Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dinner Table Conversation, Plus a Bit of a Movie Review

We took the kids to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian last weekend. Even though it's only getting 44% on the rotten tomato meter, the kids loved it, and I didn't hate it. The best part, to me, was explaining to M. Peevie what the sexual innuendos meant.

There's sweetness, though not much sexual tension between the main character (Larry Daley, played by Ben Stiller) and his pert, adventurous sidekick, Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams). There's lithping humor from Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), which your 13-going-on-14-year-old will quote for days afterward. There are Albert Einstein bobbleheads singing "That's the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it, I like it!", which your 11-year-old will giggle at for days afterward.

And there's Owen Wilson as a miniature cowboy in Daley's front chest pocket, who, after Daley embraces Earhart and smooches her, remarks, "I just got to second base." That got a chuckle from the grown-ups, and even though I was hoping she'd forget by the time we got home, M. Peevie wondered what it meant and why was it funny.

I saw it as an opportunity for some early sex ed, and over the objections of both boys ("Mom! Please don't! Not at the dinner table!"), I started in on the "touchy" subject

"M. Peevie," I said, looking at her seriously, "when a boy kisses a girl, they call it 'first base.'" I paused to watch her face screw up into a disgusted grimace.

"Yuck," she said.

"Exactly," I continued, and both A. Peevie and C. Peevie interrupted, "MOM, Puh-leeze!"

"Do you HAVE to, Mom? At the dinner table?" C. Peevie groaned.

"Yes," I insisted. "M. Peevie, when a boy touches a girl's breast, they call it 'second base.'"

"Ew!" said M. P. "Ew. Why would a boy want to touch a girl's breast?"

C. Peevie just looked me in despair. "Mom, don't," he moaned.

I felt I had to finish what I started, so I went on. "I guess maybe because they want to know what it feels like," I said, "or maybe because they like how it feels."

"Well, I'm NEVER going to let a boy touch my breast," said my breast-less eight-year-old adamantly. "It's gross."

By this time, C. Peevie's head was down on the table, and A. Peevie had started giggling hysterically. I can't remember if Mr. Peevie was even in the room, but if he was, I'm sure he was just shaking his head in awe at my parental wisdom.

"Yes, M. Peevie," I said, "It is gross when you're eight. And just so you know, most of this information is not stuff I want you to talk about with the kids at school."

That was the end of it. I'm kind of glad she didn't ask about third base and home runs. I'm sure the male Peevies are relieved, as well.

Would you have handled it differently?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Love and Marriage

For those of you out there who are starting to believe that marriage sucks, that it always ends unhappily, that the mere fact that Drew Peterson could find four women who wanted to marry him indicates an inherent problem with the institution: don't throw out the baby with the banns.

Yes, it appears to be true that marriage is in trouble. The stats on marriage are not hopeful: The divorce rate (3.6 per 1000) is half that of the marriage rate (7.5 per 1000), according to the CDC. (And why this is a statistic that the Centers for Disease Control collects, I have no idea.)

Please note: This does NOT mean that half of all marriages end in divorce. It means that half as many divorces occur every year as marriages--but that's not the same thing. Do I need to spell it out? Fine. If 1000 people get married, and 500 people get divorced, the divorces don't only come from the 1000 new marriages, but from all current existing marriages. Get it?

So articles like this and this are just not getting it right. This NY Times piece posits that "the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates." Nevertheless, as The Straight Dope points out, the stats are not good on the marriage survival rate even when they are interpreted logically.

Marriage is hard work even when you're married to a near-perfect specimen, as I am; and the problem is, most of us don't want to work that hard.

Fortunately, Mr. Peevie is willing to work very, very hard to make our marriage blissful; and so far (cross your fingers) he has not indicated that he will be seeking to replace me with a younger, cuter, lower-maintenance model. (Version, not runway.)

Here's a teensy anecdote that illustrates how sometimes, one person is giving, patient and peace-making, and the other person tends slightly toward cluelessness, over-reaction, misinterpretation, and general irascibility:

The day started with ten "Mommies" before 7:30 a.m. "Mommy, can you get me breakfast?" "Mommy, I need help with my math homework!" (Note: I don't do well on math after 10 a.m., let alone before 8 a.m.) "Mommy, what's the temperature going to be?" "Mommy, come look at my ginormous poop!" etc., etc.

Between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., the "Mommies" expanded exponentially, as though there were 16 kids in the house and not just three. I was sick and tired, SICK and TIRED, of people needing something from me.

Then Mr. Peevie came home late after running a 3.5 mile race downtown and snagging some BBQ at the DePaul post-race chow tent. One of the first things he said were these words: "Did you wash any darks today?"

An innocent question, no? But what I heard was, "I need something from you. I need you to make sure my dark socks are clean." What I heard, my therapist cleverly pointed out to me, was, "Mommy!"

I detonated. "Everybody needs a piece of me!" I snapped. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I did wash darks today. In fact, I washed four frickin' loads of laundry, plus two loads of dishes, plus..."

Poor Mr. Peevie just looked at me. "E. Peevie, I just want to know..." he started.

"Yes, I washed your damn clothes!" I martyred, "and I'll go downstairs right this very second to make sure they're done in the dryer!"

Mr. Peevie, God bless him, chose not to repay evil with evil. This is what makes a marriage work: one person being a peacemaker when the other person is unreasonable and a teensy bit insane.

"Honey," he said gently, "I really just wanted to know the answer to the question. I'm not asking you to do anything for me." Talk about a soft answer turning away wrath! This guy lives the Bible, Old Testament and New, every day with me. Marriage is hard work--for him; but for me, it's easy. (Most of the time.)

His words threw sand on the blazing campfire of my hostility, and finally, I heard what he was really saying instead of what I heard through the filter of the irritating context of my day.

"Um, yes, I did wash darks today," I said cautiously. "I don't remember if the last load is in the washer or the dryer, though."

"OK," said my hero, "Thanks. I'll go check in the laundry room." See how easy that was?

In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find, and continue to find, grounds for marriage. --Robert Anderson, Solitaire and Double Solitaire

Love seems the swiftest but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century. ~Mark Twain

Happy 25th anniversary, sweetheart. (Almost two weeks late...)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Good Coach, Bad Coach

Last night at C. Peevie's game, the opposing coach got kicked out of the game. After grumbling, arguing, and complaining most of the game, he started arguing plate calls late in the final inning when his team was down by five or six runs. The ump got tired of the abuse, and after warning him to stop, he finally gave an ultimatum.

"One more word, and you're out of here," he warned Coach Obnoxious.

"One more word, one more word, one more word!" Coach O. singsonged like a nine-year-old, heading down the third base line toward the plate.

Ump kept his cool and stood his ground. "One more word and your team forfeits the game," he said. "Keep on walking. We're not re-starting the game until you're in your car." Now that's what I call setting boundaries! Go Ump!

"I thought there was going to be fisticuffs!" C. Peevie told me later, after he had made the game-ending put-out with a back-handed scoop-from-the-dirt at first base.

If I were a parent of a kid on that team, I'd be embarrassed and angry. I'd ask the league director to get rid of the coach; and if he stayed, I'd yank my kid off that team. There is no excuse for such childish, inappropriate and unsportsmanlike conduct from anyone in Little League, let alone a coach.

In other Little League news, A. Peevie's coach continues to impress with his kindness. We coaxed, bullied, persuaded, urged and ultimately forced A. Peevie to attend his team's game on Saturday. This two hour process took about as much physical and emotional pain and energy as actual childbirth.

We finally agreed that he would play one full inning, and then if he wanted to come out and sit on the bench for the rest of the game, he could. The coach started A. Peevie in right field. He was in full uniform, his cup was right-side-up, and he was not screaming, crying or complaining, so I considered it a personal victory. I prayed that the ball would not come anywhere near him.

At his first at-bat, A. Peevie placidly watched four pitches in a row sail over his head. I suspected that he would just have placidly watched four pitches in a row sail directly through the strike zone, but I counted my blessings. Four times that game A. Peevie walked on four pitches, scoring twice. He stayed in the game the whole time, and felt like a champ.

I felt my bones melt in relief that we gotten through one more little league trauma.

This little drama doesn't even take into account how excruciating minor league baseball really is, especially early in the season: tiny ten-year-olds try desperately to get the ball over the plate while parents bake on the bleachers, or, more likely in our lattitude, wrap themselves in blankets until mid-June. Games go on and on while players walk the basepaths and teams score 14 passive runs in a single inning.

Occasionally there's a pitch in the vicinity of the strike zone, and a lucky batter makes a connection. Inevitably the ball squirts through the legs of an infielder, and comes to rest in shallow right field. The right fielder jogs over, picks it up from where it's resting on a clump of grass, and attempts to throw it to first base without regard for where the runner actually is.

More often than not, the ball squigs past the first baseman, rolling clear over to the fence, and the runner keeps running. Minor leaguers throw the ball behind the runner, so most hits end up becoming home-runs, which is the only other way a team scores other than by walks.

Only eight more regular season games to go.

Meanwhile, we've had a reprieve from having three kids playing ball at the same time because of M. Peevie's season-stalling broken wrist. Cast comes off Thursday, then removable velcro cast for a week, then she's back in the swing as well.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ten Things I Just Don't Understand

10. A trillion of anything.

9. How a person can justify taking a bonus of any amount, let alone a million dollars, when they've run a company into the ground instead of making it better.

8. Why small business owners think it's a good idea to go on camera in their own TV ads. Don't their production companies advise them against this? Lawyers and car dealers are the worst offenders. People--it just doesn't work. Your ads are obnoxious and annoying! Hire professional actors!

7. Why Adam Sandler is so popular.

6. Why Arrested Development was cancelled.

5. Why people make a big deal out of graduation...from preschool. Or kindergarten. Or elementary school. Or 8th grade. Isn't that setting the bar pretty low, to act like it's a major accomplishment? Stop it, people! Just say no to preschoolers wearing caps and gowns.

4. How anyone can resist bacon; and on a related note: how can bacon be so delicious and also, so useful. I believe the more bacon you eat, the lower your chances of getting swine flu. (Props to J.Ro.)

3. The Twitter craze. Can you explain it to me?

2. How an airplane that weighs 187,000 pounds can fly.

1. And the number one thing I just don't understand: How all the actions of Evil-Good-Evil-Again Tony make any sense at all if he was really Evil Tony all along. This point is moot, of course, now that we know that Evil-Good-Evil-Good Tony was out to avenge Michelle's death throughout the course of Day Seven. I guess he was just cackling insane, like Rush Limbaugh.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Back in the Swing (Sort Of)

Chicago little league baseball has begun in spite of May snow flurries, brisk winds, and perpetually soggy fields.

We had signed A. Peevie up for minors because he had skipped a year of baseball, he's small for his age, and he still fears the ball. (He begged us to sign him up for majors, but we did not want him to be eaten alive.) The Little League Powers That Be (TLLPTB) decided, in their infinite wisdom, to place him into majors anyway, because of his advanced age (11). This made the little man very happy, because he sees himself with great confidence as a major league ball-player.

The first few practices were rained out, plus A. Peevie missed at least one due to illness. Finally, we made it to a practice three days before the first scheduled game. A. Peevie took the field reluctantly, warily eyeing the two boys who were batting fierce line drives from the first and third baselines.

"Ready position!" the coach hollered, but A. Peevie had no idea what he meant. He shuffled his feet, hunched his shoulders, and looked over toward me with a worried frown. A ball whizzed over his head.

"A. Peevie, get in ready position!" the coach yelled across the field, crouching down and dropping his glove down between his ankles to demonstrate. A ball whizzed by A. Peevie's left shoulder, and his worried frown intensified. He started to take a step toward me, but I waved him back.

"Give yourself a coupla minutes!" I encouraged him, but when I turned toward the coach I said, "Coach, I don't think he's ready for this level of play." I explained our situation, and he agreed that if A.P. was still afraid of the ball he'd probably be better off in minors in spite of his age.

Meanwhile, balls were still whizzing past A. Peevie, and he was doing his best to avoid getting killed or maimed. I waved him in, and by the time he got to me he was shaking and crying from terror. I comforted him and told him he gave it a try, and was very brave, but we'd move him down to minors where he'd feel more comfortable. The coach also patted his shoulder kindly and said, "Hey, buddy, thanks for coming out and giving it a try today. We'll get you up here in majors next year, OK?"

I called the league director, and he got A. Peevie onto the minor league Orioles, with a coach whose motto is "No Child Left Behind." As it turned out, the next day was the first game; but A. Peevie was not on board.

"I'm not playing," he announced adamantly. "I don't want to play baseball anymore. I'm not going to play."

"Well, buddy," I told him, "You have to give it a try. We only signed you up because you said you wanted to play, and now we've got you on a team in the right league, and you can't just quit."

"Well, I do quit," he said firmly. "I'm not playing." Fine, I told him, but you're going to sit on the bench with your team anyway.

Everything is a huge emotional roller coaster with this kid. He wants to play, he doesn't want to play; he can't wait for baseball to start, he can't wait for baseball to be over; he's crying, he's laughing insanely. It gets exhausting.

So we show up at the game the next day and met two of the assistant coaches. These guys are the kind of guys you want coaching your anxiety-ridden, ambivalent, inexperienced little leaguer. One of them gently persuaded A. Peevie to toss the ball with him. The other reassured him that he could play in the game if he wanted to, but if he didn't feel comfortable yet, he wouldn't have to.

In the end, A. Peevie chose to sit on the bench for the whole game, even though the coach asked him about every other inning if he'd like to get in the game. I alternated between sitting down by third base in my folding chair, wishing I had brought a blanket because it was so dang cold; and hanging out behind the bench to try to help A.P. meet some of the guys on the team.

One little guy chatted with us like we were old friends, and later, on the way home, A. Peevie smiled cheerfully and said, "I like that guy."

A. Peevie came home "sick" from school on the day of the next game, so he was off the hook for baseball once again. The next game is scheduled for Saturday, the day after tomorrow. I wonder whether my middle child will swing the bat, or sit in a miserable heap of stubbornness on the bench.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bad Clients

I love being a freelance writer, and if God and Mr. Peevie allow it, I will never go back to a regular full-time job, ever.

That said, there are some things that suck about being a freelancer. One of them, as I have noted, is that there is no guarantee of a regular paycheck.

Another is that sometimes clients are slow-to-pay, or don't pay at all. Why is that? I currently have two clients that I produced work for who are not paying my bill. One is a former colleague; we used to have lunch together periodically; we are friends. She signed off on my quote in February, and I delivered the first draft of a resume to her about a week later, along with an invoice.

We went back and forth with emails for a few weeks: first she wanted to do a conference call, then she didn't, then she asked for a different resume format. By this time it was late March, and she still had not paid my invoice, nor did she pay the up-front half that my contract required; but I still delivered the second draft on April 3. Five days later she asked me for another re-write, and this time I insisted that I talk to her mom--the actual subject of the resume--to make sure that I understand from her exactly what she wants.

Now it's a month later--three months after we made the contract--and my former colleague has not put me in touch with her mom, nor has she paid my invoice. I had asked her after the second draft was rejected if I could just call her mom directly, but she wanted to set it up herself. She is now ignoring my emails.

Grrr. Bad client.

The second non-paying client is a huge IT consulting company in Florida. They probably do millions of dollars of business every year--but they are stalling, or reneging, on paying my lousy $150 invoice for consulting on and re-writing a marketing brochure. WTF?

This client I got through E-Lance, a website that allows people or companies to post freelance projects online, and subscribers pay a monthly fee to have access to the job listings and bid on the projects. Since it's a virtual international marketplace, I'm bidding against writers in countries where the dollar is worth a lot more than it is here; and without exception, all of the jobs I've bid on have had minimum bids of $50. In other words, someone in India or Bulgaria is willing to write 50 articles for a grand total of $5, which, bully for them. I'm not.

So this IT company, which will remain un-named unless it turns out that I really am not going to collect any money from them, asked me to turn around a first draft of this brochure copy in 24-36 hours, which I did. I did some research on the company, researched their competition, made some recommendations for how to improve the piece they were producing, and wrote a concise, peppy first draft.

They hated it.

It's fine for them to hate it, though, because that's what a first draft is for. Anne Lamott calls them "shitty first drafts." This company is apparently unclear on the concept of a first draft, because, as it turns out, when they didn't like what I produced, they gave the project to another writer to finish up for them. They were planning on just dropping the project and not paying me, because, as the client said to me the other day on the phone, "I didn't get what I wanted."

But let me backtrack. At first, I didn't get any feedback from the client himself, but his representative told me the client was unhappy with what I had done for him and that there were grammatical errors in what I had written. Now, I might not be Noam Chomsky, but I do know my way around a p-ante, if you know what I mean. Which you probably don't, but stay with me here.

(Oh, and just as an aside, I did wear Noam Chomsky's name on my back during one of those meet and greet games in college where you have to go around the room asking people questions to figure out what name has been scotch-taped to your shirt. Every time I asked a question--am I a male? Am I alive? Am I in sports?--people would look at me with a blank expression and say, "I have no idea." This was Mr. Peevie's hilarious idea, and yet I still married him.)

So back to my point. When I pressed my client to point out the alleged grammatical errors in my writing, he admitted that they weren't so much "grammatical" problems as they were concerns about word choice. Effing word choice. That's like telling an engineer she made structural mistakes in designing a bridge, when in fact she painted it a color that you're not quite comfortable with.

He also said that what I wrote wasn't long enough. So for word choice and length, he figured it was just fine and dandy for him to breach his contract with me. In fact, I believe he considered that by not delivering a perfectly acceptable first draft, I was the one who had breached.

I told him, look, Mr. IT Guy, you're a billion dollar company. I'm a sole proprietor operating out of my home office. Are you really going to cheat me out of $150 dollars? He replied, without any irony, "We're not a billion dollar company," which missed the point by approximately 26.2 miles.

At one point he said, well maybe we can still pay you to produce another piece for us. Of course I'd love to get more business from you, Mr. IT Guy, but I'd like to get paid for the first job FIRST, I told him. (I can be very direct when I need to. Some people call it combative.)

In the end, we agreed that he would send me his comments on my original first draft, and I would revise it so that they could use the material for another purpose. This is what should have happened in the first place. That conversation occurred two days ago. I'm still waiting for his edits.

Bad client.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Yes, M. Peevie, There is Butterfly Poop

Since so many recent Green Room visitors have arrived via a quest for information about butterfly poop (because of this tangentially-related post), I figured it's only fair to offer a primer on the digestion and excretory systems of insects.

As it turns out, yes, butterflies DO poop. The bowel movement of insects, including butterflies, is known as frass. I assume that's a made-up word that combines "fragrance " and "ass" into an optimistic euphemism for excrement.

I tried to find an image of butterfly poop, but all I came up with was this image from a two-year-old post in a fun blog. It seems that it shows up as a reddish-brown stain, which is precisely the last thing I need in my house, so I will not be inviting any butterflies to flit around my living room. It's bad enough that there are seven unmatched dirty socks, miscellaneous overdue school forms waiting to be filled out, and a shoe-store's worth of cleats and sneakers lying around.

In my research I also came across a related story about an unfortunate tattoo.

That's all I got on the topic.