Friday, August 21, 2009

Engagement Story Part IV: The Proposal--How It Did and Didn't Happen

I have told the story of how Rebecca and I met; I have written about a few of the memories we share; and you have by now read about how and why I designed her ring. Now I will share the story of how I proposed, and also how I did not propose.


We had long been planning our trip to Oregon. Rebecca had been there once before, during Christmas time. She therefore got to see it during the wet time of year, the cold time of year. Now it was time to see it during the warm and sunny time of year, the dry time of year. We had been wanting to do this trip since she came a year and a half ago during the winter. She was excited to finally see God's Country during the summer time, to hike and see lakes and streams and waterfalls, and of course to see the stars; but I had something more on my mind.

As I mentioned in my previous story, about the ring, the completion date for the ring was to be in mid-July; our tickets to fly in to Oregon were for the end of the month. Both of these things were known to me (or at least correctly guessed by me) as early as April. Therefore, I had been planning for months to propose during that trip (as a revealed to a handful friends and family). Having obtained her fatehr's blessing in April, the trick was to keep both of her parents from spilling "The News" for the four months until the trip; they both came pretty close to ruining the surprise (and within 24 hours of each other!). Luckily, we avoided that catastrophe.

For those who have never been to Oregon, there are many very scenic places in that state. I do not call it God's Country lightly, and it's certainly not because of an over-abundance of God's followers taking up residence there; if anything, there is a tragic dearth of such people (they do exist there as elsewhere, in any case). There are the majestic crags and great outcroppings of the Oregon coast; several fertile valleys nestled between mighty ranges of mountains; forests of trees which are tall as buildings; streams which flow year-round; and a plethora of waterfalls in which the water plummets from heights which dwarf even the trees. All of this contrasts with anything which I have seen in Texas (including surrounding areas).

Nevertheless, my original plan was to take her stargazing. The stars at night may be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas; but in Oregon, they are something much better: visible. Yes, they are actually visible entities, each with a glimmer and a gleam, each shining with the glory of the ages; and the Milky Way itself can be seen on a clear night. On a night with a new moon and clear skies, the stars seem close enough to touch, and yet far enough to be safe.

It is because of the amazing views we get of the stars that I originally intended to propose by their light. I would slip the ring into a constellation view-finder, and after finding a few constellations for Rebecca, I would let her look though it to find "Saturn's Rings" and so propose. However, the Maker and Keeper of the stars had other plans.


I had a hunch that she might suspect that something was up on that trip. She was long since ready for me to ask her to marry me (and I was long since ready to propose to her). To throw her off just a little, I resolved that I would not pop the question on the first night we were there; instead, I would wait until the third night (which happened to be my birthday, though this was really a coincidence). Besides which ,I did not have the ring in my possession, as I had it made by a local jeweller; my parents had picked it up for me, but I still needed to wait until Rebecca was asleep to get it from them.

Nevertheless, Rebecca was absolutely adamant about going out that first night to stargaze. Thus, I needed a clever way to get her back to the house without staying out too late (and thus ruining the effect of first seeing the stars), and also without raising her suspicions. Thus, not only did she forget her jacket, but I forgot mine; for in Oregon, the nights are cool and sweet after it gets dark, not warm and stuffy as in Texas. We therefore had about a ten minute walk under the stars, and they were bright and precious as I remember from my last visit. I did not take her to either of my favorite spots from which to view them, wanting to save the best views until I could propose.


The big day arrived, and we decided to go to the local reservoir. It's not exactly a lake, but rather a portion of the river which is wider than the rest (this qualifies it as a lake in Texas). We swam and/or cayacked for most of the afternoon, and then returned home. Night rolled around, and after attending the vigil Mass and a birthday dinner we arrived home. I had wanted to take her out to stargaze then; unfortunately, we had cloud cover. There would be no stars that night, nor any of the next few.

The next day, we drove to Bend (which is in central Oregon, for the non-Oregonians). On the drive over, we decided to stop and hike to a waterfall. The Sahalie and Kooshah waterfalls are each more impressive than any falls which can be found in or around Texas. We walked to Sahalie falls and watched as the water there hurtled over the precipice into the churning blue pool 120 feet below. The clear pool which collected before the falls had an apparent depth of about a foot, but that appearance was a deception: it was in fact nearer to four feet deep than to one.

It may not be the biggest or most impressive waterfall in the state, but it took her breath away nevertheless. I could see how impressed she was; however, since my parents had come along on this trip, I did not propose in front of this waterfall. That would have to wait until we had some privacy.

We arrived at my aunt and uncle's house about an hour later, just in time to unload the car and have a quite dinner of grilled salmon and chicken. This, too, was a treat--those who have tried the pacific salmon caught off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, or Alaska always have a hard time going back to the Atlantic variety more commonly found in Texas (and elsewhere). It was an enjoyable dinner, with a decent wine to match, followed by a brilliant sunset.

From my aunt's back deck, we watched as the sun sank between the twin peaks of two of the Sisters volcanoes, the third Sister visible in the periphery. The sky became turned a red hue which hearkened back to the time when, thousands of years ago, those volcanoes were active. In my mind I could see the clouds on the horizon as plumes of smoke, the sunset as a fiery cascade of magma. Still, we were not alone, but in the company of my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin; and so I did not propose here. We watched the sun at last sink behind the mountains, and then enjoyed the thunder and lightning display which replaced it.


We decided that the next day we would hike along one of the nearby trails in the mountains, along with my parents, a family friend, her daughter, and my cousin. Needless to say, Rebecca and I got not a moment of privacy between my cousin and the rest of the troop. Therefore, when we stopped by a beautiful lake in the mountains for a picnic, I did not propose; nor did I do it when we walked to a second, more secluded lake in the clearing of that mountain forest.

The crystal clarity of the water was a testament to the pristine conditions of much of the state—not polluted or urbanized as so much of the country, including parts of Texas. The crisp mountain air could be breathed in with ease, in spite of its relative thinness as compared to air in the Texas lowlands. This feeling of freshness, of all things still being new in spite of the great age of this ancient forest, was overwhelming—yet even here we were not alone, and so the proposal would have to wait.

We did, however, see the impressive display of a tall fir tree which had been utterly destroyed by a lightning strike the previous night. The hundred-or-so-foot length of the tree lay upon the ground beside its ten-foot-high hollowed-out stump. The thing had been shattered by the power of the lightning strike, and we could see large chunks of it which had been blown off of the main trunk.


That night, we ate dinner with my parents and aunt and uncle at an upscale (if somewhat casual) restaurant. It was located in what had once been the ranch-house of a large ranch (which had been converted into a small ranch and large equestrian facility). The food was superb, and the views sublime, for the ranch house was perched at the crest of a tall hill. The view was of another glorious sunset, though not between two volcanoes as before.

It would have been an excellent engagement dinner, were we attending it alone, but that would have to wait until the next day. Instead, I would have to content myself with pleasant conversation with my family, with viewing the masterpiece of red, orange, and gold which faced us from the west.


The next morning, I awoke fairly late. It had been a relatively late night that night, and I needed sleep; the dog who kept trying to slobber on me as I slept—and who would lick any exposed flesh—did not help with this matter. I could feel a bit of a tingle in my spine: this was going to be the day.

The main plans for the day were to visit the Lava Butte cinder cone (essentially, a volcano) and the lava river cave (a cave created by the lava’s flowing during the volcano’s last major eruption some 5000 years ago). We also wanted to work in a visit to another waterfall—perhaps Tumalo falls—but this was too far out of the way, so we settled for the Lava Chute “falls”—more accurately named the Lava Chute rapids. The name is fairly descriptive for this latter thing: the lava formed a chute and then cooled and dried; this filled with water and became a very rapid stream upon which only the bravest (and the most stupid) people would attempt to kayak. We settled for walking along the trail which runs beside the river, our timidity repaid by a thousand tiny mosquitoes.

If today was to be the day, then I would need to convince my parents to stay behind. Luckily, I didn’t need to ask twice; in fact, I didn’t even need to ask once, because my mother was despairing of my ever asking the more important question. Thus, I was able to pretend to be non-chalant about whether or not they came along. Rebecca, for her part, wanted some alone time but did not want to be rude about it. The net effect was that my parents (and other family) stayed behind on this trip, citing that they were a little tired and had already seen everything which we were going to go see that day; and that I was able to feign disappointment that they couldn’t come along.

We packed a small lunch for ourselves, peanuts for the chipmunks, and a map to get to the volcanic monument (all of these major attractions are more-or-less together near this monument), and then we were off. The trip over was uneventful, other than that the city of Bend is incredibly unfriendly towards motorists: finding a gas station was difficult, as the motorist information signs pointing to gas stations were largely filled with misinformation or disinformation after about an hour and fifteen minutes (forty five minutes to drive to the monument, thirty minutes to drive around looking for gasoline), we at last arrived at the cinder cone.

We ate lunch, and spent some time feeding the chipmunks. We then entered the visitor’s information center and were greeted by a large sign which read “Do not feed the golden-mantled ground squirrels.” Duly noted, but who wants to feed golden mantled ground squirrels when you can feed chipmunks? We took the bag of peanuts with us; her justification being that the explanation on the sign was that the golden mantled ground squirrels take the food back to their winter stores, which then get spoiled—“But we’re feeding them peanuts which are practically a part of their diet anyway, and besides, those won’t spoil.”

We hiked along a trail through the lava field to an observation platform near the base of the cone, and gazed across the expanse of volcanic rock. It was a see of black and grey stones, with here and there a patch of trees which stood out like islands. After taking a few pictures and doubling back along the trail, she asked whether we were going to climb to the peak of the volcano, or whether we would drive. We settled on driving—otherwise, we’d not have the time nor perhaps the energy to explore the cave or hike the lava chute trail.

Now, the park rangers for this volcano have gotten to be fairly smart about managing how people can drive u the volcano. Each person is allotted thirty minutes during which he may park in the small lot at the peak (there’s room for about a dozen cars at most). Our time window was open by the time we got back to the car, and so we began the ascent –which took perhaps five minutes by car. When we reached the top, we were pleasantly surprised to find that only one other vehicle was up there—and it was about to leave. We had the peak all to ourselves for about five minutes or so: well, almost to ourselves, for in a stroke of practicality which borders on the ironic, the forest rangers had built a fire-watch tower at the top of the volcano.

The peak of the cone is at a height of 5020 feet—nearly a mile—and so from it one could see for miles and miles. The view is worth describing: there are several things which can be seen from this cinder cone. First is the cone itself: one can literally look down into the inside of the volcano, from which molten lava spewed and hot magma exploded, from which the cinder were thrown forth. This is, of course, now filled in with a great amount of pumas and other rocks, and there are even trees growing along a part of the inner cone. Next there is the lava field itself, which covers an area of about nine square miles, stretching in all directions from the base of the cone, which I described before as resembling an eerie sea of black and grey dotted with isles of green.

The trees become a forest again in each direction, though they grow much closer on one side of the cone than on the other. They grow up along on face, but then the forest vanished under the lave for a few miles in the other direction before appearing again, so that the mountain looks bald on one side and like a forest on the other. The reason for this has something to do with how much sunlight and wind each face of the mountain receives.

Rising about the trees and eve the distant mists or clouds which seem to emanate from them are the mountains, for all of this is in the midst of the Cascade mountain range. How many of these mountains are dormant (or indeed active) volcanoes, I do not know, but this is the eastern boundary of the so-called “Ring of Fire.”

The view was exhilarating for me, breath-taking for her. After she took it in for a few moments, she at last said that it was so romantic up there. I knew what would make it even more so, for after she said this, I dropped to a knee and produced the ring. “Becca-Bec,” which is my nick-name for her, a combination of the two shortened forms of Rebecca to which she will answer, “Will you marry me?”

And through tear-filled eyes, she assented, saying “Of course! I thought you’d never ask.” We embraced as I slipped the ring upon her finger. I held her for a few moments, and then took four pictures: two of the ring on her hand (one of which was shown in Part III of this story), one of us together, and (of course) the one at the top of this story, which captured perfectly her shock, her surprise, and her joy.


Epilogue: Keeping My Mother in Suspense

After the proposal, we had only a few minutes before the next set of people arrived at the cone’s summit, at which point we left to go hike along the lava chutes river and spelunk in the lava river cave. This gave some time for the initial shock to wear off a little, and so by the time we got back, Rebecca was feeling a little bit mischievous.

“Let’s not just tell your parents,” she said, a glint of deviousness in her eye, “I kind of want to keep your parents guessing.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, it will be fun.”

We casually walked into the house through the front door, her left hand in her pocket. My parents were both in the living room waiting for us, and my uncle was reclined in his Lay-Z-Boy. My mother’s eyes darted first to Rebecca, and then to me, and finally to Rebecca’s hand, which was still in her pocket.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Oh, it was pretty great,” I replied, “We got a lot of hiking in. Man, there sure were a lot of rocks by that volcano!”

I turned to Rebecca, who was half-pretending to shiver. The cave—our final activity--was actually fairly chilly, and I kept my car cool on the drive back. “Do you want a blanket, dear?” I asked, grabbing a large blanket from the couch.

“Thanks,” she said as I wrapped it around her, thus freeing her hand from her pocket.

“So, Becca, what was your favorite part of the day?” my mother asked. She was getting anxious, and it was time to try to call out bluff.

“Oh, there was lots of fun stuff. The volcano was pretty awesome, and there were plenty of rocks there. I also liked the river.”

“Yes, it was pretty white in the rapids areas, and had a pretty high clarity near the bridge,” I chimed in.

My mother frowned a bit; she though it was a bit weird that I was using so many words in my descriptions which sounded similar to the description of a diamond or a ring. Yet, it didn’t seem like I’d proposed yet. Rebecca certainly wasn’t bouncing up and down giddily, showing off the new ring.

“Anyway,” Rebecca continued, “the cave was pretty cool—chilly in fact—but also kinda fun.”

“Yeah, and it was amazing how round the walls were. And the water glistening on the rocks made them seem kind of shiny,” I said.

My mother frown deepened. “Oh, I see. Well, it sounds like you had a fun time.”

“Yeah, but we got kicked out of the cave because the caves close at 4:45 and we got there late. We didn’t get to see the whole thing. Maybe we can do some more spelunking oon our next trip,” I replied.

At this point, my father broke into the conversation, saying, “So your cave adventure was only enough to whet your appetite.” The word sounded almost like “wed” rather than whet.

“Yeah, that’s about right.”

“Are you guys going to go the observatory tonight to stargaze with the telescopes?” my father asked.

“I dunno,” I said, “I guess it will depend on whether we can get a nap in. Besides, it sound like it will be a bit overcast again.”

“And I didn’t bring any cold-weather clothing along,” Rebecca added, “the website said to bring cold-weather clothes.”

My mother’s frown had nearly become a scowl. It was apparent that I really wasn’t going to go ask her tonight, either. It was all she could do to not stomp into the kitchen. There was on last chance for her to try to call our bluff. “Hey Becca, do you want some blueberries? They’re fresh.”

“Oh, sure<” Becca said, glancing at me, “I’d love some.”

“Here, I’ll get them for you,” I said, walking to the kitchen to grab the carton. This meant, of course, that Rebecca was free to remain under the blanket. The ring was kept secret and safe.

As I passed my mother, she leaned to me and half-whispered, half-growled, “You’d better hurry up and do what you’re going to do.” It was all I could do to keep a straight if slightly hurt and slightly puzzled face; I wanted to burst into laughter, but Rebecca wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.

I brought her the blueberries, and she reached her right hand from under the blanket to get a few. My mother, in a moment of dyslexia, say the bare right hand—of course there was no ring on it—and in light of the conversation so far concluded for sure that I hadn’t proposed. She wore an open scowl at this point, and stormed up the stairs to her room. My father followed, hoping to placate her. She apparently told him to tell me that if I didn’t propose, she wasn’t going to ride home in the car with me; no pressure there.

Rebecca and I smiled at each other, and then quietly concocted a plan to reveal that, yes, I had actually proposed. She had her little bit of fun, now it was time to tell all.

We walked quietly up the stairs, her in front and me behind. She poked her heap meekly around the corner of the door. “Cindy, I have a question.”

“What is it?”

“How do you keep a diamond clean,” Rebecca asked, opening the door wide and holding up her left hand to show off the ring. My father chuckled from his chair in the corner, and my mother was all smiles. There were congratulations, and my father pulled me aside to tell me that we really didn’t need to go to the observatory.


Postludes: After this fantastic trip, we returned home, and then two days later went to the coast. And got perhaps the best weather of the entire trip, clear skies and fine temperatures, and the sun setting behind the waves on the horizon. Well, at least we got some good pictures from the coast, our first full set as an engaged couple.

And in future ecological news, the golden mantled ground squirrel population of the Lava Butte volcanic region of Sunriver, Oregon, will be severely reduced due to the spoliation of their winter stores.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, we have begun planning out our wedding. No date has been set, but it will likely be in either June or July.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Engagement Story Part III: The Ring

You by now read the stories of how Rebecca and I met, and of a few of the memories and milestones of our relationship so far. Before I tell the story of how the proposal happened, I will tell about the ring I gave her on that day. A lot of thought and consideration--indeed much love--went into the design and crafting of that ring. Here, then, is the story behind it.

Our story begins with the death of my grandfather two years ago. This happened shortly after I had met Rebecca. The family gathered for his funeral, and were all sad to see him go, though at the same time happy that he was at last being called home. He had been awaiting this since the day our grandmother died six years before, and so we could take consolation knowing that he was at last resting in peace.

Shortly after his funeral, we learned that Papa had willed to us--his grandchildren-- one of our family heirlooms. It was a large brooch which held firestone diamonds taken from our great-grandparents' diamond mine. Every grandson and every grand-daughter was entitled to one diamond from the brooch. At the time, this didn't much matter to me, other than sentimentally--but it would a couple years later.


About a year and a half later, in December of 2008, the brooch became a bit more important to me. It was at this point that I had decided that I was almost ready to propose--meaning that I was ready to start looking for a ring. I think this began in part because my parents made a trip to the jewelry store--my mom was getting an "upgrade" of her diamond as an anniversary gift. I can't remember why my brother and I tagged along, but we did. I got to talking to the store's owner and master Jeweler, Frank Bartley, a friend of my father's.

This conversation, plus some gentle nudging from my mother, Rebecca, and perhaps the voice of conscience which helps one to discern, prompted me to start considering what I wanted to do for a ring. I was not quite ready to purpose at this point in time, though i was ready to start planning out the ring, and to start saving up for it; the adventure of marriage may begin in dating, but buying the ring is the first tremulous step from the relative safety of one's homelands and into the unknown. It is here that one might recognize the adventure for what it is.

In any case, I had long known that I wanted to include one of the heirloom diamonds in the ring somehow; unfortunately, I did not have possession of the brooch or any of its diamonds. Those were in the hands of my aunt, who has been made the executor of Papa's will (including the part about the brooch). And also unfortunately, I would not be able to meet up with her on this trip; she lives about four hours' drive away from my parents, and the time to return form Oregon to Texas was fast approaching.

I therefore had to settle for plan B. This was ultimately to have her take the brooch to the Jeweller, and then have him remove my diamond, and then to design the ring via email correspondence. The diamond was delivered to him some time in March, by which time I was preparing to have a an important conversation with Rebecca's father (unbeknownst to Rebecca). There was, however, one small problem with the diamond.


I called Mr. Bartley as soon as I got the message saying that he had the diamond. I knew that the diamond was about 0.1 carat--a fine diamond, but a bit small, even for her dainty hand. I therefore had planned to purchase a larger diamond, and then use the heirloom diamond as an accent. Since Mr. Bartley was taking a trip to Antwerp--diamond capital of the world--during April, my plan was to have him buy a diamond for me while there; he does this for his clients--I needed to tell him my preferences (clarity, cut, color, and carat-weight, and preferably certified) and my price range, and we could go from there. He would act as my agent, and so I would therefore get a very nice diamond for a relatively small sum of money.

The problem was that the heirloom diamond used an old-fashioned cut--meaning that it would not work as an accent for any diamonds that he could find. We would have to think of another way to incorporate it. After a fairly lengthy phone conversation, we found a solution: the heirloom diamond would be mounted using a flush-setting, facing forward on the side of the ring, rather than facing up like the center diamond (henceforth referred to as the Antwerp diamond).

This solution seemed a good way to include both the heirloom diamond and a larger diamond. We settled the details for the Antwerp diamond: about 0.25 carats, color grade E or F (very white color), ideal-cut, with very slightly imperfect clarity grade (this is very high clarity). A couple weeks later, he was off to Antwerp, and I was off to an important lunch meeting with Rebecca's father.


By the end of April, Mr Bartley had returned with my diamond. It was a thing of beauty--color grade F, ideal-cut, 0.266 carats, and SI 1 clarity. He couldn't find VS clarity with certification, and so gave me a discount; however, the ring's clarity was perhaps graded a bit too harshly, so it is effectively a VSI clarity. Next came the task of finding a ring upon which to mount my two diamonds; Mr Bartley suggested picking a standard ring design and then modifying it.

We estimated that whatever I did, the ring would likely be done no sooner than early June and no later that late July; I assumed (correctly, as it turns out) that the ring would be finished by mid-July (it was finished on the 16 of July), and so decided that I would propose at some point during the trip which Rebecca and I took to Oregon in late July and early August. I should perhaps mention that I told this to her parents when asking her dad's blessing in early April. Score one for correct guesses.

I spent the next few weeks looking around online to find a ring or ring design which I liked. In the end, I chose a design by Mark Schneider--"Beloved." That the ring quote St John of the Cross was icing on the cake: "Beloved, all that is harsh and difficult I want for myself, and all that is gentle and sweet for thee." The ring itself is a thing of beauty, with the set of four twisting double-prongs rising from the ring's shank to embrace the diamond like mist rising from the sea to embrace a ship, or like clouds an a summer night may encircled the moon. The secret diamond at the bottom of the ring--accented in yellow gold--was a fine touch. On Rebecca's ring, this diamond is engraved, saying "Caritas et Amor."


In subsequent conversation with Mr Bartley, I decided to try something different that the original idea of mounting the heirloom diamond in a flush setting. Instead, it was to be moved directly beneath the Antwerp diamond, slightly hidden in the shank. This was in part to make room along the front and back faces of the diamond for another idea of mine--more on that later.

However, it was also done with a sense of symbolism; the heirloom diamond represents all the importance of family, and of tradition. It is placed beneath the Antwerp diamond--a symbol of my own love--not because it is subordinate to our future, but because it supports us. This ring is a thing of not only present or even of the future (as represented by the ring itself, and by the secret or "hidden" diamond at the base), but also of the past, which we hope never to forget. Barely visible behind the prongs of the present, the past must be in part remembered--we no longer see it, so it is easy to forget that it is there.

As for why I wanted more room along the front and back of the ring, this is because i also wanted some form of black-and-white color scheme. Rebecca and I are, after all, lay Dominicans, members of the third branch of the Order of Preachers founded by St Dominic. The color scheme represents our commitment to this order, for our promises are binding; this should in turn help us to remember our vows to each other during those trying times in the future when it would be so easy to forget them. There are, by the way, four black diamonds, representing the four pillars of Dominican life: prayer, study, community, and preaching/ministry/mission.

Originally, these black diamonds were to be mounted using a bezel-setting in the tops of the prongs surrounding the Antwerp diamond. They are, after all, very small diamonds (deliberately so). However, we decided that they weren't quite small enough to do this, and so had to re-design. Thus, I suggested adding two small white diamonds so that the black and white diamonds could be flush-set, three in front and three in the back, in a black-white-black scheme. Hence, the need to move the heirloom diamond.

This, incidentally, brings the total number of diamonds to nine. These nine are arranged in groups of three: the two sets of black and white, and then vertically the Antwerp, heirloom, and secret diamonds (present, past, and future). Here, then, is the last bit of symbolism in this ring. The diamonds are arranged in a Trinity of Trinities, and thus represent the most important element to our relationship: God, Who we pray will forever bless us, and give us a long, joyful, and faithful marriage.

Such is the story of how I designed her ring. But the story of how I gave her the ring, of how and when and where I "popped the question," is best saved for tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Engagement Story Part II: Milestones and Memories

I've told the story of how Rebecca and I met. That was almost 2-1/2 years ago. In that time, we passed a few dating milestones. This is the story of those milestones, in snippets. Enjoy.

April 10 2007: Our First Dance

We were not yet a couple, though I asked Rebecca if she'd be interested in going to a dance. The UT Orange and White Ball was fast approaching, and the rumor was that the UT Ballroom Dance Club was in charge of music: there would be waltzing and swing dancing, primarily, and good clean dancing in general. She immediately liked the idea of going, and $30 later I had a pair of tickets. Only one problem remained: Rebecca didn't know how to dance.

If memory serves, we planned to go to the Fed to practice some swing dancing the week before. That, I could show her. And we needn't do anything fancy to have fun, and why worry about looking cool--there are plenty of people who show up to these dances and know nothing about dancing, so even repeating the basic step with a few spins would be dancing enough.

Yet, even the thought of venturing to the Fed unprepared was a bit worrisome, so earlier that week she asked me over to her apartment to teach her the basic swing step. And so it occurred that I came on a Tuesday evening to her apartment, and there in that living room she took her first steps in that strange world of rhythmic motion, and learned the six-counted step of single-time swing.

The floor may have been less-than ideal (or even suitable), for the carpet surely damps the motion of the stepping. Yet we found a Frank Sinatra song with some swing to it, and than other songs which served as well. And in that tiny space we danced for the better part of an hour--in what was our first dance together.

April 20, 2007: The Orange and White Ball

Soon enough, the big date actually arrived. We had planned to go to dinner with friends before-hand: you can't go dancing until you've eaten, after all. I arrived at her house that evening to pick her up. I stepped to the door and knocked. The door opened, and there she stood.

She had chosen a green cocktail dress for the night, and it did an amazingly good job of bringing out the red of her hair. Earrings dangled near her shoulders, and here blue-hazel eyes held both the serenity and the fury of the seas. She invited me in--thus bringing me back to earth--and said that she had a few last things to do before she was ready.

Minutes later, I drove her to the Brazilian restaurant where we would be meeting our friends. We made some small talk until they joined us, and then it was into the restaurant and to the table, with all of the usual interrupted activities of talking and then ordering and then talking some more.

I had been thinking about whether I wanted to ask her out (officially) or to stay friends until after the summer--it was fast approaching. I didn't know it at the time, but similar thoughts were going through her head: half-hoping that I would ask her out, half hoping that I wouldn't. It was pretty early in the relationship yet, so of course neither of us really knew where the other stood. What we did each know is that the other was pretty ambivalent about the whole dating thing; there is certainly something to be said about the societies which do not put their members through the whole ordeal which is modern dating.

Fate, ever the agent of Providence, decided the matter for us when our eve-so-awkward friend would ask--out of the blue, I might add--how long we had been dating. The silence of the next few seconds was palpable. We replied in unison that we weren't dating. It felt like a scene out of a bad romantic comedy (pardon my being redundant). That, of course, changed by the end of the night when I did ask her out. Apparently, patience does not always profit.

Dinner concluded and we drove together to the the ball, and that's exactly what we had that night. There is a certainly feeling of exhaustion which comes naturally to anyone who has ever tried to walk (let alone dance) for several hours--doubly so in dress shoes or heels. We both rediscovered this feeling that night, though how we danced! 'Twas as if, in that room crowded by hundreds if not thousands, we alone were unwatched by the eyes of Texas. Or perhaps it was the other way around. We danced in the only manner in which one ought to dance: the carefree one, the one which might be summarized by Chesterton, that anything worth doing is also worth doing badly.

September 20, 2007: Our First Kiss

I'm not going to share the details of this one so much as the ambiance. This story perhaps explains why we like stargazing so much, though we did some stargazing before then. This is one of my few happy memories relating to St Edward's, a university with which I associated more often sadness than joy, even after considering the friends I have from there.

We had just dropped by to say hi to my brother, and had left his dorm. It was a relatively clear night--as clear as the light pollution from the university and the city would allow--and we decided to go for a walk in the moonlight (or would those be streetlights?). Whatever else may be said about St Edward's University, they certainly have a nice view of the town, and the stars are actually visible in spite of the lights--a thing which can barely be said about UT.

So we found ourselves strolling along the hill top, gazing first at the city, then the sky, and at last into each others' eyes, and at last back to the stars. It was in this setting that we shared our first kiss. And after more stargazing and eye gazing, and a few whispered words, we continued o our walk.

We came at last to Our Lady's grotto, that loving little hole in the hill in which may be found a small shrine, where we stopped to pray, for even in those romantic evenings when two people want to be alone together, there is room to stop and ask for the Lord's blessing, and to thank Him Who made this possible. And in today's culture, it wouldn't help to ask the Virgin Mother for help on the chastity front, even if the more blatant sins of fornication are far from our minds. Our Lord's and Our Lady's blessings having been prayed, we continued our stroll, pausing perhaps to count the other blessings thus far in our lives.

December 2007-January 2008: Her First Visit to Oregon

God may have blessed Texas with His own hand, but most of the scenic views from heaven are of Oregon. This is a point which I had made a number of times to Rebecca, and so she was quite excited to come at last to Oregon, even if during the winter. And though I had since met her parents and both siblings, she had not yet met either of mine. Thus, this was a big trip for her.

It was her first time to the West Coast; her first time skiing; really, her first time seeing that much snow at all (we went to Bend and Mount Bachelor). The skiing was more fun for me than for her (she ended up inner-tubing with my cousin the second day we were there. Mostly, this was a time to meet the whole family (and oh boy did she!). The old saying that when you marry a person, you marry his family is true to the extent that you marry into his family--so it was good for her to finally meet my family, even at this stage of our relationship. What is dating if not a preparation for marriage, after all.

The views of the mountains all around us on that trip were breathtaking for me, and even more so for her (she is from the plains area of Texas). The coast she described as "surreal"--even if we got rained on for most of the time there. She will forever remember riding Jose' (the farm's pony) and feeding the giraffe. I will never forget seeing her standing by the shore as the waves crashed upon a rock, foam spilling over its jagged edge.

January 2009: My First Trip to Canyon

At this point in the relationship, I had long since met most of Rebecca's immediate family. I had not, however, driven to her hometown (Canyon, about 9 hours of driving through the midlands of Texas followed by the plains in the Texas panhandle). The drive was pretty long and boring, but the trip was worthwhile.

I mentioned that when you marry a person, you marry her family, so it was a pleasure to meet her uncle and grandmother. It was also a pleasure to see the house in which she grew up, to walk around her neighborhood, and to watch the sunrise through sleep-blurred eyes as we prayed our morning prayers together. Hiking through Palo Duro Canyon, for which Canyon is named, was also invigorating. However, I will probably never forget her directions to me as we drove to her house that first night:
"Now take a right turn, and it will be the brick house on the left."
And I turned onto a street filled with brick houses.

These are some of the milestones of our relationship, and some of the memories I've had leading up to the engagement. This isn't exhaustive, by any means. I wish I had the time to reminisce over Wildseed Farm, or meeting her parents for the first time, or our cayacking trip along Barton Springs--or any of a hundred other memories. But this is all the time I have for today. Thanks for the memories, and let us pray for many, many more good memories together. It is not the end of this engagment story, however, for there is more to be told.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Engagement Story Part I: How We Met

Now that it is more-or-less public knowledge that my fiance' and I are in fact engaged, I will share for your reading pleasure the story of how the whole thing happened; but first, I should start at the beginning, long before the proposal.

Late March, 2007

This is the story of when and how Rebecca came into my life. Spring break had just ended, and it was time to return to the daily grind of being a first-year graduate student. I had made the mistake of taking two core classes rather than one, and the workload was borderline oppressive. All of my time was going into the homework for these two classes--neither of which was particularly enlightening, rewarding, or enjoyable in general. Much of my remaining time was spent teaching physics labs, which were at least more fun than the boring theory classes through which I had before, was then, and would for another year continue to suffer.

It seems like my one activity--apart from school--was what many people might call "church." This of course was really two things: the Mass, which was what kept me going through this time; and my weekly attendance at the Catholic Longhorns for Life ("CLFL") meetings, at which I might see most of my non-physics friends at UT. This effectively meant that the high points of my week were Sunday morning and Monday night, with occasional peaks during the week when I was able to attend the daily Masses. Life may not have felt exactly "nasty, brutish, and short," for this felt an insufferably long time, and there was cause for despair as to whether I would ever finish with the boring theory work required to begin the more fun lab work which was to make this whole grad-school thing worthwhile.

Another way of saying this is that my life was lacking in something. Some might argue that I merely needed a better sense of purpose; certainly, I was going through a rough time of discernment. In spite of this, I recognized then and still believe now that the missing element was joy rather than certainty. I certainly found no amount of joy in that stage of graduate student, for the first two years are the purgatory through which one must pass to be considered for the relative paradise of research work; though, of course, this is a fickle paradise at best.

All of this should be kept in mind as the backdrop for my first real encounter with Rebecca. The hand of fate was at work in one of those strange "coincidences" which one never expects, and which one never recognizes save in hindsight. It certainly seemed an odd coincidence at the time, that both she and I arrived an hour or so early for the CLFL meeting that Monday: I, because I had grown tired of the Robert Lee Moore Math, Physics, and Astronomy Dungeon; she, because she had forgotten the meeting time (she was only an occasionally member).

I had just sat down at the table and begun to unwrap the burrito I had purchased for dinner when she approached and asked if I minded if she joined me. I consented, and so there we were; after brief introductions and a quick grace for the meals, we sat and ate and conversed. As I had previously mentioned, this was the week after the spring vacation, so we talked a bit about what we had done with our week off. For me, it was mostly studying for the midterm which I was to face later that week, though I had a break to see my parents (they visited at the end of the vacation). I also had gone with my brother to see the Notre Dame Glee Club perform at the local Holy Cross parish. This last point was very interesting to her, of course. She is, after all, a singer, and she was in choral studies.

We had a mostly pleasant conversation which centered on music in general and the Notre Dame Glee club in particular. The meeting for which I had been waiting all day now seemed so unimportant, though it did come at last, and put a tragic end to our conversation. Fate is, after all, a bit ironic. I got her name in the introduction, but never her number; four years of hanging out with the Campus Crusade crowd at OSU taught me (and virtually every other guy involved with that group) that it would be a futile gesture anyway.


I didn't see her again for a couple of weeks--we were both quite busy with midterms. In the meantime, I had begun to pray more earnestly for some joy in my life; this is something which I would recommend to anyone--though he who does should beware! For joy you will find, but usually also an adventure of sorts, or a challenge, or at the least a commitment. Pray for joy, but not for an instant fix, for joy is rarely merely instant, rarely fast in coming, and when it is it cannot last.

The Triduum came and went, and I certainly found much to do then. But it was At the Easter vigil when Providence at last seemed to take notice of my prayers--for "Providence moves slowly [while] the devil always hurries." I cannot now remember what drove me to celebrate Mass at the vigil rather than the next day; I drove through the rain that night to the vigil Mass and found, much to my surprise, that Rebecca was there as well. She was to sing a part of the Mass, the part in which the history of the Patriarchs and the Jews--salvation "pre-history"--is told.

We thus visited briefly before Mass, and then she vanished to go sing. There was a celebration for the new Catholics after the Mass, and we met up again there. We spent a good deal of the time at that celebration talking, and she asked if I could drive her home; she didn't have a car at that time. I again consented, and on the way there she asked if I wanted to come back the next day to dye Easter eggs. I told her that I would love to, but that I might also try to get together with my brother; we had, after all, made plans to do so.

I walked her to the door, said good-night, and this time exchanged numbers, just in case. And, as fate would have it, my brother got sick the next day. Easter eggs it would be! That was to become the first date of many, though not as a "couple" per-se. And on Monday, I awoke with a profound sense of joy.

That is the story of how we met. If this is our "origins" story, then there is certainly more to be told. We have crossed many milestones and made many memories since then: but they are to be saved for another day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Answering a Question: Reconciliation vs Indulgences

After daily Mass but before the line for confessions had really picked up (and thus before the lunch crowd had gathered in force), I was sitting in the Catholic Center's atrium and passing the time chatting with a few friends. Somehow the topic of indulgences came up, and I was asked the difference between reconciliation and indulgences. At the time, I thought what an interesting question, and did my own best to answer it, aided at some point by one of the visiting priests who frequents the center.

I think, though, that it is worth briefly revisiting here. I've written (and spoken) before about reconciliation, and have defended it as an apologist, but I have never addressed the question of indulgences. There is a first time for everything. So now, without further ado, here is the difference between the sacrament of reconciliation and indulgences, as I understand it.

Imagine that you have just sinned "against God and man." I'll make it easy: suppose you lie to somebody close--a parent, a spouse, a best friend--and you get caught in that lie. They know you've lied to them. What are the effects of this lie? And how can you make amends for it?

Probably the first thing that you'll need to do is apologize. A proper apology, as you know, consists essentially in saying, "I am sorry for lying to you; how can I make it up?" What you have done in this statement is two things: first, you've confessed your sin, and second, if you actually follow through with the second part of the statement, you have atoned for it, at least in part.

Now, take a step into the confessional. In the Latin Rite of the Holy Catholic Church, we begin in the confessional with the sign of the cross, followed by the phrase "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." We then state how long it has been since our last confession; hopefully, this duration is short, as we ought to go at least once a year. Who else have you wronged so frequently and yet apologized to only once a year? It is after this that the confession itself begins. You can tell the priest--acting as representative of both God and His Church--what you have done. "I lied." This act of confession is why the sacrament is sometimes given the name "Confession."

After you have done this, the priest will give you penance: "Go and pray three times the 'Hail Mary,' and ask Our Lady's intercession before her Son on your behalf, that she may teach you honesty and humility." Many people may think of this as a punishment, but it is not. If prayer is for you a punishment, then I am not sure that I can help you. The penance is in reality a partial atonement--it allows you to participate in the atonement for your sins, an atonement won by the Precious Blood of Our Lord as He was first tortured and then hanged on His cross. Moreover, if the penance is well-chosen, it may help you to avoid the sin in the future.

This is not all which confession accomplishes, and for good reason. Let's go back to the imagined scenario of telling a lie, and now reverse the roles. Someone close to you (parent, child, spouse, friend, etc) has told you a lie. He's apologized, and you've forgiven him; he's even made it up to you, and the two of you are still friends. Does this mean that you can trust his story tomorrow? Will you believe him when he says that he made it home late because he ran the car out of gas and not because he was somewhere that he wasn't supposed to be?

Not likely. Even though you forgave him the first lie, you now know that he is capable of telling a second. I've known people who were notorious liars; they have still been my friends, but I take most of their more incredible (and even some of their credible) stories with a grain of salt. The relationship between you and your lying son is not quite the same as before, even if he made it up to you and you forgave him. You don't have the same bonds of trust as before, because there is something missing: he needs to prove himself to you to not be a liar before the bond of trust is restored.

The restoration of that bond is called "reconciliation," and in the sacrament that bond is restored with God and the whole Church, even if it takes some time for the bond to be restored with individual members of the Church. You are again a member-in-good-standing; the Blessed Sacrament--communion--which was in the event of a grievous (mortal) sin barred to you--is now available again, as is any grace lost on sin's behalf. Among other things, this means that, provided that you do not slip back into that sin, you are restored to a state of justification, which comes through grace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (paragraph 1496) that the (spiritual) effects of Reconciliation are
- reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace;
- reconciliation with the Church;
- remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins;
- remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin;
- peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation;
- an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.
Thus, the sacrament of reconciliation brings us back into a right relationship with God and His Church, fulfilling or helping to fulfill those needs wrought in us by sin: confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification.

So where do the indulgences come in? Well, there is that line about temporal punishments. The sacrament remits these punishments in part. These temporal punishments can be born out on earth in this life or in purgatory in the next. The Catechism uses the word "punishment," but perhaps a better word is "preparation." It may feel like a punishment at the time; much like the scrubbing and dressing up and hair-combing and suits and ties before a wedding felt like punishments when you were a small child--yet these things were not so much punishments as preparations.

In any event, the purpose of an indulgence is to help, in part, with this preparation to enter the wedding feast to which we have all been invited, indeed, the wedding between Christ and His Bride, the Church. This analogy also helps make sense of some of the stipulations attached to indulgences. If you are not planning to attend the wedding, you need not go through all of this fuss; similarly, an indulgence is utterly useless if you reject the invitation to attend the celestial wedding (as, for example, by remaining unrepentant of mortal sins). Perhaps the indulgence is like a tuxedo tie: you only wear it if you put on the whole tuxedo, which you wear to a wedding.

The other difference which comes to my mind between these two is that reconciliation is something which you must do for yourself, whereas indulgences can be won for somebody else. You can loan you friend a tie, but you can't make him go to the wedding.

This is, in any case, my understanding of the differences between Reconciliation (the sacrament) and indulgences. For further reading, one may refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a very large section of which is devoted to the sacrament of reconciliation, most notably paragraphs 1422-1498. Indulgences are discussed in paragraphs 1471 and 1478 and elsewhere.