Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

I love the start of a new year. I love the optimism, the clean slate, the fresh start. I love the ridiculously vain hopes that the new year engenders—hopes for healthier choices, healed relationships, new or renewed hobbies, personal improvements, spiritual growth, new adventures and expanded horizons—hopes for an Extreme E. Peevie Makeover!

I always feel a little sad when people say they don’t make resolutions. I wonder: is it because they don’t want to fail? Is it because they have had their hopes dashed one too many times? Are they content with themselves and their lives so much that they don’t feel the need to resolve to grow or improve? Are they tired, or cynical, or maybe just disinterested?

I realize that not everyone is like me, but I cannot understand why some people don’t feel inspired by the blank page of a brand new year. Maybe it’s the word “resolution” that puts them off. Perhaps that word is too demanding, official, or even cliché. How about hopes, goals, dreams, or plans? C’mon. Give it a try.

What will you do different in 2008?

In the past I have resolved to
  • Learn to juggle. (I did.)
  • Read all the Pulitzer prize novels. (I’m about 1/3 done.)
  • Read through the entire Bible. (Gave up several times.)
  • Run a marathon. (I did.)
  • Finish a triathlon. (I did.)
  • Become a better pray-er. (Still working on it.)
  • Learn to knit. (Got bored and quit.)

So here we are at the dawn of a new year. What huge emotional, physical, and spiritual goals will I set before myself in 2008?

Ah, fuggedaboudit. I’m too tired. And what’s a resolution going to change, anyway? It’s just a word. It’s not like it’s got power or anything.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Five People In Tiny Spaces

I love my children and all, but there is such a thing as too much togetherness. It's what I imagine living in Tokyo feels like--never more than 10 feet between you and another person, and much of the time, less.

I had packed all sorts of goodies into the kids' backpacks to keep them out of each other's hair (and ours) during the two seven hour road trips--art supplies, movies, books, toys--but this only worked for about 300 of the 400 miles. You can guess the kinds of observations/complaints/ questions we covered along the way:

"How many more hours til we get there?" This was approximately 15 minutes after we vacated our parking space in front of the house. After hearing this four or five times, Mr. Peevie and I took to pointing to the trip timer, after telling the kids not to ask again until the timer displayed seven dot dot zero zero.

We also had iterations of the following:

"I spilled ______ on my pants!"

"I have to go to the bathroom!"

"He won't let me have a turn with the neck pillow!"

'Her I-pod is too loud!"

"The movie is too loud!"

"Ewww! Somebody farted!"

"He keeps putting his feet on my armrest!"

"Turn it back on!" "I don't want to see the scary part!!"

"His feet stink!"

"What's a 'Cratchet'?" Some of the vocabulary from Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol, that we were listening to on CD, was unfamiliar to the short people.

Finally we reached our intermediate destination. We had requested adjoining rooms; they gave us adjacent rooms. I envisioned kids sneaking out and heading down to the lounge for a late-night Shirley Temple. We moved to adjoining rooms. This was the most separation we'd have the entire trip. I treasured it.

Day two: We drove through constant rain and thick fog, which made our close mini-van quarters seem even closer. More than six hours later, we arrived at our hotel home for the next four days, and discovered that our suite was an excellent size...for two people.

I do not parent well in tiny spaces. Too much proximity shortens my frustration fuse and diminishes my tolerance for noise, especially the bickering variety. My vocabulary withers to terse commands, primarily "Stop!" and "Don't!"

We tried to moderate our loud family dynamic to fit the various cubicles we found ourselves confined to--cars, hotel rooms, restaurants, and my parents' small-for-10-people living room, but in the end we just annoyed our family members and frustrated each other. We're like a herd of wildebeest on the plains of the Serengeti: we need our space to roam and run and roar.

Thank the little baby Jesus--we finally made it home. I practically wept. I do love my kids, I swear--but any more togetherness, and I'd be posting this from Crazyville.

I hope your holiday travels and family times brought you great quantities of joy.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What I Read in 2007

The 34 titles on my 2007 book list have the following characteristics:

I enjoyed most of my reading this year, awarding four or five (out of five) stars to nearly 60 percent (20 books). Only one was a complete dud; I reviewed it here.

Nineteen are non-fiction, 15 are fiction.

Eleven are faith-related, and of those, five were commentaries or sermons specifically related to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nine books I had read at least one time before this year.

Nine have been made (or are being made) into movies. One--Candide--is also an opera by Leonard Bernstein. Nicole Kidman played Isabel Archer in the 1996 adaptation of Portrait of a Lady.

Seven are memoirs, or at least memoir-ish.

Four were gifts; 10 I bought for myself. The others I borrowed, stole, or already had in my library from long ago.

Four are classics, including the Christian classic A Short and Easy Method of Prayer by Madame Jeanne Guyon.

Three are novels by Jodi Picoult.

Three were book club selections: Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (actually, I’m still working on this one); Candide by Voltaire; and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Three were written particularly for a younger audience: Bridge to Terabithia, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and The Golden Compass.

Two are by Barack Obama.

One is a self-help book on organizing and decluttering. Not that I'm making any promises.

My award for number one new read of the year goes to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This memoir was so good that I read it again about a month after I finished it the first time. The author relates the horrifying, mystifying, confounding, and unpredictable events of her life story with a sort of non-judgmental detachment, with a voice that is neutral and yet engaging at the same time. Any story that begins with the sentence, “I was on fire” has a lot to live up to—and this memoir did not let me down.

My 2007 book list does not include the dozens of little books I read with my kids, like the tales of Pippi Longstocking and Junie B. Jones, and The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (which makes me cry every single time I read it, and then that little stinker A. Peevie laughs—laughs!—at me.)

Being a LibraryThing-er has really enhanced my ability to track and categorize my annual reading lists and my library as a whole. If you’re a reader, or a book-lover, or a book collector, check it out if you haven't already.

here to view my online catalog; and click on the tag "2007" to list only the books I read this year.

What did you read this year? What are you recommending?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Meditation

In the spirit of Christmas, here is a beautiful yet little known and infrequently sung Christmas carol that depicts the vast humility of the incarnation:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor
All for love’s sake becamest poor.

Thou who are God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest Man;
Stopping so low, but sinners raising
Heav’nward by Thine eternal plan.
Thou who are God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest Man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Savior and King, we worship Thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling
Make us what Thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love, beyond all telling,
Savior and King, we worship Thee.

(I tried to find an audio link, but I only found one not-very-good rendition on YouTube. Sorry about that.)*

This hymn comes from II Corinthians 8:9, where Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

At this time of year, we sing about a baby born in a stable, laid in a manger, on a silent, holy night. Our view of this baby, of Jesus, is what makes us Christian. Do we understand this incarnation of the only begotten Son of God? Do we often consider what the incarnation meant to Jesus—and what it means to us? What does it mean when we sing about the birth of a baby in the little town of Bethlehem?

It means that Jesus chose to cloak his glorious deity in the humbleness of humanity. Jesus, the exalted one, the king above all kings, the Lord of all Lords—shed his majesty to become a man. Jesus, who is called Immanuel, which means “God is with us,” willfully limited his limitless power and glory to come to the earth as a human child. This is the incarnation. This is humility. This is love.

Another not-very-well-know Christmas hymn reminds us that

Empty he came as a man to our race
Equal with God, yet forsaking his place.
Humbly he served in our world.
Humbly he served in our world.

This hymn is based on Philippians 2:5-8:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,
Who, being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
Taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance a man,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to death—
Even death on a cross.

Jesus, who had every reason not to be humble, in humility took the form of a man. Not an emperor, or a king, or a president—but a poor and uneducated carpenter, a member of an oppressed minority.

Jesus, who is almighty God, gave up the prerogatives of his Godhead, and said, “I can do nothing of myself.”

Jesus dwelled in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and yet he chose to come to earth as a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” He said of himself, “I am meek and lowly in heart.”

Jesus, who had every right to feel and act superior, in his interactions with other people never did so. In humility Jesus respected all people, never claiming his divine rights, but always living in dependence on God the Father.”

This Christmas, join me in focusing on the humility of the incarnation—on what that meant to Jesus, and what it means to us. Let’s say with John the Baptist, “He must become greater, and I must become less.”

[*Updated: I found an a capella performance of the French version of the hymn here.]

Monday, December 17, 2007

Movie Review: Hot Fuzz

I did not have high expectations of this movie. Can you blame me? With a name like Hot Fuzz, I expected lots of sight gags and adolescent humor: cops wearing short shorts and bad guys careening around on motorcycles and flipping over car doors in slow motion.

But this guy Simon Pegg, who co-wrote (with Edgar Wright) and starred in Hot Fuzz, has won me over with his talent as a writer, comedian, and actor. Watching this movie made me realize why I don’t generally enjoy watching comedies: they’re just not that funny. They patronize with the obvious gags, and the writers and actors rely on easy laughs. Hot Fuzz brings exactly the opposite: it’s a smart, hilarious, and well-acted parody of the action genre.

Speaking of action, this picture (from Rogue Films) says it all:

I need to watch it again to get all the subtle and not-so-subtle allusions. I know there was some Eastwood, some Lethal Weapon, some Star Wars—oh, there were tons more, but they went by so quickly it was like an episode of Arrested Development, only British, and with bullet-proof vests.

Here’s the story: Nick Angel is an over-performing London cop who gets shipped off to a drowsy village with a crime rate near zero but a suspiciously high rate of fatal accidents. He gets teamed up with an easy-going, oblivious partner, Danny, a Jerry Bruckheimer fan and the son of the police chief. Sergeant Angel drinks cranberry juice and brings his type-A law enforcement personality to bear even when the only misdemeanant is an irascible, AWOL swan.

Props to Mr. Peevie, who selected this flick and talked me into giving it a chance. Usually Mr. Peevie and I have wildly divergent taste in film. He loves “Breakfast at Tiffany's” and I love “Die Hard.” He loves those wacky Austin Powers movies, and I…don’t. But this movie made us both happy.

Because of my innate insecurity, I always feel a tiny bit validated when the Rotten Tomato Meter agrees with me about a movie that I love or hate. Hot Fuzz gets a very respectable
89 percent.

OK, enough reading. Get out there and rent Hot Fuzz! Then check back in and tell me if you loved it, or if you’re canceling your subscription to The Green Room.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Top Ten Miscellany of 2007

Do you love top ten lists? Here’s a Top Ten buffet that will keep you mouse-clicking contentedly for days. Time Magazine online offers the year’s best in news; arts and entertainment; science; business, tech and sports; and pop culture.

I haven’t made it through all 500 items yet, but here are my Top Ten Top Ten List Items From’s 50 Top Ten Lists of 2007:

10. Under the heading Top Ten Man-Made Disasters, the Minneapolis bridge collapse came in as number 5. I include this because we received a letter from an acquaintance that said he had been walking on that bridge half an hour before the collapse; and we were grateful he was spared.

9. From pop culture, #7 on the list of Fashion Must-Haves: a fedora. No lie.

8. “Put your big-girl panties on.” U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spelling encouraged deputy press secretary Dana Perino with this pithy proverb as Perino prepared to step in for exiting PS Tony Snow. #4 on the list of Top Ten T-Shirt Worthy Slogans.

7. In the science category, coming up #4 in the list of Top Ten Scientific Discoveries: Scientists announced that they had discovered 700 new species of organisms, including a new leopard, monkey, and sea cucumber. Honestly, this just blows my mind. 700 new species. I don’t know what it means, or even how to get my mind around it; only that describing the complexity of life on planet Earth keeps staying out of reach.

6. “I want to be like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and John Lennon, but I want to stay alive.” Quotable Madonna, #10 in the Top Ten T-Shirt Worthy Slogans. Me too, girl; me, too.

5. Another science category item, and also listed in the Too Good to be True category, #6 on the list of Top Ten Medical Breakthroughs: No more periods, thanks to Lybrel, the first continuous-use birth control pill that eliminates monthly menstruation.

4. From Top Ten Sports Moments, the truth-is-better-than-fiction 15-lateral winning touchdown scored by Trinity University against Millsaps College. Even non-football fans can appreciate the cosmic combination of goofy good luck and heads-up footballing that made all the pieces fall into place on this play.

3. Mother Teresa shocks the world but testifies to the real struggle that people of faith endure when her letters disclose that she often did not feel the presence of God. This took the #1 spot in the list of Top Ten Religion Stories of the year.

2. “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s turns up as #7 in the list of Top Ten Songs of 2007. I was captivated by it and didn’t know why when I first heard it on the radio this year; but now I’d say it’s the simple sincerity of the lyrics and the sweet raspiness of Tom Higgenson’s voice.

1. My Number One Top Ten List Item of 2007, from the pop culture category, #9 on the list of Top Ten Buzzwords: Vajayjay. I know the feminists don’t like this one, but I can’t help myself. Call me immature, but I think it’s funny, and it has some kind of strange hold on me.

What are your top ten whatevers from 2007?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More Thoughts on The Golden Compass

I still haven’t read The Golden Compass, but I’ve been reading a lot about it because of the religion controversy. I found a couple of interesting and helpful links to help us think about the books as literature, and that might help to inform a Christian's response to the anti-God theme.

Pullman’s trilogy is a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which means it is a retelling of the Genesis story of creation and the fall of man. Everyone seems to agree that he is an amazing storyteller, gifted with the ability to create imaginary worlds with lively and engaging detail.

Alan Jacobs, a literature professor at Wheaton College, described reading Pullman’s trilogy as “an enormously seductive experience. As you come to trust in the author’s ability to make a compelling and fascinating world, it becomes harder and harder to mistrust that author’s leadership and direction in moral matters.” He suggested, “Readers who love to enter the imaginary secondary worlds are tempted to turn off their moral and spiritual discernment so that you’re not disturbed in your immersion in this world.”

As the trilogy progresses, Jacobs said, the storytelling becomes increasingly polemical, as though it’s more important to the author to make his argument against God, faith, and all things spiritual than it is to let his characters live and breathe. “If you begin to suspect the moral tendency or direction that the book is taking,” Jacobs said, “the imaginative wholeness of the vision becomes less compelling to you as well.”

There’s tons more interesting material in the interview with Jacobs on Mars Hill Audio, in case you want to check it out.
I love the fact that he quotes a song by The Who when he’s discussing Pullman’s apparent belief that the way to human freedom is the abolition of authority: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” from Won’t Get Fooled Again. “That’s the lesson of the disappointed revolutionary,” Jacobs asserts. Anarchy always ends in tyranny.

Another helpful source is this post
on Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog, The Looking Closer Journal. Overstreet wears, among other hats, the Christianity Today movie critic beret.

P.S. Props to my friend gveach
on LibraryThing who pointed me to the Alan Jacobs interview.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Snapshots of Retirement Living: The Food Kind of Sucks

Mom’s cooking spoiled all of us, Dad included, for the dried out, over-cooked, over-salted, quick-cook menu items that for many people pass as normal fare. Nearly every night she’d whip up a delicious, under-appreciated, nutritionally balanced gourmet delight, including at least one green or orange vegetable, warm dinner rolls and a homemade dessert. I don’t honestly know how she did it with five kids.

I remember not sufficiently appreciating breaded veal parmesan, tender swiss steak, roast chicken, homemade potatoes au gratin, always perfect homemade gravy, pristinely fluffy white mashed potatoes, and the absolute best macaroni and cheese in the hemisphere. Mom didn’t bring home the bacon (except literally), but she made sure dad’s paychecks stretched as far as possible by dressing up the leftovers so nothing went to waste. A chicken one night would be chicken a la king the next night and chicken vegetable soup on the third night.

I don’t think she ever cheated with Kraft macaroni and cheese, or Hamburger Helper, or even—to my deepest distress—Rice-A-Roni. I had to go to my best friend Jane’s house to get me some of that San Francisco treat.

(Mom did cheat with Minute Rice, though, which to this day I do not understand. Why would a person who obviously cared about real, fresh, delicious food use that nasty not-rice, when real rice is simpler and more delicious? But that was her worst culinary faux pas, and I’m a big enough person to overlook it.)

OK, so my point about all this is, dad and I are spoiled. We know what roast pork with a spicy garlic rub should taste like—moist, tender, flavorful; but here, it tastes a little like boot leather. The BBQ chicken was dry and tough, and the baby snap peas had had their snap boiled right out of them until they laid there, limp and sad, like soggy strips of faded green construction paper.

There’s nothing like crisp, bright green asparagus, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with kosher salt and perfectly roasted, right? After my first dinner at Chez Telford, I vetted the asparagus before ordering it—and the server warned me that it had been steamed to soggitude. Shepherd’s pie came sans crust; it was more like shepherd’s stew on a plate. The white rice that came with my so-called pepper steak reminded me of lumpy grade-school paste—which some kids did actually eat, even though Miss Rudasill frowned upon it.

The price of mom and dad’s apartment includes one meal every day, either lunch or dinner (same menu). I’ve been trying to convince dad that just because it’s paid for doesn’t mean he has to eat it, if he’d rather go out to dinner, or eat dinner in the apartment. Since the money’s already spent, I tell him, take it out of the equation. Now the decision, in economic terms (props to my first husband) is, from which option will you derive the most utils?

It doesn’t sink in. Dad feels compelled to eat the meal that’s paid for, and they’ll be eating that meal every day, like it or not, until mom decides that she will derive more utils from making one of her own truly gourmet delights. I predict that this will happen sometime in the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, avoid the asparagus.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Snapshots of Retirement Living: Old People Are Funny

“What are we doing here with all these old people?” my mom said to my dad at dinner today. And yesterday. And the day before.

The “old people” start lining up at 4:30 for dinner at 5:00. It’s the social outing of the day, and everyone seems to know each other. Many are quick to welcome my parents and introduce themselves. The men are named Harry, Ray, and Bill; and the women have resurrected names like Grace, Anna and Eleanor.

Some of the men have a competitive thing going on. Harry from down the hall introduces himself, and immediately starts telling us about his recent hospitalization. “I just got out of the hospital,” he announced proudly. “ I had quadruple bypass surgery!” He looks at my dad. “I’m 86,” he adds, “How old are you, Al?”

(I turned to my mom at this point and asked, “Are you allowed to ask that question in here?” Harry still has sharp hearing. “Sure!” he said. “We’re all old here. We’re proud of it!”)

My dad, who’s two weeks away from 87, doesn’t pull his age card, but instead opens a new category: “I’m 86,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of stents in here myself,” he added, tapping himself on the chest.

Not to be outdone, Harry the Topper (props to Scott Adams) brags, “Yeah, I’ve got three of those, too,” and then he almost added, “Plus a piece of shrapnel wedged up against my spine from the War.” Later at dinner, we overheard him wowing the ladies with his tales of surgical survival.

After dinner a couple of nights, I sat down to play the old piano in the common sitting room. I love to play, but I have very little natural talent. I have a repertoire of about five pieces memorized, including the perennial favorite “The Entertainer” and Beethoven’s ubiquitous “Minuet in G.”

So I’m playing for my mom and dad, and the old people stop by to listen. “I’ve been here two years and I’ve never heard anyone play that piano!” another Harry says happily. “It’s great to hear it! Blessings on you. Blessings, blessings,” he repeats to no one in particular as he walks away.

I play the intro to “How Great Thou Art,” and it’s a big hit here at the Lutheran Community. Soon I have a silver-headed quartet of ladies singing along with me while I play. It’s hilarious and a tiny bit beautiful at the same time.

I like it here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Snapshots of Retirement Living: Bringing Order to Chaos

On the first official day of mom and dad’s move to Telford, we faced 61 boxes and disorder in every corner of every room. We emptied about 10 that day, but the rest of the job seemed daunting.

Dad had hired two people from The Perfect Plan, a relocation company, to help unpack boxes the next day. Before they came, we speculated that it would not be terribly helpful to have two extra people getting in the way while we unpacked. They wouldn’t know where to put things, mom figured; we’d have to oversee every move they made; it might just be easier to do it ourselves.

Well. The next day Lynn and Trish walked into chaos, and by the time they left seven hours later, they had transformed it into order and even beauty. Little did we know before we met them that these women are not just relocation specialists, they are relocation magicians.

Every box was emptied, many items were “downsized” or “repurposed,” closets were organized, beds were made, shelves were filled with books, photos, and knickknacks. They set up the computer, found the linens, made the bed. They brought an intuitive and convenient organization to the kitchen, totally rearranging my structure from the previous day in a way that clearly and painlessly illustrated that this is not where my gifts lie.

Mom and I made a trip to the store to pick up some clutter containers and other supplies. While we were gone, the wizards of where-does-it-go fixed up the spare room as a special service to me. When we left, the room was packed so full of furniture and boxes that there was no room to open up the cot that I’d be sleeping on that night. When we returned, the room had been transformed into a legitimate guest bedroom. The boxes were gone, the TV was set up and operational, the computer sat blinking on the dresser, and most astonishing of all, the cot was dressed up to look like an actual bed, with clean sheets, a comforter and two matching pillows. The only thing missing was a mint.

These guys are good, people. I could not recommend them more highly. They made our lives and my parents’ unpacking process so much easier and so much less painful than it could have been.

If you need a relocation specialist, someone to help you unpack and get organized, email Lynn at Or go to their website.

(And no, Mr. and Ms. Cynical, they did not pay me to write this, nor am I related to them.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Snapshots of Retirement Living: Downsizing and Repurposing

I flew to PA yesterday to help my parents move into their new retirement apartment in a scenic corner of historic Bucks County. They had experimented with living in Virginia with my brother and his wife, but that situation was not a good fit for anyone. After a little more than a month they called it quits and decided to move back to PA, near where they had lived for the past 20 years and most of their lives.

So here we are at The Lutheran Community at Telford, trying to fit 61 boxes of planet earth souvenirs into a smallish two-bedroom apartment. I find myself winnowing through my parents’ earthly goods and treasures and ruthlessly eliminating duplication and extraneity (is that a word?) while helping to put everything else in its place.

Some of this sifting happened under duress when mom and dad packed up their belongings for the first move to Virginia. But the first move happened kind of quickly, and a lot of stuff was dumped into boxes and shipped south. Many of these boxes did not see the light of day in Jefferson’s fair state, and now we’re opening them to find these kinds of treasures:

  • Hotel stationery from hotel chains that no longer exist, and from trips taken decades ago.
  • Neighborhood telephone directories from the mid-1980s.
  • Three identical sets of 175 Bible memory cards in small red boxes, probably 40 years old, and untouched for the past 20.
  • Three containers each of dried basil flakes, dried parsley flakes, and rubbed sage, plus duplicates of several other herbs and spices.
  • Dad’s work ID from 1938.
  • Dad’s business cards from the 1970s.
  • Two boxes labeled “playing cards,” neither of which contained playing cards. Instead, they held marketing freebies like keychains, fingernail clippers, paper weights, tiny tool sets, and lots of pens.

One entire box was filled with records. Not written records, not medical records. Record records. LPs, 45s, and albums of 45s. I thought I had entered a time warp. I read through the titles:

  • Paul Mickelson Plays for Youth (at the giant Robert-Morton pipe organ), including “In My Heart There Rings a Melody” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” Several albums featured the name and/or location of the pipe organ prominently on the cover.
  • The Chesterfield Broadcasts Glenn Miller and His Orchestra: “Authentic broadcasts of the legendary radio program by the original orchestra—all on record for the first time!”
  • A Treasury of Immortal Performances: “Dance Band Hits” including Tommy Dorsey playing “Boogie Woogie,” Glenn Miller playing “Song of the Volga Boatment,” and Duke Ellington with “Mood Indigo.”
  • I loved this one: Ronnie Avalone sings “The Holy City,” plus “duets with Mrs. Avalone.”
  • A four-album set of audio Bible studies in Galatians by the legendary (if you run in those circles) Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, Th.D. This gem is a podcast of 1960!

Among the 45s I found the ultimate political classic, “Excerpts from Richard M. Nixon’s Nomination Acceptance Speech, August 8, 1968.” Are you old enough to remember one of his most unforgivable lines: “America is in trouble today, not because her people have failed, but because her leaders have failed”? (I’m not, of course, but I do remember voting for him in our mock presidential election in second grade.)

There was more: souvenirs from Honduras, Peru, Spain, Holland, and Germany; imitation cut glass peanut butter jars from the 1950s; no fewer than six dictionaries; and hand towels that carbon date back to the Triassic Period.

Tune in tomorrow for more Snapshots of Retirement Living.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Gas Man Cometh

A fresh-faced young woman who looked like she could be a Noxema spokesmodel knocked on my door today. She wore an official ID and a U.S. Energy Savings Corp. cap and uniform; and she asked to see our most recent gas bill to “see if we qualified” for a five percent discount on future gas price increases.

She pitched a five-year fixed-price natural gas contract to further protect us from future price increases. The advantages of her company compared to other suppliers, said Noxema Girl, was that they offered these benefits for no fee, and our gas price would be guaranteed for five years.

It all sounds great, right? But door-to-door salespeople trigger an instinctive defensive reflex in my brain. I’ve watched enough Judge Alex to know that you don’t sign a contract without reading the fine print—especially when it walks up to your door and looks all innocent, and offers you a too-good-to-be-true deal. I mean, who wouldn’t sign on the dotted line for a no-cost five-percent gas bill reduction, and an insurance hedge against rising natural gas prices?

Before I signed, I looked at the small print, which advised me that the contract “appoints U.S. Energy Savings Corp.” as my exclusive provider of natural gas; and that “Customer agrees to purchase natural gas commodity supply at a fixed price of $1.09 per therm.” Hair follicles on my scapulas started to tingle, and cold tentacles of suspicion seeped slowly into my brain.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peevie had slipped into the office and googled “U.S. Energy Savings Corp + scam” and found this
. He returned, assumed a slightly aggressive stance and said firmly, “We won’t be signing any contracts today. Thanks for stopping by.”

After Noxema left, I looked up my Peoples Gas bill online. U.S. Energy had offered to lock in my natural gas price at $1.09 per therm—but my price in the last 11 months ranged from a low of $.6811 per therm to a high of $.9303 per therm. Over that period the average per-therm cost was $.81056—more than 25 percent less than the price set by the contract.

Now, it’s true that the price of gas fluctuates, and in January 2006 we paid $1.13 per therm. It’s also possible that we will see a consistent rise in prices. However, this article
from the federal Energy Information Administration projects that natural gas prices will actually decline until 2013.

So, gentle readers, heed me now and listen to me later: read the small print when the gas man knocks on your door. It could save you some money, some hassle, and a visit to Judge Alex’s courtroom.

UPDATE: I've posted two updates to this piece. This one discusses the Illinois' attorney general's lawsuit against U.S. Energy Savings Corp. and this one reviews my actual gas costs and provides additional info about the company.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Grateful Heart

Yesterday M. Peevie and I walked out the front door to head over to gymnastics. It was a cold, rainy, miserable day.

"Mom, isn't it a beautiful day?" M. Peevie said to me as we held our coats over our heads and ran for the car.

"I guess so," I said dubiously. "What makes you say that, honey?"

"Well, everybody always says 'Isn't it a beautiful day' when the sun is shining and it's warm outside, but God made all the days, and we should be thankful for them," M. Peevie innocently preached; and I smiled in my heart.

It's Thanksgiving Day, and here's a tiny sampling of what I'm grateful for:
  • M. Peevie and her optimistic, cheerful, friendly personality.
  • A. Peevie and his originality and cuddliness.
  • C. Peevie and his tender heart and great sense of humor.
  • Mr. Peevie and what a great dad and husband he is.
  • Forgiveness.
  • Friendship.
  • A warm home.
  • A whole year with nobody in the hospital.
  • The Sermon on the Mount.
  • Books like The Glass Castle and The Kite Runner and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • My church.

There's so much more, but I must baste my turkey now. Peace, gentle readers; God's blessings on both of you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Book Review: Living SMART

Through LibraryThing I have received an Early Reviewer copy of Living SMART: Five Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever. As an early reviewer, I get a free advance copy of a soon-to-be-published book, and if I write a review of it, I have a better chance of getting ER books in the future. So here's my review:

Week One: I read the preface and the introduction, and form my first impression of the book: bleah. The writing and the concepts are like Gerber Rice Cereal for babies: pre-chewed, broken down to the tiniest bits so the lowest common denominator reader doesn’t choke on it. I don’t see anything truly new or creative about the approach. The five eponymous SMART skills are not so much skills as they are obvious tasks that I don’t really need two PhDs and some lame clip-art to help me figure out.

Week Two: I lose motivation and don’t even pick up the book.

Week Three: I feel obligated to read and review the book for LibraryThing, especially since I do want to be considered for future early review titles. So I pick up the book and try to have a good attitude.

Chapter 1--
Let's Get Started. My bad attitude returns wearing leather and chains when I read that the three principles and steps to change involve the What, the Want, and the How. So far this book reminds me of a not-very-interesting article in a women’s magazine, one that might be titled, “Five Simple Steps to a New, Slimmer You!”

But even though I feel patronized, I plug on and read Chapter 2—The What: Know Exactly What Needs to Change. This chapter is even more obvious than the last. It lists places where you can get information about the behavior you need to change—as though you’ve been living in the jungles of Bolivia for the last 40 years and you’ve never seen another person, or a newspaper, or one of those new-fangled computer-thingies.

As a special bonus, the chapter ends with an action tip: If you want to get skinny, don’t buy cookies. That strikes me as just plain mean. The authors probably have hyper-thyroid disease and never have to watch what they eat in order to keep their girlish figures.

Week Four: I grit my teeth and promise myself I will get through two more nauseating chapters this week. I suggest to myself that, in the interest of fairness, perhaps I should try to have an open mind since I’ve only read slightly more than 1/10 of the book. Myself agrees, ditches the attitude, and plunges into chapter 3—The Want: Decide Whether You Want to Change.

Ah, feel the irony. I learn that motivation is the great stumbling block to change. (I’m still thinking about those cookies, and—call me Blobbo—I’m not really motivated to buy non-fat rice cakes instead.)

I do actually read an idea in this chapter that I have never considered before: that optimism is a behavior that can be learned. I do some research and find that these authors are not alone in this theory; and I make a note to blog about it in the future.

Chapter Four—The How promises me that if I know what needs to change, and I’m motivated, then the SMART skill set will ensure my success. The SMART skill set consists of Setting a goal, Monitoring your progress, Arrange your world for success, Recruit a support team, and Treat yourself.

The authors illustrate the concept of Arranging Your World for Success with a story about a dinner party at which one guest said she wanted to cut down on her salt intake. The good doctors moved the salt shaker out of her reach to the other end of the table, and “proclaimed with great satisfaction that this gesture had significantly reduced her chance of using excess salt during the meal.”

I know. I want to smack them, too.

Later in the same chapter, the Captains Obvious advise us to “maximize the positive influence of others by setting up a team of supporters.” They recommend that we recruit these team members from among friends and family, as well as from internet chat rooms, magazine pen pal clubs, and prisons.

Oh, they do not—but if they had included those last three, it would have made the chapter more interesting.

Week Five—I read chapters 5-13, having completely given up on even the semblance of neutrality and optimism about this waste of perfectly good paper and ink. I just shake my head when I read chapter six, in which the authors provide a detailed monitoring chart that they have cleverly dubbed “The Chart.”

One Action Tip recommends rewarding yourself often with small, frequent treats such as “a brief chat with a friend on the phone or taking the time to watch a sunset.” Really? Do these people really only allow themselves to chat on the phone or watch a sunset as a reward for behavior change? That’s just sad.

Part II: Your Game Plan applies the SMART skills to four specific issues: diet, exercise, getting better sleep, and remembering to take medication. There’s plenty of stuff to be bored and annoyed about in these chapters, too, like the recommendations to put gold stars on your monitoring chart to reward yourself and the one "for mothers only" to ask your spouse to watch the kids while you exercise.

This book reminds me of a class I took in graduate school. The professor, a tenured PhD, had authored our textbook on multi-cultural counseling. It was my first exposure to the notion that having letters after your name does not directly correlate with intellectual brilliance. To this day, 25 years later, I remember that textbook and that class—not because of what I learned, but because of what I didn’t. The book was padded with patently obvious and too-general-to-be-useful observations along the lines of “The counselor must be sensitive to the cultural background of the client.” The class was one "duh" after another.

That’s what’s going on with Living SMART. The authors have padded a magazine article based on a marginally clever acronym into 184 pages of obvious and redundant pop psychology. Save your $15. Put it in the bank, and in five years you’ll have around $18. That’s better than the return you’ll get from investing in this book.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sermon on the Mount: Don't Be Fooled

From The Enemy Within, by Kris Lundgaard:

When prime minister Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain from his meeting with Hitler in Munich, he waved before the crowd the agreement he had made with the Nazi leader and announced, “I believe it is peace for our time.” Hitler had to roll over Czechoslovakia before Chamberlain gave up his wishful thinking. How much death and destruction might have been avoided if the prime minister had been more discerning about his enemy?

Chamberlain’s declaration became an obscene irony when England went to war less than a year later. But as tragic as it was, men and women outdo his folly day after day, to the danger of their own souls. When their consciences are pricked by their own sin, they too quickly declare their own inner peace before God has done his work in them.

Lundgaard uses the example of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement to illustrate the concept of “false peace,” a dangerous self-deception in which Christians, or those who call themselves Christian, reassure themselves that they are spiritually OK, that they are right with God.

Toward the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his followers against this dangerous folly: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

This person who will not enter the kingdom of heaven claims to be a follower of Jesus. He (or she) calls himself a Christian, and he even has orthodox doctrine about Jesus and about God. But in the end, Jesus will say to him, “I never knew you.”

Sometimes we deceive ourselves with a quick and easy doctrine of assurance. “Once saved, always saved,” we glibly assume. Or we look toward our baptism in the Church, our Christian parents, our church-going, our orthodoxy, or the fact that we are generally pretty good people.

These are false evidences of salvation, and if it’s what you are relying on when you say, “Lord, Lord,” you are in for an eternally rude surprise.

So how do you know if you are someone who will say ‘Lord, Lord’—but will not enter the Kingdom? What is the test? The test is not whether you know the Lord, but whether the Lord knows you. Jesus says to the self-deceived, “I never knew you.”

And how do you know if he knows you? Who will enter the kingdom of heaven? “He who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

The British preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “No man is ever too severe with himself. We hold the scales of justice with a very unsteady hand when our character is in the balance.” Later in the same sermon he added, “Let me tell you that if you have a peace today that allows you to be at peace with your sins as well as with God, that peace is a false peace.”

The way we know that we are NOT clinging to a false peace about our relationship with God is this: That we return to the Cross of Christ again and again and again, every time we are aware that we have failed to do the right thing. We cling not to our confession, or our good deeds, or to anything else; but we cling only to Jesus.

Prime Minister Chamberlain allowed himself to be deceived by Hitler; he allowed himself to believe that Nazis weren’t that bad. Do we, in the same way, allow ourselves to be deceived by sin? Do we, in the same way, rely on a false declaration of peace for our hope of salvation?

Don’t be fooled: cling only to the Cross.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Elusive Definition of Intelligence

My kids are all brilliant, of course.

C. Peevie and M. Peevie have the kind of intelligence associated with traditional academic success—early verbal development, top percentile reading scores, quick grasp of math concepts and easy mastery of the basic facts.

A. Peevie, on the other hand, seems to my subjective eye to be brilliant in a completely different and often unappreciated kind of way. He struggles to master elementary math facts—but he worked his way through 15 pages of basic geometry lessons when he learned that one of his heroes, Albert Einstein, loved geometry. I blogged about it here:

Besides the intelligence that directly relates to math and reading skills, there seems to me to be a different kind of intelligence that fuels Middle Peevie’s learning. It has a creativity component that enables him to think differently about things than most people think. For example, one Halloween, he was contemplating his costume choices, looking over the traditional super-hero options. He picked up a box, cut some narrow slits in it to see through, and put it over his head. Then he searched the basement for accessories, and he settled on being Box-Head with Knife.

What is intelligence? You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that there are as many definitions of intelligence as there are "experts" who study it. Usually the word refers to general mental capacity to reason, solve problems, learn, and think abstractly--but the problem with this definition is that it's circular. If you look up "reason" in the dictionary, you will get "intelligence" as one of the definitions; and if you look up "think", you'll get "reason" as a definition.

So where does that leave us? According to the online encyclopedia Encarta, "no universally accepted definition of intelligence exists." (Here's the link to the Encarta article.)

One dude, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, came up with a model of intelligence that includes nine abilities that work individually or together to produce "intelligence:" naturalist, musical, logical-mathematical, existential, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, intra-personal, and spatial.

Some of those abilities seem more like interests or skills than intelligence to me--but the list is helpful to frame the discussion about intelligence in a broader way than we typically understand it.

Cognitive psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed a triarchic theory of intelligence:
  • Analytic Intelligence--the type generally assessed by intelligence tests; measures the ability to break down problems into component parts.
  • Creative Intelligence--the ability to cope with new situations and solve problems in new and unusual ways. Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, but imagination circles the world."
  • Practical Intelligence--Common sense. Using and implementing ideas.

Sternberg said you can grow your creative intelligence by questioning assumptions, taking sensible risks, and allowing yourself to make mistakes.

I like what Albert Einstein had to say about intelligence: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid."

This kind of thinking, I suspect, is what is behind Gardner's model of multiple intelligences; and it's what makes me see A. Peevie as a brilliant, out-of-the-box thinker. While C. Peevie and M. Peevie are climbing redwoods, A. P. is down below doing smart fish-things, like figuring out a way to swim upstream to lay eggs.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

In which I Claim Victory over the Fruit Flies, and invent a Device of Great Usefulness In Combating Flying Insects

So I think the Age of the Fruit Fly is finally coming to an end in the Peevie domicile.

I googled how to get rid of fruit flies, and tried a couple of tricks I learned from the Internet, like stretching plastic wrap over a bowl of cider vinegar and poking little holes in it, which would theoretically trap the unsuspecting flies once they crawled under the wrap for a dip and a nosh. That method was not particularly successful, as I noted in my earlier fruit fly post.

I picked up fly paper at the hardware store, and hung the strips in the fly-populated corners of my kitchen. For some reason they seemed to prefer the dark and narrow space behind the kitchen door, even though there is no food or dirty dishes there. But every time someone opened or closed the door, a cloud of flies would dust up, and I’d grab one of the fly paper strips and start waving it madly through the air, catching two flies for every forty that simply relocated.

Mr. Peevie did his own research, and purchased a couple of fruit fly traps over the Internet. They are little screw-cap bottles with bait and fly-paper inside. They’ve been OK at catching flies, but more often than not, I see the flies congregating on the outside of the bottle instead of sliding down the chute of death.

As I was fecklessly chasing teensy-weensy airborne acrobats with ribbons of sticky death one day, I thought to myself, “This sure would be a lot easier and more effective if I had something wider than a ribbon to catch the flies with. Something like a sticky fly-swatter.”

And the rest is history. I bought a new fly-swatter, wrapped fly-paper around it, and went on a drosophila rampage this afternoon. I am not even kidding you, this is the best invention for the insect-bedeviled since the fly swatter itself.

As I sit here writing this post, the occasional fruit fly wanders by my face nonchalantly, little suspecting that its tiny life is about to come to a sticky end. I calmly pick up my homemade fruit fly capturing contraption, serenely give a wave, and voila! The fruit fly is history.

Now if I can get a patent for this deal, my future is secure. And, I'm hoping, fruit-fly-free.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Golden Compass: Conspiracy Theory Du Jour

I was expecting to receive email alerts about the anti-Christian message of the new movie The Golden Compass, and sure enough, one landed in my in-box today.

I’m not going to reprint the entire email here, but the short version is this: The movie is based on a book by atheist Philip Pullman, and many people of faith are disturbed that the movie and books seem to be targeted to children and intended to turn them away from God.

The email alarmed, “The movie is a watered down version of the first book and is designed to be very attractive in the hope unsuspecting parents will take their children to see the movie and that the children will want the books for Christmas.”

There are so many problems with this statement that it makes me want to drink gin from a soup tureen. First of all, this: “The movie is a watered-down version of the first book.” With few exceptions, every movie I’ve ever seen that was based on a book has diluted the message and story-lines of the source material. By definition, movies and books tell stories in different ways—so the movie will always be different than the book.

Then there’s this: the movie “is designed to be very attractive.” Unlike those other inoffensive movies that are just blips of celluloid with ugly actors and childish production values.

“In the hope (that)…” In whose hope? What nefarious pagan multinational conspiracy is plotting, hoping, to trick me? Who’s behind it all? Could it be… SATAN?

“Unsuspecting parents will take their children to see the movie.” What, exactly, are they supposed to suspect? That there is a conspiracy afloat to convert their Sunday School charges to ACLU card-holders? That the author of the book is—gasp!—an atheist? That it is his mission to “kill God”?

And the best part of all is this: “the children will want the books for Christmas.” I…I…I got nothing. Children. Wanting books. For Christmas. Oh, for crying in a bucket. If you’re going to be an alarmist, then don’t phone in your Big Finish. Make it a little juicier than children wanting books for Christmas.

Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, categorically enjoined parents to boycott the movie: “No parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books.”

I haven’t read the books myself, so I’m just as ignorant as most of the rest of you. (My husband and my 12-year-old son have, though.) But I do plan to read them, in spite of the dire warnings, and I do not expect to be sending in my membership dues to American Atheists anytime soon. I wonder if Bill Donohue and the email alarmists have read the books. Hmmmm.

I am also wondering

Why do they think that The Golden Compass is more dangerous or evil than other books and movies written by atheists, agnostics, or others who have an other-than-Christian worldview?

Why do they believe that this story/book/movie has that much power over our minds, and over the minds of our children?

What do we think is going to happen if our kids read these stories or watch the movie? That we might—ACK!—have to talk to our kids about it? That it might raise some questions in their minds?

Should we not read books and listen to music and watch movies made by people with a different world view than our own? And to a certain extent, shouldn’t we also teach our children how to do so? Isn’t it a great opportunity to talk and think and learn?

Maybe if more Christians watched and read them, we could have more dialogue with people like Pullman and those who agree with his views. Maybe we could engage our friends and neighbors in discussions about what parts of the book we liked, and why, and what parts we didn’t like, and why.

For a Christian, any encounter in this world needs to be viewed through the lens of faith and sifted through the colander of Scripture—even sermons that we hear at church or on the radio. Nothing is exempt from this scrutiny, except the Bible—and even that often requires that we seek help to interpret and apply it.

I think the message this blog wants to put out there is: think for yourself. Before you warn other people about it, read the book(s) and/or see the movie. Then decide if it’s bad for your kids or not. And let other people decide if it’s bad for their kids.

Or, if you prefer, wait until I read the book and post my review and tell you what to think.

On Being Seven

Hi. I’m M. Peevie. I’m seven. What is it like to be seven? Well, when you’re seven, you get a purple I-Pod for your birthday that your dad has loaded with some of your favorite music, like the Beatles, Sheryl Crow, High School Musical, and Hannah Montana. This makes you very happy, and you listen to it the whole time during dinner at the restaurant, and it makes your parents happy, too, because you’re not talking constantly and provoking your brothers.

When you’re seven, you do provoke your brothers a lot, but not because you necessarily want to provoke them, but because they’re so sensitive about having you in their room touching their stuff, and also apparently it embarrasses them when you hug and kiss their friends. But they’re nice friends, and that’s what you do when you’re seven and people are nice to you: you hug and kiss them.

I pretty much hug and kiss everyone I meet. I love my school principal, and my teacher, and my friends, and their moms, and my neighbors, and my mom’s friends. I smile at them, a lot, and I have a dimple, and I think that makes them smile back at me, and when they do, I can’t help myself. I squeeze them so hard that when I let go, they are a little bit concave. That’s a big word, isn’t it? I like big words.

Speaking of big words, I pretty much have never met a word I didn’t like. I like words, and I like to talk. There’s so much to talk about; how can I not talk? At dinner time, we talk about how our day was, and what the highlight of our day was, and I always have a story to tell about my best friend Josie or my best friend Kayla. Sometimes my story ends with me telling my mom and dad that my teacher had to move my seat in first grade again because I was talking too much.

Except for getting my seat moved for talking too much, I really love school. Actually, I don’t even mind getting my seat moved, ‘cause then I get to talk to somebody new. I like school because it’s fun and easy. My mom says my teacher needs to challenge me more, but I told her I like it when it’s easy, because then I can get my work done quick and have more time to play. She says I am a girl after her own heart.

I have a lot of best friends. Best friends are great. Some best friends live in your neighborhood, and sometimes you fight with them about who gets to play with the straight hair Barbie and who gets to play with the curly hair Barbie—but it doesn’t mean you’re not best friends anymore.

One thing that’s not great about being seven is that you get your feelings hurt sometimes. My mom says my feelings get hurt if someone looks at me wrong, but that doesn’t happen a lot. Usually my feelings get hurt because someone looked at me wrong with a mean face or made a mean sound at the same time. And sometimes my feelings get hurt when my brother calls me a nickname that I do not like, which is called Foghorn Voicebox. When he says that my mom says, "Pot? Kettle. Kettle? Pot."

I gave my daddy a nickname which is called Soft Head Warm Head because his head is soft and warm. My daddy likes his nickname, I think. He smiles a warm smile and tilts his head next to mine when I call him that, and we have a huggy moment.

My mom says she can’t believe I’m seven already, which is silly because seven comes after six. Even preschoolers know that. Sometimes she’s sad that I’m getting big so fast, and she says, “Stop growing up so fast!” But I can’t stop growing up so fast, because that’s how God made the world we live in, and it goes around on its axis and floats in space with the other planets, which we learned last year when I was only in kindergarten.

The end.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Fruit Flies: God's Judgment On A Bad Housekeeper?

An infestation of fruit flies has disrupted my normally serene and pristine home environment. At least it’s only fruit flies, I told myself at first. They almost sound good for you. It’s practically a compliment to have fruit flies. Not cringe-worthy cockroaches. Not ant colonies, marching in formation, hoisting crumbs onto their tiny backs and marching back to their tripartite queen. Fruit flies. How bad could they be?

Well. Let me tell you how bad it can be. It's approaching Egyptian plague levels in the Peevie homestead. If I were Pharaoh, I would totally give up and Let His People Go.

It all started with those dang tomatoes. We had so many that I couldn’t make salsa fast enough; so some of them started to over-ripen. We started noticing two or three tiny fruit flies about three weeks ago. We threw away the just-barely-starting-to-rot tomatoes, but kept the others on the counter, plus the usual bowl of fruit and our usual level of kitchen messitude. That was our first mistake.

What we didn’t realize was that fruit flies are teensy-weensy nymphomaniacs. Eight or nine days after a female lays an egg, there’s a mature fruit fly waiting to copulate and lay more eggs. And here’s the really bad news: according to Wikipedia, females can lay more than 800 eggs in a single day.

So now I find myself waving ribbons of sticky fly-paper through the air, trying to speed up the process of annihilation. We have strips of glutinous, honey-colored fly-death hanging in the kitchen doorway in a “Home Alone Kid Meets Greg Brady’s Beaded Curtains” kind of way.

But it’s not just the kitchen. The nasty little buggers have invaded the bathrooms, the bedrooms, the office. They’re annexing the entire house as a sort of Del Webb lifestyle community for fruit flies. We have bowls of cider vinegar sitting around to attract and trap them--but apparently they think it's an upgrade to lakefront property. They don't fall in and die. They just sit around the edge, playing frisbee and watching hot fruit fly chicks stroll by.

Oh, and thanks a lot to those researchers in Connecticut who mutated a fruit fly gene and nearly doubled their life spans. That’s just what I need. Nine generations of tiny insects enjoying the fruits of my labor.

Did you know that fruit flies are the most studied organism in biological research? Apparently they are genetically very similar to humans. Weird. Maybe I’ll pick up an autoclave and a microscope from Ebay, borrow some of A. Peevie’s test tubes—and voila, I’ve got my own genome research lab.

Last week the local ABC affiliate in Los Angeles reported that officials sprinkled a huge batch of sterile male flies over the area in order to protect the crops from infestation. I wonder if it's too much to ask if they could make a sweep over NW Chicago. I’m getting desperate here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ho-hos and Broken Crayons

Halloween, like all holidays, is just one more excuse for the universe to point at me and laugh about my inadequacies. This is what I’m up against:

Moms who hand-craft adorable, personalized gift bags of home-made treats and Halloween-themed pencils and toys for each member of the class. I sent M. Peevie to school with a box of Ho-Hos.

Moms who throw turtle-themed birthday parties, complete with home-made turtle invitations, pin-the-tail-on-the-turtle games, turtle-shaped pizza, turtle prizes, turtle goodie bags, and home-made turtle thank-you notes with clever turtle rhymes. I typed a save-the-date notice for M. Peevie’s as-yet-un-themed party, and used a broken crayon to color a balloon on each one.

Moms who get birthday thank-you notes written, addressed, stamped and in the mail the day after the party. We fizzle out after about two thank-you notes, which never make it into an envelope and don’t get mailed.

Moms whose children don’t show up in chapel shirts that were pulled, unwashed, from the dirty laundry an hour ago. Not that I know anyone like that.

Moms who put together care packages for their children to take to school for the class contribution to the homeless shelter. (I bought the washcloths and hand towels. They’re still sitting on my dresser.)

Moms who don’t forget to attend their children’s parent-teacher appointments. Like I just did today.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Warmness, Happiness, and Love

A. Peevie, like Peter Pan, doesn’t want to grow up. He likes the safety and protection and relative ease of being a child, and he is hyper-aware that growing up means that things get harder and scarier.

The middle Peevie has already had to deal with many hard and scary things in his short life: open-heart surgeries, other heart-related surgical procedures, and multiple hospital stays for various problems. The boy has seen more "ologists" in nine years than most people see in their entire lifetime.

As a result of all of these scary things, A.P. has more anxiety than Woody Allen and more phobias than Adrian Monk. He knows better than most nine-year-olds that the world is a scary place. A couple of years ago, he went through a phase when he talked about death and dying all the time. “If I die, will you still think about me?” he’d ask. Or he’d lay awake for hours at night because he was afraid if he went to sleep, he wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

He's doing better now. A. Peevie is comforted by rituals, such as the hug, kiss smile ritual. Every separation—and I mean EVERY separation, whether it’s going to bed at night, getting dropped off at school, or watching me leave for a 20-minute grocery store run—must be preceded by a hug, a kiss, and a smile. I’m not complaining.

Another comfort ritual is the morning cuddle. A. Peevie made me a Mother’s Day card, in which he noted that his mom was good at “cuttling,” he likes it when he and his mom “cuttle,” and his favorite thing to do with his mom is “cuttle.” What more could a mom want in a Mother’s Day card?

Every morning, no matter how late we’re running (and it’s not a question of “if” we’re running late, but only how many stop signs I’ll have to California-stop my way through to make up the minutes to get kids and backpacks and instruments into school before the bell rings) we must have a cuddle. Sometimes it’s only two minutes, but every morning we cuddle under the covers in my bed.

“Why do you like to cuddle?” I asked him this morning. “What do you get out of it?”

He was thoughtful for a moment, and then he snuggled in closer to me. “Warmness, happiness, and love,” he said.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere

In honor of Blog Action Day, this blog today takes up the lament of the Ancient Mariner: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink!"

Water may appear to be abundant and renewable, but the truth is that fresh, potable water is not infinitely renewable. It takes centuries to replenish underground sources of fresh water, and energy to restore and recycle used water.

In the public television series Our Changing Planet, experts warn, "Overuse and degradation of the world's groundwater is among the serious environmental challenges facing human populations in the coming decades."

But what can one person or one family do to make a difference? First, be aware of how much water your household uses. Here’s an easy-to-use tool to calculate your family’s daily water use. When we're not careful, the Peevie family uses about 345+ gallons a day. Yikes!

And second, be careful and intentional about your water usage. Here are eight simple steps you can take to conserve water at home:

1. Take shorter showers. A typical 10-minute shower uses about 50 gallons of water. Take a five-minute shower instead. Bonus Conservation Points: Install a low-flow shower head to save even more water.

2. Don't let the water run while you're brushing your teeth or washing your face. This could save one gallon every time. For my household, that's about 3,000 gallons in a year.

3. Run the dishwasher and washing machine only with full loads.

4. Don't let the water run when you're washing dishes in the sink. Fill two sinks, one for washing and one for rinsing.

5. Water your lawn and flowers in the early morning to minimize evaporation.

6. Don't over-water your lawn. Frequent, shallow watering reduces the ability of grass to survive during dry periods. "The best rule," according to the Environmental Protection Agency, "is to water only when the lawn begins to wilt from dryness - when the color dulls and footprints stay compressed for more than a few seconds."

7. For those of you who love the little fishes: when you drain your fish tank, use the water to nourish your plants. It contains excellent fertilizer!

8. Don't let cold water go to waste while waiting for hot water. Use containers to catch it for another use, such as watering plants or flushing the toilet.

Start taking steps to conserve water today, and set an example for your family and your community. Even small steps end up conserving thousands of gallons of water over time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Music Man

My little son A. Peevie has taken up the trombone. It's more like the trombone has taken up A. Peevie. It's taller than he is, and weighs more than he does. When A. Peevie picks up the trombone, it wraps itself around him and wrestles him to the ground. The slide is a slippery rogue, frequently escaping from its brass case and clanking on the floor.

By the time A.P. finally gets the instrument situated properly, with the mouthpiece in position, his right hand fingers wrapped correctly around the slide brace, and his lungs fully inflated, he's exhausted and needs to sit down and catch his breath. He's supposed to practice 15-20 minutes per day--but does that include 10 minutes of set-up time?

(By way of background, when Mr. Peevie was a little boy, he wanted to play the trombone, too. His band teacher told him that his arms were too short, and that he'd never be able to reach seventh position. But at least he's in good freakishly-short-arm company.)

Eeeenyway, apparently, it's really and truly difficult, especially for a smallish boy, to master the notes on a trombone. A. Peevie can get two of the five notes he's working on, but the other ones--not so much. I guess he's pursing when he should be buzzing--and he's about ready to quit. (BTW, I learned from Mr. Peevie that the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument is called embouchure.)

I'm hoping he'll stick with his trombone, and someday, he'll be joined by 75 others in a big parade. Excellent.

Meanwhile, with his big brother playing trumpet, and his little sister just generally being loud every chance she gets, I'm praying to go deaf.

Monday, October 1, 2007

On Board

I'm stepping out, people. I joined the Barack Obama campaign last night. I even started a blog on the Obama website, called On Board.

I guess I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired*. In party politics, there has not been much to be excited about on either side for a long time.

I have typically been in favor of a smaller federal government with power redistributed to the states. When I vote Republican, this is often a key factor. But President Bush is a big government Republican; and in fact, he has essentially nurtured an "era of new federalism" in which Washington gets to oversee lots of stuff that they should keep their hands out of--like local schools, for example.

Remember "No Child Left Behind"? This under-funded education debacle has resulted in teachers teaching to the test and schools eliminating un-tested subject areas from their curriculum, such as science, foreign language, social studies, and arts. It's not that NCLB is a bad idea--it's just poorly executed.

Mr. Obama has recommended reforming and fully funding NCLB. He supports expanding early childhood education, which is hard to argue against. He has suggested some ideas for improving teacher quality, such as rewarding innovation, paying teachers more, and giving successful teachers more control over what they do in their classrooms. You can read more about Obama's thoughts on improving education here.

Anyway, I'm on board the Obama campaign train. What about you?

*I'm too tired to check this right now, but I think this is a direct quote from an Obama speech.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sermon on the Mount: Practice the Presence of God

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that Matthew 6 is one of the most uncomfortable chapters to read in all of Scripture because "it probes and examines and holds a mirror up before us, and it will not allow us to escape. There is no chapter which is more calculated to promote self-humbling and humiliation than this particular one." All-righty, then!

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus warns his followers to "be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them." Those last five words do not merely comprise a redundant modifier, but rather they hold the key to understanding the principle that Jesus is laying out.

If Jesus had ended his admonition with "before men," he would seem to be contradicting his earlier words, recorded in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." But instead, he adds, "to be seen by them."

Mr. Peevie said that when he was in college, he and his peeps would go running. They'd make sure that their course took them across the center of campus so they could log some "face time"--an opportunity not only to be seen, but to have their healthful virtue admired by professors and peers alike.

Jesus says, essentially, don't do your good deeds with the motive of face time. Don't do them to be seen and admired by other people, and in fact, don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing! Don't dwell on them in your own mind; don't congratulate yourself for giving your left-over sandwich from lunch to the homeless guy at the train station. Don't think twice about what a good person you are because you gave up your seat on the El to a blue-hair.

This, for me, is way harder than it might seem on the surface. My favorite theologian, John R. W. Stott, wrote, “So subtle is the sinfulness of the heart that it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving secret from men while simultaneously dwelling on it in our own minds in a spirit of self-congratulation.” Ouch. That is me to a T.

The positive expression of the principle that Jesus is getting at here is this: aim to please God only and always. This is, as Brother Lawrence put it, practicing the presence of God.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Housekeeping: Not my forte

"Do you have any idea why there is a baggie with a carrot in it in the middle of the hallway?" Mr. Peevie just asked me.

This is the kind of question that is "normal" in my home. We have the kind of household in which it is not entirely unexpected to encounter miscellaneous fruits and vegetables, in or out of containers, in non-kitchen parts of the house.

Grapes that aspire to become raisins could obtain asylum here, because chances are good that they will find themselves wrinkling up, forgotten and unmolested, in a random corner of the living room.

I have found dried-up apple cores resting comfortably under Power Rangers, and zip-lock bags of cereal salad in purses that I haven't used in six months.

Sometimes my house reminds me of Mel Gibson's house in Signs, when he played a widowed dad with a young daughter with a weird (and fortuitous) glass-of-water fetish. There are empty, half-empty, and nearly full glasses sitting around on most flat surfaces: window sills, counter tops, end tables, and shelves. Water-solvent aliens beware! Also, Diet Coke-solvent, and wine-solvent aliens.

My kids tend to melt down into puddles of woe and angst when they are hungry, so I try to avoid this by always making sure that I have healthy snacks with me. The end result, however, is that the rejected snacks gang up together to form science experiments in the car; or they find their way into the crevices between the couch cushions and start organizing a government and forming armies. I'm sure they will soon be powerful enough to split atoms, and then it will be time for us to move.

My housekeeping goal is to not make my kids or unsuspecting visitors ill. This is just another operational example of my life's motto: Low standards are the key to low stress and happiness.

You are welcome in my house anytime. Just make sure that you look behind you before you take a seat.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tasty Treats

Lisa's Italian Ice in Park Ridge is my new favorite non-guilty treat.

My kids love it too. Lisa's got about 20 different flavors, and they are all her own recipes. Some are exotic, like capuccino and passion fruit; and some are more traditional, like watermelon and raspberry.

She's really worked on making her ice flavors pop and zing. The lemon-lime was even too zesty for my delicate taste-buds, but two little girls with me sucked theirs down without a single pucker. I found the mango to be very mango-ey, and the raspberry to be absolutely delicious.

My own spawn love to get chocolate combined with other flavors, such as banana, vanilla, or capuccino. (Lisa will combine two flavors in one cup at no extra charge.)

And here's what I really love about Lisa's Italian Ice: Lisa had a dream. She left her job as an accountant to pursue it, and opened up her own business. Her shop in downtown Park Ridge is cute and sunny, and I hope you'll stop by and support her. You'll find her at 10 South Northwest Highway, just around the corner from the Pickwick Theatre.

Oh, and one more thing: Lisa's ices are very affordable, especially compared to the pricey ice cream across the street.

What's not to love?!

(FYI: This is NOT a paid commercial announcement. I just like her product, and I love it when women pursue their dreams and start businesses. Good luck, Lisa!)

(And also, the photo came from Flickr.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sermon on the Mount: Manifesto for Kingdom Living

I'm teaching Sermon on the Mount, Part 2 (Matthew 6 & 7) starting tomorrow, and I thought I'd post weekly (or sporadic) updates on what I'm learning in the process of teaching.

In the spring we studied the first part of the Sermon, Matthew 5. That's all I was able to cover in nine weeks. I reminded my class that there is nothing more ironic than me teaching other people about meekness, being pure in heart, and hungering thirsting for righteousness. (Just ask Mr. Peevie, or any of the Peevies, for that matter.)

Fortunately--blessedly!--the Sermon is all about grace. It's not about my own level (or lack of) spirituality. It's not about how Jesusy I am. It's all about grace, about knowing that--thank God!--what Jesus wants is not for me to grit my teeth and swear I'll be more pure in heart tomorrow. Jesus wants the Sermon to bring us back to the reality of the cross.

Look at the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) if you don't believe me. I like to call them a Manifesto for Kingdom Living. The manifesto is a description of the character of the believer--and yet none of the characteristics and behaviors it describes are natural human tendencies.

None of us is naturally poor in spirit. We don't automatically mourn over our sin, or meekly put the well-being of another person ahead of our own well-being--especially that guy that just cut me off in traffic.

Instead of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, we pursue substitutes that we desperately hope might fill us. Sometimes these substitutes are legitimate, harmless, or neutral in themselves--like watching TV, or drinking wine. But for me, these substitutes often spoil my appetite for righteousness.

We'd rather punish than show mercy; and we are painfully aware that our hearts are far from pure. Look at our world--at the relationships between nations, between partisan segments of government; look at our violent cities, our segregated neighborhoods, our broken relationships. We are not natural peacemakers in any sense of the word.

None of these characteristics is a natural personality trait or temperament. Each one is produced by grace alone. They are fundamentally spiritual, and they can only be produced by the Spirit.

OK, I've gotten carried away. I didn't mean to preach a sermon. (Jesus already did that!) I'll keep you posted--but in the meantime, I'd love to know what you think.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Goodbye, Mrs. Whatsit

My first favorite author, Madeleine L'Engle, died yesterday at age 88.

You may have discovered Madeleine L'Engle as a child, like I did, when you read A Wrinkle in Time. But you may not have realized just how prolific she was, and how diverse her writings. L'Engle published more than 60 works of fiction, poetry, autobiography, prayers, plays, and short stories since 1944, according to her official web site.

I loved her stories because her characters were so real to me. At least one of them was me: Meg Murray, an under-performing oddball who doesn't know the meaning of moderation and who wears every emotion on her sleeve. I loved the way L'Engle seamlessly spliced science, fantasy and faith together to create an intense, smart, mystical, and compelling plot. She was a brilliant, out-of-the-box storyteller, whether she was writing a memoir or crafting fiction.

In Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage (reviewed in this very blog) she contrasted her own upbringing with that of her husband, Hugh: he had siblings and warm relationships in a traditional family; and she was an only child raised, as she says, in a house full of artists of one kind or another, and educated primarily in boarding schools.

She was born in New York City, but her family moved frequently, and she lived for periods in the French Alps, Switzerland, Florida, and South Carolina. L'Engle attended Smith College in Massachusetts, and moved back to New York in 1941 after graduation.

Working in theater in New York, she met and married the actor Hugh Franklin. After their first child, Josephine, was born in 1947, they moved to the country. Their old white farmhouse, the eponymous Crosswicks, became the setting for four memoirs. Son Bion was born in 1952, and seven-year-old Maria, daughter of close friends, became part of their family in 1956 when her parents died suddenly.

The family moved back to New York City in 1959 so that Hugh Franklin could resume his acting career. L'Engle became re-engaged in the life of the city, volunteering as a librarian at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (where she also was writer-in-residence for many years), teaching, speaking, and serving as president of the Author's Guild.

L'Engle's writings often include spiritual themes, and the Newbery Medal winner claimed, "It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity." Let's talk about what that means in a future blog post, shall we?

Her writings have won many awards and prizes, including the John Newbery Medal (for A Wrinkle in Time), Newbery Honor Book (A Ring of Endless Light), and the American Book Award (A Swiftly Tilting Planet), among others. L'Engle herself has been awarded many personal honors as well, including 17 honorary doctorates. (Just by way of comparison, I still don't even have my first honorary doctorate.)

Here's a link to L'Engle's obituary in the New York Times, in case you're interested.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the complex, horrifying, tender, and perceptive story of Mariam and Laila, two Afghani women. The book traces their lives and unlikely friendship over nearly 40 years, beginning when Mariam, at age five, learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man.

Mariam and her epileptic mother, Nana, lived for 15 years in a tiny shack an hour's walk from the city where her father lived with his three wives and nine legitimate children. Tutored by the village mullah, Mariam longed to go to a real school like her father's other children. But her mother refused, telling Mariam she needed to learn only one lesson: to endure.

At 15, Mariam finds herself living in Kabul, married to a much older man, Rasheed, a traditional Muslim who requires her to wear a burqa. "A woman's face is her husband's business only," he tells her. Her life in Kabul becomes a study in endurance, interspersed with brief moments of hope and happiness.

Laila grows up five houses away, the daughter of a modern, educated, bookish father and a bipolar, neglectful mother. Her dream is to marry her childhood playmate, Tariq, but when bombs drop on Kabul, Tariq's family leaves for Pakistan. Fourteen-year-old Laila, secretly carrying Tariq's baby, becomes Rasheed's second wife, and eventually, Mariam's friend and ally.

Hosseini writes easily and convincingly from the perspective of an Afghani woman, capturing Mariam's ambivalence about the burqa (at times unnerved, at times comforted by the anonymity it offered) and her surprisingly tenacious grief after a miscarriage.

His tale spans four decades of neighborhoods pulverized by rockets; political power bouncing between the Communists, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban; and zealous misogyny. But it’s interesting that Hosseini’s novel, that chronicles so much sorrow and suffering, bears an optimistic title borrowed from the lines of a 17th century poet:

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass.
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.

Year after year, Mariam hardly noticed the wars and the upheaval. She endured; she survived. “The past held only this wisdom,” Mariam believed: “that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion.”

But Hosseini’s title is not a broken promise. Mariam discovers that her mother was wrong: life is more than endurance. Love, friendship, beauty, hope—all of these glint like ribbons of mica in a chunk of gray shale.

A Thousand Splendid Suns took me on an epic and heartwrenching journey, and as journeys do, it changed me. It gave me new insight into a distant land and an even more distant culture. At the same time it reminded me that, even though the forms and features of societies can be vastly different, suffering still demands justice; beauty still inspires; and love still conquers all.