February 16, 2012

Wanting to Want a Wedding

I wrote this post a while back as part of an application for the APW intern position. Some other lucky lady got the job, so I figured I might as well post what I wrote here on the blog.

Yup, that's my engagement ring!

I have a confession to make: I didn’t really want to have this wedding. A year ago, my then-boyfriend (now fiancé) and I were in the pre-engaged state, and we were working hard to earn the status of an engaged couple. We bought marriage books and spent many evenings discussing the hard questions: do we want to have children, how will we support each other and balance our careers when the babies enter our lives, how will we combine our vegetarian and bacon-loving food habits to create healthy lifestyles, how will we incorporate our different family traditions into our own baby family. We self-counseled ourselves into a place where we were comfortable and confident with our coupledom. We were ready to take the next step.

I did not want a surprise proposal, and neither did my boyfriend. Equality has always been central to our relationship, and neither of us was comfortable with the idea of one person having complete control over the timing and the details of such an important step in our lives. But we still wanted a “story” to tell our grandchildren (and inquiring friends and family members), and so we picked a sunny weekend afternoon and headed to a local park to enjoy the weather and to get engaged. We spent blissful hours lying under a cherry tree, talking about us, about our future, about our plans. Finally, unable to wait any longer, I popped the question. And he said yes. And then he asked me the same question, and I said yes. We couldn’t stop smiling through the happy tears. We had our story.

In my mind, we were already married. My thoughts had already moved on to our future – the dilapidated but charming house we were going to buy and renovate, the trips around the world we were going to take, the two kids we were going to raise. To me, a wedding was just a formality, a legal matter. A wedding was not a big deal – we could just go to the courthouse any day and sign the papers, and I’d be happy as a clam. In fact, I suggested as much to my fiancé on several occasions. But he would have none of it. Of all the hard questions that we discussed and agreed on, we completely forgot to talk about the wedding. Suddenly, we weren’t on the same page anymore.

He had a good point, of course. To him, a wedding was not just a legal matter, but a public declaration of our love, a reason to bring our families together and celebrate this day in our lives. It all made perfect sense, but I knew that this “public declaration of our love” would cost us a pretty penny, and I could not justify to my bargain-hunting self spending so much money on just one day in our lives, no matter how much importance that day would hold.

The thing about marriage is that it takes two people to make it happen. And no matter how compatible these two people are, no matter how much they love each other, there will be times when the only way to move forward is to compromise. Having our families and friends be present at our wedding was important to my fiancé, so I gave up on my idea of a courthouse ceremony and we proceed to plan a “real” wedding.

The only problem with the compromise was that my heart wasn’t really in it. We set the budget, created an approximate guest list, and began the venue search. We considered and visited many places, and when we entered the converted firehouse that we would later choose as our venue, I knew instinctively that it was the right place for us. Now that my gut was guiding me through wedding decisions, I hoped that maybe my bridal gene was finally awakening.

But when it came time to wedding dress shopping, I discovered that it was a false alarm. I expected that shopping for a wedding dress would be the best part of wedding planning because there would be no compromises. This was the only part of the wedding that I had full control over. From the very beginning, I steered clear of wedding magazines and twenty-pound poofy dresses that could stand up on their own. All I wanted was something light, short, sassy, possibly white, and definitely affordable. I wasn’t looking for anything fancy, just something that would make me happy. But it turned out to be not so easy to find.

Begrudgingly, I made a trip to the bridal salons, as I considered bridesmaid dresses in white. That adventure quickly dead ended as I discovered that the many dresses I tried on looked better on the hanger than on me. And they weren’t flattering the hanger much, either. Frustrated with the salons, I turned to shopping malls. Surely, Nordstrom or Bloomingdales would carry some pretty short, white dresses, right? And they did. While drowning in the sea of white inside the fitting rooms, I wondered if any of these dresses looked “bridal” enough. In my pursuit of THE dress, I had forgotten that it is the bride that makes the dress look bridal, and not the other way around.

What was supposed to be the most exciting part of wedding planning was turning out to be a nightmare. Not a single dress I tried on appealed to me. What’s worse, I could not motivate myself to be excited about the dress, and in turn, the wedding. My bridal gene was fast asleep, and I was stuck in a perpetual self-guilt-tripping spiral. Shouldn’t I be more into the whole dress shopping thing, wasn’t I supposed to be all excited about wedding planning? But all I wanted to do was get married, and elopement was off the table.

Feeling like a total failure of a bride, I finally broke down and had a heart-to-heart with my man. I explained to him that planning a wedding that I desperately wanted to want (but didn’t) was slowly driving me insane. I suggested that if this wedding was so important to him, he should take the lead on the planning. And he agreed. I finally breathed in relief. To be fair, he was already doing his share of the planning, but now I no longer felt the need to play the role of the obsessive-compulsive bride.

I decided to take a break from wedding dress shopping… and immediately found my dress. I was in a mall when I walked into the store that carried fun and feminine dresses that I was always happy to look at (but not buy because they were slightly out of my price range). Just for fun, I tried on a few dresses, and I swear I giggled like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t purchase anything that day, but one dress stuck with me. It looked nothing like a wedding dress, but it made me happy and that was all that mattered. A few days later, I went online to discover that the dress was on a steep and temporary sale. It was time to whip out the credit card. I bought the dress and it arrived a week later. Pulling it out of the box, I immediately put it on and proceeded to do a happy dance around the house. I felt like a bride. And I made peace with the wedding. We were going to make this happen, and I was on board.

February 10, 2012

Labcoat Fridays: Fungus Eats (Some) Plastic

If you read this article about fungi discovered in the Amazon that can eat plastic, you might get the idea that the happy science accident happened yet again, and all our pollution problems will soon be resolved. Just like penicillin was accidentally discovered in a moldy Petri dish, you may form an image of clueless undergraduates poking around the Amazon rainforest, collecting random plant samples, and fortuitously stumbling upon an all-important discovery. Perhaps, when the samples make their way back to the lab, a student notices that the Ziploc bag in which one of the samples was transported seems to have developed some holes, as if it was eaten from the inside. Oh happy day! The undergrads discovered a fungus that eats plastic - an answer to our pollution problem!

From here. Originally adapted from here.

That's not exactly what happened. The truth behind this somewhat misleading article was uncovered in the originally published research paper. Research into biodegradability of polyurethane (the only plastic that this fungus has been able to digest so far) goes back to the middle of last century - the authors cite papers that date back to as early as the 1960s. The article says that until now, polyurethane (which is found in many everyday items, like garden hoses and shoes) would have stuck around forever as nothing could possibly decompose it. But that's not entirely true - scientists have been aware of polyurethane's susceptibility to biodegradation for over half a century now, and you can bet that the researchers embarking on the expedition to the Amazon were aware of this previous work. In fact, you don't have to bet - they say so themselves in the paper.

And no, the undergrads were not aimlessly poking around the rainforest, trying to learn the process of doing field work (although there was some of that, too). The exploration effort was specifically aimed at discovering new organisms that could degrade polymers. Various plant samples were collected with this goal in mind, and the samples were transported back to the lab in polyethylene bags (same material that grocery plastic bags are made of). So, no, the fungus did not make a hole in the bag. And it became obvious that the fungus does not eat ALL the plastic (it couldn't handle polyethylene). So the pollution problem still remains.

However, the research group did make some interesting findings. For example, the fungus that they isolated (and later demonstrated its ability to digest polyurethane) is an endophyte, which means that it lives in a plant without harming the plant itself. This was a first discovery of endyphytes that degrade plastic. In addition, this new fungus (or really, a family of fungi) degrades polyurethane at a much faster pace than the previously discovered organisms. This improvement was quite significant - the fungus was able to eat all the polyurethane it was fed within five days, while the previously identified organisms digested the plastic in fifteen days or longer. Even more importantly, the researchers demonstrated for the first time ever that a fungus can degrade polyurethane without needing oxygen. This is a big deal when it comes to battling the pollution problem: landfills are full of piles of trash, and except for the outer surface, most of the trash does not get exposed to air. So if plastic degradation required access to oxygen/air, then it would not be very effective in clearing the landfill. But a fungus that can do this without oxygen holds some real promise in beginning to solve the pollution problem.

Make no mistake, though - the day our plastic pollution problem disappears is far away. So far, only polyurethane has been found to be susceptible to fungus degradation. Many other plastics that are prevalent in our everyday lives are much more resistant, and so far no biological solution has been found to address that problem. Still, we have a lot to learn from nature - it keeps developing new ways to heal itself despite our best efforts to pollute the planet.

February 1, 2012

Living Room Rearrangement

While D was away for a conference, I decided to do a little furniture rearranging in the house. The truth is, I've been wanting to do this for a while now, but never made time for it. With D gone, I suddenly had all this free time on my hands. The living room was first on my redecorating list.

Here is what it looked like before:

The living room, before.

This was the view from the kitchen/hallway. It really wasn't a bad arrangement (although this photo makes it look better than it was in real life!). But I wanted to experiment, and figured the risk is quite low - I could always put the furniture back the way it was! One of my biggest complaints was that when I was reading a book on the couch, by the white floor lamp, there was nowhere for me to put my tea mug. There was no end table on the other side of the sofa, and the coffee tables ended up being too far away to reach comfortably. And the empty corner behind the couch became a dumping ground for all our wedding-related junk. Super cozy, I tell you.

I did a little living room switcheroo, and here is what it looked like after:

The living room, after.

It's a bit hard to tell from the photos, but the room is much cozier now. At least, it feels that way to me. (Although looking at this photo, I realize that the room could benefit from a larger rug.) I know, I know the sofa is not centered between the windows, but I didn't want to block access to the closet (which is actually our coat closet, since we don't have a real entryway), and besides, I don't think everything needs to be symmetric. And now, there is a lamp and a table for my tea mug on the same side of the sofa. I wanted to soften the room a bit with more textiles, so here is what I did:
  • I bought a table lamp (at Home Goods), and put it on the side table. The lamp shade was what won me over - I love the natural feel of linen, with a bit of frilly girliness in the trim.
  • I dug up an Indian fabric in our closet (with blue and white camels on it) and draped it over the side table. Bonus points for bringing in more color to the room.
  • Some of the pillows that we had in the bedroom migrated to the couch.
  • I added a Guatemalan runner that I had lying around to the top of the cubic shelving.

Guatemalan runner on top of cubic shelving.

Of course, the room is not complete. I am not showing you much of the wall to the right of the couch because it still looks unfinished. Moving the couch from that location made the empty space on the wall stand out that much more. I have yet to figure out what to with it, but I would love to bring in some additional storage and hang art on that wall. Also, I'm thinking of getting some floor pillows to put in front of the coffee tables - it's an easy way to provide extra seating and add even more textured textiles to the room!

P.S. Can I just say how much I love taking photos with natural lighting? The photos come out so much better than when I have to use indoor lights (and everything comes out yellow and needs to be Photoshopped), and I don't even need to retouch them. Love it!