Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Entertaining Angels

Summer Sunday mornings have been the same in our household for a number of years. They combine as much rugged outdoorsmanship as our group can handle (a few breaths of fresh air, but always with quick access to pavement and bathrooms) with an eclectic sort of spirituality that seems to fit our love for random variety. On Sundays at 10, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we are at the rotating church services held at the Lake Harriett bandshell.

We bike or walk, and bring along whatever able-bodied dog wants to join (and be used as a pillow for maximum lolling). We sit as far back as possible from the action, under a faraway tree that’s just within earshot of the service. We can never, ever, be found on the benches where the holy, attentive people are gathered. In fact, we’re as far back as it’s possible to sit while still calling it “going to church.”

With blankets, drinks, snacks and sometimes even the Sunday funnies to pass the time, we listen sporadically and comment frequently, with special attention to the quality of the musical offerings. We are heard to frequently marvel that the same 50ish woman with the awful voice seems to be trilling loudly in every denomination in the Twin Cities. She sure gets around.

Summer is winding to a close, and there are not many more semi-spiritual Sundays left for us. This past Saturday night, I looked deep into the eyes of my brood, realized that Sunday would be their last sleep-in for a while, and declared services “optional.” Much as I’d miss the kids, I thought it might be fun to sit quietly, act like a grownup and actually, you know, pray.

And then The Boy showed up. He used to be in school with my youngest, a few years ago. He has since left her school, which is a great place for an attractive blond child of normal intelligence, with a mommy and daddy and a minivan. For anyone else, not so much. He was in the not-so-much crowd, having some behavior and learning problems of which I was vaguely aware. Mary Katherine moved then, and moves now, in an ocean of girls, but his name came up frequently as the instigator of  actions she found repulsive. Boys.

We have run into him at outside church from time to time. He loved our old giant dog, and was very sad when he saw us in June and heard that the big dog had died in February. This Sunday, I saw him approach with a sinking heart. This kid is a talker. He found us right when the service was warming up, and came to meet the new giant dog and to tell me everything that had happened to him during the past six weeks. I was about to make some grownupy comment ("let's pay attention in church, dear"), when I happened to hear  what they were reading up at the bandshell. It was from Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

There goes the Sunday morning.

The Boy was telling me his worries, but in that boylike braggy way those male types have. “I’ll be riding my bike to middle school,” he told me, and then described (in detail; this kid does not spare the detail) the way he’d be arranging his lock so no one would steal the bike. So he was worried about theft. He’d gotten a cell phone, and gave me a long description of its technical features, then told me he’d been allowed to get it because he’d be alone while riding his bike. So he was worried about kidnappers. The Ransom of Red Chief flitted into my mind, but I swatted it away.

He got out his camera and began to show me every photo he’d taken of his Chicago vacation, including those from the plane window. I heard the ubiquitous church lady warm up for a shrill hymn, and I imagined Jesus holding his hands over his ears from the misery of hearing her singing, and worse yet, about his own self. So I thought about what I was doing, just looking deeply into the eyes of someone who had so much he wanted to tell me. If he was talking to a boring old woman like me, he must be desperate for someone to hear him.  True, he didn’t seem much like an angel -- just like a skinny boy who was trying not to let anyone know how afraid he was.

I hope I did what I was supposed to on Sunday.  I certainly didn't pay attention to church, but I did  entertain. And even if he wasn’t an angel, I had a sense that spending time with this kid was truly how I was supposed to celebrate one of my last summer Sundays.

Good luck at school this week, Boy. God go with you.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why Pea See

I’ve been reading a book about Stagedoor Manor, the famous performing arts camp in upstate New York that was attended by Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr., and a whole bunch of neurotic Manhattanites. In the early pages, I was sold on what a swell spot it is. One camper quote that caught me was, “The camp is like Oz. Your real life is in black and white, but the minute you step off the bus, everything is in color.”

Wow, I thought, I wonder if I could set up a crack lab in the downstairs bathroom so I could raise the $15,000 to send Mary Katherine to this camp next summer.

Then, as I was about halfway through the book, she got a part in a Minneasota Fringe Festival play that was being produced by Youth Performance Company’s Young Artists’ Council. I finished the book while I waited for her at rehearsals, and I began to wonder if Stagedoor Manor was more like Oz than perhaps I’d realized at first – replete with a pill-addled teen who would soon become a boozy train wreck, and perhaps with a scary flying monkey or two thrown in for good measure.

Biding my time and sitting on YPC’s comfy red couch, I read about the highly sophisticated campers who clawed and fought for those juicy Sondheim show roles. One visiting instructor said she had middle schoolers describe themselves as “Kristen Chenowith types” or “Sutton Foster types.” There were many stories about the camp’s lofty industry connections, but after a while, it really began to seem like an industry – grinding out row after row of determined, ambitious stars, and very few whole, good people who just happened to be actors.

I began to compare the descriptions I was reading with what was going on in rehearsals across the hall. The play in which Mary Katherine had been cast, “Semidarkness,” was a parody of “Twilight” that was far from Sondheim and much closer to Looney Tunes. Written by a group of funny and energetic under-21-year-olds, the show was bursting with silliness, satire and plenty of physical comedy.

But more than the material, there was the production process, which was collaborative, inclusive and – have I mentioned this yet? – fun. Mary would bounce out of rehearsals with a glowing face, full of stories of how hard they had worked and how much they had laughed.

This was her first show, and the other cast members were much older than she is, with many heading off to college the week after the show closed. They were not veteran performers by Stagedoor Manor standards – no agents, managers or imdb listings. They’d started hanging around the supremely welcoming environment of Youth Performance Company, then they’d stayed and learned some stuff. Some of them were heart-breakingly talented actors, I thought. As I began to put the names with the faces later, I realized that some of the most talented ones were the very people who had gone out of their way to be kind to Mary Katherine. They were about to leave YPC for college at the end of the summer, but they still took the time to show my middle schooler how it was done. You worked hard. You created something good with your friends. You put on a show.

The results have been on display this week. The show has gotten good reviews (one public radio guy called it “the best of the Fringe,” but then he got the name wrong and called it “Sunny Darkness.” Critics.). The houses have been fairly full, even at odd festival times like 10 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. But more importantly, the cast has worked together to pull off something wonderful and entertaining, no matter what a bunch of old people say. To use an “industry” term, not only is their end product high-quality, but they had a terrific process all along the way. They cherished each other’s company and tried to learn from one another. They enjoyed the ride.

Mary Katherine is determined, for the moment, to pursue a life in theater, so it won’t be long before she understands what a rare thing her experience with this show has been. Perhaps I’ve seen “All About Eve” one too many times, but I have a pretty good idea that she will be shouted at, disrespected, manipulated and double-crossed, probably all before she graduates from high school. She knows now that it won’t be easy, but she’s the only one who can ever decide if it’s worth it. I’m just happy that her start in the “industry” was such a kind and glorious way to begin a career.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Short Informational Meeting (and a Small, Tasteful Gift)

Henry David Thoreau warned that enterprises requiring new clothes should be avoided. I have an addendum for that one, Hank: walk quickly in the opposite direction whenever someone says that you are required to attend a short informational meeting.

Some people’s summers have been full, as Jack Nicholson famously said, of good times and noodle salad. My summer, on the other hand, has been full of informational meetings. I‘ve gotten the folder, received the complimentary pen and sipped the watery decaf. As the proceedings have unspooled, I have (so far) refrained from laying my head on the conference table and moaning; nor have I attempted to poke out my own eyeballs with that complimentary pen. And don’t think I haven’t been tempted.

A quick review of my summer includes the foster dog volunteer who made me drive all the way to the outer rings of desperate suburbia, and then informed me, upon noting my prompt arrival, that we’d postpone start time for 45 minutes “because people are running late.” When she followed up this news with the 411 that the meeting would be THREE hours long, I died, just a little bit, inside. The three-hour training turned out be one hour of useful information, larded with a two-hour-storyfest that covered every dog she’d every cared for, including a lengthy discourse on pustules that was not, I have to say, an appetite-booster.

I've got enough material for a SIM (Short, Informational Meeting) Hall of Fame & Shame.  Shame is for for the Crisis Nursery staffer whose idea of a four-hour training was to make the volunteer group take turns reading the training manual aloud to each other. Fame is for Shari DeBlieck at VEAP, whose information-packed volunteer introduction meeting stayed true to her promise.  It started on time, lasted exactly sixty minutes and included green lollipops at the end. Snaps to Shari.

Back here at home, Emma has officially become a Citizen of the World. Hosting an exchange student turned out to be her lifelong dream. Who knew? If this turns out to be the same sort of lifelong dream that the guitar was in fourth grade, we’ve got a problem, because we have a sixteen year old Italian arriving on Saturday, and I don’t think she’ll be happy with two weeks of enthusiasm followed by six months on the floor of Emma’s bedroom closet.

For an enterprise as lofty as world citizenship, there was both a home visit and a SIM. I sat for the requisite three hours in another room in another suburb, hearing many a wry anecdote of La Vie Internationale. Helpful tips included the suggestions to arrive at the student pickup point with a “small, tasteful gift.” Say again? Many families, I was told, had created interpretive posters and meaning-laden artwork.

Dear God.

We had a family discussion on the S. and T. gift idea, which went something like this:

Me: How about a photograph of us? We could be holding a sign that says “welcome.” I could even go to the dollar store and get a frame.

Emma: Gum. We should give her gum.

Me: After a pause for a Brian Keith rub of the face ("Family Affair” on You Tube!) Honey, it needs to be meaningful and welcoming.

Emma: Nothing says “welcome” like gum. If I came to a foreign country, full of foreigners, the one thing I would want is gum.

Me: It’s supposed to be lasting.

Emma: Minty mintiness, that’s what anyone would want.

Me: Let’s think about it and regroup tomorrow. Meet me in the living room at six p.m. for a short informational meeting.

Emma: Bring gum. I don’t go to meetings without gum.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why I Ate That Spider

Just so there’s no confusion, I’m admitting it right up front. I ate a spider. I plucked it off the summer flower on which it was crawling, sandwiched it between two snowy white petals, popped it in my mouth and swallowed.

In my defense, I have only this to say: it’s August.

By this I mean: my children have been out of school for sixty days now; no, make that sixty-two. I have spent a significant portion of each day picking up things that don’t belong to me, putting them back, and then noticing their reappearance a few hours later. I’ve also devoted considerable hours to driving back and forth, and sometimes in multi-stop circles, to places I don’t want to be.

In the days leading up to the Spider Incident, I had been experiencing a bit more stress than usual. Daughter Number Two was gone 12 hours each day at a musical theatre workshop, followed by rehearsals for her Fringe Festival play. For Daughter Number One, this compounded the misery of one friend off at camp and another at a two-week family reunion. She was left with me, and only me, for each long, hot and boring day.

Granted, she used her time wisely. Any little character flaws that my father had missed or my mother-in-law had not yet gotten around to, she noted, in detail. My insistence, for example, that we keep our commitment to the Crisis Nursery for a 7:30 a.m. shift on Wednesday was cause for a Spanish Inquisition of verbal assault that commenced Tuesday afternoon. Nursery duties done (“Volunteer work!” was her chipper Facebook posting), she was so bored with my company, she reported, that she took a nap one evening, probably the fifth or sixth such event in her entire life.

So, when Friday morning dawned, I was a little, well, worn down. I did my usual rosarydogsmoredogsyogaerrandsbackagain drill. Because it was the birthday of the mother of Emma’s closest friends, and because Emma prefers this woman’s company over all other grownups on the planet, I wanted to make sure, before the next round of Places I Have to Drive people, that I created a bouquet of summer flowers to leave on her doorstep. She is a peach, and Emma loves her. I had mentioned this plan the night before, thinking it might all be done before I got home. Yes, I do still believe in the tooth fairy, funny you should mention that. When I got home, Emma was still in bed, so I picked the flowers, found a vase, tied on a ribbon and wrote a card. I estimated when we’d need to leave to give us enough time to drop the flowers off and still make it to Emma’s chiropractor appointment. (Volleyball season; wrist pain) and began a shouted countdown up the stairs.

As we got to the car and I handed her the vase, I swear I had a premonition. I knew this would not end well. “Is the water going to spill on you? Is holding the vase going to hurt your wrist?” I asked, trying to predict the disaster, never suspecting that Birnam Wood was, in fact, going to move right down my gullet. Withering glance duly noted, I started the car and drove off. Within moments, I heard a gasp that signified terror of the highest order. Assuming I’d see spurts of blood, or perhaps a villain in the back seat with a machete, I turned to my darling daughter while still trying to stay in my lane (if you’ve ever driven with me, that part just made you cringe). She was holding the vase out stiffly, under my nose. “A spiiiiiiiiiiider,” she whispered, as if the spider would hear her and commence to shoot frightening Flower Spider Poison.

I tried to think fast, not my strong suit. If I picked it up and squished it, she’d scream. If I tried to throw it out the window, she’d insist that it had crawled back in the car. So I did the only thing I could think of that would get rid of the spider forever and make her think about something else.

I made a spider sandwich with some petals, and I ate it.

I was right; the focus was way off the spider and back on Mom What Were You Thinking, just as it had been all week.

I'm sorry, little spider.  And, on the plus side, school starts in 22 days.