Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Too Much

A few weeks ago, while blearily preparing breakfast for my kids, I hit a breaking point. The straw that broke this camel's back?

Ikea plates.

It's true. Pretty, plastic plates drove me insane.

A few years ago, we got a set of multicolored, plastic, kid-friendly tableware from Ikea. Enigmatic Ikea codename: Kalas. (Which, in case you are ever on Jeopardy, translates to party, feast, banquet, spread, or junket. Good to know).

They do look like a festive little rainbow-hued party, don't they?

Once you get past the fact that they are plastic (albeit allegedly BPA-free plastic, like most things Ikea), they are fairly anodyne objects. Functional. Simple. Unbreakable. The cup is sort of tippy - it's not heavy enough on the bottom to give it much stability - so we've had more than our share of spills. Other than that, they are non-offensive. I had no complaints.

How can pretty, multicolored, reasonably functional plates be responsible for driving a housefrau right over the edge?

Too many choices.

Every morning (and afternoon, and evening) my kids would start off the meal specifying not only the foods that they will and won't eat (and that's a whole other post), but also the exact color of plate, bowl, and cup they will accept. I could be serving them ice cream, and they'd dicker about whether they will accept their Lobster Tracks in a green bowl.

Who on Earth dickers over Lobster Tracks - possibly the best ice cream flavor ever (the flavor my husband and I kept to ourselves for months by telling the kids it contained actual crustaceans - which they've never had but simply assume they'll hate) - because of the bowl color?

My kids.

It's ICE CREAM! Eat it from the green bowl! Without crying! Please? Please eat the ice cream? See how I covered it with sprinkles? It makes the green look blue. Please?

Anyway, on this particular morning, after spending several minutes sorting out which flavor of instant oatmeal everyone wanted (Maple and brown sugar? Cinnamon and spice? Apples and cinnamon? Cinnamon raisin? Peaches and cream? Bananas and cream? Strawberries and cream? Blueberries and cream? Regular?), I set down at the table two bowls of oats and two cups of milk and received - not thanks - but instant cries of dissatisfaction.

"I didn't want the blue bowl! I wanted pink!"
"My cup is green and my bowl is yellow! They don't match!"


Seriously, kids, simmer down. Because:

A. I haven't even had my first cup of coffee - I haven't even made coffee yet - and I'm supposed to process this dissent? And...
B. Sans coffee, I have just managed to correctly deliver the apple cinnamon and strawberries and cream oatmeal to the child that requested it.

How is that not the most important thing about breakfast? How has this near-instantaneous and not unpalatable breakfast not been declared a raging success?

It's obvious how. Not based on the oats. It's those damn plates. The pretty, multicolored, reasonably functional Ikea plates. They made this breakfast - and every other meal I served my children - about something other than food. It's all about the Kalas.

The plates - specifically the variety of available colors - gave my kids too many ways in which to be disappointed.

And, frankly, I've got skills enough to disappoint my kids without the assistance of Ikea and their rainbow-hued plastic plates.

While we are talking about ways in which I can disappoint my children, can we discuss the upcoming holidays?

Because I am having a hard time getting excited when I know that, no matter how much I give them, there will invariably end up being something I didn't - or couldn't - get.

A puppy, for instance.

And it's going to cast a shadow over everything they do get.

A few years ago, when my mom sent out her annual holiday letter, she included a note that her grandmother wrote over a century ago when her children (my mother's father included) were ages six, four, and two. It tells of the Christmas gifts she was preparing for her three boys while in the mission field in Korea.

Pyeng Yang, Korea, Nov. 27,1900.

I have been having Christmas on my mind lately, and am trying to get something ready for the children. John wants more clothes for his doll and a little bureau to hold them in, and with the help of an empty condensed milk box, and a native carpenter, I guess we can satisfy him.

William's present has occupied me for several evenings, and has turned out such a success, that big William laughs at me for my enjoyment of it. It consists of a little pasteboard house set in the middle of a shallow wooden box, which answers for a yard. The house is six inches square, stuck all over with millet on the outside, and the roof covered with cereal coffee. Sprigs of cedar stuck in blocks answer for trees, and flowers cut from seed catalogues are pasted to little wooden blocks here and there over the yard. A horse and colt stand at the back door, and a cow, cat and dog are to be added. At the front of the house are a little boy and girl receiving an apple at the hands of Santa Claus, while mamma looks out from the font door. The little windows have lace curtains, and altogether I am sure that little William's wildest dreams will be realized. Will says the first thing will be a fight between the three of them for the possession of it.

Richard's present is not under way yet, but I think a rag doll will probably satisfy the longings of his heart.

I have to say, it's nice to know that, as much as times changed over the last century, children fighting over the possession over a desirable toy isn't reflective of the failings of modern parenting in general, or my personal parental failings in particular.

Also of note: overuse of the comma may be genetic.

Each gift was something my great-grandmother had considered carefully and spent some time creating. Something that she fashioned, or commissioned, using materials she had on hand. Items that were being reused. Nothing fancy. But it didn't have to be fancy - or have been made by elves and delivered by Santa - to be appreciated. Santa does make an appearance, though, and he brings apples. Apples.

I try to imagine my the reactions my kids would give to these toys.

Honestly, they would probably love them. My daughter would appreciate clothes for her doll. My son would enjoy a model house or a rag doll. But, having unwrapped these items, they would immediately look around for more.

More. Always more.

There are so many things to want in this world - for both children and adults - that it feels almost impossible to take time to appreciate what we already have. We are barraged with other options, or other choices; the knowledge that, though we have this thing - and it's great - there's something else that we don't have.

And there are a lot of things that we don't have. A world full of possible desires. And the knowledge that these other, desirable, unobtainable things are out there - in the hands of our friends, or in commercials on the television - diminishes our joy in the here and now.

What would happen if I turned back the clock? If I were to limit our Christmas to just a few things? Doll clothes and a dresser to hold them for one child. A doll for the other.

The resulting unhappiness wouldn't come from a failing of the gifts. It would come from the perception that there should have been more. A perception that derives from the culture of consumption that characterizes the current moment in America.

I speak of the unhappiness that would accompany a single, well-considered gift, but I think there is also an unhappiness of multiple gifts that don't truly satisfy wants and needs.

A decade ago, I had the chance to work retail as the holidays approached. With each day that passed, people became more and more harried and less happy. They were desperate not to find the right gift, but to simply find something, anything, that they could use to fill a box. The gift itself was unimportant - just a way to check a name off of the list.

In watching these customers, eyes bright with desperation, I began to wonder what the point of gifting is. If it is just a chore, why don't we just stop?

I don't have the answer, but the pondering brings me back to questions that rise again and again as I write this blog:

How do we live outside our own culture, in ways that are at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist?

And, more importantly

How do we create cultural change?


The Kalas are gone.

Starting that morning, I began to pack them up as they came through the dishwasher. For good measure, I tossed in all the plastic cups we have acquired from Moe's and Chili's (another source of discord). Now when we sit down to eat, we all eat from the one set of plates I keep in the house. Each bowl matches every other bowl. Each plate matches every other plate.


For the first time in years, no one dickers about the color of their bowl. It's amazing.

I'm not going to lie, we still have bickering about a lot of things - variety packs of instant oatmeal remain problematic - but we aren't butting heads about tableware. And - given the results of removing the pretty, multicolored plates - we might have bought our last variety pack of oatmeal as well.

Sometimes it is just all too much. Too many things, and too many choices. Having more options than we can ever pursue leads to many, many paths not taken. More chances for regret.

Could we be happier with less? With fewer? Especially if the few were what we really wanted. Could you make do with one? If you really loved it? Consider it material monogamy. Does that help?

Would we enjoy the bowl of ice cream more if the sweet taste of caramel weren't following the salty sting of tears shed over a green bowl?

It seems almost like heresy to say it out loud, since we seem to live in the Age of More, but maybe all this stuff - choices, options, things - maybe it's just too much.

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