Saturday, July 28, 2012

In the Time of the Butterflies

A few days ago I asked which sounds more fun, attending a butterfly festival and playing Go Fish in the park. Wally and I were here after school one afternoon and I was just planning to take him to the local playground. Between various appointments, plans with friends and going away on the weekends we haven't really taken part in the local scene this summer (even though that's something I keep championing in my blog -- just hang around, run through sprinklers, see who else is outside -- more on that hypocrisy later).

So, just as we were gathering sidewalk chalk and a bucket, I got an email (Why, that last frantic email check? No reason) about a butterfly festival happening on the High Line. It would include making butterfly wings, wearing them in a little parade, then releasing hundreds of real live butterflies into the wild. Obviously we have to do that. We live right near the High Line, and we happen to be free, and Wally's not taking a nap so...

For about ten minutes I changed direction and was trying to figure out would he walk down or should I take the stroller (close to a mile work each direction, hot day, tired child)? But if I take the stroller he'll surely fall asleep either on the way there or back and that throws off the night. So should he just walk? But he'll be cranky and the High Line's so packed with people, it's not that much fun for him walking on it at this time. But once we get down the butterfly festival...once we get down there, What?

What, really, would be so great about it? Yes an art project is fun -- and this is a great organization that runs these things, very into "loose parts" and kids' creativity and nature and revitalizing urban spaces. But really -- he's done art projects, today even, many of them. He just got out of five hours of "school". And a parade sounds adorable, but is it really all that much fun for the individual kids? Chances are he won't know anyone, so I'll be prodding him to go join in and he'll maybe not want to or want to do something else or the wings will be itchy... who knows? Yes it could be all beauty and light, ethereal and magical watching these butterfly children spreading their wings on this elevated futuristic city-park but that's almost never the way these things go. There is glue that won't come out, glitter that gets spilled, paper that gets ripped, cranky kids, hovering parents doing the project for the cranky kids, pushy kids, pushover kids whose paintbrushes keep getting stolen. 

And then -- what about the pièce de résistance? The real live butterflies? Yes that would probably be really neat, if you could see it, if you weren't being trampled by snowplough parents pushing their way to the front? But we saw the butterfly exhibit at the Natural History Museum, and it was cool, and we were surrounded by butterflies, and watched some in the chrysalis (didn't we used to always call this the cocoon?) trying to hatch, and then Wally flitted over to the door and we were on our way to the whale room. I've seen him happier, thrilled even, at the sight of a single butterfly than in a room full of them. Kind of the same dynamic as presents. One is a treasure. A room full of presents dissolves into a debauched scene of kids ripping things open and tossing them aside. 

Still, that's not to say the butterfly exhibit or festival isn't a neat thing, and that it might not be a great thing to do on an otherwise empty day, a fun little outing, rather than one more big push in an already busy (for a four-year-old) day. 

But on that particular day, I realized I was grasping after one more cool "experience". Was it that it sounded more fun for me? Is that one of the big draws of these sorts of activities. As many moms have told me, they find it easier to schlep kids around to activities rather than be at home with them.

Mindy Berry Walker wrote in A 'Happy' Mom's Confession: I'm not so nice at home: "I know that my kids would rather be home making dolphins from Play-Doh with me than visiting the seals at the aquarium. They don't need to get out, but I do, in order to see the beauty of life at home. Otherwise, I lose control, and the hurt feelings, the extra snacks, and the spilled juice overwhelm me."

So maybe that is one of the reasons we moms go racing around to these things -- down to Battery Park City for the Brazilian music, to the library story hour, to the the Natural History Museum, the Family Jam, the art class at the Rubin. Ms. Walker also highlights the sense of being able to focus on one's children better outside the home. "Outside, in the big world with my girls, there is a sense of adventure that I thrive on. Unlike at home where I feel the simultaneous tug to engage my children and break down the mess on the dining room table..." That seems like as good a reason as any to go outside the house itself, but still doesn't justify going further than the nearest playground. 

Choosing the local playground over the butterfly festival (or sunset drum circle, or whatever) is sometimes more difficult in the same way that quiet, un-rushed days are harder than packed ones. It requires drawing on inner resources rather than outer, quiet focus rather than crowd control, creativity--an answer, if the playground is empty or the kids who are there don't let you play with them--to the question "What should we do?" rather than an easy command: "Pass me the glitter!" hollered over the heads over other children. Patience rather than pushiness, mundanity rather than worldliness, slow, unremarkable boredom, maybe, rather than a dramatic meltdown, a hurried departure, a comforting refrain on the way back of, "Well, I tried." 

You did maybe try, but you did it, maybe (you, that is me, Rachel, for years past) without thinking about why you were trying, what exactly you were trying for. An escape from the boredom of playgrounds, the sense of isolation there, the impossibility of containing Wally inside one, (that is no longer the case), the refusal to miss out on anything. FOMO, the word my cousin Leah coined, fear-of-missing-out. And also because it is, like the "Happy" mom confessed, easier to focus and not feel overwhelmed when going on an adventure. Yet all this trying, all this chasing butterflies and stalking sunset family jam circles, all of it combined adds up to depriving us of that thing we claim to want more than anything, that ever-elusive jewel always slipping through our hands, that supernatural, hallucinogenic, fantastical dream from childhood. 

So we went to the local playground. And we didn't find anyone we knew. Wally asked two different groups of kids if he could play and both said no or gave blank looks, almost equally hurtful. He skipped off. Ran through the sprinkler. Climbed on the ropes. And came back to me. We played Go Fish. The sun was in my eyes  so we moved from the bench to the weird rubber ground. We played three or four rounds. Wally found a bus someone had left behind and took it for a tour. He kept looking around for someone he knew. The few hours we were there stretched out. Nothing exciting happened. On the walk home Wally felt sad that none of his friends had come out to play. There wasn't really much I could say. It wasn't an "amazing" afternoon, but it was time together, it was time, and you can't get better than that. And as Kim John Payne writes in Simplicity Parenting (yes I love this book), those everyday moments are what kids remember from childhood, not the "blowout trips to Disneyland". 

Think back to your own, isn't that true? Playing in the backyard, coming down to a cozy breakfast in winter, reading books together before bed? Aren't those the phantom images that surface when those days return to you? The days before you left the chrysalis so to speak? Those are the ones that return to me. Playing with that cross-stitch game under the table on the back porch. Drinking orange juice and eating donuts by the pool on a quiet summer morning. Listening to my dad's best friend Alan play When the Ship Comes In on guitar. Reading a book with my cat curled up next to me. Those moments when I had time. 

Assuming you are among the lucky few who has a choice about how your child spends his or her time, provided your children are not among the 215 million worldwide who have to work, and that you are able to find a work/life arrangement that allows for more than a rushed dinner, quick bath, and breakneck bedtime routine, then it would seem perverse to willingly deprive kids of that one essential promise of a summer in childhood. 

*Title, novel Julia Alvarez 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No wind, no sound

Maybe this will fall into the "back in my day we made mud pies with mud and we were happy to have that" category for some of you, but I found it at the library and I think it's really cute. It's a little book called Mud Pies and Other Recipes: A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow, illustrated by Erik Blegvad 

Plus it was originally published in 1961, so even back in the actual day when most people slapped some stagnant water on a handful of dirt and called it a banquet, there were girls (and, I hope, boys) plucking dandelion lollipops tossing leaf salads for their dolls.

In the foreword the author gives some general guidance for getting started: 

"You can use a tree stump for a counter. The sea makes a nice sink; so does a puddle at the end of a hose. For a stove there is the sun, or a flat stone. And ovens are everywhere. You'll find them under bushes, in sandboxes, or behind trees."

So basically, you can start anywhere, with almost anything you find - bark, pine needles, rain, or seaweed. No batteries required! 

I wrote the above earlier today - before I dashed out the door to pick up Wally. Early afternoon, hot sun, long afternoon stretching ahead of us. At that moment nature seemed serene and inviting. I was thinking back to a few weeks ago when my nieces and I made tons of mud pie "burgers" with sand at a local playground and set them out to dry in the sun. It was so much fun, coming up with all different kinds of burgers to pretend that we made -- can't leave out vegan and, on the other end of the scale, cheeseburgers. 

Now there's a severe storm coming this way -- and a possible tornado watch (or is it a tornado watch with a possible tornado?). The rain has just begun. It will be coming down in sheets soon and the thunder will maybe wake Wally. Alex is on a neighbor's balcony. They should probably come inside. I don't feel the same kind of excitement that I did with storms as a child, and not because the spectacle appears any less spectacular. It's the other way around. Except for flat-earthers, who interpret them as either benign or a welcome sign of apocalypse, thunderstorms don't feel quite right anymore. They are foreboding, potentially grave.  

This is a very different kind of nature show from the image I carried with me this afternoon of sun filtering through summer trees, onto dry pine needles, being crunched up to add to afternoon tea for dolls. 

I can't help but think of that line from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

"How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-string: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I received this update on the seedlings from the post below (Lessons from Seeds). That photo was from early April I believe. Here they are now! 

Here's a great list of resources put together by Outdoor Alliance for Kids and Michelle Obama's Let's Move Outside campaign website. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons from Seeds

“Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect miracles.”

A few months ago my physics professor friend M. sent me the above photo in response to a post about those carrot tops that just wouldn't sprout (never did). M. said she felt sad because she had to kill some of her perfectly good seedlings to allow others to grow. That seemed like a good lesson and it stuck with me. Quite a literal example of the saying "some must die so that others may live." It's the kind of thing that comes up a lot in writing---having to cut all kinds of good material that just doesn't fit, so that the rest of the poem or story or essay will work better. And it applies to other things too, like limiting the number of friendships you have, or activities you take part in, or projects you start, so you can focus on the most important ones. A perfect illustration of that quote -- I can never remember who said it -- "Better to do a few things well than a dozen things poorly." Or even more simply, the old adage: less is more. 

I think "lessons from seeds" would be kind of a nice organizing theme for some sort of preschool lesson. Sort of like the rules for running, writing and life I posted here two years ago. Maybe one could do a whole book of these kinds of things. Lessons from one area that you apply to life in general. I think I remember reading one on swimming and life a while back. Let me see if I can find it. Yes, here it is: Swimming Lessons: Life Lessons from the Pool, Diving in to Treading Water

Wally still waters the little strawberry plant that just won't grow, the carrot tops we've finally given up on. We also have plants from my grandmothers, still thriving. And a basil plant now on the porch. Plus we are trying various seeds from fruits and vegetables -- apples, avocados, oranges. I will let you know if anything grows. I will send word, posthaste. In the meantime, here are the lessons. 

1. Take your time.
2. There's a lot of potential stored up inside you.
3. You’ll have a better chance of growing if you separate yourself from the pack.
4. Protect yourself.
5. Don’t be afraid to travel far from home, but once you land, make the best of where you are.
6. Put down roots.
7. Drink water everyday.
8. No matter what happens in life, ask yourself, "Am I growing?" That is the one essential thing.
9.  Use whatever resources you have on hand.
10. Head toward the light.

I want to include M.'s lesson, too, but I realize it's directed to the planter not to  the seed itself. Some must die so that others may live; some parts have to be sacrificed for the good of the whole -- these relate to the aggregate, not the individual. Still, we can easily apply it to our own lives, when surveying any collection. 

I like that it is so clearly a forced decision point, when it comes to seedlings. It may be hard to do, if you don't kill some off, they'll all die. (As Annie Dillard reminds us, "Nature is, above all, profligate.") In our busy lives, the same dynamic is more subtle. We can try to do everything, and the result will be most things done poorly-- that's probably the best-case-scenario. The worst is that plans will all get messed up, the activities will exhaust us, friends will start to get annoyed and grow distant, and we'll miss out on the one thing we want most: time. So we can choose, instead, to simplify, to kill off some seedlings. When it comes to events and activities for kids, we can do this to make their lives more expansive. Keep things little so the world can be big. In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne, M.ED. tells parents to cut down on activities for the sake of their children. Be willing to say "no", he advises, to "protect the space and grace of childhood years."  

Endless Summers -- not the kind from our dreams and reveries

The Endless Summer by Mark Bittman

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Confessions of a Jester Mom

Didn't I give you nearly everything that a mother possibly could? (Including giving up the chance to play music at midnight with a drum set behind me)? 
Honey you know I did! (Not to mention the option of wearing shirts that might potentially ride up my stomach) 
And each time I tell myself that I can't read another book about a train (ever, in my life)
When you come up and ask me in such a cute little voice, I'll read it once again, I'll say
Come on, come on, come on, come on and take it! Take another little piece of my time now baby

Really liked this article Why Alone Time is So Important for Boys and Girls by Dr. Peggy Drexler. 

Some great advice. Makes the point that it's not simply over-scheduling kids that's a problem, but over-entertaining them as well. Dr. Drexler opens with the example of a boy who walks in the door from school or camp and "...expectantly asks his mom, Maggie: So what do we do now?" The mom is clearly busy, but she lets herself be interrupted, and does something fun with her child. Nothing wrong with that, but "Maggie sometimes wonders if Tommy couldn't do some of these after-school activities by himself -- or maybe spend a quiet afternoon reading a book...". Still she gives in and they go to the park or play a game so that her son will have a fun afternoon. A reasonable position (and one I am almost always in myself). 

Kim John Payne, M.ED. notes the parent-as-ever-willing-playmate trend in 
her book Simplicity Parenting. "...As a society," she writes, "We parents have signed on to be our children's lifelong 'entertainment committees'. We're unpaid performers, that's for sure, but performers nonetheless...A break in the festivities (or in the string of classes and playdates) and we are liable to jump up and dance. No wonder we're exhausted."

I do try "quiet time" at home on occasion, and sometimes ask Wally to play alone so I can finish work. There's always this initial resistance, and then he often gets into a flow state and I hear him chattering away in his room playing dress up and flying airplanes. But still he often reports back at short intervals saying, "Was I playing nicely?" like a dog waiting for a treat to be thrown into his mouth. The initial resistance makes me think of the way many of us have that to doing something quiet that we enjoy in the evening. At first it is hard to pull oneself away from a screen or the sense of something you should be doing (much easier to pretend you are working when you're on the computer, regardless of what you're actually doing). But then within ten minutes or so of writing or reading or whatever quiet activity it is -- maybe weeding in the garden -- you get into that flow state and you think "Why did I resist this? It's so wonderful." 

As far as alone time for Wally, this article made me realize I don't make time for it often enough, and definitely not consistently. I say no easily to the ice cream truck or toys in the grocery store (a huge display now, right when you walk in), but when the question is, "Will you play with me?" I am a total sucker, and give in. 

Different story at playgrounds where I'm an expert at plunking myself down on a bench and talking to grownup friends while insisting that Wally scamper off. I love it when other parents follow suit. One even refuses to "help" a kid trying to do monkey bars that are out of reach, saying, "Do something you can do without me". I think that's great! Sometimes...and that at other times decide that you're going to spot or indulge the incessant "Look at me's!!" or whatever. Last week, a friend-parent of mine suggested we go sit on the playground structure because the kids wanted us to ride in their airplane. I did it reluctantly, feeling she won the "better mom" trophy that night for doing it happily, and sticking it out longer. But now I can refer to this article and quote it, saying:

"The role of the ever-present playmate that I see many parents slipping into can indeed be damaging. We've been reading lately about how Americans, by and large are raising a generation of spoiled children. In many ways, overindulging kids with scheduled time and constant parental attention is akin to spoiling them rotten with material goods."

An over-entertainer is different from a helicopter parent. You can be both, but you can also be one without the other. Helicopters can protect but essentially ignore, and over-entertainers can be the fun but kind of crazy moms or dads who end up chasing hyper kids way too close to the river and getting the stink-eye from other parents. It's funny to realize I am guilty of being an over-entertainer, an ever-willing playmate much of time. That makes me a kind "peer parent" in my own right, if in a different way from the ones I mocked here. There should be a name for that kind of parent. The ringmaster? The court jester? 

Dr. Drexler continues: 

"... filling our kids every waking minute, with sports or just plain companionship, we risk stifling their self-sufficiency, as well as their imaginations. We risk raising children who always seek support."

This goes to the child as king idea, which isn't good for the kid. Denise Schipani writes about in Mean Moms Rule. "We're raising a nation of individuals, sacrificing our own pursuits, often, for the sake of their happiness, and leaving by the wayside the idea that all family members should sacrificie for the whole, as well as join in the celebration..."

In the last chapter of her book Ms. Shipani writes, "I want [my children] to see us working hard and understand the value of it. I want them to feel gratitude and empathy. I want them to feel their place in the history of their family. I want them to be independent." She spends the chapters leading up to that making a convincing case that raising kids to be empathic, hardworking and independent means taking the "long view", doing things that are often harder in the short term. The subtitle of the book says it: "Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later". 

In the 2007 Boston Globe article Leave those kids alone: The idea that adults should be playing with their kids is a modern invention -- and not necessarily a good one, Christopher Shea reports on how anthropologist David Lancy "draws on decades of ethnographic work to show how rare parent-child play has been in the world" and reveals that "As recently as 1914, the US Department of Labor's Child Bureau advised parents not to play with babies, for fear of overstimulating their little nervous systems". Other experts disagree with Lancy, including Jerome Singer, an author and advocate for parents modeling and encouraging imaginative play with their kids. The focus of the article is on questioning the legitimacy of pushing the upper-middle class model of interactive parent-child play on low-income families. An associate professor at Harvard's Grad School of Education, Mica Pollack, suggests that the parenting model more commonly used by low-income families (less supervision, stricter rules) "teaches virtues such as patience and adaptability better than more freewheeling parenting styles" (Shea's words).

Professor Pollack's comment on certain middle-class moires goes right to Kolbert's article about spoiled children, which I wrote about last week. Pollack says, " "Some of those children [the ones raised with a hands-on, interactive approach] are being raised to be spoiled, demanding, requiring constant adult attention, and inclined to argue with their parents." 

All this makes me realize that to raise kids who are grateful, self-sufficient and able to delay gratification means we, as parents, often have to delay gratification for ourselves right now, which is, by definition, when you have to do it. Sure it's a great feeling to see a giant smile on the kid's face when you turn away from the computer or folding clothes and say, "What should we do now?" just like it's great to see the smile when you buy the shiny red car or hand them the already-dripping-down-your-arm  chocolate and vanilla twist ice cream. But you can't always give in--for their sanity or yours. First of all, always giving in will make you stressed and overwhelmed and lead to more tension overall, but that's for another discussion. Most importantly, you can't always give in, you have to be willing to be the mean mom, to sometimes relinquish your role as court jester, because it's what's best for your kids. 

It's okay for them to play alone, even if they're sad and whining at first and saying really pathetic, attention-getting things like "Nobody likes me".Of course the kids want to be entertained, just like they want ice cream for dinner. That doesn't mean you always give it, but it does mean--even when sad--the kids are alright. (And they'll be even better, once they learn how to rely on themselves every once in a while.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Had to share this from CNN (Thank you M. for sending it my way). 

Parents, why are you pushing your kids? by Jeff Pearlman

"Hell, many of the parents I see gunning hardest for said success are, quite frankly, unhappy. They either work 70 hours per week at a job they loathe or count the hours until the kids go to sleep, or they just generally long to be somewhere — anywhere — but here."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Huck Finn in the City

I often think about all the time I spent outside as a child by myself or with other kids, no adults, you know, "free-range" before it became a countercultural movement and it was just what everyone did. It's obviously insane to think about letting young kids run around by themselves in Manhattan, but it even seems that kids who are old enough to be on their own in a safe park are not, for the most part, allowed to be. Or maybe they're just too busy? And from everything I can glean anecdotally, kids are not outside by themselves in the suburban areas either. I've asked parents why not, and they say it just isn't safe. We know that's not statistically true, that violent crime has gone down since the 70s and 80s and that the number of children abducted by strangers every year in the country is the same number of people killed in car accidents every day. But the fear-mongering goes on--after all it keeps kids captive to marketing, inside, glued to computer screens and the TV, or in organized activities and camps (either way, cue the sound of the cash register going cha-ching). 

I have this conversation quite often:

Me: At what age would you allow your kid to roam the neighborhood and come back when it gets dark? 

Other parent: (panicky expression) I don't know. I...I dunno, maybe 15? I don't even know.

Me: Okay, so three years before he turns into a legal adult and--assuming he goes away to college--will be living on his own, he'll be allowed to walk around the neighborhood unsupervised.

Other parent: (confused, uncomfortable look). 

Then I ask what age the parent was allowed outside without grownups, even if it just meant walking to the bus stop or to school. The answer is inevitably from as early on as they can remember, certainly by 5. 

Same goes with babysitting. 

Me: Would you be okay with a 15-year-old sitter for your kids? 

Other parent: I don't think so. Probably not.

Me: How old were you when you first babysat?

Other parent, somewhat sheepishly, defensively: 12, maybe 13. 

Something has definitely changed, and in just one generation. 

And any mom or dad who would let their kids run around with the neighborhood gang reports that there is no neighborhood gang. Their kid --if allowed to roam free-- would be the only one out there...the last child in the neighborhood, so to speak, the suburban counterpart to Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods. No one's out there, so no one sends their kids out there, so no one's out there, so no one sends their kids out there....vicious cycle. And now it's simply "not done", even among parents whose best memories are making mud pies at age four in the local pond supervised by a neighbor friend who was a whopping six years old. 

So obviously it's got to start somewhere -- with some parent letting their kid be out there, and maybe another kid will see him through the window and join him brandishing sidewalk chalk and maybe more kids will come and and a game of capture the flag might even break out. 

Mike Lanza turned his family's property into a playspace for neighborhood kids, with great success, and wrote about families throughout the country (and Canada) engaging in similar community-building activities that encourage playing in his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into A Place for Play. Though it may be a little less send your kids out the back door and tell them to come home for dinner and a little more neighborhood kids painting together in the backyard and the parents setting up the barbecue. But that's okay, too. Certainly better than isolated cyborg-families in silent houses staring at screens while the kids are considered hyperactive by teachers maybe just a tiny little bit because their schools cut out recess and they never play outside. Someone pointed out, I forgot who, that in my organized sports, there's a lot of sitting and waiting, less running around than in your standard game of flashlight tag or hour at the local playground. (Although somehow I can't imagine that being true for soccer. I remember that being a killer.) 

In our neighborhood, especially in the summer, the kids play late into the evening, scavenging for stuff to eat and treating squishy brown bananas someone digs out of a backpack like they're Magnolia cupcakes because they're so hungry at that point and it's so far past dinnertime but they would still rather stay out and play than go home and eat. (Just like how kids would rather stay in a pool purple-lip freezing than come out and warm up. Kids really have their priorities straight -- fun trumps most anything.) 

Last night watching this scene of kids scampering about throwing water balloons while parents ate pizza on the benches along the sides, it occurred to me that living a simple, natural childhood in the city is actually easier than you would think. 

We all know about learning tolerance and diversity and soaking in culture in the city and yadda yadda, but my argument goes beyond that. It really is possible to have something close to an old-fashioned, simple childhood in NYC, maybe even more possible than in the world of suburban sprawl because it's still operates on a village model. Here are the top ten reasons why it's easier to approximate that mythical carefree american childhood in the city than anywhere else. 

1. In the city you run into neighbors by chance all the time because you live so damn close to each other and there are so damn many of you that you all converge on the same playgrounds all the time (in Manhattan; my sister hasn't found this to be true in Brooklyn--less dense, bigger apartments, sometimes even private yards). Here in the concrete jungle though for the most part you don't need playdates. You can go out and play (unfortunately with parents nearby). 

2. You don't have a garage, attic or basement so you can't collect a bunch of sh*t you don't need. Instead you have fewer books (go to the library more), fewer toys (get more excited when you visit a kid who owns a Q train!) and fewer clothes (easier to clean your room).

3. Since no one else has any room to store anything either they're always giving you clothes and books and toys. 

4. Going along with the lack of space, people are out and about interacting with the community all the time because there just aren't that many places to be inside. Plus there are so many great public spaces a stone's throw away. And unlike in the empty suburban yards and streets, people are actually at these public spaces. (In fact so many people perhaps they fall prey to the Yogi Berra dilemma: "It's so crowded, no one ever goes there.")

5. With all the free concerts, free movies, free drum circles, free garden adventures for kids, river walks and nature games outside in the parks, along the river, on Governor's Island and other places, summer evenings are spent outside and you get that lovely, protracted, expansive, wide open shapeless summer evening feeling that you used to have as a kid as you drift from one place to the next and dig around for squishy bananas.

6. Shuttling kids around is done just as much as anywhere, but in a more eco-friendly way--subway or bus rather than an idling minivan. So you're exposed to a lot of culture (Gospel singers in Union Square station/Jews for Jesus handing out pamphlets (if you can call that culture--it is, if nothing else, a topic for discussion)) rather than a DVD player to keep you entertained.

7. Kids get used to shared resources -- sand toys, rides on the slide, turns at the water fountain -- because they have to. Kids taking turns on the swings --> adults who understand one country can't use 1/4 of the world's total energy.

8. Instead of collecting stuff, kids collect experiences. Another plastic truck? Why not a trip to visit the sea lions instead. Forget one more Barbie doll--no where to put it anyway. How about splashing paint at the Children's Museum of the Arts or taking a picnic lunch to the creative little garden instead? 

9. Kids are free at an earlier age to get around by themselves. Maybe most affluent parents with another option won't follow Lenore Skenazy's suit and let their 9-year-olds ride the subway, but certainly most reasonable parents will let junior high kids walk to school and back alone. I've seen it!! 

10. Kids don't have to prove they are cool by watching violent movies aimed at teenagers or wearing cool brands (What are the cool brands by the way? I'm so clueless I don't even know. Like is Gap still considered cool? Abercrombie? DKNY? Someone cooler than I am, let me know). But anyway, city kids don't have to prove they are cool because they know they inherently are. They live in New York City for crying out loud. They see Sarah Jessica Parker and her kids at the playground and they say goodnight to The Empire State Building every night. (Substitute whatever urban environment you live in, unless it's Chicago. Just kidding! I like Chicago.) And when they go to college, they can authentically channel Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and say they're from (sing this part) "New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/there's nothing you can't do".

All this is not meant to sound smug or superior to non-city dwellers. If you have a backyard or communal space like we had in the apartment then condo where I grew up, if your kids can run around with paper airplanes and water balloons, digging for worms, spitting watermelon seeds and chasing the ice cream man, then you've already got it made and you can ignore what I've written here. Or write it off as rationalization for not giving Wally the kind of childhood I had. As long as your kids do actually play outside. And you don't buy them too much stuff. Or spend too much time schlepping kids around and waiting for them in idling minivan. And come visit us sometime--the big lights will inspire you.

*Empire State of Mind
Jay-Z & Alicia Keyes

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In Defense of Lemonade Stands

A few weeks ago I was at a farmer’s market trying to have one of those small-town peaceful experiences, drinking coffee and eating a bagel on a Sunday morning in late June. My mom was asking me to hold her coffee and Wally was dropping his bagel and there was a bit of anxiety at first over the chairs—the one I was sitting on was being eyed by the landscape artist selling his rural landscape paintings. I was trying to ask him, pointing to my chair, mouthing the words...Is this yours? and he just looked back at me with an irritated face like What are you saying?. Wally was handing me stuff like a water bottle and sunscreen and along come two kids, a girl and boy, maybe about 7 years old, asking if you want to buy cake pops Oreo with sprinkles brownie chocolate chip homemade marshmallow pops… They’re slurring their words and holding out a box…clearly selling something, hard to see what under all this bunched-up wax paper.

I kind of felt on the spot, there, can't say no, and it is a nice even though it's kind of like one more thing and I still didn't know if I needed to relinquish the chair. So my mom and I were both reaching for our wallets in a kind of distracted, maybe harried, way, when the girl said, “We’re raising money for a woman with cancer on our street” and we’re both like, “Oh, why didn’t you say that in the first place? Then of course" and we picked out a few different treats.

The kids moved on, approaching other strangers, many of whom gave them the brush-off. It always sort of bothers me when people say, “No I don’t want any” to kids selling lemonade when the point isn’t whether you want it or not. No one really wants a half a plastic cup of crappy lukewarm lemonade from made a mix with not enough mix.

But in the past I’ve mostly said yes to kids selling lemonade or homemade cookies because I want to be nice, and, less nobly, because I feel awkward saying no. Since I've been thinking more about Robert Putnam's ideas for re-building communities  lately, it now  seems obvious that something as simple as buying a 50 cent lemonade from a local kid supports that goal, in however tiny a way. We really should patronize these kinds of efforts regardless of whether they fall into the category of fundraising for a good cause or just stuffing the coiffeurs of already rich kids so they can buy more plastic toys made in China (though of course it’d be great if that’s not what they do with it). 

At the farmer's market, the kids had walked over by themselves from a nearby street. A sight that was commonplace a generation ago (kids walking around by themselves) is now pretty rare, so that in itself is remarkable and worth encouraging. Plus it's not easy to walk up to strangers, no matter how cute you are. The kids were shy and obviously a bit nervous. They were pushing themselves outside their comfort zone to participate in the community a little bit. Adults--especially the ones complaining about how kids don't say hello or make eye contact anymore--should reward that.

I asked a friend about it a few days later, as I pulled to the side of the road to buy lemonade from a couple of preteens in front of a giant brick house. She said (privately to me) that she tends to ignore these sorts of ventures, thinking, why should I give money to these rich kids? 

But even if they are rich, that good fortune, like the crappy lemonade, isn't really the point. Kids sitting outside in the hot sun waving at passersby all day with hopefully a card table and handwritten sign rather than a $280 lemonade stand, is really kind of a cool thing. First, they are working, so even if they end up keeping the money and their families don't need it, they did earn it, which is better than being handed it. If they're lucky their parents will insist they get reimbursed for supplies, so they'll get a real life lesson about profit. Plus they're doing something on their own, without too much parental oversight. And they are spending time outside. They're greeting people. They're taking part in the community, helping to reverse the trends described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone where he writes: "Weakened social capital is manifest in the things that have vanished almost unnoticed--neighborhood parties and get-together with friends, the unreflective kindness of strangers, the shared pursuit of the public good rather than a solitary quest for private goods." 

Kids working lemonade stands are facing rejection--the many people who pass or drive right by without so much as a wave. In the world governed by hyperparents afraid to let their kids feel even the slightest disappointment (and therefore never letting them learn how to deal with it), this is important too. Suppose the kids spend hours out there and come home with two pitchers still full to the top of that crappy lemonade? That's okay, too. Part of childhood, the prevailing parenting style seems to have forgotten, is learning to deal with not getting what you want. Being handed lemons, so to speak.

But hopefully lots of neighbors will stop and say hello and feel awkward taking back fifty cents but also wonder if it's weird to leave it there as a tip and if that undermines the real-ness of what the kids are doing (or maybe that's just me...) and happily slurp back the nice little cup of lemonade. 

Either way, here are these little kids tearing themselves away from from the siren call of organized sports and video games to carry on a simple tradition passed down from generations. Among the cars racing by, the rushed passersby spilling their coffee, the disconnection and isolation of suburban sprawl or in the quiet of empty urban streets where kids are no longer kick cans or sit on stoops, these resilient kids are hoping to create one little part of a little village, trying to uphold their part of a social contract, with a rickety table and a handwritten sign.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Flinging Apples Far from the Tree

“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.” 
Elizabeth Kolbert

I have to point you to this article Spoiled Rotten by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. When I first moved to New York, I heard a mom on the subway begging her young daughter to make a decision about what they were going to have for dinner. 

"Should we eat at home?"
"What about McDonalds?" 
"Rosa took me yesterday."
"Do you want Chinese?" 
(Sticks tongue out.)
"Should I make mac n' cheese? You love mac n' cheese."
(Kid looks away, shoving Annie's organic homegrown wheat bunnies with real-aged cheddar down her throat.)
"We could go to that cute Mexican place with the big mirror...Let me see if Daddy can meet us down there."
No response.

And I thought to myself - What the h*ll is going on?

It was my stop at that point, so I never heard whether the mom (in my memory, she was literally crouched on the floor, pleading to her daughter) ever managed to sell her daughter on the idea of eating dinner that night or whether the girl just kept munching on those real-aged cheddar bunnies and then moved on to Annie's organic fruit snacks*, then Pirate Booty (formerly known as cheese curls) and finally to dessert. 

And it wasn't an isolated incident. It was everywhere. Kids were bratty and pouted and ran off when their parents said it was time to leave the playground and hid in their rooms when their parents asked them to come say hello to the company and refused to refill the dog's water dish so the parents did it grudgingly saying "She wanted a dog..." meaning it really was up to the kid to at the very least refill the water dish because it was her idea to get the dog but the kid didn't want to defaulted to the parent/servant.

(Actually -- Disclaimer: This happened in my house growing up! Dara and I wanted a cat and my parents did all the caretaking. They spoiled us. We helped so very little -- a few chores on weekends and setting the table. That's about it. Why did they do this? Topic for another post...yet I'm going to claim that it wasn't nearly as bad as what's going on now because isn't that always the point of these sorts of arguments...)

In my head I called it "peer parenting" -- where the parent seemed more intent on being liked by their child than in being a good parent. Like those pushover teachers who pretend they don't see you throwing paper airplanes when they turn their back or ignore it when you swear so they can be cool or easy or whatever but the end result is you don't respect them and in most cases you don't learn as much from them.

Back in those early days in New YOrk I babysat a little but didn't pay all that much attention to parents or kids in those days. From the little bit I saw, it became clear that parents not only conferred with their young kids about every decision, but often deferred to them. The kids were in charge. And when I had a kid and did start paying more attention, I saw that in most cases, the more power the kids had--the closer they were to being the center of the universe-- the unhappier they seemed to be. Just like the old fairy-tales about the miserable spoiled princess and the happy scrappy little son or daughter of the gardener. (Not to idealize actual poor people -- the 80 million who do not go to school, 220 million who work full time jobs, or 100 million homeless-- really just talking about trends in affluent families here, like Anne-Marie Slaughterhouse talking about the work/life balance in her recent Atlantic article "I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.") 

And now I wish I had started a list of preposterous peer-parenting statements I've heard like defending the possession of a violent video game "He wanted it", or driving rather than taking the subway "They [the kids] didn't want to have to walk". Or saying, with a shrug of the shoulders and a defeated look, “She had ice cream for dinner, can you believe it?” Or watching a toddler wear a nice hat into the sprinkler and saying, "He wasn't supposed to wear that in there". It's like - then why did he? Why didn't you take it off of him? Or better yet, tell him to take it off and have him do it?

My parents recently pointed out to me that we still (Alex and I) feed Wally on occasion. As in, he just sits there like a little king while one of us takes his fork and stabs a green bean with it and brings it up to his mouth. Even though he's perfectly capable of doing it himself, and has been for years. I really don't know why we do it, except that he's tired, and would otherwise stop eating. So, the obvious answer is, let him stop eating. Maybe he's not hungry. Or maybe he just likes to be spoiled. It's fun to be king for a day. Kids don't--should not be expected to--always know what's good for them. Sure he may have "wanted" us to feed him, just like the little girl across the street "wanted" to take gymnastics AND dance AND swim class AND art. But that doesn't mean it's what's best for either one, does it? Father Knows Best is outdated and sexist, but Child Knows Best is a ludicrous surrender, a renunciation of our responsibility as parents. We're making their ladybugs for them, and letting them make major life decisions. Something is clearly not right.

Though my parents spoiled us in some ways, the boundaries around what we were allowed to do were still clear. And they decided what was for dinner (except on our birthdays). If they told us to do something (until our defiant teenager years, worse for me than Dara), we did it. And it would NEVER have crossed our minds not to do something another adult asked of us. And yet I see the erosion of that practice -- that kids listen to adults -- everywhere, even with my young cousins, my nieces, and Wally.

I was so surprised about 10 years ago when my three cousins (ranging from 4 to 9) flagrantly disobeyed me. They were on their bikes, and were supposed to stay near me as they rode around in front of The Casino by our cottage near the beach. Within seconds they all three scattered off into the distance while I stood by myself yelling at them to come back, a defeated substitute teacher with absolutely no control. I met up with them later at the cottage where there was little discussion about what had happened. I wasn’t the only one without authority in that situation. Their parents, after all, had told them to listen to me.

Kids don't feel they need to listen to adults. We’re not really authorities anymore. Something has radically changed.

And there are just so many pieces to it. One hypothesis presented in this article has to do with the achievement-mania I've discussed other places. That parents are so intent on getting their kids into good schools they'll do anything for them, including following them around, picking up the dirty clothes they carelessly fling off. Elizabeth Kolbert talks about A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting by Hara Estroff Marano here:

“High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage, they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring them S.A.T. tutors, and, if necessary, suing their high school.”

The review begins with a look at an anthropological study comparing tribes in the Peruvian amazon to upper-middle class kids in Los Angeles and ends brilliantly, pulling back to provide a framework for our own behavior in anthropological terms:

Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society. Why this should be is a much larger question, one to ponder as we take out the garbage and tie our kids’ shoes.”

It really is pretty complex and there are surely many variables that have conspired to get us to this point. Perhaps each generation considers the following one spoiled. My mom always mentions how her mom woke them up at 6 am on Saturdays to start helping around the house. Probably her mom got woken up even earlier. But I don't think what we're seeing now is part of the continuum. I think there has been a radical shift. And it's the parents--at least right now--who can do something to reverse it, while we still have a tiny bit of power, if only to stop tying shoes of people shorter than us. It's not even peer parenting; that would imply some kind of equality. The apples aren't falling far from the trees...we're hurling them out there. 

Lots to think about (or chew on), as we feed “fruit”** that doesn't spoil to children that clearly do.

***Annie’s Homegrown Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks
Organic Tapioca Syrup, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Tapioca Syrup Solids, Organic White Grape Juice Concentrate, Pectin,Citric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Color (Black Carrot Juice Concentrate), Natural Flavors, Sodium Citrate, Organic Sunflower Oil, Carnauba Wax (From Palm Leaves).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Splendor in the Skunk Cabbage

This is a book that I wrote for young adults. It's coming out in November. You can be the first one to write a review about it! Okay, so how does a collection of gross facts for preteen/tweens connect to sustainable living, natural childhood and community revival? (Because, you know, in the author bio on the back cover of the book it says that's what I like writing about.)

Okay well...let me give it a shot. Kids love gross stuff (in my day it was Garbage Pail Kids with their exploding heads and peeling skin and now it's people on TV eating cockroaches for money or The Wimpy Kid stashing a deviled egg in a neighbor's plant). And the natural world is absolutely crawling with vile stuff, from banana slugs to corpse flowers to fossilized dinosaur vomit. So, if kids claim to be bored by the outdoors and roll their eyes at the mention of a day in the local park, maybe you can get them interested in joining The Bug Club, or hunting for wolf spiders, or pressing leaves of skunk cabbage into a nature journal. 

I'm happy because this is the first book I've written for kids. Or I should say I'm happy not because it's the first, but because I finally got to publish one as a person rather than a ghost. I wrote a bunch of picture books for kids but my name was not attached and I can't identify them, so it feels like it never happened. Which is weird. Why would it feel that way? Part of an invisible life.

I'm also happy that I got to give a shout-out in the book to my 5th grade teacher Mr. McInerney who led us bravely through the natural world in all its gruesome splendor. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Our Busy, Busy World

So many friends have forwarded that Tim Kreider article The Busy Trap that it would be irresponsible of me not to take a few minutes out of my busy, busy life to write about it. 

I'm glad this topic is out there and capturing people's attention, that people are starting to see through the facade of being busy, recognizing the "busy drug", as writer Heather Sellers refers to it, for what it is. I can't believe it took me so long to understand two years ago that most people are busy on purpose. 

Kreider writes, "The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it." It's great to hear others admitting this...that we are complicit...and asking if, short of "moving to the South of France" as one friend put it, there's anything we can do.

A few months after I realized I'd always been busy on purpose, I walked home with plenty of time on a wide open late summer afternoon. It was then I realized that crazy, over-scheduled days are physically demanding but pretty easy in pretty much every other way.

Kreider sees a busy life as proof of an important life, protection from the disturbing reality that "most of what we do doesn’t matter." He describes it as "a existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness". I think it is more than that in terms of the existential anxiety it manages to stave off and replace with tilt-a-whirl, frenetic, hurried kind of anxiety, a much easier kind to tolerate. 

"More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary." (Tim Kreider)

I think of the busy contest less as a way to mask the meaninglessness of many of our jobs (maybe partly because I see it also with people who have bonafide Richard Scarry jobs), and more as a way to mask the unbearable questions about what our lives do mean. The intangible quality of what many of us do may be a contributing factor, but I tend to think it's not so much that what we do doesn't matter, but that we don't want to think about what does. Because when you think about what does (family, relationships, love) you have to accept that all these things are temporary. That whomever you love you will one day lose. Either that, or they will lose you. It could be a way off and it could be tomorrow. You have to think about the fact that we are one little microscopic spec on a planet which is a microscopic spec in a galaxy which barely factors into a constantly expanding universe which, it turns out, may only be one of many. And you also have to think about the fact that while we're worried about whether or not our kids are spending enough time outdoors, 100 million children in the world don't have another option--they don't have a home. And in a post-religious world we're forced to grapple with these big life questions pretty much on our own and there's no one out there giving us a sign as to whether we're right or wrong. The only thing we can do is try to figure out as much as we can about the meaning of human existence what kind of lasting impact we want to have. But that's all a bit of a buzz kill. And I also think it's easier to lose yourself in the pressing demands of the moment than to think about where your life is heading and whether you are  making the kind of progress you want to make. It's always easy to sink into the "I would if I could" refrain, rather than admitting that you can and you won't.

Plus of course the puppetmasters pulling the strings behind the corporate-controlled media are much happier when you continue with diversions like wondering why Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes broke up or when the MacBook Pro is coming out or why Britney Spears wore a see-through dress to whatever stupid awards ceremony she last went to. 

Busy-ness is great for business. You have to buy things you'd otherwise make, pay for services you'd otherwise do yourself or get a friend to help you with (no time for friends, and certainly no time for doing favors). As Jerry Mander points out in Four Arguments Against Television, the isolated suburban family idealized in movies and TV is the ideal consuming unit. Add to this a diet of processed foods that makes people sick, a generation of kids that is the first to be less healthy than their parents, more than a quarter of the country dependent on anti-anxiety pills (so busy! always anxious!), profligate suburban sprawl forcing gas guzzling nation that uses one quarter of the world's energy, people terrorized by the media not to let their kids out of their sight (even though it's safer now than in the 70s and 80s) and therefore sign them up for all kinds of organized activities and buy them all kinds of plastic products and technological devices to keep them inside, and you've got an amazingly efficient buying machine. What do all these busy, run ragged people do when they've finally finished paying the late fees on their bills and the mortgage on the house they can't afford? They end up in front of a screen at night because they're too exhausted to do anything but passively watch TV (or videos for the superior "I- don't-have-a-TV-I-only-watch-netflix" crew) or surfing online, thereby absorbing more of the message to keep busy and keep earning more money so they can keep spending more of it. For what? No time to ask. You're already late.

To me the best point the author makes, other than "life is too short to be busy", is drawing a distinction between being tired (those people "pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs" who rarely complain about being busy) and being "crazy busy", in that put-upon way, i.e., having willingly packed your days and nights so full that you can't think straight and can never catch up. I don't think that if you want to jump off that busy train that means you can't work long hours or even sleep very little. If you're devoted to a project or profession you can pour yourself into it without feeling depleted. I think that depleted feeling comes from the anxious, unfocused, scattered kind of merry-go-round brand of busy-ness. The kind that's great for business.

Almost every time someone asks - What really matters to you? What is really important? A bigger house, a faster car, a promotion, a bigger office, fancier shoes? Those are never the answers. Yet so many people spend most of the waking hours of their lives in the service of them, or in the service of preparing their kids to get into a good enough school and secure a good enough job to spend most of the waking hours of their lives in the service of them. 

Those are never the answers as to what really matters. Those things are almost always all free -- family, friendships, art, music, time outside, time to oneself. Everything that Betsy Taylor writes about in What Kids Really Want that Money Can't Buy. Yet we live as if we have unlimited time. We'll cling to any illusion -- Hollywood celebs having babies in their late 40s (using donor eggs-- but no one tells you that) and they look like they're 25 so it doesn't seem to odd -- that confirms that to be the case. Everywhere you look in our media-saturated world an existential crises about mortality appears to be outdated. Our modern-day idols--like our previous ones I guess--are ageless, and live on after their death. But the truth is -- as far as we know, trusting science, and I trust it as the best data we have -- we don't have unlimited time.

The things we really want are mostly free. But being too busy to let ourselves enjoy them, those important things that you proverbially can't put a price tag on, that will cost you.