Talk of the Nation today was fantastic. Both hours had me riveted to my radio – too bad I had to run errands and visit a doctor in the middle of the program. This is one broadcast I will be tuning into at its later time tonight.
The first hour featured an interview with Chris Jones, a writer who followed a soldier's body from Baghdad to its final resting place in the soldier's hometown of Scottsburg, Ind. Jones discusses the long journey in "The Things That Carried Him" a detailed article in Esquire magazine about the transfer of remains. (Edited on 4/11/08 to add a link to the article...) If you know the incredible book The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, the title of Jones’ article has even more resonance. Jones talked about the very personal homecoming of one soldier who was killed in Iraq and who returned to a small town in Indiana. As it happened, as he was telling parts of the story to Neil Conan, I was driving my daughters to their doctor's appointments, through a part of the Bay Area that features a hillside covered in crosses: one for each American soldier killed in the war. It’s a controversial hillside around here, with some people seeing it as a way to honor the dead and their ultimate contribution to our country and other people seeing it as an unpatriotic and therefore intolerable expression of dissent.
Because of the interview I was listening to, I was hoping I would see the crosses; not driving this road all that often, I wasn’t certain where to look, but I wanted to see them while hearing about one of people that one of those crosses was planted for. At a moment when Jones was describing the final journey of Joe Montgomery’s body through his hometown, my daughter saw the crosses. I was listening, captivated, to Jones describe how the procession of family, honor guard, military attendants, motorcyclists, three miles long, effectively closed down the highway. About how farmers, and shop keepers, and families, and everyone who could lined the road and packed the overpasses to show their respect and welcome Joe home. My eyes and my throat were full, when I heard from the backseat: “Mommy, what are all those crosses for?” It took me a minute to think about what I should say to her. She’s only 5. Why fill her head with war and death? But then, I realized that she already knows about death. She knows what it means. And she may not know what war is, but she could at least be aware that we are in one. So I told her: "That hillside has one cross for every American soldier who was been killed in the Iraq war.” It was hard to say, both because I was near crying in the first place and because she’s only 5. She took it in, but didn’t ask any questions. I continued listening to the interview until we got to the doctor’s office. And today, I’ll be purchasing a copy of Esquire magazine for the first time in my life.
On the hillside, the tally: 4012 casualties.
Out of the doctor’s office, a decidedly different topic! The second hour featured a conversation with Pamela Paul, author of a book called Parenting, Inc., with a kick-ass subtitle: “How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers – and What It Means for Our Children.” This book sounds great – all about the industry that has mushroomed around parenting and babies, convincing moms and dads that they need this, that, the other, and the extremely other in order to keep their children safe, make them brilliant, ensure their success, and dress them to the nines. As parents, we are easy marketing targets for all manner of products and services. The effect is overwhelming. The baby-proofing aisle alone is enough to make a fearful mom stuff that kid back up the birth canal rather than expose him to the dangers of the average household.
I especially enjoyed Paul’s riff on baby sign language. Now, baby signing is certainly a wonderful and useful tool for many families (especially but not exclusively those with hearing impaired children). But I thought her perspective was important. One of the ways baby sign is promoted is by telling parents that signing will reduce their baby’s frustration around communicating with others. Paul suggested that we should not be so quick to reduce frustration, a source of learning, creativity, and progress. Yes, we can teach them to sign, but what if the frustration of not being able to communicate leads them to learn something else on a particular day? What about the importance of both a baby and a parent learning to experience and handle frustration? Again, I think baby sign language is totally cool – but I loved her take on it, too. I think I would love this book and hope to find it in the local library sometime soon, as I long ago realized that I prefer the simpler (fewer gadgets), messier (less convenient) method of parenting over the truly expensive, pander-to-our-fears, drive us to buy-buy-buy in the name of children kind of parenting.
And another stunning statistic: American children receive 70 new toys per year. Let that one sink in for a minute, folks. Wow. No wonder we are in a clutter crises in this country. I wonder how many new toys a child in Nicaragua receives each year; can you provide us a comparison, Kelli and Michael?
Numbers are fascinating. Today, they had me in tears and in indignation. 4012 American soldiers, giving their lives to maintain a culture that provides 70 new toys a year to the average American child. It’s a crazy world.