Answering the memory questions

Alright, here's where I earn my keep. Remember those five questions I posed at the beginning of the memory semester? No? Ok, here they are again:
  • When does memory begin?
  • Do men and women remember differently?
  • Can you erase a memory?
  • What is Alzheimer's? How can you prevent it?
  • Can you improve your memory? How?

Here are my final answers... Lisa deserves all the credit for coaching me through these answers. Thanks to her, I actually feel like I could talk about this stuff a little now, at least to be interesting enough at a cocktail party. And let's be honest- isn't that really the goal of any learning?

When does memory begin?
Do cats remember? I guess we'll never know.
Memory begins in the womb. When a baby is born, she has instincts that guide her to her mother's breast and other simple intuitions. Her ability to do this comes from the area of her brain that stores memory. Other examples of this kind of memory (which starts in the womb) include heart rate and digestion.

But babies can remember other things from the womb as well! Some studies demonstrate that fetuses who hear specific music in the last trimester of pregnancy learned to respond with movement. When the babies heard the same songs after they were born, the were noticeably calmer; they stopped crying, opened their eyes and seemed to relax. This is an example of classical-conditioning of a fetus! While there is a great deal of evidence supporting that memories can be formed in utero, the question remains as to what function this memory actually has. One hypothesis is that these rudimentary, in utero, memories pave the foundation for the learning and memory to come, ex utero.

Certain parts of your brain are more plastic before a certain age. These periods of plasticity are called critical periods. You've probably heard that children learn languages better than adults; that's because our brain is formatted to best pick up languages before puberty. Once that critical period is passed, it becomes much harder to learn a new language or even language at all.

Did you know? If you keep someone blinded until their critical period is over, they may never learn to see. There is some evidence that they can learn to respond to shadows, but complex images are not encoded from to the brain from the retina.

Do men and women remember differently?
There's evidence to support this; the most basic fact being that men and women interact differently in the world since we have different levels of hormones running through our bodies. Women tend to form memories from visual cues, faces and emotions. Men have better spacial reasoning and may use that to form memories.

Can you erase a memory?
Perhaps not purposefully yet, but if you damage part of your brain, you may lose access to the memories that were stored there.

Some hypnotists/psychiatrists try to help people with difficult emotional memories by relaxing them and helping them form new associations. In doing this, the hypnotist/psychiatrist hasn't erased a memory, but has paved over it in the hopes of burying the original connection (and memory).

What is Alzheimer's? How can you prevent it?
Alzheimer's disease is a condition in which cognitive decline occurs over a period of time.  It leads to memory loss and other intellectual abilities that decline enough to interfere with activities of daily living.

Alzheimer's is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. A brain afflicted with Alzheimer's shrinks and the ventricles (gaps in the brain) widen. Plaques appear in the brain. All of these affect the way the person fails to access memories, from important events to the ability to swallow food (in the end of their lives).

Can you improve your memory? How?
Currently, there are no drugs that cure Alzheimer's. The drugs that exist and are prescribed are more to slow down the deterioration of the brain.

But you can keep your brain in good shape! Eating well and keeping your brain active are two simple ways to do just that. Engage in your surroundings, read often, do puzzles and brain teasers, stay healthy and active. Nutrition, though, is key! Make sure your diet includes lots of antioxidants (like vitamin C or E) and Omega-3.

Additional fun facts:
* your brain weighs about 3lbs and is made up of two hemispheres. Did you know that each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body?
* Your brain needs sugar (glucose) to do all of the things it needs to do. People on the Atkins diet have reported feeling a lack of focus and forgetful. This may be because they're taking in too much protein (all meat diet) and not enough glucose.
* Over time, our individual experiences create patterns of neural synapses. These patterns explain how, at a cellular level, our individual thoughts, skills, memories and sense of who we are are coded by our brains.
* A memory is not a cell; it's a network. Making memories does not result in making more cells, but rather creating more connections between cells.

And with that, semester 1 concludes. Thanks for all of your patience during this first semester. I know memory is not everyone's forte, but I hope it's been entertaining at least. Tomorrow launches semester 2... get your SOUL ready!


Memory Fridays: On Finding Love.

Just before we started dating... can you see our crushes?
When I finished my thesis in May 2007, I decided to take a trip to Ireland. I'd been there twice before, both for writing and literature classes, and had done some pretty extensive traveling around. One of my favorite places was Galway, a small city on the west coast that boasts wonderful little bookshops and cafes and a rocky path along the bay that I remembered and wanted to walk again.

In Dublin I stayed with friends, but by the time I got to Galway, I was on my own. I stayed in a B&B for several nights by myself. Traveling alone - really alone- is like nothing else. I can only take it in small doses, but those moments have been very important to who I've developed into as a person. It is very hard to lie to yourself when you're walking alone in Ireland. And at the moment I was walking along the bay, I realized that I had spent several months doing just that.

I'd ended a relationship earlier that spring, the effects of which required him to move out and my rent to double. I thought about that relationship a lot as I ate alone in Galway, as I attended a play one evening, as I sipped a Smithwicks while listening to live music at a pub near the B&B. I thought a lot about what had gone wrong and who was to blame for our failure to communicate (the answer: both of us). And as sad as I was that it had ended (yet again! these promising relationships kept ending!), I really knew deep down that it was not the right match.

So one rainy afternoon, I pulled my hood up and I walked along the bay. And this next part is going to sound crazy: I started talking to myself. No, wait. I wasn't exactly talking to myself. I started talking out loud- to whoever it was that I was supposed to meet and end up with.

"Where are you?" I asked, quietly. "I really want to meet you. I want to know you exist and I'm so curious- what are you doing right now? Where are you at this exact moment? And how long will it take us to find each other?"

The bay lapped quietly at the edge of the rocks and no one answered. The date was May 17, 2007.

On June 28, 2008 I had my first date with Chris. A lot had happened in 13 months. I defended my thesis. I decided to stay in Paris. I came home to NY for the summer and decided to stay in NY. I got a job in Westchester. I moved to Brooklyn. I left the job in Westchester and got a random job at a technology firm in midtown.

If you would have found me in Galway that day and told me the list of things that had to happen before I would meet the man I'd marry, I'd have guessed the date to be at least 5 years away. But somehow life kept getting disrupted to get me to Chris at Arc90, and while I don't know if I really believe in fate, that sure was a lot of rigmarole in one year of my life.

You don't know when someone's coming into your life. You can be duped a million times in a row. But then something lines up and you're sitting next to your best friend, the cat asleep between you, and suddenly you're here, right where you dreamt you'd always be. No longer talking to yourself.

Cause now you're talking to your love.

This is the final post for Memory Fridays. You can read other Memory Friday posts here

A message from your friend, the sloth.

Do you think this weather helped? Do you!?!
Hello and good morning! How was this week for you? Good? Productive? Mine was not.

You know when you have a bunch of free time (and by free, I mean time without plans that involve other people) and you think "gee, I can do anything I want tonight!" You know when you have those days 5 days in a row? And how you NEVER DO ANYTHING with your time? That's what this week was like for me.

Chris has been working late all week in anticipation of some really huge stuff launching at work next week and I have been... well, I have been eating dinner and going to the gym. And watching House Hunters. Actually, last night I did my taxes, but other than that, I've done nothing. Not a thing! Including update this blog!

I think the moral of this story is that an un-busy mind very quickly becomes a sad and mopey mind. At least when we're talking about mine. (Actually, I sort of believe this is a universal truth...) And so I am making myself busy all weekend long. As you can see, this decision has already gotten me typing over here and later today I'll write my last Memory Fridays post, so we're back in action.

Action: the state or process of acting or doing.

Right. Off to act. And do.


Lazy (zero degree) weekend.

On Friday night, Kelley and I hit up the Bridal Expo in Times Square. Sound horrific? It really was! Imagine people shoving fliers in your face while yelling "BRIDE TO BE?" at you and asking for your email so they can spam you about a dream vacation in Curacao.

Luckily, Kelley is one of the people I love laughing with the most, so we made it through with our sanity in tact. Here we are eating cake:

1/6 of the bridesmaids. 
*Note: VIB = Very Important Bride. Barf.

We finished the evening with dinner and wandering at Whole Foods, where I managed to find some chia seeds. Ever since I read Born to Run, I've been a little obsessed with this infamous magic food. I've been adding them to my oatmeal in the mornings in the hopes of achieving the insane energy the Tarahumara have in life. Instead, I have taken extreme naps both yesterday and today. Odd.

This afternoon I had coffee with Lisa, the girlfriend of one of our co-workers. She is a Physician's Assistant who studied neuroscience and agreed to meet with me to discuss all things memory-related... and can you imagine that she arrived with a POWERPOINT PRESENTATION on hand? Seriously, I meet the nicest people.

How cute is this? 
I'll write up my notes from our conversation and post them soon so I can share her wisdom with all of you. One of the themes was the importance of keeping one's brain active and the importance of feeding your body with the right food. That hit home for me.

We've been eating a lot better lately, more vegetables and less questionable ingredients. It's making me feel better while running and we're sleeping better. It's also giving me some fun challenges in the kitchen and I think it's probably worth a post soon to share some of the recipes I've tried lately.

Here's tonight's quinoa corn chowder that I made towards the end of the Jets game (and that I actually wasn't hungry enough to eat, so it becomes tomorrow's lunch). Chris approved:

And in a stroke of perfect timing, as we're sleeping better, Oscar has started a 5:45am wake-up call which involved throwing chapsticks and pens off of my nightstand until he wakes me up. This weekend he was banished from the room both mornings, but he got over it pretty quick. He acted like our shadows all weekend long.

Can't a girl use her iPod in peace?
Ever get the feeling someone's staring over your shoulder?

Ok, thus wraps up the weekend update. This turned into a photo gallery, but who cares? This week is the last full week of the Memory semester and so I'll be wrapping things up on that front. Stay tuned...


Memory Fridays: Hangin' Tough.

These herbs are growing!
Sometimes you can feel that a moment is going to become a memory. Such is the story of this morning's 20 minute run at the gym.

I was nervous. Let me start there. I woke up and thought about going back to sleep. I thought about going after work (although tonight I'm attending a Bridal Expo with Kelley, so no dice). Finally I got up and put my running clothes on. I stretched in front of the couch and I saw it was 7:05. Time to go.

Garmin? Check. Gym pass? Check. iPod Touch? CRAP. Totally out of battery, so I decided to charge it for 10 minutes to see if that would get me through. There was no way I could do the 20 minute run without my trusty C25K app...

Ten minutes later, I was down 8 flights and out the door. And I was just stepping on the treadmill and getting myself set up when I realized: no headphones. NO HEADPHONES. NO MUSIC. FOR TWENTY MINUTES OF RUNNING.

"I can't do this without music!" I thought to myself. And then, 4 seconds later, I thought "well. I guess I'm going to have to."

I covered the timer with a towel in the name of blissful ignorance. And then I started running.

What do you do to distract yourself from something difficult? I thought about the flowers for our wedding. I thought about what kind of public talk I might give for my job. I thought about some of the recent health stuff going on with me and ran harder, as if to run it off. And suddenly, 20 minutes were up.

It's a funny sort of chicken-egg complex to find yourself in. Do you rely on the memory of a strong moment to get you through something tough? Or does the getting through something tough become the memory of the strong moment? Either way, I did my push-ups and sit-ups proudly this morning, knowing that I had done my workout alone, in my own head. And now I have this story in my arsenal, something to pull out and push off of the next time the going gets tough.

Which could be as early as next week, when I move up to 25 minutes. Eeek!


Semester 2: Soul

Chris took me to the Brain exhibit at the AMNH for my bday.
The first semester of Project Learn has been a big learning experience- and not just learning about memory. I think I expected that to be the case (it would be nearly impossible to nail the experiment on the first shot, non?), but here are some observations that were surprising to me:
  • I really like having a class in my life. It makes me more motivated to do things, to wonder aloud with people, to feel as though I'm working on something outside of work work. 
  • I need to do a better job vetting books for the semesters. Just because a book or an author is famous doesn't mean that I want to spend my time reading it. (See: Oliver Sacks)
  • Being accountable on a weekly basis (i.e. Friday memory posts) made me feel as though I was still connected to the project, even on memory-light weeks.
  •  Even though this class wasn't for credit and lasted for 3 months, I STILL procrastinated about some stuff til the end. Sigh.

I started thinking about the second semester of Project Learn a few weeks ago, right around the time I was reading Ingrid Betancourt's book. What most impressed me was how she was able to dig deep within herself and find strength over six and a half years of captivity. How did she do it?

A lot of her strength came from reading the Bible. She found insights and inspiration for how to get through whatever horrible situation she was in, often in the very verses she was reading on a given day. Have you ever heard people speak about this? They have a problem and they go to the Bible and suddenly they're seeing solutions or possibilities inspired by the random text they happened to read that day.

I don't know what to do with that. With all due respect, I think that our brains have the power to make associations and metaphors on their own without divine intervention. I'm not saying that the text of the Bible isn't perhaps a vehicle for its readers to communicate with a god; what I'm saying is that I can see how text, any text, has the potential for that. 

That got me thinking about the skill one needs to do what Ingrid did, to comfort oneself. It is a slippery slope to struggle once a few disappointments pile up; depression comes quickly, particularly for some. Even in everyday life, I have examples of bursting into tears when the potatoes burn or when I can't figure out the television. How shallow, right? And how weak. But how human.

What I'm interested in is how people not only make it through true ordeals in their lives, but come out the other side with insight that has been squeezed from environments as moist with inspiration as dry sand. Why is it that we need to fight to get at those gems, the precious insight that help us make it through? Why don't we have access to it from the couches in our living rooms?  

Why does discomfort inspire revelations?

For a few weeks, I could feel myself circling around a topic, but had a really hard time putting my finger on it. Was it as simple as discomfort? Did it have to be captivity? Or was I interested in plain, old struggle?

Cue New Year's and my new running plan. I've only been at this 20 days now and already I can see how digging deep while running may be another example of inspiration or motivation due to discomfort. And to be honest, it makes me feel as though I've been missing out on a whole level of myself, a level that has rejected competition in the name of always being sweet and kind. A level that has held her tongue in the name of not making waves.

You add up the experiences of your life and the family you grew up with and the friends who influenced you along the way and it starts to seem as though you are a product of circumstance, a combination of experiences. Studying memory certainly makes you think so.

But what's deeper than all that? Who am I beneath my memories? There may be a dark little space, somewhere between my nature and my nurture. I'm interested in thinking more about that space, what some people call it, and how to get more in touch with it.

I'm talking about soul, people.

So I'm very excited to announce that semester 2 of Project Learn (which starts on February 1!) will be about all these things and more. Syllabus is still in draft mode, so please feel free to add any materials or resources to the comments that you think are relevant. Let's do this thing!

P.S. Obviously I will be listening to soul music all spring.

Coming soon: The Soul: a quest for discomfort.


Les livres de 2011: round 1

January is off to a reading bang. I'm already five books in and I can't stop. I attribute this to a few factors:

  • I'm making good choices about what I'm in the mood to read.
  • Our social lives have been low-key lately.
  • I wake up at 6:45am, even on my non-run days. Hello 2 hours of morning reading!

Here we go, the first of many reads in 2011:

1. Great House by Nicole Krauss
You may remember that I took a personal day in December to read and try some wedding dresses. The night before that, I decided to go to the bookstore on our street and buy the Nicole Krauss book that Goldie recommended for my memory project. Unfortunately, I didn't consult my syllabus; I was 30 pages in before I realized that she had recommended another Nicole Krauss book (see read 2 of 2011). Oops.

I like Nicole Krauss. I loved A History of Love and Great House has some great moments. It's made of several stories that she flips through, all somehow connected to a really old locked desk. Some of the stories were wonderful (the Israeli father, for example) and others were bland to me (the woman in New York). I couldn't help feeling like I only got a tiny taste of each character because of the altering perspectives and wished she had gone into depth with 2 or 3. Not a bad read, but you should really check out....

2. Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss
Now THIS is a good read. A man is found wandering the desert; he doesn't know who he is or where he came from. They find a tumor in his brain and remove it, the result of which is a memory that recalls nothing past his 12th birthday.

This story is adventurous, scientific, character-driven and satisfying. There was still a barrier between me and some of the characters, almost as if Krauss is writing them behind a sheet of clear plastic. I can hear what they're saying and see what they look like, but I can't shake their hands. Maybe this is a Krauss thing.

3. Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt
I do not write this lightly: this was a life-changing book for me. Whenever I passed the Hotel de Ville in Paris when I lived there, I would see signs with Ingrid Betancourt's face on them.

"Who's that?" I would say. And whoever I was with knew some small piece of the story- a French woman who was captured and living as a hostage in Colombia? Something like that.

Turns out, Betancourt was raised in France but born in Colombia, where she was campaigning to become the president in 2002. She was captured by the FARC, the Colombian guerilla army, and forced to live in captivity for SIX AND A HALF YEARS. Her struggles, her strength, the courage that this bad-ass lady showed, is incredible. She tried to escape several times and she was often beaten, but she kept her inner strength going the whole time.

Reading this book has set up semester 2 of Project Learn (announcement coming soon about what class is next!). I can't say enough about the perspective and the introspection that this book inspired in me. READ IT.

4. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
One of my favorite things about catching up with Chris' step-mom Beth is hearing what books she's been reading lately. She belongs to a book club in Kenosha (jealous!) and gave me this book the last time we were in town. It was on my desk when I was looking for something to read the other week and I devoured this book.

It is very strange, I will say that. Conceptual fish! Sharks that stalk your STREAMS OF THOUGHT! You keep reading because you can't figure out what the hell Steven Hall was smoking. And it really is quite a story. Adventure, danger, intelligence, a man who wakes up with no memories.

A trend in my reading? You don't say.

5. The Lovers by Vendela Vida
 Vendela Vida is married to Dave Eggers, and while she should certainly be known on her own as a writer, that fact made me pick up this book.

What a lovely, simple story! A widow travels to Turkey, to the area where she and her husband had spent their honeymoon 28 years earlier. She's going through a lot of emotional stuff, but it's not weepy and deeply sad. Instead, it's a quiet story of a woman whose strange behavior is completely not strange in light of the circumstances.

Beautiful. No chapters, just one long story- which meant that I stopped precisely once. To go to bed. Before I finished it the next morning.

6. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Uh... why am I running with shoes on? That's what you're going to ask yourself when you finish this book.

This book was phenomenal. A non-fiction piece about a tribe of runners in Mexico, the Tarahumara, that deviates to tell the stories of ultra-runners across the U.S. Behind the anecdotes is one over-arching narrative- a race. A race in Mexico against the Tarahumara, to be exact.

This is such a great read that you don't even have to be a runner to love it. You could be eating nachos in your pajamas and still admire the characters and the stories and marvel at the amazing things that humans do.

What a start! Writing these reviews has mad me want to read more, so I'm off. Has anyone read any of these? What did you think?

It's a memory present!

When my sister and I were little kids, my great-grandma made us stockings. She stitched our names onto them and she made a third stocking with a blank space for a name- just in case my parents had another kid. I'm not sure if she wasn't able to stitch Steve's name on the last one or what happened, but it remained in a bag with my Mom's Christmas stuff in the basement all these years.

In the meantime, we made him a replacement:

(Steve's is the glittery one at right... mine and Katie's are in the middle)

But when I found his blank stocking in the basement this year, I couldn't resist doing what should have been done 23 years ago. There was a bunch of red and white yarn in the bag and all I needed to borrow was a big yarn needle. (Thanks, Court!) Then tonight, while we watched TV, I sat down and figured out how to finish what Nana Epting started.

I know every time I look at his stocking, I'll remember how I stitched his name on there, how my fingers ran over the same fabric that Nana's had so many years ago. Now all the kids' stockings will match at Christmas 2011! Enjoy, little brother. You're officially in the family.


Computer Memory 101

Today's the day! It's time to learn about computer memory. Are you ready? It's going to be so fun and easy.

A giant thank-you to Mr. Christopher, who was very patient as he explained computer memory to me a few weeks ago over a romantic dinner. That's just how we roll over here, people.

I'm very proud to post this, as we're nearing the end of my semester and documenting computer memory was one of the assignments I was most nervous about! In the end it was really fun to put together and I think it brings some difficult concepts down to a level most people can understand. Enjoy!

Computer Memory 101


Kicking ass.

Sunrise in Brooklyn the other morning, 7am.
For various reasons, I went to the gym tonight instead of this morning. (Ok, just one reason: I was too sleepy). And as I went through my day today, I got more nervous. Post-work running? That has not yet been tried. So far, in 2011, we know that morning running works. Evening is a crap shoot.

And I really didn't want to go to the gym and suck today.

So when I got on the treadmill for my 5 minute warm-up, I bumped it up from my normal 3.5mph to 3.6. And then when I was supposed to run, I made it 5.1 instead of 5.0. Somewhere during the last five minutes of the run, I bumped it slowly up to 5.9mph and finished my run with my legs going super fast.

Oh. This is why people run.

Because when my C25k app bell rang and told me it was time for a cool down, I wanted to high five someone. "Holy crap, I just ran so fast!" I wanted to say. Instead, I said it in my head as I walked over to the floor area to do push-ups.

On my way over, I caught a glance of myself in the mirror and did a double-take. With my new running clothes and my Garmin on my wrist, I barely recognized myself. I looked badass. I looked like I knew what I was doing!

I looked like I belonged.

And to feel as though I belong to anything exercise-related is kind of the most awesome thing ever. Last night at dinner Chris and I talked about what we were most looking forward to this week. My answer was my run this coming Friday, which is supposed to be TWENTY MINUTES OF RUNNING without stopping to walk. How is that my favorite thing? I guess it is my most scary thing... and lately, I have been loving kicking scary's ass.


What not to wear.

Here's what happens when you try to buy a 30th birthday dress at Anthropologie:
1. Gather many dresses and bring them to the fitting room.
2. Narrow it down to two.
3. Narrow it down to one.
4. Think about how this is pretty much a plain cotton dress.
5. Look at the price tag again.
6. Sigh. Loudly.
7. Decide to spend more time shopping this week.
8. Three days later, end up back at Anthro.
9. Try on dress again. Feel like it definitely doesn't look $148 good.
10. End up wearing non-new dress... with HOT PINK TIGHTS. And big earrings.

Go to dinner with friends. The end.


Memory Fridays: Living in the Barbie Dream Home.

When I first moved to Brooklyn in December 2008, I lived in a three-bedroom apartment with Sarah and Goldie. We had roof access and used to hike several flights of stairs to hang out up there, where we stood around and admired the church steeples and water towers of our borough.

The following June I invited some work friends over for dinner on the roof. We sat, picnic-style, and enjoyed the summer sunset. Chris was one of those work friends back then and we found ourselves looking over at a newer building across the street, one that looked fancy-pants.

"Who lives there?" I wondered aloud, imagining the lucky Brooklynites with more money and more furniture and more stability than I had at the time.

Imagine my surprise when I moved into that exact building a year and a half later- with Chris.

It's so funny how things work out, isn't it?

In the building of our dreams, we each pay less on rent than we did when we lived alone. We're making do with the furniture we had when we moved in and we certainly aren't fancy-pants. But it's all about perspective, and though this apartment was a dream two years ago, our lives have evolved to allow us to make it a reality.

And not a week goes by that we don't look at each other to say how much we love it here.


Also captured at 292827 and 26.


On conviction.

I turn 30 tomorrow. There won't be fireworks and there won't be a gala and it's going to be a relatively quiet weekend with a small dinner party at my favorite French restaurant on Saturday. At first I wanted to go big for 30 and then I wanted to go very small and now I find myself in the middle. That feels just about right.

In other years, I've spent time thinking a lot about my birthday. In the days leading up to it, I would remember where I was the year before, how my life had changed (or not), where I was and if it was the right place and what goals did I have for the next 12 months. My thoughts during my runs this week have not been drifting in that direction, though. Instead, I've been thinking a lot about god.

One of the central questions in vowing your life to someone is who you might get to make the process official. We've been to weddings that have covered all options and then some: a childhood minister, a brother, a male rabbi-priest combo, a female rabbi, a friend. We originally sat down with a minister from the Unitarian church where I am a member, but it didn't feel quite right. On the surface it was a pretty sweet deal: we built the ceremony ourselves, we chose the readings and we chose the language of the vows. It was all in our control.

And yet, in the abundance of control, we felt an absence of conviction.

The minister that I knew growing up has since retired and I don't know his replacement very well. But there is a man from our church that I was particularly close to (his son was in my grade) and I taught Sunday School alongside him for several years in High School. He isn't a minister, but he became one of the leaders of the church and has always had a quiet wisdom about him.

Having him marry us had crossed my mind, but the issue of not knowing what we think about the big J and his clear devotion to him was clearly a barrier. Nonetheless, I called him last week to reconnect after almost 10 years and to see what he thought.

And here's what happened- he was incredibly flattered and needed to pray about it. And oddly, that was the right response. While he took a few days to pray about it, I found myself thinking about the whole ball of wax while I was running, while I was in the subway, while I was walking home from my haircut. How have I come to be where I am with regard to religion? What have I lived and experienced in the past ten years that have resulted in today's confusion?

I thought about this a lot.

And then, as I am inclined to do, I sat down and wrote about it. I wrote him a very long email in which I outlined how I'd been closed off to Christianity and opened to other aspects of spirituality. I told him that I still find solace in quiet churches and that I know some really kind Jewish and Muslim people. And that I hate how politics have twisted religion and how spending one's 20s traveling in a post 9-11 world has been an education in itself. What I'm saying is, I laid it on the line.

His response? "Now there's the Jennifer I know!" Ha.

In the past week, Chris and I have had some really good conversations that might not have happened if we hadn't considered this man as a potential to marry us. And if he decides that he is comfortable with modifying the ceremony for us, we're going to spend a weekend visiting him and his wife so that Chris can get to know him too.

We're not going to have this religion nut cracked by August 13. But I wanted to write about this because I have been very closed up tight, spiritually-speaking, in recent years. One of my New Year's resolutions was to open myself up to spirituality and it's pretty crazy that 13 days into 2011, this opportunity to reflect and dive deeper into the questions that surround this mystery has presented itself.

I feel very grateful, indeed - both for the questioning and for the wise man who will hopefully help us vow our lives to each other later this year. It feels like the right fit, as if conviction and thoughtfulness has finally come into the picture to witness our marriage.

What more could you want for 30?

Anniversary dinner, win.

Chris cooked dinner on Monday night (our anniversary was Tuesday, but we were at a running documentary screening, so we celebrated early). It was GOOD! And though I gave a small bit of advice about kitchen instruments, he was the sole chef that night.

Makes me wonder if he shouldn't be in the kitchen more often...


Wishing he could get at the prosciutto.

Manly kitchen gloves.

Roasted potatoes!

Prosciutto-wrapped asparagus (with cheese inside... YUM).

Le meal (including chicken).

Le chef.

Le chef's fiancee.


Tent: check. Food: check.

The date-raisin-walnut bread I made this afternoon. Yum!
Well, our wedding will have shelter. And it will have food. We spent yesterday running around Westchester, signing contracts for tents and catering and handing out deposit checks like it was our job. I guess this wedding thing is happening! And though I'm sure at some point we will feel overwhelmed, so far we're having a blast tackling what we need to get done, one thing at a time.

Have I mentioned that we're doing a BBQ wedding? Or that we will be incorporating Wisconsin cheese curds into the appetizers? We have so many little surprises built into the day for our guests and I know it's going to truly be a celebration of the people who we love (and who love us). Awesome times a-comin'.

We saw Mom and Dad last night for a pre-birthday dinner and spent today running (me), coding (Chris), watching "The King's Speech" (both), and watching the Packer's game with enthusiasm (surprisingly, both of us!). In a weekend twist, Chris did the grocery shopping since he is planning to cook me dinner tomorrow night in honor of our 2-year anniversary this week. Rest assured you will see photos of that meal later this week!


Memory Fridays: When history books fail.

From 2003-2004, I lived in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Clermont isn't big; 500,000 inhabitants live around a Gothic old cathedral made of dark stone that came from the old volcanoes nearby. I was working as an English assistant and it was my first year out of college. My Muhlenberg friends were (for the most part) finding entry-level jobs and moving to New York. There were moments leading up to my trip abroad that I wished I were with them.

Now I cannot imagine it any other way.

I lodged at the high school where I worked for the first few weeks, spending weekends on my new friend Erica's couch and using the Internet at a small free space downtown. Every Monday morning, the local newspaper would come out and I'd run to be at the news stand in time to search for an apartment. I couldn't afford much and though my French was decent, I sometimes stumbled on the phone.

"I hear a little accent..." the owner would say when I called to inquire about a room.
"Yes, I'm American. I'm from New York."
"Sorry, the room's rented," they would say, and hang up quickly.

(It was the beginning of the Iraq war and it wasn't uncommon to encounter some hostility when people found out I was American. I didn't exactly disagree with them, but made it my job to be as charming as I could. I was over-helpful and uber-interested in the French language, all in the name of proving that people are more than their nationalities. And in the end, I encountered tons of open-minded and generous French people.)

There was still the issue of finding a room, though. And one day I struck gold. I called an ad for a room in a co-location and a young woman named Susanne answered.

"Are you French?" she asked. I knew what was coming.
"No, I'm American."
"Oh, I'm German," she said. "That could be fun to live together."
I explained that some French people weren't keen on letting me live in their apartments.
"Oh I'm used to it," she said. "I'm German." And we both laughed.

As it turned out, Susanne and I were exactly the same age - both born on January 14, 1981. Because of the time difference though, she had entered the world a few hours ahead of me. I didn't speak German and she spoke little English, so French was our language of choice. We decorated the bathroom with drawings of different animals and the sounds they make in English, French and German (Rooster = Cock-a-doodle-doo, Cocorico, Kikeriki). She taught me about St. Nicholas Day and I taught her about St. Patty's Day festivities.

One night I was reading through an American History textbook, preparing a lesson for my students. She came into my room and noticed it.

"Are there sections about World War II?" she asked. I nodded. "Will you read them to me?"

And we sat there for several hours, me translating many pages, cringing as I suddenly realized how biased the words sounded with her presence in the room. Sometimes it was awkward and sometimes she told me about a side of the story that I'd never heard and through it all I felt such kinship with her that it seemed we were destined to be roommates. No one else could have navigated the cultural differences like we did.

Susanne spent a year in Prague when I was last living in France and I visited her for a long weekend. It was just as comfortable as it had been, but I finally spoke some German and she finally spoke quite a bit of English. We tossed around all three languages, comforted by the fact that we were the same people deep down, no matter what words came out of our mouths.

I can never see international relations the same way since living abroad and, particularly, since living with Susanne. Governments are necessarily and important, but we can't let them get in the way of connecting with the people who live under them. People are people, no matter what your history book says.


Sweet running gear FTW!

In a crazy New Year's Eve buying spree, I ordered running clothes. And a swim suit. And ballet slippers and a leotard. And a Garmin. Please know that 99% of this was gift certificate-supported... but still. Starting new hobbies with sweet new GEAR is just so much more fun.

Last night I got the Garmin in the mail and charged it up for this morning's run. It really took its time acquiring satellites (like... 10 min of the run), but I'm excited to use it to track how far I go and to watch my pace improve. Tonight I picked up a package with my new running gear... I present my new runner self to the world!

I'm not even scheduled to run tomorrow, but I'm dying to try these new clothes out... off to enjoy some stuffed zucchini with quinoa. Healthy new year's off to a good start!


Status check on the Memory reading list

Oscar has taken to sleeping in a box by the door.
I finished reading Man Walks into a Room the other day... and BOY WAS THAT GOOD. I won't go into a book review here, but I will say that that's definitely been the easiest book to read for the Memory project. I can roll through fiction with the best of them.

Unfortunately for the other books, not so much. I haven't known how to break this to you all... but some of the books I picked for the syllabus suck. One of them super-sucked. And at first I was all "heyyy you have to read these! It's a CLASS. There's no crying in self-made schools!"

And then I gave myself a freaking break.

He is in danger of being recycled!
Because you know what? It is also valuable to know what books super-suck. Why? So you don't waste your time on them. There are way too many wonderful books in the world to waste your bedtime or subway time or sitting-on-a-park-bench-time reading crud.

And can I say something a bit blasphemous? Oliver Sacks is brilliant... and I hate his books. I hate them! I am convinced that I love them for the first chapter and then I just get really irritated that there are no stories in them, but just case study after case study. "SO WHAT?" I want to say to him. "SO WHAT that many different brain things happen to many different people, Oliver??"

Last night he snuggled me through cardboard.
He never answers that question. Just plows into a totally unrelated study about a man who hears music all the time in his head and can control the volume at will. It feels very one-trick pony, like as soon as you get to the "huhhhh..." moment of the chapter, it's over and he moves onto another amazingly rare case of memory/music brain crazies.

This is particularly disappointing because my friend Sarah Mclo read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about 3 or 4 years ago and loved it... and somehow in my mind, I imagined that to be this incredible book of fiction that I was saving up for a rainy day to read and savor. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a non-fiction chunk of case studies. So maybe I built the hype up there. Maybe.

Other than the O. Sacks books, the super-suck was Losing my Mind by Thomas DeBaggio. Listen guys, I really wanted to read a heartfelt memoir by a person with Alzheimer's. I had the tears stored up for weeks in my tear ducts, ready to openly sob at any given chapter. And (all due respect), I could only make it through one chapter of this book because it was totally confusing and not coherent. The super-suck.

The good news is that I have been very faithful to the syllabus other than these 3 books. I have an awesome post coming soon about computer memory (really- you will love it!) and some answers to the questions I posed at the beginning of the semester. Plus, there's still that memory gift coming... is it for you? Whaddaya think?


The kind of planting you can do in January.

For Christmas, my brother got me a little kit of "Garden Bon Bons." It's a really cute concept, of making herb seeds into candy-looking soil bits and packaging them like chocolate. I planted three this morning (chives, thyme and basil)... here's a look:

Since I had the dirt out, I also decided to do a bunch of violet cuttings. We're going to be using the violet plants as centerpieces at our wedding and it's time to get them growing so they'll be big and blooming by August. The original plants and the cuttings I did last year are blooming like crazy lately!

New violet plants to be!
Nana's original plant.

The original purple plant.

These guys were started as babies last year!


Resolutions and the first run.

I finally settled on my resolutions yesterday. I don't think I shared my 2010 ones last year, but for the sake of motivation via risk of public humiliation, they're going on the blog this year. The past few years, I've been doing both goals and resolutions. The difference is that goals are things that you can clearly judge whether they got done or not. Resolutions, for me, are more like themes of the year.

Here are mine for 2011:

1. Get our finances organized.
2. Run a 10k.
3. Speak at a public event for work.

1. Make health and exercise my number 1 priority.
2. Spend more time one-on-one with friends.
3. Create space for spirituality in my life.
4. Post photos with my blog posts as much as possible (no 2 in a row without photo).

You guys can hold me to that last one.

We stayed in last night and had a really relaxed night at home. In preparation for my 2011 year of running, I've been getting up 15 minutes earlier each morning this week and it was pretty great to wake up early this morning and not be hungover.

Plus, I got to go on my first official run! Here I am, ready to go:

And here's one of my new morning routines:

The run went great! I haven't joined the gym yet, but it's beautiful out today, so I ran outside. I'm doing the Couch to 5k program and I got the C25K app this morning on iTunes... it was AWESOME. You get to put your own music in there and the app beeps every time it's time to switch from running to walking (or vice versa).

Super helpful and got me off to a great first day of January. Kelley Q is going to run a 5k with me in mid-February and it feels great to have a running buddy and first running goal.