THE OTHER DAY I WAS TALKING to a high school student who, describing some highlights of junior year, began enthusing about a segment in her psychology class involving flower babies.
"Flower babies?" I repeated, knowing that there are many things about school today of which I am ignorant. Was this a pedagogical term for the children of flower children? Did it have something to do with tiny plants? "We had to dress it up and give it a name," the girl continued, explaining how you had to take your flower baby everywhere, how you couldn't leave it on the bus or abandon it in your locker, how she gave her flower baby a fake head and a pacifier. At some point I realized she meant not flower baby but flour baby -- that she was talking about those programs in which schoolkids are given a child-substitute, in this case a sack of flour, as a way of teaching them the grave reality that is parenthood.
"It was so tedious," she concluded. "It made me think that having kids is not the greatest thing."
Flour babies, I thought -- how times have changed. When I went to junior high school in the '70s, there was a day in home ec when girls were taught how to roll their hair. For seven periods we roamed the halls in bobby pins and curlers, before fluffing ourselves out at the end of the day. Now kids are lugging sacks of flour to persuade them to avoid the very domestic entanglements we were encouraged to pursue. Is flour more effective than curlers, I wondered, in teaching kids how to think realistically about their romantic lives? Are schools the place to do this? And -- most important -- if as a society we are going to use dusty inanimate objects as stand-ins for human relationships, are teenagers the only ones who need targeting?
If flour babies, I got to thinking, why not flour grandbabies?
What I mean is: Who doesn't have an unrealistic idea about domestic entanglements? For twentysomethings who themselves feel a little wary of this whole, like, marriage-and-procreation thing, wouldn't it be nice to buy a sack of flour, thrust it at your mom when you emerge from the car on a visit home, and get on with your life unharangued about how all her friends' kids are having babies? Wouldn't it be nice, sometimes, to present one's folks with a flour spouse, preferably one with a few odd habits, to help grown-ups understand the grave reality that is a daughter- or son-in-law?
Flour spouse! Think about it! Parents aside, prudent young professionals could test their own desire for a lifetime commitment by buying a bag of flour and moving in with it. "Hi, honey," you could say to your conjugal sack upon arriving home from work, trying to engage it in a serious discussion as it watches the news or checks the e-mail. In some ways, of course, a flour spouse would be deceptively superior to a real one: You could wave the Visa bill at it without having to explain why you have, once again, spent $400 on shoes.
Flour dates would also be useful. Married or not, who hasn't longed for an agreeable flour sack to serve as an escort to some tedious social or business function? Flour sacks don't grumble about having to wear a tie; they rarely say anything offensive; they're endlessly interchangeable.
In fact, given these qualities, it strikes me that flour sacks could serve as stand-ins not only for power dates but for most of establishment Washington. It's easily possible, for example, to imagine a flour sack credibly replacing almost any government spokesperson. "I'd like to comment on that matter," a Pentagon flour sack could say, "but it's a matter of national security." Agency heads could employ flour-sack scapegoats; when it emerged that American missiles had destroyed a Somalian medicine factory or NATO bombs had killed the civilians they were meant to defend, the responsible sacks could be trotted out and fired. News talk shows could be populated by sacks of flour and the insights would be every bit as trenchant. You could have a liberal and a conservative flour sack shouting at each other and call it "Crossflour."
Come to think of it, most Beltway insiders could -- and arguably should -- be replaced by flour sacks. Government would run cheaper. Everything would run cheaper. Customer service could be provided by flour sacks. When you call your insurance company to ask why it has refused to pay any of your claims, the company could employ flour sacks to help you understand why. (Perhaps it already does.)
I have to say, though, the last choice I'd make for flour-sack substitution would be a baby. If we want students to appreciate what a wiggling giggling baby is really like, what could be less appropriate than a charmless sack of flour? On the other hand, if we want students to appreciate what Vice President Gore is really like -- well, that would be a cheap joke, so I won't make it. Or rather, I'll blame it on the flour sack typing this column.
Liza Mundy's e-mail address is email@example.com.