Monthly Archives: January 2011

Some of the funny responses

Firstly, thank you all. Mike and I have been positively overwhelmed by the flood of support and well-wishing we’ve received via the blog, facebook, and email since we posted the news last week that we’re expecting a baby! We’re very touched. Your notes and emails have made us smile, share snippets with each other, and laugh.

This week is going to be a busy one for me. I’ve got a lot of work to do on two separate consultancy projects and am not quite sure where blogging will fit in during the first half of the week (not to mention pregnancy yoga and the article I’m also trying to write on expat living in Laos). So, as Mike and I are sitting here on Sunday afternoon answering some of the emails, I decided to keep track of some of the comments that have come in over the last couple of days that have made us laugh and share them with you. Because laughter is always more fun shared.

So here are just a couple of the lines that have made Mike and I giggle over the last couple of days.

“Congratulations – I am quite sure there is no “reset” button so would be best to just go with it now.”

“Lisa. That is fabulous news!!!!!!! Yea and combats to all!!!!!” [I’m assuming that this was meant to be congrats, but even if not, I think it could still be very apt]

“Congratulations – this is great news – enjoy the 6 quiet months left in your life!!!!!!”

“That’s a record. You’ve only had a puppy for 3 months surely?  He must be even cuter than a chocolate Labrador to have worked this type of magic so quickly.” [To which I replied, “He’s pretty darn cute. Then again… he’s also got a mouthful of razor sharp teeth which he is still constantly using to bite our hands, and he has recently taken to leaping on me from behind and humping my leg when I try to walk away from him and he’s in the mood to play.]

“You’ve lived through natural disasters and man-made wars–you’ll not only survive this, you’ll have even more great stories!”

“Unlike many other followers of your blog, I have no idea what it’s like to be pregnant. And to be completely honest it doesn’t sound that appealing…” [To be completely honest, so far I have to say that it’s not that appealing]

“Lisa, my experience of being pregnant was: 1st trimester – the whole world smelled terrible and most of the time I forgot how happy I was to be getting a child because I was vomiting the whole time; 2nd trimester – before I would skip meals because I was busy doing every-day work, and now I would skip everything (even important meetings at work) to go grab something to eat; 3rd trimester – This is when I needed my husband most…to lift me out of chairs. I used to walk faster than everyone on the road and now even slow-walking, elderly, people were walking faster than me. And the toilet becomes your best friend…”

“You don’t want to be a marsupial. Keeping a pouch clean sounds like a hassle to me.” [To which I replied: “We live in Asia. We can hire people to keep a pouch clean. Problem solved.”]

[This comes from someone we know who has previously lived in Laos] “Boy, some people will do anything for some R&R!  Seriously, much congratulations.  We named one of our dogs “kop chai” (thank you) I hereby give you permission to name your child “kop chai lai lai” (thank you very much).”

“Hey Mike – congratulations! Keep in mind that ‘Vinay’ would make a great name for the baby. Even if it’s a boy.” [There’s no keeping this one anonymous. Vinay is a guy Mike met during a trip to Sudan last year.]

“Congrats! Are you guys worried about health care for the birth in Laos?” [To which Mike replied, “Why yes.  So much, in fact that Lisa’s already booked her tickets to Australia.  Even middle class Lao women try not to have their babies in Laos if they can help it (most of them go to Thailand rather than say, Australia).  Yesterday we were talking to a shop keeper (talking in the sense that my Lao is very basic so I probably understood about half of what she was saying) and when I told her that we weren’t going to have the baby in Laos, she looked so relieved that you’d have thought I had given her an injection of valium. On the up side, she taught us the Lao word for “afraid.”]

“Congratulations!  What wonderful news.  Not all babies are like hand grenades.  Alex was more of a claymore mine.” [I think this takes the prize as the single line that made me laugh the hardest, and the longest.]

“Tell Lisa, hand grenade does it no justice at all. Something like seeing the roads in Afghanistan after they’ve been visited by a B52 would be more accurate but you grow to love the new landscape even more than the old.”

“While we all wait patiently for photos of the miniature Wolfey-McKay, please do post more photos of the little monkey!!” [I’ll do my best. In fact, here’s one for you now of Abu doing what I do now when confronted with a glass of wine – look at it longingly.]

To close, here’s one final quote that I love. “You are right–you and Mike will make fabulous parents. And, you are right–there is no good time to have kids and they do change your lives forever. You will never regret it. Keep us posted so we can celebrate with you!”

We will. Thanks again.

Lisa (and Mike)

Koi maan luuk (or, “I am pregnant”)

Koi maan luuk was the first Lao phrase I learned in the new year, and you would have already known this piece of news for at least a month if you lived in Laos. You would know this because you would be the deceptively reserved-looking Vietnamese woman who runs our favourite grocery store and you would ask me the first time you saw me after I’d been away for Christmas: “So, any news to tell me? Any news about a baby?” And I would look totally stunned at being accosted with this query over a basket full of milk and pasta, and then shrug and tell you.

Or you would be Mike’s work colleagues offering me glasses of beer at an event – and there is apparently only one acceptable reason to turn down beer in this country. So I would shrug and tell you.

Or you would be some stranger meeting us for the first time and right after you ask us how long we’ve been married you’d ask us whether we have kids. And, then, when we answered “no”, you’d look worried and ask us whether we will have them? Whether we are, in fact, even trying? So I would shrug and tell you.

Apparently there’s none of this “waiting until three months” thing here, pretty much the minute you find out you’re pregnant, it becomes public knowledge.

I find this practice both refreshing and confronting. Refreshing because you then have a damn good explanation for why you’re always wandering around looking like you might throw up at any moment. And why you’re so wiped out sometimes that you can’t get up off the couch and go out with work colleagues. And, let’s not forget, why you can’t drink beer or homemade whisky.

But it’s also confronting to have this big life event out there as fodder for the communal discussion mill. Everyone’s so happy for you when they hear. They smile really big and say they’re thrilled, and that you must be, too. Often in those moments I wonder whether I look thrilled. I doubt it. I probably look confused, which is fair enough, really, because what I’m thinking is usually some combination of all of the following at once:

  • Oh that’s right, I’m pregnant. I momentarily forgot.
  • Yes, I’m happy
  • No, I’m terrified
  • Actually, I’m hungry
  • Is it too late to push the reset button?
  • Oh, wait, maybe I have to throw up. Yes, I certainly am pregnant.
  • Yes, I am happy. Yeah. Happy.
  • No, I’m terrified…

And so it goes.

I’m not terrified about whether or not I’ll be a good mother. Even though I’ve never really been a kid-person, I reckon I’ll be pretty good as a mother at least 80% of the time. Even if I’m not, Mike’s going to be a great dad, so the baby’s covered. No, true to form, I’m worried about me. I like my life right now. I like my marriage. And I’ve heard babies described as “hand grenades” in relation to both those institutions.

Oh well, I have nine months… scratch that, six months now… to get used to the fact that this particular hand grenade is coming. And that I have to give birth to it.

Gosh, I wish babies came out the size of hand grenades (healthy, of course). I mean, don’t you think koalas have it all over most other mammals in this area? Baby koalas slide on out of the womb when they’re about the size of a jellybean and (pink, hairless, blind, and without ears) nonetheless manage to crawl unaided up their mother’s stomach and squirm into that warm, furry pouch. Then they just hang out there for six months drinking milk until they grow eyes and ears and stop looking so much like a maggot. That’s so the way to do this birth thing. Plus, I bet koalas don’t get morning sick.

Morning sickness… don’t get me started. Next week I might tell you all about how Mike and I found out that I was maan luuk ourselves, and if you’re really lucky I won’t tell you about morning sickness (or, as it should really be called, all-day sickness).

Until then I leave you with a photo and a grandparent-anecdote. After I posted about playing with monkeys last week, my grandfather (who got an iPad and his first ever email account for Christmas) sent me the following…

Hi Lisa,

It’s only me trying to learn to type. If anyone told you that an iPad was easy to learn, especially an 86 year old, don’t you believe them. I am finding it hard to find the letters as they are not in alphabetical order.

We have just been viewing your letter on the monkey visit. What good practice for you. He looks cute, but I think you may be able to do better than that.

Love, Pa.

We’ll see about that, Pa. We’ll see.

When the professional meets the social in Laos

Two weekends ago Mike was invited to a wedding. This is not an uncommon occurrence – it’s Lao custom to invite everyone and their cousin to your wedding. Then, it seems, everyone you’ve invited is allowed to ask you to invite other people as well, and you can’t refuse their requests. This is why weddings here can easily run to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of guests, and why Mike and I regularly get invited to attend the weddings of people we’ve never met.

Until this weekend we’d managed to wiggle out of all of these invitations by putting an appropriate amount of money into the invitation envelope and returning it to the people who invited us so that they could present it to the happy couple. This weekend, however, there was no wriggle room. The person getting married was the son of the translator of the provincial governor so, you see, we had to attend.

Did you follow that?

Nope? Don’t worry, I didn’t either the first time Mike presented it to me.

Here’s how it goes. The provincial governor is one of the key powers that be. The translator to the provincial governor is a key person of influence and therefore also one of the powers that be, albeit indirectly powerful. He had invited us. Therefore we needed to honor him by going despite the fact that we had never met this son, or his bride.

We were the only westerners in a crowd of about a thousand. There was a certain novelty to that, and to having relatively little idea as to what was going on ceremonially. Then the novelty wore off and we were simply sitting a table in a large courtyard, drinking beer, eating cold rice very slowly (lest someone see that our plate was empty and decide to help by filling up with choice pieces of fat or offal), and watching the bride and groom offer whisky shots in tiny silver goblets to all the nobility seated at the high tables.

So that was two weekends ago. Last weekend we also had a late-breaking professional-social (aka professocial) obligation.

The responsibility for the governmental oversight of Mike’s organization has recently changed hands. On Wednesday last week the team had their first meeting with this power that be. At the close of the meeting Mike’s deputy, Kampono, suggested that this government official might like to join him on his farm on Saturday. The official agreed, and this meant that our course for Saturday was set as well.

“This is how business is done here,” Mike reminded me as he was informing me of our professocial obligations for Saturday. “Everyone gets together and spends hours drinking and eating and talking, and then we have a relationship, and we can count on them to help us out. Or at least pay attention to us.”

I sighed. But he’s right, and I don’t even need the briefing now on why my presence at some of these events is important (because Mike is important, and family is important, and I am Mike’s family and therefore I’m important, and it honours the host and the guests if I come). So I went.

The party was in full swing by the time we arrived at 10:30am. Despite the fact that the 40 staff attending had all had their Saturdays hijacked (not to mention their wallets – these sorts of events are totally staff-funded) to entertain a handful of important government officials, everyone seemed to be having a blast. A cow had already been killed, the duck slaughter was in progress, and groups of people were dotted all around Kampono’s property working on preparing different dishes. Some were cleaning out the cow’s stomach and intestines, others were putting together giant pots of beef stew, still others were making kebabs, or salads, or rice. The amount of food a group that size can produce over small campfires when everyone pitches in and helps out is remarkable.

So we ate, and we drank the never-empty glasses of beer lao, and people laughed, and then some of the men played Petanque – a sort of modified version of lawn bowls that involves throwing heavy silver balls along a strip of sand. Petanque is the perfect game for this culture. It’s a team sport, so no one succeeds or fails alone. Rank beginners like Mike can play it without embarrassing themselves too much. Everyone gets at least one moment of glory during the hour-long match when they land a particularly good shot. And the government people (who seem to spend inordinate amounts of time honing their skills at this game on work time) can excel and walk away feeling good about themselves.

When we first arrived in Laos, I couldn’t understand how the national staff of our NGO could not resent having their evenings and weekends frequently impinged upon with these professocial obligations. How could Kampono (not to mention his wife, who had to oversee many of the preparations with some of the women from the office) not resent having to spend their whole Saturday hosting a work event for 50 on three days notice? How could the staff not resent having to spend their own hard-earned money wining and dining the powers that be, simply so they can do their jobs in this top-heavy society?

But if they do resent it, I can’t see it. Kampono seemed thrilled with the success of Saturday – when we left after four hours he was relaxed and laughing over a beer. The powers that be genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves, and so did all the staff who worked to prepare the banquet and served us food and beer on the day.

Me, I continue to feel a potpourri of emotions at times like these. It’s a privilege and a constant learning experience to be a guest in a culture so different from my own, but I do sometimes battle resentment when we need to spend weekend time this way. I’m both humbled by and uncomfortable with the way that Mike and I are honored and catered to here. And I can flip back and forth between being fascinated by what’s going on and being completely bored with astonishing rapidity.

Kampono’s farm

Preparing food

Plenty of beer

The table

Paytong in Laos

Two years ago today

Two years ago today Mike and I put on fancy clothes and stood up in front of many people that we love and made a whole bunch of very serious promises about, essentially, loving one another. It was a wonderful, glorious, happy-filled, day that still makes me smile when I think of it.

To be honest though, it wasn’t all bubbles and champagne that day. I threw my back out the morning of the wedding, forgot to put together a reception run-sheet for our long-suffering MC’s, Emma and Asha, until four hours before the ceremony, and felt more serious and stressed out than giddy and love-struck right before it was time to walk down the aisle.

But there was advil for the back, and thankfully the lace-up style of my wedding dress acted as a very efficient brace that allowed me to forget the pain and move relatively freely once it was on. One of my bridesmaids came and sat down beside me where I was lying at noon, flat on the floor, waiting for pain killers to kick in, and helped me plan out the reception program. And there, at the end of that walk down the aisle, was Mike.

As the ceremony progressed and we got through all the serious stuff I felt myself start to relax, to inhabit the moment, to float, and from the moment we finished out vows and walked back down the aisle together it was bubbles and champagne. There were smiling people we loved everywhere I looked. The day was a sultry sort of gorgeous. The wine plentiful and cold. The Thai food, amazing. The marquee in the lush garden setting of my parent’s backyard, very Arabian nights. The dance floor under the stars, magical.

I’ve been thinking about that day this morning, and about the promises we made to each other, so I thought that I’d share them here. But first, here’s an excerpt from the book I’m working on at the moment where I write about these vows…

… “We wanted to write our own wedding vows, Mike and I, and we also wanted to be in sync with what we would promise each other on the day. So we each put some thought into the vows separately, and then came together with our drafts to blend them into one unified declaration.

I think my favorite section of our vows is what we settled on for the ring exchange: As I give you this ring, I give you my heart as a sanctuary. I give you myself as a faithful companion to celebrate life with. I give you my promise that as I choose you today, so I will choose you tomorrow. This is our covenant.

To get to these four simple sentences we each had to make a compromise that, initially, felt quite painful.

“We can’t say it that way,” Mike said, when he saw my draft. “The second sentence ends with a preposition.”

“What’s a preposition?” I asked.

He looked at me, suspicious. “You,” he said, “are a novelist. How can you possibly not know what a preposition is?”

“Hey,” I said a trifle sharply. “Six countries. Six schools. English grammar got lost somewhere along the way – possibly while I was busy learning Shona in Zimbabwe.”

“You can’t end a sentence with the word with,” Mike said. “It’s just wrong. Another way to say it would be, ‘I give you myself as a faithful companion with whom to celebrate life.’”

“That sounds lame,” I said, displaying a vocabulary every bit as impressive as my grasp of grammar.

“Well at least it’s correct.”

“But it sounds dumb,” I said. “Clumsy. Formal. It doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of our vows. Who cares if it’s correct if it sounds dumb?”

Mike eventually shifted on that issue, and I shifted on this one: when I first drafted this section I put an extra sentence in there, right before: This is our covenant. That sentence was: You will be home to me.

“I don’t like that,” Mike said, when he saw it. “It doesn’t work. I don’t want it in there.”

Although I was initially disappointed there was something in me that sensed he may just be right, so I took it out without making too much of a fuss. But I’ve thought about that a good deal in the last little while, and I do think he was right, after all. For one thing, that phrase is arguably less a promise than it is a statement, or even a demand.

I hadn’t intended that. I had intended for that sentence to evoke all that is most positive in the ideal of home – comfort, continuity, understanding, haven, refuge, rest, encouragement, wholeness – the sum total of all that is most precious and valuable in life. I had intended it as a promise along the lines of, “I will seek these things in you, for you, and with you.”

The problem here lies in the first part of that promise that I was trying to craft – the idea that it’s possible to find all of that in someone else. It’s too much to expect (or even hope for) from any one person. Even your lover. …”

So here are those vows that we worked on together. Two years down the track I would make them to Mike again today without hesitating.

I, Lisa McKay, choose you, Michael Wolfe, as my life partner, the one I commit to love. I pledge to cherish and honor you regardless of circumstances, in the pressures of the present and the uncertainties of the future, loving what I do know of you, trusting what I do not yet know.

I promise to grow in mind and spirit with you, and support you in fulfilling your hopes and dreams. I promise to remain with you, whatever afflictions may befall. I commit to sharing with you life’s joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains from this day forward until death do us part.

As I give you this ring, I give you my heart as a sanctuary. I give you myself as a faithful companion to celebrate life with. I give you my promise that as I choose you today, so I will choose you tomorrow. This is our covenant.



Two extremes on the fun scale – monkeys and colds

I’ve had a cold this week. Not a bad one – about a five out of ten. But it’s amazing how even a five out of ten on the congested/sore throat/headache/coughing scale can rob me of most of my energy and desire to do anything productive. I have accomplished things, but the whole week’s been an effort. I have to coach myself through these days, reminding myself after Mike leaves the house around 7:30 to get out of bed, and then eat breakfast, and then make a to-do list, and then make some sort of reasonable attempt to accomplish at least half of what’s on that list. On the fun scale, colds don’t rate.

By last night, however, I was feeling well enough to leave the house and venture out on a hot date with Mike to see a monkey.

Yup, a monkey.

Apparently our recent adventures in puppy ownership inspired someone we know in town, Ryan, to pick up a puppy of his own when he was out in a village recently. When we saw him on Sunday he mentioned that the most fun he’d had in ages was watching this puppy play with his monkey.

“You have a monkey?” I asked suspiciously.

Ryan is naturally deadpan in much of his delivery. This means that half the time we’re talking I (being Australian and thus culturally hardwired to suspect multi-layered straight-faced mocking is taking place whenever anyone speaks without noticeable emotion) suspect that he is making fun of me, or just flat out making things up. This is despite the fact that in the three months I’ve so far interacted with him, I think Ryan has only actually made fun of me once or twice and I don’t think he’s ever fabricated something like a pet monkey out of thin air. This leads me to believe that I am either: (a) a slow learner; (b) mildly paranoid; or (c) that Ryan has devious depths I have not yet glimpsed but can sense are there.

I’m still running with theory C for the time being – at least until I gather a critical mass of evidence to the contrary (which may take another year).

When it appeared that Ryan was not making up the existence of this monkey, or the amusing monkey-puppy antics, I promptly invited Mike and myself around to witness this fun and games.

“OK,” Ryan said, imperturbable, when I announced that we would be descending upon his house sometime that week armed with wine, cheese, and a camera. “Sounds good.”

So round we went last night, and it was great cold medicine. When we arrived the monkey, Abu, the size of a doll, was suffering a bath in the sink. But after he was all toweled off he put on a proper show for us while four of us sat on the porch and took in the sunset.

Abu hung upside down off the edge of the railing and taunted the puppy by flicking her ears, then dropped down and tussled with her (the puppy, even at only five weeks, has the advantage in terms of weight and teeth, even if not agility). He scampered up into my lap, clung to my arm, and chattered up into my face. He moved incredibly fast to steal skittles out of my hand, showed prurient interest in the wine, and begged shamelessly for cracker crumbs. Then, as night fell and Ryan was busy explaining why he shaved the sides of Abu’s head to give him a little monkey Mohawk, and exactly how much of a pain in the ass Abu could be when he got going, the little monkey settled down in the crook of my arm and to suck his thumb and sleep.

For me, monkey rate very highly indeed on the fun scale. Do animals rate on your fun scale? What’s the most fun you’ve had with an animal recently?

Bank cards and inner children

I found my credit card today. It’s been, well, not exactly missing, more like “vacationing in an unknown location”, since we got back from Australia. That was three weeks ago.

I remembered to ask my parents whether they’d seen it while we were on skype the other day.

“Have you seen my credit card lying around?” I asked, oh so casually, in the middle of our conversation.

My father, as I’d guessed he would, sighed.

“Lisa,” he said, and then paused. “Does your husband know about this?”

“Not exactly,” I said, grinning just a little. “I’m a firm subscriber to the theory that one of the best ways to keep your marriage healthy is not to let every single thought that goes through your head come out your mouth.”

There was silence while my parents, I’m sure, tried to figure out what this had to do with my credit card.

“Almost every day I think that maybe I should really try to find it,” I added helpfully.

Dad sighed again.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” he said.

So “find my credit card” has been on my to list for weeks now, and since today is a day full of life admin – filing, sorting books, and trying to catch up on email – I gritted my teeth five minutes ago and went in the bedroom determined to do a thorough search. I’d already looked in my wallet twice but started by flicking through it again just to make sure… and there is was. Nestled somewhere I still can’t understand why I would have put it. Halleluiah. I found it and I got to tick something off the to-do list and I do not have to go through the hassle of trying to get it replaced over here in Laos, not to mention having to confess the whole debacle to Mike. Happy days.

The whole thing has made me think of one of the first essays I wrote after I started emailing Mike. Called, “Inner Child” I thought it was merely an “all’s well that ends well” tale that kept me amused writing it up on an overnight flight to London. I found out later that Mike found it less amusing than terrifying. So, today, here’s a walk down memory lane and a look at an essay I sent out just over three years now. (PS, Despite this post’s evidence to the contrary let me assure you that I’m heaps more responsible and organized now. Heaps.)

Inner Child (October 2007)

What does my inner child look like, I wondered, rifling through the pockets of all the jackets hanging in my closet, and where on earth was my bankcard?

Both were pressing questions. Ed was picking me up for the inner child party in two hours, and I was getting on a plane to head to Kenya in less than 24. I had six dollars in my wallet, and it was Saturday at 3:30pm. The banks were closed (which I had discovered when I rocked up at my local branch at 3pm with passport in hand all set to make a withdrawal sans bankcard). They were going to stay closed until Monday morning by which time, all going well, I would be in London. This was somewhat of a problem. Plus, I still didn’t have a costume for the party. The afternoon was not going as planned.

Faced with a whole row of stubbornly empty pockets I stood back, took a deep breath, and tried to think.

When confronted with multiple crises it’s always wise to take a moment to evaluate which is the most pressing. Clearly that was what I was going to wear to the party. Perhaps if I figured that out, the secondary issue of how I was going to manage to spend two weeks in Africa on six dollars would seem more manageable.

Robin said we were supposed to come dressed as something that reflects our inner child, and this had me stumped. Did she want us to come dressed as the inner child that actually was a child? Because then all I’d have to do is straighten my hair, put on some appallingly thick glasses, and braces, and then go and sit in a playground and read a book – because that child didn’t actually have many friends and hence, didn’t go to parties often.

Or did she mean the inner child we have now – the un-self-conscious, comfortable-in-our-own-skin inner child that tempts us towards silliness and fun and levity? Come to think of it though, I’m not sure why those qualities get associated with inner children. I got better at embracing them as I got older. Most of my childhood I spent feeling like an adult trapped in a little body.

Perhaps she meant the inner child we always wanted to be when we were children? If that was the case I could go for the entirely unremarkable outfit of jeans and a tee shirt on the grounds that I spent a significant portion of my childhood wanting to just be more normal. Or perhaps I should wear a sari because when I wasn’t thinking it would be nice to be normal, I was thinking it would be nice to be Indian. Or maybe a formal dress and a tiara? I can’t actually remember fantasizing about being a princess (except being a sari-clad Indian princess) but I’m sure I did. Doesn’t every little girl want to be a princess?

I sighed and looked longingly at my bed, which was covered with clothes, work documents, and an open suitcase.

What I really wanted more than anything else in that instant was to climb back into that bed, read a good book, and forget about Africa and parties. And I’d give my kingdom to have someone bring me some ice cream. And a nice glass of wine. Or two.

That was it! My inner child just wanted to be in bed. I would go in pajamas.

“Good idea!” Robin said, when she heard what I was planning. “I will too, and Sharla, probably. Then we can have a slumber party!”

Awesome. Not only had I come up with a decent idea, this inner child went to slumber parties. This inner child had some friends. Things had definitely improved in the last two decades.

Now, the bankcard.

I’d been convinced it was in the car.

This was not an entirely stupid assumption. I’m a relatively neat and ordered person. My office, my bedroom, the house… all fairly neat – if not germ-free clean. Captain Waldo, my car, is a totally different story. My theory is that he is actually a different planet, with his own field of gravity, which has an almost irresistible affinity for things like receipts, empty coffee cups, cans of diet coke, Tupperware containers, CD’s, and books. On Saturday morning he looked like a mobile library. There were at least forty books scattered on the back seat. It seemed likely that my bankcard was buried in there somewhere. It’s been known to happen before.

It was a great theory. The only problem being that during the half an hour it took me to dig through all the detritus it became clear that the bank card was not buried in there somewhere.

I tackled the problem logically. I marveled at the cleanness of the car for a minute or two, then I went back inside and decided it still wasn’t time to panic. It was likely somewhere in the house, I reasoned, but just in case it wasn’t, I’d better go to the bank before it closed and make a withdrawal using my passport as ID.

So off I toddled to the bank.

Which is when I learned that the bank shuts at 2pm on Saturday.

So now my costume was all sorted and another half hour of searching in the house hadn’t yielded any bank-card-joy there was no avoiding the fact that I was going to have to figure out a plan B or embrace solidarity with the poor.

Plan B would normally be Bank-O-Dad. But, unfortunately, Bank-O-Dad only has one branch, which is in Australia rather than Los Angeles. But, I suddenly realized, I had friends. Friends who would be coming to a slumber party with me that night. Friends who would surely empty their checking accounts for me. After all, what are friends for?

So I rang Robin back.

When she didn’t answer I left a message telling her I had an “unusual request.” I tried for an upbeat, “I have a really neat plan for a big adventure” tone, but had a nasty suspicion as I hung up that I had sounded more guilty than cheerful.

This was confirmed when she rang back and the first words out of her mouth were a wary, “what do you want?”

“A thousand dollars,” I said in a small voice.

“Lisa!” Robin said in a tone I’ve heard more than once in the last four years of our friendship.

“Where did you have it last?” She asked after I explained the problem.

“Chicago,” I said, even more softly.

“Lisa! You went to Chicago a month ago! I heard you say your bankcard was missing weeks ago. You didn’t find it in between? When did you really start looking for it?”

“This morning,” I whispered.

“Lisa! Wow!” Robin said. There was a long silence that gave us both ample time to reflect on my idiocy. “Well I can’t get out a thousand dollars at the ATM. I can only get four or five hundred.”

“That’s okay,” I said, relieved. “I can write you a check right now for that, and I’ll ask some of the others too.”

In the end my Bible Study group came through with the goods, and Robin, Paul, Sarah, Sharla, and Joe, all contributed to my financial solvency for this trip.

“Don’t lose it,” Robin warned me as she handed me an envelope full of cash. “And don’t tell Jenn about this. She’ll be mad.”

Yeah. Our mutual friend Jenn, and my parents, and everyone else who manages not to do things like this on a regular basis. But the way I see it I’m home free now. I only make one or two big and potentially serious mistakes per international trip. And this was my second, because this year I completely forgot that I needed visas to go to Kenya and Ghana until three weeks and two days before I was scheduled to leave and anyone who knows anything about the pace at which African embassies generally operate know that’s not exactly a safe margin. So given that I’ve already had a potential visa-debacle and weathered a missing bankcard… it should be a great trip from here on out.

Thank the Lord for growing out of lonely childhoods, for grown-up pajama parties, and for good friends is all I can say.

And, for those good friends who live in Chicago – if you happen to see my bankcard, can you mail it to LA?

Thanks.

In which I answer seeker’s questions

Do you know that if you are an author you can now log into your author profile on amazon.com, look at the sales information for your book by state in the US for the last month, and track the rise and fall of your kindle and paperback sales rankings over time? I am not at all sure that this is a good thing (although I would like to thank December 2010 shoppers in Vermont, California, and Washington State). It took me considerable time after my book was published to break myself of the habit of checking my Amazon sales ranking several times a day (a habit I now call Amazturbation) and googling my book name to see who was writing what about it on their blogs. After putting myself on very strict me-related internet rations, however, I’m proud to say that I can now go months without even thinking about my Amazon sales ranking, and I aim to keep this up despite the lure of those pretty colour-coded sales maps to puzzle over.

I mean, why Vermont? Although, I guess if I lived in Vermont in December I might be browsing the shelves for novels set on tropical islands too.

When I started blogging seriously earlier this year, wordpress presented me with yet another tool that has the potential to be wielded as a navel-gazing, self-stimulating, saccharine-sweet-but-ultimately-unsatisfying substitute for interaction with real people in real time that’s actually not all about me – site statistics for the blog.

Much to my relief, however, I’ve found site stats not nearly as dangerous and much more amusing than amazturbation. For example, here is a list of the all-time most popular search terms that have led people to my blog in the last year.

  1. Writing
  2. Puppies
  3. Write
  4. Dreaming
  5. Samoyed dog
  6. Lisa McKay
  7. Resilient
  8. Giant snake in laos

It’s very hard indeed to take yourself too seriously when your own name is outranked by Samoyed dog, dreaming, and puppies, and you only just beat out the giant snake in Laos.

However, the thing I really love about the search terms list is the questions. People have found my blog by asking some of the weirdest questions – questions I’m quite sure they didn’t find answered in my posts. So, today, in honour of all you question askers, I’m going to attempt to answer ten of them now.

What is that dog that looks like a big ball of fluff? This question pops up in various guises all the time. That dog is a Samoyed. That is, however, the extent of my knowledge, I’m sorry. I cannot direct you to bonsai Samoyeds, gothic Samoyeds, Samoyeds wearing helmets, or tell you what a Samoyed looks like when it’s been shaved. If any of my readers would like to chime in in the comments section with any good Samoyed related sites you’ll make a lot of searchers very happy. There are a truly remarkable number of people interested in Samoyeds out there.

Is pig fat good for fertility? Well, I’m no dietician, but I’d guess that while very small amounts aren’t going to hurt fertility, it’s not likely to do much good either (unless the fat is still on the pig, the pig is a mother pig, and you live in Ancient China – where keeping a fat mother pig at home signified fertility and wealth).

Is pepsi made of pig fat? and Is there pig blood in pepsi? To the best of my knowledge, no. There is a persistent internet rumour going around that pepsi contains pepsin and that pepsin is a chemical that contains pig blood. Every reputable site that I looked at, however, flatly denies this. 

What age do dogs start wandering? Some of my readers are professional dog trainers, so I should probably defer to them on this. But my own internet research suggests that male dogs will start wandering off in search of females in heat at about six months old.

Where can I buy Lisa McKay Pottery? There is apparently a Lisa McKay out there who makes pottery. However her site is down and I can’t find any of her pieces on sale. Sorry. If I take it up as a hobby I’ll let you know.

Does wandering have the same definition as wondering? No. Wandering refers to being mobile, migratory, and traveling around without a clear destination. Wondering refers to being inquisitive, showing curiosity or amazement, or to wish to know something.

Do you use a bridle to ride an elephant? Ah, no. That is one reason why it’s easy to fall off an elephant’s head unless you have better innate balance than I do.

What does Laotian writing look like? It’s very pretty. I can’t reproduce it here because my browser isn’t enabled for the script, but if you want to check it out you can go here.

Does Laos have rabies? Yes. But it’s not like packs of rabid animals are roaming the streets. The dogs here are mostly attached to families and relatively well behaved (if a bit mangy and flea-bitten). I have never been directly threatened by a stray dog here.

Is having two babies and two puppies too much? Look, too much is relative. But I can speak from the perspective of having one puppy and no babies and the answer for me is clear. Yes, it is.

OK, that’s it for this session of “Lisa answers questions”. But before I leave here is one final tidbit. One search term that regularly pops up has had me puzzled for quite some time. That search term is “giant snake bites electric fence.” So yesterday I went googling this myself, and if you want to see what I found you can go here (in all fairness I think this photo even beats the giant snake in Laos photo). I am warning you, though, I will take no responsibility if you follow the link and then have nightmares. None.

Until next time.

Puppy lessons in parenting – resource guarding

It’s been a while since I updated you about our little chew monster (aka kea-puppy, shark mouth, demon dog, and Zulu) so here’s a puppy post.

We had a “clueless parents faced with a defiant toddler” moment this week. Zulu is, on the whole, a sweet and friendly dog. He adores people and when we walk him he looks up at the passerbys, wagging his little tail, clearly curious as to why they’re not stopping to shower him with affection and attention. He takes himself off to the toilet outside. He doesn’t chew on the furniture, our shoes, or destroy our trash can. We must admit that he is, overall, an excellent puppy.

Except…

Two things, really. First, he doesn’t chew on the furniture, but he still loves chewing on us. The minute we sit on the floor he’ll climb (or, more frequently, leap) into our laps then immediately start chomping on our hands and arms. As he is now significantly bigger and stronger than he was when we bought him home this can really hurt. We’ve tried all sorts of things, but so far nothing’s worked except coming to love-fests armed with a chew toy to substitute for our more delicate fingers.

Incidentally, the vet we found here suggested we cut off or file down his canines to render this puppy biting less painful – apparently that’s standard practice here. Puppy lovers never fear, that’s one practice we won’t be adopting.

The second issue is potentially more serious.

On Saturday our neighbor bought over a treat for him – a big, meaty, raw, bone.

How did Zulu show his thanks for this unexpected bounty? By jumping up, ripping the gift out of her hands (plastic bag that it was still wrapped in and all) then scurrying off with his prize.

When Mike went to unwrap it for him he was rewarded with a growl. A serious, “I’m not messing around here” growl. And it was when I heard this and said we should take the bone away for a little while to show him who was boss that the trouble really started. When we went near him with his new bone our sweet, lovable, affectionate puppy was transformed into a snarling, growling, hellion who did his best to bite us – really bite us – and twice succeeded.

I did some research online while Mike engaged in a battle of wills with Zulu over the bone and was deluged with contradictory advice regarding how to deal with this behaviour.

Some sites said that a puppy who growls over his bone is confused about his place in the pack and is trying to dominate us. We should, these sites said, pin him to the floor, smack him for being aggressive with us, and take away his treat.

Some sites said that he wasn’t trying to dominate us at all, merely instinctively guarding something he thought was very valuable. Punishing him harshly for resource guarding, these sites said, was only likely to make him guard more fiercely and earlier in the future as he’ll have learned that we (unpredictable owners that we are) tend to swoop in and take away his treats with no warning. Instead of punishing him this time we should work on gradually teaching him to let us give and take away at will less valuable items – toys, smaller treats, etc – and work up to things like raw bones.

“What do you think?” Mike asked me, washing the blood off his hands – the fruit of his latest “I can take your bone away because I am your pack master” foray.

“I don’t know,” I sighed, watching our recalcitrant puppy, who was crouched under the stairs keeping surly eyes on us even while he chewed away furiously.

“I guess this is like parenting,” Mike said. “People tell you different things and sometimes they conflict and in the end you just have to trust your instincts.”

“What do your instincts say?” I asked.

“Smack him,” Mike said. “Smack him hard for trying to bite us, and keep taking it away until he learns.”

“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully. “I was that puppy that smacking never did any good for. It never made me sorry that I’d done something, it just made me sorry that I got caught. And it made me angry.”

“Yeah.” This time Mike sighed. “I bet you were that puppy.”

So, puppy lovers out there, any thoughts on this? I think we have a strategy in place we both feel good about now but I’m curious about your experiences with your dogs guarding their food. Oh, and any advice on how to stop Zulu from chasing chickens that are unwise enough to wander onto this property also welcome.

Until next time, here’s a look at Zulu in action the other day…

First impressions of countries and people

So I was walking off the plane last month in Brisbane airport still feeling decidedly unstable after my in-transit bout with food poisoning and there they were. Two photographic murals ten feet high and thirty long, one on each side of the concourse, full of spiders. There were hundreds of spiders dotted across these pictures. Maybe thousands.

That seemed to be the point.

“Australia has more than two thousand types of spiders,” the mural proclaimed. “The most deadly of these is the funnel web. If you see one, run!

Right below this statement there was a picture of a funnel web so greatly enlarged that that the spider looked as if it could have brought down a pony without even biting it.

This visual gauntlet of spiders was all rather horrifying. It was also (for reasons I have not yet managed to figure out despite having been puzzling over this for a month now) an ad for a phone company.

What could have possessed anyone (much less the entire team of people that were undoubtedly involved) to: (a) create this ad; and (b) place not one but two of them in an international arrivals terminal? I guess if people are walking through the arrivals terminal they’re already in Australia and are unlikely to turn around and leave the country on the spot. But, really, is this the first on-the-ground impression we want to make as a nation? Really?

First impressions are important. Multiple research studies show that we judge things like attractiveness and trustworthiness very quickly, within 1/10th of a second after meeting someone or even seeing a photograph. We make very persistent judgments about whether or not we like someone and want to have a relationship with them within the first half a minute. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily accurate first impressions, but they are self-fulfilling ones. Most of us form first impressions and stick to them, looking for further cues that confirm our assumptions (for all you psych geeks this is called the Halo Effect).

Part of me doesn’t like this. I don’t want to think that I sum people up so quickly, but I have to admit that I do tend to trust my instincts when I meet people, and I would say I’m right more often than not when I’m judging whether I like them or we would get on. I am sometimes wrong, however. I can think of several instances during the last five years when I’ve been spectacularly wrong. All of them have been times when I’ve mentally written someone off as silly, shallow, and not a person I could ever be close to. Often I met these people at church.

Church is funny like that. I can’t think of any other part of my life that consistently throws me up against so many people I don’t naturally get along with. I also can’t think of any other area of life that facilitates me spending time with people that I have mentally written off as obnoxious and annoying. Sometimes when I spend time with these people in ways that allow me to get to know bits and pieces of their stories and to see some of their different facets I find much more there than I had ever expected – kindness, beauty of spirit, valuable insights on life, and fun. Sometimes, of course, I don’t find myself revising my first impressions much at all, but those I’ve met at church have taught me far more about not judging others too quickly than those I’ve met in bars.

I no longer have much idea what all this has to do with Brisbane airport and spiders except to say that I still think those murals are in extraordinarily bad advertising taste. Even if the entire country is literally crawling with spiders (and I did have three encounters during my first ten days back – one fell out of a bath towel and onto my foot right before I touched said towel to my naked, clean, self!) there is no reason to visually assault people with an arachnid parade the minute they get off the plane in Australia. After all, first impressions are hard to overcome.

PS, I was going to illustrate this post with a picture of a funnel web, but then I googled funnel web images and decided I couldn’t do that to you. So here’s a picture of one of Australia’s better-loved animals instead.

(photo credit: http://uncommonpics.com)

This year I would really like you to work on…

OK, so I know it’s January 4th and most of you are probably thinking that New Years was so last week, but this is the first time I’ve hit the keyboard in 2011 so I’m going to start at the beginning and tell you how we celebrated the turn of the year over here in Laos.

On New Year’s Eve we headed for one of our new favourite haunts, Dyen Sabai. To get there you walk down to the Khan River and then cross it on a rickety bamboo bridge that’s only in place because it’s the dry season and the river is so low – the brown torrent that pushed the boats along on Dragon Boat Racing day has fallen precipitously in the last couple of months and the newly exposed river banks of are crammed with temporary vegetable gardens. After you cross the river you climb up a row of steps hacked between the small veggie plots, and walk underneath a tunnel of vines, then turn left and there you are. Dyen Sabai is a restaurant of wooden platforms tucked into tall stands of bamboo. The tables are low, wooden, and flanked by silk lounging pillows laid on the floor. The ambiance is great and so is their smoky eggplant dip.

Mike and I settled down on the cushions and devoured eggplant dip, and fish steamed in banana leaf, and hosien chicken stir-fried with crispy mint, and big bamboo containers of warm sticky rice. There were cocktails and two sinfully rich deserts made with imported chocolate. There was laughing at the chicken that flapped up to explore then table next to us. There was reminiscing.

Sparked by the blog I wrote about returning to Laos, we talked that night about uncomplicated emotions. Mike asked me what “happy-uncomplicated” moments came to mind from 2010 and took it in turn to offer up these incandescent snippets. Some were exotic – sunrise in Death Valley for Mike, motorcycling along the Thames in London for me. Many were prosaic – tiny stitches in time that fashioned our “normal life” this past year. Grocery shopping together after church in California. Sitting on the deck of our small apartment in Alhambra enjoying brie and dates as the sun set. Reunions in airports.

We talked about these happy moments all night. Then we walked home, full and tired, through the cool darkness and went to bed at the luxuriously geriatric hour of 9pm.

The next night we settled down to the serious business of contemplating 2011. This time we chose an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong and watched kids play soccer out on a sandbar in the middle of the river as we talked.

Mike had a few New Year’s Resolutions to list off but I didn’t set any this year. I already have a pretty clear idea of what I’d like to get done and none of my goals related to writing or diet or exercise seemed worthy of being slapped with the lofty title of resolution. So instead of a resolution this year I named an aspiration that is more of a theme – an attitude and an outlook that I aspire to embrace more fully this year… finding the positive in change.

So much changed for us last year and so much will change again for us this year. I do love change on some level, this I know, but even as changes bring new and wonderful things into my life I also lose old things that were also wonderful. Sometimes I can find myself mourning too much things I used to have and enjoy (wine and cheese on the deck in Alhambra, and hot showers that work) and neglecting to pay enough attention to new and wonderful things (smoky eggplant dip and sticky rice overlooking a river, and chickens that parade around on tables).

After we were done talking resolutions and aspirations we looked at each other and grinned.

“So,” I said to Mike. “What is it this year?”

Last year Mike introduced a concept that initially horrified me – that each year we might also name one thing we’d like each other to work on in the upcoming year. When he first suggested it I stared at him across the dinner table looking, I’m sure, like a wallaby in the headlights. What awful, embarrassing, character flaw was he going to spotlight and ask me to work on?

“I would like you,” he said carefully last year, “to please pay more attention to not dropping your stuff wherever you feel like it the minute you walk in the door of the house.”

This year’s request was pretty much on the same level (read: basic habits that 70% of people seem to acquire in third grade) – that I pay more attention to turning of lights and air conditioners when I leave a room. My request of Mike was similarly non-epic – focused on something small that he sometimes does that can annoy me.

It’s made me think about marriage and the years to come. Will we have years when the things we name are epic, or are these early patterns indicative of the fact that when you’re in good relationship space the things that usually bug you most over time are the little carelessnesses and habits that just happen to grate?

What do you think? And for those of you in a relationship, what would you ask of your partner if you could pick one thing you’d like to see them work on this year? What do you think they’d ask of you?