Tag Archives: holidays

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 about.com 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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.