On gratitude

The NY Times today has a post in their "Motherlode" blog in which Marc Vachon (of Equally Shared Parenting) argues against thanking one's spouse (particularly husbands) too much, for work they should be doing anyway.

I mention this because Matt and I have been talking recently about theories of praising children (ie, how much, when, what kind, etc.)  The basic idea (in our reading) is that too much praise, especially for things the child should be doing anyway, makes children dependent on external validation, instead of internal. Experts also distinguish between evaluative praise, which confuses the child's identity with their actions, and descriptive praise, which simply describes the action and lets the child define their own identity. (Clear as mud, right?  Evaluative praise: "You're a great artist," descriptive praise: "That's a beautiful picture; I love the colors you chose."  Evaluative: "You're so strong," descriptive:  "That was heavy. Thanks for helping me carry it.") I digress.   

I get Marc Vachon's main argument with the way society gushes over men's contributions to family and household life.  My friend Jeff at Competent Parent has a similar beef, in that people see his fathering (he's the primary caretaker of their two sons) as something either extraordinary or as glorified babysitting, when really, he's just parenting. (If you're in need of a father's day gift, by the way, for the competent parent in your life, check out his t-shirts.) 

But while it makes sense to me that there is such a thing as too much praise, I'm not really sure that there can be too much gratitude. Certainly there's a problem if the gratitude is unequally expressed, and certainly gratitude can be expressed in a demeaning or manipulative way.  But I fail to see the problem with sincere appreciation for another's work, whether expected or not, paid or not, enjoyed or not. I always liked being appreciated by a coworker or boss, and I don't think that took anything away from my own personal satisfaction in doing good work, nor did I need it as a motivator to do said work. It just felt good to have my contribution recognized in a way other than the weekly paycheck. 

In fact, I've come to believe that gratitude is really one of the most important spiritual disciplines, right up there with prayer and keeping the Sabbath.  And I mean not only gratitude to God but also gratitude for all the people in our lives who make our lives what they are.  

So tonight, after I make dinner, just as I have for most nights of our marriage, Matt will most likely thank me.  And knowing that in advance doesn't make me appreciate his appreciation any less. And then, after he washes dishes, which he has done most nights of our marriage, I will thank him. It's not because I find it extraordinary that he's doing the dishes, or that he's such an extraordinary dish-washer. It's that washing dishes, like making dinner, cleaning the toilets or taking the early morning shift with Finn, is part of the work that has to be done everyday to make our lives work. And even though we rarely think in such glorified terms, every day that we choose to keep doing this daily work, we are choosing again our life. For that, I'm thankful.


Five (not so) quick takes

A few blogs I read post occasional "seven quick takes"--short thoughts not really worthy of a full posting all by themselves. I've got this running list of things I've been wanting to share, so in the spirit of some mental "spring cleaning," I'm doing my own quick takes. 

1. We have never been so thankful for our apartment building as we have this past week ... a week that has literally drowned us in rain, everyday, all day. Coinciding, as it has, with Finn's growing skills in walking and thus Finn's growing desire to walk further than the few steps it takes to cross our living room, we have been visiting our building's indoor playroom multiple times a day. We take his walker with us, and between the walk from our door to the elevator, and then down in the lobby (mirrors! shiny things! doormen!), and then laps around the playroom, he gets quite a workout. I have also resorted to using the stairwell when he really needs a change of scenery. We'll get off on the 10th or 11th floor, and then he starts climbing. He's panting by the time we reach the 18th floor, but he gets upset when I make him turn off into our hallway. (This is, incidentally, how I got to enjoy our church's long Good Friday service. We sat in the back, near the balcony stairs. He climbed those stairs at least 15 times and was thus both quiet and happy.)

 2. Last week we got Finn his own little table and chairs, and he's quite taken with it. We still eat meals at the big table, but snacks, coloring (with new crayon rocks!) and other little games take place on his table.  

new table

3. Just because I haven't mentioned new restaurant discoveries doesn't mean there haven't been any. A couple of note: Hansung, Co., on Kimberly Street in Kowloon. This is Korean diner home-cooking, in a stylin' but simple atmosphere. And even though we'd never had it before, our noodles with pork and kimchi tasted like comfort food. 

hansung co.

Also, Initial, a coffeeshop in a designer-clothes store, also in Kowloon. Beautiful design, if a bit contrived (old, barn-wood floors, white-washed walls, eclectic furniture with lots of peeling paint, etc. Totally believable and appropriate in Vermont, but this is Hong Kong. And those clothes cost a LOT of money.) But--here is the latte I ordered, and while I'm not normally one for cutesy garnishes, this made me smile.     

latte art

4. Sunday's prayer of confession at church was convicting and comforting all at once, in light of my little elevator-rage last week. (Which is, I suppose, what church should offer: both the diagnosis and the cure.) 

"Forgive us, most gracious God, for what we have done to bring pain to those we love, to those who need us to reflect the love of your Son into their lives. We repent of our hard and unkind words, our careless and thoughtless deeds, our lack of compassion and reluctance to put the needs of others before our own wants and desires. We confess our sins and need for you. In the forgiveness of your cross, grant us your Spirit as we worship you this day. Amen." 

 5. And lastly, I've updated our flickr page with new photos from May and new videos from December and January. (Yes, I'm that far behind. We're working on it, though. Thursday is a public holiday, so we've got big plans to video Finn in this particular stage of learning to walk. Everyday he's a little less like a drunken sailor. I'll try to post it before he runs his first marathon.) 

That's all!  Hope you folks back home are enjoying your three-day weekend.


The humble pedestrian

A few quirks of behaviors here in HK I alternately find annoying or amusing (when able-bodied people take up space in the lifts rather than use the escalator, for example, or when upon entering those lifts, they press the close door button repeatedly), but I work to not be angry. I'm learning to just do as those proverbial Romans, and have consequently become much more assertive in sidewalk-maneuvering, especially when I have the stroller. 

 The real trick, however, is in adopting both the behavior and the attitude. See, Hong Kongers aren't angry when they push past you and they aren't annoyed by waiting in line at the lifts. So I'm trying to join in on not only the quasi-aggressive tactics, but also on the sense that it's all just part of the game, part of walking down the street, part of riding the MTR. And mostly, that works.  

But sometimes, like this morning, it doesn't work, and I get angry.  We were out shopping with Finn in the stroller, trying to get on a lift to take us down to the trains, waiting in a long line of primarily able-bodied folks (excepting one man in a wheelchair and his companion.) The typically small and slow lift arrived, the man in the wheelchair got on, and then the lift was filled with everyone else, including people who rushed past us to get on, filling it up so that there was no room for our stroller. 

And something in me snapped. I began reading very loudly the sign posted next to every lift: "Please give priority to those in need who have to use the lift." Even as the doors shut I continued reading, until Matt hushed me. 

Were we in the right, and they in the wrong? Certainly. Was it a big deal for us to wait an extra few minutes? Not a bit. And was my response childish? Absolutely. I still cringe a little when I think about it, so far was it from who I would like to be, from the humility Christ modeled, from the example I want to model for Finn, from just general graciousness. And all day long, Paul's words echoed in my head: "In humility consider others better than yourself" (Philippians 2:3).  

Being forced off the sidewalk by a group of teenagers walking arm-in-arm and not giving way: "In humility, consider others better than yourself." Fighting my way off the MTR through people standing in the doorway: "In humility consider others better than yourself." Simply wanting to walk faster than the old couple in front of us, holding hands and weaving all over the sidewalk: "In humility consider others better than yourself." 

God, help this not-so-humble pedestrian walk slowly, wait patiently, and elbow gently.


Us according to Finn

So I know that kids come with their own little personalities and sense of self, but I really thought we'd get to choose what Finn calls us (at least until teenage days, right?) We have always addressed ourselves as mama and papa, saying these words deliberately and frequently. And no, I wasn't hurt when Finn's first word was ball, then bird, then book, then papa, but then .... mom? Come on son, does it really have to be mom? Not that there's anything wrong with mom--it's what I call my own mom, after all--it's just not what I wanted, and not what he's ever heard us say. He also seems to be leaning towards dada for Matt, again, with absolutely no prompting from us whatsoever. We literally have had the following exchanges multiple times lately: 

me: mama

Finn: mom

me: mama

Finn: mom 


Matt: papa

Finn: dada

Matt: papa

Finn: dada 

 What's up with this?  Could a kid really come programmed this way?  I guess it's time to start letting go of any plans we have for him, even the most innocuous ...     



I've been up to all sorts of craftiness lately, inspired mainly by SouleMama, who is always quick to go to the "making" solution before the "buying" solution. This is an attitude I've held in varying degrees over the years, and it's almost reflex for me when it comes to food. But for other things, I just so often feel like I don't have the materials or the equipment, and when you add in the time it will take to assemble what I need and then do it, it's just easier to buy. I'm trying, though, to cultivate the resourcefulness and creativity to just make do, improvise and use what I have. And I'm finding that, like anything, it gets easier with practice.

It also gets easier with inspiration. And I've recently discovered a "crafts district" here in Hong Kong. Tons of beading, button and ribbon shops. More ribon than I've ever seen in my life. I'm hoping to find similar fabric shops ... but for now, the ribbon is more than enough.

ribbon 1

ribbon 2

So here's what I'm working on right now:

  • a scarf, made from a half-finished hat I've been carrying around since, oh, our boatshop days in Maine 6 years ago! Finally decided that even if I finished the hat I would never wear it due to mistakes early in the knitting, and so that yarn is finding a happier home, in a striped scarf for me! I've been collecting yarn for years, only occasionally knitting something, looking and planning and dreaming mostly. And feeling. Did I say feeling? I love to feel yarn. I brought all those skeins to HK and promised myself that the only way they were coming home with me was in finished form. No knit, no purl, no shipping. 

  • a knitting bag, to carry around said yarn. Made from the ubiquitous Watson's Wine bags they give everytime you buy a bottle. I just cut off the Watson's label, "cuted" it up a bit, and changed the straps. Voila! 

scarf bag

Crafting in my future:

  • just ordered a pattern from oliver + s -- can't wait to make this little sailor outfit for a certain little boy. 

  • need to make said boy a sleep sack out of lightweight fabric for summer ... maybe use up some of the thin "flannelette" baby blankets we have in abundance, in the spirit of reuse rather than "buy more."

Anybody out there working on fun stuff?



See that new little addition over on the side? That thing that almost every blog has but which I'd sadly neglected until now? Oh yes, blogroll please (sometimes I just kill myself) ... that would be the list of blogs I'm reading regularly right now. My mother-in-law asked me the other day what blogs I read and how I find them, which made me realize what a slacker I've been in the blogroll department, and so to make up for it, you not only get a list but an annotated list--lucky you. 

You'll note it's not actually that long, not anything like the blogroll on most blogs. That's not to say I don't read others, it's just that I try to keep my computer time somewhat under control and so these are the ones that I check in on regularly, for now.    

craft/life blogs:

soulemama -- Probably my favorite blog. I find her totally inspiring, and love the way she has woven making and creating things into the everyday fabric of her family. Some favorite posts here, here and here.  

forty-two roads--I love, love love this cardboard kitchen she designed for her daughter.  And I'm planning to make one for Finn one of these months...  (link is to her etsy shop, where she sells plans for the kitchen.)

ohdeedoh--apartment therapy's nursery section.  Beautiful, inspiring home design for kids.  Often frugal too! 

 parenting blogs:

life is good--Marcy has a son about Finn's age, has lived overseas, and, as a Montessori teacher, is incorporating Montessori practices into her home.  She got me started reading about Montessori and I'm hooked. Check out this video, and prepare to be amazed!   

sortacrunchy--alternative, natural parenting meets evangelical Christian.  

Avocado, perhaps? -- my friend Meredith's funny, sweet and wise parenting observations  

food blogs:

Orangette--I, along with everyone else, it seems, love how Molly tells stories about food, and then tells you how to make that food. She also takes drool-worthy photos. It was her wedding feast that really won me over. 

baker's banter--the blog for King Arthur Flour. enough said. 

catherine newman--she is laugh-out-loud funny.  I read it ostensibly for the ideas on what to cook for dinner, but really for the laughs. 

Appetite for China--not one I actually read as a blog, but a great resource when I want to cook some regional Chinese dish. 


James Fallows--writer for The Atlantic, living in Beijing, he writes about technology, politics, flying, China and anything else that strikes his fancy. We mainly read it for his political analysis and his insights into all things Chinese.

God's Politics--the Sojourners blog --a Christian alternative to the Religious Right. I like the magazine better than the blog, but it's still often thought-provoking.   

 Chip's--my brother's blog. He doesn't post that often (not trying to make you feel guilty!) but when he does, it's thoughtful and smart. He takes great pictures.

Krissie's--my oldest friend in the world, met when we weren't even two and we're still friends.  These days we keep in touch mainly through our blogs, and I love that aspect of online life.


Guest Post: On Neighbors and Navigation

From collaborative posting to guest posts, you must think I'm going all lazy on you! Not true, just finishing up some other projects (read: paid projects!) and giving you glimspes of Hong Kong from other voices.

Our friend Heather is probably the first friend we made in Hong Kong, not counting the one person we already knew (Hi Tuan!). Heather teaches English with Matt and is a fellow Breadloafer, though they've never been at the same campus. In her final two months of a three-year stint in HK, we are going to miss her like crazy when she leaves. She has introduced us to cute, hidden bars, crazy-good hidden Indian restaurants, and yummy jasmine tea. Plus, she loves Finn, and taught him the forehead-bump game which he continues to play when he should be eating dinner. What more do you need in a friend?

Heather and Finn

nori love

Heather is graciously letting me post some of her words, from a series of emails sent home to family and friends.  I love the way she captures the scenes and personalities that make up wonderful Hong Kong street life. (note, the Mr. Chan referenced towards the end is the taxi driver who picks up a set group every morning--sort of the HK equivalent of a carpool.)   


When I move out of my apartment in June, I will have lived here, uninterrupted, for two years and nine months. That is easily the longest I have inhabited a single space in my adult life. Long enough that the contours of the rooms are navigable in darkness and the people at the laundry across the street know my name and spell it correctly.

Now that I know I’m leaving, I wander about waxing nostalgic for the neighborhood I feel I’ve ignored while plowing through my days. I’ve been composing mental arias of appreciation to the tiny streets, the men drinking beer at card tables on the corner, the perpetual bustle of the wet market.

So, in this edition of my emails from Hong Kong, I leave you with a few odes. I’ve never talked to any of these people. I don’t know their names. But they’ve become features in the landscape of my life here, ways of marking place and time. And I’m grateful for them.

The Umbrella Man

 The Umbrella Man lives around the corner on Bridges Street, on a bit of sidewalk in front of an old shophouse, just before the neighborhood flips into a glamour-fied cosmopolitan’s playground. During the day, he sits on a straight-backed chair, left leg crossed over right, elbow on his knee. His gray hair is pulled back into a small ponytail at the nape of his neck. He smokes. He watches the world go by. He belongs in a French cafĂ©, languorously reaching for his espresso and sighing at the beauty and boredom of it all. Sometime around dusk, his home blossoms around him. Umbrellas—blue, green, red—line the edges of his one-man foldable cot, enclosing him in a neat cocoon. I’ve never seen him put them out or take them down. But every morning they are neatly stowed, and every evening carefully arranged. They form a thin but definite barrier between his home and world of the street. Passersby attend to this distinction. They grant his street-side boudoir the dignity that his posture commands.

The Man with the Long Eyebrows

He sits on a corner of the wet market, next to a vegetable stand. His knees are tucked up to his chest, and his legs frame a small plastic box. The tails of dried fish poke above the edges of the box, creating a neat square in the air. Their perky verticality is echoed in his eyebrows, which are perfectly white and draw upward into neat points about an inch above his eyes, giving him an air of surprise. His hair, too, is white and spiky. Despite the generous personality of his ‘do, he generates a kind of quiet around him. The hustle of the market stills in his little corner, where, as far as I can tell, he neither sells nor buys. In the evenings, he hooks a walking cane into the handle on one side of his box and pulls it down Hollywood Road. He passes Pacific Coffee, the French bistro, and the Chinese temple. He walks with the stoop as he turns onto my street, dragging the plastic box across the asphalt. At the corner, he turns right, onto one of the oldest streets in Hong Kong, and shuffles off into the neighborhood beyond.

Po-Po of the Flowers

Once you’ve selected your flowers, she picks up a pair of garden shears and gestures at the stems. You indicate where you’d like her to cut them, and she shears off the bottom few inches. Her knuckles are enormous, arthritic. They look out of place on her tiny hands. Altogether, she must stand less than five feet. She wears black, in the traditional style: trousers, black slip-on shoes, and a Chinese-style collar. Her hair is always neatly bunned at her neck. Her face is marked by a massive mole just above her left lip. The women who buy from her call her “Po-Po,” Grandmother. “How much for yellow lilies… and these, already half open?” One day, I realize, after my bunch of pink lilies have been trimmed, that I’m only carrying a 500HKD bill, a large enough denomination that taxi drivers and shopkeepers will grumble when asked to give change. I extend it apologetically, and she looks at me in the eye for the first time in two years. I have no idea what she’s thinking. She unzips her fanny pack and rifles through an enormous wad of cash. As she pulls out the cash, she grips the bills between her fingers, rather than with her fingertips. Once again, I wonder how those hands manage the shears day in and day out. Another customer arrives, “Po-Po…” She hands me my change, and doesn’t look at me again.

The Musical Printer

My neighborhood, Sheung Wan, is what New Yorkers would call “transitional.” There are a few contemporary art galleries and, recently, some hip interior design firms. These are cheek-by-jowl with old storefront temples that burn incense at all hours of the day. But mostly, the ground level shops are either car mechanics or printing houses. The printing presses all seem to be from the 1970s. Stacks of paper fill every inch of the two- or three-hundred square foot rooms. Just around the corner from my house, there is a small shop that leaves its metal gate half open most of the day. From the door, you can see the main press, the owner, and a red shrine, some version of which appears in most family businesses in Hong Kong. He listens to Beijing Opera on the radio all day long. If you pass by at the right time, you can catch a glimpse of him—in his shorts, sandals, and an undershirt—operating the press, swaying gently, and singing along.

The Peaceful Security Guard

I don’t stay out past 2am often these days, but when I do, I take the long route home, up the hill to Staunton Street. The first half the block is dark, bordered by a construction site on one side and the old police headquarters on the other. At that hour of the night, the light from the first apartment block’s lobby spills out onto the street. I cross to the far side and walk slowly. The lobby is like a small, well-lit stage. Framed between the straight silver lines of two elevators is the security guard. He is standing; his arms are at chest level. He swings them through the air, moving fluidly from one tai chi position to the next. I wonder if he knows how beautiful he looks, how quiet the night is around us.

 And, because no one can resist a sequel, an update on Mr. Chan.

 Last fall, Mr. Chan contracted TB. He’s been a smoker forever and had been working 7 shifts in the taxi a week, which meant working one set of consecutive day/night shifts—twenty four hours in a car without sleep. He was treated with antibiotics and is doing just fine now. But his doctor told him he had to quit smoking. This was a blow to a man of few and very simple pleasures. Every morning we would check in with him: “Are you still smoking Mr. Chan?”

“Only one yesterday. So hard. But I must do it for my Yi-Ling and my Jason.” His teenaged kids were on the case. In early November, Mr. Chan discovered a new inspiration: “Change is good! Like Obama!” he said, pumping his fists in the air. Obama’s mantra became our non-smoking rallying cry. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” For Mr. Chan, Obama is both a sign of hope and a way of softening life's blows. When I told him I was leaving Hong Kong in a few months, he reassured me, “This is okay. Because we have special relationship and you can be with Obama.”


Not your average field trip

Matt comes home with tons of cool stories from school, but he's never going to write a blog post (no matter how much I beg and cajole) because he'd rather be reading books or playing with Finn or feels like he should be washing dishes. So, I'm taking the keyboard into my own hands.

Authentic, experiential learning is all the buzz in education, and his school stresses its importance, though it would be false to say that this happens consistently. However, he maintains that the Humanities Department is the most cutting-edge in the school. Take, for example, the recent field trip he was on. And when I say field trip, I don't mean passively walking through a museum. I mean, students going into the field, doing field research. Geography students doing real geography. 

field trip 1

Year 10 students (9th graders) recently stayed overnight at a youth hostel and charted the contours of a riverbed at three different points. Equipped with tape measures, yardsticks, some spear-like thing and flowmeters, the kids were up to their knees in riverrocks and data. Their task: prove or disprove the hypothesis that river X is a classic river formation (steep, narrow and fast near the source, broad, slow and wide at the mouth.)   

river measurements

To answer this question in a classroom, students would be given the data, and they would simply crunch it and analyze it. Not so easy in real life, however. How do you know where a riverbank ends and a field or footpath begins? Where is the bottom of the river--on top of this boulder or that one, or maybe even under the boulder, wherever that is?  So they not only learn the importance of data, but the variability of data--that numbers have a source, and that the source may be wrong.

river measurements 2

I repeat: 9th graders.  


 note from the editor: I hope you enjoy the irony in that this post was in fact composed by Matt, albeit while he was doing dishes (it is Mother's Day, after all). Keyboard was in fact in my hands. But if you, or he, thinks I'm signing up to be his secretary (as he gleefully says,"this dictating stuff is fun--maybe I will write a book!"), you haven't analyzed the data correctly.



Two conversations

Two conversations, both had today at Gymboree, only slightly edited for clarity.  

British mum: What's your son's name? 

me: Finn

British mum: Oh, I love that name! How old is he--7 months? 

me: No, 13 months. Just small. 

British mum: Was he a preemie? 

me: Actually he was almost two weeks late and a pretty big boy!  


Chinese mum: Oh, how old is your son? 13 months? 

me: Yes, that's right.  You're good. 

Chinese mum:  Wow, he's tall. 

me: Really? He's small on the weight/height charts! 

Chinese mum: Oh no, he's not small.  What does he weigh now? 20 lbs? 

me: Yeah--You're really good. 

Chinese mum: That's just what my son weighed at that age.  What's his name? 

me: Finn

Chinese mum: Flinn?  

me: no--Finn.

Chinese mum: Ben? 

me: no f-i-n-n.  

Chinese mum: Oh, Ben. 

me: (nod and smile).




Feeling grateful for:

  • Gorgeous weather this past weekend.

  • New friends who feel like old friends.

  • New friends who feel like old friends who have ovens and sewing machines available to use! 

  • Watching Finn play in the dirt for several hours yesterday.

  • Infant tylenol that soothes the pain of teething molars.

  • A perfectly ripe tomato from our farm, with basil from our balcony.

  • The avoidance of this snake! We were visiting those friends that afternoon, and in fact walking on the same road, just higher up, when Wayne called and warned us about his encounter. We had previously been jealous of their yard and patch of grass, but after this, our concrete and high rise seemed pretty good!    

  • The new soundtrack at our house: ba, ba, ba, ba. Finn's new word is ball, but he only occasionally gets the "l" in there, so it mostly sounds like "ba." He clearly knows what he's saying though, and it's how he goes to sleep, and how he wakes up, and what he thinks about all day long. 

  • The beginnings of answers to prayers, prayers so deep that they hadn't even yet been fully formed ...