Good Stuff

water-lilliesToday I have good news to share!

A glimpse at the day-to-day first: I’m at the tail-end of a very challenging season in which I’ve had to hold down the proverbial fort with home and children for three months while my husband studies for a big engineering test. (The test is April 13th! Wish him luck!)

I have been faced repeatedly with depression, exhaustion, and feelings of overwhelm as I’ve tried to meet the additional chores and hours of childcare that this season requires. Reminding myself that is it a temporary challenge has only been mildly helpful. We’ve been met with kind offers of meals and friends who hang out with me while I can’t see James. This has been a mercy. But I still have, I admit, thrown multiple adult tantrums.

In the midst of this not-so-healthy season, James and I both decided we’d try going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. I began writing early in the morning, before the kids woke, instead of after they went down for naps (by which time I was routinely wrung-out). James now comes home earlier for dinner and the result is we all have more time together in the evenings, without such a mad rush through dinner and routine.

A few weeks ago, I’d received a rejection for a short story that sent me spiraling down. I had reason to suspect my story was of high interest to the journal, only to receive a form rejection in the end. (you didn’t even like it???) It was dashed hope that made me so despondent. I don’t think I’d have been nearly so troubled if they hadn’t held on to it for a long time.

What did I do with my artistic angst? I found means to channel it. Overhearing a conversation with another writer friend, I decided to join a subscription service that streamlines the hunt for publishers and makes a tailored search much simpler. (Writers, if you are trying to publish and you haven’t heard of Duotrope, check it out!)

I’m sharing the valleys that lead up to the “hooray moment” because I want my blog posts to be as honest as possible. Advertising only the good stuff is misleading and harmful to everyone involved, if you ask me.

Elise has a new short story published! I couldn’t tell you if it was the subscription to Duotrope that brought this about, but I have channeled my energy toward short fiction publishing in a much more focused way, and here is the first fruit!

Summer of the Lilies, a literary short story, has been accepted and published by Longshot Island. Read Summer of the Lilies here.

Writing has so many similarities to life. The “good stuff” that is truly exciting to share is often sprinkled lightly among lots of toil and frustration. I am grateful for this moment of rejoicing, grateful for the faithful friends who cheer me on, for the fellow artists who inspire me, for the God who planted this passion in my heart.

Hope you enjoy the story!

Love,

Elise

Swim

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“Put your face in the water. Blow bubbles. See? Like me!”

I immerse the lower half of my face and push air through my nostrils. I raise my face from the pool in an expression of excitement.

My son copies me once, then refuses to repeat the action.

He needs to learn to swim. Sure, it’ll take years before he’s close to mastery, but the process should begin early for his safety’s sake.

Did I mention that my four-year-old has a history of hysteria whenever he gets the teeniest-weeniest splash of water on his face? I’m sure swim lessons will be a piece of cake.

Oh, my sweet son…you teach your baby sister sign language, you rise each morning with a helpful and cheerful spirit, your drama keeps the house warm and noisy every minute of your waking hours. Your heart is big, colorful, tender.

A part of my cynical adult self mocks you when you howl at the water on your face, and another part confesses my own fears. I’ve just learned to hide them better. I do the things I know I’ll be good at. I make myself too busy to take time to experiment.

I’m afraid to ask for favors. I hate the thought of inconveniencing the rest of the busy world. I’m afraid to compromise my thought-out schedule in favor of beautiful spontaneity. I’m afraid of the work and hassle it takes to travel with little ones in tow. I’m afraid of getting insufficient sleep to function.

Perhaps my son would mock me if he knew. Or maybe he’d hold out his hand, like he sometimes does to his little sister and say, “It’s okay! Come with me!”

I miss the bygone days of mentorship. My mom gave me pep talks every night. One-on-one encouragement. She bought me private writing lessons. She read all of my earliest stories.

Many of my friends wonder and marvel at my desire to homeschool my kids. I know. I know. The time investment and the challenge is huge. But I also know what it did for me—and I want to nourish my kids in similar ways. I don’t frown on parents who put their kids in school. I just can’t ignore my own compulsion, drawn from the well of my own memories.

I wish I could still be homeschooled. That someone who loves me as much as my mom could walk me through this daily mess of being a mother and a writer. I want individualized worksheets and weekly goals. Sure, I do some of this for myself and my husband is a wonderful life coach when I ask it of him.

Maybe I’m tired of being an adult.

What do I do now that I don’t have a parent to put her face in the water to show me it’s okay? Sure, there are self-help workshops and motivational speakers to fill the need, but I want it to be more spiritual and ancient. I want to sleep on someone’s hearth and wake in the morning to walk through dewy grass as I listen in a sleep-daze to my mentor’s thoughts on life’s most important truths.

Elise, will always be a hopeless romantic.

The only way I know for sure that I am growing is that I’m brave enough to do things that scare me. I may not have the mentor/sage I dream of, but I can let my heart point me, quivering compass arrow that it is.

I will allow myself to get dinner cooked late, even though it scares me to think I may be a less-than-adept homemaker. Especially if it eases my mind and heart with the extra time to breathe.

I will actively think of things that would make my life better and easier and I will ask for them. Childcare. Friends to visit me when the going gets tough. Simpler meals.

I will purchase a YMCA membership and use the included childcare for my mental health before I use it to work out. My mind is teetering on melt-down on a daily basis and I would be an idiot to ignore the warning signs. I’m afraid to commit money to this kind of self-care. I’m afraid to make the visible stance that says “I’m worth it.”

I’m going to put my face in the water. And it’s going to be okay.

I’ll learn to swim.

Pushing On/Pushing Back

In my twenties, running as fast and hard as I could seemed like the best way to ensure I was climbing my ambition in the right direction.

But now, more than ten years past my college graduation…I’m seriously assessing the cost of such behavior and asking myself,

What do I pay for in mental fragility, depletion of emotional reserves, temper with my kids, and closeness with my husband when I run myself completely out of proverbial steam?

A therapist recently gave a lecture at my mom’s group and shared a story of helping an overwhelmed couple restructure their life (which wasn’t going at all like they wanted it to) into something nearer the life they both hoped for. She instructed them to imagine family memories they hoped to make in the next five years, ten years, fifteen years, etc. Then to reverse-engineer their current life to make space for making these memories.

Begin with the memories you want to have.

I’m endlessly discovering I’ve made myself a slave to hyper-efficiency, trying to optimize and maximize the productivity possible in the time I’ve allocated for my personal work.

During a self-assessment of emotional and mental health last week, I tested into a dangerously-high category of burnout.

Time for a change, am I right?

What memories do I want to make? What do I yearn to remember when I look back on these years? What do I want to be remembered for?

I want to be a mother who is present and delighted with her children while she is with them. So I’ll make focused time to *be* with my kids. I’ll strive to tidy up after I’ve played a bit.

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I want to teach my son and watch him make learning connections as we do hands-on activities like cooking, art, and gardening. I’ll save some of these projects to intentionally do at a slower speed with my son at my side, learning to be my helper.

I want to remember parenting as a teamwork sporting event, working with my husband, finding times to laugh together and to be vulnerable in our struggles. So I’ll be honest with him and I’ll look for ways to be silly and lighten the mood.

I want to be a creative writer who is neither stifled nor depressed, which means chances to write and dream and build and create the worlds of my fiction. So I’ll continue finding and carving out time for this in my week.

I want a healthy mind, refreshed and unstrained. (I don’t want piles of memories of screaming at my kids or backing the car into a post, or dissolving into furious tears…all of which happened in the space of one day last week). So I’ll plan regular, restful activities for myself that aren’t just staring at a movie screen at night, but truly restorative activities for me. A weekend trip to a museum followed by lunch–by myself. Coffee and a pastry at my favorite Italian cafe.

For a goal-oriented and driven person such as Elise, I run a real risk of tucking my chin to my chest and charging ahead so effectively that…I might actually miss everything else in the blur. And someday soon, my energy will give way and I’ll be down in the dirt, wondering if I’ll find the strength to stand again.

Why this change in perspective? I’m pretty sure a good chunk of it was due to having kids. My four-year-old and one-year-old remind me constantly that I can’t love them well or be a fun-to-be-around partner for my husband when I’ve burned through all my daily reserves by 6 pm every day. (Welcome home from work, honey! I’m a basket-case!!!)

I’ve recently begun reading the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I found it while scrolling through “available now” audiobooks at my library, and took it for a sign. The author draws some very sobering connections between rest and effective, insightful work (“work” defined as the stuff we were made to do, that we feel is our calling or purpose or particular passion). The author insists that work and rest are not polar opposites, but rather complementary and equally necessary elements to healthy, vital human life and creativity. Pang laments the American tendency to wear “overworked” as a badge of honor. Humans aren’t meant to live like this.

I, for one, am personally tired of recognizing some issue in my psych-emotional health, a place where growth is truly needed, and then doing nothing fruitful toward addressing it.

So. I acknowledge I am burning out. Yes, this is normal for hundreds of thousands of parents. But normal does not mean healthy, nor does it mean what’s best for me and my family (another quip from the therapist’s lecture).

I want to strive for best. Not settle with normal. I’ve made a list of activities that are not designed to be productive. Simply restful, restorative, joyful, invigorating, and stimulating to my mind. I’ll aim to do one once a month. I’ll also set a limit of 2-3 nights a week in which work takes place after dinner. I’m sick at heart from putting my kids to bed and then rolling up my sleeves for chores once dinner is put away.

I’m aiming for small changes. Doable changes. And a more compassionate heart toward the mind and body that carry me through life, so that I can be a long-distance runner in my life and career, instead of a sprinter.

Happy New Year, everyone! May your goals be worthwhile and achievable!

XO

Take Care

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Having the second baby has made me slow down. A lot. My new normal has squeezed me toward ultra-focused sessions of writing and drafting in the afternoon and a running list of priorities that I update daily.

My household chores have been broken down into a monthly and weekly rotation. I prep my dinners on one particular afternoon a week, and I plan-plan-plan so that the important things that I truly value aren’t left behind in the dust of chaos of raising two young children.

My baby is crawling now. And eating everything on the floor. And making a bee-line for the toilet bowl when the bathroom door is left open.

My four-year-old is learning to fold laundry (hallelujah!) because I’m hiding jelly beans in the clothes (thanks for the tip, Mom!). He’s gaining traction in his understanding of letters and their meaning. I see the world of books unfurling its first beautiful page to him.

I am striving to view my youngsters and their stream of constant interruptions as opportunities to meet them with love and grace—to allow myself and my expectations of myself to change. To not push myself too hard with my daily to-dos. To delight in each small academic achievements of my boy. To feel the cosmic greatness of an after dinner chase scene in which I run after my kiddos with a cloth and wire tunnel on my head.

My life is inching out of mayhem and into a semblance of order. I can actually predict my schedule with moderate accuracy. My evenings are not a consistent heap of vegetation on the couch after the monsters are tucked into their recharging stations. My mind is gently stretching its wings as it comes to trust this bit of restored freedom and rest. And I feel I’m finally back in a place where loving others (the act of loving, not the momentary feeling) is possible again.

I want to be part of the sisterhood that says, “You’re hurting. Let me bring you dinner.” Or “You’re lonely. Come on over to my house when your kids are up from their naps.” Or, “You need a break. I’ll do your dishes while you take a long shower and pretend you’re at the spa.” I hate feeling trapped in the weeks and months of living in a moment-to-moment rush where deep-breathing is something I can only manage on my yoga mat in the pre-dawn.

My time is not unlimited, nor is my schedule empty, but my heart is filling. The waters of my mind are clearing. My hands have slowed enough to set down my dish sponge and baby wipes and instead grasp a sister’s hand as I say, “Let’s do this together.”

We were made to take care of each other.

Stand Up: (A mental health reminder for introvert parents)

silence-sunset-1379641I’ll rush to defend a friend, but cringe and sometimes fall silent when it comes to defending myself.

I once loved to argue. I am still easily riled up.

When it comes to protecting time to myself, to write, to sleep, to speak to no one, I am apologetic yet fiercely determined.

I explain to my husband that my attitude of distant exhaustion is not so much a reflection on him as it is a dried up, empty-tank-feeling in me.

I can’t decide whether I do a bad job of standing up for myself or if I’m just in the throes of how *difficult* it is to actually stand up for myself as a mother of two young children.

“What are you looking forward to when the kids are older?” my husband asks me.

He has already told me he’s anticipating hikes and boy scouts with our eldest. I’ve made a reference to my eagerness to learn at all over again when I begin homeschooling my son. Then, with a deep sigh, I say “Is it horrible that I’m really just looking forward to having more time to myself?”

I don’t want to go join a convent. (Though a week in one would be amazing!) I don’t want to leave my kids at my mom’s and drive to Canada (okay, last month, there were several panicked days when the idea stuck to me) and I don’t actually wish that I had a different life altogether, I just feel like the fight to protect a little space for myself, to preserve a few minutes for writing in my day, a snatch a sliver of time to exercise my body, is more effort than its ultimately worth.

I looked at my face in the mirror the other day and thought, “Okay, I see it. I’m aging.” And I wondered if I should feel some other emotion than resigned. My new beauty slogan has been “the most beautiful thing on your face is your smile” which I think is a paraphrase of Mother Teresa.

This is what I’m trying to say today—I don’t think that standing up for yourself has to look like a heroic, top-of-the-cliff-with-your-hair-flapping-in-the-wind kind of moment. I don’t look like Rosie the Riveter every day of my life. But I love myself. I love who I am after I’ve finished a new short story. I love the excitement that flows through me when I’ve finished organizing some part of my life. I love the gentle grace of a weeded garden bed and the peace that settles on me when I glimpse it from my window. These moments of preservation for my art and my sanity are not extraneous time-sucks. The non-essentials just might be the essentials. And if I don’t successfully protect them every single time, that’s okay, too.

Because I might just be living the hardest year of my life. (A mother of four told me that her first year with two kids was her more difficult, and I think I’ll take her word for it).

So I’ll keep standing up for myself. I’ll try to defend this tired, worn-out woman, and keep finding ways to nourish and delight her spirit. I’ll do my best to shield her time from busywork and facebook binges, from disorganized bouts of spinning her wheels, and also especially from moments of self-condemnation. Because she really is doing her best. And “best” is not perfect. It’s usually messy.

Stand up for yourself when you can. I say this especially to us parents who are used to giving and giving and giving to our kiddos. Find something that delights you. Rest when you can, even if it’s ten minutes on your back in the living room listening to a white-noise app. (Yes. I do this.)

So I’ll keep standing up for myself. I’m okay knowing I don’t have to look like Wonder Woman while I’m doing it. I’ll just try to keep some semblance of a smile on my face so that I can be beautiful the way Mother Teresa sees it.

I’m worth the fight. My heart and my mind are worth the fight. I want to stay filled up and strong for my husband and kids.

So I’ll keep standing up for myself.

The Art of the Do-Over

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What would you do over, if you could?

My husband and I were recently talking about things we truly wished we could do over again. He’d wished he’d attended high school prom with the girl who’d asked him. I wished I’d actually dated a particular boy in my senior year of high school, despite my parents’ objections—because, looking back, I’m pretty sure he was my first love. But I was an extremely obedient daughter and I did what I thought was best at the time.

Do-overs. Regret is a slow, sweet poison that we enjoy as a self-stew (because we’re complicated creatures), but the truth is, most regrets are pointless unless we use them to wise-up or, even better, go try to fix a past wrong through an action we take in the present.

Yeah. Like messaging an old friend on facebook out of the blue and apologizing for a painful mistake I’d made. In my case, it was poorly executed judgment from a position in which I should have been impartial. And although the talk was totally awkward, it ended with kind words and exchanging photos of our children—peace offerings.

Regrets and wishes for do-overs give me the reminder I’m not static, living my life on one unwavering course. I screw up, I hurt people, I act with oblivious carelessness, but you know what’s really encouraging? Apologizing has got a hell of a lot easier. I can’t explain it. Maybe my pride got majorly deflated in college after someone called me out for gossiping. (Yep. That stopped me in my tracks. I had an artificial fever for about 24 hours. Pure shame). Or maybe the art of begging forgiveness truly grows easier with practice, just like everything else.

The conversation about do-overs left me uplifted, almost like a pep-talk. I saw that my regrets had altered how I live now, guiding me toward what is truly valuable, exhorting me to embrace integrity, honesty, transparency and awkward humility.

I like to think that God is sanding down my rough edges so that the person I’m becoming is more loving, less rushed, and porous to the reasons for joy and laughter that surround me daily.

Dare I ask…What would you do over? Does your do-over bleed into anything you might do today that would heal the world, even in a small way?

Beauty will save the world, you guys. I believe it.

I See You (a Father’s Day letter)

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Beloved,

I see you. Up in the morning with the little one smiling on your shoulders as she rides through the house in the hiking backpack carrier that you wanted for your birthday. You yearn to bring our babies along on your outdoor adventures. The beauty of that desire does not escape me.

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I see you. Curled up on the couch in the morning light with the baby snuggled into the hollow of your chest and neck, sleeping in peace and safety. The empty milk bottle sits on the coffee table, a testimony of our teamwork, sharing her midnight feedings.

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I see you. Rushing home, changing your clothes, diving into last-minute dinner prep. You talk to our preschooler with loving interest. He knows he’s important and precious. You sing and make silly faces at our baby. She knows daddy is fun and safe and reliable.

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I see you. Laboring after sunset, building shelves, painting doors, sawing metal rods to fit the closet. You work tirelessly and gently. You don’t snap at me or speak tersely at the end of the long day. You give as if it doesn’t hurt or wear you thin. How is that possible?

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I see you. Smiling at me from across the kitchen, admiring me and finding me beautiful, desirable, even in those moments when I’m frantically scrubbing dishes or mopping spit-up off of the floor. You see beyond my harried exhaustion and admire my eternal, unchanged self leaving me astonished and humbled. Ashamed, too. Because there are many days I can’t hope to be as good a partner to you as you are to me.

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I see you. Holding my hand, kissing my lips, meeting my eyes with acceptance and grace. Together, we have lost unborn children, become landlords, traveled to Europe, constructed homes in blistering heat, birthed two little humans, hiked tropical jungles, grieved the death of loved ones, collaborated on art, co-led a Bible study, savored live theater, blended our literary tastes, pulled each other back from black depression, designed a place for creative community, fought and made-up and stonewalled and lashed out and begged for forgiveness, sat still and held each other close while we witnessed a river flowing past us.

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I see you. The father of my children. All five of them. “Father” is just one of the important roles you play. But it’s never been more valuable to me than it is now.

Happy Father’s Day. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but you.

Home

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Home. I’ve wrestled with this word over the years. I’ve defined “home” as the haven where I felt safest, the circle in which my siblings and I received our first years of schooling, the nest I made with my husband after our wedding, the sacred cradle that my babies entered a few days post-birth…and on it goes.

Living in Seattle and yearning for a larger home has been one of my life’s most difficult and grueling challenges. Raising children is definitely harder but, seriously y’all, house-hunting is insane! Entering the forays of the real estate market in this day and age is truly my next level of “adulting” and it was not such a fun one. Three months into my pregnancy with our second baby, my husband and I sat down in a coffee shop with a real estate agent and set sail on our ship of dreams.

Nesting hormones combine with home-hunting...

Nesting hormones combine with home-hunting…

I fantasized about a sunlit kitchen with big windows, a sprawling yard for romping kids, an open living space to host my writer’s group, a comfortable dining room for family dinners and small musical performances.

We got an account set up to send us house listings. Gorgeous color photographs of homes that we could (in theory) afford. And we tried them on, mentally slipping our family inside the rooms. We were picky, snobby even, passing over many homes as insufficient without ever stepping inside.

Then the realization sank in. We were not giving those “less than perfect” houses enough of a chance. This hit us about the same time we realized the sale price of a house in Seattle was dramatically different from its list price. Those places we’d thought were “in our price range” were selling at numbers well beyond our reach.

Depression. I launched a new ship of dreams, this time over murky waters. Dark fantasies plagued me, whispering that I’d have to take my family far beyond Seattle’s city limits if we were to afford anything appropriate for us. I desperately wanted to stay in Seattle, to be near our parents and give them a close relationship to their grandkids. To be near the church community I have grown to love dearly.

Make-believe Time with Mommy. We are aviators.

Make-believe Time with Mommy. We are aviators.

I renewed my stubborn, fierce vow that I’d rather live in a little house in Seattle that needed some TLC than in a glittering, spacious house in the suburbs. My husband and I dug in our heels, sent a few panicked emails to our realtors (thanks for being gracious with, Casey and Tyler!) and  accepted that we would likely purchase a fixer-upper. We strove to become smarter and tougher. We began imagining remodels. We considered moving walls and cutting out windows. We were determined to not let this crazy housing game be the one to beat us.

Life moved right along. My body swelled as my baby girl grew inside me. A month before her due date, we pulled the plug on our home search. It was time to wait and rest and welcome Little One. The stop of our search felt like another defeat. We’d missed our deadline.

But then our sweet girl arrived healthy, happy, and perfectly thrilled to be the fourth occupant of our townhouse. Our mailman hand wrote “welcome, new resident!” on the outer envelope of her social security card. And, after all, the little princess only needed about as much space as a shoe box.

Me and the adorable monkey.

Me and my monkey.

A few months later and we re-entered the real estate game with our three-year-old running all over the houses, turning on the bathroom taps to watch the water run, and our baby strapped to one of our chests or her car seat. We visited multiple listings a night. We reviewed new listings within minutes of receiving the emails.

The hardest part was the ones that got away. Five homes touched our hearts and we moved to make an offer. Then we watched with sick stomachs and dark minds as they were snatched away from us. After each loss, we drew a deep breath and began again.

I don’t know what made the house on 136th St different, but I will say this: The first time I walked through that house’s rooms, I felt something say to me “This house has loved people,” and I instantly answered with “And I want to continue loving people with this house.”

We placed our offer and I prayed hard. I remember pausing on the stairs in my parent’s basement, kneeling down and begging Jesus to fight on our behalf if he wanted that home for our family. And then, after dinner, James and I were standing in our little dining room and the phone rang. “I have good news!” Casey told us. “It’s yours!” I cheered. It must have been a youthful cheer because Casey thought I was our three-year-old. After we hung up the phone, I started crying. I get all the feels. That should not surprise you by now.

We just signed the papers to close on the house!

We just signed the papers to close on the house!

The “what ifs” merged suddenly into “this is yours.”

Let’s rewind time for a sec. My first few years living in our townhouse were ones in which I felt happy to hole-up. It was just me and my husband. It was solitude and space for my work and creative projects. I hosted a handful of gatherings with friends. (A memory flashes up of a Twilight party in which a dear friend arrived dressed as from Rosalie Cullen, a vampire jilted-bride in a white gown, wielding a cleaver. You are amazing, Michelle!) A few years later, my son arrived and commandeered the second bedroom. Soon, we were full. of life and toys and child-gear. Hosting dinner for more than one or two people caused an upward surge in my blood pressure.

I dreamed, in a way I never had before, of dinner with friends and their gaggle of kids, of gathering that thrived with life and rang with joyful laughter. My heart was changing, but my home could not accommodate its wishes.

Back to the present. The house on 136th St sat nestled on a little cul-de-sac. It’s front was not flashy, but it’s interior showed a hundred touches of someone who loved natural light just as much as I did. Two pictures windows, one in the dining room and one in the living room, looked out onto lovingly tended garden. Two skylights were cut into the ceilings. A covered patio stretched beyond the family room, where children could play and families could eat.

He put yogurt "shampoo" in his hair while I was packing.

He put yogurt “shampoo” in his hair while I was packing.

This home is a gift to us. A chance to start anew. We’re currently painting, unpacking boxes, learning to cook in the new kitchen, installing closet shelves, making a to-do list to fix the slow leak in the kitchen sink, put insulation in the crawl space, and stopping every now and then go look around and really see this home of ours with grateful, swelling hearts.

My son getting a wagon ride with Grandpa.

Getting a wagon ride with Grandpa.

I’ve been musing over my friends and community as I’ve navigated the choppy waters of house-hunting. Some of my house-hunting friends have yet to buy their home. Some have moved out of Seattle. Some have found their home and are settling. Some are content to rent for now. Some have beautiful established homes of their own. Some are still living with family. I know that sharing my own family’s story will likely bring joy to some and a twinge of frustration to others.

All of that said, this is what I can offer. Friends, those of you still dreaming, hoping, praying for your next home, I wish you grace, endurance, and strength in the process. Those of you who are settled, may your home be ever a place of life and love and incredible memories. And this is what I can offer to those of you who know me:

My home is getting ready for you. We’re preparing a place to relax, a shelter for sleep, a zone for your kids to play, a table to gather around. We’re getting ready to welcome you in every sense of the word.

This isn’t just the story of how the Stephens family got a house. It’s the story of how we are getting ready to love more people.

What’s So Funny? (Part 2)

Welcome back to my exploration of humor and what makes things funny! Ha!

My current head-scratching surrounds the what, why, and how of making a scene that causes the audience or reader to laugh.

My last post explored humorous elements found in The Wise Man’s Fear. You can read Part 1 of this series here.

This time, I’m investigating some humorous parts of the Disney-Pixar Film, The Incredibles.

So without further ado…

theincrediblesExamples of Comedy/Humor from The Incredibles

1. Fro-Zone Needs His Suit and His Wife Needs Him at Dinner

The super hero character Fro-Zone wants his Super Suit for a quick trip out to save the world. His wife never appears in the scene, but her voice from off-stage is self-assured and indignant that her husband is trying to slip away. A large portion of the married population can relate to her feelings. When Fro-Zone shouts that he needs to suit for the Greater Good (a claim that seems a bit hard to trump) his wife counters with “I am the greatest good you are ever gonna get!” The wife wins the scene, at least for the moment. We feel the tension in Fro-Zone’s need to be a hero, which makes his wife’s resistance even funnier.

Watch the Fro-Zone Super Suit Clip

Why this is funny: The wife redefines the Greater Good by using that title on herself. The high stakes of Fro-Zone’s need for his suit make her a somewhat unwitting obstacle to his saving the world, all in the interest of saving the romance of her marriage, which is also funny, because it resonates with memories of many marital disputes.

2. Eccentric and Hilarious Side Character

Edna Mode, the film’s fashion designer for superheroes, is a barrel of laughs. Her affected speech and accent is not the only thing that creates this. She is also strongly opinionated and pushy in her decision-making. She takes the wild personality of a fashion designer stereotype and connects it to the career of outfitting superheroes.

Watch the Edna Mode “No Capes” Clip

Why this is funny: Edna is larger-than-life. Her speech about why she will not allow her clients to wear capes is laugh-out-loud funny because she scientifically describes something that we, as a modern audience, never thought of–the practical dangers of getting capes caught in a rocket or in a hurricane, etc, and we are shocked and surprised by it. Edna’s snappy disgust with the fashion disaster ties a perfect bow on the package. Having Robert (Mr. Incredible) present in the scene gives us the reaction of a “normal” person to Edna’s strangeness, giving the context for very enjoyable comedy.

In summation…

I read in the 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar (rule #10) that we have to take apart the things we like in order understand how they work. This is my attempt to follow that rule with regards to things that I have found funny.

From these examples (including those of Part 1), I’m deducing a few, but by no means exhaustive, rules to humor.

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A. Cleverness and wit are amusing to us. When a smart person deduces much from tiny details that we might have otherwise missed and uses them to cast light on another person’s mood or motive, we see the subject of scrutiny made to feel naked and uncomfortable and it’s humorous to us.

B. Strong reactions to abnormal behavior are amusing to us. If a beautiful naked woman walks down the street, we might imagine hearing some hilarious comments. “Someone give that girl a bathrobe!” “Just looking at her makes me feel cold!” “I’d say somebody lost a bet!” It’s these knee-jerk reactions that make the situation hilarious. “Breaking the law never looked so darn good!” See what I mean?

Oh also, I noticed that references to human nudity feature in several of my examples. That might cast some light on how my own mind works, as well as an additional rule that C. Nakedness is amusing to us, too.

Hope you enjoyed journeying with me!

I’m still eager for thoughts and ideas on humor, so send ’em to me if you’ve got ’em!

What’s So Funny? (Part 1)

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Humor. A thing worth officially studying, per a recent decision of mine. And I’m going to share my notes with you. Warning: This is a somewhat nerdy post.

In my attempt at efficient observational study, I’ve selected the novel I’m currently reading, The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. This isn’t a particularly comedic book, but the three friends Wil, Sim, and the main character Kvothe demonstrate several instances of comedic scenes that have made me burst out laughing, so I thought I’d start here. As I racked my brain further for funny examples, a couple scenes from the Disney-Pixar film The Incredibles also surfaced, and I’ll use dissections of those in my Part 2 sister post.

I will do my best to avoid overall spoilers of either book or film, while giving context as best I can to the particulars of each scene.

wisemansfearExamples of Comedy/Humor from Wise Man’s Fear

1. Kvothe is Humbled by Alchemy

Sim is helping Kvothe with his newest scheme by concocting him an alchemical potion that will render Kvothe temporarily immune to the burn of fire. As Sim explains the limitations of the creation, Kvothe shows himself arrogant and refuses admit that he knows nothing about alchemy. Sim tells him that adding water to the fire-proof potion will render it flammable. Kvothe scoffs at this. Sim prods Kvothe to help him add water and, lo-and-behold, the container rises into three-foot-high flames.

Sim set down the crucible with a slight click and looked at me gravely. “Say it.”

I looked down at my feet. “I know nothing about alchemy.”

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 266)

Why this is funny: We’re prepared for the laugh because Sim already tried to get super-intelligent Kvothe to admit ignorance in this field. Kvothe is proud. When Sim’s demonstration proves the facts and Kvothe repeats the line that he previously refused to utter, we feel satisfaction in his humiliation and feel it doubly so because we hear the line itself repeated again. “I know nothing about alchemy.”

2. Kvothe is Poisoned by the Plum-Bob

This is a prank played on Kvothe by one of his enemies, right before he needs a clear mind for an extremely important interview with University staff. The plum-bob poison causes Kvothe to say anything and everything that he thinks and feels, without the usual social filters to trap the inappropriate bits from coming out. He reveals the extremes of his revulsion for his sworn nemesis (Ambrose), his attraction for his classmate and friend (Fela), and repeatedly performs actions on the impulses of comfort or reflex without the cautioning thought for how they might be awkward or rude (i.e. spitting on Sim’s floor, stripping off his clothes because he’s too warm). During these antics, the reaction of those who witness Kvothe is strong and vivid.

“Fela, you are just gorgeous,” I said. “I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I’d give you everything I own. Except my lute.”

It’s hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.

“I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?” I said.

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 77)

Why this is funny: We witness a bizarre alteration in Kvothe’s regular behavior and laugh out loud when we see the reactions of his friends, who are doing their best to neither mock him nor explode with indignation. At first glance, I thought it was the weird circumstances that were comedic, then I realized it’s the friends’ reactions to the situation that bring out the fullness of the comedy. We enjoy seeing the astonishment and embarrassment of others more than we like to see the strangeness itself.

3. Denna Wins at Corners

Kvothe’s pretty female friend, Denna, is visiting with him, Wil, and Sim at the Eolian (a music-venue tavern). The men are having a few drinks and playing a card game called Corners. They invite Denna to play with them. She says she doesn’t know how to play, but she’s a quick learner. They excitedly teach her the rules, then sit down to play. Denna plays a hard, fast, and expert round of Corners, revealing she knew the game all along. The men realize they’ve been fooled into assuming her ignorant (perhaps because she is a woman?). What was more, their eagerness to teach the little lady how to gamble blinded them completely to her competence.

(After the hand of Corners is over)

“Well that was instructional,” Wil said as he slid a jot toward Denna. “I might need to lick my wounds for a bit.”

Denna lifted her glass in salute. “To the gullibility of the well-educated.”

We touched our glasses to hers and drank.

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 158)

Why this is funny: As a reader, we’re also prepared for Denna to know nothing about the card game, so we’re just as surprised as the men when she unveils her skill. We applaud her trickery and charade of ignorance (though I think if she hadn’t outright lied about knowing the game, and just asked for them to explain the rules, the deception would have been even better). Denna has also thrown off the stereotype that women do not know the sly ways of gambling card games, which makes her a more dynamic and interesting character.

4. Sim and Wil Marvel at the Mystery of the Opposite Sex

I think the comedy in this is almost self-explanatory from the title for an adult audience, but it’s worth digging deeper. In this instance, the beautiful Fela is dressed up for a date to distract the reviled Ambrose while Kvothe, Sim and Wil stage a raid on his rooms. She appears completely lovely from Kvothe’s point of view, but another woman in the scene, Devi, steps forward and coaches Fela in how she should hide most of her cleavage at the start of the evening, then bring out a little more of it gradually as the evening wears on so that Ambrose has the illusion that he’s “getting somewhere.”

“This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” Wilem said quietly.

“Do all the women in the world secretly know each other?” Sim asked. “Because that would explain a lot.”

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 280)

Why this is funny: This humor caters to the age-old challenge of trying to comprehend the opposite sex. I observe that the comedy is typically weighted on the side of men trying to figure out how women think and behave and this side of the coin is also embodied in the example I’ve given. It’s amusing because Sim assumes that the instruction Devi gives to Fela is a secret known by all women, and implies that women team up and share tactics for how to seduce and bewitch men. Once the men suspect this is reality, they are left bewildered and perplexed. It also implies that Sim and Wil wonder if similar techniques have already been applied to them, individually, leaving them to guess whether their love-interest was genuine in her behavior, or simply embracing strategy. The handling of this kind of humor should be done delicately (which, I would say, is generally the case thus far in this book), because it has the potential to become sexist. Jokes about men who can’t understand the full wiles of women ring true for many, and this seems to make for a long history of laughs.

I’ll be continuing this study with a couple scenes from The Incredibles and I’ll do a small summation of my observations there. In the meantime…

 

If you have any examples of something funny and what you thinks makes it funny, I’m all ears! This study of humor is going to be a long one for me, and I’m just getting my toes wet.