Day 15

Hello friends,

Today marks the end of two full weeks of being at home for us. Our supply of cream for the coffee is running perilously low, I have reminded myself to be brave.

It’s sunny here today. It’s been gray and wet for most of the week but today is bright and breezy, not too cold, not too hot. Walking outside, the birds and green leaves seem to think it’s time for a celebration. When I’ve felt anxious, a few minutes of wind and birdsong have helped. Oh that’s right, life is still out here, just like it’s always been.

Tomorrow, Maggie’s 9th birthday, looks to be rainy again. She requested cod, and tater tots, and brussels sprouts (three sprouts, as the obligatory vegetable) for her birthday dinner. We have no cod so we’ll be having catfish. (She also is learning to be brave.) We will bake a very chocolate cake.

Many highs and lows this week. I’m doing my best to run a very flexible homeschool and simultaneously to assign myself creative work with specific deliverables as a means of giving my mind something to focus on other than refreshing CNN. I’m also in search of paid work and think I have one contract next week for which I am thankful.

The governor of Virginia announced this week that schools will not reopen before the end of this academic year. We will be homeschooling through June. I ate a lot of cookies that day.

Artiste update: I submitted some more poetry to another literary journal, five poems this time, bringing my total number of submitted works up to 14. I also received a rejection letter this week. It was my best rejection letter ever and included these words:

I just wanted to let you know that your submission made it to the final round of decision-making and this decline letter has nothing at all to do with the quality of your writing. In fact, all of your work was fantastic. So, I urge you to please submit again during our next reading period because I would love to read more of your work.

This brings my current totals for the 100 Rejections Project to 14 submissions and 8 rejections, including one of a more encouraging nature. At this rate, I believe I will be able to reach 100 by the end of the year and I’m encouraged to think that mixed in with those 100 will be at least one or two of the other variety.

I’ve also been working more consistently at song writing over the past year. I’ve written four songs in the past few months that I think are pretty good. I’ve gotten some feedback on a few of the songs from other creative types and musicians and I think I’m going to look into working with a producer to move them from rough cut to ‘final’ cut. I’m learning about this now. I’m also trying to figure out a better way to share the rough versions with you, hopefully I will work on a soundcloud channel in the next week or so to make listening easier. I’ve also been learning to use GarageBand. I think the best of the rough cuts so far is this one, called Fortify.

Health report: Dave and I both aren’t feeling great. Sore throat, light head, feverish but no fever. Not sleeping especially well. He reminds me frequently (only because I mention it frequently) that statistically it is highly unlikely that we have Coronavirus. I think he is basing this on the fact that there are 327 million Americans and 100,000 positive cases. So, statistically, the chances of us being one of the next 100,000 is not high. His science-talk has often had a calming effect on me in the past. Now it seems that only handfuls of hickory-smoked almonds can bring momentary calm. Or time away from the devices and especially the news.

Provisioning update: I’ve been trying to buy some groceries for delivery. This has been complicated and increased my anxiety. This morning I ordered a dozen bags of dried beans directly from Camellia Beans (a New Orleans favorite, since 1923). Dried beans last for about two years, and we love red beans and rice so I got red beans, limas, black-eyed peas, lentils, and pintos.

We are trying to go to the store one time per week for things like milk (and cream) and meat and veggies. By “we” I mean Dave because we both feel it is unlikely that one of us will contract the virus without giving it to everyone in the family and we both acknowledge that his level of carefulness well exceeds mine. I am trying to feel complimented that he thinks I’m too nice to keep a safe distance from people. I’m also happy not to have to go to the store.

How to help (?): The medical community, the people at the grocery store, the farmers, the delivery people, the elected officials and the folks at FEMA and the CDC, the police, the military, the inventors, the researchers, Dr. Fauci, we are all relying on a whole heck of a lot of people who are at the front lines of all of this. Please know my mentioning the cream is ironic. I can take a few months without cream. I feel like I want to be more helpful, but I don’t know, other than staying home, other than not hoarding, other than asking older neighbors if they need anything (not that I would necessarily be able to find it for them), I don’t know what else to do to help all of these people.

One more thing / happy closing note: Last week, on Sunday, a boy on my street turned 10. They had been planning a birthday party and it was cancelled. A few neighbors were talking and we had the idea that the houses on the street could put up signs to say happy birthday in our windows and doors and write with sidewalk chalk on our sidewalks or in the street before he woke up that day. His mom told us he likes planes, so everyone went with an airplane theme. I think everyone on my street who was still in town, and everyone on the street behind us, put out homemade signs, drawings of planes, or spaceships, or hot air balloons, wrote in chalk, decorated their doors. And at 10 AM, Owen left his front door and took a tour of the neighborhood. There was no laser tag, no collective dessert buffet, no strobe lights or pulsing overloud music, no petting zoo or themed favors.

The next morning, the day after his birthday, his mom sent a note to our neighborhood text chain. Owen said it was the best birthday he’d ever had. She said he told her: I didn’t know so many people cared about me.

It said a lot to me about what we think we need and what truly feels good. Where happiness comes from. What gives us hope and fills us up.

With lots of love,
Jennifer

Home sweet home

Hi friends,

I hope you are healthy and at least in a stable holding position in the new normal. I was planning to make crawfish étouffée for last night’s dinner. We are trying to consume aged freezer contents first, and the very strong aroma upon opening the bag of crawfish suggested to me that the eight months past the sell-by date was something to take into consideration (Dave having asked me, very specifically, just yesterday afternoon, not to give him food poisoning). Our black bean étouffée was surprisingly good.

I wrote a new song a couple of days ago in response to the current world situation. As with the last song I shared, this is a rough version. Maybe I will figure out how to share more polished versions, for now I am very happy to be able to share this way : )

I’ve also put together a resource page for Life at Home. It seems useful to have various ideas in one place so, since I have a place, I’m collecting info there.

I laugh to think of myself providing any words of wisdom. I was thinking about this yesterday morning at 4:30 AM as I lay there listening to the rain, trying to let it relax me, knowing I would not fall back asleep. I woke up and came downstairs and tried to be quiet. Sam woke up early too and we made homemade apple turnovers because I found some old puff pastry in the freezer and thought the space could be better used for frozen fruit or veggies, assuming we can get some.

In case you are curious, the Jenny Goodguts/Jennifer Hole Homeschool has no curricular expectations. I’ve read and heard people worrying our children will “fall behind” scholastically. God didn’t decree a certain set of academic benchmarks from on high. We set what is “behind.” If every child in the country is home for two months, the expectations are adjustable. I think creating stress about “falling behind” is literally insane at this juncture.

Current mantra: Expectations are adjustable. They are made up. We can change them.

A few notes on cohabitation in a time of global crisis:

I wrote a bunch of other words of wisdom and just erased them. What the heck do I know? I do feel that it’s really important that we try our best to show kindness to the people we are living with right now. That might just be ourself. It might be our spouse and kids. Our parents, some other random people. I know you are stressed, maybe you felt like hysterical crying last night while watching Monsters, Inc. Your cohabitators may be annoying you. They are making bad choices. They are not helping enough. They have germs. Whatever they are doing, do your best (try, I know it can be very hard) to be kind to them. At least civil. Not nice. Not bubbly or romantic or clean. But kind. Acknowledging their humanity also. Meditate. Go for a walk. Ask for help. Call someone. Talk about it. Say what you need. Being unkind is worse for you than for them. And it is worse for all the others around you. You likely feel justified in treating them and yourself this way. But try to find a way through. Or don’t but then you and the people around you will be miserable.

I think we should stop with the child abuse jokes. I think we should have real conversation about what is hard. And what is making us laugh.

I think we need to expect more from our children. Our children, even the little ones, do not need to be entertained and distracted all day long. They need to participate and to be taught how to contribute to taking care of something. They need to understand that in order for a home to work well, or a business, or a community, or a world, that we all participate, that we participate kindly, considerately, without eye rolling, without shouting.

I think about Little House on the Prairie. They had no screens, few books, and pretty much no neighbors. For long periods of each year they sat in that house all together and made it. They had one school book and one slate each (if they were lucky). And the kids were helpful. Yes, they used corporal punishment and yes they believed in a stern, punishing God. But they had to make their own butter. They did not have electricity. No clothes washer. No convenient grocery store. I feel like with all of the conveniences we have, we should be able to figure out how to have the time and energy to raise strong, independent, considerate human beings who don’t think they are the center of the universe.

At the Jenny Goodguts homeschool, we are making sure that we know how to fold and put away our clothes, how to make our own lunch. That we understand that this is a time to be helpful, and that being helpful is caring for others. That we are staying in our own home to keep others safe. That we are thankful for the food we have to eat, whether we like it or not, because not everyone has food. And that we talk about ways we can help those without food.

The (current version of the) Jennifer Hole/Jenny Goodguts/Ingalls-Inspired Corona Parenting Plan

  1. Children are given a list of daily chores which they are expected to complete. These chores alternate between children on a weekly basis.
  2. Homeschool “requirements”: I am looking for things my kids can do that require less supervision and that are less screen intensive and don’t require me to figure out a lot of frustrating (and frequently slow) technology. Bird watching lists, book writing, journal keeping, reading good books, practicing an instrument (I’m teaching Sam to play piano). These take a lot of time (for them, and less for me) and teach some of the same things they are working on at school. I will use what the teachers are sending when it is helpful and not too technologically challenging for me and I am limiting the amount of time Maggie spends remotely learning via a computer. (So far even this approach has been a pretty full-time job.)
  3. Children are given free time to entertain themselves.
  4. Children may continue to have free time (screen-free) for as long as they are able to play quietly. Arguing with one another leads to
  5. one question: it seems like it might be time for a job? lack of acquiescence or other non-desirable behavior leads to
  6. Job time! I have a list of jobs they know how to do (different from the chores listed as their responsibility which should already be completed): dusting, washing surfaces, cleaning baseboards, washing floors, bringing down/folding laundry, sweeping patios or walkways, carrying things to the basement. I usually start by assigning one job and if someone complains it becomes 2 (and so on and so forth). Each job is relatively simple usually, 5 mins or less. Good reset, I ask if they are ready to have free time again. Yes? Back to free time.
  7. My other secret weapon is separation. Child 1 is assigned to one room, Child 2 to another. If you can play quietly, you can play. Otherwise, jobs it is.
  8. Children are served breakfast and dinner according to my schedule, I plan it, they eat it (no choice given about options but i know what they like and try to balance it so no meal is wholly abhorrent). We also have a regular and long-standing breakfast schedule because I got tired of complaints (four years ago). M-F breakfast is consistent week to week. Lunch they make themselves but they tell me a plan in advance: one fruit, one veggie, one protein, one starch and then we can be flexible but no sugar. If they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a reasonable amount of time, without complaining (I unofficially allow one small complaint and a reminder), there is dessert available, the only sweet of the day, and sometimes dessert is plain yogurt with fruit. Or fruit alone. But right now we are being a little more loose with post-dinner dessert. (We made carrot cake for Sam’s birthday.)
  9. If children make it through the day being helpful and doing what they are asked without rolling their eyes or being otherwise disrespectful, if they complete all of their Life Skills training, they receive ONE ticket for the day (again, i try to help them get the ticket every day, i give a small reminder if i anticipate they might be about to grump at me: not a threat, a reminder, “you’ve done a great job today and I really want you to get your ticket for the day so please make sure you are thinking about your answer, do you need a minute?”). Three tickets = 30 minutes of video games. We also have video games on Friday nights. And we use movies as we need or want to, but have only watched two so far.

Will my children be scarred by my system? Maybe there will be a memoir. I don’t know. Why am I sharing this? Because I think it is perfect or amazing? Not really. Am I totally consistent? No. Do the kids get excited earning that one measly ticket for a whole day of good behavior that translates into 10 minutes of game time. Yes, shockingly they really love the tickets. I have to do a lot of overseeing the chores, and the jobs, but we have to start somewhere. So this is what we are trying today. It’s evolving. They seem pretty happy and healthy so I’ll take that as a good sign.

I send thanks and prayers out for all of the folks out of their homes right now, working in the wide world to protect the rest of us and provide us with the necessities of life. I am fortunate to be sitting here comfortably able to type these words to you. Dave built me a new garden bed yesterday. Today we planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, spinach, kale, calendula, parsley, sunflowers, watermelons (Sam’s choice), beets — that’s what I can remember. They were seeds we had left over from prior years so hopefully some of them will come up. I would also like to get some thumbelina zinnias. I also love poppies but they never grow here.

Warm wishes and love to you all. Take good care, wash your hands, and I will write again soon.

Notes to myself

I am not in control. I am a part of the flow of life. I don’t know what will happen. I can do my best.

I can be brave. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid, it means that I have faith in something hidden inside and around me. I will do the things that need to be done when they need doing.

I remind myself to let go of expectations of what I can achieve, my normal obligations that usually feel non-negotiable. Today, all obligations are negotiable.

The children are confused. They feel our energy. Breathe. Slow down. Look at their faces and show them patience and care. For them, for ourselves, for others. Answer their questions.

Cry, if you can. Laugh, maybe even better. Call someone. Read poetry or prayer. Connect to someone real.

Walk outside. Look at the plants coming back to life after winter, celebrating their part in all that exists. We are a part of all that exists. This season will pass just like winter has. And like winter, it will be dark first.

There is more health than disease. More vitality than fear. The sun shines and pulls life to itself out of the crust of our Earth. We are connected to that pull, we are part of that beauty. We can nurture it and celebrate it together. We can practice now.

Protect others. Stay at home and keep the children at home, before being compelled. Offer help. Use only what you need. See if you can need less and share more.

Today this is my real life. I can choose to live this day, in its realness, the best way I can.

How?

In thankfulness for the food in my cabinets, donate to feed those who are and will be hungry (right now, and later). Shop small and support local businesses.

In preparation for days alone, teach my parents to use Skype. Organize a Zoom call with my friends, learn how to connect, together.

Stay strong. Eat healthy food, do not drown your fear in cookies and scotch.

Teach the children resilience, help them learn their strength. Treat them with compassion, but expect more. It is good for them to learn to help. You are a parent, that is part of your job.

Simplify. Do not have things around that produce anxiety. And you might as well clean the oven.

Think about this day, and the next one. What could make it beautiful?

Plant seeds, play music, teach love, donate food, share, make, nurture, nourish, love.

Our brave new world

Hi my friends,

Today was a gorgeous spring morning. The forsythia are blooming, and those purple magnolia trees, some cherry blossoms, daffodils. I’m pretty sure I saw a tufted titmouse at the bird feeder (they are my favorite) — he looked on the small side though and my resident expert was not at hand to confirm or deny the sighting. There was a bit of rain Thursday night which gave everything a bit of extra spring-i-ness.

My children are home from school starting yesterday through April 6. Sam is working on a book of mazes. Maggie is sitting at the piano trying to figure out a new song. Dave went to work yesterday but will work remotely for the rest of the month.

On Thursday I went to the grocery store around noon, after refreshing CNN compulsively for two hours. What did I buy? Four onions, a bag of carrots, two loaves of bread, a bag of frozen cherries, four frozen mac + cheeses, a bag of bagels, one piece of frozen catfish and some broccoli. Six cans of tomato sauce because they were on sale. Some pasta (two bags). A bag of flour. I had no idea what I was doing, assessing my cart it seemed these were not the foodstuffs for an emergency.

I finished some paid editing work in the afternoon. I have no more work on deck. It seems unlikely that anyone will require my services in the current climate. Which means I have more flexibility to take care of the kids. It also means I won’t be earning any money.

I have a friend who waits tables for his livelihood. There are many fewer people dining out and he is paid in tips. He mentioned that he will be able to use credit for a while to cover life expenses. As long as the restaurant reopens… As long as he doesn’t get sick…

I have been trying to figure out a way to use this situation “for good.”

I’ve been thinking about how to be most helpful, other than keeping two hygienically challenged vectors of disease 6 feet away from anyone over the age of 20 (well, really from anyone).
 
I know local businesses will struggle. I purchased two books from a local bookshop I love today. We bought bagels from a small local shop and I left an exorbitant tip (it was only two dollars but at least a 30% tip on what we had purchased). These seem like strange measures to take in the face of a global pandemic.

I’m not allowed to donate blood (I haven’t been allowed because of the places I’ve been but maybe it has been long enough). I know that blood donation is desperately needed right now (I learned this while binge-watching the CNN live updates on the web) but I’m not sure where I would go to make a donation even if my blood is now acceptable. Also, what if it turns out I’m sick?

I know the WHO is requesting donations from governments, businesses and individuals to be able to maintain their work around the world to meet the crisis. I don’t know what is going to happen in countries without good healthcare infrastructure as the virus spreads.

And I have at least three weeks of together time with my kids so I’ve been thinking about how to make the most positive use of that time.
One of the books I ordered was Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (book one in the trilogy). We read The Hobbit last fall and I figured now was a time when we could stay up a bit later to read without too much of a problem. The children practiced making their own lunch today. I’ve thought about projects we could do at home, spring cleaning, or clutter clearing. I’ve thought about yard projects: I’ve wanted to make the yard into a wildlife refuge or a bird-friendly habitat or something along those lines. Now would be a good time to do the research. I’ve thought about making things with the kids, writing a book together, teaching them how to sing harmony or ?

My neighbors have been talking about playdates and vodka. I have wondered, how much distancing does social distancing require? And the vodka thing, I don’t know. I can see the draw, but I also feel that we need to take care of ourselves, to be strong. (Today I read an article about social distancing which confirmed my suspicion. Its titled Social Distancing: This is Not a Snow Day.)

In terms of resources, my neighbor (thank you Bette!) sent a list of education companies offering free subscriptions during school closings. And something called GoNoodle which is videos about movement and mindfulness for kids (could come in handy). She also sent a ‘day at home’ schedule that was helpful (I’m not going to post it here because I don’t have the source, but if you want it, write and I’ll forward it).

Another friend sent a quote on the training and education of children in the arts, crafts and sciences:

Be ye in that land vanguards of the perfections of humankind; carry forward the various branches of knowledge, be active and progressive in the field of inventions and the arts. … Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art.

Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha’

I really liked it. The kids and I did some Headspace meditations specifically for kids yesterday. They literally begged for more at the conclusion of each one. They said it was because they like Andy’s voice but I wonder if that’s all. So we will be practicing some family meditation.

I’m trying to think of how I can use this forced slow down, this time of not knowing, to move towards good. Not to tread water, not to wait holding my breath. To use the time to consider, to grow, to heal, to help, to connect. I’m thinking about all of the tools we each have now for connecting and for creating. I’m thinking about ways I can help, today, and in what comes next. And I’m thinking about the world as it will be, as we can make it.

I’m planning to write more, to share more with you over the next while. It will give me something to put my mind towards that feels nourishing, and I hope I can share something of use. I am always nervous to write, that readers won’t like it, but I’m going to try to write more often, with more openness and even less perfectionism. It will be an experiment!

I hope you are well, please take good care of yourselves and try to find ways to interact with others (Facetime, Skype, Zoom) and keep your spirits up — I will be sharing ideas for ways to do that here. I spent a lot of time in my yard today which helped to get me away from the news and checking one thing and then another. I would also recommend reading a great book, like E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat (my constant recommendation) to remember that people have been through so much and have behaved so beautifully towards one another in very hard times.

Here’s to being a force for good : )

love,
Jennifer

March madness

Hi friends!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you about the progress of my life as an artiste. There is progress to report! Here it is:

COVID-19: I purchased a small cache of additional groceries yesterday, mostly peanut butter and black beans, just to be on the safe side (yes, I felt like a prepper at the store) and watched an interview with Anthony Fauci (Director of Infectious Disease at the NIH) that I thought was very good about the current state of the situation. Listening to Dr. Fauci, I noted that I’ve missed hearing intelligent people provide information about subjects in which they hold advanced knowledge.

What’s up with me, why so few posts lately? The good news is that I’ve had more paid writing work, a lucky coincidence since it looks like all of the trees around our house have died from insect infestation. So, more paid work = essential. The very exciting thing about this is that while my paid work used to be mostly editing, now it is mostly writing and this shift has come as a direct result of publishing my book. A clear example of some inspirational quote or other about when you take action to tell the universe what you are ready for the universe will help meet you, not halfway, but if you take a number of steps, the universe will take at least one or two.

I’ve had a few pieces of writing published recently, but not in my own name. I had one article published on a major site but as I ghostwrote the piece for a lovely young woman whose face is next to my words I’m sure there is some legal barrier to my sharing the link with you. I could probably link to an “interesting article” and (wink wink) you could make the connection, but I won’t because I would like more work from the company that hired me to write it ; )

I’ve been doing a lot of writing related to satellites orbiting the Earth, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how the intersection of these can help save the world. These are subjects that I would never in a million years have chosen to learn about on my own. In fact, they are subjects that I am quite nervous about. The work has been interesting — AND it makes for excellent research for a novel, I’m having lots of ideas. I’ve also done some writing work for a website to go along with a documentary series called Asian Americans, an opportunity that provided me with a three-week crash course in Asian American history. I was very thankful for the chance to do that work — I learned so much. I had many thoughts, especially about Cambodia, but those thoughts are for sharing on another day.

And what is happening on the artiste front? SO MUCH.

I wrote a new song last week, you can listen here:

I recorded a kitchen video of a different song, you can watch it here:

I submitted five pieces of writing to different pubs this week and I have a few more on deck. I can’t share those with you or they would count as published already but the update on my 100 Rejections Project is here. I’ve now submitted 9 pieces, had 4 rejections, it definitely isn’t going to take four years to get to 100.

The Stuffed Project is moving forward while taking a detour from the original plan. The idea is still for this to be the next book. The timeline is unclear but the work is progressing.

I’ve organized all of my writing (well, a lot of it). I’ve re-read the novel, it is not good. But it has a lot of goodness in it.

Two things I’ve tried lately that have been helpful:

A request: If you have read my book and enjoyed it, please consider leaving a short review on Amazon. Thank you ; )

A note: I received a lot of positive feedback for sugar babies and several folks wrote to ask if they could share it with others. Thank you!!! Please feel free to share anything I’ve written here with anyone you want! That’s one reason I’m writing it : )

So that’s the update for today. Currently not much is happening with the Rise and Fall book but I do still hope to record it as an audiobook — I just don’t know how or where, and of course there is the question of time and money… I have been invited to do two book readings, those were so much fun so I’m thinking about ways to do more.

I hope you are doing very well, keeping healthy, and ready for the start of spring. Thank you, as always, for your encouragement and support.

with love from Virginia,
Jennifer


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Sugar babies

Sugar babies

Dear Saint Valentine,

I’ve tried to learn about your life via a hasty scroll through Wikipedia—that’s something we humans use now (it’s 2020) to grapple with the unknown. Well, it’s something we use to review facts. It doesn’t help us know what to do, what to choose. For that, we have to look at the data and then be thoughtful about the result we want.

The facts about your life are pretty vague. Who you were, why you were killed, how that’s related to hearts and courtly love. It sounds like you had a knack for changing people’s perspectives. You healed your jailer’s daughter. You were killed for refusing to deny your beliefs, that seems clear. And there’s a creepy flower-capped skull at a church in Rome that is said to be yours. I saw a picture of your skull in a golden box. People come to see it to ask for help in love. I hope you feel okay about that.

I’m not in the habit of writing letters to people I’ve never met, or the deceased, or people who may be more than one person, but I’ve been struggling with some questions and sometimes it changes my perspective to write letters to inanimate objects. I thought it might be the same if I wrote to you (not to your skull, but to your soul). Also, I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of mail, maybe you don’t even know about all of this, maybe you’d be interested. (Hi, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.)

I wonder what you’d think, do you know, that on February 14 every year in the US (it’s on a continent you didn’t know about, south, west and across an ocean from Thule), in your name we have a tradition of exchanging $18.2 billion dollars worth of cards, candy, and flowers with friends and loved ones. It sounds like the tradition dates back to Chaucer (a poet about 700 years ago). He wrote 700 lines and referenced an imaginary day celebrating romance and the tradition we know today grew from there.

As a tiny slice of modernity, here’s an example of one Valentine’s Day, last year. My two children, my daughter and my son, had painted cards for their classmates. They had spent time thinking briefly of each friend. This one likes dolphins, this one likes blue. Based on glitter density and heart color, they had selected a card for each friend, composed a unique, if grammatically vague, sentiment for each child, and addressed envelopes to pass out during their annual classroom celebration, ostensibly of love and friendship.

I sent them off to school in the morning (girls go to school now), cards in hand. Time passed. I went to pick them up.

Saint Valentine, as I approached my children, I saw that my daughter held an envelope filled with colored sugar. To eat its contents you lick a hardened sugar wand with your spit, creating a saliva adhesive for attaching the loose sugar onto the sugar rod, thereby eating the full pouch of sugar. It’s called “Fun Dip.”

She was eating the Fun Dip quickly, as if aware she risked its imminent confiscation. Her eyes were dark pools of emptiness, she could not answer basic questions.

Each child brought home a bag of treasure collected during the day from friends and teachers. Collapsing on the floor, my daughter emptied and pawed through the contents of her bag, tossing aside the various cards in search of seatrash (we exchange miniature plastic trinkets, often themed, that break upon contact with human flesh, and are eaten by turtles or alternately formed into giant sculptures at the zoo to illustrate the plight of the oceans. I know they’re vast, we didn’t mean to). She was hunting for some undiscovered marvel in the bag, or perhaps an eraser she will never use when, in addition to a number of empty wrappers, she discovered a ziplock bag full of candy.

I asked her to eat something, to introduce a protein-based substance into her endocrine system, so that life might return to her face. She was not hungry. “Did you have something to eat at the Valentine’s Day Party?” I asked, smiling, like I was merely asking out of curiosity, feigning a casual indifference so as not to put her on guard. “Oh yes,” she replied. “I had one and a half donuts, the big kind, two cupcakes, and three iced sugar cookies. They had a cake too but I didn’t try it.” Saint Valentine, I am not exaggerating for the sake of humor. I’m talking about a 50-pound child, one-third the size of an adult woman.

In 2013, a prominent group of physicians in America (we call them the American Heart Association) recommended that grown women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar. That is the equivalent of 10 jelly beans.

And this isn’t just a one-time deal, one extreme-sugar event on the day of your decapitation. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s Halloween, Winter Holiday season which extends from late November to early January, back to school celebrations, teacher birthdays, “making it fun to count things” (a common math curriculum), what they eat in France day, celebrating sweet foods of the world day. (And birthday parties outside of school, after-soccer Oreos and Capri Sun, hey its Sunday snow cones.) Trying to find an event or venue targeted to children without freely available sugar is like searching for Atlantis.

Val, I know you never tasted sugar. It’s kind of like honey but devoid of nutrients. Two hundred years ago the average American ate 2 (TWO) pounds of sugar per year. One hundred years ago, we ate 17.5 pounds of sugar per person per year. By 2011 Americans were eating 150 pounds of sugar per person annually.

Maybe you’re thinking, well honey is delicious. Maybe people eat more now because they can, it’s cheap and available. Americans also save more lives with medicine now than we did 200 years ago and nobody is complaining about that. It’s called progress lady!

Honey IS delicious. But here’s the thing: as much as we might wish otherwise, sugar’s really not good for us. One in eight Americans is diabetic now. Diabetes is a disease you never heard of because it pretty much didn’t exist until 120 years ago. That’s a lot of people dying younger, living less healthily, being predisposed to a bunch of other health issues.

And there is mounting evidence of the harm from sugar’s ascendancy: Diets high in sugar slow down the brain and damage synaptic activity.

Consuming sugar stimulates the release of serotonin (that’s why it feels so good). Seratonin is related to our feeling of happiness. When we consistently surge our seratonin, this not only depletes our body’s supply, but it means we need more. Once a body builds up a tolerance to sugar it needs more for the same “happiness” surge.

And researchers think that teenagers might be especially vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood.

So, contrary to research funded by the sugar industry and shared with the public for many years, it looks like sugar is probably not a health food, also probably not a neutral food, at least in the quantities we are consuming now which, again, is 75 times more than our great-great-great grandmother.

But life is hard (you surely know that), and sugar is tasty, and sometimes you just need to relax, have some fun, live in the moment.

My daughter and I sat down by her treasure bag. I looked at the cards, curious. Most were the cards I remembered from childhood, a platonically encouraging phrase like “Valentine, you’re the bomb” and a picture of Spiderman jumping away from a giant explosion (I’m sure they were bad guys so it’s ok). I’d show her a card, ask who it was from. No idea. She hadn’t read any of the cards, she had separated the wheat from the chaff immediately and had no idea who had given her the Fun Dip, or that sticky plastic guy that you throw at the wall and is coated with a mystery substance that helps him to sort of hop down at least three times before becoming seatrash. She hadn’t looked at the cards, they were like the tag on a new shirt, something to cut off and dispose of, irrelevant.

I remember reading the cards as a girl, wondering when Stephen Stout gave me a card that said “Valentine, you’re outta this world” with a picture of ALF giving a thumbs-up while mysteriously floating in space. Did Stephen pick that card just for me? What could it mean?

Val, my daughter spent hours writing cards to her friends. She was so excited to share them. And she didn’t even read the cards they gave her in return. Please do not think I am painting her as callous. I am drawing a picture of the strength of this substance. And thinking about the relationship between sugar, and trinkets, and connection – maybe the heart of my question. Does the sugar, do the trinkets, support connection, the very aspect of our nature that we honor with this day?

My son, five-years-old, had not had a dessert buffet with his class. They had exchanged cards and, yes, he received a few pieces of candy and several seatrash-items. But my son, after only moderate exposure to sugar, looked at every card. Felt very excited that Thomas had given him this one and Rosie had made that one. He brought them up to his room. My friends gave these to me, these little scraps of paper with their names on them. He seemed to cherish his cards. He still has them up there and it is many months later.

***

Saint Valentine, I have wrestled with these thoughts. Wondering if I’m just trying to have control in an uncontrollable world. Wondering in the grand scheme of life on Earth and all of the struggles of all of the people, does it really matter? It’s just a few cookies, no matter that we know now that rats addicted to heroine choose sugar in preference to heroine.

I’m afraid of the sugar. And I’m afraid of the fear of the sugar. I’m afraid we’re damaging their bodies. That we are training them, physically, to need this taste at the expense of all other tastes. To dull their palettes with sweetness so that nothing else tastes good, or even edible. So many of the children around me will not eat. Food, the kind that has a nutrient, does not taste good to them. They can’t taste it. They aren’t being stubborn, their bodies are trained that way.

I’m scared for their minds. Because I know what it is like to look for the next easy surge of pleasure. We do it all the time, every day, I guess every animal does. But we are smart animals and there is so much money to be made from providing quick, cheap surges, and so many smart people figuring out ways to give them to us. Whether it is a like or a beep or a drag or a sip or a bite, it is much easier in 2020 to drift from hit to hit, from tiny buzz to tiny buzz, looking for the next one when your chemical state changes. Sugar is so powerful. It carves a deep, strong bond to the pleasure centers in your brain so that, without it, pleasure becomes harder to find. And the more you consume, the more you need to get to the same level of okay.

And I’m scared for their hearts. Surrounded by sweets and seatrash, each little object a tiny surge of chemicals, each bite another surge, the slower burn of friendship, of human warmth, has trouble competing. What does it say to them when we teach that friendship needs a dessert buffet to be pleasurable? Does it? Is that what we think?

***

I wonder what you would think. I hesitate, somewhat ashamed after what I’ve described above, to tell you that one in six children in America today, 13 million children, don’t have enough to eat. They are hungry. This is another fact. Data that we can use to guide our decisions, or not.

And then about the $18 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on love, right? In my dream of the perfect world, we show kids first that love doesn’t cost anything and that it doesn’t need to come with a trinket, it’s how you treat people, how you make them feel safe and known. How you work to take care of something. What if we spent $18 billion each year showing that love is taking care of people, of a community, of the world, together? Wouldn’t that be an amazing legacy of connection to hand down to our kids?

Val, I realize that in writing to you I have been focusing on what scares me, what I don’t want. So here’s what I do want:

I want my children to know how to feel love, to feel loved. I want them to learn to be strong, to learn to be kind, to learn to feel hope. I want that for all of the kids.

So show them love, how to love, show your strength, treat them kindly, share your hope.

Is that what you would say?

With the evidence in front of us, we make choices. As a culture, we need to eat less sugar. We need to look at our patterns. Find better ones. I think we are trying.

My earnest prayer is that in our traditions and celebrations, we show that love is not four kinds of cake or a bagful of anything. That we learn enough so there’s more to share, or less to take. But also that we don’t live in fear, that when we find ourselves in the midst of a dessert buffet, we look for the love, share our joy, our warmth, and our laughter. Breathe. Help the children find their own ways in their own world, the one we can try to influence but will never control. A beautiful world where they are free to hold different opinions, as you, Valentine, were not.

I guess that’s all for now. Thank you so much for listening, that’s something a friend does. If I ever find myself in Rome, maybe I’ll stop by and say hello to your creepy skull.

With love,
Jennifer


This piece was written as part of The Stuffed Project (One woman’s quest to re-examine our relationship to the material world). My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

How to live on a ledge

This post covers topics that I’m usually uncomfortable writing about, though I think about them frequently. I’ve recently added lines from the Tracy Chapman song “Why” to the draft of my Artist Manifesto:

The time is coming soon when the blind remove their blinders and the speechless speak the truth.

It gives me courage.


I recently received a text message, one bubble within a group conversation:

I don’t know how best to respond to this. I’m very glad that you shared it with me, and I love you! … It’s hard to process and deal with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone I’m close to.

I didn’t write back at the time. I thought some thoughts but texting has its limits. It’s been on my mind though.

Long-time readers of this blog might know that I sometimes resolve pressing philosophical queries during the quiet time between dropping the kids off at school and arriving back home. I can’t remember the soundtrack this time, I was a million miles away, but a number of things occurred to me that seemed related to the question I hear in my friend’s message, so I wanted to examine them.

Last night my son was taking a shower. It was time for the shower to be over so I went to turn off the water (he would stay in all night if I let him). He was in there, his skinny little six-year-old body, pretending to be a knight or superhero, water dripping down his face. My turning off the water didn’t disrupt the flow, he stayed in his universe, wherever that was, as he got out of the shower, took the towel. I was flooded with a joyful feeling, I get to be here, now, in the beauty of this moment with this vibrant soul, this child I love with all of my heart. The joy also mingled with a recognition that he will grow up and no longer allow me to hand him a towel someday. And then I thought of a mother who gets a phone call that her son was shot at school. That he’s gone and he’ll never come back.

I was reading yesterday about a boy with brown skin who was shot, killed, by a boy with peach skin because the brown-skinned boy would not call his playmate “mister.” I went to a gathering at my children’s school last week to discuss the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. A mother of a current student stood up and told the group that in her many years at the school it would have made such a difference if one person with skin the color of mine had made an effort to befriend her. She shared, vulnerably and without blame, that she felt that none had, that she felt sadness. And I felt sadness. I’m a person with lighter skin. I didn’t know, or I didn’t take time to know, or know how to know. And I’m not talking about a systemic situation here, I’m talking about that one person and this one person.

In this age of awareness and connectivity it is seeped into our pores, you can’t do anything, be alive, without absorbing into yourself fear, and pain, and loss, of those close to you and those you’ve never met. How can we process and deal with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone, the ones we’re close to and the ones we’re not?

Sometimes, frequently actually, I think about David Attenborough’s films. In the series Planet Earth II, there is a segment on the Nubian ibex, a little goat-like creature with giant eyes, that lives in the mountains. Please picture a very adorable animal. These things are born on sheer cliff faces, the ledge for them to stand on is like an inch wide. They have these tiny pointed feet for skipping up and down the mountain. You see, they have to have water to live. And the water is down there, with the foxes.

That is life.

When I’m feeling like life is hard I think about the Nubian ibex babies who are just thirsty. They just want a few sips of water. And they have to climb down a mountain, they slip sometimes, and then foxes eat them. But the foxes have babies too. They just want something to eat. Does that make them the bad guys? No, it makes them alive.

And that is why love is so necessary.

Because we are the ibex. And we are the fox. And we know it.

And now I’m gonna talk about Jesus.

Now before you stop reading, please know that prior to four weeks ago I had not been inside of a church, except for a Christmas service, in about seven years. And I’ve only been to a Christmas service twice in that time.

Long story: I have a number of old books, from one grandparent or another, and they are mostly falling apart. I don’t know what to do with them, which to keep or which to give away, so I started reading one (it’s a slow process) called The Greatest Thing in the World written by a Scottish man named Henry Drummond in the late 1800s when Darwin was becoming well known in the wider world and people were asking a lot of questions about evolution and how it could fit with the Christian worldview.

Drummond was a science-type who saw the evidence for evolution as pretty solid and also felt that it supported what he knew of life as a Christian person.

Before I go any further, I want to make a suggestion. Maybe you watched a lot of people drive to church in their Mercedes wearing a full-length fur coat talking about how God chose them to be blessed and that didn’t sit well with you, camels getting through eyes of needles and all of that. Maybe you learned in history about the Inquisition or the Crusades and you felt that Christianity has been used by a lot of people throughout time to hurt others and gain power. Maybe you are a science-type and you don’t see the need for any supernatural explanations of anything. Maybe you don’t care for the way Godly People twist bits of religious text, out of context, for political ends, to manipulate large groups of people for their own ungodly purposes.

My suggestion, as you read the following, is that you think of Jesus like you would think of Nelson Mandela. A teacher who had some things to say about how to behave given that we are the ibex and the fox. A guy who said some things that made some sense to some people. The fact that his words have been twisted and used for power doesn’t, on its own, make them bad words or bad advice.

Here’s what has helped me lately:

Drummond writes that, Pre-Jesus, men were working their passage to Heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments, and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them.

Jesus said, hey, there’s a better way to guide your actions: Love.

How do you love?

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is generous. Love is humble. Love is courteous. Love is unselfish. Love keeps a good temper. Love does not deceive. Love is sincere.

That’s it.

I wake up in the morning. I walk into the kitchen. I light a candle on the counter. I call it the “peace candle.” When the kids start to bicker, when I start to feel rushed, I try to look at the candle. Love is patient. Love is kind.

It helps. A lot.

You will observe that all [the qualities of love] are in relation to men, in relation to life, in relation to the known today and the near tomorrow, and not to the unknown eternity. We hear much of love to God; Christ spoke much of love to man. We make a great deal of peace with heaven; Christ made much of peace on earth.

The most obvious lesson in Christ’s teaching is that there is no happiness in having and getting anything, but only in giving…And half the world is on the wrong scent in the pursuit of happiness. They think it consists in having and getting, and in being served by others. It consists in giving and serving others. He that would be great among you, said Christ, let him serve. He that would be happy, let him remember that there is but one way – it is more blessed, it is more happy, to give than to receive.

Christ did not come into the world to give men religion. He never mentioned the word religion. Religion was in the world before Christ came, and it lives today in a million souls who have never heard His name. What God does all day is not to sit waiting in churches for people to come and worship Him. It is true that God is in churches and in all kinds of churches, and is found by many in churches more immediately than anywhere else. It is also true that while Christ did not give men religion He gave a new direction to the religious aspiration bursting forth then and now and always from the whole world’s heart. But it was His purpose to enlist these aspirations on behalf of some definite practical good. The religious people of those days did nothing with their religion except to attend to its observances. Even the priest, after he had been to the temple, thought his work was done; when he met the wounded man he passed by on the other side. Christ reversed all this – tried to reverse it… The tendency of the religions of all time has been to care more for religion than for humanity; Christ cared more for humanity than for religion – rather His care for humanity was the chief expression of His religion.

And more from First Corinthians:

Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love is the opposite of abstract. It isn’t thinking about hungry people and wishing that everyone had enough to eat. It isn’t feeling sad or scared on behalf of someone close or far. It isn’t the act of making a donation, or campaigning for something, or fighting climate change, or becoming a martyr. It is separate from belief and from knowing. Love requires interaction, connection. It is between you and another person, one real person, right there (or an animal, or a tree, or a mountain, or maybe even a teacup). It is how you encounter others, how you try to encounter others, how you work, the nature of the effort you are willing to put in, to encounter others, real others, others as imperfect as you, in a way that creates heaven on Earth.


We are all born on the cliff, though some are born with much wider ledges.

We are the ibex and we are the fox.

And we are conscious of this. Our consciousness is what searches for understanding, and a way to be okay with the truths of living, of your children living, of everyone you love living, of everyone on Earth, of everything on Earth living on a sheer cliff.

I don’t think you have to define it, though I long to be in community with others who share a spiritual perspective. Who orient themselves not to the ever-after or to following rules or to belonging or not belonging. But who, when they don’t know what to do, how to act, they choose to love, here, now, today, the person next to them, the person across the street, the person at the store, the inconsiderate driver.

I was at the grocery on Tuesday, the store had just opened and I was checking out. All of the staff members were gathered at the front for a team meeting. There are some staff who work at the registers and I know them, we are friendly with each other. But there are people at the store who work behind the scenes. Generalizing I would say they may not speak English as well as the folks at the registers, I have not seen them and I don’t interact with them when I go to the store. But they were there at the meeting. There was one woman standing by the door as I was walking out to leave. I looked at her face, at her eyes. I smiled. The smile she returned to me has stayed with me all week. You would have thought I gave her a one thousand-dollar bill. All I did was to see her and to smile.

Last night there was a performance at my children’s school. During intermission I saw another mother there alone, like me. I don’t know her well but our children are in the same class. I stood up and walked over. This one person and that one person in this one moment. Right now, it’s my way of dealing with the struggles of life for pretty much everyone. And sometimes it can feel pretty good.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Authorhood

Hello again!

School is in full swing, the sky is September blue, it’s time for an update, and so I shall.

I have submitted four pieces of writing for publication since beginning the 100 Rejections Project. Well under the two-per-month hoped for, but four more than I’d ever submitted before. As of Friday, August 16th, I’ve received four rejections. Yes, I chose to submit to publications that were very unlikely to accept my work. Those first submissions were more like a signal to the universe that I wanted to try and that I had aspirations. OK universe, I sent the signal. Now it’s time to find some more likely homes for my work.

Well what do you know, I already made a home for some of my work! Right here! I haven’t shared any poems so far because a posted poem (even on a little-read blog) is considered published and can no longer be submitted. Ah, but you can post a draft. So that’s what I’ve done. Details below.

As usual, a variety of circumstances or events have thrown my equilibrium (if you’ve been reading this blog you may find it funny to see the word “my” and “equilibrium” in close proximity. I think I’m more like a game of Jenga. And sometimes the pieces fall. And if you know that the whole point is to enjoy playing, when the pieces fall you can throw your hands up in the air, make some kind of loud noise, gather the blocks back into order, and start again): there is publishing the book, there is the experience of playing music with and for others, there was summer break, and there are home repairs and (thankfully) paid work.

I’ve been playing music as much as I can and writing more songs. I’m going to share some of them on the blog. I know that wasn’t the plan. I don’t know if it is a distraction. But I do know that when I feel like doing something that isn’t so good for me (mindless iPad games, for example) if instead I allow myself to sit down at the piano, when that hour passes I am in a way better place. It’s a healthier way to deal with wanting to change your feelings.

Change your feelings? Why would you need to do that? Publishing an unplanned and very personal book about yourself and sharing it with everyone you know, in case you are considering this option, is emotionally a little rough. Terrifying might not be too strong a word.

But time has passed, two beautiful friends have arranged for me to read from my book in front of groups of people, that has been very encouraging and helped me to feel more peaceful about the whole thing. Many people have been encouraging. And now it is time to keep working.

“Find the comfort in the rhythm of commitment.” I wrote this down from my 2019 Danielle Laporte “Desire Map” Weekly Planner and it has lately been useful to me. I said I was going to write Stuffed so I’m going to finish it. It might take a while and I’m not going to turn off the faucet when a poem shows up and I’m going to play music and write songs and share those too. And there is (thankfully) my paid work and being a mom/wife/friend/sister/daughter. So as usual I will write when I can and I will try to keep the blocks balanced and not have to start again, as life and my own nature allow.

I’m writing an artist manifesto. I will share it when it is done. In the meantime, two passages from my manifesto notes:

May the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality beyond his or her solitary powers.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and land.

Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me,
For after we start we never lie by again.

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

I have read three amazing books lately. After I received the letter, in August, indicating that my two poems, while appreciated, had not yet found a home, I went to the library and checked out Red Bird by Mary Oliver which I read in one sitting and then twice more over the course of a week (it is a thin book of poetry, in case you are not familiar with Mary Oliver). Reading her words, I felt so un-alone and so much awe for the human spirit. While reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates I did not come to all of the same conclusions as Mr. Coates, but I found his writing to be beautiful and moving and challenging. I learned from and appreciated the stories he shared and I think it is a helpful, an important, book to read and consider dealing with race in America. It certainly expanded my perspective and I feel has changed my thinking and behavior. Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg I think will change/has changed my life. If you aspire to write, to communicate, I think it is worth the two hours it will take to read. I also started reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman for the first time ever. I don’t know how this can be true, but it is. Something I loved:

TO A CERTAIN CANTATRICE

Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

— Walt Whitman, “Inscriptions,” Leaves of Grass

Some “big news” is that the Adventures with Jenny Goodguts blog will soon be no more. What? How will you handle not getting a sporadic blog post from me whenever I feel like it?? Not to worry. I am moving the whole she-bang over to a soon-to-be newly designed site at jenniferhole.com. I’m torn about it. I love Jenny Goodguts. But functionally for me this will be better, and I think it will make it easier to share more frequently, easier to organize, more appealing to read, and so on. I don’t know. It is what I’m doing and it will be great. SO, I’ll be adding some poems to that site and they can be found here (there are two there now, somewhat randomly selected but one is related to The Stuffed Project).

I am also going to add new songs here. The song I have already shared (the Dear God song), as well as the mom opera which I am frankly embarrassed to mention, and the first ever video from five years ago are all up on that site. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I was hoping you wouldn’t find them but they exist and they are, for the time being, still there.

That feels like enough updating for one day. I am committed to finding my way as an artiste. I feel that the universe is looking favorably upon my effort and that friends and ideas appear to help me on my way. At least I feel that way today.

It can strike me as insincere when some email blast from a smiling, perfectly coiffed blogista is signed “love,” but that’s how I feel so…

with love from my little desk,
Jennifer

A “brief” meditation

I have never known a world without Underoos. When I was born in late 1975 Underoos did not exist, but by the time I was old enough to say “mama I dropped my eggs” (reported to be my first sentence) or even something as simple as “I want,” superhero-themed underpants were being sold in grocery stores across America.

I imagine it, a world free from cartoon characters smiling or glowering from the surface of any product large enough to be so emblazoned. No Fred Flintstone on a box of cereal. No sultry tween, hands on her hips, pouting from the corner of a pair of cheap sunglasses. No plastic bits of crap that break immediately upon exposure to human flesh (TOA: Trash On Arrival) but were purchased because they happened to have a sticker of a Paw Patrol somewhere on their useless petrochemical body.

But such a world did once exist, and not so long ago. A world of solid colored, functional children’s underpants.

In 1977, it was calculated that children in the US wore out 250 million pairs of underwear each year. Sold at $2.25 a pair, this made for a $600 million dollar annual market. Wanting to increase their market share in children’s skivvies, the Union Underwear Company licensed the use of various comic-book characters. Images related to the characters were printed on underwear which was packaged as “Underoos” and sold for $4.79 per pair (more than double the going price for standard-issue drawers).

Philip Dougherty, in a column about advertising that he regularly wrote for the New York Times,discussed Underoos in 1978:

“There has never been a product like this before,” exclaimed Mr. [James W.] Johnston [Union’s marketing vice president], who noted that not only would it deliver higher profit margins than conservative underwear, but it would also react better to advertising and “for the first time add children’s influence to the purchasing decision…” Mr. Johnston … was later to say, “Advertising is not necessary to sell the product, because it’s a powerful product, but advertising is necessary to establish it as a permanent part of the children’s culture.”

Hey! That’s me he’s talking about! My culture!

Several years ago, after I had become a mom, I read the book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a story of the daughter of Jacob and Leah (from the Bible) that explores the traditions, and the brutality, of ancient womanhood. I remember a scene where the main character, Dinah, as a girl, sits in the lap of her aunt. As is common in the book there has been some kind of gory trauma that day. The aunt is brushing or braiding the girl’s hair to soothe her and singing songs that tell stories. The stories are about life, often using metaphor to explain the world and how to find meaning and what has value and what is beautiful. I remember being moved. I remember wondering, then, about the stories we use to teach children these same things in my world.

So back to Mr. Johnston’s quote, which I must acknowledge gives me a bit of a sick taste in my throat each time I read it, Underoos was a permanent part of my culture. So were Strawberry Shortcake and G.I. Joe and He-Man. All had TV shows that I guess were developed to sell products to me. I don’t know what came first, the characters and the shows or the plastic empire? Somebody made these things to sell them to my parents, via my brainwaves, my imagination, my myths, the ones that I would internalize as the stories of what had value, how we act, how we make decisions. My stories, the ones I spent the most time with, were thought up by people like this underwear guy who used advertising to make his product, his story, a permanent part of my culture.

I had a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos. I think my brother had Superman, maybe Spiderman too. Incredible Hulk? I don’t know, that kid loved to dress up like superheroes. In seeing the word, and trying to remember us at that age, all of my brain synapses in relation to the term “Underoos” are firing “happiness,” “joy,” “fun,” “love.”

Lewis Hyde discusses Underoos in his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, noting that the company seeks to market not an improved product but an image, in particular images of superheroes. Hyde writes: 

“The profit depends on this formula: an innocent and imaginative child plus a parent with money plus an affectionate tie between the two. The people who marketed Underoos sold them in supermarkets rather than clothing stores because children more often accompany their mothers to the market and the whole promotional strategy would fall apart if this third thing, the bond between the parent and the child, was missing at the moment of the sale.”

In The Gift, Hyde defines a true gift as something very different from an exchange, it is not transactional. A gift is a movement of value, it is a transfer from have to need, and it has a liveliness to it, it is an offer of creative, life energy from one being to another and it flows in a circular way, giving when you have an abundance, receiving when you do not.

And the problem we begin to encounter with Underoos is that the marketers know that the relationship between a parent and child is an emotional bond. There is a life force and a willingness to give, to let energy and resource flow to a genuine, heartfelt desire. And then the marketer takes the emotional, imaginative life of the child, his desire to be strong and powerful, an age-old, beautiful, vital, vibrant part of being a child. And Underoos rolls that into a transaction. In Underoos we see the love, the gift urge, the imagination, recombined into a new dynamic.

In my experience, in the world we live in with cartoons on boxes of food, notebooks, shoes, crappy plastic rulers, this new dynamic often breeds a sort of horridness. Where, instead of gifts as defined by Hyde, we deal in transactions. And frequently in demands that are either met or not met. The innocence and imagination are still part of the equation, they still underpin the exchange, but there is such a weight of transactions in the life of my children. I imagine, from everything they have seen, from their lived experience, these products seem to be a rite of childhood, a given, an obligation. If I meet the demands, we lose. If I don’t meet the demands, we lose.

CHILD: Mom, can we get a box of Choco-Syrup-Stars? The one with the picture of iPhoneX Man on it?

MOM: Sweetheart, the picture has nothing to do with the taste of the cereal and those look really disgusting and also they are not food. There is not one food ingredient on the list. Look.

CHILD: But there are games on the back. You can help IPhoneX man find his missing charger and then there are instructions for how to take selfies and post them on a special site that will draw a phone right in your hand.

MOM: We’re not buying this cereal. We come to the grocery store to buy food. Not pictures of fake phones and a box full of corn syrup and glyphosate.

CHILD: When am I going to get a phone? Ella has a phone already. And she gets to eat this cereal. Her mom buys it.

MOM: I’m pretty sure we’ve gone over this before but I’m not Ella’s mom.

CHILD: We never get anything good. I wish I lived at Ella’s house.

(Mom silently pushes cart along, thinks about Caroline, mother to Laura Ingalls Wilder, thinks back to Underoos, shrugs).

More from The Gift:

But what is the fate of affection and imagination if, whenever we are drawn in their direction, we must pass a stranger collecting tolls?

Once goodwill has been separated from its vehicles, matter will increase without spirit. Objects will begin to appear that carry no social or spiritual feeling, though they are the products of human hands.

I hear friends say things like “Susie won’t wear [such-and-such].” But there was a world, not so long ago, where all these decisions weren’t up to Susie. There were functional things that a person needed and was provided with. Except for Nellie Olsen and we all know that she didn’t turn out well. A world full of trashy junk covered with stickers and logos, the one that needs Marie Kondo to help us all declutter, and that accepts the use of the word “clutter” as a way to remove us from the responsibility of all of the stuff we have somehow accumulated, it’s not the only path.

And it isn’t a satisfying path. It has taken what was love and imagination and it has created a transaction that almost always ends in dissatisfaction. Matter has increased. Spirit has diminished.

I’m curious about what it does to the relationships. The saying yes or the saying no. What it does to the experience of getting, of having, of valuing, of appreciating.

I’ve read about ads making us feel worse about ourselves. How marketers use the tension of our wanting to be or feel something different to get us to take some action. Occasionally the action taken leads to an improvement of some sort or a different feeling, at least momentarily. But often we are paying to feel the hopefulness in the gap between wanting and having, we are paying for the imagination of things being different. And then we have the thing in our hands and nothing is different and we still have to look at the thing, organize the thing, somewhat embarrassed to have spent the money and that it didn’t actually fix us by magic, life is still the same, and we’re determined to get some use out of this “matter” that is sucking the life force out of us.

In thinking about Underoos I’m wondering about the shift in our relationship to our things when this transactionality is introduced into what used to be a different kind of relationship. When the best parts of us, our love and our imagination are monetized. When what existed more in the space of a gift is intentionally manipulated to become a transaction, what is spiritually lost in that change? And does that have anything to do with how we feel about all of the things that surround us? Have they lost the energy to ‘spark joy’ because the transaction somehow depletes the life force, the goodwill has evaporated with the commodification of love and imagination?

I’m not going to come to any conclusions today. We loved our Underoos. We spent hours playing GI Joe, possibly with mixed psychological results. I probably have a screwed up body image but there are so many possible culprits, I don’t dare blame Barbie (or Three’s Company which we always watched after He-Man and GI Joe even though my mom doesn’t remember it that way).

It seems relevant to The Stuffed Project (one woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world) to consider the story of Underoos. To recognize the change that has occurred during my lifetime. To think about the nature of how a thing comes to be in your space, the intent behind it, by whom, and if that changes in any way your relationship to the thing. And if that changed relationship is in some way linked to less soul, more stuff. Just a lot of thoughts. Jotted down. Shared with you.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

Lost and found

Dear readers,

A number of new folks (a proportionally significant number though in absolute terms not especially large) have joined our ranks in the past couple of weeks. My plan was to welcome them (welcome! I’m so glad you’re here!), to write something explaining how we do things around here. But, as an introduction, what follows is probably the most appropriate because this is how we do things around here — life, my life, seems to dictate that certain things be written at a certain time. Often abetted by a friend or reader, life shouts: today you must write this! I try to follow suit when life’s agenda becomes plain. So without further ado…

One year ago from tomorrow, June 25, 2018, it was a Monday. I had last worked on my novel on May 14 when it had reached 78,858 words. In the time between May 14 and June 25, I had written three blog posts that had felt significant to me: Eating and other problems, 365 days, and the beginning. I had taken a break from the novel to write these, I had been to my 20-year college reunion, I had spent a week in Vermont with my family, and I had completed some paid contract work, editing a technical document about sustainability in forestry. It had been a longer break from the novel than I had wanted, it was Monday morning, the kids were in camp, I was sitting at my desk which by that time had moved to its present location looking out at the ravine and all of the trees. I can’t remember what brought it about, but I had an idea, I knew how the novel would end.

Not how the story would end exactly. But I knew that the heroine would receive a gift, a gift that any reader of the book would know was not the kind of gift she would have chosen. A gift that wasn’t what she wanted. Not only different from what she would ask for, but something that if you asked her in advance “would you like to receive such-and-such a gift?” — she would definitely say “no. that is not something I would like.”

She was going to receive this gift. And she was going to feel content, feel love. Not because of what the gift was at all. But, maybe, because what the gift was didn’t really matter. Because in looking at life and how messy it is and can feel she thought, this is good, or this is life and I accept. What mattered was the giving and the givers and the life all around her and somehow between where I was at 78,858 words and wherever this book would end, which had originally been imagined at 80,000 words but certainly, on June 25 of 2018, felt like it would take many more words, somehow she was going to learn to be part of the flow of life.

I wrote a note to myself about the ending. It is still there, at the bottom of the only saved version of the novel that remains. I can open the document now and see the note. I could tell you exactly what it says. But thinking about doing that, about opening that document, and seeing again what is not there, is so uncomfortable.

Last night my friend was sharing a story about an outing she took with her parents and her kids to the Spy Museum. She was talking about the tendency of grandparents to want to purchase stuff — any kind of stuff — for their grandkids when I remembered a forgotten scene from the novel. The grandparents tell the mother (the heroine) that they are taking the children to the library but instead they go to the bookstore and let the children choose one book each to purchase. One child chooses something like Spiderman and the other something like a book about Barbie, or maybe about volcanoes. I can’t remember. And then there is a conversation afterwards between the heroine and her mother, a sort of funny and exasperated conversation. It wasn’t a great scene. It would probably have been cut in the end. But I can’t read it again. Remembering that, last night, I felt sad. I wished that I could read it again.

So there it was, Monday morning, June 25, 2018. I had the idea about the ending. I was so excited. I opened the file where I was writing the novel, I scrolled to the bottom to write notes about the idea. And as I was typing the note, and after I was finished, I kept waiting for the tally of the total number of words, the word count at the bottom of the screen, to update. To move above 30,006. And it kept not changing.

Have you ever been at an outdoor movie, you are sitting on a blanket talking to a friend, your child is playing on the playground a little ways away? There are a lot of people, there’s movement and commotion. You realize it has been about seven minutes and you haven’t seen your son, haven’t checked for him. Okay, you think, I’ll just make brief visual confirmation that he has not wandered off into the wide world and then continue my pleasant conversation. Your eyes scan, relaxed. But his yellow shirt is nowhere to be seen. It’s bright yellow though, should be easy to spot. And then, a feeling comes into your chest and even if he were standing right in front of you you probably wouldn’t see him because you aren’t looking anymore, you are panicking, you are thinking of all of the possibilities, your eyes are searching everywhere at once and nowhere carefully, and you can’t quite breathe and you stand up and walk quickly over to the playground. He must be here, he knows not to leave, but no… You feel totally desperate and then, eventually, after probably just 200 super uncomfortable seconds, you find him right outside of the fence pretending to sword fight with three other six-year-olds.

It was like that on that Monday morning.

But I didn’t find it. 

Most people reading this already know the story but, just in case, my novel was deleted, or at least 50,000 words of it. The version from May was gone. Unrecoverable. The only remaining version was from February. I thought the cloud was a treasure chest, a safety deposit box. It’s not.

What I understood, within days, was that I had not recognized what the novel meant to me. I had not understood how proud I was of what I was creating or how the act of focused creation was changing me. I hadn’t acknowledged this to myself, let alone to anyone else. I had not valued my work, not treasured it, not protected it. The loss taught me how much I cared. Maybe that I cared enough that I was ready to be vulnerable. Ready to say out loud that I wanted this and that I was going to do it, not on the side, not prioritizing everything else.

It’s been a year. Instead of a finished novel, I’ve published a different book, an unplanned book. I’m in a band now. I’m singing and I’m writing songs again. I started writing poetry in October. I’ve submitted several poems for publication and so far had no response, but I know it can take awhile, and I know I will keep trying. I have an idea for a new novel, or for a new direction for the old novel — and I’m really excited about the idea. I have new people in my life who talk about new things. I have old friends in my life who talk about new things, or help to remind me. I have opportunities for different kinds of work. I have people asking me to write for their blogs. I had someone invite me to speak at her bookclub, an acquaintance who heard about my book from someone other than me. I did a book reading over the weekend, reading my words aloud to a group of people who have supported me and encouraged me to keep going.

I was curious enough to be uncomfortable. I opened, just now, the file that holds what remains of the novel. I scrolled quickly down to the end, past the ghosts of all of those missing words. And now I’m going to share with you the note that I left for myself about the ending of the novel, the last words I jotted down, quickly, on Monday morning, June 25, 2018 before learning that the majority of the novel was gone:

It is totally broken, it is not what she wants, it comes together in a weird way from different unexpected sources, and it is magic and she feels love and that’s life – that’s the conclusion. She gets something that she didn’t want, from a weird unexpected source, there are conflicting emotions of joy and sadness and guilt and despair, and she feels love and connection and life.

I’m not where I planned to be. I didn’t want this gift. But this is life with its vast ocean of possibility, with its love and connection, if you choose to look for it, and I accept. With a thankful heart.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.