Friday, March 1, 2013

Mitzvah Schmitzva

My life is turning in to a George Carlin routine about stuff. I love George Carlin, but we are simply running out of room. In reaction to the onslaught of stuff that made its way into our house this past holiday season, I have put a moratorium on acquisitions until late March when Little turns six.
I revisited the whole "Mitzvah Birthday" idea again-where the party guests donate to a charity of Little's choosing in lieu of gifts- but I had forgotten it was kind of a bust when we tried it when Big turned six a few years back.
A mitzvah, if you don't know, is the word used to describe a good deed in the Jewish faith. It is something that both kids have been steeped in since we started going to our amazing Jewish school five years ago.
The idea for a Mitzvah Birthday began a two years ago on one particularly tedious weekday afternoon, just before Big was going to turn six. I was making dinner and after a series of games, some wrestling, some fighting, both of my incredibly well attended (if not over indulged) children declared themselves bored. I heard them whining and told them to go play outside.They ignored me. I reminded them that boredom wasn't an option, as long as they live in this house, in this city, in this country.
They persisted, so I cut to the chase:
I told them that they should be thanking their lucky stars that they weren't born somewhere in an Indian slum where they might be sifting through piles of dirty medical waste all day every day instead of complaining that their pasta didn't have enough cheese. I had read an article about it in the paper a few days before. Big pricked up her ears and wanted to know more. Little buried her head in some stuffed animals. I explained that there were parts of the world where little girls didn't spend their days fighting over one of eleven nude Barbie dolls, painting outside, going to school, or hosting fancy birthday parties. No, those little girls, sometimes as young as four, sat in a disgusting fly infested,maggoty garbage dump from sun up to sundown with no sandwiches with the crusts cut off and picked hypodermic needles out of a large pile of trash to sell back to the medical communities in their town. The poor kids often got stuck by the needles and many contracted terrible illnesses and died because of it. I explained that those children had no pretty clean room to mess up or drawers full of clothes to throw on the ground when they weren't satisfied with their Mother's choice of wardrobe.
They were both silent for a second. Little wandered off (which made me wonder how the Indians got the four year olds to sift through the garbage in the first place), but Big was mesmerized. She nodded passionately as I spoke, hanging on every word. She asked how we could help them, and I broached the subject of her having a Mitzvah Birthday, assuring her that she would still receive numerous gifts from her large, generous family. After I explained the part about the needles a few more times, she decided that this would be her charity of choice for her birthday party. I found a link to a wonderful organization called Ragpickers Education and Development Scheme or REDS. They have drop in centers in and around the areas where most of the kids are scavenging and they spend time encouraging  the parents to let their kids get educated and have a childhood instead of be ragpickers.
I encouraged the Mitzvah Birthday for two reasons- 1) to forgo the bazillion Chinese made plastic twenty dollar well meaning gifts from her eighteen guests ( no offense but how many more My Little Pony set or Pet Shop or Polly Pocket or Disney Princess phones,"computers", dress up shoes, tiaras, tutus, do we really need to have?) and 2) So she could learn that giving is actually pretty cool, even on your birthday.

I completed the Evite and pressed send, feeling very proud of my kid.

Two hours later, I ran into a mom whose child from another school was invited to the party. We were both in line at Trader Joe's. She was impeccably dressed, in full make up with her buttery blonde hair swept up into a perfect French twist. It was a Tuesday, and she was grabbing a quick lunch between broker open houses. She looked up from her phone and asked what sort of gift Big might like. I smiled and began to explain the Mitzvah Birthday concept to her. As soon as the word "ragpickers" left my lips, her eyes glazed over, as if I had handed her The Watchtower pamphlet and parked myself on her doorstep. As I spoke, she became a slow motion montage of eye rolling, sighing and checking her phone. I kept talking while she nodded over my words, her eyes wandering.  By the time I had finished my twenty second explanation, she had paid for her salad was gone, leaving behind a cloud of perfume and some unintelligible remark about liking to buy stuff. I watched her go, pretty sure I saw her shake her head in disbelief. 
I stood there in my goto unbelievably comfortable faded black yoga pants and a waffle knit hoodie, my hair a messy after thought, feeling like a squishy, flabby, smelly, stubble-covered, unwaxed, caterpillar-browed, braless, yellow toothed,"natural", placenta eating, braid wearing, vegetarian, reusable bag carrying, liberal cliche that should be milking goats in Oregon and not attempting to make a home in Hollywood. God, did I even brush my teeth today?

She managed to make me feel bad about trying to save starving needle pricked children in India.

While I waited to check out, I noticed a hole in the arm of my waffle hoodie, likely sewn by the very same Indian slave child that my daughter wanted to help. I walked to my car, feeling very squinty and conflicted, and fished around for the lipstick that had been rolling around on the floor for the last year.
It was a MAC named Meltdown. Perfect.
I drove home asking myself when encouraging your child to consider other people became such a yawn worthy concept. I know that many five year olds have their own Mini Ipads and all, but when did empathy go out of style?  It isn't as if I was going to deny Big birthday gifts. She couldn't go without gifts if she tried to since both kids have a small army- four grandmas, three grandfathers, a two grand aunts, three great grandmas,two aunts, two uncles, several cousins and their adoring parents-that routinely showers them with gifts.
As I unloaded the car, I questioned my own motivation for the whole mitzvah thing. First, it's the stuff.I am done with too much stuff. Second, it's the entitlement. I do not want to raise entitled children. It is my worst fear, that all of our attempts to give our kids everything they need will  make them heartless insatiable little assholes. So far, not the case, but we've had our moments. I barely survived Little's Horrendous Performance at Department Stores Phase that lasted almost seven months, where Mommy specifically said every single time we went to a store "you each get one thing", WELL before entering the store, only to have Little persist relentlessly in wanting two things. I never gave in, but the HPDS phase aged me rapidly and brought me closer to child abuse than almost anything else has before or since.  I rarely take them to stores at all anymore: HPDS induced PTSD is a bitch.
I look around our house and see all the stuff they have-LOTS and lots of toys, clothes, stuffed animals, games, piles of gifts from birthday after birthday. All of it represents how much they are loved by their family and friends, but most days, I  wonder if we should give it all away. Just let them pick some of what they actually play with, which is maybe twenty percent of what they have. Unfortunately for me, I married someone who hates that idea with a passion and has vowed to replace each item I discreetly place in the Goodwill bag tenfold. I believe him. He has an irritating yet astonishing sixth sense about the toys that have been culled and will ask suspiciously about a random brown squeaky cow from a bath set he bought them at the Phoenix airport three years ago. If it can't be produced, he vows to buy more, "just to teach you not to toss their stuff, their memories", no matter how useless and ignored it might be. I should mention here that he is an excellent father and has instituted the "word of the month" in our house. He and the kids pick a meaningful word (determination, respect and courage are some of the previous choices). They define it, write it on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall for the month. How awesome is that?

I voted for "frugal" for February.

He also enjoys buying them stuff immensely. He took Little to the toy store for her birthday last year and offered her anything in the store. Really, a five year old was told to "pick anything". She looked at all of it over the course of thirty minutes and chose a twenty dollar sale item. I was thrilled because I might have insisted he return the thousand dollar mini Hummer in hot  pink if she had chosen it. Call me a killjoy, but I believe in limits, even on your birthday.
Two days before Big's party, with the linen closet  packed with gifts from family as promised, and I had not received a single notification of a donation sent to REDS, the ragpicker charity. Then a Paypal notification came- yes! Someone had actually read the Evite details. The day of the party came- a luau theme-  and the first two guests brought gifts. They were received with a little confusion by Big, so I put out a box next to the leis that said "Donations Here". After some clarification that the donations were not meant to purchase leis,  a few more guests put in their donations and, all told, seven out of sixteen people brought gifts and four people donated that I know of.  I guess that electronic communication isn't the most personal and most people probably just read the Evite to get the basic facts, but it was a huge disappointment for Big. Perhaps we will try it again in a few years, provided we haven't drowned in our own excess.
However, having momentarily convinced Little to go the same Mitzvah Birthday route in a few weeks, I am kind of relieved that she changed her mind. She wants her friends to bring her gifts, and that is okay. Especially because her charity of choice was, inexplicably, "to help people in Colorado". I wanted to tell her that they have legalized marijuana now, and that there are other more uptight states that could use the help-any needy folks in Connecticut?

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