When cozy closes in
By Margaret Renkl
FEBRUARY 15, 1999: I've always thought of myself as an environmentalist. My husband and I take our used paper, glass, plastic, aluminum, and steel to the recycling center. We save old clothing for the Disabled American Veterans. We compost our kitchen scraps.
Every time we use our credit card a portion of the sale goes to the Sierra Club. We make regular contributions to The Nature Conservancy, and when we bought a minivan we carefully chose a make and model that conforms to the strict California emissions standards. We've always done our best to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
We're hypocrites, of course, as any true environmentalist could point out in the blink of an unmascara-ed eye. Genuine environmentalists wouldn't own a minivan at all; if they weren't riding their bikes, they'd be driving a gas-miserly car like a Kia, which they could do because they wouldn't have any kids to cram into the nonexistent back seat. There's nothing more antithetical to true environmentalism, after all, than introducing another resource-guzzling, pollution-mongering baby human being--no matter how cute--to the other six billion inhabitants already here, and my husband and I have done that very thing no less than three times.
Though my credentials as a tree-hugger were always suspect, I still managed not to think too hard about the contradictions inherent in my happy, circumscribed little life. But those days of self-delusion are over, and the nail in the coffin of my own pretense at environmentalism, it turns out, is global warming.
The thing is, I sort of like it.
Oh, sure, intellectually I know that in February all this mildness is a sign of something deeply amiss, a wobbly link in the Great Chain of Being. I feel bad that all those conscientious people in California are going to have to drive all those emissions-controlled cars pretty far east if the polar icecaps melt and the ocean level rises up to Nevada. I'm concerned that the world amphibian population is in rapid decline, quite probably the result of inadequate ozone protection--for one thing I'm a sucker for endangered species, and for another I recognize that an atmosphere which doesn't have enough ozone for frogs and lizards is also an atmosphere that doesn't have enough ozone for fair-skinned children like, say, the three who live in my house.
But therein lies the rub. For in winter those three children are literally living in the house, where they work energetically to drive each other, and me, completely mad. "Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball," lament the kids in The Cat in the Hat--which to me is all the explanation needed for why their desperate mother has entirely departed the scene, leaving her children in the care of an anal-retentive goldfish who's no match for a delinquent feline.
Every winter our own small house grows a little bit smaller. This is neither an exaggeration nor a psychological metaphor, for every year the people in my house swell in size and number. I was pregnant last winter ("swelling" is not too strong a word for the experience), and my husband and I soon recognized that we needed to buy a bigger house--that we had in fact filled up our current house on the very day we moved into it two babies back.
Upon investigation, however, we found that neither a new house nor a significantly expanded old one were realistic possibilities for a family of five living on a schoolteacher's salary. So we hit upon the idea of converting our den into a master bedroom (thereby making it possible to turn our former bedroom into a nursery), while simultaneously scraping together enough cash to add a large screened porch to the back of the house. "The porch will be like a den," we told ourselves. "In fact, it'll be better than a den because we won't ever have to vacuum it."
The grandparents in the family expressed skepticism at this plan; the neighbors looked dubious. But once we got past the disappearing contractor and the hungover subcontractors, it actually worked out beautifully. All spring and summer and fall, the children went straight for the porch as soon as they woke up in the morning. Out there the big boy played paddle ball with his dad, the middle boy rode his toy tractor, and the baby boy sat in his wind-up swing and cooed at the ceiling fans. The porch was comfortable right up through November. It really was better than a den.
But it's not better than a den on the days when winter actually behaves like winter. If the temperature dips much below 50, the porch-as-den plan is a complete bust.
When it's cold, the little people with the big voices want to stay inside. They want to play paddle ball inside. They want to play bumper cars--tractor versus tricycle--inside. They want to chase each other up and down the hall, squealing and pelting beanie babies at each other's heads as they run. And when Santa arrived, during the December ice storm, with an electric train for the boys, he set the whole elaborate arrangement up in Mom and Dad's bedroom because, after all, it was too cold for it on the porch and there was nowhere else inside it would fit. Without moving a stick of furniture, Santa managed to transform the master bedroom back into a den--a den that the parents of the house happen to sleep in.
Excessive volume, physical assaults, and lack of privacy aside, there's another wintertime issue that's hard to avoid in a small house: germs. How those airborne microbes love the stale air of cramped, contained rooms. "Give your brother a turn" is a phrase that takes on new meaning when a virus joins the family.
The other night I noticed something weird-looking--something greenish-gray and larger than a raisin--on our baby's upper lip. I had to squat down to get a closer look before I realized what it was: a booger. A booger so big and so ugly it was impossible to imagine emerging from the tiny, perfectly clear nose of the happy infant smiling up from his walker.
I went into the bathroom where my husband was bathing the older boys. "Honey," I said, holding out the tissue I'd used to clean the baby's cherub face, "Look at this. Do you think something could be really wrong with the baby?"
Our runny-nosed toddler, leaning forward with interest, looked at the Kleenex in my hand. "Dat's mine," he crowed triumphantly. "I share wif baby."
Sure enough, three days later, the shared germs colonized his brother. Right on schedule the baby got his own boogers to pass around. I find them on his crib sheets, on my own shoulder, in my hair. Yesterday I found one, dried solid, right at the corner of my jawbone where I'd worn it all morning, including throughout the grocery store.
It's hard to maintain even the illusion of environmentalism in the face of such winter-borne reasons for despair, and the truth is I've given up. I've given up cleaning with vinegar and baking soda; these days the Clorox flows like an antibacterial river. I've given up germ-harboring cloth handkerchiefs and cloth napkins and cloth diapers; in my house it's now disposable all the way. Most of all, I've given up my former delight in snow and wood fires and cozy, hot-chocolate mornings. Let the global warming begin, I say. I still feel bad for the frogs and the Californians, but if it's sunny and mild outdoors, at least my kids will get out of the house for a while.
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