Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012: A Year in Review

The morning after Christmas, I went to the gym with my Dad.

This is actually a pretty epic event.

In order to understand why this was an important turning point, you first have to get on board with the fact that 2012 was a hell of a year. 

Not just for me. I've confirmed this fact with no fewer than 87% of my friends and family, so I know that it's basically fact. 

It was pretty quiet for the first half, except that all of my friends got married/engaged/pregnant, which was pretty awesome. Spring apexed with our trip to the Dominican Republic in May which was, quite honestly, I think the last time that I felt the ground was firmly beneath me with any stability.

Here's what happened next:

A day after I returned from the Dominican, my dad announced to the family that he had a lump in his neck. Ok, a lump. Alarming, to be sure, but one of those "sit tight and wait" situations that involve doctors and tests and extractions and special appointments.

It turned out to be the thing that you fear. It turned out to be the big, bad, scary thing. On May 31, 2012 (my thirtieth birthday), my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He went into surgery two days later, and started chemo and radiation a few weeks after that.

Over the next few months, our family vocabulary changed. We started using words like "nodes," and "scan" and "mass." Later, we used words like "feeding tube," and "radiation," and "side-effects." We joked that our lives revolved around Dad's cancer. It did. As well it should.

My dad was a trooper, my mom was a trooper, my family were all troopers. How can you be anything else? You just deal with it, one day at a time. It becomes your "new normal." Friends and family were amazing and kind and generous, and my dad had extremely excellent care from friendly, informative, and transparent staff. 

On November 16, my mom's birthday, my dad told us that he is now officially a cancer survivor, nearly six months later. The side-effects of the radiation and chemo are beginning to wane, and somehow we all maintained our senses of humor through the dark time.

We are lucky. We are lucky that my Dad was brave and smart enough to get a lump checked out immediately. We are lucky that so much is known about cancer today. We are lucky that he had excellent care. We are lucky that they treated the cancer aggresively, and that they eradicated every cell. We hope we will continue to be lucky in the coming months and years when they search to make sure nothing comes back. And we are lucky to have each other, and our friends and support systems.

While all of that was going on, this happened:

THE XLDR (X-treme Long Distance Relationship)
The universe had an excellent time planning things in 2012, because two weeks after my dad's diagnosis, my boyfriend (The Gentleman) was offered a sweet new work position. In the Middle East. Effective in 30 days.

I basically curled up in the fetal position for about a day, and then decided that that wasn't a productive use of my time.

All of June and most of July was spent trying to spend as much time as possible with my family and with The Gentleman. As my dad got further into treatment, The Gentleman's life was being packed up and shipped overseas. On July 13, I drove him to the airport, dropped him off, and cried the entire way home.

That was also because I was stuck in traffic and may or may not have eaten some questionable sushi the night before.

But mostly because I was sad.

Time sort of stopped for awhile. I watched a lot of Netflix, tried to go home at least once a week to see my family. I tried and failed to write a novel (as per usual). I trained for a half-marathon, went to work, and experimented with cooking lentils. I went to San Francisco, video chatted with my boyfriend a few times a week, and made my bed every morning before going to work.

If that sounds dramatic, it's not meant to be. When life throws you a curve ball (or, you know, two or three at a time), sometimes making your bed in the morning and catching up on Downton Abbey are significant things. 

And then, suddenly, the trees were changing colors. Summer drifted. My dad finished chemo and radiation and, a month or two later, was eating solid food again. I went to the Middle East to see The Gentleman. I started a new certification course for work. I spent time with friends who went out of their way to be comforting, accommodating, kind, patient, and available to me. 

And today, I went to the gym with my dad. Because he can go to the gym now. And tomorrow, I fly to Prague to see The Gentleman and to spend down the last, lingering days of 2012.

2012 taught me to sit still, something I've never learned how to do before. It taught me to allow chaos, to let tornadoes swirl,  and to make do with very little information just trusting that, somehow, everything will turn out ok. 2012 taught me, again and again, John Lennon's adage that "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." 2012 taught me to be grateful for the chaos, because it means you care, and to show gratitude for even the smallest, simplest of things. 2012 brought my family closer together. And, somehow, despite putting 7,500 miles between my boyfriend and me, we were brought closer together too.

I'm packing sweaters, boots, warm socks, hats, and scarves to head off to Eastern Europe. I'm also packing calm, love, and patience. I carry these things with me. Perhaps I always did - but 2012 made them evident.

We will ring in 2013 on the Vltava River, on a jazz cruise. I'll get to greet it six hours earlier than I would at home, and that's fine by me. 2012 was a hell of a year, and I'm perfectly happy to chop 6 hours off of the end of it.

And, you know, to spend the last five days of it eating sausages and drinking gluhbier and going to the Museum of Communism. 


Sunday, December 23, 2012

31 Before 31 Update

I realized the other day that I am over six months into my "31 Before 31" list (31 books I feel I ought to have read by the time I'm 31), and have so far completed four of the books on the list. 

To be fair, I've started three others.

Here's a recap of my list so far. I'm still three books shy of the complete list, but at this point, I'm looking at having to amend the list to be "32 before 32."

1. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
2. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
3. The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing - changed to The Golden Notebook, started
4. Lolita, Nabokov
5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig - started
6. For Whom The Bell Tolls, Hemingway
7. The Rules of Attraction, Brett Easton Ellis
8. Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Dandicat
9. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
10. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
11. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
12. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond - started
13. The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
14. Cities of Salt, Abdul Rahman Munif
15. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
16. The Satanic Verses, Salmon Rushdie
17. Native Son, Richard Wright
18. The Savage Detectives, Bolano
19. Jesus' Son, Denis Hale Johnson
20. Notebook, Agota Christof (NOTE - not "The Notebook" by Nicholas Sparks. Come on.)
21. White Noise, Don DeLillo
22. Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
23. Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
24. The 19th Wife, David Evershoff
25. As I Lay Dying, Faulkner
26. The Prophet, Khalil Gibran
27. A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
28. Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut

Here are my takeaways thus far:

"Let the Great World Spin," Colum McCann
An incredible book. Just incredible. At first, I wasn't sure where it was headed, but that's part of the point. The fictional story brings in narratives from a handful of different characters, all living in New York City in 1974 during the real-life event wherein French acrobat Phillippe Petit walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center buildings. The act seems to be a hinge point for all of these other stories to intersect, and the narratives see characters through Harlem prostitution rings, Vietnam, coke-fueled nightclubs, and the art world of the Village in the 70's.

"The Rules of Attraction," Bret Easton Ellis
I read somewhere that Ellis is the cockiest mofo to grace contemporary literature, and that he can essentially spit on a piece of paper and critics will bend over backwards to exclaim that it's the best thing since "Catcher in the Rye." 
The fact is, after reading this book, I'd say that if Ellis is cocky, he's earned the right to be. The book is an incredibly depressing look into the lives of 1980's college kids at a liberal arts New England college with nothing to do but spend down their trust funds, sleep with each other, drink every day, and perhaps go to class from time to time. I came to this book not wanting to like it and wanting furiously to see Ellis's pretension in every page, but I came away grudgingly having to admit that I liked the characters, liked the story, and thought that Ellis did a damn fine job of channeling ennui so passionately. It's not an easy thing to do, and he's somehow managed to do it. While I won't say that he's Salinger, he has his own voice and reading this made me want to read his other work. And possibly stream the 2002 James Van Der Beek film made from this book. 

"Guns, Germs, and Steel," Jared Diamond
I'm picking away at this one. It's dense, for sure, but ridiculously interesting and documents the reasons why some world civilizations became more advanced (with agriculture, medicine, buildings, etc.) and why some stalled out (like Australian aborigines). I borrowed it from a friend who condoned skimming some pages, and skipping others altogether, but with the endorsement that the overall book itself is fascinating. She was completely right - Diamond tends to go on highly scientific rants (I couldn't really give two shits about how accurate radio carbon dating is - whether you're talking about 39,000 years ago or 50,000 years ago, it doesn't register a difference in my mind and while I'm sure this inaccuracy would be a grievous error in the archaeology world, it matters little to none in mine), but on the whole his arguments are interesting, profound, and even common sensical at times. This is a book that will take me awhile to get through, and so tends to be one I'll pick up here and there while reading through some of the others on the list. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" is the same way - it's dense at times, but overall a very satisfactory read yet not one that pulls me in the way some narratives can. Books like these tend to be snacks or appetizers for me. Things I pick at when I only have ten or fifteen minutes here and there, and not something I can sit and read for hours at a time.

I've also been privy to some pretty fantastic fiction lately that's not on the "31 before 31" list but that I've read for Book Club or because a friend told me I simply must read it.

"The Last Letter from your Lover," JoJo Moyes
I can't remember the last time I read a book in a weekend. But this one was it. It was compelling, beautiful, and I absolutely couldn't put it down. It begins with the protagonist, a total Betty Draper named Jennifer Stirling, waking up in London from a severe head injury after a car accident. She has a handsome husband who owns a company that manufactures asbestos; the hot new building material in the 1960's; tons of money, and what appears to be the perfect life. But as she tries to adjust from severe memory loss and get back into her glamorous, wealthy life she discovers that she was having an affair, and the book follows her attempts to piece together love letters and clues to figure out who her lover was - and if he died in the automobile accident that caused her injury. It's the perfect rainy weekend novel, and beautifully written. 

"Gone Girl," Gillian Flynn
Oh wait, you haven't read "Gone Girl" yet? Stop reading this blog, right now. Go get it. Read it. It'll take you about a day. Come back and let's talk about how amazing this book is, and how creeped out we are by the whole thing.

On that note, I'm gonna go finish my beer and read some more of "Guns, Germs, and Steel."


This is not a cookie. It is, however, a very important part of this blog post. Mostly because I'm drinking it right now, and it's freaking delicious. WHAT, I'M ON VACATION.

Every year for Christmas, I make cookies.

Not the sugar-sprinkled kind, or anything that involves the rolling out of dough or the purchasing of molasses.   

(One year, I made gingerbread cookies and dropped a jar of molasses on the kitchen floor. Do you know how hard it is to clean up molasses from a kitchen floor? You start by picking up the shards of glass from the bottle, and then you drink half a bottle of wine and curl up on the couch and cry and Google "clean molasses up from kitchen floor" and vow never to make gingerbread cookies or anything involving molasses again.)

Oh wait - you really wanted to know how to clean molasses up off of the kitchen floor? I'm pretty sure I used newspapers to scoop most of it up, and then sprayed every household cleaner I could find on the stickiness (and there's a good chance I used some wasp killer by accident too - I was just grabbing at chemicals at that point) and then we all wore flip flops in the kitchen until we moved out a few months later and left the sticky floor for someone else to deal with. 

On another side note, guess what else you can make with molasses? NOTHING. Except for, apparently, some weird-flavored homemade yogurt and "mango banana ketchup," or so Google tells me. No, thank you. So, basically, you buy a jar of molasses, use about 1/4 of a cup of it for gingerbread cookies and then forever after have 3/4 of a jar of molasses (covered in sticky crap) sitting in your cupboard. 

Unless you drop it on the floor. So, really, maybe I did myself a favor. I didn't have to stare at a 3/4 full jar of molasses every time I was scooting through the kitchen cupboard trying to figure out what to make for dinner. 

That was a really long aside.

This is what sixteen dozen cookies looks like. Before baking.
I'll try this again.

Every year for Christmas, I make cookies. Chocolate chip cookies, to be exact, and I ONLY use the Tollhouse recipe. It's the only way to make chocolate chip cookies, I think. I don't muck about with the recipe and add anything like oatmeal or nuts or M&M's, it's just plain old Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies. And this year, I made sixteen dozen of them.

Batch #1 of 2

This bad boy was my Mom's, and it's now mine. It's perfect for cookies, mashed potatoes, frostings, and can pinch hit for a blender if necessary.
It only occasionally smells like smoke, and the plug is probably still street-legal.

I gave a dozen to coworkers, several dozen to friends and roommates, ate about a dozen
myself, and sent the rest overseas to The Gentleman for Christmas.

In case you ever need to know, it costs $48.99 to mail cookies to the Middle East in a package that weighs about 6 pounds. It will take approximately one week to ten days, and I really have no idea of the actual time scope because they sat in a P.O. box for an undisclosed amount of time before my friends could pick them up and deliver them to The Gentleman.

Mailing cookies to the Middle East requires a lot of tins and wax paper and very careful packing. The Gentleman tells me that they arrived mostly intact, which sounds like a win.

In other words, I'm off from work for two weeks for the holidays and now that my cookie baking extravaganza is complete, all gifts are wrapped and ready to go, I'm done with my holiday chores and basically just preparing to eat, drink, and be merry this week. 

Oh, and fly to Prague on Thursday to meet The Gentleman for vacation. I should probably start packing for that.

After I finish my vanilla porter. And eat a cookie.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

United Arab Emirates, Part IX - Recreation

I'm wrapping up posts from my trip in early November to the UAE just in time for the holidays and our trip to Prague and Berlin. Hooray!

The last piece I wanted to cover concerns recreation in the UAE, which was the only term I could think of to encompass the way Emirates (and ex-pats) spend their free time. Mostly because "going to the mall" seemed very 90s and not at all apt. But, basically, that's what it is.

Malls in the UAE are incredible. I'm sure you've heard about the mall with the indoor ski slope, or the the one with the shark tank/aquarium

Yep, those both exist.

When you take alcohol out of recreation and have a country that literally cannot be outdoors for nine months of the year in 115-120 degree heat, what you get are expansive, beautiful malls offering everything from indoor ice skating to scuba diving to, yes, shopping.

So, alas, on this trip we did not have time to actually go skiing at the Mall of the Emirates. BUT IT'S TOTALLY HAPPENING AT SOME POINT.

And also, they definitely had penguins there:

Terrible photo, but you get the idea. Look how charming he is in his little penguin suit. I mean, his feathers.
And, at the not-so-far-away Dubai Mall (where the Burj Khalifa is located), you can find this, the 10-million liter aquarium complete with sharks and a diving cage should you be so inclined to risk death in front of an entire mallful of passersby:

I think Baltimore could learn from this. The gallery is totally missing a 10-million liter aquarium which would totally lend itself to free publicity for the real aquarium. Now we just need a financial backer.
Another past time in the UAE (and in much of the Middle East) is the smoking of a shisha.
No, there is no illegal activity occurring here.

The gentleman purchased a gorgeous shisha pipe as one of his first pieces of Middle Eastern furniture (and his is not nearly as ornate as some of the more expensive pieces go), and we enjoyed some apple-mint one night after dinner. 

In order to smoke shisha, you'll either need to visit pretty much any cafe that has a shisha-smoking area, or you'll need to buy the pipe, the smokeless charcoal bricks, shisha tobacco, and, of course, a small blow torch.

Heat charcoal. Carefully. You're probably not supposed to do it this way, but we're expats and therefore unschooled in the ways of shisha.

Place charcoal on shisha pipe. But first, put down some aluminum foil. Oh wait, probably should have told you that first, oops.

Shisha smoke, while still made from tobacco, lacks the tar and chemicals of cigarettes and smells more strongly of whatever it's flavored with (and flavors range from mango to strawberry to bombay [whatever the hell that is]). It's a common after-dinner activity in restaurants and cafes and while some have restricted smoking areas, most do not. Your best bet, if you don't want to sit and inhale shisha smoke, is to not sit downwind. So, good luck with that.

On my last day in the UAE, we got to go to Al Forsan Sports Complex for a day of paintballing and wakeboarding to celebrate a friend's birthday. Al Forsan, a giant indoor-outdoor complex, has everything from go karting to horse back riding.

It was my first time going paintballing, and it turned out to be me and seven dudes. I was slightly worried that they might take pity on me or treat me differently, especially my boyfriend, but I soon discovered that all is fair in love and paintballing, and you had better be ready to CYA.

In paintballing, your boyfriend WILL shoot you in the eye, and his team WILL high-five him for doing so. You will return the favor by clocking him with not one-but TWO shots to the head while he's running to steal your teams flag. Because, naturally, couples should be on opposite teams. It's more fun that way.

Guess what else I learned? PAINTBALLS F***ING HURT.

This is what paintball hits look like day-of impact.
And this is what they look like the next day, after 18 hours on a plane.
After paintballing, we cooled off with some wakeboarding. In a giant, man-made lake-thing. Pulled by giant ski-lift-type machine things.

You stand in line, and when it's your turn, position yourself with your board and wait for the rope to pull you....

And don't do this. I'm so glad there is photographic evidence of my graceful fall right BEFORE I faceplanted into the water.
As it turns out, I apparently suck at wake boarding and couldn't stay up for more than a few seconds. I still think that, with more practice, I could have dominated. 

Also - if you go paintballing and wakeboarding right before you fly for 18 hours, you're gonna be hurt. Bad. All over.

But that's vacation, right?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

United Arab Emirates, Part VIII - The Grand Mosque

While this technically could fall under architecture, this deserved it's own post.

There's not really that much I can write about the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi. It's visually one of most beautiful buildings I've ever had the privilege to be in, and I tried to do it justice with photography but fell short given the sheer scope of the thing.

What I can say is this: we went in the middle of the day on a weekday (because we were on vacation and had the luxury of doing so) and it wasn't crowded. It's located out towards the airport from the peninsula and has garage parking (clutch if you're there May-October when temperatures are overwhelming). 

Mosques are the one place that women must be completely covered, which makes sense. The Grand Mosque will supply female  visitors with an abaya, and collect a photo ID as collateral. NOTE - you MUST return the abaya to the same location from whence you picked it up! There will be signs to discard your abaya as you leave the mosque, but DO NOT DO THIS! Go back downstairs, near the parking garage, and return your abaya to the same counter where you got it originally to get your photo ID back. This was slightly confusing to us. Also, men can't wear shorts or sleeveless tops. In fact, men as a rule should not wear sleeveless tops anywhere, at any time in general. But, I digress.

What is an abaya you might ask? A visual for you!

This is me with my pal who relocated to Dubai a few years ago from Baltimore and came down to Abu Dhabi to visit while I was in town. We're rocking our abaya here, which is a long dress-like robe with long sleeves. We both brought scarves with us to cover our hair, but they will give you a scarf if you don't have one. Women must be covered from head to toe, including the ankles. Sunglasses, however, are optional and purely for style.
There are other rules, as well. No physical contact between males and females anywhere near or around the mosque. Yes, this includes putting one's arm around someone for a picture. Yes, The Gentleman and I found this out the hard way.

A basic infographic of other rules:

Gardens surrounding the mosques. Yes, lush, green gardens. In the desert. The UAE filters salt out of the Gulf and uses the water to keep the city's greenery alive. It's kind of a lot of water.

Reflection pond outside main entrance.

Typical Islamic keyhole architecture with mosque turrets in background.
The Gentleman and I were extremely fortunate that my friend came down from Dubai to visit because not only had she been to the mosque before, but she's an art teacher with an interest in things like these and so told us lots of facts that I'm almost certain she didn't make up.

For example, the Grand Mosque is the largest mosaic in the world. I know she's not lying about this because, well, I saw it with my own eyes and also Wikipedia confirmed this fact. And Wikipedia never lies.

The entire mosque floor is a mosaic, with each tile carefully selected to fit together into a beautiful pattern. Behold:
Each one of those teeeeny tiiiiiny squares is a piece of marble. This probably took awhile. Like at least a month or two.

The mosaics even climb up the walls.

Close-up of wall mosaic.
My friend had also done a guided tour of the mosque previously and told us that these vines, set against the reflectivity of the marble floor, represent the life cycle of the soul. The vines reflect their origins in the floor below, and are reaching up towards heaven. They are neither separate from their roots, nor does there seem to be any set beginning. I tried to confirm this as fact, but in the end decided that I liked the way it sounded and so therefore it must be true.
Reaching up to heaven.

Once inside the mosque itself, there is something to see in every square inch. It is so incredibly ornate, so intricate, and so beautiful...and also you have to take your shoes off before entering, and the carpet (the largest carpet in the world - Internet confirmed) is so deliciously plush and soft that you might be tempted to lie down for awhile and gaze at the ceiling. Probably don't do that. But you can ogle and drool as much as you'd like while remaining standing.

Chandeliers by Swarovski, imported from Germany.

Mmmm. Peaceful naptime. That's rude.

Along one entire wall are the 99 names (or attributes) of Allah.

Even the ceiling is exquisite.

Courtyard framed by the minarets of the mosque. The entire courtyard floor is a marble mosaic.

So that's kind of breathtakingly incredible, no? I mean, just a little bit. Perhaps.

(I want one.)