Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Blue Like Jazz

I'm late to the party, as usual.

Six years ago, when Blue Like Jazz came out, a bunch of people recommended it to me. I didn't read it. I tagged it TBR in my LibraryThing catalog. Every time it came up in conversation, or was mentioned in a book or an article, I'd say to myself, "Oh, yeah, I need to read that book soon."

So here it is, six years later. I borrowed it from a friend and read it in one day. The whole time I was reading Blue Like Jazz, I was pissed that I hadn't written it.

Donald Miller charts his spiritual journey in a series of autobiographical essays. His voice is sweet and almost child-like; he's real, and transparent, and funny. Miller, a lapsed Baptist reconditioned into a non-denominational Jesus-lover, struggles with the same existential dilemmas that keep me awake at night: the responsibility of being human, the irrationality of God, the meaning of life, and why girls like Pride and Prejudice so much, but guys don't.

He acknowledges that sometimes faith is inexplicable: "My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief." I feel Miller's pain on this. It doesn't mean that he believes that faith in Jesus is completely irrational; it means that even though some parts of the faith scenario make rational sense, some parts don't, like the resurrection, like the notion that a guy who lived 2000 years ago could have life-altering relevance today. It means that sometimes we just don't feel the presence of God in our lives, even though we confess that God Is There. It means that sometimes believing in God feels like having an imaginary friend.

That's why it's called faith--but there are not many modern Christians who write authentically about this struggle between their heads and their hearts. Miller's unpretentious struggle gives the rest of us the ability to admit our own doubts and fears.

Miller's faith encompasses his emotions, but it does not rely solely upon them. "Early on," he wrote, "I made the mistake of wanting spiritual feelings to endure and remain romantic...When this didn't happen, I became confused." From this confusion and fear, Miller decided to try self-discipline as the means for overcoming the encumbering sins of self-addiction. You know what happened: It didn't work. It never does. The cycle, Miller said, was dehumanizing.

Again: haven't we all been here? We misunderstand or misinterpret the gospel. We have been taught that as believers, we must look different, behave differently--and we want to, we really do. But sooner than we can say "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" or some other annoying Christian catchphrase, we're back in the middle of whatever idolatry holds our hearts.

This is why Miller emphasizes the relationship with Jesus, emphasizes the grace of the cross. Because it's what makes Christianity--or Christian spirituality, as Miller labels it--different from other faiths. We rely on something outside of ourselves to change us, to redirect us. We fall in love with Jesus, and it fuels our change.

I felt kinship with Miller in his pursuit of faith that is deeply connected to the heart, that is deeper than mere intellectual assent. "Too much of our time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe," Miller writes. "By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hearts of wonder."

As the product of a strict, behaviorist upbringing, I am painfully aware of the struggle to grow a faith that is as real to my heart as it is to my head. In our household, loving God meant having the right behavior, with little or no regard for what gurgled behind the scenes in our hearts, in our emotions.

Miller gets this, and even though the Baptists don't like it, and the Presbyterians get nervous with this crazy talk about feelings and emotions (ohmyword is someone going to clap in church?), and even the de-converted despise his "tepid theology of the feel-good variety," his message is valuable to both believers and non-believers.

Miller--whose photo on his website makes him look like my boyfriend, Vincent D'Onofrio--said that when he started writing Blue Like Jazz, he "wanted to end up with something like Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies." He succeeded. I love Traveling Mercies (reviewed here) for the same reasons I love Blue Like Jazz: both authors speak honestly, transparently about what it's really like to be a Christian in a post-modern world.

So, better late than never: Put Blue Like Jazz on your reading list for 2010, if you passed it up in order to re-read Stephen King's The Stand (the uncut version).

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

I'm thankful for...

...celebrating Thanksgiving with friends.

...not having to travel for the holiday.

...a first-time ever brined turkey that turned out FABULOUS.

...perfect garlic mashed potatoes that did not taste like ball bearings coated with papier mache.

...a gorgeous, delicious apricot and cranberry pie festooned with delectable pie crust leaf cutouts (thanks to LiDe). It looked even more fabulous than this image I borrowed from

...a clean basement, thanks to Mr. Peevie, where kids could play ping-pong while moms and dads could have conversations elsewhere.

...M. Peevie's first Turkey Trot: cold, a bit wet at first, but ultimately, successful.

...the warmest November since I can remember.


...guests who do dishes.

...sleeping late the next day. Until 11. Yeah.

What are you thankful for?

Sunday, November 22, 2009


A. Peevie turned twelve today. This is not a big surprise, since he turned eleven last year.

A. Peevie is a complicated boy. He is deep and thoughtful; he doesn't give an answer until he feels certain and confident. He always tells the truth, and he has a very tender conscience. He always has schemes going in his mind: ideas for game characters; plans for fort-building and club-making; stories waiting to be written.

A middle child, birth-ordered between two extroverts with big feelings and loud opinions, A. Peevie sometimes plays for hours in his own imagination. He lies in bed and invents stories in his mind in which he is the central character. He acts out the adventures of the character in his mind, with sound effects. We often hear shooting noises--"Tffffhhhhhh! Tfffhhh-tffffhh! Dzzhh! Dzzhh!"--coming from his room in the middle of the night.

One time, years ago, he let me watch him while he was playing in his imagination. (Nowadays he wants privacy for his imagination play.) He was making crashing noises, and thrashing around on the bed--up on his knees one moment, falling backward into a crumpled heap the next. I asked him what was going on in the story. A. Peevie was some kind of animal or creature, and there was a huge stone wall involved.

"Did you knock the wall down?" I asked him, taking a stab at interpreting the kinesthetics and audibles.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "The wall fell down on me."

"Ah," I said. "That must have hurt."

"Mm-hmm," he said seriously; and then he went back inside his imagination to continue the carnage.

My theory is that this imaginary play gives him the opportunity to be stronger, braver, and more heroic and successful than he feels in real life, which has presented him with more physical and emotional obstacles than your average 12-year-old faces. He takes meds for complex congenital heart defects; dangerous cardiac arrythmias that presented about four years ago; and hypothyroidism. Plus, he struggles with low self-esteem and a level of anxiety that makes Woody Allen seem like the poster child for self-confidence.

Mr. Peevie and I just want this boy to know how great he is, how much he is capable of accomplishing. He's smart, and kind, and funny. He's a great artist, and has a vivid, energetic imagination.

Tonight, when I was cuddling with him at bedtime, he was worrying about his schoolwork. Again. Still. He hadn't stopped worrying about it all day--even when we were eating pizza for his birthday dinner.

"A. Peevie," I told him, "I want you to do three things when you start to feel worried about school, or about anything.

"Number one: Pray. Just a short prayer, asking God for help. You can just say, 'Jesus, please help me.' God will answer that prayer.

"Number two: Remember this: Mom and dad will help you get through it. We will help you learn it, we will help you figure out how to do it, fix it, or get it done. We are on your side.

"And number three: Tell yourself, 'I am smart and strong, and I can do it.'" I cannot lie: I did think about Stuart Smalley when I said this.

He was quiet when I finished. I thought maybe he had fallen asleep.

"A. Peevie," I whispered. "Are you awake?"

"Mm-hmm," he whispered back.

"Can you do those three things?" I asked him.

"Mm-hmm," he said.

Half the time, Mr. Peevie and I throw our hands in the air because we feel clueless about how to parent this mysterious, imaginative, highly sensitive child.

Jesus, please help me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tibial Fractures and Monkey Carcasses

C. Peevie's hard cast came off on Tuesday. The X-ray of the tibia in question showed that his body was hard at work generating new bone around the spiral fracture. Time to put the saw to the fiberglass and slice that baby right off--so buzz, buzz, and off it came.

The smell was palpable. It mushroomed into the office atmosphere like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, and the doctor and I both collapsed, unconscious. When we came to, C. Peevie and his mushroom cloud were isolated behind yellow crime scene tape, and men in white suits and gas masks were stuffing the pieces of cast and lumps of cotton padding into Hefty bags marked with the yellow and black universal symbol of Yikes!

C. Peevie was happily scraping layers of cheesy epidermis off, exposing patches of tender, pink skin dotted with manly black hairs. He groaned with the ecstasy of delayed scratching gratification that only the recently de-casted can truly appreciate. Even after the haz-mat team hurled the steaming pile of cast remnants into the incinerator, the smell of decaying monkey carcasses still wafted up from C. Peevie's newly liberated calf.

But we're not done with Broken Leg Drama yet. Now he's wearing a removable velcro knee-high boot. He can place as much weight on his leg as he feels comfortable with, but he's still got to have his crutches with him for the next four weeks. That puts us at December 15 before he's cast- and crutch-free, adding up to a total of three-and-a-half months of limited mobility and limited chore-doing.

C. Peevie has developed an unattractive victimy dependence and sense of entitlement that reaches far beyond his actual medical needs. On cast removal morning, I got him up to get ready to leave with me to take A. Peevie and M. Peevie to school. I was running around, making breakfasts, making lunches, helping kids find missing shoes, reminding them about various books and homework assignments, and doing my best to get the four of us out the door on time.

Meanwhile, C. Peevie was sitting on the couch in his PJs, video game remote control in his hand, hollering, "I need a tissue! I need a tissue!" I ignored him the first few times, but his insistent demands finally broke through my calm and patient exterior; and I started leaking a bit of (justifiable) homicidal rage.

I walked into the living room, smacked the off button on the TV, and squarely confronted Captain IHaveABrokenLegCanYouPleaseWipeMyAss.

"C. Peevie," I said grimly. "Get up off your butt and get your own tissue."

"But there aren't any on this floor," he said, pulling his I Have a Broken Leg card for the 80 jillionth time.

"Then you can walk to the bathroom and use toilet paper like the rest of us do," I said, pointing out the obvious-to-everyone-but-him solution.

"Oh," he said.

I feel like we have regressed about two years in the training of this man-child, who's first sentence was "Me do it!" He has always wanted to do things himself, learn, and take responsibility, and he was growing into an independent, responsible, helpful member of the family. He was making his own oatmeal at age four--and now he has to be reminded to get his own damn Kleenex.

My friend Q said I'm being too hard on him; that I should just let him heal, and let the chores and responsibilities go for now. But she is the parent of one compliant child, and you know what Bill Cosby had to say about that: You're not really a parent until you have more than one child. I figure she doesn't really know jack.

[Note: I searched and googled for a link to the actual Cosby quote, but could only find anecdotal references to it. I know I read it myself, probably in his book Fatherhood.]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nothing Ever Happens on My Block

Did you read this book in your erstwhile youth--Nothing Ever Happens on My Block? OMG. I LOVED that book. And then it sort of disappeared from my life, and I didn't think about it again until I had kids. In searching for information about the book, I came across this cute blog that highlights vintage children's books.

Meanwhile, in only-sort-of-unrelated news, The Crazy Lady on my block got taken away today by the entire police department and half the fire department of Chicago.

I was sitting on my couch, minding my own business, watching People's Court (I have a girl-crush on Marilyn Milian), when I noticed a squad car out in front of my next-door-neighbor's house. Not the neighbor with the jungle, the neighbor on the other side. So I peeked out the window from behind the sheers. There was not just one squad car, but three!

Two police officers were standing on the walk in front of The Crazy Lady's house--and BTW, I mean no disrespect to TCL, who suffers from schizophrenia or some other fairly serious mental illness--and as I peeped, another officer went tearing around the side of the house, down the gangway to the backyard.

Well, being the responsible homeowner that I am, I felt that it was exactly the right time to take out my trash. (I'm not proud of this impulse to gawk at another person's private demons being brought out into the light of day--but it's in me. I wasn't the only neighbor with this indecorous inclination. Other neighbors were not just peeking over back yard fences, but actually walking down the street to get a closer look.)

I went out the back door with my Hefty Bag, and as I crossed the deck, I could see two officers restraining TCL and trying to talk her into accompanying them to the squad car. She resisted them, hollering and flailing. Eventually, four officers carried her around the house and stuffed her as carefully as they could into the back of the squad car.

TCL was still yelling and flailing, and the officers called for back-up. Within minutes, three more police vehicles showed up, including a paddy wagon (are they still called that?) and an SUV. The officers unloaded TCL from the back of the squad car, and re-loaded her into the paddy wagon.

She was not pleased, and she started clawing at the wire mesh. I think she was starting to hurt herself, because within a few minutes the officers extracted her again, two of them peeling her fingers from the doors and two holding her legs to keep her from kicking. Once they got her extricated, they gently plopped her on the street, where she sat, hand- and ankle-cuffed, rocking and occasionally yelling at them not to touch her (they weren't) and that she needed to lock her doors. She was surrounded by officers, and once or twice she started butt-scootching along the pavement, but each time an officer stepped in front of her.

In a few minutes, the six police vehicles were joined by one more squad car, a fire truck, and an ambulance. The paramedics, wearing thick rubber gloves, loaded TCL onto a stretcher, covered her with blankets, strapped her in, and wheeled her off.

TCL has been dealing with obvious mental illness since before we moved into the neighborhood, but she has also had periods of calmness and lucidity. Lately, however, her crazy had been escalating to the point where she was making threats to neighbors and generally acting in a threatening, unpredictable way. She tried to run over one neighbor with her car recently, and she has thrown rocks at children.

Last week when A. Peevie and M. Peevie were playing in the backyard, I went out to check on them. "Mom," A. Peevie said, "That lady is saying B-I-T-C-H over and over again. Really loud." He couldn't even bring himself to say the word in reporting it to me.

M. Peevie came over and told me the same story, and we had a little object lesson in mental illness. "She can't help it," I told them. "There's something in her brain that makes her act that way." I told them that if they felt uncomfortable, or if she directed any of her scary talk directly at them, they should come in the house for awhile.

So the neighbors reluctantly went to court yesterday, and hours later the entire fleet of emergency response vehicles showed up. TCL is currently being held for observation somewhere. It's all very sad and disturbing. The neighbors didn't want to make police reports or go to court to have TCL picked up; but they felt it was the responsible thing to do. Mental illness is absolutely horrifying, and I truly feel compassion for TCL and her husband.

But nothing ever happens on my block.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Celebrate! Win! Book Giveaway!

I went to a short workshop on SEO tonight, sponsored by Independent Writers of Chicago. I am now equipped to Optimize for Search Engines. So there.

And in other news, I have decided to celebrate the fact that this blog now has 20 followers. Count 'em: 20. Thanks, Igor! I am so thrilled to have such an astonishing level of popularity on this newfangled Internet that I have decided to sponsor a book giveaway.

I will randomly draw the name of someone who comments on this post, and send that lucky winner three (3) books from my library. You can see what kind of books I have in my library at my LibraryThing page.

I have too, too many books, and if I don't start giving some away soon, I will have to move. I love my neighbors--most of them, anyway. I love my city. I love my church. I don't want to move.

Hence: the book giveaway.

All you have to do to win is leave a somewhat relevant comment on this post, and I will put your name in a hat. On November 15 I will draw one of the names, and I will contact you to find out where to send your books. Be advised that if I have no other way of contacting you, I will contact you through replying to your comment on this blog post, so check back after November 15 to see if you won the Big Book Giveaway!

If you want, you can tell me in your comment the kinds of books you like to read, and I will take this into consideration when I pick out the three books I will be sending your way. They'll probably be paperbacks, and they'll probably be fairly current titles.

Rules: I will only send books to a U.S. address. I will give you another entry in the contest if you direct another reader to The Green Room, and they mention your name in their comment. Contest closes November 14 at midnight. Sometime on the 15th I will draw a name.

Oh! Oh! Isn't this exciting! My very first giveaway! Comment away. Tell me what you've been reading lately, and if you like it or not. Recommend a book to me, even if it's something you read a long time ago. Tell me what your kids are reading.

Who can resist FREE BOOKS?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Are You There, Internet? It's Me, M. Peevie.

One time my mom let me make a post on her blog. It was when I turned 7. Then she let me make a post again when I turned 8. Now I'm turning 9, and she's letting me make a blog post again. She's kind. And nice. And a good mom. Usually.

I went back and read what I wrote in my mom's blog 2 years ago, and I think I sounded a little bit like a baby, especially when I talked about kissing people. Now that I'm in third grade, when my mom drops me off at school, she likes to kiss me, but and I like to pretend that I don't like it when she kisses me, and I yell, "It burns! It buuurrrrrnnnns!" Then my teacher laughs.

I like my teacher, Mrs. Santa, and my student teacher, Miss Boksham. They are very nice and friendly. My mom and Mrs. Santa had a conversation about getting me more challenged, just like in first grade and second grade, and now I have way harder spelling words, like DECIDUOUS and GEOGRAPHY and TEMPERATURE. I'm only in third grade, people! Give a girl a break!

I got all A's on my report card except for one B+ in math. One time I came home with a really bad math paper, with lots and lots of mistakes on it, and I was scared that my mom was going to be really made. I mean mad. But she wasn't mad, and she just said I needed to figure out what I did wrong on the math problems, and do them over again. So I did. And guess what? I made the numbers add up instead of making them minuses, and that's why I got so many wrong answers. I guess that's why I got a B+ instead of an A.

My mom asked my what my goals were now that I'm nine, and I said: Be more mature; be kinder to my siblings, and make peace on earth. I also want to clean up parks and things, and be helpful. My mom says, "We'll see."

I like being nine because I'm able to do more things and better things. And my age (NINE) is almost a DOUBLE DIGIT. That means the number takes two numbers to write. Awesome.

Today for my birthday I got a lot of excellent presents. I got lots of cupcake-making supplies, like cupcake pans, cupcake paper-thingies, cake mixes (which you can use to make cupcakes, too), frosting and sprinkles, a cute hair dryer, some books, some clothes, and some money.

I kind of wished that I got a game called Animal Crossing City Folk, but I think my brother A. Peevie and I are both going to spend some of our birthday money to buy it. That's why it's nice to get money for your birthday, because then you can buy a present for yourself that somebody didn't give you.

I already made one batch of cupcakes with my cupcake supplies. My mom helped. They were delicious. (I know how to spell that.) I'm going to bring some cupcakes to school tomorrow to celebrate my birthday even though my birthday was today.

Now I have to go to bed and read. That's what I do every night before I go to sleep. After my dad turns out my light, I still read by the light that comes in from the hallway. Then my mom comes in later and busts me--but she usually doesn't yell at me. I think it's hard for her to tell me to stop reading. It's READING, after all, not doing something inappropriate (I know how to spell that word, too), like coloring on my walls or playing my DS.

Goodnight, Internet. See you next year, when I turn DOUBLE DIGITS.

M. Peevie

Friday, November 6, 2009

Boys With Saws and Shovels

I just said one of those sentences that you never expect to have to say when you first become a parent of a tiny, soft-headed, angelic baby.

"A. Peevie! Stop sawing the deck!"

I was in my kitchen when I noticed that I was hearing loud sawing noises from somewhere nearby. I opened the back door, and the noises were louder. I stood on the deck, and I heard the noise, but couldn't see anybody.

"A. Peevie! Where are you?" I hollered.

"Under here!" he called, from under the deck. Then another little head popped up on the fence side of the deck and looked at me with wide-eyed innocence. It was his much-younger friend, K-Pup.

"What are you guys doing under there?" I asked, stupidly.

"Sawing a board," he said.

"What board?" I asked. Pause. "Are you actually sawing the deck?"

"Weeeellll," he said slowly. "Yeah. Kind of."

"A.!" I said sternly. "What are you thinking? Stop sawing the deck! In fact," I added, "Stop sawing--period! Stop playing with sharp implements. Put the tools back in the garage where you found them."

This is what comes of mom sending the kids outside to play without strict instructions and stricter supervision. You would think that an almost-12-year-old boy would know that his mom would not approve of him playing with an actual saw, and especially would not approve of him inviting the 7-year-old neighbor to also play with serrated blades.

I got a lot done in the house, though, while the kids were outside playing with pointy objects. It's sort of a trade-off, sometimes.

I don't know which is worse, playing with a saw, or digging an unauthorized trench on the side of the deck--which is what A. Peevie did yesterday with a different playdate buddy. Not only did they dig a hole deep enough to bury a body, but they did it without calling 811 ("Know what's below! Call before you dig.").

They also conscripted M. Peevie to lug buckets of water over, so they could fill the hole and...what? Stock it with bluegill and then go fishing? I don't even know. By the time Mr. Peevie busted them, all three kids were caked with mud, their shoes were unwearable, and they looked like they'd need three showers each to return to their normal pigmentation.

When I mentioned the ditch-digging to Playdate's dad--to explain the extreme filth on his son's gym shoes--he told me that they had holes all over their backyard because Playdate and his little brother also really loved to dig holes. What is up with boys and holes in the ground?

I love it when my kids play outside. I guess I just need to be a little more specific about the rules: No playing with sharp objects. No unauthorized demolition. No unauthorized digging.

There. That should do it. Until they devise another "project" involving new activities that I have not yet specifically forbidden.

I give it a week.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Haz-Mat Clean-up in Aisle Three

Who knew that glass thermometers still had mercury in them?! Guess who found out the hard way that they do?

I really thought that mercury in household thermometers was a thing of the dangerous past, like those rickety wooden spinny things on the playgrounds of my childhood. But tonight, after C. Peevie accidentally knocked the thermometer on the hardwood floor, I found out that a) mercury thermometers are NOT a thing of the past, and b) cleaning up a mercury spill is sort of a pain in my pasty white butt.

How dangerous could a few tiny balls of elementary mercury actually be? I thought to myself. I'll just wipe it up with a rag and throw everything away. No, I decided, better take a few seconds and look it up first.

Geez. You practically have to call in a haz-mat SWAT team to clean up the spill area. The EPA provides guidelines that list nine items on the clean-up supply list, including "eyedropper" and "optional powdered sulfur," and nine not-so-simple steps to get the mercury safely off the floor and into an EPA-audited safe disposal unit. Or something.

So I spent the next half hour collecting my haz-mat equipment, not including the optional powdered sulfur, but including the shaving cream and paint brush and a temperamental flashlight that worked sporadically, like a sixth grader who forgot to take his Ritalin.

Then I got down on my hands and knees and oh-so-carefully cardboarded the metallic beads into a little cluster. The flashlight turned out to be very useful for locating a multitude of tiny beads that I would not have seen otherwise--when it actually worked. It was apparently in an intermittent kind of mood--which I totally understand; trust me, Flashlight, I've been there --and it would randomly stop working, at which time I would leak swears. Just itty-bitty ones, though.

Once the beads were corralled, I was supposed to suck them up with an eye-dropper, but of course, I did not have such an archaic implement. What do you need eye-droppers for these days? Meds that require a dropper--like eye drops, for example--usually come with the dropper built into the container. So I used the "scootch method" to pick up the larger mercury beads, a method which the EPA has not yet included in its instruction manual.

Then, to get most of the teensy beads, I used the shaving-cream-on-a-paint-brush method. Unfortunately, the hardwood floor in The Green Room has very slight gaps between some of the planks, and I am positive that I am even now being slowly poisoned by left-over mercury infecting my airspace.

I'll let you know if I break out in a disgusting rash, or suddenly stop breathing.

This haz-mat episode took over an hour, which is an hour I did not get to spend watching Dancing With the Stars, dang it all to heck. I cannot believe that Mark was eliminated, which makes me sad, but Bruno, as always, came through with hilarious analysis: "It was a little bit like watching Kung Fu Panda dance the samba in 'Planet of the Apes.'"

Meanwhile, C. Peevie was comfortably ensconced in his couch divot, watching Angel DVDs and snorting at my frustrated outbursts. What is wrong with this picture? If the kid didn't have a broken leg, and if the EPA didn't firmly instruct me with capital letters to NOT allow children to help clean up the spill, his 14-year-old ass would have been doing haz-mat duty.

And just because I like to provide full-service information to our Green Room visitors, here are a few fun facts about elemental mercury:

  • A mere two tablespoons weighs about one pound.
  • NEVER use a vaccuum or broom to clean up mercury, because doing so will increase exposure.
  • Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system, causing various symptoms including tremors and irritability.
That's all, folks. Get rid of your old thermometers before you end up cranky and hunched over a tiny paint brush coated with shaving cream, like me.