December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment
There are times when I think we live in our own little small-town Vermont oasis, cushioned from the crazy things that are going on in the modern world. And then there are times that I know we do.
Take last Friday night for example. We took our kids to a city forty minutes away in New York, because we had see the Muppet Movie… and that was the closest place to see it. We had to navigate the run-of-the-mill-mall, of course, that post-apocalyptic wasteland of crap you don’t need and stuff to eat that isn’t food. It was fine- we have yucky malls in Vermont too.
Then there was the theatre: each movie was allotted what I would call a large walk-in closet of a seating area, presumably so that they have room to show forty-seven different movies simultaneously. I was surprised to be treated to an incessant stream of commercials jabbering away on the screen, instead of the customary silence before the previews start, or the local powerpoint slide show that graces our local two-screen theatre in Vermont.
Then there were the previews. A full half-hour of them. Huh. Would they show commercials during the movie too, I wondered?
At long last we got to the part in which sky-scraper-sized containers of Coke and monster-truck-sized boxes of Sour Patch Kids float cheerfully through space, alterting audience members to something they have surely overlooked: that the football-field sized counter in the lobby- you know, that sensory assault of colors and chemicals you walked past to get in here? Yeah- you can buy “refreshments” there.
It was there, I noticed, that you can now buy a tub of popcorn larger than your head– it’s about the size of a horse’s grain bucket. To go with it, you can buy a soda of Brobdignagian proportions that takes two hands to carry.
Lucky for us, we had already eaten. But after the movie ended my older daughter Greta really REALLY wanted a drink, so I approached the neon counter and ordered a small bottle of water.
“That’ll be $4.75, please.”
“Greta honey, we’re going to have to have to find you a drink somewhere else.” On the way out I explained to her the definition of the phrase “captive audience.”
Is it me, or is the world just getting too obscene to believe? Since when does a bottle of water cost nearly five dollars? (The large, in case you were wondering, was $6.75) Using this principle, a shower should cost about a thousand dollars.
And speaking of general societal insanity, let’s talk about the holidays. At our house, we’ve been inundated with reams of Christmas catalogs, a good third of which exclusively feature pornographic desserts- A cheesecake composed of fourteen distinct flavors! Brownies with caramel dipping sauce! A pudding inside a cookie inside a cake! The copy features slogans like “Chocolate: Happiness that you can eat!” and “Have one of each!”
But the craziness doesn’t end there: it’s also at school. Holiday fundraising catalogs come home featuring “great gifts” such as cheap chocolates, chemical-laden soup packets, and mixes for cakes and cookies which aren’t hard to make in the first place. Flyers supplied by the local supermarkets encourage us to buy certain name brands to “Help Our Schools!”: “Bagel Bites,” “TGI Fridays” appetizers, and “Yoplait” yogurts filled with high fructose corn syrup. I love our school, but I resent the fact that I’m being encouraged to buy crap for our kids in the name of school spirit.
How are we supposed to eat healthy when so many forces are conspiring to make us just go along with the status quo? When a bottle of water costs five dollars? When the celebration of Christmas- or anything, really- is equated with eating dessert? When getting a snack from the concession stand requires the use of a hand-truck?
It’s one of the hard questions that never goes away… how do I raise a healthy child, in every sense, in mind, body and spirit? If we focus too much on good nutrition, will it backfire? How much are we willing to pull back from society at large, in order to eat healthy? For my part, I can only hope that our Year of No Sugar hasn’t backfired terribly, turning my kids into life-long sugarholics just to get back at me for it. We’ll see.
But I have hope. Just before the movie began, as the giant-junk-food-in space floated across the screen, Greta leaned over to me and whispered with a conspiratorial gleam in her eye, “Hey- It’s Sugar Heaven!”
November 3, 2011 § 1 Comment
Ah, Halloween. Parents have developed many strategies for dealing with it, this mother-of-all-candy-holidays. Let me count the ways…
- My friend Miles says that in Dayton, Ohio the “Switch Witch” comes to visit many of her fellow parents houses the night after Halloween, leaving toys in place of sweets.
- There’s always bribery. I hear many parents follow the example of the dentist I heard about on NPR: offer to buy the crap to keep it out of their kids tummies. In the case of the dentist, the going rate was $1 per pound, up to 5 pounds. Not bad!
- I’m pretty sure my Mom adhered to the “Out of sight, out of mind” policy, in which we would eat one piece of candy after dinner for a week or so, and then we’d forget all about it. The remainder would, I’m quite certain, end up in the trash well before it was time to worry about pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce.
- I know at least one family who simply opts out altogether. They stay home and pick a special family dessert to make instead.
Even if you’re not convinced that sugar is a toxin, most parents seem to get that consuming candy on Halloween-scale is not good. Maybe it’s because of the unfortunate kid every year at the parade or the party who overdoes it and throws up, or maybe we just know, instinctively that consuming a pillowcase full of anything, anything at all, can’t be good.
Of course, nobody eats ALL their Halloween candy, do they? Here’s what we always used to do when I was a kid: after trick-or-treating till our lips turned blue from the late October air (“Mo-oooom! If I wear my coat no one can see my costume!!”) we’d all congregate on the floor of someone’s living room and pour our bags of cheap treats out on the floor to sort and count and trade. I always liked this part the best- we were like little pirates, or maybe bankers, gleefully portioning out the gold coins.
And now that I have kids, they do this. Monday night our gaggle of kids racing ahead and dutiful parents lagging behind all trooped back to my friend Katrina’s house where the kids immediately took over the living room by unceremoniously dumping several tons of high fructose corn syrup in a variety of colorful wrappers onto her carpet. A frenzy of sorting and showing off and bartering began.
“I have NERDS!”
“Look! A mint-flavored Milky Way!”
“What are these?”
“Who gives out BBQ chips?”
“Oo! What do you want for your Sour Patches?”
Meanwhile, Katrina’s dog Inky was wasting no time. Ignoring the candy completely, he made like a Hoover vacuum when an entire baggie filled with popcorn ended up on the floor, deftly maneuvering around the Tootsie Rolls and tiny boxes of Junior Mints.
I laughed when I saw that our friend Robin had brought homemade mini-cupcakes along for everyone. It reminded me of the Farmer’s Market last weekend when virtually every vendor was plying my children with candy- pressing Starbursts and — into my hand before I could say no… of course they went directly into the trash when we got home.
Nonetheless, I have to admit I was astounded on Halloween day to walk into my older daughter’s sixth grade classroom to find all the kids having a Halloween treat consisting of a sugar doughnut and a large handful of assorted candy. My eyes got big. What, did they not feel tonight was going to be sufficient? Did they have to be primed with sugar, pre-event too?
People just can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to the idea of making a child happy. And what easier way to make a child happy than with an inexpensive little bit of sugar? Of course, the problem is, it’s too easy, so everyone everyone EVERYONE wants to get into the act. Robin’s adorable, homemade cupcakes aren’t the problem, it’s all the junk which likely came before that, and will likely come after that too. I know I sound like a broken record, but I truly do think that we’ve simply forgotten that everyone loves to see that smile on that kids face… everyone loves the feeling of making a kid happy. What we need to realize is that it has become SO cheap and SO easy to hand a child a treat, that inflation has set in. No longer is it sufficient for the teacher to bring the kids doughnuts- there has to be a pile of candy next to it. No longer is it sufficient for kids to get a single treat at each house, now many houses go to the trouble of packing little paper candy bags full of several treats each. No longer is it sufficient to have a treat or two (or fourteen) from the candy bag that night, we have to provide dessert on top of that. Because, what else do you do? It’s Halloween! Or Christmas! Or Valentine’s Day! Or somebody’s birthday! Or you’re just feeling depressed! Or happy! You see what I’m getting at here.
Sweet Poison author David Gillespie told me that he’s always interested to watch what happens to American kids after Halloween: they all start getting sick. Sure, you could blame it on the change of temperature, but what if it’s not just that? Would we all be so quick to dole out those easy-to-come-by bits of happiness to children if we knew it was going to hinder their immune systems? Would we view it the way we view handing out free cartons of cigarettes to soldiers now?
Then again, I still love Halloween. I spend much of the month of October getting ready for it, picking out costume patterns and fabric with my children, and then sewing like a madwoman. When the appointed night comes, we venture forth, armed with flashlights and reflective tote-bags and cameras, not to mention the optional umbrellas or long-underwear . We tromp around West Pawlet Village with our friends, often running into other groups and joining up like packs of amiable, gaudily-dressed and highly-supervised wild animals.
Then, this year, the most amazing thing happened. Early on, our group had effectively snowballed to an impressive size- perhaps thirty or more adults and kids found ourselves congregated in the parking lot of the West Pawlet Fire Department. Out of nowhere something was happening. Grown-ups were yelling “Stop! Stop! Everybody come over here! Everybody join hands!”
As we all looked around blankly, trying to discern what exactly was going on, it became clear that my friend Sue was orchestrating something. All thirty or so of us large and small and costumed and not put down our flashlights and bags of candy and joined hands.
Once we were all in an enormous circle, Sue let go hands at just one spot so we formed a curved line. Then she began walking around the interior of our circle, making a spiral inward, inward. And because we had all joined hands, we were all walking too, following her, passing each other, giggling and making faces and talking to one another animatedly.
Once she got to the middle-middle-middle and could go no further she turned 180 degrees and began to walk a spiral back out again. Have you ever done this game? It seems like something I must’ve done at camp or elementary school or something, but never, never had I done it on a moonlit night in the parking lot of the West Pawlet Fire Department with a group of parents and children I love so well. And never before with a group of tiny Mad Hatters and queens and monkeys and fairies and zombie monsters. As we spun around and around the wheel of our friends and children, it felt like we had joined the witches themselves to perform a rite of autumn. It felt positively pre-Christian.
Isn’t it something like this- that is so much harder to achieve than that fleeting bit of happiness that comes in a plastic wrapper- that we really want from our holidays? A sense of connection, of community, of ritual, of transformation? You can’t buy that by the bag down at Rite Aid, and I suppose that’s how it should be.
September 8, 2011 § 5 Comments
It’s funny. Sometimes the No Sugar Project looms HUGE in our lives, and I resent the inconveniences it creates, as if it were imposed by someone else rather than ourselves. Other times, it’s No Big Deal. Sometimes my children adore the project as if it is something significant and wonderful, something that binds us together and makes our family unique; other times they rail against me and the project for completely and totally ruining their lives or make maudlin faces at the prospect of being in the vicinity of a treat they know full well they’re probably not going to be able to have.
Take today for instance. Greta, who has just begun sixth grade, has a camping trip tonight with her entire class. The Sixth Grade Camping Trip is a school tradition that represents a lot of things: becoming the big kids in school, bonding together as they begin the transition into pre-teen-dom (because I’m not in marketing, I refuse to use the word “tween”), and predictably- unfailingly- rain.
And like any event that bonds people together this event includes food, which, in our culture, means it includes sugar. Tonight there will be a campfire with hot dogs, hamburgers and veggie burgers, on buns which contain sugar. I imagine there will be juice (sugar) and I know for dessert they’ll have S’mores (S.U.G.A.R!!!) I’ve been told the morning tradition is to have hot chocolate (sugar), but I haven’t heard what they’ll serve for breakfast yet (sugar) so we can always hope (sugar) that it’s eggs, rather than pancakes (sugar) with maple syrup (sugar!)
I guess I’ve made my point. Is it going to kill Greta to have S’mores? Or hot chocolate? Or pancakes? Of course not, any more than it killed me to have those things when I was her age. And do I really want to be the crazy zealot parent who denies her sharing treats with her classmates and teachers? Or do I want her to grow up with a fond memory of a camping trip in which she participated just like everyone else?
I, for one, have a deeply ingrained memory of my first S’more: it was at sleep-away camp. I was eleven and desperately homesick. One night we had a campfire in the center of our ring of canvas tents, and it was chilly and pitch dark. A fellow camper showed me the proper technique for melting the chocolate rectangle on top of the graham cracker square by balancing them on a rock near the flames while you toasted your marshmallow on a stick. I scraped the hot marshmallow onto the ever-so-slightly melted chocolate with the help of the second half of the graham cracker and took a bite of what I realized was the single most delicious thing in the world.
Of course, I’ve had many, many S’mores since then, (I insisted we have them the night of our wedding reception, for example) but none was ever as good as that very first one. Maybe it wasn’t about the S’more as much as it was about everything else that night: the campfire, the after-dark chill in the air, the fact that I was away from home, really away, for the first time and it being exhilarating and frightening and eye-opening all at the same time. I was beginning to realize that I could exist as a person without my family to lean back on, to define me and decide for me what I thought. And my homesickness changed: evolved into a new kind of strength I had never known before.
Yes, all that can come from one good S’more memory. Meanwhile, my cousin Gretchen tells me at her boys’ school, a “progressive” school, mind you, that there is a significant battle being waged between the parents who bring in healthy snacks and those who think Chex Party Mix is essential to a happy childhood.
“You’re taking all the fun out of being a kid!” they say, in response to those parents who bring in carrot sticks instead of Oreos.
I don’t know. On the one hand, our country’s sugar consumption has clearly gotten entirely out of control, and we have the diabetics, the metabolic syndrome, the heart disease and the obesity epidemic to prove it. On the other hand, who wants to “take all the fun out of being a kid”? Who would I be without my S’more memory?
But I’d be willing to bet at least three S’mores (maybe) that there is a happy compromise to be had somewhere in the middle. One of the most common questions we get asked about the No Sugar Project is “what will you do when it’s over?” And it’s an important question, since it seems logical to me that its answer would provide some clue as to the moral of our story… will we binge on sugar? Will we go completely crazy? Will we continue No Sugar indefinitely, realizing that not eating sugar gives us superhuman powers like invisibility and the power to blow stuff up with our eyes?
Here’s what I propose, not just for us, but for our culture as a whole: let’s make treats into treats again. Translation: S’mores on The Famous Sixth Grade Camping Trip? Yes. S’mores-flavored breakfast cereal/ snack bars/ Hot Pockets? No.
It doesn’t sound hard when you put it like that, but believe me, in our culture? The culture of “fried butter on a stick”? It is. Americans live in an opium den of food- it’s just that we can’t see it. We refuse to see it. We are encouraged strenuously from every corner to ignore it. Maybe that’s the real superhuman power this project has granted us: Sugarvision. I just hope that, after this year is over, it’s a superpower that can tolerate the occasional S’more. Or two.