Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Impostors and Heroes

I spent the past five days as an impostor in my own life. Here's what it looked like:

Thursday afternoon I took public transportation (bus and train) to the airport. Usually I get on the train going the opposite direction, so I felt like a runaway housewife, with my carry-on bag, my wallet loaded with cash, my ID in my pocket. I pretended I was somebody with an interesting life.

I love traveling, I love flying, I love having conversations with strangers that I will never see again. Like Miriam, who was flying from LA to visit her sister in Bucks County, PA. She was reading Harry Potter and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day, or whatever the latest tale of HP's
adversities is called; so of course we started talking books and movies.

The pilot must've switched on the turbo boosters, because we got to Philly speedy quick (as Junie B. Jones would say). Again, I was a cosmopolitan pretender, trekking through the airport on my own and navigating public transportation from the airport to the end of the train line.

The whole point of this exercise in impersonation is for me to give my enfeebled parents a hand for a few days. (They'd love that word, I'm sure. Sorry, Ma. I couldn't resist.) Mom's been suffering from an undiagnosed malady that causes debilitating pain and weakness. Meanwhile, my 86-year-old dad's been handling mom's care, plus the running of the household, all by himself, for the first time in nearly 60 years of marriage. It's too much for him; too much for both of them.

So I get to play Rescue Hero, swooping in from my cluttered life to chill with the cronies, toss in a few loads of laundry, whip up a few gourmet delight meals to freeze in pint-size zipper bags, and generally save the day. I get credit for being a hero, when the real hero is Mr. Peevie, who's holding down the fort at home, juggling camp schedules and swimming pool maintenance, meals, laundry, and general household upkeep, while trying not to get fired from his real job.

I'm also posing as a Healer. The day I arrived, mom's pain departed as mysteriously and suddenly as it arrived. We visited the pain management specialist the next day. He looked at us through the tiniest pupils I have ever seen on a human being and basically said to come back and see him if the pain returns. Of course, I'm taking all the credit, and I plan to start my own healing ministry. Send $7.77 today for your personal healing miracle!!!

Dad and I went grocery shopping, and I wore him out. I sent him off to get some turkey gravy while I browsed the meat and dairy aisles; when I found him a half hour later, he was forlornly standing by the check-out with a carton of OJ, but no gravy.

The next day I turned into Rachael Ray, dicing, slicing, sauteeing, mixing, pouring, simmering, boiling, and baking. Finally, when every pot, pan, mixing bowl, baking dish, and cooking utensil was dirty, and two weeks' worth of dinner smells permeated the house, I was done. I loaded up the freezer with individual servings of lasagna, spaghetti, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken with mushroom gravy, and one lone broiled chicken breast.

Then came the hard part: washing the dishes with one hand while pushing my mom away from the sink with the other. That woman has some kind of genetic anomaly that forces her to clean things, even when she's too shaky to stand for more than three consecutive minutes. It must be a recessive trait, because I didn't get that one. I got the dirt-blindness gene. If you don't see it, you don't have to clean it; that's my motto.

I tried to do the "Be healed by my presence" miracle on Uppie, but for some reason it didn't take. So instead she popped pills and sucked on pain pops while we watched my boyfriend solve crimes on cable TV. (Have I mentioned lately that I really wish I had cable?)

Uppie let me borrow her 'Stang, so I got to affect a persona way cooler than a mini-van driving, PBJ-making, laundry-doing middle-aged mom for a couple of days. I tooled around town with the top down, Harry Connick's smooth and moody strains blasting, and my fake cigarette (props to King!) dangling between my fingers. (OK, so maybe it's not so much "cool" as it is "queer" to have a fake cigarette. But whatever. I yam what I yam.)

In my final nod to imaginary alter egos, I sat at an airport bar drinking no-name merlot and teaching a Texan how to do sudoku. I was exactly as successful as you might have guessed. Meanwhile, I figured out that the slightly tipsy and slightly loud guy on my left was waiting for the same delayed flight to Chicago. How surprised would you be if I told you that Tipsy Guy ended up sitting in my same row on the plane? Ain't life funny.

Anyway, the clock has struck midnight, and I've reverted from my swinging, day-saving, Mustang-driving cosmopolite facade back to regular me.

It was fun while it lasted, but as it turns out, I like being me after all.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Food Groups

My family loves the movie Elf. We've probably watched it 600 times.

One of our favorite scenes and lines occurs early in the movie when Buddy (Will Ferrell, one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood because he gets every comedy note exactly right) is sitting at dinner with his new-found family, including his daddy, played by the eternally cool James Caan. They're having spaghetti for dinner, and Buddy asks for syrup.

Emily (the mom, played by Mary Steenburgen) widens her wide eyes. "It's...spaghetti," she stupidly reminds him. "Oh, just a minute, I might have some with me," Buddy says, happily retrieving a sample-size maple syrup from his elfian sleeve. As he pours syrup on his spaghetti, and everyone gapes, Buddy explains, "We elves like to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup." HA!

So anyway, around my house, we have three main food groups: candy, ice cream, and ketchup.

Every single (I just typed the word "single" as "snigle"--hee!) morning before breakfast at least one of my kids asks me if they can have a piece of candy. They go to sleep thinking about candy and they wake up thinking about candy.

A. Peevie keeps a stash of mini Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers in his room in a "secret" place. He collects it from birthday parties, Halloween, and camp; and he hoards it jealously like a pirate with his chest of jewels. I check it periodically, and I'm kind of amazed at his high level of self-control, considering the easy access and the fact that he asks for candy sometimes several times a day.

M. Peevie traded in her arcade prize tickets not for toys or stickers, but for a three-pack of Fun Dips in Razzapple Magic and Cherry-Yum-Diddly flavors.

A day without ice cream, in our house, is a day without sunshine. No, it's a day without oxygen. We're putting the ice cream truck guy's kids through college. A. Peevie eats ice cream with legendary focus and intensity that most kids reserve for television and video games: head down, eyes glassy, rhythmic wrist action.

Sixteen ice cream trucks line up on the street every day after camp lets out, blaring The Entertainer or Pop Goes the Weasel or Tainted Love. (Just kidding about that last one.) Every kid asks every parent, every day, "Can I have ice cream today?" I made a deal with my kids: once a week I'd buy them ice cream from the truck. The problem is, kids have no concept of time. A week feels like a month when you're six years old and waiting for the next Good Humor Chocolate Eclair or SpongeBob Popsicle.

And then there's ketchup (and BTW, this blog prefers the simple spelling rather than the antiquated and non-phonetic 'catsup'. Don't you?). This one is really only a food group for C. Peevie. It's not a condiment, it's an entree. He squeezes a half of a cup of red paste on his plate, scrapes it up with six french fries, and reaches for more. More than likely, a blob will end up on his shirt or shorts. We buy cartons of it from Costco.

What are your family's favorite non-traditional food groups?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

10 Things I Love. No, Eleven.

I know of people who have "hate" lists: a list of things they hate, like being cut off in traffic, or paying taxes, or Japanese beetles. That's a tiny bit negative for me. I'd rather offer a list of ten excellent things to love in this imperfect world--no, I mean eleven excellent things:

1. Forgiveness. Man, do I screw up. It's such a relief to know that someone invented forgiveness for people like me.

2. Humility. Not the obsequious Uriah Heep kind, where people act all, "Oh, I'm not really THAT cute" or "Oh, it was nothing, really" after they've given you a kidney. I'm talking about the real kind of humility, that's like an internal glow that makes you want to be near someone, because humility makes her transparent and honest about who she really is, and you know you can be real around her.

3. Books. So many books, so little time. Novels, biographies, mysteries, cartoon collections, philosophy, the Bible. I'm currently reading politics, young adult lit, classics, a prayer classic, and a book about books, called The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

4. My children. Today they have been on my last nerve, with their noise and bickering and hyperactivity. But I could not imagine life without them. I know it's a cliche, but parenting them is the best thing I have ever done or will ever do.

5. The sun. Being out in the sun, even if it's cold outside, makes me feel hopeful and happy and optimistic.

6. Words. What is a word, really? It's merely the sound, or the combination of sounds, that we put to a specific concept. But to know and use exactly the right word in the right way at the right time is a rare gift. I hope I get that gift once or twice in my lifetime.

7. Meeting new people. Every person you will meet has an interesting story, and if you ask the right questions, you can elicit a tale of hope, or endurance, or good triumphing over evil, or cleverness. This amazes me every single time.

8. The Internet. Oh. My. Word. Seriously--is there anything better in the whole world than the Internet? It's unlimited access to information, to people, to the world!

9. Diet Coke. OK, so I'm addicted. I love the "Aaaaaahhhhh" that you get with the first sip. I drink it for breakfast. So shoot me--I'm culinarily shallow.

10. Friendship. I'm lucky enough to be married to my best friend. And you know what they say--you don't get to pick your family, but you get to pick your friends. "Who finds a faithful friend, finds a treasure." I am wealthy beyond imagination.

11. Humor. Does anything feel better than a laugh that makes you double over and fall on the floor? OK, well maybe some things do, like fiiiiiinally being able to pee after having to hold it for a super-long time, and some other things not mentionable on a rated PG blog. But I love a funny story, a clever joke, a dry sense of humor, a wacky situation, a hilarious line from a funny-enough-to-watch-over-and-over-again movie like Elf. I love to laugh.

What do you love?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Heroes of Summer

There's a group of guys, and a few women, who willingly give up ten, 15, 20 hours a week--maybe more--every week for three or four months, to teach a bunch of kids about baseball. These guys in general, and my kids' little league coaches in particular, are the heroes of summer.

"Nice try!" they say, encouragingly, when the throw to first base hits the dirt in front of the second baseman, or beans a spectator.

"Keep your eye on the ball!" they repeat 10,000 times over the course of a season.

"Keep your head in the game!" they urge the boy who's hunched over in left field, watching an ant lugging a dead roly-poly across the dirt, and another boy who's making honeycomb designs with cleats in the short-stop dust.

They pack, unpack, load, and carry 30 pounds of bats, balls, bases, and equipment three times a week. They make 15 phone calls every time it rains to let parents know if the game's been cancelled. They create line-ups and game plans; they calculate batting averages and ERAs; they organize snack schedules.

They make time to play with and teach and put their arms on the shoulders of other people's children. Sometimes they make good players out of them. Sometimes they make not-so-great players feel like Honus Wagner. They give every kid a chance to shine in the field.

They stand behind your child and mine in the batter's box: they position his hands on the bat handle, tap his elbow up, and demonstrate how to step into the pitch. "Step into the pitch," they remind the batter. "Don't step out of the box." When my son swings wildly, like an ambitious lepidopterist, the coach hollers optimistically, "Good try, A. The next one's yours!" They give every kid a chance to shine at the plate.

(It's hilarious that some coaches can't compartmentalize as well as others, and their day job lingo creeps into their coaching. "You got a taste of it," said Coach Paul, a chef, to a batter who hit a foul ball. "That was an appetizer. Now go for the entree." The fans on the sidelines looked at each other and shrugged. "Yeah, eat it up!" I screamed, because, hey, it doesn't really matter what you holler for encouragement, just so long as you holler.)

They're heroes because they're patient, they're kind, they're engaged. They stand with the sun in their eyes and the sweat dripping down the back of their necks, persuading an anxiety-ridden nine-year-old who changed his mind about playing baseball and would rather be home sorting Pokemon cards to stick it out because his team needs him.

They're heroes because they gather the boys in the outfield after a grim 19 - 2 loss, and remind them of everything they did right. They're heroes because they shrug off a bad call, and the kids get an object lesson in frustration management and keeping things in perspective.

Coach Lou, Coach Bob, Coach Paul, Coach Ben, Coach Matt, Coach Neil, and any coaches I've forgotten -- thanks for being a hero this summer.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Joys of Camping

This weekend we went "camping" with our friends VoD and MoD.

By "camping" I mean Mr. Peevie and MoD and the five kids "slept" in a tent big enough to have its own zip code on the hard ground in MoD's backyard. And by "slept" I mean talked, giggled, changed places, told ghost stories, cried because of the ghost stories, shushed, fidgeted, whimpered, checked watches, watched skunk shadows skulk past the tent, and asked for blankets between about midnight and 6 a.m. We estimate actual cumulative sleep time at approximately 27 minutes per unit.

Meanwhile, VoD and I slept in comfortable beds in comfortable, kid-free rooms in the house. The next morning the kids woke up at the sound of dawn cracking, and VoD and I changed places with Mr. Peevie and MoD. The dads went upstairs to nap, VoD made breakfast for the gang, and I buttered the toast. I try to be useful.

Before the actual sleeping-in-the-tent part of the camping experience, we had the fire-pit and s'mores part. This is the part of camping during which the goal is to not set clothing, deck chairs, or body parts on fire with flaming marshmallows. We were mostly successful, but there were some close calls.

The kids love s'mores, of course, but they love setting marshmallows aflame and waving burning sticks around even more. And if it weren't for the fire aspect of s'mores, they'd be just as happy eating the Hershey bars straight up.

I'm all in favor of camping, and I think it's a great outdoor experience for the kids--but the sleeping-on-the-hard-ground part of camping is for the birds (and the children). What a good sport Mr. Peevie is. The next time we camp, for real, I will be in the tent, too, but only if I can sleep on a nice, cushiony air mattress.

My favorite part of "camping" was watching Gladiator with MoD after the kids finally went to sleep. We watched studly Russell Crowe and the creepily evil Joaquin Phoenix battle to the death until 2 a.m., and then MoD crawled back into the tent and I sacrificed fun on the comfort-quilted, continous support inner-spring altar of clean sheets and extra pillows.

I love camping.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Transparent Dreck

I am so tired. I'm tired of my kids. I'm tired of other people's kids. I'm tired of conversation, of human society.

I think I have reached my threshhold for engagement, and now I need a retreat into a dark, quiet place. Preferably a place with cable TV. (But we know that's not going to happen, don't we, Mr. Peevie? Whatever.)

Usually I like the fact that our house is the command center for the block. All the kids show up here, play here, eat here, make noise here. Now that we have a pool, they also change clothes here, swim here, and eat even more here. Many of them don't bother to bring their own bathing suit or towel. They don't eat before they come over, and they have no qualms about asking for food. Hell, they don't even have qualms about opening the 'fridge and helping themselves!

As I said, on most days, this does not bother me. I'm glad my house is a safe, fun haven for kids, that I know where my kids are. I'm happy to give some extra loving to some of these kids who really are in need of extra loving.

But I have pretty much reached my limit. This week two neighbor kids slept over two nights in a row because the AC was out in their house. My kids left for camp at 10 in the morning, but the extras stayed around most of the day. The second day, not only did they stay around all day, but when it was time for them to go home, nobody was there. They ended up staying at my house for about 27 hours straight.

Another neighbor child is having problems at home, and shows up needy: underfed, underclothed, under-loved. What am I going to do, send her home? And even if I did, the door is sometimes locked and nobody's at home. Today she got out of the pool, came dripping into the office and announced, "J. and I are hungry." I meanly said, "Well, then you both need to go home and get something to eat." She looked shocked. Every single other time she has asked for food at my house (and God bless her, at least she asked!), I have said, help yourself to fruit, it's on the counter.

And then the other neighbor kid shows up with a plate of hotdogs from her grandpa. Instead of being grateful, I was annoyed. I was ready to send these kids home, but now I had no excuse for not feeding them! I harrumphed and growled about how I didn't want to feed a hundred kids, that I had things to do--but I sent them out onto the deck, all the while thinking, hey, if you want to feed the whole neighborhood, then invite them over to your house and feed them and clean up after them.

I know that little episode is going to show up on my heavenly report card with a big red N on it (for Needs Improvement, in case you haven't seen a report card in awhile).

My oldest spawn does not have camp, so he's home during the day. Often his buddies will hang out here with him, and even though they are only 11 and 12, they eat like NFLers. Then they leave their bowls and bottles and messes laying around until I harass them into cleaning up after themselves.

What with the dropping off, picking up, feeding, doing 50 loads of towels and bathings suits, grocery shopping, cooking, doing dishes, maintaining the pool (which is only about 1250 gallons but still needs attention--just like a pet!), and picking up shoes and socks and jock straps and cleats--my relaxing summer is turning into a summer of Doing Lots of Insignificant Crap.

And what with the herd of kids charging around my house and yard all day long, my quiet summer with my kids at camp is turning into a summer of Noise and Stomping and Door Slamming.

I'm laying all this ugly shit out here so you know who and what I really am, and what I am capable of being: selfish, fallible, mean, whiny, shallow, and just plain sinful. Thank God that grace is bigger even than all the dreck I can dredge up from my miserable, self-centered heart.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

How God Loves Addictive, Compulsive, Neurotic, Cranky, Imperfect People

From the E. Peevie archives: a review of Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott.

Read this book. You will not be disappointed.

At least, you will not be disappointed if you force yourself from the beginning not to analyze whether or not the author is a Real Christian—you know, one who doesn’t swear (at least out loud, in public, most of the time, except perhaps in traffic); who votes Republican (or keeps quiet about voting Democratic); who would never refer to God with a female pronoun; and who wears Reformed theology like a badge of spiritual correctness.

Get past those extra-Biblical requirements and you will find yourself immersed in the joy, grief, fear, silliness, and wonder of Anne Lamott’s unconventional journey of faith. It’s funny, gently self-effacing, and often unfiltered. It will remind you not to take yourself too seriously, which is always a good thing. And it will remind you to take God more seriously, to discover God in the details of your life—indeed, to encounter him even in the bathroom.

Lamott has a gift for pulling capital-L Life Lessons from mundane vicissitudes. With poetic prose and right-on-the-money metaphors, she invites us to enter into her quirky world of irregular moles, pesky addictions, enemies Lite, and butt envy. Lamott uncovers wisdom in the most unlikely places.

She doesn’t pretty up her conversion under duress (“I was not willing to give up a life of shame and failure without a fight”), and transparently hangs out her weakness and lack of faith like spiritual dirty laundry. But this emotional honesty is a gift to those of us who don’t have our acts together half as much as we like to pretend.

Lamott’s lack of pretense and her tiny tendency toward hyperbole lend themselves to comedic chagrin and saucy confessions which border on sacrilege: “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

She has an in-box for God, in which she deposits terse, scribbled pleas for God’s grace and intervention. She knows two good prayers: “Help!” and “Thanks!” She tackles real life in a way which reassures you that you are not the only one who eats a random pound of M&Ms at one sitting.

On self-pity: “I hate being the kind of person who tries to get someone with stage four metastatic lung cancer to feel sorry for her just because she has a headache. But… God loves you the same whether you’re being elegant or not.”

On how faith gets you through scary times: “In between symptoms I felt pockets of trust and surrender, as if I had gone into total free fall and then landed gently after a drop of just a foot and a half.”

On forgiveness: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Having suffered, Lamott offers realistic compassion: “God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain, but to fill it with his presence.”

Having imperfect relationships with her imperfect parents, she finds and passes along little moments of grace: “I am learning very slowly to savor the minutes between us that work, that cut through my life-long hunger for a more perfect mother.”

Lamott writes poignantly about grief, addiction, recovery, prayer, parents, parenting, friendship, and Baggies of dimes. Reading this book is like eating homemade macaroni and cheese—it’s filling and comforting and it makes you want more.

The Blah Shepherd

Sheesh. This movie was so boring I could not even finish it. That rarely happens to me. I am usually determined to finish what I start, and hoping like the foolish optimist that I am that things are going to come together, make sense, and deliver a kick of an ending.

But I gave one hour of my life to The Good Shepherd, and as much as I love Matt Damon and his supporting, high-profile cast mates, I could not keep going. I just didn't care what happened to Edward (Damon's character), let alone any of the other characters, whom I couldn't even name.

I haven't read the reviews, but I'm assuming that more than one reviewer has already suggested that this movie desperately needed a giant pair of scissors in the editing room.

Here's the story, as I understand it: Edward, a humor-impaired Ivy-Leaguer, dated a deaf girl but accidentally got the slutty sister of a colleague/classmate (Angelina Jolie) pregnant. Meanwhile, he's been recruited by the new Spy Department, and one week after his shotgun wedding gets sent to London to do some spying.

Clips from JFK speeches about the Cuban Missile Crisis are dropped in at random intervals. At the one-hour mark, Edward betrays his teacher, whose crime seems to be liking men, and watches from a distance as a band of thugs messes him up and dumps him in his watery grave. The music was ominous and foreboding enough for my family to ask me to turn it down, but as I was feeling nothing but boredom, I just turned it off.

I have a lot of tolerance for things that don't make sense until the very end (i.e., the novel Life of Pi), but it's at least got to hold my attention along the way. The Good Shepherd did not meet this basic criterion.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Fountain

Is it an epic, mythical story of a thousand-year search for eternal life? Or is it a confusing, disjointed tale of time-traveling true love? I had to read the reviews to understand what was going on in The Fountain, and call me stupid, I still don't understand it.

I Netflixed it because of a) Hugh Jackman and b) the science-fiction/action genre. I'm thinking that's a pretty good combination, no?

Hugh plays Tomas, a hairy 16th century conquistador; Tom, a bristly (both literally and figuratively) 21st century medical research scientist; and Taaahhhhmmm, a glabrous 26th century yoga instructor/astronaut. Actually, I just made most of that up, except the part about his being a futuristic cue ball.

Eeenyway, Tom is testing a new compound on monkeys with brain tumors. He has a vested interest because his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is dying from a brain tumor. Izzi is writing a book about a conquistador who is searching for the antediluvian Tree of Life on behalf of the Queen of Spain. Meanwhile, CueBall Yoga Dude is floating around in a bubble eating bark and hallucinating Izzi from 500 years ago.

That about sums up the storyline. It's kind of like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Solaris, with a little bit of The Fifth Element thrown in. Only with lots of crying.

What's going on? It's anybody's guess: reincarnation? time travel? parallel universes? hallucinations? Maybe I could figure it out if I watched it again, but I'm just not that interested.

However, if you saw it, and you have a different perspective, I'd love to hear it.

[Picture Credit: Warner Bros.]

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Baseline Compliment

Mr. Peevie is clever, but also a tiny bit evil.

I have been working like a Hebrew slave this week on a grant proposal for zillions of dollars for child welfare and substance abuse programs in Florida and Illinois. I have been staying up past midnight writing, editing and researching. During the days I have been working as well, plus juggling the camp and play-date schedules and transportation of three kids going six different directions, not to mention the snack, entertainment, and clothing needs of the seven or eight extra kids that always somehow end up in our house.

Not to complain, or anything, because I really do have the best, most blessed life on the planet, but there has been a pinch of stress on my delicate nerves. What's worse, I'm working so hard that I haven't even been able to do much in the way of stress relief, which for me means watching a bloody, violent movie or maybe an episode or two of Angel or Buffy on DVD.

So in the middle of all this, when he notices a frayed edge of a nerve peeking out of my normally serene composure, Mr. Peevie gets all sweet and compassionate, wraps his bearish arms around me, and looks gently into my eyes. "I'm sorry you've had to work so hard this week, sweetie," he says to me, all sincere; and then WHAMMO: "...I mean, you know, compared to your baseline!" Ba dum, dum.

And you thought he was all sweetness and light. Now you know the cold, hard truth: Mr. Peevie can sling a barb like a scorpion in the desert.