The new GiftyWeddings.com

Most of you know that I (this is Ben posting for a change) run a little wedding gift registry website called GiftyWeddings.com. It’s been going for almost eight years now, helping several couples every month create nice simple gift registries that aren’t tied to a particular store.

The design of the site was never exactly stellar (being designed by yours truly), but with bigger computer screens (and smaller phones!) it had started to look pretty dated:

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I do like old-school, but … it was definitely time for an update.

So I’ve spent the last couple of months of bus commutes rebuilding the site: a new design, new implementation, new server, and new payment system. Here’s what it looks like now:

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Complete with a fun photo of my wife going down a flying fox (zip-line) in her wedding dress.

So I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s an improvement. And the user interface is also significantly nicer, and works well on mobile phones — great for when your guests are out shopping for your wedding gift and want to cross an item off using their phone.

So if you know someone who’s getting married, please help our small, family-owned side business and point them to GiftyWeddings.com. :-)

If you’re of a nerdy bent and want to know what tools I used to build the new site, this list is for you:

I have good things to say about all those tools. React was new for me and a good experience. Stripe Checkout is an amazingly simple service to set up — highly recommended.

Please contact me if you have any feedback about the new site!

Side by Side

I’m so glad to have been given the opportunity to review the book Side by Side by Jana Kelley. I met Jana back in 2004 when I spent half a year working in Sudan. Although Jana was not a part of the team I was working with, our paths crossed fairly regularly: we taught a conversational English class together at a tea house for women; and I taught and helped out at the school where her boys attended. I remember on the first day of school how her adorable then 3-year old toddled up to me and very articulately explained that his grandma had made some coasters for the teachers at school and he gave one to me. I still have that coaster.

Below are a few photos from my time in Sudan, to give you a little idea of what it was like.

I also remember what an encouragement Jana was. She was always smiling, and quick with an encouraging word or a listening ear. So when I heard that she was writing a novel based on her experiences during her family’s time in Sudan, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy! Her publisher sent me a copy, and I’m afraid to say that the destruction of Mount Washmore (my washing pile) was significantly delayed — the only reason I didn’t finish the book in one day is because I still needed to teach and feed the kids!

What a great read. It brought back so many memories, sights and sounds. I could taste and smell the delicious dishes she described, and feel the sandy, hot wind on my face again. I could smell the open sewers and feel the sweat trickle down my back. And I could feel the thick spiritual oppression of Islam and the hope of Christ shining through it.

Side by Side follows the story of two women: Mia, a Christian American wife and mother living in Sudan for her husband’s job, and Halimah, an Arab Muslim university student. The story tracks both their journeys of faith. Mia has to leave behind all that is familiar in America, learn Arabic and overcome the many cultural challenges that daily life in Sudan brings, not to mention loneliness and wondering what on earth God’s plan is for her. Halimah’s university professor gives her an Arabic/English Ingil (New Testament) to help her improve her English, but very soon she is reading it for its message — and she believes. She desperately wants to share the Good News with her friends and family, but knows that it could mean death. When her family discovers her hidden Christian books, they beat her and order her to recant, but she refuses and manages to get away. In the process of needing a safe place to hide, she ends up living with Mia and her family for a while– to the mutual encouragement of both women.

(I could say more, but I don’t want to give away all the good bits!)

I loved the realism with which Jana described both of their lives — her attention to detail makes it evident that she is closely familiar with the kinds of lives both these characters lead — living in Sudan for many years would do that for you! — so different from each other, and yet in the end what they have in common is the beautiful bond of a love for Jesus. Jana brings out the deep desire of every Christian to share the gospel, and head-on confronts the weak excuses we often offer with the incredible courage shown by Halimah.

A challenging, encouraging and beautiful book. Make it part of your next book order!

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I received a complimentary copy of Side by Side but have not been compensated in any other way for this review. 

In lieu of Halloween

This year, instead of celebrating Halloween, which is such a massive deal here in the States and which we don’t feel particularly comfortable with joining in on for various reasons, we decided to do things a little differently and have a Fall Party with our good friends, Alfredo and Damaris and their kids. The kids dressed up: Marica was a cowgirl, Esther and Sophia were princesses, Elijah was a police officer, and Laurelin a monkey, which isn’t too far from the truth.

We had a lovely table decorated with crafts made by the kids during the co-op time we have with our kids and Damaris and Alfredo’s kids on Thursdays, some nice food and the kids still got a bunch of candy, and Damaris even organized some games and fun prizes for the kids. The kids loved it, and they loved getting decorations and things ready for weeks ahead. It was a great evening — much better than knocking on random people’s doors in the cold asking for candy! (We still gave candy to people who came to our door, we just didn’t go trick or treating.)

A hobbit comes of age

As everyone knows — well, at least everyone who’s a fan of Tolkien — a hobbit comes of age at 33. I turned this ripe old age the other day, and had a fabulous party, mostly organized by Franci, my lovely hobbit-wife.

No Admittance Except on Party Business

We had some great, down-to-earth hobbit food cooked by Franci with some help from Lillian: loads of mushrooms (fried in butter), homemade bread rolls with “Beorn’s” creamed honey and butter, Mum’s meatloaf (“dwarvish meatloaf”), punch (“Miruvor”), ale from The Green Dragon, “Sauron’s eyeballs” deviled eggs, and lots of other yummy things I’m forgetting.

I wrote a little speech that kind of paralleled Bilbo’s speech at his “eleventy-first” birthday party (and Frodo’s 33rd). There were a couple of Lord of the Rings-based games and riddles.

Gandalf quote

There was a small crowd of maybe 15 mostly from church and a couple from work. A few people even dressed up.

In true Hobbit-fashion, Franci and I organized and wrapped gifts for each of the guests (though there were no silver spoons).

Gifts for the guestsAll in all, a fun time! I highly recommend a Hobbit coming-of-age party for your next trend-setting event. :-)

 

Marica’s recital at Steinway Hall

Marica and Esther started piano lessons the week after our piano arrived, and have both been enjoying it a lot, no doubt because of their excellent teacher (who also happens to be our friend!), Shannon Murphy.

For the end of year recital (end of the academic year) Marica performed two of her pieces that she’d learned. It was pretty soon after starting, given the fact that we got our piano in April and the academic year ends in June, but she did really well! And get this — they had the recital at Steinway Hall! Wow. It’s pretty cool to say you’ve performed at Steinway Hall!

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Marica really enjoys learning piano, and not a day goes by that she doesn’t practice or tinker around playing things by ear. She’s figured out how to play plenty of songs just by having heard them.

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Well done, Marica! We’re proud of you!

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I got a cute photo of the three sisters on a pretty seat in front of the recital room beforehand.

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Mr Rubik’s back

Marica and I went to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City last Saturday to see their new Rubik’s Cube exhibition, which was being opened by Ernő Rubik, the inventor of the cube. I own a cube, but still have no idea how to solve it…

Mr Rubik seemed like a fairly unassuming guy with a mild Eastern European accent. We are more or less celebrities by association now, as we got to see his back — he’s the guy in the blue shirt:

Erno Rubik's backFranci said, “At least you got a good photo of the paparazzi!” Well, I did also get this photo:

Erno Rubik's sideThe guy to the left of him is Anthony Brooks, a world-record “speedcuber”, who solved seven cubes in under a minute while we watched:

Anthony Brooks solving cubes

Reuters has a short article and video clip in case you’re interested in further info.

Marica wasn’t fussed on Mr Rubik and the crowds, but she did enjoy some of the rest of the exhibit, including “programming” a robot to follow a line:

Marica programming a robot

Marica by the fake cubeMarica in front of the giant cube