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JoCoCruiseCrazy III – Day 4

I shuffled into the performers’ Q&A session ten minutes late and with far too little terrible cruise coffee in my system. The performers, in a very casual and down-to-earth chat, discussed some of the good and the bad about depending on creativity for a living. After listening to these guys, I feel like maybe I could really make it as a writer one of these days, if only I could get my shit together and really focus on it instead of just saying it’s going to happen.

Grumpy Cat did not approve of my tardiness.
We couldn’t spend too much time discussing creative energy, though, because Day 4 was another port day, this time an afternoon stop in the US Virgin Islands. Dave and I hopped off the ship at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and hopped right back onto another boat for a short cruise tour along the shores of the neighboring island of St. John.

It’s easy to spot other nerds in your group when your captain and tour guide is creative with language. Just look to see who winces when the loudspeaker announces that “Christopher Columbus, THAT’S RIGHT, the VERY SAME Christopher Columbus who discovered OUR VERY OWN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, arroved here in THESE BEAUTIFUL VIRGIN-DISLANDS in 1493.” Our Captain was a cheerfully angry local with a deep mistrust of the American government, a healthy love of Jesus, and a casual relationship with the rules of English grammar. We called him Cap’n ALL-CAPS and spent most of the trip mocking him from the upper deck where he couldn’t see us. He sounded like the guy on a game show who announces the AMAZING PRIZES, if that guy was a bitter and tipsy Tea Partier. He explained to us the PRISTINE BEAUTY of the arch pilay-goes of THESE VERY SAME VIRGIN DISLANDS. He showed us a historical site where AFRICAN SLAVES threw themselves from a tower and gave up their souls to OUR SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST before the “abolination” of slavery.
Island of St. Thomas behind us


We enjoyed our little tour despite Cap’n ALL-CAPS and his blatant promotion of the CHOICE TAXIS that would be available for us to take all over St John. Dave declared that we deserved better and he’d hold out for a USDA PRIME taxi, so we explored the area around Cruz bay on foot instead. We had a delicious deli lunch with new friends and then wandered the town looking for souvenirs and trying not to step on any baby chicks.
Chickens cannot read.
I wish now that I’d had more time to spend in St Thomas. This was the first time I’d been in a place where I could look around me and see a dozen islands dotting the horizon. It was truly tropical and absolutely beautiful.



I never thought I would enjoy tropical vacations. I don’t generally like the beach. But out here, it’s not just sand and palm trees. These islands are green mountains in the water, and I love them. I sat on the little boat, leaning on my husband and feeling the wind on my face, and got to watch this happen:



It was hard to get back on the Freedom of the Seas after a day like that.

But that’s how cruises go: a day here and a day there and never enough time to really enjoy the places you visit. Luckily we were on a JoCo cruise and had more fun lined up for us that evening, or I probably would have moped as I watched the twinkling lights of St Thomas fade into the distance.

That afternoon, Wil Wheaton spent an hour in the Bull and Bear Pub, doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session. He was expecting maybe a dozen people, but we packed the joint because everyone loves to hear him talk about things he’s passionate about. He answered questions about homebrewing, acting, and tabletop games. I asked him a question about writing, and he was helpful with his response. I’m glad I found the time to make it to that event.

While we were at that AMA, a band of tiny pirates – kids from the daycare – stormed the Promenade with a song and dance routine. Wil stopped talking and everyone in the Bull and Bear turned to see what was going on. As Sea Monkeys are unable to resist all things pirate-y, we encouraged the kids with a hearty “Arrr!!”

Eek! Tiny pirates!

The evening’s entertainment was a spectacular live-band karaoke experiment. Jonathan Coulton and his rock ensemble played a dozen of JoCo’s songs while randomly-selected Sea Monkeys got to take the stage with them and sing like live rock stars! I could not in a million years have found enough courage to put my name in for such a thing, but the people who did perform were amazing. Some forgot the words, and some were visibly shaking in their sequins, but they were all rock stars for a few minutes and will never, ever forget it.

Edited on March 6, 2013 to add the stuff about Wil Wheaton’s AMA. I couldn’t remember what day it happened, but it’s in the right spot now. 

JoCoCruiseCrazy III – Day 3

I woke up on the morning of Day 3 early enough to get to breakfast in the main dining room, but I couldn’t pull myself out of bed. I was too tired, too stressed. I was waking up on a ship on the beautiful Caribbean sea, but at the same moment, my mother was undergoing a triple bypass operation back home in Montreal. I spent the whole day wrapped in a layer of guilt and worry. If you met me later that day, and I was distracted, distant, checking my watch: please know that it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in talking to you.


Day 3 was a sea day, which was a chance for the Shadow Cruise – activities not set up by the official performers – to take over the ship. Sea Monkeys are incredible at self-organizing and making things happen, and Day 3 was full of happenings. Dave attended a meeting of the Ukulele Melee, a group brought together by Molly Lewis and Alice Lee (developers of the “Stormy G Chord”) to maximize the dramatic impact of the 30+ ukuleles on the ship. They were generous enough to let him join the group even though he decided to leave his uke at home and bring his guitar on the cruise instead.

Alice and Molly teaching the class the “Stormy G”


The room contained musicians of all skill levels, each having a ton of fun playing in this mostly-ukulele band. Oh, and in the room? Sci-fi author John Scalzi, strumming along with a big grin on his face, clearly having as much fun as everyone else. I may have squeed a little. I was too shy to approach him and tell him I enjoy his books, because he wasn’t an official performer and I felt rude bothering him while he was on vacation.

Dave and I spent a little time in the game room trying to learn some new games. I got frustrated too quickly and stuck with Cards Against Humanity because it’s easy and familiar and funny, but Dave put in a little more effort and tried some new things. As you can see, we had options:



The game room is one of the best parts of the JoCo cruises. It’s open around the clock and there’s almost always someone in there, playing a game, eager to teach strategy to newbies. The walls get rapidly papered with notes and pictures – people trying to organize a group for dinner, or warning others to avoid the  free Promenade pizza. For those who take the WiFi Temperance pledge and forswear electronic communication for the week, this is the place to visit every morning to find out what neat things are happening with the Shadow Cruise. We had a shipboard version of Twitter set up (dubbed “Twitt-arrr”, because if we can make something into a pirate joke, then by golly, we’re gonna), which is how I stayed on top of events, because temperance pledges are for chumps.

Dave’s guitar got a workout a little later when we joined the “Bardic Circle”/”Jam Session” in an annex off the game room. A dozen or so folks showed up with instruments and voices, and we hung out in each other’s company for an hour, taking turns playing songs while others joined in. Well, while they joined in. I just tapped my foot and mumbled along to the tunes I recognized, and clapped heartily after every one. Some folks brought us songs they’d written themselves, and they were great. I wish I could be that creative. One of my favorite moments of the whole cruise was when Leslie Hudson sang her song “Tatooine Blues” and everyone started joining in even though they’d never heard it before. Some percussion, a couple of guitars, and the song came to life. You couldn’t miss how much Leslie was loving hearing the song come to life in that room, and I’m so glad I was there to see it happen.

Leslie singing “Tatooine Blues”
There was a show that night, featuring Mike Phirman, John Roderick, and Zoe Keating. I’d seen the first two before, and I was a little disappointed that Phirman’s set was almost exactly the same as when he opened for Paul and Storm at the Birchmere. I suppose it was new to most of the crowd, though, and it was still funny and I still think he’s probably one of the nicest (and smiliest) guys in the biz. John Roderick is unmatched when it comes to stage presence, and he brought the rock as he always does. That said, over the course of this cruise, I found I enjoyed him so much more in his interactions with everyone else onstage than just performing his music for us alone. Zoe Keating was completely new to me and blew me away. An incredibly gifted cellist to begin with, she takes her music to another level with some fantastic technology. I’m loving these cruises for introducing me to new music in such a dramatic way. Marian Call last year, and Zoe Keating this year. They’re very different, they possess astonishing talent, and both can now consider me a big fan.

Zoe Keating performing “Escape Artist” on JoCoCruiseCrazy 3:

I missed the last bit of Zoe’s performance (I’m so sorry, Zoe), because I ducked out early to run to the Online Lounge on Deck 8 and swipe my card for a quick look at Gmail. With that, I finally had word that my mother’s surgery was over and she was going to be okay, and the relief made my legs weak and my heart light.

With that pressure off my spirit, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the final act of the evening: Celebrity Artemis. Artemis is a starship bridge simulator game, where each position has its own technical readouts that only they can see, and must relay information to the rest of the crew to complete their missions. So, of course, the best way to showcase this game is to have a bunch of celebrities, fuzzy with whisky and rum punch, play it in front of everyone.

The crew of the Maltose Falcon


The game, of course, was not the point. Watching these celebrity-type people get tipsy and silly and ridiculous like the rest of us was a huge highlight of this cruise for a lot of us.

If you’ve got half an hour to kill, check out the videos on youtube. This is the second crew, with Captain Roderick. Probably full of curse words.

JoCoCruiseCrazy III – Day 2

Beach day!!

Last year, our Bahamas sunburns were bad enough to make us red and uncomfortable for days. Apparently sunscreen loses potency with age, even though it may not have an official expiration date printed on the bottle. Lesson learned. This time, before heading out on the tender boats to Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean’s private island, we coated ourselves in layer after layer of new spray-on SPF-70 stuff. Then we painted our faces with SPF-100 sunblock sticks, which went on with the scent and texture of neutral Chapstick. Complete that ensemble with floppy hats and sun-blocking t-shirts, and you get a couple of pasty nerds looking ridiculous but safe from the Yellow Face that burns us, Precious.

Protecting our nerd-flesh from the Day-Star


Because we were such a huge group, there weren’t enough beach cabanas, Tiki huts, and clamshells available for everyone to get one. At first, they tried to have a first-come-first-get signup on a website, but we shade-lovers crashed it so hard. For plan B, they picked names at random, which I think was fair. We were lucky enough to get a clam-shell in the shade lottery, so we spent a good part of the day just lounging on the beach reading our books and listening to the waves and the loud Caribbean roosters in the trees. Incidentally, the tropical chickens put this song into my head for most of the week:

Being at a beach, we participated in traditional beachy activities, including dunking ourselves into the chilly ocean, examining pretty seashells, and discussing the corpulence of men in the 1800s with Wil Wheaton at the rum shack. As you do. We passed a sandcastle competition (we missed the subsequent sandcastle smashing) a little ways down the beach: very impressive creations, but most of them were not castles and should have been disqualified.
Dragons, chess pieces, nekkid mermaids: not castles.
Although I suppose maybe the rook would count…
Paul and Storm‘s show started soon after we left Coco Cay. They sang a few of their classics and a medley of their rejected commercial jingles, and they then changed it up by giving a TED-style talk about the nature of humor and inappropriateness. It was already incredibly funny, but then they showed us the funniest 36 seconds on the entire internet, and I laughed so hard I almost had to leave the room to catch a breath.


After a fancy formal dinner, we gathered once more on the covered-up ice rink and donned our finest headgear and moustaches for the 3rd Annual Paul F. Tompkins Memorial Moustache Formal and Fezstravaganza. The variety of fez designs was astounding. Fezzes with superhero logos, videogame symbols, flashing LEDs and sound effects. Tasselled fezzes, Star Wars fezzes, even tiny fascinator fezzes. One guy had a wriggling tentacle sticking out of the top of his fez. I even spotted a pair of hand-knit TARDIS fezzes. That’s pretty damn hardcore. If I do this again next year, I will be making or buying myself a fez with my own bio-nerd design on it. I have ideas…

Just a few of the spectacular fezzes on display at the party.
Photo credit: Steve Petrucelli


You’d think all this was enough for one day, right? Well, after an hour of Fezstravaganza, John Hodgman and David Rees took to the stage to throw us a dance party of epic proportions. It was a DJ battle to end all DJ battles, and it was spectacular. And I don’t care what anyone says: nerds can really shake it on the dance floor.

JoCo Cruise Crazy III – Day 1

Our waiter at the Radisson buffet breakfast was a laid back guy with fluffy surfer hair and a speech pattern reminiscent of Crush the Sea Turtle. I’m sure that if I’d had asked him to “hit me with some fresh squeezed, brah”, he would have high fived me as he poured the OJ. Un-ironically.
Hey, no hurling on the shell, dude, ok? Just waxed it. 
We were nervous boarding the 11:30 hotel-to-port shuttle van, because it was full of retirees still buzzing from their breakfast mimosas, without a Sea Monkey in sight. Friendly and inquisitive, they asked us about all these young nerdy types with JoCo badges who’d taken over the hotel. We went with “we’re all here to hang out with a ton of other people who love lots of the same stuff we love, and also to hear some great music by this JoCo guy and his friends.” They mostly nodded politely.
I learned many things in my first hour on board the Freedom of the Seas. First, I learned that the ship was huuuuuuge. Fifteen decks, three swimming pools, a casino, a mini-golf course, and a three-story dining room, all to accommodate the four thousand or so guests who’d be spending a week on board.
The Promenade is 4 stories high. ON A BOAT.
During the safety drill, I learned that I should run to the dining room if the ship’s alarm sounds, presumably because the acoustics are good there for me to enjoy the band playing as we’re dragged to the ocean floor. Then I learned that I am pretty good at making my own swirly ice cream cone from a self-serve soft-serve machine. While eating that ice cream by the pool, I learned that one can very effectively Move It Move It while wearing a hippo suit.
Fellas… fellas… has your hippo got the butt?
As we pulled away from Port Canaveral, the week’s JoCoCruiseCraziness festivities began. We gathered in Studio B, standing on the covered-up ice rink, and drank and mingled and reconnected with friends from the previous year’s cruise while hoping that our sea legs would come in. Later, Jonathan Coulton took the stage with his band for the first show of the cruise and rocked a room full of nerds into a happy frenzy. We danced, pretended to be zombies, clapped and sang along to the whole thing at the tops of our lungs. I hope it doesn’t bother the performers when we all sing along with their songs, because we can’t seem to help ourselves. I’d like to believe they’re flattered rather than annoyed, and I’d be sad to hear otherwise.When the show was over, a bunch of us who still had voices left moved to one of the lounges for some Karaoke. And really, it’s this sort of event that makes these JoCo Cruises so much fun. We are all so wonderful and talented. Yes, the official famous performers are great, and that’s a big part of why all of us booked the trip, but the interaction between the Sea Monkeys is incredible to experience. Wil Wheaton encourages people to “get excited and make things”, and nowhere will you find this advice taken to heart more than in a group of Sea Monkeys. Geeks naturally want to share what they enjoy, and the cruise is a warm, welcoming environment for anyone who is ready to step outside of their comfort zone and start sharing their gifts and enthusiasm with the world. The Karaoke was good. Very good. There was some amazing talent in the house. And even when the talent couldn’t quite match the enthusiasm, we still cheered and clapped and encouraged each other. We joined in when someone forgot the tune and lost their place. The singing went on till 1am, and that was only the first day.For so many of us, these cruises are fulfilling in a creative way. And that’s not a load of crap.


JoCoCruiseCrazy III – Day 0

We’re safely back on land after a week of wild Sea Monkey* chaos on JoCoCruiseCrazy III**, but I’m not entirely sure my middle ear has told my legs yet.

It was a fantastic trip.

Like last year, we decided to roll into Cruise Town a day early so that unexpected airline delays wouldn’t get us into trouble. This time, that meant a Saturday afternoon direct JetBlue flight to Orlando with half a dozen other DC-area Sea Monkeys. We sat together at the gate, comparing nerdy T-shirts and excursion plans, twitching excitedly in anticipation of hearing the first boarding call.

We were all sitting in different rows, so we couldn’t keep the party going on the flight, but JetBlue has little TV screens in their seats, so I was treated to two hours of an Animal Planet Cute-a-Thon with the sound off. The good news is, Alaskan Malamute puppies are just as cute when you can’t hear them. The bad news is, now I want to adopt a pack of Alaskan Malamute puppies. Nothing crazy: just as many as I’d need to pull a sled. I couldn’t get Dave on board with that plan, though. He says there’s not enough snow in Maryland for us to need a sled dog team. I say he’s shortsighted.

In Orlando, after retrieving Dave’s newly-dinged-up guitar case from the oversized luggage chute and reveling in our first celebrity spotting (Wil Wheaton, pulling a suitcase from a luggage carousel), we found our group at the airport shuttle stop. Pro tip: a group of people wearing Fezzes in an airport are either Shriners or JoCo Sea Monkeys, but Sea Monkeys are generally younger and much more likely to pair their Fezzes with coordinating ThinkGeek T-shirts.

The Radisson Resort at the Port, where the majority of early-arriving Sea Monkeys stayed, is set up like a cross between Barbie’s condo complex and a university psych department’s rat maze.

The entire hotel was pink. Inside and out.


Finding our room was a challenge deserving of a cheese reward. Really, if the front desk needs to hand you a map and draw arrows on it to tell you where you’re going to sleep, your hotel is too complicated!


We had dinner at the restaurant next door to the hotel, where the gyros were delicious and everyone called us “sweetie” like good diner staff should. Back at the pool bar after dinner, I spotted the Toronto/Montreal hockey game on one of the TV screens, prompting me to buy a drink and plunk my butt down to watch. The system works. Play hockey, and you will attract Canadians. Within minutes, my bitching about how badly the Habs were playing drew other hockey fans to my side, and we chatted and drank and booed Toronto together.

Even though I tried to get to bed early, I was almost too giddy to sleep. In just a few hours, I had managed to meet several fun new people at the hotel. If I was enjoying myself this much before even getting on the boat, how wonderful was this cruise going to be?

As it turns out: very.

* Those of us who go on these cruises are called Sea Monkeys. Just because.
** For more information on these nerd cruises and why they are wonderful, check out the main JoCoCruiseCrazy website, and my recaps of last year’s cruise (you can use the JCCC2 label on my blog to track them down).

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?

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.

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.

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 likely flunk the 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 where it lands 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.


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 amazing 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 thicker paint, dragged across the page like you’d do with the bacteria, might work.

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