Gift Giving, The Lesson of the Aprons

By Karen

I write this as we move into what is, for many of us, the biggest gift giving season of the year. Some of us are approaching the season in “business as usual” mode, some are looking at gifts and consumption in a new minimalist light, while still others are economizing based on need to do so. But, all of us want the gifts that we give to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Everything I’ve done lately is marked by sentimentality and a sense of family. I’ve done a lot of looking back as Russ and I have been working to open our Six Degrees Store on Etsy. We’ve entirely rearranged the house, turning one bedroom into a studio, moving many things to the attic and making all of our spaces more artisan friendly. One thing I came across while turning my home upside down was a stack of my great grandmother’s aprons. We called her Grandma Pill. She wore an apron every day, all day. It was part of her uniform and she wasn’t dressed until she had it on.

When I was a child, I taught myself to sew making clothes for my dolls. One day my grandmother, we called her Mimi, got out the pattern to make her some new aprons for Grandma Pill. I decided that it was time to graduate to making gifts and I asked if I could sew Grandma Pill’s new aprons. Mimi granted my request, handed me the pattern and showed me some available fabric to choose from. The pattern was made of newspaper. It had evolved over time as Grandma Pill tweaked it now and then and it had been traced time and again as each new original became worn. It was plain, with just a little shape and one or two pockets.

I wanted my gift to be special. I pulled out some of the fancy patterns that I had my eye on out from underneath the large oak buffet and suggested that I might make one of them. Mimi said “Well, you can make one of those if you want to, but if you’re making an apron for mother, you need to use this pattern because this is what she wants.” I was disappointed. I was still in Barbie doll land and Barbie is a fashion doll. Plain was not really what a little girl who was hoping to make something special really wanted to think about, but Mimi had a very certain tone in her voice and I wanted to make the apron, so I did what she told me to. I made a plain, ordinary everyday apron, at least I conformed to one as plain and ordinary as I could force my child’s yearning heart to handle, and it was exactly what Grandma Pill wanted. She was delighted. I didn’t learn any significant new sewing skills that day when I moved beyond doll clothes, but I did learn a lot about gift giving.

Children Lead a Wildlife

by Karen

This week, March 15-21, is National Wildlife Week and a great time to get outside. From local and urban parks to National Wilderness Areas people seek nature to play, enjoy the view, blow off steam, meditate, pray, study or simply relax. That begins in childhood for some. In fact, some of our greatest scientists were inspired by childhood experiences outdoors, for example Richard Feynman and E. O Wilson.

It’s not just those who go on to careers in science who have important connections through childhood experiences outdoors. Outdoor recreation is connected to health and well being throughout life. I became most in tune with these connections in childhood when I chaperoned a group of middle school children on two school trips. They were pretty much the same group of children on both trips, one to Washington D. C. and the other to a nature retreat in the north Georgia mountains. The children were equally excited about both trips, but turned on for the outdoor experience in a way that I did not see in our nation’s capitol. That’s why I’m writing about the upcoming National Wildlife Week. After sharing the outdoors experience with these kids, I decided to become PTA Chairperson for the Energy and Environment Committee. In that position, I became familiar with some of the programs of the National Wildlife Federation. The programs they had then, for example, Certified Wildlife Habitats, are still going.

They also have new materials and new alliances, not just designed to foster an appreciation of wildlife and the joys of nature, but also to combat health problems like fighting childhood obesity. The NWF has partnered with the movie campaign for Where the Wild Things Are and their website features a character doll, Lanie, made by American Girls. Lanie “discovers the world in her own backyard” in her hometown of Boston. She’s the girl of the year and available for just one year.

It is good to have a special time when you call attention to things that are important, but those things are important always. So, if you can’t plan anything in time for outdoors week, or if you come by this post a week, or six months after outdoors week, the kids, the outdoors, the fun and the opportunities for learning will still be around and there are plenty of ways to get involved year ’round. Here are some suggestions from the NWF, but there is no reason to stop there. The first organization that pops into your head is most likely to be the one with which you have the strongest connection.

We plan to attend the Wakulla Wildlife Festival for our celebration. We’ll let you know how it goes!

How Cute are These Boots?

by Karen
Last Saturday morning our regular ritual was disturbed. Normally we go to the Marietta Square Farmer’s Market and run errands while listening to four favorite radio programs, “Martinis Con Queso”, “Wait,Wait Don’t Tell Me” , “Car Talk” and “Splendid Table”. Last week the farmer’s market was not scheduled to run and we got most of our errands done Friday, so, we were trying to decide what to do with the morning. I suggested that we might go to a local mall to watch the yuppie larvae do the Christmas thing at the doll store. I say that with fondness, humor, appreciation, cultural self-awareness and just a little bit of bite because I have such mixed feelings and recognize all of them when I make the suggestion.

I first became aware of American Girls character dolls from Pleasant Company when looking for gifts for my daughter. I was thrilled. Here was a set of old fashioned dolls complete with historical setting, old fashioned accessories, a book and an amazing wardrobe. It was a wonderful group of toys that allowed my child to be a child, to have a play experience that was wholesome, fun and age appropriate. One of the original dolls, Molly, had a story and accessories that were set during the time when my mother was a child. Molly looked like my mother looked, with braided pigtails and glasses and she carried a WWII nurse doll just like the one my mother played with as a child. After giving Molly to my daughter, I showed her my own mother’s nurse doll and she could see that her doll’s doll was a miniature that looked very much like her grandmother’s doll. There was a powerful thread of tradition in play when I bought this toy for my child and I felt really good about it.

The dolls and their accessories are expensive, but I was clearly not the only one willing to pay the price. Over time the line of toys has grown in every possible way. There are more characters from different times with different stories as well as non-character baby bolls. Mattel Inc. has bought Pleasant Company, and in select upscale markets there are retail stores with a party area where girls who are dressed like their dolls can have a tea party to celebrate a special occasion. Thankfully, Mattel Inc. left many of the features that make the dolls worthwhile intact, but the sheer magnitude of the current line is a bit over the top. There is a salon in the store where girls can take the dolls to have their hair done, part restoration, part theater.

Last year I was in the mall where the American Girls Store is located at Christmas when I moved into people watching mode. It was amazing. There were finely dressed little girls in their Christmas best with their matching character dolls headed to see Santa for the annual Christmas photo. Suddenly this grounded product line seemed to have carried the perfect childhood into the realm of the unreal, to a place where we might be in danger of meeting Veruca Salt. The scary part is that I don’t know where, exactly, the line lies between creating the perfect childhood in truth and creating the “perfect childhood” that isn’t, the one that has lifelong fallout.

Parenting is a mine field and the task grows more complex over time. The constant, independent of income, is that we want to protect our children from harm and to give them the best possible life; but with expanding economic expectations it is harder to define what the best possible childhood includes. Since the nineteen fifties parents have expected that life would be economically better for their children than it was for them. As a whole it has been. But, six decades later, the certainty of that expectation is beginning to weaken, the economic landscape is diverging and the reality is disquieting. Many people want it all and want it now, and they have lead a life that makes that desire a short-term reality. Some of these people have been on the top of heavily leveraged economic waves that left others paying for their choices and they are disconnected from the consequences. Pick any recent disaster of the financial systems and at the root there will be a group of people who tried to “outsmart” the system, to find a way to get spectacular returns over a short time span, or to live beyond their means. Frequently they move on to the next bubble just in time to let others pay the real cost of the last one. These expectations are fostered in childhood and grow up to send worldwide ripples in places like Dubai as well as at home. Over the decades, our ideal of the economic standard it takes to provide a perfect childhood have changed. Television programs about families depict those changing ideals and show the progression of expectation from the depression era setting of “The Waltons” through the post war boom setting of “Ozzie and Harriet” and on to today. Expectations increase steadily and as time goes by and become increasingly unrealistic. Like Lake Wobegone, “all the children are above average.

With all of this in mind, I watch the GAP commercial. Those are some beautiful kids. They are dancing and happy and wearing the cutest clothes. They are cool. What a perfect piece of marketing. Who wouldn’t want that perfection for their child? “How cute are these boots?” that song is in my head when I walk through the mall past the American Girls store. There I am in the mall again wondering where the line is. What constitutes the perfect childhood, what expectations are you planting for your children and what will they have to do in order to meet those expectations as they grow. How cute ARE these boots? I want them and I don’t even have a child to put them on anymore! At the same time, I can not imagine a childhood any better that the one in “The Waltons”. They did not have the material wealth that we think we need to provide for our children, but they did have everything that truly matters. When my family gathered for Christmas in Alabama, we filled all the bedrooms of my grandmother’s large antebellum home. The house was cold. Each room had a fireplace where a ceramic gas heater had been installed. We only heated the rooms that were being occupied and the heat would be turned down at bedtime. As we snuggled into the covers for warmth, invariably someone would call out “goodnight Johnboy'”.

This Schoolhouse Rocks!

This morning, July 2, the East Cobb Neighbor, a free local paper was delivered to my home. Back on page 6A there was an article Cobb jobless rate highest since ’76. Being among the 9% of Cobb County residents currently seeking employment keeps me from sleeping as well as I might these days, but experience also teaches me to be optimistic.

When I was in grade school I loved Schoolhouse Rock’s I’m Just a Bill up on Capitol Hill. It had personal meaning for me because my father made it come alive. He was the Chairman of the County Commission in rural, south Alabama, so government seemed reachable from an early age. Being a part of forming government came into my consciousness when a guest came over one evening. I was just young enough to be amused by the fact that his name was Rhodes Johnston and he was also a Rhodes Scholar; and I was just old enough to be impressed, both by the Rhodes Scholar status (mother explained that it was quite an accomplishment) and by his association with National Geographic. Mr. Johnston and my father were writing a bill for the state legislature. I think it had to do with one of the local rivers. I later learned that the bill passed. Of course it did, my daddy wrote it! Like most children I saw the world of the possible as being at least as large as my parent’s accomplishments and the lesson stuck.

Years later I joked with a political science professor about sitting down on the living room floor to write a bill (yes, they sat on the floor to write it). Her eyes widened and she said that it wasn’t that easy. I never explained why I made the comment, but I did eventually ask her for a recommendation to a study abroad program in Central America. I didn’t expect it to lead anywhere, but I asked the questions anyway. I asked my professors “Would you like to write a recommendation?”. I asked grandma “Would you like to keep the kids for the summer?”. I asked all my questions and filled out the application. Before long that fat envelope that means “yes” was delivered to my mailbox, my children were visiting Grandma for the summer and I experienced the tropical cloud forest. It was not legislation, but it was a dream. I was awed by the colors, textures and sounds that were the cloud forest. I came to believe that if something so beautiful could exist, there must be something right in the world and I was able to experience it because I kept moving toward something I thought was an impossible, or at least unlikely goal. The kids came down for a visit after the program and I was able to share it all with them. Like Woody Allen said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

This was not the first time I met with unexpected yes. The first time may have been when I was twenty. My brother-in law died in the service of his country and I was moved to write an op-ed piece. His brother, now my ex-husband, gave me the “Aren’t you adorable?” look when I showed him my work. The L. A. Times was more respectful. They printed it. Years later, I began to design clothing. I called my favorite magazine and asked if they would like to publish my work. They did. My favorite designer saw that work and used my design on her wedding dress. These are not world changing events, but they are life changing events. When your work, what ever it is, is appreciated by the people you admire it feeds the spirit. It gives you the audacity to keep seeing opportunity and to follow it even when you are certain that failure is likely.

When my supervisor recently called me into a private conference room, I knew the “no easy way to say…negative company growth…” was coming. People asked me what I would do next and I said two things. I gave the light-hearted “I’m going to Disney World” because the trip was already planned and it just happened to be true. Then, on a more serious note, I said that I would walk through the first door that opened. On second thought, I’m idealistic enough to amend that. I’ll walk through the best door that opens! I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that it has the potential to be more than what I left behind. I haven’t found the right questions to ask this go ’round, but I have learned that when I do, I will ask them because when the answer is yes, the dream is alive.

A Girl’s First Fish

moonpie1My father has always been quite the fisherman. The family albums were papered with photos of the bounty that he would bring home to fill the freezer. That was before he began to practice catch and release. Fishing was and is his greatest sport and passion.

One day, as most children do, I decided I wanted to be included in the adult activities. I asked my father to teach me to fish. He readily agreed. But, I didn’t find myself in a boat very quickly as I expected to. First I had to learn to cast. I envisioned water as being a part of that learning process, but Dad had other plans. He bought me an inexpensive starter rod and reel. He showed me how it worked. Then he took a large nail and bent the pointed end around like a “p” making it into a dummy fishing lure. Dad taught me to tie a fisherman’s knot while attaching this homemade lure to the end of my line and took me into… the front yard to show me that the nail made an effective weight at the end of my line. He showed me how it wouldn’t catch on anything the way a real lure with hooks would. He told me that we would fish when I could hit a target.

I was sorely disappointed. Dad was right. The nail didn’t get caught on anything, and I could stand there all day throwing my line and practicing… alone in the front yard. This wasn’t at all what I expected. There was no trip through the forest, no boat ride, no RC Cola and no Moon Pie. I stayed there and practiced for a little while, but my attention wandered and I was soon distracted with my dolls.

I still wanted that fishing trip though. Every once and a while I’d ask and each time I did Dad would remind me to practice. Every once an a while I’d take my nail lure to the front yard for a few minutes and see if I could hit what I was aiming for.

Eventually I demonstrated the level of expertise that Dad expected ( not really all that high) and our first trip was planned at a local pond. We both sat in the sun casting and enjoying the beautiful day, Dad with his practiced elegant movements and me doing well to come pretty near where I intended. Of course, I’m sure it was a set up. I’m sure I was pointed straight at all the best spots so that it would be hard for me to miss out on catching something. Then it happened. My bobber started to bob. I had my instructions…and I had my Dad. For the most part fishing was a very quiet activity, but once that bobber started going, so did Dad. He was more excited than I was. “Careful! See! Wait! Wait! Set the hook! NOW! Set the hook! You lost him! No. No, You still have him! I thought you’d lost him! That’s a nice one! That’s a really nice one. I’ll bet he weighs 2 pounds. That’s really big for this pond. You did well.” He scooped my bass into the net and asked me if I wanted to keep it. I did. I wanted my bass for supper.

I caught the only fish that trip! I was so proud. I out fished my Daddy on my very first try and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He was proud too and I could feel it. I couldn’t wait to go home and share the news with Mom. I ran in the back door and told her all about it in the kitchen. She was happy to, and as soon as my story was done Dad handed me a filet knife and told me to go outside and clean my fish. Eeuwgh, my nose wrinkled. “I don’t know how” was my pathetic response. So, I was promptly armed with instructions from both of my parents at once. My choices were few, I went out and cleaned the fish on the designated board underneath the pecan tree and later that night I enjoyed fresh fish for supper.

Before it was all over, I learned to bait my own hook and to clean my own fish. I learned that the things I wanted were worth practice and working for. Most of all, I learned what it was to feel my father’s delight in my accomplishments.

About Dad, his Books and some local fishing information