07 April 2008

Numbers: 4012 and 70

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.

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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?

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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.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica. This is Chris Jones, the writer of the Esquire story. I just wanted to thank you for this post. The interview today was the first time I had really spoken about the story, out loud -- it's been a conversation that's gone on mostly inside my head till now. And radio can feel like that, too -- like you're having a conversation with yourself. Then I read your post. Your description of your listening, and of the crosses on the hill, and of your daughter, it all helped clarify some things for me. And I'm glad you know Joey's name now, and that I know one of those crosses on that hill is for him.

Just so you know, the magazine might not be out yet -- it's the one with Jessica Simpson on the cover, not George Clooney, which is probably still on the stands -- but I'm glad to think you might read the story. It should be out soon.

(You sound like an awesome mom, by the way. My wife and I have just had our second -- five, you've got us way beat.)

Anyway, I just want to thank you again for your thoughtful and articulate post. It was very good for me to read for reasons that I can't really explain properly. But it was appreciated, across the miles.

Anonymous said...

Hello Monica, and Chris, I also heard the NPR interview in the car today, between errands, and came home and tried to find the article.I was very moved by your interview, as well as the callers' comments, and by your writing, too, Monica.

The Things They Carried is one of the most powerful and beautifully written books I have ever read, and so the title of your article immediately caught my attention.

My daughter's high school English class will be reading the book soon, and think I will recommend to her teacher that they read your article and/or listen to the interview, Chris, as well.

Monica, thank you, as well, for your post.

This is, by the way, the first time I have ever been motivated to blog.

Regards, Joanna

WeeHands said...

I feel the need to point out regarding using baby sign language and frustration. I've worked as a behaviour therapist in the past an the majority (75%) of challenging behaviours exhibiting by anyone are motivated by communication or the inability to communicate. Individuals, including toddlers, may want to (1) request something (I want that), (2) to escape a situation (I'm tired of this) or (3) to get attention (Hey, come here!).

Using a non-verbal means of communicating (sign) enables someone, who can't or who cannot yet speak, allows them to express themselves so that they can be understood and connect with other people.

If a toddler can sign that she wants something and her parent understands her and gets that item for her, than a frustrating situation is avoided. If a toddler can sign something and her parent understands her and can tell her "no, it's not time for that right now" then a opportunity to connect and teach has been created.

How many times have you heard parents or teachers say to a toddler or preschooler, "Use your words". A baby and a parent can learn to experience and handle frustration by using their words and their signs.

Pamela Paul said...

Hi Monica,

Pamela Paul here, author of Parenting, Inc. I just wanted to pop by and say I was delighted to hear you enjoyed the show! You never know how these things come across, so it's great to hear from listeners.

Clearly we are in agreement about much of this parenting biz.

All best,
Pamela

Monica said...

Thank you so much, to both Chris Jones and Pamela Paul for leaving comments on this post. I was thrilled to hear from both of you -- one of the truly exciting things about blogging for me is how these connections get made!

Chris, thank you for alerting me to when the magazine will be out -- I'll be waiting for it. And I cannot imagine what your experience must have been like, researching and writing your article. I'm just very glad there are writers out there, like you, who can bring that story to the rest of us. We need to know these things, so we can truly understand this war.

And Pamela, I tried for 30 minutes to get through on the Talk of the Nation phone line...and all I really wanted to say is that I cheered when you said that all a baby really needs in her crib is a bottom sheet. I've been looking at a frill-less crib for 10 years now (5 kids, ya' know), and every now and then, a nagging voice creeps in that tells me I should make it look cuter...I'm glad I resisted long enough to hear your perspective and get that reinforcement!

Kelly said...

What a poignant post, and just as I was watching the coverage of Petraeous and Crocker being interviewed on the Hill. My husband works with the widow of a soldier who was killed in a Mosul mess hall suicide bombing. The war, it's so close for so many people.

I'll look for Esquire, or try to find the story online. Every soldier has a name and a story and a family.

Anonymous said...

I am reading "The Things They Carried" for an english class in college. I read the article "The Things That Carried Him" by Chris Jones yesterday. ( I made a copy to give to my english professor._)
It's actually of some comfort to know how the dead are treated in Iraq. My son is on his second tour there (FOB Rustamiyah) and lost 3 guys within the last 2 weeks. While stateside he words for the ANG in a GS position and volunteers for the Honor Guard in NC. He feels the most important job he has is the Honor Guard. ONly one step higher would put him at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in DC. I'd like to see Jones write about that mission. The guys that request the tour are put through quite a screening and have to fullfill a rigorous tour but they feel it's the highest honor. What makes my son and those like him do what they do? It's definitely something within them...a deep seated belief in patriotism and this country. Jones' article is fenominal - as is O'Brien's book (I cried through the entire book and had to put it down several times).

Monica said...

To Anonymous from 4/18: Thank you so much for writing and telling me a little about your son. I can only imagine what it must be like to worry about him while he is in Iraq; our country is lucky to have people like him. I will pray for his safe return. Please tell him that his fellow Americans are extremely grateful to him.