I am glad she said yes.

On this date, eight years ago, I asked my wife to marry me. Here’s how it went down.

DeAnne and I started dating in February of 2004, after I asked for her phone number at the end of a church group winter retreat. Technically, I asked, “So, do you have a phone?”, which she kindly understood what I meant and jotted it down for me. I have a way with words.

Doesn’t this look like a fun place for a first date?

Our first date was February 20th and consisted of me waiting at the entrance of the restaurant where we were to meet for hours on end, telling myself that I had not been stood up, eventually calling her house, leaving a message, waiting some more, getting a phone call that her car had broken down, but that she was getting a ride with someone else and she would need a lift home after the date, to which I said yes. She showed up and saw me sitting at the entrance with a sign bearing her name (like at an airport). This lifted the tension a bit. After dinner at Kahunaville in the mall(the restaurant is closed now and in its place is a furniture shop), we got tickets to a late showing of the Adam Sandler comedy, “Fifty First Dates”. But since my carefully crafted schedule was thrown out the window by her broken-down car, we had time to kill before the movie. Lacking other ideas, we drove to a nearby grocery store (Why did we leave the mall? I don’t know. I was nervous.) and walked the international foods aisle, which I said was how I got my culture. We returned to the mall in time to see the movie, which was okay, but the company was far better.

Fast forward to almost a year later. It is late January. DeAnne’s birthday is coming up. I know that I love her and that I want to spend the rest of my life with her. It took months of careful saving, but I bought the ring (another adventure for another post) and had been hanging on to it for at least a month. I knew her rules for how the question should be popped (not in public, not surrounded by friends or family, and I must have her father’s blessing). All I was waiting for was the right opportunity.

Even though I had the ring at Christmas, I didn’t want to ask during Christmas, because I wanted the date to stand out for its own significance. I wanted to do it soon, and I wanted it to be a surprise, so I decided to make it seem like I was just doing something for her birthday. I made sure that we both had the day off and told her to let me plan the whole day.

Now, you might be asking yourself if she suspected something at this point. Fair question. She was certainly hoping that I was going to ask soon. But an unforeseen transmission replacement right after Christmas had her convinced that anything I had saved for a ring was now changing gears in my car (that’s was a transmission does). In fact, she went to her sister a couple of days before our special “birthday” celebration and cried about how I wasn’t going to ask her soon because of my stupid car. Of course, you’ll remember that I had already had the ring by this point, so the car repair just came out of my savings.

card_1Well, dawn broke on our special day and I showed up bright and early with homemade Monkey Bread and the first of many homemade “birthday” cards. The first card contained a riddle and the promise of more clues. The riddle said, “Farms have these; they’re made of wood. Plus one more name for right and good.”

So we went to Barnes and Noble Booksellers, where we had spent a fair amount of time together while dating. At the cafe in Barnes and Noble, a present (a gift card and a hot drink) and another card/clue were waiting for her. This clue consisted of a series of questions, the answers of which fit into a grid where certain letters were circled. After the questions were all answered, the circled letters spelled the next location, which was Eddie Bauer.

Eddie Bauer was my employer at the time and they made possible my saving up for the ring. They also have fine quality clothing that lasts a long time. When we got there, DeAnne went to the counter were a package (a nice, warm sweatshirt) was waiting for her along with her next card/clue. In the card was a picture of a cow with a speech bubble, an arrow pointing to the speech bubble minus the letter “O” plus “VVVVVVV”. That’s right, we were off to the movies.

It was a morning showing of “Meet the Fockers”. Don’t judge, there weren’t many options that morning. Anyway, at the ticket counter, another card/clue was handed to DeAnne before we went into the theater. The clue was this, “This garden will your hunger sate, with bread sticks always on your plate.” The movie ended around noon and we left for lunch at Olive Garden, DeAnne’s favorite restaurant.

At this point, DeAnne was pretty sure that the day’s surprises were done. We saw a movie, she got a couple of gifts, and now we were eating out. Obviously, a fair amount of planning had gone into her birthday celebration, since she was recognized at each place and handed something to open. She thanked me for a really nice birthday and asked what we were going to do for the rest of the day. I told her that it wasn’t over yet. Just then, her next card/clue came with our bill.

This clue sent us to the grocery store where we had walked the international food aisle so many months before, but on this day, we went in search of some snacks to sustain us for the remainder of the day. We checked out at the help desk, where she got another card/clue. It sent us “where Hollywood’s library is certainly Grand, but overdue fees can get out of hand.” And so we went to the movie rental place near her house, Grand Video, for a couple of movies to watch that night.

Now, I don’t know if they are still open or not, but when I showed up there the day before to drop off the next clue and leave a picture of DeAnne and I (which is how the employees at each place knew us on sight), the manager gave me some free movie vouchers just because he thought I was doing something cool. So if you live in the Grandville/Hudsonville area, and if you don’t do Netflix or something like it, give your video rental business to Grand Video. Anyway, DeAnne and I went there together, the clerk handed DeAnne another card/clue. I was really stretching by this time, so the clue said this, “Umm, clues for the next few places were really hard to come up with, so basically you’ll just have to trust me and follow my lead. I love you!”

We were near her house and it was getting cold, so we stopped by to pick up some warm clothes and a blindfold. So far, all of the places that we had gone that day had some significance throughout our dating relationship, but this time we were off to somewhere new, somewhere that I hoped would have a special significance all its own. After leaving her house, I had her put on a blindfold and I drove her to a park.

I imagined that the park would be a very nice place to come back to in future years, but on this cold night in Michigan, I had forgotten that the sun goes down obscenely early and that I would be asking for her hand practically in the dark. In any case, I had a flashlight, but the view that I imagined was ruined.

card_finalSo we got out of the car at the park. Still blindfolded, DeAnne followed my lead up a hill in the dark and I gave her the final card. It had a little mushy writing and the letters w-i-l-l-u-o-y-r-r-a-m-e arranged in the question mark. While she was trying to read it there in the dark, I pulled out the ring box and got down on one knee in the snow. Since she seemed confused, I asked out loud.

“DeAnne, will you marry me?”

Now, what happened next has been debated for eight years. DeAnne says that her first word was, “yes,” followed by, “wow,” followed by, “my dad agreed to this?”. I insist that it happened in reverse order. Either way, she said yes eventually and we headed back to her house where her family all knew what was happening and greeted us with congratulatory hugs.

It was a perfect day, and it’s been a wonderful eight years. I’m so glad she said yes. I love you DeAnne!

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How to Choose a Pizza Place | The 10 Factors of Quality Pizza

Is there a better food than pizza? One that is as affordable, multifaceted, and instantly crave-able? No. There is not.

According to pizza.com, 94 percent of Americans eat pizza regularly. When was the last time you were disappointed to hear that your work was throwing a pizza party? As a kid, weren’t you always happiest when the cafeteria served pizza? Let’s all be honest here. Pizza is the best.

And yet…

There are plenty of bad pizza joints out there. Or, at least, there are plenty of pizza places that could serve a better pie. But how can you tell the good from the bad?

Simple, I’m going to give you the 10 Factors of Quality Pizza. Once you have these, you can try out some different places and judge for yourself. Just take the criteria below and rate each place you go to. Once you find the best pizza place in your area, get all of your pizza from them. Why would you settle for an inferior pie and risk hurting your chosen joint’s financial stability? But anyway, the criteria.

1. Crust – Is the crust too thin? Too thick? Too doughy? Too hard? Is it sweet or bitter? Does it have those bread bubbles that are so good?

2. Sauce – Is the sauce too thin? To thick? Too spicy? Not spicy enough? Does it taste like old ketchup?

3. Toppings – Are there enough toppings? Are they fresh? Is the bacon crispy? Do they skimp on the pineapple?

4. Cheese – Do they use quality cheese or is it that type that evaporates when it gets too hot? Do they put so much on there that is tastes greasy? Do they skimp so much that you can see the sauce and the crust?

5. Value – Is the price set where you can afford a pizza whenever you want a pizza? Do they offer specials or discounts? Is the pizza size as large as you would expect it to be for the price that you paid?

6. Cleanliness – Is the pizza place clean? Are the floor dirty? Can you see toppings and sauce splattered all over the walls and floor? If the health inspector were to show up for a surprise visit, would you see the workers sweating?

7. Ambiance – Is there music set at an appropriate volume? Does the music annoy you? Is there a TV on and what are they playing? Is the lighting correct? Is it too dark or too bright?

8. Proximity – Is the restaurant too far to drive whenever you want a pizza? Do they deliver? Would the cost of getting to your pizza add too much to the overall bill?

9. Service – Are the workers happy? Do they thank you for your business? Are they attentive to your needs? Are they too intrusive? Do they anticipate your needs? Do they suggest appropriate add-on items?

10. Owner Availability – Can you speak to the owner directly? Does the owner seek you out to thank you for your business and ensure that you had a quality experience? Is the owner willing to take criticism or advice?

So there you go. Take these 10 Factors and start rating pizza places around you. As a rule, I’ve found that indie pizza places do a better job in just about every category than the chain pizza places do. But you’ll have to be your own judge.

For my area, it took a while for my wife and I to find a pizza joint that arrived at the best of all the criteria. We had been living in the Wyoming/Grandville area of West Michigan for a few years when we decided to start trying different mom & pop type pizza places. What we found were places that had good toppings but bad sauce, or good dough, but bad toppings, or good pizza but bad location and too expensive.

That is, until construction forced us down a back road and we saw a pizza place that we had never seen before.

“We should try them,” said my wife. “In fact, I dare you to get a pizza there with my in the next month.”

“Sure,” I said.

We waited about a day to try them out. I found their information online and wrote down their phone number. My wife and I were on our way home from the grocery store when I called in the pizza.

“Francesco’s,” said the voice on the phone.

“I have need of delicious pizza,” said I.

“Okay,” said the voice. “I can do that. What would you like?”

“What specials do you have?”

The voice told me the specials. I ordered a Hawaiian pizza with an order of bread sticks (you can tell a lot about a pizza place by their bread sticks too).

“This is my first time getting pizza here,” I said. “I hope it’s good.”

“It will be,” said the voice confidently. “I’ve tried the other pizza places around here and I can honestly tell you that you are going to love this pizza the best.”

Cocky, I thought. “We’ll see,” I said.

But after that first pizza, my wife and I were hooked. Francesco’s is now our favorite and exclusive pizza joint. The voice on the phone was none other than the owner himself, John. His cockiness was well-founded. They offer a great pizza (great dough, sauce, toppings, and cheese) at a great value (a 2-topping 18″ giant pizza for $13.50) within regular driving distance (about 3 miles from our house) and great ambiance, customer service, and owner availability.

We found our pizza place. You should find yours.

Support your local pizza joint, but support the best one. And if you don’t start testing them with the above criteria, how will you know which one is the best?