Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Best Thing in the World

A. Peevie takes Verapamil, a medicine that slows his speedy-quick heart-rate down. We try to give it to him in the morning, because he's already got a fairly slow heart-rate at night--but sometimes we forget.

One day last week we forgot, so I had him take it after school. Unfortunately, a few hours later when he took his other meds at bedtime, he took an extra dose of the Verapamil. This caused my own heart-rate to increase significantly.

By the time I learned about the double-dose, it was after 10 p.m. I called the cardiology service, and soon got the cardiologist on the phone. Unfortunately, what we needed was not a mere sub-sub-specialist like him (pediatrics and cardiology), but a sub-sub-sub-specialist, a pediatric electrophysiologist--a physician who specializes in caring for children with heart rhythm disorders. I believe there are eight of these docs in Illinois.

So the docs conferred, and they came up with a plan: They wanted me to check A. Peevie's heart-rate every two hours. If it stayed above 40 beats-per-minute (bpm), I would keep checking every two hours. If it dropped to between 30-40 bpm, I'd check it every hour. If it dropped below 30, I'd need to bring him to the hospital to be monitored for the rest of the night.

By the time we'd worked out the care plan, A. Peevie was already asleep and curled up under his blue camouflage comforter, snoring gently. I checked his heart-rate while he slept, and its strong, regular rhythm (about 50 bpm) soothed my mild anxiety. I crawled under the covers next to him, set my Treo to beep me awake every two hours, and went to sleep.

I am normally a sound sleeper. I can sleep through earthquakes, thunder-storms, most snoring, and early morning radio talk shows which are loud enough to wake Mr. Peevie but never enter my consciousness. But on this night I woke promptly to my Treo singing its descending arpeggio, "Din-ne-ne-ne, Din-ne-ne-ne, Din-ne-ne-ne, Neh" every two hours. Each time, I rummaged under the covers for A. Peevie's skinny wrist, found his pulse, and counted the beats for a full minute. If he shifted, I'd briefly lose the pulse, and I'd start all over again. It usually took me two or three tries--because I felt it would be prudent to be sure I'd gotten it right.

At one point, between Treo alarms, A. Peevie woke up and looked at me. "What are you doing here?" he wondered.

"I'm checking your heart-rate every two hours," I said.

"How come?"

"Because I want to make sure that your heart doesn't slow down too much."

"But you don't usually have to do that," he observed.

"Right," I said. "But you don't usually take a double dose of Verapamil, either."

"Oh," he said; and then he smiled at me, cuddled closer, and went back to sleep.

"Great," I thought. "Now he's going to double-dose himself on purpose just so I have to sleep with him." He's a cuddly ten-year-old who would sleep in my bed every night if I let him. Which I do not. He's far too pointy for comfort.

At every check-point, the tell-tale heart-rate was safely in the mid-40s, so we dodged yet another trip to the ER for this high-maintenance boy.

In the morning as we were getting ready for school, I was kind of a zombie. "What's the matter, mom?" A. P. asked me cheerfully.

"I'm just tired, honey," I told him.

"That's my fault, isn't it?" he asked.

"No, baby, it's not your fault," I reassured him.

"But you had to wake up at night to check my heart because I took an extra dose," he said. "That's why you're tired."

"A. Peevie, it wasn't your fault that you took it," I said. "It was an accident." I looked him straight in the eyes. "And besides," I said, "That's my job--to take care of you, and make sure you're OK. It's the best job in the world."

He smiled at me, the kind of smile that makes my eyes fill up with tears and makes my chest tight with gratitude and love. There is nothing better in the world.

Monday, September 29, 2008


No matter which way you're planning to vote in the next presidential election, this Sarah Palin clip is unsettling. It's disturbing that a person who aspires to the second highest elected office in the country would be so woefully unprepared to answer an obvious question about the top issue on everyone's mind: The $700 billion bailout.

It's understandable that she wouldn't know what the Bush Doctrine is, because it has changed frequently over the years. She was probably going for cute and clever when she answered a question about her foreign policy experience by saying, "I can see Russia from my house!"--although she'd be smart to back down from that now, instead of talking about Russia invading our airspace and Putin rearing his head.

But I can't think of any excuse for her to be unprepared to answer Couric's question about the bailout. Here's a bit of the transcript:

Couric: Why isn't it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle class families struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries?...Instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

Palin: Ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up the economy--Oh, it's got to be about job creation, too. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade--we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today--we've got to look at that as more opportunity--all those things under the umbrella of job creation.

Seriously. I can understand my more conservative friends being leery of Obama's liberal voting record. I understand--and agree with--the desire for less government, and I know that many Obama opponents believe that he will usher in bigger government and more taxes.

But how do you justify wanting to put this woman one door down from the oval office? She wants to be vice president, and maybe even president--but she's incoherent and unprepared on the most urgent issue of the day.

It's not even funny. It is embarrassing to this country, and especially to the Republican Party.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Minority Report: Chicago

Why do people think we need more rules and more laws? Why do people think it's a good idea to make rules or laws governing problems that MIGHT occur at some point in the future?

Some day, when I am the benevolent despot, I will make the inherently ironic law that there are enough laws already, and no more law-making will be tolerated. Don't you think by now we have enough laws to cover everything?

At church, TPTB (come on, you know this one: The Powers That Be) were discussing whether or not to make a rule proscribing coffee in the sanctuary. Why? Because at some point in the future, we might get carpet, and then someone might spill coffee on it. Give me a break.

In the same Minority Report spirit, our city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications will enact a "voluntary moratorium" on alcohol sales in Wrigleyville after the seventh inning of a clinch game "to prevent Cubs playoff celebrations from turning ugly," the Sun-Times reported Monday. In other words, they're afraid something bad might happen.

Don't we already have enough rules, regulations, ordinances, and laws to cover this situation? It's already against the law to over-serve alcohol to already-impaired customers. Drunk and disorderly conduct and driving under the influence are arrestable offenses.

Why can't we just enforce the laws that are already in place--and let those of us who are mature enough to drink responsibly still have a beer? I hate being told what to do; and if I were a bar owner, I'd hate being told how to run my business by a bunch of bored civil servants.

I heard someone suggest that this extraneous rule-making is likely related to Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics. The less negative publicity we have, the better our chances to pluck that primo opportunity; and theoretically, the one-hour alcohol moratorium will reduce the chance that Wrigleyville will erupt into a mad, dangerous, frenzy of out-of-control celebration-related destruction.

But I think it makes more sense to take a less totalitarian approach: Increase police presence. Ask bar owners to increase their vigilance about over-serving--but don't prevent them from making a living serving the 99 percent of people who won't overdo it.

What do you think?

Oh, and go Cubs!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Teaching Kids About Money

Mr. Peevie and I have not been the most consistent, creative, or effective at teaching our kids about money, so when the topic came up on my Door County Girlfriends weekend, my pointy little ears perked right up.

My friend Bob the Builder has this strategy for teaching her three kids the value of money and how to be responsible for their own money: She gives each of them a monthly allowance, in staggered amounts to reflect their varying needs and ages. Even the eight-year-old gets a chunk of money, which he carries around in his very own billfold.

All of the children are responsible to keep their money in a safe place; to bring it with them when they want to spend it; to save some for long-term/college; to save for larger purchases; and to put some in the offering at church. So when 8-year-old Carnegie wants to buy a $50 electronic game, he's got to save up until he has enough money to pay for it. If 12-year-old Linebacker wants go out for pizza with his buddies, he brings his own cash. And if 15-year-old Nutmeg wants a pair of Uggs, well, she buys them herself.

The kids are responsible for chores around the house, of course, including keeping their rooms clean and other tasks. One school of thought opposes tying allowance to chores: kids should help around the house because they are household members, and not because they get money for it. What if they don't need the extra cash one week, or what if they're not money-motivated? Do they not have to do their chores? (Here's a helpful little article that covers both sides.)

Whether we tie allowance to chores or not, it seems to me that parents do need to ensure that their kids have the opportunity to learn to handle money, and they also need to teach their kids to help around the house. Mr. Peevie and I are doing slightly better at this task than at the money-management teaching.

It all sounds so simple and logical, but I have been missing the boat on financial-management teaching since C. Peevie was old enough to smile and say "Money!" for the camera. We promise them allowance, and then don't give it to them. We borrow money from them to pay the pizza guy. (They always seem to have way more cash on hand than I ever do!) We hand them change at church to put in the offering--instead of teaching them to put their own contribution in the plate.

With C. Peevie, we've been keeping a spreadsheet. Every month we write his allowance in the income column. If we give him cash, or he makes a purchase, we post it on the debit side. But this system doesn't really put him in charge of his own money; it puts the onus on us to keep the accounting up to date.

With A. Peevie and M. Peevie, we never have the dollars to hand over. Then, when they want to buy something, we either say no or we hand them the cash--and neither of these choices actually teaches them to handle, save, or be responsible for their own money.

So now Mr. Peevie and I are turning over a new leaf. We are going to teach our kids how to handle and be responsible for their own money--and maybe we'll learn something in the process.

Also, I'm counting on them to support me in my old age.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Door County Reprise: Ahhh, girlfriends

This time I got to go to Door County with just girlfriends, and no children whatsoever. It was, in many ways, similar to Door County: It's All About the Kids: there were fights, spills, much staying up late, and lots of eating. On the other hand, did I mention that there were no children? Here's what it looked like:

Friday, 3 p.m. Cocktails.

Friday 5 p.m. We walk to town to return a bottle of expensive wine that turned out to be nasty upon opening. Bob walks like a cyborg. She's unstoppable, and I jog to keep up.

Bucky stays home and checks email and surfs the internet.

Friday 6:30 pm. Yours truly breaks wine glass and spills red wine on irreplaceable antique cushion. Bucky lets out sigh of relief that it wasn't her. Everyone else just goes "tsk, tsk" and pours salt on the stains. (Note: The stains came out. Apparently, pouring salt on the stains, letting it sit overnight, rubbing them with a bit of Oxy-Clean, and soaking the fabric in more Oxy-Clean is the right method for red wine stain removal. Phew.)

Friday 7 p.m. Dinner at the Log Den, with the trying-too-hard-to-be-funny-waiter-Gerald. Bob sends her steak back because it's overdone; Gerald tells us that the chef threw it against the wall in frustration. Another steak arrives, mooing. Bob eats it anyway. Except the parts that are still wriggling.

Friday 9 p.m. - 11 p.m. Try to find something fun on cable. Settle for lame news shows instead. Bob makes ridiculous remarks about Democrats. I make ridiculous remarks about Republicans. Everyone kisses and makes up.

Bucky checks email and surfs the internet.

We talk about
The Shack, which J-Cool is currently reading, Bob loves, and I can't figure out why it's on the NYT bestseller list. (See my updated review here.)

Friday 11 p.m. - Saturday 2:30 a.m. Puzzle-building. Photo on box too small for Queen to see, but she's a puzzle-building machine anyway. Bucky checks email and surfs the internet. Spike goes to bed early and yells at Bucky in her sleep. This really happened. What does it mean?

Saturday a.m. Bucky and I sleep in until 10 or 11. Meanwhile, everyone else gets up and serves breakfast at
Door County homeless shelter, runs a marathon, and writes six chapters on first novel.

Saturday noon: Bob and The Vespinator walk to Bob's favorite hang-out, the grocery store. Queen, Spike, J-Cool, Bucky and I go antiquing (sp?). We stop at every sagging red barn and every carved bear to take pictures, which drives Queen crazy and makes Vespinator wonder what it is that everyone loves about carved bears.

Saturday, 3ish: Everyone except Bob drives to Fish Head, or Egg Crick, or whatever the quaint, touristy Door County town is called, to shop for
Scrabble; later we find out there is a whole closet filled with games, including, of course, Scrabble.

Instead of Scrabble, we find
Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit (Genus) at a resale shop, which looks more like a fire sale crammed into a linen closet. We also buy two puzzles for Lindenhurst, or whatever Doc's house is called. They name their houses up there. I think I'm going to name my house. How does "Crazyland Meadows" sound?

I figure out that I like the idea of shopping for antiques, but I don't really like antiques, because it mostly looks like a bunch of crappy old stuff. So who's the one who spends money at the antique stores? Me. I buy red marbles for my marbles-and-dice-filled candy jar and two really old books that will look cool on my shelves in The Green Room.

Saturday, 5 or 6 ish: Cocktails. Doc's adorable mom Nano comes over for a glass or five of wine. We're all kind of subdued around her, until we figure out that she's the bomb. Then we all let our hair down and cut loose. Nano tells us, halfway joking, that we're kind of mean to one another, because we tease and crack jokes non-stop. Later, Bucky takes this to heart and points out that maybe we (read: E. Peevie) need to be nicer to one another.

Bucky checks email and surf the internet.

Bob cooks a fine piece of meat and some fine roasted potatoes, and we all go into a food coma for awhile. Oh, and we drink about 12 bottles of wine.

Saturday, later that evening: We don't play Scrabble after all. We build the lighthouse puzzle and Bob educates the rest of us on how to teach our kids to handle their own money. (Details in a future post.) J-Cool and I decide to change our parenting accordingly, and the rest of the girls decide to have children just so they can try out Bob's techniques. Except for the part where the teenager gets more disposable income in monthly allowance than most of us see in a year.

Bucky checks email and surfs the internet.

Sunday a.m. Bucky and I sleep in until 10ish. Everyone else gets up at the crack of dawn and justifies their existence. Vespinator makes breakfast with leftover potatoes from the night before, plus some other stuff. She's like the MacGiver of breakfast.

We all do some cleaning up, put our dollars in the pot for the cleaning lady, and give each other good-bye chest bumps.

Sunday 11:15ish Everyone leaves. On the way home, I wonder if if the exit I'm headed toward is going north, and should I take it, and J-Cool says "Yes," so I take it, and Vespinator says, "By which we mean 'NO!'

But it's too late, I already took it, and we end up getting gas and visiting the most frightening and disgusting indoor toilet north of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi. We all hope that the germs were mostly not airborne, because otherwise? We're doomed.

J-Cool notices that the Wisconsin gas station has attracted the most multi-cultural crowd she's been around since her around-the-world honeymoon: Mexicans, Peruvians, Koreans, African-Americans, Pakistanis, a couple of Russian mobsters, and the four of us--all of European descent. The rest of us wonder how she is able to discern the origins of the Peruvians, and she explains--but we remain ignorant and flummoxed.

The trip is done now, and we're all back to real life. But ahhh, girlfriends. It's so great to hang out with them. I am one lucky Peevie.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cash for Good Grades

Some high school students in Chicago will be earning cash rewards for good grades this fall. The program, called Green for Grades, is targeted to 5000 freshmen at 20 CPS high schools with very high poverty rates. It's funded by private donations, not tax dollars.
Students will be measured every five weeks in math, English, social sciences, science and physical education. An A nets $50, a B equals $35 and a C still brings in $20. Students will get half the money upfront, with the remainder paid upon graduation. A straight-A student could earn up to $4,000 by the end of his or her sophomore year. ("Earn An A? Here's $50." Chicago Tribune, September 11, 2008)
The kids will get half of the money up front, and the rest upon graduation from high school--providing further incentive to stay in school and get that diploma.

I know what you're thinking, but HOLD YOUR HORSES, THERE, KEMOSABE. Try to stop your eyes from rolling into the back of your head, and keep reading.

Many Chicagoans are irate about this program as though the schools are giving away their own hard-earned money instead of (probably) Oprah's. They're irked because the students don't want to learn just for the sake of learning, and their righteous undies are all in a bunch because the teachers and parents are not doing their job and motivating the kids to stay in school.

The comments at the bottom of this Chicago Tribune article were running four to one opposed to the cash incentives.

One poster commented, "With the poverty level in Chicago, I bet a lot of parents are going to be buying food, gas and paying rent with this money, or putting undue pressure on their kids to get the money. Not good." This type of thinking is self-righteous and elitist. She is concerned that parents are going to put pressure on their kids to get good grades. And that is bad why? And she's also concerned that poor parents are going to use the money to buy food or pay rent. And again, why exactly is that bad?

She doesn't even take the normal knee-jerk anti-social-service reaction and suggest that the parents will be using the money to buy drugs or alcohol. No, she's critical of people living at poverty level using money to buy food or pay rent.

I confess that when I originally heard this idea discussed on the radio about a year ago, I had the same WTF reaction that many of you just had: You are freaking kidding me. We're going to pay kids to stay in school and get good grades? It's crazy! It's insane! It's a sign of the apocalypse!

But now that I've taken some time to actually think about it, I've changed my mind. I invite you to do the same.

My perspective, having worked with social service agencies in Chicago, is that there are a whole lot of parents out there who are working hard but are just barely able to pay rent and put food on the table. They live paycheck-to-paycheck, and if their car breaks down, or their kid gets sick and they need to spend $100 on prescriptions, they're screwed. So my feeling is, if their kids can contribute a few bucks to the household by staying in school, and studying hard enough to earn good grades, good for them.

Many--not all--of the kids who will receive incentives already have the odds stacked against them. Did they get a healthy breakfast in the morning? Did they get enough sleep the night before? Do they have a parent at home in the afternoon to make sure that they eat a healthy snack and do their homework? Do they even have a healthy snack waiting for them?

Are they responsible for younger siblings when they should be focusing on their math problems? Are they surrounded by children and families who value education, or do they live in a neighborhood where half of the adults don't even have a high school diploma themselves? Are they afraid when they're walking home from school?

And it's true that some of the kids have parents that are not equipped even to parent them, let alone to provide a home learning environment, or to make sure they get breakfast in the morning. Yes, it's likely that some of the school problems are the direct result of inadequate parenting. But it doesn't matter whose fault it is. What matters is, they are having a hard time, and what we're doing to fix the system is not working.

Maybe it's time to try something new and radical, something that, on the surface, defies common sense: cash for good grades.

If you look at the 2007 School Profiles and State Report Cards for each of the 20 schools, you will find
  • The percentage of low-income families ranges from 82.6% to 98.8% (median 93.65 percent)
  • With the exception of Uplift, which has relatively high-performing readers, 13.8 - 55 percent of students are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) in reading (median 22 percent)
  • 2.3 - 36.3 percent of students are making AYP in math (median 12.3 percent)
  • Average days absent per student ranges from 14.9 to a shocking 42.5 (median 26.4 days)
  • Dropout rates range from .8 to 16.4 percent (median 10.5 percent)
These are kids who, for whatever reason, need drastic intervention to turn their "educational expectancy" around! With the truancy rates so high, it's remarkable that the drop-out rates aren't two or three times higher.

The Trib reporter quoted an egghead from Swarthmore College whose argument against the cash incentives amounted to "but they won't learn to love learning." Seriously. We are talking about kids in schools where you get an attendance award if you've only missed 15 days of school!

He added, "They'll do well in school, maybe, but they won't take any of it out with them. Instead of trying to cultivate an interest in learning, curiosity...you are just turning this into another job." Honestly, if this is the best argument against cash incentives for good grades, then the debate is over before it has even begun. I have used the job analogy with my own kids, and I don't think it's a bad one. School IS their job right now, and this is a good attitude to cultivate.

If you are concerned that this privately-funded pilot program will eventually become a taxpayer liability, I'd like to point out that taxpayers are going to be putting money into these students at some point, either way. The incentive program has the potential to reduce the number of social service and criminal justice dollars needed in the future to deal with kids who became adults with no HS diploma, no job skills, and limited employment opportunities.

Is it ideal to pay kids cash money to get them to do what they should be doing anyway? No. But Chicago is facing an educational crisis, not an ideal North Shore situation, where mom and dad both have advanced degrees and there's not a guy selling crack on the corner. I'm just saying.

I'm not a big fan of Arne Duncan, you might remember; but in this case, I'm in his corner.

Are you?

Monday, September 15, 2008

100 Foods Every Omnivore Should Try

Andrew over on the blog Very Good Taste has posted a list of 100 (somewhat arbitrary) foods every omnivore should try. Being a person who has only rarely met a food she doesn't like (primarily uber-spicy ones), I thought it might be a fun exercise.

Join me: if you have a blog, post the list and indicate your tried, untried, and would-never-trys. Leave me a comment with a link to your post.
If you don't have a blog, you can still play. Leave your list in the comments--or a partial list if you want: Just the foods you've tried; or the ones you'd never, ever-in-a-million-years allow to pass your lips.

On my list below, regular type means I haven't tried it (yet) and bold type means I have, and strike-through means I won't ever try it. I've only tried 40 items on the list--I guess I'm not as culinarily cosmopolitan as I'd like to think.

Here's my list:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Only four items are strike-throughs: raw Scotch Bonnet pepper, phaal (which is Indian curry made with the hottest peppers like Scotch Bonnets), roadkill (why is this even on the list? Ew.) and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I hate coffee: I hate the taste and the after-taste. I even hate the smell, and I definitely hate coffee-breath. I cannot stand coffee-flavored ice-cream or jelly-beans, or even tiramisu.

There is one teensy exception to the I-hate-coffee rule. I do like Kahlua, and Kahlua-flavored drinks. Weird!

To Andrew's list I'd add my own Philadelphia-inspired Must-Taste Foods:

101. Birch beer
102. TastyKake Butterscotch Krimpets

103. Philadelphia street-dirt soft pretzel
104. Bookbinder's turtle soup
105. Authentic Philadelphia-style cheesesteak (not the kind that you can get at Subway)

One point I'd like to make to my readers who are not terribly adventurous in your willingness to taste new foods: Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten argues that we are born with no genetically programmed food aversions; rather, we learn them. "By shutting ourselves off from the bounties of nature," he says, "we become failed omnivores. We let the omnivore team down."

Steingarten goes further, arguing that it is possible to eliminate all of our food phobias through frequent exposure. So theoretically, we could even learn to enjoy roadkill if we ate it often enough. (This is why roadkill does not belong on the 100 Foods list. You might as well include tree branches downed in a high wind. Roadkill is not a food; it is an accident, or a life lesson.)

I don't know if JS is correct or not; I don't even know if it is advisable to train our tastes to accept all foods. But it does seem senseless to avoid foods because of random taste experiences or arbitrary cultural boundaries. So take a chance on Food! Try something new today.

And let me know how it goes. I'll be over here eating my peanut-butter-and-bacon-on-toast.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

I have finally joined the club that meets at The Shack. Apparently, this iconoclastic bestseller has been rocking the Christian reading world since its publication last year. Christianity Today called it "fiction for the faith-starved." It is a self-published phenomenon.

The Story

Mack receives a mysterious invitation, ostensibly from God himself, to revisit the shack where the deepest tragedy of his life occurred. The story flashbacks to the time of the tragedy. Mack's young daughter is abducted from a campground. They never find her, but eventually they find evidence that she was violently murdered by a serial killer.

Mack goes to the shack, where he delves into intense theological psychotherapy with Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Papa is a jolly Black mother-figure, baking pies and whipping up four-course meals out there in the boondocks, hundreds of miles from the nearest Trader Joe's.
Jesus is, of course, a rugged but gentle Middle Eastern handyman; and Sarayu is a mystical, pan-dimensional being who fades in and out of sight. They eat (a lot), fish, walk, and always talk.

The four cover a lot of theological ground. Theodicy is the main theme: reconciling the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent, benevolent God. But there's also Trinitarianism, the incarnation, Hell, predestination, original sin, forgiveness, and more.

The Review

I did not love this book as the millions who have put it on the NY Times bestseller list obviously do. I didn't exactly hate it, either. My buddy Stroke put it this way: "The prose is as bad as the writing in The Da Vinci Code, which was pretty bad. However," he continued, "the book deals with ideas that Christians should think about and grapple with."

(Some Amazon reviewers indicated that the book does not promote one faith over another, but unless there are other faiths with Jesus the God/Man and a Trinity, then it surely does point toward Christianity.)

I agree with Stroke. The prose is dry, awkward, and occasionally ungrammatical; it is often cliche; and it has too much telling, too many details, and too many characters. The Shack needed a firm editing hand.

For example, there's this paragraph early in the story, shortly after the main character, Mack, cracks his head open on his icy driveway:
He would have to wait until Nan made it home before he would get any real medical attention; one of the many benefits of being married to a registered nurse. Anyway, he knew that the worse it looked the more sympathy he would get. There is often some compensation in every trial, if one looked hard enough. He swallowed a couple over-the-counter painkillers to dull the throbbing and limped toward the front entry.
Problem one: the second clause in the first sentence is a fragment. It's awkward; it begs for a verb.

Problem two: sentence three is not just awkward and passive, but it introduces the impersonal, third-person pronoun "one" which just rubs me the wrong way. It sounds like the author is injecting himself right into the middle of the story. Otherwise, maybe it's Mack who's thinking that there is compensation in every trial--but then why isn't this thought punctuated like a direct quote?

But the biggest problem is that the whole first third of the book is written in this talky narrative style, in which Young moves the story forward insistently, like he's in a hurry to get somewhere with it. Instead of developing characters and setting up the plot, he
attempts to cram an entire novel's worth of drama, action, suspense, and horror into the first third of the novel in order to get us to the four-way conversation between Mack and the members of the Trinity. And that's a problem.

It's clear that Young's hope and intent with his book was not primarily to tell a story that compels the reader to think and feel, but to give the reader a theological lesson. Don't get me wrong--I love theology, and I think it can be pretty exciting. But I feel gypped by a book that pretends to be a story, when in reality, it is primarily a Message About God.

Young must have been influenced by the philosopher
Peter Kreeft, who did exactly what Young attempted, only with great success. Kreeft's Between Heaven and Hell imagines a Socratic dialogue between Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, humanist John F. Kennedy, and pantheist Aldous Huxley after they all died within a few hours of each other in 1963.

"Where the hell are we?" says JFK in the first line of Kreeft's pithy novelette; and the three embark on an entertaining philosophical debate about the meaning of life, life after death, and the claims of Jesus.

Young, on the other hand, introduces two entire families of characters on page 34 that completely disappear 30 pages later; takes his main character to an isolated cabin where he confronts God and his worst horror with too much sarcasm even for me; and crafts a cliche Jesus, complete with a big nose but a warmth so that "Mack knew instantly that he liked him." Of course he did.

I can't completely hate a book, however, in which the protagonist admires Bruce Cockburn amid the garbage dump of intellectually-stunted-in-the-name-of-Jesus Christian music that's out there. But it's not enough to allow me to recommend it.

The Theology

Concerned Christian reviewers have labeled this book as dangerous because of its faulty theology. It's sacrilege, many reviewers have said or implied, to paint God the Father as a woman. I'm sure many also feel a knee-jerk antipathy to the idea that the church might have the whole paternalistic hierarchy thing wrong.

Honestly, I don't care very much about these issues. The Shack is not systematic theology. It is a work of fiction, and not even very good fiction at that. Banning or vilifying a work of fiction because its characters might be somewhat off the beaten track of Reformed Theology is pointless.

In my mind, the most serious theological deficiency is also a serious plot deficiency: The story takes a far too simplistic view of forgiveness. Mack has an other-worldly reconciliation with his father, who, as far as we knew, had died a miserable, hateful, toxic, and unrepentant man. Does Young want us to believe that repentance is optional? That everyone will end up healed, forgiven, and redeemed? And what exactly was it that caused Mack to instantly forgive and embrace his father? I didn't buy it on either the story level or the theological level.

The Bottom Line

If you are struggling with or interested in the theological issues that Mack delves into, there are many other books that offer better theology without the trappings of second-rate fiction, or better fiction without the distraction of questionable theology.

Update: I forgot to mention this important point: The whole book revolves around Mack's suffering about his daughter's horrifying abduction and murder. When Mack talks to Jesus about this, to try to get some understanding and peace, the answers are as lame and uncomforting as anything I've ever read. Basically, Jesus tells Mack that Missy was never alone, because Sarayu--the Holy Spirit--was with her; that they talked, and she was comforted; and that "she was more worried about you and the other kids, knowing that you couldn't find her. She prayed for you, for your peace." Jesus tells Mack, "She was so brave!"

I have to call bullshit. If I were the parent of a murdered child, this would not comfort me; it would piss me off. I suppose it is theoretically possible that it could happen in real life--that a six-year-old child would feel the presence of God enough so much that she would pray for her family in the middle of her own traumatic ordeal. But it's also possible, and even more likely, that she experienced no such comfort or security before her violent death

The bottom line is that there are just no words that can bring comfort to a parent in those circumstances, or in any circumstance in which a child experiences fear or pain. It is not only feckless to try to take away a person's sorrow, it is manipulative and insulting.

So there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I Got Your Enrichment Right Here

Prepare to be shocked and appalled. Ready?

Remember Mrs. Sheets? We were discussing M. Peevie's educational plan with the principal and the second grade teacher. During the discussion, Mrs. Sheets actually said, "M. Peevie is not unique." Oh, M. Peevie is bright, she agreed--but there are several other very bright kids in her class.

What kind of a teacher says something like that to a mother? Oh, hey, I know! One that is completely without the common sense she was born with. She might as well hand me a note that says, "Would you mind very much kicking my ass? I am dying to have you knock me to the ground and stomp on my trachea."

Mrs. Sheets--wait; you know what? I'm going to give her an honorary Ph.D. She's now Dr. Sheets.

So Dr. Sheets also said, "We don't want M. Peevie going around thinking that Mrs. MiPi doesn't have anything to offer her, or that she's too good for second grade, so please stop giving her these messages." Oh yes, she did. Because she has personally heard me telling M. Peevie to disrespect her second grade teacher.

I'm not even done yet. This one will make you shudder at the sheer audacity of it. At one point, Dr. Sheets said, with mind-boggling arrogance, "It's fine for us to talk here in this room about how to keep M. Peevie challenged, but these are not things that you should be talking to her about."

Yes, indeedy. She was telling me what I could and could not talk to my daughter about. And you all know how I feel about That Uncrossable Boundary.

I did not respond well in the pressure of the moment. I did not call Dr. Sheets on even one of the unbelievably insensitive things she said. I nodded my head, and once or twice I said something defensive.

I wish I could go back and script a witty, articulate, and pointed--yet Christianly appropriate--response that would have her realizing her clumsy insensitivity and humbly asking my forgiveness. (What I should wish for is the desire to forgive her, the desire to show her mercy. Give me a day or two.)

But what I will do is ask Mrs. MiPi to limit M. Peevie's interaction with Dr. Sheets, because I do not trust her. We will do just fine without enrichment, thank you very much.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Politician and the Pulpit

My friend Q just forwarded to me the video of Sarah Palin speaking at a church-related graduation ceremony at her church. I watched the whole thing.

First I want to say something in Palin's defense, because I do occasionally like to appear fair-minded. Some have misconstrued Governor Palin's words when she asked the congregation to pray for the military and for the situation in Iraq. She said this:
Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan. Bless them with your prayers, your prayers of protection over our soldiers.
It's all over the Internet that Palin said that the Iraq war is a mission from God--but that's not what she said. She was urging the congregation to pray that they are being sent "on a task that is from God"--in other words, that the choice to wage war in Iraq is one that pleases God.

This commission sounds good on the surface, at least to the evangelical mind. We are supposed to pray and be concerned that our choices please God, and that they fall in line with God's plan. But if you look a little closer, it's actually quite confusing and illogical. I'm convinced that Palin is NOT saying that the war IS a task from God. Perhaps Palin is suggesting that she hopes God will get on board with our plan to wage war, and make it his plan.

No wait; that can't be right. It's not humble enough.

What about this interpretation: Maybe Palin is saying we've made this choice to go to war, and we continue to make it every day, and our prayer should be that this choice falls in line with what God wants.

But what if it doesn't? Isn't the flip side of that prayer that if the war is NOT in line with what God wants, that we should ask God to do his God-thing and influence our leaders to get us OUT of Iraq? What if God is up there grieving and pissed off because we continue to choose to wage a war that is not just?

But this logical correlate to Palin's prayer does not show up in her spiritual exhortation, nor in her speeches. She appears to be convinced that the war is indeed a task from God, in line with his purposes. And if that is the case, then isn't it disingenuous to pray that the war fall in line with God's holy plan? Because essentially she's saying, "And tough luck if it doesn't." And that is not very Jesusy.

But my biggest problem with the video is that her church has given her a political platform to promote her own political career and agenda--and that is NOT what the church is supposed to be doing. Palin said,
What I need to do is strike a deal with you guys, as you go out throughout Alaska. I can do my part in doing things like working really really hard to get a natural gas pipeline, about a $30 billion dollar project that going to create a lot of jobs for Alaskans, and we're going to have a lot of energy flowing through here. And pray about that also. I think God's will has to be done, in unifying people and companies to get that gasline built; so pray for that.

But I can do my job there in developing our natural resources, and doing things like getting the roads paved and making sure our trooper have their cop cars and their uniforms and their guns, and making sure our public schools are funded, but really all that stuff doesn't do any good if the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with God. And that's going to be your job. As I'm doing my job let's strike this deal: Your job is gonna be to be out there, reaching the people, hurting people throughout Alaska. And we can work together to make sure God's will be done here.
Don't even try to tell me that that is not a political stump speech. She is speaking their language, the language of God-minded evangelicals. She even spiritualizes things that are way outside the purview of our ability to know God's will--like the natural gas pipeline, for example.

The church is not the place for politics; it is not the place for a leader to endorse one political party, candidate, or position. I'm not saying that there should be a dichotomy between our faith and the rest of our lives. I do believe that every aspect of our lives should be informed and influenced by our faith; but what that looks like, outside of the realm of specific Biblical mandates, is up to the individual believer.

The church should not provide a stump for a politician to use to bolster her own cause and her own agenda. That particular church has a history of promoting partisan politics, and in this case, Governor Palin made the politically advantageous but ethically ambiguous choice to use the church to advance her politics.

The whole video made me uncomfortable, not because I don't agree with Palin's politics, but because of the inappropriate marriage of the politician and the pulpit. How much more admirable would it have been if she had left her politics outside, and used the opportunity to congratulate the graduates and remind them to love God first, and let the politics fall as they may.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

It's All About the Kids, Part II

Sometime during our stay in Door County, we lost the Sangria Poltergeist--although we still have the fumes and fruit flies. Maybe my mechanic is not so crazy after all. I'm kind of going to miss the Korean alt hip-hop, though.

On Saturday we took the herd to a campground to swim and to somehow lose six golf balls in the water hazard on the miniature golf course. (The only reason the golf balls matter is that it was my driver's license that was being held hostage until the golf balls were found and returned.)

We set up camp in a picnic table clearing, and while the kids splashed and dunked and slid down pool slides, Mr. D'Onofrio cooked up a storm. Actually, it was more like an entire tornado system.

Earlier that day Mr. D had created a huge batch of homemade potato salad, complete with hard-boiled eggs. We were originally planning on having deviled eggs, but we waited too long to peel the dang things, and the peeled eggs were so pock-marked they looked like ovoid golf balls.

I do not know what Mr. D included in his mayonnaise mixture, but it was so delicious that if they had trading cards for picnic side dishes, the Mr. D Unbelievably Delicious Potato Salad card would be as coveted as the 1909 Honus Wagner.

He laid out a feast of burgers, hot dogs, sausages, and a huge pan of BBQ ribs. Then, after everyone had piled their paper plates to the tipping point, he said, "I guess I'll throw the steaks on now." Oh yes, he did. We all just looked at him like, "Dude, you're insane." Then we looked at each other and shrugged. "OK," we said; and we proceeded to eat ourselves into the greatest meat coma of all time.

After we all regained consciousness, we drove north for the Big Sister Bay Fireworks Extravaganza. We spread our blankets and folding chairs on the lawn overlooking the bay, and waited for dusk to turn into dark. Someone near us had what sounded like a transistor radio tuned to a station playing patriotic numbers.

As the fireworks began, I suddenly missed Mr. Peevie, so I borrowed a cell phone. It was hard to hear, what with the bombs bursting in air and the rockets' red glare and all. We passed the phone around for a few peeps to say hi; and when C. Peevie started talking, I almost cried. "I really, really miss you, Dad," he said. "I wish you were here." He might be almost as tall as me, way smarter, and with twice as much B.O.--but inside, he's still just a little boy who needs his daddy. Aw.

When I saw that A. Peevie had snuggled into the lap of C. Peevie's friend X-Man to watch the light show, I got all misty again. (Anytime somebody is kind and gentle with one of my kids, it just makes me all verklempt. I can't help myself. Sometimes I am just a big crybaby.)

Eventually we made it home to the shack. The adults were exhausted, but the teenagers found a second wind and decided to hang out by the bonfire until the wee hours of the morning. Several had brought guitars, both acoustic and electric. They played music and talked and made s'mores--it was like a scene out of a teenage-angst-but-with-a-happy-ending movie.

Most of these eighth graders have been together since kindergarten. A couple have even left our school for other education options--but they still choose to be a part of this unique and diverse collection of kids from all across the city: black, Asian, white, faithful, faith-free, long-hairs, crew cuts. They are actors, musicians, artists, athletes.

Mrs. D'Onofrio might be a tiny bit insane for putting together this "It's all about the kids" Door County farm weekend--but sometimes insanity is a good thing. What a great finale to what feels like not just the end of the summer, but the end of an era. Next summer, these kids will be getting ready to head off to high schools across the city. Some will keep in touch; some won't.

But I bet when they're 20, or 30, or--heaven help us--40, memories from this farm weekend will still crop up from their subconscious. They'll smile, and one or two of them may even press a button on whatever cell phones have evolved into, and reach out to one of their eighth-grade buddies, and say, "Hey, remember when we went up to Door County that one week with that crazy Mrs. D'Onofrio? Fun times. Wanna get together for lunch sometime?"

Thanks for that, Mr. and Mrs. D.

(The fireworks photo comes from PD Photo.org. The other photos courtesy of J.Ro.)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Believe In Something Much, Much Better Than This Crappy Ad

Does anyone else find the U.S. Cellular billboards to be creepy?

I'm referring to the ubiquitous (in Chicago, at least) billboards featuring a little girl peeping out of a carboard box, with the slogan, "Believe in something better."I do have a degree in advertising, but that's a lifetime of not being in the advertising industry ago, and I'm not writing this from the perspective of an advertising expert. I'm writing this from the perspective of a prospective customer who, instead of being attracted by the ads, is creeped out, confused, and irritated.

I can't really put my finger on why this image disturbs me. The little girl has messy hair, and she's hiding in a box. She might be there because she's having fun...but the expression on her face is more like, "I wonder if the scary man saw me crawl in here?"

And what's with the shanty-town box? Is she believing that someday she won't have to live in a box under the overpass with her drug-addict mom? I'm just sayin'.

I'm also confused by the emphasis on the word something. Why is that word emphasized, as opposed to the more logical choice, better? Even believe would make more sense. But when the design emphasizes the word "something," it sounds like a desperate plea for something, anything, to be better in this miserable world of pain. "Believe in something better," even if it's only a bigger cardboard box, or a better location under the el tracks, where the wind doesn't bite so much in the winter, and there's a little protection from the elements.

It just sounds kind of desperate, you know?

This ad irritates me, probably mostly because I'm peri-menopausal, and pretty much everything irritates me. But also because it doesn't say anything, and it does not even make any sense; and I do not want advertisers cluttering up my skyline with useless, meaningless slogans. "Believe in something better" begs the question: what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks am I supposed to believe in?

It sounds almost spiritual--but for crying out loud. We're talking about wireless service, people. Let's lose the pretentious, and get real, 'kay?

Maybe it's just me, but these ads suck.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What's Missing From the GOP

A few comments on the GOP convention:

1. This interesting perspective from Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post echoes one of my original concerns about McCain's campaign: there is no talk about the economy, or creating jobs, or balancing the budget, or what to do about the 37.3 million Americans that are living in poverty. (That's 12.5 percent of Americans overall, and 18 percent of our children.)

2. Meyerson also observes that "this year's GOP convention is almost shockingly--un-Americanly--white." He doesn't cite his source for this opinion--is it based on what he sees at the convention on TV? Or is there something more substantial backing it up? I don't know, and he doesn't say.

But even if his point is merely based upon his own observation of a sea of white faces on the convention floor, dotted with an occasional brown one--why would the GOP convention look that way? It's true that white Americans comprise about 2/3 of the population--but the Census Bureau projects that that is changing quickly. By 2042, minorities are expected to become the majority of the population. (Will non-whites still be referred to as minorities at that point?)

Is the Republican Party ignoring minorities? Are they unable to craft a platform that appeals to people who are not white? If I were a Republican in this presidential election season, I would be embarrassed about it. I'd be embarrassed because diversity is not just a liberal agenda item--it's a cultural reality. Not reflecting reality is a form of denial, and denial is not a sustainable position.

3. I would be remiss if I did not mention McCain's choice for veep, Sarah Palin. When I first heard the news, I thought it was a brilliant move. Choosing a woman gives him, at least superficially, a broader appeal. Palin rounds out the ticket just by virtue of the fact that she's a woman, and I think it's likely that that will be enough for some voters.
Add to that the fact that she's more conservative than McCain, and is vocal opponent of abortion, and she definitely bumps him up in the polls.

This recent article in the Financial Times posits that the choice of Palin was shrewd because McCain's team had calculated that they were "on track to lose the election." They are taking a chance on Sarah Palin because she is the social conservative they need to shepherd the John Birchers back into the fold.

But, as Mr. Peevie noted, it does not appear that she will add much depth to policy discussions, as Joe Biden will. In spite of what Mr. Crook says in the FT article, I think the Dems will now be triple-dog-daring McCain to bring up the experience issue again during the campaign. Not to mention the foreign policy issue, national defense, and the war in Iraq.

Check out the poll to the right, and please take a moment to vote.

Real Life Has Got to Go

It's my favorite season of the year: The new TV season.

Many of my friends, acquaintances, and family members are all, "Oh, I never watch TV!" or "The only thing I watch on TV is CNN" or "There's never anything good on TV!"

Whatever. They can have their books, their relationships, their LIVES. I'll take my TV.

I am coming out of the closet as a full-blown TV-sexual. I love TV--and I'm talking regular TV! I don't even have cable! Not that I wouldn't give my left arm, a couple of toes, and one of my kidneys to get it. (Hello, Mr. Peevie?)

So here's what's on the line-up for me this season:

First, we had the two-hour season opener of Prison Break on Monday night, which totally threw me because of the holiday. I missed the first 45 minutes, and when I finally tuned in, whoah! There's Sarah! No longer headless and no longer dead! Crazy writers.

In case you missed the epi, you can read the recaplet at the always-hilarious Television Without Pity, which is my favorite source of TV mockery.

You will enjoy Prison Break if you like TV shows with explosions, shooting, double-crosses, complicated plotlines, tattoos, car chases, prosthetic hands, and moral dilemmas. Oh, and eye-candy. The boys are very, very yummy.

Tonight we'll have the season premiere of Bones. Mr. Peevie and I both have crushes on this show. Mine is, of course, David Boreanaz, who I fell in love with when he played Angel, the caveman-browed vampire-with-a-soul. Mr. Peevie's TV crush is the beautiful and talented Angela, played by Michaela Conlin.

You will enjoy Bones if you like crime procedurals, characters that are so smart that they seem like weirdos in social situations, beautiful people, sexual tension, mysteries, and forensic anthropology. It's kind of like CSI without the showgirls.

Uh, oh. I'll have to fire up the DVR to make sure I can catch the latest episodes of another favorite crime procedural, Criminal Minds, which will also be airing on Wednesdays, starting September 24. This one I initially loved because of Mandy Patinkin, who has since left the show because it showed too much violence. Even though I love the show, I gotta respect that about him.

But I have come to enjoy the other characters on the show as well, including the adorable, brilliant geek played by a former Calvin Klein underwear model; the colorful computer wizard, Penelope; and of course my home-boy, Joe Mantegna.

(Bonus mini-movie review: I have loved Joe M. ever since I saw him in House of Games, a crime and con story that had me surprised and guessing right through to the end.)

And then there's Life, a cop show with a conspiracy angle that totally hooked me in before the writer's strike last fall. The main dude is a detective who says zen-like things, but also has a secret conspiracy wall where he's trying to connect the dots to figure out who framed him for a crime he served 12 years for. I love the conflictedness of it all.

Of course, I will be watching the re-broadcasts of the Law and Order: Criminal Intent episodes on network TV SINCE I DON'T HAVE CABLE. Even though I cheat on him with many other Hollywood boyfriends, my number one pretend boyfriend is still Vincent D'Onofrio.

The one non-crime drama that I hope to watch is Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I've been catching up on the re-runs this summer because I just could not squeeze it in to my regular rotation last spring. It's a futuristic survival-of-the-human-race-hangs-in-the-balance thrill ride with lots of chases, shooting, and, in the quieter moments, snippets of clever dialogue.

I do not know how I am going to keep up with all this TV, plus check out some of the interesting-looking new shows, plus, you know, maintain my real life.

Real life has got to go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

It's All About the Children, Part the First

That's what my insane friend Mrs. D'Onofrio says: "It's all about the children."

The hell you say.

I might be willing to spend my entire Labor Day weekend at a "shack" in Door County with 400 eighth-graders and their assorted siblings and pets--but I refuse to get on board with this "it's all about the children" insanity.

But I'm ahead of myself. Mr. and Mrs. D'Onofrio invited the whole eighth grade class to hang out at their Door County farm property for an end-of-summer-eat-play-chill-fest. From Monday to Labor Day Monday, people came and went. Mostly, they came. Twenty-two children, ten adults, two dogs, three goats, and a pot-bellied pig swarmed over the property, in and out of the two small farmhouses, up the hayloft, and across the soybean fields.

By the time I arrived with the two younger Peevies on Friday evening in my sangria-infused van, I was ready to sit back, put my feet up, and partake of an adult beverage. Seven or eight sweaty teenagers were playing basketball against the side of the barn, dribbling and passing on the packed dirt "court." C. Peevie, the clear leader in the Sweatiest Boy of All Time contest, held up the game to come over and say hi.

I hugged him gingerly, trying to avoid a massive sweat transfer. "C. Peevie!" I said, happily, "I missed you!"

"Hi, mom," he said. "Missed you, too." He had been at the farm since Wednesday afternoon, and I suspected that I was looking at two or more days of accumulated sweat and grime. I saw it as a positive thing: three girls had bravely joined the class outing--but what 13-year-old girl would want to get within a yard of a boy that smelled that bad? Apparently an eighth-grade boy's aversion to showering was the equivalent of an adolescent prophylactic.

Mr. D'Onofrio whipped up a dozen frozen pizzas for the younger set while the grown-ups patiently sipped margaritas. Then he set to work putting a more mature feast out, including steak, Boursin-and-spinach-stuffed chicken breasts, rice pilaf, fresh green beans, and gravy. If this is what Mrs. D. means by "it's all about the children," then I'm totally on board.

Between the six bedrooms and the four tents in the yard, everyone found a place to sleep. Mr. and Mrs. D. selflessly gave up their air-conditioned Chinese bedroom (adorably decorated with Chinese checkerboards and Chinese-themed art and bedspread) to me because I was cranky, seasonally allergic, sweaty, and menopausal. I believe that Mr. D'Onofrio actually slept in his car.

I'm pretty sure they were all a little afraid of me.

During the night, the tent that housed the three younger boys mysteriously collapsed. I believe it had something to do with the teenagers jumping up and down on it. So the pre-teens abandoned their collapsing abode and dragged their sleeping bags upstairs to the stuffy corner bedroom where Mrs. D. had finally collapsed at about 2 a.m.

Then, because "it's all about the children," she cheerfully got up with A. Peevie at 5 a.m. to take him downstairs to the bathroom. (He was too afraid to go down the dark stairs by himself.) Meanwhile, I slept blissfully, the white noise of the AC drowning out the sounds of things going tinkle in the night.

I awoke refreshed and cool as a cucumber, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. D's insane level of hospitality. When I left the Chinese Room, delicious smells of pancakes and sausage wafted toward me. Mr. D. was hard at work preparing breakfast for the tribe, which had grown since I went to sleep the night before.

Tune in tomorrow for It's All About the Children, Part the Second.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sangria Poltergeist

I was driving to my friend Jane Addams' house for happy hour. I had made a delicious pitcher of sangria, and since I did not want to get thrown in the clink for driving with an open container in the car, I put the pitcher in the back of the van. I braced it against the side of the car and the back seat, and I further secured it by wedging a grocery bag of fruit soaked in simple syrup against the bottom of the pitcher.

Somewhere along the way, I heard an ominous thud from the back of the van. "Oh, no," I thought, "The sangria!" But I didn't smell wine, so I kept driving. I am nothing if not optimistic. Otherwise known as "stupid."

About five miles later, I heard a sploosh, like the sound of a water balloon hitting the car window. Instantly I smelled the sweet smell of sweet sangria permeating the car. I pulled over as quickly as I could--but it was too late. Most of the two-gallon pitcher had spilled, soaking though the carpet and into the padding in the back of the van.

I couldn't show up empty-handed, and I still had the zip-lock bag of soaking fruit--so I stopped at a liquor store and bought the supplies I'd need to re-create the sangria base. At Jane Addams' house, I mixed up a batch, and even though it didn't have time to chill properly, it was still delicious. Here's the recipe:

Mix and chill 8 hours or overnight:
Two bottles of red wine (merlot, zinfandel, etc.)
1 cup orange juice
1 cup of brandy
1 quart of Fresca or other lemon-lime soda

Make simple syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Bring to boil; simmer until sugar is dissolved. Cool.

Cut up fruit: apples, peaches, lemons, limes, oranges.
Soak fruit overnight in simple syrup.

Add fruit to wine according to taste. Chill. Drink. Responsibly, of course.

The only problem was that the car alarm started going off for no apparent reason. Oh, and the interior lights would go on and stay on; the door ajar light remained lit; the door locks clicked randomly; and the radio started playing Korean alt hip-hop at will. Apparently, sangria does not mix well with the electrical system of a Dodge Caravan, and weird poltergeisty things kept happening for the next week-and-a-half.

Even after we Resolved and Febrezed the carpet, the car still smelled like sangria. We are an open container arrest just waiting to happen. "No, officer, I swear I haven't been drinking! The car smells like sangria because I spilled it in the back TWO WEEKS AGO!"

Finally I took it to my normally reliable mechanic, who insisted that the sangria had nothing to do with the coincidental electrical shenanigans. He sprayed some sort of magic spray on each door lock mechanism, chanted a spell, and said, there you go!

But what about the Korean hip-hop? I asked. Just a coincidence, he said. As I drove away from the mechanic's shop, the door ajar light went on, and the locks clicked in time with the radio. I heard a deep, ghosty laugh--bwah-ha-ha--coming from the rear gate.

I decided that I would change mechanics as soon as I got back from my trip to Door County.