We moved into this (rented) home in December 2018. Did I mention that it has a garden? And even a greenhouse?!? Best of all, it was not already landscaped, nor did the landlord have anyone coming in regularly to take care of it – it’s all up to me, and I am thrilled. The garden has kept me very happily busy for much of the year (in addition to all the other things that normally keep me busy, plus a wedding).
The Lay of the Land
During the big California drought a few years ago, I noticed some houses in the neighborhood replacing most or all of their lawns with mulch, gravel walks, rocks, drought-resistant plants, and even (in one case) astroturf. I also saw a lot of xeriscaping in Colorado, which seems like a sensible way to reduce water consumption.
This house doesn’t have a back yard – what used to be a pool is now covered over with a wooden deck, with only about a foot of plantable space around the perimeter, much of that already planted in creeping fig vines. At times the back and sides of the house have been a tropical paradise of vines, hibiscus, cannas, and even a banana tree, but watering system failures over the years had let a lot of it die, leaving bare spaces on the fences that needed filling in.
Our landlord, Basil, had given up on having a lawn in front before we ever moved in – a decision I agreed with as I had no desire to water and mow an expanse of grass we’d likely never use. (I remain mystified by the energy, attention, and money that Americans lavish on large patches of grass that they are never seen using!) The turf had been dug up, then covered in weed barrier and about six inches of wood chips. Basil had a new white picket fence installed for us – not something I had ever aspired to, actually, but he said there’d been problems with people letting their dogs crap on the lawn, so I’m glad we have the fence.
Basil said I could do anything I wanted with any portion of the garden (except cactus – he’s not wild about cactus, but neither am I). I began thinking about it immediately, through the dark, rainy days of the California winter when I couldn’t actually do any gardening.
In mid March, after a lot of travel, I got to work on my garden. Before the trip I’d had a session with a garden consultant, who came and looked at the place and developed some ideas, especially for the flowerbed on the side of the house near the kitchen. It was an expanse of mud after last winter’s heavy rains, with some mysterious green thing that volunteered profusely. (I never did figure out what it was, but it never developed flowers – just went straight from leaves to a stalk of green berries.)
We learned early on that the weed barrier in the front yard did not deter some kinds of weeds:
But those were pretty, so I left them alone, and made plans for a vegetable garden.
Michelle the garden coach had ideas about the side and back yards, but the front yard was mostly up to me. Mitchell and I made a trip to the nursery and bought a few flowers for a front flower bed:
The pansies didn’t last long, but take note of those pink petunias on the far left next to the garage wall.
In late March I made a buying trip to a local plant nursery with Michelle and we came home with a truckload.
That Saturday Michelle came over and did a lot of the heavy labor of planting – I was happy to pay her to do this, as I knew that my energy and know-how would not match my enthusiasm. But I also worked hard alongside her, and learned from her.
One of our favorite finds at the nursery was this lovely pink clematis. It has now grown up a supporting pillar and onto the fence – I can’t wait to see what it will look like when it blooms this spring.
I was doing a lot of other work around the property, including doing battle with a long-standing infestation of morning glories. Don’t ever plant morning glories. Just don’t.
While I was working in the front yard one morning, a neighbor stopped by to ask: “Do you like what Basil did with the yard?!?” “Yes! It’s going to be a vegetable garden!” She went away shocked, but later in the year people would stop by to compliment me on the vegetables and flowers.
We had a lot of basil in the greenhouse, but by September it was starting to yellow and bolt, so I tore it all out and made pesto.
In mid November my green thumb was itching, so I bought and planted bulbs: daffodils and ranunculus. Also planted onions both in the greenhouse and outdoors.
Not much to do in the dead of winter, except start to think about next year!
After a very busy December 2018, traveling and then moving house, we spent the first weeks of January in a state of collapse. The California winter rain was heavier than usual so the weather was dank and depressing, but we had plenty to do indoors, unpacking and setting up our new home. I went to Seattle for an internal AWS marketing kick-off. Brendan worked on a new book. (Yes, I edited this one, too.)
In late February, Brendan and I went to Berlin where I spoke at the AWS Summit. It was our first visit so we did a bit of sight-seeing, but frankly weren’t up to much as we had both been ill.
From there we traveled to the UK so Brendan could finally meet my stepmum, Ruth. The three of us visited Bletchley Park, which I highly recommend. It’s nice to see Alan Turing finally getting the public recognition (and apology) he so richly deserved. (photos)
Then we went to Paris, the official excuse for which was an internal talk I gave to solutions architects at AWS’ Paris office. But we also did a lot of walking around, looking at sights, and eating.
From Paris, Brendan went home to California to speak at SCaLE 17x, and I went on to Milan to speak at the AWS Summit there. I had about a week to kill, so I stayed at an Airbnb near AWS’ Milan office, which also happened to be a great location for… eating. I did a lot of that. Saw some old friends, met some new colleagues, did my routine work for AWS, and prepared for my talk. It was nice to be back in Milan, a city I’m still fond of.
In mid March I traveled home and got to work on my garden. Which was a great pleasure and a lot of work… and is a topic for a separate post.
I made a brief trip to Seattle. Also, I got shingles – which I fortunately caught very early and was able to treat with anti-viral medication before it turned nasty, as shingles can and usually does. Get your kids the chicken pox vaccination now so they never have to worry about this!
At the end of the month Brendan and I took off for Puerto Rico, where he was to speak at a conference.
As a connoisseur of beaches, Brendan had looked carefully at the map and decided he wanted to go to Playa El Escambron, not far from where we were staying in San Juan. Our first evening we walked around the town and thought we would be able to walk to El Escambron, but we ended up instead on the beach at La Perla, a wasteland of mud and debris from Hurricane Maria, which had hit this once-vibrant neighborhood hard (the photo below puts a good face on it).
The next day we took Lyft directly to El Escambron, which proved indeed to be a beautiful beach lined with palm trees, and clearly the preferred hangout of the locals rather than the tourists (the tourist beach is Condado where the big hotels are, which isn’t nearly as nice).
Brendan likes to take pictures of me. He insists that no photograph, even by a professional, has yet captured what he sees in me – and he goes to a lot of trouble trying to capture that elusive something. (I am mystified, but of course flattered.) So it was no surprise that he was taking lots of pictures, having me pose this way and that on the lovely beach. He called me over to look at his camera screen, with some joking remark that seemed odd – he doesn’t usually tease. “I know this is something you’ve been wanting for a while,” he added, and showed me a photo of… a ring. I was still confused. He dropped to one knee in the sand and presented me with the actual ring, in a red box. “Will you marry me?” he asked. I was shaking so hard I couldn’t even get the ring on my finger. I said yes.
We had been talking for a while about a wedding, a ring, and all that jazz and Brendan knew that, this time around, I wanted it done “right.” I somewhat despised myself for caring about the traditional rituals of… well, ownership. But I still craved at least part of those traditions, including a real proposal. And Brendan pulled it off magnificently, managing to surprise me as to the time and place and manner of it, even while I knew a proposal was coming.
After the conference, we spent a few days at a resort. The most fun thing we did was a kayaking tour through mangrove swamps at night to a bioluminescent bay. The bioluminescence itself was not all that impressive – I suspect a lot of it got washed away in the hurricane – but paddling there and back among a flotilla of two-person kayaks in the dark was a blast.
Flying from California to Puerto Rico and back again is not easy. On the way over, we took a red-eye and had to change flights in Fort Lauderdale (after very little sleep). For the return trip, you either have to leave San Juan in the wee hours of the morning, or fly via the east coast. Brendan went “straight” home via Boston, I decided I might as well stop over in New York to visit my daughter Rossella and her partner Dan. We went to see an extraordinary and surprising production of Oklahoma.
A few days after I got home from that trip, my old friends Sue and Jeff came for a visit from Kansas. They helped a lot with wedding planning, and insisted on working on my garden, as well as doing some of the usual Bay Area touristy stuff.
Seattle again, for an internal digital marketing summit.
There’s a Princi bakery in Seattle which is just as good as the one in Milan. No one in Italy would have a cornetto and an Aperol spritz together, but… I’m a food rebel. Back at home, lots of gardening and wedding planning.
I spoke at OSCON for the second time…
Enjoyed a bachelorette spa day in Carmel with some of my besties.
Returned to Seattle for yet another internal summit, this one for evangelists (no, I’m not exactly an evangelist, but our team has a bunch of them and I work closely with many).
Wedding! (More on that… later.)
Then we took a short honeymoon in Kaua’i while Rossella stayed with Mitchell and was an awesome big sister: she taught him to ride a bike and eat new foods, took him and his buddy Leo to the drive-in and the beach and, the last day before school started, to the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk.
Brendan needed to attend a conference in Lisbon, and later in the same week I needed to be in India, where I had been invited to join the board of Woodstock School. With some really awful travel, starting with a flight from SFO and then an overnight in Dubai, we managed to combine the two (I don’t recommend this route). Lisbon was enjoyable, not least for the crowd of the usual Linux kernel suspects we were hanging out with. Then it took us another 24 hours of travel to get to Mussoorie, beautifully green and misty in the late monsoon season.
After all these decades of being involved with Woodstock School as a student, a very active alumna, and a parent, it was past time for me to join the board. So far I’m a member of the General Body, which does not wield much power compared with the (much smaller) board itself. But it does have one very important responsibility: identifying, vetting, interviewing, and proposing potential future board members. My vast network among alumni and elsewhere will be helpful here. I’m also trying to help the school in other ways, such as marketing.
From Mussoorie we went to Goa for a few more days of honeymoon. Though we stayed in a very nice hotel (the Taj Fort Aguada), September was not a good time to be there – the ocean was still dangerous to swim in and the beach still full of debris washed up by monsoon storms, so we didn’t get to enjoy the beach at all. But we enjoyed more great food, did some shopping, and on our way out of India spent a day in Bombay to celebrate with some classmates. (Photos: India)
The rest of September and most of October were full of work stuff for both of us.
Meanwhile, I had grown tired of having no eyebrows – they never really grew back after chemo, and I’m not good enough at makeup to draw them on nicely. So I had them microbladed, a form of tattooing. Yes, it hurts. But it was worth it.
On the right you can see what they looked like after the first session. The color tends to get strong after a few days, then fade a bit over a month, so you go back for a second session to adjust color and fill in any spots that didn’t take well the first time. After that, it should last about two years.
At the end of October we went to Portland (my second visit this year) where Brendan was speaking at USENIX LISA. I wasn’t attending the conference, but went along to hang out with him and see other friends – I know many of the regulars because LISA is a conference I have attended, one way and another, for many years.
At AWS, November is the run-up to re:Invent, our biggest event of the year, which takes place the week after Thanksgiving. It’s always hectic, and I was busier than ever with the Open Source blog, as well as preparing in various ways for the event itself. re:Invent had an open source track for the first time, so there was plenty to do.
Brendan’s new book, BPF Performance Tools, was also finally released in electronic format that week. (Print came later.)
We spent the remaining days until Christmas recovering from all that, visiting neighborhood light displays and finally putting up our own. The lights are our favorite thing about the holiday season – next year we’ll do more.
We had Christmas dinner and present opening with Mitchell’s mother on Christmas eve, because on Christmas day we flew to New York to visit Ross and Dan. Manhattan was unbearably crowded with tourists, but we saw a couple of museums (also crowded), ate a lot of good food, and generally enjoyed each others’ company. We flew home on the 31st and on New Year’s Eve we… went to bed early.
It would be nice to have a few more weeks off to recover from this year, but it all starts again next week!
Had we been able to make a trip to India before our wedding, things would have turned out very differently. We both like and are comfortable in Indian clothing, and would have been happy to buy (or have made) something Indian, probably a lehnga for me (I have not worn saris enough to be able to wear them gracefully – it’s an art). Brendan looks very sharp in a long kurta, and could definitely rock an achkan.
But this was all happening on a short timeline. We couldn’t go to India before the wedding (we’d be going there in September, after the wedding), and I was not able to find anything Indian readily available and to our taste in the US.
On the other hand, I was not going to wear a traditional western wedding dress – at my age and our stage in life (second marriage for both, already lived together for years) the “virgin bride” symbolism of a white dress would be wildly inappropriate.
By mid-May, with wedding plans well underway, I was still not sure what I was going to wear. I knew I wanted to dress up (something I do rarely), but had no clear ideas on any particular style.
Meanwhile, something else was percolating in my mind. As you know if you’ve ever seen me, I have disproportionately large breasts on a narrow torso and shoulders. Yes, the boobs happened naturally and, frankly, if there was a way to make them smaller without major surgery, I’d take it. (The lumpectomy to remove a tumor took a chunk out of my right breast, but not enough to make much difference.)
Large breasts are heavy. A good, well-fit bra will support them, and I’ve been investing in good bras for years, but at best you have a tight band and metal underwires cutting into you all day, and some of the weight is nonetheless suspended from your shoulders. I have deep grooves in my shoulders from bra straps, and frequent shoulder and neck pain.
I had begun to wonder whether a corset might be a good alternative, but I didn’t know enough about them. Corsets are complicated. I had no idea how to buy or fit one, but I did know where to look for information: Cora Harrington’s The Lingerie Addict. And there I found a beginner’s guide by Marianne Faulkner, a corset designer at Dark Garden in San Francisco.
I had been aware of Dark Garden – perhaps the premiere corsetiere in the US – for many years, and always had an idea in the back of my mind that someday I’d have something made for a very special occasion (the SF Symphony’s Black and White ball, maybe?). So, on a day in late May when I had other business in San Francisco, I stopped by. Just to try something on. Really.
With very necessary help, I tried an off-the-rack overbust corset. The attendant got me all laced in, stepped back, and said: “You’re crooked.” I could see in the mirror that she was right. Like many other girls, as a schoolchild I had been diagnosed with a mild scoliosis, then never thought about it again. But, with the multiple vertical lines of the corset fitted tightly against me, it was easy to see that my right shoulder and hip were slightly higher, so the verticals weren’t quite vertical. And, of course, one breast is noticeably larger than the other since the lumpectomy.
The solution would be a custom corset, made to fit me precisely and balance the unbalanced. And, if I was going that far, I might as well have a skirt made and turn this into my wedding dress, right? Of course right. At that point, I was talking with Marianne Faulkner herself, and getting very excited about the whole idea. Back when I was in school in India, I had quite a lot of clothing made – that was almost the only way to obtain clothing in that time and place. But I’d never done anything like this.
What color, exactly? That was easy. Brendan likes to wear and looks very good in pink.
And it suits me, too. I looked through Dark Garden’s samples of satins and silks, and quickly zoomed in on a double-faced satin in a warm, hearty pink which subsequently proved difficult to name or describe (or photograph). It’s not orange enough to be salmon, but it’s not the typical pale color that people think of when they hear “pink.” Anyway, here it is:
This would be the fabric on the outside of the corset, but it wouldn’t be suitable for a skirt, especially in summer. Marianne and I discussed doing an overskirt in lace, with a pencil skirt underneath for modesty. She happened to be heading to LA on a fabric buying trip, and said she would look for some possibilities there and bring back swatches.
In the meantime, she took lots of measurements to begin work on my corset, and we made an appointment for a month later for my first fitting.
I did consider having a suit custom made for Brendan at a nearby bespoke tailor, and stopped by there to discuss fabrics. But I knew that, in the throes of finishing a book, there was no chance he would make the multiple trips to San Francisco that would be necessary. I put off the question of what Brendan would wear to… later.
The dress was going to cost a lot – a bespoke corset on its own is expensive due to the time, materials, and highly skilled work that go into it. I rationalized the expense (to myself) as follows:
I’ll be able to wear it again, either skirt and corset separately, or together for some other fancy occasion since it’s not a white wedding dress. The corset will look great with, say, black velvet or black leather pants.
I was seven months pregnant at my first wedding, so I wore a white elastic-waisted embroidered skirt and shirt combo from Bali – definitely not the princess-waisted, full-skirted dress I had pictured for myself (not that I could or would have spent a lot of money on a dress at that stage in my life, even without pregnancy). I had missed out on having a fun wedding dress then.
I can afford it now.
I’d be supporting artisanal couture.
On average, I spend little on clothing, especially now that I work from home a lot and, when I do go to the office, I don’t need to dress up – jeans are just fine at Amazon.
But, to be honest, this was all just rationalizing a decision I’d already made. I wanted to look beautiful. I wanted my groom to be knocked off his feet and proud that he was marrying me.
Building a custom corset is expensive in part because the process requires several wearable mockups. This was my first:
As you can see under my left armpit, Marianne pinned the mockup to show where it needed to be adjusted to fit better. You can also see yellow chalk marks on the front where more adjustments would be made. Wearing it felt… fine. A bit of a shock when they tightened it the first time, but I quickly got accustomed to it and felt comfortable, contained and supported rather than constrained or constricted.
Marianne had, as promised, brought some swatches of lace, but I ended up not liking any of them. This one was a candidate (the color matched the corset fabric far better than appears in this photo), but I decided it was too gaudy.
We discussed instead using a solid fabric for the skirt, probably a darker color, in silk. Dark Garden had some options in stock.
But Marianne also recommended that I look at silkbaron.com for a wide choice of silk types and colors. Oooh, yes – my kind of website! (Though I would have been even happier to see all these beautiful fabrics in real life.)
I ordered swatches of silk in a dozen different shades and, when they arrived, tried them out one by one against the corset fabric.
It was impossible to show in a photograph what I was seeing in real life, in artificial or natural lighting, I suppose due to the contrasting textures and reflectivity of the fabrics. I was sending photos to a friend or two to get opinions, but ultimately had to decide based on what my own eyes were seeing. I settled on “rhubarb,” which was the same shade of pink as the corset fabric, but a completely different texture in dupioni silk – what we used to call “raw” silk.
Here are the two swatches together against my skin:
I was carrying fabric swatches with me everywhere, obsessively matching colors…
In late June I was back at Dark Garden for another fitting, in corset mockup #2, with an off-the-rack skirt in the same style that would be used for my own pink silk skirt. At this fitting Autumn, the proprietor of Dark Garden (a woman-owned business in San Francisco for 30 years!) brought her experience to bear in adjusting the corset to compensate for my tilted torso.
Mockup #3 was ready in mid-July (I was wearing dark glasses because I’d had my eyes dilated that day for an eye exam):
At this point, the fit was just about perfect: close-fitting with no “muffin top” bulges, supportive and comfortable. Yes, still a bit of a shock when first laced tight but, in the few minutes I was able to wear it in the shop, I quickly got used to it
My friend Melinda came with me for one of the fittings because, as a former theater person, she had experience lacing corsets, and I was going to need her help on the wedding day (and before then)
I did not show any of the photos to Brendan – I wanted the dress to be a surprise. He knew the color and had figured out that there was a corset involved. He kept saying that he “wasn’t that turned on” by corsets, which was a bit deflating. But my friends and everyone at Dark Garden just smiled knowingly and said: “He’ll change his mind when he sees you in it.”
I went back to Dark Garden on August 9th to try on the final corset and skirt. It was magnificent, exactly what I wanted. I felt like a queen, and like Wonder Woman in her armored bustier.
But there was a lot more involved in pulling together my wedding “look”…