Friday, November 21, 2014

On "dumpster diving" and food waste

Hungry and in need of a bite? A peruse through your cupboards shows them to be as empty as Old Mother Hubbard's.  Do you:

A: Go to the supermarket?
B: Pop online and do an online shop? Or
C: Go out to the local shops in the dead of the night and rummage around in the dumpsters until you find a tasty morsel?

Turns out, if you answer "C" to that question, you are doing a fascinating new thing I heard about on the radio last week, dumpster diving. Now, my first thought when I heard about this wasn't exactly unbridled enthusiasm at the idea of a new hobby. Quite the opposite, in fact. I wanted to dry-retch when my own rubbish spilled all over the kitchen floor after a bag malfunction the other week, and at least that rubbish was mine and only from the last three days. The idea of sifting through someone else's dustbin and eating - EATING! - food found within turns my stomach, Finding a step by step guide to dumpster diving didn't have me rushing toward the nearest dumpster either, especially the warning that dumpsters are dirty and can spread diseases, and that if you get trapped in a rubbish truck you are likely to get crushed.

But, according to Dr Giles, the anthropologist who introduced me to the concept of dumpster diving, we in the West waste an awful lot of food. Apparently over 50% of food produced in the USA isn't eaten; I've no idea about the stats about that here, but imagine it's not great here either. It's not just people like me throwing out fruit and veges I bought but never got around to cooking, either. It's bakeries, supermarkets and restaurants throwing out food that isn't perfectly fresh. Or, in the case of produce, it isn't aesthetically pleasing. Supermarkets don't like selling ugly apples, regardless of how they might taste. Dumpster divers aren't chowing down on bread crusts and apple cores. After doing research and locating the right dumpster, they're eating packaged food that's come right of the shelf and only a day old. and food that's actually ok to eat. Assuming, of course, something minging didn't have to be peeled off it first. 

When Modern Mothercraft was published, most people didn't have fridges. It notes that milk can be kept cool by cutting a kerosene tin in half, then "in this place an unglazed brick with sufficient cold water to cover it." The last step is to put the tin in a cold place, and place the milk jug inside. Due to this lack of a fridge, my grandmother probably had a much better sense than me about when food was actually off as well. Besides, her generation had lived through World War Two and the Depression. I don't imagine they would have snubbed an apple because it was a weird shape. Or, not bought bread because the best before date was in two day's time: old bread could be used for bread pudding, or croutons. I found myself nodding along as Dr Giles talked about how my generation are so used to food being fresh, we don't know when food ceases to be edible, so err on the side of caution and usually chuck it out. It's a strange paradox that because we have fridges to keep food fresher, we are more likely to throw good food away. This is probably compounded by confusion about the difference between 'used by' and 'best before dates', and many people not realizing that most foods are still fine after their best before date. 

I don't have any answers for this.  I don't want to go to a restaurant and be served yesterday's chicken, or food that has been scraped from someone else's plate. And I am certainly not planning on dressing like a stealth ninja and go foraging around the dumpsters behind the local supermarket in search of sandwiches that expired yesterday and apples that look like buttocks. On the other hand, I don't like the idea of all of this waste, either. So, maybe I will just be a bit more careful when buying food in the future, and try and throw less out. That way, hopefully, I'll at least raise my children with at least a semblance of appreciation for how lucky they are to live in an age where throwing food out is an option at all. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My justification for not being a 1950s domestic goddess

I recently decided to harness my dormant domesticated goddess, and make my daughter a dress. I've not sewn a dress since the spangly-stretchy number I made my Barbie in the 1990s, so the idea of making another one is somewhat exciting. Besides, I grew up wearing home-made clothes: the whir of Mum's sewing machine was a big part of my childhood, and I wanted my children to experience that too. So, off I went to buy some fabric, my head filled with scenes of my daughter frolicking around in the fruits of my labour.

Plus, I thought, perhaps sewing one dress is the perfect segue into living a life of domestic idyll, in manner of a 1950s housewife as viewed through the rosiest of rose-tinted spectacles. I'm sure you know about those spectacles - they're the same ones many women use to self-flagellate after adding things like making food from scratch and handcrafting all of their children's clothes to the already long list of Things Mothers Feel Guilty About For Not Doing. As if popping to the supermarket and buying a loaf of bread somehow means we love our children a little bit less than had we been up at dawn to make it ourselves. 

It wasn't until I'd fitted my smug and overgrown head back into the car that I realised  that the cost of the fabric was more than the price of a lovely, new dress in the shop. And, that was in spite of the fabric being half price. It seems that while making clothes was once a necessity to save money, now it's more of a luxury. My mum made us clothes because she had to. Nowadays, it's far cheaper to pop online, or to the nearest shop filled with clothes made in an overseas sweat shop. 

The original Modern Mothercraft handbook is filled with tips on how to make clothes and food, and the entire back section is dedicated to recipes. This is a sharp  contrast to the current Plunket manual, Thriving Under Five, which, while still filled with useful information, contains coupons to be redeemed at the supermarket rather than tips on how to make things yourself. I know very few people who make clothes for their kids, let alone making preserves, cooking from scratch and all of the other things our grandmothers would have taken for granted having to do. Not to mention all of the other things that never would have occurred to me before reading Modern Mothercraft, like preparing special milk for your baby rather than buying formula. It's no wonder we put on those ridiculous rose-tinted spectacles when we think about the 1950s woman, especially given how they were so much more practical than us. 

Then, I asked my Mum: if clothes had been cheaper when I was young, would she have made us so many? Her answer: Probably not. Maybe for special occasions, but not for everyday wear. After all, why would she? It might be fun to make a dress or a costume, but having to make clothes all of the time would have just turned into an unpleasant chore. 

I imagine that the 1950s woman would have been the same - if they had access to cheaper goods or had more choices, they wouldn't have necessarily been such practical domesticated goddesses either. Some may still have chosen to spend their days ironing, sewing, cooking and cleaning. But plenty of others would probably have spent their free time on Facebook, and looking at funny pictures of cats online. Our grandmothers and mothers deserve respect and acknowledgement for all that they did, but that doesn't mean we need to beat ourselves up that we aren't more like them.

And, in the meantime, I really should get on with making that dress for my daughter. Whether it be for a hobby or for necessity, I feel that my children ought to hear the whir of a sewing machine at least once this year. If they don't, I really ought to have just bought that dress new. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Living life behind a camera phone

I read recently that the Queen has complained that no-one looks her in the eye anymore. Apparently, whenever she does public engagements, most people grab for their phones and fumble around in order to video her, take a photograph of her, or try and take a selfie with her in the background. In doing so, she grumbles, people aren't actually looking at her any more. Not in the eye, anyway. Just through their phones. 

Now, my first thought when reading this was of course I'd try and take a selfie with the Queen if I had half the chance. Even if I looked terrible in the selfie, or the Queen was half obscured by a hat or corgi, I'd still love having the photo. I'd probably even make it my profile pic on Facebook, so all of my friends could marvel at my selfie-taking prowess. I would share the photo with everyone who wanted to see it, and probably plenty more who couldn't care less and just feign politeness before calling me a show-off behind my back. 

On second thought, though, I think it's sad that people don't look the Queen in the eye anymore, and that an experience with meeting Her Majesty is just one of many things now experienced from behind a camera phone. I realised that while I haven't rubbed shoulders with any royals recently, I too am guilty of trying so hard to record things for future reminiscing that I've missed out on actual real, fun moments while trying to record them, especially with my children. Just the other week I was at a baby class with my girl, and she looked so cute while playing with the toys, I just had to take a photo. Trying to get the perfect shot, I took at least a dozen. Thing is, none of them came out well. So not only did I miss out on actually playing with her, but the only thing I have to remember the event by is a series of blurry photos that I'll probably delete anyway. Plus, I have hundreds and hundreds of photos of her. I didn't need a few more to add to the file. I should have given her my full attention instead. I should have looked her in the eye, rather than via a small screen.

Of course I will keep taking photos of my children. I love photos, and unlike many, I still print them out and put them in albums like it's 1999 again. I'll just take them a little more sparingly. After all, in 1999, I took about 150 photos, and that's more than enough to remember the people and places that defined that year. I don't actually need the close to 100 that I've taken over the last month alone. We have much better quality photos now digital cameras have been invented, but just because you can take a trillion without having to pay to get a film developed, doesn't mean we should. I'll also have to think of the Queen every now and then, and make sure that I'm still looking people in the eye. Especially my children. After all, they are only small once, and it would be a shame to have all of these photos of them, when the photos came at the expense of lovely moments. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Great Unwritten Novel

A few years ago I drew up a bucket list, and writing a novel was the first thing on it. I'd convinced myself that I had a Great Unwritten Novel in me, and was only a few sessions at the computer away from becoming the next Booker Winner/JK Rowling/Marian Keyes. I just needed to find the time to write. I love to read, so I'd be great at writing. Right? 

Eventually, I did get around to it. I wrote my first novel while on maternity leave with my son, after feeling like my brain was slowly seeping from my ears and wanting to stop it before all intelligent thought disappeared into a fog of nappies and messy food and plastic toys. Writing gave me something to think about when I couldn't get back to sleep after those night feeds, and something to do during his naps. The finished product was a novel about two women that could be best described as "chick lit with heart", and if it were published would probably end up with shoes on the cover, even though none of the characters ever talk about or notice what is on their feet. I haven't submitted it to be published, as realize that even though it's on its fifth draft, it still needs work. But, I'd at least be able to tick writing a novel off on my bucket list, right? Wrong. I decided that the Great Unwritten Novel still lurked within me; all I had was a the Great Unwritten Novel's  annoying cousin, the Mediocre Written Novel. I now wanted to write a fabulous novel. Plus, I found I had another story in me that I wanted to tell. 

So, while on maternity leave the second time over the past year, I wrote my second novel. My second novel is longer than the first, and would come under the heading "speculative fiction". If it were ever published, the title would be written in thick, black text. I think it's better than the first, but haven't had a second opinion on that yet as my dutiful husband is currently in the process of reading it. Besides, I am clearly biased when it comes to looking at its merits. 

Surely, by now,  I'd feel like I could tick that item off my bucket list? Sadly, no. My second attempt isn't my Great Unwritten Novel either. It's my Learning the Craft Novel. Besides, I've now had an even better idea for a third novel, so feel that unless I finish the third novel, I can't tick this item off my bucket list at all! I am only about a third of the way through my third novel, but think I'm improving each time I go back to the drawing board. My third novel is Young Adult Dystopian, so if it ever got published it would probably be given a title that looked a bit like that found on the Hunger Games, although it's not like the Hunger Games at all. 

Sadly, though. I am heading back to work so will have much less time and energy to write. As tempting as it is to have a third baby for a third shot at finally feeling like I've completed this goal, I have to concede that would probably constitute one of the worst reasons to have a baby ever. I plan to keep working at it in between doing everything else, but I suspect that this is one item on my bucket list that may still be a little way away from feeling done. But, who knows. Maybe one day, my Great Unwritten Novel will exist somewhere apart from the deep corner of my mind.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A tragedy unfolds and the perils of social media

The Malaysian Airlines plane MH17 being shot down over the Ukraine is such a sad tragedy I don't have the words to quite express how awful it is. I can't even imagine how terrible the family and friends of those on board feel during this dark time, and keep thinking about those that lost their lives. 

Since finding out, I've been obsessively reading about it online, and watching a number of different news channels' rolling coverage. In between feeling shock and horror at what happened, it's also occurred to me how we ought to proceed with caution when relying on social media and news stations for breaking news. 

First, there are the grisly images. I've not seen any myself, but have heard that they're everywhere. I am absolutely shocked and appalled that these are so easy to find for a number of reasons. On a personal level, they are images that, once seen, can't be unseen, and ought to come with warnings. Secondly, these are images of people who have been dead for under 24 hours. Surely they deserve some dignity in their death? 

Second, there are the stories that are reported loudly as fact, but then quietly corrected as more details come to light. Most people don't ever see the quiet corrections, so the initial reports somehow become recognised as fact. Even over the past few hours I've noticed that a few stories have been quietly taken down or rewritten by the news websites, without any corrections formally noted. I don't know at what point in news reporting the rush to be first to break a story somehow became more important than being right, but I think it's a real shame that this has happened. At the end of the day, we are all worse for the misinformation being spread in this way. 

Third, the internet can quickly turn into a giant rumor-mill, where hearsay and educated guesses turn into facts. Sometimes, it's also as if people forget that this is news about real people, not some sort of Hollywood blockbuster. We don't deserve all of the information, at least not until the families of those who have lost their lives have it, especially when it comes to notifying loved ones of someone's passing.  We need to be more patient that this will happen in the fullness of time. 

Don't get me wrong. I love the internet. I also love that I can access screeds of information from various countries with a few clicks of the mouse. I also need to remind myself, though, that when a global tragedy unfolds, there are a few things that I need to bear in mind when reading about it online. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Competitive parenting, or lazy small talk?

It's a truth universally acknowledged that whenever you get a group of parents in a room, they will talk about their children. Some of these parents are so competitive they will use every excuse to tell you why their child is even more talented that Einstein, Usain Bolt and Beethoven combined. Some parents are just tactless, and will say one or more of these things parents should never say to one another. Some are interesting and entertaining. And the rest are probably just making small talk. 

We've all been there: the toddler and baby groups where parents awkwardly stand around watching their progeny play instruments or walk along a beam. On the face of it, the kids are what we have in common, so it's natural that most conversation focuses around them until we get to know each other better. How old are they? we ask. Oh, he's sitting/crawling/walking/ dancing under the limbo stick. Good for them, we say. My child can't sit/crawl/walk/ dance under the limbo stick without whacking his face. Isn't your baby big/small/hairy/bald? Isn't that nice?

I say all of those things with the best of them. Talking about the children is less cliched than talking about the weather, and much easier than talking about many of the things that truly interest me. I don't want to talk about the children all of the time, not really. I'd much rather discuss Thomas Piketty's theory on income inequality, whether you'd rather be a pirate or a ninja, or current events. But, most of the time, what falls out of my mouth is inane small talk. 

There have been times recently when I've realised with horror that my inane small talk could be construed as competitive parenting, especially when talking to mothers of children the same age as mine. I know plenty of women that rally against competitive parenting; blogging and raging about how we need to stop comparing our children to each other and so on. I agree with these women in theory. However, I suspect, that in many cases, a lot of this competitive parenting isn't competitive parenting at all, it's just lazy small talk. 

When your baby who can't crawl is sitting beside mine who can, and I ask how old they are, I'm not comparing the babies. I'm just making small talk. When you tell me that your baby is in fact a full month older than mine, I'm not giving you a judgmental look. I'm just tired. And if I comment on your child's size, I'm not hinting that you're responsible for worsening the obesity epidemic or that you don't feed your child anything except mung beans.  I probably just had a bad night last night with the kids and am not thinking about what I'm saying. I'm not judging you. In fact, to be perfectly honest and at risk of sounding harsh, I probably don't even care. 

I imagine that's the case for many parents that we encounter. I also suspect that if you are getting upset about the sheer number of competitive remarks and judgmental looks coming your way, it may be that you're muddling inane small talk and tired glances with competitive parenting, judgement and scorn. If that isn't the case, it may be that the best solution is to find a new toddler group to attend, where the other parents are less competitive. Or, ask the other women whether they'd rather be a pirate or a ninja, and see how the conversation goes from there. 

Since I realised that most of the other parents are probably just making small talk and that tired looks aren't judgment and scorn, I haven't actually bumped into a truly competitive parent in months, just other parents chatting about the one thing we have the most obviously in common. Unless the parent in question is bragging that their toddler is a sprinter with crazy hair who plays Moonlight Sonata on the piano with their feet. In that case, they probably are bragging, to which the obvious reply is "I'm Team Ninja, what about you?"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Boys" toys and "girls" toys - has anything moved on from 1945?

I always assumed that toys had changed since the parenting guide Modern Mothercraft was published in 1945. They've certainly got more buttons, lights, and the ability to make more noise. They're much cheaper comparatively due to parallel importing, and often more poorly made. After looking at the below chart from Mothercraft, though, I was surprised to find most of my son's favourite toys making an appearance. Toys may be shinier now, but it seems that my son and the Baby Boomers enjoyed banging, building, biking, and vrooming just as much as each other.

Something else hasn't changed since 1945: the gender segregation of toys. The 1945 publication isn't very subtle about boys' toys and girls' toys. For example, it says: "We watch two year-old Tommy busily filling his little cart or bucket with gravel, or hammering two blocks together, and three-year old Jane gravely bathing her doll, and feel we have a preview of their future adult life." Nice.

It's a shame that we haven't come very far since 1945. Toys today are clearly divided into boys' and girls' sections, with children getting told by society and marketers very early on that they are only supposed to play with certain things depending on their gender. While campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys have made some progress in raising awareness and changing how sections of toys stores are signposted, we still have a long way to go.

Maybe in some ways things were even better in 1945. At least then toys like blocks, tricycles and art supplies weren't separated by gender: blocks were blocks, not blocks for girls and blocks for boys. There was no way my Depression-era grandparents would have spent money on something only marketed for children of one gender, as these toys were expected to last for a number of kids, irrespective of whether they were boys or girls. What we have today seems to be a bit of a catch-22: because toys are comparatively cheaper, they are aggressively marketed in ways to make us buy more.

Now I'm not saying that girls and boys don't have different play preferences, because many do. My son is obsessed with diggers and bulldozers, interests which have been completely driven by him. What I object to is dividing toys by gender that really don't need it: bikes, blocks, toy phones, and scissors; toys that function exactly the same, regardless of whether they are pink or blue. Or, sending the message to our children that only boys play with cars, and only girls play with dolls. My son's favourite toy is a doll, and it makes me sad to think that one day he might learn that boys aren't supposed to play with them.

After all, if this continues, what are we really telling our children about what their future adult life ought to be like? That all of their hobbies and interests they may yet develop are all somehow predetermined and limited by whether or not they have a "Y" chromosome? Almost 70 years after Mothercraft's initial publication, when it comes to gender and toys, maybe it is finally time to move on.