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Monthly Archives: November 2013

France is sort of infamous for its playground “free for alls.” While I’ve yet to see any serious brawls at local play areas, French parents (and nannies and au pairs and older siblings) do tend to allow a little things to work themselves out a little more, or for a little longer, than you might see at an American playground. This is one of the many differences Pamela Druckerman wrote about extensively in her book French Children Don’t Throw Food, which I’ve blogged about before.

While I’ve got children underfoot, I’ve got climate change on the brain. On the playground, I tell M (the 4 year old) to cut it out, to play nice, to do whatever she’s doing doucement, gently, a great playground word because it can be drawn out into three emphatic syllables (dou-ce-ment). But I’ve stopped telling her (most of the time) to say she’s sorry. Sorry isn’t really a solution, is it?

The U.N. climate change conference currently going on in Warsaw, Poland is nearing its end, and based on the reportage I’ve read, it seems to be slow going. There’s a lot of discussion, of course, but I have the sense that there aren’t many conclusions coming out of this one.

But maybe the typhoon in the Philippines is changing that.

“Following a devastating typhoon that killed thousands in the Philippines, a routine international climate change conference here turned into an emotional forum, with developing countries demanding compensation from the worst polluting countries for damage they say they are already suffering.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/world/growing-clamor-about-inequities-of-climate-crisis.html?hpw&rref=world)

Between the two kids I take care of, the 4 year old is often, unwittingly, the bully or the instigator or the perpetrator of the most major crimes. She pushes him, she knocks him over, she throws things at him, she makes him try using a slide in such a way that he lands on his head. All this sounds like abominable behavior, except it’s totally normal: she’s pushing him as she runs behind him through the house in a game of tag, she knocks him over because she doesn’t realize how unstable his 2-year-old center of balance is, she’s throwing things at him that she doesn’t understand he can’t catch, she knows how to go down the slide on her back so she thinks he does too. 

Sometimes kids do things intentionally mean and sometimes (often) they don’t understand how they’re being hurtful. Whatever. Part of the job of child-minding, be you parent or nanny or shang-hai’d older sibling, is to instill some sense of culpability in these young minds. Probably the number one way to do this is to force an apology. Say you’re sorry!

In climate change conversations, people are constantly bickering about who caused it, whose fault it is. I think we can agree that climate change is most definitely anthropogenic. But which people? Who is really responsible, here? We like to say “I’m sorry” by buying reusable grocery bags and maybe even swinging for energy offsets when we have to fly places. At climate talks, since they’re political, some of the conversation is inevitably going to be about which nations need to take on more of the burden of paying for the technology that will hopefully avert some of the problems caused by climate change, or may help us deal with them.

More important, though, than saying sorry, is understanding the situation and figuring out genuine solutions. While I have plenty of reasons to demand that the 4 year old says she’s sorry, I prefer to give her some insight into her brother’s despair (“he knocked the blocks down because that’s the way he knows how to play with you, he’s crying because he didn’t mean to do something mean”) and ask her to come up with a solution. “Show him how to play nicely with you,” I’ll say, instead of “SAY YOU’RE SORRY.” 

With the effects of climate change bound to start kicking in within the next decade (or, let’s be real: now), we need to be less concerned about who is responsible and more concerned about what we’re going to do about it. Smaller and less-developed nations are almost inevitably going to be more harshly affected, and sooner than larger, more-developed nations. Figuring out how to cope with the inequality between nations and regions is the task of the moment. 

“Sorry” is fine. But we need to do far more than apologize.

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The family I live with is in the process of getting ready to move. That should explain some of my current neurotic evaluation of material possessions (but yes, only some of it). While I’m the lucky one right now because I have only two suitcases’ worth of stuff to haul the (maybe) five miles to the new house, I am still thinking about ways I can streamline.

Something I won’t be leaving behind–anytime, anywhere–is my Moleskine 18-month monthly planner. For some reason, I cannot find these listed on the Moleskine website, or the Barnes & Noble website (I bought mine in a B&N, so you’d think…), or even Amazon. Or anywhere else, actually. Typically when I like something, it seems to get discontinued shortly thereafter… but I really hope that is not the case with this gem.

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A horrible and boring photo of a lovely and boring thing.

In short: I love the thing. For my current life, 18 months is the perfect length for a planner. It also means that I can buy a planner that starts in January for my next planner, when I have (hopefully) gotten a few things in my life sorted. It has a page for notes between each calendar spread, and there are several sections for information before and after the main calendar pages.

It seems excessive, but for my current lifestyle, all those extra pages come in handy–and carrying one notebook is much easier than toting several. However, because I put passwords and that sort of thing in here, I rarely do casual traveling with it. Still, it’s travel friendly–with a soft cover, it’s very light.

But this is me, so let’s get a bit more philosophical. Does one need a planner? In an age of smartphones (when I have one myself), do we need paper planners? Is it an eco-friendly choice to have such an object? Isn’t this just some kind of status symbol or weird totem of faux-intellectualism?

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a possibly disturbing look into my November weekend plans

I derive great pleasure from the aesthetically beautiful qualities of this item. For me, that alone almost makes it worthwhile. Almost. But I do have to take other considerations… into consideration. Buying it was a funny experience for me, because my typical method of purchasing planners is haphazard or nonexistent. I rely on post-it notes, blank notebooks, corners of pages. It usually works. But I knew that this year was going to be one with a lot of changes, travel, and logistically complex situations. I wanted one thing that could keep information about all those other things corralled safely.

The Moleskine answers that call beautifully. The monthly layout is also perfect for my daily needs. In addition to numerous long- and short-term deadlines, I have a personal code of markings that makes it easy to track certain things over the course of a month. One mark means I’ve written and scheduled a blog post for that day. Another symbol means I went on a run. I’ve just started using the blank square at the end of the week (pictured above) to make prioritized to-do lists of the major things that must be accomplished by the end of that week.

While I started out with a pretty free and easy schedule–and I’m still far from booked–I have taken on more social opportunities and more commitments, and I’ve increased my goals for my time here. The planner is starting to look like I have a life! It also makes it easy to keep information about the hours I work and the amount I’ve been paid in one place. While it’s one of the most extravagant planners I’ve ever bought, I’ve never experienced the frustration that I’m used to with planners. It answers all my desires and was only $22. If only boyfriends came like that…

Still, I haven’t addressed the enviro side of things. That’s sort of the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Here I am, getting orgasmic about a planner, yet theoretically I should be out hugging trees instead of chopping them down for Moleskine & co.

It helps that the product is made with acid-free paper and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Yet more importantly than that, I’m sitting amidst a small pile of paper-based products. I have a handful of paperback sketchbooks for drawing, note-taking, etc.; I have a notebook for french classes; I have a journal friends gave me right before I left (filled up now!), and a simple school cahier I bought here for a journal when the first one ran out. While I spend way too much time on my computer, writing things out by hand is also part of my life.

This isn’t necessarily an eco-friendly choice in the sense that, yes, I’m killing trees. A friend of mine wrote in a yearbook that my sketchbook habits alone would get me locked up for killing rainforests. He may have had a point. However, all of this written and drawn expression is part of what keeps me sane. I have yet to find any computer-based solutions to the hard-copy planner, and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible–one of the primary uses I have for the calendar is taking notes on information I want available once I’ve shut down my computer.

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Can you believe it’s already the middle of November? I can’t!

Beyond that, this is a well-designed object. Unlike planners I’ve had in the past, that I’ve bought and gradually stopped using before they were used up, this is a planner that has become more and more part of my lifestyle. Although I initially balked at the price, since I use the item every day, $22 doesn’t seem like a lot for 18 months of organizational assistance.

It’s also found additional use in my life as a table substitute. When I find myself trying to work off-line for a bit, I sometimes need a hard surface to write on. At my disposal, I only have a tiny card table that is covered in green felt. The Moleskine’s rigidity is just enough to provide a smooth work surface.

While I’m still not sure I can justify the purchase in the name of sustainability, I can say that by being an extremely well-designed item, it has helped encourage me to spend more money (per thing) on fewer, higher-quality items. This is a sustainable principle, but it was one that, for me, needed positive reinforcement to stick.

If you don’t need a planner (WHO ARE YOU???) or you already have one you like, don’t go out and buy this. But if you are in the market, you’re looking around, and you’re wondering if this is really worth the money–yes, yes it is.

Minimalism is a growing trend; we with too much are starting to recognize that and try to figure ways to pare down, ways to minimize not only the number of possessions we have, but, more importantly, the mental energy it takes to keep track of them all. There are an ever-increasing number of blogs devoted to this philosophy; this is the best primer I’ve found.

This post is not about “why,” it’s about how. If you feel burdened by the sheer amount of stuff you have–no matter what kind of stuff it is–that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to chuck it all. However, recognizing the burden is the first step. The next step is figuring out how to prioritize minimizing your possessions (minimalism is also about a lot of things besides possessions, but I’m trying to stay focused here).

Personally, I am more of a natural hoarder than a minimalist. That said, I started making a conscious effort to “downsize” about two years ago, and I’m getting better and better at it. Here are some strategies for making that conversion:

1. Find your why

I know I said this post was about “how,” but sometimes those two are inextricably liked. You may feel a sort of claustrophobia but hardly understand it. Try to figure out where that’s coming from.

For me, the things that force decisions bother me the most. I don’t mind having “extra” artwork; I actually like really “cluttered” visual displays, sometimes. My bed at home often has as many as seven or eight blankets on it (I get really really cold, okay?) and that doesn’t bother me. If all you see in my room is my bookcase, there’s no way you’d assume I appreciate minimalism.

Having seven or eight types of shampoo–even if there’s just a spoonful of each–really does get to me, though. It means that when I go to use shampoo, I have to decide between too many options. Same goes for clothes, shoes, etc.

The reason I started getting into minimalism, though, was because of traveling. I found it really embarrassing and annoying to carry a lot of stuff places, and I usually found that I didn’t actually need or even end up using most of what I brought. In 2011, when I went on a two-week trip to Ireland with my parents, I packed for the entire vacation, including a three-day horse trek and two days in London, in a small duffel bag and a medium size purse. This included an old helmet, which I left at the stable at the end of the trek (it was still in OK shape, and this gave me extra space for souvenirs).

I wore mostly black, rotated layers, and aired out clothing at night. Even still, I came home with one or two perfectly clean articles of clothing, and I hadn’t done any laundry on the trip–I definitely could have packed lighter. If your trip is really going to consist of one drive or flight, one hotel, etc., then heavier luggage might not be an issue–and spending less time thinking about how to get outfits to coordinate (or whatever) might be more “minimal.” For me, I seem to end up walking or even running for miles, often carrying my luggage, wherever I go, so light is definitely a priority.

2. You can climb the mountain slowly

It’s easy to get carried away by minimalism blogs and want to get rid of all your stuff, RIGHT NOW. I mean, that’s how I always feel when I read these things. But the reality of many lifestyles is that this doesn’t make sense. I don’t like owning a bunch of dresses, because I rarely wear them. However, when I’m asked to perform in front of a specific audience, it’s really nice (and kind of comforting) to have options to choose from.

My life right now is very unstable. I have a job that lasts through July, and while I have a few plans brewing, I have no solid knowledge about where I’m going to be in August or after. There is a big difference between “barn clothes” and “presentation clothes.” Although I’ve seriously reduced my closet in the past few years, I’m still leaving my options open.

Likewise, I haven’t gotten rid of my ice skates even though I haven’t been skating in a couple years. They were an investment when I bought them, they still fit well, and the few times I have gotten the chance to skate since I stopped doing it regularly, I really appreciated having my own boots (they tend to fit better, and the blades are sharper than rental skates’). Someday I may be living so far from any ice that I decide it’s not worth keeping them around, but for now they have a home in my parents’ house (yeah, I kept them, but I wasn’t bringing them with me to France!).

As you go about your “minimalist journey” (and wince whenever you hear that phrase), give yourself permission to do it gradually, or at whatever pace seems right for you. The whole point is being thoughtful, so don’t feel guilty about putting thought not only into the decision, but also to the practice.

3. Practice reversible minimalism

Finally, one of the biggest obstacles to minimalism is the “what if.” I touched on this above–if you don’t know what’s coming up next in your life (and there is some degree of uncertainty for all of us), you may find yourself thinking “what if I do take up tap dancing again?” (You laugh, but this sort of thing is most of what’s behind my shoe problem!) 

Before I left for France, I spent a really ludicrous amount of time getting rid of stuff (even still, I have too much waiting for me). This was time-consuming for me because I don’t like the thought of getting rid of something only to want to buy the same (or similar) thing in the near future, and because I was trying to find “good homes” for a lot of my stuff (and pick up a little cash from some of it).

If the thought of permanently getting rid of possessions makes you leery (or teary), consider a trial separation first. When I’m thinking about giving clothes away, I’ll usually put them in a bag in another room and see what happens. If I find myself thinking, “you know what, I really could use that zebra-print sweatshirt,” then I can go grab it out of the bag, no harm done. If it’s been a few months (or a year, for seasonal clothes), I can probably be fairly certain I won’t actually miss the piece very much.

Another way to try this is to pretend you have to live out of a suitcase — you can get the suitcase(s) out if you want — and see what makes the cut. Before I left for France, I thought it was really hard to get down to 2 suitcases of clothes (one large, one carry-on) to take with me for a year abroad. Now that I’m here, I’ve realized three things:

1) I could have left as much as 50% of my day-to-day clothing at home

2) I should have brought my super duper heavy wool coat (thanks in advance to my mom for shipping it over here!)

3) Out of all my “possessions,” I really only miss my cat

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missing this one! (Photo thanks to Martin Reisinger)

I’m starting to see Christmas decorations in shop windows–though less here than in London–and it’s too much. Too early. Too materialistic. To avoid being a total Scrooge, I’m writing and posting this well before Christmas. (Though maybe around the right time to confront some pre-Christmas shopping…)

One of my jobs as an au pair is cleaning up after the kids. Luckily I’m not expected to keep everything spotless, but I am supposed to pick up toys and generally keep the place looking at least a little bit short of a disaster zone.

This is hard.

Not hard in the sense of physically difficult manual labor or intellectually rigorous, thoughtful work. But the countless toys seem to be operating on the glitter effect–they’re everywhere, they get lodged places you’d never expect, and as soon as you think you’ve gotten them all, you find more.

I do not think these kids have an unusual amount of toys, and their parents certainly aren’t bringing home small bits of colorful plastic every day. However, it still feels like too much. Not because I’m a Scrooge, though, but because I watch these kids closely, I play with them, and I notice that what really grabs their fancy are not the fancy toys, but… (drumroll, please) the pieces of paper, the glue, and maybe the blocks.

Most formal games get dumped out of the box. The pieces become props in new games of the child’s invention.

Pre-structured craft activities are sometimes fun, but only once or twice. Once the novelty is gone, the craft usually isn’t repeated.

Most of the animal or people toys are largely interchangeable. A handful would suffice.

When I took the kids to a large, poorly-designed playground the other day, I had to laugh–after a little while playing with the various pieces of equipment, they transitioned to an invented game about monkeys on the one short, sturdy tree in the place. The perfect size and shape for them to climb.

I’ve heard a lot of people laughing about how kids often seem to appreciate the box a toy comes in as much as the toy itself. Often, they seem to be laughing at the dumb kids–come on, who would be that stupid? But I can still remember being maybe five or six at the oldest and getting to carve doors and passageways in a series of huge cardboard boxes we got when we bought a new washer and dryer.

For adults, toys are symbols. They’re symbols of material prosperity and parental affection. Buying toys signals something to other parents. Buying toys as presents is seen as a loving gesture. It is a loving gesture. But there are other loving gestures out there.

For kids, toys are also symbols. Little blobby figures become the actors in important dramas the kids are trying to act out. They become characters in larger story arcs. Things that move (trains, cars, anything with wheels) become ways of figuring out motion and space and force. Kids innovate to construct forts, castles, moats, houses, bridges. Swords, guns, magic wands transform the child into an actor in her own right.

I think it’s important for kids (and adults, frankly) to play, but it’s less important to buy a sea of toys for kids to play with. As I spend time with “my” kids, I find that frequently there are too many options. As I spend time cleaning after them, I find all the little odd bits to things that have gone missing and are not missed.

If you can tolerate tripping over hard plastic every day on your way to make coffee, more power to you. Personally, the clutter of all the toys really gets to me. It’s hard to find something specific, too, so I find myself on hands and knees trying to find the one thing amidst the general chaos–and that drives me batty.

Most of the time, the kids aren’t playing with the clutter, either. They’re drawing, or cutting things up and glueing them, or building things with blocks and knocking them over. The puzzles are good structured activities for when mommy wants to spend a focused half hour with the kids, but the same favorites are pulled out again and again.

As the time for gift-buying approaches, consider the actual desires of the children you’re buying for, and consider scaling down the actual purchases. –Or scaling up. Sometimes a single “big gift” might be more valuable than a handful of smaller, easily-forgotten items. Tricycles, scooters, and small bikes are great examples.

And consider funky alternatives, like some kind of craft supply that is a little unusual but would be really fun to play with (I’m thinking about different kinds of corrugated cardboard, shiny paper, etc.). For many kids, a good book will go over well, and will be read over and over (and can be neatly stowed on a shelf).

Finally, experiences are often more memorable, and more appreciated, than tangible gifts. The 4 year old girl I take care of regularly tells the story of being taken to the circus by her grandparents–two years ago. If you live far away, this may not be possible, but you could possibly figure out a way to share an activity over Skype, or give a rain check for a later time when you would be with the gift recipient.

The most important thing is not to feel guilty about an “alternative” gift. There’s a weird amount of pressure on parents to provide a lot of physical stuff for kids, and a lot of that is generated by advertisements–marketing departments, in other words, not kids. Resist!

P.S. I wrote this just days before stumbling across this article – another perspective with additional reasons why kids don’t need so many toys!

If you know me, you know I love goats. Also women. And women’s empowerment. And small businesses. And Heifer Project International. So I am very excited to share this link with you:

HPI: Empower Women In Nepal

Heifer Project is currently matching donations to this particular gift fund. But the gift continues. The brilliant thing about Heifer (well, one of many brilliant aspects) is that the first offspring of each donated animal gets sent to another member of the community who then, in turn, passes along their first offspring. This way the gift affects many people or entire villages.