Friday, March 22, 2013

Half Pint

Notes from today’s WALK…

I can walk to the grocery store from my house. It’s not easy. I follow hilly streets without sidewalks. I traverse steep, rocky paths and uneven staircases. But I get there. It doesn’t take too long. And when I arrive on foot, I always feel slightly superior to all the people who drove. I look piously at them as they squeeze their Land Rovers into the Prius-size spaces in the Whole Foods parking lot. Sure, we are all about to spend $23.99 on a pound of salmon, but I’m doing it with a clearer conscience. And as long as I don’t buy too much, the walk back up the hill makes me feel even more superior. Not only have I saved the planet, I’ve gotten in shape doing it. 

Today I stumbled down the hill with my non-profit-logoed canvas bag and bought my $54 worth of groceries. Organic, out-of-season, heirloom tomatoes from Mexico; steel-cut oatmeal in bulk (plastic bag re-used); thick cut, black forest bacon; cave-aged gruyere from France; organic red leaf lettuce from Watsonville; a loaf of challah from Berkeley; cilantro; one serrano chili pepper, one organic red onion; one pound of medium shrimp in the shell, shipped in from Southeast Asia; and gluten-free cheesecake. In all, a veritable cornucopia of nutritional and locavorian hypocrisy. The delusional impulse that drives a person to buy groceries at Whole Foods is a close cousin of the one that causes us to close our eyes when we masturbate.

But I will not buy club soda at Whole Foods. I refuse. The over-priced cans of 365 brand club soda somehow offend my very being. What kind of spendthrift buys luxury soda water? Not I, damn it. This blue collar shopper’s code allows me to distinguish myself from the other Whole Food shoppers in yet another way. I may talk myself into paying extra for organic sausage, which is sort of like buying Fair Trade crack, but I still know when I’m being ripped off. Club soda is where I draw the line.

So I take my $54 bag of groceries across the street to Jolly King liquors. Jolly King has been there since Whole Foods was Jerry’s Meat Market. And it hasn’t changed. It is one of two remaining liquor stores in my now upscale hometown. The fact that it still exists is a testament to the universal appeal of cheap alcohol and cigarettes. 

By way of confession, I should add that I need club soda to mix with my Johnny Walker. I don’t need the Johnny Walker. I do, however, need the club soda. This subtle distinction is how I know I don’t have a drinking problem; like enjoying a cigarette but needing a pack of matches. 

I make my way to the counter where a very beautiful woman of indeterminate (to me) Middle Eastern descent is waiting. Before I reach her, a late-middle-aged man walks briskly through the door and beats me to the cash register. He has graying, shoulder length hair that reminds me of a clown’s wig. Evident dandruff is scattered along the upper back of his charcoal gray sweatshirt with sleeves hand-cut to jersey length. He is heavy set. His pallid skin is wrinkled around his eyes and mouth. The tip of his nose seems too round. I can see his blue F150 parked out front, still running. The dash is cluttered with empty cans of Copenhagen and unpaid parking tickets.  

The man places three dollar bills and one quarter on the counter.

“Half pint of Gilbey’s,” he tells the woman, matter-of-factly. 

I can’t be sure, but I think she was already reaching for it before he asked.

She hands it to him. He spins on his heels and is out the door before she can ring him up. As I approach the register, it rings, “$3.25.” Not his first half pint of Gilbeys, I think to myself.

She puts his cash in the drawer and looks up at me and my liter of Canada Dry.

“Anything else?” she asks.


I am on my way.

The non-profit logo tote is heavy on the way up the hill. I idly shift the straps from my palm, to my shoulder, to the crook of my elbow. I’m distracted from the discomfort by thoughts of the man at Jolly King. I am quite certain that his half pint will be gone by morning. I am equally certain that he does not limit his purchase to a half pint as a form of self-regulation. Presumably, a half pint is what he can afford. Though I have the strong sense that even if he had more money, he’d still by cheap gin, one half pint at a time.

I am caught between pity and admiration for the man. On the one hand, he is an alcoholic. His is a working class guy in a rich man’s town. His glory days seem well behind him. I do not want to be him. On the other hand, he is not pretending. He knows who he is and what he wants. There is not one drop of hypocrisy in a half pint of Gilbeys. And who am I to judge? I am headed home to make myself a scotch and soda or possibly three. Because the eagle flies on shabbos.

As I approach the cluster of mailboxes at the corner of my street, my mind ricochets from the people I saw at Whole Foods to the man at Jolly King; from the $7.00 tortillas to the $3.25 booze. I feel familiar questions forming in my brain.


Not me?

As usual, I conclude that I am all of them and none of them; all of it and none of it.
I enter my house. The dog looks up from her bed with a lazy greeting. I walk to the kitchen and place the canvas bag on the granite counter. As I unload the groceries, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of our hat tree. I am reminded of a quote from some old movie I can’t quite remember.

We are not so different, you and I.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Gallery of the Five Year-Old

A scene from "Gallery of the Five Year-Old"

MAN enters a busy art gallery. Other gallery goers mill about, ogling the artwork
and sipping free chardonnay. Man pauses, looking admiringly at a distinctive
piece of artwork. ARTIST approaches him.

Man: Are you the artist?

Artist: Yes. Well, one of them.

Man: I love your work.

Artist: Thanks.

Man: So, tell me about this one?

Artist: I call it, “Piece of Wood with Three Nails.”

Man: Interesting. Tell me about your process here.

Artist: I hammered three nails into a board. I used to hammer them in the middle, but sometimes they wouldn’t stay in so I started hammering them into the end and they sticked so now I hammer them into the end.

Man: And what are you trying to say with this piece?

Artist: Charlie Axelbaum hammered four nails into his board but two fell out.

Man: Have you thought about how you’d like to see it displayed? Is it an interactive piece? Does it
belong on a wall? Is it more of a sculpture?

Artist: Don’t put it in my backpack because it might poke holes in my papers.

Man: Okay. Now, what about this one over here? I see you’ve used both construction paper and pipe cleaners? Do you like to work with mixed media?

Artist: It’s the sacred flute of Ninjago.

Man: I see.

Artist: Here. Watch me blow it.

Artist makes hummy whistling noise while moving his lips back and forth along
the pipe cleaners.

Man: Beautiful. May I try it?

Artist: No.

Man: I’m sorry. Is it just for display?

Artist: No. It’s just for Ninjagos.

Man: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to presume.

Artist: Sensei Wu used it to cure Cole of SkalesHypnobrai Hypnotism while the ninja, who were 
brainwashed, fought over Lloyd's Treehouse Fortress.

Man: It makes quite a statement.

                Artist gestures at another work.

Artist: Look at this one.

Man: Is it a peace sign?

Artist: Yeah.

Man: I love it.

Artist: I cut it out with kid scissors but I got tired of coloring it. That’s why it’s only colored in at the bottom.

Man: It seems like you’re trying to say that peace is something that we never stop working on.

Artist: No. I just stopped. Also my pen was kind of drying out. But mostly I just got bored.

Man: Are you working on anything new?

Artist: Yes.

Man: Can you tell me about it?

Artist: No.

Man: You prefer to keep your work private until it’s ready to be shown?

Artist: Do you have a cheese stick?

Man: I might. Let me check.

Artist: I made something with toothpicks, but the glue wasn’t dry yet.

Man: Sounds interesting. Maybe I can see it tomorrow?

Artist: Maybe.

Man: I’d be honored.

Artist: Me, too.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Jet Skiing Without A Hat

Notes from today's WALK (South Florida edition)...

“Do you think you should be wearing a hat?” I call to my daughter behind me.

“I don’t wear hats when I ride jet skis, dad!”

Of course she doesn’t.

My daughter shouts these words from the back of a personal water craft, skimming across the waves in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere south of Fort Lauderdale. She has never been on a jet ski before. This fact doesn’t stop her from making permanent proclamations about her jet skiing habits, like a Republican disavowing tax increases.

Sea spray splashes my face as she urges me to go faster. She gleefully barks orders as if she was born on one of these things.  Her initial fear has given way to enthusiasm. I cannot say the same. My hand is cramping on the throttle as I try to hold a speed that balances thrills with safety. But I am putting on a brave face for her sake. After all, what thrill-seeking eight year-old wants to think her father is scared?

“Having fun?” I call over my shoulder.

“Of course.”

The implication being, I always have fun on jet skis.

I don’t think she is unique in this way, but she does seem to have an unusually strong desire to own her experiences. And the easiest way to do this is to claim to have had them before.

She is not lying, by any strict definition. Indeed, she does not wear hats on jet skis. Just as I do not wear clogs on cruise ships. But that isn’t the point; not hers anyway.

She is letting me know that her inexperience does not invalidate her feelings. Her ideas are good ideas in spite of being brand new ones.

It makes sense, in way. As a child (especially my child), one is constantly being talked down to. Not in the traditional pedantic sense of platitudes and baby talk. But in the more subtle way in which adults presume that their idea or emotion trumps a child’s because it is based on extensive experience. Let me tell you how you’re feeling. Trust me. I’ve been there before. It’s no wonder that an intelligent child might try to stake her claim or, as they say in sports, act like she’s been there before.

Nevertheless, I don’t remember feeling this way. At least, not to this extent. And certainly not this early. I was too busy trying to please people. In my eight year-old mind, pleasing people meant knowing my place, acting my age, and meeting expectations.

Now, as a parent, of course, I want my daughter to have more confidence than I did. I want her to be better than I was, which obliquely involves standing up for herself and embracing her identity while still being penitent, observant, and respectful when appropriate. Seems simple enough?

So my daughter’s simultaneously irritating and entertaining habit of extrapolating a lifetime of significance from a single experience should come as no surprise. She is responding to my bizarre brand of parenting; one that involves crashing recklessly through waves with your eight year-old daughter on a waterborne snowmobile, yet having the presence of mind to worry about whether she is getting too much sun on her face.

In essence, I am constantly telling her to grow up and stay young. At the same time. And she is doing her best to accommodate my wishes.

The irony, inevitably, is that she makes the same unwitting demand of me. Be old and responsible when I need you to be. Be young and fun when I want you to be. When we meet one another’s expectations, the synergy is palpable. Our shared joy at being what the other needs is an essential component of our parent-child relationship. Too often, however, we miss each other’s mark. I am mature and rule-bound in the swimming pool when she wants me to splash and throw her in the deep end. She’s is pouty and despondent during dinner with relatives when I only asked her to make eye contact and be happy. Dammit!

It’s been that way since she was born and I suspect that the pattern will repeat itself for the foreseeable future; alternating between being just what each other wants and something close to the exact opposite. Frankly, it’s exhausting. And exhilarating. She is the reason I wake up in the morning. And the reason I want to stay in bed. Nobody tells you these things before you have children. I suppose it wouldn’t matter. Being a parent is an experience you have to have before you can understand it. But the moment you have the feeling, it’s like you’ve been having it all your life.

Kind of like jet skiing without a hat.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Notes from today's WALK...

“Dad! Watch this. I’m gonna make a three-pointer.”

My son stands six feet from a five-foot high basketball hoop. He shoots. He misses. He laughs.

“Aw. Just short,” I reassure. The ball did not touch the rim.

My son plays basketball the way I sing opera; with enthusiastic ineptitude.

He retrieves the ball and runs back to his spot. “I’m gonna try again,” he says, smiling.

He shoots. He misses. He laughs.

He blithely repeats this pattern, over and over and over, like a golden retriever with a learning disability.

Needless to say, I am thrilled. His effort, enthusiasm, and resolve are proof positive that I have not damaged him. Not too much, anyway. He does not view his failures as a reflection on his self-worth. His lack of success does not diminish his enjoyment. Despite imperfection, it does not occur to him to quit. Whose child is this?

Jesse Pearson…you are NOT the father!

He shoots again. Swish.

“Awesome, son. Nice shot.”

He beams.

“Let’s play against each other,” he suggests.

“Okay,” I say with some hesitation.

I recommend a game of P-I-G, since playing one-on-one against a five year-old offers all the competitiveness of playing Pictionary against the blind.

After explaining the rules, I carefully orchestrate my son’s victory. He takes the game seriously, suddenly focused more on winning and losing than on playing the game. He no longer laughs at his missed shots.

“Let’s play again,” he pleads after his one-letter triumph.

“Sure. One more.”

This time, I decide, I will win. I tell myself that children need the confidence that comes from winning, but also the awareness of their fallibility. They need to know that if you play, there’s a chance you might lose. Maybe some parents are different. Maybe some children are always allowed to win. I don’t know what’s right. I just have the sense that occasionally letting my children lose – whether at basketball or Go Fish or thumb wrestling – means that they are not growing up in an entirely constructed reality in which only good things happen, only desired outcomes are achieved. I have no idea if this is the right strategy, but it seems better than living a lie.

Despite my efforts to keep it close, my son loses before I even get the letter P.

“I’m horrible,” he says as he runs off the court.

“No you’re not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

But he is already hiding in the bushes, quietly berating himself.

I want to try to explain the lesson to him, to tell him how you can’t always win, but that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad player and it doesn’t mean the game wasn’t fun. Before I can say anything, I am silence by my own memory.

As a boy, I would hit tennis balls with my father. For the first twenty minutes, we would rally. Balls flew over – and often into – the net. Back and forth. I always enjoyed those twenty minutes. Even if I wasn’t hitting well, I would laugh when I sent a forehand sailing into the chainlink 15 feet behind the baseline.

“Let’s play a set.” I would suggest.

Where does that impulse come from? Why did I feel the need to take something enjoyable and turn it into something competitive?

Inevitably, the joy of rallying would be replaced by frustration and self-remonstrations of an actual game. I would beat myself up for missed shots, curse every lost point. Even if I managed to win the set, the experience was a mixture of triumph and torture.

But I always asked to play a set. Just hitting wasn’t good enough. I seemed to need the pleasure and the pain.

And now my son seems to need it, too.

Is this a human trait? Is it a father-son thing? It cannot be unique to my gene pool.

My son and I are both capable of enjoying our own imperfections. We can laugh at pitches swung at and missed. We can smile when a three-pointer doesn’t hit the rim. So why the impulse to compete? Why do we wittingly take something fun and make it less so?

I learned early, as I suspect he is learning, that playing to win is different than just playing. Keeping score often diminishes the pleasure of the game. Maybe my son can learn that it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe he can learn to play for the sake of playing. Or maybe he can learn to be easier on himself when he is loses.

Maybe then he can teach me.