Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Mirror is...Empty

The recently released Kiefer Sutherland vehicle, Mirrors, is not worth your time and money. Don't even bother renting it on DVD.

The good parts can be summarized in terms of Kieferlishousness: Kiefer; Kiefer's whisper; Kiefer in wet jeans; and Kiefer saying, "Dammit!" I suppose some might also like it for the on-display cleavage of the unknown co-star, Paula Patton, in a low-cut and/or wet t-shirt.

Her cleavage has promise. Her acting? Jury's still out. She might have sucked because the lines she had to say were so bad.

Oh, and I'll also give the movie credit for a creeptastic setting, in the fire-damaged department store with mannequins that add atmospheric trepidation.

The bad parts: everything else.

Mirrors starts with suspense, horror, and enough gore to make me cover my eyes. Then we meet Kiefer, a suspended cop sleeping on his sister's couch. He's taking medication, he's got stubble, and he's sad. I immediately wanted to cuddle with him.

Director Alexandre Aja establishes that Amy Smart is Kief's sister by having him call her "sis." Who does that? And then he re-establishes it 20 minutes later by having Amy remind Kiefer, with her hands pressed to the side of his face like a lover, that she's his little sister. "You can talk to me," she pleads with him, "I'm your little sister." Um, yeah. We got it the first time.

Much of the dialogue follows this format--awkward, unlikely interchanges that are supposed to help us know the characters better but in fact only serve to remind us that the characters have not been developed sufficiently to be knowable. Especially the dialogue between Kiefer and his estranged wife, the pulchritudinous Paula Patton, was apparently lifted straight from a romance novel book jacket.

Even the music was cliche: A high piano note plinked deliberately--plink, plink, plink--then gradually faster--plink-plink-plink-plink--when Director Aja wanted us to feel increasing tension.

The mirrors in Mirrors reflect enough gore and horror to more than earn the R-rating. Amy Smart's gruesome self-dismemberment clinched it: what Aja lacked in actual story, he'd make up in shock and cheap "boo!"s. (I doubt if I punctuated that right. Please don't report me to the punctuation police.)

There's a twist at the end that makes me think that the movie contains the germ of a good idea--but I was left going, "Huh?" I'm pretty sure that's not what the story-teller was going for.

Even when a movie is bad, something good can come out of it. Sometimes that good is a clever review. I did not read any reviews before seeing Mirrors (I should have; I learned my lesson), but I read a bunch on Rotten Tomatoes afterward. My favorite line is this one, from Peter Sobczynski of

"...while watching it won't necessarily lead to seven years of bad luck, it does make for a fairly aggravating 110 minutes."

Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Surreal Babysitting Adventures, Part III

Start with Surreal Babysitting Adventures, Part I and Part II, if you want the context.

One day, I was upstairs in my home office, working away. The Babysitter Who Shall Not Be Named (BWSNBN) was downstairs with the kids, doing a pretty good job of keeping them away from me and keeping the noise level down to a dull roar. That's all I ask, really. I'm no hard-ass.

BWSNBN--let's call her BW for typing and reading ease--comes upstairs with an urgent question. "Um, E. Peevie, do you have any air freshener?"

Well, as a matter of fact, I did not have air freshener. But I suspected that there had been a Number Two situation that was filling the downstairs atmosphere with noxious fumes.

"Light a match, BW," I suggested. "That always takes care of the problem for me."

Baaaaaaaaaaaaad idea.

About 20 minutes later I came downstairs, and I smelled a bit of a smoky smell. "BW," I asked, "Are you cooking something?"

"Nope," she replied.

"Did you burn something earlier? I smell smoke," I insisted. I headed toward the kitchen, but she still denied cooking anything. Approaching the kitchen, I could still smell smoke--but from a different direction. I turned and looked down the hallway, and saw ribbons of smoke curling out of the bathroom.

I ran down the hall and stopped at the bathroom door. "HOLY SHIT!" I hollered, even though three children and one impressionable babysitter were within earshot. "Shit! Fire!" A bonfire was burning on top of the toilet tank, with flames blistering the paint three feet up the wall and immolating the wicker basket of hairbrushes and TP.

My shocking language and the promise of dramatic and fiery excitement immediately brought all the kids running toward the bathroom--except for the smart one, A. Peevie, who went screaming for the front door, in the opposite direction. That boy might struggle with his math facts, but math facts won't drag you out of a burning house.

Meanwhile, I ran for the kitchen and filled up a pitcher with water. (It never even occurred to me to grab the fire extinguisher in easy reach on the counter.) I ran back to the bathroom and shooed M. Peevie and the sitter away from the door. C. Peevie had boldly turned on the tap and was futilely splashing water from the sink onto the flames, but I shooed him away as well.

When I dumped the entire pitcher of water on the conflagration, black smoke billowed up to the ceiling and the basket blaze slightly abated. Flames still crawled up the blackening wall from the charred hand towel, so I filled the pitcher in the tub and splashed the fire again. I grabbed the end of the still-burning towel and a tiny corner of the still-burning basket, tossed them into the sink and extinguished the rest of the stubborn flames.

Once I was confident that the danger from the fire was over, I remembered that A. Peevie was probably curled up in a fetal position on the front lawn, so I went to find him. I passed the BWSNBN, sobbing in the living room, and headed out the front door. I found A. Peevie waiting for me safely on the sidewalk, trembling like an addict two days into rehab. He didn't stop shaking for two hours, poor baby.

Inside, I put my arms around the sitter, who was also shaking and still sobbing. "It's OK, BW," I said, "Everything's OK now."

"I set your HOUSE on FIRE!" she sobbed. "On FIRE!"

"I know, sweetheart," I said. It's amazing how easily I could forgive setting my house on fire, but to this day cannot let go of too-crisp brownies and wet dishes in the cabinet. There is something wrong with me. "But it's OK now. The fire's out and everybody's safe. No harm done."

"I'm so sorry," BW said shakily, "I'm so sorry. I will never light another candle ever again in my life."

Aahhh. That's what happened. She lit a candle and set it on the back of the john, and the flame caught the hand towel.

"It's OK, BW," I repeated. "I've almost burned my own house down with candles many a time." I pointed to the block glass window alcove, with two circular singe-marks from un-watched candles. "See! We had only been in the house about two weeks when I almost burned it down!"

Eventually, everyone settled down and stopped shaking and blubbering. We cleaned up the mess in the bathroom, threw out the burned towel and the singed basket of melted stuff, and everything went back to "normal." Which, as we all know, is relative.

"I don't want you to pay me for today!" BW hilariously insisted; and I told her we were going to forget the whole thing, and didn't need to tell anyone about it. She told her parents anyway, and they offered to paint my bathroom.

But I declined. The wall doesn't look that bad, and if you tilt your head and squint a little, the partially-wiped-off-black-gunk kind of takes the shape of a menacing face--a little artistic reminder to all of us to be careful with candles.

And to be grateful for every single day without a house fire.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I am Jonah

I am Jonah.

My pastors have been preaching on Jonah, and every single week I leave church thinking, "I am Jonah. I am just like him."

Jonah gets a bad rap because, well, he's an idiot. Just like me.

First, he runs away from God. Dumbass. You can't run away from God, Jonah. You can act like God can't see you, can't hear you, can't find you--but duh! Of course he can. He can find you on the ship to Tarshish when you're supposed to be traveling to Nineveh. He can also find you when you're holed up in your bedroom with an open bottle of wine and a high-def TV. And he can find you when you're just minding your own business, trying to be a good person, but deep down beginning to realize that that's not good enough. (Hello, Roseanne?)

Of course God can find you--and the truly amazing thing is, he's actually coming after you. He'll stir up the sea until your shipmates threaten to throw you overboard. Or he'll allow a different kind of storm in your life--maybe cancer, maybe a sick child, maybe unemployment or a really horrible boss, depression, or a million other storms that, if you're smart, will make you remember that God wants you, or wants you back.

He's waiting for you to look up and say, Um, God? Can I get a hand, here?

He's also waiting for you to remember who and what you are. You are Jonah, the guy God called to do a really important job, like preach to the Ninevites, or raise a child, or be an honest cop, a loving spouse, a generous friend, a talented musician, or a million other callings that, if you're smart, will make you remember that God is the one who gave you that calling and is going to help you follow it.

He's waiting for you to look up and say, God? Thanks. And help, please.

God is also waiting for you to remember that you are not God. You do not get to decide what justice looks like. You do not get to point to other people and say, Smite them, God! They are bad, bad people because they worship idols, or take drugs, or fail to live up to your own exceptionally high standards of housekeeping.

But that's what Jonah did, Reverend Moses Butcher told us today at church. He became annoyed at God because he wanted to see justice done to those sinners of Nineveh--just like I become annoyed at the sinners around me, who don't parent like I think they should, or don't obey me as promptly as I want them to, or have the right opinion about social justice issues.

I am such a Jonah.

Jonah was miserable. "It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry...Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:1, 3). Why was he miserable? Because he was waiting for the fireworks of God's destruction of Nineveh. He wanted Nineveh to pay for their sins; he wanted justice.

But, Reverend Butcher pointed out, Jonah's notion of justice does not look anything like God's justice. God is (thank God!) "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster" (Jonah 4:2). Jonah wants people to pay for their sin; God wants people to repent, and be brought back into relationship with Him.

Like Jonah, I often want people to pay. I want to hear them say, "I was wrong, I am a worm." I want them to pay if they've wronged me, or someone I love. This is how I often deal with Mr. Peevie, with my kids, with my co-workers--not to mention the stranger who has just cut me off in the street.

But wouldn't it be better if Jonah and I, and all of us, were more like God, slow to anger, and willing to wait and work for reconciliation and redemption? God said to Jonah, "Should I not pity Nineveh?"

I am always telling my kids that retaliation is never the answer. But, boy it sure is an instinctive reaction. On Saturday, a bigger boy was sitting on his bike near M. Peevie, who was minding her own business playing with a skip-ball (one of those ankle-jump-rope things), and as he moved his bike to get past her, he said in a tough-guy voice, "If that thing hits my bike, you're gonna pay."

After a decade of telling my kids, "Retaliation is never the answer," I wanted to get up and knock that little boy right off his bike. This is my instinct--not to gently help him understand that bullying and threatening a smaller person is wrong, but to hurt him for trying to intimidate my baby girl.

I am Jonah. But I want instead to be like Jesus, the literal epitome of God's mercy. That's my prayer.

I picked up the images from Biblical Art on the WWW.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dr. Peevie on Healthy Boundaries

Everywhere I go, I see/hear/read about people having trouble with boundaries. It seems that for many people personal boundaries end up trampled in the dirt under the feet of other people's expectations. A lot of times setting a personal boundary means saying "no." And almost always, not setting appropriate personal boundaries brings unnecessary feelings of responsibility, stress, and guilt.

Feelings of responsibility, stress, and guilt are important in all relationships; and when they come from appropriate situations, they help us remember to treat people with kindness and respect--just the way we want to be treated.

But when those feelings arise from inappropriate situations, or a lack of appropriate and healthy boundaries, they are not helpful. They hurt our relationships, and they hurt our own emotional and mental health.

Before I go any further in our boundaries workshop, let me first acknowledge that I am just as emotionally unhealthy as the next person, and frequently moreso. I'm often depressed, moody, and hot-tempered. I am sometimes a martyr, and sometimes I'm just plain selfish and lazy. There's a whole bunch more, but I'm starting to feel bad about myself now, so I'll leave it at that. You get my point.

But boundaries, for some reason, I get. Maybe it's because my best friend is a therapist.

I was reading a blog written by a mom who was uncomfortable telling her child not to do something that other nearby parents were letting their kids do--because she didn't want the other parents to think she was judging them.

Call me rude or insensitive, but I would have no problem at all saying, "M. Peevie, do not climb that tree,' even if the other parents within earshot were letting their kids climb it. So the other parent thinks I'm too strict? Don't care. So the other parent thinks I'm judging her? Unfortunate, but not my problem. (I might actually be judging her, but not out loud.)

I am especially particular about boundaries in the parenting arena. I do not want other people parenting my children unless I or Mr. Peevie have turned over direct or implied responsibility. For example, if we're at your house, and you see my toddler approaching your irreplaceable collection of Lladro sculptures, I totally understand that you might want to step in front of her and redirect her. (Of course, an even better option might be to ask me to redirect her--but sometimes a situation calls for urgent action!)

But if I'm at the grocery store with my hand on the back of my child who is standing up in the cart, I do not appreciate the pimply grocery clerk telling my child to sit down because he might get hurt. I will be responsible for protecting him, thank you very much, person-who-is-making-minimum-wage-and-is-not-even-close-to-getting-laid-let-alone-becoming-a-parent. If you absolutely must insist that the child be seated in the cart, then please direct your instructions to me, but NOT to my child.

Here's another example: My friend Josephine helped her SIL plan and execute her wedding, and she was telling us about all the stress she had felt during the process. A lot of the stress was caused by the bride not being willing or able to make decisions, and as the wedding approached, major items on the plan-your-perfect-wedding checklist remained unchecked. Like the music at the reception, for example. And the flowers.

I felt bad for my friend because she had experienced such a stressful time. But at the same time, I did not really understand why she felt so much stress about a wedding that was not her own. Her SIL was making choices (or NOT making choices) that would have an impact on her own wedding, and the outcome was not only out of Josephine's control, but also not her responsibility. I understood that she wanted to help her SIL--but I could not understand desiring to help someone so much that their own negligence would cause me to feel stress.

So I said this to Josephine, and asked her why she felt so much stress. She said, "Because I care about my SIL, and I wanted her to have a really great wedding." OK--I get that. But again, isn't it possible to care for someone and want the best for them, but also to step back and let them bear the responsibility for their own choices?

In other words, under those circumstances, aren't you making a choice to feel stress about something that is out of your control? And why would you make that choice? Why would you choose to add unnecessary stress to your life?

One place where I'm not as good at setting boundaries as I'd like to be is with my parents. For some reason, I often let them suck me into arguments about theology or politics, and those discussions sometimes leave me feeling beat up. A person should be able to express opinions without being emotionally filleted--but in my family, if you step outside of certain lines, you better be wearing body armor.

I know I'm simplifying things a bit too much. But let's have a conversation about boundaries. Are you good at setting them? Have you set boundaries that people don't seem to get, or constantly try to erode? Do you worry too much about other people's feelings, at the expense of your own mental health?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Surreal Babysitting Adventures, Part II

In case you missed it, here's the first installment of Surreal Babysitting Adventures.

If I knew that K-Nut would be in charge of dinner, I'd do my best to make sure that she had a ready-made, simple-to-prepare dinner solution. But without fail, my plans failed.

One time, I got out all the fixings for sloppy joes: ground beef, buns, a canned sloppy joe sauce, and frozen corn. I even got out the right pan to use to cook the ground beef. I thought it was fool-proof. This was a woman who had somehow raised one child to adulthood, and a bunch more were well on their way to surviving childhood with no obvious long-term effects from food poisoning. They seemed relatively normal and healthy--so I figured she'd be capable of making and serving one batch of sloppy joe to my kids without anyone ending up in the ER.

Well, as Mr. Peevie and I were getting ready to leave, K-Nut started making dinner. She flipped the ground beef into the pan and started browning it. Moments later, however, I was grossed out when she opened the can of sloppy joe sauce, dumped it right on the raw beef and started stirring it around.

Who makes sloppy joes this way? Who in this hemisphere does not know (or can't read the instructions on the side of the can telling you) that you must brown the ground beef first, pour off the fat, and then dump the sloppy joe mix in? Not only were they in danger of eating raw meat--because how would you actually know when the meat was browned when it was already coated with tomato sauce--but they'd also be eating an extra 1500 calories in straight lard.

I was flummoxed.

I hurried to the kitchen, one shoe on and one in my hand. "K-Nut," I said, "I've never seen anyone make sloppy joe this way."

"Oh, I've never made it before," she said. "I just figured that you put the sauce in with the meat and then cook it."

"Generally, it's a good idea to brown the meat first," I said gently--on the outside; but on the inside, I was thinking a) have you never cooked with ground beef before? No matter what you're making--shepherd's pie, spaghetti sauce, chili mac--you brown, drain, and then mix; and b) did it occur to you to read the instructions? I'm just sayin. My insides are frequently bitchier than my outsides.

"It's going to be harder to tell if the meat is done with the sauce already mixed in," I added, "So just make sure you cook it really, really thoroughly."

"How have your kids survived for so long if this is how you cook for them?" I desperately wanted to ask, but refrained.

We shook our heads at many other clueless choices that K-Nut made as a babysitter as well. She'd leave the window shades up when she put the kids to bed--even when it was still light outside. She'd put them to bed fully clothed, without having them change into PJs. We learned to leave specific instructions about what they could and could not eat, because otherwise, they'd scam her into letting them have an entire carton of ice cream or a whole bag of cookies.

"Oh," they tell her, all innocent-like, "my mom lets us have 10 cookies for dessert all the time." And she'd believe them.

One time, we came home well past bedtime, and found A. Peevie awake and playing on the floor of his bedroom. "Um, K-Nut," I said, "How come A. Peevie is still up?"

"Oh, he said he wanted to sleep on the floor, so I told him he could," she said. "I didn't think you'd mind."

Well, what I did mind was that my child was still awake two hours after his bedtime because my space cadet babysitter made some creative bedtime decisions.

By now you're thinking, why in the name of all things holy did we continue to use this babysitter? Well, we'd call her to see if one of her daughters could sit, and often they could, but when they couldn't, K-Nut would show up in their place.

But also, part of me was wondering: Is it me? Am I just too rigid? Am I the strange one here? Eventually, Mr. Peevie and I decided it was just too stressful to have her over and be wondering the whole time we were out what surreal babysitting stories we'd be telling the next day.

Also, our kids got older, and our need for babysitting diminished dramatically. Unfortunately, this did not happen until AFTER the bathroom caught fire.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Surreal Babysitting Adventures.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Two Down, One to Go

I breathed a sigh of relief this week when two out of three Peevies started school again. Finally. (I'm singing a different tune now than I did when I wrote this post!)

They had been jumping up and down on my last nerve with their constant bickering, and all I wanted to do was drink wine and watch Prison Break reruns and catch up on the episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that I had missed the first time around.

(Hey, that sounds like I'm a teensy bit depressed. Hmmm. Time to call the high-priced empathist, I mean therapist. Can you actually be depressed when you're already on anti-depressants? Eeeeeenyway...)

Even though I was thrilled to drop the Peeve-monsters off at second and fifth grade, I was also a bit moophy. (Moofy? Moophie? Whatever. You know what I mean, right? like the kind of sad when you make a little sad sound like, "Mooph," and make a little sad frownie face. At my growing up house, we always called that "moophy." I don't actually know if there's an actual word for it, but as you may already know, I do love neologisms.)

The PTL sponsored a back-to-school event that they called "The Boo Hoo/Yahoo Breakfast" (yay, Andrea!) which I think perfectly captures my conflictedness. Because, hello? My baby is in SECOND GRADE? and my angsty-boy is in FIFTH GRADE? I am not even ready for all this growing up.

I did finally break down and buy school supplies just in the nick of time. I dropped $190 on that trip to Tar-Zhay, but it was all worth it when I watched A. Peevie's Face of Pure Delight as he was sorting through his pens and folders and spiral notebooks.

Every day for three weeks leading up to this point, he'd voiced his dread about school starting. "I do NOT want to go back to school, Mom," he said.

"Can you homeschool me, Mom?" he asked, and I told him if I did, one of us would be dead or maimed by the end of the first week.

"Why do we have to go to school anyway? School's dumb. Lots of smart people didn't go to school. Einstein didn't go all the way through school," he pointed out.

But on this day, as he looked through his pile of supplies and checked off items from his supply list, he was happily anticipating the start of fifth grade. "I can't wait for school to start!" A. Peevie said cheerfully.

On the morning of the first day, he was up bright and early, dressed, and in his right mind--and still cheerful about seeing his school friends again. "Can we get there early?" he asked. Silly boy. What, does he think he woke up belonging to a different family or something? I'll settle for being on time, which we were. Barely. A one-time only event. Not a guarantee of future performance.

But day two, he woke up grumpy. I opened his door and called his name gently. "A. Peevie," I said, "Time to rise and shine! Time for school!"

"No!" he yelled. "I do NOT want to go to school." He flung himself deep under his covers as though being unseen would automatically transplant him into a different no-school dimension.

And we had a repeat performance on the third day. "Growl!" he growled. "Grumble, grrrr, ROAR! I hate school! I'm NOT GOING."

Sigh. Only 177 more of these mornings to go until summer! Blissful, happy, sleeping-in summer, with no fights about getting up to get ready for school.

Wait...what? What just happened there?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Surreal Babysitting Adventures, Part I

We've been fortunate to have, for the most part, babysitters who love our children, who make wise decisions while caring for them, who rarely lose them and who almost never give them overdoses of OTC drugs.

In fact, one of our sitters, my dear friend Roseanne, has this motto: "No bleeding and no choking on my watch!" So far, the kids have cooperated, even the one taking a blood-thinner. She's also really, really good at turning their tears and whining into giggles and tickle-fights. Every single time she walks into the house, the kids run to her--even the teenager--and give her a big hug.

But we have also had our share--some might say more than our share!--of babysitting stories that you will swear I made up. But I didn't.

One of our babysitters--let's call her K-Nut--was apparently raised by wolves. She's a book-bright woman who did normal everyday things--like make dinner, do laundry, or wash dishes--in such incomprehensible ways that she appeared to be totally unfamiliar with the strange ways of the people in this flat land of Chi-Kah-Goh. (And BTW, I didn't ask her to do those extra things--she just did them. Until I asked her to please stop.)

She'd wash dishes--God knows, there were always plenty in the sink, and she'd head straight there when she walked in the door, but I wasn't offended, because I will never object when someone wants to wash my dishes--wash them, and put them straight from the sink to the cabinet. Dripping wet. I am not even kidding. More than once I pulled a plate from the cabinet, plopped a slice of bread on it to make a sandwich--and did a double-take when I realized that the bread was all-of-a-sudden soaking wet.

She'd wash my kitchen counters--I think she was morally offended by my low housekeeping standards--and leave puddles of water deep enough to stock with game fish. K-Nut must have had an aversion to drying things, because sometimes I'd come home and find my laundry washed, dried, and folded in neat piles on the bed--but the folded clothes wouldn't actually be dry. They'd be more wet than damp, and had to be tossed back into the dryer to finish the job.

See what I mean? Raised by wolves. Or aliens, on a different planet. The planet "What The Hell Is She Thinking?"

K-Nut was raising a mob of children with a complete dearth of cooking know-how and common sense. Knowing this, I'd try to make things easy on her by preparing a crock-pot meal that she'd just have to serve at dinner time. Easy-peasy, right? Not so much.

One time I had crock-potted a delicious pot roast, complete with potatoes, carrots and onions; I turned it on, and left written instructions for when it would be done and what time to serve it. Later than evening when I asked the kids how dinner was, they said, "Great! But the blueberry pancakes were a little burned."

[It was like a surrealism joke: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Two: One to hold the giraffe and one to fill the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools. HA! Thank you, thank you, enjoy the veal, we'll be here all week.]

Blueberry pancakes? "What happened to the pot roast," I asked, mystified. It seems that K-Nut had served the pot roast and vegetables, along with blueberry pancakes (burned) and blueberry muffins. On the same plate. The burned-on pancake pan was still soaking in the sink, so I knew that my jokester kids were not scamming me.

See? I told you you'd think I was making it up.

K-Nut was sweet and gentle with my kids, which I always appreciated. They loved it when she came over, because she'd always make brownies with them. Unfortunately, she never got them quite right. They were frequently wafer thin and crispy.

"K-Nut," I said, "This brownie mix calls for a smaller pan. If you use the loaf pan, your brownies will be the right thickness."

"OK," K-Nut agreed, and added redundantly, "I'm not a very good cook."

"K," I teased, "You don't have to be a good cook. You just have to be able to read the instructions on the box."

She laughed, but the joke was on me. The next time she made brownies they were double-thick and raw in the middle.

"K-Nut, what happened to the brownies?" I asked her.

"Well, I used the loaf pan that you told me to use, but the brownies didn't get cooked in the middle," she said.

She had made two boxes of brownie mix, doubling the volume of batter--but she used the same size pan that was recommended for one box. Because that's the pan I told her to use.

More surreal babysitting adventures to come. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Library Scofflaw

I love libraries. I remember going to the public library in Philadelphia when I was a little girl. Mom and Dad would take us every three weeks, and we'd get to check out a huge stack of books almost as tall as we were.

I remember the day I graduated from the little kids' section, with the big print books and pictures, to the big kids' section, with chapter books and only an occasional pen and ink illustration. I was maybe seven or eight years old, and I was looking for a book to read, and the children's librarian was helping me. She'd pull a book off the shelf, and I'd take a look and say, "I've already read it." I had read every single book in that cul-del-sac of picture books, and I was itching for some bigger challenges.

"Well," Marian the Librarian told me, "It looks like you've pretty much worked your way through the children's section. Why don't you come over here"--she led me in among the towering stacks--"and we'll see if we can find something you'd be interested in."

I was in awe. The shelves were so high even the librarian couldn't reach the top ones without a cool, rolling ladder. "There must be a hundred books here!" I thought to my second-grade self. "Maybe even two hundred!"

I was interested in biographies, and Marian pointed me to books about Annie Oakley, Marie Curie, and Babe Didrikson. I'd already read the picture book versions of many biographies, but I was excited to read "real" books, with more than 30 pages.

Now that I'm a mom taking my own kids to the public library, the thing that's hardest for me to figure out is how my parents managed to not only get all of us to the library every three weeks, but how they kept track of all our books. As far as I can remember, my parents never paid a library fine and never lost a book.

The Peevies--not so much. We are constantly losing books and paying fines. I swear, we pay enough library fines to pay the salary of the children's librarian.

When the fines become too onerous on one card, we just check out books using another card. That's what's great about having three reading kids in the house--everybody has a card. It's also what has gotten us in trouble with Lenny the Shark, lending us money at usurious rates to pay down our library card fines.

Today, when I went to throw myself on the mercy of my local librarian, I donned the abject-est face I could summon, and plunked my six overdue books on the counter. "Hi there," I said nervously. "I've got to turn in some overdue books."

"All-righty," said the sweet librarian-child. (I wasn't even convinced he was old enough to hold a job.) "Let's see what you've got here." He scanned our books, and frowned. "Looks like you've got some more books that are still out on these cards."

"Um, yeah," I mumbled. "I'm hemorrhaging fines. Can I renew those books?" Turns out I couldn't, because I didn't have the right card.

"Some of these books were due in June. Of 2007," said the boy librarian. "Did you want to pay for them now, or do you think you might still locate them?" I think he might have sniggered a little bit when he said that.

"I'll just pay the fine," I said. "What are the damages?"

The BL pulled over a giant calculator, and started hitting numbers like a bookie at the racetrack. "Um, yes, that'll be $936.57," he said, and giggled. Oh, no he didn't. No such luck that I'd get a librarian with a sense of humor.

"That'll be $58 dollars and 37 cents!" the BL said, in an outside voice, so that everyone else at the counter turned to look at me, the library scofflaw, with shocked--shocked!--expressions.

I hung my head.

"Do you take a credit card?" I muttered.

Next time, I'm going straight to the bookstore.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

His Wife Will Thank Me

I rarely have any complaints about my Mister. As I've blogged before, Mr. Peevie is virtually the embodiment of spousal perfection. He puts up with my many limitations, he understands me, he treats me with love, kindness, sensitivity, and respect.

However. Mr. Peevie has been known to be a tiny bit evil. And also? A wee bit helpless.

I hate helplessness. Helplessness makes me insane. When Mr. Peevie makes like he can't do something, or complains about a problem without actually taking steps to solve it ("Those kids are too loud!", for example, or "I just wish those kids would go outside") it makes me want to eat rocks.

"OK, so get up and tell them to be quiet!" I suggest, with an understandable, but teensy, edge to my voice. "Go tell them to get their loud behinds outside," I say, possibly through clenched jaw.

Or, if I'm doing the martyr thing, I'll sigh loudly, and get up and do it myself. And I'll fume about how some people are so helpless that I don't even know how they wipe their own butt. (And yes, I am quite aware that "the martyr thing" is just as emotionally unhealthy as the helpless thing. Shut up.)

So anyhoo, I received an invitation to meet up with friends for happy hour on Friday night, and I says to Mr. Peevie, I says, "Honey, I think I'm going to go out to Biv's for happy hour on Friday night."

"But you'll miss C. Peevie's camp open house," he objects.

"Yeah, I'll check with him, but I don't think he'll mind," I replied.

"But," and this is where I almost drop-kicked him into next week, "that means I'll have to take all three kids to the open house by myself!"

I looked at him in disbelief. "You are fucking kidding me," I said.

This summer I have been working from home, and dealing with kids--my own and those of half the neighborhood--from 7 in the morning until Mr. Peevie gets home from work at 5:30 or 6. I take them to camp, I pick them up from camp, I take them to doctor's appointments, I supervise them in the pool, I break up their fights, I feed them a hundred times a day, I give them their meds.

I'm not complaining--I'm very grateful to have a flexible work schedule that allows me to be home when my kids are home. But he's anxious about taking three kids to a two-hour event by himself? I'm just sayin'.

So then, I'm talking to C. Peevie, and I'm asking him, hey, honey--do you mind if I skip the open house on Friday night? Will they post your movie on YouTube? If you mind, seriously, I will totally be there. He didn't mind. But he did have this to say:

"But Mom, if you don't go, Daddy will have to take all of us to the open house by himself!"

I did NOT say what I seriously wanted to say, and I think you know what I mean. I did take the opportunity to educate him, however.

"C. Peevie, what do I do all day long, every day of the week? Do you REALLY think it's asking too much of Daddy to take you three to a two-hour open house by himself?"

"Ahhhh," he said.

I'm thinking that 20 years from now his wife will thank me.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In Which the Littlest Peevies Meet Honest Abe and Snore Their Brains Out

Dateline: Springfield

The new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is a wondrous, amazing place. You should make plans to go there immediately, if you haven't already been. You'll take photos next to wax Lincolns. You'll see two fabulous multi-media presentations about Lincoln's life, either one of which validates the entire trip.

If you have kids with you--and maybe even if you don't--you won't want to miss Abraham's Attic, where you can play with Lincoln Logs--which, BTW, were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, son of the illustrious architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the attic you can also dress up in period costumes, and play with replica toys from Lincoln's day--like a ball on a string attached to a tiny cup on a stick. I don't know what it's called, but the object is to swing the ball so that it lands in the cup. It's harder than it sounds.

M. Peevie tried on every outfit in the Attic, including the men's outfits.

We had lunch in the tea room across the street, where, for some reason (five kids at our table?), the waiter felt obliged to warn us that if we picked up the sugar cubes with our fingers, he would break them. Our fingers, not the sugar cubes. Also, he'd have to charge us $25 for the entire contents of the sugar bowl.

A. Peevie's chicken noodle soup was inedibly salty, and when it came time to pay, I asked the cashier to take it off the tab, because I don't believe in paying for unsatisfactory food. She did. I'd probably pick a different place to eat next time because we all left hungry, and it really wasn't terribly kid-friendly, what with the finger-breaking and all.

We walked across town to the Old State Capitol building, where Abraham Lincoln and his peeps legislated and speechified. Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech here in 1858, which many say lost him the race for the U.S. Senate. "His law partner, William H. Herndon, thought that Lincoln was morally courageous but politically incorrect," according to Abraham Lincoln Online. (The photo also comes from ALO.)

Then we toured the Lincoln Home, where Mary Todd Lincoln, according to the custom of the times, matched wildly patterned wallpaper with garishly patterned carpets.

All in all, it was a great trip: educational, fun, interesting. We all learned tons about Honest Abe that we didn't know before (although my friend Biv had boned up, and really had her Lincoln facts down.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the only downside was sleeping in a hotel room with three children, who, when they weren't bickering, were snoring their frickin' brains out. Seriously. You would not think that a skinny 10-year-old and a zaftig seven-year-old would have the capacity for such tremendous volume, not to mention variety--but you would be wrong. C. Peevie did not snore, but he made up for it by ranting and huffing and sheeshing and relocating himself in response to the cacophony of night sounds coming from his sibs.

At 2 in the a.m., lying there next to and partially under my heat-seeking daughter, with her leg flung across my hip, I tried to spell the sounds of her eruptions. "Snoooorrrkhkhkhkhmuhmuhmuhmmm," she said. "Snork, snork, sssshhhhhh."

Meanwhile, A. Peevie, also heat-seeking, had traveled from his own side of the bed to C. Peevie's side; and C. Peevie gave up and buried himself under the comforter on the floor. "Bzzzzzzz-snorkle-honk!" A. Peevie snored. "Bzzzzzz-snort-snort-pssshhhhh."

It was a long night.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Eating Bitterness

One of the Olympic announcers mentioned tonight that the Chinese gymnasts are taken from their parents at age three to live and train at state-sponsored training academies. They only see their families once a year, he said.

Time magazine just published The Price of Gold, which describes the training regimen of young Chinese Olympic hopefuls. It's disgusting. "Our women can eat bitterness more than women from other countries," said a Chinese government PR creature. Yes, I said PR: public relations. Someone who's job it is to make China look good to the outside world.

Apparently, it's OK to force tiny little girls to live away from their families so that they can be twisted, stretched, pounded, and trained to world-class levels. For the glory of the state. And the little girls can take the training, the sadness, the separation, the intensity because they "eat bitterness" better than little girls from other countries.

Disgusting. Every single Olympics I have the same reaction: these children are having their childhoods ripped away from them. And it's not just the Chinese children--I'm sure it happens here, too.

(Just to be fair-minded: Not all young athletes are coerced into hours of unwanted training. Here's a different take on pre-pubescent athletes, describing tiny jocks that can't wait to get back into the ring or on the mat.)

In 1996 the Olympic committee mandated a 16-year-old age minimum to counteract the Nadia Comenici effect. You remember her--the 14-year-old pipsqueak gymnast with a collection of perfect tens in the 1976 Olympics? She, or more accurately, her coach, Bela Karolyi, ushered in the age of pixie gymnastics featuring pre-pubescent girls with extreme flippability.

But have you seen the Chinese gymnasts this year? Is there any way at all that Yang Yilin is 16 years old? The girl still has gaps in her teeth where a recently-sprung baby tooth has not yet been replaced by a permanent tooth. No way is she 16. Yes, I know her passport and Wikipedia have her birthday falling in 1992. I just don't believe it.

What makes me saddest is that Yilin is just one victim of the Olympic-win-at-all-costs philosophy. And she's one of the very few lucky ones--one with Olympic success and glory, and future financial comfort. What about all the other children? That Time article reported that nearly 400,000 children and young people have been "recruited," most from elementary school, to train at state-run sports academies. Only a few hundred will ever get to the Olympics.

It's disgusting. It's wrong. Maybe my perspective is entirely too Western and kid-centric--but obviously, I can't help that. I'm all in favor of respecting cultures and traditions--but not at such a high cost.
Update: See this article by Greg Couch in the Chicago Sun Times for a stern opinion about Karolyi and the undersized Chinese gymnasts.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Zoo in the Dining Room

"A. Peevie," I said to my son the other day, "Turn off the Gameboy and do something creative for awhile."

Being the angelic and cooperative boy that he is, he immediately shut down the Pokemon Silver and started dreaming up activities to stimulate his kinetic imagination.

An hour later I walked into the dining room, and found an entire aquatic zoo taking over the dining room table. Tubs of water housed tiny plastic sea creatures: a shark, an octopus, and an eel, complete with a rocky undersea cave.

There was even a fresh-water exhibit, with frogs and lizards lounging on rocky shoals, and, inexplicably, an Outback exhibit, with tiny koala bears hanging from twigs stuck in dirt.

(You can see in the photos that M. Peevie was graciously given permission to watch--but hands off!--as the final touches were made to the aquatic exhibition.)

Everyone that walked through the dining room for the next week stopped to visit the zoo. The kids especially admired it, reaching out to touch the rock formations, and asking questions:

"Wow! Who made this?" asked the appreciatives ones.

"What is it?" asked the less intuitive ones.

"Why did he make it?" more than one kid asked, not understanding why a child of the 21st century would spend so much time playing at something with absolutely no electronic features. "Did he do it for an assignment?"

"How did the water get blue?" (That was my brilliant contribution: one drop of blue food coloring in each habitat to give it that authentic ocean hue. But A. Peevie said Octopus needed to have his water darker blue, because he lives at the bottom of the ocean where there is no light. We added an extra teeny drip, giving the octopus' garden a deep sea dimness.)

I've mentioned A. Peevie's inimitable and sometimes peculiar take on the world in this blog before. This is one more example of his unparalleled combination of intelligence, personality, imagination, and interests leading to a unique experience of creative play.

I love that boy.

And now he needs to get his crap off my dining room table.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Book Review: Empire Falls

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, took me by surprise. It was not just a well-told story, but a rich, layered treat, like an English trifle for the mind. It's about a mill town without a mill, struggling to survive and dependent on the stingy favors of a rich widow who owns most everything worth owning.

Critics (I read a bunch of one-star reviews on Amazon) suggest that the plot is slow-moving, lacking real action. One reviewer objected that "the hero is weak" and "the climax reveals no victory."
Well, in some ways, they're right: this is definitely not the book you should take off the shelf if you're looking for Ludlumesque action and intrique, or a Tom Clancy-type hero that starts out like a normal guy but ends up diving out of the path of speeding bullets and rescuing the president from Basque terrorists.

The protagonist, Miles Roby, is weak, in the same way that many of us are weak: he lets life happen to him, rather than making difficult choices that might take his life in a more fulfilling direction. He stays in a dead-end job that can't even be classified as a career: he manages the Empire Grill, but not well; he's loyal to his wife, but does not satisfy her; and he loves his daughter, but feels inadequate as a parent. (Don't we all.)

Why doesn't he leave the Empire Grill, and open his own restaurant? Why doesn't he move away from Empire Falls and build a more satisfying life in another town? Why does he allow himself to feel so trapped?! Get some therapy, man!

Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, apparently this is not an uncommon fate for the common man. Newsweek just published a story, Sucker or Saint: How We Rationalize Being Wimpy, about how professionals who "have failed to act as free thinkers" rationalize their behavior and shore up their self-esteem.

One thing I couldn't figure out was what he ever saw in his ex-wife Janine. Perhaps this character represents a weakness in Russo's writing--is she too one-sided to be believable? Or are there real people just like her?

She's shallow, selfish and narcissistic. She might be smart, but she's too self-involved and superficial to allow for any kind of deeper awareness or insight. The closest she gets to awareness is the unarticulated feeling she gets when she skirts the notion that there's something about Miles that she might miss when their divorce is finalized. Are there people so dumb that they'll give up on a kind, smart, hardworking guy just because [underage readers: avert your eyes!] he can't find her g-spot? And shouldn't she take some responsibility for that? All she has to say is, up a little, over, that's good! Am I right?

Anyway, I totally feel for Miles. I think his condition is the human condition: we all wonder, at times, if we've settled. We all know for a solid fact that we could do more, and be more, if only. Or maybe that's just me. Russo writes Miles--and the extensive cast of secondary characters as well--with compassion and gentle realism. Kind of like he's one of us, and he gets it, that people like Miles--and me--aren't necessarily sure that we've embarked on the most fulfilling or self-actualizing life course--but we're doing the best we can, and we're trying to take care of the things that are the most important in the long run: our kids, our family members, our souls.

So back to the book. There's action, all right--but not until toward the end. It's surprising, scary, and, unfortunately, familiar. The action in the rest of the book, however, is primarily internal. Russo's style is patient, poignant, and humorous; his story-telling reveals sympathetic, believable characters with history and depth. Each one adds a different flavor to the Empire Falls pot: suspense, lust, mystery, redemption, tenderness, menace, and hope.

My favorite is Tick, Miles' and Janine's teen daughter, who's philosophical, clever, and confused. She's literally and figuratively weighed down, bent over under the weight of her backpack and the burdens of her parents' divorce, high school, a bully ex-boyfriend, and an icky new stepfather. Russo apparently clearly remembers the painful internal conflicts of high school existence, and vivifies Tick's character with true-to-life deportment and dialogue.

Anyway, I loved it. I loved the whole thing. From the opening chapter, it drew me in. It made me want to know more about the town and the people and what was going to happen to them. Russo uses language in a Dickensian way (the first sentence of first paragraph, page two, chapter one was 72 words long!), but it doesn't put you off--it's conversational and yet beautiful at the the same time.
I'd love to know what you thought of it, or what you think when you read it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Great Tornado of 2008

Where were you during the the Great Tornado of 2008? Were you at the Cubs game, being evacuated to the stadium concourse? Were you filming the meteorological events from your downtown high-rise?

The Peevies spent the evening in basement, having an impromptu family movie night. We wrapped ourselves in blankies and cuddled up on the couches and watched Hercules, which was better than I remembered.

Danny DeVito, as Phil, even had a singing role! Awesome. Also awesome: James Woods as Hades. Apparently they re-wrote a lot of his lines, and he ad libbed a bunch more, because in his audition, he played the character as a fast-talking, smooth operator, and the casting directors liked this rendition better than how it was originally conceived.

In one of my favorite lines, Pain and Panic defended themselves against the charge that they didn't kill Hercules as instructed with this hilarious exchange:

"This might be a different Hercules."

"Yeah, I mean, Hercules is a very popular name nowadays."

"Remember, like, a few years ago, every other boy was named Jason and the girls were all named Brittany?"


Anyhoo, there we were, safe in our basement, with the radio in the background repeating the warnings to seek cover and describing the progress of the fast-moving storm. We'd pause the movie periodically to listen to the update. I probably should have resisted this urge, because it only increased A. Peevie's anxiety--but I couldn't help myself. It's not every day that we get tornadoes headed for the city limits.

It made me wonder how often it does actually happen, so I did a little research. This report from the National Weather Service Forecast Office is kind of interesting. Did you know that
  • there were 92 significant tornadoes in the Chicago area between 1855 and 2008?
  • the deadliest Chicago-area tornado killed 33 people in 1967? and this one actually did hit the city limits, on the South Side.
  • it's been 18 years since the last F4 or stronger tornado--and the NWS says that means "the Chicago area is overdue for a major tornado"?
Scroll down this USAToday link for the answer to a question about tornadoes in downtown Chicago. The author reports that tornadoes have struck within the city limits three times, in 1876, 1961, and 1967.

And finally, I will leave you with this AP story about the storm, with an inadvertently hilarious last line. What does it even mean?

(Photo courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory.)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Searches Ending at the Green Room

Recent searches that have brought visitors to the Green Room include the following:
  • What to do with all those tomatoes
  • awkward teenage years
  • distance to empty meter
  • squirrel home invasion
  • sticky fly swatter
  • intelligence definition Einstein
  • innocence of childhood
  • the golden compass christian theory

plus three in the category of sociopathology:

  • The sociopath next door he says I'm not happy
  • sociopath ice people
  • blogs sociopathology

and four in the category of natural gas:

  • us gas price per therm
  • gas price per therm futures
  • fixed gas price small print
  • us energy savings corp scam fraud
I need to do a better job at Search Engine Optimization (SEO), if natural gas prices and sociopathology are the two search topics bringing new visitors to The Green Room. Because, as you know, we here at The Green Room are about so much more than mental illness and economic indicators. I mean, yes, those are important and all, but mental illness is a given around here, and natural gas prices are what they are.

I've got posts pending on our little trip to Our State Capital, Springfield, the home of the truly amazing Abraham Lincoln Presidential gift shop. I mean Library and Museum--the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Although we may have spent a tiny bit more time in the gift shop than in the actual museum.

The best part of the whole trip was lying awake for hours in bed with my snoring daughter, next to the bed with my snoring son, trying to spell the variety of snoring and snorting sounds erupting with astonishing volume from both of them. Oh, wait. That was the WORST part of the whole trip, not the best.

Anyway, stay tuned, Angelina Jolie (SEO!) and the rest of you, for search-engine optimized posts!