Gratitude journal: Cool stuff I’ve gotten to do for my job

Not to brag, but my job is pretty great. I’ve gotten to do so many interesting and fun things for stories — and also a few not-so-fun things. For no good reason, here is a list of the best and the worst.


  1. Play a Stradivarius violin
  2. Perform” in the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker”
  3. Feed a red panda
  4. Spear a lionfish in Belize
  5. Try out to be a racing president  


  1. Chat up injured people in ERs around D.C.
  2. Spent 24 hours in Spa World
  3. Construct an enormous hamster wheel, but for cats.

You don’t need to break the bank to host a dream wedding. I did it for $780.

(Originally published in The Washington Post)

I proposed to my boyfriend over email. Actually, he was just cc’d on the email, which was directed to his parents and mine. “Theoretically, would you be available to come to D.C. for a wedding on Sept. 24?” it read. Moments after hitting “send,” my phone rang. “Congratulations!” my dad said. “Now you have to call your grandma to tell her the big news.”

“What news?” I asked.

“That you’re engaged!” my dad said.

“Well, I should probably wait until I hear back from Steve,” I said.

I wasn’t too worried. We’d been together for eight years, and we definitely wanted to get married. What we couldn’t figure out was how to do the wedding.

The main problem was the guest list. Steve’s family is small, while mine is enormous. That’s because the Hay clan grows the normal way, through birth and marriage, while the Dingfelder family expands primarily through divorce. We don’t allow anyone’s ex to just drift away. We keep inviting them to birthday parties and bat mitzvahs, and if they get remarried and have kids, fantastic! They’re invited, too. A generation or two later, no one can recall exactly how we are related to, say, the Baydins or the Sauers, but if you don’t include them in your wedding, feelings will be hurt.

Then there are my friends. I have a lot, which may have something to do with the fact that I was deeply unpopular as a child. These days, I hoard friends the way people who lived through the Great Depression hoard cash — I’d stash spares in my mattress if they didn’t make such a fuss. I make new friends in line at the grocery store, and Steve has learned that when I say, “my best friend,” I can mean any of five different women. I’ve been a maid of honor four times and a best man once. I don’t even accept invitations to be a regular bridesmaid anymore; it’s beneath me.

My self-appointed flower girls were adorable in their matching dresses (which cost a lot more than mine!)

As a result, my most ruthlessly pared-down guest list was more than 100 people, which put our wedding budget well north of the national average of $33,391. No matter how I looked at it, it seemed as if we would be required spend a huge chunk of money or leave out a lot of important people.

This realization had us stuck for years — until one night when I was at a local dive bar and inspiration struck. My friend Eli’s cover band was playing a show where audience members get to pretend to be the lead singer — a concept called “live band karaoke” — and it occurred to me that my family would love this. In fact, my dad has been known to sing on stage, uninvited, in non-karaoke contexts.

“I figured out how to do our wedding!” I drunk-texted Steve.

Instead of renting a venue, we could just tell everyone to go to Eli’s band’s next show. “We can invite everyone we know, and all they have to do is pay the $5 cover to get in,” I explained to Steve. Our cost: Nothing, except a well-earned reputation for being cheapskates.

Steve requested a few additions: a small ceremony in a local park and a luncheon afterward.

“Deal!” I said.

Once that was settled, I just had to wait for Eli’s band to schedule a performance. The moment they did, I sent that email — the one my dad got excited about. Planning the wedding only took a few hours: I bought a white dress online, made a Facebook invitation and called it a day.

My best friends couldn’t believe I’d finished so quickly. “Who’s doing your hair,” asked Tori, a public relations vice president who always looks impeccable. “What are you doing for music?” my best friend Sybil chimed in. “What about the Baydins?” my dad asked. “You have to invite the Baydins!”

I was quickly discovering that people have a lot of expectations about weddings, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. So I made a general announcement: If you want something specific to happen at my wedding, plan it and surprise me.

My dad officiated in the guerrilla-style ceremony, at a random park.

Steve didn’t notice my lazy outsourcing until moments before we walked down the aisle. We were sitting on a couch in our apartment, waiting for a text from Tori.

“Where are we going, exactly?” Steve asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

The park I’d picked out had been taken over by a nationally televised cook-off. My mom tried to talk them into moving, but they wouldn’t budge, because they had permits and paid for the space. As a result, the wedding was slightly delayed as my friends scouted for an alternative location.

“Aren’t you worried?” Steve asked.

“Nah,” I said, and it was mostly true. Sybil and Tori are women who, in their professional lives, command large staffs and million-dollar budgets. Finding a patch of unoccupied grass and herding a dozen people there was well within their abilities, I reasoned.

Eventually, Tori texted me with instructions to go to another park, one that featured a gorgeous white pavilion that looked like it had been made for weddings. Clutching a bouquet of roses (a delivery from a friend who couldn’t make it), I walked behind my two self-appointed flower girls, picture-perfect in matching dresses that were much more expensive than mine.

As we approached the pavilion, we heard an insistent buzzing, like a swarm of angry bees — a sound that turned out to be a chorus of kazoos playing Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus.” Sybil was conducting our friends and family members with the precision that you’d expect from a former drum major. It was perfect, and I was weeping the entire time.

Guests played Wagner’s “Wedding March” on kazoos.

I won’t bore you with the details of the reception — but just know it was a killer party, the kind where people get together the next day to piece together what happened. Did my 86-year-old grandma really get on stage with a bunch of my friends and sing “I Touch Myself”? Did someone really show up with a basket of warm pot brownies? Did Steve and I get cheered by hordes of strangers as we walked down the street at 3 a.m. in our wedding clothes? Yes, yes and yes! Best night ever.

Here I am singing that romantic classic, “Baby One More Time,” to my new husband.

All told, we spent $780 for my dream wedding ($30 for the dress plus $750 for the family luncheon). But we got a lot more than we paid for. Our bare-bones approach inspired friends and family to fill in the blanks with their special talents and skills, and that made the day a delightful surprise.

It reminded me of a story my dad used to read to me, a children’s book where a clever pig tells a village of animals that he can make soup from a stone, and the intrigued villagers throw in so many garnishes, they end up feasting on a hearty stew.

I was even luckier than that pig, because my stone soup wasn’t just made by friends and family. Strangers pitched in, too.

“This goes out to the bride and groom,” shouted some guy I’d never met, before launching into a spirited rendition of “Living on a Prayer.”

“He’s good,” my grandma shouted over the music. “How do you know him?”

“Oh, we go way back,” I said.

Are we drifting toward marriage or farther away?

imrsI’ve been thinking about maybe getting married. I’ve been with my boyfriend for eight years, and I figured: Hey, may as well round that up to forever, right?

When I suggested this to my boyfriend, Steve, he shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

This romantic exchange happened while we were driving to West Virginia to go tubing. If you’ve never heard of it before, tubing is a low-impact outdoor activity that primarily entails drifting slowly down a stream in an inflatable tube. More advanced tubers may attempt this while drinking alcoholic beverages, even after being briefed on the dangers of doing so.

Steve is not as advanced a tuber as I am. Spooked by the safety video, he suggested we jettison our beer. He also felt we should wear life jackets, even though: a) No one else was wearing them; and b) they were mildly uncomfortable.

Most important, we needed those life jackets in order to link our tubes so we could float down the river together. I ignored Steve’s protests as I threaded the life jacket ties through the handles of our inner tubes and clasped them together. We hopped into our respective tubes and began to drift downstream.

Is there anything more peaceful than gazing up at the blue sky on a summer’s day while trying to ignore your boyfriend’s increasingly urgent appeal for help paddling away from the rocks? We’d only been on the river for about five minutes before it became apparent that Steve and I have rather incompatible tubing styles. I like to lie back and go wherever the current takes me. Yes, sometimes I might hit a low-hanging branch and pick up a few spiders, or bounce off a rock or two, but that’s just part of the ride.

Steve, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop paddling us around obstacles, real and imagined. It wasn’t easy, what with me dragging along behind him.

“Can you give me a hand here?” he asked, panting.

“Will you stop paddling and chill out?” I replied.

My argument was undermined, somewhat, when we ran aground on a large rock.

“I think we’d be more maneuverable if we weren’t attached,” Steve said.

“If that’s what you want, fine!” I shouted, while furiously untying our tubes.

I was pissed. From the beginning, Steve hadn’t wanted to be attached. He wanted to wear his life jacket. Why am I always the one keeping us together? As far as Steve is concerned, I’m just dragging him down.

As I shoved Steve’s tube away from me, he started to realize that this argument was no longer just about tubing.

“Wait …” he said.

I kicked away and pulled down my visor to hide my tears. I’d be fine, I thought, floating down the river alone. At least I had the spiders to keep me company.

A few minutes later, I peeked back to see how Steve was doing.

He was doing great! In fact, he had somehow gotten attached to a whole family. They were having a fantastic time together, laughing, sharing beer.

Isn’t that perfect, I thought. How quickly a 30-something woman becomes an old maid, while a 30-something guy gets snapped up immediately.

It wasn’t so bad, being alone. But I missed Steve, even with his annoying habit of paddling around imaginary obstacles. Too bad he doesn’t miss me, I thought bitterly as I drifted off to sleep.

Before long, I was awakened with a jolt. Another tube had hit me from behind, and its owner reached out to grab my hand. It was Steve! He had paddled to catch up with me! He did care.

And he had come up with a solution.

It was so simple, yet so ingenious. By holding hands, we could float down the river together, but separate briefly if we needed to maneuver around a rock or some other obstacle. It’s just like a good relationship, I thought. You want a bond that’s strong but flexible. If you get separated, it doesn’t have to be forever. You can just paddle to catch up.

“I’m so dumb,” I said. “I was thinking this whole tubing fight was, like, a metaphor for our entire relationship.”

“Maybe it is,” he said.

This story originally ran in the Washington Post’s Solo-ish column.

Let me introduce you to my imaginary children

Me posing with my friend's kids .
Me with two of my friends’ kids in an IHOP parking lot.

I have three musically gifted children. At least, that’s what I told the lady sitting behind me at an orchestra performance I recently attended. I went with my friend and her 3-year-old, and we were bopping along to the music in our seats. After a series of pointed huffs and sighs, a stern-looking woman tapped me on my shoulder. “Is that any way to teach a child how to behave at the symphony?” she said.

“It’s a family concert,” I replied.

“Well I have two children …” she started to lecture.

“I have three, and they all play the cello,” I countered.

That shut her up.

As it turns out, I don’t have any kids at all. I used to explain my reasons. “I like children,” I’d say, “but I like sleeping in more.” Now I just lie. In certain situations, being a 36-year-old women with kids is a lot easier for some people to comprehend than my actual life.

Especially when I’m overseas, which is where this lie was born. I was in Indonesia, where asking about someone’s kids is standard small talk, like mentioning the weather. But if you say you don’t have any — well, one cabdriver acted like I’d just told him I had terminal cancer.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, his forehead creasing with concern.

“No, no it’s fine,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Look how much I get to travel.”

The next person to ask was a man in a market.

“I have a daughter,” I said. “She’s 8.”

“And you left her at home?”

He looked worried, and rightfully so. There I was, gallivanting around Asia while my little girl is a half a world away, scared and alone.

“She’s with her grandparents,” I said defensively. “She loves staying with them.”

Since even pretend moms face the judgement of random strangers, I decided that my daughter should be a bit older.

“I just dropped her off at Smith College,” I told another cabdriver, naming the school where I went because I couldn’t think of any others on the fly. “We’re so proud of her. She’s all grown up,” I added, tearing up a little.

“Just one daughter?” he said. “No sons?”

He was right. It was time to expand my family. For the rest of the trip, I had three kids, though their ages and genders varied. I borrowed names and details from my friends’ progeny. Emma, 7, loves to swim and thinks she is a mermaid. Ethan, 12, is having trouble paying attention in school.

“They want to put him on Ritalin, but I think he just has a lot of energy,” I said. “Kids need to get outside and play, you know?” The man checking us out of the hotel nodded in agreement.

My boyfriend, characteristically silent during these exchanges, finally attempted to rein me in.

“It’s time for you to settle down,” he said, as we drove to the airport. “Pick a family and stick with it.”

Back in America, I don’t get to trot out my pretend children as often. But when I find myself at an elementary school talent show, for instance, they come in handy.

“Brent is such a good school, don’t you think,” said the woman next to me.

“The teachers here are wonderful,” I added, as if I had any idea.

I understand why people mistake me for a mom. I’m the right age, often in the right places, and my clothes are frequently covered in food stains. It helps that, having been to many baby showers, I’ve picked up the language.

“Sleep training is so hard,” I told a new mother at a Christmas party last weekend.

“The baby Bjorn gives you more support, but the Ergo is so much easier to use,” I later advised an expectant mom.

You may think being a pretend parent is the easy way out, but let me tell you, it’s not. Between all the cello recitals and unicorn-riding lessons, I hardly know which way is up. Don’t get me wrong, though. I wouldn’t trade my imaginary children for anything in the world. Especially real ones.

This story first ran in the Washington Post’s Solo-ish column.

Is side-boob appropriate office attire?

shirt gapeIt’s embarrassing when your office manager asks you to please wear a bra to work. It’s even worse when that message is delivered to you via telephone — as in, the game “telephone,” where the manager tells your cubicle-mate who tells the receptionist, who gives the message to your best friend.

I know most women wear bras without complaint, but they have been brainwashed — forced to wear “training” bras before they even had bosoms. When I was in grade school, my mom tried to get me to wear those useless triangles of fabric, so I took them off at the bus stop and stuffed them deep into my book bag. Eventually, a male classmate discovered that dense clot of bras and hoisted them in the air like a prizewinning trout in front of a very appreciative pre-algebra class. My secret was out. I was the girl who didn’t wear bras.

This reputation followed me through high school, where boys regularly ran their fingers down my spine to confirm the rumors. (Sometimes to my secret enjoyment.) Then, I went to a women’s college where bra wearing was strictly optional, as was leg shaving and regular showering. We were serious scholars; we couldn’t be bothered with such trifles. Plus, there were no guys around to impress.

After graduating, I got a job at a feminist organization and I hoped the dress code would be similarly lax. It’s not that I felt oppressed by bras, depilation, makeup and the other trappings of femininity. They just took up far too much of my morning, time that, I felt, was better spent sleeping. When I did remember to shave before work, I did a bad job, usually missing the back of my leg opposite my knees. My knee-pits sprouted a healthy, glossy patch of hair — but I couldn’t see it, so I didn’t care.

I also didn’t notice that my new work shirts were a tad too tight, providing regular glimpses of side-boob between buttons. The office manager tried to intervene. But by the time I got the communique from my best friend, it was years later and we had both moved on to new jobs. She didn’t want to stress me out by passing along the message earlier, and I appreciated her sensitivity. Back then, in my twenties, I might have been shamed into strapping down my bosoms. But now that I’m safely into my thirties, I have discovered that you don’t have to choose between torturing yourself with uncomfortable brassieres or torturing your coworkers with side boob. There is a third option: sweaters.