How Billy Mays Reinforced my Critical Thinking Skills

Without an ounce of skepticism, I excitedly ripped open the cardboard box. I sifted through bubble wrap and invoices, advertisements and instructions.

And there, lying on a bed of fluffy white packing peanuts, its sharp edges wrapped in cardboard with the full promise of taking the hard work out of yard work, sat The Awesome Auger.

Hard to believe considering my suspicions about the potentially undeclared financial relationship between colgate and its agreeable dentists, hunh?

Yeah, I know. But I am semi-addicted to infomercials. Shiny.

I don’t know what it was about Billy Mays, but that guy made me BELIEVE. And oxyclean does work.

So when we needed to dig fence posts? Really, the awesome auger sold itself. Note: I was pregnant at the time, which is my only excuse for being twirled into a fantasy about a hand drill and THREE augers for just $19.95.

The awesome auger was not, in any way, awesome. It doesn’t even dig holes big enough for tomato plants. Currently, I use the blades as plant stakes.

But even though Australian accents make me pause–infomercial or not–the trust broken by the awesome auger reminds me– damn I want a ShamWow— to not believe.

I’m a skeptic.

So when my city’s annual drinking quality report came in the mail– and who doesn’t want to read about fecal coliform during lunch– I opened it right away.

I started off skeptical, because think about it– what are government reports other than a giant infomercial? Mind you, without a Billy Mays, or an Australian.

Oh, look how great all the results appear to be, but of course they don’t define the collection methods. And every March the city stops adding ammonia, which is why the water tastes like chlorine. But why is ammonia stopped for just March? If the ammonia isn’t required for water safety in March, is it necessary the other 11 months of the year? What the hell is going down in March every year?

But what really threads my skeptic needle are the layman’s examples (e.g., a single penny in $10,000 to define parts per million) for complicated stuff.

You might think, “A penny? Well, a penny is nothing- I won’t even bend over to pick up a penny.

Well, what if each walmart employee stole one penny every day for a year? In the US, Walmart employs about 1.4 million people, and suddenly one penny per person has morphed into 5.1 million dollars.

I always bend over for pennies. And I never take what I read as truth.

But at some point, even Skeptical Me has a choice: either learn about waste water treatment practices, or… god, anything else. But letting it go doesn’t mean I trust them not to lie to me.

It just means that Brita and Pure stand to make a much larger profit off the quest for safe drinking water. And I found mold growing in a new Pure water filter once. I’ve yet to smell mold coming straight from the tap.

Zach, genuinely curious about why I’m mumbling about water, and Elliot asking what’s fecal, Mom leads to a teachable moment.

After seeing the word safe in the first paragraph, Zach looks reassured.

Z: “Well, it’s safe, right?”
Me: “Why do you think it’s safe”.
Z: “They say ‘no violations’, right here.”
Me: “Who are they? Why do you believe them?”
Z: “Um. Uh. They are them? Don’t you believe them?”
Me: “Not necessarily.”

E: “Fecal means POOP.”

I almost went on a long diatribe about how government agencies can be infiltrated by private industry, who are looking at profits, not people.

So. Very. Close.

Instead, I used a simpler example that didn’t involve intimate knowledge of water dwelling microbes.

Thanks to the Corn Refiners Association commercial about high fructose corn syrup— shown during a children’s cartoon, on a children’s network– Zach almost tripped over himself to inform me that high fructose corn syrup is “just corn, Mom!” So we’ve already had a conversation about why a company might stretch the truth (or totally lie) to make money.

And that’s how a bitter skeptic raises future conspiracy theorists critical thinkers.

Morals without Faith: Secular Parenting

One of the supposed challenges of raising children without a specific religious doctrine* is how does one instill morals without faith. Lately, just in this country, with all of the rampant hate, violence, (yes, Tim Profitt, I chose you as my violence example. You douchenozzle.), and me first/mine only attitudes, I’m absolutely certain that faithfulness is not at all equal to the existence of one’s moral code. I consider myself to have a strong┬ámoral code and I’m also secular. But some of the “faithed” seem to interpret my lack of praying to be equivalent to a lack of morals, such that without God (whichever way you say it) my secular value system is necessarily sub-par. I don’t know, my very secular morale code/values happens to include feeling that those that have need to pony up and help those that have not. It makes me sick to my stomach to think of any child, but especially an American child, without enough food to eat, a safe place to live, and no access to healthcare and an education. Beyond America, any day that I spend more than 15 minutes thinking about what happens to children in other countries, say the Congo, I spend the night awake and tearful. I have never said, “it’s not my kid and don’t care what happens to them–let their poor, uneducated parents find a way to feed them.” In my opinion, my secular values are more than par when compared to people that can both think and say that out loud.

**I’m in no way downing all pf the religious faithful. Of those that I know personally, more of you are kind than not. But some of the stuff I hear come out of the mouths of people who claim to walk the way of Jesus is in direct opposition to anything the man said or did. So I am suggesting that there are great number of folks in our country right now (cough Glenn, cough Beck) who seem to think themselves morally superior to me just because they check “yes” in a religion box. For those folks, perhaps re-reading the main ideological points detailed in whatever book you deem holy should be the first item on your seasonal to-do list. Less time spent on the passages about homosexuality and shellfish and more time spent on the charitable giving passages would be super.**

My job as a parent is to take these impressionable little play doh brains–brains full of their own self interests, by the way–and turn them into caring, responsible, productive adults. Notice the order I listed those traits. I want my kids to be caring adults, regardless of whatever religious choices they make for themselves. I want them to care about others because a human being–regardless of housing/employment/race/gender/sexuality–has value, and not because a bigger donation gets you priority alumni seating in the afterlife.

I want them to value the person, not the brand-name. I want them to value the life, not the profit. And woe unto either of them should they grow up to resemble some of the people I’ve heard from lately. If I were the mother of Hank Greenberg, I would fall on my own dull sword as a failure to society. Of course, the result of my deep, internal need to not raise grubby-fisted, money-hungry, self-serving adults is the absolute terror that I will somehow end up with one despite my efforts. Seriously, fruits of my womb–read this now–because if either of you do resemble any of the aforementioned (or anyone like them), mama’s going to be a bitch to deal with on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And Mondays. Probably Tuesdays and Wednesdays, too.

Imagine my heartfelt pain when Zach said something along the lines of “I don’t believe in church. I believe in TOYS”. That pain wasn’t because he didn’t believe in church– no one should believe anything about a building–but rather the apparent failure of my anti-over-consumption campaign.

However, before I replaced every one of his consignment-sale purchased toy arsenal with sticks and dirt, I realized that this kind of self absorption is completely normal. For a 4 year old. Yes, he’s at that age where everything he sees is a must-have-it-right-this-very-second. I thought that by limiting his exposure to most of the popular tv (and all commercials) would circumvent this attitude. (And personally, I simply don’t want to know what new, shiny crap is being marketed to the play-doh-brained. I have only the vaguest idea of what the hell a zhu zhu pet is, and I’d like to keep it that way.) But the kid has friends and associates, and those friends and associates have stuff that is different from his stuff. They have rules that are different from his rules. I repeat “I don’t care, Jane/John Doe isn’t my kid” to Zach with the same regularity as I say “no, don’t touch/climb/eat that” to Elliot.

A few weeks ago, Zach referred to our neighborhood homeless man (who rides a bike, complete with potted ficus tree and is obviously suffering from an un-medicated mental illness) as a lazy bum. Where/how/who he heard that phrase from, in that context, is anyone’s guess. I will tell you that I spent the following weeks deprogramming it from his brain. I’m not concerned with constant PC, but making a judgment based solely on someone’s appearance is a big no-no in this house.

I want them to be appreciative and thankful for what they have, and not be that kid always whining for more. Seriously, I really, really want that. Like now. I also want Zach to understand that while he’s whining about eating chicken…“AGAIN MOM”…that there are children in our city that didn’t get to eat all day. I want him to own that knowledge for himself. And when Elliot is older, he’s going to own it, too.

I realized that I have all of these wants for them and only a few years before starting the peer pressure versus parent battle. I need to strike a solid foundation. How am I supposed to teach about excess when I have two November-borne children? Two birthdays followed by Christmas? The tidal surge of toys is just ridiculous. Even if they each only got one (which they don’t) it’s too damn much.

Which leads me right to my first lesson for Mr. Zach. Both boys unhesitatingly chose a family trip on an Amtrak train to a city that also had underground trains (subways) over a big birthday bash with their friends. The fact that the Birthday Train departs a few weeks early and corresponds with the Rally to Restore Sanity is a coincidence. Okay, so it totally isn’t– but we were going to DC in November, I just moved the trip up a few weeks. A family trip win/win type situation, in my humble opinion. What this means, in theory, for my Small People is no birthday party with their friends, thus no presents from friends. (I’m still not seeing the lose for me in this plan.) I say in theory, because I also don’t want them (and by them, I mean Zach, since Elliot doesn’t have a clue yet) to be sad on their actual birthdays that there was no balloon and sugar free-for-all with other Small People Friends and Associates. This dilemma was the price I was willing to pay to see Jon Stewart.

So here is my plan. If I actually get a party-with-friends together in the next week (snort), instead of gifts they are both going to ask for a donation to be sent to a charity of their choice. I will, of course, narrow those choices down to 2 or 3, whose purpose can kind of be appreciated by wee minds. Please don’t be concerned, there will still be plenty of gifts–they have family and parents, too. The Year of No Presents will not be a therapy conversation ten years from now.

Hopefully, I will follow that lesson up a few weeks later on Thanksgiving by taking Zach to a shelter to help serve food to the less fortunate, aka the homeless and hungry. (Moooommmm…can you find me a shelter for us to volunteer, pretty please?)

Tomorrow, he, Elliot, and I are going to sort through the vast wasteland of toys and, keeping only the favorites and second favorites, send the rest off to charity. The favorites will stay in play, the second favorites are going on the bench to be rotated in later. Less is more, people. We are going to participate with other moral, yet secular friends, and adopt a family or two from the Orange County Holiday Program for Christmas.

Will he “get it”? Probably not in 2010, but every new lesson parents teach to their kids begins with a confused, but hopefully acquiescent, Small Person. Potty training is a lovely example of this type of confusion. But since it’s important that those that are able learn to pee/poo in the potty, we dive in and convince the Small People that it’s the right thing to do, thus saith the Mommy. Well, it’s important to me that my kids know that those that are able need help those that are not. Period. End of story.

So far Zach agrees with Phase 1 of my plan for no-toys at a potential friend-party. I suspect that his little brain will mold all sorts of questions that are hard for me to answer both honestly and age-appropriately, but I do my best. For the record, I asked Elliot, too. His response was, “more pita chips and play in water table” so I guess he’s cool. I certainly don’t want to ruin the magic of childhood for my children, but childhood is also that magical time when they start to learn how to be an adult. As it turns out, not having raised self-serving, profit driven, apathetic assholes is a big parenting goal for me.