Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cruising and Questioning

Where I was this time last week
 We just returned from our very first cruise. This trip was born last March when we were living with the remnants of four feet of snow. I could only think about going somewhere the sun was guaranteed to shine on my bare toes. When I signed on for the cruise, I didn’t think about any of the realities – the cost, the details, the extravagance. We don’t vacation like that. Our vacations usually include some kind of physical discomfort – sleeping on the ground, driving a long distance, cleaning up after ourselves. We are not accustomed to five course meals, chocolates on our pillows, and days filled with no other options but – lay around, eat, lay around some more.

As nice as it was to escape the cold, I must confess I was a little uncomfortable with the lifestyle. And I’m not just talking about the tightness of my clothes by the end of the week. It seemed a bit overindulgent, which is nice on occasion I suppose. Seven days of it was more than enough for me. While on the cruise we heard about people who stay on the boat for several weeks or take tours that last months, even around the world in 107 days. There is an elderly woman who has actually lived on the ship we were on for the last 15 years. Doing the math, my hubby and me figured it’s about the same cost as a good retirement community.

All this indulgence got me thinking. Why do we need so much? When we were in Belize City we saw such desperation. The lucky merchants who had stands near the port showcased a tired, but colorful, assortment of items for sale. If you paused longer than a few seconds in front of any one item they were ready to bargain down to pennies to make the sale. As we walked in one open-air market guarded by military with machine guns, women yelled to me through the gates – “Mama, Mama, I will braid her hair! Just a few dollars! Bring her here!” They spotted my long-haired daughter with the big wide eyes and wanted to do business. It made me disconcertingly aware of how much I have. Here we were grumbling about spending too much for the drinks on the ship. These people could live for years on the cost of our cruise alone.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy my vacation, I did. I just couldn’t help but be struck by the disparity. I couldn’t help but ask the question, “How did I get so lucky?” Sure, I went to college, I worked hard, I tried to be a good person, but bottom line, it has much more to do with where I was born than what I have done since that day. Seeing such overwhelming poverty made me feel not only guilty, but helpless. Although I needed nor wanted nothing, I tried to spend a few dollars at the market. I can’t imagine it made all that much difference.

Having so much free time to lay in the sun, I did a lot of thinking. I wondered how we evolved in to such entitled people. I liked that Holland America didn’t use paper products wastefully and didn’t insist on washing our towels and sheets every night (although we could have requested it). But there was still so much that we wasted. Foil wrapped chocolates, a breakfast menu, and fresh bucket of ice left in our room every night. My kids had three or four different juices with nearly every meal, not to mention a sampling of each of the plentiful desserts. And the individually packaged butter, sweeteners, tea bags, straws, and yogurts were available by the thousands. At the cafeteria style dining room, full plates of food covered abandoned tables. With so many options, why not try everything? After all, we paid for it! I took a tour of the humongous kitchens and was told that the leftover food is chopped up in to tiny pieces and thrown out to sea for the fishes. They couldn’t say the amount. I imagine enough to feed much of Belize City for the day.

Flying home on the airplane as the flight attendants came around with drinks and snacks, I wondered why it is we need them. We can’t survive a 2 hour flight without food and drink? I know my own children can barely survive a 10 minute drive without nourishment. But why is this? Again, when did we become so entitled?

What would happen if we tried more often to do without? What if we passed on the free soda and pretzels on the plane? What if we simply brought an apple with us instead of stopping to buy a 16 oz soda and individually bagged chips at the convenience mart? Or what if we just waited until our next meal or a water fountain? People survived for centuries without “snacks”. It was such an ordeal to produce a meal, that there was no time to snack in between. Maybe it won't make a difference if I forego these things, but what if thousands did? Following the logic of the butterfly flapping his wings in Timbuktoo, something would change. What would it be? I want to redefine for me and for my family what we truly "need".

My house is crammed with stuff. And when I look around and think about getting rid of a few things, it only takes me moments to convince myself I might need the item in question someday. But I don’t really need this stuff. When we returned from our trip, I learned of a family nearby who suffered a house fire. Everyone was fine, but much of their belongings were damaged or lost. I wondered how it might feel to lose the things that fill my house. How much would I truly miss?

I don’t have any clever answers or ideas this week about living organically with children. I only have questions. How much do we really need? Are there any ways we can cut down just a little? How can my consumption and my decisions affect the rest of the world? If all of us gave more careful thought to the things we buy and consume, maybe there would be a little more to share with those who truly need it. And maybe we would discover that many of the things we're "entitled" to we don't actually need.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Be My Valentine

I just finished making my Valentine’s cards! No, I’m not in 2nd grade. But do you remember what a thrill Valentine’s Day cards were in 2nd grade? I loved walking home with my brown paper bag decorated with doilies and stickers and stuffed to bursting with valentines from all my classmates. I couldn’t wait to lay them all out on the kitchen table. I’d study them while I sucked on a lollipop that came affixed to the card from the rich kid. These days my kids come home with their cards and tend to open the ones with candy first, which is most of them.

My daughter is the child who brings in the homemade Valentines Day cards. You know the one. Barely legible, with puffy stickers all over the front. You roll your eyes and think “overachiever”. And she is. But she makes those cards because she likes to and not because her mother makes her. My youngest son is happy to fold over the Harry Potter valentine and choose a sticker to close it with before scrawling his friend’s name on the card. Done. My oldest son never went in for valentines. I made them for him in kindergarten and I’m fairly certain he’s never given out a valentine since.

Here’s why I still make Valentines Day cards even now - I like to. I still get a thrill out of sparkles and glue and paper and pink. I know there’s therapy for that. Or maybe it is my therapy. The bigger reason that I make valentines is that it’s a chance to tell my kids how special they are. When I talk to relatives or friends I haven’t seen in awhile, it’s easy to tell them how amazing my kids are. But I don’t get enough opportunities to tell my kids themselves. And I know they need to hear it.

In a previous life, I had a job that involved working with teenagers and their families. I made a point of telling parents how amazing their kids where while their kids were standing right there. And if a teen asked me to write a recommendation, I always gave them a copy of what I wrote. I wanted them to hear why I thought they were so special. I don’t think kids hear it enough. They hear so many negative messages all day long from themselves and from their peers and maybe even from some adults. Countering those messages is important.

I worry that I don’t tell my own kids how special they are often enough. I guess it just feels awkward to come out in the middle of passing the broccoli with, “You’re such a kind person – that makes me so proud!” So I look for opportunities that present themselves. And Valentines Day does that.

You don’t have to make homemade cards. There’s plenty of them for sale at the store or maybe you even have leftovers in the basement from years gone by. I pulled out the leftover Transformers valentines for my hubby to give the kids. Bigger Valentines are good though. There’s more room for all the mushy stuff you want to say.

I hope you use this Valentines Day as an excuse to tell everyone around you how much you love them. We shouldn’t need an excuse, but it does provide perfect cover from skeptical kids. They can’t wonder why you’re saying this now. It’s Valentines Day after all! However you do it, be sure to find ways to tell your kids what you love about them. They need to hear it and we need to say it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Get Off Your Butt - Your Life Depends On It!

I don’t know where you live, but where I live we are trapped in the house by yet another lovely snow storm. Only this one is worse because it’s layering a shimmery dressing of ice on everything. It’s quite the adventure just slipping to the end of the drive for the newspaper (glad the cameras weren’t rolling for that one - yak trax are no match for black ice). Even the kids are becoming sedentary. The snow is so deep and so heavy, that after the requisite snowman, there’s not much to do but begin a snowball fight that inevitably ends with someone violating the “no head” rule, the other someone in tears with a bruised face or ego, and me being forced to put on my own boots to retrieve the offending someone. Notice I’m naming no names.

So what else is there to do but grab a book or fire up the computer? We’re all guilty, but if we don’t get up off our butts it’ll kill us. I’m not kidding. New research by the American Cancer Society says that women who spend six hours a day sitting on their butts are 40% more likely to die sooner than women who only spend three hours sitting. Doesn’t even matter if those long-sitters are marathon runners or spend all their other hours teaching aerobics.

How can this be? Sitting for prolonged periods suppresses the immune system. Your blood stops circulating normally and can create the perfect scenario for blood clots and heart disease, not to mention raising your resting blood pressure and increasing your cholesterol. Long hours spent sitting may cause large muscle groups to shut down which can lead to damaging metabolic changes. Yipes!

Throwing in my own two cents here - the other obvious factor could be the junk food consumed by people sitting for long periods of time in front of screens. Given the opportunity, my children will mindlessly eat in front of any kind of screen. As long as the food is within arm’s reach, I think they would eat without ceasing. We keep the feed room in the barn shut tight because I know if my horses were to get loose and find their feed, they would eat themselves to death. They don’t know better. Do we?

I’m not so sure, so I only allow my children apples, celery, or carrots while they are watching TV (except for “movie night” when only popcorn will do). This way if they are stuffing themselves with something, at least it’s something that’s good for them.

Still, from what I’m reading it’s the sitting that will kill them faster than the potato chips. Luckily, our screen rules and my children’s energy levels prevent them from sitting still for more than an hour. But my hubby’s a different story. His job requires him to stay motionless (except his mouth, and hopefully his brain) for long hours. And sometimes when I get on a good writing jag, I can sit here for hours too.

So what’s to be done? It’s pretty simple. We need to get off our butts! It’s not too difficult to add some movement in to your day. Walk to someone’s office and talk in person rather than sending that e-mail. Instead of sitting at the counter screaming for my child to stop doing whatever he’s doing that’s making all that noise, I’ll get off my duff and go find the source of the noise. Just breaking up the periods of sitting should do it. Move around enough to get the blood flowing. Walk up the stairs and back down. Laundry helps with this. I’ve started using the annoying end buzzer on my dryer so that I have to get up and take out the clothes or risk hearing that awful sound every 4 minutes. Instead of sitting down to sort the mail or write a quick note, I stand at the counter. And when talking on the phone instead of lounging on the couch, I’m using that time to patrol the house for dirty laundry, discarded edible contraband (i.e. something out of the kitchen other than carrots, celery, or apples), and lights left on. Sometimes I even clean while I’m talking. (Crazy, I know.) When I’m stuck waiting for a kid, a car, an appointment, whatever, I’ve taken to finding a comfortable wall to lean on and playing with my iphone instead of sitting down to read some mindless tabloid in the waiting room. I’m looking for any excuse to get off my butt.

If your kids are the ones sitting still for hours, you need a plan. Asking for their help, sending them on an errand, and if worse comes to worse, pulling the plug (or flipping the circuit breaker) can help you get them moving. One article I read suggested wearing a pedometer and setting a goal each day, but that could get old (or not, depending on your personality). I think it’s just a matter of deciding that living a long, healthy life is more important than watching another episode, playing one more game, or wasting another minute on the internet.

These may be “new” findings, but even Plato knew the consequences of whiling away the hours motionless, “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” Smart guy that Plato.