Thirty Wonderful Years

While paging through a high school yearbook recently, I noticed a name that seemed vaguely reminiscent.

Jo Ann Foster.

Even now, as I see it typed, it seems more foreign than familiar. Who was that girl? Oh, yes, I remember. She was me.

Today, April 19, 2003, marks 30 years that I have been Jo Ann Skousen. Sixty percent of my life. There were a few occasions early on when hearing the words “Mrs. Skousen” would cause me to turn around and look for my mother-in-law. But now I barely remember that Foster girl. Even my mother and my sister have since changed their last names, so I almost never see it written. I’m a Skousen, through and through, and it makes me glad.

Here are some of the things that Jo Ann Foster never dreamed she would do: I’ve climbed to the top of Machu Picchu, explored Mayan ruins, earned a gold medal in an ice skating competition, danced onstage in a London theater, lived in five major cities in three different countries, given interviews on television and radio, written several books (some even have my name on them…), earned a graduate degree, taught college classes, ridden a camel in Israel, given a sermon on Mars Hill at the Acropolis, and descended into a pyramid in Egypt. And I’ve done all of these things as a result of my marriage to Mark. We’ve enjoyed quite an adventure together, and it’s only half over!

So how to celebrate 30 years? Mark will probably send me two dozen roses with a card that says, “Happy 30th Anniversary. A rose for each wonderful year.” Yes, 24 for 30. He loves that joke, and not because he’s a cheapskate. It’s because there’s some truth to it: Even the most successful marriages have to endure some bumpy roads, some years that are more miserable than wonderful.
But we made a commitment for this life and always, so when the road gets bumpy, we do what it takes to get out of the ruts. Happiness eighty percent of the time is about right, I think, and it keeps us from getting stale or taking each other for granted.

I think we’ve done a few things right, because all of our married children have selected such wonderful spouses. Their relationships grow stronger each year, and I marvel at how well suited they are for each other. I know we can’t claim the credit entirely, but I like to think that we had some good influence on their wisdom and commitment. If nothing else, they learned that “Happily ever after” isn’t a natural consequence of “I do.” It requires careful selection before the marriage, and careful nurturing afterwards. I think they’ve done both.

Here is my bouquet for Mark, the top thirty attributes I admire most about the man I married:

1. Intelligence. Mark was the smartest man I ever dated. (Of course, until I met Mark, I had only dated teenagers… But he continues to surprise me with all he knows.)

2. Optimism. Mark looks forward to life with enthusiasm. He simply doesn’t allow himself to get bogged down by discouragement, and I can always count on him to give me the right perspective. During the economic crisis of 1974, when oil, beef, interest rates, inflation, and even the price of lettuce were out of control, I worried that our new little baby Valerie wouldn’t have the chance to grow up. “We’re just starting out,” I worried, “and it’s all going to be over.” Mark laughed and told me not to worry. “These things happen from time to time,” he said. “This economy is going to turn around in a year or two, and we’ll be fine. Besides,” he added, “I have a lot of books I need to write!” His confidence reassured me, and he has been reassuring me ever since.

3. Flamboyance. Mark used to be something of a wimp. He wrote his speeches word for word, and read them the same way. Informative, but dry and dull. Once a man handed me a note card as he left Mark’s investment workshop. The note said, “Please tell your husband he has said ‘And-ah’ 197 times!” Not long after that, I was auditioning for a play and asked Mark to come for moral support. He was only planning to watch. But when the director asked him to read for a part, he ended up with a better role than I did. The acting bug bit him hard, and he learned to love the limelight. He was a brilliant Charlie Cowell (the anvil salesman in The Music Man) and his ad libs as a knight in Camelot are legendary. (When Guinevere asks, “You’ll open wide him?” Mark was supposed to respond “I’ll circumscribe him.” Instead, he examined the edge of the battle axe he carried and then replied with aplomb, “I’ll circumcise him.” Poor Guinivere could hardly continue!)

4. Curiosity. Mark’s interests are eclectic, even at times eccentric. He reads several books at once, from biography to science to theology to economics to history. His favorite place is a used bookstore. As a result, he seems to know a little bit about everything, and can carry on a meaningful conversation with almost anyone. He’s always learning something new.

5. Enthusiasm. When Mark starts a project, he gets everyone involved. His positive outlook makes anything seem possible. Last year, when he decided to put on the FEE National convention, his critics sat back and waited for it to fail. But in just four months he had organized a huge conference, with 70 speakers and nearly 900 attendees. That kind of enthusiasm is second nature to him, and it makes life exciting.

6. Persistence. Mark finds a way to make things happen. He just never gives up. When we first met, I was a bookworm with a scholarship to maintain, and had no interest in starting a new relationship. He called me persistently every night for three weeks, cajoling me with “You don’t have to study!” when I tried to say no. After three weeks, I was hooked.

7. Flexibility. Despite this persistence, Mark adjusts his plans when
necessary. Over the years he has become kinder, more considerate, more willing to listen to the advice of others.

8. Risk taking. I see this as a positive attribute, even though it sometimes gets him into trouble. Yes, friends will remember that he flopped as The Lone Ranger, but some of his other shenanigans have been quite a hit. If it weren’t for his willingness to take risks, he would still be working for the government as an economic analyst for the CIA. I worried about our future when he decided to give up the government pension and regular pay raises, but what a fabulous life we’ve had as a result!

9. Expects the best from others. Mark assumes that others will be successful at what they do. When he undertakes a project, he begins delegating jobs, knowing that those around him will rise to the occasion. As a result, those around him (myself included) expand their skills and find strengths they never knew.

10. Generosity. Mark has been known as a cheapskate, and it is true that he doesn’t like to pick up the check at dinner. But that’s his public persona. Privately, he is extremely generous, giving to charitable organizations, needy individuals, family and friends whenever a need arises. And he does it in a way that maintains the person’s self-respect. He may be cheap at dinner, but I have never known him to be cheap in matters that really count.

11. Conversation. One of the things that impressed me most when we started dating was that Mark always had a stimulating question prepared when we started driving. I looked forward to our conversations every time we went out. That trait has only increased over time. Mark always keeps the conversation going. There is never a dull moment when he is at dinner!

12. Competitiveness. Some might see competition as a negative trait, but Mark makes a game of everything. Our children know that if conversation starts to lag, Mark will ask, “Let’s see how many…” or “How long will it take…” and soon a game is underway. One of our favorite family games is “Tenny Tennis,” whereby the goal is to successfully lob the ball across the net at least ten times before smacking it into the other person’s court. Mark enjoys the challenge of placing the ball where the children (or I) can hit it, and they enjoy the sense of success in being able to return the ball. It works for everyone.

13. Playfulness. We have five children, two boys and three girls. When I hired a housekeeper named Alice, Lesley said, “Just think Mom, one more boy and we’d be the Brady Bunch!” Noting Mark’s penchant for playing, I corrected her, “No, if we had a father we’d be the Brady Bunch!” Mark’s playful nature keeps all of us laughing. Once when I was working on a project, I asked Mark to settle the kids down. (I had already put them to bed twice.) “I’ll take care of this!” he asserted confidently, and headed upstairs. A few minutes later their bedroom door exploded in a riot of laughter as all six of them chased each other with pillows in a massive, house-wide pillow fight. Mark makes life fun.

14. Teaching. Mark is a natural teacher. When we met, I was a socialist Democrat, believing that the government ought to take care of everyone and everything. On one of our earliest dates he explained the free market to me so clearly that it made perfect sense. I wondered why I hadn’t figured it out on my own. He continues to teach principles clearly and patiently, whether his audience is a group of university graduate students or a women’s lunch group. He’s humorous enough to keep their attention, strict enough to keep them on task, and smart enough to command their respect.

15. Patience. Mark almost never loses his temper, which is especially good because I’m always looking around for mine! He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation with baby Valerie sitting on his shoulders, and he has been enduring interruptions ever since. Somehow he can place a bookmark in his brain, go play baseball in the backyard with the kids, and sit back down at the computer without losing his train of thought. Meanwhile, my train often leaves the station without me.

16. Friendliness. Mark makes friends with everyone. At an investment conference, while most speakers are meeting with clients and colleagues, Mark is just as likely to have lunch with an attendee from Texas he notices sitting alone in the coffee shop. He is genuinely interested in what others have to say.

17. Love of Family. When Mark was just sixteen years old his father died, leaving his mother with ten children aged 2-18 to raise alone. With his two oldest brothers away at college, Mark became the father to his younger sisters and brothers. He changed their diapers, read them bedtime stories, coached their Little League teams, took them camping, helped pay for their missions, and encouraged them in their careers. Because of this experience he was a relaxed, competent, hands-on father, from the very beginning. His family means everything to him, and he is very proud of the accomplishments of his children, his siblings, his parents, and his uncles. He is happiest when he is surrounded by family.

18. Romanticism. Mark was more pragmatic than romantic early in our marriage. In fact, he took me to Bob’s Big Boy on our wedding night, instead of to an elegant restaurant. But in recent years he has started doing things that are very sweet and unexpected. Sometimes he’ll sneak into my car so that when I start the engine, the tape deck will start playing Frank Sinatra’s “I Get a Kick out of You,” or Gene Autry’s “You are my Sunshine.” Such little actions put a smile on my face all day.

19. Encouragement. Mark encourages us (some would say pushes us) to try more, be more, do more. I could have stayed comfortably home raising five children and editing his books, but he encouraged me to go back to school for my undergraduate degree, and then for my graduate degree. I now teach English literature to college students, and I love it so much it hurts (when I have to say goodbye to them at the end of the semester).

20. Faith. Our commitment to God and to His Church is central to our marriage. It gives us comfort and strength to know that we share our deepest beliefs.

21. Partnership. Mark is not just my husband, he is my partner. We write books together, raise our children together, teach classes together, ran a business together, and continue to work together in everything we do. We married young, before either of us had acquired anything but our educations. As a result, we don’t have a sense of “yours” or “mine”; everything we have and everything we are we have accomplished together. We rely on each other as counselors, and it has worked for 30 years. Our commitment was not “as long as we both shall love” or even “as long as we both shall live.” The inscription inside his wedding band says “For this life and always.” With that kind of commitment, we have a strong incentive to work out our differences.

22. Dreamer.

23. Doer.

24. Lover.

25-30. Well, it hasn’t all been a bed of roses! These last six are my complaints. But we’ll just keep them to ourselves, where all complaints in a happy marriage should stay.