At the Mosque

One of the benefits of marrying a missions professor is spending some of my days off going to cultural events and different places of worship. In other words, putting myself in situations that might be less-than-comfortable for me. I grew up with a passion for missions and spent the first five years of my adulthood overseas. Despite that, I feel reluctant to go to Chinese New Year’s celebrations or churches where everyone speaks a different language. According to personality tests, I’ve supposedly shed my previous introversion and become an extrovert over the years, but somehow the idea of stepping into a situation where I’m clearly not part of The In Crowd makes me uneasy.

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Islamic Center of Omaha

So yesterday morning when Andrew asked me if I’d like to go to the mosque for a lecture on Islamophobia in schools and colleges, I can’t say I felt joy in my heart. However, I like it when he expresses interest in the things that interest me. If I want him to put forth effort to participate in my things, I should participate in his, right? Plus, I admire his passion for creating relationships between Christians and Muslims. I can’t stand that a loud element in our society seems to have taken a turn for the medieval in rejecting out of hand anyone who differs from them. So I agreed to go.

When I lived in Ukraine, I could walk down the street and pick out Americans. Even when they managed to curb their talking and laughing in public, which was rare since we are a boisterous bunch, they often wore things they thought made them look Ukrainian but really served more as a big red flag identifying them as foreigners. More often than not, they picked up a big, furry hat with earflaps and donned that thing, thinking they looked Russian or Ukrainian when actually they looked ridiculous.

That’s how I felt when I wrapped a scarf around my head to go into the mosque yesterday. Muslim women look beautiful wearing a hijab. I felt like a matryoshka doll in my ill-fitted scarf. I felt sure I’d stand out and knew they’d take one look at me and think hmmm… that poor woman needs help putting on that scarf. Which they probably did.

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Don’t deny it. You wouldn’t be surprised if you found little scarf-clad mini me’s running around; I look like like a Russian nesting doll!

We ended up being only the second ones there. A woman waited with her children in the foyer, and she took me on a little tour. She showed me the bathroom where the women perform ceremonial washing before prayers. She took me into the room where the women stay during the prayer service. She was friendly and nice, just as I would be to a newcomer to my church. When she dropped me off back with my husband, we went on into the main hall, where women can go when it’s not an official prayer service.

Stepping out of my comfort zone and into something different pointed out some things about myself that I think I’ve denied for a long time. I’ve been to a mosque several times before, so I’m not sure why this one was different. Maybe I am just ready to think about those things now. Whatever the case, here’s what I learned.

I have a big hang up with gender inequality. That’s not news. This is something that has been coming up regularly in my life in the last few years. Andrew has acquaintances at the mosque since he’s made an effort to get to know them. When he introduced us, I noticed the lack of eye contact with me. Since I am a woman, Muslim men don’t make eye contact, shake hands, or speak much to me. They indicated that I should sit at the back of the room. As children filtered into the program and took their seats, the girls sat in the rows around me. Boys sat in the front. Later I asked my youngest daughter how she’d feel if she and the other girls had to sit in the back and the boys in the front of the classroom, and she said, “I’d feel like I wasn’t important.”

When Andrew and I discussed it on the way home, he said that they avoid eye contact because speaking much to me or looking at me would be considered flirtatious and would be disrespectful to me and to him as my husband. The woman who showed me the women’s area explained, “This is the area where women sit. It’s much more comfortable this way because we can sit however we want and not worry about what the men think.” To them, this is respectful.  To me, it feels disrespectful. That’s just one example of how people from different cultures can misunderstand one another’s good intentions.

Watching how the speaker presented his material and how the audience responded, I realized how people outside the church see Christians. Hearing his explanations for why Muslim women wear a hijab or why muslim men grow beards, I couldn’t help but think that’s how non-Christian people see Christians when they try to explain how to dress modestly or how to ask someone to church. It was so similar, a fact that leads me to my next point.

While we do have many differences in our beliefs and religions, we have a lot of similarities. He spoke about Mohammed and stories from the Qu’ran that I’ve never heard (since I have spent no time at all studying Islam), but he also talked about Abraham and Moses, David and Jesus. He urged the children to be good students and to be kind and helpful to the teachers and other students at school. He talked about living a life devoted to God, respecting our elders, caring for those who experience social injustices or poverty. All of these things are things we have in common.

Most of all what stood out to me is a sense of intense shame that these children had to learn how to deal with people in their schools who treat them badly because of their religion or the color of their skin or their accents. No children should ever have to learn how to deal with people bullying them for those things. That lecture should have been irrelevant, but when the speaker asked for examples of times the children in the audience have been mistreated or shamed because of their faith, many of them raised their hands and shared their experiences of others teasing them for their religion or saying violent things about Muslims. This isn’t something one weird kid has lived through. This is a regular occurrence for some of them.

As a parent, this appalls me. When have my innocent children ever had to sit in a class teaching them what to do when they’re persecuted for their faith? Never. And add to that shame the fact that many of the people who perpetrate these bullying acts do so in the name of Christ. This is something that makes my discomfort over wearing a head covering or sitting in the back row seem petty and irrelevant.

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The Islamic Center after a vandal sprayed graffiti on the wall last fall after the bombing in Paris. For more info on this, click here.

When I stepped outside after this experience, I pulled the scarf off my head and headed to the car. The spring air felt cool and fresh. I looked forward to getting home and getting into my normal Saturday routine. I couldn’t help but think about how I could slide that scarf off my head and slip right back into being one of the crowd, but the kids in that audience, the woman I spoke with, the man presenting the lecture cannot do that. They stand out no matter what because of the color of their skin, their accents, their clothing. They don’t have the luxury of fading into the background. They must learn to live with the feeling of otherness.

I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was uncomfortable. I wish we could all feel uncomfortable once in a while on a Saturday morning so we could develop compassion for those who live their lives in that tension.

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Look for Something Good

Today I started feeling like everyone’s life is a mess. Do you ever do that? Just start thinking about people you know and realize that just about everyone’s got something big they’re facing. And by “big” I mean potentially life-altering: relationship problems that just don’t end, debilitating depression, gender identity issues. This afternoon I started thinking about these things and about how life is more often than not pretty complicated and messy, and I told my friend, “I just want to go back to the time when everybody’s lives were happy and OK.” I can’t do that because, of course, that time doesn’t really exist. We just think it does when we’re young and we haven’t lived long enough to have enough people open up and share their secrets with us, when we don’t realize that everybody’s struggling in some way with something.

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One of the fond memories: vacation with the family in the mountains.

I was thinking about that this evening when I saw a Facebook post asking people to share their fondest memories. I shut my eyes and started thinking what I’d write if I were going to share. I have to admit, it took a while to get past the obligatory days: my-kids-were-born and wedding day, but as I pondered it I realized I have an awful lot of fond memories.

  • sliding (on purpose) on a patch of ice on the sidewalk in Kharkov, Ukraine only to run into Andrew at the end and knock him down
  • walking everywhere around Simferopol and Kharkov with Andrew while we were dating, not feeling tired because I was just so happy to be with him
  • cleaning my first apartment on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Kherson while listening to 80’s music on a little red tape player
  • walking Betsy, the best dog in the world, in the cold every morning and snuggling under the covers with her at night
  • sitting at the island in our kitchen as a child and talking to my mom as she cooked dinner
  • lying in bed as a little girl, watching the “digital” clock dial turn every minute
  • reading for hours every day during Christmas break when I was in junior high
  • fighting with my sister over which direction the fan would point in high school
  • making a video with my Ukrainian friends to give to the missionaries before they moved back to the US
  • teaching my dad to use his iPad and staying up late making funny videos on it
  • spending time with my great-grandma, my grandma, and her sisters, and listening to them as they sat outside, breaking beans and laughing together and thinking about how much alike they looked and sounded
  • eating rice pudding in NYC with my friend and just being happy to be together
  • Andrew making a surprise visit to see me in Simferopol, a 12-hour train ride from his home in Kharkov, while we were dating
  • playing Michael Jackson music and dancing with Andrew and the kids after supper every night when the children were little
  • making Christmas cookies with my grandparents and my cousins and standing still while my grandpa vacuumed the flour off our clothes
  • watching Oprah and praying for her with my friends in Bible college
  • putting up a tiny Christmas tree in my first apartment and accidentally getting myself twisted up in the lights
  • the best vacation ever in Wisconsin Dells when I was about nine and my parents saying yes to everything we wanted to do
  • teaching my kids to crochet
  • some really fun parties with missionaries in Simferopol
  • walking part of the Oregon Trail with my kids and Andrew
  • meeting some writing goals I thought I wouldn’t meet
  • going to work and seeing a surprise gift waiting at my door
  • meeting my best friend (I’ll let you all think it was you–but I actually remember the moment I met a lot of you, and all of those moments were pretty great)
  • my mom teaching me to write and later to type
  • riding the scariest amusement park ride I’ve ever ridden with my ten-year-old and being more scared that my phone was going to fall out of my pocket than I was that I’d die in the ride
  • lunch dates with my American friend in Simferopol–especially the one where she slipped on a mossy sidewalk and fell in a puddle, getting green moss all over herself
  • meeting a friend to talk about writing and not talking much about writing but a lot about everything else
  • eating chips and drinking Coke and talking about life with a friend on the balcony of an apartment in Kharkov
  • laughing with my roommate about the stray horse in the courtyard of our apartment building in Kherson
  • making the kids laugh a lot by making up lyrics to a song on the radio and mimicking the person singing it
  • going to dinner with a friend and staying until they closed and then talking in the parking lot
  • lying in bed, cuddled with Emma and Andrew, warm and soft and sleepy
  • working half the night to do inventory with my boss and coworkers and laughing at everything
  • waking up with baby Emma on one side, Andrew and Hannah on the other, and Alex on my feet and not daring to move for fear of waking them up
  • lying on the picnic table at night in our back yard in Indiana when I was little, thinking about what I’d do when I grew up

Just typing all that out, just the fifteen minutes it took me to think those up, turned around how I felt. Life stinks in a lot of ways, but, man, there are some good things about it. The next time I lament giving up my alone time to be with someone else, I hope I remember how all of those things in my fondest memories list were done with other people (well, one was a dog, but maybe that sorta still counts). My friends and family make my life worth sorting out the rough parts!

Holidailies, Day 3

Tonight my sister-in-law sent me a picture of Andrew and me. It was taken about 15 years ago, the year after we got married: pre-kids, pre-home ownership, pre-responsibilities and bills and debts and work. Looking at that, I wonder what I ever thought about during those years. What preoccupied my mind when I didn’t have to think about what to cook for kids, which is totally different from cooking for just two adults, and when I didn’t have to keep five people’s schedules in my head, and when I didn’t have to remember when I gave the last dose of medicine so I wouldn’t overdose someone on cold medication, and, most of all, when I didn’t wonder if what I was saying and doing every day was completely ruining some impressionable young son or daughter’s entire future and providing some therapist in the future with years of income.

The Picture: Andrew on the left, me on the right, an aunt and a niece with us. That's not our baby, by the way. That was before offspring. Interestingly enough, I look surprisingly like my sister.

The Picture, taken in 2000: Andrew on the left, me on the right, an aunt and a niece between us. That’s not our baby, by the way. That was before offspring. Interestingly enough, I look surprisingly like my sister.

Not only that, but what did even do every day? I mean, I remember I worked out every day (hence my super skinny-ness…probably shouldn’t have let that go).

I remember reading books I wanted to read and being able to finish them in less than 3 months. I remember having a daily quiet time. I remember talking about stuff I liked to talk about for longer than a few minutes without being interrupted. I remember going out to dinner with friends and writing letters on actual paper and journaling.

I remember that Andrew and I used to lie next to each other on the couch without a) suffocating each other or b) falling off the couch because our bodies actually took up just a sliver of that couch at that point. To be honest, I don’t know if we could lie side by side on the couch anymore because we haven’t even attempted it for years!

I remember that we used to go to Applebee’s and say how expensive it was because it cost almost $20 to eat there. Now we spend way more than $20 at Wendy’s when all five of us go there and eat off the dollar menu.

I remember that I used to spend more than 3 minutes on my hair every morning, and once in a while I went without makeup for fun instead of lack of concern about whether I was wearing makeup or not.

I remember sleeping. I’m not even going to elaborate on the loss of sleep because, really, it’s just too painful at times to think about how I used to sleep and how I took a solid 7 hours of sleep for granted.

Those were fun days, nice times, when I thought about myself and how to make myself happier, prettier, skinnier, smarter, more interesting, funnier.

However, those were also days when I didn’t really understand responsibility and how loving someone means doing stuff for them, stuff they may never notice, stuff they will almost definitely never appreciate. Those were days when I thought I knew about love but what I knew about love was all about what another person could do to make me feel loved. I had no idea how to love a crying, pooping little person who would soon start throwing temper tantrums and basically refuse to do anything that was good for him/her. I had no idea how to love someone when we were both at our rope’s end and angrier or more hurt or more exhausted than we’d ever been.

I seriously wouldn't go back for anything. Look at those three cuties that didn't even exist 15 years ago!!

I seriously wouldn’t go back for anything. Look at those three cuties that didn’t even exist 15 years ago!!

I don’t really think I know that yet, but at least I know a little more about it. So maybe it’s ok that Andrew and I can’t fit side-by-side on a couch together or that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in 14 years. Marriage and parenting have changed us. In some ways for the worse maybe, but in some ways for the better.

Now, I just wonder where the next 15 years will take us.

Witches and Salem and Halloween

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I wish I’d bought this t shirt!

If anyone has reason to remember Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts does. The approximate site of the famous Salem Witch Trials, which took place over 200 years ago in 1692-93, Salem has capitalized on its reputation as a center of the supernatural. People from all over the world converge on this small town during Haunted Happenings to dress up in costumes and parade through narrow streets lined with old buildings renovated to hold shops and restaurants.

In a way, I can’t believe I was there just a couple of weekends ago. Until a few weeks before, I had no idea the place even did this. Visiting the town famous for witchcraft wasn’t really on my bucket list. Halloween hasn’t ever been my favorite holiday. In fact, helping three kids plan and don costumes and carve pumpkins tires me out, and walking around in the cold and sometimes in the rain at night with three small children and without warm attire that might cover up their beloved costumes worries me.

To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate?

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Early on, though, Andrew and I decided to go ahead and celebrate the holiday, despite the fact that some Christians reject it because they fear its historic association with evil. We noticed when we moved to our first house that our neighbors, who almost never saw one another throughout the year, came out in droves at Halloween. They sat in chairs at the end of their driveways passing out candy to trick-or-treaters and visited one another, talking and laughing together. We decided that hiding in the house with the lights off would only alienate us from the people we were trying to build a sense of community with, so we dressed up the babies and took them out in the cold.

That being said, we never considered driving across the country to celebrate the day before. However, Andrew is working on a book about ministry to people who practice pagan religions like witchcraft, and he heard of an outreach that some believers have to the witch community in Salem. It takes place around Halloween, at the festival there. He wanted to see it firsthand, and since we’d be “close” for ICOM (if a ten hour drive counts as “close”!), he wanted to go. We left the kids at the grandparents’ in Virginia and made the longer-than-we-thought drive through New England.

Fearing the Unknown

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The lines for these touristy things were long. Everybody wants to take a ghost tour on Halloween.

Even before we went to Salem, when we told people we were planning on going, we got a variety of reactions from our Christian friends. I think there’s a pervasive idea that inherent evil surrounds Halloween in general and the practice of witchcraft or any kind of pagan religion in particular. Many Christians think that believers should stay away from pagan religions or risk being somehow influenced by evil in ways that they don’t realize until it’s “too late.” It’s as if people think that just because they interact with someone who practices witchcraft or another pagan religion they will be possessed, haunted or pursued by demons.

The more I’ve learned about different religious practices, the less I fear them. There are a couple of reasons going to a place like Salem doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel that it’s pretty important.

1) People confuse today’s witchcraft practices with what is actually superstition. They read about the Salem Witch Trials and to some extent believe the things the community in Salem believed about the women accused of witchcraft—that they had a special communion with the devil, that they held evil power over the people in the community. If we study the Salem incidents, we find that those were superstitious, bored people participating in mass hysteria. Their belief that the women accused of witchcraft had some communication with the devil or demons actually stemmed more from superstitious beliefs about evil than biblical teaching about it.

2) Even if I did think there was inherent evil in today’s practice of witchcraft, I believe the Bible. Throughout it I see that God has more power than any evil spirits. The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus and his disciples taking control of evil spirits, and they don’t seem intimidated in the least by them.

3) I’m not afraid of other religions somehow corrupting my faith. I don’t mind hosting a Muslim for dinner or talking to Hindus. Witchcraft is another religion, and I don’t feel more threatened by that than other world religions. I know what I believe, and I don’t have to change that because I’m with a person who doesn’t believe the same as I do.

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In front of a shop full of witchy stuff. If you look very closely, you can see Andrew in his blue hoodie inside the shop talking to the owner, a self-described shaman who responded enthusiastically to Andrew’s request for information about his beliefs.

4) Signs and symbols and the interpretation of natural events are things Christians see as part of Witchcraft. They shy away with fear that learning what they mean to other people will somehow give them power in their own lives. However, those things only mean what we let them mean to us. For example, when we lived in Ukraine people told me over and over not to sit on concrete. They said the cool concrete would give me a “cold” that I didn’t even know I had until years later when I couldn’t conceive a child. Then I’d know I probably had sat on concrete once and gotten that mysterious cold in my reproductive organs and, well, I had to pay the consequences. I told them if that’s the case I’m surprised the US is populated at all since everyone sits on the concrete! My friend, a highly educated young woman, told me once, “I know it’s not true, that it’s just an old wives’ tale, but I still just can’t do it. It’s still in the back of my head.” The old fiction meant something to her because she gave that meaning to it. She gave it power over her thinking and her actions.

5) If believers don’t reach out to people of other faiths, even witches, who will? This should probably be #1 in the list. Are we just waiting for them to come to us for some reason. Put a church on the corner and surely witches will want to go there? I don’t see that happening.

What We Saw

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people.

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people. In fact, this picture doesn’t show well how big the crowds were.

When we finally found a parking space in the small town of Salem, which was flooded with more people than it was ever meant to hold, and made our way to the middle of the town, we saw a huge crowd of people, many dressed in anything from Harry Potter to Frankenstein and lighted jellyfish. Music and laughter filled the air. People stopped for selfies with scary zombies and ducked into souvenir shops full of witch-themed memorabilia. Tourists lined up to take tours of the important historical spots in town and museums dedicated to the history of the area and the witch trials.

Andrew was hunting the pastor he’d corresponded with who leads an outreach to witches during the festival. We didn’t know what to expect and only had a basic idea of what they do, but he wanted to see their outreach firsthand. We never managed to meet up with that pastor, but we did meet people working with him. One of them had a tent with signs advertising free spiritual readings, free hugs and dream interpretation. This ministry rents space around a small square in the heart of the festival. A great band singing pop music played at one end, and people sat around the square eating or talking.

Andrew started a conversation with one guy standing in front of the tent. He led us into the tent to a woman who sat in the corner. Andrew introduced himself and said he was doing research on outreach to the Wiccan community. The woman, Kelly, was friendly and open. She offered to interpret a dream for him. Now this is where I know I’m losing you because in our branch of the Church there’s not a lot of dream interpreting going on. Most people I know don’t put much stock in it or in God communicating with us through dreams. Hang in here with me, though, and give it a chance!

A Dream’s Meaning

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The tent we visited.

What Kelly did was no different from what I’d do if someone came to me for advice or asked me why I thought they dreamed something. While I don’t know if I really believe God usually talks to me through dreams, I believe that our dreams can tell us something about ourselves and can lead us to seek God in certain areas of our lives. So it makes sense that someone intuitive who listens to God and seeks him in her own life could ask the right questions to help a person understand why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming.

Kelly did just that. She asked Andrew to describe a dream. She told him what she thought it meant. She asked how God could use his dreams to show him areas he wanted Andrew to turn over to him.

That’s pretty straightforward, I think, but she did something else with it that neither Andrew nor I had thought about. She said that sometimes the things we worry about, when turned over to God, become strengths to us. The things he worries about and sometimes dreams about could become areas where God could use him more powerfully. That makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Since Andrew told her about the research he’s doing, he asked some questions about her work. She told us a little about the outreach she’s involved with, how it aims to connect with people at the festival by meeting them on their own turf and communicating in ways they could connect with. Obviously, dream interpretation appeals to the people there. Her kind demeanor, her care for the people who come into her tent attract people who are in need of that acceptance. She spoke to me as well, and I felt so drawn to her that I could completely see how effective she is in her ministry. I left that tent feeling positive and with a renewed sense that people are doing some great things for Jesus in the world.

It is possible to minister to people very different from us. I think God prepares each of us through our life experiences, our personalities, our giftedness and even our family histories to do what it takes to reach out and share Jesus with those who need him. We don’t need to fear contamination by the world but can step boldly forward into the work set in front of us!

What I Learned on a Big Long Road Trip

Taking off work and pulling the kids out of school for a week and a half to go on a cross-country road trip sounds like an adventure, but about nine days into it you realize a few things. 

  1. Those things about your family members that you find slightly annoying at home where you can slip off into the other room when they happen become unavoidably difficult when you are stuck with them for days in a car. Does he smack his lips when he eats or mispronounce the word “Massachusetts” every single time he says it? You’ll be planning a Boston Tea Party by the end of the voyage!
  2. Trying to avoid dropping a chunk of lettuce or an avalanche of black olives on your lap when attempting to enjoy a Subway sandwich while hurtling down I 80 at breakneck speeds will only result in mayo all over your already disgusting travel clothes. 
  3. The youngest will always run out of patience before the others. The point at which this happens is inversely related to the amount of patience you have remaining.   
  4. Someone will inevitably see a stuffed animal/pocket knife/best snack in the world that he or she will choose not to buy at a truck stop and then will lament this choice for at least the rest of the trip.
  5. Fast food, when eaten at every meal for ten days, does bad things to every family member’s stomach. 
  6. A sack full of bananas brought in an attempt to counteract the effects of the fast food will go uneaten and become black and bruised and smelly just a few short hours into the trip. 
  7. The child complaining most about a tummy ache will be the first to demand a snack.  
  8. The most important item, whatever that may be, will be left in the trunk in a bag underneath all other bags and will be needed within 40 min of leaving home. The most important item changes from day to day so it is impossible to predict what that may be and keep it unpacked. 
  9. No matter how exhausted you feel, you will not be able to fall asleep. Unless you’re driving. Then you’ll struggle not to nod off every few minutes. 
  10. When taking turns driving, the driver will decide to stop for a potty break within ten minutes of you finally, finally falling asleep.   
  11. The road construction signs you see for miles in the middle of nowhere will lead you to absolutely no actual road construction but a significant amount of slow traffic.  
  12. When you finally arrive home from this epic journey, you will face a mountain of dirty laundry, a schedule that didn’t pause just because you’re tired from your “vacation,” and a full work week ahead. 
  13. No matter how carefully you budget, you will spend more than you expected you would. 
  14. Within a day of departing, you will find it hard to remember where you actually live, especially if you have moved within the last few years. You may also lose track of info you once thought was firmly ingrained in your mind. Things like what projects you’re working on at work or your current address. You will, however, memorize the complete menu at Arby’s. 
  15. Places like The World’s Largest Truck Stop and the Danish windmill museum become intensely fascinating after hours of monotonous Midwestern landscape.   
  16. You’ll meet some surprisingly nice people in places you never thought you’d meet nice people. Places like a gas station in Connecticut, a parking lot in Illinois and a pastel-colored tent at a festival in Salem, Massachusetts.   
  17. You’ll be so tired of wearing basically the same pair of jeans that you contemplate throwing them alway instead of washing them. 

As I write this, we are on the last leg of a multi-legged trip. We’re within 3 1/2 hours from home, and I am dreaming of driving that whole distance without stopping and without anyone arguing. 

I can’t complain, though. We’ve driven about 60-65 hours in the last ten days and there have been relatively few difficulties. We’ve visited all of the grandparents, talked to more friends than I can count at ICOM (the missionary convention) in Richmond, Virginia, told everyone there how great Nebraska Christian College is and researched Andrew’s book on pagan religions by celebrating Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts!  

 
Right now the kids are all reading quietly except for Emma. She’s sitting in her seat with a blanket over her head, probably in an effort to block out the rest of the world. I don’t know how she can stand it, but I’m thinking of trying it out myself!

How an Introvert Survives a Party

My name is Laura, and I’m an introvert.

You may think because I talk a lot that I’m an extrovert, but that just means I’m an introvert in recovery. Or something. I admit that despite my introvert qualities I like being with people. I search them out and tell them stories, and some people might just run the other way when they see me coming, especially after I drink a cup of coffee because caffeine makes me extra talkative.

I think, though, that I like being with people on my own terms. I like them in small groups. I like them when I approach them. I like them when I’m ready for them. I like them when I know them. I like them when they like me.

This weekend, I found myself in a situation that put me waaay outside of my introvert bubble. My youngest daughter, probably not an introvert herself and probably the only extrovert in our family, got invited to a Christmas open house at her friend’s grandma’s house. I remembered that this friend of hers invited her last year, too, and she could not go for some forgotten reason. This time I told her she could go before I actually inspected the invitation closely. Her friend is moving far away soon, and she is pretty sad about that, so how could I tell her no?

After I read the invite Saturday afternoon, I remembered why I told her she couldn’t go last year. It said “All children under the age of 15 must be accompanied by an adult who stays with them.”  What?! When I saw that, I knew it must be me who went. While I am an introvert on the introvert/extrovert chart, I’m also much closer to extroversion than my husband, who falls solidly in the very introverted category. In our family, that means that if there’s a social gathering that requires only one of us to go, I’m probably the one, and I’m OK with that most of the time.

This time I headed to the house with not a little bit of trepidation. Apparently this family holds a huge Christmas party every year, and all of the family members invite friends. That includes Grandma and Grandpa, who actually organize the thing, Mom and Dad, and all four kids, so there are a lot of people there. We arrived at the house. I walked in, and my daughter disappeared upstairs with her friend. I looked around. I knew no one. I mean not one person looked even remotely familiar. An older and very friendly lady hugged me and said how happy she was that I could come, and I had no idea who she was or who she thought I was for that matter!

I went straight to the bathroom and stayed there while I adjusted to the idea that I was about to be surrounded by strangers and expected to party without knowing anyone, but a person can only stay in the bathroom for so long when the house is chock full of people. I left the bathroom and tried to look nonchalant while furtively scanning the rooms for someone who looked familiar and might be the boy’s mom, whom I’d only met once or so. I feared that when I saw her she would remember me and I wouldn’t remember her, and how embarrassing would that be?

In the process, I ended up finding another woman with a face that registered the full range of confusion, alarm and false cheer that mine probably did. I made my way toward her, and, careful not to scare her off, I introduced myself. We chatted for a moment, and I could tell she was holding onto me as much as I was holding onto her, so we had each other. After a while of hiding in a corner, talking to her, and observing the party together with her, I noticed that, while some of the men did have on suits, my jeans fit in with many of the other people. I noticed that the woman/lifesaver I was talking to and I weren’t the only ones who did not know anyone. I also noticed that quite a few people had gravitated toward the front room, were singing 60’s and 70’s songs and appeared to be antique hippies, and for some reason that disarmed me a little. I guess I figured if the hippies were having fun, I could too. In addition to that, I noticed that there was one group who felt much more intimidated by the crowd and even found their lives in danger in such a house full of people. The homeowners had these tiny chihuahuas who scurried around, nervously shivering in their little Christmas coats, dodging people’s feet. I tell you, if all of them are still alive today, I’m surprised, since I was sure all evening that they would either be smashed by the crowd, fallen on by an unsteady toddler, or just die of sheer terror.

Since I know a lot of introverts, I bet a bunch of the people reading this understand completely where I’m coming from. Here are some tips for introverts who want to enjoy the party scene:

  1. Take something to distract yourself. If you’re messing with your phone, you’ve got a reason to be solitary. If you’re trapped by someone you prefer not to be trapped by, you’ve got an out. You can make the excuse that someone is texting/calling you, and you don’t even have to worry that the other person will notice that the phone didn’t ring or vibrate since it’s so ridiculously loud in that room.
  2. Take a baby or a toddler with you. I can’t believe that I’m saying this after my angst at having had to leave many a social gathering because one or more of my children had a meltdown or a nap or a blowout, but if you really don’t want to be there or don’t want to socialize, a tiny human will give you a reason not to interact with adults. Plus they will inevitably cry, and you will leave. For probably the first time ever, I envied the woman chasing a toddler around the house at that party.
  3. Find someone else uncomfortable and team up. Misery loves company, and finding someone who doesn’t know anyone or feels left out can help.
  4. Eat. Or drink. Find the food and eat it. This one is self-explanatory.
  5. Help the hostess. Hey, I wish I had thought of this Saturday! If you’re helping, you forget that you’re a dork without a friend in the world and stop feeling like you’re just bouncing around helplessly.
  6. Play with (or in this case protect) the dog. This will bring you around other people who also like dogs and then you’ll have allies.
  7. Watch tv. I was about to get into football big time because there was a tv playing some game. I mean, I think it was football. There were guys and a ball on a field.
  8. Snoop around. Hey, why not? They’re all partying in the kitchen and dining room. It’s the perfect time to look around the rest of their house. (I promise I did not do this–except the bathroom. Remember, I spent quite a bit of time in there at first. Interestingly enough, there was a vacuum cleaner in the bathtub!)
  9. Just stand there. How bad can it be just to stand there and watch everyone? If you smile a little, you look pleasant enough. I bet you can find out lots of stuff just by watching and listening to the people around you.
  10. Make it a game to talk to as many people as possible. Wait. Games are supposed to be fun, and that doesn’t sound fun whatsoever. Forget that one!

I survived Saturday night and the work party on the previous night and the work friend’s open house on the next night, and guess what! I actually enjoyed all of the parties. I am also happy that I got most of the Christmas partying done in just one weekend. If you’re an introvert faced with a slew of Christmas parties, buckle on your elf shoes and dive in. But remember my ten suggestions in case you feel overwhelmed at the open house!

The Best Way to Travel with Kids

 

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

I’ve been a mom for almost thirteen years. All of that time, we’ve lived far away from family. That means that most “vacations” have been trips to the grandparents’ houses and have involved driving long distances with very small and very squirrely people. We’ve tried all kinds of methods to get from point A to point B without a murder/suicide pact, but I discovered the best one yet last week: travel with coworkers.

It sounds crazy, I know. In fact, before we left for our 14-hour road trip to ICOM (International Conference on Missions) in Columbus, Ohio, I dreaded the idea of packing my husband, my three children and myself into a mini van with my boss and another professor from the college where we work. I imagined hours of monotony infused with severe whining and me maybe doing something horrible like yelling at the kids while simultaneously trying to hold an adult conversation with a Ph.D.

My boy is the cutest boy.

My boy is the cutest boy.

As it turned out, though, I was very wrong about the whole thing. In fact, I hadn’t even considered the idea that the presence of outsiders might make our family nicer to each other. My children, being preteens and old enough to entertain themselves for longer stretches than 3.2 seconds, brought books, notebooks, homework (!), DS games, and they actually kept themselves busy about 70% of the time.

Of course, kids their ages are decent at being nice to each other, but sometimes they get tired and feel cramped and bored. When that happened on this trip, the children did something wonderful. Instead of yelling at each other and pushing each other around, they calmly (most of the time) expressed themselves and guess what! Having two extra adults in the vehicle proved wonderfully handy. Instead of Andrew and me shouldering the entire burden for entertaining and refereeing, whenever the boredom started setting in, one of the other grown-ups came up with something interesting for them to talk about or listen to or do. Imagine that! We brought a village in the van with us, and they helped us raise our kids for a few days.

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving...

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving…

One of the professors regaled us all with stories from his doctoral dissertation in literature, and that proved interesting and informative.  During the long ride home, in what felt like the middle of the dark night but really was only about 6 pm, the other one broke out in a narrative poem/story he recited from memory. Very impressive, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss.

The best parts, though, were not related entirely to the children’s behavior. I watched us all together and I realized a few things.

1.  I enjoyed seeing my coworkers in a different and unusual setting. I see them at work, interacting with students and other faculty and staff, but I never see them on a ridiculously long road trip with children. They both have grandchildren of their own, though, and I got to see the grandfather come out in them. I like them better now, having seen how gently they treated my children. Like I said above, my children don’t get to see family very often, and this trip reiterated for me how God provides families for us when he leads us far from our biological families.

2.  Children spend more time with their parents than anyone, and I think that sometimes can get oppressive. They need other people’s input in their lives. Seeing other adults, listening to them talk, hearing the way they spoke to each other and to their own children on the phone during the trip gave my kids a different perspective, little glimpses of other ways to view the world. Not to mention that they listened to us converse about things other than what was for dinner and whether the cats and dogs will ever get along in our house. They got to hear about theology and literature and ministry and all sorts of important things that I know very little about and rarely discuss with them.

3.  My own behavior improved drastically on this trip because nothing will make you nicer and more patient with your children than having your boss sit there and listen to you talk to them. I realized how much my attitude affects the children’s behavior. The old saying holds some truth: “If Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” That can go for Dad, as well, of course. One person can bring down a carload, and one person can build up a carload as well. I need to remember that in everyday life!

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year's ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year’s ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

So now that we have made it home and have managed not to do anything horribly embarrassing, we can be thankful for the experience. I think my kids will remember the time they travelled with the faculty! Now if we can just convince them to go with us on our next family vacation…!

Anything Else?

 

Nobody make any sudden moves. The whole place is about to blow to smithereens!

Nobody make any sudden moves. The whole place is about to blow to smithereens!

“When it rains, it pours.” “Bad things happen in threes” (or fours or fives, at times). We’ve heard the old proverbs before. Old sayings are said for a reason. It seems that way too often they’re true.

Last week those two proverbs proved true in our house, at least. It all started one night when Hannah noticed the cat doing his business on the dog’s bed. She shooed him off, but then he went to another spot and tried to do the same. This was a first for him, so we didn’t know what to do. We locked him and his sister in the laundry room with the litter box and cleaned up the mess. Then I went on an errand.

I was only gone for an hour at the most, and when I returned I expected to open the door to a quiet house with children sleeping and Andrew reading or sleeping or doing something else peaceful. Instead the front door swung open, and Emma stood in the entrance.

“What are you doing up this late?” I asked.

“While you were gone, we tried to get the cats back in the laundry room. I carried Smokey down, and she clawed my stomach and tried to bite me because she didn’t want to go into the room with the water.”

“Water? What water?” I asked. I mean, it’s just a laundry room, not an indoor pool. Although that would be nice…

“The water on the floor of the laundry room from where the laundry overflowed.”

This was not what I wanted to hear. Water on the laundry room floor means one of two things: the pipes to and from the washing machine broke or the main line backed up. Neither one of those sounded good at all.

Turns out, the main line chose that night to get clogged with tree roots, and since I’m in charge of laundry and wasn’t home, no one noticed that water covered the floor until the cats put up a fuss and somehow escaped. So our laundry room floor, which some brilliant former owner thought to cover with carpet (?!?) became a spongy, stinky mess.

The next morning, Andrew called the plumber. After he did his thing and sewage no longer flowed into our house instead of out of it, we were left with a smelly mess downstairs and a nice plumbing bill. Enter Stanley Steemer, who graciously cleaned up our mess…for a fee, of course.

At the same time that the plumber was working in the basement, the oven chose to go out. It had been dying slowly since last summer, but it must have thought, “Hey, if everyone else is freaking out, I will, too!” and gave up the ghost. The next morning, Emma sat on my lap and cried that she couldn’t see the board in class and her glasses weren’t working anymore.

I called the eye doctor, we went oven shopping, and we thought all was well. The salesguy even surprised us by saying the oven we chose was 15% off, so we felt happy to get a deal on it. The happiness didn’t last long, though. That night when they delivered the oven, they also told us that the pipes that brought gas to it were not up to code and they could not install it.

Enter the same plumbing service, which took four hours to install all new pipes to the oven, which required new pipes to the water heater and the furnace. All for a price higher than

the cost of the oven itself.  Alex summed it up pretty well when he said to me the other day, “Well, I guess I’ll have to be an aerospace engineer when I grow up after all. You people won’t have any money at all saved for retirement. I need a job that makes enough to support us all!”

Did I mention that I think the cat’s sick and we probably still have that bill coming up.

For crying out loud! I’m almost afraid to make any sudden movements now, for fear of breaking something, flooding something, making something sick. We thought about stopping by Starbucks for coffee while the kids were in youth group tonight, but then we realized that we do not have even close to enough money to pay for that coffee, so we just came home.

Let’s just hope the old proverb “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is true, too!

What’s Your Goliath?

Bring it on!

Bring it on!

The Story

I left my father early that morning, carrying a load of grain, bread, and cheese for my brothers. My stomach fluttered with excitement at the prospect of being among all of those fighting men, armed and ready for battle. All of my life, I’d dreamed of fighting the Philistines, of being part of our great army blessed by God! I arrived at the camp just in time–just as the soldiers were lining up for battle.  Finding the keeper of the supplies, I left my donkey and his burden and hurried to find my brothers in the ranks.

I had barely greeted them when I heard the voice. It boomed out over the ranks, echoed off the hillsides. I craned my neck to see him. Anyone with a voice like that had to be big! I was not disappointed. He stood in front of his army, covered with bronze from head to toe and carrying a spear as big as a weaver’s rod. Its iron point alone weighed as much as a young sheep, yet he handled it with ease.

“Why are you lining up for battle? Choose a man to come and fight me…if you have any men that is!” His laugh rang out. “If he kills me, we will all be your subjects.” I heard his mocking tone.

“Why are you all just standing there?” I turned to my brothers. “Someone go and fight him!”

My oldest brother furrowed his brow. “Boy, go home to Dad. You don’t understand this situation. We can’t fight that giant of a man!”

“What are you talking about? I’ve killed bears almost as big as him. God is on our side. What’s an arrogant man compared to the Creator of everything?”

He shook his head. “Go back to your sheep,” he scorned. “You just came down here to poke your nose in our business and watch a battle!” He spun on his heel and walked away.

I turned to the other men, but they all averted their eyes, angry and embarrassed. One man put his hand on my shoulder.

“Come with me,” he said. I hurried after him to a tent in the back of the encampment. Guards surrounded it. Strong hands pushed me through the opening. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I heard a man talking in low tones to the one who had brought me. He turned toward me, and I saw that it was the king himself!

“You think you can defeat that giant?” he demanded. I swallowed hard, cleared my throat.

“I have been tending my father’s sheep most of my life. Sometimes a bear or a lion comes and carries away one of them. I pursue it, fight it with my hands, and kill it to rescue the sheep. If God can save me from a bear or a lion, he will save me from this Philistine!” At that moment, I knew it would be true. I knew God would save me, would save his people.

To my surprise, Saul agreed to let me try, even gave me his weapons and armor, but I felt heavy and uncomfortable. I chose to go out to face the giant as myself, not pretending to be a grown warrior. As we walked toward the field where I knew the giant waited, we crossed a stream. I stopped and chose my weapons: five stones. I put them in my pouch, rubbing my fingers across their smooth surfaces. In my other hand I held my sling.

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

The giant and his shield bearer approached as we stepped forward. I saw him stop, and a look of derision crossed his face. He threw back his great, bronze-covered head and laughed.

“Have they sent a little puppy to fight me?” He cursed me by his gods. “Come on over so I can feed you to the birds today!”

“You come at me with a sword and spear and javelin,” I called out. My voice sounded loud and strong. That man was no match for my God. “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I will strike you down and cut off your head! Today the birds will eat your flesh!” I felt the stones in my pouch. “Today all the world will know there is a God in Israel. Everyone here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves. The battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hands!”

His face turned dark, and he rushed toward me. I ran toward him as well, pulling a stone from my pouch. As I had done hundreds of times, practicing in the fields with the sheep and even protecting them from bears and lions, I placed the stone in the sling. With one fluid motion, I swung it, released the stone, and watched as it sailed through the air and sank into the giant’s forehead. He toppled forward, falling face down onto the ground. His shield bearer dropped his shield and ran. I hurried forward. Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed Goliath’s own sword, pulled it from its scabbard, and cut off his head with it!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

My fellow Israelites flooded around me, yelling at the victory, and chased the fleeing Philistines. That day the dead Philistines were strewn all along the road to Gath and Ekron.

The king’s man found me again in the crowd and brought me to Saul’s tent once more.

“Whose son are you, young man?” he asked me.

“I am the son of your servant, Jesse of Bethlehem,” I answered. I saw a man approach from behind the king, carrying something heavy and bulky. Saul turned to him, motioning him to come closer.

“I believe these are yours,” he smiled, presenting the Philistine’s weapons. “I will remember you, son of Jesse.”

The Application

I wrote that for the class I’m taking, and I had so much fun imagining the scene, wondering about what David must have thought. I can still close my eyes and see that dusty field, a hill on each end, with fighting men assembled and a loud and scary voice paralyzing the army with fear.

I have always liked to write. As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued with words and stories and how people put words together in specific ways that make their stories come to life. Even as a child, before I could read, I made picture books with scrap paper my grandpa brought home from work, binding them together with bright red yarn. Words make sense to me. I love telling stories, either in written form or aloud, and I work hard every day in the office to shut my mouth so I won’t drive my coworkers insane with the funny things I think of to tell them (If you work with me, just allow the rest of the world to think I am successful at this endeavor, ok?!).

Today I listened to a speaker talk about how we need to find our core identity and let God work in that, using us in the way that he’s made us to be used. He said a lot of great stuff that I hope I remember, but one of the things that stuck in my mind dealt with how people resist changing. They resist stepping into the unpredictable to become awesome and instead stay with what is predictable, where they are just ok. They like the security of the predictable, even when they have a nagging feeling that it’s not really what they were created for, not where God can use them in great ways.

I think that’s a little like David and Goliath. David had a choice that day on the battlefield. He was young, untrained. Absolutely nobody expected anything from him. They definitely did not expect him to step forward and fight the giant that had seasoned warriors shaking in their sandals! He had the choice to stand in the safe predictable-ness of the crowd and be just ok or to step forward into the unpredictable awesomeness that God had planned for him. One little stone stood between him and God’s will, and he chose to step out.

What is your Goliath today? What’s blocking the road to what God has in store for you? I ask only because I’m willing to share my own roadblocks. My Goliath comes in fear of letting go and forgiving people who have hurt me in the past. My Goliath comes in fear that I won’t be good enough, that my writing, which I think may be part of what God wants to use in some way, will stink, that people will read it and think, “Whoa! Better stick with your day job, honey!” My Goliath comes in fear of not measuring up, of stepping out on faith and trying to forgive or trying to love more or trying something that leaves me vulnerable and then falling flat on my face and making a mess of it all.

What Goliath is standing on your battlefield today? Are you ready to reach down and pick up that smooth stone God put just within your reach?

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.

 

What If People Talked About Soft Drinks the Way They Talk About Coffee

I’m visiting my sister in Hawaii this week. Yes, I know. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. You know, beaches, beautiful sunsets, warm weather. We ate dinner outside last night, and no mosquitoes attacked us, no prairie wind blew our dinner off the table, and we did not even have on jackets.

How interesting that the beautiful lamp silhouette appears just in front of the sun...

How interesting that the beautiful lamp silhouette appears just in front of the sun.

But I hate to unload my troubles on you.

Besides the heavenly surroundings, I get to be with my sister. Until this trip, I hadn’t seen her since she and her husband moved away from the midwest about three or four years ago. It seems like a lot longer than that, since my kids were just little things when they left and now they’re getting ready for being teenagers, but I guess it was just a few years ago.

At the beach, in case you didn't notice.

At the beach, in case you didn’t notice.

I’m blessed with a good relationship with my sister, which is interesting to me because I can’t say I’ve had the very best relationship with the rest of my family all of these years. My sister and I never really argue about stuff. We did some when we were little, and I remember an epic battle when we were teenagers. It had to do with a fan that she kept pointing at me, even though I said I didn’t want it pointing at me and moved it away every time she moved it toward me. (I only fight over really important stuff like that.) Full of rage, I saw her impossibly large, 80’s-teased-out, curly hair and impulsively grabbed a handful of it and pulled. She rose from the couch in painful indignation and ripped out half my bangs. I mean, I heard those babies screaming as their follicles left my head.

At that moment, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. Although she is younger than I am, my sister has always been a force to be reckoned with physically. I have always been able to reason my way to winning just about every argument, but if it ever comes to a knock-down-drag-out with her, I am destined to lose, lose, lose. And in a way that I will probably never forget. Like the time she punched me in the stomach and knocked the breath out of me or the time she grabbed both of my arms and wrestled me to the ground. Yep, I think twice before I tangle with her physically, especially now that she’s a personal trainer and I’m an overweight, middle-aged mom who would rather sit at her computer than run a mile.

That last big fight over the fan ended with her chasing me to my parents’ room and me waking them up to beg for protection, which is what I usually did, being the tattletale oldest who could probably make anything look like the other’s fault (sorry, Emily!).

So we get along pretty well and have come to the comfortable place where we don’t really bring up things that I can verbally bash her in or things that she can send me to the ER about. Instead, we like to make fun of things. That was one of the things we were both looking forward to doing when I came here, and I yesterday we started the fun.

It was morning, and I saw their coffeemaker and told her how I have thought about getting a Keurig machine. I don’t really drink enough coffee to make a full pot of it, so it seems like a waste of time to get out all of the stuff to make coffee. Seems like it would be easier just to pop one of those little thingies into the machine and make one cup. She said she didn’t drink coffee, and I said I don’t like coffee, but I drink it because if I don’t drink it I’m going to want to drink Mt. Dew.

There, I said it. In the morning, first thing, I will pour a cup of super-healthy Mt. Dew if I can. Before I even think about it, I will grab that 2 liter and swallow down enough calories for a meal. Now that I’m on a health kick and at least trying not to consume a week’s worth of calories in one cup, I’ve cut back on Mt. Dew and all soft drinks. Instead I drink a little bit of coffee in the morning, just so I can have something different and not boring, like water.

The bad thing is that at work people make coffee because they like the caffeine, and I really do not want the caffeine. I would rather have decaf, and I would love it if I could find caffeine-free Mt. Dew in the stores. Unfortunately, it is as rare as a snowball on the Hawaiin beach.

This led to our discussion: what if people talked about soft drinks the way they talk about coffee. Every morning, I read my newsfeed and find all kinds of memes about coffee and how people can’t live without it. When you put it in a different context, you can see how strange it is. What if the newsfeed were clogged with memes about drinking soft drinks early in the morning?

coke baby

mt dew demon

cat

batman

 

Mt Dew sad

Mr Pibb raccoon

It seems odd to me that so many places offer free coffee now. Churches hand it out, my daughter’s orthodontist supplies it, our bank gives it to customers. Why is coffee such an acceptable thing to hand to people, but nobody offers a free Coke to every person who enters. Now that the Keurig machine has made it easier to make a single cup, it seems even more places offer it, but don’t tell me it’s because it’s cheaper than a soft drink. Those little Keurig things cost money, too.

Well, anyway, we had a good laugh over it, and now I’m wondering what more we can laugh about while I’m here. Maybe the teenagers posing like porn stars in their bikinis on the beach?