Month: July 2014

Annoying Rules that Just Might Save Us


On July 1, an ordinance that bans disposable bags from grocery stores took effect in my county. In the weeks leading up to the ban, I noticed numerous flyers designed to prepare us for this impending shift, and yet in spite of this ample warning, and in spite of the fact that I’ve had nearly a month to adjust, it seems that I’m always forgetting about my reusable bags (and I have many!) until the moment I’ve set foot in the grocery store.

This isn’t a calamity, because I still have options. A) I can try to heft my purchases with my bare arms, B) I can buy a reusable bag, or C) I can shell out five cents for a paper bag. Five cents means nearly nothing in the context of my grocery bill, but still it hurts my pride, and so in general I opt for A when I can. Yesterday, because I had a range of items too awkward to manage, I opted for B, and after asking the cashier to sell me a reusable bag, I tried to start a conversation.

“Has this bag ban been a pain for you?” I asked her. I’d been wondering this for a few weeks, imagining that the first week or two had yielded an endless stream of frazzled customers and a few choice tantrums. I expected her to simply confirm that, so I was surprised by her answer.

“I had to look for a new job,” she told me. “I can’t take it anymore.” Apparently, there have been more than a handful of tantrum-throwers; she reported that since the bag ban passed every line of customers includes at least one who’s ready to go ballistic, to raise his fist, make idle threats, and conclude “I’m never shopping here again!” (Of course, he’ll have to shop outside the county if he wants a free plastic bag.)

I was more bewildered than surprised to learn this about my fellow Thurston County citizens. It strikes me as quintessentially American that we’ve collectively decided that everyone is entitled to free bags as a part of our shopping experience. And not just that, but since this is a democracy, we need a choice: paper or plastic.

And I guess it’s just as American that we have to legislate an end to this waste, to mandate it rather than trusting in the fairness and responsibility of people’s choices. I mean look at me, Miss Bleeding Heart Liberal: week four of the bag ban and I’m still walking three paces into the grocery store before noticing my empty hands.

Apparently, this is the right tactic because some of us won’t get there on our own. Some of us (e.g. me) may want to keep plastics out of our land and waters, we may collect over a dozen reusable bags only to forget them when it matters and say “yes, please” when we’re offered a plastic bag for our three items. Sometimes it takes a rule to get us to do the right thing, and the disruption to routine is surprisingly noticeable. Apparently, that’s what progress feels like.

But it seems that if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to embrace the inconvenience of changing bad cultural habits. We can’t shout at every grocery clerk, proclaiming our god given right to plastic bags. We’ll need to recognize that saving our future will require a great many shifts; remembering to bring my own bag to the store is really just the tip of the iceberg—which, as you know, is melting as I am writing this.


Reasons to Love PMS

Early this morning, as my partner prepared to leave for work, some part of me thought it would be a good idea to engage her in an argument. Stump had woken up at 4:30, and so I’d been lying in bed for over an hour, trying to nurse him back to sleep, while simultaneously nursing my resentment over a comment my partner had made several days earlier. At 5:30, when Stump sat up and decided he was awake for good, I got up, found Kellie in the shower, opened my mouth, and released all of my venom. My period is due in two days.

I’m not normally like this, and therein lies the problem. Brooding comes naturally to me, but complaining doesn’t. All day long and into the night, every day and every night, I feel things and I think about them. I think about whether or not I should say them out loud. Usually, I choose not to.

Kellie is the opposite. She complains as she goes. She doesn’t brood. My emotions are a mystery to her—and by “mystery”, I don’t mean a puzzle that she longs to solve; I mean simply that she doesn’t know about them. I mean, she does in theory know that I have feelings, but if she’s not thinking about her own feelings, if she’s not constantly gauging every word she hears or says, assessing her own reactions, why would she be worried about mine?

Because of this, Kellie does not understand my PMS. She thinks it’s an annoyance that she has to put up with as part of the contract of being married to me. She does not see the benefit to me losing my cool—quite predictably—once a month.

Here’s an analogy. Some years ago, I took my dog Winston to a trainer because he was exhibiting aggressive behaviors, growling at kids as they ran by him, nipping at me if I tried to look at his hurt paw. The trainer introduced me to the concept of bite threshold.

All dogs, she said, are capable of biting another dog or human, but some dogs require far more to provoke them than others. The way she explained it, even Lassie could bite Timmy, but it would require the perfect combination of circumstances, say a thunderstorm at night and Timmy is wearing a mask and approaching Lassie while holding a large stick. But say you get a dog with an ultra-low threshold. It might just take a toddler waddling towards his food dish and he’s all up in her face.


Illustration of how triggers,  individually, may not provoke an aggressive response

Illustration of how triggers, when combined, may push a dog to snap

So let’s say most days my bite threshold is relatively high. I’m no Lassie. I’m prone to growling in the evenings when I’m tired and the kids are tired and everyone’s resisting each other. But I also let a lot of stuff roll off my back.

On PMS days, my threshold suddenly drops. I’m like the sick dog in the above graphic. I might never like “getting my head touched” but on the average day, you’re never going to know that. But scratch me between the ears on a low threshold day and—SNAP! Now you know.

And here’s where the analogy breaks down. I realize that you don’t ever want your dog to snap, but in the case of your partner, you want her to say what’s on her mind sometimes, even if it comes out at 5:30 am when you are in the middle of enjoying your morning shower and expected the house to be quiet for the next forty-five minutes or so. You need her to explain to you, in no uncertain terms, the various reasons why she hates it when you scratch her head, and you do this All The Time. Come on. You want that. Don’t you?

Dear Moralistic Busybodies: *You* are the Greatest Danger to my Child

When I was five years old I walked the quarter mile to kindergarten every morning without parental supervision. My best friend, a first-grader, accompanied me. On days when she was home sick, I walked alone. This wasn’t due to any kind of parental negligence. The year was 1983, and this is what people did.

By the time I was in first grade, there had been a string of kidnappings across the country. Our cultural response at the time wasn’t to lock the doors, to keep the kids inside or shuffle them around in cars. Instead, teams of educators visited public schools and taught kids not to take candy from strangers or ride in their cars.

Back then it was normal to walk to a friend’s house and let the day progress from there. Because there were no cell phones, there was no way to check in every minute, but even if there had been, no one seemed that worried. My best friend’s mom would leave to go to the store and we’d raid the fridge and make our own sandwiches. We’d ride our bikes to the park. Maybe we’d leave a note.

Those were the days.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran an article about a mother who was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at the park alone. In brief, the mother had a regular shift at McDonald’s, and allowed the girl to play at the park while she earned a living. When a bystander learned that the girl was unsupervised, she apparently decided that the most helpful thing to do would be to call the cops. The mother was arrested for abandonment; the daughter was placed in state custody.

This comes shortly after an essay on Salon addressing similar issueswent viral; “The Day I Left My Son in the Car” details the years of litigation author Kim Brooks faced after leaving her son in the car unattended for several minutes. As with the above incident, she was reported to the police by a bystander who saw himself as a “good Samaritan.”

Here are two objections I have to this interventionist practice:

1. As a parent, I reserve the right to perform my own risk-benefit analysis—especially when our cultural norms are based on no legitimate evidence. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids reports: “Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.”  Statistically speaking, children are far more likely to be injured in a car accident than they are to be snatched from a parked car, and yet there is no cultural taboo around driving with kids.

2. Wanna-be good Samaritans, YOU are the Danger Strangers. I’m sure plenty of us have known kids like the nine-year-old who is now in state custody, kids who have parents (or a single parent) struggling to keep it all together. Some people might respond to this situation by trying to figure out what they can offer. Maybe that simply means keeping a loose eye on the girl while she plays in the park, helping to ensure she stays safe. Maybe, if the kid is in your neighborhood it means getting acquainted with that mom and inviting the kid over once in a while. Apparently, other people call the cops. Who are these people? Is displacing a child to foster care their goal? Do they have any concept of what foster care actually means? If their fear is that a child alone in the park or in a car is in danger of being forcefully removed from her parents, do they realize that by calling the cops they are facilitating EXACTLY THAT?

Conor Freidersdorf, author of the Atlantic article, gets to the heart of the matter when he writes, “Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold.”

It’s true. Our current cultural climate no longer allows us full freedom to make our own parenting decisions. I submit the following lists for your consideration.

Things I won’t do because they are associated with proven risks:

1. Keep a loaded gun in the home.

2. Allow my children to ride a bike without a helmet. (Okay, this is one way we’ve evolved since the eighties.)

3. Offer my children beverages sweetened with corn syrup at every meal.

Note that I am not advocating that any of the above practices be made illegal. If a kid rides by my house without a helmet, or reports that he drinks Coke for breakfast I don’t call the cops.

I can't believe these still exist. Image source:

I can’t believe these still exist.
Image source:

And here are some things I won’t do, not because I believe that they are actually dangerous in and of themselves, but because I fear being reported and losing my children.

1. Allow my older son to wait in the car if he so chooses while I run a five-minute errand.

2. Send my son (once *I* determine he’s old enough) to the corner store.

3. Allow my son to explore the wooded area one block away from our home.

The above list may sound self-serving, and I won’t deny that’s true. Item one is about avoiding unnecessary complications. But items two and three reflect my desire to teach my children independence. You see, I work with millennials and I’ve seen firsthand the results of helicopter parenting. If my sons choose to live with me or visit often once they’re grown, I don’t want to still be doing their laundry. I don’t want to be the one emailing their college professors when they have the stomach flu and can’t make it to class. I don’t want to sit in on their first job interview.

And, perhaps more importantly, I want them to grow up feeling at ease in the world rather than fearing that something dire will befall them the moment they are out of my sight, that in the two blocks between our house and the corner store they will be mugged or kidnapped in broad daylight, or attacked by a pack of coyotes.

This guy is totally making sure no kids are unsupervised. Image source:

This guy is totally making sure no kids are unsupervised.
Image source:


Is my Desperation Showing?

Front Seat Selfie

Front Seat Selfie

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I’m in the seating area of the natural foods store in Sand Point Idaho, but I’m not sitting down. Stump, my one-year-old, has just thrown a slice of strawberry and three melon cubes on the floor and now he’s trying to launch himself out of his high chair. He’s needed a nap since two hours ago. I let him down and he starts running towards the main shopping area. He’s wearing a diaper, a t-shirt, and shoes with no socks. When I pick him up, he arches his back with super baby strength and screams No!

 Smoke, my five-year-old, is pecking at his string cheese and the six-dollar fresh fruit box I bought him. He looks off into space, tuning out the world, a skill he’s been cultivating since Stump was born.

Across from our table, a blond woman in her forties watches us as she tries to enjoy her lunch. “Let me know if I can help you,” she says.

Outside, it’s at least 90 degrees and my partner Kellie is forty-five miles away in Nowhere, Idaho (okay, it’s actually called Oldtown), waiting for the mechanic to fix her goof from earlier this morning.

Here’s how it went down:

1. At precisely 10 am, as planned, we left our friends’ house at the lake. We had four hours of driving ahead of us and we wanted to maximize Stump’s naptime. Our two friends and their two nephews would follow behind us. We were so organized. We had done all of our packing the night before, and spent the morning enjoying the lake. All we had to do was top of the gas tank in Kellie’s monster diesel truck.

2. While Kellie topped off the tank, I went inside to buy an iced tea. When I returned to the truck, she was in the middle of calling her dad. As it rang, she looked at me. “I fucked up,” she said. After leaving her father a voice mail, Kellie explained that the fuel hoses had been tangled, and she had accidentally topped her diesel tank off with regular fuel. She had already added twelve gallons when she looked down and noticed the pump handle was black, not green. “I am such a fuck-up,” she concluded.

3. Upon hearing the news, my first instinct was to minimize the problem. Three-quarters of our fuel was still diesel, right? Couldn’t we keep going and maybe the engine would run a little rough? Nope. A quick look at our smart phones and return call from her dad yielded consistent advice that we would risk ruining the engine that way. Well, then couldn’t we drive it a few blocks to the nearest mechanic and have them drain the tank and we’d be good to go in about an hour? Nope. Driving it even a few blocks would be risky, and no one could commit to finishing the job that day. If we could get it back tomorrow, we’d be lucky.

4. As we waited for the tow truck to arrive, we had to make some decisions quickly. Would we continue our trip to Montana or stay by the lake one more night? What would we do with all of our stuff—our cooler, our bags, our car seats? Would we rent a car, or pray that against all odds Kellie’s truck would be ready by evening?

By this time, our friends and their nephews had joined us. We needed their help, but we didn’t want to spoil their day, to trap them in our limbo. The nearest rental agency was forty-five miles away. There was also a problem of space: They had one free spot in their car. There was space for two riders in the tow truck. There were four of us. After some frantic discussion we made a plan. Kellie and Harlan would ride in the tow truck and wait at the mechanic’s, while Stump and I would overcrowd their sedan. Once we rented a car in Sand Point, our friends could reclaim their seats and continue on to Montana.

5. The rental car turned out to be unnecessary. By the time I had hauled a screaming Stump the forty-five miles back to Oldtown, Kellie’s fuel line was being drained, and the mechanic could now promise that her truck would be ready by the end of the day. I tried not to feel stupid and I tried not to worry that I’d have to pay the full $100 for the two-day rental I’d requested.

Instead, I tried to Make The Most Of It. For the third time that day, I’d drive the forty-five miles between Sand Point and Oldtown, this time with two kids in the back. While Kellie waited in the blazing sun, I could at least make use of my rental investment by getting the kids out of the heat and feeding them something besides the snacks that we’d been keeping in the truck for five days. Destination: Winter Ridge Natural Foods. By now, I’ve learned to depend on natural foods stores (in Idaho, no less) as a kind of respite for weary moms.

And now, here I am, chasing my toddler back and forth between the two rows of tables. I need coffee, and there’s an espresso bar just twenty feet from the seating area. I let Stump climb on a chair so that I can lean in and talk to Smoke. I touch his shoulder to get his attention. “I’m going to go buy a coffee drink right over there,” I say, pointing. But he doesn’t track my finger. He’s pretending to listen, but he’s still in outer space. Stump is climbing off the chair, but if I go now, I know what will happen. Smoke will return to earth in the moment I leave the area and wonder where I am. He’ll look around and begin to cry. He’ll holler “Mommy Where Are You?” tears streaming down his face. A shopper will call CPS. Hoping to avoid all this, I wrangle Stump and begin to repeat myself, but the lady eating lunch intervenes. “I’ll watch him,” she offers.

I’m grateful for her offer, but I’m also not sure if she’s acting out of genuine sympathy for me, or if she thinks I’m incompetent. And as I’m walking to the espresso bar, diapered baby on my hip, it hits me:

No one knows the reason for this spectacle, my unruly half-dressed baby, my unkempt hair, my checked-out son. No one knows about the days of traveling, the truck in the shop, the split second decisions, the chaos of it all. Instead, for all they know, this is just how I roll. For all they know, on grocery day I slap a diaper on the baby, let him run amok, and draw everyone in range into our family drama.

A half hour later, hot and weary but caffeinated, I’ll return the car and pay $50, just one of the day’s expenses. Underneath the blazing son, we’ll take our places and hit the road, the wind in our hair, finally.

Reasons to Love Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

I recently discovered Michael Rosen’s Sad Book when a Facebook friend shared this image, which is the first page of the book.

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

I was intrigued. Within 48 hours I held a copy in my hands. Here are the reasons why I love it.

1. It fills a need I didn’t know I had. As a contemporary parent, I’ve been turned on to the importance of emotional literacy. I know that I’m supposed to talk to my sons about feelings, to help them learn to name specific feelings. I’ve seen handouts like this one, designed to facilitate this kind of learning.

I haven’t done much of this for two reasons. First of all, I struggle to name my own feelings with that kind of specificity. I don’t feel like a qualified instructor. Perhaps more importantly, I find these handouts a little boring. But the Sad Book takes a single emotion and blows it up. We get to see how sadness manifests in multiple ways. Some of pictures look like sadness; others look like anger, like joy, like beauty.

When my son saw the first page of the Sad Book, he let out a giggle and said: “That guy’s happy!” His initial reaction was the perfect segue to engaging more deeply with both the text and the idea.

2. It doesn’t tell a story. My main complaint about children’s literature today is that so often the illustrations surpass the writing. Many children’s books tell stories that may be serviceable enough, but they only hold a child’s (and a parent’s) attention for as long as it takes to get through the book. They don’t stick with us, or invite multiple readings.

The Sad Book alludes to the story of the author’s loss of his teenage son, but it doesn’t tell that story directly. In short, it’s not so much a story book, but an essay on sadness. This is right, since the point isn’t to make the reader feel sad, but to invite us to look at sadness from an outsider’s perspective.

3. Quentin Blake—who knew? Quentin Blake’s illustration style holds some history for me, since Roald Dahl was my favorite author as a child, and Blake’s sketches illustrate most of his books. I always thought of his style as just that—sketchy. I liked his pictures well enough, but they never struck me as particularly impressive. (I was too young then to appreciate that sometimes simplicity is the hallmark of craft.) But look at this:

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake


The Sad Book strikes me as the best possible showcase for Quentin Blake’s work. His illustrations here manage to balance comedy, tragedy and horror, often times all on a single page, capturing the complexity of the feelings that Rosen describes. Also, if I were an artist I could probably explain this better, but the way he captures light and shadow breaks my heart a little bit.

So that’s my pitch. I think that you should read Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

Just to offer an alternate perspective, Kellie, my partner, hates the Sad Book. She thinks it’s too sad.