On scruffy spaces

Before I had children, I liked to think about how I would decorate their rooms. I collected Pinterest boards full of images like this, full of colorful, whimsical objects.

Now that I’ve actually tried it, I see more of the backstory behind these photos. Know who assembled, maintained, and photographed these rooms? Adults.

What kind of young child wants their toys to be 5 feet in the air where they can’t reach them? And what kind of child puts their things away quite so tidily?

Lily’s room looked a little bit like one of these for about 20 minutes before she moved in. Now it looks like this:

The pieces of green tape are how she decided to cover up some holes in the wall. The string is a zipline for stuffed animals. The box next to her pillow is a bedroom for her beloved My Little Pony keychain. The dragon and bat decorations are ones she punched out of a wizard-themed activity page and wanted hung from her ceiling. The lightbulb’s light does not match the light of the other lightbulb in the room, but she declared she liked having mismatched lightbulbs and does not want me to change it. The curtains are usually shut because we made some heavy duty velcro-sealed blackout curtains when we decided we cared more about our children sleeping past dawn than about having the lovely sunny lighting you see in the above pictures.

In short, this is a child’s room, not an adult’s photo op.

Now let’s look at the back yard. Recently I wanted to ask for advice about what to do with the decrepit shed in our backyard, and once I saw the photo on my screen was kind of horrified at how ugly it all is.

Some of the people I asked advised me to tear down the shed in the pavement, and put in a classier patio and a pergola, something like this:

As I considered whether we’d want such a space, one of my thoughts was, “Where would we put the dirt pile?”

The adults in our household are not the main users of our backyard, and I suspect we still wouldn’t be even if it were nicer by adult standards. The main users are these people:

They love the dirt pile. It’s left over from when Jeff dug a hole in our basement to put in a sump pump. I intended to get rid of the dirt somehow, but it became the site of burrowing plastic animals, irrigation canals, and acorn plantings. Anna has been working on “projects” there since she was old enough to pick up a stick.

Other much-used features of the backyard are the sandbox, the bucket on a pulley hanging from the fire escape, various buckets of mud, the rain barrel, the watering can, shovels, a bunch of rocks, and a lot of fluff Lily has scattered around in the hope that birds will use them for bird nests.


Now a word on decluttering and items that “spark joy”. To look at the visuals on decluttering websites, you would think that the items that spark joy only include ones in a harmonious color scheme that photograph well.

Here is an item that sparks joy for Anna:

It’s a torn foam earplug. I don’t know where it came from. Anna loses it among her other possessions, but she’s always excited to see it again when it emerges.

Adults and children living together is an act of compromise, even on top of the different preferences that individuals of any age have. For the most part, our house has different zones: the kitchen and basement are adults-only, the living and dining rooms get taken over by the kids and their stuff during the day but get tidied in the evening, the play room is the kids’ domain except for corners for Jeff’s music and my sewing, the backyard is mostly a kid construction area, the front garden is mine, and everyone’s bedroom is up to them. (Admittedly most of the “mama papa room” as we call it is done to my taste and occupied by my stuff, because Jeff is generous to me and owns a lot less stuff than I do.)

If anything, I think shared spaces should be slanted more toward kids’ needs than adults’. A lot of adult life takes place through words and screens. Kid life is much more physical, and more of their activity consists of interacting with physical objects.

This strategy does not result in anything Instagram-worthy. I think some people must have an intrinsic preference for spaces that are tidy in that very specific way, and would enjoy tidying their spaces even if no one could observe it. But for most people I’m guessing tidying is something we do largely because of we expect other people will judge us, and being at home should probably be optimized for our own enjoyment.

I still care what things look like on camera, but I don’t endorse that as a worthwhile thing for me to put much effort into. I hope our kids continue enjoying their physical world as long as possible before they start second-guessing how it looks.

Related pieces by other people:
In praise of scruffy hospitality
Give me gratitude or give me debt

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Wild animal welfare in Hans Christian Andersen

Continuing the theme of wild animal suffering in children’s lit

Hans Christian Andersen’s stories involve a lot of suffering of both human and animal varieties. “The Ugly Duckling” takes a brief detour from describing the duckling’s repeated social humiliations to describe being a waterfowl in winter:

The winter grew cold – so bitterly cold that the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water to keep it from freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept getting smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling had to paddle continuously to keep the crackling ice from closing in upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen fast in the ice.

Thumbelina” likewise details bird hardship in the Danish winter:

In the middle of the floor lay a dead swallow, with his lovely wings folded at his sides and his head tucked under his feathers. The poor bird must certainly have died of the cold. Thumbelina felt so sorry for him. She loved all the little birds who had sung and sweetly twittered to her all through the summer. But the mole gave the body a kick with his short stumps, and said, “Now he won’t be chirping any more. What a wretched thing it is to be born a little bird. Thank goodness none of my children can be a bird, who has nothing but his ‘chirp, chirp’, and must starve to death when winter comes along.”

“Yes, you are so right, you sensible man,” the field mouse agreed. “What good is all his chirp-chirping to a bird in the winter time, when he starves and freezes?

Not that different from “The Little Match Girl“, in which a child freezes to death on the streets of Copenhagen:

She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her!

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Interesting that an author who didn’t shy away from human suffering in his fairy tales also didn’t shy away from animal suffering.

Bear store

A preschool game that’s been particularly popular and versatile with my kids.


One person is the storekeeper and sets out the bears in any way they want. The other people are customers and bring some pennies. The storekeeper sells the bears to the customers.


  • The simplest version is that each bear costs one penny. It can take a while for them to get that this means 3 bears cost 3 pennies, 4 bears cost 4 pennies, etc.  Lay out one penny in front of each bear to help with counting.
  • If you have different sized objects, make it more complicated: big bears cost 2 pennies, small bears cost 1 penny.
  • You can bring written numbers into it by laying out price tags by the bears.
  • The customer can ask for different kinds of groupings: “I want some orange bears, do you have any of those? How many do you have?” “I want a group of four bears that are all the same color.” “I want a family of bears with one big bear and two little cubs.” “I have 4 pennies – what group of bears can I get with that?”
  • You can pay the wrong amount or provide the wrong number of bears and ask the storekeeper or customer to check.
  • You can pay too much and ask for change.
  • You could use other coins beyond pennies.
  • In our version, both storekeeper and customers use silly voices. I do a lot of chatter in either role, “The bear store is open! Come look at this fine selection of bears” etc.
  • The kids also add narrative bits (customers have to pretend to sleep while the storekeeper sets up the store, deciding which bears are siblings, naming the bears, etc.)


At naptime Anna listens to recordings of novels recorded by Jeff’s grandmother. It is the main way she will know Winnie, as it is the main way I have ever known Winnie. Some of the recordings are missing parts, and Suzie often fills in the first few sentences, her cadence echoing the distinctive pattern of her mother’s reading. That voice is familiar to me from life and not only from recordings, and my heart has stopped clenching when I hear it. Jeff, the third generation, has uploaded the stories for easier listening by the fourth generation.

At Christmas Lily wanted me to read The Wizard of Oz to her, and I recorded each chapter as we went. I’ll leave for a trip on Monday and I’m finally stringing the files together now so Anna will have a new recording to listen to while I’m gone. I hesitate over whether to remove Lily’s interjections (“What would happen if you didn’t have a heart?”) and my speculations on how a Tin Woodman could or couldn’t function.

I leave our entwined digressions on the recording, hoping my grandchildren learn the sound of my voice in vivo, making some small insurance against the chance that they won’t.

Insect ethics for parents

I walk past the neighbor’s garden and feel habitual comfort at the sight of bees clustering in the Russian sage. Bees are good. Bees are pollinators. Why is that good? Because I want my apple tree to bear fruit. Is it good to be a bee? What is it like? I have no idea. I once had a dream about seeing the throne of God surrounded by angels, but the angels were butterflies and bees. A horticultural God surrounded by his pollinators.

Concerned people in the neighborhood have put up Facebook posts about the evils of black swallow-wort. It is an invasive vine that interferes with monarch butterfly reproduction, I read. If your yard is full of it, people concerned about invasive species hang a special sign on your fence. I see it everywhere now. They will never get rid of it. I wonder how they chose black swallow-wort of all the available moral crusades.

Sometimes the lampposts in my neighborhood have signs obviously made by a precocious first-grader. In belabored magic marker they spell out the importance of preventing hive collapse (illustrated). “IF THE BEEZ DY THER WILL BE NO FLORS”

I feel affection toward lady-bugs because they are good. Why are they good? Because they eat aphids. Why are aphids bad? Because they eat roses. Does the rose care? No, but the gardener does.

We went to the beach, and Lily brought her croquet mallet. “If I see any bugs I’m going to swing this croquet mallet right around, because you know how I freak out if there are bugs.” But not ladybugs. “I’m not going to get the ladybugs because they’re good for life.” Where did she learn this? I don’t know. Whose life are they good for? Not the aphids’.


I teach the kids the rule I decided on before they were born: bugs may be killed inside but not outside the house. “Inside is our home. Outside is their home,” I tell them. They are not persuaded. An ant is still an ant to them. I can’t find the hole in their reasoning.

Anna talks about killing birds and rabbits. I’m not sure why I find this so much more disturbing than killing ants. I let her chase them, knowing she’ll never catch one.

Interpersonal rules for preschoolers

(which we hope they will carry into adulthood)

  • Consequences matter. If you were kicking your legs near your sister and you didn’t exactly mean to kick her but your foot did crash into her, you’re being reckless.
  • You never need to give hugs or kisses if you don’t feel like it.
  • No complaining or threatening when someone else refuses your hugs or kisses.
  • If you can’t stop making loud noises at dinner, you have to go somewhere else.
  • People can revoke consent (yes, even if she already said you could bite her. Now she’s telling you to stop.)

Nice things

Last night a friend of a friend invited us swimming at a private pond in a Boston exurb.

Part of me felt suspicious of the place. Something about the feeling of “this is something rich people do” and the knowledge that the adults chatting in deck chairs were doctors and professors made me almost allergic. I could feel my inner college-era socialist getting her hackles up.

But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I think it boiled down to: the things there were actually enjoyable at a basic level, not just good for signaling superiority over other people.

I would like every child on Earth to have the chance to spend hot July evenings swimming at a place like this. I understand that paying lifeguards and maintaining bathrooms costs money, and that there needs to be some public or private way to cover those costs. But it’s not so expensive that realistically more communities couldn’t provide this.

Looking into it more, that’s perhaps the problem. The pond is members-only, but the website doesn’t explain how to become a member, and a review notes that there’s a waiting list. Possibly you have to know somebody. That explains why it was so uncrowded on Sunday evening.

The approach I prefer is public beaches like Sandy Beach in Winchester, maintained as a state park. Because it’s open to the public, it fits my sensibilities more: on hot nights it’s crowded with families from all over the surrounding cities, playing Brazilian music and barbecuing. The main improvement would be if it were on public transit.

A lot of stuff I associate with fancy / rich people is wasteful because a lot of the resources are going to arms-race type spending to get ahead of the others. But some things, like a place to swim, would just be good to have more of. I would love to see more areas like this available, either through paid membership for people who want to pay for less crowding, or public beaches for people like me who don’t mind.

Unintended pregnancy in folk songs

I’ve been listening to a lot of the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy this week. It’s reminded me how absolutely full British folk music is of songs about unintended pregnancy.

Most commonly the result is unhappy motherhood:

“But if I had kent that I now ken
And taken my mother’s bidding o
I wouldn’t be sitting by our fireside
Crying hushabye my bairnie-o.

It’s hushaba for I’m your ma
but the Lord knows who’s your daddy-o
So it’s girls take care and you beware
of the ploughboys in the gloaming-o.”
– “When I was noo but sweet sixteen

Sometimes extremely unhappy motherhood:

“The rain wets my yellow locks, the dew wets me still
The babe is cold in my arms, love — Lord Gregory, let me in.”
Lass of Loch Royal

(His mother turns her away and suggests she drown herself, resulting in predictable tragedy.)

There’s occasionally a responsible father, as in “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle“, but this one is also thwarted by disapproving parents:

“When the full nine months were gone and past, she brought to me a son
And it’s then that I was sent for to see what could be done
And once more I said I’d marry her, but no that wouldn’t do
‘For you’re no match for my bonny belle, and she’s not a match for you.’
And I took my young son in my arms, and joy to him I’ll bring
And maybe he’ll mean as much to me as the girl that I adore.”

(I wonder if that last more tender couplet was maybe added in the 70s by Robin and Barry Dransfield, as I don’t see it in other versions.)

Tam Lin” includes a memorable description of morning sickness:

There’s four and twenty ladies all in the court
Grown red as any rose
Excepting for young Margaret
And green as glass she goes, any grass,
Yes green as glass she goes.

Outten spoke the first serving girl,
She lifted her head and smiled
“I think me lady’s loved too long
And now she goes with child, me dears
Now she goes with child.”

And outten spoke the second serving girl
“Oh ever and alas,” Said she
“I think I know a herb in the merry green wood
That’ll twine the babe from thee, Lady
That’ll twine the babe from thee.”

Margaret’s lover interrupts her as she’s picking the abortifacient herb and reveals that he’s been absent because of being kept captive by the fairies (an unusual excuse). He tells her how to rescue him, and they go on to have one of the few happy endings in balladry.

Unhappy parenthood is the most common plot outcome, but there’s also infanticide, as in “The Cruel Mother“:

“She leaned her back against a thorn
And there she had two little babes born

She took her penknife keen and sharp
And pierced those two babes to the heart.”

(This one ends with haunting and damnation.)

And homicide, as in “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” After a courtship goes on longer than convenient, the man invites his lover to the woods and murders her. Pregnancy isn’t mentioned until the last line when the vengeful ghost returns:

“She ripped him and stripped and tore him in three,
Saying, ‘That’s for the murder of my baby and me.'”

As a teenager when I first heard a lot of these ballads, they seemed like they were about unhappy, sometimes melodramatically unhappy love. I didn’t quite get just how many unhappy long-term situations must have resulted from lack of reliable birth control.

Valentine exchange 2019

It’s time for a valentine exchange! Here’s how it works:

  • email me with your name and mailing address (julia.d.wise at gmail)
  • I’ll let you know who you’re exchanging with
  • make or buy about 4 valentines and mail them by the end of this weekend
  • enjoy checking the mail!

As per usual, I’ve forgotten to announce this with enough leeway for international mail arriving on time. Most participants will likely be in the US, so you’re welcome to participate internationally but you’ll get your mail on the late side — sorry!

Contractor mindset vs. homeowner mindset

Jeff is redoing our bathroom, which involves taking down walls with old lead paint on them. He’s sealed off that portion of the house, and when he’s doing leaded work he doesn’t come back in the rest of the house until he’s taken off his coveralls, changed clothes, washed his hands in the basement, showered, and changed clothes again. That’s what you do if you’re an informed parent who doesn’t want your kids to get lead poisoning.

When my dad worked in construction, the comment made after a shoddy job was “Well, I can’t see it from my house.” That’s basically the attitude I’ve seen from contractors about things like lead dust, despite laws about precautions they’re supposed to take. When our electrician’s assistant cut through an old wall with no precautions, scattering lead dust all over the inside of a closet (containing, unfortunately, the cleaning supplies), I called to complain. “I have no way of knowing what’s in your walls,” the electrician told me, though we both know very well what’s likely to be in 1920s walls given that lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978.

I called the state lead safety agency, the ones theoretically in charge of enforcement. They told me to clean my house really well.

The next time the electrician needed to go through a wall, he promised he’d put down a dropcloth. He did — it covered the area just under the work, and the dust extended for yards beyond it, including down the stairway where he tracked it on his way out. When I went to clean it up, it was like one of those cakes where you can see the shape of where the doily was laid, because the icing sugar is sprinkled everywhere else.

That’s the kind of work you get when the incentive is to look like you’re doing the right thing, rather than to actually prevent lead from getting into your children’s bodies. You get a dropcloth that pretends to address the problem. You get a phone number where you can call and get no help.


Last night I was talking with Jeff about some health problems I’ve been trying to figure out. I made a long list of things I had tried already, and a shorter list of things I haven’t tried. I spent a lot of the conversation arguing to him why the remaining things were unlikely to work.

I was essentially in contractor mindset. As if it weren’t my house, and all I needed to do was demonstrate that I’d taken some reasonable steps. But when you’re the homeowner, when it’s your roof that’s leaking, when you’re the parent of the children who live there, it’s not enough to try. You have to actually fix the problem. If you stop when you have taken the steps that could reasonably be expected of you, it’s you and your family who bear the cost.

I’m trying to balance this with the virtue of acceptance. I may try every single thing on both lists, and I may never find anything that works all that well. I may just need to learn to live with the status quo.

But it would suck to try 15 out of 20 things and never find out that the 18th thing on the list would have helped. This body is my home. If I can summon the energy, it’s time to keep trying.