Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wife Rule #68: She's Always There (Part 2)

I'm sure you are all dying to know how this stud-horse of a Clydesdale performed in the half-marathon.

Remember that movie, The Man From Snowy River? Remember that famous scene where young aspiring cowpoke Jim rides a horse down that super-steep hill in slow motion, and the horse's mane is flowing in the wind like a supermodel's hairdo in a Pantene commercial, and the horse's muscles are each rippling individually, popping into definition like a hundred juice-injected breasts of plump, delicious Butterball roast turkey?

Yup, that was pretty much me.

At least the juice-injected part. I tried to drink as much as possible at the water stations along the way, despite the best efforts of the water station people, who kept thwarting my guzzling efforts with wimpy, half-empty Dixie cups. These were definitely not half-full. Half-empty. Period. I wanted to grab the water coolers they were filling cups from, and dump them over my head with my mouth open, gurgling loudly and exclaiming "MMMM! AHHH! NOW THAT'S A DRINK!" but instead I settled for grabbing a half-empty cup in each hand and choking them down as fast as I could, then repeating--the only binge-drinking experience of my life.

But my plump, rippling physique is not the only similarity I shared with The Man From Snowy River. Do you remember Jessica's Theme? It's that piano song from the movie that played every time the camera panned up close on Jessica's outrageously babe-o-licious face:


Every seven-year-old boy who saw the movie fell madly in love with Jessica, mostly because of her Theme. A few years after The Man From Snowy River came out, there were households all over the nation whose pianos held a single abandoned piece of sheet music, Jessica's Theme, the bitter aftermath of thousands of young boys' crushed dreams of becoming concert pianists. Dreams that were abandoned when they realized that you actually had to practice the dang thing before you could play... Jessica's Theme. All they wanted to do was hold a concert featuring... Jessica's Theme. They would play it over and over again, and by the end of the performance, everyone would be on their feet, holding hands, swaying back and forth, and singing along:


So like the Man From Snowy River, I had a Jessica's Theme of sorts playing throughout my race. It consisted of my illegal iPod, loaded with songs that remind me of my loving wife.

Yes, my iPod was illegal. This being my first race ever, I made the mistake of reading the official "Race Bible," which states explicitly that "Headphones are banned as it is USA Track & Field Policy that all sanctioned events have a ban on headphones BLAH-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH-BLAH-BLAHITTY-BLAH."

Being the non-rule-oriented super-rebel that I am (as is obvious to anyone who has read my Wife Rules), I snuck my iPod onto the track with me. Civil disobedience hall of fame, here I come!

Actually, once I got to the starting line, it seemed like a majority of the fifteen-hundred runners there had illegal headphones too, which helped soothe my sore conscience so I could enjoy my personal musical tribute to my wife as I ran down the canyon course.

And enjoy it I did. Just like when I was running on the beach in California, my wife was there with me, her warm, encouraging smile bolstering my stride.

She wanted to be there in person, but I talked her out of it. After consulting with a friend who had done this before, I feared the prospects of my wife waking the whole family up early on a Saturday morning, driving 45 minutes to the finish line, parking a half-mile away, dragging five whiny kids through the morning August heat, and finally waiting an unknown quantity of time in a standing-room-only crowd of people for a thirty-second glimpse of my sweat-soaked carcass slogging through the street. I didn't want to put them through that, and perhaps even more, I didn't want to deal with the tear-stained scowls of resentment that might be waiting for me at the end of the race.

So the night before, I convinced my wife not to come. When I awoke at 4:45 AM the morning of the race, I discovered lipstick smooches and an encouraging love note she left on the bathroom mirror for me. And we had agreed that I would call her when I finished, so she'd be the first to know how things went, too.

So my wife really was there with me, sending me off with a smooch at the start, there in my mind (and iPod) throughout the race, and long-distance-cheering me on at the finish. And speaking of the finish, for those who are interested, my time was about 2 hours and 2 minutes, a stunning personal best, and my place was 663 out of 1077 finishers. So I succeeded at not coming in last.

The choices my wife and I have made regarding children and family commitments sometimes mean we have to compromise a bit, letting lesser things go in favor of higher priorities (such as sanity, in this case). That's okay with us; these are very small sacrifices compared to the blessings we enjoy as part of the package deal called "Parenthood."

Not sweating these small sacrifices is part of what separates the boys from the men.

And I should know all about that. I've seen The Man From Snowy River, after all.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wife Rule #67: National Parks Rock (or, Ten Quick and Easy Ways to Die While on Family Vacation)

I understand exactly why my kids like to throw rocks at each other.

Or more accurately, they like to throw rocks, but their aim is poor enough that some of the rocks inevitably end up being hurled in the direction of a beloved sibling's skull.

So on our family vacation to Yellowstone National Park last week, I tried to remember that there is a delicate balance between allowing my children to experience the Wonder of Nature--in the form of chucking large pieces of Mother Earth into the calm, placid waters of the various rivers in Yellowstone--and how quickly we use up our first aid supplies in the small kit we keep in our glove compartment.

Besides, rock-throwing provides opportunities for me to teach my children important Life Skills, such as how to skip a rock. One day while waiting for the pit toilet to become available (this would never happen if there were separate Men's and Women's pit toilets), I spent a few minutes teaching five-year-old Scott how to select the optimum skipping rock:

Me: "It should be round, flat, and thin, like this. Now you find one.... Nope, not thin enough. It should look more like a Frisbee, not a Winnebago. Try again.... Nope, that one looks too much like Ralph Nader. It'll sink right to the bottom.... There, that one is just right."

Scott: "Wow, you know everything, Dad!"

So my elevated ego and I watched with joy as he eventually got the hang of it. I am comforted in the assurance that if Scott is ever stranded on an island out in the middle of calm, placid waters, he will be well-equipped to amuse himself by skipping rocks for hours on end while he waits to be rescued.

So you can see that National Parks, being chock-full of rocks, are good for memorable family vacations, despite the risk of being knocked in the noggin by a large stone, hurled lovingly by one's own kin. But to make a good family vacation truly great, the kids must encounter situations that evoke a genuine fear of dying. Nothing screams "REMEMBER ME!" quite like experiencing the potential for accidental death.

I should know. I spent many family trips as a young boy hiking among even more dangerous rocks, such as those found in Arches National Park. In this sandstone playground, two-hundred-foot thick slabs of bedrock are criss-crossed by deep fractures that have molded the rocks into a giant maze of fins. There are nearly infinite opportunities to fall to your doom, more than enough to make deep and lasting impressions on a young child's mind. My shrink says the twitching might eventually go away.

But the rocks at Arches don't just wait around to be fallen off of, or to be chucked into calm, placid waters. They seem to have a death wish of their own, actively crumbling and falling all by themselves in spectacular, highly-publicized displays, kind of like Britney Spears.

In fact, while Scott and I were busy skipping rocks at Yellowstone, one of my all-time favorite rocks at Arches, a beautiful, 71-foot natural ribbon of rock called Wall Arch, gave up the ghost and came tumbling down. Probably depressed about the recent performance of its 401K, I can only suppose.

When I heard about the collapse, I immediately felt grateful that I had taken pictures of each of my kids sitting underneath Wall Arch just last year, both so that they can always remember the arch itself, and so they can know that Dad took a picture of them sitting in a spot where only a few months later, 5000-pound boulders fell from a height of 33 feet. Talk about memories!

So rocks provide many family-friendly ways of getting killed while visiting one of our spectacular national parks. But Yellowstone offers so much more. Here is a short list of other memory-building ways to die that I thought of during our trip to Yellowstone last week:

1) Wandering off the trail and falling through thin dirt crust into a brand new thermal water feature. There were literally dozens of signs posted around the geyser basins alerting my children to this danger. They each featured a young boy who left the boardwalk and now had steam and superheated, acidic water hissing up to his face out of the hole in the ground his feet had just made. He had an expression on his face similar to what a boiled lobster would be wearing. His parents, observing safely from the boardwalk only a few feet away, had expressions on their faces that seemed to say, "I told young Timmy not to make any new geysers. If he survives, I'm going to ground him for at least a week." These signs were very effective at helping to keep my kids close in the thermal areas.

2) Being gored by a bison. This happens every year. During our week in Yellowstone we drove past dozens of good candidates for a goring, who had pulled over within ten feet of a grazing bison, had left the safety of their vehicles, and were waving their arms in an attempt to get the bison's attention for a picture. The temptation to quietly pull in behind them and honk was almost overwhelming.

3) Driving off a cliff while trying to avoid a bison on the road. This really happened to us. We were on one of those narrow, one-way roads along a high cliff with no guard rail, where every ten feet or so there is visible evidence of a partial cave-in along the cliff edge of the road, when we encountered a bison sauntering ahead of us. Bison saunter at about five miles per hour, so we eventually had to pass the beast. This one elected not to nudge us off as we passed.

4) Falling into one of the plenteous pit toilets scattered throughout the park. Trust me, don't try to imagine what this would be like. Just keep reading.

5) Impaling one's self on a sharp branch connected to a log one has just fallen off of, because one got bored during the picnic and decided that traversing narrow, dangerous fallen logs is a good idea. Each and every child in our family attempted to die this way during our trip.

6) Climbing over the safety wall and plunging to one's death from the top of a 500-foot cliff overlooking spectacular natural scenery, such as that found at Artist's Point. Each of my kids also attempted to try this, but I managed to stop them in the act.

7) Slipping off the hiking trail that has no guard rail, sliding down a steep, sandy slope, and then falling off a 500-foot cliff overlooking spectacular natural scenery. My kids had enough sense not to try this.

8) Going over a 300-foot waterfall in a canoe. It gave us all chills just to imagine it. Only my two-year-old son actually requested to try it. I need to work on his fear of heights and drowning.

9) Being anywhere in North America when the Yellowstone super-volcano explodes. We learned all about this exciting impending doom while at the visitor centers at the park. Celebrating the moose and the elk and the bear are OUT. Apocalyptic volcanic eruptions are IN. There were graphic illustrations of how much magma lies beneath Yellowstone. The most memorable one was a little fist-sized cube representing how much ash came out of Mount Saint Helens, sitting next to a cube the size of an industrial meat freezer, representing the lethal magma bubbling under our feet. When this thing blows, we won't even have to be on vacation to die.

10) If we manage to survive the super-volcanic holocaust, we are likely to be bitten by one of Yellowstone's rabid chipmunks and die. We all know that any surviving varmints will undoubtedly turn wild again and started hunting whatever big game is still alive, including leftover tourists. The cute little scurry-around-the-boardwalks-and-beg-for-potato-chips gig is just an act to lull us into a false sense of security. Don't fall for it!

So there you have it. We're all going to die. But when my family finally goes, at least we're going to have some fantastic memories to take with us, thanks to our spectacular national parks.

And especially because of the rocks.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Wife Rule #66: The Wilderness Stinks

It has been a long time since my olfactory senses have been stirred by the aromas of nature in quite the same way they were this last week in Yellowstone National Park.

And the pit toilets were only part of it.

Leaving the comforts of home behind is always an adventure, but one my wife and I have learned to enjoy together. She grew up in a family that practically lived in the mountains, but paradoxically, seldom picnicked and almost never camped. Hiking was not done so much for recreation as it was out of necessity, such as the trips each fall into the mountains to cut a firewood supply for the long, harsh winter.

In contrast, I grew up surrounded by the suburbs, but lived counting down the days before our next excursion to whichever mountain or desert wilderness was seasonably favorable at the time. A huge chunk of my family's recreation together consisted of picnics, hikes, and camping or backpacking trips.

So The Wilderness is one of those areas in our marriage where we have had a lot of good, healthy compromise. By "good" and "healthy" I mean, of course, that my wife has changed her views to more closely match mine. The kind of compromise where I change my views seems a lot harder for some reason, so I try to avoid it. I'm just lucky that my wife was crazy enough about me early on in our marriage to allow me to open this can of worms up. Now our kids are infected with the Wilderness bug, so there's really no going back.

Actually, my wife has been a great sport about it for the most part, and has even learned to love much of what I love. She still doesn't understand some soul-satisfying aspects of life in The Wilderness, such as early-morning Tarzan yells, or completely bypassing personal hygiene for days on end, or spitting off cliffs, or the deep sense of satisfaction that comes after relieving one's self in the woods.

Which brings me back to the topic of pit toilets. I mentioned that my wife has done most of the giving-in when it comes to our outdoor recreational choices, but this is one subject that has caused me serious reflection and soul searching.

See, "personal time" in the wilderness is usually brief and simple when you're a guy. Apparently it's a totally different story for our female counterparts. Something else they never told me before I rushed blindly into marriage and family commitments.

So in Yellowstone this past week, we were a good twenty miles from the nearest plumbing, having a picnic at 8500 feet at an idyllic spot nestled into a forest glade among the happy pines and chirping birds. Have you ever noticed what happens to a bag of unopened potato chips at 8500 feet? It blows up like the Goodyear blimp.

It turns out that the same thing happens to kids' bladders.

Thus, we had Potty Time a lot during our forays into The Wilderness last week. As I mentioned, my previous wilderness-potty-soul-searching has led me to the conclusion that if my wife is willing to let me drag the family that far away from plumbing, I had better shoulder the responsibility of helping anyone who needs Potty Time while we're there.

Which is fine and good, because I have been well-trained in the ancient art of Going Potty in The Wilderness. Since I was young, my father ingrained the idea into me that for certain types of needs, every tree, shrub, and careless woodland creature is a potential potty when you are in The Wilderness. I have employed these valuable skills when helping my daughters and sons alike.

But there are also occasional "other" needs, which are a little more complicated. Thus, when my young son required this kind of relief, I squared my shoulders and marched straight into the pit toilet with him (Um, I mean into the enclosure around the pit toilet, of course).

The aroma there was, to say the least, poignant. It brought back memories that have not haunted me in years, such as one of the first Daddy-child moments I ever had in a pit toilet. We were picnicking up one of our local canyons, and my daughter had one too many cups of lemonade. She was freshly toilet-trained, and very insistent on doing things the "proper" way (no shrubbery escape-clause this time). So, I dutifully led her into the pit toilet, helped her get ready, and attempted to sit her down.

She took one look at the black, gaping hole beneath her, and went into Full Panic Mode.

"It's too far! It's too far!" she cried, suddenly transforming herself into what I can only describe as a very frightened octopus-like creature, clinging to me with at least eight appendages, each covered with a thousand invisible suction cups.

At that point, I knew I was toast. There was no prying this child off of me to sit on that seat, perched precariously atop an infinite black hole. Neither was there any stopping the powerful Force of Nature that landed us here in the first place. All I could do was stand there, helpless, and experience the smell.

Shuddering, I forced my mind back to the present. Concentration. This is hard enough without the ghosts of past failures haunting me.

Well, we survived the pit toilet, aromas and all. We finished our picnic and loaded back into the car. Naturally, after such an ordeal, my brilliant idea for our next stop was a bit of "R and R"--at the stinky mud pots.

Yes, I willingly signed us all up for another hour of smelling brown, sulphurous ooze. I knew my kids would love it, and I was right. In fact, the only thing that topped the boiling mud for my youngest boy was watching the bison we encountered along the trail, pooping (the bison, not my son).

"Behold," I said in my best authoritative National Geographic narrator voice. "A real, live bison pooping in the woods. Welcome to The Wilderness, kids."

"How can you tell the bison is pooping?" my oldest asked.

"Umm," I stammered, both bewildered that I would need to explain such a thing, and trying to figure out how to delicately point out the obvious.

"Easy," my second-born observed, "just watch for the stuff falling between the back legs."

"Ooooooh," my kids chimed in chorus.

Thus it's plainly obvious to everyone that there are all manner of memorable, educational, smelly experiences to be had when Dad drags the family far from home, deep into The Wilderness. It's true that The Wilderness stinks, but in Yellowstone, at least it's a good kind of stink.

Outhouses excluded, of course.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Wife Rule #65: She's Always There

It turns out that they have a special category called "Clydesdales."

I suppose those of us who qualify should take it as a compliment. After all, Clydesdales are large, strong, hard-working horses who get the occasional gig in a malted-barley beverage commercial. But really, I was hoping not to qualify. I thought being in the amorphous "30-34 year old" category was ignominious enough. A thirty-something: youth long gone, warranties freshly expired, still wandering in the wilderness of denial of the impending onset of middle age.

But a Clydesdale?

I had hoped that during my three months of summer training, I would drop the few pounds it would take to put me below the weight threshold to qualify for this special group. However, as millions of Americans know all too well, our weight-loss goals are not always attained. But since I already registered as part of the appropriate non-Clydesdale age group, I will be running the half-marathon as a stealth Clydesdale. A stud-horse among normal men. My little secret.

With any luck, I might even avoid coming in dead-last, although there are no guarantees. My brother-in-law explained how sheepish he felt during the last few miles of his marathon when he was passed by the hunchbacked old lady.

It will be the first time I have ever run in an organized race like this, and I hope it won't be the last. You see, if my name is out there on the Internet results page as coming in dead-last, well, that would be worse than acknowledging my unambiguous qualification for the Clydesdale category. I'm pretty sure I would never race again.

Thus, I have been training. After several months, I have to admit that it has been good for me, even kind of fun. Really. There's that endorphin-induced high they talk about that kicks in after you hit "the wall." Well, I'm not sure I ever got to the high, but as a strong, work-horse of a Clydesdale, I figure I can push against that wall for 13.1 miles.

I have taken my training seriously, even packing--and using--my running shoes on vacation. Not that I think I deserve a huge pat on the back for my diligence; running doesn't always feel like a sacrifice. Especially when running through the early morning mist across the sandy beaches of Southern California.

It was a great place to train. For starters, I was running at about 5,000 feet less elevation than when I run at home, so the oxygen in the air was about twice as thick. I really didn't have to focus on breathing, freeing up my mind to focus on other things. Like my wife, sleeping peacefully back at the beach cottage, the wind from the ceiling fan blowing the soft stray hairs over her forehead.

No, not now. I can think of her when I'm stuck on my basement treadmill in the middle of January. I only have a week at the beach, so I had better concentrate on enjoying the here and now of this morning run. I drink in the fresh, humid air, hydrating me with every breath. The longest I'll run here is about seven miles, and with the humidity, I shouldn't even need a water bottle. The air is also rich with the scents of the ocean, a wonderful mixture of sea brine and fabric softener freshness. I take a deep breath and just concentrate on smelling. Ahhhhhhh.

My mind shifts, and I can almost smell the pancakes that my wife is probably cooking in the tiny kitchen. A rich aroma of buttery batter, ready to be doused by maple syrup. The kids will be watching anxiously from the table, eyes hungry and forks ready. My wife will smile and announce in a sing-song lilt, Whoooo wants some paaaaaancakes?

But that's for later. For now, I'm enjoying the challenge of dodging waves, stepping onto the streaks of bright sea foam left behind on the firm, wet sand as each wave rushes back to the ocean. My eyes marvel at the patterns the water leaves behind in the sand: rich ripples of black and gold, strewn like blown satin sheets across the larger-grained sand. The glimmer of the hazy morning light on the wetness makes it almost look like I'm running across a giant, flowing mirror. Beautiful.

Like her. The sweet serenity that settles across her features when we come here. Her relaxation is almost tangible. Sure, there is still the morning bustle of cooking, cleaning, dressing, and slathering sunscreen on our kids, but I love the look in her eyes, here in this place she loves so much. It's almost like the shimmering, golden light from the setting sun across the black, rolling waves last night has been taken in and captured; like the deep blues of the churning sea and the electric blues of the afternoon sky are there, all blended together, in her eyes.

A thunderous crash brings me back to the beach, where my pace has slowed a bit during my distraction. Is there a thunderstorm blowing in? No, of course not--that was just the sea. I'm now past the flat beach where the rock jetties segment the waves, running across the long stretch of unbroken coast where the crashing waves can get huge and loud. I wish my wife were here to watch the churning of the water with me. We always liked watching the waves together. We would sit on the sand, huddled together for warmth, her head nestled into my shoulder and neck, while the brisk morning breeze flows off the water and through us.

I realize now that the best way to enjoy running here on the beach is to go ahead and include my wife in it. Even if absent in body, she's going to be constantly in my thoughts anyway, so I might as well accept that she belongs there.

She is always there, especially when I'm here.

Which is just as it should be. In a few weeks, when I run my race, she'll be there too, at the end, waiting anxiously for her Clydesdale to clop across the finish line. She'll embrace me, sweaty shirt and all, and tell me how proud she is that I did it, even if I come in dead-last.

I'll enjoy the embrace and the praise. They come from her. She's always there for me, right where I need her.

She's always there.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Wife Rule #64: I'm Runnin' On

I'm runnin' on
I'm runnin' on
I done left this world behind
I done crossed the separatin' line
And I left this worl', left this world behind

These are the lyrics to one of the many African American spirituals that I sang as a member of my church's signature choir. These toe-tapping tunes almost always elicit broad smiles and joyful energy from those who sing them. But underneath the simplicity of the words and the often repetitive melodic lines, most spirituals have a strong element of deep symbolism. Favorite images employed are escaping the bondage of Egypt and crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, or in the case of this song, the crossing of any boundary to freedom.

The often upbeat tempos and energetic melodies seem to belie the true undercurrent of these songs: they are an exercise in optimism from some of the most maltreated, abused members of humanity in the world's history. These spirituals are proof that even when mankind is shackled and chained, whipped and beaten, there remains in some the flame of hope.

Sometimes that hope merely centers in escaping into the welcome embrace of death. Even when faced with the inescapable suffering of a lifetime of forced servitude, there is always the prospect of happiness in the next life.

But there was more than just death to look forward to; for these brave, noble souls, God was not only the Just Judge who would eventually set them free; He was also a living, current, vibrant force in their lives--lives that by all rights should have been devoid of hope. God shines through in their music. As the slaves' simple testimonies of hope, endurance, and eventual triumph shine out of the utter darkness of man's inhumanity to man, the African American spiritual passes into the realm of sacred music.

I'm Runnin' On happens to be one of my all-time favorites: because of the message of hope; because of the almost excessive joy that exudes from every measure of the song; and especially because of the images it always conjured up in my mind.

You see, my wife's father was a runner. During the six years I knew him, he was a little heavyset, but very conscious of his health. Thus, he took to running. He had a collection of running shorts that always seemed just a little too short--you know the ones, similar to the tight little shorts that basketball players used to wear fifty years ago. When I think of Dad running it is always the image of his bright red, too-short running shorts, hugging his hips and revealing the white tops of his long, sturdy, tan legs, as he runs off into the distance. And when I sang I'm Runnin' On, I couldn't get the image of Dad out of my mind.

It seemed too appropriate. The first time I remember singing that particular spiritual was just a month or so after Dad's accident and death. There I was, dressed in a tux in the choir loft, lights dimmed and cameras rolling for our live weekly television and radio broadcast, and all I can see is Dad's white-topped legs, crowned by his bright red hip-huggers, jiggling and shaking as he ran off into the distance, toward freedom from the pains and trials of this world.

I couldn't help but smile. Big smile. Huge smile. Shiny white teeth. Probably one of those four-pointed stars of bright light gleaming off my pearly whites into the camera.

For me, this was healing. It was hope. The fog of shock, disappointment, and sadness brought on by Dad's death lifted, just for a few minutes. It was recognition that life goes on after this dreary world, running on into freedom and love and light brighter than anything we know here. I'm runnin' on. I done left this world behind.

Ever since then, when I sang or even thought about that song, Dad was always there, runnin' on with me.

During my last trip to my wife's childhood home, I took the opportunity to run the path that Dad often took while donning his hip-huggers. It starts at the house and passes the neighbors' homes and fields, full of hay and horses and farm implements in various states of repair. Then it turns east towards the Bottoms, a wide-open expanse of farm land, pastures, and marshy swamp overflows from the nearby lake, criss-crossed by seldom-traveled dirt roads.

After I pass the old barn where dogs like to congregate and bark furiously at me, after I leave behind the last residents of "the city" (grazing cattle and horses), I reach the Bottoms. For the next several miles, it's just me, the fields, the swamp grass, and the lightly-graveled dirt road ahead of me. A rather stark landscape, to be honest, but one possessing a subtle beauty that I could only see in recent years.

I hip-hop over a snake that has ventured out onto the road, grateful for the relative softness of dirt under my feet, and enjoy the sounds of water fowl coming from the bird refuge that borders this land. There are the ducks, mallards and canvasbacks; the grebes and gulls; occasional pelicans and cranes; and the common white-faced ibis, nesting in large numbers among the reeds. It takes a little concentration to notice, but wildlife abounds in this small slice of near-wilderness. I've crossed some type of line, a separatin' line, and left the busy world behind.

I think of my wife's Dad, running here in the wild, free expanse. I run today to honor him: a 4.8 mile tribute of swiftly-moving, pasty-white legs.

He's crossed into the next world, the first of our closest family to go there. And we're following behind, a bright flame of hope lit by the same faith in a better life to come that allowed the African American authors of the spirituals to survive. We share a kinship with them. Not that our suffering even remotely compares to theirs, but that we are all part of the same human family, all children of our Father in Heaven, all striving for the better life He promised was possible.

I'll meet you there someday, Dad. Until then, I'm runnin' on.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Wife Rule #63: Love Stories are Lovely

My wife and I recently watched a movie adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. While I get much more of a kick out of watching Indiana Jones take on a whole army of Nazis than my wife does, I can't deny the authentic draw that a well-done love story has for me. Now don't get me wrong--the 200-hour version of Pride and Prejudice is strictly for chicks. But the newer two-hour version is delightful, and there are many other men who would back me up on this, most of whom are not male ballet dancers, which is a whole other disturbing topic.

So this has led me to think: what is it about a love story--a really good love story--that draws us all in and makes us care about characters that we don't know and that usually don't even exist? The answers to these questions are inherently obvious for an Indiana Jones flick:

1) He uses a whip to fight bad guys
2) He has a really neat hat and matching jacket, both made of dead cow parts
3) You get to watch him beat up Nazis and Communists (honestly, does it get any better than that?)
4) Again, he uses a whip to fight bad guys!

So it's easy to see the appeal there. But what about a love story?

1) No stray eyebrow, nose, or ear hairs to put the fizzle on the sizzle
2) No bad breath
3) No bathroom breaks
4) No walking in to the bathroom to brush your teeth, only to find yourself interrupting your spouse during his or her bathroom break. Ewww!

Hmmm, that's a pretty good list so far, but I think the best answers may even be a little more complex than that. So I'll try again. But first, we need to define what I mean by a "love" story.

Based on my exposure to American pop culture, it seems to me that the majority of the usage of the word "love" we hear is actually a misnomer for simple infatuation. Infatuation is fool's gold: shiny, easily obtained, and bearing some resemblance to the real thing, but in reality not worth much. It describes skin-deep, surface emotions of attraction that come effortlessly and are just as easily lost.

Although infatuation can initially serve to bring two people together, it does it in a self-focused way. In contrast, the method that real love uses to draw two people to each other operates entirely on selflessness--on both people having such a concern for the other's happiness that their efforts to make their lover happy exceed even their own desires for self-fulfillment, understanding, and happiness.

And that's where the magic comes. Two lovers entirely focused on serving each other unwittingly end up also achieving their own deep, defining, desperate desires for absolute acceptance and understanding; their instinctual yearnings both to give one's self fully to another, and to receive another unconditionally.

For relationships that start with infatuation, as so many do, life inevitably provides some critical period in which that infatuation must transform into real love via the alchemy of self-restraint and surrender to a greater goal. Without this transition, the relationship will eventually fail. In other words, the one who truly loves must be willing to sacrifice the powerful, short-term, self-serving urges of infatuation with an all-inclusive, long-term plan for the happiness of the one being loved.

When two such people are mutually directing such selfless efforts at each other, you have the recipe for a deliciously genuine love story. All the great ones have periods of conflict that stretch the relationship of the two lovers almost to the breaking point. It is then that the tremendous risk of loving is revealed.

For example, if Mr. Darcy had not been determined to save Elizabeth's family from shame, despite being esteemed as everything loathsome by Elizabeth, then the sweet heart-softening would never have been possible or necessary, and ultimately their relationship would not be meaningful to the rest of us. Instead of Pride and Prejudice we would have only Flirt and Fizzle, a story of fool's gold love that never amounted to much.

But with plot twists concocted to create moments of decision that give characters in love the opportunity--or necessity--of weighing their own selfish interests against their passionate quest to make their lover happy, it's no longer the story of two fictional characters. It becomes the story of you and the one you love.

Granted, most of us men aren't multi-gazillionaire bachelors with haunting, deep eyes like Mr. Darcy. And most women aren't as quick-witted as a carefully scripted Elizabeth, nor do they have a team of makeup artists operating on them at five minute intervals to make sure that they simultaneously look like they just woke up and just stepped out of a beauty salon, when Mr. Darcy appears in the early morning across a dark, misty meadow.

But despite these obvious differences between them and us, we share something in common: I don't know too many couples who are still together that have never had to make large personal sacrifices for the sake of their union. These seemingly trumped-up love stories seem real to us because they are about something that is real. And thus, when somehow, against all odds, the lovers in the movie eventually come together, their union is all the sweeter because of the terrible price they paid to get there--a price so many lovers understand because we have paid it ourselves.

It's usually at these points of heightened emotional drama in the movie that the wise husband smiles suavely at his spouse and collects a smooch. Mmmmm, that's real.

For some reason, that just doesn't happen much during Indiana Jones movies, despite his nifty whip and leather hat.