Monday, December 31, 2012

This is Now: Auld Lang Syne

I didn’t read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a kid. And I was much more interested in sneaking in an episode of Dallas than I was watching the TV show when it aired. But my daughter and I have spent to past few months slowly working our way through Little House in the Big Woods, the first in a series we’ll surely finish before she heads to college.

Little Laura, the Wisconsin girl, living with her family in the 1870’s, taught us a lot about life back then. I was struck by how entirely self-sufficient the family was, especially the mom.

She could make butter, maple sugar, cheese, straw hats, calico dresses, and feed the cows.

She had a day for everything:
Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday

And then there was Pa. He played the fiddle and told stories at night, set traps during the day, hunted, and went to town to trade. His constant companion, essential to his protection from bears and panthers and the family’s supply of food, was his gun. It, like Ma’s schedule for work, functioned as part of a methodical system, cleaned, dried and stored high above the door when not by his side.

I learned a lot about the origins of particular phrases and customs. Even a hundred and forty years ago, they were eating cheese curds; white sugar used to be special, and a clearing was an actual clearing.

Towards the end of the book, the big machine and threshers came to work the wheat. “Eight horses were hitched to it (the machine) and made it go, so this was an eight-horsepower machine.” It did the work in one day that would have taken two weeks and four men.

And I saw the personality or spirit that I associate with my husband’s grandmother and the Oklahoma pioneers to whom she is related. It’s a spirit little Laura is proud of, one that her Pa described in saying this about the machine he brought in for the wheat: “Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I’m all for progress. It’s a great age we’re living in.”

In the final pages of the book, after we’d spent 200 pages immersed in the past, I realized the great inversion Wilder had played on me. The book was not about the past. It was about the present moment.

Ma sits in her rocker by the fire. Pa plays his fiddle. For a moment, I was haunted by the idea that Ma was next to me, her flesh and bones more than a century old, rocking all the same in the dim light.

Pa sings: “Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne? And the days of auld lang syne, my friend, And the days of auld lang syne, Shall auld acquaintance be forgot And the days of auld lang syne?”

And as the book ends, Laura thinks about the meaning of the lyrics and her parents in the warm room.

“This is now,” she thinks.

Wilder writes:

“She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Dear Readers: Happy New Year. I am starting 2013 with a new post on a new blog I am a part of called The Educated Mom. It is the official blog of a new education technology company here in Princeton. 

I will still be writing Lunch Box Mom, but I invite you to visit The Educated Mom when you feel like talking about education and our kids. I hope you'll add your two cents.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thoughts for Tomorrow and the Road Ahead

The link to The New York Times Motherlode blog, How Not to Talk With Children About the Sandy Hook Shooting, by KJ Dell’Antonia, could not have come at a better time. It’s Sunday. I am thinking about school tomorrow, not only because of the big picture issues, but also because of the small, personal ones.

My seven-year-old knows nothing about the school shooting. What if a classmate brings it up? Will she feel more afraid because she’s hearing about it from a peer? Should I bring it up first?

This dilemma lives somewhere in my mind next to the other tugging thoughts- empathetic grief for the parents in Connecticut and sadness that until now a rational discussion of the impact of gun violence has been a polarizing issue filled with fear and deflection, instead of an opportunity for leadership.

My dear friend from high school wrote to me on Friday, wondering what I might be thinking about the events in Newtown, Connecticut. But it was her own Facebook post, borrowed from her cousin that I kept firmly in my mind that day. It was a quote from Mr. Rogers: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of "disaster",  I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in the world."

Late Friday night, awake with a fever, my four-year-old hopped into my bed and after some Motrin, slept the rest of the night snuggled up next to me. The first words out of her mouth on Saturday morning, when she woke up and looked at me were:

“I don’t want to be shot at school.”

We’d had no news coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting in our house: no TV, no radio, no newspaper. She hadn’t overheard a conversation.

Did she have a fever-induced nightmare? Did she absorb my worries, sleeping so close to me all night? Was she attuned to something spiritual hovering in the air? Or was she thinking of the kind of shot she gets from the doctor?

I don’t know.

But a seed of worry had been planted in her head. I tried to talk with her about it without confusing her thoughts with my own. I tried to listen to what she was expressing, instead of assuming it was what I was thinking. I am not sure I handled the conversation well. But since then I've read the Motherlode post, which offers concrete advice on, among other things, how not to talk about Sandy Hook.

How about you? Did you speak with your kids? Did they come to you with questions? What are your thoughts for tomorrow and the road ahead?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Catalogs: Are We Buying It?

Catalogs. They are not exactly the portraits of John Singer Sargent, but each day when another batch arrives, I flip through them, wondering what they say about life in 2012.

My friend, the playwright, Jessica Provenz, suggested I end my conversation with this environmentally unfriendly house guest by visiting a site such as Catalog Choice or 41 Pounds, but I am not ready.

It was through overexposure to the Barbie Collector Edition catalogs that my seven-year-old became inoculated. “Does Barbie dye her hair?” she asked, not long ago. Metaphorically, at least, her roots were showing.

And, how else would I know about Nova Natural Toys, whose catalog I received for the first time this year. My kids may be too old, but it seems the next wave of kids can pine for the $79 Fair Maiden Dress made of linen and cotton, or a Knight’s Leather Tunic, with laces on the side, made in Germany. Girls and boys appear in separate parts of this medieval fiefdom, but rayon and pleather have at last been vanquished.

To be fair, the toys and clothes look dreamy, but the breakdown of them so strictly by gender, as I noted when I critiqued the 2010 Fisher-Prince summer catalog two years ago, remains a curiosity to me.

So I understand the paradox when I say that the one toy catalog that I feel best-reflects life as we know it in 2012 is the one that does not reflect catalog-life as we know it in 2012. Perhaps, in the true spirit of consumerism, it is aspirational. The HearthSong catalog is what I want life to be like.

Is it old-fashioned or forward thinking? Does it capture an element of today’s zeitgeist? I am no longer sure. But I know the HearthSong catalog stands out for two reasons: it depicts childhood as a time of exploration and creative play; and it shows girls and boys playing together—with the same toys.

I called the HearthSong Director of Marketing, Beverly Fries, and asked her if the depiction of boys and girls playing together was something they planned.

It was a silly question. Nothing seems un-staged in the pages of most catalogs. But how often do we dismiss an alternative depiction as simply an oversight or a matter of convenience? If we felt it was deliberate we’d be more outraged. We’d be like thirteen-year-old McKenna Pope who, inspired by her four-year-old brother, gained 30,000 signatures in an effort to get Hasbro to change the way it markets Easy-Bake Ovens.

"I don't want them to make a boys' Easy-Bake Oven and girls' Easy-Bake Oven. I want them to make an Easy-Bake Oven for kids," she said in an AP story this month.

So how did HearthSong create a catalog that presents girls and boys with equal creative opportunity?

“We go through daily discussions about that. It’s something we strive for,” Fries said, when I spoke with her last week. It goes back, she said, to the original owner, Barbara Kane, a California mom who started the company in 1983.

“There’s not a differentiation between girls and boys. They all have imaginations. They all learn from social interaction,” Fries said.

Yes, HearthSong has a few pages of pink. And, for the most part, it’s girls playing in the Pink Party Pavilion. And, we all know a few girls who would love to, too. My four-year-old included.

But, check out the girl and boy playing together with the Domino Race set, or the girl and boy each using hand tools. Notice two who look like siblings working together on the Vortex Glow-in-the-Dark Marble Run, or a boy and girl standing at the Gourmet Chef Kitchen. And then there’s the girl modeling a tree fog t-shirt standing next to a boy dressed as a raptor who doesn’t seem to think she will give him cooties.

It’s not by accident.

“We value the experience of childhood so much,” Fries told me, “we want to make sure we are not contributing to the stereotypes.”

In the chain of command that turns out a catalog, I wanted to know where the buck stopped. It was clear from speaking to Fries that it’s just as important to ask where it starts.

Does any of this matter?

Ginia Belafante’s recent story in The New York Times, “The Great Divide: Now in the Toy Aisle” spoke of the dichotomy between the types of toys sold at Toys “R” Us and the educationally-minded ones sold in smaller, more expensive shops. Even if the ones claiming to boost cognitive ability can’t prove they do so, she says:

“At the very least, though, they signal to a child a parental investment in ambition and accomplishment, in active absorption over passive observation. It would take a very expansive view of the iCarly Truth or Dare Bear to believe it might do the same thing.”

The idea that value can be derived from a message as much as from substance applies to catalogs as well. When it comes to signaling the investment of a company in the people it professes to serve, it’s clear a picture is worth a thousand words.
HearthSong's Vortex Marble Run