Rachel and Steve's Third Anniversary

When we're up to it, Rachel and I go for dramatic anniversaries and extravagant gifts. Check out the first anniversary for proof. Well, the second anniversary passed quietly, but I couldn't let the third do the same. In fact, the planning started not too long after our second anniversary was over...

The Meta-Plot

This is a story of plots wrapped in plots. So, before proceeding to the plots for the gifts themselves, let's cover the organizing theme, the "Meta-Plot".

My idea for the third anniversary was to arrange a truly long-term surprise for Rachel. I wanted a gift that not only took planning but took time: the romantic plot equivalent of aging a wine. The inspiration came in the form of Maria Gullickson's Matryoshka (Russian Nesting Dolls).

Nesting turtle matryoshka (image from Corbis, royalty-free).
Say.. what's under the smallest one's shell?
Four nesting turtle dolls
Russian Nesting Dolls are wooden dolls cleverly designed to fit inside each other. You pull apart the halves of the largest doll to find a smaller one inside; pulling that one apart reveals a smaller one, and so forth. Eventually, you find the smallest doll which is a single, solid piece of wood.

But.. what if it wasn't?

What if you made the dolls yourself? You could cut that smallest doll in half, hollow it out, hide a little jewel or bauble inside, glue it back together, and paint over it. You give the whole set to your beloved, say for her birthday. It's a good gift, all the better since you made it yourself. Then, months later, you give her a saw on your anniversary and have her crack it open to dis­co­ver the real gift inside. With a bit of care, you can even patch up the matryoshka.

This, then, was the meta-plot. I would give Rachel long-term gifts by hiding anniversary gifts inside gifts for other occasions, as far in advance as possible. Any "gift-within-a-gift" would work as long as it met a few criteria: the inner gift has to be very likely to remain hidden; the whole affair must be safe for my wife and the inner gift; and the outer gift must be "tamper-evident." Tamper-evident means that my wife would have known if the inner gift had been put in after she received the outer one. Tamper-proof is even better, but tamper-evident at least means that, assuming all goes well, my wife would know when she eventually found the inner gift that it had been there all along.

The other element of the meta-plot was to recognize the coincidence of numbers this anniversary represented. This was going to be our third anniversary; we would have been dating nine years (three squared); and we'd have been alive for twenty-seven (three cubed). Without doubt, there would have to be three gifts.

With that, my meta-plan was in place. The anniversary gifts would be gifts-within-gifts. I would give Rachel the outer gifts months in advance, only revealing the inner ones on our anniversary. The day of the anniversary itself would revolve around whatever drama was needed to bring out those inner gifts. For the inner gifts, I decided on rings. It's rare that I give Rachel jewelry, and this seemed like an occasion to break the trend. Furthermore, I could engrave the rings with my numerological curiosities: three, nine, and twenty-seven.

Developing the plan itself was a "simple" matter of figuring out what each of the outer gifts would be. Suffice to say that I, my romantic consultants Denise and Maria, and many a put-upon friend brainstormed for some weeks before I finally nailed down my choices: the Russian Nesting Dolls with a ring hidden in the smallest doll; a Lord of the Rings Risk game with a gift ring disguised to replace the "real" One Ring; and Rachel's favorite childhood pastry frozen for months with a ring in its filling. (To keep you in suspense, I won't tell you that one of these failed. Drat! Well, to really keep you in suspense, I won't tell you which one failed or how I replaced it.)

For the rings, I decided on a tree theme <vomit zone>to represent the growth of our love: its roots our twenty-seven years of life, its solid trunk our nine years together, and its leaves and fruits our three wonderful years of marriage</vomit zone>.

I'll cover the outer gifts in chronological order of when they got to Rachel. That means the pastries come first, followed in order by the One Ring and the Russian Nesting Dolls. I'll talk about each of the rings, their engraving, and their ensconcement as they come up in the course of the outer gift stories.


Prantl's is a lovely corner bakery on Walnut Street in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It's been around for almost forty years, but it's easy to imagine that they've been making people blissfully plump for a century or two when you stand inside. They still queue their customers with one of those old-fashioned red ticket dispensers. (And, there's no LED display eternally shining the number before yours, either.) They even tie up your purchase with what has to be the nineteenth century's first automatic box-tier. I could stand and watch (and listen!) to that device spin its way around packages all day.

And the food is delicious.

Now, my wife grew up in Pittsburgh, in Shadyside, near Walnut Street. As a child, she developed a taste for Prantl's. In particular, Rachel craves ladylocks. A ladylock (AKA a cream horn) is a hollow cylinder of flaky pastry dough about an inch in inner diameter and perhaps five inches long filled to the brim with heavy, decadent cream filling. They taste good, they freeze well, and to top it all off, they're opaque (for better ring-hiding).

In the years I've known her, Rachel has lived away from Pittsburgh, but she still manages to get an occasional Prantl's ladylock fix. She accomplishes this by swinging by the bakery the last day of each Pittsburgh visit, buying a few ladylocks, stuffing them into the cooler she brought in her carry-on, and freezing them as soon as she returns. When she's ready to consume one of her treasures, she defrosts it in the fridge for a day and then slices it into a dozen pastry coins and indulges.

My plan was to "mail-order" nine ladylocks — note the multiple of three — with a ring hidden inside one of them as a Chanukkah gift. (It is slightly traditional to give eight presents for Chanukkah, and I figured that nine was a baker's eight.) I'd wrap them, date them, and stash them in the freezer. When I revealed the loot to Rachel, I'd explain that she'd get to eat a pastry when its marked date rolled around. The pastry with the ring would be marked for our anniversary. Of the three rings, I chose the simple silver one for this role, since it seemed likely to stand up well to the months in the freezer and, as the least expensive ring, I'd worry least about leaving it in others' hands.

I actually got around to calling Prantl's the week before Thanksgiving. I was a bit embarassed to make such an odd request, but by the third time I had it down. The person who initially answered the phone was obviously out of her depth on this one. She handed me off to a co-worker who, in turn, handed me off to Susie the Manager.

Susie was fantastic. After I finished my well-polished tale, she missed not a single beat in pointing out that Thanksgiving was one of their busiest times, and I should probably call back in a week and see if this made any more sense then. I bit the bullet and agreed, waiting out Thanksgiving Thursday and Friday and the weekend and then Monday too (they close on Mondays). Finally, I was on the horn again, spinning my tale for Susie.

After some negotiation of the mechanics, Susie agreed to the plan. They'd never mailed pastries to anyone nor stuffed rings in anything, but they were willing to give it a shot for a good cause. At this point, I asked Susie for the tab. She told me it would be $8.61. This is precisely the cost of nine ladylocks, which is ridiculous. I tried to argue her price up a bit, but Susie drives a hard bargain. So, I just ended up tipping a couple hundred percent.

Getting the ring engraved was an embarrasing adventure in itself. The day I needed to ship it out, I secured an hour and a half of suspicion-free time with the car. My plan was to get it engraved at one of a pair of jewelry shops in the U Village (just down the hill from school). Unfortunately, neither shop actually does engraving. One of the staff told me the nearest shop was Bill's Engraving on Roosevelt and 92nd.

I headed north to Bill's in a hurry. When I got there, I ran in, smacked the ring down on the counter, and asked how long to engrave it. "Well..." Bill opines, "I could do it by 5 if you like." This would get me back just in time to pack the ring in its UPS box, fire it off to Pittsburgh, and return to school before Rachel noticed. So, I ask Bill to do the engraving.

He begins investigating the ring as he asks me what I'd like engraved on it.

"Three," I say.

He looks up at me skeptically. "Just the number three? You have three children?"

This response is something of a terrifying non sequitur, and I quickly come back with, "No, it's my third anniversary."

Bill raises his eyebrow slightly and returns to investigating the ring. The eyebrow mutters something about cheap silver rings and forgetting anniversaries.

Mortified by appearances, I head back out to my car and futz for 45 minutes, reparking occasionally, before returning to fetch the ring. I make a mental note to impress Bill at a later date, but Bill's stoicism will prove superior to my romanticism (see below).

All went well at the UPS Store (back in the U Village), and a week later the ladylocks arrived at school, shipped there to avoid Rachel's detection. I made an excuse to Rachel that gave me an hour or so of suspicion-free plotting, grabbed a roll of aluminum foil, some tape, and a marker, and headed in to school to get the package.

As planned, the ladylock with the ring was wrapped in distinctive purple saran wrap (which I had sent to Pittsburgh along with the box and return shipping label). I pulled it out first, wrapped it securely in aluminum foil, labelled it about a dozen times on the foil and the tape for our anniversary, and set it aside. I had no intention of allowing it to become confused with one of the other ladylocks. So, it should come as no surprise that it did.

The last three ladylocks.
Ring probability, left to right: 15%, 55%, and 20%.
Ladylocks wrapped in aluminum foil and labeled
The trouble was that I ran out of aluminum foil after finishing the seventh ladylock. That left two more to wrap! The student union was foil-less, and I didn't have time (before Rachel started getting suspicious) to check anywhere else. Disheartened, I came back to my office and stared at the seven wrapped ladylocks.

The human capacity to learn and adapt constantly amazes me, and my ladylock-wrapping-skill was no exception. Those first couple of ladylocks I wrapped were a mess. I used way more foil than I needed and got it all crumpled up. The later ones were smooth and thrifty. It occurred to me that if I rewrapped the first two ladylocks with my new blessed +7 ladylock-wrapping fingers, I might just have enough leftover foil to wrap these last two ladylocks.

No sooner thought than deed, and I had two newly rewrapped ladylocks and two newly wrapped ladylocks. Those two newly rewrapped and these two newly wrapped. Or maybe these two newly rewrapped and those two newly wrapped. Uh-oh... they all look the same!! To make matters worse, three of the ladylocks were now wrapped in foil emblazoned repeatedly with "anniversary".

This was what is called a "balding event". See, male-pattern baldness goes in spurts, not steadily. Something like this is worth maybe a quarter inch of hairline.

I could imagine no acceptable way to locate the ring-bearing ladylock. So, I resigned myself to a year of fretting, made my best guess, relabelled that one anniversary, and dated the other two as late as possible. In retrospect, it would have made much more sense to date the other two as early as possible. After all, if the ring was going to turn out not to be in the anniversary pastry, wouldn't I rather know that in two weeks than six months?

That was that for the ladylocks. I put the whole set into a cooler bag and left them in a prominent spot on the kitchen counter. Eventually Rachel asked about the cooler, and I told her to open it up and see what was inside. She was happy, I was nervous, and the ladylocks took their sweet time disappearing over the course of the next half year.

The One Ring

A mokume-gane ring of the sort that Chris Ploof at Furthers made for Rachel's gift.
A mokume-gane ring
Of the three rings I bought for the anniversary, the mokume-gane ring was truly unusual (and my thanks go out to romantic consultant Ken Yasuhara for cuing me in to it!). "Mokume-gane" is Japanese for wood-grained metal. It's produced by taking two or more thin sheets of metal (usually different colored metal), stacking them, and then folding them over and beating them out repeatedly. Imagine a taffy machine for metal. The end result is a metal with layers, ripples, and whorls of color that looks like wood grain.

Many thanks to Chris Ploof at Furthers Fine Art Wedding Rings for making the ring for me, especially so shortly after the death of one of his colleagues, Lynn Ossa. Chris's ring was perfect to be the "trunk" of my tree theme. If you're looking for unusual rings, the Furthers site is an excellent choice.

I stumbled across the outer gift to hide the mokume ring at Wizards of the Coast: a Lord of the Rings-themed Risk variant. Rachel has always been very fond of Risk, and she's loved the Lord of the Rings since I read it aloud to her a few years back. (She couldn't get through the "Tom Bombadil" part on her own and — judging by that character's absence from the movies — neither could Peter Jackson.) As the finest of the set, I picked the mokume-gane ring to become the One Ring.

Middle-Earth merchandise. One Ring included. Nine-sided Nazgûl die sold separately.
Lord of the Rings Risk
I bought the game with the plan of removing the existing One Ring, painting the mokume ring to look like Sauron's, and stashing it back in the game. I needed no help on the first task, but I had no idea how to manage the second.

For help disguising the ring, I went to Helzberg Diamonds at Northgate. Rachel and I bought our wedding rings there and go back occasionally to get them cleaned. We had gotten to know one of the sales associates, Jason, and I thought of him when I needed help with the One Ring. So, I gave some excuse to Rachel and snuck off to Northgate Mall.

Jason and I knocked heads over the problem while he distractedly prepped my ring for cleaning. We dismissed painting the ring as too difficult to perform and too unpleasantly smelly to undo. Jason suggested a craft clay he had worked with as a Cub Scout called "Sculpey". It's the bowl-thrower's equivalent of shrinky-dink: you shape your creation in soft clay, toast over the Cracks of Doom, and pull out the fire-hardened final product. I would wrap the ring in Sculpey and carve the letters into the clay. When the time came, judicious hammering would shatter the Sculpey and reveal the real one ring inside. This was a good idea.

Cleaning my ring, on the other hand, was a very bad idea. I figured this out and shouted for Jason to stop just as he was about to toss it into its sonic bath. A suspicously clean ring would be a dead giveaway.

With Maria's help, I tracked down a couple slabs of gold-colored Sculpey and an etching tool — that's a sharp stick with a price tag — at Dakota Art Store Limited on Roosevelt and 62nd. I warmly recommend the store for all your crafts needs. Not only do they have a great selection and helpful staff, but they have an Australian Cattle Dog!

The One Ring's inscription, which translates roughly as "One Ring to rule them all, and lots of squidgy little letters to carve on It".
inscription of the One Ring
Armed with our art supplies and a blown-up image of the Mordor script on the One Ring (which I will not utter here), Maria and I headed back to her place and started practicing. Maria had snagged some black and brown Sculpey and was sculpting her Rottweiler, Jax von Jevon. I started by practicing writing Tolkein's sharp-edged script on thin pancakes of Sculpey. This was not easy, but after an hour or two, my handwriting was good enough to pass muster at Nazgûl kindergarten. It was time to move on to a more realistic conformation.

Now, I'm a big fan of practicing as you play. If you're going to give a talk standing up, you don't practice it sitting down. If you're going to play softball wearing cleats, you don't practice wearing sneakers. If you're going to carve the One Ring out of Sculpey wrapped around another ring, you must practice with a ring. Unfortunately and despite appearances to the contrary, I am not so good at thinking ahead, and I had just one ring to practice with at Maria's house: my wedding ring.

In retrospect, wrapping my wedding ring in clay, carving fell letters into it, and then baking it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees may not have been terribly clever, and I certainly can't recommend attempting this at home. Then again, I wasn't at home, and my ring stood up just fine to Maria's oven. Plus, I learned that you could, in fact, break off and clean up the Sculpey without damaging the ring inside.

At this point, I was ready to try my hand with the actual mokume-gane ring, but I was out of plotting time. I didn't get my chance to carve the new One Ring until Rachel and I were at my parents' place for the holidays. Once we were there, I brought my Mom in on the plot. She took Rachel out shopping (<shudder/>) while I carved a new One Ring in my parents' spacious bathroom. (It has the best light in the house.)

It wasn't until after the ring had gone through the oven that it occurred to me to be mortified at the idea of baking a bimetallic ring. A brief physics lesson here: different metals expand at different rates when subjected to heat. The classic example of this is a bimetallic strip with brass on one face and steel on the other. Heat the strip and it curves inward on the steel side as the brass expands faster than the steel. Cool it and it curves the other way.

It is unsurprising then that mokume-gane rings (running $200 on the cheap end) are never, never, never used to demonstrate this principle in high school physics classrooms. I had no idea what the ring looked like on the inside of its One Ring exterior... it could easily have turned into thirty or forty separate little ringlets, wrested apart by dissimilar thermal coefficients. This, then, would be another tense six month wait.

Lord of the Rings Risk exposed. Quick: print this out and tack it to a fencepost. Then, gallop by on a horse with arthritis. Can you identify the hand-made part? I didn't think so.
The new One Ring in the box
All that was left was to wrap the game and give it to Rachel. Unfortunately, as proud as I was of my ring-fashioning and Mordor-writing skills, my ring still looked only two steps better than some illiterate Orc's ill-conceived practical joke on Sauron. There was no way this ring would pass for the one advertized in big pictures on the outside of the game box. ("Hold the power over Middle-EarthTM with your own replica of The Ring!")

Here my Mom's help and my penchant for futzing with rings once again came into play. On Christmas, we all got together for Rachel's gift opening. Before letting her open my gift, I apologized sheepishly for "messing up" one little thing. Rachel unwrapped it curiously and then happily inspected her new game. After a couple of minutes of enthusiastically verifying the soundness of each game piece, Rachel picked up the bag containing the One Ring and stared at it curiously. She looked over at me with a puzzled look and asked "You lost the One Ring?!"

My Mom, prepped for this moment, chimed in immediately and turned the occasion into a ridicule-fest. She made so many jokes about me losing the ring that Rachel rushed right to my defense and adopted the One Ring as her very favorite hand-made gift. Imagine your third-grader presents you with an ash tray in the shape of the state of New Jersey. You don't smoke, you've never been to New Jersey, and your kid has no future as a cartographer. Nonetheless, you proudly display it on the fireplace mantle and invite all your friends to share your awe. Rachel took the same attitude, and the One Ring was in play.


Table-top tools are cheaper in Canada. If I were shopping for the lathe on my own, I never would have figured this out, but I had Rachel's help. Rachel always gets the best deal, and the wood lathe was no exception.

You might wonder what Rachel, the object of all this plotting, was doing helping me shop for a tool to build her surprise. Well, I learned way back when we got engaged that the best way to keep a secret from someone is to enlist their help keeping the secret. So, I told Rachel all about the plan to make matryoshka.. only as far as she was concerned, it was Denise who was going to give the matryoshka to her husband Mike as a surprise. ("Shh, Rachel! Don't tell Mike!")

Like any good fabrication, this one was mostly truth. Denise really was planning to give Mike matryoshka. I would turn them, and Denise would paint them. We figured two sets of matryoshka, one for Rachel and one for Mike, would be only marginally more difficult than one. I even told Rachel about the extra set of dolls for us. What Rachel didn't know was my plan to disembowel the smallest doll on the sly so Denise could hide a ring inside.

The upshot of all this is that I had Rachel's help to scout out, purchase, and even use the wood lathe. She found out that Canadian Tire had the lathe we wanted for about $300 Canadian. They'd probably have been willing to ship it to us for another $300, but that would defeat the purpose. Fortunately, my parents decided to come out and ski Mt. Baker with us, and there's two or three Canadian Tires close enough to the mountain to be obliterated next time it erupts. We swung by the Abbotsford store, which was not yet covered by ash or lahars, and picked up wood lathe, chisels, clamps (to satisfy Rachel's clamp fetish), and a few dozen TimBits. We blew the VAT on some wolf t-shirts at the border.

As it happens, wood lathes are touchier tools to learn and use than scroll saws (see my last woodworking anniversary endeavor). Seasoned woodworkers may need a stiff drink before reading this next part; so, hold your breath and pour a shot of varnish.

I set the wood lathe up in my "workshop". That is, I pulled out the hollow core door and pair of sawhorses I keep in our storage locker, set them up in the middle of our apartment complex's garage, plugged in my power strip, and cranked up NPR on the radio. (We listen to KUOW, members for five years.) I drilled mounting holes in the door and bolted the lathe on over big pieces of scrap plywood to distribute the pressure.

Shards of an end-hollowed wooden goblet.
Shards of an end-hollowed wooden goblet
This setup was the functional equivalent of an electric bull mounted on shoji screens. A wood lathe spins its product at a few hundred revolutions per minute. Even working a 1 1/2" blank was enough to wrest a D# from the tabletop and send my chisels spinning to the floor. When I tried to end-hollow a round 4" blank, the door's lower surface cracked and the spindle of the lathe's faceplate sheared off.

In the end, after three months of shopping for the lathe, setup, practice, and agonizing, the only thing I turned successfully on the lathe was an 8" long 1" cylinder of softwood with two notches that Rachel and I took to calling "the round" and adopted as the mascot of our innertube basketball team. Although satisfyingly surreal, this was a far cry from a hardwood matryoshka set. Without a sturdy workbench and 300 pounds of ballast, I was dead in the water, and I wasn't getting those things so long as I had to stash my entire workspace in a 3'x5' storage locker at the end of each day.

With apologies to Denise and Mike for the failure to deliver, a new plan was in order.

Safe Deposit Box

People are never happier than when getting a mortgage... or at least, so you would assume from the euphoric pamphlets packing your local bank. Browse those brochures and you'll find enough flashing teeth for a Great White feeding frenzy.

During some bored downtime on a trip to Wells Fargo, I noticed a staid ad for safe deposit boxes hidden in among the surefire paths to spiritual fulfillment. It turns out that with Rachel's and my account, we get a small safe deposit box for nothing more than a $20 deposit. This seemed like raw material for an outer gift.

Merciless pestering of the bank staff turned up a critical detail: every time you access the safe deposit box, you have to initial your very own sign-in sheet. This makes the safe deposit box tamper-evident: when Rachel signs in to retrieve the ring from the box, she can tell how long it's been since the last time I mucked with it! All I had to do was hide the ring in the box, and give the key to Rachel.

Now, in theoretical computer science, we often reduce one problem to another to make analysis of one of the problems easier. It is slightly counterintuitive that you generally reduce the problem you know something about to the problem you're studying and not the other way around. Many a theory student spends hours successfully reducing problem A to problem B, only to gnash her teeth and tear her hair when she realizes that she was supposed to be reducing problem B to problem A.

In my wisdom, I had reduced Plan A — giving Rachel a ring without her knowledge — to Plan B — giving Rachel a key without her suspicion. This may have been a mistake. How can you give someone a key without them immediately wondering what it opens? The safe deposit box was tamper-evident, but the key was way too obvious as a present.

Fresh out of new ideas, I cannibalized an old idea. One of my friends had suggested a "page-a-day"-style calendar as an outer gift. You just cut a block out of the middle of the pages starting on the anniversary date and slip the ring in. Then, when your love tears off the last whole page, she reveals the hidden ring, and you're done.

I vetoed this idea for one practical reason: everyone reads ahead in their page-a-day calendars. I do. How can I possibly wait 364 days (365 in a leap year!) to see the adorable puppy hidden on Dec 31? You most certainly do. How can you possibly wait a whole year for your last Van Gogh floral print, side of beef, or other kinky quotidian calendric craze? Even if you don't snoop through the whole calendar, you definitely "accidentally" flip ahead to one or two pages, and would you miss a big ring straddling July 30–September 7 (or however many days thick the ring ends up being)?

I had considered the lower-risk strategy of hiding the ring somewhere and hinting at its hiding place on July 30th's page, but this seemed too pedestrian to me. The safe deposit box and key enhanced both the security and obscurity of the plan. Rather than a hint at the location of the ring, July 30th would contain a hint at the identity of the (unhidden) key. Furthermore, even if Rachel read the hint early, she wasn't registered as a signatory on the box at the bank; so, she couldn't accidentally expose the ring early.

Early draft of a page-a-day key calendar using a frame and the homemade craft approach.
Draft of page-a-day calendar hiding key
I had my Plan B. In fuzzy outline, it looked like: (1) Give Rachel the key in a cheesy little handmade "you're the key to my heart" craft gift. (As discussed earlier, cheesy craft gifts are harder to dispose of than nuclear waste, though only slightly more desirable.) (2) Give her a page-a-day calendar. True, that would look slightly odd several months into the year, but Rachel does love sale items. (3) On July 30th, Rachel finds a note giving the safe deposit box number and revealing the identity of the key.

This was a simple, nearly foolproof plan. Naturally, I couldn't let that stand.

Inspiration for extravagant complications to my plan soon struck: the rings needed a display case! After all, I had never planned for Rachel to actually wear the rings. I don't even know her ring size, and nothing makes an SO more suspicious of surprise presents than measuring her finger.

Plan B was the perfect opportunity to slip a display case into the works. Rather than a page-a-day and a cheesy craft gift, I could give Rachel a framed display with the key and my own page-a-day inside. When the day came to reveal the key's identity, the case would become the display for the rings themselves. I flirted briefly with building the frame myself, but even I could tell there simply wasn't time to practice building frames, build the final frame, and give it to Rachel far enough in advance of the anniversary to fit the inner/outer gift theme. Instead, I'd hire some professionals to build it for me.

Before shopping for a framemaker, I sketched a few ideas of how I would give this gift to Rachel. Eventually, I settled on a present from our cat in honor of her statuatory birthday on Juneteenth. (The cat's birthday, that is.) The key would hang inside the case between the phrases "Food is the..." and "...to the cat's heart." To the right would be the page-a-day, headed by "Today the cat wants..." and underneath a stack of Post-It notes filled with witty ways of saying the cat wants food. July 30th would be the last page and would reveal all (and demand a dozen treats for the cat, of course). After Rachel had her rings, we could clear out the case for them.

Armed with Plan B, I started polling frame shops for estimates. Based on a rambling, Arlo Guthrie-esque description of what I wanted, the University Frame Shop gave me the best estimate. So, I made my excuses to Rachel, hopped on my bike, and headed to the U Village.

At the time, the University Frame Shop was tucked away on the obscure second floor of the U Village up an easily overlooked flight of stairs between Radio Shack and a local card store that specializes in not being Hallmark. Going through the door to the stairwell feels a bit like entering an "Authorized Personnel Only" area at the airport, and I did a double-take before actually climbing the stairs inside. The frame shop was the only retail store up there amidst a collection of University Village management offices.

The shop itself is the dual of what I imagine a painter's studio to be. The studio is messy, with half-finished paintings strewn all about, aborted paintings and inspirational photos plastering the walls, and a few framed pieces awaiting their gallery show propped here and there. The frame shop is immaculate, with half-finished frames arranged here and there, an infinite number of carefully nested V's of framing material velcroed to the wall, and a few framed pieces awaiting return to their owners here and there. My sweaty togs and bike helmet would have fit better in the studio!

An earnest young lady named Carolyn (whose actual name I have forgotten) asked me if I needed any help, which I did. Over the next half hour, she slowly extracted my requirements from me. Before hitting a minor snag, we settled on a deep frame with a hinged lid and some sort of display for the rings. The snag came when Carolyn asked what the rings looked like.

"Lady's elven band" from Badali Jewelry.
Badali's picture of their lady's elven band
In my defense, I actually had the silver and green enamel ring that would go in the safe deposit box on hand; so, that was no problem. Plus, I eloquently described the mokume-gane ring and promised to return bearing a picture on my next visit.

Even now, my memory of that third ring is blurry. Whoa.
blurry ladylock ring with caption excusing Steve's photographic ineptitude
As for the third ring, I had absolutely no idea what it looked like. (Actually, I can't remember what it looks like even now. Hold on. I'll go look. ... Right. The silver ring with bas-relief flowers.) Bear in mind that the ring and I had only known each other for a couple of weeks before it went into suspended animation in my freezer!

Carolyn was a bit taken aback when I couldn't remember what the last ring looked like. When I explained that I couldn't show it to her either because it was in my freezer, she gamely suggested that I fish it out. I was tempted to complain of a debilitating fear of freezers (would that be "crying cryophobia"?), but instead patiently explained that the ring in the freezer was irretrievably embedded in a pastry. We decided to push on at the next visit with one ring, a picture of a second, and a vague description of the third ("well, I know it's cold").

On that visit, Carolyn and her boss rapidly ironed out every functional detail of the frame. They'd use a clever "frame-within-a-frame" design to get the hinged door to the display case. Each ring would rest on a clear plastic shelf, nestled on a clear plastic bumper that would hold it in place. They hammered out dimensions and materials and prices and fasteners. I engaged in all of these discussions and lent my honest and considered, if ill-experienced, opinion.

Then, they started talking colors.

Before I begin this description, let me point out that there are many men who are expert in their understanding of color coordination and many women who are inept. Furthermore, even if there are prevailing distinctions among the sexes along color-coordinating lines, they probably stem from the social pressures of our gender-divided society rather than from universal or even statistically significant differences in genetic makeup.

That said: around color choices, I am such a guy.

A man in "guy-mode" with respect to colors sees absolutely no dependencies among his choice of socks, pants, and shirt when dressing himself. He does not understand why Kitchen Aid has chosen to provide three dozen shades of mixer. Even the notion that he might derive some benefit from color-coordinating the cat's coat with the carpet eludes his grasp until many hours of premature vacuuming reinforce the lesson.

A man thrust into complicity with a group premeditating on and comparing color selections defends himself against this manifestly irrational behavior through a subtle program of plausible agreeability.

Imagine him as an accountant impersonating a cardiologist during heart surgery. Fortunately, he need not put his hands in. Unfortunately, the surgeons insist on asking his opinion. Ideally, he would simply agree with absolutely everything they suggest, but he has a nagging feeling that such blanket approbation ill befits a cardiologist of his stature. So, he tentatively finds issue with a few of the other doctors' incomprehensible suggestions, gaining confidence each time the patient fails to expire. "Do you think we should infiltrate this suture with a 9mm osteocaliper tracheofibrillator?" they might ask. To which he gravely shakes his head and responds, "No, no. The 8mm would be more prudent."

Carolyn and her boss paraded a sequence of matte colors before me, further confounding these with a slew of wood/stain combinations for the frame. I interspersed nodding and smiling with occasional sage advice. "Perhaps the darker violet would embellish the maple highlights in the frame without overwhelming the green enamel of the ring," I might suggest. Or, "Maybe the lighter blue would enhance the oak trim of the frame without overwhelming the suction pump on the 9mm osteocaliper tracheofibrillator."

Eventually, "we" settled on what I can only describe as a greenish matte and brownish wood. In retrospect, I could claim that this choice of leaf and trunk colors reflected the "tree theme" of the entire project, but actually it just reflected escape with dignity intact. Anyway, the point is for Rachel to like the colors, and at this point I'm pretty sure that either she likes them, or she's really an accountant.

Carolyn promised to finish the frame for me in about a week. The timing was perfect since Rachel was about to head out to a conference and wouldn't be back until I had already left for my own conference in Norway. I would have the opportunity to wrap and hang the "cat's birthday" present without interference, and she'd have to sweat out the days until my return wondering what on earth it was.

The Rebus, Wrapped.
The Rebus, Wrapped
Unfortunately, the "page-a-day" idea wasn't going to work anymore, not with those three little shelves sticking out of the middle of the frame. I could still prop a key up on the middle frame, but a stack of Post-Its would look out of place. I racked my brains and came up with an idea from the many hours of my childhood summers spent watching television game show reruns. One of them was a rebus game — a puzzle made up of words and pictures — called "Classic Concentration". (Just think what bizarre ideas will stem from the hours of "Quake" and "Call to Arms" that consume kids' summers these days!) A rebus would be "artistic" enough to pass as at least a temporary use for the frame. I'd mock it up as a limited run museum display, closing on our anniversary. When it closed, Rachel would ask what we were supposed to do, and I'd say that she needed to break it down, of course. Hidden inside one of the pieces would be the clue that the key was actually to a safe deposit box.

Once Rachel left town, I started crafting. I kept Plan B's hungry-cat theme for the rebus. The final "puzzle" had a small pile of cat food glued to the first shelf, a key resting on the second shelf, and a heart emblazoned with a lion. It's supposed to mean "Food is the key to the cat's heart." (It is not an enunciated rebus the way the Classic Concentration ones were.) Yeah, yeah, I know. Rachel thought it was just as bad as you do. Well, phthbtbtbtb, as Opus would say.

Anyway, the food was actually cat food. The key, obviously, was one of the keys to the safe deposit box. The heart was my opportunity for a secret message, and my opportunity finally to impress Bill (of Bill's Engraving) with my romantic prowess. I swung by his shop with the bronze, circular tag the bank had given me to attach to the key. The tag was engraved with the safe deposit box number, "09 437".

When I came in this time, Bill was in the back finishing up some work. Rather than hit the bell for service, I took a moment for reconaissance, scoping out his collection of trophies and awards and then settling on an inspection of blank pet collar tags hanging from a peg board next to the counter. Bill's reappearance interrupted my inspection.

The Rebus, Unwrapped.
The Rebus, Unwrapped
"Can I help you?" he asked, in his customary disengaged tone.

"Absolutely," I said. "I need something engraved for an anniversary present."

Bill paused, doing a quick visual sweep of my person. Finding no obvious gift boxes, shopping bags, or jewelry, he refocused his attention where mine had just been. "You're looking for a dog tag?" he asked, and the eyebrow of our previous acquaintance arched back into life.

Confident in my romantic purpose, I responded. "Yes! This heart one will be perfect, I think."

I slipped the candy red heart off its hook and handed it across the counter to Bill. Ever the professional, he deadpanned, "And.. what would you like engraved on it?"

I set the bank's bronze tag on the counter and pointed to its text. "I think 'Wells Fargo, Box 09 437' will do nicely."

Somehow, Bill missed the mystery of the situation. He calmly completed a work order on the pet tag while the shop's engraved gewgaws looked down on the proceedings with evident (if imaginary) disapproval. Somehow, I just couldn't communicate how astonishingly romantic was this heart-shaped pet tag engraved with a safe deposit box number. On the bright side, at least, Bill didn't seem to recognize me from last time.

The telltale tag came out perfectly, and with the assistance of Rachel's magical laminating tool, I covered its text with a repositionable sticker of a lion, rampant on a white field over dog tag (gules). With that, I was ready to get crafting.

Bear in mind, this rebus thing had to look earnest but awful, like some hideous hand-knit blanket presented by dear but tasteless friends. An item that you pull out in deference to long-standing friendship and hide away again with shame and relief upon their departure. Yes.. my master plan demanded a display both functional and convincing but aesthetically impoverished.

Well, no. Actually, I just did a botch up job of it. There's really nothing you can construct with Elmer's glue, Scotch tape, and lime green thread that doesn't free-associate with the word "tasteless". Still, Rachel was just a bit too polite to expose her horror at the obvious expense of the frame holding my 2nd grade artwork.

Anyway, Rodin or no, my little sculpture was complete and ready to hang. I put it on the wall of our bedroom, made sure all was level and secure, and then took it down for wrapping. Its disguise was plain manilla paper mocked up as a museum accession from the cat's collection. The wrapping clearly indicated that it wasn't to be opened until the cat's birthday, the day after my return from Norway.

All that was left was to pack the ring up in the safe deposit box. I put a gushy little note in there with a romantic poem that hinted at the presence of other rings as well, but the content of that note is none of your beeswax!

The gift worked perfectly. For a week, Rachel burned with curiosity about what was behind the manilla wrapping. When we tore the rebus loose on Juneteenth, brief disappointment gave way to fatalistic resignation and gamely forced enthusiasm. Rachel later told me that she assumed a new cat-related rebus would go up on July 30th. Apparently, it didn't even occur that this particular Yucca Mountain reject could be part of an anniversary surprise.

The third ring was in play.

The Anniversary

I once read a study claiming that people with auspicious initials live longer than those with insulting ones. In other words, Raymond Arnold Davis will stay RAD long after Danelle Ingrid Mueller fades away. Personally, I have trouble swallowing that particular saw, but the events of my anniversary are nonetheless suggestive. Regardless, I owe deepest thanks to all four friends that joined us for our third anniversary — Dawn, Eric, Kate, and Brian — but I owe special gratitude to Brian A. Michalowski, known to his dignity-impaired friends as BAM.

Here's a bit of the e-mail message I sent inviting the four friends to join Rachel and me for anniversary dinner and soliciting their help with the rings:

If someone could suggest that we play a quick game during dessert, that would be excellent. That person should "become curious about" the Lord of the Rings game and pull it out to "check it out". That person or another overly curious individual should also have a hammer stashed somewhere convenient. Then, at some point the person should point out that they wonder whether the One Ring would hold up under their hammer in some amusing way.
In retrospect, the plan I laid out was not particularly sane, as Dawn noted in her response:
Sounds like a plan, although I'm not clear on why we would have happened to have brought a hammer to your place (or how one would stash a hammer).
Fortunately, BAM is also not particularly sane. Here's how Kate put it in her RSVP for herself and BAM:
Sounds like fun!
I love that response. Stop and savor it for a moment.

Dinner was set for the six of us (three couples) at 7PM at a local Italian place. For dessert, we'd head back to Rachel's and my place for homemade coconut ice cream.. and ladylocks, of course! Under some duress, Rachel agreed to share her precious (that's the ladylock) with Dawn, Eric, Kate, and BAM.

I transferred the ladylock from the freezer to the fridge to defrost and "accidentally" brought out the 9/25 ladylock as well. By the time Rachel discovered the extra defrosting ladylock, it would be too late to do anything but eat it. Natch: no worries about the eight month tinfoil mixup!

Two down, and the safe deposit box ring to go. That ring was on a tight timetable, with the bank closing at 6PM. "Fortunately", to avoid traffic, Rachel and I headed in to our job at Microsoft Research that summer at 6AM and got back by 4PM. That left plenty of time to pick up the ring from the bank but not enough to throw in the "exhibit" tear-down as well.

Rachel displays her key and heart after some gleeful deconstruction.
Rachel displays the safe deposit box key and engraved heart
To be safe, I had Rachel tear the exhibit down the evening before our anniversary. As soon as the key left the case, Rachel insisted that it must actually open something and demanded to know what it was. I told her to get back to tearing the exhibit down and encouraged thorough deconstruction (paired with discouragement from applying that thoroughness to the very expensive frame!). Eventually, Rachel pulled the lion sticker off the engraved heart and found the safe deposit box number.

Even facing a day's wait before opening the box, Rachel was ecstatic about the surprise. She took some time out to play gleefully with the heart and key on their lime green suspenders.

And now I must interrupt the narrative to address the central concern of the astute cat-lovers among you and, indeed, of the cat, i.e., "What happened to the pile of cat food?"

Tragically, the morsels had been rendered inedible by their veneer of Elmer's glue. (Well, OK, the cat would have been happy to eat them anyway.) Take heart, amici felis, for redress is at hand! I will now treat the cat.

There, that's done.

The next day, we awoke at our usual 5AM — I'm nauseated just thinking about it — and headed to MSR. In the afternoon, we took the bus back to Montlake and rode home through the university parking lot so we'd pass by the bank.

At the bank, I none-too-subtly wagged the deposit box sign-in sheet at Rachel so she'd be sure to notice the last access date. We went down the mysterious staircase back behind the desks. Rachel and I, being easily amused, had nearly as much fun wandering about the taboo bits of Wells Fargo as opening the box itself!

Once we had the box out, we ducked into one of the privacy booths, and Rachel found the ring and the poem. She read the poem, we hugged, we smooched, we smooched some more. (Well, what did you think privacy booths were for?) Then, Rachel tried on the ring.

I was totally floored and blurted, "I didn't expect you to do that!" Nearly a year of planning, and it never occurred to me that she'd pop one of the rings on her finger! After a brief digital probe, she found a spot where it fit and enjoyed the look of it for a bit.

Then, we summoned a bank employee, slotted the deposit box back into place (ending what proved to be its last visit with us), tucked our pants legs into socks, and rolled home. Two rings remained.

After brief ablutions at home, we set out to meet BAM, Kate, Dawn, and Eric at Ciao Bello.

Dinner passed without incident, and we reassembled at home for dessert. I doled out the ice cream while Rachel pulled the ladylocks out of the fridge where they'd been thawing. She tucked into the table with a plate of ladylocks and a knife, unwrapped the anniversary 'lock, and started cutting.

Now, I had imagined this moment at a rate of 3/week for 8 months. That's just over 100 times that Rachel had taken blade to the pastry. Events surely went awry on a regular basis. Dozens of times, the ring was in the wrong ladylock. Often the knife chipped the ring. Lately, the blade tended to scrape across the ring with a jarring metal-on-metal chatter.

Where's the ring? Taste the suspense (and the coconut ice cream)! Also, note BAM trapped on the right.
Rachel mysteriously interrupts her cutting
For some reason, it had never occurred to me that Rachel might just miss the ring entirely.

There we all were, mouths agape as Rachel blithely sawed the pastry log into six thick slices. It was like the classic dismembered woman magic trick: where was the ring?!

For reasons lost in the mists of time, Rachel decided at that moment to stand up and wander over to her computer. To this day, historians write scathing critiques of each others' monographs on whether she needed to clean her glasses or blow her nose.

Regardless, once Rachel departed the rest of us nonchalantly descended in a panicked horde on the ladylock. A bit of prodding jarred loose the corner of a ziplock bag from one of the slices, and we all shot back to our seats in time for Rachel's return, nose and glasses spotless.

I suggested that we might distribute the pastry more equitably if Rachel would cut it into finer slices. Rachel looked at me, at our four guests, down at the six slices of ladylock, and back at me. My primal instincts kicked in, and I grinned inanely in exactly the way that chimpanzees do when facing dangerous carnivores. Rachel shrugged, picked up the knife, and started sawing each piece in half again.

Remember now that the silver ring, encased in pastry for months, has oxidized to the same colour as the exhaust pipe of a 1976 Rambler that's spent 30 quality winters sliding around the streets of Winnipeg. This little gem is wrapped in a ziploc bag with clotted veins of pastry embedded in the folds.

Rachel ponders an unwelcome protein boost nestled inside her pastry.
Rachel inspects the ring in the pastry
The picture of Rachel discovering the ring doesn't do justice to her actual expression. Rachel later confided that she thought she'd discovered an incinerated insect tucked into the filling. That fact lends a heroic cast to her response.

Minimally invasive pastry surgery in action. (Note the glowing NMI eyes!)
Rachel inspects the exposed ring bag
Rachel cautiously extracted the bag with two fingers (debugging the pastry with minimal surface area of contact), and held it up to the light. Her expression slowly morphed from disgust to surprise. Well, it morphed two-thirds of the way from disgust to surprise and made it the last leg after she'd rinsed off bag and fingers and retreived the ring.

There was much rejoicing. One ring remained.

When Rachel had found the first ring, she'd thought it (alone) was her anniversary present. The second ring dispelled that notion, and Rachel reacted to its appearance with excitement, pleasure, and fierce suspicion. She immediately asked what else was coming.

I grinned some more and kicked BAM under the table. BAM announced sudden and pained interest in a board game. I asked what he'd like to play. He allowed as how he'd like to inspect our game collection in the bedroom. Rachel asked us what we were up to. BAM avoided the question by teleporting from his seat to the bedroom (no mean feat, as illustrated in the picture above), leaving me to writhe on the pin of Rachel's stare. "What are you up to?" she repeated.

"Do you really want me to answer that?" I asked.


"I don't think you really want me to answer that," and so forth.

BAM interrupted the artless dodging by returning from the bedroom with a board game, which he dumped one-handed on the kitchen counter. Rachel leapt up and approached the end of the counter. I snatched up the camera and walked over to the opposite side of the counter from BAM. A diagram is in order here:

       Risk | Rachel
BAM stood in the kitchen, holding the hammer hidden at his side below the counter in his right hand. I stood in the dining room holding the camera hidden at my side below the counter in my left hand. Rachel stood at the end of the counter, hands out on the table, with her gaze ping-ponging suspiciously between the two of us. With remarkable grace, BAM opens the game one-handed and pulls out yet another ziploc bag, this time with the crudely wrought One Ring inside.

"So," says Bam. "This is the One Ring."

BAM enjoys the smashy-smashy
"Yep," says I.

"What are you up to?" says Rachel.

"So," says Bam. "You could throw this in the fire and it wouldn't be damaged?"

"Yep," says I.

"What are you up to?" says Rachel.

"So," says Bam. "I could hit it with a hammer and it wouldn't break?"

"Well," says I. "I suppose you could try."

"What are you up to?!"

This is when BAM would have placed the ring on the counter, pulled out the hammer, and commenced the smashy-smashy. Unfortunately, he still had the ziploc bag to contend with. So, while Rachel gets increasingly antsy, BAM tugs inneffectually at the ziploc with only his left hand. After a few failures, he tosses it at me, asking if I could open it. I drop the camera instinctively, catch the bag, open it, and dump the ring on the board. BAM pulls out the hammer. Rachel gasps. I duck down to discover that the camera landed safely on top of a padded stool tucked under the counter lip. By the time I'm back up, BAM has landed the first blow on the invulnerable ring and Rachel's shouting "What are you doing?" and laughing at the same time.

You want me to do what?!
Rachel disbelieves the smashy-smashy
One Ring in flight.
Rachel enjoys the smashy-smashy
I got a shot or two off as BAM laid in some timing blows and then whaled at the thing to crack off the first few chunks of Sculpey. Once there was real ring showing underneath, I pulled BAM off the ring (he was really getting into it) and passed the hammer off to Rachel.

Ever the pragmatist, Rachel moved the ring from the board to a handy trivet. Then, she set to with gusto, and the clay flew. Briefly, so did the ring, following the arc of the hammer off the trivet on the rebound of a blow. Rachel settled it back on the trivet and cracked off the last vestiges of Tolkien. To my great relief, there was just one ring underneath rather than a loose collection of science experiments.

That being the last of the rings, the anniversary party trouped into the bedroom to rededicate the cat's rebus. On the way, Rachel discovered (again to my amazement) that the three rings fit on neighbouring fingers. They also nicely fit their ledges; no sure thing since this was the first time two of them had ever been there!

We all sprained our arms patting ourselves on the back, there was much consumption of coconut ice cream and insect-free ladylock, everyone else headed home, and the rest, as they say, is none of your damn business.



Shards of the One Ring and the warhammer that bested it. Gimli, eat your heart out.
Smashed bits of the One Ring
The display in play.
The display of the three rings







Steve Wolfman
September 25th, 2005
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Dedicated to my love, Rachel Pottinger
Together for a dozen years
Wanted list: nice picture of the outside of Prantl's. Got one? Willing to let me post it? E-mail to steven.wolfman@ubc.ca.
Random facts that didn't make it in: