Friday, April 19, 2019

Plastic Eggs & Deadly Plagues

March 2011 

The kids and I went grocery shopping at Safeway this morning and when we were finished, decided to browse through the Easter display.

I was sifting through the shelves - and half ignoring their desperate requests for jelly beans, stuffed chicks and chocolate bunnies - when Cal hands me this.

I beg your pardon?

I read the label again, confirming that yes, that there was a bag of PLAGUES. Who knew? The calamities suffered by the Egyptians? The disease, the darkness, the locusts…Turns out those weren’t just the wrath of God unleashed on Pharaoh. Those are toys you can put in your child’s Easter basket.

And I for one could not resist. I had just told the kids we didn’t have enough money for popsicles, then I turned around and tossed a bag of plagues into the cart.

The fun started at the register. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I loved seeing “bag of plagues” on my grocery receipt, right between “Tostitos” and “parmesan cheese.”

Now let’s take a look inside -

First, we find the usual items one would expect in a child’s bag of plagues. Blood, lice, locusts, wild beasts…

Then of course there are boils. 

Most kids today have never even heard of boils, and I think it's high time they learned. Boil Handz could be the next Silly Bandz.

The cow is cute, but don’t be fooled.

He is diseased.

The frog? Not diseased. Leah loved the frog.

Until I told her to imagine millions of him, overflowing the neighbor’s pool, filling up the streets, spilling through our windows and into her bedroom….

Fun's over.

Here is Cal, plagued by darkness...

The bag also contains a puzzle,

Which will go in Jolie’s basket, obviously.

She might be disturbed at first, but rest assured I can comfort her with stories of people slaying innocent lambs, slathering their blood above the door, and then listening to the deafening wail of Egyptians whose firstborns had been killed. Sweet dreams, darling, that is the final plague. 

The label promises that all 10 are “Fun & Educational,” and I would have to agree. I think another selling point are the kinds of arguments these toys are likely to prompt among siblings (“Quit touching my boils!” “Take the lice out of your mouth!!” “Where’d you hide the blood??” etc.). With a little luck, these kinds of exchanges will occur in public.

I highly recommend offering up the $5.49 sacrifice. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bruce at Smiths

There is a real-life rockstar in my neighborhood.

His concerts are the hottest ticket in town. He has over 20,000 followers on Facebook, with a loyal core of groupies who thumbs-up nearly every post. Fans of his never turn down his invitations to happy hour, and have been known to line up before sunrise for a chance to score some of his swag. He can hardly go anywhere locally without being recognized or asked for a selfie.

Who is this celebrity?

He's Bruce, Assistant Manager at Smith's Marketplace in West Jordan.

Bruce has worked in the grocery business for 35 years, and four years at this particular location.  If you doubt his celebrity status, ask yourself how many other grocers you know whose face is requested on children's birthday cakes -

Or whose likeness has been used as a Halloween costume -


I asked Bruce's assistant of four years, Jolyne Gailey, for his official job description, but it's hard to narrow down exactly what he does. (Did I mention he serenades customers with his trumpet in the produce department?). His role is to ensure that customers have a positive experience, but don't you dare call them customers. "I don't have customers," he has said. "I have friends who happen to need a few things at my job."

For four years Jolyne has watched those friendships form from the sidelines. Or rather, the deli section. People walk through the door looking for a particular produce or cut of meat, and leave with a genuine advocate. "For Bruce, there is no distinction between business and personal," she says. "Everything is personal to him."

She's not kidding about the blurred distinction. Bruce routinely comes to work early, leaves late, and rarely takes a day off. Recently however, he took his first vacation in years, to Calfornia, where he sent the employees back home pictures of himself at Disneyland and on the beach...In his apron and name tag.

"They brought me in to slow him down," Jolyne says with a laugh. "But no one can slow down Bruce." She said that he uses his job as a chance to silently watch for needs in the community, and then does whatever he can to meet them.

That silence is his charm. Bruce certainly hasn't campaigned for his celebrity. In fact, the attention seems to make him downright uncomfortable, but is the inevitable result of one single, positive interaction at a time.

Take his Facebook account, for instance. After Bruce received the site's maximum 5,000 friend requests, it became necessary to set up 'Bruce at Smith's,' a public page that currently has over 16,000 followers. Last week, among the photos of current cereal deals and soda discounts, he wrote a heartbreaking post about the sudden death of his sister. To the thousands who read it he began, "This is quite personal, but you are my friends, so I'm sharing it with you."

Scroll further through the page and you'll find an outpouring of public affection. Posts of gratitude for picking up someone's favorite Canadian soda, stocking Toy Story ice cream for their kids, or consoling someone's wife in the floral department after her father passed away.

But, just like life, some of the best examples of charity and goodwill can be found off of social media.

I asked my neighbors who shop his store for examples of his customer care, and was flooded with stories.  One friend shared about the time her granddaughter was upset after she missed seeing Bruce dressed as Santa, and when he heard about it showed up on her doorstep in costume.

Another had posted to Facebook that her son got stitches, and shortly after Bruce arrived with bags of his favorite candy.

There were meals delivered to sick parents, and meals delivered to healthy parents because they deserved a night off from cooking. He has brought presents to patients in the hospital, and played songs of celebration on his trumpet after successful surgeries.

When shoppers need something that isn't in stock, he will drive around town until he finds it. He assists with school and community fundraisers, and has walked customers to their cars on rainy days using patio umbrellas from the furniture department.

One mother shared, emotionally, that she was selected as a contest winner on what happened to be the anniversary of her child's death. When she received her prize from Bruce it was with the inspired message that "someone upstairs was shining down on her."

Another shared the time he stopped by her house because her kids had requested he help them build a fort.

All of this has resulted in a customer loyalty reminiscent of a different era. One woman drives 60 miles each way, every week, to shop Bruce's aisles. "It's his genuineness," says Jolyne. "You can't fake kindness like that for that long."

One of my favorite personal observations of Bruce has been the tours he provides for young children, which are in high demand for local kindergarten, preschool and Cub Scout groups. Even if you have nothing on your grocery list, it's worth a trip to the store during one of Bruce's tours just to hear the belly laughs of children when he tells them to close their eyes so he can sneak food from the shelves into their hands, or hides in the dairy fridge to moo like a cow.

And why should kids have all the fun? Every night Bruce and Jolyne host a free event for customers that include unlimited "happy hour" fountain drinks and and Slurpees, or bowls of cereal for the entire family. He hosts Price is Right for womens groups and daily Facebook giveaways with prizes that include delivering ice cream to your door, and washing dishes while he's there.

Bruce has also won a competition or two himself. He's been recognized on the local news and in national contests for his customer care but always gives away his prize winnings, and he takes the same approach to birthdays. If it's your birthday he'll give you free banana splits and a trumpet concert, but if you ask when his birthday is, he'll deflect and changes the subject.

Forgive me then, for publicizing that his birthday is today. But for a store manager who accepts returns as freely as he does, I don't think recognition should be any exception.

"Everyone knows him as 'Bruce at Smiths,'' says Jolyne. "But I like to remind him that Smith's doesn't define him. He's more than the apron and name tag. It's his love for people that defines him."

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's a World of Hope and a World of Fears

When the government shutdown ended last month, it was four days before I heard the news. This wasn't because I was uninterested or insensitive to it. We experienced a shutdown ourselves when we lived in DC and had quite a few friends affected this time around.  I had been pretty attuned to news of a compromise or reopening and yet when it did reopen it took me four days to realize it.

This was because I was at Disneyland, which brings me to the best thing about Disneyland.  It is that from the moment your feet touch the cobblestone on Main Street you lose all connection to the outside world. For the four blissful days we were there I didn't know or care what the date, day or time was, or what had been on my to-do list before we arrived. It didn't matter to me how much anything cost or how often we ate dessert. For once I didn't worry about what my kids were doing or who they were with, whether the federal government was open or closed, and even missed the four days when Jussie Smollett was a victim.

That Baloo is not kidding when he invites you to "forget about your worries and your strife."

This of course is all by design. Every inch of Disneyland - every sight, sound, and smell is meticulously imagineered to shelter you from the outside world and blanket you into a blissful, reassuring 1950's existence. There's a reason employees are referred to as "cast members." Their performances makes you feel safe and respected. Suddenly you're comfortable striking up a conversation with any random stranger. Trash and spills disappear instantly, and renovations and repairs are meticulously hidden from sight (with the exception of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, which looked like a prototype for Trump's border wall).

When I mentioned this immersive design to my 14-year old she said, "I know. I heard that if someone dies in Disneyland, they roll the body out of the park before pronouncing them dead." How magical!

It isn't a perfect system of course. On our second day there, we were standing outside Haunted Mansion when three military jets blasted by overhead. I felt a bit like Jim Carrey in the Truman Show when he found a camera hiding in his kitchen. What is this! Who am I? And yet, it was Disneyland. Even if the jets had been emblazoned with North Korean flags I probably would have just shrugged, bit into my churro, and wondered if it was time yet to fast pass Indiana Jones.

There was another jarring moment on our third day, when a man who rode Space Mountain after us climbed off it mid ride, and they shut it down for a week to investigate. Did you know that a woman was decapitated on the Matterhorn in 1984? Also in 1984, when I was five, Goofy used a photo op as an opportunity to grab by mom's behind. That's a true story, but it's hers to tell.

Anyway, one afternoon on this trip, my sister and I stopped at the Hungry Bear Restaurant for churro funnel cakes and Coke. We asked the cast member serving us where the straws were, and were told that they were "over there, if there are any left." She said that straws and lids have been eliminated from Disneyland and that once the current supply was depleted, they would not be replenished.

Upon hearing this, my sister grabbed a giant fistful of them to stockpile in her purse. We thought this was hilarious but our cast member didn't seem to appreciate the humor and told us, "You know, there is more plastic in the ocean than fish."

More plastic in the ocean than fish? Is she serious? Maybe on the Nemo ride, I thought, but didn't think she would appreciate that humor either.

I was curious after I got home, so I read the press release from the Walt Disney Company announcing that straws and lids were in fact being banned in 2019 as part of their "commitment to environmental stewardship." Several Disney Food blogs reported that the park is considering paper straws and sippy cup lids as an alternative, which I suppose is good news for anyone who visits hoping to feel like a kid again. Perhaps next they can tackle water conservation by strapping us all in diapers.

I am all for environmental stewardship, but this makes zero sense to me. Paper straws, aside from making you feel like you're sucking from a rolled up phone book page, cost ten times as much to produce as plastic straws. And what about the trees required to make them? And subsequent greenhouse gases, global warming, and other factors of environmental stewardship?

Then there is the sippy cup solution, which Starbucks has already enacted. These have to require at least ten times as much plastic to manufacture as a straw. Also, after Disneyland banned lids, cast members began receiving complaints of more frequent spills, so the park switched from their flimsy Dixie-manufactured cups to sturdier Solo ones, requiring twice as much paper. It's all a classic case of overregulation. One step forward, ten steps back.

I want clean oceans as much as Ariel. I would love for us to deflect the plastic from them, clean the air, and create a thriving environment for the next generation. But a ban on straws and lids is a proposal made in Fantasyland that's more effective as a headline-grabbing marketing campaign than sound environmental policy; another imagineered photo op designed to makes us feel good about ourselves.

Which I suppose is why we visit Disneyland in the first place.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Gender Disparity Barbie

Last week I found myself in the Barbie aisle at Walmart, picking out a present for my son's seventh birthday. Now, before anyone praises my noble attempt to eradicate gender stereotype with this particular gift choice, I'm afraid I have to steer you toward what I noticed in the clearance section while I was there.

Robot Engineer Barbie and Astronaut Barbie, both discounted. Suspicious, I asked the manager why certain Barbies were on clearance and not others, and was told that it was to clear an excess of inventory. In other words, these Barbies weren't selling.

Not on clearance?

Teacher Barbie, Babysitter Barbie, Music Teacher Barbie, and Gymnastics Coach Barbie.

This made me curious.

Limited by the research options available to suburban stay-at-home moms such as myself, I launched a further investigation the best way I knew how - in the form of an Instagram poll, requesting that my friends with daughters under age 12 ask them, in a non leading manner, which of four different career Barbies she would most like to play with.

Of 51 responses,

23 (45%) chose Babysitter Barbie
13 (25%) chose Teacher Barbie
8 (16%) chose Robot Engineer Barbie
7 (14%) chose Astronaut Barbie

Obviously, this wasn't a flawless study. Participants were limited to children of my Instagram friends, and the Babysitter and Teacher Barbies come with more accessories than the Engineer and Astronaut. But it was the best I could do. You're welcome to unravel it, but first please put in a good word for me at the Boston Globe so I can finally start conducting higher quality investigations.

I was also hoping to acquire official numbers from Mattel on the popularity of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career Barbies, but the only statistic I could find was a 15% drop in sales in 2017 when they took away her thigh gap and introduced "real" body types, but clearly that deserves its own separate blog post.

So while I may be attributing way too much meaning to the sale of a doll whose waist can't even accommodate internal organs, all of this made me think.

So much attention, money and effort is focused on narrowing the gender gap in STEM fields, and for very good reason. Women are undeniably underrepresented in science and engineering. While they make up about half of STEM bachelors degrees and graduate school enrollees, they hold only about 29% of related jobs in the field.

And it's certainly not because they are less capable. Female students consistently perform as well or better than male classmates in high school and college math.

So why the disparity?

Read any of thousands of speculative articles online, and you'll find the following most common explanations - Bias. Obstacles in schooling. Cultural stereotyping. Gender discrimination. Sexual harassment, etc. All are valid, and all obviously very concerning and worthy of addressing.

But what also concerns me is that so few seem willing to discuss what seemed so obvious to me in the Walmart Barbie aisle, and looking at the results of my homespun poll.

Maybe girls don't aspire to STEM careers because they don't want to.

I know it's so much more fun to blame the patriarchy, but I really think that empirically, you can't find a stronger argument. The research showing an inherent difference in interests between males and females is politically incorrect for sure, but it's also staggering. For instance -

Multiple studies have shown that newborn girls prefer looking at faces, while newborn boys prefer looking at mechanical things, like mobiles.

Also, babies as young as 9-months old prefer to play with toys stereotyed to their own gender, with infant girls showing a strong preference for dolls and cooking items, and boys selecting cars, toys, and shovels.

As for the disparity in job selection, it is fascinating to observe that in countries with the greatest gender equality in education and employment opportunities, women are actually far LESS likely to choose math and science professions.

Females also have more emotional brains, and surpass their male counterparts in verbal skills. All of this contributes to the fact that in general, women prefer working with people (physicians, teachers), while men prefer working with things (engineers, mechanics).

Of course, none of this is absolute. There are plenty of girls who would much rather play with a soccer ball than a baby doll and work with computers instead of children, and my own son asked for Barbies for his birthday.  But I'm not suggesting that we steer all girls away from STEM careers. I'm suggesting that when they steer themselves away, we don't treat it like a national crisis.

The National Science Foundation recently announced a campaign intended to "un-brainwash" girls and increase their chances of choosing STEM. I have a 14-year old daughter who wants to be an interior designer and homemaker, and has no interest in coding or robotics. Am I to assume she's been brainwashed?

Mabye the NSF should also un-brainwash these monkeys while they're at it.

And then there are campaigns that try to attract girls to the field with the message that their gender is underrepresented. LOL, as though this is motivating. Who makes career decisions based on what society needs? "Gosh, I really want to be a musician, but I suppose I can take one for the team and major in electrical engineering."

So should we continue to encourage them? Sure. Those who excel at math and science certainly deserve to understand their options. But if and when the majority continue to choose teaching, art, childcare, medicine, or public policy instead, I don't think it means we have failed them.

I think the measure of how well a society serves its girls and women is not how many of them are scientists and mathematicians. I think the measure of how well a society serves its girls and women is how many of them pursue what they're passionate about. Whatever that is. The girl who is passionate about starting her own tech company is no more valuable than the girl who is passionate about being a preschool teacher.

She's just luckier, because her preferred Barbie is cheaper.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Genderbred Houses

My 14-year old daughter invited friends over tonight to make gingerbread houses. She's our oldest child, and it was the first time she has hosted both boys and girls. After everyone left and my husband and I were scraping up piles of candy and frosting, we invented a new Christmas game I thought you might enjoy.

It's called "Girl or Boy?"

To play, all you have to do is identify the gender of the following gingerbread house architects -

1. Girl or Boy? 

2. Girl or Boy? 

3. Girl or Boy?

4. Girl or Boy?

5. Girl or Boy? 

6. Girl or Boy?

7. Girl or Boy?

8. Girl or Boy? 

9. Girl or Boy? 

10. Girl or Boy?

* All answers were confirmed by the hostess 
1. Girl
2. Boy
3. Girl
4. Boy
5. Girl 
6. Boy
7. Girl
8. Boy
9. Girl
10. Boy 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Presence of Presents

Every December, when Christmas shopping becomes the default topic of conversation among moms at class parties and playdate pickups, I find myself apologizing, in one form or another, for the number of presents I plan to buy my kids. 

Usually it's the moment someone declares their adherence to the 'Four Gift Rule' - Something their kids want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read, and I hesitate to admit that I follow more of a "Four (hundred) Gift Rule," which includes something they certainly don't need, something they already have several of, something outside the budget, something Jack tried to talk me out of, etc. 

But this year, I've turned over a new holly leaf. This year I'm coming clean with the fact that I spoil my kids on Christmas, and won't let anyone bah humbug me about it. 

Now, if the four gift rule works for your family, I applaud you. I like that it's simple, budget-friendly, and sets clear expectations. If limiting your number of purchases decreases your stress level or makes you feel like you're gleaning more from season, by all means! Just please don't assume that the ever-growing stack of Amazon packages on my doorstep in December, on the other hand, mean that we've lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas.

Both Jack and I grew up in hard working, middle class families. We had parents who were disciplined, self-sacrificing, and taught us all about charity, gratitude, and delayed gratification.  But when Christmas came, all bets were off. Every December, my mom stopped at nothing to make our house look, smell, taste and feel like magic, and piled so many presents under the tree they climbed halfway to the star. The year Cabbage Patch Dolls were sold out across America? My sisters and I opened NINE OF THEM, collectively. Jack also remembers all his dreams coming true on Christmas morning, and we both recall fondly the thrill of being unable to sleep the night before, and the giddy anticipation of lining up in the morning, youngest to oldest, waiting for Dad to return from his scouting mission and declare that Santa had come. And boy, had he. 

Doing the same for our kids allows us to relive a bit of our own childhood through their eyes.  Because let's be honest, being an adult is hard. With age come burdens, worries and responsibilities that evolve, but never leave you. Childhood is the one and only shot we are given in life, and it is such a quick one, to experience pure, unadulterated wonder. If you're lucky enough to have such a childhood, the magic of those memories can sustain you well into adulthood. Go big I say, as there will be plenty of opportunities later to learn about deprivation.  

I believe that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and of everything that entails - forgiveness, salvation, love, and service. I also don't think that any of those gifts can be negated by one morning of being buried in wrapping paper. Must there be a linear relationship between how minimalist we are, and how well we're teaching our kids about charity? 

So when I hear it suggested that Christmas gifts be kept to a minimum to avoid raising spoiled or materialistic children, I always wonder why that lesson has to be taught on December 25th? I spend 364 days a year saying no to my kids. I say no at the grocery store. I say no at Target. I say no when they beg for the same toy their friend has. They do extra chores to earn privileges, save for their own purchases, participate in charitable causes, and offer daily prayers of gratitude. Surely our collective efforts to raise hard-working, generous humans build a foundation that can't jeopardized by a single morning of indulgence. 

At least, I sure hope that's the case. Because of all the hats I wear as a mother, Santa's is my favorite. 

Plastic Eggs & Deadly Plagues

March 2011  The kids and I went grocery shopping at Safeway this morning and when we were finished, decided to browse through the Eas...