on a baby's cord blood. I have to talk fast because the printer paper that my unit tags are printing on is about to flip over and get crunched up and jam, so I need to get over there to rescue it. Oh, and the plasma's done thawing and the thawer alarm is screeching at me to tell me so.

Now the OR calls. The anaesthesiologist wants to know how much blood we have ready for a patient. Well, we don't have any because we don't have a specimen on him. The doctor's confused, because the patient is wearing a blood bank armband, so how do we not have a specimen? Well, it turns out that when I called the emergency room yesterday to tell them their specimen was too hemolyzed for me to use, nobody bothered to cut off the armband. So when he went upstairs, they assumed he had a valid specimen. So here he is about to get cut open and because he's got an armband on, they figured everything was ok! It happens, it's not the end of the world, I told him to get me a new specimen and we could have stuff ready for him within 45 minutes. But he was upset (rightly so) and was asking all sorts of questions about how this could happen. All I could do was apologize and tell him we can do it in 45 mins. Over and over again.

And the pediatrician is calling, asking for RSV results on a sick kid. A test I haven't had time to set up yet. Sigh. More apologies, promises to get right on it. I feel terrible, because I know that if they're calling it's because there's a very sick kid out there waiting for the right diagnosis and treatment. Then the OR calls about that first patient, asking if I have the 8 units they need... so I have to tell the whole story again and make sure they know I'll need a new specimen if they go through all six units.

And I really, really have to pee.

So, this wasn't just a post to vent about how hard I work or how stressed I am - plenty of my coworkers work just as hard, and not every day is like this. I'm just trying to give a picture of a busy day and open this blog up to questions from the audience about what I do. The hospital lab and blood bank are mysterious hidden places, and most people have no clue what goes on there, or why. so if anyone has anything they want to ask about the lab, the blood bank, or about blood or medical testing in general, please ask in the comments, and I'll take the time in future posts to address them all.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jen's Library: Vaccinated

Vaccinated - One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases
by Paul A. Offit, MD

It is entirely possible that Maurice Hilleman saved your life. And chances are good you've never heard of him. He never won a Nobel prize, he's not featured in many textbooks, and he never got his picture on bubblegum cards, and yet his contributions to public health completely eclipse those of other, more familiar names.

This book is both a history of vaccination and a biography of a man who contributed so much to the field. We've all gotten our shots to help keep us protected from polio, pertussis, rubella, and many other diseases that once terrified people because of their destructive power. Yes, in most children, measles and mumps are relatively mild and short-lived illnesses, but thousands of children developed complications and became deaf or blind, or paralyzed, or hospitalized with meningitis. The reason that we don't fear these viruses anymore is because we have means to protect ourselves thrugh vaccines - many of which Hilleman developed.

When his daughter came down with a case of mumps, Hilleman cultured her throat for the virus, which he then used to make an attenuated (weakened) strain that was enough to cause the body to make antibodies, but not enough to infect a person and cause the disease. You know you're a scientist when you see your sick daughter as a body full of starter material for your viral cultures!

Hilleman predicted the pattern of influenza pandemics and was instrumental in getting vaccine made against the 1957 asian flu. FYI: he predicts another one in 2025, so please be sure to get your flu shot that year. He developed a vaccine for chickens to prevent them getting Marek's disease, a tumor disorder - essentially a vaccine against a form of cancer. He was the first to purify interferon, a virus-inhibiting substance made by our immune systems - interferon is used in treatment of viral hepatitis and certain cancers today. He made a vaccine against Japanese Encephalitis Virus that was used to protect American troops during WW2.

Over the course of his life, Hilleman developed vaccines for measles, mumps, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, Haemophilus influenzae, and Streptococcus pneumoniae, and performed many experiments and made many discoveries that helped others to make progress towards other vaccines and treatments.

This was a fascinating look back at the history of vaccination and many of the researchers who played a part, and I recommend it to anyone who has any curiosity about medical history, or even history in general. I was pleased to see chapters on the modern anti-vaccination movement as well, along with the controversies surrounding the development of some of these vaccines. Some use embryonic cells because the viruses involved will not grow well in other animals' tissues, which is a huge moral issue for many. Some vaccines made from human blood or from monkey tissues carried a tiny risk of piggybacking other viruses along and infecting people, despite extreme efforts to prevent that from happening. Also, in the early days, vaccines were often tested on mentally retarded children. This was not because of their condition or because they didn't need consent - in fact, they did have consent of the parents - but because these children lived together in large asylums and were at great risk for these childhood diseases. That doesn't necessarily make it right, but they had logical reasons at the time and weren't doing it maliciously.

I can't believe I never even knew this guy existed. Part of it is because he worked for pharmaceutical companies and not in academic research, but I'm not sure that's a good enough reason for his contributions to be glossed over when learning about vaccinations. We all know Salk and Sabin - we should know Hilleman too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

What's for Dinner - Grandmaman Adèle's Stuffed Tomatoes

Another wonderful recipe from the family book that turned out incredibly delicious. This is definitely making me want to keep going and try them all!

Grandmaman Adèle's Stuffed Tomatoes

Her recipe:

2 slices of bacon, chopped
1/2 medium onion, diced
4 medium tomatoes
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup light cream
1 slice whole wheat bread, shredded
1 cup mild cheese (gouda, cheddar, monterey jack)

Fry up the bacon with the onions till onions are soft, and set them aside in a mixing bowl. Add eggs, cream, mustard, bread, and cheese to the bowl, and mix well. Use a sharp knife to cut off the top of the tomatoes, and scoop them out with a spoon. Fill them with the stuffing and cook at 450 for about 15 minutes or until the tops get brown and crispy.

My changes:
Had no bacon, so I sprinkled some bacon salt into the mix.
Had no Dijon mustard, so I used Hellman's Dijonnaise.
Had a whole wheat baguette so wasn't sure how much I needed... I kept adding bread to it until it looked like a stuffing instead of a soup. I think if you followed the recipe exactly you'd have a squishier result, so I recommend adding more bread. It ended up being about 1/3 of a small baguette.

These were delicious. We had 4 medium tomatoes to stuff, and had enough stuffing left over that I managed to also fill half a giant tomato that I found in the fridge (I think its other half was involved in last weekend's party dip). Definitely err on the side of bigger tomatoes for this recipe, because especially if you increase the amount of bread, you get a lot of stuffing. The end result tastes somewhere between a bacony quiche and an oniony, mustardy omelette, smooshed into a tomato.

There are so many possibilities for this dish - varying the cheese or the type of bread will give you different flavors to play with. Considering how well this one was received, it's on the "try again" list for sure, so I'll be changing it up now and then to see what works. I'll also use real bacon next time!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Green Card Update!

My husband got a very official-looking letter in the mail yesterday, with a big blue government seal stamped on it and everything. Considering the return address read "U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services", I flew through the kitchen, poked him in the chest with it, and begged him to open it immediately while I jumped up and down in very unladylike excitement.

The letter inside says that his petition to let his foreign wife stay in this country as a permanent resident has been approved!

So the green card is on its way and I can resume normal breathing. I'm so happy to be done with paperwork for a while! The entire process only took 5 months, which is astounding, considering that most of the stories I read online about other immigrants' experiences said it took forever to get through it all. We had some help filing the paperwork and we made very sure to do everything by the book, from my initial work visa and subsequent renewals at the border, to my "advance parole" document so I could visit home, to the final adjustment of status. I think that helped speed everything up, but I also think we got very lucky and hit a period of quick processing times. I will take small miracles as they occur and thank the stars for them.

I get to stay. I'm so glad.

Appetizer - Spinach-Cheese Swirls

These were also made for the New House Party. I printed the recipe off the Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry website, which has dozens of awesome uses for a sheet of frozen puff pastry and which I'll likely visit again for more appetizer ideas. I brought the page with me when I went shopping, to make sure I picked up everything I needed, and then when I finally got down to it Friday night, in the kitchen with everything ready to go, I couldn't find the stupid paper. So I had to delay my project as I hunted it down online and re-printed it so I had instructions. And then discovered at the very end when I threw the puff pastry box into the recycling bin that the recipe was on the back of it the whole time. Durr.

The recipe is here. I followed it exactly except that I had no garlic powder, so I used garlic salt instead. The pastry cracked a little as I rolled it but it held together decently. Cutting it was very hard - maybe it was because my knife wasn't sharp enough, but I squashed it pretty flat as I cut it so I ended up with flattened ovals instead of pretty round swirls. I also should have greased the cookie sheet, because they stuck a little and I had to chip some of them off. Oh, and I need to acquire a pastry brush. Applying an egg wash with a fork is not very efficient or effective.

The result was underwhelming: they were edible (and pretty) but not really anything special. I would have thought that garlic and cheese and spinach always combine and create glorious yumminess, but this flopped. How could it, when it is made from all the flavors I love best? It tasted like a spinach pie, and not a particularly good one. It needed salt, and probably a lot more garlic and parmesan. I might try it again and tweak it for more flavor, but it's not high on my list of retries. Oh well.

Appetizer -My Sister's Awesome Dip

I made this layered dip for the New House Party and it was a huge hit. I made sure to give my sis all the credit by referring to it exclusively as "My sister's awesome dip" throughout the evening. She gave me this recipe in the family cookbook, so it's special to me.

My Sister's Awesome Dip

8 oz soft cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise

Mix well and spread into a pie plate or casserole dish

1 medium jar of salsa (spiciness of your choice)
1 medium green pepper, chopped
2 green onions, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
2 cups shredded cheese (mozzarella, monterey jack, whatever you like)

Spread salsa over cream cheese mix, then add chopped veggies and cover with shredded cheese. I used a pre-shredded "Mexican blend" to make my life easier.
Serve with scoopy chips. For scooping.

Note the "Pi" plate I served it in. That was a Christmas present from my Dad, and I love it. My sister-in-law reminded me that Pi Day is approaching faster than we realize, and that I will have to bake a pie for the occasion, especially now that I have the absolutely most perfect pie plate to bake it in. So, I'll need to master pie crust by March 14th. Wish me luck.

New House Party

After living here for six months, we finally got our act together and invited friends and family over for a New Year/New House party. We had a great turnout and much more food than we could possibly have needed for that many people, and it was absolutely wonderful to see these people who I hadn't seen in a while (my aunt and uncle among them) and catch up. We got a lot of compliments on the house while we were giving folks the tour, with "it's got character" and "OMG it's huge" being the general theme of the day. It's bigger than it looks from the outside and it always surprises people, and since it's an old house with a split-level floorplan and there's a large addition stuck onto the back, you're not sure what room you're going to come to next. It's quirky, and that's why we love it.

I'm looking forward to having folks over more often - we don't get a chance to be very social because we're always so busy, and this party reminded me how many awesome people we have around us and how much we need to make more time to see them.

The hidden bonus to doing something like this is the incredibly clean house we have because we were embarrassed to show off our usual clutter and cat hair. Honestly, this place has not looked so good since the day we started bringing boxes over in the moving truck. It was a ton of work but completely worth it - I just hope we can maintain it for a while before it reverts to its natural chaotic state, which it most definitely will if we aren't vigilant! I plan on making a conscious effort to keep everything tidy for at least a week. At the end of that week I will pledge to try for another week. And we'll see where I end up.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Immigration Interview - The Interview!

Anticlimactic, really. We left incredibly early, just in case we hit any traffic, because we were told that the worst sin you can commit in the green card process is showing up late to the interview. Much like bringing an umbrella to work guarantees clear skies, waking up at 6am guaranteed that of course we'd have the smoothest time ever getting there, which meant that we spent over 20 minutes sitting in the car in a parking garage because we were too early and weren't sure what time the building opened.

After the airport-style security checkpoint at the door to the federal building (except that we got to keep our shoes on), we headed to Room 103 to wait for my name to be called. There were two immigration-related waiting rooms, with applicants split pretty evenly between the two. I must say, as nervous as I was, I was very glad they didn't direct me to Room 101. Extra points to anyone who gets the reference.

The woman who did our interview was young and friendly and in a cheerful mood, and it was all much easier than I thought it would be. A few questions about our families, where we met, that sort of thing, and then she went through the photos, asking about them, and commenting on how awesome it was that we'd traveled so much. She also exclaimed over the quality of our photo books and asked where we got them made (Snapfish), and asked where we got married because the place was so pretty. We also got a "Oooh, was that at the Ren Fest?" out of her as she flipped through the albums. Not that she wasn't totally professional through the whole thing - she just made us feel a lot less nervous and I'm very grateful that she was the one who picked up our file today.

At the end of the interview, she said that as far as she was concerned, everything was in order and they shouldn't need anything else to approve me, but someone else needed to look over the file first before anything can be done. So I have to wait, again. If any documentation is missing, I'll get a letter within a couple of days asking me to bring it in, and if everything is fine, I'll get a letter in a few weeks saying my green card is on its way.

Almost there. Almost permanent.

Immigration Interview - Photo Printing Attempts

We needed photos for the big interview, so I loaded up the best of the best, a photographic retrospective of our long romantic history, and stuck them on a USB memory key, ready to print them out for scrutiny at the eyes of an immigration officer. Only, we got to Target too late and their photo area was closed. They had a self-serve kiosk with some sort of printer attached to it, so I approached for a look, only to read that it, too, was closed at 9pm when the employees abandon the photo lab. Apparently they have a different concept of self-serve than I do, because I'm fairly sure no member of the Target team is my "self".

No worries, I thought, I'll just leave early Monday and stop at the Target near the hospital before I go to work. Sadly, their photo lab was unmanned at 10:30am. Their self-serve kiosk was flashing a "need software update" message, but I figured I could use the regular kiosk and upload the photos from my drive, let Target print them at some point, and I could come back after work to pick them up. Except that the woman from the customer service desk said I shouldn't do that. She said that the machines are shut down until someone shows up at noon, so I shouldn't "send them now", because I might lose my pictures. I took a moment to try and explain to her how memory works, and how photos sent over the internet in the middle of the night are waiting patiently somewhere until the photo printers warm up, but she was terrified that I would lose my pictures and wouldn't let me use the kiosk. She told me to try Walgreens.

On to Walgreens!

Their kiosks were antiques, but they looked functional, and there was en employee sitting nearby, which was encouraging. No losing photos while the machines warm up at Walgreens! It was one of those kiosks with the various slots for you to stuff in a memory card, a CD, etc, so I poked around looking for a USB port. "You plug in!" "You plug in and touch screen!" This was the very helpful employee, for whom English was not a friend. I showed him my USB key, and indicated that there seemed to be no place to "plug in". He rolled his eyes, walked over, took hold of a cable laying by the side of the keyboard, and waggled it at me. "You plug in!" And then he walked away in disgust at how stupid I was. Well, it was a USB cable. So... unless my USB key was looking for a male-on-male hot gay USB escapade, it was completely useless. In the end I remembered that my memory stick contained an SD card, and just used it that way, and I got my pictures.

Bonus story:

When I went to pick up the photos after work, I shuffled through them to make sure they were all there, and the young girl at the register was watching me and looking at them. "Oh, wow, did you go on... vacation?" Surely confused, as there were pictures from Rome, Paris, Vancouver, DC, New York, and Philadelphia, and some wedding and engagement photos, with some Christmas thrown in for good measure. When I told her it was all for an immigration interview so I could get my green card, her puzzlement grew. Lily-white girl with unaccented (mostly, eh?) English? Immigration? I explained I'm from Canada and married an American, and she said "Wow, I thought they only did that for... you know... foreign countries. Canada's, like, right there."

Fun day.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Immigration Interview

After the paperwork, the background check, and the fingerprints, comes the interrogation.

My green card interview is this week and I'm a nervous wreck despite reading several encouraging posts about others' experiences and having a reassuring chat with the lawyer who's helping us through it. I don't deal well with this sort of situation and I'm very very nervous about forgetting something important, or giving the wrong answer and having everything delayed because of a stupid mistake. And the appointment is at 8:30am in Baltimore, adding traffic to my list of terrors - what if we're late? The lawyer said that no matter what else happens, do not be late, so I guess I'll be sitting in the car at 5am to be sure.

I've got piles and piles of paperwork to bring with me. They want originals and copies of our birth certificates, passports, and marriage certificate. They want proof that my husband can support me financially - never mind that I lived on my own for a year when I moved here and was perfectly successful in supporting myself thankyouverymuch. He's got tax returns and pay stubs and letters from his employers saying he's working there. I'm bringing the same information for myself, just in case. I have every single document USCIS has sent me since the beginning of the process, from the "we got your application" letter to my work permit and my appointment notice for this interview. And then we have the evidence that we're in a legitimate good-faith marriage.

Because, you know, so many Canadians are rushing across the border and entering into sham marriages with Americans so they can live here and escape from universal health care and hockey.

So we've got a wedding album, several pictures of us from the last few years, including many of us with various members of both our families. We've got the mortgage documents with both our names on it, the joint accounts at the bank, the title to the car, even the paperwork from the last vet visit because the vet gave my little Horton my husband's last name. I've got a Christmas card and a birthday card from a few years ago (I'm sentimental, I save things). I have some emails with travel plans from when we were long-distance and racking up the miles on USAirways.

I hope it's enough. I hope they don't deport me. Or waterboard me.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Jen's Library: You Were Always Mom's Favorite!

You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives
by Deborah Tannen

This book intrigued me, since I have a sister and our conversations don't always go very well since we're very different people. We love each other to death, no doubt, but we clash a lot, and I thought maybe this book would give me some insight.

Yes and no. The author interviewed hundreds of sisters for this book, and explored the different types of sisterly relationships and how they start, grow, and change. She's a professor of linguistics, so conversational dynamics are her strong point and her main focus in most of her books. Because women are talkers by nature, sister relationships are based in conversation much more than other types of relationships, so she's really in her element as she details her interviews.

What I found fascinating is the near-universal tendency of sisters worldwide to separate or group themselves by extremes. The pretty one and the smart one. Mom's girl and Dad's girl. The athlete and the nerd. Once one sister has taken on a role, it's almost required for the next sister to take the opposite track since that niche has been filled. Psychologically speaking, it can be a conflict-avoidance technique. So if she's the pretty one, I'm not going to try and be prettier because it'll cause friction. I'll just excel at sports instead. It doesn't always work that way, but it's extremely common.

The book explores a lot of other aspects of sisterhood, from birth order to closeness to adoption, and while the author stacks up example after example to prove a point, she then provides enough counterexamples to make you wonder what's true. I think that's done on purpose to illustrate that each relationship is different and you can't make huge sweeping statements about sisters.

More than anything, what I took away from this book is that people use different conversational styles, and if your style clashes with your sister's, you're screwed. Directness vs indirectness, and involvement vs independence are the main differences, making one person's heartfelt offer of advice another person's insulting allusion to incompetence. One of her other books goes into this topic much more deeply and is a fascinating read for anyone who ever finds themselves misunderstood in conversations. Pick up That's not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships for more insight on conversational style. Then let's chat about it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

What's for Dinner - Easiest Slow Cooker Pot Roast

At my bridal shower in Montreal almost a year ago, I received the most beautiful and touching gift from everyone - a book of special recipes from friends and family, lovingly put together like a scrapbook by my mother. It's got my aunt's "best chicken recipe", my sister's favorite party dip, my grandmother's tomato-and-cheese macaroni dish, and a whole bunch more that I'm looking forward to trying. People get together over food, and having my family's best and favorite recipes makes me feel closer to all of them, and I'm so grateful for the gift.

Today I attempted my Mom's Pot Roast in the crockpot. And, because I've never met a recipe I didn't tweak, I tweaked it. Partly because I had a smaller piece of meat, and because I love onions more than Mom does. So here's my tweaked version (sorry, Mom)!

Easiest Slow Cooker Pot Roast

3 lb beef roast
1 medium onion, quartered
1 can cream of mushroom soup
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp thyme
1 tbsp flour
1 envelope dry onion soup mix
1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup red wine

Cook 8 hours on LOW or 4 hours on HIGH.

Mom's version was for a 5-6lb roast, and so it had an extra can of soup and 1/2 cup more water. It also doesn't include a chopped-up onion, but I don't think Mom would be opposed to the idea. I should have tossed in some carrots too, now that I think about it.

I mixed the dry onion soup with the thyme and flour and the squished-through-the-press garlic cloves, and then rubbed it all over the roast. I put that in the crockpot with onions around it, then added the liquids, mixing with a fork so the mushroom soup didn't stay in one big glob. I rolled the roast around to coat all sides, then it was time to cook it. Here's what it looked like before cooking:

I leave first for work, so I asked Dave to start it up before he left, so it wouldn't cook to death. Our crockpot has a timer and it goes to "warm" mode after it's done cooking, but I still hate having it on longer than necessary. Unfortunately the message got confused along the way because it was put on high for 8 hours, instead of the low that it should have been. Luckily, though, everything turned out fine. It was a little dried out, but not too bad, since the crockpot retains all the liquid as it cooks, and besides, we had a bucket of gravy in there to help us choke it down. :) It was really, really good. Really good. Like, I wish I had a bigger stomach so I could eat more good. Like, wanting to set the alarm for a 3am snack good.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Trip to Montreal

Of course the day we planned to drive up to Montreal (no airport porno-scanners for us, thankyouverymuch) was the day the big Nor'Easter was supposed to hit, dumping a ton of snow from the Carolinas to the Maritimes. We left early enough to miss all but a few flakes, and the storm stayed more coastal, so we were spared the horror of a dark blizzard drive through the mountains. Hooray! I think Dave may have been a little disappointed that we couldn't test out the new snow tires, but a safe drive was the main point. And then I forgot to call my dad and grandma when I got there safely, resulting in some minor panic attacks for which I sincerely apologize!

I learned some things on the drive.

First, always check if you have your iPod and iPod charger/FM transmitter before you leave the house. Luckily we had a few CDs and were near cities enough to pick up some radio stations, because a silent 10-hour drive would have been hard.

Frozen waterfalls are the most gorgeous thing ever. Every time we drove through a spot where rock was blasted away for the road, I saw these pretty frozen shapes on the rock surface, and I was mesmerized. I tried to take a picture but things get blurry at 65mph, so this is the best I could do:They're much more gorgeous in reality; you'll just have to trust me, or go for a drive somewhere cold and see for yourself. Some of them were blue like icebergs or glaciers! Actually, now I want to go see some icebergs and glaciers. Which is bizarre, because I hate being cold. Are there any warm glaciers I can visit?

I also learned that some graffiti can be inspirational. Thanks to whoever wrote "It can always get better" on an overpass, because it made me smile. I hope you didn't get charged with vandalism for your contribution to the world's well-being.

We also passed my favorite road sign ever. I giggle every time we pass it.Delicious irony!

After a long day of driving, with only a couple of food stops and a stretch break or two, we got to Mom's place and were welcomed by a second Christmas.

And by this wonderful ball of fluff.

And by my Mom and my wonderful dork of a brother.
All so completely worth it.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Jen's Library: Obsolete

Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By
by Anna Jane Grossman

Warning: this book will make you feel old. It's a look back at many things and concepts that were taken for granted in the 80s and 90s, but are fading from use and from memory now.

Think about it: it's extremely likely that our kids will not use encyclopedias. They won't use payphones or check the time on their watches. They'll never write a check or take a picture with a friend in a photo booth. They'll never know a mixtape.

Things become obsolete all the time. But these are our things. I kept quarters in my purse so I could always call home. Counting Crows' Mr Jones will always be followed by the opening bars of Big Mountain's reggae version of Baby I Love Your Way. Seriously, every time I get to the end of Mr Jones, I sing "Ooooh, baby I love your wayyy" under my breath. Watch me sometime, you'll see my lips moving.

Some things are totally unnecessary now, because they've been replaced by better things, and I'm not one to stand against progress. I can do without manual car windows and short-shorts on basketball players, for example, but I do mourn the death of the encyclopedia and the newspaper.

I liked the trip down memory lane, but it left me feeling old and possibly approaching obsolescence myself!

30 in 30

My good friend Tasha (link goes to her awesome cooking blog) embarked on a meaningful personal quest on the eve of her 30th birthday. She has made a list of 30 things she wants to accomplish in her 30th year*, and I think it's a great idea and I'll be cheering her on the whole way. I want to try setting some of my own goals for the year, even though I've already had three months of "30" go by... do you think it would be cheating if I use some things I did in those months and count them as already crossed off? I could transform it into a New Years resolutions list, but given my history with those, I feel that giving a project such a label is dooming it to failure.

What are my 30 goals? I've never been good at goal-setting, so this is very hard. What's realistic? Do I want to be unrealistic and list some crazy stuff?

  1. Learn to hem pants and sew on buttons.
  2. Figure out how to French braid my hair.
  3. Make homemade pasta from scratch.
  4. Bake homemade bread from scratch. The real stuff. With yeast!
  5. Start my retirement savings.
  6. Paint the red room yellow.
  7. Plant a tree in the yard.
  8. Drive on 95.
  9. Get my body into good enough shape to start growing a baby in it. This includes the loss of 20 pounds, but is mostly about feeling healthier.
  10. Related to #9 - Find a GYN and stop stalling about it!
  11. Blog at least once a week - and blog about everything I accomplish off the list!
  12. Get a filing system set up so I stop having to hunt for all my important paperwork.
  13. Speak up for myself at my annual review at work and tell them I'm awesome.
  14. Read 50 books, or about one a week, this year.
  15. Participate in Thing-a-day in February.
  16. Take a yoga class.
  17. Go through all our STUFF and have a yard sale to get rid of what we don't need (or give it to charity). I want to keep what we need, and what matters.
  18. Learn how to identify different trees by their leaves/needles/bark/whatever. I used to know this and forgot everything, so I'm going to read up on it and put it back in my head.
  19. Learn to change a tire.
  20. See the night sky from somewhere dark enough that I can see the stripe of the Milky Way.
  21. Find out how to get tuition reimbursement from work, and then apply for an online class.
  22. Go on a wonderful anniversary trip with my husband.
  23. Drink 8 cups of water EVERY DAY.
  24. Do one of the FlyLady challenges weekly.
  25. Try to relax and be less critical of myself (and others).
  26. Celebrate getting my green card with a party or fancy night out.
  27. Visit the Museum of American History and see every part of it (and read as much as I can handle of the info posted beside everything). I've been but the visit was so hurried and I need to go back.
  28. Wear my face moisturizer with SPF so I don't get wrinkly.
  29. Cook things from the family cookbook Mom gave me.
  30. Write. More than just blogs. Start a writing notebook, fill it up, get another.
Looking at my list now, I guess it's a blend of resolutions and dreams and a to-do list, and that's ok. As long as I manage to accomplish some from each category, it'll balance out in the end. And I think balance is probably what I need most.

*Yes, I realize that this is actually her 31st year, but that doesn't matter and stop being picky.