Interval timer

Find this maddening little timer and run your own experiment at

We’re coming up on a new phase in our lives as parents, here at the Johnson household. That we were on the edge of this new phase became apparent a few weeks ago. Cliff had the day off work but I didn’t, and Sam had school. Hoping to get a little Daddy-Daughter play date underway, Cliff kept Maggie (age 3) home from daycare and planned to spend the day doing the things she loves best: puzzles, Legos, and playing family.

Instead, Maggie announced  she wanted to play by herself. And then she spent more than an hour happily rearranging toys in her room, making a little house for her dolls. Cliff read a book.

Apparently we’re approaching an age where both our children are capable of entertaining themselves. This opens up new possibilities – like finding the time to read a book, or write one! – that have been virtually impossible for the last six years.

Of course we’re not there all the way yet … at times, Maggie is drawn to one of us like we’re made of magnets. She once got elbowed in the eye because she was standing, unbeknownst to me, just behind me as I worked in the kitchen. Other times she’s anything but quiet, and the constant list of questions can be both charming and maddening. And personal space: I am fairly certain there was a solid three year-stretch of my life where I never went to the bathroom without being interrupted by one of my children.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day with your kids, it can seem like you can’t finish a thought before the next request, the next imposition of personal space, is being made. I thought this was just me, until I read this:

“Behavioral psychologists have observed that preschoolers typically demand that their caretakers deal with some kind of need or desire at an average rate of three times a minute. Under ideal circumstances, a mom or dad might respond cheerfully. But when a parent is stressed or otherwise distracted, a child’s incessant, and sometimes irrational demands can drive that parent wild.” – from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman.

Every 20 seconds? Some days that seems about right.

An experiment:

If you’re the partner of a stay-at-home parent, or if you’re not often left alone with your children, then here’s a little exercise that can give you an idea of what this means. Wait until you have something reasonably important to do – say, return an email from your boss, or a phone call that needs to be made. Then click on the interval timer above and set the timer to sound an alarm every 20 seconds, on repeat. See how long it takes you to throw your computer at the wall.

If you’re married to a stay-at-home mom or dad, or if your work travel schedule or weekend commitments leave your spouse at home with the kids, keep this feeling in mind. Go out of your way to be a bit more gracious to your partner upon your return. Play with your kids so he or she can get a break. Maybe take them out for a walk: anything longer than 20 seconds will be a bit of quiet your partner appreciates.

Amber's signature

Reach outWork travel feels pretty exotic…at first. Airline miles. Meals out. Hotel stays. Free cookies (depending upon the hotel, anyway). What’s not to like, right? Well, as everyone eventually learns, there are plenty of downsides too. Those airplanes are cramped, those meals out are hardly healthy and hotels only seem glamorous for a while (especially the ones without cookies). But the biggest downside is probably distance, from home but even more from loved ones.

Amber and I actually started off our relationship long distance. We’re not quite old enough to have racked up hundred dollar long distance bills or to have chatted on corded wall phones, but our communication patterns were definitely shaped by the times. We did not have cell phones, our email access was somewhat spotty and we counted on longer phone conversations. It worked for us…for a while. But eventually our relationship changed and our habits changed along with it. Over 10+ years of marriage, we grew pretty accustomed to actually being together; in fact, over 2 years of Peace Corps, we were with each other almost every single moment. Long distance was both no longer necessary and no longer optimal.

Work travel changed that, though. When your job involves leaving home, you just have to adjust. And I’m actually adjusting right now: I’m drafting this blog post from a hotel room during my busiest travel season. So Amber and I have gone from long distance phone chats to constant time together and back to long distance again. Here are some lessons learned along the way:

  1. Technology is your friend – Hand-written love letters were lovely. And so were telegrams, for that matter. But 2013 does offer advantages, you know. Cell phones allow us to have multiple interactions per day, to share photos, to send funny web links, to talk face-to-face with minimal advanced planning. Those little interactions help two people feel connected, and help you experience days together form afar.
  2. Take what you can get – While those little interactions may seem trivial, sometimes they are the best you can manage. A one hour conversation might feel more intimate or valuable, but one hour conversations are kinda tough to pull off. Some work events start before 7 am and finish them after 8 or 9 pm. If you can manage a one hour phone chat, more power to you. Me? I’ll settle for little moments here and there. When I can call for 5 minutes, I call for 5 minutes. When I can send an email, I send an email. When I can text, I text. It’s about connection points more than anything.
  3. Quality not quantity – And here’s the thing about hour-long phone calls: they are not always particularly enjoyable. When you’ve worked for 13-14 straight hours, a long chat might seem refreshing but it also might seem draining. You can pretty quickly find yourself giving your partner your emotional/intellectual leftovers. Long conversations and facetime chats can be wonderful, but they are not valuable in and of themselves. The goal is intimacy and connection, and sometimes that’s better accomplished with a 5 minute chat and a simple “I love you.”

So those are some reflections from somebody still figuring this whole thing out (per usual). Our long distance tricks may not work for you, but feel free to comment with your own. Work travel is not all good or all bad…it is simply what you make it. Most of us spend every single workday away from our loved ones. If you can make those little connections matter during trips, you can make them matter during normal routines too. Reaching out keeps getting easier, but touching someone still takes thought and effort.

I’m gonna go grab a cookie from the lobby now.

Cliff's signature




For more on marriage and work travel:



Wicked witch

This is not a picture of me on the closet floor, but I felt equally crushed.

I’d like to tell you the story of the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. At the time, this story was so traumatic that I quarantined it for publication for 12 months. It’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve been able to recall it without getting a sick feeling in my stomach. 

It started three years ago, when we made the decision that I’d move from full-time employment to part-time work as a contractor.  Since I’m self-employed, I have to pay my own taxes, writing big checks quarterly to the state and federal governments. We looked into the process, and the tax rate, and we entered into this situation knowing what we were getting into.

Or so we thought. But taxes are really easy to miscalculate.

In the first year we underpaid and we owed, a lot. Determined to not repeat that situation, we upped our quarterly contributions. It hurt to write those checks because when you have to fill out the zeros yourself, you’re very, very aware of the percentage of your income that is sliding out the door.

Now I am not writing this to complain about taxes. I actually believe in paying taxes. If the money were better managed, I’d be happy to pay even more taxes so all the kids in my neighborhood could go to high performing public schools and we could have a road without potholes. But still … writing quarterly tax checks is just not my idea of a good time.

The federal checks were the worst, because they were the biggest. They’re so much bigger than the state checks that somehow, in 2011, I just forgot to write the checks to the state. It wasn’t intentional: I just completely overlooked it.

Unaware of this, I sat down one evening about a year ago to pull all our tax paperwork together in preparation for filing our taxes. I was completely baffled as to why I couldn’t find record of those payments to the state. For more than an hour I looked through check book records, through our online accounts, and through the sea of paperwork, trying to figure out what had happened, afraid to tell Cliff because I knew how angry he’d be.

Finally, about 10 p.m., I had to admit it: I’d made a huge, costly, potentially IRS audit-inducing mistake.

I literally crawled inside our closet, with only my feet sticking out, and screamed and cried, pounding the floor, for a good minute.

Making mistakes feels awful. It feels especially awful when you know you’ve let someone you love down. When you have no excuse other than your own stupidity.

In this case, it meant a scramble to find the extra cash to pay a year’s worth of state taxes at once. And it meant admitting that I could make such a ridiculous mistake. I have never been more upset with myself.

I can’t recall exactly what Cliff said that got me up off the closet floor, but I know what he didn’t say: he didn’t yell. He didn’t say I was stupid, or irresponsible, or untrustworthy. He didn’t criticize. He could have justified being angry. But he didn’t. He forgave me. Immediately. So much so that he even trusted me to handle our tax papers again this year (with a new system of calendar reminders firmly in place). 

Marriages thrive on forgiveness.

The best way to repay forgiveness is by not making the same mistake again. I’m happy to announce we got our estimated taxes back today, and we do not owe a dime.

Amber's signature





Thank You, Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck











Ben Affleck put his foot in his mouth – maybe – at Sunday night’s Oscars when he spoke the truth about marriage in his thank you to his wife, actress Jennifer Garner.

“It’s work,” he said. He followed that up with, “but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”

You can watch his speech here. It’s only a few seconds long.

One thing I always find charming about the Oscars is that when they receive that little gold statue, the world’s best actors and actresses find themselves completely without the ability to act calm, or level headed, or nonchalant. They are overjoyed children full of nervousness and awe. Ben Affleck was that and more on Sunday night: he was honest in a gritty way that we don’t often see in Oscar speeches.

Interestingly, the web-o-sphere has been busy chattering about the Affleck-Garner marriage. Is it in trouble? Did Ben put his foot in his mouth? Is Jennifer mad? The gossips miss the point. I was going to explain the point, but someone did it better than me. Here’s Melissa Lafsky Wall, from HowBoutWe (republished on Huffington Post):

The criticism centers around this statement as lacking in cuteness, and focusing on the negative. It wasn’t the “right forum” for this type of declaration, it was a possible indicator that “something is wrong” in the marriage, he should have just stuck to “I love you and adore you and you’re perfect” — basically whining that a major Hollywood star was uncomfortably honest about his relationship and said overly blunt things about marriage in one of the most public forums on the planet.

Anyone who actually agrees with the above criticism doesn’t get marriage.

Wall goes on to write, “If you’re partnered for life, if you’re fighting this good fight against biology, then you understand that — and you see that there is nothing Affleck could have said that would have honored his wife, and HER work, more.”

In a night that is all glitz and glam and bad dance numbers, Affleck honored the noble, ongoing, sometimes rewarding work that many of us get to do. Not many of us will win Oscars, but the majority of the adult population will at some point engage in the daily work of marriage. In a way, he honored all of us who  have partnered for life. Thanks, Ben.

Garner and Affleck have been married for 10 years – nearly a lifetime in Hollywood. They’ve got a few kids and global careers and she, at least, has the ongoing pressure to fit into size 0 ballgowns. So yeah, it’s work to stay happily together. Cliff and I have been married for only a year or two longer, and we can attest to the fact that it stays work. But the best kind, as Affleck said.

Amber's signature






Meatloaf told us we should love the one we’re with … but that’s uninspiring. How do you not just love the one you’re with, but DESIRE him, long term, in a committed and intimate way? How do you WANT him? Not just today, but for the decades to come?

It seems like Valentine’s Day is as good a day as any to tackle this topic. I encourage you to watch this TED Talk, featuring Esther Perel.

Perel reminds us that we demand a lot of marriage: comfort and familiarity, intimacy and excitement. It’s only in the last century or so that we’ve expected so much from a single relationship … and we’re living longer these days, meaning “happily ever after” can be decades more than your great grandma might have expected.

Perel is honest: toys and lingerie can’t save us from the predictability of married sex. In desire, she says, you tend not to want to go back to where you’ve already been.

As a researcher, Perel asks people (across culture, religion, and gender), “When are you most drawn to your partner?”

Many people say they are most drawn to their partner when she is away: absence and longing are major components of desire. Others say they are drawn to their partners when they are on stage, or talking animatedly to others: in other words, they are drawn to their partners when they see them behaving confidently, when others are attracted to their personality.

“Mystery,” she says, quoting Proust, “is about seeing the same with new eyes.” It is finding the mysteries that are living right next to you.

The final group of people says they are drawn to their partners in novel situations: when he’s wearing a tux, when she breaks out an old pair of cowboy boots. Novelty isn’t about new positions or new toys: it’s about creativity and attraction.

So how do you take advantage of this research? Create anticipation. It’s something you can cultivate through absence,playfulness,  imagination, creativity, novelty. Turn yourself on. Figure out what makes you feel alive and maybe a little mischievous: generate healthy desire within yourself, and your partner will likely find it too.

Also – best line from the video: Foreplay doesn’t start five minutes before sex. It pretty much starts at the end of the last orgasm.

Chocolate candies in a heart shaped box may make her smile … they are unlikely to make her toes curl. Good luck with that tonight.

There Is A Storm Coming

Take ShelterDid you know that before Jessica Chastain captured Osama Bin Laden or learned to cook from her maid, she was just another small town resident with a small business, a daughter who had special needs and a husband that believed an apocalyptic storm was getting closer by the day? While Ms. Chastain has captured Oscar attention this year for Zero Dark Thirty, I’m still slightly obsessed with a film that the Academy snubbed last year: Take Shelter.

Take Shelter is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ second film, and it’s typically classified as a “thriller.” Nichols decided to explore anxiety with this particular movie, and audience members most certainly experiences just that. From the very first moment, you are thrust into the protagonist’s (Curtis) increasingly frightening and urgent dreams about a terrible storm that changes people and threatens his family. As a result of these dreams, Curtis slowly loses control of his seemingly idyllic life, making decisions and taking actions that isolate himself more and more.

The first time I saw this film, I was riveted by Michael Shannon’s amazing performance as Curtis and the filmmaker’s great knack for storytelling. But the second time I was riveted by something else entirely: the two main characters’ marriage. During an interview with the Independent Film Channel, someone asked Nichols about the role of marriage in the film. Here’s how he responded:

To be very serious about it, I set out this tone or emotion of anxiety, but while I was writing I quickly realized that’s not enough. Anxiety is an effect, it’s not a cause. I needed the cause of all this stuff. As I built the character, I needed to give him a life that he loved and valued and arguably was respected by other people. Curtis begins this film in a good place. He’s kind of a guy that has his shit together. And as you start to dismantle that, that’s where the fear and anxiety comes from. I didn’t even know it but as I started writing, I was setting myself on a course to write a film about marriage, because separately from the film I’d been thinking about my marriage. How marriages work, why most marriages fail and what I have to do to be one of the ones that make it work. What do I have to do? The conclusion I came to was, I think it’s a lot about communication. We all carry these fears and doubts. They will always be there, whether it’s fear of the government collapsing, or the environment, or you can’t pay your bills, whatever. We’ll always have something to worry about. And I think where marriages maybe get damaged is in people not sharing those fears with their significant others.

Readers of this blog know that “most marriages end in divorce” is actually inaccurate (read more here), but I want to focus on the marriage that Nichols ended up portraying in this film. Without spoiling anything about this movie’s plot, I think it’s fair to say that Curtis’ obsession with the coming storm wreaks havoc on his home and marriage. There’s a moment when his wife approaches him outside and things seem to have reached an all-time low. The audience is waiting for her to scream or walk away, but she doesn’t…she lays out a plan for how they can fix everything together. I found myself asking if I could find that sort of strength in a similar situation. When faced with my partner’s overwhelming fears and doubts, could I stand with her? That may seem like an easy question, but at some point or another our anxieties will feel bigger than life itself. In those moments, we need to give voice to those deep seated fears…and then we need the person who hears them to stick around.

So you want some advice based on Take Shelter? Well, if your spouse starts sleeping in your storm shelter, ask what’s going on. Also, sometimes the Oscars get it very wrong.

Cliff's signature






Thirty by 30


My friend Lauren (pictured here with her husband, Alex) is guest posting this week. Check out Lauren’s blog at

Every newlywed learns this lesson – usually pretty fast: marriage doesn’t make you happy. In this guest post, blogger Lauren Wilgus (of shares her own reminder that contentment is a never-ending pursuit that starts mostly with your own attitude.



I’ve always struggled to know the line between contentment and ambition.

I want to travel and eat good foods and push myself at work and make new friends and take on challenges and be involved at church and learn new crafts and write letters and take meals to people who need them and exercise and have a welcoming home and do special things with Alex. All great things. And all things that take effort and planning and some amount of wanting things to be different than how they are right now.

So the question is how do I keep that desire — for change and challenge and newness — while being content with who I am now and the things I have now?

I’ve been married for just over a year now. The most significant thing I’ve realized is that my attitude is always my choice. I choose to be annoyed and resentful at a teasing comment or I choose to laugh along. I choose to talk about something or I choose to give the silent treatment. I choose to smile in the morning or I choose to stomp around and brood about running late. Living with someone else suddenly makes my choices much more visible.

This year I will turn 30. I’ve thought for the last 6 months about compiling a “30 by 30″ list of things I want to accomplish before June 20. But I decided that it might be more helpful for me to compile a different sort of list. Still a “30 by 30.” But in a spirit of gratitude and contentment, this list will celebrate the opportunities I have already had. This year I want to look back on the last 30 and simply say, “Wow. Thank you Lord.”

Perhaps the answer is that simple: choose thanks.

Perhaps contentment, thanks for the gifts and opportunities we’ve already been given, is the very attitude that spurs us on toward a full life of creativity and newness, as we live with gratitude toward the Giver of all good things.

Psalm 103


More on marriage, happiness and contentment: The Myth of the Happy Marriage.

Last Monday morning Cliff took Maggie to daycare, as he does most days. He gave her a kissing hand (cutest book ever) and said goodbye. Shortly after that he took the Blue Line to O’Hare and flew off for a week of work meetings in Virginia.

That night I picked Maggie at school. Her teacher, Ms. Griselda, delicately pulled me aside and said, in a tone that made it clear her sentence was a question, despite its structure, “So today Maggie told us her dad was going far away, and now she was just going to live with her mom.” Ms. Griselda looked up at me, waiting for me to break the bad news of our divorce.

At first I laughed heartily. But later I was struck by how possible a reality this probably seemed to Ms. Griselda. She rarely sees Cliff and me together, and when I mention him to her, I say things like, “Maggie’s father will pick her up tomorrow,” instead of “My husband will pick her up.” It would be easy to construct a reality where our home life doesn’t operate as smoothly as our “you drop her off/I’ll pick her up” routine appears.

I’m happy to say that I was able to quickly put Ms. Griselda at ease. We have no announcements to make. (And my exceptionally verbal, barely three year-old daughter has been reminded that Dad always comes home from his work trips.) But for the last week I’ve thought often of how easy it would be, from Ms. Griselda’s perspective, to believe the rumors, because on the outside looking in, you never really know what a marriage is like.

A century ago, when multiple newspapers, believing rumors, published Mark Twain’s obituary, Twain fired back, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” While Maggie and Ms. Griselda were spreading rumors, I was being reminded of how fragile strong relationships can appear, and how strong a weak relationship may seem to others. Reports of our divorce are greatly exaggerated.


Somewhat related: for more on marriage and work travel, see our earlier post, How to Leave Your Wife.

Amber's signature






Phantom Desires | Photo via Flickr by Andrew.Beebe.

We are constantly in pursuit of happiness. And our desires can overshadow reality.

Sometimes, before we find that long-awaited spouse, we tell ourselves that marriage will make us happy. That you will feel complete (thanks, Jerry Maguire, for that one). We tell ourselves this about other things as well – the perfect new job, a new pair of boots, the baby you’ve been longing for, a victorious season in Fantasy Football – but somehow we really believe it about marriage.

In light of this very human habit, here are some relevant observations.

Three Truths about Happiness and Marriage

Side note – these observations are totally cribbed from Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher who spoke at my church recently. He wasn’t talking explicitly about marriage, but about life in general. So these observations could technically read:

Three Truths about Happiness and Life

1. You will never get what you think will make you complete. Either you never get what you want, or you get it and realize it didn’t work.

2. Not only can you not get it, you will think others have it.

3. Sometimes we pretend we have the thing that will make us happy, because we take pleasure from people thinking you have that happiness.

This makes sense in marriage, right? The mental process goes something like this: You think a partner will make you complete. And a few days or weeks or months into marriage, you realize you still have gray days. But your friend’s Facebook posts seem so rosy – she has the perfect marriage, the perfect family. Something must be fundamentally wrong with yours. It would be too embarrassing to admit things aren’t always perfect – so let’s pretend they are. Quick, post a photo from last week’s date night.  Continue Reading »

45 years…and counting

Mom & DadYou may have noticed that this blog has been pretty quiet lately. Ever since December 9, I’ve been searching for words…and peace, honestly. You see, that Sunday morning, my mother passed away unexpectedly. It’s pretty tough to offer insights about marriage when your greatest example of lasting relationship suddenly vanishes. My folks were married for 45 years, and I learned almost everything I know from watching them. I watched them talk and argue and encourage and dream and explore and grow. Together. When people ask why I believe in the power of relationships and commitment, my folks are one very big reason.

I cried a lot that week. I wept so hard and so long that my stomach began to ache and my sides began to hurt. Mom left this gaping hole in our life, and there’s really no filling it. We’ll build around it. We’ll rise above it. We’ll stare into it occasionally. But we will have to find a new normal. Because the old normal will never return.

At some point, I started writing her letters, and Dad started writing her letters too. It’s a coping mechanism and a farewell all at once, I suppose. One of those letters captures what I learned from Mom and Dad pretty well, so I’m sharing it below. This is what 45 years of marriage looks like, I think…at least, it’s what their 45 years of marriage looked like. After reading Dad’s note, a colleague of mine said, “When I read that letter, I couldn’t help but think about my own life, my own relationships – it made me think about the kind of relationship I will always aspire to have. If it could do that much for me, I can’t imagine the impact your parents’ marriage and love has had on you, and will have on Maggie and Sam. I am so sorry for your loss, but I hope you can find comfort in the fact that your father’s message of love to your mother made many people who never had the chance to meet her think, ‘I want what she had.'”

I hope Dad’s note impacts you also; I know their marriage continues to impact me everyday.

My Dearest Darlene,

You caught my eye some 45 years ago on the day I cleaned your car windows at the Enco gas station in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, IL.  I admit that I thought you were a very beautiful woman, but what really caused me to take that second look and then ask the owner to introduce me to you was your unbelievable smile.  I know you always worried that your smile was a bit too big and especially when your one crown would show.  Not me, I actually loved to see that crown peeking out.

It was not long before I realized that your smile was not something someone taught you how to do, but rather a smile that came all the way from your heart that not only showed up on your pretty face but completely consumed every part of you.  Everyone we met fell in love with the woman with a winning personality and a huge heart matched only by the size of her smile.

I remember the day we were getting ready to go someplace and you could not stop crying for what you said was for no reason other than that you were very pregnant with our second child.  That’s when I decided I was going to take your picture which you protested but soon just gave in and started to smile.  There you were, tears running down both cheeks and a big smile besides.

Thanks for believing in me.  I could not understand why a beautiful college educated Wheaton big city girl would take me to see her parents, let alone agree to marry a country boy from a dairy farm who could not even pronounce his words correctly.  But you did and you did so with pride and including meeting with all your other relatives who seemed to me to be so accomplished.  Then the time came when I realized I needed more education but was afraid to try as I had not been much of a student in high school. You had gotten straight A’s whereas I just got by.  It was only because of your confidence in me that I eventually tried and then to my surprise learned that I too could get A’s.

At work, they used to tease me that the only reason I was married to you was because you met me at the state hospital and felt sorry for me.  Of course, I knew they were only teasing, but it made me pretty pleased because I knew what they were really saying.  What they were saying was that they felt I was one lucky man to be married to such a wonderful woman.  How true, and thanks for everything from believing in me to being such a great Mom to our children and Grandmother to the grandkids.

I will miss having you next to me in the mornings while you journal and read God’s word before we prayed together.  Also, I am sure I will have to do a lot of apologizing to others because you will not be there to caution me.  You helped me be a better man of God with your example that I hope to be able to remember until we meet again.

I have no idea how I will get by without you at my side, but I will do my best to make you proud.  Our 45 years together went by to quickly and I already want to just hold your hand one more time. Mostly, I want to have you look at me with those loving eyes that told me how much you loved me and believed in me.  You know, that farm boy who’s still not sure how to dress or what to say.  Whenever I think of you it will always include remembering that big, big smile that made me take that second look so many years ago. 

Love you and see you soon,

Your loving husband and best friend


Cliff's signature





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