Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cambodia/ Vietnam, May- June 2005

Like many of you know, I returned to Cambodia for a month-long research project in May 2005. Here are some pictures and stories from that trip:

Monsoon downpours sometimes come in a matter of seconds on mainland SE Asia. Luckily, these people found a tarp in the truck.

The picture below is such a classic Cambodia scene. The sign clearly explains in both Cambodian and Vietnamese that: littering is strictly prohibited.

Looking at this picture today, I was reminded of a time I ate a beautiful pineapple slice on a stick. Needing a place to discard my waste, I asked somebody where the trash can was--and without saying a word, he sternly pointed to the ground. Something must have gotten lost in translation because I saw a ton of trash, but not even a single can. (That pun's for you, Unky B.)

I don't think I've ever seen such beautiful blue skies with picturesque puffs of white clouds as those in Cambodian summers, like the one below. Though my cheap digital camera hardly captures its beauty, I felt like some hack photoshopped the world around me to be so perfect. I awoke from my daydream by tripping on a heap of trash. Oh the irony.

Can you tell which cloud carries the monsoon rains, below? As soon I spotted that beast, I headed for the safety of my home because clouds of this color are quick and unforgiving, and will consume you in a matter of nano-seconds. I don't know what I was thinking, though. It's like trying to escape the grasp of a crocodile, mid-death roll. Just give up man and enjoy the ride as long as you can.

This panorama is of the Tonle Sap river taken from the Cambodia-Japanese Friendship Bridge. If you look carefully in the distance, you can see where it meets up with the Mekong River. The Tonle Sap is the only river that changes directions twice a year. Huh? During the rainy season, the Mekong's capacity is so high that it actually pushes the Tonle Sap river upstream, changing its direction. As the rains stop, the river resumes its natural progression towards the sea, until the cycle starts all over again the next year. Pretty amazing, huh!

On another note, the bridge itself is the nemesis of any one-speed bike rider. There was a time that I had to pedal as fast as my chicken legs would go to get DOWN this unmerciful bridge (usually the redeeming part). The rainy seasonal winds over the river were so strong that had I not pedaled, I would have been blown backwards, I kid you not. Something is not right about this bridge.

This is the outer fence to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, this former school was turned into a torture/ interrogation prison where thousands of men, women, and children suffered humiliating deaths. Back in 2002, I lived about 2 blocks from this place and got the heebie jeebies every time I rode past it.

Whitey-tighties, a colorful bike, and leather boots.
This is a propaganda billboard in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that celebrates the 30 anniversary of the Fall of Saigon (or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on who you ask). The caption says, "A nation to the utmost joy." Notice the doves flying towards the heart-shaped VN flag. Even the flowers can't contain the joy their country has, and as a result, they spontaneously spit petals out just to beautify the land. Now that's nationalism!

This picture has a story. After eating some yummy bún bò Huế off the street, my Vietnamese Dad took me on a day trip to Phan Thiết, about two hours by moped from his house. The spicy soup churned in my stomach with every bounce on the pavement, and eventually decided to fight back. I asked Dad to pull over, where I stumbled off the moped, and threw-up in an inebriated fashion. I approached the laughing bystanders in this food stall, asked for some water, and talked with them for some time. I don't know if they were more surprised that the foreigner spoke Vietnamese, or embarrassed that the foreigner understood what they initially said about me (they assumed I was drunk, of course, among other things). We all had a good laugh.

This area of Đồng Nai province was a major Viet Cong stronghold during the war, and visiting these fields made the war more vivid and real than I had ever known. I couldn't stop the Jimi Hendrix songs from eccoing in my mind as I tried to imagine what our troops suffered in these fields--probably this very one.

A wonderful family let me stay with them for the duration of my Cambodia stay. I feel so grateful to them because they helped me escape feelings of loneliness being away from Tiffany. In the evenings, I would watch the Cartoon Network with the kids and help them with their English; they sometimes even slept on the floor in my room to keep me company (actually, to make use of the air conditioner, but it made me feel good nonetheless). Sometimes, Sina would call for a dance party:

Here are some of the wonderful people who made my trip extra memorable:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Marie-Therese Gown GIVEAWAY !!!!!!!

Marie-Therese Gown GIVEAWAY !!!!!!!

If I win this gown, I think I'm giving it back to her. It's not even fair that she's giving away such a breathtaking gown that took 50 hours to make. I just don't get it...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Jek-Ellie & Hyde" no longer!

This is not boasting. This is an important record-- because I'll need to hear this while we go through her tumultuous teenage years.

An email from Ellie's nursery leader (takes care of two and three-year-olds at church) to my mom:

Your grandaughter Elle is in my nursery class, and she is adorable. She is a great toddler, of the 15 kids we have, she is definitely one of the very best behaved. She is smart, cute and never a problem. I am sure you are really enjoying having her in your home. If we had 14 more of her, the nursery would be a breeze!

Some of you, namely those who witnessed Ellie's ferocious tantrums and constant whining that persisted during our entire year in China, may be surprised to hear this rave review. Yes, her behavioral transformation was abrupt, but not explained by a change in locale. Rather, she was just tired. Cliche, I know, and we didn't really believe it either as we sought to excuse her cranky behavior in front of friends, family, and complete strangers. (Even Didi's screaming fits became somewhat routine as he got older.)

The revelation came via my college bff Michelle, who read a great book about giving kids the opportunity to sleep as long as they need. Putting my kids to bed at 6pm sounded a little absurd, but the basic idea is that kids can't regulate as well as adults can, so they need a schedule that provides plenty of time for sleep. For instance, if you or I go to bed very late one night, we can compensate by sleeping in or taking a nap the next day. Kids can't do that. Instead, they accumulate sleep deprivation and the tantrums become routine.

I'm embarrassed to say, but the reason I've kept Ellie up until my bed time since her infancy is because I thought that would make her sleep in longer, allowing me to sleep in longer. On the contrary, Michelle found that her kids woke up at 6am whether they went to bed at 10pm or 6pm, but they were happier and better behaved if they went to bed early. I tried it, and it works. To think, all this time putting my kids to bed earlier would not make them wake up earlier! Like Michelle said, it's not logical, it's biological.

My kids were never total nightmares, but they did seem to be cranky a lot and would wake up showing signs of tiredness often, I think because they awoke with the sun, regardless of their bedtime. Now they go to bed between 7:30 and 8:30 (instead of 10 or 10:30pm), wake up at 7am, and sleep for two hours in the afternoon, which not only means they are healthier, happier, and Ellie's undereye circles are more lavender than black, but also that Kyle and I get to enjoy a book or movie together every evening. It sure amazes me how I am ultimately the cause of every problem I have with parenting my kids.

Showing off some nursery-made artwork

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I survived Arizona in August!

I guess I probably lost anyone who had been following the post-China vacation saga. Well, that's okay because the chapters are, more or less, unrelated. And anyway, here I go again...

We got to rest up for a week or so before Erik and I flew to Phoenix for a friend's wedding. She actually had the nerve to meet her husband after I left for China, so this was my first chance to really become acquainted with my soon-to-be brother-in-law type figure, which we did while braiding (not your easy Pippi brand of braiding, mind you) a dozen or so ribbon leis. Each lei consumed about four hours of manual labor, and that's only if you don't have to undo and restart an hour and a half's worth of braiding you did facing the wrong direction.

But really Mish and JJ get to take credit for most of that. I, along with two of Noe's friends from Provo, got to serve collectively as the honorary maid-of-honor, running lots of errands, arranging the flowers, decorating, etc. The hardest part of all this run-around was the fact that we had to actually get out of the car occasionally to get into a store, and that required braving the debilitating heat wave of Arizona in August. Actually, I didn't mind running all these errands, I wanted to do flowers and the guest quilt and braid deep into the night. I was a year behind on Noe-tiff bonding time, after all.

The wedding was beautiful, the reception was simple and elegant, Noe looked as gorgeous as brides come, she performed a couple beautiful hula dances, Mark played some cute, romantic ballads on the guitar, and their first dance was a salsa! Yes, it was above and beyond THE hottest first dance--and she did it in her wedding dress, bustle and all. Be very impressed.

Well, I remember that once the reception began, I had a good spot of free time (which felt so weird, because the only kind of weddings I've ever been involved in executing before were not at country clubs with paid staff, but at free venues with lots of family and friends semi-voluntarily enlisted to keep things running smoothly, although inevitably no one usually seems to know who's in charge of what). So, you would think between generous servings of cheesecake I would have taken more pictures, or at least one from a clearer angle.

Me and the girls did create those bouquets, although if anyone deserves the credit, it's the florist. Upon our arrival to purchase the flowers, she began giving us arranging advice that turned into a flower design fest, and she basically did all the designing herself. I don't pretend to be anything but the humblest of amateurs, so I was indeed grateful for her professional assistance, especially since she thought all of my arranging plans were tacky and old-fashioned-- I'm glad she spared me the pain of shaming the entire wedding party.

Oh yes, but I did make the time to capture this priceless cake, which happens to be, aside from a small corner (for the photo opp), frosting slathered over cardboard boxes. Not bad, eh? Who actually eats the bride and groom's cake after filling up on the entrees and goodies, anyway?

The only other memory I photographically captured was Mish and JJ's commendable work on Noe and Mark's honeymoon ride. Of course, the car is the best man and groomsmen's responsibility, but I learned long ago that no best man or groomsman seems to be aware of this until the reception is half over, so I took it upon myself... to delegate the task to Mish and JJ, who could only locate a gas station mart for securing supplies, but thanks to the stifling heat, the tortillas and cookies melted beautifully onto the windows and hood.

Okay, so I understand why Mark and Noe weren't thrilled about the celebratory decor, but we totally had to miss out on the sentimental part of the luncheon (and Mish and JJ on first choice of lunch meat) in order to create the effect. No but seriously, there was no formal bidding of farewell with bubbles or birdseed, and so I dragged to couple out the door and, despite how this picture appears, they looked pretty peeved. But I think their newlywed glow glossed over any initial resentment.

It was a beautiful wedding and I was so grateful to have been there, and that I only had to keep track of one tired toddler during the festivities. I got to top off the visit with a couple days in southern Arizona with college roomie bff Michelle and her adorable family.

Amazingly, I didn't take a single picture during our stay, and I'm positive that I had enough free moments to do so, but rest assured that the visit was relaxing, reminiscent, and really confirmed our status as bosom friends forever. Michelle is my only close friend who was also crazy/awesome enough to get married really young and want to have kids right away, so we understand each other quite well, but I guess we've been doing that since long before we had kids.

The next leg of the vacation anthology takes us, well first to the Phoenix airport, where Kyle and Ellie's flight conveniently happened to layover, and then as a reunited clan on to Minnesota for nothing but non-stop family fun with the Larsens.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

California politics, proposition 8, gay marriage

***WARNING: the following is probably the longest post I've ever written, and it also happens to be void of cute anecdotes and lighthearted commentary. However, the topic deserves a thorough dissection. And it also happens to be a lot more important that what happened at Ellie's birthday party. For the sake of attention span, though, I threw in a couple pleasant images (which weren't intended to be relevant, but my life just so happens to be centered on a traditional family), just to keep those of you who may not get through it otherwise. =) ***

Politics are simply a subject that have not been privileged to grace our family blog. Obama and McCain's mugs just can't compete with my kids'. However, I've been considerably involved in this presidential campaign (involved in a passive way--I mean, I've been following the news much more carefully than in any previous pres. race) and find myself lulling Kyle to sleep at night with musings over Sarah Palin's capacity to lead, Obama's questionable associations, and who on earth can we actually trust to get something, anything done in Washington?

Coupled with all of this is a vote of significant consequence on the California voter's ballot this year. Everybody knows gay marriage was legalized here this year. The homosexual movement is a sociological phenomenon that has intrigued me more than almost any other for many months. It is an issue to be trod on lightly, and the last effect I would ever wish to have is one of offense or disrespect, although offense will always be taken where none was intended.

I, myself, believe that strong, traditional marriages and families are one of the greatest forces for good in society, if not the greatest. No one can deny that we have digressed from the traditional family structure in ways that have been catastrophic. At the same time, I have a difficult time casting harsh judgments toward those who choose a healthy, stable homosexual relationship. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a sexual orientation bigot.

So when voting on Proposition 8 (which proposes a change to the state constitution to include the definition of marriage as between a man and woman, which would overrule the California Supreme Court decision that not permitting gay couples to marry is unconstitutional) came up at our dinner table, a sincere debate/discussion ensued.

In California, gay couples enjoy every legal right of heterosexual couples, including visitation, insurance, adopting children, property rights, etc, etc, etc. They could be legally bound in a civil union/domestic partnership. All they could not do (until earlier this year) was be legally married. Marriage. It is simply an issue of semantics, folks. Or is it? A great weight rests on the word marriage, because marriage is and always has been the foundation of the fundamental unit of society: the family.

The fact is that marriage is not an inalienable right. If it were, we would permit it to freely occur among children, incarcerated criminals, relatives, groups of three or more, anyone single who wishes not to be, etc. This may sound extreme today, but so did gay marriage not long ago. No one has the right to marry on merit of being a human and citizen of this country. The state has to determine that this marriage will do more good than harm in order to endorse and permit it, and such an enormous capacity for that good and harm manifests itself in the role of parenthood.

If marriage really was just about two individuals, well, frankly the state wouldn't care one whit about it. Marriage is NOT just about two individuals, though. It is and always has carried the great privilege and responsibility of parenthood with it. The state permits and sanctions marriages because it is in their best interest to ensure children are taken care of in the best way possible. We all know they get to pick up some of the pieces when children are not properly raised.

So, marriage is not a right, nor has the government ever treated it as such. You know what is a right, though? Freedoms outlined in the first amendment, several of which are at risk if proposition 8 does not pass. Society will become more hostile and intolerant (if I dare use that buzz word) of those who preach and encourage the traditional family structure.

Oh yes, and anyone who makes the argument that I don't accept homosexuals unless I accept their lifestyle, I have to presume has never had a child or loved one whose behavior is incongruous with their expectations. Lots of parents don't agree with or condone their children's behavior, but it sure doesn't affect how much they love them, or accept them for that matter.

I recognize that I don't understand the entirety of this issue. What I do understand, though, is that if we want our society to succeed, our families must succeed. This I do not conjecture, this I know. More than health care plans, job opportunities, and public education, what our country (and the world, for that matter) needs desperately and more than anything else is strong families-- families consisting of parents committed to each other and committed to teaching and loving their children.

No (sound) sociological study has ever suggested anything other than that, all other things being equal, children do best when raised by their father and mother. Tons of additional evidence asserts that children learn very different and essential lessons from fathers than from mothers. In other words, gender DOES matter, and children turn out best when both a mother AND father have taken an active role in teaching and raising them. Of course this ideal cannot always be realized, so by all means let us support and defend every instance in which it can.

Parenting by homosexuals is a fairly recent phenomenon. As such, we don't know exactly how kids raised by gay parents will turn out compared to peers from traditional households. Whenever we DON'T KNOW if something will happen, it would be very unwise to assume that therefore nothing will happen. If anything, we should air on the side of caution. We don't know if there will be negative effects on children raised by homosexual parents, but we DO know that traditional marriage has proven effective since the dawning of time. Let us err on the side of caution, prudence, and wisdom, the side that has been time-tested.

I'm not by any means saying that kids should be raised by unfit heterosexual parents or thrust into the foster care system rather than by a stable, loving homosexual couple. However, I think we all know that there are so very few babies being placed for adoption compared to how many families are waiting to adopt. Allowing homosexual couples to compete for these adoptions basically means excluding that number of children from the opportunity to be raised in what, all other things being equal, is the optimal environment: a family led by a mother and a father.

Okay, let's talk about the everyday consequences if proposition 8 does not pass. Homosexual marriage and sexual relations will be taught right along side heterosexual marriage to elementary school students, churches can be sued for discrimination (Catholic Children's Service had to pull out of the adoption business after being convicted of discriminating against prospective gay parents) and denied tax exemption if not willing to perform gay marriages, etc. It seems clear this is an issue that will affect everyone.

Again, the road leading to my convictions has not come quickly or easily. It has been a tough issue for me for years. However, I don't see proposition 8 as a threat to any gay rights (particularly since they already enjoyed all the human rights guaranteed by the constitution). It is, rather, a threat toward traditional marriage and those who believe in it as the fundamental unit and greatest force for good in our world.

For more, you can get some good info on,,,,,0,2093869.story

(I please welcome any comments as this is an issue about which almost all of us still have much to learn.)

Monday, October 06, 2008

The little monkey turns three

I recognize that I've taken a hiatus from blogging lately, and there's a perfectly sound explanation for that: Ellie's all-consuming birthday party, successfully executed Monday morning. Not that I can blame any of it on Ellie, really. I think I enjoyed the theme and homemade party favors more than her or any of her friends, but hey! If I'm going to do something for myself, it might as well be in the name of my child.

As always, we have more time than money, so creating games, favors, and a menu, all incorporated into the monkey theme, has kept me occupied the past week and a half since I decided to throw Ellie a party.

I debated because she only really has one friend here, so far. She and Lexi met at a ward barbecue our first week in California. Lexi made Ellie bark chip "hamburgers," Ellie knocked them all onto the ground, and instead of being angry, Lexi giggled. I knew at that moment this friendship would work. Anyway, again since the party is just as much for my sake as hers, I decided to invite people I'd like to know, and these strangers were nice enough to come, even bearing gifts.

I decided on the monkey theme because it's gender-neutral, not too cliche but not too difficult to work with, and appropriate for a bunch of toddlers running around at the park. The invitations were peel-able bananas.

I found cute monkey flannel at the fabric store which I crafted into monkey snack bags, favors for our guests.

I also whipped up some bean bag bananas for our bean bag toss, and Ellie and Erik were kind enough to assist me in decorating the monkey.

For a craft, I had crayons and monkey pictures for the smaller kids and the older kids made pom-pom monkeys. They were supposed to look like this...

But ended up looking more like this....

But fat pom-pom koalas are cute, too.

The next game I attempted was perhaps a little advanced for the group's attention span and vision, but given Ellie's social grooming tendencies (she can often be found sneaking up behind someone to pick their "gold" aka dandruff or asking if she can clean between your toes), I had to give it a go. I poured uncooked rice aka lice onto the monkey fur mats and gave the kids a couple minutes to procure as many "bugs" as possible. Of course, Ellie was the only one with enough enthusiasm to keep up the task, while others flicked, scattered, and ingested their "lice."

We also had a banana scavenger hunt on the jungle gym, and every paper banana they turned in to me translated into a piece of candy. This was the both the least time-consuming game by far (preparation wise) and the most popular with the kids. Go figure.

The menu consisted mostly of snacks, including monkey bread (which I had never made but plan to all the time now! Soooo easy--I mean, I can actually let Ellie stack the biscuits without correcting her, and they taste just like cinnamon rolls, but bite-size and fun to munch on), and good old bugs-on-a-log (celery filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins), although the disguise was insufficient in persuading toddlers to actually eat their vegetables. Then all the kids licked the frosting off their monkey cupcakes and slurped their banana split ice cream, and Ellie put a valiant effort into extinguishing all three of her candles.

I guess monkeys don't really have blue eyes, because this touch seemed to give them a sort of extra terrestrial glow...

Opening presents was, naturally, a big hit, especially a Sleeping Beauty doll that has been singing "Once Upon a Dream" just about non-stop around here.

Christie & Joe and Grandma and Grandpa Larsen's packages also arrived yesterday, and G&G Larsen were able to watch Ellie dig into her stash of gifts from them via skype. Somehow, she just seemed to know that a Belle dress was awaiting her in the last gift. I have to say that I really have battled to suppress her affinity for all things pink and princess, but to no avail. She's a girly-girl, through and through. And I'm finally okay with that.

Being three means, I think, that Ellie is no longer a toddler, and so by default, is definitely a "big girl" now. We have loved witnessing her growing independence, sharing her zest for life and relentless curiosity, and experiencing the sweetness and affection she offers abundantly. She is as much my little girl as she was on day one, three years ago, and I thinks she always will be. Happy birthday, Ellie-belly. I couldn't be happier that you're mine for keeps.