Monday, December 31, 2012

Final Report on 31 in 31

For a couple of years now, I've been taking my friend Tasha's lead and making an "X in X" list instead of New Year's resolutions. She started it with her 30th birthday, intending to do 30 things in her 30th year, and I liked the idea. To be fair, I like making these lists far more than I like facing them at the end of the year and seeing how much (or how little) of them I actually got done. But I know I'll get grief from a couple of friends if I don't review last year's list, so here goes.

What I achieved:

1. Bake a cake completely from scratch. (Note to self: ask Sarah for pointers!)
I've done this a couple of times now, starting with my red blood cell cake, and it wasn't nearly as hard as I expected it to be. I'm not yet convinced the result is worth the extra effort compared to the average box cake, but I've only tried one recipe so far and I'm willing to agree that some scratch cakes are better. The frosting was definitely better than the stuff in the plastic tub, though, and I feel like I've started down a scratch-frosting path and I can never turn back.

2. Update my phone and address book, transfer to memory of home phone and cell phone. I'm tired of having to search my Gmail archives to find someone's most recent address or phone number.
I did one better and got myself one of them newfangled smarty phones (I can hear at least three people shouting "FINALLY!!!") so I can get at my Gmail archives anytime I please. I spent the first hours with my new phone getting everyone programmed into the address book, so can we all please stop moving and changing phone numbers?

3. Blog regularly.
I don't think I've missed a week all year. I'm getting better at this! My Ornament Advent Calendar ended this year with a bunch of great posts, and I think I've got some momentum built up to get me over the holiday slump and into the new year.

4. Email (and call) my friends more.
I've kept in closer touch with my family and friends this year, although I still feel like I could do better. My new phone helps, since some people are so technologically advanced that they've evolved beyond speech and are now only able to communicate via text message.

5. Take a class. Any class.
I took a writing class! It wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but I got some writing practice and learned to take (and dish out) constructive criticism. I'm very interested in joining a local writing group now, to try and keep myself in line.

6. See the stars from the cruise ship.
Learned: There are a lot of lights on a cruise ship. I saw some stars, but it wasn't a glorious vista of astronomical wonder or anything. I did have a fabulous time on the cruise, though, and got to pet dolphins and shake Wil Wheaton's hand. (How to tell them apart: Wil walks on legs and is better at karaoke, the dolphin swims a lot and is better at flips and shit.)

7. Organize all my printed and photocopied recipes.
I can't believe I actually got this one completed, but I did. I received a pretty recipe binder for Christmas last year, and after staring at it for months, I finally decided to spend one rainy weekend afternoon on the family room floor, mercilessly culling my stacks of clipped magazine recipes. The best ones are all sorted by recipe type and protected in plastic sleeves in the binder now.

8. Make cookies that aren't for Christmas.
I made Easter-themed sugar cookies to share at work.

9. Impress them at my new job and get a good review and/or raise.
Three for three on this one! Go me!

10. Paint living and dining rooms.
And get new hardwood floors installed. And some new carpeting. And rip up nasty basement carpeting with my bare hands. And a zillion other home improvements. We've been busting our butts getting this place in shape and it's finally starting to show.

11. Get my sewing machine out of the box, plug it in, and stitch something. Anything.
I used my sewing machine to make a special Christmas present for a friend. More on that in a later post.

12. Read 50 books.
I don't think I quite got to 50 unless I count the audiobooks, but after much soul-searching I've decided that they count. I'm learning from them and enjoying them, and they make my commute tolerable.

13. Take my vitamins.
I finally caved and bought a little pill reminder box to help me out. I'm old now. Bifocals are coming, I just know it.

What I kinda almost accomplished:

14. Participate in Thing-a-Day. It'll be incomplete because of the February cruise, but that's ok.
I did make some things, but I find that I don't enjoy creativity under pressure. Instead, I participated in a couple of other challenges this year and had a blast with them. I played along with Marian Call's European Adventure Quest game to celebrate the release of her new album, and I had my own little December writing challenge. Those were tons of fun and I will seek out other writing-related challenges for next year.

15. Stay hydrated.
I was doing really well until about October and then I stopped trying.

16. Get us off mailing lists and reduce junk mail.
I did try to get this done. I filled out forms and canceled a bunch of subscriptions, but we're still getting a ton of junk going straight from mailbox to recycling bin. There are places online that offer to stop your junk mail for a small fee but I'm not falling for that.

17. Work on embroidery to figure out if I like it.
I don't think I like it yet. I also branched out and got a crochet lesson from someone at work, but I'm not convinced I'm the crafty type. I have a hard time just making something without a reason. With writing, I can create a thing, people can read it, and we're done. I'm not making a doily or tea cozy or bird feeder that I'm going to give to someone who will then have to decide whether to bring the damn thing out from hiding when I visit, or trash it and lie to me about how the dog ate it.

18. Try a CSA again. Research it better, get recommendations.
While I really want to broaden my vegetable horizons and support local farms, I can't quite get my husband on board to try again after our first disastrous CSA experience. Eating new kinds of veggies is enough of a challenge without them being bruised to hell and coated in a wiggling carpet of aphids. I visited the farmer's market often this year and got my veggie fix that way instead. Bonus: I discovered purple potatoes.

Complete misses:

19. Bake Pioneer Woman's famous cinnamon rolls.
I've got tentative plans to tackle the cinnamon rolls in January with my sister-in-law. Cinnamon rolls are an all-day commitment, and we weren't able to squeeze a baking day into the busy Christmas season.
20. Grow food - more than tomatoes and herbs. Maybe peppers?
We're working on a total backyard overhaul, so I avoided any big gardening projects this year. I could have tried some container gardening, but with the squirrels and rabbits we have in the yard, I'd have needed barbed wire and an armed guard to keep my beans and peppers from getting eaten. The plans for the new landscaping include a space for a raised bed, so I'm optimistic that someday I'll have something to work with.
21. Put together an emergency kit for the car.
I completely forgot this was on my list. Maybe next year's list will include "print out the list", or "actually check the list sometimes".

22. Read Darwin's Origin of Species.
It's pretty heavy reading - have you ever had a look at that thing? I'll get to it... someday...

23. Make a birthday list so I stop relying on Facebook to tell me.
Facebook ain't broke, so I'm not sure why I felt the need to fix this one.

24. Set up a safe deposit box for our important papers.
I forgot about this one too.

25. Try curling. Yes, the sport. Yes, it IS a sport.
I haven't been able to convince anyone to come with me for a beginner's lesson, and I'm too chicken to go alone.

26. See the National Christmas Tree in DC. I've wanted to since I got here and haven't managed yet.
Things were hectic this year around the holidays. Not a good excuse, I know, but it just didn't work out.
27. Make bagels from scratch.
I brought home enough bagels from Montreal that I really had no need!

28. Lose some weight.
29. Wear moisturizer.
I fail so consistently at these that they are hereby banished from all my resolution lists forever. I'm tired of them making me look bad.

As for the two I decided not to share on the official public list, one worked out and one didn't.

I haven't decided yet about posting a list for next year. I feel like it might help me to have a list of small goals to work towards, but it might also give me more to feel bad about if I don't do enough. What do you think?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 Review

The year is ending.

I think it's probably more useful, around New Year's Day, to reflect on the year that's leaving us, instead of making lists of resolutions to burden the new year with expectations before it's even begun. Maybe with the perspective gained from examining the good and the bad of the old year, we can approach the new year more constructively.

There was good this year. Much of it came out of my own efforts and decisions, and I can point to many of the joys of the year with a sense of accomplishment.

This year, I settled in at a new job where I never have to work on holidays, never have to skip lunch because I'm too busy to eat, and never have anyone yelling at me to work faster. I sometimes worry that the change was good for my blood pressure, but bad for my brain, who's going soft without all that pressure to think fast and solve problems before someone dies. Everyone assures me I'll soon have some opportunity to grow in the new place, and I look forward to starting that growth. I still miss parts of the hospital world. I can't say I'll never go back to the craziness, but for now I'm comfortable where I am.

This year, my husband and I went on a cruise so incredible that we're going to do it again. We visited tropical islands and got sunburned and ate fancy cruise food. We got to touch dolphins and witness some of the best karaoke of all time. We had so much fun and met so many wonderful people and we've stayed in touch with many of them. I'm getting better at this "social" thing. Slowly.

We made tons of progress on the house. Paint, wiring, electrical and plumbing repairs, ripping out and replacing floors... we've been really busy. Of course, as it always goes with houses, we're nowhere near done and new problems keep popping up as we fix others, but it's more "our home" every day and we love it.

I've written more than ever this year, dedicating more time to my blog and to commenting on the work of other talented bloggers. I took a writing class, getting over some of my fears of meeting new people and sharing my work in public, opening myself up to criticism. I've gotten involved with Twitter and started following and interacting with some fascinating people, who may talk me into joining writing groups who can help me improve at what I love.

I tried new recipes. I finally took my sewing machine out of the box and made something. I played with glass. I visited home and saw my brother's new place, and I spent a week in the Outer Banks soaking up the sun (and the rain). I got a smart phone. I lived through another hurricane.

I need to be honest with you. I had a very hard time being objective this week when I looked back at 2012. While I could find plenty of good in it to celebrate, it was also a very painful and difficult year for me. As the year ends, I find myself hurting, frustrated, and angry. There have been many tears.

When I examine my pain, though, I realize that everything that hurt me this year was outside of my control. I didn't fail. I can't look back and say that I didn't try hard enough, wasn't strong enough. That's difficult for me to accept - when you're brought up in an atmosphere where you're reminded daily that you can achieve anything you want if only you try hard enough, it's hard not to feel guilty as you face your failures.

Life isn't fair. But life isn't unfair, either. Life just is. Life is happening and you're caught up in it and sometimes bad people win the lottery and good people get cancer. That's very hard for me to come to terms with; just ask my therapist. The little girl inside me with a cape and a strong sense of justice is stamping her feet and yelling that it's just not right, but my task over the next year will be to try and explain to her that the world doesn't work that way. She'll be really mad about it, and she won't want to believe me, but there are some things that even the most super of superheroes just don't get to have control over, and that's important to understand. Of course, giving up any sense of control over anything that happens is equally disappointing, so hiding under the covers and giving up isn't the answer either. Somewhere between dark fatalism and sparkly idealism is the world of rationality and acceptance. I'll get there.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas To All

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I hope you've enjoyed a breakfast with your loved ones and shared some smiles and hugs beside the tree as everyone unwrapped their lovingly-chosen gifts.

As with a traditional chocolate-filled Advent calendar, the doors to all my daily ornament stories were opened by Christmas Eve. I hope that some of my stories made you smile, because I had fun writing them. I got a lot of writing practice done, and I'm pretty proud of myself for getting through 25 straight days of posts. I think I'll take a few days off now to think up some new stories and thoughts to share, and to stretch my wrists and fight off the carpal tunnel issues that are surely settling in.

Here's a list of the ornament stories, in case you missed any:

December Blog Project

  1. The advantage of sensible shoes
  2. It's not real, but it's spectacular
  3. Bonjour, hi.
  4. Night Owl
  5. The Best Game you Can Name
  6. The Chocolate Moose
  7. Interdit
  8. Reindeer Prints
  9. She said Duh!!
  10. Unphotographed Memories
  11. Yes, Virginia, this is a honeymoon
  12. Chocolate Raspberry is a Gateway Coffee
  13. The Christmas Pageant Where I Was A Beet
  14. Mononuclear summer
  15. Fighting for the Top Spot
  16. The hills are alive with Mozart
  17. Cruisin' on down to Awesomeville
  18. Ring in the Season
  19. Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves
  21. (Guest post) It’s Kind of Like They’re the Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen of Christmas Ornaments
  22. Plate it Out
  23. Home
  24. Not Pony Tails or Cotton Tails But Duck Tales (woo-oo) 

A final thought to leave you with, courtesy of Dr. Seuss:

Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to grasp.

Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Not Pony Tails or Cotton Tails But Duck Tales (woo-oo)

This is the 24th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

Ducks are sleek and stately birds until they pop their heads under the surface to look for bugs. That's when they tip ass-over-teakettle and wave their ridiculous little tails at you. It's impossible to take a duck completely seriously, and I think that's probably the moral of my life story.

How can you take this seriously? You just can't.

Dave and I had one of those silly "OMG, no way" moments between us when we were first dating, when I discovered that his most beloved childhood toy was a stuffed Donald Duck. In what I thought was a world-stopping coincidence, "duck" had been my very first word, recorded for posterity in my baby book alongside a height and weight chart and a delicate curl from my first haircut. My grandmother, who lived next door to me when I was a baby, owned two geranium-filled plastic garden planters shaped like swans. Being a baby, I wasn't familiar with the phenotypic variations between species of waterfowl, so I excitedly petted them and called them ducks. 

Obviously, fate saw these two duck-admiring children and felt it right to bring them together. Luckily, we had more in common than an appreciation for aquatic birds, and we ended up married and living happily ever after, as you do.

In our home, the duck invasion has been a slow and insidious one. There's the big canvas print of an irritated Donald Duck placed where it can welcome visitors to our home. There's the brown ceramic duck-shaped dish I found for Dave to put his wedding ring in at night. There's the plush robotic Easter Bunny Donald Duck my Grandmaman sent us - he waddles in a circle quacking Polly-Wally-Doodle until you pick him up by his ears and he hollers at you in a true Donald meltdown. There's the duck-shaped teapot Mom gave us as a housewarming gift. There are the drawer pulls Dave chose for the dresser in our bedroom, with majestic mallards on them. There are the happy yellow bride-and-groom rubber duckies who sat atop our wedding cake.

I realize that we're absolutely doomed once we have kids. It doesn't matter if we want the nursery to be decorated with dinosaurs or teddy bears or classic 80s music videos. We're going to get ducks. So many ducks.

But I'm okay with that. There's an expression "Like a duck: calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath." Dave is the duck above the surface, calm and relaxed and with water flowing off his back like there's nothing in the world that can bother him. Meanwhile, I'm paddling like mad and never feeling like I'm out of danger, never getting enough done. I think people who know us see instinctively that if you put the two of us together, you've got yourself a damn fine duck.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


This is the 23rd of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

I was addressing my Christmas cards last week and noticed how many addresses I've had to cross out as friends and family pack up and move to new places. For some who moved almost annually, I started writing in pencil, because I was running out of space on the page for new addresses. I've had eight addresses myself, but I hope that the current one is permanent enough to be safely written in ink.

The Little House
I grew up next door to my grandmother's house, in a tiny red house with a wide porch and a big yard. There was a birch tree that made me sneeze, and a tamarack tree so tall I had to lie down on the ground to see the very top without hurting my neck. We played outside a lot, even if "playing" meant lying on a blanket with a coloring book in the backyard. There was a path to my grandmother's house, through the cedar hedge, and we could run over for a visit anytime.

The Big House
We moved to a different city, twenty minutes away, when I left elementary school. It was a split-level style, with a garage, and a huge backyard for Dad to mow and Mom to plant gardens in. We got our own rooms - mine was gigantic - and there were two living rooms to watch TV in. It seemed like a perfect house, but at the end, there was anger, contempt, and bitterness in that home. Parents on the brink of divorce, and teenage kids feeling the pressure and acting out in different ways. My parents eventually split up and we had to leave the big house. I don't remember very much about the big house, now.

The Loud Apartment
Dad went to live with his mother for a while during and after the divorce. Mom found us an apartment and we all squeezed in. My sister moved out, and then back in when things didn't work out with her roommates. It was a second-floor apartment on a busy street, and the downstairs neighbors hated us. They screamed at us through our floor, banging brooms against their ceilings, threatening us with bodily harm if we didn't shut up. We were quiet, so I don't understand why they were always so angry with us. I think it may have been because we spoke English. The place wasn't really big enough for us all, and my sister was sleeping in the living room. I was going to McGill by then, and I decided to give everyone more space by moving in with Dad for a while, until I could get my own place.

Dad's place
But Dad didn't have his own place. He was still with his mom, my grandmother, while he looked for a suitable condo. I got one of the upstairs bedrooms and stayed a few months, but everyone's personalities clashed and I just couldn't stay. I found myself welcomed back to the Loud Apartment, and sleeping in the living room.

The Nice Apartment
Mom left the Loud Apartment as soon as she was able to. It wasn't a healthy place to live. She found a wonderful third-floor walk-up on a quiet street, a block away from a bus stop and a grocery store. We had a parking space and a square of backyard big enough for a patio set and a garden. We had big windows with wide sills for the cat to sit on and pretty views of winter sunrises through the trees. The neighbors mostly minded their own business. My brother and I each had a room, and my sister had moved out again, so we had enough space to breathe. Unfortunately, there was only one bathroom, which is why I still ask my husband if he needs to pee before I go shower, even though we have five bathrooms in our current place. Habits die hard. We were happier in that apartment. Mom redid the kitchen, put up flower boxes on the balconies. She's still in that kitchen or on those balconies with her coffee every morning. This is the place that's brightest in my memory.

My First Apartment
When I moved to Maryland, I didn't do it the easy way by moving in with my boyfriend. I wanted my own place, to prove that I could do it. I got an apartment near the hospital I'd be working at, and adopted a cat so I could blame the strange night noises on his prowling. I felt safe enough there, despite the loud foreign-language fights in the parking lot at night and the time a drunk guy banged on my door asking to be let in, because he thought it was his friend's apartment one building over. There was a solid deadbolt on the door, and I had a vicious attack kitten to protect me. I set up cable and internet. I paid bills. I did groceries and cooked for myself every night. I dragged laundry down three flights of stairs to the dark laundry room and fought with the coin slots. I did very well there on my own, but I was lonely between my boyfriend's weekend visits.

The Townhouse
I moved in with Dave when my lease expired, and I loved his townhouse. Sure, it was always freezing cold or burning hot in the bedroom, because of a high ceiling and terrible insulation, but we were happy there together. Parking was a creative endeavour because of how few spots were available and how many were taken up by assholes who had driveways and garages they didn't feel like using. We were always either tripping over the three cats or pinned under them on the couch. I tried to girl the place up by planting lavender outside and it grew to monstrous proportions, crowding the walkway with bee-covered purple stems. I attempted to cut and dry some in the oven... lavender is thus now forbidden from all gardens, all soaps, all candles, and pretty much everything that comes into or near our home for the rest of eternity.

Our Home
We chose this house, together, for our forever home. It's too big, and it's too old, and it needs too much work, but we love it. I joke that it's made of bathrooms and built-in bookshelves, with some bedrooms and stuff thrown in. We've been here almost three years now and we've made incredible progress making it into the home we want it to be. The mint green and burgundy paint is gone. The jungle in the backyard is under control and the sick trees were cut down. The silver wallpaper is gone, and the stained blue carpet is now beautiful hardwood. It's familiar now, and comfortable. It feels like us. It smells like us. It's home.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Plate it out

This is the 22nd of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here.

This week, I got a brand new ornament for my tree. My friend Natasha, who sent it, also contributed a great guest post for my blog, explaining why she bought it for me. When she saw it, she was reminded of me, and of microbiology, and thought it would be a nice way to connect us across a distance. I am very touched by the gesture.

But... it's wrong.

Not that Natasha chose badly, of course. I love it for what it is and what it represents. But the pattern on the petri dish, as pretty as it is, would flunk that artist right out of med tech school.

Microbiology is different from some of the other laboratory sciences, because it's about identification more than about quantitation. When you get a blood test done, you're getting a count of types of cells, or a measurement of the concentration of cholesterol or iron you've got in your body. With microbiology, it's a murder mystery, a whodunit. The aim of the game is to label the bug that's giving you trouble, so the doctor can deal with it properly.

I'll get into the details in a later post (I promise) but you should know that when bacteria are put onto tasty food like what's in a petri dish, they grow like crazy. Each individual cell stays in one spot and divides like mad, making a little spot. When you have a ton of bacteria, the spots smush together into a smear of goo. To identify the bug, we need a pure colony. Which means a spot that was made by one original bug, isolated from all the rest. We need to spread out the specimen so thin that we're planting single bugs at a time. That's not easy.

We use a technique of "streaking" across the quadrants of the plate. 

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The idea is to smear a little bit of specimen on the plate, then use a new, sterilized tool to drag a tiny amount of it over to the next quadrant. By the end, you're dragging thinner and thinner concentrations of bacteria across the plate, and you'll get isolated colonies that you can then run tests on.

So, while the ornament gets the gist of it, I suspect it was created by an artist who was inspired by the beauty of microbiology, rather than a microbiologist who was moved to create art. Watercolor isn't the best way to go if you're trying to recreate the streaking pattern. A thick paint, dragged across the page like you'd do with the bacteria, would probably be more accurate.

But that doesn't mean I love it any less.

It’s Kind of Like They’re the Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen of Christmas Ornaments

Note: Because I skipped a day of the Ornament Advent Calendar, and because I received a beautiful new ornament as a Christmas gift this week, I am doubling up on today's posts with the help of my good friend Natasha. She wanted to write a piece about the ornament she sent me, to explain the motives behind her choice. Here is her guest post. I'm going to call it post #21. My post about the ornament will be up later today, and will be #22.
Ornaments! Left: Natasha Right: Jen

You know what I mean. Fraternal twins that look so much alike you wonder if they’re identical. But if you look hard enough, you can see the differences.

Admittedly, our ornaments are more obviously different than some of those twins. Jen’s ornament is dark blue on dark blue. My ornament is dark blue on light blue. Totally different.

The pattern on the ornaments is the same though, and that’s most of what matters here. For most people, this pattern is just some strange streaks down the left side. However, once I laid eyes on it, I knew Jen had to have it for the pattern. And so did I.

See, that pattern is actually what makes these ornaments perfect. They’re little watercolors in petri dishes, so they’re already “sciencey” looking. But that pattern is a painting of how microbiologists isolate bacterial colonies. To isolate a single bacterial strain (thus, genetically identical), microbiologists or lab techs (HI JEN!) or students or whomever starts by streaking a big ol’ mess of bacteria from an old plate to a new one. Then, they sterilize their streaking implement (usually a metal tool called a loop) and draw a line through the heavy streak, and streak again a bit more wide-spread. Once you repeat that twice more, the last streak should result in not lines of colonies grown together, but isolated colonies that each resulted from a single bacterium. (Wikipedia has a great image. And has a very clear write-up, if you want more details.)

I had to get this for Jen because she’s undoubtedly done this a million times. (I’ve probably only done this a half million or so.) Because she’s a total science geek, just like me. Because it’s beautiful in it’s own right, but there’s like a little secret hidden in the art if you’ve been there.

Because we have a similar background with a lot of shared experiences, and I realized this could give us a tangible link to those shared experiences that we mutually geek out about regularly.

I hope she takes it on that cruise she’s always talking about and shows it off.

Natasha and I are long-time Internet buddies. We try to get together in reality sometimes, but we live far apart. Still, we talk a ton online, and I think we get along so well because we both like to geek out over stuff in our own ways. She runs a blog of her own, MetaCookbook, where she discusses food, science, and beer, and treats her readers to some fascinating blather along the way. I encourage you to check out her stuff. She's not a recipe blogger, and she's not a rabid granola foodie. She's just someone who loves food, from growing it to eating it to the communities it can build. She's funny and smart and real and I get mad at her when she leaves the blog un-updated for more than a week. That should be enough information to get you over there for a look! 
- Jen

Friday, December 21, 2012


This is the 20th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

There's no mistaking the kind of man you're getting when he arrives to pick you up for your first date, your first face-to-face meeting, wearing cargo shorts, hiking boots and a classic Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

Dave didn't seem at all nervous that day, as I walked out to his car and he said hi to me for the first time. How could he be so sure that everything was going to go well once we left the house and drove off? Sure, we'd been talking online almost every night for months, and it felt like we already knew each other, but with an international border between us it was hard to know what kind of chemistry would happen between us in person.

The original plan was for him to come to the Jazz Festival Montreal in July with his brother, and we would meet on my turf and get to know each other. But as the weeks passed, I found I couldn't wait that long. I booked a flight and got myself to Maryland, and the rest is pretty much history. Turns out our chemistry was excellent.

He took me to see the Marines Silent Drill Platoon in DC, and when the marching band began to play, he sang along with the tuba part - boomph, boomph, boomph. I laughed. It was silly, and I thought it was adorable. I knew for sure then that he was being himself, completely and honestly, and not putting on any sort of persona to try and impress me. What I saw was what I'd get, no plays, no games, no tactics. Because really, who would set up a play using the tuba impression? Not this guy.

I've often told people that the tuba moment is when I knew I had to keep him. That's probably not completely true - I don't know exactly when I knew. Maybe it was when we were ignoring the crowds and focusing more on our conversation than on the fish at the Baltimore aquarium. Maybe it was when Animal surprised Dave by settling in my lap and giving his purring approval. Maybe it was when we stayed up all night watching Fawlty Towers. Maybe it was when I said goodbye at the airport that weekend, and cried the whole way to my gate and half the flight home.

I'm just glad he knew he had to keep me too.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

This is the 19th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

They call it the Sea-to-Sky Highway for a reason. You can watch the tides come in along the Stanley Park Seawall while sipping your morning Starbucks, then get in your car and be skidding through snow in Whistler by lunchtime. It took that drive, that two-hour trip from the sea to the sky, for me to finally understand why my sister loves Vancouver.

She moved west a year before I moved south, and it took us all by surprise when she announced her decision. Vancouver may as well have been India - practically the other side of the world. As is probably the case for most families who are given that sort of information to process, we respected her need to shake things up and try on a new city for a while. We supported her wanderlust and wished her luck, but we didn't understand. She wasn't moving for love, or for work, and she'd only been to Vancouver once before. Why leave friends and family behind for a faraway place you barely know? We thought she would likely get homesick or bored after a year or two or three, and come back to Montreal with some great new experiences under her belt. But she didn't come back. She fell in love with the city, and she stayed.

I met up with my sister in Vancouver in October of 2008, and she showed me around her new hometown. We went to her favorite restaurants and cupcake places, watched movies in her apartment, and sat in her favorite spots on the beach. My little sister, all grown up and independent, was doing her thing and making her life in this new place. It was like she'd been there forever. Clearly, it was her element, her town, but I still couldn't understand why she'd left Montreal behind to settle permanently so far away. Vancouver was a nice, welcoming city, to be sure. But Montreal is welcoming, too, and familiar; why hadn't she just moved into a trendy apartment in Montreal and become a success closer to home?

We're very different, my sister and I. Leaving Montreal wasn't something I'd ever seriously considered, and I only found myself saying goodbye when I fell in love with an American and had to move to make it work. I'm risk averse, I'm cautious, I'm more comfortable when I know my place in the world and what's expected of me. But my sister has always made her own place, always made the rules bend to fit her better. I think that's why she had to leave the familiar behind and try something new.

As much as I wish she lived closer, I think I understand why she decided to stay in Vancouver. It's the sea. It's the mountains. And having them so near to one another that you can get an eyeful of both with one look up at the horizon. I didn't see the power of the landscape until we followed Highway 99 up out of the fog to visit Whistler, passing some of the most beautiful views I'd ever seen. I understand now why she's decided that Vancouver is home. I miss her very much, but I'm glad she's found a place that she loves, and I'm very, very proud of her.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ring in the season

This is the 18th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

I will always have bells on my Christmas tree. They are a reliable early-warning system for cat-related tree disasters.

But that's not why I do it.

In my heart, bells mean Christmas. You've got the Carol of the Bells, Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, bells everywhere. There are so many Christmas songs about bells because bells are joy. Joy because you made it through another year. Joy because of the family around you. Joy on little kids' faces as they open their presents, and joy on their parents' faces as they watch with love.

I love the beginning of How the Grinch Stole Christmas when every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, are decorating the town for Christmas. There's a Who delightedly pulling on a rope and ringing a row of bells, ringing out joy over Whoville. Despite the efforts of the Grinch, Christmas came. It came all the same.

I love the end of It's a Wonderful Life, when George stands with his family in front of everyone who loves him, everyone whose life he has touched in ways he never realized. A little bell rings on the Christmas tree, giving old Clarence his wings at last. To be surrounded by love, to be the richest man in town and realize that you mean so much to so many - that is joy.

Bells feel like old-timey Christmas, like Scrooge running out into the street in his slippers after his night with the spirits, and hearing the church bells ringing out the joy of Christmas morning. Promise. Hope. Joy.

I can't hear something like this and not find tears in my eyes. Is it just me?

And now, to help you recover from an emotional moment, please enjoy what is, as yet, my favorite rendition of Carol of the Bells.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cruisin' on down to awesomeville

This is the 17th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

This is not our ship. Ours was much bigger and had no string.

This is going to be a short post, because I've already written several posts about my experiences on JoCoCruiseCrazy2. If you recall, back in February, we went on a nerd cruise. It was a completely new thing for me and I had a lot of anxiety about being on a ship with a whole bunch of new people who would probably think I was a dork. It turns out that many of the others were as shy as I was, but just a high enough percentage of Sea Monkeys were sociable and extroverted to bring the ship to a critical mass of awesome.

Allow me to summarize:

Great performances by official famous people. Just-as-great impromptu performances by working-on-being-famous people, looking-to-make-this-a-full-time-gig people, and hey-man-I-just-do-this-for-fun people. Karaoke. No, seriously, karaoke so good that you stay up through the extra hour of the time change and are still upset when the party ends at 2am. A Moustache formal where people wear elaborate Fezzes. So many amazing nerdy t-shirts that you'll wish you'd taken pictures of all of them so you could buy your own when you get your land legs back. Dance party. 24-hour gaming room. Fruity grownup beverages. More food than a normal person can comfortably eat. Meeting folks who are as comfortable being referred to by their Twitter handles as their actual names. Snorkels. Smart people. Excited people. Wonderful people.

They're doing it again. On a bigger boat. And we're going to be there. Because this year, on this boat, they have a Zamboni. I don't care if I have to bribe the ice guy. I want to drive a Zamboni on the ice rink on the giant ship in the ocean.

There are still cabins available. You should totally come. We'll play Cards Against Humanity and drink daiquiris and admire the clever puns on each other's T-shirts.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The hills are alive with Mozart

This is the 16th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

At first, it seemed silly to me that Salzburg sells itself so hard as the birthplace of Mozart, when it's such a beautiful and interesting city in its own right.

The house where he was born (Mozarts Geburtshaus) has been decorated with huge lettering across the front and made into a museum and tourist attraction. In every little shop along narrow Franz-Josef-strasse and Linzergasse, we found displays advertising Mozart chocolates (Mozartkugeln): hazelnuts wrapped in marzipan, then wrapped in chocolate. Everywhere we turned, there were life-sized cardboard Mozart cut-outs, standing by huge piles of violin-shaped boxes of chocolate. I'm sure they sold other things, but Mozart chocolates were available and on prominent display in every shop we visited. There were umbrellas with Mozart's face on them, and if you didn't like those, you could be more subtle and get one that looked like antique paper with his music handwritten on it.

One thing Salzburg got right, though, is the Makartsteg pedestrian bridge spanning the swirling Salzach river. It is the most wonderful little bridge in the whole world. It's not very big. It's a concrete curve with chain link sides. It's unadorned and coldly functional. But as you walk across it, you become aware that you're surrounded by Mozart's music, quiet but distinct, just floating in the air around you. Even after you've figured out that there are speakers concealed beneath the handrails, it's no less wonderful.

View from the Makartsteg
In the rain, on the bridge, wrapped in beautiful sound, it all makes sense. This is what Salzburg claims as its own. This music, this feeling.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fighting for the top spot

This is the 15th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

Every year, after the lights are lit and all the ornaments are on the tree, my husband and I stop a moment and argue. We have vastly different opinions on the correct item to place at the top of the tree, and this ideological rift follows us from Christmas to Christmas.

He's from an angel family. I grew up with stars. Well, with something like this, if you can call it a star:

Image from
Now that I think about it, it's possible that we sometimes had an angel on the tree when I was a kid. Could my parents have had this same argument, year after year? Have I dragged this feud into the next generation? I'll have to ask them.

As for our home, things haven't devolved into uncivilized and violent Coke vs. Pepsi territory yet, but each of us is clearly disappointed if the "wrong" thing is at the top of the tree. I'm not sure how to best move past our differences. We alternate years, for now. I'm careful to take a picture of the tree each year as evidence so we know whose turn is next - gotta keep it fair.

Last year, I thought I hit on the perfect solution. I found a Yoda tree topper. With LED glowing lightsaber. Not a star, not an angel, but something we could both enjoy. A tradition we could hand down to our future children, a way to make the annual debate a distant memory of an unenlightened time. Unfortunately, when I took Yoda out of the box, his lightsaber was broken in half. 

A sign. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. Was treetop Yoda my passive-aggressive way to win and get rid of angels for good? I hung my head. I put him back into the box. I returned him to the store.

For now, compromise, we must.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mononuclear Summer

This is the 14th of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.
Festive plush Epstein-Barr Virus. Awwww.
I caught mono during summer vacation. I never did have very good luck. I didn't even get to catch it from kissing a boy, because I was a dorky, awkward nerd still years away from getting close enough to anyone's lips to catch a communicable disease directly from the source.

Mono is not a fun disease to have. I was exhausted for weeks. I had no appetite. My poor mother would hover over me for any sign of hunger and then race to the kitchen to make me whatever I thought I might want. I remember her putting down a plate of scrambled eggs on the table for me with a hopeful look in her eyes, only to take it away after I ate two bites and declared I was too tired to eat. It's just that the fork was so incredibly heavy. I spent most of my sick time on the couch. I wasn't allowed to exert myself or do any sports - not that I could have found the energy anyway - because my doctor scared us to death by telling us I could rupture my spleen.

Before we knew I was going to get mono and throw my summer away, my dad's boss offered our family the use of his summer cabin for a week. He owned a big piece of land - with a lake - up in the Laurentian mountains to the north of Montreal. Just so you know what we're talking about here, the Laurentians are mountains only in the sense that they are not prairie or tundra. The Appalachians mock them openly and the Rockies won't acknowledge them.

My parents decided I was recovered enough for us to make the trip, even though I was still weak and tired. It was a long car trip and I probably spent most of it asleep in my corner of the minivan, but I was awake as we arrived at the property. We turned onto a driveway, and kept driving for a mile or more before we saw the cabin, the lake, the dock. Never before had I been so far away from everything. When we closed the car doors and stood on the gravel drive, it was quiet. No cars. No voices. No airplanes. Just the birds and the breeze. I guess my parents thought the fresh air up there in the hills would help to revive my spirit, if not my body, and they were right. It was the closest to real mountains that I'd ever been, and it was glorious. Green as far as I could see, until the blue of the sky took over.

I spent some time outside during that week despite being sick, and not only because my parents forced me to. I sat on the dock to watch the water. I walked along the drive, trying to spot deer in between the trees. I didn't see any. There were tiny toads, though, and lots of birds, and not nearly as many mosquitoes as you'd expect. My favorite part was evening, just as the sun set, when the quiet was replaced with a chorus of frogs and loons. That's when Dad turned on the light by the couch, took The Two Towers out of the boxed set he'd brought, and continued the story for us. Listening, I could handle, even with mono.

Friday, December 14, 2012

While I am not connected to today's tragedy in Connecticut in any meaningful way, I am upset. I'm sad, I'm angry, and I'm hurting for all those kids who died and those who will have to live with memories of this day forever.

I'll resume my ornament posts tomorrow. I can't write today. I'm too overwhelmed by a desire to hug a kid and hug a teacher.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Christmas Pageant Where I Was a Beet

This is the thirteenth of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.
What is this thing?

This ornament is an apple. It's hard to tell, because it's the wrong color, and only vaguely the right shape. If I tell you it's an apple, then you can see it, and you'll say "Oh, of course, an apple!" I had a similar problem with my costume for the Christmas Pageant Where I Was a Beet.

We did a pageant every year in elementary school. For weeks, we would rehearse songs and memorize lines. When pageant night came, we'd stand up on long wobbly benches on stage in the cafeteria gym auditorium in front of everyone and endure flashbulbs and overzealous parental applause.

One year, for some reason, it was decided that my grade's contribution to the pageant would be a song and dance routine in which we would play the role of vegetables, stored in the barn over the winter. I don't remember the details, except that the song was in French and we did a sort of happy square dance, celebrating winter.

We were winter vegetables, of course, so nobody got to be anything fun like lettuce or green beans. I was to be a beet. My friends got to be onions and carrots and potatoes, and I was jealous. Those were edible veggies. Nobody liked beets except my weird Dad who liked the little pickled ones that left his fingers purple and his breath vinegary.

After assigning vegetables, the teacher rolled out fabric for our costumes - white crinkly paper. That kind that all huge elementary school banners are made of. The kind that gets drawn on with thick, opaque "gouache" paint and fat brushes. We each got a big square of paper to outline our vegetable on. The teacher had a book of cartoon vegetables for the picky eaters among us to refer to in our artistic endeavors. We each drew our vegetable, then mixed paint to the right shades and slopped it onto the paper. When the paint was dry, we cut out the shape with our green plastic round-tipped scissors, then traced it to make a second identical shape to use as the back. The two halves got stapled together and stuffed with crumpled newspaper to make awesome 3D turnips and squashes that would hang around our necks on loops of twine. I felt better about my beethood when I saw how the potatoes turned out. They looked like lumpy poops.

On the night of the pageant, students lined up in the hallway according to grade, and fidgeted in our dress shoes. There was much shushing. When the previous class was approaching the end of their performance, my teacher led us into the dark gym. Single file, along the wall. Parents sat in rows of folding chairs lined up in the center of the room. Some turned to look at us as we walked past, because our costumes crinkled.

We got to the stage and waited in the wings. The "wings", for our purposes, meant the run of seven stairs and the tiny landing, stage left. The previous class sang their last note, the crowd clapped, and one of the tall Grade Six kids pulled on the rod to close the accordion curtains. There was a whispered commotion as the teachers ushered the other class out via the tiny landing and seven stairs, stage right. We were given the signal to take our places, and the curtains opened again. Time to be a beet.

Edited to add a terrible and embarrassing picture of the costume in question:

Opaque white tights and horrid florals were in fashion. I was not raised Mennonite.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Chocolate Raspberry is a gateway coffee

This is the twelfth of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.

I never liked coffee until I got past high school.

Coffee was bitter and left a strange taste on my tongue and gross smell on my breath, and I couldn't understand why most adults loved the stuff enough to drag cups of it all over the place.

To be fair, the first coffee I was introduced to was instant coffee. It was Taster's Choice, so at least it was premium freeze-dried coffee granules, but it was still freeze-dried coffee granules. It was what Mom drank, and I therefore believed that's what coffee was supposed to be. After a taste, I stayed away from it. I drank hot chocolate at Tim Hortons, or the frothy, sugary "English Toffee Cappuccino", which I doubt had any coffee in it at all.

Then I got to CEGEP, and everything changed. CEGEP is the extra layer of education we have in Quebec, the bridge between high school and college, where students can graduate after two years of a technical program, or move on to college after two years of what they called pre-university education. I was in the Health Sciences branch of the International Baccalaureate pre-university program, and it was hard. My life became essays and lab reports, projects and presentations. There was always something to write, something to study, something to hand in. I was always up early for class, and always stayed up late to study.

The turning point in my relationship with caffeine was my 8am physics class. Classes that early in the day are cruel to begin with, but a jumble of pulleys and inclined planes on a dusty chalkboard is utterly incomprehensible at that hour. There was no hope of me successfully solving for "x" without the help of caffeine. To be fair, even with its help I barely got through that class, but it gave me a fighting chance.

So I started buying cafeteria coffee in the mornings to help me stay awake. A medium coffee and a giant cookie came to just over $2 and became my weekday breakfast of champions. In the cafeteria, three labeled and color-coded coffee pots sat on hotplates - Regular, Decaf, and Flavor of the Day. That last, my friends, is what shoved me headfirst down the slide into caffeine addiction. Irish Cream, Chocolate Truffle, Amaretto, Chocolate Raspberry, Hazelnut, French Vanilla. That's what did it for me. The flavors. I began drinking coffee because someone invented coffee that didn't taste like coffee. Unconscionable, really, dragging unsuspecting youths into the sad wasteland of addiction by making it sweet and fun. It's just like the packages of candy cigarettes from my youth, except that I hated those chalky things and never took up smoking.

But what's done is done. Chocolate Raspberry got me started. Then I transitioned to French Vanilla. By the time I was at McGill, I was pounding Tim Hortons double-doubles with my Timbits without even thinking about it. I walk around with a travel mug of the stuff. It leaves a gross smell on my breath. And I love it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Yes, Virginia, this is a honeymoon

We were married in April of 2010, and we filed paperwork petitioning for my permanent resident status right away. Dave had to ask the government to let his new bride stay in the country with him. A necessary process, I suppose, but it was (and continues to be) complicated and expensive. Unfortunately, because I wasn't allowed to leave the country (except for emergencies in Canada, and I would have needed special permission for that) while my green card application was pending, we couldn't have an all-inclusive tropical honeymoon, or a romantic stay in Italy. Instead, we had a domestic honeymoon. Not domestic in that I wore an apron and baked bread while Dave watched football with a beer. Domestic as in mail or flights; that is, confined to the United States. Which isn't so bad. It's a big place.

We'd often talked about visiting Shenandoah, and never got around to it. When it came time to plan the honeymoon, Virginia wine country came up on our list of locations. We decided that it would probably be pretty in the Blue Ridge mountains in early May, so we booked a room in a quiet little bed and breakfast. With beautiful vineyards scattered all over the area, it seemed like a lovely, romantic place to enjoy our first married days.

And it was. It was beautiful. We tasted wines at half a dozen small vineyards, and learned a lot about what kinds of wines we like and why. We enjoyed vineyard picnics for lunch and sat on our balcony with tea or wine in the evenings. Our room was cozy, the breakfasts were unbelievable, and the scenery was all I'd hoped for.

It truly was a wonderful week. But... it wasn't a week in Italy. It wasn't an all-inclusive beach resort with snorkeling and sunburns and a butler. It wasn't what either of us had imagined when we first contemplated the wedding and discussed honeymoon getaways. He did his best to create a wonderful experience for his wife: I asked for somewhere beautiful and quiet, and he delivered. I did my best to love it. In the end, though, we were both trying to make the best of an unfair situation. 

We've been to other places since then, notably a fantastic cruise (and another planned), so I know I shouldn't complain. And honestly, it's not that I didn't enjoy my time in Virginia - I truly did. I want to go back, maybe for our anniversary next spring. But I hate that our hands were tied and our choices limited by immigration rules. I hate that I'm made to feel like a criminal every time I need to deal with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. I hate being photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated. I hate paying them thousands of dollars to look over the same documentation again and again. I hate asking friends to write letters testifying that my marriage is legitimate.

I want to look at this ornament and remember the lovely time we had on our honeymoon. Because we did have a lovely time. I could tell you about the fun we had, and I considered putting away the bad feelings to share only the good ones here today. But this project is about getting inspiration from an ornament, and this is what came out today, as I looked at those little butterflies. Maybe someday I'll be able to put the bitterness away completely and only remember the joy and love I felt on that trip. But this week, I'm sending in a stack of documents (some quite personal) so that the United States government can decide once again whether I'm allowed to stay here with my husband in our home.  And this won't be the last time they demand we prove the legitimacy our relationship. With that pressure hanging over my head, all I can think of is how we were denied a beautiful Italian honeymoon because the government chooses to operate on the assumption that all marriages to foreigners may be fake.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Unphotographed memories

This is the tenth of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.
Auntie Marilyn made one of these for each of the kids

Most of my childhood memories are attached to photographs. I see a toy, a face, a moment, trapped in an album, and a story wakes up and stretches in my mind.

I have no photos of Auntie Marilyn's basement. I have very few photos of my cousins from that era. But I remember the basement, and the hours spent there with my cousins. It's all vague, fuzzy, but present. She wasn't an aunt, and her grandkids weren't cousins, not really. She was my father's cousin, and we kids used to discuss very seriously whether that made us all higher degree cousins to each other (second? third?), or more removed ones. It didn't matter, but we felt a need to define and label ourselves.

I remember visiting Auntie Marilyn when the cousins were staying there. A steep staircase leading down, right by the side door where we came in. On the left, a few steps up to the kitchen, where the big dog - a Great Dane in my memory but maybe just a Lab in reality - would sleep on a rug near a sliding glass door. Downstairs was dark, carpeted, maybe wood-paneled. Low ceilings. Picture frames.

There was a couch, and a piano. Nobody else we knew had a piano, so this piano was a very big deal. The keys were heavy, like they were made of smooth stone. We played Chopsticks, badly, and loved it. We played hide and seek. I remember wicker, and crocheted blankets, but can't prove they existed.

I'm not sure why I have memories of her place. We didn't go often, and the visits weren't attached to any special occasions. Part of it was probably that I was so happy to have a cousin, third or otherwise, of my own age to play with. I was ten years behind the girl cousins on my Dad's side and five years ahead of the lone girl cousin on my Mom's side, so when Marilyn's grandkids came to visit I finally had a girl cousin to hang out with. That means a lot, when you're twelve. Maybe that's why the memories stuck.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

She said duh!!

This is the ninth of my "Advent Calendar" Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I'm challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it's entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I'm sticking with them anyway.
This champagne cork is from February 14th, 2009. We had something to celebrate.

I held Dave's present behind my back. I don't know why I bothered, because he was still in the bathroom, getting dressed after his shower, and he couldn't possibly see it yet. I waited, sitting at the foot of Mom's bed with my legs hanging over the side. She always took the couch and let us sleep in her bed when we visited, and didn't split up the unmarried cohabitating sinners by making Dave sleep in another room. She knew he wasn't just some guy I kept bringing over, and I was grateful for that.

He came in, closed the door quietly behind him, and stood at the mirror to brush his hair into place. I watched him. Mirror-Dave caught me watching, and smiled.

When he turned to me, I brought my hand around and handed him his present - a small photo book I'd put together. With hours of care and effort, I'd assembled a photo timeline of our whole relationship to that point, from our first email exchange to the latest event we'd attended together. I'd called it "The Book of Dave and Jen". At the last moment, before sending the final version to be printed, I had taken a deep breath and added "(volume 1)" to the title. I had worried a little that I might be tempting fate, but it was done and stayed done.

"Happy Valentine's Day!"

I held my breath as he looked at it. He flipped through a few pages, looked at a few pictures.

"This looks great, thanks!" 

That was it? I wanted to take a minute to look through it with him, to talk about the moments I'd included, to reminisce about all our adventures and how much we'd done together! I wanted acknowledgement of all the work and mushy romantic thinking that went into it! But he was distracted. Preoccupied. He put the book down on the bed beside me.

"It's your turn," he said. "Are you ready for your present?"

I nodded.

He put a hand in his pocket. He left it there, and took a deep breath.

"We've known each other for 4 years now, and I can't imagine my life without you." He took his hand from his pocket and opened up a small velvet box to show me a delicate ring. "Will you marry me?" So very simple. No speeches, no fireworks, just a man with a question and his mother's ring in a velvet box.

My eyes danced between his hopeful expression and the little box he held out in front of him. I was entirely unprepared for what was happening. I'd been hoping, for months, that he'd finally make up his mind and ask me, but I didn't expect it to be here. In my Mom's bedroom. On Valentine's Day. Before breakfast.

I was so stunned, so surprised, that I couldn't even figure out what I was supposed to say. So I blurted out exactly what the voice in my head was saying:


He didn't respond immediately, so in the quiet bewilderment of the moment, I said it again.


"What does that mean? I don't think you're German."

I laughed. As cool and cucumbery as he was trying to be, his mistake revealed the true state of his nerves. "Da is Russian, not German, silly!"

He threw his arms wide in mock frustration. "I still haven't gotten the answer I'm waiting for!"

I stood up and wrapped my arms around him.

"Yes, of course, yes yes yes!"

"Oh, thank God."