Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wife Rule #92: It's All About the Delivery

There's something about a really, really bad joke that's just so... so...


At least if the joke originated inside the cute little mind, and the punchline is delivered by the cute little mouth, of one of your own offspring.

For example, three-year-old Andrew literally had me shaking in my chair this morning, with the following piece of brilliance:

Andrew (with a huge twinkle in his drop-dead gorgeous blue eyes): "Why did the horsie cross the road?"

Me (taking another bite of corn flakes): "I don't know. Why?"

Andrew (almost giddy to deliver the punch line): "Because the hay was goingToGetHim[and I really didn't understand any more at this point but then Andrew went] BLEEEEAAAAGHHHHH!!!" and he slumped down in his seat as his head disappeared underneath the kitchen table.

Me: "Mmmmph-chortle-gag-spew-HAHAHA!!!" as my mouthful of corn flakes sprayed the immediate area around my cereal bowl.

I mean, Jay Leno couldn't deliver that joke half as well as my adorable child. And Andrew's repertoire doesn't stop with just one joke, either. He quickly followed up with this:

Andrew (smiling broadly with his best winning smile): "Knock knock!"

Me (wisely putting down my spoon and swallowing): "Who's there?"

Andrew (with gusto): "Horse!"

Me (guessing where this might go): "Horse who?"

Andrew: "Horse walked down the road andTheHayGotHimAnd[didn't catch this part] BLEEEEAAAAGHHHHH!!!" My laughter filled the kitchen as he disappeared under the table again.

I know just what you're thinking--it never gets old! And you're right! I learned this lesson years ago, when, as a young boy, I used to get my parents rolling with laughter by concocting jokes that went something like this:

Me: "What did the refrigerator say to the lamp shade?"

My parents: "I don't know. What?"

Me: "We're exactly the same, except I keep food cold and you are on top of a lamp!"


Get it? Now imagine me telling a spontaneous stream of ten or more of these jokes back to back, acting like I'm all clever each time, and you quickly realize that there's virtually unlimited hilarity in comparing any two random objects in the universe and saying they are "exactly the same, except..." and then describing their differences. I think I entertained my family with literally hundreds of jokes like these. And there are millions more where those came from. Too bad I only see them for a few hours every couple of weeks.

So you can see where Andrew gets his joke-making genes. My other kids are quite adept at it too. I have learned that it only takes a couple of rounds of fabricated laughs before they start thinking they're so funny that the laughter becomes real.

And that, of course, sets off a circular chain reaction that results in more jokes and red faces and streaming tears and arms clutching guts as we double-over with laughter and disappear beneath the table and BLEEEEAAAAGHHHHH!!!

And all this without any real stand-up comedic talent to speak of. Which just goes to show that it's not so much about the material, as it is about the adoration you feel beaming towards the precious little person telling you the joke, the darling the stork once delivered to your doorstep to brighten your outlook and enrich your life.

It turns out that it's all about the delivery after all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wife Rule #91: Learn to Bend

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

My wife loves this old Shaker song, called "Simple Gifts." The chorus, as cited above, is a gentle reminder that humility, meekness, and willingness "to bow and to bend" are virtues that lead to a happier, simpler life, rather than all the strife and complication that comes of selfishly asserting our own will all the time.

This philosophy has been a much needed reminder in our marriage, especially when we have dug ourselves deep into the trenches of the Holiday Holy War. You all know what I'm talking about, of course: Christmas lights.

There are countless ways to slice and dice opinions in the Christmas Lights Question, but there is only one correct opinion: mine.

And this coming from a man whose idea of interior decorating is to toss my dirty socks on the lampshade. Come to think of it, if I had my way, lampshades would be classified as "unnecessary expenses" and my sock would be directly smoldering on the naked bulb. Cheaper and more aromatic than incense.

But taste in Christmas lights has absolutely nothing to do with interior decorating--certain principles exist in the Universe and simply must be obeyed. See, everyone is entitled to their opinion; unfortunately, most opinions are wrong. If you want to decorate your house with all green lights so that it looks like Frankenstein's Castle, go ahead. If you want to decorate in those blue LED lights, so that your roof looks like a UFO landing pad, be my guest. And if you are one of those people who simply replaces your porch light with an evil-looking red light bulb, then you won't get any competition from me in the Satan's Lair Look-Alike Contest.

But if you want to create a truly aesthetic holiday atmosphere--you know, something really classy-looking--then there's only one obvious answer: multicolored blinking lights. Of course, I don't need to tell you this; flashing multi-colored lights stand on their own merits. And besides, that's what I grew up with. I'm grateful I was brought up in truth and righteousness on this very important issue.

But my wife, with her countless virtues, was sadly led astray on this one little point from an early age. She incorrectly--and tragically--thinks that straight white, non-blinking, boring lights are the way to go. So sad, an innocent, pure child being brainwashed like that. She and other members of her family have even been known to describe the correct style of lights (my style) as "tacky." Gasp!

I know, I know. It's shocking. And I'm not going to try to minimize the real strain this put on our marriage during our Magical First Christmas Together. Amazingly, in all of our premarital discussions about vital topics--such as religion, how many kids we want, where we want to live, what our wedding colors should be (Me: "What in the heck are wedding colors? How about black?"), etc.--the topic of Christmas Lights was somehow skipped over. Note to all you out there who are thinking of getting married: do not neglect to discuss Christmas Lights, and if needed, sign a prenup!

So it was more than a little disturbing to discover as we discussed decorating our Magical First Christmas Tree Together that my wife assumed we would light the whole thing up with plain white lights! And to make matters worse, she expected me to wind the lights around each and every branch! I mean, who has time for that? And spending that kind of time on white lights???

Well, I had a little news for the new Wifey-poo: while boring white lights may have once been sufficient for You and Yours, our Magical First Christmas Tree Together (which includes the big Me and Mine) would definitely be incorporating colored lights. And flashing lights.

Positions were taken, lines were drawn. It looked like we might be heading straight into our Magical First Christmas Argument Together. Luckily, my wife and I had been married almost eight whole months by then, so we were pretty much masters of compromise. So we did the tree half white, half colored, with one large strand of twinkling lights that ran along the trunk from top to bottom. I kid you not.

Thankfully, my wife decided not to divorce me.

In truth, the tree really didn't look that bad. It was, according to my wife, "fine" (though I have learned since that the "f" word doesn't have quite the positive connotation I once thought it did, but that's a topic for another day). But notwithstanding tree-light mediocrity, our Magical First Christmas Together was... magical. And most importantly, it was together.

Since the time of that first tree, we have gradually amended the Great Christmas Light Compromise of 1998. Ten years later, we have evolved to a point where our tree is decked out completely in white, beautiful (not boring), non-blinking lights. The multicolored lights have all migrated outside, and the twinkling strand has found a home in our pine bough garland that hangs on our stair banister.

Thus we have arrived, still together, at a better place; a place of happy compromise; a place of bending.

And I love it. It's funny how learning to love a woman of such grace and beauty has eventually begun to change my very nature--to the point where I not only put up with deviations from the traditions of my youth, but I genuinely love the new traditions we have created together. More and more, I find myself merging with her in terms of my tastes and preferences in even the little things, like Christmas lights. It's as if our minds and hearts are ever becoming more and more entwined, on the road to becoming truly one.

Imagine, one shared opinion instead of two battling ones. It's so simple, it's almost like a gift.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Wife Rule #90: Take a Family Portrait

I love looking at the large family portrait hanging at the end of our hallway, the one that shows our family sitting together on the rock jetty closest to Grandpa's beach house. Every year we attempt a family portrait here, but it has proven very difficult to capture the golden moment when all the essential elements intersect for the perfect picture: the transient, fiery light from the setting sun, at just the right angle and hue; the milky, liquid blues in the sky as dusk approaches; the reflected evening light off the darkening water; and just enough sand, rock, and background to elicit soul-warming memories of this place we love to visit.

Sometimes when it's quiet and late and the picture is illuminated by lamplight, I can almost smell the salty breeze and hear the gentle churning of the waves and feel the cool sand between my toes.

Oh yes, and there's also the people.

I haven't forgotten that the most essential, and perhaps the most challenging aspect of any portrait of our young, bustling family is, after all, the family. It is often daunting to capture a shot where we don't have to use a computer afterwards to swap out any heads or other appendages. Scott by himself was on a streak for a couple of years where it was rare to find any shot where his tongue wasn't hanging out, and both eyes were open and pointing in the same direction. Combine that with wiggly little ones, and the strange magnetic pull that draws their fingers to their noses, and you can start to understand why during any given family picture shoot, we take approximately one hundred million pictures, until our kids' grins have turned to grimaces or tears. Most family portraits end with at least one kid completely melting down and the rest of us looking rather constipated.

But taking them is worth it, and I'll tell you why. First of all, just take a look at those adorable little mugs: nine-year-old Dawn is clearly on the verge of blossoming into a gorgeous young woman; seven-year-old Rachel has the world's best picture-perfect flirty smile; Scott is a strappingly handsome young five-year-old, the object of affection for all the girls in his Kindergarten class (I have no doubt); Andrew is, well, just take a look at him with his wrinkled up three-year-old nose and grinning, protruding jaw, and you can't help but want to pick him up and squeeze the little bugger with all your strength; and Charity--precious, tiny Charity--can only best be described as an adorable little ball of Cindy-Lou-Who cuteness combined with the angelic aura of someone who is wonderfully, celestially pure and new. (Yes, she does get her way around our house a lot!)

But the value of this snapshot goes far beyond our kids' unimpeachable cuteness or their parents’ obvious photogenic gifts. You see, we have hundreds of highly-entertaining pictures showing the general state of happy chaos that accompanies us through most of our existence (boogery noses, messy hair, half-naked kids streaking through the back yard, etc). But this family portrait is an ideal--a vision of perfection--captured and frozen in time. Yes, we had to work hard to get it. Yes, we took dozens of shots to get just one that was even as good as this one. Yes, this shot is not what we normally look like (the only typical color-coordination of our clothes is that we all have the same food spilled down our shirts). But the ideal shown here is about our family being reflected in the best light, under the best of circumstances, with everyone looking and acting their best, even if just for a moment.

It's important to have ideals in families. It's essential to have goals to work towards. It's vital to remember that by casting aside all the hard labor, the petty problems, the real difficulties, and the endless doldrums of day-to-day life, there is tremendous value and beauty and eternal promise in the concept of family. There's a reason why love flows so easily and abundantly within a family. The spiritual warmth, peace, and purpose that are hinted at by serene, smiling faces in a family portrait are why God gave us families.

At this Christmas season, let's remember that Christ came to earth to belong to a family, a human family like yours and mine, that was full of imperfections and difficulties. He came to show us how to overcome, to hold up the highest ideals as a standard and to enable us to eventually reach them. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He provides the perfect--and only--pathway to the joyous eternity we all want. And He does it for families--our close-knit, earthly families, as well as the broader human family that we all belong to as children of our Heavenly Father.

So take a moment to hold your dear ones close this season, and try to remember why we have families in the first place. And if it helps you, like it does for us, take a family portrait.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wife Rule #89: Stay On the Train

Andrew is barely three, and he loves trains.

And when I say he loves trains, I mean he loves, loves, loves trains. Andrew wants to marry trains. All of them.

So when my wife and I gave him a golden ticket on the Potty Train, you'd think he would have jumped aboard with unbounded enthusiasm. Well, he did, sort of.

Sitting on his special little potty seat was quite a novelty at first. During the first couple of days, we spent what seemed like several hours each day helping him lug the little footstool to the base of the toilet, put his potty seat on the big seat, climb up onto the potty seat, sit for a minute or so, climb down, put the potty seat away, lug the stool over to the sink, and wash and dry his hands. He became so adept at this routine that it soon started feeling like a real train:

Lugga-putta-climba-sitta, Waita-climba-putta-lugga, Washa-washa-drya-drya... (repeat indefinitely)

The only problem was that he never actually produced anything during this time-consuming routine, except the occasional

Toot-toooooot! Toot-toooooot!

Not too satisfying for us Train Conductors, when just minutes after repeating a cycle of the Potty Train routine, a messy accident would occur, off the track.

So we did what any sensible parents would do in such a situation: we bribed him with a toy. My wife promised Andrew that he could pick out a real train from the store if he were to actually produce on the Potty Train.

After many days and many more accidents, the blessed event finally occurred, and Andrew was whisked off to the toy store. He came home, bearing the fruits of his labors, a magnificent member of the Thomas the Tank Engine family of toys.

He pooped his pants shortly after arriving home.

So Thomas & Co. were put in indefinite Time Out, until our little prodigy produced--in the proper potty place. (Wow, all those P-words without even using the word "pee"--Alliteralicious!)

So our new routine consisted of more of the same, until we realized that the toy bribery wasn't providing much motivation anymore. I was informed of my wife's new plan one day when I called home during my lunch break, and spoke with Andrew.

Me: "Hi, Buddy! What are you doing?"
Andrew: "Oh, just watching Thomas the Tank Engine."
Me: "That's great!"
Andrew: "I am naked."
Me (being careful what I repeat aloud, since I work in an open cubicle wonderland): "What?"
Andrew: "I am naked. I have to poop in the potty. I don't like being naked."
Me: "I don't blame you."

My wife got on the line and explained that Andrew indeed had nothing on his underside. She heard about this technique and hoped this would get him to remember better. In fact, he had successfully used the potty many times already that day, and had already earned back his train toy.

Going Commando on the Potty Train seemed to improve things overall, though there were still one or more "incidents" per day. However, as time wore on, our little Tarzan wild child only became more accustomed to existing in his natural state. Accidents became more and more frequent, and now they had more dire consequences, since didn't have cotton Osh-Kosh-B'gosh or whatever to act as a loincloth.

My wife and I discussed strategy many times. We had been through this three times before, but we found ourselves befuddled. We talked about bribing with more trains. A whole herd of trains. Wearing wedding veils, if it would help.

Ultimately, we bribed him with Otterpops. Don't ask me why eating twenty frozen Otterpops on a 40-degree November day is appealing to a half-naked three-year-old, but it was. Plus, being liquid, they had the desirable side effect of greasing the wheels of the Potty Train, speeding the pace of our routine.

Lugga-putta-climba-sitta, Pee-a-climba-putta-lugga, Washa-washa-drya-drya...

Yes, the Potty Train was speeding along at quite a good clip now, thanks to our little slushy friends. Was it finally heading into the station?

This question was soon answered for me, during a time when I was at home with the kids and my wife was out. My daughter came running into the kitchen, reporting that there was a big pile of something highly undesirable on the carpet in the bedroom. Something that had been stepped in by more than one child and had now been tracked into at least four different rooms of the house.

The Potty Train had sped right off a cliff and crashed somewhere in the ravine below, exploding in a brilliant burst of flame.

My wife came home and I enlisted her help in disaster cleanup. After 30 minutes of mopping and scrubbing and spraying disinfectant at every surface we could find, we were honestly both feeling a little despondent. Would the Potty Train ever, ever put on that coveted Thomas-the-Tank-Engine smiley face, or was it doomed forever to bear a grunting grimace? When would it end?

We talked about progress made. We talked about momentum, and we weren't sure which direction it was presently going. We seriously discussed going back to diapers.

In the end, it boiled down to knowing that potty training was the right thing to do, so we decided to stick with it just one more day--surely we could handle just one more day.

And let's just say, giving it that last chance made all the difference. We now have a proud wearer of genuine Thomas the Tank Engine underpants plus pants! Our little passenger has officially graduated to status of Train Engineer. And we are proud--and relieved (no pun intended)--but mostly proud.

He's even learning when to board the Potty Train and when the Train is just tooting off steam.

My wife and I did learn something very valuable from all this, a life lesson that should serve us well for many years: it seems like just at the moment when we are ready to give up, we just need to hang on a little longer, and things often work themselves out. We have decided to ride many trains in life, like the potty train, and when it seems like the train is at a standstill, or heading off a cliff, or even like it has already crashed, if we believe in the cause, we should just stick it out. Stay on the train.

After all, Andrew is worth it--every bit of it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wife Rule #88: Skip the Tripe

The holiday season is upon us, which means that it's time to break out the tripe.

At least that's what much of the world does this time of year.

Let me explain. As thoughts for this Wife Rule were stewing around in my mind, I turned to Wikipedia, the source of much of the useless knowledge in my head, to refresh my memory of exactly what tripe is.

Wikipedia seldom disappoints, and with uncanny conciseness, my knowledge was expanded with the following statement:

"Tripe is a type of edible offal from the stomachs of various domestic animals."

And I didn't even know you could eat offals! I read further:

"Beef tripe is usually made from only the first three chambers of a cow's stomach: the rumen (blanket/flat/smooth tripe), the reticulum (honeycomb and pocket tripe), and the omasum (book/bible/leaf tripe)."

Next to this nearly-poetic description, there is a lovely, full-color picture of what looks like giant, folded slices of baloney sitting on a clean, white shelf. The caption reads, "Tripe in an Italian market."

In your mind's eye, can't you just see little Luigi skipping into his grandma's Italian kitchen? With a flash of pearly-white, smiling teeth he calls, "Pronto, Nonna!" Grandma wipes her hands on her apron and ambles over to bestow a kiss on his ruddy cheek, which he has positioned as high as he can, tip-toes raising it the last inch. Then his youthful anticipation is fulfilled, as with a shrewd yet gentle smile, she turns and presents him with a tray of what looks like ten-inch-long segments of giant flayed earth worms. Tripe! Yum.

No, of course you can't see it. Because if Nonna did that, little Luigi would run screaming from the kitchen and Mom and Dad would put grandma in the mental ward. Yet, tripe is fed to dogs all the time, and even some people knowingly eat it.

It is obvious to most of us that tripe was clearly not meant for human consumption, yet it appears in the ingredient lists of popular foods and in many recipes. Wikipedia even contains a link to, "an Italian site entirely dedicated to tripe around the world."

Where am I going with this? I simply want to put the question out there: with all the food options there are in this world, why would anyone choose to eat tripe? This question matters because there's an analogy here to the myriad choices of information and entertainment available in today's world.

I often find myself listening to the radio on my way to work when I encounter "radio tripe," stuff that exists but was clearly not meant for human consumption.

* The 25 minutes of "news radio" between the actual five-minute news casts: Tripe!
* Almost everything on NPR: Tripe!
* Commercials by most Mortgage Brokers and Car Dealerships: Sleazy Tripe!
* Rap music: Tripe!
* Every song by Neil Diamond: Tripe! (except "We're Comin' to America," which must have been beamed directly into his mind by space aliens, because otherwise I can't explain how he ever came up with one of the best songs ever written)

One of my small joys in life is exclaiming "Tripe!" as I change the radio station away from some horrible drivel.

So as I mentioned, the holiday season is upon us again, which is an opportunity so many take to break out the tripe--Christmas music tripe, that is. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You hear it on the radio, over the speakers at the mall, and some people even knowingly buy CDs of it:

* Neil Diamond's Christmas Album
* Any Christmas song by Britney Spears, N'Sync, Boyz-2-Men, or other tweenie-bopper or boy's band
* Any song that sounds like a prayer to Santa Claus
* Any song that has little or nothing to do with Christmas, except that jingle bells are ringing throughout its duration; this goes for commercial jingles, too
* Almost any version of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

You get the idea. There are thousands examples of Christmas music tripe out there in the world. Don't consume them! For a season that contains so much to celebrate, take a chance on some real music! Try something such as:

* Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, especially if it is a children's choir
* The local performance of selections from Handel's Messiah
* Almost anything recorded in the 50's or earlier, especially jazz
* Something that will inspire and uplift you
* In short, something that actually reflects what this season is about!

Give yourself a little gift this year, and skip the tripe. My wife and I do, and since I've finally mentioned my better half, this Wife Rule is finally over.