Thursday, March 27, 2014

God Is Good...Right?

A friend took a trip overseas, and was surprised and pleased to see that her bags had not gotten caught up in customs, but had arrived with her. She posted her happiness on Facebook, and noted, "God is good."

Another friend asked for prayer for her sick relative. When he recovered, she posted, "God is good. My dad is well. Prayer really does work!!!"

It's good to be grateful, and to thank God for the things in our lives that go right. But it bothers me when people of faith connect God's goodness to things going right. God is still good even if our luggage gets lost or dad is still sick. God is still good, even when the worst possible thing happens. 

Right? I believe this. I want to believe it. But in the middle of loss, grief, and sorrow, sometimes I struggle to believe it. "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief."

If we only declare the goodness of God when things go our way, what are we saying about God? And about ourselves, and our faith? We seem to be saying that God's goodness is somehow connected to good outcomes. Of course this isn't what we believe--or at least, it's not what we say we believe, nor what the Bible says about the character of God. "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136:1). 

We believe that God is good all the time, that it is one of His immutable characteristics, like holiness, justice and omniscience. But we tend to only declare it when we feel it--and this tendency has two negative effects: number one, we are testifying to other believers that this is the primary way we know that God is good--by the good things that happen to us. And number two, the watching world might interpret our belief to be tied to or dependent upon positive outcomes.

I am a believer who struggles daily with outcomes that are disappointing, unsatisfying, painful, and sometimes downright evil. If I thought that God's goodness was tied to good outcomes, I would cease to believe in God. In fact, I suppose I would discover that I wasn't really believing in God at all--but rather, a made-up, Pollyanna version of God that exists to make people feel good about themselves and the world. This is not God at all--or at least not the God that reveals Himself in the Bible.

If I only see God's goodness in good outcomes on this earth, then when horrible things happen, I start to think that God has failed me or forgotten me, or that God has not kept his promises to me. But God does not promise us health, or happiness, or good-looking children, or financial security, or freedom from persecution. 

In fact, the Bible indicates that believers can be guaranteed that they will have trouble, hardship, sorrow, and persecution in this life. Jesus plainly said this: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33)--but the rest of that verse gives us the promise: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

I propose that we stop saying "God is good" when we feel grateful for a positive outcome, because it sends the wrong message and minimizes the actual goodness of God, which is the apogee of goodness, far grander and more awesome than on-time luggage or physical healing or any other positive outcome we encounter. 

Instead, when we experience the joy of a good outcome, we could say "I'm grateful for this good thing that God allowed," or just "Thanks be to God." And that might give us the freedom and strength when we face ineluctable suffering to continue to know and trust in God's unchanging goodness. 

In the wake of losing Aidan, I am re-learning how to be grateful. It is a painfully slow process, but in this moment, in the middle of relentless grief, I choose to believe that God is good. "Help Thou my unbelief."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hashtag Chiberia

Dining room ceilings across Chicago protest the
Narnian winter.
First it looked like this.

Frustrating. Water drip, drip, dripping through bubbling paint on the dining room ceiling.

I poked holes in the puffed out layer of paint, and yellow water streamed out. We positioned buckets under the leaks, and pressed on the separated paint layers to push the remaining water out.

But releasing the water did not solve the problem, and a few days later, we heard a loud PHHHHHLLLUUMMMPHHHHH. Mr. Peevie and I ran out to the dining room to see layers of plaster and insulation coating the table and floor. 

It was quite impressive. For a little while the hole looked like this: 



But Mr. Peevie kept looking at that uncollapsed corner and saying, "I think this is gonna go, too. Stay away from this corner, guys. It's gonna go." 

I admit I made fun of him for his pessimism--and then about a half hour later--PHHHHHLLLUUMMMPHHHHH! Down it came. Sometimes pessimism is another word for "I told you so."

Fortunately, Mr. Peevie did not listen to my Pollyanna outlook, and he had prepped for the second collapse by putting down tarps and bins, which caught a lot of the debris. We have made the first-ever claim against our homeowners' insurance policy since we bought our first house about twenty years ago.

We went through a similar experience with the water dripping through the dining room ceiling five years ago-- And guess what?

The last time Chicago recorded a high temperature below zero was Jan. 15, 2009 -- exactly five years ago. 

"The bitter temperatures follow several days of snowfall," the article reports. Almost twelve inches of snow fell at O'Hare that week--and almost nine of them in one day, breaking the record from 2005.

Apparently, this phenomenon is caused by ice dams that form on the edge of the roof, forcing melting snow back under the shingles, where it creeps in and leaks out inside the house. And it's not just happening at the Peevie homestead, either. It's happening all over Chiberia.

Five years ago, though, the winter was less Narnian than this interminable, tenacious, entrenched season that continues to break records. When I started writing this post, we had marked 75.5 inches of snow so far this season. then later that day we received another batch. To date, our snowfall totals have exceeded 80 inches--80.6 to be exact-- which obliterates the '69-'70 record (77 inches) and wags a warning finger at the '77-'78 second place record (82.3 inches).

I don't think we're going to hit the all-time snowfall record of 89.7 inches in 1978-79, which is a little bit sad since we've come so far. All we'd need would be another 9.2 inches of snow. 

Come on, snow gods! Sock it to us! Let's crush that record!

(BTW, in light of my previous post, the source for these snowy stats is the NBC-5 weather blog.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cite Your Source

My kids learned at an early age that they couldn't convince me of anything just by saying it.

"Cite your source," I'd say.

One time, when Aidan was about ten or eleven, he told me I should stop buying gas at certain gas stations because the company owners hated America. At the time, he attended a tiny conservative Christian school where the popular consensus was that Obama was a socialist fascist dictator, born in Kenya and bent upon destroying the American Way of Life. Some folks were quick to jump on any McCarthy-esque rumor that popped up on the internet.

The inherent socio-political contradictions of that assertion aside, I wanted to teach my kids to respect other people's views, but also to think for themselves by looking at them with a critical eye. 

"Don't believe it just because someone says it's true," I would say.

So, when he told me about the gas station, I asked him to cite his source.

"Ringo's mom," he said confidently.

"She's a secondary source," I said, and then I explained to him the difference between primary and secondary sources. This explanation involved me defending myself against the charge that I thought Ringo's mom was a liar. 
Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in
Mad about You; photo from TV.msn.com

"What source was Ringo's mom citing?"

"She read an article," he said.

Ah-hah. The definitive, indestructible "she read an article" defense.

(Mr. Peevie and I watched a show in the 90s called Mad About You with Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. We still quote one of those episodes, in which Helen Hunt's character Jamie argues with her husband Paul, and he asks her how she knows what she's claiming. "I read an article!" she says--and it becomes a recurring theme. I squandered an hour watching Mad About You clips to try to find this scene, to no avail. This is how seriously I take my Green Room duty. You're welcome.)

As it turns out, the politics of gasoline are far more complicated than a simplistic anti-America rumor would have it. Snopes breaks it down. Notice the list of sources at the bottom of the article.

Sometimes, even sources that appear on the surface to be legitimate lack scientific rigor and should be source-checked.. See, for example, this article on the dangers of vaccinations from a secondary source called The Free Thinker (which looks like the Libertarian version of Huffington Post),written by a dude named Dave Mihalovic.

It all comes down to science and math: does the article cite (and more importantly, link to) legitimate scientific sources? The vaccine article referenced above makes many claims, none of which are sourced. The author cites "secret" CDC documents--but doesn't link to them or provide screen shots. There's no way for a thinking person to double check his claims--we're just supposed to believe him.

Um, no.

The first link in the article is to an article in another secondary source with equally shady credentials--not to an FDA document or a CDC memo or a news story, but to another article by the same guy. "Here," Dave Mihalovic is essentially saying, "you can trust me, because I said it again over here in this other article." Please.

In the third paragraph, the article quotes Brian Hooker, "a PhD scientist" about a CDC cover-up of the alleged risks of vaccinations. Who is Brian Hooker? What are his credentials in medicine, and medical research? What replicated studies has he conducted, and with what legitimate scientific controls?

The answers are, in order: He is a biochemical engineer who works as a consultant in the biotech industry.  He has no medical credentials, and has done no studies, that I can find. He's just a guy who is motivated, sadly, by the alleged vaccine-caused autism of his own child.

Regarding the claims in this article that the CDC has covered up data from their own Vaccine Safety Datalink database showing a "very high link between Thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism rates in children": Show me the proof, dude.

The article claims that there are "a number" of public records that back up this claim--but only links to a 20-page Congressional Record from ten years ago. This document actually contradicts the authors claims: "...exposure to less than the minimal risk level is believed to be safe" and "the minimal risk level would need to be multiplied by ten to reach a level at which harm would be expected through exposure." You can find this out for yourself by clicking the link, and then control-F searching for the word "risk" and looking at the 18th occurrence of the word. See? I have done all the work for you.

You're welcome.

Whatever. This is just one example of millions, and just one topic of dozens that we encounter every day in the news, on Facebook, or in casual conversation, which requests our uncritical acceptance of a questionable assertion. 

Don't do it. Be a critical, questioning listener--not just about gas stations and vaccinations, but about everything--things that cause cancer, things that prevent heart attacks, things that pastors say, things that politicians say--and not just the ones you disagree with. You get the picture.

Or, alternately, you could just trust the opinions here at The Green Room, and I promise, we will always provide primary sources.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Not the Worst Thing in the World, but...

Head lice. Pediculus humanus capitis.

I thought we had gotten through our parenting years without having to deal with this obnoxious, loathsome scourge--but no. The tenacious vermin made their stealthy entrance on Sunday night, after 18.5 years of vulnerability.

M. Peevie and I quietly freaked out, while Mr. Peevie calmly continued to watch Olympic lugers rocketing through frozen alabaster tunnels. I walked over and stood in front of him, blocking his view.

"I don't think you quite understand the seriousness of this situation," I said to my follicle-free spouse. "This is a family affair. We need you to join the freak-out." Mr. P. is a fast learner. He immediately hurled the TV remote across the room, grabbed his phone and leapt into virtual action, Googling "CDC + head lice." 

By the way--do not look at the images page that comes up when you Google "CDC + head lice," or you will have nightmares involving Egyptian-plague-level infestations for a long time.

"This says we need to wash everything on the hottest wash cycle," he announced, and started tearing sheets and pillowcases from the beds. Within minutes he had gotten the first load started, and offered to make a drug-store run.

I texted my friend Bella, who has dealt with this particular plague before, and had successfully defeated the tiny procreating pestilence. "Bella! Lice!" I texted. "Help!"

She, being a paragon of empathy and compassion, called immediately. "You have to go to Walgreens RIGHT NOW,"  she said. "Buy Rid, and start the treatment tonight." I could hear Mr. Bella in the background, advising me to stick with the harsh chemicals and not waste time with the homeopathic remedies. Bella also recommended a lice removal salon, "just to make sure you got them all." 

The nasty bug-killing shampoo smelled like we were dipping M. Peevie's head in a bubbling cauldron of chemical waste products. I thought it was within the realm of possibility that M. Peevie and I would both be lying on the floor, unconscious, at the end of the treatment, our brains liquefied by the harsh fumes.

But at least the bugs would also be dead.

Then came the hard part--the comb-out. Suffice it to say that, before I started combing, M. Peevie and I had a fairly stable, amicable relationship; but at the end, with her hair bobby-pinned up in pincurls of chemical gel, and my fingers cramped and burning, we were as adversarial as Holmes and Moriarty.

We slept, sort of. The next day we visited The NitPickers for head checks and treatments. Our technician/therapist (TT) regaled us with facts and stories about the persistent pests ("they feed on your blood!"), and reassured us that what she was seeing was very mild. She found about 25 nits on poor M. Peevie's head, but no live bugs. 

When it was my turn, I quickly realized that having your hair combed with a narrow-toothed nit-comb feels like getting your hair caught in a piece of farm equipment. This is why M. Peevie was so mad at me the night before! I really thought I was going to end up bald. TT combed and combed, and I wiggled and moaned like a toddler. "It really hurts!" I said, because I am a delicate flower. 

"You're a giant baby," I'm pretty sure she told me.

TT found some tiny flecks that she thought might be nits, but we weren't sure. A few minutes later, she wiped the comb on the white towel and said, "Look at this."

I leaned over, and saw my tiny crawling nemesis. "Aaargh," I moaned. "Ack. Damn. Oh. No. Damn. Damn." 

M. Peevie came over to take a look. "Are you mad at me, Mom?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "You dirty, vile, disgusting child. This is one hundred percent your fault."

Jay-kay. I did not say that; and in fact, I said the right thing: "No, baby girl, I'm not mad at you. It's not your fault." But where did they come from? I wondered. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that infestations are common among children age three to 12 years. We were, statistically speaking, in the clear; and yet--here we were.

That same well-sourced article also affirms that head lice


make themselves at home regardless of the health, hygiene, or cleanliness of their unwilling hosts. They don’t spread disease. Really, all they do is create a disproportionate brouhaha, and their stigma is far worse than their bite. One of the worst effects of a head lice infestation is the psychological trauma that goes along with the diagnosis.

A "disproportionate brouhaha." I like that. I think it would make a good title for my memoir.

TT said we had to comb ourselves out every day, and come back in three days for a re-check. I found a few nits in M. Peevie's head, and one live nymph in mine yesterday. Today we were both clear. We head back to see TT tomorrow after school, and I am hoping against hope that this is the end of our Adventures in Peduculosis. (That would not make a good title for my memoir, but you can use it for yours if you want. No credit necessary.)

Because I'm all about giving, I'll send you off with some rhyming couplets about head lice, courtesy of children's book author Mike Allegra:


For the Love of Louse
On my scalp what do I find?
A little guest! No, I don’t mind!
Please live and breed upon my hair.
I am so glad that you are there.
Please eat your fill. Please bite away.
In case you care, my blood’s Type A.
I pray this time will never end,
My skeevy, parasitic friend.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stop Saying This Word

I'm going to tell you why you should stop saying the word "should." And yes, I hear the irony.

Sometimes--especially around this time of year--we say that word to ourselves: I should lose weight. I should exercise more. I should read more books. I should drink less wine. I should be less crabby with my kids. I should call my mom more often. I should stop being a bad Christian.

We should all stop saying should to ourselves. I am trying to stop "shoulding" all over myself--but more about this in my upcoming memoir. (Props to my therapist, Doc, for that  nearly homophonic pun.) But this post specifically addresses the use of the word should when it's directed at another person.

Stop saying "You should..." to other people. It comes under the heading "Unsolicited Advice: Never Give it."

Don't tell your sister who has stage three ovarian cancer that she should feel grateful that she doesn't have stage four ovarian cancer. This is an important sub-category of Stop Saying Should: Don't tell any cancer patient--or any person with any illness at all--that they should feel grateful. In fact, just stop telling people how to feel.

Don't tell your overweight friend that she should try yoga or pilates or aqua cycling or pole dancing classes.

you should follow my advice / after all it works for me / maybe i'm not you. don't be rediculous
Thanks to Mimi and Eunice for the cartoon.
Don't tell parents who are dealing with a child that JUST WON'T SLEEP, "Oh, you should try Dr. Sleep Nazi. I did, and now my kids sleep perfectly!" 

Don't tell your son or daughter or friend or neighbor that they should spank their temper-tantrumming child, or that they should not give their children candy, or let them watch TV or play video games. Don't ever use the word "should" to your parenting son or daughter with regard to their parenting choices.

I know that your intentions are good. I know that you are only trying to be helpful. I understand that in your mind, when you offer an unsolicited "you should...", you are offering the benefit of your wisdom and years of experience.

But here's how it comes across: You know better than me. You would feel differently if you were in my shoes. You are better than me, and you would make different choices. It's easy if only I'd do it your way. You are trying to fix me.

Do you hear the condescension? That's how it feels. It's not helpful or constructive--in fact, it's counterproductive.

All of this is, of course, moot if your friend/son/daughter is actually asking you for advice. Then it's OK to make suggestions--although This Blog still recommends that you do it without using the phrase "you should." Try these alternatives: "Have you tried..."; "What worked for me was..."; or "I wonder if you could..." These phrases have a degree of humility and compassion.

By the way, I should people all the time. It's an instinctive reaction, I think--when we see someone we care about struggling, we want to help, to fix, to advise. One time I told my friend Roseanne, who was struggling with money issues, "You should cancel your cable subscription." To this day, I hear myself saying that, and I cringe. Who the hell am I to tell her how to live her life and balance her checkbook? None of us know enough about another person to tell her what she should or should not spend her money on--UNLESS SHE ASKS US FOR ADVICE.

What unsolicited shoulds have you received lately? And have you dished any out?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Letting Go and Holding on Tight

One thing defines 2013 for me: the loss of Aidan. He died in 2012, but we spent 2013 trying to learn how to live our Aidan-less lives.

I still have days, like Sunday a week ago, when I cry so hard and for so long that I'm exhausted and ready to go back to bed by 2 p.m. But then days go by when I only cry a little bit, like today. I shed a few tears when I write about him; or when I see something Aidan-esque, such as a manatee, a toy train, or a Pokemon; or when I walk past the table that holds photos, cards, and mementos. Mr. Peevie has moments, hours, and days like this, too.

Seattle
I think this is what getting through grief looks like. Midway through the year I said to the therapist, I don't know how to do this, how to walk through this dark valley. He said, "You're doing it." I suppose what he meant was that I was getting out of bed, working, taking care of my family--sometimes badly, and always with the constant presence of Aidan's absence, but I was doing it.

We took a family vacation to Seattle in late June. We had a fabulous trip--as as perfect as it could be without Aidan. Everything is measured by that yardstick, now; everything is viewed through the lens of not having Aidan. Our photographs have two kids in them, instead of three. We asked for a table for four at dinner; we purchased four bus tickets; four people divide easily between two beds. 

Two kids rolling down a hill instead of three.
In August we attended the wedding of friends whom Aidan loved, and who loved Aidan. I started to cry from the moment the groom looked down the aisle at his bride as her father walked her to the front of the church. I cried for Aidan and for our lost future; I cried because Aidan did not get to see his friends' beautiful ceremony, because he won't have his own, or stand next to C. Peevie and M. Peevie at theirs.

I had lunch with a friend later that month, and our conversation covered many topics--but later she said she felt that every conversation should be about Aidan and about our loss, about our missing him. This notion felt exactly right to me. For a long time nothing else mattered except that Aidan was gone.
I think this is at the Space Needle.
His loss was a bleeding, internal wound that would never heal. It was chronic and debilitating. 

There are still times that nothing else matters except that Aidan is not here. Bereavement obstructs my work, my relationships, even my faith. In church, there are still times when I cannot worship, pray, confess, commune, or greet because all I can be and feel is that I have lost Aidan-- which feels incompatible with worship, and especially with confession. I can look at Jesus, but only as a sufferer, not as a sinner. It's like I exist on two different planes, or in two different dimensions; or I'm schizophrenic. If one personality has surfaced, the other recedes. 


But one year, one month and twenty-one days later, I can see that my grieving has changed from what it used to be, when it consumed most of my waking hours. It is still a constant presence, but it is no longer constantly debilitating. Bereavement has changed me--it has changed all of us--but this new, bereaved me is slowly re-learning how to do relationships, work, and worship all over again.

Part of me feels that this reduction in debilitation is a betrayal of Aidan, like I don't love him enough to keep on suffering the most intense and painful grief. But if I let myself go down that rabbit-hole of despair, I would spend the rest of my life not just grieving, but clinically depressed and possibly suicidal. So I remind myself that moving through grief and letting go of the empty despair of those first few weeks and months is the right thing to do for myself, my family, and for Aidan's memory.
Aidan and Mr. Peevie in Colorado, 2011.


Continuing to let go of debilitating grief, but holding on tight to Aidan, to my memories of him, to the things he loved and valued, and to the lessons he taught me--this is where I hope 2014 will take me. 

But god, I miss that kid.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Traveling Sketchbook, or Serendipity


The Girlfriends gather once a year in South Haven for a weekend of getting-away-from-it-all which includes laughs, adult beverages, and a white elephant gift exchange. We enjoyed this annual event so much this year in January that we decided to make it a semi-annual event and do it again in September. 

We opened white elephant gifts while wearing fake facial hair, which made every gift and every conversation exponentially more hilarious. The gift exchange produced a collapsible, portable camping toilet; an awful "get-in-touch-with-your-feelings" card game from the 1950s, targeted to socially-challenged adolescents; and a sexy black lace dress with plunging neckline, which the recipient modeled. We photographed her and immediately sent the image to the husband in question. 

 
The most interesting gift of the night was an old sketchbook that Girlfriend Y-Tee had found decades earlier in an alternative school on Chicago's north side. No one claimed them or knew where they had come from, so she called dibs and brought them home. They had been sitting in a storage box in her basement for thirty years--and now one of them became part of Girlfriend Tradition. We wondered about the artist, and whether his career had taken an artistic trajectory.



"Let's try to find him!" we agreed, and I whipped out the trusty Internet. The name on the front cover of the sketchbook was David Enblom, so I googled "David Enblom artist." I got almost 40,000 results--but the first page of links was all our guy. The link led us to a website called MNArtists.org, and Mr. Enblom's homepage on that site listed his own website, which we quickly checked out. 

Mr. Enblom, it turns out, is a talented photographer, although his website was designed for minimum aesthetic appeal and maximum randomness. His landing page includes links to his photographs, his Facebook page, Beatles songs and lyrics, and a playable list of the Billboard #1 Pop Hits from 1941 to 1976. Glen Miller's Song of the Volga Boatmen is playing in the background at this very moment. 

I took photos of several sketches, attached them to an email, wrote "Found these in a sketchbook with your name on it. Are they yours?", and hit send. Thirteen hours later, Mr. Enblom replied enthusiastically, "Yes they are! Would love to see more!" 
 So we sent four more images, and told him that our friend had found his sketchbooks in an alternative high school in Chicago in the '80s. This launched a dialogue with Mr. Enblom, who thought his mom had tossed all of the sketchbooks in the trash. He asked to "borrow" them so he could copy the images, but G.YT was happy to reunite them with their creator. Mr. Enblom--can I call him David? I feel like he's practically one of the girlfriends by now--David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has never lived in Chicago; so how did his sketchbooks end up in a north side high school? David started filling sketchbooks when he was in his early 20s, in 1971. He had switched from studying pre-med to art; you can see the influence of pre-med in his anatomy drawings. "I fell in love with art," David told me, "Dada, surrealism, fluxus." He believes that his girlfriend at the time brought the books to Chicago. She later married a guy who was involved in starting the Prologue school where the books eventually ended up, and where Y-Tee found them many years later.It was a big thrill, David said, when the sketchbooks arrived in the mail. He had assumed that they had all been thrown out and that he'd never see any of them again. Getting the books back "was like finding out you have a brother that you were separated from. I'm getting to know a part of myself--how many memories do you have from 40 years ago?"Many gifts came out of this little adventure. One of them is that David introduced us to The Sketchbook Project, which is a "global, crowd-sourced art project and interactive traveling exhibition of handmade books." There are already more than 28,000 sketchbooks in the exhibit--and you can join the fun. Order your very own sketchbook here for only $25--or check out the digital library of sketchbooks on the website.