Wednesday, October 22, 2014

You Gotta Play the Game

Every once in a while, I’ll do something with my kids, or with my whole family, that reminds me of something I did with my parents when I was a kid. It might be camping, or cooking, or going apple picking, or reading a story out loud. Last night, it was playing board games.

I grew up in a household where we played games ALL THE TIME. We’d sit in front of the fireplace in the evening and play Life or Sorry or Trouble, we’d sit around the dining room table and play Uno or spoons, we’d sit inside our camper and play cribbage or backgammon by the light of the lantern. We’d even play all kinds of games in the car: finding the letters of the alphabet in order on signs, checking off license plates from all 50 states, a game called “Wordy Gurdy” where all the answers have to rhyme (What do you call counterfeit dollar bills? Funny money!), sometimes we’d bring along a Mad Libs pad. We had a stack of board games on the shelf in the closet, another stack behind the couch, a whole drawer full of decks of cards and books with rules for hundreds of card games, and a bag of travel-sized games in the coat closet. 

When we were small, we played Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, checkers, Old Maid, Don’t Break the Ice, War, and Operation. When we were a bit older, we played Boggle, Clue, Monopoly, Milles Bornes, Waterworks, Probe, dominos, and Yahtzee. When we had friends over, or at birthday parties, we played Twister, Pictionary, Taboo, and Scattergories. When it was just my sister and I, we’d play 2-person games like Battleship and Chinese Checkers and Simon and double solitaire and Mastermind.

I didn’t realize at the time how many skills I was learning by playing these games. Candyland and Sorry taught me colors and how to count. Chutes and Ladders taught me not to be disappointed by a setback. Operation and Don’t Break the Ice taught me fine motor skills. Boggle and Probe taught me spelling and vocabulary. Cribbage taught me math. Checkers and Battleship and Risk taught me strategy. Clue taught me logic. Monopoly taught me patience (and, with my sister’s help, how to make change). Pictionary and Taboo taught me to think creatively.

So now, when my kids ask to play a game, I look forward to not just having fun with them, but to the opportunity to teach them new skills. I can teach them to be good sports (and most especially, good losers), I can teach them that math and spelling can be fun, I can teach them to be patient and polite, I can teach them to be fair, I can teach them to think through their decisions and their actions, I can teach them that sometimes life isn’t fair. And most importantly, I can teach them that spending time together with friends and family is a good thing. A very good thing. 

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Covet

Let me preface this by admitting that I’m not particularly a fan of Louis CK. I don’t deny that he’s very funny at times, but his style of humor does not generally appeal to me. But the quote that inspired me to write this blog was not meant to be humorous. A friend recently posted a bit of dialogue from his show that hit it so perfectly on the head that I was moved to share it. This is the photo that I saw:
If you’re having trouble seeing the graphic, here’s the exchange (emphasis mine):
Daughter: Why does she get one, and not me? It’s not fair.
Louis CK: You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s not gonna happen ever in your life, so you must learn that now, okay? Listen. The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have…as much as them.
Let’s read that again: “The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.”


I would not describe myself as a particularly materialistic person, but even I am very aware of what I have relative to others. When I go on a “nice” vacation, I am painfully aware of discussing it with friends and acquaintances who cannot afford such a vacation. And when I pick up a Brand X dress on final clearance, I am painfully aware of discussing it with friends and acquaintances whose closets are bursting with designer labels. Having grown up in a family where going out for a “fancy” dinner involved The Olive Garden, and now being in a family where a “casual" dinner costs more per person than the entire party of four at The Olive Garden, I am acutely aware of the differences between my own financial status and that of the others around me. Whether or not it bothers me, I am aware of it.

But what I love about the sentence above is that it reminds me not just to not let the disparity bother me or even to completely disregard the disparity, but it reminds me to not even allow myself to be aware of it. Don’t even look in that bowl, unless your only intention is to fill it.

That’s not an easy charge. Human beings are naturally competitive, and naturally envious. There’s a reason that the last of the Ten Commandments – following such biggies as honoring and worshipping God alone, murder, adultery, stealing, and lying – is a prohibition against coveting. Don’t covet your neighbor’s house. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife. Don’t covet your neighbor’s servants, or animals, or anything else belonging to your neighbor. The prohibition against coveting is not unique to Judeo-Christian tradition, however. An even older Babylonian code of law, Hammurabi’s Code, states, “If a fire breaks out in a man’s house, and a man who came to help put it out covets the household furnishings belonging to the householder, that man shall be cast into that very fire.” Coveting – merely wanting what someone else has, even with no intention of taking it – is a very serious offense.

So if humans are, by our very nature, covetous, how do we avoid committing that offense? By not looking in anyone else’s bowl. Mind your own business. Don’t worry about whether your neighbor has more or less than you. Because chances are, they have more of some things and less of others. Life is never perfectly equal. And there’s nothing we can do to make it equal. So instead of comparing and coveting, let’s just not think about it. Don’t try to find out where you are relative to them. Unless their bowl is empty and you can pour some of what’s in your bowl into it, what’s in their bowl is none of your business.

Just enjoy what’s in your bowl, whether it’s from The Olive Garden or The Ritz. But if it is from The Ritz, be sure you look around for someone who might appreciate your doggie bag. And then fill their bowl.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Stuff I Want My Kids to Know

Since I’ve started homeschooling my son, I’ve become more aware of everything I’m teaching him, not just academics. I try to work teaching into casual conversations and moments of play – we count the apples as we put them in the bag at the supermarket, we talk about why the leaves on the trees are changing colors as we play in our yard, we pick out nouns and verbs and adjectives when we read bedtime stories – but I often find myself teaching lessons in life as well as simply lessons in language and arithmetic and science and history. I am constantly teaching both my children how to be the best people they can be. And here are a few of the most important non-academic things that I want my children to learn.

Manners Matter
At a very early age, I taught my kids how to say “please” and “thank you,” and I make sure that they use those phrases whenever it’s appropriate. Not that long ago, we were at Costco and my son told the sample lady, “Thank you,” when she gave him a piece of bread. She looked surprised and told me, “Wow, most of the adults don’t even say ‘thank you’!” My son turns five next month, and I intend on having him write thank-you cards for his birthday presents. It’s a habit that will serve him well after his first job interview, when he sends his interviewer a well-written note of thanks. Not to mention the points he’ll earn on his first date when he opens doors and pulls out chairs for his date. Manners matter.

If You Want a Friend, Be a Friend
My kids are both naturally gregarious, but they’re also both naturally selfish (they’re 3 and 5, so this is not surprising). I am working very hard to teach them to put themselves in other people’s shoes and to treat others the way they would like to be treated. I encourage them to share their toys, to find games that they and their friends would both like to play, to be kind even to people that they don’t particularly like. Be a friend to others, and you will find that others flock to you, wanting to be your friend. Kindness is one of the most attractive qualities a person can have.

Dress Well
You don’t need to have a huge wardrobe (or a huge wardrobe budget) to dress well. But take care of what you have, and wear it with pride. Keep your clothes clean and well-pressed and take a little bit of care in how you dress, and you will always look “put together.” Think about what is appropriate; be respectful of where you are going and who you are with, and you will never look underdressed or out of place.

Help Others
My parents didn’t have a huge amount of discretionary income when I was growing up, but they were careful to tithe to our church and to make donations to a number of causes that they supported and considered to be important and worthwhile. When I was in college and had almost no income, I was able to gather some friends to sponsor a young girl in Africa together. It felt good to be able to share some of what I had with someone who had much less. It made me appreciate how much I had, even when it didn’t feel like much. I never worried that I wouldn’t have food to eat, or warm clothes to wear, or a roof over my head, but helping others reminded me that there are many people in the world who aren’t so lucky. So when my children outgrow their clothes or toys, I talk to them about how we give the things we don’t need to others who do need them. We talk about buying extra food to share with people who don't have enough to eat. We talk about why we give them a few dollars to put in the offering at church, and we are starting to give my son a few cents for chores so he has his own money to share with others. I hope to pass on to my own children the understanding that we have more than enough and it is our responsibility to share with others who aren’t so fortunate.

Hard Work is its Own Reward

This may sound like a strange hope for a mother to have for her children, but I hope that my children each get a low-paying job at some point in their lives. I want them to learn that sometimes you have to work hard for very little financial reward. I want them to learn to be conscientious workers even when their paycheck is small. I want them to have a boss who isn’t supportive and who doesn’t tell them how great they are, just so they’ll learn that sometimes you do good work just because you’re a responsible human being, and because when you agreed to take the job, you agreed to do it to the best of your ability. I want them to learn to be proud of the work they do, even if no-one else is. And when they move up the employment ladder and have people working for them, I want them to remember how it feels to do a thankless job, and I want them to make someone else’s job a little less thankless.

Go to Weddings and Showers and Funerals
I know a lot of people who come up with any excuse not to attend a wedding, a shower of any kind, or a funeral. I hope my children never become one of those people. Whether it’s for a family member, a friend, or even a casual acquaintance, if you have the opportunity to attend this kind of event, go. These are important moments in someone’s life, and having the support of the people around them means a lot. You may not care about such things, but maybe they do. I am not a fan of funerals; I do not find them comforting, no matter whether I was close to the deceased or only close to someone else who was close to them. But I attend, because it matters to someone. I matter to someone, and my presence matters to someone. That is a responsibility of friendship, and of family, and of humanity. Share in others’ celebrations and in their grief. It’s one of the things that human beings do that makes us human. Even when we don’t want to. ESPECIALLY when we don’t want to.

Spend More Time Planning Your Marriage Than Your Wedding
While it’s perfectly fine to spend time imagining what your perfect wedding day will look like, from the dress to the venue to the cake to the vows, it’s much more important to think about how you will be a good spouse, and the qualities you look for in a spouse. Your wedding day is important, but it’s just a day. Your marriage – if you plan it right – will last for the rest of your life. Spend some time thinking about it.

You Don’t Have to Respect Everyone, But You Do Have to Treat Them with Respect
There will be plenty of people in your life – bosses, teachers, co-workers, neighbors – who are not worthy of your respect. Treat them with respect anyway. There will be plenty of people in your life that you don’t like. Treat them with respect, too. If you disagree with someone, do it respectfully. Yes, even if they’re stupid. If you treat them disrespectfully, there’s no chance they’ll ever listen to a single thing you have to say. If you treat them with respect, they might just listen to you – and they might even come to agree with you. And since part of being respectful is listening to them, you might even realize that they’re not so stupid after all, and come to agree with them.

If my children learn these lessons, they will become pleasant, thoughtful, respectful people. They will become the kind of people who have something worthwhile to say, and the kind of people that others are willing to listen to. They will become people worthy of being in charge of this beautiful planet of ours, long after I am gone. They will be people who make this world a better place to live in. I’d say that’s a pretty good lesson to learn. 

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Islands in the Stream

I was chatting with some friends the other day about our weddings, and we all tried to think of our favorite moment of our respective wedding days. There were many wonderful moments that I cherish about my wedding day, but having to pick only one, I decided that it would have to be after our wedding ceremony when my husband and I were having photographs taken outside the reception hall before we made our official grand entrance as husband and wife. The caterers had brought us a tray of hors d’oeuvres and two flutes of champagne, and as the photographer was setting up, we began practicing our first dance. It was a warm, sunny spring afternoon, the sun reflecting off the nearby lake, the caterers had made themselves scarce and the photographer was off to the side, and my new husband and I were in each other’s arms, humming and laughing together as we waltzed under the gazebo.

It was a wonderful private moment of peace between the chaos of the ceremony and the chaos of the reception (happy, well-organized chaos, but chaos nonetheless). It was an island of calm amid the racing streams of hustle and bustle that comprised the rest of the day. It refreshed us both enough that we could relax and enjoy our reception and our time with friends and family.

The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to take – or make – those moments of calm in the middle of our busy lives. And I realize how little time it takes to stop and refresh myself. Something as simple as getting up when I wake up at 6:00am instead of tossing and turning for half an hour until I’m “supposed” to get up and sitting in my quiet kitchen enjoying a cup of coffee before the rest of the house wakes up. Or leaving 15 minutes early for a meeting so I can sit in the parking lot listening to classical music. Or putting off the grocery shopping when my son wants to sit with me and read me a book. Or going to bed half an hour before I really need to go to sleep so I can snuggle and chat with my husband without the distractions of email or the phone or the television or the dirty dishes or the buzzer of the dryer reminding me that there’s laundry to be folded. 

Islands in the stream of life. Find them. Make them. And enjoy them.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Doing Nothing IS Doing Something

My daughter started nursery school this year, which means that two mornings a week, both she and my son are out of the house from 8:30am until 11:45am. Which means that twice a week, for three whole hours, I am completely enuncumbered by children and I can do whatever I want. When I first realized this, I immediately made a list of the things I could do without children in tow: grocery shopping without using a cart shaped like a fire truck, showering without an audience, folding and putting away laundry without "help," writing my blog without interruptions, running quick errands that actually ARE quick. But over the past month, as I've learned the true value of these precious hours alone, I've added what is probably the most precious and the most important thing of all to my "to do" list: Doing nothing.

Anyone who has ever been a stay-at-home parent - or a parent, for that matter - has firsthand experience of what a constant responsibility it is. There is no coffee break, no pause between meetings, no lunch away from your desk, not even a two-minute mental break while you use the bathroom. Instead, you try not to let running children knock your coffee out of your hands while you attempt in vain to drink it before it gets cold, you don't get a breather between trying to stop the kids from flushing stuffed animals down the toilet and scrubbing maple syrup out of the carpet, your lunch consists of the crusts cut off their peanut butter sandwiches washed down with the milk they didn't finish, and your two minutes in the bathroom are punctuated by loud pounding on the door, small faces peering underneath it, and repeated yells of, "Mum? Mama? MUUUUUMMMMMMYYYYYYY!!!!!"

There are no breaks when you are in a house with small children (at least, not when they're awake).

The only times that I really do get a moment to myself to catch my breath are after my kids go to bed. But those are also the only times that I get a moment to talk to my husband, or to run on the treadmill, or to fold laundry, or to write my blog. So some mornings when the house is empty and quiet, the dishwasher and the washing machine and the email can wait, and I just do nothing.

I do nothing while I drink my coffee. I do nothing while I sit in the back yard and watch the breeze shuffling the leaves on the trees. I do nothing while I watch the birds at my bird feeder. I do nothing while I sit on my front steps and watch the neighborhood bunny nibbling at my lawn. I suppose that reading a book doesn't exactly count as doing nothing, but considering how rarely I read a book without also doing something else like stirring a pot on the stove or running on the treadmill or eating breakfast, reading without multi-tasking feels like doing nothing.

The hardest part about doing nothing, though, is not feeling guilty about it. Because whenever I'm doing nothing, there's always something else on the "to do" list. There are always dishes to be washed, laundry to be folded, floors to be swept, toys to be put away, blogs to be written, beds to be made. There is always something that seems like it ought to be more important or higher priority on the list. But sometimes I need that nothing to recharge my emotional and physical engines. Sometimes taking a few minutes to do nothing saves me a lot more minutes later on when I actually DO do something.

So I put "do nothing" right at the top of my "to do" list. Because doing nothing really IS doing something. And now if you'll excuse me, there's something I need to do.

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