Category Archives: recession

My recession baby

Everyone knows that parents of kids with summer and early fall birthdays face a dilemma the year their kids turn five.  Hold or send?  Send or hold?  Some kids are physically mature enough but socially immature.  Others have the social thing down but can’t handle the academics.  And still other five-year-olds are reading on a tenth grade level and teaching an SAT prep class but won’t be able to keep up at recess.  Such are the drawbacks of the late summer/early fall birthday.  However, there is another deeper, more heart-wrenching challenge these kids face.

The birthday party.

Will anyone come to the party if it’s in the middle of the summer?  Who do you invite to a birthday party when the new school year has just begun – the old class, the new class, or all 45 of them?  And can the child enjoy himself at a party with a group that hasn’t been playing together for two months, or will he get completely overwhelmed by a group dynamic that has grown unfamiliar?

You people whose kids were conveniently born in March and April have no idea how easy you have it.  By spring, even if you are in the “Invite the Whole Class” camp, you can keep the numbers reasonable by just inviting the current class plus kids from past classes with whom your child has remained friends.  Those of us facing JulythroughSeptember birthdays still have to include the last year’s class, and, since the new preschool class has just begun, we also need to include the whole new class.

This is how we ended up having Benjamin’s third birthday party at one of those kiddie gym places where there is plenty of room, plus a staff that flies the kids around on zip wires and leads them in a rousing game of throw-balls-at-the-adults.  We simply could not fit twenty kids plus their adults at our house unless everyone took turns sitting on the roof.

But, HOLY SHIT are those places expensive here in Los Angeles. Perhaps you have been to one in your hometown of Boise or Baltimore or Brighton.  Lemme tell you something: those places cost twice as much in L.A.

Like every fucking thing else.

We spent three times on Benjamin’s birthday party what I think the outer limit of a kid’s birthday party ought to be.  And we felt suckered into it, because we did not want to exclude children.  We find the practice of inviting some three-year-olds but not others can really bruise feelings, so we invited both last year’s class and the brand-new-one.  We just couldn’t see a way out of inviting thirty-three kids, which meant we ended up spending (cough, cough) on that damned party.

Imagine our relief when Zachary told us that for his fifth birthday, he wanted a party in the backyard with six friends.  And that he wanted to do recycled art.  And he wanted Daddy to make the cupcakes.

“You can have one fancy thing,” I told him.

His eyes got wide, almost afraid to ask.  “Can I have Pin the Tail on the Donkey?”  Yes, child, you can indeed have Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

We decided to do the party in the middle of August, even though his birthday is not for a few weeks.  It was a little hard deciding how many to invite, because we had no idea how many would come, but on Sunday, we had six guests plus our three kids.  Some parents dropped off, but most stayed.  We hired the thirteen-year-old from up the street to run the art table.  We had been saving toilet paper rolls, boxes, and egg cartons for months, and Zach had helped cut out hundreds of magazine pictures for collages, to be done on the backs of those cardboard rectangles that the cleaner uses to fold my husband’s shirts.

Grandma and Grandpa flew in for the event, as the birthday boy had called in March just to invite them.  That’s my kid – always planning ahead.

It was probably the cheapest birthday party in West L.A. this entire summer, even though we splurged and bought a piñata that we filled with Hot Wheels and Hershey Kisses.  It was also just the party that Zach wanted.  Small, calm, and topped off with a suspenseful game of Pass the Parcel.

It was one of those rare days I get to feel like I am doing it right.DSC05403


             “Mommy, I’m very jealous,” he declares from the middle row of our minivan.  Although my eyes are trained on the traffic in front of me, I am well aware of the pout that accompanies that tone of voice.  I proceed cautiously, because I also know that his four-year-old sense of justice requires me immediately to remediate the situation once he has voiced his dissatisfaction.  “Gavin’s daddy drops him off at school every day.”

            Hitting my right turn signal so I can queue up to get on the 405, I silently curse Gavin’s daddy.  I’m jealous, too, I want to say.  I’m jealous that Gavin’s mommy only has to come to the preschool once a day. I’m jealous that she does not have to parent all by herself on the weekdays.  And, most of all, I’m jealous that she does not have to hear her son kvetch all week long about not having his daddy around.

            Of course, this is not how I respond.  I glance in my side-view mirror and say, “I know you miss your Daddy, baby.  He’s working really hard right now.  I miss him, too.  But, you get to see him all weekend, and you get Mommy dropping you off at school.”  Even as I say this, I know I am offering weak solace, at best. 

            Zachary is at that age when children start to identify with the same-sex parent.  He is trying to learn what it means to be a man, and he is looking around for role models.  Unfortunately, there are none to be found.  From Monday to Friday, my kids rarely speak to an adult male, much less see their father.  When he is not on the road, my husband leaves for work before they wake and returns once they are in bed.

            It is hard on the children, I am fully aware, but it is the nature of his work.  Even as recently as a few months ago, I railed against it myself.  I admonished Jacob that we could not continue this way indefinitely.  “You are going to need to find a way to be here a few evenings a week,” I told him.  “We always said we would not be one of those families where the kids never see their father.”

            Jacob, on the other hand, was between a rock and a very hard place.  What exactly was he supposed to do?  He was giving his all to a project at work that demanded his attention, but he was also giving his all on the weekends to his kids.  How much “all” did he have to give?

            My friends fueled my frustration.  Tell him he needs to pull back from work, they advised.  It’s not fair to you or the kids.  We are the generation that is not going to be like our parents, with the father scarcely seeing the kids because work is so all-consuming.  I was enforcing fairness and the values we had agreed upon long before we had children.

            When we had first discussed having children, we had promised one another that Jacob’s career would not become more important than mine, even if he earned more than I did.  We declared that he would always be home to tuck the kids in, except when he was travelling.  We pledged to maintain a sane work-life balance, even if it meant a career sacrifice. 

            However, when we so sagaciously committed ourselves to this perfectly aligned equation of parenting, we failed to factor in the variable of Wall Street raining bricks while the housing market sank.  We neglected to foresee our savings bleeding value and layoffs across almost every industry. 


            It becomes a lot harder to nag my husband to leave a job he loves in search of one that brings him home in time for bath when there are no jobs for the getting.  I have suddenly gained the perspective of valuing the fact that he is employed, even if he spends more time working than I would like.  Not everyone is so fortunate these days.

            Suddenly, counting our blessings involves appreciating the chance to work one’s tail off.  The economy is giving us a new outlook on all of the alternative scenarios.

            As I veer the car off onto the Olympic/Pico exit, Zachary informs me he only wants Daddy.  I acknowledge his complaint, although the refrain is getting a little stale as far as I am concerned.  Really, child?  Is that much whining absolutely necessary?

            From Zach’s perspective, of course, the whining is warranted, and perhaps it is even effective.  If he draws enough attention to the tragic state of affairs, perhaps it will miraculously resolve itself.  Resolution-by-bitching, as it were.  Only from an adult viewpoint is whining pointless.  As we mature, we realize that complaining about the unchangeable merely puts us in a foul mood; results are best obtained through actual action. 

            This economic catastrophe has been one giant kick in the rear for the country and the world, forcing us to stop complaining to one another about how hard life is and start looking for real solutions.  I turn into my driveway, considering that, in fact, our family does not have it so bad.  

There must be more money

            In D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner,” a little boy hears a recurring whisper in his house: “There must be more money.  There must be more money.”  It’s a great story that you ought to read yourself, but I will be giving nothing away if I tell you that – no matter how much money actually comes into his house – there still is just not enough.

            When I was younger, I read it as a story about materialism, probably because it is.  But, it is also a story about trying to shore up against an insecure world.  The mother, who buys and buys and always needs more, needs lots of Stuff.  And, why does she need all that Stuff?  Because the world is an uncertain place, with hurricanes and recessions and rapists and climate change and two huge fucking flotillas of plastic in the oceans.  Maybe if we have enough Things, we can build a dike to keep the forces of chaos out.

            There are about 98 flaws with this logic, but that doesn’t stop people from trying it nonetheless.  Your husband cheats?  Buy something.  Long day at work?  Try a little retail therapy.  Lose your job?  Max out the credit cards, a particularly foolish thing to do if you don’t have a paycheck.

            Our economy is built on this compulsive need to Get More Crap.  And, when people stop buying crap, there is panic.  What do we do if people stop buying things they don’t need?  We slip into a recession, maybe even a depression.

            But, it doesn’t need to be this way.  We don’t need to judge the economy on new housing starts.  Why is it a good thing to build more houses that we’ll tear down in twenty years?  Why can’t we judge the economy on how much money is spent renovating old houses?  Or on how sturdy the houses are?

            I love the idea of stimulating the economy by fixing our infrastructure because it is about spending on something we actually need.  I do not think a healthy economy and a healthy planet need to be mutually exclusive.  If spending money is good for the economy, why not retool the system so we spend on organic produce, fair wages, and alternative forms of energy?

            There must be more money, there must be more money.  But how will we spend it?

Because I cannot stop global warming

            In the fall of 2001, I taught back-to-back Freshman Comp classes, keeping me pretty much out of contact with the outside world from 8:00 to 11:00 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  As a graduate student, my job was to teach 44 reluctant eighteen-year-olds how to express a few coherent thoughts and perhaps to occasionally make a persuasive argument.

            One Tuesday at 9:25, as one class shuffled out and the next shuffled in, one young man remarked to his classmates, “Did you hear that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center?”  Like so many others that morning, we all pictured a little plane piloted by a flight student with a tragically bad sense of direction.  Students handed forward the papers that were do, and we proceeded with the day’s lesson on paragraphing.

            An hour and forty-five minutes later, I grumbled to myself as I rifled through the department teaching supply cabinet.  “Are you OK?” a fellow grad student asked as she walked past with a professor.

            “I can’t find any chalk around here,” I complained, and they both shot me disgusted looks before moving on.  Then the grad student turned back, suddenly realizing something.

            “Have you heard what happened?” she asked. 

            And that was how I heard.  I ran up three flights of stairs to my office and brought up my email, which was already flooded with messages from friends in New York, all of which said the same basic thing: “I am alive.”

            As the morning lapsed into afternoon, I could only spend so long staring at or refreshing my email.  Eventually, I realized I had to occupy my mind with something.  And so I began to grade papers.

            All that evening and the following day, I graded one set of papers.  I did it with passion and a thoroughness no student papers had heretofore seen.  The sky was falling, but I would make all well with the world by making damned sure these kids knew how to write a topic sentence.

            In that spirit, and because I cannot do a damned thing about the fact that the stock market has gotten off its Prozac, retirees may suddenly find they need to return to work, people are losing their homes, and my children are likely to find themselves in a world war over water, I offer the following lesson in apostrophe usage.

            With regular nouns, if you wish to indicate more than one, all you need to do is add an S.  For example: “Many stores are going out of business.”  Stores is plural, not possessive, and does not require an apostrophe.

            If, however, you wish to indicate possession, you will need one of those nifty little doohickies that hang between an S and the rest of the word.  For example: “The woman’s portfolio has lost half of its value.”  As the unfortunate woman owns the portfolio, we indicate ownership with apostrophe + S.  (The lone exception is “its,” which gets an apostrophe only to indicate the contraction of “it is.”)  This formula works with both singular nouns and irregular plurals, such as: “The people’s dismay at discovering that there is such a thing as global warming…”

            Should you wish to indicate both plural and possessive with a regular noun, you will need to move that snazzy little apostrophe to after the S.  For example: “In my sons’ time, we will likely face a global food and water crisis.”  I have two sons, yet I also wish to indicate their time, so the apostrophe goes after the S, showing that the S is doing double-duty.

            Should you have any questions about this relatively simple punctuation mark, please email me instead of making up your own grammar.  Seriously.  I am tired of signs indicating that on Tuesdays the bar has “Two margarita’s for the price of one.”  The sky is falling here, people, and we need to prop it up one apostrophe at a time.

            And while we’re at it, “a lot” is two words.