Anyone watching me and Ryan at the grocery store might be excused for wondering if my vocabulary barely extends beyond two phrases: “We don’t need that” and “Put it back.”
Ryan: “What’s this?”
Me: [Peering] “Uh, a Serrano pepper.”
Ryan: “I wanna get it.”
Me: “We don’t need that.”
Ryan: “But I just like this.”
Me: “Put it back.”
Among my innumerable contributions to the parenting literature is something I call The Two and a Half Rule: any errand a grown-up might have to perform will take roughly 2.5 times longer with a preschooler in tow.
It’s not a uniform multiplier. Getting gas with a small child shouldn’t take any longer than normal — unless you have one of those car seat-escaping kids, in which case you’re probably medicated anyway and thus unable to read this.
Grocery shopping is another matter. A trip to the grocery store ordinarily takes me 45 minutes to an hour — depending on how many obscure items my wife has entered into the shopping list that she can’t remember the name of, or what their packages looks like, or where they are in the store, or if they’re even in the store. Even so, an hour — round-trip.
If I take Ryan with me: two days. Maybe three if they’ve changed out the aisle displays.
I’m exaggerating because, honestly, I don’t know exactly how much longer it takes. When running errands with a preschooler, time as a familiar phenomenon departs the consciousness. Two and a half times is merely a post-hoc guess.
So why take him? Multitasking, ironically. Groceries have to be had, and children need quality time with their parents or they wind up becoming Cleveland Browns fans.
Quality time and grocery shopping might seem incongruent, but the fact is that Ryan loves grocery shopping. More specifically, he loves going to Whole Foods. He adores the Whole Foods store near our house like it’s a shrine. Every time we pass by, he points it out in case we unbelievers might have forgotten that the Deity persists.
I don’t like the Whole Foods company. Since readers of this blog have been/will be subjected to a profusion of my pontificating vis-a-vis other topics, I’ll try to show some restraint here and leave it at that. I do not like Whole Foods.
So why go there? you might ask. A number of reasons.
First of all, our household (by which I mean my wife) has certain quality requirements as far as foodstuffs go. Despite the Main Line’s palpable bougieness, the overall quality of supermarkets in this area is mediocre. Giant is a pygmy. Acme is anything but.
There are a few Wegmans stores in metro Philly, and yes, Wegmans has been scientifically proven to be the greatest supermarket in the history of retail food distribution. But the closest Wegmans is in King of Prussia, which means it might as well be in Scranton.
So, convenience. Hypocrisy, in other words — a frequent characteristic of adultus parentus.
Now, as much as I dislike the company, the new Whole Foods store to which we make our weekly pilgrimage is impressive, I’ll say that much.
The old Whole Foods was located next door to the new store, in a run-down 1970s strip mall storefront previously occupied by a nightclub.
The parking lot was a cramped, misconfigured bottle trap. The store itself was the size of a postage stamp. Five-point turns were frequently necessary, even with a mini cart. Every other aisle was interrupted by steel support columns, creating countless choke points.
I never dreamed of letting Ryan run free at the old Whole Foods. He regularly pleaded to be let off the leash, and my response was, in so many words, “Not on my life.”
Some parents probably looked at me askance for lifting a 40-pound three and a half-year old into a mini cart before heading in. That’s fine. Just remember, when you point your finger at someone else, your kids are busy turning out just like you.
As other parents were chasing their kids around the store’s confines and running into each other, my only extra task was to keep the Woog from reaching out from the cart and pulling down the display pyramid of soup cans, Jenga-style.
But it’s a new world, and the new store is a resplendent split-level arena, with blindingly huge windows, an elevator, a wine bar, a coffee bar, a juice bar, a beer garden, and a restaurant. The surface lot, which is lavish by lower Main Line standards, is augmented by an underground parking garage.
The new Whole Foods store has created all of the conditions necessary for Ryan to shop like a grown-up, except one. It has not imparted even a sliver of urgency. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Ryan hits the double-doors with gusto, strolling through the produce section and grabbing random fruits and vegetables he likes the look of. I’m on hand to crush his whims.
“What are these?”
“I want them.”
“We don’t need them.”
“But I just like them.”
“No. Put them back.”
“I want grapes.”
“How do you ask for things, Woogie?”
“Please, can I have some grapes?”
“Let’s go see if they have any organic grapes.”
“Sorry, Woogie, they don’t have any organic grapes.”
That’s what I actually say. What he hears is: “Your mother and I have taken all of your toys at home and given them to other kids. You can’t have them back. You don’t have any toys anymore. And you never will.”
Wailing. Gnashing of baby teeth.
That you should never shop for groceries when you’re hungry is a universally accepted maxim among adults, for universally understood reasons. You’ll probably buy stuff you don’t need, or maybe won’t even eat. That’s wasteful. Wasteful = bad, because scarcity.
You can’t avoid grocery shopping with the Woog when he’s hungry because he’s always hungry. And being around several metric tons of artfully displayed food doesn’t exactly have a destimulating effect on his appetite.
Furthermore, he doesn’t understand scarcity in the way you’d need him to, because 99% of what he has and/or consumes doesn’t cost him anything. He gets what it means to check out; he doesn’t get what it means to pay. So the entire experience of being at Whole Foods is for him like being a contestant in a cash-grabbing machine.
“Ohhh, look, Dada,” he says, picking up a box of Earth’s Best cookies. “These are or-gan-ic.” He holds up the front of the box so I can see the picture of the Cookie Monster laughing in my face.
“Woogie, just because something is labeled ‘organic’ doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Besides, we have cookies at home.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Yes, Woogie, we do. And mommy didn’t put those on the list.”
Actually, the cookies look pretty good. One of my occasional ruses is to let him get a treat that we both like, if he’s been well-behaved. I make a big show out of eating some of the treat together, then when he’s asleep I save a small portion for him and eat the rest by myself.
What. I’m promoting healthy habits. His, of course. Parenting sometimes requires sacrifice.
But this time, I’m not in the mood. He’s whining and pestering: the Duo of Dada Says No. Gong time.
“But, but, I just want —”
“Put it back.”
Eventually we make it to the coolers at the far end of the store, where the real jackpot is: cheesy pasta. That’s what he calls the tricolor tortellini. The Woog would do anything for cheesy pasta. He’d probably even pick up his room. (Hmm).
The tortellini is his favorite, but the others aren’t far behind: ravioli, raviolini, ravioletti, tortelloni, tortelli, gnocchi, cappelletti. If it has cheese and pasta commingled in some configuration, Ryan will do magic tricks for it.
The rule is that we get one of these items — not infrequently, two — if he’s been well-behaved and been “a good listener.” These are standards brought in from the outside world, of course, and their applicability in this cornucopia of calories in which we now find ourselves tends to be less than perfectly even.
To wit, we usually face off in front of the cheesy pasta cooler. He’s tired, I’m tired, he’s hungry, I don’t think about being hungry, and by now we’ve been in the store for as long as it took the Colorado River to form the Grand Canyon.
“We got the tricolor cheesy pasta and the gnocchi, Woogie. That’s plenty.”
“But I just want the yellow cheesy pasta, toooo. I just want that. For my dinner.”
I’ve never snapped in this moment, but sometimes I wonder what it would look like if I did. Sometimes I imagine myself crouching down, looking him straight on and saying, “Listen, Woogie. I know that for you, wanting to do something or not wanting to do something is really important. You really believe that matters.”
I imagine him nodding and saying. “Yeah, I just really want that stuff.”
And I’d touch his arm gently, and say, “Hang on a second. Here’s what I need you to understand. Are you listening to me?”
I’d smile warmly, and keep his eyes focused on mine, and then I’d continue. “What I need you understand is that it doesn’t matter. Everyday in your life you’re going to do things that you don’t want to do, and every day in your life you won’t get things that you want. And the reason you’re going to do the things you don’t want to do is because you have to, and the reason you won’t get the things you want is because you can’t. And as you get more grown up, the number of things you get that you want to get and the number of things you do that you want to do will get smaller and smaller each and every day you’re alive. Until finally you come to accept the fact that, ultimately, in the big picture, you have no choice, no freedom, no agency.”
“No easy-chee? That’s a silly word. What that word means?”
“Agency. It means that it makes no difference whether or not you want something or don’t want something. Because no matter how much you want something, you can’t have it, and no matter how much you want to do something, you can’t do it. And with each failure to realize your will, your existence gets erased, one small stroke at a time. It’s like a load that gets added onto every day of your life, one rock at a time, until the load becomes unsupportable, unbearable, and then you die. Do you understand?”
”Are you depressed, Dada?”
Sigh. “No, Woogie, I’m not depressed. I’m a dad. Now put it back.”
“But I, I, just want some yellow cheesy pasta.”
“Put it back. We’ll get the cookies.”
“Ohhhh. Okay! I like cookies.”
“Me too. Come on, let’s get out of here before your mother calls the state police.”