Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Marley & Me & Benny

The great thing about long visits to family are the occasional, unexpected pockets of free time. At home, if you have a spare 20 minutes, there are at least 30 to-dos backed up behind your eyeballs ("Oh, I have a chance to change the litter/change the sheets/vaccuum the carpet/fix that weird faucet drip/call the cable people....")

But when you're at a someone's house and lunch isn't for two more hours and it's 15 degrees outside and you're too scared to approach your sister-in-law's psycho 6,000-piece jigsaw puzzle (her latest was simply a pile of glittery and wooden beads with a single thread of blue yarn running through it), you suddenly have nothing to do. The dishes are wiped, the sleeping bags are rolled and you can't wash the stinky laundry in your suitcase because your poor hostess is busy washing the 500 towels her family is using. I suppose a superior guest would root around in the pantry and spontaneously bake up a key-lime pie (what is in key-lime pie anyway?), but I am not that sort.

Well, there's Benny, of course. But the last thing he wants while running around with his cousins getting into trouble is Mom. So I find myself reading kid's books from my neice's room or the region's sad little local newspaper. One family connection tried to get me to read his business book ("Overloaded" or "Overweirded" or something like that) but I'm still recovering from "Who Moved My Cheese?" and that was 10 years ago. So I chat with my relatives and eat another cookie and I'm happy.

Last Monday took the free time thing to a whole new level. I not only had a free 20 minutes, I had a free DAY. A bunch of guys turned up at my brother's house at 9 a.m. to replace the windows and we couldn't be there. So at 9:01 a.m., we were cruising Ann Arbor in our rented Chevy Aveo and life couldn't get any better.

It was still minus-10 or something and I was shivering in my thin San Francisco coat, so we decided to start the excitement at a Bob Evans. Benny brought along his new Army toys (a Christmas gift from Uncle Andy) and created an elaborate military compound on his side of the table, complete with sandbags and itty-bitty fuel drums.

"After this, let's go see a movie," I said.

That presented a problem. Benny doesn't really like kids' movies. "Shrek" freaks him out and a "Cinderella" video sends him hiding behind a chair. He enjoyed "Bolt" at a recent birthday outing for his best friend, I hear, but that was a big exception. Ron brought home "Toy Story II" last month and he refused to watch it. The only Disney movie he likes is "Bambi."

I put this down to the frenetic pace of most current kids' movies. Yeah, I know that "Cinderella" doesn't exactly start with a bang -- she's just getting out of bed, for Christ's sake -- but then there's all those mice running from the cat. Almost all kids' movies these days start with some frantic chase scene with constant camera cuts and pounding music. It just sets Benny off. Maybe he watches too much PBS. Maybe he needs some antidepressants. All I know is, don't get this kid near "Ratatouille."

So we decided to take Benny to the 11:35 showing of "Marley & Me," which is about a newspaper couple who adopt a very badly behaved dog. Benny happily accompanied us to Showcase Cinema, up to the ticket counter and into the theater himself. But when the first preview appeared on the screen, he realized he'd been had and would be forced to *gasp* see a movie.

"I want to go home," Benny said loudly.

"Look, it's a kids' movie preview. Maybe you'd like to see it," I said gamely. The screen showed an animated girl who lived in a weird house, then walked into another weird house and there was screaming.

"I want to go home!" Benny shouted.

"Look, if you stay through part of the movie, I'll buy you popcorn," I said desperately.

Benny tried to leave twice during the previews, but then blessedly "Marley & Me" began and it started with some nice scenery and a voiceover. We all calmed down.

"Is this the movie, Mommy?" Benny whispered.

"Yes," I said.

Silence. But I knew he was thinking, "I want to go home."

Benny liked the movie. The dog was nearly every scene and when he wasn't, Benny munched on his popcorn. There was a scary part when Owen Wilson finds a neighbor who was stabbed and I knew that was coming (I'd read the book), so I put Benny on my lap and asked him about other stuff and he was OK. The scene with Marley half-hanging out the car and walking on his front paws while Owen Wilson held on to his rear legs and Jennifer Aniston inched the car along the road cracked Benny up.

It was a nice, long movie as well (too long, really). So the window guys were finished at Andy's house by the closing credits.

I didn't think much about our outing until I visited my old Ann Arbor mother's group. They had a playdate the next day and it was fun and chaotic as usual. I mentioned the movie to the other mothers.

"You took Benny to that movie?" one mother asked in shocked tones. "I read that was unsuitablefor preschoolers .. you know ... the ending."

"The ending?" I asked. Then I remembered. The dog died. Actually the dog died for a good 30 minutes, since the movie's producers felt moved to milk every possible tear out of it, with flashbacks and pictures and little children's moving speeches beside a freshly dug grave. It didn't seem to bother Benny; we had talked before about how animals don't live as long as people.

I don't know, maybe we're courting childhood trauma here and recurring dead-dog nightmares, but at least he wasn't hiding under the theater seat. For really scary themes, you can't beat a kitchen scene with a French-cooking rat.

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