Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Patience—Part I

     Patience is a virtue of which I've been blessed by God with an ample share (I married at age thirty-six; had only four premarital romances my entire life, the first in college, the longest lasting a year; have written fiction off and on for over twenty-five years without a single sale, though I've submitted works for publication only intermittently and much less than I know I should've; have stuck with a suboptimal job with a series of suboptimal bosses for over twenty years; have lived in rentals all my adult life; and have lived in ridiculously overpriced and overcrowded Honolulu for the past twenty-five years). I suppose many would say I'm just slow, which may be true, but I'd prefer to think I like to savor the journey, which makes arrival at the destination that much sweeter—assuming I ever get there. Others may say since I'm content, no wonder I'm patient—there's little incentive to change. To an extent I agree, however contentment is far more a state of mind than a state of affairs such that if we feel grateful for what we have rather than pine for what we don't, we'll more likely attain contentment.
     That being said, I can strive and work hard to achieve life goals like the next person, largely through self-discipline and perseverance. (I have a CPA, MBA, and read and write incessantly, mainly to improve myself and help others, and for enjoyment.) So it's not as if I'm naturally lazy and sanguine with anything that comes my way. It's critical that we all do our parts to make the world and ourselves better, and contentment without that minimal effort, I believe, is impossible.
     But I've found that striving and trying harder to attain contentment, peace, and fulfillment seldom works. Especially in the past when I was eager and at times even desperate to find a girl friend, trying harder just made things worse. Prospective targets of my affections sensed my neediness and nervousness, and felt repulsed, which is understandable, for even in mine own eyes, when girls approached me with those same attributes, I withdrew posthaste to spare their feelings. It was only when I surrendered all my dreams, hopes, and desires to get married, have kids, etc. to God, that I felt at peace and content with my singleness and at ease with all the girls I met, even cute ones that would have hitherto made me gulp. God had been encouraging me up to that point to entrust that one last, most cherished dream to Him by blessing me so abundantly, giving me joy and fulfillment in everything I had and in serving others—so much so that I finally realized that if He sent me to China to live out my days as a single missionary, I'd be fine with it because I knew He'd bless me for it. (This was in the 1990's when China was still considered a Third World Country.)
     And just that simple act of trust made all the difference in the world. It lifted my lifetime's weight of longing from my soul. I no longer had to plan, scheme, and strive, I could just be me, and I liked it. It felt easy, natural, comfortable, and good. Henceforth, I looked upon girls with a sort of bemused detachment, wondering what God would do next if I just treated them well as sisters in Christ.
     Girls soon noticed the difference—the seeming confidence and maturity—that made me more attractive than all the want-to-have guys, and sensed by okay-with-whatever-happens; I-don't-really-need-a-girlfriend spirit that took the pressure off them to make me happy and not devastate me if things didn't work out. With so many new prospects including attractive girls (not just needy, desperate ones) I began wondering, does God really want me to stay single forever? Or did He just want my willingness to stay single forever?
     It took years and a series of stupefying “coincidences” (I only realized them many years later and included them in a story) for me to find out. Deanne and I met, and years later, began courting, eventually reaching the point that we both felt certain that God had brought us together. It took awhile, and there were times when I wondered if I'd ever get married at all, but things worked out for the best in the end, praise God.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


     Compliments go a long way, they really do. I've been married sixteen years, but they feel more like five. It amazes me when I look through the kids' photo albums how much they've grown in just a few short years, and how much Deanne and I have aged blossomed.
     Obviously what made the years go by so fast were happy, healthy relationships. The ol' saying about time going by fast when you're have fun is true. Conversely, when life is miserable, time slows to a crawl.
     At the risk of sounding self-complimentary, a large reason for our marital felicity can be attributed to my liberal bestowing of compliments upon Deanne. She, in turn, has praised me now and then, conservative lest I get too prideful.
     Deanne grew up in an environment where compliments were seldom shared. When she first met my parents, and I asked her what she thought, she said she thought she had gone to Heaven, seeing them so loving with each other.
     This took me aback: that was the way they always acted. They hadn't been any more loving than usual. It was then that I realized that their usual way of interrelating was Deanne's family's rare exception or fairy-tale fantasy.
     My mom taught me to compliment by forcing me to praise my sister Joan's cooking. She'd make something awful and I'd mumble, “Tastes great, Joan,” and she'd say with bright cheer, “Thanks, Tim!” as if she couldn't tell I hadn't meant it.
     It reminded me of the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Mary asks Mr. Grant his opinion about her true story essay that described her uncle that dressed up as Santa all year round. Mr. Grant opined, “It's all boring,” but explained that he respects her too much to give her false praise, and to demonstrate his point, he called in nincompoop incompetent Ted Baxter and told him he's doing a great job, to which the newscaster left beside himself with glee. When asked if that's what she wants, Mary said, “God, yes,” to which Mr. Grant patronized her with sarcastic, overblown puffery. Mary thought a moment then choosing to believe the happy lie, she said, “Why, thank you Mr. Grant.”
     Joan's cooking improved over time to the point that I grudgingly had to admit to myself that her cooking really was good (especially the canned cherries with ham).
     Mom always insisted that we compliment the cook no matter what-because it's such a downer to hear negativity after all the hard work and worry. It's a lesson that's stuck. Every meal Deanne has ever served me—thousands by now—I've thanked and praised her for, usually referring to the “wonderful meal”—even before I've tasted it. And after tasting it, I tell her something specific about why it's so delicious. And it's never been hypocritical or patronizing (as Mr. Grant implies), but sincere and true expressions of gratitude and appreciation.
     Compliments should be used sparingly with children, however. The new thinking (which makes sense to me for small things at least) is that we should praise the effort, not the outcome or the person, because kids know when they do well and that should be reward enough, too much praise can be like candy (can't get enough), and for kids who feel unworthy, it can even create discomfort so that they'll feel compelled to act or mess up to retest the boundaries and gain reassurance that everything's fine as usual with Mom and Dad critical as ever. (Kids have so much to learn by the time they reach adulthood that it's inevitable that they be corrected and corrected often, which often enough is in the form of criticism or discipline. On the surface it can sound harsh and cruel, but it really isn't. To the contrary, to correct and direct is to love, care, and nurture. The unloved child, by contrast, may be ignored and/or fatuously praised. And kids know this difference intuitively.)
     The other night Braden showed us his craft project—a hand-carved koa pendant cross. I told him I loved it for its beauty and design, and being a sometimes hobby craftsman, I asked him how he'd done it. I could tell he was pleased with Deanne's and my compliments, however, the next morning when I looked for a clean breakfast plate, I discovered that all the large dishes were filthy. He had been doing a good job of washing the dinner dishes recently and I soon made the connection, since it wasn't the first time it happened, that the inverse power of praise had been at work whereby praise becomes counterproductive.
     My mom—at the same time the most loving yet critical parent imaginable—once sat me down and for the first time ever, praised me profusely, telling me I should give myself more credit and be proud, and that she saw how hard I tried to do the right thing all the time—a real Joy Luck Club moment that taught me how to receive praise without feeling compelled to act up to regain equilibrium.
     The night following the messy dishes I said as we sat to say grace before dinner that we all needed practice giving and receiving praise. Everyone, each in turn, will compliment everyone else, I said, and each complimented person must say thank you. I demonstrated first, followed by Deanne and the others. It went well—lots of smiles, laughs, and joy in just a few moments.
     I never stop praising Deanne's beauty, too. It's easy—she really is beautiful. And I compliment her on things I find attractive about her. Almost as much as saying, “I love you,” telling her, “You're so sexy,” or “You're the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world,” or “You're the best!”—corny though they may sound—really do go a long way. And I'm often the prime recipient of her gratitude and good will.
     More recently, Branden shared his second craft project—a heart-shaped koa pendant. I again praised his work and this time told him of his tendency to act up after being praised due to his feeling unworthy and that he needed to receive such praise from family into his heart. I also said, “When classmates or others praise you, you he may need to guard your heart—they may just want something from you, but when we praise you, it's okay to feel good about it. Last time we complimented you on your cross pendant, the next morning, all the dishes were filthy. This time, I expect the dishes to be clean, alright?” He smiled and said, “Yes, Dad.”
     The next morning, the dishes were sparkling clean, praise God.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Memorial Services for Elders

       Funerals have changed a lot since I was a youth and I'm not sure I like it. I won't say they're now inappropriately upbeat or cheery, but nearly all the ones I've recently attended had amusing anecdotes, smiles, chuckles, and jokes or impersonations to celebrate the spirit and soul of the deceased during the main service proper. Grandchildren—often cute and sometimes touching—described humorous or intimate events they will always remember about Grandma or Grandpa. What was missing were the copious tears, the solemn gravity, and the heavy feeling of loss. The permanence of death got almost trivialized with simple assurances that they are now somewhere better.
     When I was a preteen, my Grandpa's funeral in Honokaa lasted a week in which all sorts of hell played out for many of his immediate and extended family. Multiple hour-long services held before his Buddhist shrine in the parlor of his three-generation family house—incense and mosquito punk imparting a smoky, hazy air, blue tinged and noxious—obligated us to kneel on zabutons (small square cushions) in the formal seating position (painful, painful, painful!) while the priest intoned sonorous chants—mournful sutras that taxed his breath and that were accented with occasional rhythmic tappings of a thick wooden mallet against a deeply resonant brass bowl gong. Dongdongdongdongdongdongdongggggggggg... it went. Sincere tears flowed copious from Grandpa's six surviving daughters seated in the front row by age and a dozen granddaughters. This was followed by a message—entirely in Japanese during which everyone sat informally.
     But this anguish was nothing compared to that experienced during the open casket viewings at church—the first service at which the priest spoke in (broken) English a refreshing message I could finally understand.
     I'd been fine until Mom dashed out of the room at the second of these with body-racking convulsions, sobbing aloud as she left. I assumed she was dying and, panicked, looked for assurances from Dad, seated beside me, who seemed unaffected, with a concentrated strain on his face that was his sometimes norm. After service, Mom appeared fine and chipper and for some reason I wasn't surprised.
     Then, on the final night, after completion of the priest's short message in a dinghy adjoining sanctuary, white gloved poll bearers dressed in military-style garb entered from behind us, marched the length of the center aisle, closed the casket lid, and carried Grandpa toward the front entrance. We followed (me in tears) out to a whisper quiet, nighttime parking lot where the open back of a long, black hearse limousine waited, engine growling, dark gray exhaust spewing forth. In went grandpa, the gate slammed shut, and the hearse crept away down the steep hill toward the unseen crematorium.
     Mom's family has always been very close and it shouldn't have mattered, but that was the first time I cried openly in public, and in front of all my relatives. Embarrassed at being the only male to weep and trying to hide it with little success, I found comfort only later when no one teased me about it or even mentioned it.
     A couple of days later back home in Hilo, my sister told Mom, “I don't ever want to have to attend one of those again!”
     “Why not? I asked, having enjoyed getting together with all the extended family for the first time in my life, despite the sad circumstances.
     “Because it's just too sad!”
     “No, I don't expect that,” said Mom. “Grandpa was Nisei—from the older (second) generation. We'll do things differently from now on.”
     “Especially the open casket—he looked so natural, like he was napping.”
     “Yes, he did look handsome. We had to do it. I'm glad I got to see him one last time, but I wouldn't want that for myself. It is too sad.”
     Every other service I've been to since then—some only a few years later—have been short, one-time, hour long affairs at a generic mortuary, some with western-style music and all with upbeat, honoring messages. If Grandpa's had been a final farewell send-off of a beloved to an unknown, never-to-return-or-be-seen-again afterlife, all succeeding ones have been minimal ceremonial offerings and celebrations of the deceased's life—much simpler, straight-forward, and less complicated, with after-service receptions sometimes filled with loud talk, raucous laughter, and naughty play and antics by youngsters. I guess a lot of the deceased preferred it that way, perhaps thinking in planning their own funerals, “Why should you make long, sorrowful sobs over me? That just makes things unpleasant for everyone. How's that going to help me once I'm gone?” I could picture my recently deceased Aunt Sue saying something like that.
     A former pastor of mine once said if no one cries at your funeral, it probably means that you missed far too many opportunities to connect with loved ones, friends, and coworkers. It should be one of our life's goals to become so lovingly connected that at our wakes mourners will weep copious and lines of them will spill out the doors into the parking lot. That made me think, is that what funerals should be?
     But then, later, that same pastor shared that at a service he was presiding over with ample mourners, he said that since he (the deceased) is Christian, he is now in Heaven, surrounded by rejoicing angels. Therefore, it really was a cause for celebration for persons of faith.
     I guess he was separating the way we live from the type of funeral service we should have. In other words, tears of survivors aren't necessary to have a meaningful service (or to save the deceased's soul), but survivors' tears suggest a life that had been well lived.
     Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that something is missing from these abbreviated, upbeat services. Sure, everyone mourns in their own way and time, but getting to the point that everyone mourns together—there's something special about that. I'd never felt closer to my immediate and extended family than during that hellish week of Grandpa's memorial services. Lifelong memories and attachments were made, which I still cherish. Not so with any of the other services I've attended since.
     There are few truly important events in life. There's child birth. There's adoption. There's marriage. There's religious milestones. And then there's death. They should all be given their due and while we tend to do excellent jobs with most of the former, we seldom so with the last. It's too bad, because true opportunities for renewed or improved intimacy and bonding among extended family members are increasingly rare.  It's understandable, though, how families in the midst of funeral preparations would feel too aggrieved, busy, and frazzled to plan and pay for elaborate and expensive additional services and unwilling to shoulder additional emotional burdens brought on by prolonged grief and multiple public appearances and resistant to deal with spontaneous bonding during vulnerable moments brought on by deep distress.
     I haven't yet thought about what I'd like my own funeral service to be like, but I would hope it would be deep, meaningful, moving, memorable, and even helpful—after all, if I'm fortunate enough to have the time, health, and inclination to plan and prepare, it would be my last chance to connect with and impart something to my loved ones, even if it's just to say thank you, I love you, and goodbye in my own unique way.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jigsaw Puzzles

     It started three years ago when my daughter received a 150 piece jigsaw puzzle for Christmas—a fantasy scene with glitter sparkles, Bengal tiger and cubs, owls and owlets, and other large-eyed creatures with offspring in an idyll pond-in-foreground, forest-in-background setting—a bit hokey for my taste. But when she poured out the box's contents a month later on her dresser top, including the brown cardboard sawdust, and we began separating the few still stuck-together pieces, everything fell into place. I sorted the straight-edged pieces in one area, dark inner pieces with sparkles in another, tiger-striped ones in another, and pretty pinks in another, and placed the remaining mishmash of leafy sky, tree trunk bark, and owly feathers pieces back face-up into the brown, lower half box, in order to clear more space on our limited work surface.
     Penelope worked the borders—the easy part—while I worked the black water with sparkles.
     At first we worked by matching colors and patterns to find mates—the obvious pieces first. After accumulating a small block of two or three pieces, we sought to add to it, eventually building upon it as far as we could from our available stockpile. After that, we started new blocks of other distinctive patterns and colors, then made them grow. When patterns weren't so helpful due to an overabundance of similar pieces, we looked to shapes to help—the odd head-and-shoulders “male” piece; the ugly, asymmetrical “mouth”; the fat, loopy “leg.”
     Puzzles today are far easier than they were when I was a kid when all inner pieces were basically the same shape. Today's puzzle pieces are much more generous in offering shape clues with weird four-headed, three-headed, and one-headed monsters, one-mouthed, three-mouthed, and four-mouthed freaks, and some that don't even have male or female parts and are somewhat diamond-shaped with awkward, jutting angles.
     My mom was (and is) an avid puzzle-maker and it was a thing my siblings (mostly my older sister) and I got into, too. My specialty was picking out pieces with unusual, interesting looking designs and finding where they belonged based on the box cover's picture. It was rare that I couldn't find it, though it might take awhile since Mom usually got 2000 piecers. When mapped, I placed the piece within the borders exactly where it belonged and said, “Don't touch this—it belongs here.” At first they didn't believe, but then as I found more and more pieces—often bridge pieces that joined the border to the blocks they were working on—they caught on to the value of what I was doing.
     “Tim, I was looking for that piece! Ho, you spoiler!” or “No, you can't take all mine—how did you know it goes there?” Mom would often enough exclaim.
     “You gotta look at the picture,” I'd say.
     Jigsaw puzzles are a great family activity that anyone with patience and inclination can participate in—even my little one Jaren.
     That first one, Penelope and I did mostly on our own, standing there by her dresser. Braden helped out some when he saw our good progress and excitement over the ever-lessening “holes” within the puzzle's narrowing middle, and the fitting in of more and more “blocks” into the border's framework. The coming together of a puzzle is fun, remarkable work. From an impossible jangled mess to a decorative usable surface, it's something neither too hard nor too easy. And we do it side-by-side with intimate conversation when desired.
     Of course, this wasn't the first one they ever did. As three-year-olds, they had done large twelve- to fifteen- plastic or wooden piece story board jigsaw puzzles with Disney or Sesame Street characters, or sea animals, and so forth.
     But after that first traditional-style 150-piecer, they were hooked.
     Braden got a 250 piece round, ocean one that he and I did on his study desk, which was our former dining room table that we outgrew.
     After that, he got a 500 piece one (new) for fifty cents from his middle-school orchestra's rummage sale. We assembled that one outside in our carport upon a large plastic storage bin. The puzzle's thick, hefty pieces were finely ground along the edges and, assembled, depicted a high definition photo of a Japan fall scene. And it came with a tube of glue and small spatula for binding—an additional fun project that Braden undertook upon the puzzle's completion. The mounted work (held fast to the wall by Shoe Goo) now brightens an otherwise dreary corner of our carport.
     The puzzle's only weakness was loose fitting pieces that fell together almost frictionless, which deprived us of the sensual feel of well-fitted matings: the gentle yet firm slide without hitch or slip upon initial contact, the quiet “slish” of smooth surface contact, the emphatic “thunk!” of fingertip tapping piece down into place, and the convergence of color, design, and patterns with the slenderest of outlined gaps between conjoined pairs.
     As far as shapes went, this Japan-made puzzle was old-school—all inner pieces had two “heads”—one on each end, four “arms”, and two “mouths”—one on each side. This made it tougher because shapes weren't so helpful for clues to assembly—it all came down to color and design, pretty much, which to me, made it that much funner.
     Today's puzzles are much easier (so buyers won't get upset and give up in frustration, I suppose) also by their patterned designs. A 2000 piecer of Da Vinci's Last Supper that Mom gave our family was greatly simplified by light purple herringbone patterns superimposed upon the dark blue band that surrounded the painting and served as an internal frame. Even Jaren, once I told him where and how to attempt to fit pieces along a row, was able to do large portions of the border.
     Really, sorting is the only “hard” work in today's puzzles, though my back does ache sitting in a cramped corner on the floor in Penelope's room where the only available work surface to assemble our puzzles is now located: a hard plastic outdoor tabletop, salvaged from street-side, to which I attached short wooden legs so that the table slides easily beneath Penelope's bed frame when not in use. (See my earlier essay titled “Roadside Gems” for further description of this homemade table.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bedtime Stories

     My friend Norm advised that when selecting activities for your kids, select those that both they and you enjoy. If only they enjoy it, it won't work. If only you enjoy it, it won't work either.
     This rule has worked excellently for our family, one of the best examples being bedtime stories.  Of course when they were younger, they sat in my lap, each in turn, turning the pages, pointing out and naming objects, counting, and eventually reading aloud when prompted. Runaway favorites that they and I enjoyed included Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Love You Forever, Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit, etc.), and Puff the Magic Dragon, along with Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears classics.
     As they got older, I read to them while they scratched my back (because it felt so good and still does). Favorites of my oldest son included James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small, etc.), The Lord of the Rings, City Boy, Tom Sawyer, Shane, The Remarkable Rocket (Oscar Wilde), Lilies of the Field, A Separate Peace, The Chosen, and Cry the Beloved Country. I am currently reading him the Bible (he's too old to scratch my back, so he sits on the floor), planning to read it cover-to-cover. (We're almost through the book of Joshua.) I love the ancient names, which I pronounce in what I imagine to be a Middle Eastern accent—probably butchering the language, but that's okay, I guess.)
     Penelope enjoyed Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals, etc.), Where the Red Fern Grows, Dewey the library Cat, Marley and Me, The Hobbit, The Book of General Ignorance, The Book of Completely Totally Information, and other general non-fiction (trivia) books. The challenge for her/us was and is to find age-appropriate materials at her advanced reading level. Young adult and adult fiction tends to be far too heavy, sex laden, bitter, ironic, dumb, violent, or otherwise inappropriate. So general trivia often works well, with me censoring/editing as I read (it's amazing how obsessed such books seem to be with the bizarre and macabre—especially as it relates to human or animal sexuality) and stopping often to describe my understanding of the topic. I love it when I learn mind-blowing tidbits, too:

- There aren't a googolplex subatomic particles in the universe—there aren't even a googol. (This was a hot topic in middle school when my classmate explained the vastness of the number by producing pages of hand-written zeros, explaining this number that began with one showed only how may zeros there were in googolplex—a concept I couldn't quite grasp).

- The instant after the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe expanded outward at faster than the speed of light (the physical laws of nature apparently not yet fully operative.)

- It's impossible to physically touch anything due to the repelling force of electrons in all matter. The closest we can come is to sense the repelling force of other objects' electrons (sort of like pushing two magnets together with their North and South poles aligned.) I explained to Penelope we'd need to be in a particle collider, I guess, to achieve true physical contact (with an accelerated particle), although I do consider the subatomic forces within our bodies' atoms to be every bit a part of us, too, so that when they interact with other substances' atomic forces, that's the same as “touching.”

     Jaren has had the most varied taste of all our children (I still let him choose his books). Besides picture book classics, he has at varying times enjoyed math workbooks, Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs (adult level) The Bible, 1001 Food Facts (adult level), Crows of Pear Blossom, The Counting Dictionary, Reader's Digest Explorers Weather, and the Solar System. His favorite non-bedtime reading materials have included Peanuts, Garfield, and Star Wars comics, and also for the brief time we allowed it, Captain Underpants.
     Bedtime stories is one of the few beloved interactive activities that has stuck through all these years—a special time that the kids get to spend on our king-size bed, one-on-one, ranging from ten to thirty minutes each. It's a great way for me to wind down for early bedtime (I'm an early riser) before spending time with my wife beside me on our bed. From reading to them to sleeping, it's one of my favorite times of the day. I pray that they will remember these times with fondness, too.