Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Shopping Cart Theory of Social Status

As a keen observer of modern life, I have been known from time to time to come up with a particularly trenchant sociological observation—“the more profoundly retarded the individual, the worse the haircut”—that sort of thing. Recently, I have formulated a theory around one of these observations, one which I think deserves closer scrutiny, and possibly a large government grant to fund further research. I call it The Shopping Cart Theory of Social Status, and briefly put, it goes like this: A person’s status in society tends to be inversely proportional to how often, and to what extent, that person uses a shopping cart. Allow me to elaborate.

You’ll notice that in the upper reaches of the upper classes, grocery shopping, when it is done at all, is done with fashionable restraint. One shops for epicurean delights in boutique specialty stores, purchasing in tastefully modest amounts, and conveying one’s comestibles in a hand basket or stylish, earth-friendly canvas sack. Sure, the home must also be stocked with more cumbersome and mundane items, but that’s a job for the hired help. The point is, you never saw Jackie Onassis rattling a wonky-wheeled shopping cart loose from the parking lot cart-train and schlepping it along the stained linoleum aisles of the local Buy-Lo.

Take a few steps down the socio-economic ladder to the humble proletariat, though, and you see that the shopping cart plays a regular, if unremarkable, role in domestic life. Once a week or so you load one up with consumables and exfoliate a hundred or so bucks off the top of the chequing account, and off you go. Interestingly, you begin to see gradations even within this social strata, as the less well-off, curiously enough, seem to have the most robustly-filled carts, groaning with torpedo-sized bottles of Pepsi, and corn chips in bags the size of sofa cushions.

Go down another level, and you come to the people for whom the shopping cart takes on added significance, and who often use it beyond its intended capacity and outside of its intended context. This is the woman you see in the mall food court squeezing between tables with a cart she has commandeered from the Zellers, and into which she has put her department store purchases, her handbag, her umbrella, her dry cleaning, and her three fractious children. The cart will stay with her throughout her day at the mall, no matter how small the store, or how narrow the aisle, and becomes a rolling microcosm of her cluttered, acquisitive, oblivious, vulgar life. It may sound condescending to say it, but let’s face it, it only takes a moment pinned in an elevator with Wagon Train Woman to know that you’re not dealing with someone of refined social graces.

Finally, we go from the socially obtuse to the truly unfortunate, those with the lowest standing in free society—the homeless. For them, the shopping cart is not just a regular part of life, it is a daily—indeed, constant—central presence. If you’re homeless, the shopping cart holds in it everything you have in this world. And once again, there is an interesting hierarchy within this cohort, with the most destitute, the most firmly entrenched in the hobo lifestyle, having the most preposterously overfilled carts—the ones with the teetering mountain of blankets and clothes and cardboard and recyclables and accumulated street detritus piled heavenward, all held precariously in place by an intricate network of tarps and bungee cords. To spend this much time with a shopping cart, and to so unabashedly and creatively exceed its recommended capacity, is essentially to recuse oneself from societal conventions.

So there you have it—the complex phenomena of social ranking laid bare by an oversimplified set of superficial indicators. And if you think that was interesting, wait until you hear my Dashboard Figurine Theory of Stupid Drivers.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Terror In The Drive-Thru Lane

This morning I was in the drive-thru lane of a certain fast-food restaurant which I won’t name here. I had just finished ordering my Egg McMuffin® and coffee, and as I pulled the money from my pocket to pay, my keys dropped out. These were the keys to the office door and the men’s washroom at work, which I keep on a rather fetching Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival souvenir brass keychain, and which were now resting on the floor of the car between my seat and the center transmission console.

I wedged my hand down, way down, into the crevice, and with considerable dexterity, if I may say, I deftly managed to seize the keychain between the tips of my second and third fingers. Success! Oh, but what’s this? I can’t seem to withdraw my hand. It’s kind of…stuck.

At first I just kind of chuckled at the situation, the way you do when you when you have a bodily appendage trapped while waiting for a breakfast sandwich. I wasn’t too concerned because, as I reasoned, if the hand could fit going in, certainly it should be able to come out. I tugged harder. Ouch! I tried sliding my hand forward a bit, looking for more wiggle room, but that just seemed to jam it in even tighter. I brought my other arm over and pulled. Ouch! Ouch! Now I was getting worried. I dropped the keys and began frantically rocking the trapped arm as much as I could to try to pry it loose. That’s when I looked up to see that the line ahead of me had cleared and I was next up at the pick-up window. I drove up.

The young woman behind the glass slid open her window, and held out my order with two hands—bag of McMuffin in one, coffee in the other. I reached over and buzzed my window down. Then with my left--and currently only available--hand I reached out (and it was a reach, since my body was listing in the opposite direction) and snagged the bag. I brought it over across my body and laid it on the seat beside me, then reached out again, grimacing and straining, to take the coffee—again moving it across my sloping body—and deposited it into the cupholder. Then I took the wheel and drove off wordlessly.

What else could I have done? I couldn’t very well say “I’m sorry, I can only use one hand right now because the other one is currently stuck here between the seat and the console” because…well, because it would make me look like an idiot. My only hope was that she might think I was the victim of a paralyzing stroke, or had suffered some ghastly injury that rendered my right arm immobile and made me lean to one side and make grotesque faces. The thing is, though, that look she gave me seemed to convey a lot more bemused suspicion than it did pity.

I pulled over quickly into the parking lot and started to panic. I thought about that story of the guy who got trapped under a boulder while rock climbing and ended up sawing off his own arm with a pocket knife to get free. How long could I survive like this, I wondered, before I would have to gnaw off my arm at the elbow? True, I did have the Egg McMuffin to sustain me for awhile, but what about lunch?

Then I had an idea. If I couldn’t move my hand, I could still move the seat! Great lateral thinking, Dan! I reached below the seat front, released the adjustment mechanism and threw my weight back. The seat shot back and I screamed as the flesh on my entombed arm seemed to spin right around on the bone. If anything, I was now more firmly ensconced, and my fingers were starting to lose feeling.

This was getting serious. Or hilarious, depending on your point of view. I tried to stay calm and reminded myself that I could always phone for help if it came to that. But then I remembered that my phone was in my computer bag on the back seat—out of reach. If I wanted to alert others to my plight, I would have to lean on the horn, or drive up to some pedestrians and ask them to dispatch a rescue crew, or maybe go through the drive-thru again and place an order for the Jaws of Life and a side of fries. And then what would happen? It could turn into one of those “kid-trapped-in-a-well” media frenzies, with live coverage of the heroic efforts to extricate me, and the inevitable satellite interview with Wolf Blitzer.

No, too humiliating. I decided then that I had to liberate myself, unassisted, one way or another, or I would die here with a 2005 Saturn Ion four-door sedan hanging off the end of my wrist. This was it. I steeled myself, closed my eyes and gave a mighty pull. I wrenched and tugged and cursed and finally—finally—my hand popped free.

I drove off, gripping my McMuffin with my newly-liberated, swollen, bloody-knuckled fist. Then I remembered: my keys were still down there. Oh well. I can always try again on the drive home.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Two Nations, Under God, Incompatible

I don’t why I always have to be the one to solve these things, but after contemplating that fractious US election and seeing the lingering acrimony on both sides, it occurs to me that there is one way to make just about everyone happy: divide the US into two nations.

Seriously. Separatism gets a bad rap, and every politician makes noises about uniting the people, one nation indivisible blah blah blah…but there really are two Americas in the metaphorical sense, so why not have two Americas in the literal sense and be done with it?

It’s not just a red state, blue state phenomenon, either—even the reddest of states starts shading to blue in its urban centers and the blue states begin to redden once you get into the counties where you can see the stars at night. It’s more of a city mouse / country mouse divide. And if there’s one thing we’ve all learned from watching re-runs of the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, it’s that city folk and country folk just don’t cotton to each other.

It’s easy to oversimplify and resort to stereotypes, so let’s do it. Potato farmers in Idaho don’t vote for pointy-headed intellectuals, any more than they compare drapery swatches or attend gallery openings. And self-styled Manhattan sophisticates would rather miss a month’s worth of Pilates lessons than vote for a troglodyte like George Dubya. The “one big happy family” ethos may have worked in the early, formative years of the country (that civil war thing notwithstanding), but the time has come to admit that there are now irreconcilable differences, so let’s stop keeping this marriage together for the sake of the kids and just divvy up the real estate and the flatware right now.

So I give you President John Kerry and the United States of Urbania, a vast community of metropoli, united by a common love for refurbished lofts, a common passion for Woody Allen films, and a common need for six-dollar lattes.

And for those of you who prefer your countries with a little more earthy brio, we have George W. Bush’s United States of Freedonia—the breadbasket of breadbaskets, the heartland of heartlands, where the men are as straight as their shooting, the womenfolk are pure, and God has a seat at every table, including the Cabinet table.

Think about it: each side gets the government that truly represents them, both sides get to keep their prejudices, and neither side has to worry about meddling outsiders trying to tell them what’s what. There would still be visiting rights and trading—the Urbanians would still need to get their organic free range carrots from somewhere, after all, and the Freedonians can’t very well make their own porn—but the important thing is that each nation will truly be united in its values and world-view in a way that this current cock-up of constituencies never will.

Sure, these proposed nations are not geographically tidy, but people in Nebraska rarely venture out of their own personal acreage anyway, and today's urbanites are already a community of air travelers and internetters, so it’s not like these boundaries will pose many practical problems. Anyway, organizing nations by physical proximity is so pre-21st-century.

Speaking of which, next week I’ll solve the Middle East crisis using only a map, a pair of scissors, and some library paste.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Stupid Things I Have Done Lately and the Consequences that Followed

STUPID THING I DID: Murdered a perfectly good bottle of wine
I bought the wine—a liter and a half of Sawmill Creek merlot, $14.99—on my way home one day last week, before picking up Abby from daycare. Once home, I parked in the garage and began gathering my things: laptop, coffee mug, daughter, bag containing a moderately-priced bottle of merlot, and so on. I pulled out the umbrella stroller—a simple folding vehicle with an upright hammock seat and hooked handles—and popped it open.

We often use this stroller because it’s light and compact, and when Abby is in it, we can hang things like diaper bags or grocery purchases from the handles. The salient point here is that Abby has to be in the stroller. Well ok, maybe not Abby necessarily—I suppose it would also work with another, less gifted toddler, or a sack of onions—but the principle is the same: you need the counterweight in the seat in order to hang weight from the handles. It’s an elementary law of physics, really, but it’s astonishing how many times I have been surprised, upon lifting Abby out of the seat, to see the top-heavy stroller flip onto its back, wheels spinning in the air. When it comes to gravity, it seems, I have the intuitions of Wile E. Coyote.

This time I wasn’t stupid enough to lift her out of the seat while I still had bags hanging from the handles. No, this time I was proactively stupid and I actually hooked the liquor store bag onto the stroller handle before I even opened the door to get Abby out of the car. Gravity performed its duties swiftly, and with punishing force. There was an oddly muffled, but nonetheless explosive crack and I stood there, dumbfounded, as a liter and a half of moderately-priced merlot seeped out of the bag’s puncture wounds and slowly—very slowly—slipped across the concrete floor toward the drain.

The stain on the floor is still there.

CONSEQUENCES: Abby learned new colorful words; I drank orange juice with dinner that night

STUPID THING I DID: Accidentally ate dog food in public
I love getting free samples. It doesn’t matter what’s being offered, if it’s free I want it. I can pretty much get an entire filling meal just by circulating among the display stands at Costco on a Saturday afternoon. The trick with the Costco giveaways, though, is to be focused enough to get a sample while they’re fresh and bountiful, yet not appear like someone who is trying to get an entire meal by circulating among the display stands.

I usually start by hanging around the periphery of a target stand, innocently comparing the prices on cotton swabs, say, while eyeballing the preparation of the microwave lasagna. Then, as soon as the offerings are being put on display I smoothly, but quickly, advance on the table. I give a little “well, what have we here?” mutter of interest, real casual-like, as if I just might need to be coaxed into giving the morsels a try. I seize a sample (or two, if the attendant glances away for a moment) pop it into my mouth and make appreciative sounds. It doesn’t matter if I really like it, one must be polite. Then I make a show of examining the packages, as if seriously contemplating a purchase. As others start to gather behind me (rookies!), I make a smooth departure and seek out the next offering. Yes, I am a deft and artful moocher.

So when we tumbled on Port Moody’s streetside Farmers’ Market one drizzly weekend afternoon—one of those quaint little cooperatives where earnest folks in earth tone sweaters are doing holistic things and selling organic goods with new age-y zeal—I was quick to spot the table with the freebie platter. I saw it from twenty paces way: a generous helping of what appeared to be a salmagundi of artisanal bread chunks—just the sort of think you would expect in a farmers’ market run by a bunch of organic hippies—and I shamelessly abandoned my wife and daughter and strode smartly to the table.

I smiled graciously at the earth-toned, multi-pierced young ladies behind the table who were chatting amiably amongst themselves. I gave my customary “what have we here” mutter of interest and pinched a small fistful of what I had every reason to believe was artisanal bread.

I’m not really sure what happened next. Was it the flavor that hit me first—sort of a pungent, “dirty-sponge-dipped–in-a-wet-ashtray” taste? Or had I by then noticed the array of organic dog treats, wrapped in festive cellophane, and the bones and leashes and various earth-toned dog accoutrements? Or perhaps it was at precisely that moment that I became aware of the sudden silence from the other side of the table.

In any case, by then I had already launched into my customary post-sample–snatching appreciative noises, so I really had no choice but to go with it. I mean, once you’ve eaten a helping of dog food and pretended to savor it thoughtfully, with all the mmms and the closed-eyed head-nodding, your only real choice, upon discovering your faux pas, is to attempt to pass yourself off as a dog food connoisseur.

I made it a point not to look up and make eye contact, and I continued to munch as I examined the wares on display, nodding and munching, nodding and munching, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be standing in a market stall eating dog food. Then I slyly and casually slipped away around a corner and expunged the contents of my mouth onto the ground.

As for the raucous laughter coming from the dog-food-disguised-as-artisanal-bread stand…well, I’m sure they weren’t laughing at me.

CONSEQUENCES: Public humiliation; new appreciation for fact that I am not a dog.

STUPID THING I DID: Almost ran myself into a coma
Many people ask me how I, an endurance athlete who enjoys free lasagna and intemperate quantities of moderately-priced merlot, train for my marathon runs. After all, to look at me, you might think, “he doesn’t strike me as a natural athlete,” and you’d be right. You might even think, “he doesn’t strike me as someone who could pull on his own shorts without help,” in which case you’re just being rude, so cut it out.

Anyway, here are my secrets: First of all, don’t run regularly. If you practice all the time, that just diminishes the achievement on race day, and besides running long distances is extremely boring. Second, when you do run, pick a really hot day and go out around noon when the sun is high. One run like this is worth a whole month of training. And finally, use creative visualization. This is a technique where you imagine yourself—actually see yourself—reaching your goal. Some people imagine themselves crossing the finish line on race day. Me, I like to imagine that I have crash-landed a spacecraft on a remote and forbidding planet and I have promised my crewmate, played by the voluptuous B-movie actress Adrienne Barbeau, that I will run to get help from a village over the horizon. How this village got there and who is in it, I don’t know, and it isn’t really important. What’s important is that I get there and then make it back to Adrienne Barbeau before time runs out. What happens when time runs out I’m not clear about either. As you can probably tell, I haven’t really thought this scenario out, except for the part about Adrienne Barbeau.

Voluptuous B-movie actress Adrienne Barbeau

So there I was last month, on one of the hottest days during the summer heat wave, pathetically out of shape, pounding doggedly down a path through an open, desolate expanse of nature reserve, in the scorching noon-day sun, when I started to feel queasy. Spots were swimming in front of my eyes and my brain started to feel soupy. Suddenly, I was intensely aware of how hot it was—how hot I was—and I teetered unsteadily to a stop. My head felt like a furnace. I looked around for shade. Nothing. Foolishly, I had ventured out far from help—stuck in the middle between Adrienne Barbeau and the village, as it were—and I had very little water left. More importantly, it seemed that I had very little consciousness left, and I started to panic, thinking that I was going to pass out and lie there cooking in the sun like a weenie on a grill. Or like a free Costco sample of lasagna.

Luckily I stayed conscious, and I managed to keep moving (I am an accomplished endurance athlete, after all). Eventually, the worst of the heat hallucinations subsided and in time I reached an area where there were big shady trees and a few people strolling. I sat for awhile, then I walked the rest of the way home, slowly, where I drank water like a camel and slept soundly for about three days.

CONSEQUENCES: Persistent dry mouth, exfoliating of massive number of brain cells, leading to difficulty with elementary physics and trouble distinguishing dog food from artisanal bread.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Bat Man

“Oh my god, it’s a bat! Caesar’s got a bat!”

I had been dozing fitfully at the time. It was pre-dawn, and I had been stirred from my deep-cycle REM slumber by a vague awareness of something going on in the room. The lights had come on and Kim was up, that much I knew. I snuffled and rolled over, the way you do when you know there is something going on, and you really should at least open an eye, but all you want is to keep sleeping so you pretend that you haven’t noticed anything and hope that whatever it is, it gets resolved without your intervention.

Then came the cry of “Bat!” and our bedroom erupted in a frenzy of panicked activity. Kim leaped onto the bed, and stood there, with Abby in her arms, in a hunched, peeking-over-the-shoulder posture, like a woman in a cartoon standing on a chair to evade a mouse. I sprang out of bed, pulse pounding, and stood there like… like a wild-eyed, naked little man staring at a bat.

And let’s face it, there is probably no creature on this earth that is creepier—and certainly no creature you would less like to find in your bedroom (with the possible exception of Charlie Sheen)—than a bat. This was a relatively small bat—no bigger than a ham sandwich—but it was a bat nonetheless, all black and leathery, and it spread its gruesome bat-like wings and twitched menacingly as I inched closer for a look. Caesar, our homicidal cat, who was still circling his prey on the floor by the foot of the bed, reached out and gave it a provocative poke, at which point it fluttered and unleashed a macabre squeal. Kim and I shuddered and jumped back.

For several moments we both stood transfixed, the way you do when you are naked and groggy and trying to figure out what to do with a live bat in your room. Personally, I was hoping our home would catch fire, which would at least give me an excuse to flee out the window, but Kim had apparently determined that this was one of those few instances where she would defer to my masculine prerogative and she was clearly expecting me to do something.

“Get a paper towel!” she cried, as I was still thoughtfully assessing the situation and weighing alternatives. The “paper towel smoosh” is Kim’s favored method of pest control, and I suppose she must believe, having dispatched many a spider or bug with a wad of Bounty, that paper towels have the capacity to kill outright. I get the feeling that if a polar bear had lumbered into our bedroom that night she would have pressed a couple of sheets of absorbent two-ply into my hand and sent me confidently into battle. I, on the other hand, am more than happy to pick up a beetle this way, but I draw the line at winged mammals.

What I ended up doing was stripping a cover sheet off the bed and throwing it over the bat. It was a queen-size sheet, and I reasoned that if I had enough linen between me and the bat I wouldn’t be able to feel its “batness” through the material. I also remember thinking that I had used a fabric softener when laundering the sheet, and that perhaps the bat would be soothed into placidity by the sheet’s fragrant softness.

It worked. I wadded the sheet up like a giant paper towel, and with a broad scooping motion lifted it. There was no bat on the floor, so that meant I had him. I began moving out of the bedroom toward the patio, taking exaggerated, delicate tiptoe steps, with my arms outstretched and my head turned, the way you do when you’re carrying a bat the size of a ham sandwich in a downy soft, fresh-smelling sheet and you hope it doesn’t fall out.

Kim dashed past me to open the sliding door and as I stepped carefully past her and out into the night, I imagined that I looked a bit like a bomb disposal expert in action, except that instead of a bomb, I had a frightened bat in my hands. And instead of a bomb disposal suit I was wearing…nothing.

I gingerly leaned over the railing and laid the sheet down in the flower bed. Then I eased it back and sure enough something dark and creepy, about the size of a ham sandwich, fluttered out from under the sheet and vanished into the night.

I went back in, feeling brawny and Hemingwayesque, the way you do when you have vanquished a wild foe and protected your home and family from a menacing intruder.

Then I brought the sheet directly to the laundry room and got out the fabric softener.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

All Booked Up

Now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve managed to work myself into a such a state of seething anxiety that I can barely keep a thought straight in my head. I’m edgy but tired, manic and depressive. My heartbeat has become irregular, I am suddenly prone to fits of irrational exuberance, and my lips are becoming chapped. And it’s all because of David Sedaris.
More precisely, I suppose, it all has to do with the way I read books. I’m not a fast reader, by any stretch—I read for pleasure and relaxation so I take my time and read aloud in my head (as it were), with appropriate dramatic pauses and rhetorical flourishes and, for some reason, a slight British accent (so what, as long as I’m having fun?). Most importantly, when it comes to my reading, I am a steadfast and disciplined serial monogamist, living exclusively with one book at time. And apparently that makes me something of a prude.
Every once in awhile, I've noticed, in the book pages of a magazine or newspaper there will be a sidebar feature called something like “What I’m Reading Now” or “What’s On Their Bedside Table,” where celebrities or notables of some sort inform a breathless public of   their current reading. “Right now I’m reading the new Ian McEwan novel,” the meat puppet will be quoted as saying, “and I’m also reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the new Garfield collection. And I’m re-reading the works of Voltaire for a project I’m working on… ” And so on. I have always taken this sort of thing as a sign of the innate tawdriness of celebrities. I mean, how self-indulgent! How promiscuous! Anyone who reads four books simultaneously is emotionally defective, if you ask me. Honestly.
But then I started keeping a book in the car. It was just a reference book on grammar issues—something I could dip into and out of with ease, something to pass the time if I found myself waiting for Kim outside a store, or in case I drove off the road and rolled over into a ditch and found myself hanging upside down by my seatbelt and I wanted to confirm that rescue is transitive when used as a verb.  Soon, though, I started pulling out the “car book” every day. There are a couple of spots in my commute where I routinely come up against bottlenecks, and eventually I realized that I could use the time to get through a couple of pages. I sit there, glancing up to inch forward every once in a while, with the book propped up on the steering wheel, muttering away in a fake British accent.  It’s gotten to the point where I feel perversely disappointed if traffic is flowing smoothly in these spots.
Having a second book on the go, one that I could meet up with for brief trysts at my pleasure, made me feel vaguely cosmopolitan, rather like a bon vivant Frenchman. So I have kept up the habit. Currently, I am keeping company on the side with Lynne Truss’s book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves— an ideal traffic-jam book, if you’re the sort of person who likes to read in a British accent while motoring, as I believe I have made clear that I am.
Then, for my birthday, my mother, bless her heart, presented me with two new books from my Amazon wish list: The Perfect Mile, a stirring account of the pursuit to break the four-minute mile and the events leading up to the historic Bannister-Landy race in Vancouver, and Your Own Words by the delightfully wise and witty Barbara Wallraff, whose children I would gladly have, if I weren’t, you know, a man. That night, I finished the book I was reading (my main squeeze, not the Truss trollop I was seeing on the side) and began The Perfect Mile.
I wish I had a good excuse for what happened next. It was kind of like what Bill Clinton said recently when asked why he had carried on his affair with Monica. I guess I just did it because I could.
It was a few evenings later, and I was sitting in the living room. Kim was getting Abby ready for bed. I was tired. There was nothing on TV. And the Wallraff book was sitting there on the coffee table right in front of me.
It started innocently enough—a little fondling of the dust jacket, some light petting with the acknowledgements. Before I knew it, though, I was 20 pages into it. And I couldn’t stop. I tried to, I really did. I didn’t mean for it to go that far. I was, I don’t know—vulnerable—and her prose was so alluring and revealing, her subjects so provocative. Finally, as the hour grew late, I tore myself away and slinked off to bed. There, as I picked up my “real book,” I felt soiled and ashamed. I didn’t even bother with the British accent.
By the next day, I had persuaded myself that it wasn’t that bad, what I had done. It was even quite manageable, really. I was doing fine, after all, with The Perfect Mile as my main book and the Truss book for the car. Why couldn’t I just leave Barbara there on the coffee table, and meet for a while on the occasional evening? No big deal.
Two nights later, I was home alone with Abby, and I was reading aloud to her in a British accent from the Wallraff book, when I looked up to see that David Sedaris was on the Letterman show. David Sedaris, one of my favorite writers. David Sedaris, who has a new book out, Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, which I haven’t bought yet. Oh well, I thought, as I fired up the computer and tapped my order into Amazon, I’m going to be buying it eventually anyway—may as well do it now. It’s not like I’m going to start reading it right away. But deep down, I think I knew all along what I was doing. Deep down, I think it was a cry for help.
You can see where this is going, I’m sure. The Sedaris book arrived with dispatch, and I opened the package. I eyed the cover art appreciatively. I glanced over the flap copy, and examined the author photo…and then…and then…I just started reading! What was happening to me? I used to be so disciplined about this. New books are given a quick once-over and then put aside until their time has come. Those are the rules. It’s the way I have been doing it since I was six years old. Jerry Falwell is right—you allow one moral lapse and it’s a downhill toboggan to depravity, where you’re letting goats get married and you’re reading four books at a time like some louche Hollywood phony. (Actually, I’m not sure Falwell considers multiple-book reading sinful—although I get the feeling he probably only reads one book, over and over.)
So this is where things stand now: Lynne Truss is going on about hyphens in one corner of my brain. Meanwhile, I met up with Barbara Wallraff again briefly last night as she compared the relative merits of usage manuals. David Sedaris is tugging at my sleeve and trying to tell me a story about his family. And amid all this hubbub, Roger Bannister is still trying to run that blasted four-minute mile.
There is also, of course, the small matter of having a life to live—I only get a few fleeting moments to read each day, so this kind of cognitive high-wire act is becoming increasingly exhausting. Clearly, something has to give. Maybe I’ll have to give up taking showers, or sleeping, or going to work, at least until I have things under control.
But I’m sticking with the British accent.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

My Day With Abby

9:30 am
I’ve been looking forward to this day.

Having been thoroughly immersed in a work project for the last month or so—a project that culminated in a week of marathon sessions in a Scottsdale hotel boardroom, under conditions seldom seen outside of sociological experiments—I was ready to reclaim some personal time and do something I had not yet done as a father: spend an entire day alone with my daughter.

I decided on a day in the park, with a visit to the zoo, because that’s what fathers are required to do, according to the conventions of modern society, and because Abby is not old enough to appreciate an afternoon at the pub.

I run through the checklist: diapers, wipes, tupperwared snacks, water bottle, milk, sunscreen, toys, cell phone, camera, book to read in quiet moments (yeah, I know: ha ha; I said it was my first time). I get Abby dressed and we’re on our way.

I do not remember the stroller.

10:45 am
After a brief visit to the office, and a stop to do some banking, we arrive at Stanley Park. Abby is trying to fall asleep but the sunlight flickering through the trees as we drive through the park keeps waking her and she’s making pissed-off noises. Eventually, though, she nods off, so I drive past our turnoff and make another circuit of the park so she can sleep a bit.

11:05 am
One more circuit of the park.

11:20 am
Abby’s sleeping soundly, and I’m singing along to “Good Day Sunshine” on the radio. What the hell—one more lap around the park.

11:42 am
I pull into the parking lot by the miniature train and petting zoo, as Abby wakes up with that bleary-eyed “where the hell am I?” look.

I collect Abby, and the bag of sundries, and then pop the trunk to retrieve the stroller.

11:43 am
Now I remember the stroller.

11:45 am
I try to buy a parking ticket from the machine while a vacationing couple from California watches. I fumble through the process, juggling Abby and the bag of sundries and my wallet, while the woman narrates: Oh you can pay by credit card, Phil, I told you can pay by credit card…what a lovely baby we have three kids but we left them at home…try putting the card in the other way…that doesn’t seem to want to work does it?...yeah, maybe a different credit card will work our son is two now he’s at home with his grandma, just Phil and me on this trip it’s our anniversary wow that card doesn’t work either, huh? I think maybe something is wrong with that machine we’re from Fresno oh look she’s trying to take all your cards out of your wallet she’s so adorable…That must be hard for you to do with one hand, you should have brought a stroller I never go anywhere without a stroller…wow you sure have a lot of credit cards…doesn’t he have a lot of credit cards, Phil? I thought we had a lot of credit cards…That one won’t work either? No I don’t think that one will work either.

Finally, I step aside and let the woman try her luck. Predictably, the machine accepts her card on the first try and spits out a ticket.

Gee that was easy I guess it likes my card…Imagine that, Phil you just stick your card in and it gives you a ticket…

I would like to be able to say that I bludgeoned the woman to death with a rusty shovel and seized her ticket but the truth is I waited until she and Phil were gone and then meekly tried each of my cards again. Nothing. I trudge into the park to the train station ticket counter, carrying Abby (who has just learned several new words from her dad) and the bag of sundries, perspiration beading on my brow. I buy tickets to the train and zoo and garner change for parking.

“The machine wouldn’t accept my cards,” I say, a little too emphatically, to the young lady behind the glass. “None of them.” She signals her concern by snapping her gum and offering a Gallic shrug.

12:05 pm
Lunch time. I buy myself an ice cream and secure a picnic table near the concession stand. I unpack the bag of sundries, and settle down for a light lunch—just Abby and me…and a large belligerent peacock.

It begins innocently enough.

“Look, Abby. Look at the pretty peacock. Yes, it’s a peacock. Pea-cock. Look at the peacock, Abby. Isn’t he pretty? Let’s give Mr. Peacock a Cheerio, OK? OK. Look, he likes the Cheerio. He’s saying ‘Yum, I like Cheerios, I want more’ See? He’s coming over to…LOOK OUT, ABBY! GET AWAY, YOU LUNATIC BIRD! STOP IT! JUST GO AWAY! COVER YOUR HEAD, ABBY! GET… LOST… YOU… %^&ING… BIRD!”

I begin frantically pelting the peacock with Cheerios, and swiftly pack up while he’s distracted. I scoop Abby up and as we march past the peacock there is a loud ruffle and he fans out his tail feathers like he’s performing a card trick. Abby squeals with delight and I recoil and squeal with fear. I squirt the bird with my water bottle and run away toward the petting zoo.

12:27 pm
I have to pee. Which, under normal circumstances, is not something I give a great deal of thought to—but here I find myself standing at the entrance to the restroom with a daughter in one hand and a bag of sundries in the other. And no stroller. You see my problem now?

I won’t get into the details of how I performed this task, just in case the child welfare authorities catch on to me. Let’s just say that, with the right motivation, it is possible to wedge a small, curious child against a filthy wall with one leg while maintaining a (somewhat) steady posture and balancing a bag of sundries by strapping the handle across one’s forehead. If you don’t believe me, just ask the startled gent who walked in on us.

12:31 pm
The Stanley Park farmyard petting zoo is, I’m sorry to report, a rather tawdry and uninspiring affair. There are a couple of barns with caged birds and lizards—your basic pet store menagerie—but the only real petting to be done is in the open air pen where you first walk in.

This area is populated by a scattering of goats and lambs, most of whom are lounging languidly, with an air of bored distraction and sullen indifference, like Teamsters on a coffee break. Abby and I are the only visitors.

Secure in the knowledge that these beasts are in fact quite tame, I show Abby how to taunt them, and we throw Cheerios at the poor buggers and called them names and poke them and enjoy a few cruel laughs at their expense.

Then, suddenly, many of the goats spring to life, egged on perhaps by the Cheerios, and we find ourselves surrounded by prodding goat heads. At first Abby withdraws in a fit of shy giggles as the goats poke their snouts (or whatever it is goats have) into her belly. But I grab her hand and demonstrate how to pet the creatures, and she soon relaxes and starts to stroke their coarse fur. Then she strokes harder. Then she shrieks with delight and actually hauls off and bitch-slaps a goat across his little goat face. And then the game is on.


Abby is not yet walking without assistance, but she is nonetheless relentless in her pursuit and it is my duty to serve as her confederate and hold her up as she stomps about the compound slapping goats.


This means I have to walk around with her, bent over in a fashion that one particular goat finds especially alluring, as he follows behind us and massages my buttocks with his horns in a very provocative, and oddly soothing, manner.

It is at this point, when Abby has moved on to slapping lambs and I have a goat rubbing my ass, that I catch a disapproving look from a petting zoo warden and decide that it’s time to move on.

1:02 pm
We board the miniature train in high spirits, emboldened by our encounter with the wildlife and ready for new adventures.

There are plenty of sights during the ride to capture the attention of a curious toddler—wild rabbits, tunnels, farmyards, lakes—none of which Abby pays the slightest attention to because she spends the entire time trying to remove the hat from the boy in front of her.


The more I try to restrain her, the more determined she becomes to seize the youngster’s hat, and before long we are engaged in a vigorous wrestling and whining spectacle that flatters neither of us.

Finally, as the train hisses to a stop in the station, Abby settles back in her seat, offers a winsome smile, and makes the “more” sign, indicating she wants to ride again.

I gather her up in my now weary arms and flee.

1:35 pm
We make another trip to the concession for a snack break. This time, though, we go to the one by Lumberman’s Arch, far away, I’m hoping, from predatory peacocks. I carry Abby on my shoulders to give my arms a rest (I have forgotten the stroller, you see) and she begins to rhythmically slap my head as if I were a goat.

I buy a fresh bottle of water and an oatmeal cookie the size of a small Frisbee, and we go to sit under a tree. I break off a small portion of the cookie and offer it to Abby, but she grabs the whole cookie and attempts to wedge it into her mouth.


I sit there in silent astonishment, as she systematically devours the cookie. It’s the most I have seen her eat in one sitting, and she seems remarkably adept and at ease, and so suddenly mature, munching away while staring off at the seagulls. My admiration is slightly tempered, however, when she takes the drinking straw for the water and inserts it in her ear.


2:07 pm
The playground area is abuzz with obstreperous children, a lively festival of running, swinging, climbing, sliding. Abby appraises the action with detached amusement. We try the slide and manage to get a few moments on a swing, but her favorite part of the playground is the shadow she’s casting, which has her utterly captivated.


She thumps about in determined pursuit, then lunges at the ground to grab it, each time coming up with a fistful of gravel, which she hands over to me. I come to realize that she is trying to pick up her shadow in piecemeal fashion and she is entrusting me to safeguard her work in progress.

And so as the sun moves across the sky, we move with it, solemnly engrossed in our work, oblivious to the chaos around us. Hand in hand, heads bowed, we advance across the playground together, passing time and collecting shadows—one tiny handful at a time.