What Do Women Want?

It’s almost impossible to ignore an article called, “What Do Women Want?” So it’s no surprise that Daniel Bergner’s piece of that said title is the second most e-mailed article this week from the New York Times magazine. (Bergner’s article was eclipsed in e-mail popularity by an article on road signs—a seriously important journalistic investigation into Great Britain’s towns with funny names: Crapstone; Spanker Lane, Penistone, Pratts Bottom and Wetwang to name a few. This from our nation’s Newspaper of Record.)

Bergner’s article is flying into e-mail boxes, and I suspect that the recipients will scan the first few paragraphs and give up reading. The droll reader will be thinking Chocolate? Money? Shoes? The humorless will be looking for serious answers like, “Respect.”

Turns out, the long, convoluted article is all about sexual response, and it essentially concludes that women don’t know what they want, and the researchers can’t figure out how to isolate the variables.

Meredith Chivers, scientist and member of the editorial board of the world’s leading journal of sexual research, has done extensive studies attempting to measure what triggers arousal and desire among men and women. In these studies, she invites men and women to watch footage of things like mating apes, people having sex or exercising, or walking nude on the beach. The participants are given a keypad to rate how aroused they felt as they watched each scene. Chivers, to get a more objective read, also connects a plethysmograph to the participants’ genitals to measure arousal and compares the plethysmographs results to the subjective keypad ratings. (Who signs up to participate in these kinds of studies?!!)

Men, Chivers found, were completely consistent: the ratings on the plethysmograph matched their keypad ratings of arousal. Women, however, had very different readings from what their bodies registered to what they recorded on their keypads.

Despite the compelling title and a subject matter that usually captures attention, the article was interminably long, veering off into discussions of the monogamy of prairie voles (I’ve always liked prairie voles) and attempts to better understand things like dyspareunia (no connection between prairie voles and dyspareunia, by the way).

Somewhere along what would likely have been 88 inches into the article, a professor of psychology, Marta Meana, starts to discuss a woman’s desire to be desired, to be chosen and wanted. In committed relationships, desire runs the risk of diminishing when women feel that their partners no longer choose them, but are there because they are trapped.

Women want to be cared for and protected, Meana says, but women also long to be ravished and the unique object of desire. Women are turned on by the notion that a man can hardly contain himself; that he would “transgress societal codes in order to seize her, and she, feeling herself to be the unique object of his desire, is electrified by her own reactive charge and surrenders.”

I know. It sounds like a very bad romance novel. Very anti-feminist and un-PC. And I’m not sure about that whole “transgress societal codes” to seize her thing. But honestly, something resonates here. I don’t know how other women think, but something in this female soul at least, wants to be cherished and chosen and desired.

I finished the NY Times piece (because I’m wired to read even insufferably long and convoluted articles all the way through) and turned on a sermon about money and the rich young ruler by Tim Keller, Sr. Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church (also in NYC).

Sex and money. It’s what makes the world go ’round, right? Oddly enough, it all connected. Keller, as he is wont to do, started talking about what Jesus gave up for us: the power of the universe; the riches of heaven; his relationship with his father; the glory and the praise—he abandoned it all in his desire for a relationship with us, with me. He so wanted me, that he came down to this earth in the most humble of forms and walked the path to a cross and death to ensure that I could be with him.

After my ex-husband left, a few Christians said to me, “The Bible promises that Jesus will be your husband.” Huh? I know it’s in the Bible, but that’s just weird. I never got that whole nuns-married-to-Jesus thing my Catholic friends talk about. Incomprehensible and odd, and I remember looking at my friends quoting the “your maker as your husband” verse as if they were kinda strange. But over time, it’s starting to make sense to me. The more that I reflect on and look at the story of Jesus on this earth, the more I realize that I really am the object of God’s desire; the prize that was set before him that took him to the cross. He cherishes me, is delighted by me. He would, and has, given up everything for me. He would break societal codes, traverse the universe, and vanquish demons for the intense pleasure of my company. It’s hard to resist falling in love with someone who loves you to that degree.

 

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Grandpa turns 96 today. On their 72nd wedding anniversary last March, he woke up and asked my grandmother if they were married.

“No,” she told him. “We’ve just been living together all these years.”

Grandpa’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He searches my face and tries to remember who I am. He asks me how many children I have. And then he asks me again. (On the other hand, maybe his memory is fine, and he’s asking in rhetorical surprise that anyone would voluntarily choose to have four kids.)

During my visits with him, infrequent because he lives in California, I wondered if he remembers playing soccer with me in their backyard, the laundry line poles our goal posts. I think about the afternoons Grandpa met me when school let out, carried my lunch box and sweater for me, and walked me to their home a half mile away. He’d fix an after school snack for me of cheese toast—his own concoction of eggs beaten with grated cheese and toasted until it formed a golden puff on top of a slice of bread. It was either cheese toast or toast with Marmite, that salty spread Grandpa discovered while he studied in Australia for a period of time.

I wish I saved the postcards I used to send Grandpa as a child. I’d write my grandparents from our vacations to Hawaii asking about my dogs. Grandpa strongly disliked animals, but he dutifully cared for my beloved pets whenever we were away. Dad traveled frequently for business, so I’d mail postcards from whatever city we landed in—Denver, Boston, Atlanta.

Grandpa saved my notes. He’d mark up my postcards, noting my spelling errors and punctuation problems, and go over them with me when I got home. I don’t remember being bothered by his editing. It was our routine. I expected it, and from a child’s perspective, I guess I was just pleased he had taken the time to read my missives and respond!

Although he was two units shy of a college degree, (it was his lifelong lament that he hadn’t finished college) Grandpa taught high school English in Singapore. He was invaluable when I had to diagram sentences. He could readily spot a misplaced modifier or explain a hanging participle. And he loved the Bard.

My Grandma sighs in exasperation when she recounts how Grandpa insisted on shipping crates of books, mostly Shakespeare, from Singapore to the U.S. instead of the heirloom bone china dishes imprinted with our family’s name. When their goods arrived months later by boat, the books were a soggy mess from the voyage.

Grandpa got a part-time job at Loma Linda University’s library after he “retired” in the United States. When I started to write research papers, I’d spend my after school hours with Grandpa in the library where he’d help me find an article in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, track down the microfilm, and show me how to operate the microfiche machines. (Ahhh, for the love of Google!)

When I think about how and why I opted into a career in journalism, I’m pretty sure that some seeds were planted and watered by Grandpa’s own appreciation for language and syntax and verse. Or perhaps I wanted to wield my own red pen one day. Whatever the causal factors, I am indebted to the gifts of ancestors and others, who formed and shaped my world largely through their natural inclinations to instruct or through the gift of time to play.

I wade through my day of meetings and budget projections; story pitches and freelance contracts. At home there are bills to be paid, school lunches to be made, laundry and dishes. And kids. A gaggle of kids making special requests for dinner, sighing over what they didn’t want to eat. Squabbling over who gets to sit at my right hand. Fighting for air space to tell me about what they read, what their teacher said, or to ask me what something means. And sometimes I do think, What does this all mean!? This day-to-day crossing off of “to-dos.”

On Tuesday, I watched our nation swear in the 44th President—the first man of African-American descent to hold the highest office in the land. And I thought about the legions of people who came before this man. People who opted to sit when they were supposed to stand. People who marched while others merely watched. President Obama took an oath of office because others before him offered their own lives in order to see justice flow like a river. It strikes me that decades rolled by before some ever saw the evidence of their efforts. Others never witnessed change in their lifetime.

And I think it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We see further, we reach higher because of those who have gone before us and paved the way. We celebrate monumental sacrifices of lives lost for a grand cause. But just as significant are those who are just there on a daily basis to feed, clothe, and care for us as they leave indelible imprints on our lives.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. His shoulders are not as square and strong as they used to be. But across the years and the miles, I celebrate him, grateful for the overlap of his lifetime with mine.

Tonight my kids will have cheese toast for supper.

Of Birds and Bees and Ryan’s New Squeeze

Megan’s the writer in our family. She started a blog which I stumbled upon, and, of course, read. How else would I know what’s going on in my preadolescent’s mind and life? And since she posted it, it wasn’t like I was picking a diary lock or something, though I probably would pick a diary lock if I thought it had any good scoop in it.

As it turns out, the blog was very helpful. It revealed that Megan has a strong vocabulary, a way with words, and a wry sense of humor. It also revealed that Ryan secretly confessed to Megan that he has a crush on Emily, a little girl in kindergarten–already starting with the younger women! Megan honored his secret by posting the news to the world-wide web.

“My 7-year-old brother has a crush on girl,” Megan wrote. “Good grief! When I was 7, I thought a crush meant that someone had stepped on your toes.”

Later that night, I was reading “The Longest Trip Home,” the memoir of John Grogan (author of “Marley and Me”). Grogan writes detailed recollections of his childhood awakenings to females starting with his request for a telescope so he could gaze at the next door neighbor sunbathing in her backyard. (His parents praised their son’s interest in astronomy… their “young Galileo.”)

Megan’s blog and Grogan’s insight into a young boy’s brain nagged at me. And I realized I hadn’t had THE TALK with Ryan or Paige. They’re young, but kids in school share things and allude to things, and I’d much rather be the one to share this with them and provide them with accurate information and at least a broad framework of what’s what. Specific details could be filled in later.

I have long thought that my kids should come upon this knowledge without coy analogies of “special hugs” “seeds” or talk about birds and bees. The conversation should be respectful. Honest. Direct. That way they wouldn’t think anything was dirty or something to be embarrassed about.

We sat down for dinner. I passed a bowl of broccoli to Paige and very casually asked the kids, “Do you guys know how babies are made?”

“Yes,” Megan said. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Well, I kinda know, like I know some things,” Ryan said.

“Mom!” Megan interrupted. “My stomach is totally nauseous. Can we NOT talk about this or I’ll be sick.”

“Yeah, Mom,” Paige said. “Like that stuff is really eewey and gross. Let’s not talk about it.”

So much for exploring the beauty of God’s plan for procreation. Eewey and gross. A vomit-inducing conversation. After the week we’ve had, I suppose I should avoid any discussions of bodily fluids and functions. So I shelved the talk and somehow we moved on to how some men (and all gentlemen) pull out a chair to seat a woman. We interrupted our meal to demonstrate this with me holding Paige’s chair out for her and instructing her to stay standing until the chair touched the back of her knees–you can’t push in a chair with a woman plopped down on it.

Ryan jumped up to demonstrate his fine manners. He marched over to Paige and barked at her, “Get out of your chair, Paige, so I can seat you.” Wow, the hearts you could win with that approach!

I give up. I think I’ll hit Amazon for a good ol’ book to educate the young the way that generations before me have handled this. And while I’m at it, maybe Emily Post will have a thing or two to share with Ryan about Emily etiquette.

My Secret Fantasy Life

In 2007, Michael J. Easley, then President of the conservative Moody Bible Institute, stood up and shared with the intimate crowd of six or seven hundred National Religious Broadcasters that he no longer had sexual fantasies; he had father fantasies. In these dreams, Easley would ask his children to help him rake the leaves in their yard, and his three teenagers would eagerly grab the rakes and thank him for the opportunity to contribute to the care and maintenance of their household.

Easley went on to fantasize about the day that his teenagers would stop sharing their list of needs with him and instead stop him to say, “Thank you, O Father, for thy bountiful provision and ways that you have provided for us.”

We all have our dreams. Mine were interrupted this morning at 4:30 a.m. by the third of my four children to be stricken with the stomach flu. If I could have videotaped the next 30 minutes of my life, the footage would be a powerful teaching tool for teenage abstinence or for better contraceptive use among couples.

Ryan, somehow, thought it necessary to run from his room to the bathroom to my room, barfing along the way, to let me know that he was sick. (In case I wouldn’t have figured it out by the trail along the carpet.) So I’ve been up cleaning the hallway carpet since 4:30 a.m. (Stupidly served the kids rice with their dinner…and I probably should not go on with any more detail.) I’m cleaning and thinking that mother’s day should be a week-long celebration. Heck, make that a month-long worship-fest to the mother/god.

I’m cleaning and thinking of my friend Erinn’s Facebook note about the pleasures of being single and sans children. I’m happy for her. Okay, I’m a bit wistful of her situation. Fine, I’ll admit it. I’m Incredible Hulk-green with envy of her as I think about her day likely starting hours later than mine this morning.

I’ve also been having imaginary conversations with a non-existent spouse. He’s saying to me, “It’s okay, dear. Why don’t you go to bed and I’ll clean this up.” As you can see, I have a vivid imagination by the time 5:00 a.m. rolls around. Or maybe I’ve been breathing the fumes from the carpet cleaner?

I’m picking up a pile of clothes that got left in the hallway–a pile which Ryan apparently stumbled over and uh, well, another laundry challenge. I’m drifting to the next fantasy conversation where I coo to my spouse, “Don’t worry about helping me, honey. You have to go to work tomorrow in that strenuous job you have as an underwear model (when you’re not managing those hedge funds), so why don’t you let me clean this up since I’ll just be napping and eating bon bons after the kids go to school.”

My spouse flashes a dazzling smile at me. He rubs my shoulders and tells me how great and sexy I look at 5:00 a.m. wearing those rubber gloves and wielding my spray bottle of Resolve Carpet Cleaner. He tells me he’ll be home early to fix us dinner now that he’s dropped his consulting work for the American Association for Nuclear Physicists and is cutting back his volunteer hours for Habitat for Humanity.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re awake or still dreaming. The odor is usually one clue…

Shepherds Quake

It’s a challenge to meet everyone’s expectations for a Christmas note. Some want a traditional travel log chronicling the highways we crossed in our Winnebago as we camped and visited relatives in the summer. Problem is, we don’t own a Winnebago. And we don’t really camp. And I’m a bit doubtful my relatives would fling open the doors if I pulled up with my four munchkins looking for room in the Inn.

Others expect a litany of my children’s accomplishments. All I can say is that if there are awards given for Most Roles of Toilet Paper in the Toilet or Fastest Rappeler Down the Laundry Chute I might need to think about adding a trophy room to the house.

There was also a hue and cry for failing to dish the details of my dating life in last year’s note. Such curiosity. To which I say, “Get a life, folks!” Surely you all have better things to do than wonder who I’m out with and what I’m doing. Leave it to my father who thinks about this enough for everyone.

I entered my house one evening to the incessant ring of my telephone.

“Oh good, you’re home,” Dad said when I answered.

“Aren’t you out of the country, Dad?”

“Yes, we’re in Tokyo right now. But Mom said you were out on a date, and when I calculated the time, I thought you should be home by now.”

“Well, the beauty of technology, Dad, is that I can forward my home phone anywhere…”

Can’t help but give dear ol’ Dad a hard time. He recently suggested that when someone asks for my phone number, I should give the guy his number instead. Sure, Dad. Let me just go upstairs to my room and don my Burka while you pre-screen my dates.

If you must know, I had a very memorable Valentine’s eve this year. I got home from work and decided I was too tired to cook. I changed into a comfortable pair of old sweats and ordered pizza.

The kids and I started decorating Valentine’s day boxes: Princess Barbie stickers for Paige and Katie’s boxes; Darth Vader and the Death Star to hold Ryan’s love letters. Romance was in the air.

When the doorbell rang, I grabbed my purse, opened the door, and was rummaging to find my wallet when I heard Pizza Guy say, “Wow! You’re an absolute beauty.”

Hmmm I thought. I’m going to have to wear these sweats more often.

Before I could look up to lock gazes with the man/boy of my dreams, I heard him say, “You’re the best looking labrador I’ve ever seen.”

There stood Whistler, sniffing wistfully at the pizza box with his tail wagging. My ego took a dive, as did Pizza Guy’s tip for the evening.

So there you have it. The rest of the stories, well, I just don’t think it’d be polite to talk about the men I’ve dated this year. Not until I publish the book, at least.

My married friends shake their heads and say they’re so glad they don’t have to date again. Perhaps. But if I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that life is all about perspective. Consider my chagrin that Whistler continues to drink out of our toilets; Whistler, however, wonders why his inconsiderate family keeps peeing in his water bowl.

Dating is an interesting pastime on breaks from work and motherhood. I’ve rather liked discovering new music, books, food, and favorite haunts through the guys I’ve met. And for their part, they’ve been consummate gentlemen and excellent company at restaurants, movies, hikes, charity events, the theatre.

As for the strange guys? Writing fodder.

Life is so different than I envisioned in my early 20s—before I had children and while I still knew what parents were doing wrong in restaurants and grocery stores, and especially at Target. I knew back then, that I would one day hold my children on my lap and read E.B. White to them. (For my Adventists friends, just assume I meant E.G. White.)

We would bake and decorate sugar cookies together (my kids, not Ellen White). I think my children were sepia-toned and wore Florence Eiseman shifts over their cherubic wings.

Fast forward 15 years. I no longer know how to parent now that I am one. In the early sleep-deprived days, I’d show up at the office with burp rags on my shoulder. I’d head out for an afternoon outing without a diaper bag and end up begging for Huggies. And, “Could I please borrow, like, three wipes from you?”

(Come to think of it, maybe there’s some Freudian reason that Ryan feels the need to use an entire roll of toilet paper…something to do with feeling deprived or insufficiently cleansed as an infant?)

The more prepared ladies in the women’s lounge usually refused to consider my request for a loaner.

“Keep it,” they’d say, with withering looks. Maybe they sensed I wasn’t really planning to use and return their offered items.

Whereas I used to work tirelessly to coordinate the twins and match the girls down to hair accessories, shoe clips, and tights, I’m more inclined these days to let Paige and Katie wear whatever their hearts’ desire: Usually their Princess Halloween costumes. To the supermarket. In April.

Sure, I read to my kids, but I tend to read them the riot act more often than the “Trumpet of the Swan.” How else do you respond when Ryan unscrews every last sprinkler head to create gushing geysers in the backyard? Or when Ryan uses up the Costco multi-pack of Edge gel to have shaving cream wars against his sisters in my shower? Or when Ryan floods the bathroom filling water balloons for battle until it seeps and leaks through the laundry room ceiling?

Hmmm. Seems to be a common denominator here…

I had life so figured out at 20-something. Two kids, not four. Golden wedding anniversary not a failed try for ivory. Change the world. Change diapers. Sometimes, it’s important to just throw out the script and wing it so that you obediently stay in bed when your little girls tell you that they’re bringing you breakfast. I wouldn’t have known to plan for a bowl of microwave popcorn. But it was perfect. My best breakfast ever.

Megan’s life is growing increasingly full these days: honor student parties, birthday/slumber parties, outdoor camp, volunteer events, children’s church. Whatever people tell you about adolescents not communicating with you, it’s simply not true. Megan and I have very open, broadband-like lines of communications. She emails me from her bedroom. I open her notes on the kitchen computer. It really is today’s equivalent of sitting down at the kitchen counter to have milk and cookies after school each day.

To be fair, the emails came at my request. Megan had a habit of waiting until bedtime to tell me what she needed from me at, say, 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

(I’m thinking that the mother of a pre-teen wrote the story of Rumpelstiltskin spinning hay into gold throughout the night based on her daughter’s expectations of what could be accomplished by Mom in the wee small hours of the morning.)

After a few lectures about this, Megan has now taken to emailing me lists of what I need to do for her by Monday, by Tuesday and, graciously, “Stuff I need you to do whenever you can get to it.” In organizational-speak, I think it’s called, “managing up.” So while I’m learning to throw out my life’s script, Megan’s taken to scripting some of my life for me.

As we approach this Christmas season, my advice is to enjoy the elaborate pageantry of perfectly orchestrated music and lights and presents and parties, but leave some room for the unexpected wonders of, well, those unscripted moments.

Every year, my church, like most churches, holds a special Christmas service. The program is perfectly planned. A glistening tree finds its place on the platform, and the requisite poinsettias and candles are positioned along the stage and pew aisles.

It wouldn’t be our Christmas service without Wes Hart singing O Holy Night and our congregation closing with Silent Night.

My kids are keenly attuned to the sacredness of this service—a time of peace and sharing with others as we attach our tithe and offering envelopes with paperclips to the tree.

Last Christmas, Katie sat beside me scrawling on a Batman coloring book. (Okay, I confess that I failed to bring superheroes of the Bible or something a bit more appropriate than the winged-vermin in black vinyl.)

Paige was doling out crayons to Katie. Pink for Batman’s cape. Purple for his tights.

I think I was meditating on Long lay the world, in sin and error pining when the scuffle broke out. Katie didn’t want the color Paige was thrusting at her. Another crayon was seized, fought over and snapped in two. Teeth and claws, and I was whispering firmly to Paige when the strains of Silent Night began.

She slipped off the pew onto the floor in a pout. The lights dimmed as the program participants streamed off the stage and carried their candles down the aisles to illuminate our sanctuary in soft candlelight.

Katie’s black velvet shoes hung straight off the pew and swung in tantalizing reach of Paige’s face.

“All is calm, all is bright,” the congregants sang. Paige ripped Katie’s shoes off her feet and hurled them at her. Shoeless Joe Jackson, I mean, shoeless Katie Johnston flew off the pew and threw herself onto Paige.

Shepherds quake at the sight…

I don’t know what was going on by the time we reached the verse about With the dawn of redeeming grace.

That might have been the moment a fistful of paperclips fell out of Ryan’s pockets…paperclips he had collected off of the offering envelopes from the Christmas tree.

Life is so not what you expect at times, but maybe we are inept at setting the right expectations for ourselves anyway. I am beginning to think that the whole beauty and mystery of the Advent season is that a Child was born to unlikely parents, in chaotic circumstances, in a manner that confounded everyone’s expectations. There are human plans and then there is Divine provision.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that joy and peace, redemption and grace come to us in the unanticipated moments of our lives. Gushing geysers of grace as you anticipate Eggs Benedict and find, instead, popcorn on your plate.

Wishing you unexpected joy and laughter this season and unmeasured merriment in the New Year!

It’s Sngo-ing

I told my mother I’m a good all-weather driver. Snow’s no big deal. There are multiple routes back to my house if one road is icy. We headed out in my rear-wheel drive car this afternoon. Hmmm. Maybe I should have thought that one through.

Evening settled in. Snow melted and then re-froze on the road. We tried one road with an incline back to my house and gave up after a few slides back down. A second hill wasn’t any better. I’m so glad for neighbors with AWD vehicles. We abandoned the car on the side of the road (where six other vehicles were stuck), and my neighbor, Dave, came and drove us up to my house. It was nice to be home…except I didn’t have my car to open the garage door. And I didn’t have a house key. And we didn’t put the key back in the key safe. And every friend with a spare key was unavailable/out of the area!

I walked around the back of the house and tried the doors and windows that I normally forget to latch and close. (Thank you, Jeff, for noticing my unlocked windows yesterday and promptly bolting them for me!)

I peered in the backdoor and saw that Whistler had once again opened the refrigerator. The fridge light showed that he was sampling a bit of buche de noel, some spanakopita, and had emptied the remaining tray of caramelized onions puffs with feta. I don’t get it. He usually prefers a diet of Legos, American Girl doll arms and plastic Target bags… sometimes little lead beads from wrist weights that look like buck shot when you x-ray his intestines.

If the dog can open the refrigerator, you’d think he could meander to the front door and unlock it for me. But he just stood there in the light of the fridge and looked blankly at me. Was there a trace of a smirk on Whistler’s face?

Desperate times require one to swallow one’s pride. Mom, after all, was standing at the front door with her purse and her second bag filled with food she had packed in case we got stuck in the snow. (Mom could have been a boy scout, she’s so prepared. Except when it comes to having a spare key.) I called my ex-husband and asked if he could bring Katie to my house. What did I need Katie for? Well, to crawl in through the dog door to let us into the house.

He showed up an hour later with my baby, aka as Chinese acrobat girl. I had to remove her puffy coat and a few more layers to allow her to lithely climb through the dog door. I could hear her cooing inside to Whistler. “I wuv you, Whistlewer. I missed you so much, doggie.”

Oh no. They were going to have a love-fest in the laundry room, and Katie would forget her mission! Stay on target, Katie. Stay on target!

She eventually remembered her cold Mommy and Grandma and opened the front door. I cleaned up the leftover smears and crumbs that Whistler had left in the kitchen and dining room. (He prefers to take his meals in the formal dining room.) I found the string cheese Whistler had buried underneath the cushions in my couch–stored for his midnight snack, I guess. He went out his dog door and returned with another piece of string cheese he had buried out in the snow.

Then mom came downstairs and announced that she was cleaning out her purse. And whadda ‘ya know? She had a spare house key in her purse the whole time…

Off-White Humor

This was the year I was going to create a line of Asian greeting cards off of my mother’s recollection of profound (or profane) Chinese aphorisms. (Remember last year’s, “If a man had a conscience, a dog wouldn’t eat his s–t?”)

Unfortunately, there have been quality control issues. For starters, I was concerned the cards would be printed with lead ink. Then I discovered that my mother’s grasp of her native language is a bit rusty. “A thousand grains of rice create a thousand varieties of people,” she announced.

Her sister corrected her. “It’s ‘One grain of rice creates a thousand varieties of people,'” my Aunt said.

Mom’s errors of recall gave me pause as I thought of other “lost in translation” episodes. Earlier this year I told her I bought the CD, “Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone” for my dad. Later she asked me, “What was the CD you bought Dad about ‘Yo Mama?'”

I unfairly pick on my mother when all of us trip over what we say versus what we mean. For the past two years, Paige has been going to speech therapy to improve her articulation. Words like “self,” Paige pronounced as “selth.” One day, her speech teacher sent me a note which read, “Paige is making good progress. Please help her work on her ‘F’ words at home.” Duly noted.

As for the Chinese greeting card line, it likely would have to be marketed as limited-edition cards because my mom hardly mutters Chinese aphorisms anymore. I take it as a sign of growing peace and healing for her… and for all of us.

There’s less time spent looking in the rearview mirror these days. Objects and issues are smaller than they appear. I still struggle with the notion that I know what should happen in my life and what God needs to do to make things just and fair in the world. That mindset usually produces enormous frustration and anxiety because I know what’s supposed to happen, and God isn’t following my directions. When I manage to set aside my arrogance and my expectations and work to relinquish my tight-fisted control, life is surprisingly full of serendipitous joy.

It’s crazy to admit this, but I love my heap of kids and our zany lives. I love our Thursday “backward dinner” nights, where we start our meal with dessert and then work our way back to entrées and vegetables.

I love the kids’ inventive stories of Mr. Mouse. Not sure how that one started, but maybe a year ago all four of them started telling me tales of Mr. Mouse sightings and adventures. Mr. Mouse goes to Daddy and Angela’s house on weekend visitations. Mr. Mouse traveled with us to Disney World, Legoland, Whistler, and Maui this year. Mr. Mouse’s cousin came for a visit. Mr. Mouse only eats steak and drinks root beer.

I think it’s healthy to encourage children’s imaginations and whimsy. At least, I thought that’s what I was doing until I went to retrieve the trash from under the kitchen sink the other week and found mouse droppings there. Now I wonder how many of us really did travel to see Mickey Mouse last spring…

When Paige isn’t singing It’s a Small World, she’s crooning Crocodile Rock or Jesus Loves the Little Children. One day, when she got to the lyrics about the different ethnicities, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight,” I had to stop her to ask, “What color are you, Paige?”

“I’m off-white,” my Asian/Caucasian daughter answered. Later, the kids wanted to know more about their heritage. I explained I was 100 percent Chinese, and Daddy was made up of many nationalities from Scottish to American Indian.

“We’re Indian?” they asked.

“Partly,” I answered. A few weeks ago, I heard Katie announce to several people that she was “half Chinese and half idiot.” Just for the record, I didn’t teach her that!

I’ve been blogging here without adhering to those Christmas letter protocols that require me to provide you an update on each child’s age, academic progress, and extracurricular activities. Somewhere along the line, having four kids became the extra-curricular activity so I need to say up front that in terms of encouraging musical skills, my kids sing along with the radio; and we’ve turned carrying groceries from the car to the house into an athletic event.

I’ve referred to their birth certificates and called the district and am pleased to report that Megan is 10, and she does attend school–the 5th grade to be exact. She’s passionate about her friends, books, and the computer.

Ryan and Paige, 6, started kindergarten. They have a great teacher, Mrs. Odman, who spends time not only helping them read and write, but talks to the children about the importance of making “good decisions” in life. The lessons are sinking in because Ryan came home and announced to me that “some girls got into trouble today because they were not making wise choices.”

I’m not sure if this meant his classmates were sniffing glue sticks or if they were simply talking during quiet time, but I’m hoping they grow wiser each day!

Paige chafes at rules and structure. It makes no sense to her that she’s supposed to draw letters instead of hearts and flowers. She brought home her alphabet book to show me her “letter A flower” and her “letter B flower.” The pages contained Paige’s alphabet with leafy stems and petals drawn on each letter.

Katie, the “half idiot,” is 4 and in preschool this year. She uses the functioning side of her brain to drive her siblings crazy.

Oh darn, constrained by paper size, so I’ll spare you stories about me, work, the Chicago marathon, or my dating life. Christmas greetings to all, and to all a good night!

My Thankful Box

It’s Thanksgiving eve, and the kids are writing entries for their Thankful boxes. “I’m thankful for Whistler.”

“I’m thankful for Grandma and Grandpa.”

If they were a tad more honest, their lists would reveal things like, “I’m thankful Mom never knew who stashed the ice cream sandwiches behind the couch.” Or, “I’m thankful for the invention of permanent markers.”

Recently, I came home to find a child’s etching on the family room wall.

“Who drew a fish on the wall?” I asked.

“That’s not a fish,” said Ryan. “That’s a shark with really big, sharp teeth.” Poor kid doesn’t know a thing about his fifth amendment rights. I lectured him soundly and told him he was never, ever to draw a shark on the wall again.

“Okay, Mommy,” he told me sadly. “Next time I promise I’ll draw a fish for you instead.”

There’s often a direct correlation between the things my children are grateful for and the things that make my life chaotic these days. In fact, it’s been a challenge for the whole family to keep afloat at all sometimes.

My brother-in-law, Richard, died of a rare brain disease in February 2005 leaving behind my sister and her two daughters, then 4 and 10 months. Three months later, Eric moved out of the house and filed for divorce the following January. Some things are unimaginable.

In journalism, you look for natural transitions–one thought that ties a preceding paragraph into the next. In life, there are no smooth transitions from death and divorce. You cry. You rage. You spend sleepless nights worrying about the scars your children will bear. And then you pray for resilience and grace to cover and heal the fractures in everyone’s lives.

My niece Lauren tells people her daddy lives at the cemetery. Katie spent weeks after Eric moved out insisting that Daddy was working outside in the yard when nighttime came, and he wasn’t there to tuck her into bed.

When we pulled out of the garage one day, Katie refused to buckle herself into her car seat. Ryan and Paige pleaded with her to buckle in.

“Mommy’s going to get a ticket, and the police will come and take her to jail,” Paige told Katie.

“Daddy’s gone now,” Ryan continued. “And if Mommy goes to jail, we don’t know how to call Lynn [our nanny] to come and take care of us.” Katie soberly buckled her seatbelt.

I’m not being profane when I use the word hell. Divorce is a living hell, and the wreckage spills over onto children and church families and friends and even onto the far limbs of the family tree. If we’re fortunate enough, the branches of friendships and family can help to break the fall.

If I were writing my own Thankful box, my parents would top the list. In their inimitable way, they have stood by us and kept us all going.

When Richard died, Dad flew to Portland to help Charlene with all the details surrounding his death. Richard served in the U.S. Air Force to pay back four years of medical school, so Char wanted a 21-gun salute at his memorial service. Dad was sent in to make the arrangements. Ever careful about expenditures, Dad was appalled to hear how much a 21-gun salute would cost.

“Do they have a better rate if we just had a 7-gun salute?” he asked.

During his visits to Seattle this year, Dad cooked roasts as he did on the weekends I returned home from college. He helped me service my cars, carried out my trash, and made runs to Costco to stuff the freezer with food for the kids.

On car rides, the children like to play “Who am I?” where they mimic people. Recently I listened to Paige play-acting in the car, “Who wants to eat? Who’s hungry?”

“You’re Papa!” Ryan correctly shouted.

Dad nourishes our bodies. Mom attempts to sustain our souls. She’s so accustomed to receiving tearful phone calls, she sometimes confuses the grief and the daughter she’s trying to console.

One morning on the phone, Mom spent several minutes empathizing: I just don’t understand this. I don’t know why he chose this route for his life. Maybe one day he’ll wake up, but for now, he can’t be enjoying any peace.” Then Mom realized she was talking to my widowed sister, not me.

That possibly explains why she walks around sighing to herself in Chinese these days. It’s safer to express yourself in another language: Mah say lock day han. Or maybe it was Rah, rah. Sis boom bah…

“What are you muttering about?” I once asked her.

“When the horse dies, you get up and walk,” she told me. I thought that was pretty good, so I asked her for another one.

“If man had a conscience, a dog wouldn’t eat his s–t,” she said.

I’ve never seen those on any fortune cookies I’ve ever opened, but I’m thinking I ought to start my own line of Chinese greeting cards. Maybe I’ll send those out next year, but then you’d miss the photo cards I usually send with the faces of my little ones for whom I’m also deeply thankful.

At 9, Megan is beautiful both inside and out. She’s sweet and thoughtful and sensitive to the plight of others. At the dog park this summer, it was Megan who shed embarrassed tears for our Whistler when he squatted to expel a plastic Target bag he had eaten the day before. Unfortunately for him, (and certainly for all of us trying to make a good impression with the canine crowd standing around) only the first four inches of the bag made it out on his first purge attempt. Unperturbed, Whistler gave up and ran around for the next 20 minutes with the plastic bag hanging partially out of his rear.

It’s hard to know what to do in those situations. Yank and hope not to hurt anything? Shrug and figure it’ll all come out okay in the end… literally? Wonder aloud to everyone around about whose dog that is? (Hint: On multiple choice exams, I always opted for ‘C’ when I wasn’t sure of the answer.)

If most of the genes for sweet and sensitive went to Megan, then feisty and fiery went to Paige and Katie. The 5-year-old twins were fighting ferociously one day when I heard Ryan plead, “Please, please stop arguing with me, Paige. Don’t talk to me anymore!”

“Okay,” Paige replied. There was silence for a moment and then she added, “But I’m very, very right, Ryan.”

Katie, 3, is also not to be crossed. I’m not sure if she’s been exposed to too many Revelation seminars put on at church, but she’s convinced that she wants to be a dragon when she grows up. “God will turn me into a dragon,” she tells everyone. “He will give me two heads so I can breathe more fire!”

Spare us all. She creates enough heat with the one head she’s got.

So amid the fire and days that feel like a living hell, there are also numerous ways to be grateful and glad. I believe God has provided in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen nor would have planned.

After years of being a stay-at-home dad, Eric got an engineering job in Redmond seven months after he moved out of our home. World Vision’s senior management and fellow colleagues were incredibly supportive to me throughout all of the transitions.

In January, I took on a new position as general manager over the radio program, the World Vision Report. I work with a fabulous, top-notch team of journalists across the country, and some of the best stringers from around the world file for the show. The half-hour weekly program is on a couple hundred Christian stations and is just starting to gain carriage on public radio. Incredibly, I also have the flexibility of working from home two days a week which is ideal for the kids and me right now.

I’m so grateful to those of you who have walked me through the awful times and dealt with all the poop from this year. You may think I’m being figurative, but I’m remembering a 5-mile hike around Point Defiance where my friend Kari, offered to carry Whistler’s waste bag until we came to the next trash can. If that isn’t the mark of true friendship, I don’t know what is!

I’d love to list you all–Kris, Peggy, Char and Heidi; the multiple Johns and Jons; my extended family and church friends…you’re in my box of people I’m thankful for. And I’m pretty certain you’re there in permanent ink.