Sunday, April 18, 2010

When money doesn't equal work

I'm currently reading the Little House on the Prairie series out loud to the kids.  We're about half-way through Farmer Boy and a couple days ago, we read the chapter "Independence Day" about their Fourth of July celebrations.  The following is an excerpt from that chapter:
The nearer he got to Father, the more he dreaded asking for a nickel.  He had never before thought of doing such a thing.  He was sure Father would not give it to him.
He waited till Father stopped talking and looked at him. 
"What is it, son?" Father asked.  
 Almanzo was scared.  "Father," he said.  
"Well, son?"  
"Father," Almanzo said, "would you - would you give me - a nickel?"  
He stood there while Father and Mr. Paddock looked at him, and he wished he could get away.  Finally Father asked:  
"What for?"  
Almanzo looked down at his moccasins and muttered: 
"Frank had a nickel.  He bought pink lemonade."  
"Well," Father said, slowly, "if Frank treated you, it's only right you should treat him."  Father put his hand in his pocket.  Then he stopped and asked:  
"Did Frank treat you to lemonade?"  
Almanzo wanted so badly to get the nickel that he nodded.  Then he squirmed and said: 
"No, Father."  
Father looked at him a long time.  Then he took out his wallet and opened it, and slowly he took out a round, big silver half-dollar.  He asked:  
"Almanzo, do you know what this is?"  
"Half a dollar," Almanzo answered.  
"Yes.  But do you know what half a dollar is?"  
Almanzo didn't know it was anything but half a dollar.  
"It's work, son," Father said.  "That's what money is; it's hard work."  
Mr. Paddock chuckled.  "The boy's too young, Wilder," he said.  "You can't make a youngster understand that."   
"Almanzo's smarter than you think," said Father.  
Almanzo didn't understand at all.  He wished he could get away.  But Mr. Paddock was looking at Father just as Frank looked at Almanzo when he double-dared him, and Father had said Almanzo was smart, so Almanzo tried to look like a smart boy.  Father asked:  
"You know how to raise potatoes, Almanzo?"  
"Yes," Almanzo said.  
"Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?"  
"You cut it up," Almanzo said.  
"Go on, son."  
"Then you harrow - first you manure the field, and plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground.  And plant the potatoes, and plow them, and hoe them.  You plow and hoe them twice."  
"That's right, son.  And then?"  
"Then you dig them and put them down cellar."  
"Yes.  Then you pick them over all winter; you throw out all the little ones and the rotten ones.  Come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them.  And if you get a good price, son, how much do you get to show for all that work?  How much do you get for half a bushel of potatoes?"  
"Half a dollar," Almanzo said.   
"Yes," said Father.  "That's what's in this half-dollar, Almanzo.  The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it."  
Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that father held up.  It looked small, compared with all that work.  
"You can have it, Almanzo"  Father said.  Almanzo could hardly believe his ears.  Father gave him the heavy half-dollar.  
"It's yours," said Father.
 - Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

That was two days ago.  We often stop and discuss what we're reading, but this wasn't one of the things we talked about.  Today, Ryan (13) asked me if I remembered the story from Farmer Boy and I said that I did.  Then he said to me "These days, money isn't always work."  I asked him to explain his statement, and he replied, "Well, welfare.  Welfare isn't work."  Then he clarified his statement.  "Actually, it IS work, but it's somebody else's work."

It amazes me that he figured that out, with no help from anyone.  It amazes me that he considers these issues, even after the story is over and the book is closed.  But what really amazes me is that he understands this concept much better that many adults. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Stuffed up

I was 20 years old when my grandma died.  My husband and I drove the four-hour drive from Albuquerque to Alamogordo for her funeral, and after it was over, I stayed to help parents start the process of going through her home and essentially "wrap up" the loose ends of an 80+ year life.  I was also 2 months pregnant at that time, and gripped by the vice of unending morning sickness.  I quickly discovered that I was not going to be able to do any work in any of the bedrooms or bathrooms; the air in all those rooms was heavy with the cloying scent of my grandma's perfume - Jean Nate' - and it would have me heaving within seconds.
I was relegated to the kitchen, to sift through the dishes, the food, and all the 'extra' stuff that had accumulated over the years.  Though my grandma had moved into that particular house only 8 years prior to her death, the sheer mass of STUFF I encountered was overwhelming. There were blenders and other appliances that no longer worked; I even discovered two that didn't even have an intact plug - just a cord ending in stray wires.  There were four or five different sets of dishes: dinner plates, salad plates, bowls, mugs.  Those sets were nearly intact, if not complete sets of 8 or 12-place-settings, but I'm pretty sure that when my family came to visit, that was generally the largest group she ever entertained and we always ate on the same set.
The finding that shocked me the most was the plastic storage that she'd amassed over the years.  There was a cabinet in her kitchen that was two doors wide and double-depth - it went all the way through to the other side, which was the bar for the eat-in kitchen.  This entire cabinet was crammed full of plastic storage tubs in all shapes in sizes.  I counted over 100 Cool Whip containers - JUST Cool Whip containers - and many, many more plastic butter tubs in all sizes, deli containers, even several nondescript plastic containers that bore the stamp "DO NOT REUSE".  I filled several large garbage bags with these items, knowing full well that there was no NEED for these things, and that everyone involved in emptying out this house would be better off without trying to find a new home for over a thousand pieces of plastic.  I threw them away, happy to be done with that huge portion of the kitchen, and never looked back.
I always knew my grandma was a saver and I figured it had something to do with her spending the early part of her marriage going through the Great Depression.  Many people her age never threw things away if there might possibly be a use for them somewhere down the road.  In fact, as I write this, I actually wonder if America's ever-growing need for larger houses stems somewhat from this Depression-era mentality?

But I digress...
I made short work of that kitchen.  Left on my own, I was able to decide what was trash, what was not.  I made a pile of things to sell, things to keep, things to give away, and things to throw away.  I was smart enough, or perhaps close enough, to know that my mother would want my grandma's Franciscan Apple dinnerware; I was just as smart to figure out that no one was going to want the blender from the mid-1950's with no jar, a broken lid, and a missing plug.  When I was done with the kitchen, the space was clean and well-organized.  Clutter-free.
I thought about that moment several times over the last fifteen years.  I always put my grandma's habits down to her history or her circumstances.  Even though she died wealthy, she never gave up her frugal ways.  So she had forty-three thermometers?  Depression-era thinking.  You would never catch me holding onto hundreds of pieces of useless plastic.

I was reading this morning when my 4 year old daughter brought me two ponytail holders and asked me to do her hair.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that the two purple circles weren't the cloth-covered elastic ponytail holders we normally use, but rather two bits of purple plastic material.
"Honey, we don't use those." I told her, and suggested that she put them back and go get the ponytail holders we normally use.  She turned to go, but then turned back.
"Why not?"  She held the two bands out to me again.  I take them from her and rub her fingers across the material so she can feel how "sticky" they feel.
"These are like rubber bands.  They will hold your hair in a ponytail, but they'll let the hair get tangled around them and when we take them out, they'll pull your hair and hurt.  Your other ones are soft, and they don't pull your hair."  I hand them back.  "Just put these back and go get the other ones."
"Ok."  She turns again and starts to leave.  Two steps away, she turns back to me again.
"Why do we have them?"

It took less than a minute, the conversation with my daughter that ended up with nearly 250 pieces of useless plastic in the trash can.  The odyssey of the plastic ponytail holders was finally over.
It started four years ago.  I stood in front of the hair product display at Target, trying to decide which ponytail holders to buy for my then-2 year old daughter.  She didn't have much hair, and what she did have was wispy and thin, but it was steadily growing thicker.  The fabric covered bands were more expensive at 25-50 to a package that was $4-6 dollars, and only came one-size-to-a-pack.  In contrast, these plastic bands were in a package of three different size (great for growing child) AND were the bargain price of $3 for 250 bands.  And the package proclaimed OUCHLESS - it was a no-brainer.  The first time I used the bands, I would discover that OUCHLESS was only a trademark, and not actually an indicator of how the product would perform.  My poor daughter's thin hair got a little thinner that day.  I knew after that first use that I wouldn't be subjecting myself or any child of mine to the stupid things, and yet for four years I held onto them.  For goodness sake, I MOVED them from our rental house to our current home, and in the time they've lived here, I've shuffled them between several storage places.
Until today, when my four year old daughter saw them for what they really were: TRASH.

I have to admit, after she'd dumped them and run off to some new endeavor, I sat there for several minutes contemplating whether I'd made a good decision in agreeing with her that they belonged in the trash.  Several other possibilities ran through my mind as I struggled with giving up the STUFF that I'd hung onto without reason.  I could have taped up the remainder in their box or dumped them all into a baggie and put it in a yard sale, get maybe ten cents for them, passing the misery onto someone else who will soon realize that OUCHLESS is just an uppercase lie and no indication of function.  I could call the manufacturer, four years and a very expired receipt later, and demand a refund for their defective product, and we could have a blood-pressure-raising argument on whether their trademark does or does not imply function.  I could have found some other use for them - put them to work as ultra-small colorful rubber bands that stretch out with use and never regain their original size or shape.
But in truth, my daughter was right.  The product was useless to me.  It might have been useful to someone else, but would have cost me more in time and effort to find that person and get them into their hands than would make it worth it.  I'd been dragging them around for years, and it took a 4 year old to put them where they really belonged.

My grandma and I are a lot more alike than I realized.  Maybe it was Depression-era thinking on her part, or maybe it was just human nature.  Everyone has stuff they hang onto; some of us more than others.  And most of us need someone with an objective eye to point out when we're hanging onto trash, instead of treasure.  I can tell you that my grandma would have been furious if I'd tried to throw out her saved plastic storage tubs while she'd still been alive.  I can hear her now telling me "You'll never know when you might need them."  Except that I did know, because I was looking at the situation without being attached to the STUFF.  My 4 year old could do that with my STUFF, but she can't do it with her own.  I considered the matter throughout the day, and came to the realization that it either takes someone else to help us remove the STUFF from our lives, or we have to be strong enough to make the decisions about the STUFF objectively, without the attachment.

So now it's time to look around and step outside myself so I can ask, "What else am I hanging on to?"  And then take the steps to put it where it belongs.