Monday, December 2, 2013



"You try to keep up with the grandparents, but it's hard. So there end up being a million presents under the tree."

I overheard this remark in a little shop in my neighborhood. My daughter and I stop in frequently so she can play with the owner's dog. Sometimes I buy some balloon stickers to pay rent for our time with the dog and at the play table. It's 25 cents for a sheet of four stickers. Four! Yet we are definitely the customers on "rent-control" (apologies to non-New York readers who might not know this term, so woven into the fabric of city life here) because nothing else in the shop is affordable to anyone with a normal income, or I'll just say it, a functioning conscience.

I stifled the urge to tell the customer that she could stop trying to keep up with the grandparents by buying antique Radio Flyer wagons and  American Girl Dolls with her surplus and  instead send a check to Oxfam.

My husband says I generalize about people based on one comment and it's an unattractive trait.  It's true,  I dislike myself when I am angry and judgmental. But sometimes it comes naturally. I think I get angry at what I am afraid of. I am afraid of consumption because I consume, and I consume more than is my share, too. And I consume when non-material experiences would be more gratifying. And I judge others when I need to put a barrier between people who are "shallow" and, well, me. It doesn't help. In the end, it doesn't feel good to think oneself  superior to anyone, much less to those whom you accuse of feeling or acting superior.

Still,  I believe it is important to examine the nasty underbelly of consumption, especially when one lives with a young child in Manhattan, where the false promise of purchasable happiness lies in every storefront and every block has many storefronts.

In  About Alice, Calvin Trillin wrote of his late wife's allergy to excessive consumption. He says Alice "believed in the principle of enoughness." Hers was not a crusade for a minimalist way of life (not that those aren't admirable) but merely an innate sense of when people crossed a line of decency when it came to material goods and other luxuries.

I guess it all comes down to one's definition of "luxury."  And of "enough."

When I was a child my mother told a story about seeing a man with a shirt that read The One Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins. 

On the Upper West Side a store recently opened  that's intended to be a kind of  patisserie meets Willy Wonka candy factory. The menu prices would exclude Charlie Bucket  from eating there. Parisian toys lining the bistro walls  had me calculating exactly how many hours a child would need to be amused by them to justify their expense. (The answer: an infinite number. But actually, that's not accurate. No amount of hours could justify the price tags.  Besides, a  child is happier with a  modest toy, a point I won't dwell on as it's been discussed enough elsewhere.)

Living in Manhattan is a tricky business. I used to joke (only half-joke, really) that I would rather have my future child keep company with heroin addicts than with Upper East Side private school children. I had spent enough time in the lobby of Nightingale Bamford, overhearing tidbits about vacations to the Caribbean to celebrate a one year old's birth and the helicopters that would transport the family to and from their daily jaunts to know that in their bones, these tiny wealthy kids were damaged goods. They were spoiled. Badly. Their parents had lost their way, lost their souls, lost their dreams and their youth and their consciences at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, or maybe on Madison Avenue, where they paid eight dollars for an ice cream at the old fashioned soda shop on the corner. (There is nothing old-fashioned about an eight dollar ice cream.)

"And what are you going to buy for that penny?" 
"We thought we'd buy some crackers -- the broken kind." 
The children turned over their penny to Mr. Basch and prepared to depart with their bagful.
"Wait a minute, children,"  Mr. Basch called. He walked over to the back of the store where he kept slabs of smoked salmon and cut off two pieces of moist, salty skin. This was a rare treat. The children sat down on the stoop in front of their house and sucked away at the bits of of salmon which still clung to the skin. Afterward they would be very thirsty, but right now there were enjoying themselves greatly. 
"Good, isn't it?" Gertie said between noisy sucks. 
-Sydney Taylor, All of-a-Kind Family

It's the turn of the century and Gertie and her sister have stumbled on a penny. A single penny and they spend an hour debating how to divide it among a variety of candies and crackers at shops where they normally buy only necessities for their mother.  The many hours of anticipation before eating and the subsequent joy of stretching the candy's existence tell of a very different value system. Literally. One penny had much value and even that penny is a find, not a right. 

When I see pre-teens lining up at the boutiques on Amsterdam after school, dough from the nearby cookie shop still moistening their hands, their mothers standing by approvingly as they choose sixty dollar shirts with their names monogrammed in sequins on request, I look at my two year old and my heart sinks. 

How long can I hide in the park with her? How long before her values begin to sync with those she sees all around her? Already she knows that a dollar has value. She loves to play with commerce -- it's a transaction with another person and a responsibility to hand over a dollar for an apple at the store. It's a social impulse that can turn quickly into materialism, because  usually humans are both acquisitive and addictive by nature. Perhaps that's redundant. 

 It's Christmastime in the city. 

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

I am giddy in September. The summer sun  has finally been beaten back like an R.O.U.S. that must be repeatedly bludgeoned before it succumbs. The flat, brown landscape of August, the determined panic-inducing heat is vanishing and the apples have arrived! It's time to gaze at Tasha Tudor's depictions of Halloween nights and children sleeping in the barn to make room for visiting guests and of a year's worth of candle-making and gifts made in secret by the children for their siblings.

 It's all to come, and it culminates in the festival of lights. Chanukah! Christmas! Pine trees scenting nearly every street corner and medieval crab apple wreaths at The Cloisters. It's the anticipation that is so delicious.

The Cloisters' Christmas crab apple wreaths. (2009) 

 How do I give my child Christmas without taking away her happiness?  How do I allow her the thrill of a few new toys and a glowing tree without being sucked into the maelstrom of too much everything? And even if I'm not, even if I practice the utmost discipline, how do make the holidays about excitement and not materialism? And how do I let her know that most people aren't fortunate enough to do even that (without being a complete killjoy.  What a balancing act that is!) When December arrives, the joy of its anticipation has been replaced with the anxiety of its arrival. 

The first thing to remember is that it isn't about Christmas. When I worked as a nanny, Christmas was all year in that world, for those kids. I saw many beloved children become spoiled - I saw the spoilage: the change from gentle and questioning and full of wonder to expectant and demanding and overwhelmed by choices. Clothing, toys, activities, vacations. The more they had the more they wilted like bad lettuce. 

My grandfather used to say "You can be with them but not of them." It's useful, if abstract. When I see my child playing with the old wooden blocks at the table of the expensive boutique, unashamedly not purchasing anything nor having any interest in doing so, I exhale and hold onto the sensation of observing her in that state. I return myself to that state when I think that a casual purchase on a stressful afternoon will ease my mind. A brief hit of dopamine wears off fast and results in a crash but living outside the bustle of commerce provides a constant flow of pleasurable serenity. 

My daughter knows who Santa is. After I read her the poem and she examined the illustrations, she said: "No like Santa Claus." I was heartbroken. How could she reject any whimsy I had enjoyed as a child? I told her that was fine, of course, and I put the book back on the shelf. I have become the master of the soft sell. Later, she reconsidered: "Santa is a woman, Mama. He is a woman." 

I took this to mean that Santa was welcome, or at least that she had brokered a peace with him (her.) So I'll take another lesson from my child: Christmas is what you want it to be, not what Bing Crosby or Bergdorf Goodman tells you it should be. 

Not that I would miss a trip to show her those windows this year. 

A photo I took a few years ago of a Bergdorf Window at Christmastime. I got lucky and she looked like a ghost floating in front of The Plaza. 


  1. I dread the same spirit-crushing materialism ruining the same sense of wonder and excitement at the world in my daughter, preventing her from relating to it because it promises an empty ownership of it, if that makes any sense. But the more I know her and the more I figure out how this whole parenting thing works, the less I worry. She's your daughter, and she'll do as you do (You're leading by a great example :)

  2. Thanks, Lejla. It makes perfect sense. Owning and consuming has replaced or is trying to replace a deeper sense of relationship with the world and its contents. We can relate without owning, I think that's essentially what you are saying. I want my daughter to understand this too.

  3. Or rather, we can relate to something *without* owning it, much as the commercial world would like our children to believe otherwise.


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