Friday, December 31, 2010

I don’t make Resolutions.

My husband has mastered small talk. He can strike up a conversation and hold his own, no matter how awkward the circumstances. To his usual repertoire of “Have you seen any good movies lately?” he adds a January Special, “Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions?” Almost everyone he asks seems to have some sort of answer. And they generally coincide with the typical Top 10 – plus a more interesting offering here and there. New Year’s Resolutions seem nearly universal.

Except for me. He always tries to pin me down to one, but I’ve never seen much use in making an official New Year’s Resolution. It seems like declaring a particular NYR is almost a surefire method to doom your self-improvement efforts. It’s more useful to declare on January 1st, “This year, I’m going to take up smoking, eat more bacon, and be 5 minutes late to every scheduled appointment on my calendar.”

I am, however, a huge fan of self-improvement. Resolutions just create pressure I don’t need. I think I make my most productive efforts when a particular change inspires my resolve, rather than just sounding good when spoken in a single sentence. The best thing about these changes is that they don’t require a particular day on the calendar to start. Sometime last January, perhaps as late as the third week, I realized that my writing muscle was getting flabby. The concept of this blog began to float around in my head and before I knew it, I was committing myself to a weekly writing ritual, which I have now faithfully kept for nearly a year. I have yet to run a load of laundry every week with that kind of consistency, and, as you know, my elliptical doesn’t get the workout it should, but my personal resolve kicked in and here we are.

Someday I hope to find the discipline to eat right, exercise daily, clean the floors every week, and get out of bed an hour sooner. But I don’t dare declare any of those as a New Year’s Resolution; that would just be surrender. For now, I’m just waiting to see what inspires my deeper resolve in 2011. Hopefully, before too much longer, it’s will be getting a crib set up and finding a car seat. But we’ve got three months…it’ll happen…

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine. Daniel 1:8a

Friday, December 24, 2010

Our Christmas pictures are deceptive.

For so many of us, our annual Christmas mailing is the only real world contact we make with one another. And, of course, we don’t want to complicate the holidays for our friends and family by burdening them with the true complexities of our lives. So, much to each other’s annoyance, we send out photos of perfectly groomed, sweetly smiling children, accompanied by a letter that expounds on their most noteworthy accomplishments and overlooks the many times they’ve embarrassed us in front of strangers or earned a place on the “Naughty List.”

There are few Christmas mailings I have enjoyed more than my friend who got frustrated, trying to photograph her four uncooperative kids in front of the tree, and sent out a photo-card in which each kid had their own un-posed look of anger, disgust, or confusion. It was hilarious, and real. Another memorable Christmas letter we once received shared the hilarious tale of a nine year old’s bout of constipation and the ensuing battle to administer the suppository. When their sewer line backed up in their basement the following year – and it, too, made the Christmas letter – we began to wonder if fecal matter was a new Christmas standard.

I don’t know that we need to air every trial and sorrow in the three short paragraphs of our Christmas letter, or that we should take first-thing-in-the-morning snapshots for the Christmas card, but I did feel the need to come clean. Not only did I bathe and groom my children and myself for our Christmas picture, I also set the camera at the one strategic angle where you couldn’t see the evidence of my failed housekeeping. My living room looked like Santa’s Workshop had exploded in it, with ribbons, boxes, and wrapping paper scattered all over the place. With careful cropping, we cut out the kitchen counter in the background that was cluttered with pots, pans, dishes, and cooling racks.

Not only was our Christmas picture a bit of a fraud, I’m generally conscious of my angles whenever I’m taking pictures. Aside from the possibility that my friends and family might begin to consider me a slob if they see picture after picture with laundry piles and toy clutter in the background, I don’t want my kids to have photographic evidence. If they can remember that we dressed up crazy with them and took them to the Halloween dance, without having to remember that we disregarded a slew of housework to do so, why not try to give them that illusion? It’s not just a lie – it’s also a service I provide.

He also said that you always have happy memories of us and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. 1 Thessalonians 3:6b

Friday, December 17, 2010

I’ve surrendered to Laz-E-Boy.

Anyone who knew me in 7th grade, when I couldn’t figure out how to pinch-roll my jeans and styling products were still a complete mystery to me, would probably be surprised to hear that I consider myself to have even a decent sense of taste and style. In fact, I think it’s more the limitations of budget and time, rather than the lack of inspiration or creativity, that gives Martha Stewart such an edge over me.

When we put our last house up for sale, a typically wide and low 1950’s ranch, our realtor got a kick out of doing the open houses, because a large proportion of our visitors commented on our furniture choices and suggested to him that the furniture really needed to go with the house. It wasn’t any sort of designer furniture, just classic, beautiful pieces that fit seamlessly with the character of the home. Our response was, of course, “make us an offer!” The buyer we did find apparently had their own, so we ended up moving our fabulous pieces with us and have been pleased that they also work well in a more recently constructed home.

One piece of furniture that has never met our strict standards of style and beauty is the recliner. Aside from the fact that such a contraption seems like an invitation to inactivity, the chair itself usually looks like it has chronically over-eaten potato chips and cheap beer. A recliner would look like a schlumping, deprived throw-back next to our sleek, button trimmed sectional. Even the leather couch from our Arts & Crafts dollhouse, with its smooth seams and riveted arm rests, would cry foul if it had to share living space with such a monstrosity.

But last month, in addition to the heartburn and leg cramps of pregnancy, I added a hacking night cough. My husband abandoned our room to sleep with the kids and I, unable to get comfortable, suggested that perhaps the time had come to find a suitable reclining chair. Maybe a trim, upholstered version would be inoffensive? After combing the city, we realized that my dream-chair would cost as much as we once paid for a whole dining room set and the next thing I knew, I was sending my husband craigslist adds and crossing my fingers for something without beer stains or bed bugs.

I’m about three weeks into recliner ownership. It matches absolutely nothing else in our house. It’s already almost ten years old, and there is a small snag in the leather in back. But it cost just $100, came from a nice home, and I will never again be without it. While my cough is gone, an uncomfortable barrage of stronger-than-normal-for-me Braxton Hicks contractions has forced me to rethink my usual level of activity. So in the last three weeks, I have found that I can accomplish almost anything from a recliner. Preparing Christmas cards, wrapping gifts, even writing this blog…it can all be done from a semi-upright, lumbar supported, feet elevated position in my sunny living room. It’s a great position from which to view all our lovelier home decorating choices. I’ll let you know if I start craving Cheetos and Keystone.

Sometimes I think my bed will comfort me or that my couch will stop my complaint. Job 7:13

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Ignore “Friend” Requests.

I loved Jimmy Kimmel’s “National UnFriend Day (NUD).” Go out to your list of friends, and drop anyone who you don’t actually know. I say, be really daring and drop anyone you aren’t actually glad you know. I didn’t see the results – was there a substantial drop in Facebook “Connections” November 17th? Why is it that people are racing to build bigger friend lists, instead of better friends? While I love reconnecting with old allies and enduring my aunts’ harassment through the medium, I worry sometimes that future generations – or possibly all of us – won’t be willing to contemplate ideas that can’t be expressed in 40 characters or less, and that our drive for “networking” is going to undermine our right to privacy and ability to form genuine relationships.

So – some people already know this, because they “friended” me and didn’t hear back – I frequently ignore “friend” requests. The fact of the matter is that I post photos of my kids, share highlights of my vacations, sing off-tune birthday songs, and occasionally mention body functions on my Facebook page. Facebook isn’t a “virtual town square,” it’s my “virtual living room.” So the length of my friend-list doesn’t correlate with my self-esteem. If I don’t want to invite you into my living room, I don’t. What’s more, I get frustrated when my “friends” don’t show more discernment, because I feel angst every time I choose the “friends of friends” setting, knowing that some of my friends are indirectly opening up my virtual living room to 650-2000 of their closest loved ones. I only wish I could selectively open things up to “friends of friends who have less than 200 friends,” so my husband’s friends could view photos without letting in whole villages in Paraguay, or whatever other strangers someone’s “friended.”

But, especially for those who have been cast out of my virtual living room, I thought you should know that withholding my friendship isn’t just for the virtual world. I do it all the time in the actual world, as well. I find myself turning down “friend” requests nearly every time I go out in public. Last night, it was closing time at Target, and I found myself in an absurdly familiar situation.

The checker was somewhat younger than me, and exceptionally gracious and friendly while she beeped my goods, despite it being 15 minutes to close and her looking quite obviously pregnant. Grateful for her good nature, I proffered a friendly comment, commiserating about the late hour and our need for rest while gestating. This small kindness quickly mushroomed, as her eyes brightened and she began to share with me about her kids, her military-induced cross-country moves, the names they are considering for their new son, etc., etc.. I engaged in friendly chatter with her, finding out our due dates are just a few days apart, and smiling at her young kids’ reactions to having another brother. By the time the transaction was complete, I was ready to go and they were dimming the lights, so I gathered my bags and tried to end the exchange on a caring note, offer my hope that everything would go well for them and God would bless their growing family.

Her friendly demeanor turned serious, and she looked a little stunned, reengaging me into the conversation to tell me about the recent loss of their infant son while he was at daycare, the hardship of working alternate shifts with her husband, because they are petrified to put their kids back in daycare, how she had become pregnant with this baby despite her husband’s vasectomy when the last son was born, and how amazing it was that they were having another child after their huge loss. I don’t remember what all I said to her, except that I tried to be compassionate and acknowledge the gravity of what she was sharing, even while feeling the extreme awkwardness of the closing store and her stunning revelations to a stranger. Maybe I should have taken her out for a coffee, invited her to church, or given her my phone number. Her deep and obvious need for a caring friend tugged at my conscience, but I wasn’t prepared to make friends at Target at 11pm, with a full bladder, sore feet, and a burden of bags. So I called her by name, told her my name, and told her that I hope we run into each other again, which is somewhat likely, because we live in the same town and she works where I shop.

I really do hope I run into her again. And I really have prayed for her family and the healing that is still ahead for them. But I already have 108 friends I struggle to keep up with, and I just wasn’t prepared to add a new one last night. Maybe God will put her in my path again to remind me that she could use a friend – or maybe last night God just wanted her to hear it from the mouth of a stranger that her family is in the tender care of the Divine. Maybe that was enough.

So don’t get mad if I don’t “friend” you. I’m a heartless, emotional recluse who won’t even “friend” a sweet, young mom who’s enduring the hardest trial this world has to offer and melted at a stranger's casual offer of a blessing.

When others are happy, be happy with them, and when they are sad, be sad. Be friendly with everyone. Romans 12:15-16a

Friday, December 3, 2010

I’ve become a Suburban Snob.

When we were first married, we were charmed by brick dollhouses and a K-2 neighborhood school. We bought an adorable little two-bedroom house with gleaming woodwork, a small, galley kitchen, and no shower in its one bathroom. We gloated about our short commutes and social consciences. Unlike many, we were going to stay in the city, rather than flee to the suburbs and let someone else foot the tax bill for the urban amenities we enjoyed. Honestly, we loved that house and the basically yuppie neighborhood, full of Hondas and dog-walkers, that surrounded it. There was even a town center with a coffee shop and a hardware store, a half mile walk away.

Five years later, they’d torn down the historic, brick schoolhouse, the crib for our second daughter would not fit in the room next to our first daughter’s twin bed, and my grandma couldn’t visit us, because using the restroom involved a lengthy stair-climb and sometimes a wait at the top. After a winding urban journey through a roomier, but less charming, houseful of ungrounded electrical outlets, outdated mechanicals, malfunctioning casement windows, and an unconscionable hassle to get our older girl into a neighborhood Kindergarten, we threw in the towel and headed for the suburbs.

Going on five years later, I wonder if the suburbs haven’t dulled my sense of adventure. Our home maintenance has been reduced to mowing and window washing. We’ve got a park with a bike path and a fishing pond half a block away; I don’t have to go camping to catch bluegill or battle traffic to take a ride. The school gives the girls a fantastic education, and we are close enough that they walk home together each afternoon without needing an armed escort. They’ve learned to ride their bikes on smooth, extensive sidewalks; no jagged cracks or overgrown trees. When we forget to close the garage at night, nothing disappears by morning.

Then along comes the foreclosure market, and my husband starts getting the itch. There is a beautiful brick house for sale back in the city. It is near a city golf course. It has gleaming wood floors, a ground floor half bath, and five oversized bedrooms. They’ve been asking half the price of our current home, close to the price we paid for that brick dollhouse over ten years ago; we could make a serious impact on our overall financial picture. I agreed to go look.

As soon as we exited the freeway, anxiety started welling up in me. Driving through a neighborhood of small, dingy houses, I couldn’t help but notice how the shrubs were overgrown and nearly every house needed a good power wash. Cars were parked on the streets, because the houses frequently had one or two car garages, but each family seemed to own four vehicles. The strip malls didn’t have Star Bucks and Cost Cutters, instead it was “La Fiesta” grocery store and offerings of payday advances. People looked miserable, huddled at bus stops.

When we pulled up to the house in question, there’s no doubt, it is a beautiful masterpiece. Ornamental brick and stone work, a slate roof. The two-car, brick garage is surrounded by a brick knee wall with an ornamental iron gate. It looks like a storybook castle. But the first thing I noticed was the padlock on the basement access, followed by the stickers, indicating at least two different security services have been employed by former owners. As we toured the home, I looked right past the incredible crown molding and spacious closets, noticing the water stained basement and attic walls and the ancient boiler system for the radiator heat. Every single window gave off a draft of cold air and the two bedrooms on the third floor were not heated at all. Knob and tube wiring, hopefully defunct, stretched across the basement, and we saw at least three different fuse boxes, squirreled away in closets, behind doors, and hanging from a basement rafter at a strange angle.

While my husband, inexplicably to me, toured the house with a sense of awe and adventure, I nearly had a panic attack, I felt so overwhelmed. Even if all the mechanicals were in working order, I saw home maintenance nightmares around every corner, and already pictured the 6 foot fence and German shepherd I was going to need if we chose to live here.

So I’m going to admit it, even though I feel ashamed. The suburbs have made me soft. There was a time when I would have fearlessly plunked down the asking price to live in such a finely crafted home, regardless of the work it would take to keep it up. I would once have comfortably stood at the bus stop with those neighbors, and hardly noticed the variety of smells and dangers that surrounded me. I might even have embraced the idea that “the cream always rises to the top” when I read the ratings and stats about the nearby public schools. There was a time when I myself parked on the street for years on end. But I couldn’t bring myself to accept the possibility of doing those things again.

Now that I have lived in a world of minivans and vinyl siding, where curvilinear streets keep traffic on the main roads and inconvenience would-be criminals, where even my non-English-speaking neighbors wave and smile and spray their lawns for dandelions, I’ve become out of touch with urban living.

I’m a snob. I know it’s wrong.

If anyone secretly says things against his neighbor, I will stop him. I will not allow people to be proud and look down on others. Psalm 101:5

Friday, November 26, 2010

My Christmas Time-Table is Uncompromising and Judgmental

I hate to inconvenience everyone’s jolly consumerism and tireless decorating, or foist my religious traditions on your secular holiday, but let me just air my grief over the warping of the Christmas calendar that gets worse every year. When I see my entire block lit up with twinkle lights a full week before Thanksgiving, when I hear LightFM playing 24/7 Christmas Carols, starting November 1st, when I get my first Christmas card the second week of November…it starts to annoy me. Then, on December 26th, when I see tinsel-clad evergreens already on the curb, Delilah goes back to "Your favorites from the 80’s, 90’s, and Today," and my neighbor is already on the roof pulling down their lights, it officially drives me nuts.

You’re welcome to co-opt my celebration of the Incarnation (a festival which we had, until recently, so successfully co-opted from the pagans), if you would, please, just get the timing right. There are two important things to remember. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas and Christmas is 12 days long. If you choose a warm October day to put up your outdoor lights, I can respect that – just please, refrain from lighting them until, at the soonest, Thanksgiving night. And if you can’t wait until January 6th to take it all down, I understand; you do have to go back to work and school, after all. But can we compromise and wait until New Year’s Day? I’m sure it will multiply the entertainment value, if my neighbors have to climb on the roof with a hangover, after all.

It is a struggle for myself, and as a parent, to keep Christmas in perspective. With every birth and marriage, our family enlarges and our shopping list grows, threatening our budget and overwhelming our time and focus. The growing darkness of shortened days can feed my sense of hurry and offset the fun of gathering with friends and loved ones. The stress to prepare everyone’s favorite side dish at the big meal can overshadow the good times of pouring too much champagne in Grandma’s flute and seeing what happens. There are so many things that happen between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that are completely out of my control, but one thing I can control is when I light up the tree, when I break out Elf, and when I pack it all away for next year.

I’m trying hard to keep Christ at the center of our celebration. I’m trying hard to instill in our kids the serious and delightful meaning of preparing our houses and hearts for the Savior’s arrival. I want them to understand that for God to come to Earth is worth a huge celebration, without letting that celebration bleed out into meaningless chaos. One place where that starts, for me, is teaching them about Advent and the 12 Days. Maybe I’m up tight. It’s been said before. But if all you jingle-bellers would cooperate, it would
 certainly help!

But when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him. His Son obeyed the Law, so he could set us free from the Law, and we could become God's children. Galatians 4:4-5

Friday, November 19, 2010

I love a good poop story.

Parenthood has a way of numbing you to body fluids. From runny noses to midnight vomit, offspring will share with no sense of propriety. Even elimination, once handled behind closed doors with a loud fan to stifle the evidence, sometimes enters the public domain when you fail to notice the your baby outpaced their diaper’s capacity on your sleeve, the lack of a changing table in the public restroom reduces you to making the swap in the restaurant booth, or your preschooler escapes the restroom, pre-cleaning, to demand assistance from the other parent.

Two kids into motherhood, I have no lack of good poop stories. There’s the time my older daughter, all of ten days old, projected a stream of mustard colored poo onto her daddy’s chest. Her timing was perfect; he was just going in face first with her feet in one hand and a wipe in the other, and I was at the exact 90 degree angle to see the perfection of her arch, as it narrowly dodged his face and landed squarely below his chin. I laughed until I peed and got the scissors to cut him out of his ruined clothes. She was also the newly potty-trained flower girl, who confronted the stress of a highly formal rehearsal dinner by going into the dark corner next to the table and relieving herself on the four star restaurant’s carpet.

But, unlike some young mothers, I didn’t come into parenthood a poop-novice. My job, at least to some degree, had prepared me for the journey. It’s my best church poop story.

I had only been on staff a short time, and had no children of my own yet. There were a dozen kids in children’s church, and I was alone with them. An older couple had brought their grandson to visit. They were well-respected church leaders, and generally carried themselves with extreme dignity and decorum. Their grandson was the best dressed kid in church that Sunday, and I thought little of it when he asked to use the restroom. “Of course, it’s right next door. Just come back when you are finished.”

I couldn’t leave the other kids to show him, but he was about five years old, I thought, and came from good stock. Surely, he knew what he needed to know.

He was gone for some time, and I realized he didn’t just need to take a quick pee. But finally, he came around the corner, and I breathed a sigh of relief that he’d been able to take care of his needs independently. He first words, however, stirred my concern, “There wasn’t any soap, so I just got my hands wet.” No soap?

Going quickly into the restroom, I was confronted with the latest incarnation of the territory dispute between the church and the daycare that leased the space during the week; the daycare had locked up their soap for the weekend.

Knowing how long he’d been in there, I couldn’t ignore the situation. I told him to wait there, and, leaving the other children to their own potential demise, I scoured the church for a spare tub of soap. Finding it, I returned and oversaw his thorough hand washing. When we turned to the paper towel, I was dismayed to see that it, too, was left empty. Ready to compromise, I told him to shake his hands off, that they would dry OK on their own.

It was a moment of utter dismay when he replied, “There wasn’t any of that other paper, either.”

“That other paper?”

“You know, the stuff you use to clean your butt.”

I rushed into the stall and with great relief, saw that there was, indeed, toilet paper there. I showed him and he was thrilled, “Oh, good! I didn’t see it!” I suggested that perhaps he should make use of it. He agreed, and said he might need a minute, because he might have more poops.

Relieved to think my poop story was resolved, I returned to the classroom and proceeded with the lesson. As time stretched out again, I knew something was wrong, so I cautiously returned to the outside of his stall door and asked if everything was OK. I could hear the indications of a struggle as he replied, “Mom says to make sure I get my butt cleaned all the way, so I check it twice with my hand when I think I’m ready.”

I didn’t ask him what he does with his hand when he realizes he is wrong, but I’m pretty sure he’d already been wrong a few times, and that was why the smells in that stall were so overwhelming. I tried not to look in when he declared himself finished; I couldn’t face the possibility. Whoever locked up the soap and paper towels on Friday could handle it on Monday, because I still had a dozen unsupervised kids waiting for me next door, a poop-smeared bathroom stall was definitely not in my job description, and I didn’t have so much as a paper towel to attack it with.

He had looked like such a little dignitary in that suit, but I knew what that little boy was really capable of.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. Deuteronomy 23:12

Friday, November 12, 2010

I was surprised by a girl.

I didn’t care about gender when I argued for a bigger family. I just knew I wanted more kids. But heading into our ultrasound last week, I was two-for-two. I just had that feeling, both times, that we were having a girl. I felt it so strongly with my second daughter that I had already purchased matching sister outfits for them. This time around, everything felt very different. I was sicker and more tired. My cravings were different. My belly had a different shape. For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps this time, we were having a boy.

It probably impacted my neutrality somewhat that my younger daughter was insistent on how much she wanted a little brother. It surprised me until a few days before the ultrasound. We were spending the evening with some friends who have two boys that are close in age with my girl. She shocked me. The three of them were chasing the dog, playing sneaky hide and seek games, even tackling each other and wrestling on the ground. I started feeling nervous that things were getting too rough, but I was wrong. She was loving every second. Her older sister would have been crying a river if she’d taken those blows, but my little girl had a blast. A light bulb went on in my head and I realized why she was so adamant about wanting a brother. There’s this whole other rambunctious, fun-loving side of her that she only gets to express on the playground and the monkey bars. I knew from early on that she was a climber and that she was harder on the furniture and the dog than I ever remember being, but seeing her with her two buddies, knocking around like a maniac, I realized there’s a gap for her that her sister and I simply do not fill. For as much as she loves Barbies and dress up, she still longs for a Wild Catawampus now and then. No wonder she begs for dates with Daddy.

So I left our friends’ place that night thinking this little baby must surely be a boy. Most certainly, God knew my girl needed a brother. I embraced the possibility that we were going to get to pass on my grandpa’s name. I began to deal with my fears about whether to circumcise him, and just how awful our house was going to smell in another ten years when perspiration kicked in. I found myself contemplating whether to argue for a fourth child, so that our son wouldn’t be the lonely baby brother of two doting big sisters.

Someone else's baby girl, but you get the idea.
 None of this would matter, if the ultrasound had revealed an anatomical malady in our baby; all our attention and concern would rightly be on our baby’s health. But because all of the important stuff was perfect, the last step in the screening is what stunned us. What my aunt referred to as the “it” shot – there it was. The third time around, we did not need the tech to confirm for us; those were girl-parts. I looked over at my husband – he, too, looked shocked.

As soon as the tech left the room, we began to strategize for how we were going to break the news to the girls. We wanted to ease them into it, so that our younger daughter could get caught up in our joy over her new sister, instead of being disappointed. We put a pink balloon on the mailbox as their first clue, so that as they walked home from school and saw it, the idea could sink in before being confirmed. My husband videoed the girls through a window to capture their reactions. Sure enough, our younger daughter initially fell silent and looked shocked, but by the time we met her at the door with our enthusiastic confirmation, she hugged me tight, kissed my belly, and chattered affirmations to the baby; bringing joyful tears to our eyes. God knows best, after all.

While “trying for a boy” was not a factor for me in having more kids, I have to admit that the realization that I’m never going to have a son has struck me this week. It is unlikely that my husband is going to agree to have any more kids, so this was it. Somehow, as life plays out and time goes by, there are some things you have to let go of. I’m the mother of daughters. I can love my nephews and play with my friends’ kids. I can do my best to nurture the guys who come through the youth group; I can feel gratitude for great relationships with the men in my life; but I’ll never know what it’s like to have a son. What I can and will do, however, is teach my three daughters there’s nothing second-class about being female – and to love Star Wars and Cyclone Football, so there.

Come, my children, listen as I teach you to respect the LORD. Psalm 34:11

Friday, November 5, 2010

I’m a re-gifter, but I still don’t want your junk.

As the holidays are approaching, my husband and I are once again confronted with the challenge of gift-giving. It starts early, when you have out of town family to consider. It is always amusing to plan gifts with my husband; I have some values about gift giving that have been both refreshing and challenging to him through the years, because they differ so significantly from his family of origin. I remember when we were dating how he saw a Star Wars cap he liked and made the purchase, then dropped it off at his parents for them to give him for Christmas. They nonchalantly pulled the cash out and made the trade. I almost fell on the floor.

In my family, the importance of surprise in gift giving far outweighed the importance of the gift’s perfection or actual monetary value. There was almost no point in giving my parents a gift list, because we never got something we actually asked for. Instead we got crazy stuff that sometimes confused, but always entertained. Most of it was socks and chapstick, but at the end of the morning we’d end up seated back-to-back to tear the paper open on three sets of matching roller skates, or a complete family set of lazar-tag equipment. Sometimes it was a perfect match, sometimes it wasn’t, but it taught me a valuable lesson about gifts that has served me well: don’t expect anything.

In my opinion, the minute you start thinking you’re entitled to something you really want or need, something that has a specific use or value to you, gift giving becomes a perfunctory exchange of commodities. If you need a particular perfume, go buy what you like. If you want a gift from me, expect something that has a little flavor of me, and a little flavor of you. Something that reflects the joy I feel in having a relationship with you.

That, to me, is the essence of gift giving. It honors the relationship. The gifts we give are derived from those first gifts, brought to Jesus by the Magi. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh: gifts no infant would enjoy. But they were meant to demonstrate the meaning of his Advent; that divinity had come to Earth to reach out to humanity in sacrifice. It honored the new relationship God was forming with us.

So, I am not ashamed to say that I regift. I’m not crazy or independently wealthy. If I get something lovely, that I’m just not in love with (especially if it is a commodity offered to me out of obligation, instead of a reflection of relationship), and I know of someone for whom it might just be a match, I will more than gladly turn it out in lavish new paper and bow for someone else to enjoy. But when I get stuck with one-off kitchen towels with a mushroom motif, I draw the line and put them in the rag bin.

I try to pay attention to budget, but not cost, in gift giving. What I try to pay the most attention to, though, is my friends and loved ones, so I won’t be at a loss when the time comes to give them something. I might give the occasional lame duck (not sure my sister-in-law was as excited about the first season of Big Love as we were), but now and then I really hit the nail on the head – and isn’t that fun for both of us? Best of all, no one ever has to wonder whether I just pulled something off the shelf and passed it off on them. I’d sooner give you a gag gift of fake barf I think will make you laugh, as a set of diamond earrings that I don’t think you’ll really love. I’m out for one thing – to let you know you matter to me.  The real gift is my affection - some people accept it with joy, others would prefer a gift card.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

Friday, October 29, 2010

I don’t think Halloween is Evil.

I love the line in Goonies, where Data says he’s moving to Detroit, and Mouth informs him that it’s the murder capitol. That movie was made in 1985; the same year my family picked up and moved to the Detroit area. The other thing Detroit was famous for that year was rampant Devil’s Night arson, and sure enough, our mailbox got blown to bits with the day’s mail inside, the night of October 30th. That was the first time I’d heard of Devil’s Night or the suggestion that Halloween was something sinister. Since relocating to the heartland, I’ve found the “Beggar’s Night” tradition pretty amusing. Our fear of Halloween has us rescheduling Trick-or-Treating, to avoid the antics. If we aren’t going to Trick-or-Treat on Halloween anyway, why don’t we move Beggar’s Night to the nearest, convenient Friday night? Why still send the kids out on a school night? And why call it “Trick-or-Treat?” Shouldn’t it be “Candy Solicitation” or “Jokes for Junkfood?”

To me, Halloween isn’t about nasty pranks, serial killers, or ghoulish threats from beyond the grave. Halloween is about cowboys, princesses, and, most importantly, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. My big brother and I were actually cowboys pretty frequently, because it only required blue jeans and a bandana; something easily thrown together the morning before the school parade. My husband and I now promote family unity by coming up with silly themes that entertain and amuse our friends and neighbors. The girls were adorable as red riding hood and the big bad wolf (especially because the big bad wolf was a scary, little toddler) and Star Wars earned us a large picture in the city paper. Our masked wrestling theme last year made for a great Single Ladies Video, even though we didn’t make the cut for the big costume contest. We haven’t been a family of Undead yet, and I don’t plan on going there, but I have donned the pointy hat to complete the cast of The Wizard of Oz. And The Adams Family wouldn’t be out of the question.

The joy and the problem with Halloween, in my opinion, isn’t the scary movies or the fake blood. The problem is that evil is real every single day of the year. Every day, there are kids running around who would burn down your shed for fun. Every day, the Tempter is at work, enticing us to harm ourselves and one another. Rather than banning my children from the fun of Goosebumps and Harry Potter, rather than closing my door and plugging my ears on October 31st, I’m going to embrace the joy of exercising my imagination, getting little chills down my spine every now and then, and sharing a community experience on the streets of our neighborhood. I’m going to take this chance to connect with the kids on my block and find out what they value by their costume and joke choices. I’m going to fill their bags with Pop Rocks and hope their teenage years are joyful and fruitful enough to keep them off the streets and away from my mailbox.

More important, even than Peanut Butter Cups, I’m going to do my best to live my life, in the world, in a way that reflects the Savior and Creator, who made everything Good, who is more powerful than, and has already scored victory over, evil and the grave, rather than reject the world and isolate myself.  I will fear no evil, on Halloween or otherwise, for God is with me. I hope that if I raise my children immersed in the truth that Good is more powerful than Evil, a few sets of vampire fangs and one pointy hat won’t drive them to burn down my shed or dabble in Wicca.

You, LORD, are the light that keeps me safe. I am not afraid of anyone. You protect me, and I have no fears. Psalm 27:1

Friday, October 22, 2010

I Drive My Daughters to Prayer

A friend of mine refers to parenthood as “the guilt that keeps giving.” Generally, I try not to live that way; accepting that I have good and bad days, and trying to let the bad ones go. There are times however, when I hit a rough patch and find myself broken down and humbled by the responsibility for nurturing young life. I’m crawling out of one of those rough patches right now.

My older daughter, usually independent and capable, went through a needy spell when she learned we were going to have another child. She was fine all day, but at bedtime she would suddenly beg us to let her sleep in our room and complain of maladies that required us to administer care, attention, and occasionally Tylenol, well past when she should have been asleep. We were a little slow to catch on to the pattern, and then once we did, we were reluctant to come down on her, because we understood the source of her sudden insecurity. So, in other words, we let it get out of hand.

This bedtime nonsense culminated in a horrible night a couple weeks ago where she completely lost her mind. Our calm and calloused response to her perceived need only seemed to send her into a spiraling frenzy of tears and screams. She threw a tantrum like I haven’t seen since she was a toddler. Two hours past bedtime, I warned her firmly that we were done with the show and if she didn’t silence herself and go to sleep, my next trip to her bedroom was going to include a spanking – which, of course, I ended up having to make good on, still with no success. My husband then took the behaviorist approach we should have employed from the start, turning off her nightlight and warning her of the uncomfortable consequences if he had to return again (hall light off, door closed all the way, etc). She finally went silent as he came back into the living room.

After ten minutes of silence, knowing my younger daughter had been kept awake by the whole shenanigans and not wanting the girls to go to sleep angry or upset, I slipped back into their rooms and kissed each kid on the forehead as they dozed off.

Aside from being out of practice on toddler tantrums, I also found out this last week that I’m a lousy nurse-maid. My younger girl woke up with a hot fever, so I kept her home from school and gave her ibuprofen to keep her comfortable. She was tired and wouldn’t eat much, but the next morning, she woke up with renewed energy and scarfed down a big bowl of yogurt. I was relieved that she was on the mend. I even held off on her afternoon dose of medication, because she was getting antsy and I wanted her to feel sick enough to rest. She took a decent nap, watched a lot of PBS, and even asked me to slice an apple for her.

Then she woke up with hives on her legs. The fever was hot again. I called the walk-in clinic, and the nurse asked, “Does she have a sore throat?” She hadn’t complained of one, but I asked her. “Yes, Mommy, my throat hurts really bad.” I dragged her to a light and looked in her mouth – it was a mess! We were two days into Strep Throat before I thought to look into my kid’s mouth.

As if to finish me off, after church on Sunday, she declared to me, “Mom, God really does answer prayer.” Feeling parental pride well up inside me, I affirmed her observation and asked if there’s something that made her bring it up.

“Yes. The other night when you were hitting sis, I prayed to God that you wouldn’t be mean to your kids anymore. Then you came back and kissed us, so God answered my prayer.”

As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own. Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. Ephesians 4:1-2

Friday, October 15, 2010

I Lost Interest in the Chilean Miners on Day 2

Although I would have to have my head in a hole not to know that on Day 69, the last one was brought to the surface, the tunnel was capped, and the international community gave a rousing standing ovation to the Chilean rescue effort, none of this captured my fascination. Nice work, everybody, now back to our regular programming.

I tried to muster my compassion and at least read an article about the rescue. But I got bored and started to skim two paragraphs in, when they started giving a book-jacket type bio of each miner in the order they were rescued. For real? Are we picking out heroes and villains for the TV Movie already? Based on?? I don’t know these men. I don’t share language or culture with them. The only reason they suddenly mattered to most Americans was because of the cameras pointed at them. If I were a geologist or something, I might have taken interest in the details of drill bits and torque, in case, some day in the future, I myself was responsible to free others from a half mile below the surface. If I were a specialist in Latin American politics, I might have been captivated by the political implications of all the positive media attention on a regime no one cared about back in July. But for that matter, how much did we care about those 30 miners back in July, either?

Do we care enough to lobby for safer mining in Chile and the U.S. (where our own mining mishaps have recently been considered newsworthy, as well)? Do we care enough to cut back on our use of the non-renewable resources these man go into the ground to retrieve for us?

I’m not heartless. I’m glad those men didn’t die in the mine. But how many multiples of 30 have died or languished in the last two months, while no expense or effort was spared for these guys? How many innocent lives were lost to things that such a font of attention and money could have prevented? I don’t know for sure, but I have the feeling that it’s a cheap fix to spend our compassion and jubilation on 30 Chilean miners, when there are people in need of rescue all around us. We’ll celebrate with Chile today, but then we go back to ignoring the people around us everyday, who are neglected and trapped by their own plights.

Just in our youth group, there are such deep and compelling needs. Broken families, grave illness, and drug addiction are just three of the many troubles confronting these kids and their families. I could turn myself inside out, trying to reach them in their every need and, short of adopting half a dozen more teenagers into my family, there are some needs I can’t address. But I know that if that kind of need and pain makes its way into a small youth group on the edge of the city, there are so many, such deeper needs, right in our own neighborhoods. So rather than sit in front of the TV, dispensing hours of love and compassion on 30 Chilean strangers that NBC says I should care about, I didn’t. Sorry, but I said a prayer and moved on. I was needed elsewhere and, frankly, I think you are, too.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Matthew 9:36-37

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's Turkey Time, Eh!

My husband and I went to Bennigan’s for lunch this week and both of us were enticed by the “Day-After-Thanksgiving” sandwich. It’s embarrassing when we order the same thing, so we coordinated, and he ordered it, while I ordered some other side item, so we could share the sandwich. I know I’m going to sound like an ad for the restaurant, but have you had this sandwich? Mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberries, and turkey on a pretzel-bread bun. We ordered a side of sweet potato fries to finish off the feast. It was everything we thought it would be: a delicious preview of Thanksgiving to get us by for another month.

The idea that sandwich could tide us over until the fourth week of November completely backfired. I could think of nothing else for the rest of the afternoon. Turkey. Cranberries. Grandma Ella’s pickled beets. Green-bean casserole. So much for pickles and ice cream; I’ve been fantasizing about a feast that is still seven long weeks away.

I confessed to my husband that night. I don’t think I can wait; I am going to have to roast a turkey. It’s wrong. It’s unseasonal. We should be focused on pumpkins right now. But I cannot get that turkey breast and cranberry sauce out of my head.

Then I remembered the most important holiday on our North American-combo calendar: Canadian Thanksgiving! I’ve been told that my Southeast Michigan upbringing has left a permanent Northern imprint on my pronunciation, so why not embrace that “A”-enhanced culture? I’ve never tried Boxing Day and I’m unlikely to postpone our egg hunt to Easter Monday, but Canadian Thanksgiving…now that is a holiday I can embrace.

So, despite the three-week accumulation of housework I’ll have to overcome before guests can use my restroom or eat at my table, and the nap I will likely require while the turkey roasts - I guess I'm motivated by turkey when all else fails - we’ve invited a couple friends who seem to embrace our wacky sense of humor, and we are going to celebrate Thanksgiving with the Canadians this year. Don’t worry, we will still do our patriotic duty and overeat again on November 25th.

You give your guests a feast in your house, and you serve a tasty drink that flows like a river. Psalm 36:8

Friday, October 1, 2010

I’m Ready to Out the Tooth-Fairy

I posted a picture this week so my friends and family could see the way my younger daughter’s advancing age has ravaged her teeth. I’m not sure how she’s actually eating right now; there are so many gaps in her ragged smile. I mourn the loss of those perfect little pearly-whites that we worked so hard for, back in that first year. I remember the chipmunk smile of her first birthday and how huge those little nubs looked in her mouth.

She, on the other hand, has no such hesitation. She bounced in from school, delighted to show us the treasure box she got from the nurse when the first of her two front incisors came out at lunch time. Yesterday, she could hardly get the blood rinsed out of her mouth; she was so thrilled with the newly empty place beside the first. And this morning she woke up an hour earlier than usual to dance the celebratory dance of a new Golden Dollar. And for that, she has her father to thank.

If I were in charge of “bringing imaginary figures to life” for our family, I’d probably be sliding the golden dollar across the table and throwing the tooth in compost. At some point, we are going to have to break off this charade. A lost tooth at family camp, where no one thought to bring a golden dollar, turned into a long yarn about how tooth-fairies have different routes and we can’t be sure, but camp might be on the “Paperdollar Tooth-Fairy’s” route. No worries, because our tooth-fairy was glad to exchange that paper dollar for a golden coin the next night.

It’s the same way at Christmas with Santa. Whoever takes the role has to mask his voice and, I’m not kidding, put gray makeup on his eyebrows to hide his natural hair color. According to family tradition, gray eyebrows are the key to the magic of Santa. Santa should also have handwriting distinctly different from that of Mom and Dad.  (Of course, you can cheat at these rules, if you are desparate to get a toddler to nap.)

I’m all for the fun and games of these family traditions. It’s hilarious how the kids’ eyes light up at the magic they perceive to be happening, not just around them, but for them. I myself have helped my daughter write a note to the tooth-fairy to explain that her loose tooth fell into the toilet and couldn’t be retrieved, but could she still have a golden dollar? But there has be a point where we affirm our kids’ growing skills of reason and let them realize that this is a fun game, not the truth of how the world works. After all, if you are masking your handwriting, your kids must be old enough to read. It might be time to let them figure it out, before they embarrass themselves with the kids at school.

Maybe I shouldn’t sit them down at the table and explain that the tooth-fairy is really just Daddy. I’m sure they’ll want to realize the truth more gradually than that. But I do try to ensure that we don’t work too hard convincing them that these untrue things are true, because I don't want to sacrifice our credibility.

I want my kids to trust me, that I’m not out to fool them. It's important they know I'm not playing games when I also tell them that God came down to Earth to live among us as a human being. I tell them he died, but rose again. I tell them that living out our lives the way he told us to will bring blessing and hope to ourselves and others. They can’t actually see and touch Jesus. He doesn’t leave them money on their night stand. Their first experience of faith in their heavenly father is going to spring from their faith in their earthly parents. Maybe I take it all too seriously, but there’s too much at stake to risk leading them to doubt that the sometimes fantastic things I tell them are really true.

Then Jesus told him, "You believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly blessed." John 20:29

Friday, September 24, 2010

***Whine whine whine***

I hate whiners. The incessant chorus of complaining drives me nuts on so many levels. First of all, what’s the point in complaining? Don’t waste your time or mine. Get out there and do something to make things different, or suck it up. Second of all, what do we really have to complain about? Do we not live in a country with an obesity problem while 2/3 of the world is malnourished? People in Greece are still storing their TP in the trash bin to preserve the country’s fragile sanitation system, while I have fresh, clean water that comes out of my faucet on demand – hot or cold. I drive on paved roads, organized with traffic signals and colored stripes to keep me safe and well directed. I shop at grocery stores that are stocked to the rafters with a wide variety of tasty food, offered at reasonable prices. I put my clothes into a machine that cleans them for me and call it “housework.” Sure, illness, sickness, and the stupidity of our fellow humans can befall any of us at any time, making us uncomfortable, inconvenienced, or impoverished, but what does a short temper, and high pitched nasal vocalizing do to correct that? Nothing. So, please, save it.

I feel like I’ve earned my callous indifference, at least to some degree. I can handle pain – I birthed two kids naturally, with none of the crazed screaming of the lady across the hall to “GET IT OUT! GET IT OUT!” I hope Dad got that on video so Junior can someday enjoy the warmth of his welcome. I’ve worked hard – I took on crazy, exhausting challenges like commuting 3 hours each way to school while working the other four days a week with my daughter in my office. I’ve lived on nothing – I even got stuck on an island with no money for a week and had to subsist in a hostel, eating beans and fake peanut butter while sharing a room of bunk beds with insane homeless people. And that’s just a few examples of the stupid binds my “never say die” attitude has gotten me into. I know there are much harsher adversities out there for humans to endure, but I do figure I’ve been uncomfortable, inconvenienced, and impoverished enough to have empathy, if not compassion, for most of the whining I hear around me. But even in the midst of those experiences, I forced myself to keep it together, to make the best of it, to assume there was something better for me on the other side. I really tried not to whine.

Whining never got me anywhere, and I try not to let it get anyone else anywhere, either. My lousy attitude towards whiners has led me into quite another predicament, these last couple months. I am, at this very moment, torn between my desire to vocalize all my discomforts and the internal self-loathing that such a vocalization causes. Instead of rallying against the nausea, fatigue, and mood imbalances of these 14 weeks of pregnancy, I have found myself, instead, surrendering to them. I’ve spent more time languishing on the couch with a pile of crackers than loading up the machine so it can clean my clothes for me. I’ve been impatient with my two sweet girls, criticizing instead of nurturing them, when they fail to meet my expectations for picking up after themselves and getting their homework done. I’ve broken every rule of eating well, and living well (except for not drinking – which I would truly love to do)! I am such a pathetic bundle of WHINER!

And really – there are so many people around me who would give anything to have two such healthy and beautiful daughters. I pursue this greedy desire for a bigger family, get pregnant with ease, and then have the audacity to whine about the symptoms of pregnancy? Don’t think for a moment that I don’t realize what a horrible human being I am. I have such a deep respect for this process; I get to co-create with God! I feel such an intense love for this little person I’m cooking up. I have such high hopes for my friends and acquaintances who want to have a family and struggle to make it happen. But, at the moment, I just needed to complain a little. The fact of the matter is, and has been for weeks, I just don’t feel very good. And I hate it when I let that get the best of me.

For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. Isaiah 42:14
(I refrained from adding the next verse, but you may get a laugh if you look it up.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

I Married Up

When my loved ones act shocked that I landed such a smart, good looking, and put-together guy, I get a little insulted sometimes. Of course, I, too, think my husband is fabulous, but do they have to act like I pulled something off? What kind of schlump did they expect me to end up with?

It’s quite the opposite of how they acted, back when I was single. Back then, every guy I took interest in was fatally flawed, and I needed to show more self-respect. His hair style was too feminine. He owned too many guns. He wasn’t funny. He tried to be too funny. He just wanted sex.  Time after time, my treasured family and friends warned me off a potential love interest and suggested that perhaps I didn’t realize how smart, beautiful, or wonderful I was, because I should not settle.

Then along came my husband, and suddenly the tables turned. “How does he put up with your…?” “You should really cut him some slack about….” “Doesn’t he need a guys’ night by now?” Somehow, they can’t seem to believe that my husband tolerated the sound of my voice, let alone my fashion-sense, family values, sense of humor, or ego long enough to meet me at the altar. There was an overall wave of shock when we announced our engagement and I didn’t change my plans to teach abroad for a year before the wedding, “You mean he’s going to wait for you?” Imagine that – a guy so great and so in love with me, that he would give me space to fulfill a dream before settling down together.

Well, as you can probably imagine, I’ve developed some perspective about this as the years have gone by. I’ve been part of my husband’s family, as my brothers-in-law have sought and found love, and witnessed the process through my siblings, cousins, and friends. I’ve even (I’m sure you’re not surprised) developed a theory about it.

When you are with someone that your loved ones think might not be right for you, all they see are your attributes and their flaws. They are fearful that you might have to live out your life burdened by those flaws. When you are with someone that your loved ones think is really the right one, they are fearful that it won’t work out and you will miss this amazing chance at happiness. They begin to focus on your flaws, but not because they think any less of you. They’re your loved ones; they knew your flaws all along. They’re just amazed to find that there’s another soul in the world who can see you for who you are and love you the way they do. They probe your flaws to confirm whether it’s really true and probe his attributes to figure out if they’re for real, too.

As insulting as it can be sometimes, I’m thrilled that the most important people in my life think my husband is such a catch. They see what I see and they’re happy for us. I’m so glad I didn’t settle. My dearest hope for my own children is to someday believe in my heart they married someone as perfect for them as he is for me; hopefully I can communicate that to them someday without making them feel like comparative schlumps.

Get married and have children, then help your sons find wives and help your daughters find husbands, so they can have children as well. Jeremiah 25:6

Friday, September 10, 2010

Islam is not the Devil, but Mental Illness is Demons

What would possess a man who claims to follow Jesus Christ to incite anger and promote hatred, despite the opposition of fellow clergy, and the pleas of multitudes of rational people? Let me tell you, folks, this guy might be hearing voices, but it isn't Jesus or the Holy Spirit talking. What can a person do, if they have a delusional need to be heard, and no one wants to listen? They want to be heard, not to say anything worthwhile, so they pick any hot button topic that stirs up people's most passionate emotions and get themself in front of a camera.

Whether it's holding up signs that say, "God hates fags," or assaulting troubled women with pictures of dismantled fetuses, what you are seeing on display is not the love and hope that can be found in the greatest story ever told. It is the demon-possessed ranting of a small number of people with an incredibly persistent drive to be acknowledged.

Now, I realize that it is no longer en vogue to call mental disorders "demon possession." I also realize that many people are able to have their issues diagnosed and treated, or short of that, at least brought under maintenance. I am in no way arguing for a return to institutionalization and "leeching" of people whose behavior falls outside of cultural norms. But there is probably no human frailty that inspires hopelessness in me more than mental illness. It acts just like demons. Where relationships and the love of others is the strongest life line to keep each of us connected and thriving in the world, that seems to be the first thing these disorders attack. So often, by the time it is clear that there is a disorder, and not just rampant bad behavior, the victim's strongest allies in the fight have already fled to safety.

I am no clinical psychologist, but I can tell you with some certainty that church life brings me into contact with more than my share of individuals with mental issues. It feels like demons, when troubled people refuse to acknowledge their problem and get help. Imagine if your cancer attacked your brain and convinced you not to get chemo. It is also much easier to tolerate the pain these disorders inflict when I can remind myself that it is the demons, not the person, spurting ugliness; I can hate the demons and still love the person.

I sometimes feel trapped in this dilemma. Maybe someday the voices in my head will give me a solution, beyond fervent prayer and strong boundaries. In the mean time, those of you who hold a deep respect, possibly even a love, for Christ in your hearts, but choose not to express it through the institution of the church; I understand your hesitation. It breaks my heart when the Body of Christ, who reached out with love and healing to those who were marginalized, becomes known for hatred and division. It also breaks my heart that there are people out there so full of pain and hatred, who claim to know the source of deepest healing, yet somehow don't tap into it.

For now, I really wish they would quit putting cameras in those peoples' faces and giving them a voice so loud that it drowns out everyone else. I'm a behaviorist, after all: if it quit working, even demons would quit doing it.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. Matthew 8:16

Friday, September 3, 2010

I Wish I Could Play Football

Insight 2009 - we won!
Understand me, I am pleased as pleased can be to be a woman. I've never had a moment's envy for men in their manliness. But I just love the idea of pouncing on someone as hard as I can and savagely dragging them to the ground. Where, in a woman's life, does she find such an outlet?

We weren't really into sports growing up. My dad was a gymnast and my mom was in the marching band. Most bandies I know are die-hard football fanatics that know every chant and song; my mom was not that kind of bandie. I could bet she hasn't been to a live football game since 8th grade. I lettered in swimming, just for fun, and took a whole season on the JV Tennis team to figure out how to serve into the box. Watching ice skating and gymnastics, while very enjoyable, hardly awakened my competitive drive.

My husband, however, changed everything. Before I could name more than three NFL teams, his family had me picking winners each week in the family league. Bewildered by the flurry of energy around me during games, I listened to his patient explanations about 3rd downs, pass interference, sacks, and late hits, and found myself slowly getting sucked into the complex strategy of this brutal game. The next thing I knew, we were buying season tickets to cheer on the Iowa State Cyclones, I was nursing my first baby under a Cardinal & Gold blanket during half time, and we were planning our holidays around kick off in Shreveport, Houston, or Phoenix.

Our First Bowl Game: Independence Bowl 2001
The NFL can be fun, but it's really college ball that won me over. The electricity, the way the fans get into the game, those guys down there who are still playing for their team and their love of game, not giant paychecks. So sometimes I can get a little carried away. Sometimes I yell louder than the other fans around me and it embarrasses my family. Sometimes I keep my brother on the phone an extra 20 minutes savoring the strategic brilliance of a 4th and 1 call. I should probably cool it a little, but, hey, I think it's a blast and it's the closest I can get to what I really want. Someday, somehow, someone's going to have a spare set of football pads around the house and I'm going to get my chance to put them on and take someone down. No broken bones, no blood; all perfectly safe. I'll most likely be humbled by a dirt meal, but I will finally know what it's like to feel the crashing impact of all-out human passion.

The man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won. That's why your name will be Israel." Genesis 32:28

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Laugh at People

To see more of that I'm
talking about: State Fair Fashion
Did you notice they cleaned up the midway at the Iowa State Fair? They widened the walkways. The rides looked fresh, and the operators appeared to be working a summer job, not career carnies with the toothless look of meth-addiction. It was, by far, the most family-friendly experience I've ever had, circling the midway and putting the girls on the swings. Even that foul-mouthed clown in the dunk tank was gone, along with his crowd of inebriated admirers. I didn't have to brush up against overweight women in skimpy tank tops to get through the tight spots, and my kids didn't ask me on the way home about facial piercings. I didn't even get any fresh ideas for my prison tattoo.

I was so disappointed.

I feel like the color has been sapped out of my life lately. There are things I love about our monochromatic, suburban life: the McDonald's clerk doesn't get lippy when I make a special order, the kids don't come home from school with trucker vocabulary, and there's a park with a pond down the block. It's very pleasant here in Utopia, but, really, what's the fun in that? Every now and then, you need to see the neighbor circling your backyard on his lawn tractor, pulling a dozen kids on a sled, knocking down your landscape, and drinking a beer while he drives. What fun is a good night's sleep when you could be listening right through the walls to the backyard karaoke of ten drunken people blasting their version of "Desperado" on loudspeakers from their patio?

Apparently calls to the police have tempered the neighbors' enthusiasm for parties and lawn equipment, so things have been extremely quiet on our block this summer. Then the fair goes and takes away the human zoo we call the midway. At least my church is in the city – there's always some good, colorful folks around there to spice things up.

During our snarky laughfests, making fun of all the human silliness around us, I do realize that no one leaves the house in the morning thinking, "I hope this outfit makes a fool of me today." Or, "I think I'll go engage in some bizarre and unhealthy behavior tonight, just to give the neighbors a laugh." Truly, when I see those giant, tattooed women pushing strollers full of kids around the fair, I feel sadness for the brokenness of our world. I honestly hope that none of the neighborhood kids ever falls under the wheels of the lawn tractor. But as long as people are going to continue engaging in these absurd behaviors, I invite them to have a good chuckle at my prudishness, and then, by all means, bring on the show.

Wisdom is like having two good eyes; foolishness leaves you in the dark. But wise or foolish, we all end up the same. Ecclesiastes 2:14

Friday, August 20, 2010

We Blew Off Meet-the-Teacher

I thought Meet-the-Teacher was to accommodate weary children who needed the reassurance of seeing their desk and locker ahead of time, in order to go to school the first day without a humiliating attack of separation anxiety in front of the other kids. Obviously, my blog wouldn't be much fun if I got things like that right, now would it?

Turns out Meet-the-Teacher is actually about parent volunteerism. Your child's teacher doesn't want to spend the first ten minutes of the first day of school helping the kids put their school supplies away. Instead, they want you to give up two precious hours of your now-dwindling summer vacation to drag your kids into school and put the supplies away for them. It is not enough that you have to drop $50 every August on glue sticks and markers that they are just going to send back home to you next spring, feeding a marker drawer that most seriously does not need one more marker in it. No, you also need to deliver those supplies and place them around the classroom in the designated locations, as described on the prepared sheet you are presented with at the door (often your only actual interaction with the teacher at Meet-the-Teacher).

Because of my serious misunderstanding about the purpose of this event, I thought little of it when we spent our Monday night doing our usual things, and didn't realize until Tuesday afternoon that we'd missed it. My kids did not seem upset, and were comfortable with our assurance that we would get there early for the first day.

When we arrived at school well ahead of time on Wednesday, we were met at the door with a stern admonishment from the office staff that when I ordered our pre-packaged supplies from the PTO, I had put down the wrong grade for my older daughter. Fortunately, my daughter's scholastic career was salvaged by a kid in the proper grade who had moved out of town, so we could switch the boxes. No mention of a refund for the two bucks I overpaid by ordering wrong.  I guess I could just take it out of the money we'll bring in selling wrapping paper next month.

Oh, hush, they're not nervous, they just didn't like the sun in their eyes.
When we arrived in the classrooms, we were chided that our two were the only children out of the whole school who had failed to come to Meet-the-Teacher and then handed our to-do list. We set to work righting our wrong, assembling their supply boxes, and finding the glue stick bin. We tried to be unobtrusive, working quickly and quietly so the teacher could finish her prep without having to actually meet us.

My husband was quite chagrined by the whole experience. He worries about the pressure our kids must be under, going to a school that takes itself so seriously. I used to feel that way too, back when I cared what the teachers thought of us. I learned that they get to know us through our kids. And we have two sweet, smart, attentive kids, who follow the rules and are good leaders in their classes. They may think we're schlumps today, but by conference time, they will be eating out of our hands.

I won't teach my kids to blow off the school's expectations with complete disregard, but I will try to give them enough self-assurance not to obey just anyone who claims authority over them, or stress out, feeling like everything they do is always wrong, because there's someone with a wagging finger around every corner. We aren't going to raise lemmings just to make things convenient for their teachers.

And, although it was an accident this year, I might just skip Meet-the-Teacher next year. I'd rather give up an extra half hour the first day of school than battle the crowds for two hours on a nice summer night. Eventually the teachers will start warning each other ahead of time about us, and they won't seem so surprised.

Don't you know that you are slaves of anyone you obey? You can be slaves of sin and die, or you can be obedient slaves of God and be acceptable to him. Romans 6:16

Friday, August 13, 2010

I Don't Do My Best

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of my energy attempting to do everything to the best of my ability. And that is what I tell my own children: do your best. Your best is always good enough. So I guess I'm a bit of a hypocrite, in that, I slack. Not only do I slack, but lately, I've been coaching others in the art of slacking. It is a brilliant antidote to high blood pressure.

It started in college. Every semester, I'd take the B-path in the class that demanded the most. By underachieving in that class, it would free up hours of study each week, leaving me ample free time to hit the parties, join a club, or lay around my dorm room watching Quantum Leap. Don't tell my kids this, but straight A's are overrated. If that's all you get out of college, you miss out.

If I devoted myself to it, I'm sure I could have a lovely, immaculate home that would be the envy of all my friends. But I don't. Instead I figure that as long as you're drinking my wine, and playing my RockBand, you aren't going to complain about the pile of old mail on the kitchen counter or the toothpaste splatters on the bathroom mirror. So far, most guests are willing to return, and good riddance to the ones that weren't. I hope I'm contributing to my friends' housekeeping satisfaction; when they get back to their dust and cobweb-free homes, they probably feel like Martha Stewart.

I don't subscribe to the do-more, be-more, have-more lifestyle that Oprah and Self offer. I think fun, love, and contentment dwell in cutting loose those pressures and savoring "enough." I don't need to win Mother of the Year, gain public recognition in my profession; I don't need to be the prettiest, smartest, or even the nicest. I accomplished enough of that crap before the age of 18 to know it doesn't matter in the long run, or make you a better person. Now I prefer the lower-stress strategy of "do enough, well enough, to be able to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day." As long as my husband, my kids, and my Lord are content with me, I am, too.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun .Ecclesiastes 2:11

Friday, August 6, 2010

I Suffer from Canine Gingivitis

The vet would tell you my dog suffers from canine gingivitis. It doesn't really seem to be bothering her, though, so I think I'm the only one who is suffering. Every year when we take her in for her checkup, I have to brace myself for the finger-wagging, get my story straight for what bold steps we are taking to rectify the problem, and keep in mind that my two daughters have been brainwashed into uncompromising truth-telling. They out me every time.

Last year, I gave the dog Denta-sticks. Until they ran out, that is. When the vet complained about her back teeth needing more attention, my daughters cheerfully volunteered the enormity of the lapse since the last Denta-stick and I pledged to purchase a doggie tooth brush.

Turns out, that big doggie toothbrush doesn't fit very well into the back corners of my 10 lb dog's mouth. So after a couple pathetic attempts that bathed me in gravy-flavored dog-toothpaste, I wasn't very motivated to take it on again – which my girls cheerfully reported to the vet at his first hint of dental displeasure this summer. The vet pulled up her lip and showed me the dog's worst offending teeth and I acknowledged that her teeth looked like she'd been living hard in a camper-trailer, drinking her coffee black, and swallowing her chew.

The vet said they'd give me an estimate for a tooth cleaning on our way out. When I saw it, I knew why he makes the staff give the estimates. It costs $250 to put her to sleep and grind off the plaque. I swallowed my impulse to ask if they could just pin her down awake. Really - say her teeth all fall out and she dies of starvation – it still only costs $106 to adopt another orphan at the Animal Rescue League.

But I want to be a good dog-mom. I don't want the vet to give me that condescending look next summer. And I definitely don't want to have to pay the extra cost of feeding her canned dog food when she's toothless. Plus, she really is a sweet and lovable dog-friend. So I tell myself, "Self, it's time we got out the toothpaste and had another go at it." Maybe tomorrow?

Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Proverbs 3:27

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sometimes a Girl’s Gotta ’ Bludgeon Someone

But Jael, Heber's wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. Judges 4:21

I have such a love/hate relationship with the Old Testament. It can be very complicated theologically to marry the New Testament message of love and forgiveness with the Old Testament's slayings and smitings. Even though I accept that the Old Testament was written from a very different paradigm and understanding of how God can and will act in the world, it would be far more comfortable if God had gone with unconditional forgiveness from the start. But that is not the story we have. Instead we have a sometimes brutal depiction of war, pillaging, smiting, raping, and bloodletting. Despite that, I'm grateful for the record of God and human interaction. It reveals the depth, the breadth, and the complexity of our relationship with the divine. That relationship is not simple, so, despite the many gospel tracts you may have seen to the contrary, let's not pretend it is.

But that's another topic…

If we're going to have to deal with all that Old Testament bloodlust, I'm at least grateful for Judges 4 and 5. People want, with great frequency, to use scripture to oppress and silence women. I revel in a good counter-message.

First you have the judge, Deborah, who should have been home tending to children and making torches, instead going to battle with military leader Barak. He demands her presence because he's too chicken to use the bathroom without her telling him to.

Then when the enemy leader, Sisera, flees the battle, Heber's wife Jael finishes him with a tent peg. It's not enough for the scripture to say she bludgeoned him with a tent peg; it's a Quentin Tarantino special. She sneaks up to him while he's sleeping and hammers the peg through his temple so hard it pins his skull to the ground. This gal has spent her whole life having to submit to men. Her dad chose her husband, her husband has ownership privileges over her, her sons will tell her how to live out her old age, but when this powerful, oppressive, feared leader happens into her tent, she lulls him with false comfort and takes his life with the tools of a woman's trade (the women were responsible for putting up the tents).

Judges 4 and 5: Old Testament Girl-Power. Women do the judging, call the shots in battle, hear the voice of God, and drive tent pegs through villains' temples. Just try to tell Deborah and Jael that women shouldn't teach men or preach the Gospel.

The end of Deborah's song, however, is the most amazing part of the story, to me. Deborah acknowledges the mother of the bludgeoned leader, the anxiety and confusion she must have felt when Sisera did not return from battle. The real source of girl-power is compassion. While gals can definitely get it done, they also seem to comprehend the humanity of others more deeply. In my opinion, it's one of the most amazing things about "Girl-Power," and one way women most often reflect the nature of Christ.

"Through the window peered Sisera's mother;behind the lattice she cried out, 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?' Judges 5:28

Friday, July 23, 2010

I Dined and Dashed

I could have spent the last decade in an Italian prison, instead of Middle America. The father of a high school friend once warned us before a day trip to Canada of the big loophole in foreign travel: they can hold you as long as they want before your trial. Two glasses of wine in Venice and I completely disregarded his sage advice.

I was fortunate, while teaching abroad, to be placed on the southern border of Austria, surrounded by beautiful mountains, and only a few hour's train ride from Venice, Italy. I planned a special trip with two of my most important visitors from home, to go to Venice for the first day the Venetians would begin appearing on the streets in their fantastic Carnival costumes. The pedestrian-only city, a web of alleys, canals, and stone bridges, is by itself a place that inspires the imagination. Adding these elaborate and elegant costumes made the whole place seem like a movie set or Wonderland.

One of the most striking costumes we saw.
We got lost in the sites, wandering the city until we realized it was late afternoon and we were getting really hungry. We found this pizza place situated right along a canal, with patio seating where we could bask in the sun, and marvel at the city around us. We ordered our pizza, and for a mere $6, added a carafe of red table wine. We were always surprised by the relative inferiority of Italian pizza, but the thin crust and cheese tasted great to our hungry palates, and the wine was the perfect splash to wash it down.

We had noticed the slight coldness we were getting from our waiter earlier, but it became most evident when we were ready for the check. It took quite a while to get his attention to even bring it. We were still enjoying the pleasant location and rehashing our morning, so we were pretty patient while we waited. Once we got the bill, we did our best to sort out who owed how much, and to put together the payment in Lira, along with a reasonable tip. Our bills didn't match up, and the result would have been a $15 tip for the waiter, whose kindness to us certainly wouldn't account for that much generosity. We waited for him to return so we could ask for change. And we waited. And we waited.
Note the empty table, the meal long-finished

It is really hard to guess how long we waited, because we had, after all, consumed a carafe of wine together. It felt like at least a half hour. The waiter never returned. Our afternoon in Venice was withering away. We could just leave, but we would have to make a choice whether to over-tip him substantially (especially by European standards), or under pay the bill by $5. We chose the latter and took off down the alley with the adrenalin-rush of young people who knew they were doing wrong. We could have just walked away, the waiter was obviously not going to come check our receipt with any urgency, but we were stealing and we didn't want to get caught.

We experienced some pretty lousy service at a stateside pizza joint last night, proving in some measure how universal it is that human beings don't really want to wait on one another. We had to beg for napkins, utensils, and refills. I'll give her credit, though. She was prompt with the bill. Wise woman.

Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Romans 13:7