Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Junk Funk

A lot of things have been falling apart around my house lately.

In the past two months:

-One brand new plastic colander cracked when I tried to pick it up after filling it half-full with green beans from my garden.

-Another brand new metal colander that was supposedly stainless steel started to rust. (I mean, really, now. Who makes a colander that corrodes in the presence of water? Who does that? Why, apparently, the same people who make a plastic colander that cracks under the massive weight of a small pile of green beans-- Chefmate.)

-A pricey supposedly rust-proof silicon-coated whisk that I purchased less than six months ago ALSO began to rust.

-A two-month-old pair of my husband's pants began to fray at a seam sufficiently that I could not repair them.

-A nightlight in the bathroom stopped working-- not the bulb, but the light itself. When my husband tried to test it with his multimeter to see if it conducted any current, he discovered that--

-My husband's multimeter has mysteriously stopped working.

-The toilet AND the sink in the master bath clogged at the same time. When tried to unclog them with the auger we bought for months ago, we couldn't, because the auger, despite having been thoroughly cleaned and stored in a dryish place, had completely rusted.

-The remote control to my son's totally awesome remote control moon night light that shows all the different phases of the moon stopped functioning.

-A package of brand new, Disney licensed big-boy underpants for my son came with two of the three pairs already coming apart at the seams.

-My computer hard drive died such a thoroughly tragic death that even my major computer mojo master husband could not resuscitate it.

-The hard drive to my husband's Linux server in the basement ALSO somehow got corrupted to the point that my husband had to reinstall the operating system.

All of these recent unhappy accidents-- along with the rash of recent toy recalls the mainstream media have gleefully gone about terrifying us all with-- have set me to thinking a fair bit lately about how difficult it has become in the past several years for ordinary middle-class people like myself to buy decently made things that last.

Though I have pretty much always, out of necessity, been a mostly* thrifty sort of shopper, I am not the sort to value low cost over quality. When given the choice-- i.e., the cash-- to choose between a low-cost item that is obviously cheaply made and a higher-cost item that is clearly crafted to last, I will nearly always choose the latter. From a practical standpoint, I know paying a bit extra for better quality is likely to save me money in the long run.

And, from an environmentalist standpoint, I know that buying well-made goods that last is better for the environment than buying cheap goods that will soon be thrown out and replaced.

But from a philosophical standpoint, too, I simply appreciate objects that are well-made. I find it much more pleasing to buy a thing when I feel as though another human being really put some thought, effort and skill into creating it. This preference of mine is one of the reasons I like living in my fifty-year-old house. When I look at the hand-troweled patterns in the mud over the drywall, for instance, I think of all the time some person spent making sure those whorls looked just right fifty years ago, I feel a deep appreciation for that unknown man's dedication to his craft. I never felt this way looking at the hastily slapped-together walls so common in more recent construction.

So, whether I am purchasing a house, a table, or a kitchen knife I am willing to spend a little extra time searching, and spend a little extra money, if I have it, to get something that was made with a little extra care.

But I feel like lately it is becoming next-to-impossible for a middle-income person such as myself to buy everyday items, like household goods and clothing, that are made to last. It's not so much that prices have gone up-- it's that the quality of consumer goods across the board seems, at least in my personal experience, to have gone down.

I remember when I could buy a pair of khaki pants at Target or Old Navy, and have those pants last me for three years even if I wore them twice a week. Now it seems like no matter where I go to shop for clothing-- even if I go someplace slightly more upscale, like The Gap, or a fancy department store-- everywhere I look I see garments made of the cheapest possible fabric, or clothes that are already sporting loose threads, frayed seams, or missing buttons right there on the rack. And no item of clothing I buy anymore seems to last me more than a year. I have shirts I bought five years ago that still look new, and shirts I bought six months ago that are falling apart.

I remember when I could plunk down $10-$15 on a stainless steel colander and have it turn out to be, well, a stainless steel colander.

It would be easy to blame all the shoddiness I seem to see on store shelves lately on global free markets and the outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing jobs to foreign countries. But, to tell the truth, when I DO make a point of trying to buy American-made goods (an effort which has become increasingly challenging, given how few tangible goods are actually made here these days), I generally find that THOSE products are cheap junk, too. Like the "Made in the USA!!!" steel storage shelves we bought for our basement recently that were so warped it took two people three hours, a vise and a hammer to put a simple six-shelf unit together. Or the domestically made flag-and-pole set I bought on the Fourth of July that has already practically rusted in half.

I can only conclude that pretty much no company, anywhere, cares anymore about making quality products. And that few business people, anywhere, care anymore about such concepts as pride in workmanship, integrity, or honor. Which is kind of a discouraging thought regarding the moral state of global human society.

I do have some hope left, though. After I tracked down the company that made my son's moon light, and emailed them asking for a replacement remote control, a customer service representative named Jenn actually wrote me back, personally, and sent me a new remote that actually worked in less than a week. I didn't even have to send the broken remote back in. No receipts, proof-of-purchase, mother's maiden name, or ownership rights to first-born children required.

It was practically a miracle.

*Good haircuts, high-heeled boots, books, and gardening accessories notably excepted

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why I Am Moving to a Log Cabin in the Wilderness

It started a few weeks ago.

I came out of the shower one morning to hear my three-year-old son calling, "Mommy, is it okay if I watch this video?"

I went into the living room to find my son sitting in front of his father's laptop. Squinting without my glasses at the screen, I discovered that my son was watching Nora the Piano Cat on You Tube.

At the top of the screen was the Google Video search frame.

My son had found Nora the Piano Cat by starting Firefox, typing "CATS" into the Google box on the Firefox homepage, and then clicking the Video link.

Today, I caught him searching for "GMSS."

You see, he couldn't quite remember how to spell "Games."

(I am currently taking bets on what age he'll be when he makes his first attempt at hacking the NSA.)

Friday, August 17, 2007

The M Word



Is this thing on?

Now, where was I?

A couple of weeks ago, as I was cleaning the kitchen, my son sat at his father's laptop playing educational flash games at an excellent, if somewhat goofy, phonics/reading site called (mad props to the mother of Bub and Pie for mentioning it briefly on her blog months ago). He came across a section of the site that focused on practicing the proper pronunciation of vowel pairs, such as "ai."

I listened to him surreptitiously as he read each practice word as it popped on the screen. Every time he would read a word, he would add a little commentary about it. something I've noticed him doing often as he learns to read-- I suspect it helps him remember new words.

"Snail. I like snails. They have shells."
"Pail. You can put water in a pail."

So, here I was, smiling proudly to myself as my three-year-old boy read real words, all by himself, when suddenly, I heard him say,

"Maid. Mommy is a maid!"

Now, why was I so appalled when I heard those words innocently escape his mouth?

I mean, it is rather understandable that he would draw such a conclusion. After all, my son sees me wiping counters, sweeping floors, scrubbing toilets, vacuuming rugs, dusting bookcases, folding laundry, loading the dishwasher, watering plants, etcetera, etcetera, day in and day out, every single day. A woman cleaning the house, according to the cartoon picture I assume must have accompanied the word, is called a maid. Mommy cleans the house, so Mommy must be a maid. It was a perfectly logical assumption for a three-year-old to make.

I laughed nervously, and called out cheerfully, "Isaac, mommy isn't a m-a-i-d, maid, because mommy doesn't get p-a-i-d, paid for cleaning the house!"

But inside my head, gears were grinding.

There's nothing wrong with housecleaning, of course. We all have to do it, or pay someone else to have it done. And, despite the stigma historically attached to it by our society, I believe strongly that the maintenance of a household is honorable, honest, important work, especially when associated with the care of children.

And wasn't that belief of mine part of the reason I decided to stay home with my son in the first place? Didn't I make this choice, in part, because if if I had gone back to my low-paying outside-the-home job, I would not have had the wherewithal to pay someone what I considered to be a fair wage to do the important work of keeping my home and caring for my son?

It wasn't the idea that my son might see me primarily as a housekeeper that bothered me, I decided. It was my fear that that might be all he saw me as.

After all how could he know-- how could he possibly know, at such a young age, all the other things I have been? All the things I have wanted to be?

How could he know, for instance, that in high school I ran long distance races, or that in college, I wrote high-minded papers analyzing literature and film in multiple languages, that I once spoke Spanish and Hindi well enough to write essays? How could he that I once won awards for my amateur photography? That I once built sets and hung lights in a theatre, where I met traveling performers from all over the world? How would he know that I used to have picnics in parks in at midnight? That, before I met his father, an adamant non-dancer, I used to go out regularly at night to dance swing or salsa late into the early morning?

How would he know that I have at least ten novels in my head that have never been written, let alone published? That sometimes I wish I could go back to school and get a second bachelor's degree in botany, just for the heck of it?

How would he know any of this, when, day in and day out, I get up in the morning, and clean, and cook, and tend the garden, and read my son a few books from the library, and help him practice learning to hold a pencil properly according to the instructions of his occupational therapist, and clean some more, and build a few towers with Duplos, and cook and clean again, and perhaps spend a few hours writing descriptions of dressers or something, or watch tv and read depressing news articles on the internet until I feel like a zombie, and then go to straight to bed?

I feel strongly that I am where I need to be right now, caring for a person that I love in the best way I know how, and yet, I can't help but fear on certain days that I'm losing my identity in such a way that, one day, when my son needs less of my time, it may be very difficult to find myself again.

How do you, the rest of you, find the balance between being a good parent, and being true to yourself?


Update: Lisa at Midwestern Mommy has nominated this a Perfect Post. Thanks, Lisa!

Perfect Post Award for August 2007