Thursday, January 29, 2009

no place for hand made

I've been trying to find a way to talk about a new business I've started - I wanted to tell a funny story or poignant one about how I was inspired to start making things and selling them online. But quite honestly, after working on children's toys every spare moment for the past two weeks, I have no excess creative energy with which to write. Go see what I've done: The HooberBloob Studio. It should speak for itself.

In lieu of HooberBloob's origin story, I give you an article from Forbs about a government act which threatens to dismantle my business before it's even off the ground:
Scrap The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act
Walter Olson, 01.16.09, 04:21 PM EST
Self-congratulation makes for bad law.

If someone you know volunteers at a thrift store or crochets baby hats for the crafts site Etsy or favors handmade wooden toys as a baby shower gift, you've probably been hearing the alarms about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).

Hailed almost universally on its passage last year--it passed the Senate 89 to three and the House by 424 to one, with Ron Paul the lone dissenter--CPSIA is now shaping up as a calamity for businesses and an epic failure of regulation, threatening to wipe out tens of thousands of small makers of children's items from coast to coast, and taking a particular toll on the handcrafted and creative, the small-production-run and sideline at-home business, not to mention struggling retailers. How could this have happened?

Congress passed CPSIA in a frenzy of self-congratulation following last year's overblown panic over Chinese toys with lead paint. Washington's consumer and environmentalist lobbies used the occasion to tack on some other long-sought legislative goals, including a ban on phthalates used to soften plastic.

The law's provisions were billed as stringent, something applauded by high-minded commentators as a way to force the Mattels and Fisher-Prices of the world to keep more careful watch on the supply chains of their Chinese factories.

Barbed with penalties that include felony prison time and fines of $100,000, the law goes into effect in stages; one key deadline is Feb. 10, when it becomes unlawful to ship goods for sale that have not been tested. Eventually, new kids' goods will all have to be subjected to more stringent "third-party" testing, and it will be unlawful to give away untested inventory even for free.

The first thing to note is that we're not just talking about toys here. With few exceptions, the law covers all products intended primarily for children under 12. That includes clothing, fabric and textile goods of all kinds: hats, shoes, diapers, hair bands, sports pennants, Scouting patches, local school-logo gear and so on.

And paper goods: books, flash cards, board games, baseball cards, kits for home schoolers, party supplies and the like. And sporting equipment, outdoor gear, bikes, backpacks and telescopes. And furnishings for kids' rooms.

And videogame cartridges and audio books. And specialized assistive and therapeutic gear used by disabled and autistic kids.

Again with relatively few exceptions, makers of these goods can't rely only on materials known to be unproblematic (natural dyed yarn, local wood) or that come from reputable local suppliers, or even ones that are certified organic.

Instead they must put a sample item from each lot of goods through testing after complete assembly, and the testing must be applied to each component. For a given hand-knitted sweater, for example, one might have to pay not just, say, $150 for the first test, but added-on charges for each component beyond the first: a button or snap, yarn of a second color, a care label, maybe a ribbon or stitching--with each color of stitching thread having to be tested separately.

Suddenly the bill is more like $1,000--and that's just to test the one style and size. The same sweater in a larger size, or with a different button or clasp, would need a new round of tests--not just on the button or clasp, but on the whole garment. The maker of a kids' telescope (with no suspected problems) was quoted a $24,000 testing estimate, on a product with only $32,000 in annual sales.

Could it get worse? Yes, it could. Contrary to some reports, thrift and secondhand stores are not exempt from the law. Although (unlike creators of new goods) they aren't obliged to test the items they stock, they are exposed to liability and fines if any goods on their shelves (or a component button, bolt, binding, etc.) are found to test above the (very low) thresholds being phased in.

Nor does it get them off the hook to say an older product's noncompliance with the new standards wasn't something they knew or should have known about (let alone to say anyone was harmed; the whole controversy from start to finish has gone on with precious little showing of real-world harm to American kids from most of the goods being banned).

Thrift store managers, often volunteers themselves, have no way to guess whether every grommet or zipper on a kids' jacket or ink on an old jigsaw puzzle box or some plastic component of Mom's old roller skates would pass muster.

"The reality is that all this stuff will be dumped in the landfill," predicted Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Among the biggest losers if that happens: poorer parents who might start having to buy kids' winter coats new at $30 rather than used at $5 or $10.

And even worse: Since the law does not exempt books, children's' sections at libraries and bookstores will, at minimum, face price hikes on newly acquired titles and, at worse, may have to rethink older holdings.

After all, no one has the slightest idea how many future violations lie hidden in the stacks and few want to play a guessing game about how seriously officialdom will view illegality. "Either they take all the children's books off the shelves," Associate Executive Director Emily Sheketoff of the American Library Association told the Boston Phoenix, "or they ban children from the library."

Antique dolls? Old model-car collections? Musical instruments? Vintage bicycles? Some will go underground in private collectors' clubs, others will be tossed on the bonfires of the new Cultural Revolution.

A traditional attraction on the heritage festival circuit is the kids' dance or performance troupe in ethnic, pioneer or frontier garb, often handcrafted with the sort of ornate detail (beads, pendants, lace inserts, etc.) that will not be practical to test.

The same goes for Native American kids' cherished moccasins, buckskins and powwow gear. Making matters worse, many foreign producers of craft and small-batch toys and clothes, chary of liability under the law, are planning to exit the American market entirely, a step already taken by three German toymakers.

In recent weeks, as thousands of crafters and retailers began to compare notes and realize that they would soon be left with stocks of unsalable merchandise, forced out of business or both, the protests have begun to mount: alarm-raising at hundreds of blogs and forums, a torrent of Twitter discussion, YouTube videos, endangered-products lists, Facebook groups and so forth.

A group called Handmade Toy Alliance is calling attention to the law's burdens in that area. Booksellers are mobilizing. Yet prominent consumer groups have continued to defend even the law's more extreme applications, and their spokespersons are dismissive of public outrage. "I haven't heard a single legitimate concern yet," Public Citizen's David Arkush wrote last month.

The consumer groups--and the congressional offices of key CPSIA backers Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif.--have blamed opposition to the law on "misinformation" and "confusion."

Defenders of the law point out, for example, that item-by-item enforcement at thrift shops is unlikely to be an enforcement priority any time soon for the Consumer Product Safety Commission's 100 field investigators.

The thing is, few librarians, eBay sellers or knitters want to be told that they're outlaws but at too small-fry a level to attract the authorities' attention. They want to be legal.

Besides, the law grants enforcement authority not only to the CPSC but to the 50 state attorneys general, which means anyone who ships nationally, small fry or not, is at the mercy of whomever turns out to be the least reasonable attorney general, a post for which there is always considerable competition.

As CPSIA opponents mobilize, the phrase "unintended consequences" is often heard. Part of the irony, after all, is that the Hasbros and Targets, with their standardization and economies of scale, can afford to adapt to such rules as part of their business plan, while the sorts of enterprises that initially looked to benefit most from the Chinese toy scare--local, organic and so forth--are also the ones who find it hardest to comply.

But the failure here runs deeper. This was not some enactment slipped through in the dead of night: It was one of the most highly publicized pieces of legislation to pass Congress last year.

And yet now it appears precious few lawmakers took the time to check what was in the bill, while precious few in the press (which ran countless let's-pass-a-law articles) cared to raise even the most basic questions about what the law was going to require.

Yes, something's being exposed as systematically defective here. But it's not the contents of our kids' toy chests. It's the way we make public policy.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The Rule of Lawyers and other books. He edits
I won't actually let this keep me from making and selling my products on Etsy, but that doesn't mean my favorite small-scale local toy and book stores will be able to do the same thing. More likely, thousands of small businesses around the country will be closing their doors at a time when jobs are so desperately needed. Or they will have to adapt and sell the same mass-market plastic McCrap you find at Ubermarts across the land. And that would be a real tragedy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

...the dogs die

I've been spending way too much time on youtube lately. For those of you who miss those awkward junior high sex ed classes, I give you "Sensual Stretching." (Grandma, you can skip this one):

Monday, January 19, 2009

our day in the snow

The conditions were perfect for building snowmen today, so after lunch and naptime, we all headed out back and went to work. River followed us around as Thom and I rolled three little balls of snow into three very sizable snowman parts. River kept falling into the foot high drifts, and every few seconds we'd hear, "Stuck! Stuck!" and have to go pry him loose. The going was slow, but the effort worth it in the end. We made the face from a lemon, a parsnip, and a handful of blueberries. It's been over ten years (perhaps 20) since I last made a snowman - a fact that is just astonishing to me. All in all, it was a pretty perfect afternoon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

mother of two

I have a new son and his name is "Bear." River is very fond of this large, cuddly stuffed bear our friend J-man won at the Circus Circus in Las Vegas (word is he had to crush the hopes and dreams of a pack of 5 year olds to get it, so I feel pretty honored to have acquired the coveted prize). We've had Bear around for almost a year now, and over that time River has developed a real friendship with him. He carries him around, plays under "tents" with him, pushes him up his bunk bed ladder, and generally treats him like a friend.

In the past week, though, Bear has become a member of the family. It started the other day when River dressed him in a fireman hat and pulled him behind him for hours. I love the idea of River creating an imaginary friend from his critters - it was a favorite pastime for me when I was little. But the damn hat wouldn't stay on his head, so every thirty seconds--as River pulled Bear from room to room--I'd hear, "Bear! Hat! Bear! Hat!" and have to replace the offending headgear. Then I tried to get all three of us upstairs for lunch and picked both "boys" up and started climbing. You would not believe to squeals I heard. The squealing continued for twenty minutes until I finally followed River's pantomime's downstairs and let him push Bear up, step-by-excruciating-step. River just wanted Bear to climb up like a real boy, and would not give up that idea until it was done.

After that whatever River was doing, Bear had to do too. If River read a book, Bear was right next to him. If River had lunch, Bear was on the seat beside, drinking from his own sippy cup. When it was necessary to do a diaper change, Bear had to have one too, and River then insisted poor naked Bear needed clothes. He's been a shadow to our every move this week, and like a little brother to River. He takes naps, puts on his coat to go outside, and takes car rides with us. He likes chocolate milk and has a habit of catching on fire (so River and his fireman "guys" can put him out).

This was not how I imagined life with a second child, but it could be worse. At least Bear doesn't wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

goodbye and hello

Since becoming a mother almost two years ago, I've had little time (and if truth be told, inclination) to pursue any acting work. At the moment, I feel safe to say I am on an indefinite hiatus from acting and don't know when or if I'll go back to it.

Instead, what started as extreme nesting syndrome has slowly developed into a passion for creating things for the home. As this new year begins, so does a budding home business in which I will make toys, artwork, clothing, and home decor to sell online. My focus will be on children, but some more subversive ideas may develop into an adult (no, not like that, you dirty people - just "grown-up") line as well.

I'm in the process of finding some childcare so that I actually have time to make things, but once that is settled, I'll be excited to get up and running.

Of course as all of this is in the works, I found in my email today a message from a director I worked with a few years ago. Turns out the festival circuit was a dud but someone liked his movie enough to add it to the IMDB list. Which means, as a cast member, I can be found on a pretty legit database. I checked it out this morning and found out a few of the movies I've been in have had at least moderate success promoting themselves, because I'm listed under three films. Crazy, no?

Needless to say I'm pretty happy that all those years of work led to at least the minor appearance of success. It's funny that it should come now, just as I'm ready to tuck that chapter of my life into a box and store it way. I feel a sad little loss of identity in making an official goodbye to acting, but I also know that should the time come, I can happily dust that box off and begin anew.

Friday, January 09, 2009

overheard in the bathtub

Thom: "Eye. Patch. Eye. Patch."

River: "Eye...patch. Aaargh!"

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

River News: Month Twenty-One

Dear River,

Happy 21 months! Between traveling, Christmas, and New Years, this one kind of snuck up on me. It wasn't until about 9am on New Years Day, as your dad and I were lounging on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, that I realized you had officially turned one month older. You spent the day making your grandparents swoon and giggle, while your dad and I basked in the sunshine and drank margaritas--a wonderful way to kick off a new month and a new year.

So much of this month has been consumed by making and (as little as I could possibly get away with) buying presents that I'm having a hard time thinking of all the wonderful kernels of how you've changed. One reason I was able to accomplish so much (three stuffed animals and 32 placemats sewn!) is that you have learned how to entertain yourself for longer and longer periods of time. Now, we're talking five minutes here, ten minutes there, but compared to the constant attention you demanded just a few months ago, this has felt like an eternity to me. Five whole minutes without reading any books, pushing any trucks, or doing any silly dances?! That's an insane bounty of time!

When you have those happy independent moments it's hard to actually use that time wisely and not to just watch you dreaming up your own world. You make little games of tearing up paper and throwing it away, coloring abstract expressionist art, talking to your critters and "guys," and I am dying to know what's happening in the amazing labyrinth of your mind.

As your language keeps growing and growing, it's easier to figure out what you're thinking and what you want. You've just had an explosion of words this month, putting little sentences together like "make playdough" (the cutest word in the world, which sounds like "pay-oohh") and "mommy tickle." The words you are learning faster than any other are names for people and pets. Our kitty Edgar has gone from "Ger" to "Egger" and in addition to Dadu and Nanu (my parents) you've started saying "Ama and Apa" (for daddy's parents, Oma and Opa). Cousin Sydney ("Neyce"), Uncle Nelse ("Unc"), auntie Jenn ("Jar"), Auntie Crystal ("Tanta"), Uncle Kevin ("Unc Kev") have all enjoyed hearing their new River names.

This month we went to Las Vegas to celebrate Christmas, and you had an extraordinary time. You slept well, ate well (as well as a toddler can be expected to), played with everyone, and seemed to have no trouble spending time with any of the million people paraded in front of you. Your dad and I took this opportunity to go away from you for the first time, leaving you with the grandparents while we had a little Mexican holiday over New Years. It was four days of bliss for all of us. You were on your best behavior for the grandparents, and dad and I were able to relax, read books, and only occasionally pine for you. By the last day, I was really ready to see my little guy, and as soon as I broke through the airport customs door, I ran over and swooped you up. And, true to form, you said, "Dadda."

Apparently, all that good behavior was very draining on you because the next day you were a pile of whine and fuss. The flight to Boston was the roughest we've had yet - 40 minutes of straight screaming - but once we got back in our own house with our happy cats, you found your way back to sane.

I was going to start this next paragraph with something like: "The theme of this month has been Get Away From Me Mommy! You have decided that your dad is just the bees knees and you want to be near him constantly. Meanwhile, I'm as appealing to you as a week-old slab of spam. Any effort to show affection or love is met with a firm, "No!" No hugs, no kisses, don't hold me, don't touch me, you silly mommy, you. I know this is a common phase for toddlers. Suddenly that life-giving, all-powerful, pure source of love - the mommy - turns into a not-so-fun robot set on the verbal repeat of "No." Daddy is exotic - he's away for most of the day, so he's not around to tell you not to eat food off the bathroom floor or to shove you into uncomfortable snow boots and coats 15 times a day. I get it. I do. Dad is rad, and mom is the stuff you want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe."

However, since we came back from Vegas, this severe distaste for all things mommy seems to have faded, and you've gone back to being my cuddly, funny, mommy-loving boy. It's amazing what a few extra hugs can do for my mood. After a little session of snuggling and peek-a-boo in bed yesterday, I felt like I'd been mainlining opium. Whoo hoo! Look at all the colors! I'm sure we'll go back to the grumpy-gus at some point, but I'm drinking these moments in right now.

This has been a hard and wonderful year. More than ever I feel like being a mommy is the most difficult, most rewarding, most life-fulfilling job ever, and I cannot wait to see what 2009 brings for all of us.

I love you love you love you,