Hope: to expect with confidence

We came home Friday evening to a clean and orderly house, which stayed that way for less than 24 hours.

Many years ago we recognized the insanity of bringing more Stuff into our home for December and January birthdays with Christmas sandwiched between without first ridding our home of some of our outgrown Stuff.

As we traveled last week, we had only Saturday to observe our annual Pre-Christmas Closet Clean-Out. This year Guy worked with his sons, setting a reasonable limit of Closet Only instead of Whole Room. I tackled an odd spot in our bedroom: both sides of our recliner where stuff tends to pile and my bookshelf/cupboard. Oh, and the Blouse section of my closet. Not enough by any means, but enough for one day.

This year I had a little extra inspiration from my college associate, Margot Starbuck, a super-creative, colorful and dynamic woman who also tells a great story. She wrote an article for Her.meneutics on getting rid of 1,000 things. I did not try to count the things we got rid of yesterday, so I have no idea how close we got to that number; it took Margot a few days, so I’m sure we had a few (hundred) things to go. And we did a bit of shuffling: at least one book went from my shelf to Teen’s, while my never-worn slippers went to Tween, for example. Still, we formed a sizable pile of donations for the Bay Area Rescue Mission.

My mom repeated a quote (author unknown) to me on Thanksgiving: “America is the only country with a day set aside to give thanks for what we have, celebrated by buying stuff we don’t need.” Right-o. “Need versus Want” is one of our family values, meaning we do what needs doing (homework, housework, etc) first before spending time on things we’d probably rather do; we spend money on what we need before buying what we want. Which means I’ve stayed out of stores this fall as we’ve been paying off our summer in Costa Rica and saving up for Disneyland and the holidays. And truly, we don’t need very much.

My favorite line from Margot’s article: “…I’d not recognized the weight I’d been carrying—of paying for the stuff, and caring for the stuff, and storing the stuff, and moving the stuff around in the front hall closet so I could reach the other stuff behind the first stuff.” Yes! While I admittedly still desire Stuff, I have little desire to be Stuff Manager.

As soon as yesterday’s Closet Clean-Out piles were sorted and stacked, the fall decor made for a new pile as out came the Christmas decorations. By this evening we hope to have the indoor decorations up (and clean and order restored); by next weekend we’ll have a lit and decorated tree.

Advent has begun.

“Advent” means “coming” in Latin and is the season in the Church calendar during which we prepare our hearts for the Lord’s coming, first on Christmas and ultimately as He ushers His people into eternity.

I did not grow up in a church that observed Advent, but I have come to love its intentionality. Christmas festivities make for lots of hustle and bustle – parties, baking, shopping, wrapping; the Christmas cards alone will take hours over weeks to create, order, address, stamp, mail. Advent invites me to pause in the midst of Christmas activities, to listen for His gentle whisper, to focus on the work He will do in my heart as I await His coming.

Before dinner tonight we will light the first candle of Advent. This year our church will focus on the theme of HOPE, and so our daily readings will also focus on hope. “Hope” means “to expect with confidence.” While we so often use it as a synonym for “wish” – “I’m wishing/hoping for a new car this Christmas!” – it is better understood as a synonym for “trust” – “I hope/trust in Jesus as my Savior.”

These readings have been written to guide you and your loved ones through the Advent season; you may use them with family, small group, or individually. May the God of hope clean out and fill up our hearts!

Week 1 – Hope of Israel
November 30-December 6

Read Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

Candle lighting: Light the first candle.

Read: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The first candle represents the hope of Israel.

Imagine a midnight darkness that lasts all day. Imagine going to school or work in the dark; spending time with family and friends in the dark; living in constant, total darkness. That’s what life without hope is like. God promised to send His Son to bring light and hope into this dark world. God’s people hope for the arrival of this baby who will bring comfort, justice, strength and peace.

Pray: Dear God, thank you for promising light and hope for a dark world. Thank you for sending your Son to us. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

 

Throughout the Week//light the candle, read and discuss the daily Scripture and pray together.

Light the first candle as you say: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Read & Discuss:
Monday// Jeremiah 29:11// How do you feel knowing that God has plans for you?Tuesday// Psalm 71:5// When did you first put your hope in God?
Wednesday// Psalm 130:7// When have you experienced the Lord’s unfailing love?Thursday// Matthew 5:17// God kept His promise when He sent His Son, Jesus. How can that help you trust Him this week?
Friday// Matthew 22:36-39// What will you do today to love God, neighbor and self?Saturday// Luke 1:67-68// Jesus rescues us from sin. How has Jesus saved your life?

Pray: Dear God, thank you for promising light and hope for a dark world. Thank you for sending your Son to us. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.

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Thankful Thursday

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.” –Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go, quoted in Real Simple magazine, Nov. 2014

This month I took on a gratitude challenge, three thanksgiving’s each day for the month. Like most challenges, it started easier than it has finished (though it’s not over yet). Over a particularly busy few days I recorded nothing at all, and gratitude in extended hindsight doesn’t work as effectively – what moments of grace did I experience last Wednesday? Oh goodness, I can’t remember this morning let alone last week!

Yet as with most disciplines, the effort, imperfect as it so often is, pays off. I am grateful to have recorded these gifts, to be able to look back over the month and see God’s goodness played out in the details of my life. How quickly time passes, and how full life can be, especially when I take time to say “Thank you!”

I found confirmation of my experience in this gratitude experiment in this article in Real Simple. Gratitude leads to feelings of happiness, boosted energy, greater health, resilience when necessary, improved relationships, and acts of kindness. Gratitude changes us and those around us in a beautiful cycle of thanksgiving.

This month I have given thanks for shared love and laughter with my family; specific acts of kindness by friends; dog snuggles; a flock of favorite birds in our backyard tree; quiet moments; unexpected words when I needed them; natural beauty; opportunities to serve; fun adventures; home. All this in the midst of so much more.

Some of the “more” in this month has been painful, hard moments filled with negative emotions and tears. Even when life is good it can be up-and-down overfull of good and bad. Which is why I – we – need so desperately to recall the truth: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5). God is the God of hope, worthy of praise, Savior who allows us to associate with Him so personally, “my God.” My God!

Which begs the question: just how much harder might this month have been had I not engaged in a discipline of gratitude?

This morning we met up for a beach walk with friends we haven’t seen in a while. SoCal weather has been in the mid- to high-80’s, bright blues and vivid greens-turning-to-browns prevailing. The breeze couldn’t defeat the beating sun, nor did we need it to. The forecast says much-needed rain is coming and for today we enjoy this unbelievable Thanksgiving weather.

Our friends downsized when they moved NorCal south. In their move they gained easy beach access and a simpler state of being. Funny thing, we moved the opposite direction and while we drive much farther to access the coast, we also gained a simpler state of being, a slower pace, the community for which we so longed. As much as I need to remember that, I do miss this:

birds

Sitting and soaking in the view will always be good for my soul, and an extra-special gift this Thanksgiving.

This afternoon the guys and I prepared delicious and (our version of) traditional holiday food with my side of the family; we enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal together with my mom, sister, brother, and nephew. The food and drink was special, the table beautifully set, we wore something a little nicer than our usual scrubs. For a time, any drama was set aside and we enjoyed one another’s company. We laughed and told stories, we remembered those who cannot be with us, we created new memories for times ahead when we cannot be together.

We said thanks, and appreciated this day set aside in honor of thanks-giving.

Mickey Matters

I love Disneyland!

holiday castle

Not in an obsessive, appareled and home outfitted, pin collecting and trading sort of way (not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s you), but still, I love it. Having grown up in SoCal, Disneyland was “in our backyard” and a regular excursion several times a year for family trips, youth group trips, school trips, you name it.

Of course, it wasn’t nearly so expensive then. Dating myself, I even remember the days of E Ticket rides when Disneyland was free and you paid per ride. And then the SoCal discount, which for a while got you in for about $25 admission.

Strange as it may sound, as a regular part of my life, Disney also influenced my theology.

*Disney encourages child-likeness and so does Jesus: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The wonder, delight, imagination and creativity Disney imbues into the smallest details lights up my soul and reminds me of the beauty our Creator God created into our world and our lives.

*This sign at the entrance to Disneyland

Disneyland sign

sounds reminiscent of this description of Jesus from Hebrews 13:8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Disneyland may change (becoming ever more delightful) yet The Magic Kingdom remains “the happiest place on earth.” For those who believe in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come and we live in the joy-filled presence of the King yesterday, today, and forever.

*It’s not enough to go to Disneyland; you have to enter the Kingdom. Why wait at the gates and never spin the turn-style? Similarly, it’s not enough to go to church; you must enter into a relationship with Jesus. A whole new world becomes available when you enter the gates, when you say “Yes!” to Jesus. When Guy and I were in our 20’s we had a friend in her 40’s who lost the use of her legs to a childhood bout with polio. She loved Disneyland but, confined to a motorized wheelchair, she realistically thought her Disney experience was limited to shops, parades, shows, and Mr. Lincoln, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Content just to be in the park, she was still on the outside of the Disney experience. During one group trip to Disneyland we convinced our friend that Star Tours would be completely safe and doable. We entered through the exit (a small perk) and several of our strapping young men carried her into a seat. She was completely blown away! Having tasted the truth, what else could she try? Matterhorn, Space Mountain, the log ride, we did it all. The joy of the real Disney experience overflowed. It changed her, and it changed the rest of us as well. God’s hand at work didn’t escape our notice as we witnessed, participated in, a conversion unfolding before us. When you go all in, there is so much more to life in the Kingdom.

*And perhaps the most significant aspect of my Disney-influenced theology: hidden Mickeys. One spring, long before we had kids, Guy and I took five Disneyland trips with friends and family in the course of three short months. By trip three we began to get bored (gasp!) and then someone mentioned hidden Mickeys, the three circles that form the “classic” Mickey Mouse shape hidden in plain sight throughout Disney parks and animated films. The hunt for hidden Mickeys transformed our next trip. We looked for, and found, hidden Mickeys. We swapped stories with other hunters. And we observed that as we trained our eyes we saw Disneyland differently; as we train our eyes – and our hearts – to look for God, we see life differently. In Isaiah 6:3 the angels declare, ““Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” But we won’t see the Lord’s glory unless we open our eyes to see it. We find what we seek.

And so it has been important for me to share Disneyland with my own kids. We moved away from SoCal when Tween was only a toddler; it has since required significant logistical (and financial) effort to create Disney memories. Five years ago we celebrated my birthday at Disneyland (our first trip to California Adventure); this week we spent two days there, likely our last trip while Teen still lives under our roof.

Disney theology aside, Disneyland can be completely over-stimulating, capable of bringing out your very worst self. Amid the happy faces we saw plenty of families fighting and young children screaming. It is real life on steroids. And so we look for miracles in the mundane, as extraordinary as this mundane may be.

Where did we see miracles?

*We put our cell phones away and shared conversation and experiences. We played together.

*We each compromised for the sake of the family. Tween doesn’t cherish big thrills while Teen lives for them. Teen put away his teen pride to ride Dumbo. Tween tried Space Mountain, Matterhorn, Indiana Jones. Afraid of heights, I braved Soarin’ Over California. When Tween decided that Space Mountain wasn’t scary, was in fact his favorite ride, Guy rode it more than once even though he doesn’t like it.

*I enjoyed one-on-one time with Tween while the others rode California Screaming, beyond Tween’s comfort zone. We rode the Under the Sea carousel and the Golden Zephyr, both of which he loved. I commented, “See? It’s fun to be a child!” to which he replied, “It is, and I think you enjoy being a child just as much as I do!”

*Of his own accord, Teen decided that he would bow to any little princess who made eye contact with him. He graciously played the role of prince and added to so many little girls’ wonder-filled day at Disney.

*We told stories from previous Disney trips and both created and re-created memories our kids will be able to share with their friends and family.

If you live in SoCal, you can stop reading now as you probably have your own Disney do’s and don’t’s. If you’re planning a Disney trip, this is for you based on what worked and didn’t for us.

*Never, ever, ever buy tickets from a private vendor. With such a big heart of goodness, Guy trusts too willingly. He bought discount tickets from a young woman who claimed her grandmother bought tickets for the grandkids who couldn’t use them. She lied, took his money, and disconnected her phone. The tickets had been used (Disney takes your picture and associates it with the ticket bar code so tickets are completely non-transferable – which would’ve been good to know beforehand) and we had to buy tickets at the gate, a painful punch to the pocketbook.

*Go on a weekday. Friday Disney was at 64% capacity and it felt doable; Saturday it was at 81% capacity and it felt like 100%. Holiday time is extra-special with all the beautiful decorations.

*Comfort rules, especially, wear good walking shoes. We walked 25 miles in two days and that doesn’t count the hours standing in line. Fourteen+ hour days on your feet will take a toll even in the most supportive shoes.

*Where to stay: two ways to go… since you will really only sleep and shower in the hotel, you can go budget. You’ll want to be within easy walking distance, with an included continental breakfast, and affordable parking. Or save your pretty pennies and stay at the Paradise Pier. You’ll have a shorter walk and get into the park an hour before opening. We stayed at PP last time and I wish we’d made the same choice this trip.

*App at it. Seriously, download Disney’s park app. It will tell you wait times at lines which is oh so very helpful in deciding where to spend your time.

*Go with the flow. Pick a park, pick a direction, and go for it. Encourage everyone to try (just about) everything with an open mind and attitude.

*Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. We walked a fine line, gently nudging Tween beyond what he wanted to do while also respecting his boundaries. He may never go on Indiana Jones again, but especially after the ride broke and we had to be escorted out, it was important to us that he have the full experience before we left the park. California Screaming looks too “traditional coaster” and he knows he doesn’t like roller coasters so we let that one stand. Taking risks and setting limits are both valid options, a good life lesson.

*Lockers cost less than lunch. We stuffed a backpack with bagels and cream cheese, fruit, trail mix, and a water bottle, along with our jackets for after sundown, and stuck them in a locker. As food averages $10-15/person/meal, the locker saved us significantly on lunch.

*Put the cell phones away. Our kids left their phones in the hotel; parents brought cell phones to use as cameras and to keep in contact when we went separate ways. This meant line-waiting actually became family time. We saw our kids faces instead of the tops of their heads.

*Caffeinate the kids. In generally we stay off sodas, but a caffeine jolt can really help get everyone through the day.

*Take advantage of Fast Pass, essentially a reservation to ride, but be strategic: if the wait time for Space Mountain is an hour, you’ll need to wait an hour until you can get another FP.

*Let the wonder captivate you. Disney does a great job creating “moments.” I got a little choked up during the holiday lighting of Small World. Not just me, the kids readily admitted it was cool.

holiday small world

Two days later and we are still recovering from Disney-induced exhaustion, but it was worth it. We closed our Disney adventure with Fantasmic, the show on the Rivers of the World, followed by fireworks. Fantasmic allows us access into Mickey Mouse’s dream where “beauty and love will always reign true.” After defeating his nightmares and dancing with his good guy buddies Mickey exclaims, “Now that’s a dream!” Which is just how I feel – we had quite a Disney dream. Until next time…

Bug bye

The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just closed this book, dried my eyes and blew my nose, and still haven’t caught my breath… Ouch. War and death, pain and beauty. Life’s worst and best in an ugly-beautiful stew.

Despite having heard the accolades, I didn’t want to read it. When I finally picked it up, I almost set it down again upon realizing just Who would narrate these 500+ pages. I gave him a chance and now I feel a little sorry for him. Compassion for Death… a good story can make almost anything into a possibility.

Quotes:
“The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words” (446).

“I have hated the words and
I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right” (528).

“His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say, ‘I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come'” (531-532).

And from the author’s interview: “I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it. It’s probably what I love most about writing – that words can be used in a way that’s like a child playing in a sandpit, rearranging things, swapping them around. They’re the best moments in a day of writing – when an image appears that you didn’t know would be there when you started work in the morning” (11).

Meatless Monday

My favorite meals contain vegetables simply prepared: tossed salads with homemade vinaigrette, veggie chili, roasted or BBQ’d veggies, and soups. Almost nothing satisfies stomach and soul on a chilly evening like a steaming bowl of veggie soup. I found this recipe for White Bean & Pasta Soup a couple of years ago, right around this time of year, and it immediately became a family favorite. The rosemary adds a gorgeous depth of flavor that seems right at home in the holiday season, and my kids love that they get to clip a sprig off the front yard bush. I’ve served it as a soup course on Thanksgiving, as a “day after” soup-and-salad remedy for too-heavy eating, and at a holiday potluck, all to rave reviews. The recipe says it feeds six but we like big bowls of this healthy-hearty goodness. Most often I double this recipe because leftovers are even better. Last week I tripled it, saved some for our meal, and brought the rest to friends. Enjoy!

White Bean and Pasta Soup
Serves 6

3 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 large carrots, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, pressed
4 c veggie broth
1 16oz can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 large tomato, seeded, finely chopped
1 small sprig fresh rosemary
2 tsp 21 Seasoning Salute
Salt/pepper to taste
1/2 c dry small pasta
1/3 c chopped green onions (white and pale green parts only; about 2)

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions, carrot, celery and garlic. Sauté until all vegetables are soft, about 6 minutes. Add broth, beans, and tomato and seasonings; bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer 25 minutes to blend flavors, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions (minus 1-2 minutes). Drain and mix pasta into soup; season with salt and pepper.

Ladle soup into bowls. Sprinkle with chopped green onions and serve.

Options: you could swap out the pasta for cooked brown rice and/or toss in a few handfuls of fresh spinach just before it’s done cooking.

If only you could smell this picture...! I used rainbow carrots to give the soup even more color.

If only you could smell this picture…! I used rainbow carrots to give the soup even more color.

 

 

He’s Right

I am I to the third power: an Incredibly Indecisive Individual. Do you want to grab coffee or lunch? Up to you. Italian or Indian food? Up to you. Want to watch something on the DVR or rent a movie? Up to you. In each of those scenarios, how we spend time matters far less to me than the company we share.

But when I do have an opinion, I’m fairly certain I’m right. And by “fairly certain” I mean absolutely convinced. The difference, I’m beginning to understand, is that I feel strongly about How to Make the World a Better Place. Another I, I’m an idealist. Which is why church work has always made sense to me, as the Church is God’s family working for the sake of God’s good purpose in the world.

Alas, I am not always right, which may be why some of the opinionated Bible characters have a special place in my heart. I can relate to Moses, telling God that He’d surely chosen the wrong person to represent Him to the Egyptians on behalf of the Israelites. Moses and I need to be convinced that God has the better way. I’m pretty sure I’ve got it figured out, thanks very much, Lord.

Peter argues with God in Acts 10, today’s Bible study. He’s so convinced that the traditions of Judaism, the rules passed down for generations set out by God Himself, supersede a direct word from the Lord that he tells God no. No, Lord, never! I’ve never done it that way and never will. I’m following you, Lord, so don’t tell me otherwise.

With Peter, I have a few things to learn. May God soften my heart to be convinced that He is right, to follow Him especially when it doesn’t make sense.

Connect
When have you experienced favoritism and what was that like?

Study
Read Acts 10:9-35.
Compare Peter’s vision (vv. 9-16) with Cornelius’ vision (vv. 30-32). Why do you think the Lord appeared to them in visions? What did each have to learn?
What do you think motivated Peter to argue with the Lord over the vision’s content (vv. 9-16)?
What role does hospitality play in this story and, ultimately, in the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 22-29)?

Live
The Lord spoke to Cornelius and Peter during times set aside for prayer. What does your prayer practice look like, and how might it need sharpening?
When has God called you out of your “comfort zone”? What happened?
For what prejudice might God be asking you to repent?
What can you do to open up in your life space for others, and how might God use that space to further the good news of Christ?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will be open to God’s Spirit and His conviction and that God will work through you to further His Kingdom on earth.

Life Follows

Last week the kids had an unusual two weekdays in a row off school. And it was my birthday. Gracious friends loaned us their mountain vacation house for a couple of nights and I couldn’t wait.

This fall has been rough – too full, too emotional – and contrary to my typical MO I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I went Facebook silent from the day before my birthday until the evening we arrived home to also unplug from media distractions (and, in this case, celebrations). I longed to bug outta town, to hide away with my guys in a gorgeous spot, enjoy long walks and time with a good book, watch movies and play games, leave life behind.

Hah! Life followed.

Of course it took hours longer than it should have to tie up the loose ends, pack up the bags and the car, and get on the road. However, on the road we saw the most beautiful sunset, seriously, trees on fire with light.

birthday sunset - car window

No way I could get all the work done before we left, so hours of it had to get done on the trip. Fortunately, it got done.

Work done (for the moment), we walked along the river: Guy, Dog, and I on the paved path, Tween, Teen, and Friend as close to water as possible; more or less we walked parallel, a wall of brush separating the different ground beneath our feet. But then we heard our two hooligans shouting, clearly distressed. Guy tossed me the leash and bounded through the brush to discover Tween sinking in thigh-high mud. The drought has dropped water level dangerously low and the boys had walked on exposed riverbed, including some particularly nasty mud. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that the ground was unsafe, and as Tween stepped into the squish he struggled and continued to sink until one leg was almost entirely encased in mud. It took 30 minutes of Guy calmly instructing him how to wiggle and dig. Odd but we’ll take it, Guy noticed that someone had long ago abandoned a couch in the brush so he pulled off a leaf-encrusted cushion and threw it between a log and Tween in order to get get close enough to help pull his son free. Without Guy I would’ve called 911. Tween (and I) have learned lessons about mud!

river dog

A few hours later Teen and Friend were whittling spears for their squirrel-hunting plans (am I glad they don’t tell me this stuff in advance?) when Friend cut his finger. Playing it safe, Guy took them to the ER where the kid received three stitches. No good with blood, Teen all but passed out in the waiting room. It could’ve been so much worse, though, and Friend never even needed a Tylenol, no pain.

Just after they left, I heard a noise like Dog crunching through a massive cow bone. If only! She vomited warm kibble, three times, and about three times more than I could imagine her stomach could hold. I quickly put her on leash and ordered Tween to take her outside while I cleaned up. Gagging. As she hadn’t actually digested the food, clean-up was – thankfully! – quick and easy and that was that, no more vomit.

The guys returned, we had an easy late dinner, we hot-tubbed and played and read and slept well, and in the morning enjoyed a gorgeous river walk/bike ride before cleaning and packing up again. Hallelujah, Teen even learned how to make a beautiful bed!

tall trees

Life: work, family, boys, dog, cooking, cleaning… Life follows. I had to face my unrealistic desires to leave behind the stressors of this season just because we were in a new location. I had to remember to be Grateful in all situations, to Accept and Surrender and just get downright GAS-y, as I learned last week.

Laughter helps. Not much in those wacky situations felt funny at the time, but in retrospect they sure made for a memorable weekend. Hearing the story, a sweet 20-something friend said, “I kinda feel like these things only happen to you…” Oh, darling, maybe they do! My family has a Corner Market on Ridiculous Street. And then again, call me when you have kids and we’ll talk!