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