Sunday, May 31, 2009

Waiting for Godot at the A & P

When we moved to Mamaroneck, our proximity to the New Ro Stop-N-Shop came to an abrupt and tearful end. No more would we see Shuffles, bagging with an alacrity rarely seen in these here parts. Trader Joe, always a favorite, became our go-to destination for all things edible.

But woe: There are items that Trader Joe does not carry.

For that, we must turn to the local A & P, the branch of Mamaroneck Avenue fame. First of all, the place does not even have a sign out on the road, so unless one is in "the know," one would never happen upon the store for any reason whatsoever. We got the tip-off from a neighbor, and felt very smug about our little find. That is, until we realized that the A & P is merely a front for an old-age swinger's club. As relative youths, we had obviously trespassed into the forbidden zone, where cantankerous old birds nearing their 90th birthday pushed carts down narrow, wanly-lit aisles.

Everyone is the A & P is at least 76 years old, and there are usually about 345 of these individuals patrolling the aisles during any one visit. The lighting is ghastly, and doesn't do much to help the poor dears' complexions. The produce (which, by the way, is of very fine mettle--who knew?) looks yellowed and decrepit under the dim lighting, and some of the aisles are practically pitch black. You can hear the canes thwapping at the cereal boxes and the shouts of the geriatric patrons, trying to find Cream O' Wheat and other toothless-friendly foods. Sometimes an arm will reach out from the gloom and grope for assistance.

The store is also organized just to meddle with its elderly clientele. Where else can you find ant traps in the aisle next to the baby foods? I went looking for breads near the bakery, but they were down near the peanut-butter, mustard, and ketchup area of the store. I've been in the place several times but find myself wandering, hopeless and confused, unable to even consult my list in the inky darkness. I invariably return without a crucial item, and am at a loss to explain how I failed to see it. Someone is having a laugh at an old biddy's expense, no doubt!

It is when one enters the checkout lanes that the true "Waiting for Godot" nature of the A & P becomes apparent. The lines move sluggishly, if at all, and one can see the oldsters reading whole novels and withering away into nothingness as they wait their turn. Shoppers have vacant looks, and their hands dangle uselessly at their sides for whole minutes. Carts piled high with meat and Cheez-Its seem to simmer under the lights, and the air grows hot and stale. Sometimes, one feels like weeping. Each person brings 58 coupons to scan, and there is invariably a problem with 57 of them. Crabby Tina or Crabby Gert the cashier has to call the manager, and all the old ladies down the line moan and groan like a bunch of histrionic dominoes.

Every cashier is old, funny-looking, and kind of crabby. Actually, some are nice, but you get the feeling that crabbiness is but one unscannable bar code away. One time, we actually brought a coupon. It was for something significant, like $5. Of course, the cashier didn't know what to do with it. She fretted over it for several minutes, turning it this way and that, before calling on Crabby Sally to come help her out. Crabby Sally had to finish with her own customer first, thank you! That took about 6 1/2 minutes, including a cawing conversation about so-and-so's relatives. We sweated bullets while the people in line behind us shifted and murmured and some old ladies made growling noises. Should we call it off, just say forget it? No! We would stick it out, damn it! For God's sake! We wanted our $5 off! We paid for it, my friends, in the glowering disapproval of the octogenarian army.

Despite its aged population, the A & P is very strict in its alcohol carding policies. The first time I visited was my 40th birthday, and I was carded for a 4-pack of Guinness. I danced and skipped all the way to the car. My youth! My youth! I still had it.

Later, I learned that they will card anyone, and they will card them every single time they come through. No exceptions. They will card every old goat who shuffles through with walker and cane. Then, after carding the guy celebrating his 100th birthday, they will enter the alcohol purchase on a little chart and run it through the register for some kind of official validation.

If you are ever feeling vaguely old and wrinkly, just head over to the A & P and fill your cart with beer. Not only will you get carded, but you will be carded in a manner that suggests that you, feckless youth, are trying to pull something over on the eagle-eyed cashier. Not on Crabby Tina's watch, sister!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All the One-Sentence Memories I Can Write Down in the 20 Minutes in Takes My Dinner to Cook

Sitting on our Brooklyn stoop at my birthday party several years ago, offering passers-by cheese from a tray.
The baby in the afternoon sunlight today, chubby legs pulling him upward as he bit my arm for leverage.
Chasing the full Allagash moon by canoe.
My eldest son on a scooter, sailing down "Big Boy Hill" at breakneck speed, and the sucked-in breath of my neighbor who was watching him go.
Hiding in a pile of leaves, with their suffocating lightness and the scent of fall.
Running naked with my cousin down the street to hide in a ditch in the woods, and the shrieks of our mothers on the wind.
A photograph of me, age 11 and looking for all the world like an unattractive boy, on the dock with my grandfather.
A walk with a good friend to the cemetery at the top of Swett's Hill, when we talked of a boy who had been raised by badgers.
The last dive I made into my parent's pool, before they left that house forever.
Once, I was riding the exercise bicycle in the basement, and noticed that the digital clock read 4:48, and that the day was almost over.
Reading Annie Dillard in a tent while the flashlight swung above on a thin cord.
My first night in my first New York apartment, and the fierce din from 6th Avenue and Bleecker Street below.
Running over the rooftops in London with Sully, and bending down to light a smoke on the Serpentine and singing my eyelashes off.
Those awful red pants I wore when I visited New Haven, age 19, in a failed attempt to make someone fall in love with me.
One night in Cabin 11, playing "Late in the Evening" on bongos and guitar.
I swung an axe while wearing sandals, and the blade of the axe struck the dust next to my toes.
My friend Jenny leaping from a tree fort we'd made into a hammock, and the rope breaking, and Jenny tumbling unhurt to the ground.
Picking off flakes of fresh-caught and grilled Lake perch in Michigan.
My friend and I were running around the perimeter of the college campus, and I carried clementines clenched in my palms to hurl at the men who heckled us.
My counselor at camp reading us The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test while we lounged on multi-tiered bunks in a hut high in the White Mountains.
A dancing lesson at the Colony Club, and how he said he liked my short skirt when we departed up the street.
My husband's pale hair glowing in the sun from the bathroom window, in Princeton; a nimbus of light.
Another photograph: This time I'm getting dressed for my wedding, and surprised into open-mouthed gaiety.
In the next photograph from that series, I am peering around my mother's slightly-anxious profile.
Sitting on my father's shoulders in Big Sur, and him asking me to remember that moment always.

Time's up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Loss of Loneliness

Loneliness is an option rarely afforded to me anymore. When I was about 25, there was no Facebook. I had no cell phone, no quick text messages. I was occasionally and intolerably lonely. When I was lonely, I wrote. Sometimes I fretted about writing, and instead made pointless phone calls, or wandered about the apartment smoking cigarettes and thinking about writing. I thought that I might die soon, and that I'd better write, or produce something of artistic merit. I had a postcard on my wall that read: "Time marches on. Better get with it before it's gone." It had a photo of a bearded old dude on it. I have about 85 unfinished projects from this time period, and a good number of finished ones, too.

The peril of a happy marriage is that it does not often allow for hours of endless, focused writing--or any in-depth artistic production. One of my former writing teachers praised his miserable marriage for giving him an excuse to escape to his writer's studio, just to evade the harpie he'd married. As a result, he became extremely productive. Not so for me. I'd really much rather spend time with my husband, talking about all the great things we are going to do in the future. We have a fine time doing just that. My latest idea is my new book: 101 Amazing Ideas I Had But Was Too Lazy or Stupid to Execute. I probably have at least 100 of the ideas needed to complete the book. I think I could sit around and open up an Idea Studio, but someone would have to pay me. Plus, I need about 8 hours off a day to wander the garden with my children.

I've been reading an article in New York Magazine about the Defense of Distraction. This is a really interesting piece and you all should read it. The writer purports to defend "distraction" but I came away with a stronger defense of "flow," that ability to really focus on something and sink into it--a joyful experience, whether developing a shitty PowerPoint presentation or an award-winning novel. I didn't buy the fact that multitasking is good for us. Maybe it expands our brains, much as the brains of the apes who first sporked around with tools in the dust. Maybe that's all good. But I much prefer the idea of focus, flow, and turning off the automatic email alerts.

I watch my kids, and although they are distracted from minute to minute they are incredibly engaged in each moment in the thing that they are currently working on. The older one can focus for one, two, three hours on a particular art project. I try to emulate them, and then I find myself clicking on "Stickies" to add a new item to my to-do list. I hate that scattered, ragged feeling. I hear the TV on behind my head. I sometimes turn when the music gets louder. I glance down at the phone in its cradle to my right.

I wonder if my children will ever feel loneliness? Now, if I were to feel deeply sad, I would post a wan little update on Facebook. I would expect 18 comments in as many minutes: "How r u?" "Why so sad?" "awww, i'm sorry!" I would appreciate every one of these remarks. But if there were silence? Would it lead me to further sadness, or to focus more fully on the experience of loneliness? Right here, right now. Sometimes silence is good.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Words of Mein Second Son

Breakfast table conversation.

Second son: For Halloween, Daddy will be a pancake. And you will be a fork. And then you can fork Daddy!

Mommy: And what will you be for Halloween?

Second son: Fusilli pasta.

Mommy: And what about your brothers?

Second son: They will also be pancakes. And they will be forked!


Second son: When I keep running, I lose mein energy.

Mommy: Where does your energy go?

Second son: It goes right into the ground! Mein Harry O [invisible friend co-opted from older brother] told me that.


Second son: I am wearing these pants because they have growed right out of mein brother. They is mein pants now! They have growed smaller to fit me.

Mommy: How convenient!

Second son: Are you working on Daddy's pancake costume? Halloween is tomorrow!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Just Say No to Summer Camp

I want everyone to know that I loved summer camp. I loved every filthy moment of it, from slogging up the Presidentials with a frame pack, to singing "three cheers for the bus driver" to making homemade candles and leather bookmarks at YMCA Day Camp. I loved the movie Meatballs because it's about a summer camp. I went to day camp at about age 8, and overnight camp at 11.

However, I am not sending either of my boys (age 5 and 3) to any sort of summer camp whatsoever. Why would I deprive them of such a rich experience? Here in Westchester camp, like preschool, is something "to be expected" of well-to-do parents. There are swim camps, nature camps, ballet camps, and full-on everything from archery to arts and crafts camps that run from dawn until dusk. About 85 people have asked me lately where my boys will be spending the summer.

"In our back yard," is my answer. Although our house is a run-down dump with rotting holes and a 45-degree slant in the front porch (step lively!), we are lucky enough to have half an acre of property. This property has lots of grass, mud, a water spigot, a splintery old playset, a compost heap, a pumpkin patch, a strawberry patch, and a vegetable garden. It also has a long driveway filled with ruts and crumbling asphalt, just perfect for learning how to navigate a bike or a scooter.

Nature camp? Why bother when your property has a giant hedgehog, a raccoon, and a skunk in residence? Recently sighted: A pair of mallard ducks, strolling about the lawn. Also, most unfortunately, sighted: the nether half of a mouse, victim of the fat, fulsome hawk.

Really, I just want them to run like free range chickens. Let them dig up worms, and toss useless tomatoes into the compost heap. Let them pick the first raspberries of the season off the raspberry plants that we transplanted from New Rochelle. Let them strip off their clothes and piddle on the "pee tree" behind the decrepit old shed, and fire the hose at each other. After that, they can walk to the beach, or go throw rocks in the river, or get a slice of pizza in town.

This is what summer used to be about, and if every kid on the block rebelled against the overly structured "summer camp experience," what need would we have to pay a single dime—except for the ice-cream truck that rolls down the street in summer with astonishing regularity. Some parents in our neighborhood are going to do just that, I'm told. The kids will run wild, and the parents will sit on comfortable chairs and occasionally call out "Car!" to warn them from their ball play in the street.

I realize my neighborhood is unusual, and that my boys have each other—hence no need for others' company over the summer. They simply want to be together. Indeed, for some, summer camp represents child care while the parents are at work (an option I don't have with a one-year-old at home). Or it provides playmates for a bored child.

Aw, maybe I'm just complaining because I don't have the 10 grand it would cost to send both my older boys to a deluxe summer camp experience (where they would no doubt be separated because of their age difference). 10,000 dollars, people. One of my favorite summer memories was soaking the patio steps at my friend Sarah's house with a hose, and watching the toads creep out of the nooks and crannies in the stone. Then we would race to catch the toads while they hopped frantically hither and thither. Then I remember we played intricate war games in the back yard, with forts made of sticks and pine branches. Nary a parent in sight, and no end to the day.