Maximizing the Magic: Harry Potter World with kids

We are super not theme park people. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Disney anything, nor have any desire to go with our children…for a number of reasons (being feminists, coming from a Jewish family, coming from a communist family, coming from a poor family…there are probably a few more). But Harry Potter is near and dear to me and so many of our friends loved their Harry Potter world experience without reservation (and we could do the hotel, hotel food, flights, and admission with reward points), so we decided to give it a shot.

We have literally never heard a bad thing about it, except for the lines. We thought we had nailed it by going in the off season. Unfortunately, as clueless homeschoolers who pay no attention to the school calendar, we didn’t realize it was spring break until too late. Even with the extra bustle, it was just about one of the most fun things I’ve ever done with my family.

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one of several spots where wands purchased at ollivander’s can perform real spells and make magic.

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I got my yummy butter beer and pumpkin juice here where the lines were shorter. a very tired looking mom of 3 got in line and asked me, very seriously, at 10:30am “but do they have REAL beer??!!” oh yes. oh yes they do.

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There are some excellent posts out there that helped us prepare for our early April excursion to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (here, here, and here). I won’t reinvent the wheel. Here are the extra tidbits we learned and things we loved, plus the WHY of why some of those travel tips we got mattered, or didn’t.

  • Stay in the park. Because we were booking a rewards trip with credit card points, we did not have this option. But next time we will choose a hotel in the park, regardless. While the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is one of the nicest hotels in Orlando, it’s 20 minutes away. We spent a lot of time driving, dropping off, picking up, and paid a lot for parking. The hotel shuttle times were infrequent and inconvenient so that part of our plan was a bust. We did not end up wanting to explore Orlando in our down time, so next time we’ll also forego the rental car, which staying in the park would allow us to do. The money would be a wash.
  • The non-transferability of tickets is for realz. To save money, we only bought a ticket for my husband and 6 year old. We thought the one and a half year old’s needs would dominate the experience and it was a birthday trip for our big kid. I was going to hang out at the hotel pool with the baby. But if your spouse gets sick and you show up to see if you can use your spouse’s ticket, there won’t be much they can do, though they will try. We knew tickets weren’t transferable, but everything online was about people trying to sell them. We thought, with the same name and to accompany a child who can’t go alone, they might be able to do it. Guest Services was amazing and in the end they helped me buy a highly discounted one day ticket, but their computer system literally will not let them make changes like that. The physical space is designed to accommodate everyone–they really want it to be easy and fun–so next time we’ll get tickets for everyone and take the baby.
  • Get a multi-day pass. This trip will be expensive no matter what. If you want it to be memorable with kids, getting a multi-day pass is key. Three days was perfect (we deal hunted and got the 3rd day free and the whole thing discounted). The first day you are learning the ropes. You will make mistakes, miss things, and figure out what you really want from the experience. Because you have a third day, the second day will probably be the best. It’s low pressure, you can take your time just going with the flow. This was our magic memory day, and it would have been enough, but we couldn’t have done it without a buffer day on either side. The third day was for doing whatever was left.
  • Go morning AND night. Everything we read said to go first thing in the morning. This is kind of true for like 30-60 minutes at the very beginning. But if you are chasing small kids who aren’t going to do the scary rides anyway, the lines are hard to predict and sometimes ebb and flow in odd ways, so it may not matter as much. There are a lot of people all the time, just be ready. The waiting times app was super helpful. What’s guaranteed is that being there midday blows. It’s hot, your kids are tired, and it’s the busiest time. I think people don’t suggest evening with kids because they think it’s a non-starter. But if they’ll nap and you can let the schedule shift, it’s worth it to go in the evening. Everything there is more magical in the late afternoon light–the smoke from the Hogwart’s Express, the view of the castle, the shows in Diagon Alley. Our best day was the day we were all there together from 4-8:30pm. Those are the memories that tingle (seriously, the place tingles).
  • Enjoy the lack of drunks…and drink the beer. Universal has this figured out. Yes, they serve alcohol, but don’t be afraid to hang out with kids until closing. Their one person-one drink policy likely helps. And they take it seriously. Like, when your husband is standing beside you holding a squirming toddler they will not let you walk off with a beer for each of you. But if you look like you might cry they will get someone to carry your drinks for you. Which leads us to…Drink the house draughts. There are different house brews at the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. They are really good. Please do not order Newcastle.
  • Expect and enjoy awesome service in the park. We interacted with many Universal staff people every visit and we never had anything but stellar experiences. They take their time with you, and somehow it never seems onerous if you are waiting while they take their time with someone else. When your kid buys a wand they will, with a straight face, ask them how old they are to be sure they aren’t using an anti-aging spell. At the Knight Bus the driver will chat for several minutes and take pictures with you. At Guest Services (which is Universal Studios, not HP specific) during our admissions debacle, the sweet and fabulous young woman talked with my son about Harry Potter, pretended to be levitated by his well executed Wingardium Leviosa spell, made him a birthday name tag and gave us 4 passes to bypass lines because it had been such a hard morning. When part of the back patio of the Leaky Cauldron was closed off (by gentle people, no gates or barriers) for a special party, we chatted with the staff as we tried to keep our over-sugared kids out of the area. They nonchalantly told us it was the CEO of Universal Studios Japan. We apologized for our kids being super wild, they said “no worries, they are having fun and that’s the point.” Everyone we asked for help was cheerful and all about making the experience awesome for the kids. No one will ruin this for you. There were even pee-free toilet seats every time we needed to go. I am hard to impress, and I was impressed.
  • Don’t take little kids on the rides. Despite what park staff may tell you, none of these rides are really for young kids. Especially if your kid is on a diet of limited screen time and doesn’t play video games on a big screen tv. It will be sensory overload. Two different staff people told us the Gringotts ride would be fine for our just-turned 6 year old because there was only 1 drop and it wasn’t that fast. These things are very subjective. Our kid is adventuresome and not afraid, but it was too much. He didn’t get upset or freak out, but he didn’t have fun. The rides are awesome, use the kid swap rooms and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
  • Budget time and energy for getting in and out. It takes a good 20-30 minutes just to go through security and get to Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade. It will seem twice as long when your big kid is exhausted and wants to be carried.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a stroller. They’ll help you with it on the train and it may save your life. Carrying anything more than nothing requires using the lockers for the rides anyway, so you might as well take what you need.
  • Take snacks and water. As long as you don’t have coolers or big cold bags it’s fine. There are often long lines for food and it’s pricey (but pretty good in Harry Potter world). You can Uber to the grocery store when you arrive in Orlando and still save money.
  • Give your child a budget. Our son took his own saved up allowance and birthday money to spend. We gave him $10 a day to spend at the park. He managed it all himself and we were hassled to buy things exactly zero times. We set that expectation months in advance so he’d have time to save, but kept the per diem as a surprise. It worked like a charm.
  • Go between spring break and summer vacation, or just after schools start in the fall. There are hurricanes in the fall, it’s busy at Christmas, the southern hemisphere comes in January, Daytona events mob the park in February and March, spring breaks are all over the place around Easter…but there’s a sweet spot in late April/early May before summer, and again just after school starts in September (but obviously don’t go Memorial or Labor Day weekends). Try to go during the week, this is so much better than school!

We had a million small things not go right on our trip, but none of them were the park. It was so, so good. You will not be disappointed.

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Climate change gardening: Tips for planning ahead

In the past two decades our USDA hardiness zone has shifted from zone 7 to zone 8. That’s an enormous change. Despite the Bush administration USDA’s attempt to muffle the information, the Arbor Day Foundation published real maps using the same data and you can see what an enormous movement we are talking about.

It is pretty much guaranteed that our food supply will continue to experience pressures from a rapidly changing world climate (wikipedia has a nice summary with article links). It’s also quite likely the rate of change will pick up, perhaps in unexpected ways.

While many of us garden to save money or get outdoors, with a nod to self sufficiency or local food movements, figuring out how to garden for climate change is a different mindset. It’s not as simple as expecting it to be warmer a few years down the road. It means planning for greater variation, greater disease and pest pressure as plants and soils try to adapt, and building connections to the people in your area who are really good at what they do so that you have the resources you need, when you need them. Luckily a lot of what decreases the environmental footprint of my garden and makes it more resilient will make it cheaper and more successful, whether or not the climate creates new challenges.

Nowadays many of us live in cities that are densely urban with little green space. You can’t do any kind of major gardening under these circumstances, though there’s a lot you can do in pots and in community garden spaces…but that’s another post.

Start small but start now

I’ve been passionately gardening for a decade. My mother is a skilled and experienced gardener, as are many of my friends and neighbors. I still experiment in disastrous ways and make mistakes every year that cost me money, time, and harvest. Probably the biggest things I’ve learned from all this are be organized, keep notes on successes and failures, ask advice from local experts, and don’t buy anything that with a bit of creative thinking you could make, borrow, or substitute.

I watch new gardeners make the same mistakes I did with great gusto and zero interest in hearing people tell them to be more conservative. I was also deaf to words of wisdom at those same stages in my gardening journey. Give yourself time to figure it out, especially if you worry that at some point it will need to be something more than a hobby.

Don’t put off gardening for years because your space isn’t just how you want it, your neighbors might object, or you don’t have time or money. When someone on your local listserv says “I have extra such and such plants if you’ll come get them,” go get them if you think you might have a place and a use. Grow what you can in the space that you have and work on developing the site bit by bit.

Don’t invest too much at the edge of your hardiness zone

This is a classic gardeners’ dilemma because everyone wants to do as much as they can for as long as they can. But there’s a reason southern food culture revolves around sweet potatoes, sorghum, beans, watermelon, okra, blackberries, and dark leafy greens (chard, beets, turnips). These are crops that tolerate hot summers and dry spells while staying fairly disease resistant in our humid climate. These are crops homesteaders could grow reliably before the advent of chemical farming; they are crops you can grow that way now.

If you are going to tinker at the low edge, do your research and do it from multiple sources. Nurseries are inclined to tell you a broader hardiness range than is realistic. If no one is doing it in your area, maybe you’ve hit upon the world’s best-kept secret, but more likely old timers have tried it and figured out it didn’t work.

When I wanted to grow raspberries, all kinds of sources told me their varieties were everything-resistant and happy in my zone. Then I dug into the always-awesome NC Cooperative Extension resources (all available online, often with separate commercial and home gardening publications) and found that certain types of raspberries would be way more high maintenance with our humidity and disease issues (which will get worse as the planet warms, not better). So I emailed a small local biodynamic berry farm down the road and asked my neighbors what raspberry varieties worked for them. Caroline was the only one they’d had consistent success with, they said, and gave me advice on how to manage it.

I wanted to plant a cherry tree and several well recommended local nurseries claimed their interesting and funky sweet cherry varieties could be grown, with a little effort, up to zone 9. I let those exotic and enticing varieties sit in my cart for a few days while I bummed around online reading people’s experiences growing cherries in the south. Sweet cherries, and even the more curious varieties of tart cherries, just didn’t produce well here and were plagued with high maintenance disease issues, especially if they weren’t grafted onto very particular root stock. I don’t know anyone with sweet cherries. I ordered the classic, low maintenance, heat tolerant Montmorency tart cherry. And I still might be pushing it. In 10 years I may feel I shouldn’t have been planting cherries at all.

Raspberries and cherries are borderline too cool for my garden reality, but I think I’ve found varieties that work. Still, these are my side experiments, not the work horse plants of my garden. For that I focus on what I know works.

The temptation on the warm side is just as dangerous. Most of the things we can’t grow in zone 8 because it’s not warm enough are things that can’t tolerate freezing at all, or buckle in an extreme cold snap. While the winters may be getting milder and shorter on average, extreme weather and broad swings are becoming more common. I’ve had success growing ginger and turmeric as annuals and overwintering the roots inside. I do the same with my key lime tree, bringing it inside for the winter.

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ginger and turmeric. large roots were preserved in brandy, small ones repotted to overwinter, and the greens dried for tea and soup.

Plants like malabar spinach are new to this part of the world but thrive in our climate. I love trying a few new things every year, but as always–do your research and choose low maintenance plants that fit your garden ecosystem. Otherwise you waste your time creating an input-intensive system (water, fertilizer, pest and disease management) that will only become harder to maintain as resources become more constrained.

Plan for a quasi-closed system

We didn’t realize how far we were from this until a few years into it when I actually started paying attention. And I don’t suggest this in an apocolyptic kind of way (though deep down I lust for the elusive 90% self sufficiency just like the best of ’em), but rather in terms of thinking about the ways in which we contribute to an unsustainable system and may find ourselves, at some point in the middle future, with less access to things that have previously been easy to get.

Be frugal for when it matters. Learn to take care of your tools. Most tools have a lifetime guarantee–take them back if they break and any store will replace them. But start taking proper care of them now. Use bamboo for garden stakes, trellises, or chicken runs instead of buying a bunch of nasty pvc or investing money in lumber. The impulsive, unplanned DIY purchases are the kind of things that keep a million Home Depots and Lowes in business. Some things you have to buy, but not as many as you think. Especially when you are mucking around and experimenting and don’t know what you are doing, the mistakes can be cheap or very expensive, you choose. I’ve had plenty of both.

One of the big ways to better steward the environment and stop hauling in garden inputs is to become self-sufficient in water and soil amendments. A few years ago our family installed 1350 gallons of rain water cisterns. IMG_4827

Every summer we have dry spells where we come closing to tapping both of the big 550 gallon tanks. But we use well water and I neither want to put more pressure on the aquifer than necessary, nor worry about my food supply when we have intense heat and drought. It also means I can let my kids mess around with the hose as much as they want without stressing out about the waste. If I had unlimited time and money (and county inspectors who would look the other way), I’d have full house gray water systems. But this is close enough.

When we have trees taken down, we have them chipped on site. Usually this saves the tree folks money too and so makes the job cheaper. There’s a few year’s worth of mulch, right there. We mow our clover yard and bag the clippings to feed the hens and use as green manure in the garden. I plant rye and vetch cover crops in my beds to build up the soil without fertilizer and protect the soil without mulch.

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two beds planted with rye and vetch, a pile of green manure, and some hardwood mulch mountains

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planting basil directly into dying cover crop (no till)

Keeping chickens has been the best way for me to become less dependent on buying compost and fertilizer. Livestock manure is a crap shoot, depending on what cocktails of drugs and feed people are giving their animals. Municipal compost loads I’ve used in the past have had all manner of unspeakable things in them, not to mention everyone’s RoundUp-ed yard waste. But mostly the issue is how to produce fertilizer on site. If you are really ambitious, eat a clean diet, and it wouldn’t ruin your marriage, humanure is how the world did this for a long time before we forgot how. It’s clean and plentiful, but it takes time and space.

Plant disease-resistant perennials

Every year add a few low maintenance perennials to your space. Every year they will take less work, you’ll know more what you are doing, and you will be closer to harvests. Low maintenance perennials will begin to form the backbone of your garden. Three years ago I planted persimmon trees, herbs, comfrey, and perennial onions. Two years ago I planted strawberries, rhubarb, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, hardy kiwi, nettles, and jerusalem artichoke (the latter two in pots to keep them from invading). This year I am adding globe artichokes and fennel. Every year I have more food of my own, in my own backyard, that only requires some weeding, watering, mulching, and harvesting.

Learn about foraging wild edibles, pass-along plants, and seed saving

At this time of year, my new lettuce isn’t ready to eat, if I’m lucky I have some spinach, but because I didn’t take care of my overwintered tender greens during a cold snap, I don’t have much. Yet because there are dandelion greens and yellow dock in the yard, I can still put together dishes with nourishing greens. It’s easy to learn online about wild edibles. Ask the old timers in your neighborhood. Dandelions will probably be the last thing to go when the apocalypse comes.

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dandelion greens and roots

Plant things that folks around you are giving away, or that can be divided. Pass along plants are the best. They are tried and true. Your neighbors and (new) friends will teach you about what has worked for them. Things that are fussy or hard to grow don’t make good pass along plants, so you will  end up with a collection of useful and adaptive plants (though still do your own research…don’t go letting some friendly looking stranger convince you to plant their extra running bamboo).

Some seeds are easier to save than others, so start slow. I keep garlic, ginger, turmeric, and sweet potatoes to replant each year. I’ve found sorghum, kale, radish, beans, peas, lettuce, and cilantro to be easy and reliable savers. I try saving a few new things each year, decreasing my dependence on purchased seed.

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coriander and radish seeds

Understand microclimates

Pay attention to the microclimate of the space that you have and make appropriate choices. When we moved out of town we kept our urban garden space. It was a farm a century ago and the soil was magnificent. Plus, the climate in town was a good 4° F warmer than out in the country on our sloped land. I started my little orchard there with two persimmons and two pomegranates–these were trees that could withstand drought and that were not picky about harvesting times. I chose them for these qualities because I knew caring for a garden not in my backyard, with two kids under foot, would not be a daily affair. I couldn’t afford to baby these trees.

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fuyu persimmon and ‘wonderful’ pomegranate

But I didn’t take into account that we’d have two back to back winters with 5° F cold spells. The persimmons were the right choice–they are disease resistant, tolerate drought and cold, and can hang around waiting to be harvested until I have time to visit. The pomegranates were not. Like my beloved figs, they die all the way back to the ground in cold snaps like that. While they like hot weather and don’t mind our sometimes dry summers, they do not like being cold. While my 3 year old persimmons gave me an excellent first harvest this year, there’s been nothing close to fruit on the pomegranates.

This was the perfect example of naive expectations about climate change. I thought “it will be warmer!” but didn’t think “we will have bizarre highs and lows.”

In contrast, I knew planting rhubarb in the south was iffy. The experts said 25% might make it through the summer. I chose a north facing slope of a berm that runs across the bottom of our sloped yard. It’s in partial shade during the summer and cooler air flows down and pools at the foot of the berm. Instead of 25%, I’ve had 80% survival. Knowing your microclimate and using it wisely can make all the difference.

Choose multi-use plants

Get the most bang for your buck and avoid waste by growing plants with several usable parts, and use them!

Sweet potatoes are an easy crop requiring little care. They are one of my favorites because their growth smothers weeds and their greens are delicious at a time when most of my leafy greens are suffering heat stroke. Sorghum is also a new favorite. It’s incredibly drought and poor soil tolerant. The seeds make a delicious gluten free flour and the stalks produce molasses (even with just a small patch and no press you can do it like this). Elderberry flowers and fruit can be used to make food and medicine. Comfrey makes excellent forage and mulch, and the leaves and roots are center pieces of basic herbal medicine. Herbs attract and feed beneficial insects and are used for seasoning food and making teas. I use my lavender, rosemary, and sage to make anti-bacterial cleaning supplies with vinegar. Raspberries are delicious and the leaves are edible, historically used for teas during pregnancy.

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sweet potato beds with my first experiment with sorghum in the background

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first elderberry harvest. seeds and stems are toxic, always process properly

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sorghum. maybe the prettiest seed ever

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sweet potato slips rooting

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last year’s garlic

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comfrey root and leaf, just dug

If you need to plant big trees, plant something with useful wood, bark, and nuts. We don’t eat the nuts from the mature walnut and hickory trees shading our house, but the squirrels do, which keeps them out of our garden. And we could eat them. Black walnut tincture is also a useful anti-parasitic for animals and people, and externally for treating ring worm and skin yeast infections.

Roses have edible petals and the hips are wonderful in tea and rich in vitamin C–the rosa rugosa variety is best at producing these. There are tons of options, just please don’t plant boxwoods and crape myrtles when a thousand useful and edible options exist. Just google “edible landscaping” for ideas.

Takeaway

Start small but start now. Get to know your neighborhood gardeners and farmers for plants, help, and pooling resources. Don’t invest heavily in exotic or high maintenance plants; choose varieties that are disease resistant and can tolerate variation in climate. Try to wean yourself from buying and shipping in resources for your garden. Learn to make mulch and compost with what you have. Start eating seasonally and from plants that thrive in your region. Learn about caring for your soil. Learn about the microclimate you are working with.

The best part of all this is it turns out all the things that decrease the carbon footprint of your garden and make it more resilient and abundant in a less certain future also make it cheaper and less work. Who’d’ve thunk it? 😉

 

 

 

This is the year

To the boy who made us parents:

You have completed six years of life. It was a special birthday for both of us, though we couldn’t really put our finger on why. You told me “this year feels more important,” and it did.

As a scholar I’d say it was probably our completely average timing of entry into middle childhood, which is really a much more dramatic stage than its name suggests. The age when archaeologists tell us most children were finally weaned. When baby teeth begin to fall out. When, in traditional societies, children would be expected to start taking on roles with responsibility in the home and community. The precursor to the precursor of adolescence.

In our home it was just a special year, no more and no less.

This was the year that you completed the transition from wanting only me to none of me at all, if there were other children to play with. Even though you felt guilty for not wanting me, I didn’t mind. I’ve been wanted enough for several lifetimes.

This was the year you began to offer to do helpful things when you saw me struggling, and make a point of letting me know you were sorry when I didn’t get enough sleep or had a bad day.

The year you stopped napping. The year you started reading. The year you stopped being nervous at the idea of being dropped off for an activity without me. The year you started seeing your baby brother as a person and appreciating his potential as a playmate and friend.

This was the year you stopped being afraid that anyone who came to play would take All. Your. Things.

The year you started helping me in the garden, and did the work to make your own bed. And decided you wanted to make your own birthday cake (phew).

The year you learned to save your allowance. And started choosing your own clothes (unfortunately, as we’ve got you covered for the next year but now all bottoms must have belt loops).

The year you started exploring the woods alone. And I didn’t know where you were or what was happening. And it was okay. Better than okay. It was good. Really good.

This was the year you asked big questions about your big disappointments and sadnesses and then paid focused attention to my answers, knowing that I would take you seriously and that if you stayed still you’d find out what you needed to know…like why your brother gets more of my time. You sit perfectly still as I explain about the development of small humans, and how you were when you were his age, and how it won’t last forever. And you take it inside you and put it away in the places it needs to go. Figuring out what you need to be okay. A brunch date, please, a few hours just us? Yes. I can’t wait.

There will be other amazing years. Or perhaps all years will start to look amazing. Maybe the pace of change will remain fast and this will just seem like the first year of the new normal.

I don’t expect to know anymore. To have any idea what lies in store. I don’t care. This is good. You are good.

Happy birthday.

 

Why I Refuse to Hate Duke

It’s March. The time of year when all of a sudden many of the Carolina fans in my Facebook feed start behaving like Donald Trump supporters, high on xenophobic mob juice. The time of year when people who know me from UNC (I’ve been an undergrad, a graduate student, and an employee there) think they can assume I’m a Tarheel. This, in turn, makes it okay to say things about Duke, its players and people, that they’d never want their mothers to hear. The time of year when it only takes a day or two of first round games for me to get tired of defending my family and our nuanced take on college sports allegiances.

Because I am not a Carolina fan, despite the place being full of wonderful people I know well and love, including some of the best professors and best students I’ve ever had. Despite growing up in Chapel Hill. But that’s not what get’s people worked up. It’s that I won’t let them say nasty things about Duke, which is basically heresy.

On principle, I refuse to hate Duke because the language of hate creates a behavioral permissiveness that leads to horrific outcomes. If you are complaining about what Donald Trump’s hate speech does to stadiums full of angry white people, then take a minute to recall the kinds of behavior that result from inciting hatred in the same atmosphere over a ball game. That bad behavior–when you throw glass bottles at Duke players as they leave the court, yell threatening things at the players about their sisters and mothers, use homophobic and violent language to put down their players–is what we are teaching a generation of young people to both take and give. A good rivalry should be something different.

But more to the point, I can’t hate Duke because there’s nothing nasty about Duke that, at its core, isn’t true about Carolina. I can just see y’all’s eyebrows climbing and the retorts spilling forth. But the elitism! The whiteness! The snobbery! Did we mention the elitism? And the whiteness!!!?? We let ourselves go with self-righteous fury toward the evil empire of privilege that is Dook…which is a big lie and arguably has been for a long time. Especially coming from Carolina. And my most progressive friends are the worst behaved. Like their public university street cred sanctifies their rudeness. But it doesn’t.

My parents worked with Dean Smith and his wife on equal rights efforts in the community when I was a baby. My sister and I went to high school with their kids, who are amazing women. My mom and dad both went to graduate school at UNC (though if your dissertation is on the history of white supremacy at Carolina and documents the foul people they name their buildings for and how they used slavery to build the entire institution, maybe you get negative legacy points?). I loved Carolina basketball as a child, and I loved Dean.

But I wasn’t fond of Carolina students, as a group. Those were the people who destroyed my town every time they won a game against Duke. I snuck out to watch the 1991 Duke NCAA victory bonfire with a friend and was so impressed that they were contained on campus and only immolated themselves and destroyed their own furniture! Those Carolina frat boys were the beloved sons who could do no wrong, yet harassed me nonstop beginning at age 10 anytime I was on Franklin street after dark. Don’t get me wrong, frats are frats. But at Duke, when the pressure of reprehensible greek behavior became too intense, the frats were kicked off campus. At UNC they still reign supreme.

I was a student organizer in high school and was involved in both the Duke and UNC anti-sweatshop sit-ins that constituted part of a nationwide movement to bring accountability to the licensed apparel industry. The sit-in at Duke was the first and inspired a wave of protests at universities across the nation. It was fascinating to watch how Duke’s more agile bureaucracy interacted in a far more substantive way with its student activists. At UNC student organizers were treated like outside agitators and the administrators in South building gave us the perennial runaround, politely inviting us to lots of committee meetings and then pushing through their own agenda during the summer.

I watched this happen to student movements at UNC time and again–first as an active young community member, later as a leader in Student Congress–whether it was support for the housekeepers (who in 1997 forced the University to settle a lawsuit on violating the 13th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution), pushing back against steep tuition increases, or renaming campus buildings for non-KKK Grand Dragons. Much of UNC’s administration was an old boys’ club of the worst southern kind–the kind that thinks it’s not and earnestly sells itself as the “light on the hill.” And that was long before the recent, um, changes. As an undergrad, I remember being told “if you hate Carolina so much, maybe you belong at Duke.” I thought, if you really love something you ought to want to make it better. But no, disloyalty to the Tarheel brand would not be tolerated. Nothing could have turned me off faster than a consistent refusal to be self critical.

But I was still a Carolina basketball fan. I liked watching the games and felt my public school pride. And then I met my husband, who’d gone to Duke, and we had babies and watching basketball fell to the bottom of my priority list. He grew up in a trailer in the woods, just like me, but he’d gone to that other school down the road. My spouse doesn’t care what team I like. He’d rather I liked Carolina more because then maybe I’d make time to watch the games. He’s a committed Duke fan, but he always pulls for the ACC.

What our marriage changed was something different. We bought a home together in Durham, a city that was progressive, exciting, integrated, and affordable. For years I took the Duke campus shuttle to the Robertson Scholars Bus, which ferried anyone who wanted to travel between Duke and UNC for free. I used the bus to get to my graduate classes and teach at Carolina.

I learned a lot in the 7 years that we lived in central Durham–the first 7 years of my life in a “house divided.” I got a look at Duke from the inside. The students on the bus with me. The workers. The many many UNC employees that commuted by bus from their homes in Durham because they couldn’t afford to live in Chapel Hill. I watched the Duke lacrosse scandal unfold from the inside, relatively speaking (the house was a short walk from ours). I noticed that racism and elitism at Duke operated in a different institutional context–a less comfortable one for the status quo of privilege–because of Durham, a strong community that spoke up for social justice and aimed to hold its institutions accountable.

I am embarrassed to say I was shocked at how diverse the students were. There were actually American people of color (please cringe now), not the ridiculous image I had in my head of token international students who were just as rich as the certainly overwhelming majority rich white people that were Duke’s essence. And they were WAY more present on campus than what I’d experienced at UNC, where I’d felt like the public spaces were dominated by white frat culture, with wee pockets that black students staked out for themselves in front of the cafeteria or the undergrad library, with everyone else seemingly invisible. Invisible like the teeny little Unsung Founders Memorial where you can literally sit your ass down, put your feet up, and eat your lunch on the backs of slaves, all in the shadow of Silent Sam.

After a few months of riding the bus and grudgingly finding these Duke students awfully interesting real people, I sat down with my husband and looked up the numbers. Carolina is 71% white. Duke is 46% white. My mind was blown. Could that be right? Duke is 10% African American to UNC’s 9% (8% in 2014). Duke does just as well at attracting (and much better at retaining) black students. I knew it first hand in a sense; we were constantly having to send our black undergrads (and white, for that matter) for coursework on race to Duke…because at Carolina we had no one teaching those classes.

Yes, 19% of Carolina students are first generation. But you know what? 10% of Duke’s are, too. One in every ten Duke students comes from a family where they are the first to go to college. Those kids have a harder time finishing and are harder to teach, but Duke does a better job of it, with higher retention and graduation rates.

I am not arguing that Duke is the light on the hill that UNC fans want to think Carolina is; far from it. All these big institutions have big issues. Duke is still expensive and has more rich students than Carolina. But whenever I point out anything positive happening at Duke, progressive Carolina fans call me out for–at a minimum–my disloyalty to the public university system. And I call bullshit.

UNC is only 20% a public school, and the rest of its money comes from tuition, rich donors, Pepsi, and the NSF just like the any private school. Carolina was designed as a publicly financed university for the white male children of the home-grown aristocracy. Every working class white person, woman, and person of color that has stepped through those doors has done so because of struggles for access by those same people, often facing great opposition from the powers that be on the Board of Trustees and in the state house. UNC fought federal orders to better integrate until 1981, for crying out loud (and only acquiesced then because the demands were watered down by the new Reagan White House).

Carolina has never been a university of the people. It’s excellent to try to make it that way, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. But let’s not lie to ourselves. If you want to look at where the most substantive work is happening to educate the citizens of North Carolina, look at the other 15 schools in the system, picking up UNC’s fiscal droppings and trying to make ends meet with no big donors and sports teams to bring in extra cash. Or our awesome network of 54 community colleges that provide the actual training that most of us need to operate in the real world and gain job skills. There are many wonderful things about Carolina, but man-of-the-people self righteousness, we have not earned.

Why does any of this matter, you fierce basketball fans might ask. To a lot of people it doesn’t. But this is about the people who–whether they realize it or not–think being Carolina fans gives them some sort of working man’s license to shit on the young adults who go to Duke and the kids who play basketball there.

I had to ask my husband why people hate Grayson Allen, because I keep seeing friends of mine saying nasty things about him, but I haven’t watched any games and have no idea. He reminded me about the cult of hatred for white Duke players (by other white people). Sure, he tripped someone. Not anything more egregious than other people do all the time with no one caring. People like Duke’s black players (except when they hate them for “being too white,” like Battier). But the white players just seem to ooze the privilege people associate with Duke, even if those same kids at another school would go thoroughly unhated.

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We enjoyed this final step in the WSJ’s Madness Machine

But it’s about basketball, my dear, not politics. Can’t you agree Coach K is totally hatable? Well, here’s what I’ve observed about the people involved in the sport, and the way they run their programs. Coach K treats his players like dignified young adults worthy of respect and a good education in exchange for what they bring Duke. And he knows the game, at the end of the day, is a game. Roy Williams fails on both these fronts. Sure, Coach K is a huge conservative. Funny that. I wouldn’t want him to be my elected representative, but he takes a lot better care of the young men and families in his program than we do at Carolina. Dean was different. But that’s not been Carolina men’s basketball for a long time and we should be honest with ourselves about it.

I grew up in Chapel Hill. I have 3 degrees from UNC. I know scores of truly amazing people at UNC…and at Duke. Both of those campuses are full of incredible young people, many of whom would not have been there 60 years ago. Neither they nor their players deserve to be treated like dirt. And I’m sorry, but it’s pretty much a one way hate street. In particular, I am tired of supposedly progressive people talking a level of trash that transcends basic human decency in defense of a place with the level of white supremacist history and lingering institutional racism and sexism that Carolina has.

Duke TOTALLY has its issues, but let’s get off our high horses okay? Basketball does not exist in isolation from the rest of the institution, as the scandals at UNC have shown. Carolina fans don’t get to hate Duke on grounds of elitism, I’m sorry, we just don’t.

We shouldn’t have to dig too deep to just cheer our own teams on and call it a day. We can even wish the other team ill on the court (I’m not asking for miracles). In our house the rule is if we can’t explain what we’re saying or doing to our children in a truthful manner without violating the norms of acceptable behavior we are trying to teach them as social beings, then we shouldn’t be doing it. Let’s start there.

I don’t care about what basketball team people like, I care about how we behave in public, how we treat other human beings, and, beyond that, perhaps that we question our self righteous assumptions once in a while.

Even if you don’t stop hating Duke, you might at least stop acting like a drunken sailor all month on my Facebook feed.

Kid’s books about people of color, that aren’t about race

When my then-4-year-old son went through a stage of voraciously devouring children’s books, our home stash was quickly exhausted. But the library was so hit or miss, especially when he picked his own books. The majority were so sexist and so gender binary I was constantly deconstructing, changing words, or getting into explanations that, for him, ruined the flow of the story. The issues with race were less in your face, but also problematic. Often, protagonists of color were just lacking, unless it was a book about the Civil Rights Movement or an explicit celebration of the culture of a particular ethnic group.

I asked a feminist friend of mine for some good suggestions on the gender front. My son was at an impressionable age where he was just starting to ask questions (and absorb societal assumptions). She said one of the hardest things for her to find were books with characters that were non-gender conforming, without that being the point of the story. If there was a boy wearing a skirt, he was discovering his homosexuality and learning to stand up to school yard bullies. But where were the stories where the boy wore a skirt, just because, and nothing bad happened?

Books focused on struggles to cope with oppression validate the daily reality of children facing discrimination. They are crucial for helping budding allies understand their own privilege and the challenges their friends are facing. In longer stories for older readers, the nuanced and multifaceted nature of each character is easier to develop and experiences of oppression can be part of the story without being the whole story. These books are important, many of them are tremendously good, and they are a big part of our library. Teaching my sons about privilege is a given. Our first difficult discussions about complex social realities were about white privilege. Understanding privilege will always be central to learning in our home because oppressive notions of white masculinity have been the drivers of our world’s biggest problems for a damn long time. As the mother of white boys, undermining that legacy is quite possibly the most important contribution I can make to social justice.

But for creating a reading world that reflected the world I wanted my young child to see as normal, it wasn’t enough. There was something problematic about always equating non-heteronormativity or non-whiteness with the hardships of being seen as different.

In terms of gender, I want to prime him for openness and viewing a full spectrum of ways-of-being as normal, not teach him that if he wears a skirt he needs to be ready for a fight. There will be time enough to learn that. Likewise, I want his stories to be full of protagonists who reflect the real world–a world that is mostly not white and male. But in many cases, if people of color are the protagonists in children’s books, it’s because it is a story about the struggle against oppression, overcoming the odds, or standing up to racism.

There’s a subtle and problematic message imparted by this paradigm in young children’s literature–that only if the story is about Identity X do you deserve to be front and center. There just aren’t enough books where non-white non-males protagonize the stories…just because. Just because white males should not be the fall back main character that everyone is supposed to identify with. And let me be clear that I do not think that any symbol or representation of “culture” make a book somehow narrow  and not applicable to a mainstream audience. That would be the other side of this same coin. Books can show characters in the context of their history and culture as they carry forth a story that may not be primarily about the struggles of being “different,” etc.

A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, wondering hopefully whether it had produced a booklist (it hasn’t). Someone else raised exactly this concern and I came home and started digging around, both to see what the booklists had to offer and what I had in my own library. Common Sense Media’s list is mostly geared toward older kids. There’s a cool wiki oriented toward the picture book crowd, which yielded some good new material. It’s a catch all collection of books about people of color.

I also discovered, while poking around, that there may be a reason there seems to be a dearth of books with protagonists of color that aren’t “about” race (other than the big one that we live in a white-centric culture where white authors, who mostly write white characters–and also many characters of color–get published the most). This really interesting article at the Lee & Low open book blog discusses the possible pressure for African American and Latin@ children’s authors and illustrators to create books meeting the “cultural content” requirements of the Pura Belpré and Coretta Scott King Awards. In particular, their books are far more likely to be about race and culture than those of Asian American authors, who don’t have a similarly high profile award to shoot for.

There’s more discussion of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center stats on publishing multicultural content here. The comments on both posts are fascinating. Overall it’s pretty abysmal. People of color are 37% of the US population and are present in only 14% of the children’s books at CCBC. And that’s at an organization that’s mindful about the problem. The number had been stagnant at 10% for the past 20 years, so this was seen as a major improvement.

But all this got me curious. What books do we have in our home collection that are protagonized by characters of color without being primarily focused on that dimension of identity? Many of our beloved books are “multicultural” in the sense that the characters are of diverse backgrounds (Magic Schoolbus books, The Hungry Thing and Hungry Thing Returns, What Makes a Baby, Fletcher Hatches an Egg, Rosie Revere Engineer, Locomotive..the list is pretty much endless). Many more are about Jewish traditions and history, the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, the reconnection of children from immigrant families with their cultural roots. But there weren’t very many that both had protagonists of color and weren’t focused specifically on culture or struggles against discrimination. Here are a few that we love, mostly for younger kids:

  1. A is for Activist and Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara. My 21 month old’s favorite board books. Can’t say enough awesomeness about these, especially for a red diaper baby like me. Beautiful illustrations. Perfect message about the world we and our kids are working for.img_3822
  2. Little Robot and the Zita the Space Girl series by Ben Hatke. These graphic novels are wonderful stories with female protagonists of color. My son did his first sight reading with Little Robot. tumblr_o0wtiua9tp1t3i99fo2_1280
  3. The Corduroy books by Don Freeman. Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy. Classics.pocketlastpage_400-7lvl0qlog7ocgg0wks8cc8kog-cfgi4gyt1wgggc04kksk0kgog-th
  4. I dream of trains by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long. Our elder son is a steam train lover and we’ve collected a lot of train books. This book is set in Tennessee in 1900. The book engages the struggle of aspects of black life in the post-Reconstruction-era South in the context of a story about the hopes and dreams of a boy who lived along Casey Jones’ famed route. Wind Flyers, another collaboration between Johnson and Long, is also a beloved favorite.
  5. Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams. I love this book. It’s from 1987 and is a quintessential 80s book. The stories and pictures are fun and beautiful.cherries01
  6. Umbrella by Taro Yashima. Gorgeous illustrations and a story of anticipation. So good. tumblr_ndjen3ekwt1rqpa8po1_500
  7. On Mother’s Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott, illustrated by Glo Coalson. My mama found this for us when I was pregnant with our second. Not sure it did anything for my big kid to help him accept sharing me with his brother, but it was wonderful for me 😉9780618051595
  8. Just us Women by Jeannette Caines, illustrated by Pat Cummings. This is a fun picture book, though for us there’s a slight mismatch between the age at which the story appeals to the expected audience (pre-adolescence) and the format (short picture book format for young kids). justuswomen

 

 

Let’s grow the lists! What’s in your library?

 

frugality vs. minimalism

This is a quintessential unbalancing act that I’ve struggled with over the years. Frugality is fundamentally about achieving your goals with what you have on hand and without spending a lot of money. Minimalism is about reducing the amount of stuff in your life. If you have ever tried to prioritize both of these at once you realize that there is a permanent tension between the two that simply cannot be resolved.

One might think that the shared goal of making do without having to acquire more stuff would be a point in common. There are a few neat and tidy examples of this, like making your own cleaning products. On one little shelf you have baking soda, white vinegar, castile soap, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, maybe coconut oil and olive oil. These replace a bajillion other things–in our house everything from window cleaner to toothpaste (and exploding volcanoes). A small collection of ingredients replaces many other bottles and containers, they are exponentially cheaper, and actually fast to make and use. Boom! Frugality and minimalism living in harmony.

But in most cases they only overlap well if you can make do without having exactly what you need, a lot of the time. Sometimes one can and (arguably) should, but not always.

It might seem like a first world problem, but it’s more complicated than that. Frugality is a necessity if you are poor. But if you are poor in an urban setting where you don’t have a lot of space, some frugal options simply don’t exist (buying things in bulk or in season to save money is a huge one). In addition, a lot of money saving tricks for the household take both time, research, up front resources, and sometimes even having access to particular physical resources or social networks. Minimalism, forced or chosen, can be very expensive.

In my own life I’ve wobbled back and forth. My mom cleaned things with vinegar when I was a kid. I thought she was a hippy and disregarded her methods with adolescent disdain. She bought the cheapest but most efficient new cars she could find–she commuted an hour and a half to work everyday and needed something reliable. All I noticed was the lack of AC during the blistering southern summers. She bought second hand clothes. I remember one of the few times that for some special occasion I got to buy a new outfit. I don’t remember much from way back, but boy I remember that.

She was a doctor, she could have made more money. Instead she did the worst paid job in medicine (which tells you something about our national priorities)–a county public health pediatrician. Poor kids, nobody pays for that. And 60% time, so she could be home when we got home from school. I valued all of those things and accepted the complicated feelings of wanting more, but appreciated what she stood for and the sacrifice she made. For the past decade she’s lived in an off the grid tiny house she built, doing the most amazing job of doing without and making do.

Looking back on it, I’d always struck a funky balance. In graduate school I’d keep my apartment freezing cold in the winter to save on heat, but if I was going to buy one new pair of shoes every 10 years it would be some damn nice Campers. I embraced the thrift store life; I loved feeling like I could shop guilt free.

It was culture shock when I met my husband. I’d been living on a graduate student budget forever on the oh-so-common track of perpetual higher education, while he had gone to work straight out of school. I hadn’t thought of myself as frugal or thrifty until we started living together. But this guy bought magazines at the airport when we traveled (gasp!), ate out for lunch with coworkers daily, and threw things away that could be recycled. He’d rebelled against his parents by being mainstream. Just about sent us to couples’ therapy. But he has no stuff, no squirreled away boxes of memorabilia, no crap. He’d also been a regular working adult for a lot longer than me, so had a lot more experience managing a household budget.

I was both un-frugal and un-minimalist in my new non-single life. A lot of space and money got wasted as I found my footing. I’d buy a case of 32 oz bottles of molasses and call it thrifty because buying in bulk saved me 10% on the per bottle cost. But it took me a decade to use it up and I had to store it all that time. That’s a cheap example, there were worse. We won’t talk about the chickens. Well, we might talk about the chickens, later.

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but they are so cute!

The big life shift, which got me thinking about this tension, came three years ago, today. We wanted more space. We wanted different space. But we didn’t want to take on more debt and tie ourselves to the labor market any longer than we had to. We had been on the road for my dissertation field research and loved living out of a suit case and being all together. We wanted my husband to be able to work less while he was still young.

After exploring a lot of options we went with the craziest one. His parents invited us to add on to their home–the home he grew up in–just about 15 minutes from where we were already living. There was more space. It was out in the woods. The community was incredible. We would take over a part of their house they didn’t use much anymore now that their kids were grown, and build on just a kitchen and living room. In some ways that was another example of frugality and minimalism going together. We built just what we needed and repurposed something that my in-laws had been paying to heat and cool without really needing.

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We’d be able to pool resources, work together on house maintenance, get childcare help without them having to get in the car, but still have our own space. It was much less expensive than our existing mortgage, yet we added enough space to have room for a second baby. At the same time, my husband’s sister and her husband built a tiny house and parked it across the driveway. We call it the family compound.

The property was covered in lumber. My father in law had been saving any potentially useful scrap of wood for 35 years. To me it looked cluttered (now, you should see my porch, I’m such a hypocrite). I won’t make this the incredible story of my husband’s family home, which deserves its own telling, but my father in law had built this amazing house himself. In the three years that we have lived here, he built a garden shed below the house, trimmed and paneled a room that had been unfinished, built a loft in our kid’s room, handmade super tall raised beds for his wife so she didn’t have to bend down to tend her plants, and built lovely shelves and storage spaces around the house and porches…all with leftover wood. And wood with good stories, too. Wood from old tobacco barns he’d salvaged. Wood from really old homes being torn down. Beautiful wood.

When I designed and built a chicken tractor, I dug out some old galvanized tin roofing he’d saved to cover it. When I decided I was actually going to pasture my chickens, I pulled rolls of old deer fence out from under the house and tied it all around the yard with scraps of old clothesline and other string he had neatly rolled up and saved. Between me and our 6 year old, who is a wild maker of enormous creations, we pillage Grandpa’s horde on a regular basis. We all resolve household needs on a regular basis with the materials that he has painstakingly saved over a generation. I’ve come to see it as a gold mine rather than clutter. It is the very definition of frugality. It comes from a place of not having money for replacing or buying new things, so saving anything that might be useful. It is messy. It is utterly not minimalist. It is good.

The way my father in law is about lumber, I am about containers. I save seed starting containers so I don’t have to buy them again. I save jars large and small for my salves, home remedies, and cleaning supplies. I save baskets and dishes for organizing the kid’s things, for their sorting and mine. These are all parts of what makes me who I am. It’s part of being frugal. But it all takes up space.

IMG_20150802_154409021Preserving the harvest is the same way. Right now there are three big stacked plastic organizers in the middle of the hall with sweet potatoes in them. There’s not really space for them and they look ugly. But I found these organizers under the shed and they ventilate perfectly. And this spot in the mudroom hall is the only place I can plop something dirty down and leave it for 6 months without it being in the way of life. The huge matte of tangled garlic hangs beside it. That, I think is beautiful. I’m not sure my husband feels the same way, actually I know he doesn’t. But this is how I do my part of feeding the family and he let’s go a lot of his minimalist aesthetic and anti-clutter preferences without complaint.

I have tried that “get rid of things you haven’t used in a year” routine, yet quite frequently I really needed whatever it was about every 18 months and not having it meant buying it again. Sometimes I can be all frugal and borrow it from someone. But sometimes it takes two weeks to find and acquire the loan, with a lot of gas used and a lot of time spent on coordination. I am the full time parent of two kids at home, so the economist in me tallies up the opportunity cost of arranging (sometimes paid) childcare to get the time, as well as the gas, and often buying it is actually cheaper. There you see a loss on both fronts, frugality and minimalism. If it’s some ghastly hunk of plastic crap I wish the world didn’t need more of, sometimes I do all that anyway to keep another evil widget from leaving the factory, but that hurts my economist brain (until I remember the social and environmental externalities associated with the production of said widget and feel a wee bit better).

Clothes are the perfect example. I have a reasonable closet by most standards, but adhering to a minimalist ideology would cost me a lot of money. In the past 6 years I’ve fluctuated size in extremes over two pregnancies and everything in between. I was teaching. I was doing interviews. I do serious gardening in red clay country. I have to be out with my children in all weather. I have clothes for all that in several sizes and since I may not be done having kids, I’m not tossing things. I keep maternity and baby gear in constant rotation to friends and family to keep our closet sane, but that first kid keeps growing, darn him, and the bigger they get the more space their clothes take up.

Where’s the edge? I purge until purging more would require doing laundry faster. Since I already do at least one load a day and folks still periodically run out of underwear, there’s little wiggle room. We even have a “once worn” clothes pile for items that can take another wear, which is decidedly untidy and takes up space, yet saves washing energy and money. So I look at the closet with more things in it than I’ll use in a year–or two–and call it good.

I built a chicken tractor. I designed it and paid a handy friend to construct it. All my research said that for it to function it needed real wheels. I spent $50 on two good wheels. It’s true, it needed those wheels. When our lawn mower died for good and true, I asked my husband to remove the wheels before taking it to the dump. Those are really nice wheels. That will save me $100 next time I need good wheels. Until then, they take up space.

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Children’s art supplies? Don’t get me started. Yes, it’s a privilege and a super first world problem. But yes, I have seen a huge difference in how much they explore art when the materials are decent and on hand. You have to let them waste some (this kills me, I cannot handle wasting, I die inside). And then there are the mommy art supplies you pretend are kid art supplies so that you can excuse the space they take up. This is one I will never ever feel bad about.

My elder child is an exuberant maker. I can’t put a price tag on what it’s worth to me that he can go outside and rummage through things and find cool materials that he can actually make something interesting with. I can’t count how many times I almost threw something away and thought “but he’ll make something great with that.” And he did. Sometimes six months or a year later. Sure, he’d never have known if we hadn’t had those materials on hand. But they’ve made his experience immeasurably richer.

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I am a hoarder by nature, and the minimalists in my life–my husband, his sister in the tiny house, my mother–are an important counter balance. I pay attention to the time it takes to curate The Stuff and as I get older I get better at knowing what matters and what doesn’t. We have no attic and no storage space now, which requires constant thoughtfulness about whether to bring something home to begin with and, if so, what needs to leave to make room for it. I like that. I’m inspired by the tiny house dwellers, though I’m grateful not to have to make some of their hard choices.

Holding a minimalist aesthetic as an inspiration for keeping physical spaces neat helps me keep the clutter under control. It makes my brain feel healthier and happier. But frugality as a culture to live by is more important to who I am, and at the end of the day trumps minimalism when I have to choose. The real challenge is accepting this unbalance for what it is and remembering the good reasons behind the struggle.

 

 

Doing what works

I don’t believe in The Mommy Wars. The overwhelming majority of parents I’ve interacted with are generous, humble, and restrained in their assessment of other people’s parenting. There’s an unspoken code of conduct that you just don’t s**t on what people do differently from you because it’s so hard, no matter how you slice it. It took me a long time to learn that and it still takes mindfulness. I’m always impressed with people who are good at this without trying.

Even those of us who have to work at humility learn pretty fast once we are out of the newlywed stage of parenting–that heady moment around 2 months when they don’t poop at night anymore and you slept for 5 hours once, so you have a lot of advice to share. If you have a second kid, the pace of humility acquisition picks up noticeably. Lo and behold you are a different family, you have to do a million things differently because it turns out your first kid isn’t who you thought they’d be and you have to factor them into what you do with the next one. Your kids are totally different from each other. You remember the (maybe a smidge self righteous) advice you shared early on with other moms with such certainty, and cringe. Because those things worked on kid #1, and now they don’t.

That’s all just life. It’s not a war. Parents forgive each other for these universal sins of beginner’s hubris.

Even when folks are visibly taken aback by something about my parenting, I’ve never had anyone be mean. Yes, it happens, I don’t want to dismiss the bad experiences people have. That is real. But our own insecurities about parenting can create a thick filter through which we see judgment lurking behind every attempt to connect. I know I’ve carelessly said things that hurt people when I didn’t mean to (especially when caught off guard), so I try to assume that’s what’s happening when I feel judged.

This attempt to think well of others is not always successful. But I’m a perfectly mediocre parent in plenty of ways, and am still surprised at how positive I feel about the mamasphere at the end of the day. In fact, it’s the overwhelming generosity and support I usually feel from other parents–friends and strangers–that spurs me to be more mindful and less judgmental of others. The very best of paying it forward.

But if the internets are to be believed, parents are just being judged to death, left and right. And it’s not just a straw man so we can justify our feel-good blogs; parents do seem to feel constantly scrutinized. Yet how to reconcile this with the fact that most folks I know walk on egg shells around sensitive parenting topics and really believe different is ok?

Surely it’s a combination of all of us needing to practice mindfulness in how we treat others’ parenting choices (and unavoidable realities), as well as taking some responsibility for not interpreting everything as an attack. Since we can’t control other people’s behavior, the latter has always felt like a more realistic place to start.

So what’s the key to building an immunity to feeling judged? When I look back at the times this has worked best for me, it’s been when I was doing what worked for my family and was confident in my decision. When I’m most likely to feel judged it’s when I’m uncertain whether I’m doing the right thing. I’m not saying one can just flip a switch and feel confident about parenting. But as a sensitive person who worries a lot about social relationships, it was empowering to figure out I had something to say about how I felt.

So often we do what we think we are supposed to do without ever stopping to ask ourselves whether it works for our family. We disregard our own instincts because of what someone else said was required for good parenting, even if it makes our life miserable.

My 20 month old sleeps in the jogging stroller. It’s where he goes down for nap. It’s where he goes down for bed. He practically climbs in by himself, opens his mouth for daddy to brush his teeth, and conks out while we jiggle the stroller in the middle of the living room. He stays there until he gets squirmy. At nap time it’s usually 45 minutes. At bedtime more like 2 hours. I’d leave him there all night if he’d stay. It works.

It wasn’t always this way. Our house has three rooms total and one of them is dedicated to sleeping humans. Except this new, fourth human does not believe in sleeping and never has (especially not in a bed, that is for losers). There was the first year when he slept in a carrier perhaps half his total sleep hours. Neither of us remember anything of that year. It was a fog of utter and total exhaustion. Luckily the elder child just slept right through it all.

I remember a former neighbor commenting about our back yard “getting out of hand this past year.” My eyeballs rolled around as I tried to focus on what she was saying. I think I stuttered something about it having been a tough year. I couldn’t even fathom yard management being anywhere near the top of the list of things that weren’t getting done, but should be.

The stroller was a discovery of necessity because our one year old weighed as much as a 3 year old and my partner was developing back problems from wearing him in the carrier so much. At first we took him on uncomfortable walks in the dark and all kinds of bad weather. Then one muggy, mosquito ridden day I tried just circling the porch. Then just jiggling. Then just jiggling inside. It sounds ridiculous, but it worked. It’s been working for 6 months. Heaven help us when it stops working, as someday it surely will.

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I wouldn’t hawk this as as a stroke of parenting genius, but it gets as close to getting the job done as anything right now.

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my kids would die without cheese. In 5 lb blocks.

Then there’s our nearly six year old who eats cheese toast for breakfast, cucumbers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and pesto cheesy rice for dinner. Pretty much every day. Breakfast and lunch have shifted at various moments, but this is the dinner he’s been eating for about 8 months now. It became his go-to when he figured out he could meet my criteria for a green vegetable without having to eat something separate from the rest of his meal.

Yes, I know about the French and how their kids eat whatever is put before them. That doesn’t work for us and I really don’t care. He doesn’t want to eat what we are eating and I don’t want to eat the boring thing he wants to eat.

I look at the big picture and ask myself what my deep priorities are for his health. What I care about is that he get two greens a day and some good protein; that his diet primarily be real, whole foods without chemical nast and added sugar. On that, we are golden. He thinks a protein bar is a fancy treat. Does it matter if there’s very little variation right now? Not to me. Someday there will be. All of a sudden one day he asked for my hard boiled egg and now occasionally he eats one.

We fight about important things like tooth brushing. This was not worth a fight. I made a thousand pounds of pesto from my own garlic and basil last summer and froze it in ice cube trays. I make vast mounds of rice cooked in bone broth and freeze it. If one wants to consider the assembly process “cooking multiple separate meals” to appease a whiny kid, so be it. I love to cook and make delightfully creative meals that the rest of us eat–including the toddler (for now). This is what works for our family. We will run out of pesto in about a week and there won’t be any more until May. Soon something else will have to start working. C’est la vie.

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When I realized we were about to run out of pesto I started experimenting with winter greens in the garden. Dandelion chickweed pesto was not a hit with anyone.

But here’s the rub with all this. After seeing a silly video of my toddler double fisting his brother’s leftover pesto cheesy rice, a friend of mine asked what he was eating. When I told her, she wondered wistfully how I get my kids to eat such healthy food. I almost snorted my beer because it was so ridiculous, given that this one food is the only food he’ll eat. But she didn’t know that. Her kids eat carrots and tomatoes and sweet peppers. Mine only eats pesto cheesy rice.

If we all knew everyone else’s ridiculousness, our kids would inevitably seem more well-rounded. But who cares? This works for my family. Any time I find myself feeling envious of someone else’s seemingly perfect family, I think of all the times I’ve been shocked at someone who can only see 2% of my life saying something like that about my family.

Why not just do what works for ourselves, be inspired to try new things when we see others doing something different that we think might be better, and hold on to the reality that no one has it all figured out.

I’m not advocating laissez faire parenting. I’m sure some people think beating the crap out of their kids “works” for them. I hope it’s obvious that’s not what I mean. I know what empirical evidence actually shows to be the range of things that are healthy, safe, and normal. So do a lot of parents. It’s a big range, even if you have strong feelings about particular aspects of parenting (which most of us do).  But all that information is far less definitive than we like to think it is. The reason it’s easy to get conflicting messages is because most of it isn’t all that certain. Admitting uncertainty is not the academe‘s strong suite, so that can be your starting point the next time someone tells you “the experts all say…”. Except climate change and the superiority of Swedish social democracy, those are settled ;).

When we are confident in our own critical thinking skills, our own judgment about what is best for us, our own wisdom about our own families …if we can get to that place, then all the perceived judgment just starts to run down like water off a duck’s back.

I know parents who planned to “do” attachment parenting and their identity as parents was very tied up in this plan. But it turned out that it didn’t work for them. Whether because breastfeeding didn’t work the way they had hoped, their careers didn’t cooperate the way they thought they would, their support network turned out to be not that supportive, or they just weren’t the same person as a parent that they’d been before…it just didn’t work. They felt everyone was telling them that was how you had to parent to be a good parent. Mostly they judged themselves. But there are a million ways to deeply love and bond with your kid. You have to do what works for your family.

I know just as many parents who never planned to parent “intensively,” but once in it found it to be, quite simply, what worked for them. Often they had no support at all–be it cosleeping, breastfeeding, or wanting to stay home and not put their kid in daycare–sometimes even from their partner, which is the toughest and loneliest divide.

I am inspired by the parents who take their reality and perform an acrobatic combination of figuring out how to cope with what is and pushing through on what is central to who they are, even if it seems too hard. That process is never pretty and is often what we judge so carelessly from the outside.

Because we live in a country with zero public policy support for most families to have true freedom to choose “what works,” just focusing on ourselves is only part of the story. You never know what someone else is going through. The majority of parents in this country struggle to have room for choice, so these Mommy Wars are like an elite sparring match with no applicability to the lives of those parents struggling the most.

Judging and feeling judged are interconnected.

At the end of the day I find that thinking the best of others, taking different approaches as inspiration and food for thought (rather than comparison), and tending my own nest in the way that works for me has made me better at being generous and understanding of others. It’s a work in progress, but it’s what works.