Over the last few months, the most wondrous thing has suddenly picked up steam like a bullet train. 

My 7-year-old grandson is READING.  Just about everywhere, and everything.  Books for his younger sister, longer and more complex stories for himself, the funny papers, restaurant menus, street signs, instructions on the sides of game boxes.  He can’t get every word yet, but already he’s getting most, with more all the time.  No more questions to me about “what does this say?”  He just picks things up and reads them.

As with so many life-changing landmarks with children, there was no fanfare, no siren blaring upon the arrival of this new phase. I remember the day that my daughter (his mom) took her first steps, grasping the edge of the couch cushion at the babysitter’s house.  Oddly, there were no pealing of bells, no swelling Broadway chorus of She’s Walking!  When Buddy offered to read a page of a book I was reading aloud to his sister, he proceeded to do so without hesitation or error.  The only announcement was the surely audible pounding of my proud heart.  (And I might have swelled up some, like the stentorious Mr. Toad.)

Rich images of mesmerizing potential came quickly into view.  How could I help him to love books, like I do?  Maybe like the bookstore as much, or more, than the video store? Will he someday enjoy discussing a favorite author, maybe argue the merits of one legendary fictional character vs. another?  (For example, would the immortal “gentleman’s personal gentleman” Jeeves stay with Bertie Wooster if the legendary bachelor ever got hitched?  OK, perhaps that one is a bit of a stretch this early, but you get the idea.)

Yet with many of those same childhood miracles, there is a lingering shadow or two to consider.  Suddenly, I’m scrambling to adequately offer appropriate reading choices.  How to stock the home library when he visits?  My current inventory of children’s reading looks more like a bookshelf for Sis, at five:  more of the Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, Little Owl, you know the gentle, lull-them-to-sleep variety.  Sis still likes these selections and still loves us to read aloud.

For the older brother, current popular choices run toward things about which his G-ma knows a Big Towering Zilch.  What, pray enlighten me, is the concept behind Minecraft, books and games featuring a bunch of pixillated images filled with characters made of Legos?  And even tougher to grasp, if you lightly examine the visuals, we have “Plants vs. Zombies.”  The cartoon books (thank goodness I have not yet been subjected to the actual video game) seem to contain tales of using plants to prevent zombies from eating brains.  We can all agree to vote for preserving brains, that’s affirmative, but Is this something that a grandparent wants to stock around the house?  Does the joy of discussing books with my grandson stretch to a zombie tale? 

Still contemplating the answer to that one, I already yearn for the days when I didn’t fear the open world of words and its power to deprive Buddy of his  innocence.  Last week we had a terrible mass shooting here in our city.  Should I put away the newspaper when he comes over?  A week or so earlier, we pulled up in traffic next to a car with a glittering, metallic sticker on the passenger window nearest us that shouted, “F….k this Shit.”  Buddy, in his car seat in the back, could look straight at this window.  I eased the car slightly forward and asked him a distracting question, hoping I wouldn’t be the first soul he asked to explain those words.  Maybe I’m kidding myself; maybe it’s already happened.  I decided I didn’t want to ask.  It’s a tough world out there.

 At the grassroots level of daily kid management, the wonderful world of reading also threatens one of the most historically effective operational tricks of adult supervision.  What he can read, he will very soon also spell, and then life as we know it is a whole new ball game.  How are we supposed to talk about the children in front of them, without spelling out the relevant sensitivities?

First signal of this upcoming cataclysm occurred recently when I asked his mother, in front of him, about options for dinner.  “What do you think we should give them to E.A.T.?” I asked.  Standing nearby, Buddy froze in his tracks, his face a map of intense concentration.  I watched him slowly, silently mouth the letters—E. A. T..  In a split second, his expression shifted from effort to triumph.  Certain in his comprehension, he turned to me and smiled hopefully as he suggested, “Pizza?”

As the era looms when this useful operational technique fades into obsolescence, what will emerge in its place?  What if I need to telegraph some transgression that landed him in time out, without him realizing I sold him out to the authorities?  Or—and yes, this can happen when you least expect it—he has eaten something that his system rejected, and I need to tell his mom he had D I A R R H E A?  Thank goodness, it appears that spelling trails reading by a somewhat workable margin, so perhaps there is a brief window to plot a future alternative.

Back on the literature selection front, I recently observed Buddy reading a newly reprinted volume I found of the 1936 children’s classic Manners Can Be Fun.  This book, with its cartoon characters impersonating various ill-mannered transgressions, still teaches and amuses at the same time, 80 years after original publication.  The Snoopers (and their huge noses) walk right into rooms without knocking!  “If they…asked if they might come in, people would not call them SNOOPERS.”

Buddy pointed to his favorite Manners character, Touchey, who has nine arms and hands, but no head.  Touchey never thinks about whether he should touch things or not;  “Maybe it’s because he hasn’t any head—he is all hands.”  If poor headless Touchey, with his nine hands on stick arms, can still generate a spontaneous cackle, maybe there is still time before the little-boy perspective shifts forever into a different realm.  Or maybe even in our overwhelmingly digital universe, some books, some old stories still stand tall in the test of time, with enduring charm for all ages, ad infinitum. Maybe it’s both.  I hope so.

Let’s get to the meat first, and get the suspense out of the way:  I blew it.

Or, you could view it through a different lens, and say I triumphed.  You can decide for yourself, with some scoop on the details.

About what, you ask?  For those who missed the earlier installment (read it here, if you like), my sister and I agreed at New Year’s to stop shopping for the first quarter of 2018.  This experiment was inspired by author Ann Patchett’s December 2017 New York Times essay, “My Year of No Shopping.”  While we both admire Patchett, this wasn’t a pilgrimage to the Ann Tribe. We just thought it would be fascinating to see what happened.  

And we were right.

To get started, Sis and I each set our own rules.  She and I have been doing that in shared activities since I followed her onto the family roster 21 months after she emerged as firstborn. Thank goodness one of the great gifts of our age is the ability to view those differences with a light heart.  Besides, we are interested in so many of the same things, and this was definitely one of those.

My rules were these:  No clothes, shoes, jewelry, or home decorating items. That meant no buying, and no looking.  Unlike Patchett, I allowed shopping for gifts.   Anything in the grocery store was also permissible.  At the last minute, I exempted a pair of new glasses, an important image item for a professional person, admitting to Sis that my current ones are sorely outdated. 

All this yielded to one of the most intriguing efforts I’ve ever undertaken to change my behavior and genuinely study the outcome.  While I didn’t succeed completely, my lapses focused a bright light on what motivates, and why.

The first lapse began with sheer forgetfulness; old habits, etc.  I stopped by a favorite shop in early January (DUH—deadly time for sales)  to pick up some jeans I had ordered before Christmas. Two minutes in, I stuck my arms into the sleeves of a sale jacket before I even thought about it.  Confession No. 1:  I quickly realized it but failed to back track, and I walked out with a fabulous rose-pink darling that I’ve probably already worn a dozen times.  Cost:  $50 plus tax.  Painfully ambivalent about the fabulous score vs. the early lapse of discipline, I emailed Sis a photo and confessed.  Why a photo?  Was the perceived value of a prize bargain going to excuse me, to myself or her?  Ha!

“Welcome back on the wagon,” she responded.

My other two lapses had a common thread.  They occurred on outings with old friends, the kind who know what you treasure and where you can acquire it.  Shopping with Pals for Fun or Sport was thus identified as a major weak point. Confession No. 2:  I told myself I would only buy gifts.  What garbage.  Nevertheless, good fun was had, and the damage for both trips was four small items for me at a total of $39.  When I confessed to one pal why I  shouldn’t be there, she promised not to tell and conveyed absolution with a sign of the cross.  (I love you, girlfriend; you know who you are.)

Final score: Three lapses in three months, total damage of $89, not that the actual outlay was the point.  Not bad; or, is it?

However we score those final results, the learning was invaluable.  Two things, in particular, really stick with me.

First, I used to consider myself a pretty savvy shopper, reasonably aware of trends and where to get good value.  Looking back, it’s hard to know when those skills vaporized. But when I chose to stop, it was painfully clear how extensively the commercial machine had been managing my buying habits, rather than the other way around.  Heaven help us, the evidence was everywhere:  emails, snail mail coupons, catalogues, and most heinous of all, those ads that trail you, anywhere you go in the far reaches of the world wide web.  I had ordered shoes from Tom’s for several family members for Christmas, and throughout my three-month test, I could have described their extensive spring offerings for men, women, or children, though I never once went to their site to look on my own.

Coupons trumpeting radically slashed prices, but JUST THIS WEEK?  Pre-test, I would have definitely caught that sale and likely bought something, because a bargain is a bargain, right?  During our Buy-Less Quarter, I exulted in hurling tempters away, tossing unread catalogues into the recycling bin, ripping coupons in shreds before pitching them into the smelly kitchen garbage, where retrieval is too disgusting to contemplate.  I deleted those promotional emails, which were sickeningly frequent.  Some arrived daily.  (Really, retailers? That begins to feel harassment.) There was triumph when I took time to unsubscribe from most of them.  

With the benefit of clarity provided by abstinence,  I see how these commercial entities know way more about me than should ever be comfortable.  It’s not as bad, though close, as if my data was stolen from Facebook for election tampering.  It may not be completely possible nowadays, but I want them out of my email, out of my land mailbox, and out of my hair—and I will learn what options I may employ to make that happen.  If I want value for my money, I’ll figure out how to find it, and when.  It’s enough to inspire a shopper to carry cash again and leave no trail.

The second lesson was equally eye-opening.  One of the expeditions with my old friend was to a retail store for Bybee Pottery, a handmade craft operation that has operated in my home state of Kentucky for nearly 200 years.  We have collected their work in my family for decades, so I bought several gifts for family and friends.  The next day, there were the two boxes, filled with carefully wrapped works of beautiful craft, sitting on my table, awaiting a destination. Even knowing how lovely the contents, I felt sick.  Now, I thought, I have to deal with all this stuff:  Unwrap, or don’t? Find precious shelf space to store it until those future birthdays,  where? Load up the boxes for the recycling center, and on it goes.  Here, in high photographic relief, was a picture of the rippling burdens of our buying habits, reaching far beyond the cost and purchase of the objects.

And what about my partner in this endeavor? My sister, an exceptionally game soul, agreed to share her own learning for this Chronicle.

“I learned that the habit of acquiring what you want, when you want to, is hard to break,” she reflected.  “But once I did, not shopping became the habit that replaced it.”  That led her to wonder if she would now avoid buying what she might actually need, in the force of the new pattern.

A few days after the experiment ended, she popped in to a favorite craft gallery and gift store we both love, in search of a present.   The experience, after the Buy-Less Quarter, just wasn’t the same.  “It reminded me of when I cut a lot of sweets out of my diet,” she said.  “Once you get used to not eating them, they don’t taste as good.”

For anyone who might chose to undertake this, I highly recommend a partner, preferably one as intrepid as my sister  There’s nothing like sharing your pain, or your failures, with those who understand.  Our Buy-Less Quarter yielded some pretty spirited email dialogue.  As the weeks wore on and the regime tested our patience, communication included sisterly debate over things like the spirit vs. the letter of the law.  A few excerpted highlights follow: 

Me:  Meant to say I also loved (Ann Patchett’s) comments about digging out old products and using them.  I have used this technique before with great success.  Especially on those samples you get at the cosmetic counter.  They are like gold.  

Sis:  Yes. I am currently working thru my little toothpaste samples and various bottles of lotion.  Bonus:  less clutter!  Do you need any soap?  I have enough to last until at least the year 2030.

Me:  Ha!  I propose peripheral rule:  no reducing clutter by shoving it off on each other.

Sis:  So you don’t need soap?  How about knee-high nylons?

Me:  Proposed rule No. 2:  no purging of items subsequently deemed injurious to health in the decades since purchase.  Such items must be discarded, or the judges will inflict a substantial penalty.

Sis:  Knee-highs would go nicely with your outdated glasses.

And later, there was this:

Sis:  So far so good…Just tossed LL Bean catalog with three pages dog-eared for possible purchases.  One thing I feel like crying about but I’m holding firm.  For now.

Me:   Be strong.  This a.m. I tossed Garnet Hill, furious that the cover featured a beautiful new print in those cotton pajamas I love so much. Think I actually hurled it with some force, rather than tossing. Seemed to help.

And finally, this exchange, when we were speculating what we would do immediately upon conclusion:

Sis:  I’m going to be up at midnight and ready (with laptop) on March 31.

Me:  When was the last time you were up at midnight?

Finally, Sis and I agreed on one key tenet that represents an opportunity for some enterprising genius.  With the clarity of abstinence, we saw that our shopping habits had been driven, in part, by sheer frustration with the evolution of retailing, particularly for women of our generation.  With old, trusted brands disappearing, true customer service in retail largely gone, and the stores we once loved long consigned to history, it becomes a dad gum problem to know where to go for something you may actually need. Such problems can nudge one to impulse buying and promotion-oriented purchases, fueled by the sheer hope of finding SOMETHING, anything, that works.

So here’s a clarion call to Sara Blakely, Oprah Winfrey, or even Elon Musk:  One of you genius innovators could fix this problem.  There are customers waiting for you, if you do.

Meanwhile, Sis and I got just enough from our Buy-Less Quarter to see the landscape much differently.  Can’t speak for her, but I’m restriction-free for a few months, though with new eyes on all of it.  Later, I may try it again.