Grand old house is a playful mess

The story of choice for one wing of the grandkids right now is “Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter. Part of the attraction is the sheer scandal of it all. Every time an adult reads the story, the kids exude wide-eyed disbelief that a bunny disobeyed his mother (gasp!), ventured into Mr. McGregor’s garden (gasp!) and safely made it home again (the sweet exhale).

Not long ago their mother was driving along and said, “Look, a rabbit is crossing the road. I wonder if it is Peter Rabbit.”

A 3-year-old in the backseat said, “Does he have on a blue jacket?”

They live in the magic of childhood where the walls are papered with wonder and innocence and all things are possible.

When the grands come to our house, they often play dress-up. They dip into a big basket of old clothes – fur stoles I made for the girls ages ago, what was once my best pair of red high heels, reindeer antlers, a pirate eye patch, a plastic crocodile head, a sailor hat, a construction hat, red bandanas, beads, more beads, a plastic stethoscope, aprons, a pioneer bonnet and a play sheriff’s vest and old leather holster.

One of our daughters commented that not many little kids play dress-up anymore.

Pity.

The grands often move the little play table and chairs around and know that the sofa cushions are fair game. Several of them (the ones that should form a Three Kids and a Truck business) have even been known to shove furniture into configurations of their liking. Sometimes I’ll move all the kitchen chairs into the family room and cover them with a big sheet. It’s a fort, a hut, a school, a baby crib, a tent and a jail.

I met a woman who said she doesn’t allow kids to turn the house upside-down.

What’s a house for?

One day this summer, when six of the little bugs were here, they dragged every ball, broom, bucket, hose attachment and water toy they could find in the garage to the backyard. There was running and yelling and screaming and falling down and crying and getting sprayed in the face.

By the end of the day the Slip ‘N Slide was barely spitting water and had decimated a wide swath of grass. Sidewalk chalk was floating in big galvanized tubs filled with water. A pair of swim trunks was half-buried in the sandbox. Random tennis shoes, beach towels, empty juice boxes, remains of PBJ sandwiches crawling with ants, bubble wands, toy trucks and plastic shovels were strewn from one end of the yard to the other. Even a screen had popped out of a door. The place looked like hillbilly heaven.

It may well have been the best day of summer.

Sometimes it is freedom that fuels the imagination. Unbridled play, the mess of paint, the squish of clay, and unconventional uses for conventional things all burn energy, fire brain cells and broaden the horizon.

A measured wildness, free play and blue jackets on rabbits are sheer delights that fill the fleeting span of childhood. Do they entail messes that cry to be cleaned? Almost always.

But surely there is no better use of time.

Plaid returns dragging a checkered past

A press release I received said that what a girl wears on her first day of school is as important as what she wears to prom.

It sounds like a lot of pressure. Maybe it’s true. But if the first day of school is akin to prom, can you still arrive for classes on a bus, or is a limo in order?

If that’s not bad enough, there is even worse news in the world of fashion: Plaid is back.

Plaid was the fabric of my childhood—a fabric I will gladly return to the ’60s. Schools required girls to wear skirts and dresses back then. Everything I wore was plaid. Red plaid, purple plaid, green plaid, brown plaid.

I had a plaid wardrobe that would have gotten me into any Catholic school in the city, but I wasn’t Catholic. The only solid colors I saw were in my Crayon box.

All of my childhood memories are in plaid. There was the kindergarten red plaid dress with the white Peter Pan collar. There was the brown plaid dress that was a staple of early elementary. Before fourth grade a big box from our Sears catalog order arrived with our back-to-school clothes. We tore into it with the excitement of Christmas morning and there it was, a short-sleeve, drop-waist dress in maroon plaid. I had now worn every color on the color wheel—in plaid.

In all my school pictures, I am wearing plaid. Wild curly hair and plaid. Maybe the plaid was an attempt to distract from the hair. It didn’t work.

By seventh grade I’d finally grown tall enough to shop where other girls my age shopped. It would be “so long, kindergarten plaid.” My mother took me shopping and bought me a beautiful wool skirt. It was plaid, a faux wrap-around sort of thing with a big gold safety pin. I developed a fondness for bagpipes.

I even had plaid pants. In home economics, every girl had to sew a pair of pants with a side zipper. I sewed plaid. Self-inflicted plaid. Who does such a thing to themselves?

To this day, plaid gives me bad fashion dreams, a deathly fear of wool car blankets, and I am unable to sit on a plaid sofa.

Well, now they’re back—plaid dresses, plaid coats, plaid skirts, plaid shoes, plaid accessories and plaid pants. Just when you think there is nowhere plaid has not gone before, a clothing chain carrying fashionable plaid debuts the ultimate in plaid accessories—plaid leggings. A moment of silence, please.

Let me word this carefully. Leggings are, shall we say, delicate territory even when they are in a solid. But leggings in plaid, on an adult, perchance a well-endowed adult, will be a visual challenge to the person following. Plaid in motion. I don’t know that it’s been done before. But isn’t that the point of fashion?

I suggest proceeding with caution. And preferably solids. Stripes if you must, or even animal prints, but, please—easy on the plaids. I speak from experience when I say recovery takes years.

Chance of hearing commercials is remote

By my calculations it’s been four years since I last heard a television commercial. I see the people and their lips are moving, but no words come out. You-know-who has gotten, shall we say, a little aggressive with the remote control. A little aggressive nothing—he is two shakes shy of maniacal.

Particular commercials tend to annoy him. Or at least they used to; they can’t annoy him much anymore, now that we rarely hear them. Sometimes it is annoying background music, or a classic rock tune being twisted for commercialization, that sends him diving for the remote. Other times it is an annoying voice.

Case in point, he wants to know why the GEICO gecko, and that’s GEICO as in Government Employees Insurance Company, has a British accent. Because of that incongruity, the gecko pays. Mute.

Sometimes it is a combination of annoying music and annoying voice combined. In those cases he has been known to sprint in from a different room in the house to mute them. And the doctor asks if he’s getting enough exercise.

Now that our commercials are on mute, I often try to guess what product a commercial is shilling. I go for speed. It’s like ringing in on Jeopardy, only with no competitors.

The problem is, my first guess is always the same. Having been scarred by the many, many, many commercials for men seeking help with intimacy issues (prior to our current mute policy), I am now likely to guess that nearly every commercial is for one of those pharmaceuticals.

Being that most of the commercials truly are for prescription drugs of one sort or another, I like to release the mute toward the end to hear all the dreadful warnings of things that may happen if you actually take the drug, hoping it may scare me into a healthier lifestyle.

I will say there are commercials that I not only mute but turn the station. Those would be commercials for products for women which seem to be getting more graphic (the commercials, not the women) each week. I liked it better when that genre of commercial featured a female running down the beach or whispering to her mother and the voiceover was vague and discreet. You didn’t know exactly what it was, but you knew it was for females and that was enough. Of course, that was in an age of privacy long before anyone foresaw an oversexed Georgetown coed demanding that taxpayers pay for birth control. (I’ve always wondered why she stopped short and didn’t demand coverage for deodorant, toothpaste, hair products, razors and shaving cream.)

Commercials aren’t the only things we have trouble hearing. Our youngest daughter was here when the news was on TV and remarked that she didn’t know how we could hear the news when we constantly talk over the news. I explained that we already knew the news, we just watch the news to comment on the commentators—their voices, hand gestures and whether they dress the part or look like they just stopped by the studio on their way to a bar to meet someone from match.com.

Actually, we don’t watch much television due to the proverbial saying, “There’s nothing on.” Still, I enjoy turning it on from time to time simply because it is fun to see the husband move fast.

Fit to be tied in new car seats

Our daughter-in-law just bought a new car seat for their oldest who is 5. The child will be safe and secure, which of course every parent and grandparent wants. But with a few more car seat purchases like this, the kid can kiss higher education goodbye.

The silver lining to this cloud is that she can stay in this car seat until she is 62 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds. Given the family DNA, she could be in this car seat on her way to prom and even when they drop her off at college—providing there’s any money left considering the expense of car seats.

You don’t just buy a car seat today, you go for a fitting. Stores let prospective buyers take a car seat off the shelf and to the parking lot to try it out in their vehicle. The experience is similar to test driving a car, but you never leave the lot and don’t get to enjoy the new-car smell.

If you like the car seat, and it fits with the other car seats for your other children, you return to the store and sign up for the 5-year payment plan. Just kidding. You swipe your plastic and wait for the pain that will come at the end of the next month.

Today’s car seats are marvels with cushy upholstery, great back support, tilt options and beverage cup and juice box holders. My only suggestion would be that manufacturers start including built-in electronic charging ports for children whose parents force them to stay in car seats well into their teens. (Preferably rear-facing. Just hug your knees up to your chins, kids. Yes, the football team will make fun of you, but that’s life—and why schools have anti-bullying programs.)

Our children rode in molded infant car seats that were basically open buckets on an incline. There wasn’t the convenience of snapping a carrier in and out of a base. My generation lunged into the backseat, wretched our spines, twisted our necks and shoulders, and threw hips out of joint to secure a baby in a car seat. Such is the price of love. This is also why we stayed home a lot.

Our children, who are all married now and parents of infants and toddlers, have asked how we traveled in automobiles when we were infants. I tell them that our mothers and fathers just let us roll around on the floor of the backseat, because that’s what their parents did to them and they thought it would build character. Truthfully, I believe we were toted about in little baskets that were either placed on the front seat or the floor of the front passenger seat.

Of course, we also were allowed to ride in the back of pickup trucks. Naturally, I feel obligated to say that the experience of the wind blowing in your face, your hair whipping your eyes and watching clouds of dust spin on a gravel road was not fun. Absolutely not. Riding in the back of a pickup today is something I’m not sure even dogs are allowed to do. Nor should they. Put them in a dog seat. Rear-facing. At least until they are 5’ 2” or weigh 120 pounds.

Living life against a backdrop of chaos

The man on the radio, who happened to be Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, said we are in “a proliferation of crises” like he has never seen before.

A passenger plane shot from the sky, makeshift morgues, the Ukraine on fire, allegations of children used as rocket shields, terrorists carving an ever wider and bloodier path through Iraq and thousands of children kept like dogs in a kennel on our southern border—a senator may call it a proliferation of crises, but to my eyes it looks like hell on earth.

We had a houseguest this week. As I put fresh sheets back on the bed and hung fluffy white towels fresh from the dryer in the bathroom, I enjoyed a moment of satisfaction. Order. Cleanliness.

A news picture showed a family fleeing, two adult sons, their mother walking behind, and one of the sons struggling to carry their frail and elderly father. Only the clothes on their back.

Me and my fluffy white towels.

Three of the little grands were in the backyard this week, playing in big old galvanized tubs filled with water. Dipping and pouring, yelling and laughing, waving the hose and soaked to the skin.

An image from the Mideast showed an anguished father cradling his wounded daughter in his arms, his white T-shirt soaked with grime, sweat and blood.

Where is the water to wash them?

The drone of a lawnmower in the distance is a reminder of simple routines. Hummingbirds dart in and out of the geraniums; we work, we eat, we sleep and look forward to an open house and a birthday party this weekend. Trying to reconcile the ease with the anguish is nearly debilitating.

C.S. Lewis addressed Oxford University students at the commencement of World War II as to whether learning was appropriate during time of war. The greater question, and why many beyond Oxford were listening, was how do we pursue ordinary lives while the lives and liberties of others hang in the balance?

Listeners may have expected a nuanced and comforting reply from the scholar and writer, but instead Lewis was jarring. He told the audience that we always live against a backdrop of death; we are always on the path to heaven or hell—terror simply awakens us to the fact. This veteran of the trenches of World War I said even the times we think are normal aren’t really. On closer inspection they, too, are pockmarked by disaster, emergencies and catastrophes.

We can’t put life, education, vocation, even daily routines on hold because disaster looms elsewhere and there are injustices that have not been set right. We forge ahead, building culture, pursuing knowledge and beauty, but ever mindful of the backdrop.

It’s not unlike an E.B. White quote that sits framed on my desk: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Lewis contended that theologians of the past would have considered the reminder of death a blessing, an opportunity to put your house in order—and not just the towels.

Fitness tax — feel the burn

When the strong-arming began to tax gym memberships and exercise classes in D.C. (as is already done in many states), opponents to the tax turned out to protest by striking yoga poses in public spaces—the warrior pose, the mountain pose, assorted poses with arms, hips and torsos thrust at interesting angles. The protest was so much more original than the usual placard-carrying protests that I immediately raised my free weights in support.

“Power to the posers!” It wasn’t much power, as the weights were only 2-pounders, but still. When all the posing and posturing ended, the council triumphed over their opponents who were, shall we say, stretched thin. Opponents to “wellness taxes” often claim such surcharges discourage people from joining gyms. If you ask anyone with two cases of soda and nine bags of chips in their grocery cart whether a tax on gym memberships keeps them from working out, the answer will likely be, “Cool ranch.”

My concern is that taxing workouts will one day include my personal morning workout, which consists of elbow bends as I lift coffee to my mouth in a series of strenuous reps. Lift, drink, repeat. Exhale. Lift, drink, repeat. Feel the burn.

I propose we liftall taxes (striking a warrior pose here) on gyms, classes and morning coffee reps, and instead raise revenue by taxing every silly and false claim touted by the workout industry.

I know. You’re saying, “That’s ridiculous, it can’t be done.” Of course it can’t, but I’m proposing it anyway.

Let’s start with “Sexy Summer Arms.” Every time a workout promises sexy summer arms, tax it. I’m sick of hearing about sexy summer arms. Most people have winter arms. They took all fall and winter to get that way and there’s no workout under the sun that will turn them into sexy summer arms before the next frost.

I also propose taxing that annoying online ad, “Five Foods You Should Never Eat,” which always pictures a banana. Tax them for disparaging the humble and potassium-rich banana. Dole will have my back on this one.

I also propose taxing the word “killer,” as in killer cardio, killer body and killer abs. When was the last time someone stopped a crime by using killer abs? “Put the gun down now, or I’ll flash my killer abs.” I thought so. Killer anything—tax it.

“A New Body in 2 Weeks!” You’re not going to have a new body in two weeks, you’re going to have an older body in two weeks. Tax it.

I also propose taxing all workout instructors with long arms. They make it look easy to lie on your back, extend your legs at a 45 degree angle, lift your head and chest, extend your arms and touch your toes. People with short arms cannot do this no matter how much the long-armed instructor purrs, “Stretch, stretch, stretch.”

Finally, tax each and every workout that promises to have you wearing Daisy Duke shorts. Nobody—I repeat, nobody—should be wearing Daisy Duke shorts. Not even Daisy Duke. Tax the shorts. Tax Daisy, too. The way the debt is soaring, we’ll need the revenue

The disasters we never know we missed

Walking through a Wal-Mart parking lot, I was surprised when a toddler shot past me. I looked to see where he came from and spotted his mother, halfway down the aisle of cars, yelling at him to stop.

He was laughing and giggling, barreling full-speed ahead toward the crosswalk. A large truck driving parallel to the store was approaching the crosswalk. There was no way the driver could see what, or who, was about to dart into his path.

I was ahead of the mom, but nowhere close to arm’s reach. The mother was yelling for the boy to stop. I yelled for the truck to stop—as though someone in a truck with windows rolled up could hear.

An older man, only a few feet from the door to the store, turned to look behind him. Providence turned his head to the right. Had he turned to the left, he would have missed everything. But turning to the right, he swept in the panorama: the approaching truck, the breakaway toddler, the distant mother.

Then, as though he had been training for this moment his entire life, the man took three broad strides and stood directly in the path of the oncoming truck, shielding the boy.

It was like having a front-row seat at a divine symphony. An unseen director cued the musicians and they played their parts with precision timing. The toddler crossed, the man stood still and the truck stopped.

When everyone resumed breathing, the momma was holding her boy, the hero disappeared into Wal-Mart and the truck drove away.

I wonder how many disasters are averted and we never know? How many times have we been rescued from a crosswalk and never known, never been able to say thanks?

Mothers have some faint idea of how these things work. The fact that certain models of children reach adulthood in one piece is evidence of the invisible hand of God.

Yet most of the time, we cross streets, change lanes, round corners and pass through the days of the week oblivious to the disasters skirting our path. We are unaware of how that second trip back into the house avoided a car accident. We have no comprehension of how orchestrated the casual conversations are that land us a job lead, the name of a specialist or a new idea for reviving a broken relationship.

The strings and the brass and the woodwinds play together and we are unaware of the harmony.

When our children were young, we taught them to play a little game called “I Spy.” When they saw something happen that might have the fingerprint of God on it, they were to say, “I Spy!” It was an attempt to foster gratitude and cultivate the practice of seeing beyond the tangible.

What I witnessed in the Wal-Mart crosswalk was an “I Spy.” It was good to be reminded of divine symphonies silently at work.

Vast difference between arriving legally and illegally

Our neighborhood is populated with immigrants. We were diverse before diversity was cool.

Ileana is from Russia. She lives in an apartment complex nearby and walks the sidewalks in our subdivision at least once a day, sometimes twice. She casually strolls, frequently pausing to take in flowers and shrubs. She is happy to chat, ask about your grandbabies and tell you about her son the doctor now living in San Francisco.

One block down is a couple from Afghanistan. The woman came ahead of her husband, along with their son. She came with her widowed sister and her sister’s four boys. I was volunteering, helping children find their classrooms on the first day of elementary school, when those little boys arrived on their bus years ago. They had identical buzzed haircuts, big brown eyes, spoke no English and were terrified. Our neighbor’s son is now a podiatrist. She and her sister became hair stylists.

Behind us lives a family who fled Cambodia. The mother loves to tell how she opened a day care in her home as soon as they arrived so that their two boys could learn English from other children. She, a seamstress, will also explain the importance of homework and trips to the library. “Have children read, read, read,” she says. “Then one day—they take off!” Her hand shoots into the air like a plane soaring into the sky. One of their sons is now a doctor, the other an engineer.

A couple from China lives next door. He teaches at the med school; she does medical research. Their son graduated high school with our son and went on to earn a doctorate in computer science.

A man who emigrated from India several years ago reupholstered a chair for us recently. His eyes brim with tears as he tells of his dream of immigrating to America “to be an entrepreneur.” He’s not cheap, but he’s very good.

All of these friends, neighbors and acquaintances immigrated legally. Some traveled great distances to keep appointments, undergo interviews and physical exams, and obtain required forms and valid passports. They waited months, or years, secured sponsors and promises of employment, had petitions filed and acquired visas.

It is bewildering when immigration laws apply to some but not others—or the laws are enforced some of the time, but not all of the time.

Fifty-two thousand unaccompanied children have illegally flooded our southern borders since October, most transported by human smugglers. Many of these children are under age 10, some barely old enough to walk. Having overwhelmed our resources, they are housed like an explosion of strays in giant stinking kennels while officials plead for donations of underwear. This is no Ellis Island. This is not the American dream; it is a living nightmare.

There are pathways for getting here, but this isn’t one of them.

Every government and cartel behind this massive crush of children must be held accountable. Fifty-two thousand, with more on the way, is no coincidence. Parents are responsible, too.

The situation screams for the Wisdom of Solomon—justice tempered with mercy. Any nation that uses children as political pawns is a nation without spine or substance.

Dumping children is always an egregious wrong.

Where the wild things are

In the O. Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two small-time criminals kidnap a banker’s son and hold him for ransom. The banker does not respond as he is enjoying a break from the child.

rabbit jumpingThe kid proclaims himself Red Chief and exhausts his captors. He even announces that one of his abductors is now his prisoner and threatens to scalp him by daybreak. Eventually the kidnappers pay the father to take the child back.

Two of our grandchildren came to stay with us recently and, while I would never say that the darlings were as rambunctious as Red Chief, I was thankful we did not have a tomahawk on the premises.

They are children who register on the lively end of the activity spectrum. Part of the reason is that they and their baby brother live in a 2-bedroom Chicago apartment, which in their case is tantamount to housing wild mustangs in a small horse trailer. Naturally, when they have access to wide-open spaces, they enjoy running, galloping and pawing at the ground.

Invigorated by the great outdoors, one of the things the active 5-year-old likes to do is wake the household each morning with an owl call. She’s quite good, really. She does a very lifelike screech owl. If you have ever been awakened by the loud and piercing cry of a screech owl inches from your face, you will understand why there is no need for morning caffeine.

You will find that you start—and finish —the day moving quickly, startling easily and acquiring a small tic beneath your right eye.

They spent nearly every daylight hour playing in the backyard. They barreled outside as early as 7:15 or 7:30. I can’t remember exactly, but the neighbors do.

They spent hours with the sandbox, two big old galvanized tubs and the hose, basically realigning natural resources. They excavated sand from the sandbox, flooded the sandbox, then returned sand to the sandbox until they perfected a marvelous, disgusting swamp-like mixture that cemented to their skin and found its way into every nook, cranny, towel and bed in the house.

As each day drew to a close they would appear to wind down a bit, line up two chairs in the middle of the backyard and have a seat.

“Peaceful,” the husband said.

“The calm before the storm,” I said.

They were sitting motionless to stake out a rabbit. Not just any rabbit, but a rabbit that is a routine visitor and so large he could easily be Sunday dinner. I may have told the kids if they could catch the rabbit they could keep it. So they sat and waited armed with nothing but fierce speed and their bare hands.

They came so close to the rabbit so many times that I reached for my grandmother’s Wild Game cookbook. But the rabbit always escaped, each evening bouncing higher and higher in the air until it appeared to be part white-tailed deer.

The children have returned to the city, the sand has been swept away and the rabbit has resumed regular evening visits, although it appears a bit nervous. It has acquired a tic beneath its right eye.

Little space cadet too well grounded

One year when I was in elementary school, I was chosen to go to a summer space camp. It was a special privilege, the sort of special privilege that I found terrifying. Surely there had been an astronomical mistake. I kept waiting for someone to correct it, but nobody ever did. And so the girl who considered gravity her best friend attended space camp.

EarthLooking back, all I can think is that those were desperate times. The Russians had launched Sputnik. John Glenn had orbited the earth three times in Friendship 7 and Americans were trying to win the race for space.

Space camp was for kids who teachers thought might have potential in the sciences. If my country was depending on me to help win the race for space, my country was doomed. It was a heavy burden for an 8-year-old to know she was about to bring down a super power.

On our first day at Space Camp we made helmets from empty Baskin-Robbins ice cream containers. We cut out holes for our faces and then painted them. I painted mine green, the color of grass, grass that grows on the ground and stays on the ground, the same place we should stay, too.

To this day, I have imagined the inside of every space shuttle, and NASA itself, smelling like mint chocolate chip ice cream and green tempera paint.

Our solar system at space camp was made of graduated balls plastered with strips of newsprint slathered in thick glue. The paper Mache planets simulated rotation courtesy of fishing line and coat hangers. Saturn’s rings were pipe cleaners and we included Pluto without a hint of debate or controversy.

The one not-terrifying thing about Space Camp was learning about the sky and the stars. We learned that the Big Dipper was connected to the Little Dipper, and the Great Bear was connected to the Little Bear, and the hip bone was connected to the neck bone. I may have been confused. In any case, we learned that you could see interesting things in the night sky, including the Moon and sometimes Mars.

Even now, when I try to point out Mars in the evening sky, others will insist that what I think is Mars is actually an incoming plane. They are just jealous that they did not go to space camp. OK, so maybe Mars is moving toward the airport.

The point is, if you aren’t stepping outside and looking up from time to time, you are missing some of the best this world has to offer. If you are in the country on a cloudless night, you can feel yourself dwarfed by countless jewels glittering in the sky.

If you’re on the late end of early morning, you may catch dawn as the horizon streaks with a twist of apricot and neon orange. I learned this much at space camp: You don’t need a Baskin-Robbins helmet to enjoy an amazing view.