May 15, 2006

Amey and I got engaged over Mother’s Day weekend. This is what happened:

Amey had her last nursing final on Thursday. I’d told her I’d take the train to Iowa City, we’d have a fun weekend, and then drive back to Chicago together to spend the rest of her two-week vacation.

Because I had been somewhat vague and mysterious about the “fun weekend” I was planning, and because we had celebrated our 3 year anniversary two weeks earlier, and because we had been talking about being married since about the second month of our relationship, and probably also because of a host of subliminal clues I had let slip, Amey had determined that this was the weekend I was going to propose to her. She had even told some friends and family this.

And she was, of course, correct. But when I discovered that she was expecting it (at the post-finals bar, when a less-than-sober friend of hers was less-than-discreet), I felt a little deflated. This was MY surprise! And even if, by waiting more than three years to do it, I had relinquished some of my right to surprise her, the right still seemed inalienably mine, and I wasn’t going to give it up without a struggle.

This led to my first miscalculation. Wanting to reinstate the surprise, I told her that I didn’t want her to have “certain expectations” about our plans this weekend, because I “didn’t want her to be disappointed” if they didn’t materialize. At this, she turned very sad— she felt foolish for assuming things, and for telling people about it....

And then I felt terrible. Because the right to surprise her WAS still mine; I had just misunderstood something fundamental the nature of surprises. I had assumed that surprises like this get their power from their unexpectedness— their shock. But they don’t; their power comes from their execution. It’s not about when, it’s about how.

Oh well. Now I'm wiser, and I guess I should be grateful for that. Good for me.

SO, anyway, my general weekend plan was this: hike and camp and explore on Friday, TELL HER Saturday will be more of same, but actually, instead, propose to her mid-day, then end up at a old fancy hotel in Dubuque. Except, the weekend was cold and rainy, and anything requiring the use of the outdoors had to be nixed. Saturday would remain pretty much unchanged, but we’d have to re-think Friday.

So we improvised a road trip to southeastern Iowa. We saw a number of notable things, including this sculpture (?):

Antique goodies:

An abandoned church:

We even stopped in 1974:

That was Friday. Not bad, on short notice, I thought. Saturday we explored northeastern Iowa. We visited a farm-toy museum:


A historical house/doll museum:


And a cave:


This was where I was going to propose to her. I had picked it out weeks ago; Amey loves caves, and we’d visited some together in Wisconsin and Arizona. I had conspired with the owner of the cave (a lovely and helpful woman named Doris) to come up with the best method of doing it. I had hoped, driving along the highway, Amey would spot signs for the cave, and get excited, and want to stop, and she would think that visiting the cave was her idea— like arranging a barbecue and then leading a fat man right past it.

This is, in fact, what happened— though she was never 100% credulous. Passing a first-class cave attraction like this, on a small highway in the middle of unpopulated countryside, Iowa, seemed to her a bit too fortuitous. She asked, Did you plan this?

No, I said, unbelievably.

I made three other miscalculations that kindled her suspicion. The first was to forget to bring a backpack. The second one was to forget a flashlight, and have to buy it at a Target with her on the way (“What do we need a flashlight for?” “I... uh... need one for... lighting.”). And the third was to be generally shifty and cagey and nervous about everything.

I needed a backpack so I could smuggle the ring into the cave with me. The ring is tiny, obviously, but I had found a box at a junkstore that I wanted the ring presented in, and the box was not tiny. And I couldn’t just carry the box around with me. I needed the flashlight so she could see, inside the cave, what it was that I was giving her.

I stuffed all these things into a brown paper bag I found on the floor of her car, and carried it into the cave entrance/giftshop. When she asked what the lunchbag was about, I told her it was for... uh... carrying my camera.

When, inside the cave, I gave her the flashlight—a very useful thing in a cave, it turns out— she was pretty much assured that the whole trip was rigged. Both of us did our best to nonchalantly follow the tour, like regular ordinary cave aficionados who had no notion of an impending engagement. We took half-note of several interesting cave formations it was hard to concentrate on:



And even a bat, on the ceiling, about two feet above our heads:


According to Doris, the best place to propose was “The Chapel,” a small room off the main path that had, in fact, been the site of a number of weddings. It’s near the tour’s end. So, when everyone entered and then exited the chapel (I made sure to be at the tail end of the tour), I kept Amey behind, setting up the camera on the floor, as if I were going to take an auto-timed picture (this idea was Doris'). Then I took out the ringbox, and got down on one knee
as if I were trying to fit myself into the camera’s frame and told her to hold the box. Then she got down on her kness, thinking that she also needed to fit into the picture. And then I proposed.

I said, “I’m sorry I made you feel badly about assuming this was the weekend I was going to propose, because, it turns out, you were right...” And then I said a bunch of mushy stuff.

I eventually did set up that auto-timed picture. This is it:


Here is what the ringbox looked like when I set it up on my kitchen table, before I left for Iowa, before a weekend of secret transport left it considerably less primped (though the ring was still hanging on to the rananculus when she opened it):



Afterwards, more pictures:



And then on to the 150+ year old Julien Inn in Dubuque, having dinner at their 1950’s-imagining-of-a-1500s-German-castle themed restaurant:




And my final engagement gesture: I shaved the hair off my face:


I thought Amey would like that.