Tag Archives: lisa and mike

House hunting and the powers that be

It is the season of busy (it is also the season of ash falling from the sky as they have started burning the rice field in preparation for planting, but does not make me more busy, that just makes life a bit more unpleasant).

No, the busy these last six weeks has coming from a whole bunch of different things: two sets of parents in town, little boys with big casts, two unplanned trips to Thailand, one to Vientiane, and someone who’s decided that he’s ready to eat solid food so now I have to start attending to things like breakfast, lunch, and dinner for him every day. I mean, seriously, every day, can you believe it?

And we’re moving house. The cumulative weight of child safety factors (our beautiful but dangerous spiral staircase and the unfenced pool out the front) and the ongoing noise issues with our woodworking neighbors finally pushed us over the edge. We’re moving house by April 1, then less than two weeks later we’re getting on a plane for the States to spend a month there on home leave.

Oh, and I’m publishing my book. For half a second I almost forgot the endless to-do list related to the new website (stay tuned, it’s coming soon), cover design, and launch planning. Release date still to be determined but either mid-April or June 1.

So, yeah, busy, and during the next six weeks I may occasionally re-run some old posts from the blog. This one, from last time we were house hunting here in Laos, seemed like a fitting choice for today.

House hunting and the powers that be (originally posted July 2010)

This may come as news to some of you – it did to me eight months ago – but Laos is one of the world’s few remaining communist states. The full name of the country is officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the only legal political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The government publishes all newspapers, including two foreign language papers. Missionary work of any flavour is regulated. And when any staff of Mike’s organization visits the field projects they must be accompanied by a government official – an official who gets paid a per diem by the NGO for their time.

Here in Laos, I have been pondering how I may be able to periodically touch on the topics of God, the policies and practices of the organization Mike works for, or the government, without treading on any toes. I haven’t come up with anything brilliant yet. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to try using the phrase “the powers that be” to refer to the three aforementioned entities and leave it to the reader to figure out which one I might be talking about.

I apologize in advance if this proves confusing. So, too, can life be here.

During the past two weeks we have continued the house hunting that Mike began while he was here without me in April and May. There are no classifieds we can read, or website we can search. If you need to find a house in Luang Prabang you have exactly two options. You can walk the streets looking for hand-painted “house for rent” signs attached to gates and then have a Lao-speaker call the contact phone number on the sign. Or, you can go through a local agent – someone who’s job it is to find out where all the houses for rent are hiding and to negotiate on your behalf with prospective landlords.

Phet is just such an agent, and the day after we arrived I took a deep breath, put on the helmet she had borrowed for me, and climbed onto the back of her motorcycle. We saw five houses that day, and I came back excited. Two, I thought, were good options. One of those options Mike hadn’t yet seen.

I tried to describe it to him over dinner that night.

“We went over the wooden pedestrian bridge across the Khan,” I said. “Then we turned left and went down a dirt road.”

“How far?” Mike asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Not far. It was a really pretty road – all jungly and tropical. There were temples, and plants, and another wooden bridge. It was very atmospheric,” I said.

“Atmospheric,” Mike repeated, as if that may not be the most satisfactory of descriptors for an access road.

“What was the house like?” he asked.

“Oh, it was cool,” I said. “There was a big veranda on the top, and broken pool out the back, and two cute dogs. The dogs were very friendly, but they belong to the…”

“The house,” Mike reminded me.

“It had two big rooms up the top, and another room that was locked and they couldn’t find the key. So I didn’t see that one. But the stairs were good. And there were tiles on the floor. And lots of trees. And it was quiet. And I liked it.”

“What about water tanks?” Mike asked. “Was it on city water? Was there a big water heater? Was there glass on the windows, and screens? Fans? Did all the air conditioners work? Was there a phone line into the house?”

“I dunno,” I said, realizing for the first time that I may have neglected to pay attention to a couple of key attributes. “I’m pretty sure there was a phone line. I think there was glass on the windows.”

“You think,” Mike closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I hoped he was visualizing us sitting in hammocks on a tree-shaded veranda, debriefing our days over a cold drink. But I figured it was more likely that he was lodging a quick request with the powers that be for extra patience.

“OK,” he said after he opened his eyes again. “We’ll see if we can go see it together this weekend.”

We did take a truck to go see it that weekend, and by the time we’d found the vehicle bridge over the river Khan (a good deal further away from the house than the pedestrian bridge suitable for motorcycle traffic) and bumped our way down three torturously slow, bone jarring, head-banging, kilometers, I was deflated.

“Getting in and out of here on anything other than a motorcycle would be tough, wouldn’t it,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said gently. “It’d be tough. Especially when it rained. And you might end up feeling very isolated.”

My beautiful vision of us on the veranda dissolved and was replaced by a picture of motorcycling along a dirt road to do the grocery shopping during a monsoonal downpour. That was the end of our quest to acquire the jungle house – which was just as well, really, because Phet informed us later that day that the landlady had changed her mind about evicting the current tenants after all – and it was back to the drawing board.

But we’ve now seen 27 houses, and it’s beginning to get seriously demoralizing. Some houses have no air conditioners, or glass in the windows. Some have no phone lines installed (and, hence, no possibility of in-house internet). Most have no external hot water heaters. Some are nestled in between construction sites, of which there are many in Luang Prabang at present. Some are beautiful, but sit right on a main road and beside local restaurants. And where there is a local restaurant there is beerlao. And where there is beerlao there will likely be karaoke.

If you don’t count my short-lived infatuation with the jungle house, or the stunningly beautiful way-out-of-our-price-range house in the hills outside of town (a house of two pools, luscious gardens, hanging plants, shinning wooden balustrades, and an in-house bar), we’ve found exactly one house we really liked. Number 18. A wooden house perched on the banks of the Mekong.

But on Sunday afternoon (after three visits to this house, four long emails, and two extended meetings with Phet and the prospective landlord) the negotiations broke down. The landlord, you see, had suddenly decided to only offer us a contract for rent that went to the end of April 2011, and the powers that be require us to rent a house for an entire year at a time.

To complicate matters further, the powers that be require us to pay the entire years worth of rent in advance. This removes any economic incentive for landlords to make ongoing improvements to the property. This means that what we move into is probably what we will be stuck with.

To complicate matters even further, the powers that be have decreed that those on tourist visas must rent rooms in guesthouses, rather than renting houses privately. Just this week, the powers that be have been visiting houses inhabited by foreigners, checking up on them, and evicting any who hold tourist visas.

And, to complicate matters even further, the powers that be have not yet issued Mike’s work visa (although it has been in progress since February). Yet other powers that be are very eager to see us in a house, and are urging us to make a decision and just get on with it.

I am not eager to get on with it, as the leading option at the moment is the house on the main road beside the restaurant. I am also not eager to stay indefinitely in the guesthouse – that bastion of slamming doors, late-night voices, and neighborly circular saws. I am, in other words, a bit stuck.

So if any of you dear readers are in a position to have a quiet and respectful word on our behalf with the powers that be regarding these matters, please… go right ahead.

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Feeling weighed, measured, and found wanting

I did not stop to seriously consider the implications of my actions before stenciling a giant PATIENCE on Dominic’s cast.

Luang Prabang is a tourist town and it’s the tail end of the cool season here. There are thousands, literally thousands, of tourists in town. Not many of them, however, are walking around with babies, so our little trio already made an unlikely sight even before the accident. Now we’re a downright curiosity.

I watch people watching us when we’re out and about. First they see the stroller. They do a double take and search for the baby with a smile. Then they see the cast and their eyes go wide and a look of voyeuristic concern washes over their faces. Then they tilt their head sideways just a fraction as they take in the artwork adorning Dominic’s leg. Then their eyes jump up to my face.

The gaze seems confused and, sometimes, speculative.

But do you know, not a single person has asked me why on earth that word is on his leg? Plenty of people have asked me what happened to his leg, but no one has followed it up with, “so, uh, what’s the go with patience?”

I sometimes wonder if they know what I now know – that 70% of femur breaks in babies under 1 year old are the result of child abuse. I sometimes wonder if they suspect that the story about a fall down the stairs is just a convenient cover and that I needed a daily black and white reminder to reign in a vicious temper.

I would be willing to bet our first-born chi – OK, our dog – that the specter of feeling judged by strangers on these points has never entered Mike’s mind.

The difference between Mike and I in this regard was apparent long before Dominic’s accident.

Every time we go out walking with Dominic I need to build in several minutes to stop and exchange greetings with people who live on our street. There’s the friendly couple who own the small paper-supply shop and the unfriendly woman who blatantly rips us off at the fruit stand because we’re falang (foreigner) but who adores Dominic – he’s the only one of us she ever smiles at. There’s the disabled teenage boy who occasionally takes my hand when I walk past and gently kisses it. There’s the woman who sells donuts that ooze bright pink custard, and the one who sells organic vegetables from a blue tarp laid down on the sidewalk (sometimes she sells dead rats or cats, too, but let’s not go there). Then, of course, there’s anyone walking past who just wants to stop for a peek at the chubby white baby with coppery hair.

When I walk past with the stroller, none of these people hesitate to tell me when they think that Dominic is too hot or too cold, or that it might rain on us, or that he looks like he needs to sleep, or eat. When I was out with Mike one evening and the second person had stooped over my child, felt his fat little arm and then commented that it was cold and pulled up the wrap to cover him, Mike felt me tense.

“What’s the problem,” he asked as we continued on our way.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I said. “All these people telling us that we’re getting it wrong? That we’re not taking good enough care of him?”

“What?” Mike said. “That’s not how I take it at all.”

“How do you take it then?” I said, wondering how else you could possibly take a phalanx of virtual strangers telling you that you haven’t dressed your child warmly enough.

“I take it as: ‘Wow, you have a beautiful little baby. We all love babies. Let’s find some common point of discussion whereby we can connect with you as parents and demonstrate that we’re paying attention to caring for the baby’s wellbeing,’” Mike said.

“That is a much nicer way to take it,” I said, not completely convinced.

“Do you really feel like people are telling you you’re not doing a good enough job as a mother?” Mike asked, amazed.

“Sometimes,” I admitted.

I wonder if this is only the beginning – whether I’m always going have to fight the instinct to take it personally whenever other people comment on what my child says and does. And I wonder where it comes from – what hidden deficit of self-esteem or deep-seated need for affirmation fuels this tendency to feel judged when others reach into the stroller and tug up my baby’s blanket.

I can tell you one thing though. If, heaven forbid, anything like this tumble down the stairs happens in the near future I won’t be adorning any casts with the words “gentleness” or “self-control”.

When have you felt judged as a parent? What helps you in those moments?

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Conversations in hospitals

As you can probably imagine, Mike and I have talked about many things since Dominic’s accident. Much of what we’ve been mulling over is serious, hard stuff and nowhere near funny. These two snippets, however, I can share. They’re as close as we came to laughing this week.

In the doctor’s office, staring at Dominic’s X-rays on the computer screen while three specialists debated out in the hallway about whether Dominic needed surgery:

“I think I should quit the fruits of the spirit project,” I said.

“What?” Mike said.

“Think about it,” I said. “It took me more than a month after Dominic’s birth to untangle how I felt about the fact that maternal love hadn’t swamped me upon delivery. Then the month of joy was full of days that felt decidedly joyless. During the month of peace a friend dies and one of my worst fears fulfilled – now the month is ending with my baby in a cast. If I wanted to speak Christianese, I might say that I was under spiritual attack. Now, I sort of have to do the month of patience given what’s in front of us during Dominic’s recovery, but after that I think I should quit.”

Mike laughed.

“I wouldn’t laugh,” I said. “You know what comes after the month of patience? The month of kindness, then the month of faithfulness. I would want me to quit if I were you.”

Day three in the hospital. I’ve only left the room once each day, briefly, to go downstairs to the lobby and procure a caramel macchiato and a cream cheese muffin. Mike is trying to do some work and I’m on the bed pretending a toy bear is looking for honey in Dominic’s ear. When that stops working in about 23 seconds I will move on to fake sneezing, because that’s always good for a smile at the moment.

“Remember last time we were here?” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said.

“I mean, I know you had an IV stuck in the back of your hand and all,” I said. “But once we knew the staph was under control it was sort of fun, wasn’t it? We ate French fries and ice cream sundaes. We got to hang together all week and work, then cuddle up in the evenings in the hospital bed and watch movies on the big screen TV.”

“And go for walks in the evening down to the nursery to look at all the babies,” Mike said. “And now we have one of our own.”

We both looked at our baby. He looked frustrated and needy.

“Last time was sort of like a little holiday, wasn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “It sort of was.”

Yes, folks. We were reminiscing about previous medical evacuations … wistfully. It was that sort of week.

We’re back in Laos now. Dominic seems to be doing OK. Not well, but OK. He still needs pain medication every couple of hours, which is a bit problematic because he’s decided he hates the taste of the infant nurofen (not that I blame him, it’s sickly sweet and orange-flavoured).

“You think I’m going to take that nurofen nicely? Think again.

Every time we try to dose him with nurofen it’s a trial that starts with locked lips and glaring and inevitably progresses to screaming and sticky orange goo all over his face and clothes. The strawberry-flavored panadol, however, he gulps down like a starving piglet and doesn’t let a single drop escape. This week has so ruined his taste buds for broccoli and carrots.

Now the countdown begins. We take Dominic back to Bangkok for more X-rays and (hopefully) the removal of his cast three weeks from yesterday. My parents will be in town then, so on that day we were hoping to land in Bangkok at 9:30, clear immigration and customs, get to the hospital, get X-rays, see the orthopedic specialists and get the cast off, see a pediatrician and get 6 month vaccinations (sorry little guy, you’re just having the worst run at the moment), and make it back to the airport by noon at the very latest so that we can fly back to Laos at 1:30 that afternoon rather than overnighting in Thailand.

After seeing the lines at Bangkok airport immigration yesterday I think our chances of all that unfolding on schedule are … (insert appropriate idiom here). I’m tempted to go with “a snowball’s chance in hell”, but Mike thinks we can do it. Anyone want to place a bet?

Finally, here’s how today’s introduction to rice cereal went:

“Oooh, what’s that? Maybe it’s strawberry-flavored Panadol!

“Yuck! Rice cereal tastes worse than nurofen!”

“Why are you torturing me like this? What did I ever do to you?”

“How many times do I have to say no?”

“Much better. You got any panadol around, though? Cuz I’m sorta hungry, you know.”

Best of 2011

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” (Annais Nin)

Happy New Years Eve! In the spirit of celebrating roads already travelled on this last day of the year here were your favourite posts of the year, my favourite posts of the year, and Mike’s favourite photos from 2011.

Your favourite posts

The most popular posts from this past year (judged by traffic) were all pregnancy related. I guess there’s a reason why so many “mommy blogs” become big deals.

  1. Ten Great Gifts for Pregnant Women and Thirty Great Gifts for Pregnant Women and New Parents
  2. Introducing Dominic McKay Wolfe
  3. Koi Maan Luuk (or “I am pregnant”)
  4. Push it: Music for labour and delivery
  5. Ten good things about boys: Attaining synthetic happiness one gender stereotype at a time

My favourite posts

Some of the posts on the list above are near and dear to my heart, as well. But here are five other favorites of mine from the past year.

  1. A Baby-Shaped Hole In My Heart: In which I write about my growing love for my unborn baby.
  2. Dear Dad, Love Dominic: In which a three week old Dominic writes a letter to Mike about how he’s sad to be apart on his first father’s day.
  3. Looking Like Love: A Letter To My Parents: In which I write a letter to my parents about how wonderful it’s been to stay with them for five months over the period of Dominic’s birth.
  4. T’is The Night Before (A Children’s Story): In which I make lemonade from lemons by turning a string of awful, sleepless nights into a rhyming children’s story.
  5. More than a brighter shade of happiness: In which I think about joy, happiness, and the fruits of motherhood.

Mike’s favourite photos

 I asked Mike to pick five favourite photos but he came back with nine – one for each, long month of pregnancy. So with no further ado, here they are:

Thanks for reading this blog and following along with my (our) story! If you blog, leave a link in the comments section to your own favourite post or two from your blog this year, or let us know how you’ll be celebrating New Years Eve. 

I hope 2011’s been a great year for you and that 2012 promises great things.

With Love from Laos,
Lisa
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On feeling joy-less

It is an unhappy sort of irony that ever since I switched the theme of my fruits of the spirit blog series to joy, joy has felt in rather short supply.

On Sunday Mike bundled baby bear and me into the car and took us on a surprise adventure for the afternoon – a trip to Zen, a resort on the Khan River, about half an hour from where we live.

It was a gorgeous spot on a relaxing Sunday afternoon and (despite the smile I have on my face in the photo above) how did I mostly feel? I mostly felt like this:

The neighbors behind the house have been using electric power tools to sand wood for hours every day for three weeks, which is about the same amount of time as I’ve been struggling with chronic neck pain. Mike’s away a third of the time at the moment. I’ve been worried about my milk supply. Ants keep mounting exploratory expeditions into our closet and underwear drawers and hiding places you wouldn’t expect, like cracks in the chair I routinely sit down to feed Dominic in. And Dominic, he can go most of the night without needing to eat now, but that doesn’t mean he stays asleep that whole time. Also, he seems to think 4 or 5am is the official start to the day. I can’t imagine where he got that idea from, Michael.

To make matters worse, as I’ve felt more and more depressed this last week I’ve also found myself increasingly tripping over my own inner shoulds.

I should not feel this way when I have a healthy child who smiles at me every day with the whole of his little face.

I should not feel this way when I am married to a man who means it when he tells me to wake him up if I need help in the middle of the night (when he’s in town, that is).

I should not feel this way while I live in a world where other women comb through my trash to collect empty tonic water cans – tonic water, incidentally, that I consumed with gin while sitting on the deck with Mike after he’d arrived home from work.

I should be able to hang onto a broader sense of joy, even on days when moment-by-moment happiness seems in short supply.

My inner shoulds can be useful in helping me effectively corral negative emotions, but this week they have compounded my problems. I have not only felt depressed, I have also felt weak. I have felt like a failure. I have looked out upon views like the one below and felt numb.

Do your inner shoulds help or hurt you? What inner shoulds do you find yourself tripping over?

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is joy  (which, despite the week I’ve just lived through, I do expect to return to my life one day soon).

Exhausted child goes to Laos

We’ve been back in Laos now for all of four hours. They’ve gone something like this…

  1. As I look out the window while we’re coming in to land, I think that if I couldn’t see any colour but green, this would be the place to come. The darkly forested mountains are stripped with lime because of the rice fields. The coconut trees burst up from the ground like emerald meringues. There’s every shade of green you can imagine on display here at the moment.
  2. We disembark into the humid heat with exhausted child. Child is generally exhausted because we have basically spent the last 26 hours in transit. Child is specifically exhausted because he spent much of his awake-time on both flights stiffening his spine and flinging his head back while we were holding him upright so that he could gaze, wide-eyed, at the ceiling of the plane. I have no idea what was so fascinating up there, but he looked exactly like a bald, chubby, blue-eyed meercat on high alert.
  3. We line up at immigration to get one-month tourist visas so that we can enter the country that we are legal residents of. Don’t ask.
  4. They grant us tourist visas. Hooray.
  5. We load eighty kilos of luggage and five pieces of carry on into a taxi. Exhausted child is sleeping, strapped to my chest. We are both sweating.
  6. At home after my five months absence, the plants have grown, we have new furniture, and Zulu the dog is beside himself to see us. Zulu runs in circles, licking everything he can reach, and then decides he’s far more interested in the peanut butter on toast we have for lunch than the brand new baby who is laughing and cooing as he lies in the pram that we have just unpacked.
  7. Exhausted child stops laughing at the ceiling fan and starts to wail without any warning of impending transition at all. Wailing rapidly progresses to red-faced screaming of the type I have only heard from him a handful of times.
  8. Dummies do not calm him, walking does not calm him, lying down on the bed with mama doesn’t calm him. The only thing that eventually works is boob. Despite the fact that I fed him less than an hour earlier, I feed exhausted child to sleep while Zulu the high-needs dog whines at the door because I have locked him out. I hold my breath as I ease exhausted child down into the bed.
  9. I sit beside exhausted child. Five minutes later exhausted child wakes up with a sudden scream. I pat him back to sleep. Ten minutes later, exhausted child wakes up and vomits a truly astounding quantity of milk all over himself. Do I get him up and clean him off? No. I wipe his face and tuck a towel under his cheek so he’s not lying directly in the puddles and pat him back to sleep.
  10. Forty minutes later exhausted child wakes up crying. I put the dummy in and rest my hand on him. He looks wide-awake and aggrieved that there are no fans or interesting things to look at on the ceiling in here. I tell him to listen to the roosters that are crowing at the ridiculous hour of 3pm, that they’re fun too (I don’t want to poison him so young with my own rooster hate, so I try for a cheery tone as I deliver this line). I debate whether to pick him up or leave him alone. I continue to lie here beside him and leave him alone. Then I debate whether this is maternal wisdom or maternal laziness. While I’m thinking this over exhausted child eventually drifts back to sleep.

Score one for wisdom or laziness. Now to wake him up in 15 minutes to walk down to the Khan River and introduce him (indirectly, of course) to lemongrass chicken grilled in bamboo and barbeque pork and tamarind sauce. It’s good to be back.

 

 

 

Horse or donkey?

We’re in Melbourne for a couple of days so that we can show baby bear to the officials at the US consulate and apply for his passport. It’s been a lovely couple of days packed full of last minute life admin tasks and meeting up with good friends. One of our biggest problems when we come to Melbourne is always lack of time. There are so many people here that we know and love that we never have as much time as we want to visit with them all and have long and leisurely catch ups.

Another big problem for me – a more serious one – is the traffic. City driving has never been something I love, and after a year of living without a car in a small town and then the last five months of hardly driving at all, Melbourne driving freaks me out. There are so many cars, and people, and trams, and lights flashing, and signs that are hard to read, and narrow lanes…

I have done my best not to be that white-knuckled passenger in the front seat of the car who gasps ever time the driver comes within 10 feet of any obstacle. I have failed more than once.

(As a side-note, you’d think that all this car-related anxiety would at least be good for helping me remember before we are five minutes into our drive to strap the baby into the car capsule. Not so. You would also think that after making this mistake once two nights ago I wouldn’t repeat it today. Not so. After Dominic has fallen asleep in that capsule inside the house and we’ve carried the whole lot out to the car to go somewhere, it’s turned out to be surprisingly hard to remember that there are seatbelts buried underneath the blankets that need to be done up before embarking.)

Anyway, we made it to the consulate today – no thanks to me in terms of navigation or driving – and while we were waiting Mike reminded me that driving related hypervigilance is not a new thing, though I think it’s gotten worse since baby bear’s birth. He referenced a conversation we had more than two and a half years ago now. It could just as easily have taken place today. So, in honour of Melbourne traffic, here’s that dialogue:

Mike and Lisa are driving back from a book reading at Hollywood. Lisa has done quite well, she only gets a little tightly wound when they are in heavy traffic, or looking for a park on sunset blvd, or turning corners (so, approximately 82% of the commute). She flinches when Mike turns into their own driveway at the end of the evening and points out a bicyclist.

The following exchange ensues:

Lisa: “Sorry I’m so jumpy, I don’t know why.”

Mike: “Yes, you are a bit … skittish… in the car”

Lisa: “Yes, like an Arabian thoroughbred racing horse. A finely-tuned miracle of breeding and class.”

Mike – silent

Lisa: “Or like a donkey. A traumatized donkey who’s been frequently beaten, and exposed to too many loud tractor noises.”

Mike – silent

Lisa: “Horse or donkey?”

Mike – silent

Lisa: “Horse or donkey? HORSE or DONKEY? HORSE OR DONKEY?????”

Mike: “You see me? This is me keeping my mouth shut. This is a husband who knows a lose lose situation when he sees one.”

Want more dialogues? Here are a couple of my favorites from our early marriage discussions:

Hanging out in Melbourne with our friend's awesome dog, Jasper

The most important quality in a marriage (2)

This post is a continuation of the discussion we began on Friday about the most important quality in a marriage. Below is an excerpt from the memoir I am working on. It recounts a conversation Mike and I had via skype before we got engaged, when he was  in PNG and I was in LA.

…Even when we were talking, on our carefully scheduled skype dates, it wasn’t guaranteed to be smooth and happy sailing. Occasionally we’d be talking away easily one minute only to find ourselves mired in a messy miscommunication the next. Or we’d be laughing and a moment later one of us would have blundered unexpectedly into a virtual minefield.

This was the situation I found myself in late one night, about a month before Mike was to arrive in LA in May. We’d been talking for an hour already, but before we wrapped up I suggested we dip into the question box.

The question box was a tool we used sometimes to help move us past the whats, whens, and hows of our days. A solid plastic rectangle, it held hundreds of small cards each with a different question printed on them.

What is one special holiday memory from childhood?

If you had to move to a foreign country indefinitely, which one would you choose?

What’s your favorite flavour of ice cream?

This night, however, the card that I randomly selected touched on a topic much weightier than ice cream.

“What’s the question?” Mike asked, after I’d been silent for a couple of seconds, debating whether to throw it back and pick another one.

“OK,” I said, deciding to stick with it, “what’s the most important quality in a marriage?”

“Commitment,” Mike said almost immediately. Then he paused and talked around the concept for a while, trying on words like honesty and forgiveness.

“No,” he finally said decisively. “Commitment.”

Sleepy and relaxed I opened my mouth and started to think out loud.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it’s affection, or warmth, or… kindness,” I finished with assurance. “Yeah, kindness. I’d rank that above commitment.”

There was silence from the other end of the skype line.

“Hello?” I said.

“Is that because commitment would already be there?” Mike asked.

“I guess so,” I said. “I can’t easily see a relationship that’s full of affection and kindness not being built on some foundation of commitment, but I can envision it the other way around – a committed relationship lacking kindness. And that’s just ugly.”

Again, silence.

“Hello?” I said.

“I’m a bit paralyzed right now,” the distant Mike finally replied. “I think I’m better at commitment than I am at affection. I just don’t think I can discuss this any more at the moment. I have to get back to the office over here anyway.”

“Oh,” I said, completely startled. “Uh, OK. That’s not one of my fears in relation to us by the way, that you’re not good at affection, but alright.”

“We’re OK, it’s not you, I’ve just stumbled over some of my own inner furniture,” Mike managed to reassure me before signing of. “We’ll talk soon.”

We did talk soon, but not before I’d spent an uncomfortable day or two wondering where I’d gone wrong. Perhaps, I ventured to my parents after thinking it through, it was the moment when I opened my mouth after Mike had bared his soul and basically insinuated that I didn’t think commitment was that big a deal and that I’d be in a marriage only as long as I thought the other person was being kind.

“Yeah, that might have done it, I’d say,” Mum said.

“Mum!” I said.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, negating any reassurance the statement might have delivered by laughing immediately afterwards.

“I do think commitment is hugely important,” I said. “And I know any commitment – to marriage, to a place – is going to have times when it’s tested. I was just saying that I’m not sure commitment is the be-all and the end-all. I mean, would I really want to stay in a marriage indefinitely if sheer single-minded commitment was all it had going for it? Commitment might be an effective glue but surely kindness or something else has to be present much of the time to make it worth holding something together?”

Mum didn’t venture to touch that one.

“What do you think is the most important quality in a marriage then?” I asked her.

“Balance,” she said.

“Balance??” asked my father, who’d been listening in from the other side of the study.

“Balance,” my mother repeated. “What have other people said?”

“Well, two of my colleagues said trust,” I said, “and another one said good-will – the commitment to hold a good image of that person in your mind even when you’re not liking them in the moment.”

“Does anyone want to know what I think?” Dad asked in my favorite tone of voice – that of the patient martyr.

Apparently it’s Mum’s favorite tone of voice, too, because she was quicker off the mark than I was.

“Not really,” she said breezily.

“Yes, Dad,” I said, rolling my eyes at both of them. “We want to know what you think.”

“A commitment to love,” he announced. “It combines commitment and kindness.”

“That is not a single quality,” Mum replied.

“And balance is?” Dad asked.

Over to you… any further thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear them. Or, uh, what’s your favourite flavour of ice cream? I’d love to hear that too. Hope your week is off to a good start.

What is the most important quality in a marriage?

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love.

Mike and I are three weeks into this latest separation and it hasn’t felt like a good week for us on the Laos-Australia skype date front.

We are managing to talk most nights, but by the time 8:30 or 9 rolls around I am… let’s go for a an elegant understatement here… a little bit tired. This fatigue, and my daily routine at present, don’t exactly make me the most fascinating conversationalist.

The start of last night’s conversation, for example, went something like this.

Mike: “How was last night?”

Me: “Well, he was down at 10, up from 12-1 and 3-4, and then he started squirreling around and making angry koala bear noises at 4:45 so I took him into bed, where he promptly threw up on me. Do you want to hear last night’s baby spew tally?”

Mike: “Yes please!

Me: “Two pairs of his pyjamas, one pair of mine, my hair, his crib sheets, one set of queen sheets and the mattress protector, a pillowcase, and a pillow protector.”

Mike: “Champion. What else did you do today?”

Me: “Well, let’s see. I fed him six times. I took him to the community health nurse and she says he’s gaining weight like a prize piglet and looks as healthy as can be. In the evening we had a bath. He screamed so hard he stopped breathing and turned purple when I took him out and tried to dress him. Then we lay on the floor together and watched a program about sperm whales. Did you know that sperm whale hunt using sonar and those sonar clicks are the loudest sound produced by a living creature, as loud as thunder? Apparently, when a sperm whale clicks at a diver it’s like getting kicked in the chest by a horse. During the program, there was a baby sperm whale that got lost and came right up to the boat and surfaced under the pontoons – I think he thought they were other whales – and then he started clicking for his mama.”

Mike: “Did you cry?”

Me: “No, but by the time the mama whale came and found him I had milk soaking through my shirt.”

Mike is a good sport but this is not exactly the type of skype conversation we’re used to having. I mean, it had been 24 hours since we talked and pretty much all I had was sperm whales and a vomit tally. Yeah.

When I was up in Noosa last week my friends were asking me how Mike and I manage to stay connected when we spend so much time apart.

“We talk,” I said. “A lot.”

“Don’t you run out of things to talk about?” they wanted to know.

So I told them about how Mike and I keep a running list of conversation topics that we can delve into when we have the time and the energy, and I told them about how when we were dating we would sometimes pick questions randomly out of a question-based game. The questions from that game could be goldmines.

“One time,” I said, “the question I picked out was: What is the most important quality in a marriage?”

“This was before you were married?” they wanted to know.

“It was before we were engaged,” I said. “And it led to one of the more interesting discussions we had long distance.”

Most of my friends looked across the dinner table at their spouses.

“Go on,” I said. “What’s the most important quality in a marriage?”

There was a long pause.

“Everyone’s trying to think of the right thing to say,” someone said with a laugh.

“Everyone’s also wondering what their spouse thinks is the right thing to say,” someone else observed.

“Love,” someone ventured.

“That’s too general,” someone else said. “What do you mean by love?”

On Monday I’ll tell you how Mike and I answered that question the first time we tackled it. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s the most important quality in a marriage?

The woven cane ring from Papua New Guinea that Mike gave me when he proposed

Breastfeeding lessons from cows, take two

This post is an addendum to one of my favorite posts from the last year, Life lessons in pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows.

5AM this morning:

Me: “Dominic!!”

Mike: “What’s he doing?”

Me: “He’s latching on repeatedly, sucking nicely once or twice, then tossing his head from side to side before yanking backwards – still holding on, mind you – until my nipple finally pops out of his mouth. Then he opens his eyes wide in panic and lunges forward like a small, desperate, vacuum cleaner until he finds it again.”

Mike: “Do you want me to tell you what the cows on the farm did when the calves did that?”

Me: “Yes!” (After all, you can’t go past a good cow story at 5AM after you’ve had a grand total of 4 hours sleep that night)

Mike: “Well the calves would nudge under their mothers and do exactly that – yank down on their teats really hard. Or their other favorite trick was to throw their heads up hard and headbutt the mama in the stomach.”

Me: “So what did the mama cows do?”

Mike: “They kicked the calves.”

Me: “Really!”

Mike: “Yup, they’d haul off and give the calves a sharp kick and that usually stopped them.”

Me: “So by extension I could give Dominic a smack on his little bottom when he yanks on me?”

Mike: “You’d be well within your mammalian rights.”

P.S. I relayed this conversation to my own mother this morning and she’s of the opinion that Dominic is still too young to connect his nipple-yanking behaviour with any bovinesque chastisement I might dish out. I’m not so sure, though. He’s clearly old enough to understand the concept of playing with his food.

P.P.S. I relayed this conversation to the community health nurse this afternoon and she just laughed. When I followed it up by asking whether he could be doing this because he’s still hungry at the end of his feed she laughed even harder. “That little guy’s gained over 300g for the second week in a row,” she said. “He has no right to still be hungry at the end of a feed. He’s just being demanding.”

Dominic: "What? Me? Play with my food?"