Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

Urinal Fly: Give Them Something to Aim For

I told my graduate school professors I wasn’t writing a Mommy blog on subjects like potty training. That’s just not my thing. (None of my kids wear diapers anymore; No need to visit those medieval times.) But something’s going on with the alignment of the moon with Uranus or something because there was a definite theme to my day yesterday…and the theme was toilets.

It started in my guest bathroom where I noticed we were out of toilet paper, just the brown cardboard roll, forlornly hanging there, deprived of some soft folds of Charmin.

It’s a simple thing for me to grab a new roll of toilet paper from under the sink and replace it, which I promptly did. But the simpleness of that action annoyed me because it’s a simple task that any one of my four kids all using that very bathroom could have done, too! And suddenly I’m sitting there…no, I’m standing there, lest you’re forming a mental image of this…I’m standing in the bathroom thinking, Why am I always the one to have to replace the toilet paper???

A great wave of indignation and self-pity engulfed me, so I did what we all do when these crazy notions occur to us, I wrote about it on Facebook because my friends needed to know that my children are selfish little creatures, untrained in the art of replacing toilet paper.

Then I arrived at my class last night, and a portion of the lecture focused on communications and behavioral change.

I typed lecture notes into my laptop: “Behavioral intentions, what you say you will do, is one thing, but what you actually do is different. Behavior is usually considered the hardest to change.”

My mind went to Mr. Whipple and his inability to stop squeezing the Charmin and my children’s inability to ease a roll of Charmin onto the toilet paper dispenser. Grrrr.

I was thinking behavior change –> children –> toilet paper and, just like that, telepathically or something, Hanson Hosein (one of our instructors for the course) started talking about the men’s restroom at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

Apparently, men have terrible aim. Their minds wander. They lose track of what they’re doing, and they make absolute messes of the walls, the floors, whatever surrounds a urinal. And it’s a safety issue because the floors are, as those signs say, “slippery when wet.”

Enter Dutch behavioral economist, Aad Kieboom, who decided they should etch the outline of a fly onto the back wall of each porcelain urinal at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. It’s inexpensive and easy to install. Kieboom’s staff conducted the fly-in-urinal trials and discovered the “etchings reduce[d] spillage by 80 percent.”

The fly improved a man’s aim, gave him something to think about, I guess. Without signs, instructions manuals, or even Siri to guide them, the fly appealed to guys’ sense of target practice or gaming instincts or whatever it is that improved their accuracy and the sanitary conditions of Amsterdam’s lovely airport restrooms.

I love happy-ending stories like this! It’s not just because clean bathrooms delight me. I appreciate simple solutions. Cheap solutions. Solutions that require some out-of-the-box thinking to affect appropriate behavior changes.

It made me recall the children’s book, “All-of-a-Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor where the author wrote about her large Jewish family growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Taylor wrote about the sloppy job she and her siblings did of cleaning and dusting the front room of their house until their inspired mother hid pennies in the room that the children could find if they did their jobs thoroughly, lifting vases and rugs to clean everything.

I’m betting Taylor’s mother knew nothing about behavioral psychology on habit formation and addictions, but she wisely varied her penny rewards, sometimes hiding pennies and other times not, which caused her children to vigilantly, obsessively clean the room every time in the hopes of turning up a reward.

The urinal flies also reminded me of a New York Times piece, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” The author relates how she adapted animal training techniques to her husband and marriage.

That was my takeaway from Networks and Narratives last night. I shall figure out my own urinal fly: a simple, cheap, fun solution to getting my kids to replace toilet paper rolls in our home. It might require “approximations” (rewarding small steps to learning a new behavior). I might need to figure out an “incompatible behavior” that prevents my kids from leaving a bathroom if they’ve used up the last square of toilet paper without replacing the role.

No monetary rewards for replacing toilet paper because my children are geniuses at gaming the system and our household will suddenly experience a marked increase in toilet paper usage (or half-used rolls in the trash) if I incentivize them with money.

I’m not sure what modification technique I’ll employ, but I’ll keep you blog posted. Suggestions most certainly welcomed.

Plumbing Problems: My Life Down the Drain

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Conrad. We were talking about writing books, among other topics. Conrad is working on his second novel for young adults. If I was thinking about writing a book, he advised me, I should look for an overarching theme that ties my narrative together.

Well, tonight the theme came to me: Plumbing. Plumbing connects my narrative. I could write an anthology of short stories about plumbing and me.

I’d skip over the mundane events such as the time Ryan and Katie decided it wasn’t terribly fun to merely run through the sprinklers. Instead, they unscrewed all the sprinkler heads in the backyard to create gushing geysers of water.

Another day, water droplets started raining down from the laundry room ceiling. This time, Ryan was filling water balloons in the bathroom and didn’t notice the water spilling over the counter, onto the bathroom floor, which eventually seeped down through the ceiling. But, oh well. Kids will be kids.

My plumbing book could begin the day one of my little darlings flushed something down the toilet that utterly clogged the commode. I have no idea what was flushed, but no amount of effort with the toilet plunger could clear the pipes. (We lost our cat around the same time. Not that I think the two items are related...)

I have skills. Really. Near the top of my executive summary on my resume, I could/should list that I’m extremely proficient with a toilet plunger. But despite my best efforts, that toilet wouldn’t clear. I’d plunge and then flush, and the water would rise. The waters rose for 40 days and 40 nights. Oh wait, that might be another story. I finally had to turn off the water to the toilet and call a plumber who couldn’t make it out to my home for another two days.

The next day, my housecleaner, Ludya, arrived. She’s Russian, and although we can’t really communicate, we speak the universal language of love: Lysol disinfectant spray. She cleans, and I clean beside her because I can’t help myself. I like cleaning. We wipe and spray and smile and nod. Luyda and I have grown pretty tight this way.

That particular day, I tried to explain to her that I needed to keep the toilet water turned off or the water would slowly rise and keep rising. She nodded in comprehension. I showered, changed, and left for a date.

Dinner. A walk. And a few hours later I returned home with the date who invited himself in for coffee which I didn’t know how to brew. He told me I could make him tea instead. I told him his dog pooped in my family room, but that’s another story. I told him I was tired. We should probably call it an evening…as soon as he picked up after his dog. He told me there was water dripping from the ceiling in my study room.

Apparently something about keeping the toilet water key turned off got lost in translation, and Luyda turned the water back on. The toilet had flooded my upstairs bathroom and was leaking through the recessed lights in my study.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, but I wanted to share the epiphany of my evening: plumbing weaves together the significant events of my life. I should conclude by tying up a few loose ends:

My date gallantly offered to help me with my plumbing issues. I declined. He asked me if I was ever going to write about our date. I said I wouldn’t think of it.

The plumber did indeed show up the next day. Whistler, who has a need to meet and greet people with gifts in his mouth, rummaged through a pile of laundry when the doorbell rang. He came to the door to meet the plumber with a pair of my underwear in his mouth. And so it goes…

You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy

It was the oddest thing. A few weeks ago, I walked into the restroom on the top floor of Pacific Place in downtown Seattle and was surprised at the remodeling they had done in there. Same nice tiles and all, but for whatever reason, they had added urinals against the walls of the women’s restroom.

I was trying to figure out why the urinals were in there, and how I’d possibly use them, when I realized that a number of guys were standing facing those urinals.

So annoying. First management changes things around. Then these guys decide to use the ladies’ room. I stood there ready to ask them all to leave when it started to dawn on me that perhaps I had walked through the wrong door…

You’d be surprised at how slowly my brain registers things at times. Or not. It might be a reflection of my incredible hubris that I automatically assume that half a dozen guys made the mistake of entering the wrong restroom instead of thinking that the error was, perhaps, mine?

You’d think that I would turn silently on my heels and hightail it out of there, but instead I quite audibly gasped, “Oooops!” The guys turned. I turned…red…and then managed to leave as quickly as I could. I glanced at the door on my way out still hoping I might be right and the rest of the world wrong. ‘Twas indeed my error…

It made me wonder how many other times I walk into situations quite sure that I have it right; that my perception is reality.

A couple of years ago, I attended Harvard’s Program on Negotiation as a continuing education course for managers. You’d think it would be a course on “negotiate to win” or how to out-maneuver your opponent. I was relieved to find them emphasizing empathy. How do you check your assumptions to figure out where you might be overlooking facts and data? How can you figure out what is truly important to someone else so you can reach mutually beneficial agreements?

They showed us some classic films of a basketball game and asked half of us to count how many times the black-shirted team passed the ball to teammates while the other half of our class counted how many times the white-shirted team passed the ball. Half way through the film, a man dressed in a gorilla costume ambled onto the court and began to play. Astoundingly, at least half of the class, engrossed in counting passes, never even noticed a costumed gorilla playing on the court.

Later, they projected a poem up on the wall and asked us to count the number of times a specific letter appeared in the verses. They gave us as much time as we needed to figure out this simple, objective answer. But when they asked for a show of hands to report our counts, we were all over the map.

At first, I thought there was some trick to the exercise, but no, it was a straight-forward example of the fact that even with all the facts in front of you and a true right answer, people could still get a simple thing wrong.

All that to say that old age is starting to slow me down. I’m trying to walk toward my conclusions instead of leaping to them. I’m attempting to listen more carefully with a mind that stays as open as my ears. And I think I’m getting a bit better about putting myself in someone else’s place to see what the world must look like from his or her vantage point…but I could be wrong about that too.

You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for…

Billy Joel

Everyone’s Fighting a Mighty Battle

It started with my dog, Whistler. Most of my troubles can be traced to him. When my son, Ryan, left the breakfast table to use the restroom, Whistler snagged Ryan’s bagel and gulped it down…didn’t even bother to spread some cream cheese on it first. His sister Paige stood by and watched.

It was negligence on the scale of passive observation to the holocaust. Ryan was ready to haul his twin to the Hague and have her tried in front of an international tribunal.

I was brokering peace accords and grabbing jackets and blocking the refrigerator with a chair (battery’s dead on Whistler’s invisible fence collar, so he’s back to opening the fridge for snacks). I climbed into the car, started the engine, and realized Katie wasn’t in her car seat.

So I’m back in the house on a frantic search mission only to find her huddled in the corner of her closet wearing just her panties and crying. She had “nothing to wear.” Hard to believe that the There’s-nothing-in-my-closet gene on that second X chromosome had switched on already. She’s six!

I offered up five shirts and two pairs of jeans before Katie agreed to get dressed for school. By then we were running late, and Ryan’s wrath had transferred from one sister to the other.

We pulled up to the school. As Ryan exited the car, he slugged Katie’s arm for making everyone late. Katie snarled and took off after her brother, slinging her lunch box at him for hitting her.

It was a fine start to a beautiful autumn day in Washington. The leaves were turning red and falling off the trees. My kids were seeing red and falling out of bed. Megan was at home with a cold. Not the full-on symptoms of swine flu, but piglet flu, perhaps?

Thank goodness I’d spend the day in meetings with mature and professional adults.

I work on a virtual team producing a weekly program for public radio. Reporter assignments are made from Chapel Hill to journalists around the world. Scripts are edited in Boston; the show is tracked by our host in Dallas or Chicago; the program is mixed in Seattle and posted to ftp sites for public radio stations across the country to download.

It’s invigorating to work with a group of amazingly intelligent colleagues, but distance has its difficulties. We try to have in-person meetings at least twice a year to plan our shows and work through production and editorial issues. This time, we were meeting in Seattle.

I was planning to start the meetings with a Powerpoint presentation on our program–financials, web analytics, web marketing results–but my computer caught a virus and was in the intensive care ward of our IS department.

Hotel shuttles delayed team members at the airport the night before. The hotel had placed someone in a first floor handicapped room which wasn’t acceptable to her. They were served fake eggs at the hotel breakfast buffet. WiFi wasn’t working at the hotel or in the office for them.

By the afternoon, I was beginning to feel overlooked by the Nobel committee; bitter that Obama had received the honor.

But no time for self-pity. My phone indicated my nanny was trying to reach me. The kids had set off the car alarm while she had taken one child to the bathroom.

By five ‘o clock, I rushed home to placate my frazzled nanny, hand off the kids to their dad, and then back out the door for dinner with my staff. At the restaurant, our server took copious notes of food orders and special needs. Shell-fish allergies. Mushroom allergies. (Just some types of mushrooms. Fine with the hallucinogenic variety.) Gluten-free meals. Vegan diets. Preferences for free-range poultry and locally grown organic ingredients.

I silently wondered if our server would deliver our dishes with napkin-wrapped EpiPens. I imagined our group in a third world feeding center and wondered if I could get them to eat Unimix. Maybe plumpy nut would be a better choice for this team…

In the course of our conversations, I listened as team members told me about a parent fighting cancer; dealing with the aftermath of a spouse’s death; worries over mothers/sons/daughters/spouses; and their own health issues.

That was Day 1 of our week’s meetings. After dinner, I picked up my kids from their dad’s and headed home to read stories, make lunches, run a load of laundry and clean the cat litter. Whistler met us with the cat litter box door stuck around his head like an Elizabethan collar.

I started to pack lunches, only to discover that Whistler had pushed aside the chair in front of the fridge and helped himself to the roast beef for the kids’ sandwiches.

The Shirelles sang, “Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, Mama said…”

But Plato said it better: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

ImageA mighty battle, indeed.

The Write Stuff

We all have our thing. Some women appreciate men in military uniforms. Others fawn over firemen, sports heroes, movie stars, or go crazy at rock concerts. I develop crushes on men with keyboard-calloused fingers. Not music keyboards. Computer keyboards.

Wit and intellect, a way with words, and I get weak in the knees. It’s no surprise, really, that I think Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, should be voted “Sexiest Man Alive.” In my mind, best-selling author Don Miller could easily be a first runner-up to wear the SMA satin sash. Or maybe the “Sexiest Man Alive” title is etched on a leather tool belt. I don’t know.

For my birthday, my girlfriend Debbie bought tickets for us to hear Don Miller talk about his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I felt like a recipient of the Make a Wish Foundation except I wasn’t going to Disneyland. And I’m not terminally ill that I know of.

I had to promise Debbie that I wasn’t going to rush the platform and throw underwear on the stage. Don was, after all, speaking at the Eastside Foursquare Church. Worshipful conduct was in order. Maybe an alabaster jar and some perfume…

Don spent an hour talking about the components of great stories: the narrative arc, the protagonist and antagonist, conflict, climax and denouement. Well, maybe Don didn’t say “denouement,” but there was a great section on story arcs. Story arcs may not sound humorous, but when Don’s narrating it, characters and conflict are seriously funny.

Turns out the upcoming film version of Don’s New York Times bestseller, Blue Like Jazz strays a bit from reality because Don’s actual life writ large is too boring for the big screen. (That’s not my opinion. I think men in front of computer monitors are studs.) The filmmakers decided Don’s life needed some gentle embellishment.

As Don explains it, great stories–in movies or in real life–are all about a series of events. It’s what someone is actually doing more than what a character thinks or feels. That’s not to say that a good film has to be an action movie—car chases and cool stunts—or that what a character thinks and feels is irrelevant. But no one can see what someone thinks unless it’s demonstrated through actions. You don’t know what someone feels unless he shows you.

To make a movie interesting, you have to a string together a series of events with a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. More than that, what he wants has to matter.

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful,” Don writes. “The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”

Don went on to talk about how assiduously we avoid pain and conflict in our lives. Yet grand stories are about the transformation of a character; and pain and conflict are the main tools that produce change in our lives.

Nobody changes because they have something happy happen to them, Don says. We change through hardship and pain and through the pressure of difficult experiences.

That’s a concept. Embrace challenges. Welcome pain as an element that’s going to produce a grand story in your life. I’m conflicted over the concept of conflict in my life, but when I’m thinking of lifelong wishes, it occurs to me that ultimately, we really are all terminally ill. Some of us just know the timing a bit better than others.

When the credits roll, it would be nice to have lived a grand narrative. It would be great to invest my time and energy into actions that make a difference in the end.

My life? It’s the stuff that movies are made of. I’ll tell you all about it while I’m folding the laundry…

An Age-Old Story

Next month, I turn 40. Well, technically, I turn 39 in September, but thirty-ten is so close, I can feel it. I think I might just take the plunge and declare myself 40 right now instead of having that number hang over me for an entire year.

I’m already out of that prime target audience for marketers (18 – 35 year olds who have purchasing power and, supposedly, disposable incomes, or at least high tolerance levels for credit card debt). Yeah, they’re still selling to me. But the advertisers have got my number now, and they’re pitching me anti-aging products and weight loss supplements. I’m not sure I can tolerate another asinine Acai berry ad!

I’m trying to take this all in stride. I’ve never been a huge numbers person—I took “Math for Poets” in college, for Pete’s sake! So arguably, I’m not even comprehending how old 40 really is. Is it a prime number? An imaginary number? A negative factor of some multi-variable equation?

What unnerves me are the endless reassurances to women everywhere about aging. There are those overzealous comments to the birthday girl: You’re still a “babe”; You’re waaaay hot; Don’t worry, 40 is the new 30. The sentiments sound suspiciously like mom saying, “It’s okay, honey. The perm’s not so bad.” Or, “You look cute in glasses.”

So even though I’m kinda nonplussed by another occasion to celebrate me, eat cake, and receive gifts, I’m starting to think it is a big deal. The kind of big deal you should be paying attention to. Like a Japanese person in Hiroshima in 1945 watching a plane with the name “Enola Gay” flying overhead. It’s not the moment to be thinking about the ingredients you need to make California Rolls…

I’m trying to figure out what I need to be prepared. I’m about 15 pounds heavier than my perfect weight, so a South Beach diet and a personal trainer are probably in order. Not sure I can afford a personal trainer right now, what with all the Acai products I’m going to be ordering, so I may have to depend on chasing the dog as my cardio routine and lifting those huge paper towel rolls I buy at Costco as a weight-lifting regimen. (Unfortunately, I went south and ate a lot while sitting on the beach, so that diet isn’t working.)

Then there are those stretch marks and the loose skin around my belly button from my pregnancies, notably my twin pregnancy. It’s terribly hard to work for an organization that’s all about saving lives and bringing healthcare, clean water and food to starving children in the world. Just try to justify to yourself thousands of dollars worth of cosmetic surgery for some wrinkles and lines around your navel. I wish I could. I really do want to have my pre-pregnancy tummy back. But we have this darn alternative gift catalog that tells me how many goats or chickens a family could have for the cost of a smooth tummy. Turns out I could probably buy guinea pigs for the whole country of Peru to remove the wear and tear signs of carrying my fearsome foursome. I’m just wearing long shirts and trying not to think about the alien crop circles around my navel.

When my birthday comes around next month, I am planning to celebrate with my family and some of my favorite friends. My favorite older friends. Strange thing is, I rarely notice or think about what they look like; how much they weigh, how old they are, or much of the stuff that crosses my mind about me on the month before my 39th/40th birthday.

My best-est friends are wise and witty and fun. They are authentic and indomitable and loyal. My favorite people have celebrated the births of their stretch-mark-inducing children; managed to persevere through all kinds of life’s challenges, and they’ve learned invaluable lessons of faith and grace by living through the high moments and low moments.

I hope none of my girlfriends (or guy friends) will be disappointed if I don’t call them “hotties” and name them by name here. I know many of them qualify for the title. One thing, for sure, most of the best people I know bear stretch marks all over their souls. Maybe their stomachs too. I just haven’t noticed.

Whistler’s Mother

My father recently sent me an email about the steadfastness of dogs. It read: “Want to know who truly loves you? Lock your husband and your dog in the trunk of your car for two hours. When you open the trunk, see who greets you with tail-wagging kisses.”

I love dogs. Always have. I grew up with two Shetland Sheepdogs, a Samoyed, three Bouvier des Flanders, and a German Shepherd—not all at the same time, but it can safely be said that I’m a dog person. Either that or I grew up in a kennel.

Even so, I wasn’t sure as an adult that I was ready to be a dog owner: the time commitment, the house-breaking (as in, truly breaking!), the care and feeding of a four-legged creature. I decided to have four children first, kinda as a trial run. Turns out four kids isn’t so tough.

I remember to feed them—usually. I give the kids fresh water every day. The potty-training took some time, but now they’re great about whining at the door when they need to go outside to do their business. All in all I was gaining some confidence that if I could raise four kids, I might just be ready to go to the next level and get a dog.

Guys at work were pretty helpful with dog breed suggestions. Jon told me to get a Labrador as they were great with little kids. John also recommended a Labrador because they were gentle and good-natured. (Yes, all of my friends are named John/Jon. I’m hoping this will simplify my life when senility sets in. And judging from this wide, scientific sample, all Jons/Johns like Labradors.)

As luck would have it, I was standing at a receptionist’s desk one morning and glimpsed a photo of some Labrador/Rhodesian Ridgeback pups on her desk. They were adorable puppies, as opposed to those non-adorable puppies whom I’ve never met. Sure they had ginormously big paws, but that’s what made them so cute. They were 7 weeks old and looking for homes…though not in the real estate sense.

I did the levelheaded thing and told my children that we were “just going to look” at some puppies. Then we were just going to cuddle the cute little guy who snuggled up on our lap…all the way home. Spontaneity requires afterthoughts, so we detoured to Petco on the way back to buy a few items for our new puppy: a water bowl, a food bowl, dog food, a leash, a collar, a dog crate, a puppy gate, piddle pads, chew toys, bones, and 15,000 other “critical-only” items needed for our new pet.

If I had taken the money we spent that evening and invested it in Petco stock, I’d have a controlling share of the corporation today. But really, who can put a price tag on puppy love? Well, yes, my father can give you a running total of the financial damage wrought by my dog to date, but deep, deep down, he secretly loves my dog.

We considered several names for our puppy: “Semiahmoo” based on a recent visit to the seaside resort; “Chewy-barka” because he chews and barks and we’re avid Star Wars nerds; and the first runner-up name suggested by my friend, Kari, was “B.I.” ‘cuz my last name is N-G-O, so Bingo was his name-O. In the end, we settled on Whistler.

Bob, a contractor who’s been to my house several times to repair puppy damage, calls Whistler his retirement account. It started with Whistler chewing on the corners of my wall—and chewing through the dry wall to the studs. I consulted the Jon/Johns at work about this. Oh yeah, Jon told me, suddenly remembering a few of the downsides to Labrador-ownership. Apparently Jon put metal plates on the corners of his walls for oh, say two or three years, until his dog outgrew the chewing phase.

Whistler is largely indiscriminate about his diet: Legos, Christmas ornaments, leather car interiors, underwear, Barbie dolls, American Girl dolls—he eats ‘em all. Soon, almost every doll around the house was an amputee. We have Sierra Leone Barbie, and Samantha, the American girl who needs an orthopaedic surgeon to re-attach her limbs.

Whistler has a special fondness for unattended cups of Starbucks coffee; also an intestinal intolerance for Target’s plastic bags. We learned this the hard way when he ate a bag and then tried to expel it at the dog park the next day. He squatted. Part of the bag made the journey out. Then, with the job half-done, the dog gave up and got back to the business of meeting new canine friends.

The dog-park dogs did the usual canine handshake of sniffing each other’s behinds, only Whistler had half a Target bag there to greet everyone. He was nonplussed. I was mortified. Especially when other dog owners started noticing the white bag hanging out of “that dog” and wondering who the owner was…

I’ve attempted to be a responsible dog owner, so I signed us up for Positive Approach dog-training classes and discovered that I was being very obedient to Whistler’s whims and fancies. (I’m thinking that Negative Approach classes might be the thing to explore.) Nowadays, I do my best to establish myself as the authority—the alpha dog in the family pack—but sometimes my instincts are off.

One time, the phone rang and Whistler, true to his breed, “retrieved” it for me. I was delighted. Wrong response. From then on, Whistler eagerly sought out phones—house phones, cell phones—to carry to me for my praise. Unfortunately, he has iron jaws, so the very act of carrying the phone to me has damaged endless handsets. I couldn’t believe how flimsy the plastic was, so I tested a phone by placing it in my own mouth and biting as hard as I could. That was the moment that my daughter Megan walked in, looked at me oddly, and wanted to know why I was carrying the phone around in my mouth…

When you get past the moments that Whistler’s gone swimming in the pond of a golf course, learned to open the refrigerator to help himself to luncheon meats and cheese, or ingested the fill material of my wrist weights causing the vet to insist that intestinal x-rays showed his stomach was full of buckshot, he’s actually a pretty wonderful pet.

Whistler loves his kids. He devotedly sits with Katie when she’s on a timeout. The dog gamely demonstrates the dangers of riding without a seatbelt in the car by body-slamming into the dashboard when I hit the brakes—a visual lesson for the children. He plays hide and seek with his kids. And he climbs onto the girls’ beds every evening to listen to nighttime stories.

In the aftermath of my divorce, Whistler was the one who kept me company when the kids were at their father’s place, moping almost more than I did when the kids walked out the door.

My kids are leaving, again?!

Whistler and I covered miles of trails and roads as I tried to clear my head on long walks and jogs. And when some friends from high school died in a plane crash a few months ago, that darn dog somehow had the sense to once again curl up at my side through a long, teary evening.

At the beginning of a conference call one afternoon, my work colleagues somehow started in on a litany of the things Whistler destroyed on visits to my home: car keys, shoes, purses. It was embarrassing to listen to the damage report. But when one of them suggested I get rid of the dog and find another, more suitable one, I found myself rising to his defense: You don’t just get rid of your pet because he’s difficult or destructive. It’s tough love. You work with the dog. You establish boundaries. You make accommodations. You stick with it and figure it out.

“Do you think that maybe you’re projecting your feelings about your marriage onto your dog?” my colleague asked.

“Of course I am,” I told her. “But come what may, Whistler and I are planning to take a cruise together for our 20th anniversary.”

And that’s the thing of it. Some dogs are perfect. Well-behaved and obedient. Naturally loyal and loving. Whistler is some of that. He’s also something of a work in progress. But that’s life, be it with pets or partners; friends or family or anyone worth loving. All relationships can be messy at times yet perhaps our pets have the unique ability to teach us the most about unconditional love.

The View From Up Here

We have reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, and the flight attendant has announced that we can now turn on our laptops, our pda’s, our iPods, our personal electronics, our Sonicare toothbrushes, our electric shavers, and our stun guns. But our cell phones must remain off. No texting.

Texting on our cell phones in the air, I’ve been told, makes the plane turn right. It also wrecks havoc on international stock markets and affects the democratic election process in Iran. Oh, and it affects American Idol votes too.

So while I have four books (but no Kindle yet—my birthday’s in September if anyone’s wondering) to keep me occupied, I’m instead firing up my laptop to share my deep thoughts about air travel today.

Frankly, it’s hard to know whether I’m in an airplane or a food court. Passenger 6A is eating chicken teriyaki for lunch. 7D has a lime salsa burrito. Apparently all of us read the notice on our itineraries stating that “food will be available for purchase” on our flight. But we grew up watching Gillian’s Island, so we know a 3-hour tour might be a lifetime aboard an aircraft where food will be available for purchase. We aren’t taking any chances so we boarded with food and our 84” carry-on suitcases to avoid extra baggage fees.

Physical baggage. Emotional baggage. Traveling evokes all the possibilities out there. Enroute to Amsterdam, I was once asked out for dinner by a Greek guy who taught me how to make moussaka and explained the process of creating extra, extra virgin olive oil. On another trip, a guy in Dam Station asked if he could photograph me. Most prison mug shots look better than my best photos so I said no. I also suspected that the photo might turn up in prison or on the internet in a different form, so no thanks.

Then there was the dude on a previous flight to D.C. (half Dutch…what’s with the Netherlands connection?) with whom I had lunch with the next afternoon. So I was kinda thinking that in the plane seat lottery today, I might get seated next to some hot CIA agent who might want to whisper government secrets in my ear en route to our nation’s capitol. Alaska Airlines did me one better and placed me next to the one empty seat on our full flight. No date lined up for tomorrow, but I did have lots of elbow room.

When I’m traveling with my kids, they eagerly pull out the laminated safety cards illustrating what happens in the event of a water landing. “If we crash, will we get to slide down those big inflatable slides?”

My kids are still at the age where they strictly heed all safety guidelines and rules. They know, for instance, that they won’t be able to light up their cigarettes while the no smoking sign is illuminated. Katie wet her pants on our last flight. When I asked her why she didn’t get up to use the bathroom, she pointed to the seatbelt sign and told me she wasn’t allowed to take her seatbelt off.

“In the event that oxygen masks should drop down from the overhead compartment, please place your own mask on your face before assisting children.”

“Why do they want you to put your mask on first?” my kids asked.

“Because the other passengers are hoping that in the event of an emergency, you’ll all pass out and be very quiet,” I replied.

“Place the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally. The first minute of oxygen will cost you 45 cents and every minute thereafter will be charged at 10 cents a minute…”

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things

I’d write more but the books are a callin’ and I’m watching my elbows from those heavy carts wheeling down the center aisle. For all my vacationing friends hurtling through the somewhat friendly skies, traveling mercies!

Children of Privilege

Every time I travel with my kids, there’s a moment that gives me pause. It’s not the moment when I’m stepping onto a plane for five hours with four kids. That’s when I’m eyeing the emergency exit and wondering if I can make a hasty escape if the kiddos get too rowdy at cruising altitudes.

Nor is it that earlier moment when we’re standing in line at airport security, and I recall Garrison Keillor’s rant about the shoe bomber. Thanks to Richard Reid’s foiled attempt, all of us must now bare our feet to walk through metal detectors. What would have happened, Keillor wonders, if the guy had made an underwear bomb? Would we all have to remove our underwear to walk through security?

No, no we wouldn’t. Because new millimeter-wave scans have replaced metal detectors at six U.S. airports, essentially giving TSA personnel Superman’s X-ray vision to see through your clothes. These scanners, soon to be rolled out across the nation, may make TSA positions the most sought-after jobs in Homeland Security. Especially if they’re hiring teenage boys.

My reverie is abruptly interrupted by the fact that I’m holding up the line. I snatch a couple of rubber bins, and my children begin to empty their electronics into them: DVD players. MacBooks. Nintendo DS games. They aren’t required to fully empty their backpacks of the DVD case that houses the millions of movies intended to keep them occupied on the flight. Or their nanos and iPods.

This is what gives me pause. (Mental pause. I don’t dare hold up the line again as there are enough people looking reproachfully at the distracted woman with too many children.)

I’m pushing my shoeless (and perhaps underwear-less…forgot to check ‘em on the way out of the house!) kids through the metal detectors and shepherding their belongings through the security machines, but I’m seeing all their STUFF. And I hear Madonna singing We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl in my head. It’s a bad sign when you hear Madonna singing to you in the airport.

It’s not just that my kids have so much, and they are boarding yet another plane to a magic kingdom or a balmy beach. It’s that my children, and most others living in American suburbs, are privileged and blessed, and we rarely acknowledge that fact. Our kids are largely sheltered from malnutrition, war, hard child labor and emotional abuse. (Ryan might take issue with the last two assertions since he considers making his bed an unfair labor practice and contends that growing up with three sisters constitutes emotional abuse.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not raising a Paris Hilton or Suri Cruise. I try to have my kids work for the things they want in life. And I work to teach them that life is not about things. I hope to inculcate them with the notion that they can and should give back joyfully and generously.

Even so, there’s a scene from the movie Schindler’s List that haunts me. Near the end of the movie, there is a line of Polish Jews (saved from concentration camps by Schindler) waiting to have their gold fillings removed from their teeth. The gold fillings are melted down and made into a ring for Oskar Schindler that reads: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

The gift breaks Schindler. He weeps and wonders how many more lives he could have saved. Would his watch have saved a few more people? What could he have given up that would have been insignificant in his life, but would have meant life itself for another?

The scene has stayed with me over the years, oft resurrected by the reality of working in an international children’s charity. I hesitate to write about this stuff for a variety of reasons: I’m involved with this all day long at work. It’s guilt-inducing. It’s hypocritical given the chasm between how I live and how I know I could give.

Maybe it’s important to exist in the dichotomy. One week, I’m singing Zippity Do Dah with my kids on Main Street, Disney, and the next, I’m listening to stories of little girls who are sold on the main streets of too many of the world’s cities.

My colleague, Richenda, recently sat me down to answer some questions about motherhood for a video blog she’s creating for Mother’s day. “Has working at World Vision had any impact on my experience as a mother?” she asked?

I’m not a great interviewee on camera, so I have no idea what I said in response. What I know is that World Vision has been a reality check to my whole life for the past 16 years. Convicting, but not always comfortable.

I was four months into my first pregnancy, when I headed off to Romania to work on stories for the magazine. Eric planned to paint the nursery and put up the border we had selected while I was traveling and away from the paint fumes. Friends were talking about baby showers for us and so I had stopped by Target to complete a baby registry before my trip. Baby bottle options spanned 4 shelves and overwhelmed me. There were diaper genies. Wet wipe warmers. And bathtub water thermometers to ensure that you wouldn’t scald your baby. (Can’t you test the water with your hand?)

It was 1996. Six years since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, and television news crews exposed the world to the horrific conditions of Romania’s orphanages. Even with great improvements, the orphanage I visited in Bucharest still housed 100 babies, their metal cribs lined up in rows across the single room. No Pottery Barn baby bedding there.

When Ryan and Paige were born in 2001, I thought of the mother of twins I met in a village in Tanzania years earlier. She had lost three babies before World Vision drilled a well in her area for clean water and built a health clinic for the community. When I met her, she had healthy twins: A girl named Emma; a boy named Emmanuel because “God is with us now,” she told me. We had given her two booklets to record the dates of immunizations for each child. She led me to her hut and showed me that she kept the booklets in the flyleaf of her Bible.

God gains pleasure from watching children thrive and play. I know this because after years of exuberant excitement awaiting Easter baskets and egg hunts and Christmas mornings, I’m on the other side of the events now, hiding the eggs and wrapping the presents. If anything, there’s perhaps even more appreciation in the act of planning for someone’s pleasure and watching the unmasked joy of tearing open a gift.

The goal is not to live in deprivation and beat our selves up for being born privileged. It’s more the recognition that no matter how tight the economy, how middle-class we feel, how dire our circumstances seem at times, we have so, so much more than most of the world around us. And we have the ability to make such a huge difference in even the small things we choose to do with the resources given to us (time, talents, treasure).

I’m kind of hoping that in my family at least, I’ll be able to make tweaks and adjustments to my consumerism so that I can walk through airport security without Madonna singing songs in my head.

I’d prefer to make the journey to whatever gate thinking about the other Madonna. And her Son.

And the fact that His life, I guess, makes us all children of privilege.