Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Date Nights

     Deanne and I have been married for fifteen years—the fifteen happiest years of my life (and hers too, so she replies sometimes more convincingly than others).  Most everyone agrees that a key to happy spousal relations, especially for couples raising kids, is continual courtship-style dating.  One Christian counselor advised that in economic terms, spending one to two hundred dollars every other week and enough for one “big” thing (trip to Europe, week in a ski lodge, etc.) every other year or so is a bargain to keep things alive because the cost of divorce is magnitudes higher (in terms of alimony; child support; duplicate housing, utility, and insurance costs; etc.)  Fortunately, my wife and I don't have such expensive tastes and manage to date on much less (and have yet to do, post-kids, a “big” style thing—we travel as a family; our budget and baby sitting options don't allow the two of us to disappear for days at a time.)
     We find that the best dates don't involve shopping (especially not for necessities) and rarely involve movies.  All too often, these get us into tunnel-vision mode, detracting from attentiveness toward each other.
     Dates we enjoy involve concerts, eating, scenic walks (highly recommended) window shopping, plays, shows, and a variety of music forums.  When I think about it, it's shocking how limited the variety of our dates have been.  But due to physical limitations and preferences, we discovered early on that our dates wouldn't be about skiing, skating, golfing, bowling, dancing, scuba diving, or hiking, or about adrenalin-rush adventures (crowded festivals or group-oriented activities).  We prefer our alone-times to be about anticipating then sharing a slow-cooked meal sans the hassles of preparation and clean-up, which always puts us into wind-down mode.  Or sitting quietly to witness a live performance (with plenty of hand-holding, whispered conversations, people watching, and discussions before and after.)  Or walking after a meal or show at my slow, preferred pace (man takes the lead, like in ballroom dancing), looking, exploring, and doing whatever catches our fancies, spontaneous and free.
     Fondly remembered shows included Altar Boys, Spring Awakening, Rain—The Beatles Experience, Loggins & Messina, Diane Shuur, Manhattan Transfer, The Nutcracker, Die Fledermaus, and The Odyssey.  Fondly remember restaurants included Chai's Bistro, The Chart House in Haiku Gardens (where we married), Canton House, Empress, The Olive Garden, Maharani, and countless others.  Pleasant walks included Waikiki, Fort deRussey, Ala Moana, Downtown, University, Puck's Alley, Waialae, Kapahulu, strip malls, Ward area shops, Honolulu Waterfront, and Aloha Tower Marketplace.  Only now do I realize how urban our walks have been (we're not much into picnics due to the burden of preparation and clean-up and we hate long drives), yet, they've never felt hustle-bustle, perhaps because our focus had been on savoring the child-free moments.
     Deanne is from a big city, so man-made scenery tends to comfort her.  Although I'm from Hilo and sometimes still long for a more open-air environment, I've adapted and learned to enjoy doing simple, fun, and easy things together even if in high population density locations.  Though often surrounded by people, we still feel alone enough—unrecognized and left to our own private intimacies—to reconnect as man-woman friends.  As another pastor once said, couples rarely fall out of love.  It's when they fall out of friendship that trouble begins.
     It's up to us, then, to keep our friendship alive by continuing to court each other (dress up, bathe, primp, and offer gently courtesies), making the effort to be attractive and sexually desirable.  Dating offers the opportunity, yet it's up to us to make it happen.  Fun and romantic?  Or painful and boring?  Usually it's the former or at least part of it is.  Total bombs, though rare, are learning experiences.  What went wrong?  Poor planning?  Bad attitudes?  An over-busy schedule?  In the midst of such a bomb, I start praying, and God always comes through—even if it’s just a pleasant surprise restaurant at the end of a long, hot walk through an unpleasant neighborhood.  And such memories tend to stick—the good within the bad, which makes it sometimes seem even better than it really was.  But that’s okay—it’s all good when you’re dating your spouse.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Serious Stuff

     A friend of mine and his wife—who I'll call Douglas and Sharie—have been missionaries in China (where foreigners may not wish to openly disclose their missionary status) for the past three years, in a western, modern, technologically advanced, and comfortable city that is getting startlingly expensive. Tuition for their son's highly rated preschool shot up over a hundred percent to several thousand dollars a semester. They struggle to make it on Douglas' meager side-business income and minimal financial support from Hawaii (their small, young church meets in a community center).
     Within a few short years after marrying, they chose to deliver their first child, a boy, in Hawaii; their second, a girl, in Japan (where they stayed near Sharie's missionary parents, who live there); and their third, another girl, in China.
     I received a jubilant newsletter e-mail from Douglas last year describing the birth of Theresa, their last child. Sharie had suffered terrible bouts of morning sickness with all three babies, requiring intravenous drips administered at home, even, for the final pregnancy, and frequent dosages of anti-nausea medication just to be able to hold solid foods down. He hadn't stated this as the reason for stopping at three (she had originally wanted more), but I guessed it may have been a factor, the decision sounded so definite and sudden.
     Within the week I sent him a congratulatory e-mail, rejoicing with them, and again marveling that here he was, a China missionary, finally, after twenty years of having longed to go.
     A week passed with no reply—which was no surprise, they were so busy and he rarely corresponded with me personally, anyway, he had so many other contacts, commitments, and responsibilities. The next mass e-mail I received gave me the same shocked chill of disbelief as the TV images did the morning of 9-11: Theresa had displayed symptoms (quick, shallow breathing; paleness; low temperature; vomiting) the day before (a Saturday) and they were told to bring her in that night, and by Sunday, she was in an incubator in the intensive care unit with a tube to help her breathe and constant monitoring of her vitals. CT scans and blood and other tests revealed serious problems in her heart beat, brain, respiration, blood pressure, and other bodily functions. Despite her critical condition, they were allowed to see her only once a week for two hours on Wednesdays. His e-mail was urgent, asking for prayer, but not at all panicked.
     I received that e-mail Monday and, already dreading the worst, sent an immediate response saying I had and would continue to pray and that no matter what happened, God would take excellent care of Theresa, she was so sweet and innocent. Days passed and no e-mail updates of a miraculous recovery or stablized condition or even further concerns came, so I dreaded even more—Douglas was always good about reassuring those that might worry for them. The next news of Theresa came through a friend who had heard of it through another: Theresa died Sunday evening.
     I don't know how Douglas and Sharie did it, but they immediately posted a web-based tribute to Theresa. The photos depict as healthy a baby as I have ever seen—alert eyes, strong neck, responsive face, and well-formed limbs. A photo of ultrasound images of Theresa as a fetus suggested the doctor's close monitoring of her prenatal development. Douglas described the hospital's newborn care in glowing terms, in certain respects superior to that at Queen's, where his son had been delivered.
     “It doesn't make sense!” kept popping into my head, reminding me of what a gentleman at a church I once attended said of his wife's premature demise: “It doesn't make sense. No matter how much I go over it, it doesn't make sense. It will never make sense.” Yet Douglas and Sharie's web tribute showed their faith and thankfulness, even joy that they had been blessed by Theresa during her short three weeks of life.
     Would this have happened in America? I can't help but wonder sometimes. Theresa, I noticed, was conspicuously delivered the modern, Chinese way, unlike her two siblings and brother in particular, who had received the full western-style medical treatment. Is that what caused it? An infection perhaps? A missed congenital birth defect? Their hospital—reputedly the best in west China—was located only a mile away from their home and their doctor had excellent recommendations from other expatriots whose babies he had delivered. Our modern western and natural human tendency, perhaps, is to want to know, a need for assurances that no matter what happened, it couldn't have been avoided as it was God's will for it to have happened that way. But such closure has not happened for Douglas and Sharie, not that it matters much because nothing will bring back Theresa, which is all they really want even now.
     I didn’t question in my mind anything they subsequently did or did not do—stay, leave, curse God, or love and praise Him more—it was their decision. But I did pray for God to bless them with peace and rest in the midst of turmoil and that they would continue on, day by day, knowing God would bless them for their faithfulness, and that all they hoped for for Theresa and her legacy would come to pass.
     They recently had a get-together in Honolulu—they had come back for the delivery of their fourth child. They were glowing and flush with joy for the reunion as they gave presentations of their missionary experiences. As Sharie started to sob as she described the birth of Theresa and the subsequent build up to what fallowed, I left the room with Jaren and Penelope—the impressionable ones—and we waited outside. Fifteen minutes later, Deanne and Braden came out and we left together for home—it was an informal gathering and we had already exchanged our well-wishes with the upbeat couple who had a ways to go with their presentation. They knew our hearts and it was enough for now.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Analog vs. Digital

     When I was in college, I splurged on a high quality Thorens manual turntable, which produced excellent sound through a Scott amplifier and Marantz speakers—far from top-of-the-line, but plenty enjoyable.
     A few years later, post-college, I rented a room in a house in which the owner allowed me to use his stereo system with CD player.  I did a side-by-side comparison of vinyl album vs. digital CD—same song playing at the exact same time through otherwise identical equipment and switchable at will between the two, convinced analog was superior.  To my disappointment and surprise, digital won, hands down:  it's highs and midrange were crisper and livelier, and its lows a lot less muddy.  Henceforth, whenever I had the choice, I always selected CD over albums.  But my listening pleasure didn't increase, it decreased.  I attributed it to nostalgia and grief over my obsolete equipment. 
     But after I moved out, I went back to my albums and found them as enjoyable as ever.
     About that time, I bought my first camera—a Pentax SLR—that shot great photos and was fun and easy to use.  I got into black and white photography, and did my own developing and print processing in a rented darkroom.  Some of my photos taken on grainy tri-x film blew me away—forceful, timeless, and immediate—no Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson, but plenty satisfying considering my humble amateur hands and equipment.  I still use the camera as backup to a Pentax Super Program I purchased used a few years back, and they still produce great shots.
     The digital SLR hype was something I wished to avoid for the remainder of my life—too expensive—and their photos looked too fakey, with hyper-kinetic colors.  Even the digital black and white photos from the white house looked flat and disappointing, especially compared to those of the Nixon and Kennedy eras.
     While browsing Pentax camera reviews on the internet I finally, finally, finally found digital black and white photos with the snap that I crave.  Turns out that for these, Pentax digital color photos were converted to black and white via a PC software that mimics black and white (and color) films.  And they were all set to mimic my all-time favorite:  tri-x.
     Why is it that superior doesn't always equal greater enjoyment?  Why is it that we are sometimes drawn and attracted to the imperfect in art or beauty?  Marilyn Monroe's mole?  Venus de Milo's missing arms?  JFK's distinctive accent?  Hemingway's clipped prose?
     The human mind has the amazing capacity to fill-in-the blanks—to complete a sentence before someone has finished saying it, to read into a poem more than was written, to feel more deeply about a painting than the subject matter alone.  It is this filling-in-of-the-blanks that I believe often draws audiences in, involves them, and increases their enjoyment.  Because, after all, nothing is more boring than in-your-face perfection.
     Digital is here to stay, but there will always be room for imperfect analog—and by that I mean that which mimics the imperfect in art or in the world.  Regrettably, vinyl records and photographic film will soon enough disappear, but pens, pencils, paintbrushes, and traditional musical instruments will stay for awhile longer—perhaps until the arrival of suitable digital substitutes.  Although I donated my record player and will probably one day do likewise with my cameras and other analog devises, a part of me will always prefer the warmth and personality of phonograph albums, film photography, handwritten letters, original paintings, and live musicians.  Old fashioned instruments, no matter how technically superior their microchip-enhanced replacements may be, will also always trigger fond memories for me.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Public Appearances

     Success has its price.  Back in the 1980s when I was a brand new “E” staff accountant at a Big Eight CPA firm in Seattle, rumor had it that one of the firm's former partners had been fired for disreputable behavior:  mowing his front lawn while topless.  I doubted the veracity of the story and deemed it a ploy to get us new E's in line with the firm's prestigious, straight-arrow image. 
     Then, at a lunch break during a training seminar, the office's managing partner graciously asked if he could join a coworker and I, already seated at a small table eating our hand held cold cuts sandwiches enfolded in elegant paper napkins.  We of course said yes, please do, so he sat and to my surprise, began to use a fork and knife to arrange the sliced meats on open bread slices and to eat as if an open-faced hot sandwich lay on his plate.
     I glanced at my fellow E, who continued to hold his sandwich in hand before him.  The rest of the accountants in the room that I could see from the corners of my eyes did likewise, so I relaxed, continued to eat as before, and refocused on our conversation.
      But the managing partner, perhaps sensing my momentary hesitancy, appeared self-conscious and ill at ease with his informal steak eating technique (upside down fork lifted prongs-down to mouth with left hand) and managed to eat only a half sandwich (and this was thin, light fare) before dismissing himself early.  I marveled that we lowly E's enjoyed a full and satisfactory meal, whereas our office's top official (a fine man, by the way) had to suffer and go hungry because his lofty position precluded him from hand-eating sandwiches like everyone else.
     Comparably, at an office party many years ago, a coworker and I were standing near the buffet line waiting for later arrivals when the then chief executive strode up to us in full suit and tie regalia and after obligatory hand-shakes and greetings said in true local fashion with a smile and much gusto, “Ay, I no can eat this food,” gesturing toward the modest (we paid for it ourselves) but ample catered and donated offerings.  In true local fashion I shot back with a smile and much gusto, “Why?  What's wrong with the food?” gesturing back toward the serving trays and tables, expecting a response recounting doctor's orders, diet restrictions, or some other food-related limitations.  Instead, a wall went up, as if he'd caught himself, and, back stiffened and hands gathered together in front, he said with measured temperament and cadence, low and even, eyes fixed henceforth on only my coworker, “I had a bowl of oxtail soup this morning.  It was a big bowl.”  Coincident with the word “big”, his head went forward for emphasis.   Then, wishing us well, he departed.
     What price success? I later wondered.  Can't successful people even be themselves at a business gatherings or in public?  Do they always have to watch what they say or do lest someone say this or that about them?  Can't they just do what they like without fear of others' opinions—as if they even cared?
     A wise man once said, “When you're twenty years old, you care about what others think of you.  When you're thirty, you don't care.  And when you're fifty, you realize they weren't thinking of you at all.”
     I have been blessed to date by kids who are not overly obsessed with fitting in or looking or acting like their peers, though they do have their own fashion preferences.  My oldest son has at times preferred long, disheveled hair and scuffed-up shoes.  My daughter wears girly active wear and nary a dress (she who once loved summer dresses).  And my youngest son enjoys T-shirts, polo shirts, and shorts, comfort being his prime objective.
     And I?  I wear standard business aloha attire and bring home lunch (a big no-no at most CPA firms) to work.  In public, I just try to relax, be myself, and enjoy, knowing no one's really looking at, or thinking or talking about me anyway--just another middle-aged man in the crowd who sure looks skinny.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Modes of Communication

       My wife is from South East Asia. Our first encounters were two brief conversations during her short stay in Hawaii for her brother Gerard's graduation from H.P.U., but since I knew she was heading back, I left it at that. (Gerard and I were friends from church.)
     Three years passed and Gerard was at Texas A&M pursuing an MBA degree when he wrote me a letter that mentioned in passing how Deanne still remembered me. I wrote back and mentioned in passing that I remembered her and would love to hear from her again. Five months later, I received a letter from Deanne and thus we began our correspondence.
     We started with snail mail—the best—then moved on to faxes to speed things up. She had a work e-mail account (rather high-tech at the time), but since I hadn't an e-mail hookup or even a computer at home, I sent faxes, which I transmitted from fee-for-service businesses at about a dollar per (handwritten) page.
     And we made phone calls, eventually, that averaged five hundred dollars a month. I hadn't yet heard of phone cards, still in their infancy, so I lost out on substantial savings but never regretted it since the phone bills came in handy when it came time to establish the legitimacy of our relationship when I later applied for a fiance visa for her to come over for us to marry.
     My first personal e-mail account came about a decade later—required of all parents of cub scouters. My son had been acting out in school, so we decided he needed outside interests, so I signed him up for something we both could enjoy. (As a kid, I had enjoyed scouting's fun, life-enriching experiences.)
     I immediately detested the medium. Fifteen plus messages would regularly appear in my in box, ninety percent of which were unnecessary and wasted my time to open, read, and discard. Some parents made a habit of “responding to all”, so I had to open all these irrelevant side conversations, FYI's, and links to items of (dis)interest. And computer face-time, which I always deemed a necessary evil, became even more burdensome. “Lazy correspondence” is what I consider e-mails. Rather than a nice, friendly phone call or hand-written personal letter (remember that?), I stare at hard-to-read colored lights on a cold, partial screen that has to be scrolled down just to view an entire message which is nearly always poorly written, and full of grammatical and spelling errors and misinformation. And rarely do thing get settled timely. There's all too often a back-and-forth, trying to decide on good dates, times, activities, facilities availability, and other have-to-get-it-right minutia. (Who will bring a starch? I'll bring Costco pizza. Do we have cups? I can bring juice syrup if someone has pitchers. Will we need ice? I have ice chests if...)
     I've thought about this some and rate e-mail to be about the lowest form of communication, based largely on the well-established fact that over ninety percent of communication is non-verbal. The highest form of communication is, thus, in-person, face-to-face. Being a visual person, I love it the best. Everything's out in the open, no hiding behind a screen or off in a room somewhere. Facial expressions, body language, even scent, dress, demeanor, and eye contact all count.
     Quite a bit lower on the scale (not counting Skype and teleconferencing, which I have never done) is telephone communications. At least you can hear the person's voice, cadence, pauses, and breathing and thus, perhaps, decode some emotions (angry? happy? chipper? down?), although I suggest never, ever to fight with a loved one over the phone where it's much too easy to get carried away and act far worse than in person. Some of the worst conversations in my life have been over the phone. Just remembering the angry hurt and bitter exchanges—it's hard to believe how uncivil things got. And being hung up on is like having a door slammed in your face—it's difficult to take and recover from.
     A bit lower on the scale but sometimes even better, are hand-written letters. Here you actually can see, touch, feel, and smell a piece of original art (even if it's just scribbles) that the other created. It may include tear or ketchup stains, lipstick smears, or even perfumed fragrance. The space, neatness and size of alphabets and words, and the paragraphing and corrections can suggest speed of writing, thoughts, and emotions. And they make wonderful keepsakes (e.g. love letters and birthday or anniversary cards). Handwritten letters also allow time for and almost force thoughtful composition—you can only write so fast, which tends to improve expressiveness and eliminate hurtful words and passages.
     Last of all are the cold and all-too-often impersonal mass e-mails. The worst correspondences I have ever received were through this medium. My best friend misinterpreted an e-mail response I sent him that ridiculed his taste in a certain book (we talk on the phone this way all the time and share guffaws) and he shot back one of the most insulting, belittling invective filled harangues I have ever received. I almost shot back an equally belittling counter-offensive when I realized this is not worth losing our twenty-five year friendship over. With angry, thumping heart, I gave an even, measured response that allowed us both to save face (retain our self dignities). We haven't exchanged an e-mail since and it's just as well as there's been no further hard feelings between us.
     A recent study found that electronic communications (including e-mails, twitter, and facebook posts) topped the list of things that can cause marital discord, meaning, don't use it as a substitute for face-to-face communications.
     I'm not surprised. If I had my choice, we'd eliminate the medium. Life wasn't any worse without it. As a youth, we'd have scout meetings every Tuesday, seven o'clock. You'd be told at each meeting what to expect or prepare for the next meeting. Occasional friendly phone calls settled last minute details—even these were seldom urgent: if someone couldn't be reached, we'd just make do and be prepared to improvise. Doing without may have required a bit more planning (a good thing) and sometimes more individual interaction (phone calls, usually), but isn't improved interpersonal relationships worth it?