Author Archive for: Jeff

The Art of Grocery Shopping

01 May 2016
May 1, 2016

Growing up, my family’s grocery shopping was always a major event, something I was forced to endure on a weekly basis. Every Saturday morning my father would comb the newspaper ads for specials. Like the true engineer he was, he mapped his shopping trajectory based on which stores had what deals. We spent the better part of our Saturday going from one market to the next –often four or more. I pushed the cart while he consulted his list. This was not quality father-son time.

With a childhood like that, my grocery shopping has morphed into something less time-consuming. And, my wife and I split the chore. She makes the list and I go to Trader Joe’s, where as they say, everything is a special. But, like my father, I am efficient. I have created a shopping list template for my wife listing the placement of every item in the exact order of my trail through the grocery aisles. I want to get in and out as fast as I can.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed her list has become more a mix between a crossword puzzle, a rebus, and a scavenger hunt. A few weeks back, I got to my last stop in frozen foods where she told me to buy some “Chicken Tenders.” Chicken tenders? We haven’t bought those since my youngest was four. Now that we’re virtual empty nesters (my oldest is in college and my high school senior refuses to eat with us), I couldn’t imagine any recipe we would make that called for processed meat nuggets.

Over the years, I’ve grown to know the people who work at my local Trader Joe’s. We kibitz, we joke, and I complain about their penchant for moving things around without telling me (thus making my ordered shopping list obsolete). So, I stopped George as he walked by. “What do you think this means?” I asked, pointing to my wife’s notation. He stopped to consider my problem. “Does she mean chicken tenderloins?” Yeah, we eat those all the time. That’s what she meant. But, why would she write tenders instead of tenderloins when I could so easily get confused? When I got home I asked her. “Oh, I knew you’d know what I meant.” Really?

My wife's puzzling shopping list

My wife’s list started to become more abstract.

A few weeks later the list told me to buy “1 Unforgetable cheese.” I knew what that meant. Trader Joe’s makes a cheddar cheese that has a hint of Parmesan. It’s tasty and cheap. But, it’s called “Unexpected Cheddar Cheese.” The taste is unforgettable, although, apparently its name is not. I felt triumphant. I had deciphered her code and I didn’t even have to ask for help! But my victory was short-lived. Two lines down was this cryptic item: “round brownish wheat” with an accompanying illustration. Was that a tortilla? Tortillas are right next to the cheeses on my route and I often buy the whole-wheat variety. But she already had written tortillas. And then the next item: “New ones you’ve bought (smaller shape).” Sigh. What the hell was she talking about? Did she want crackers? They were on the other side of the cheese. I stood there while multiple clerks offered to help, that is until they saw the list.

Despite my scientific approach to shopping, my wife espoused a more artistic and interpretive way. I feel comfortable with the order of taxonomy. She likes abstract expressionism. I closed my eyes and picked a box. Wait, two boxes. I could have called her but that would have slowed me down. She would just have to live with the consequences of her artistic spirit. But I felt queasy.

My wife's shopping list, a work of art

Rainbow popsicles, indeterminant crackers, and broccoli parts

And then last week came the ultimate in cryptic mind games: a drawing of steps with the word “crackers” at the top. Okay, I figured out the steps. Those must be shelves. But there were a lot of crackers on the top shelf. This was so arcane, once again I was forced to use my lifeline: this time three clerks who had just been told to move all pasta sauce to the next aisle over. “What is this?” I asked, pointing to the drawing. No one knew. We laughed. They showed the list to their coworkers and they laughed. They understood me. Why didn’t my wife?

Discombobulated, I completely lost sight of my task. I was no longer my father’s son. Instead, I had become one of those undisciplined shoppers, grabbing whatever looked good to me. And, worse, I forgot to buy coffee even though it was clearly written on the list.

My wife couldn’t understand how I could forget the coffee.

Texting Away A Dysfunctional Family

08 Nov 2015
November 8, 2015
A Family Text

After the football game my wife and I took our older daughter out to dinner as we usually do on these Saturday evenings. A celebratory meal, certainly not for the prowess of our team, these after-game dinners reinforce the connections we have with our very independent children. With one in college and the other soon to be, we hardly ever see them. We are pre-empty nesters trying to get the hang of our new reality. This time, our younger daughter was entertaining friends at home. We decided on Ethiopian.

After dinner, we headed back to the dorm. As we inched our way down Main Street, the inebriated crowds of Homecoming alums slowed our trajectory. Suddenly from the back seat, “Shoot, my phone died.” Our eldest was totally disconnected from the outside. Now she was all ours. “So,” I said, do you talk to your sister much?” “A little.” “What do you guys talk about?” “That’s private Dad,” she said. I knew that even before I crossed the line. But, sometimes a father has to try. My wife, chimed in: “Well, I know when I talked to my sisters, we’d mostly talk about how crazy our parents were.” “Yeah, sorta,” my daughter replied. This was no surprise to me either.

We are evolved parents, definitely more together than our parents were. But, often I marvel at our family’s typical dysfunctions. I always wanted to be the parent of an atypical family.

“Dad, can I borrow your phone?” She wanted to text her sister. Handing it to her, it’s now just my wife and I. We chitchatted about the crowds, while I tried to direct her into the right lane. Backseat driving is one of our typical foibles. My wife knew what she’s doing. My daughter handed the phone back to me.

Of course I looked! Nothing much to see. Just a text to her sister saying we’re done with dinner and heading back. Sometimes I think these texts are warnings. Clean up the house and get everyone out. Mom and Dad are coming home. The house always looks nice and tidy upon our return.

My youngest responded with “Kk,” short for “okay.” We arrived at the dorm; we said our goodbyes and watched her walk to her room. While she was walking, it suddenly occurred to me, I had been given an opportunity to smooth over our familial dysfunction just a teensy-weensy. You know, soften it just a bit. I had the text convo between my daughters in my hand. So, I typed, “Oh, and dad was great tonight.” Yes, I know. In the spur of the moment, with great power beckoning, I forgot to add my wife.

Dysfunctional? Yes. Typical? No way.

The Curse: That’s One Small Step For Man…

21 Oct 2015
October 21, 2015
Accident scene

I forgot to take a picture of my foot stuck in the Metro escalator. So, like all good crime stories, I have recreated the scene. X marks the spot.

As I arrived at the surface from my subway commute, suddenly, a short, old woman, dressed in a mid February coat, crossed my path. “Pfeh,” she said in her Slavic-sounding accent, “to you and your descendants!” I ignored her. But I had been cursed. And I hadn’t even reached my cubicle yet.

Strange things began to happen; sudden and unexplained mishaps started affecting every project I was working on. One coworker checked to see if Mercury was in retrograde. It wasn’t. “It’s The Curse,” I said. By afternoon everyone was in agreement.

On Friday, things went better. The problems persisted, but no new ones appeared. By the end of the day I was able to take a deep breath. That woman’s power seemed to be waning. The weekend beckoned and it was time to go home. As I walked down the subway escalator, I began taking out my wallet with my pass so I could effortlessly get to the platform and catch the next train home. But, as I grabbed my wallet a receipt fell to the escalator steps. As I reached the bottom I turned slightly to retrieve it. I hadn’t even bent over when suddenly my foot got caught in the teeth as the stairs go underground for their return to the top. It felt like my shoe had been sucked into the system. It jammed and the escalator came to a sudden halt. My shoe was wedged so tightly I couldn’t move or even feel my foot. So I couldn’t tell if I was hurt. My toes were totally immobile.

A woman just behind me pressed the emergency stop and went to get the station manager. I stood there contorted as other commuters passed me by. The station manager came out of her kiosk to see what was happening. She was about forty feet away from me. I yelled, “Come here and reverse the escalator! Come help me!” She stood there for a few seconds, then she turned and left, saying she needed to report it. I continued to greet commuters as they made their way home. Some passed me by as if I was invisible. One man stopped to ask if I was okay. He was conflicted. Should he stay with me? I told him help had been summoned.

Waiting, somewhat embarrassed and concerned, did I take a photo of my situation as documentation? No, it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, my first thought was to tweet the calamity to the world. And, the Twitterverse began to respond. Retweets of my tweet. Someone blasted the station managers union. A Washington Post reporter tweeted her phone number. As small as my reputation was, I didn’t want it sullied by The Curse. “Nobody needed to know,” I told her. “Well,” she replied, “you did tweet this to everyone.” Um, yes, I did, didn’t I. With my 140 character announcement I had ceded all control over its worldwide coverage. I had announced my predicament to the world without a second thought. The Curse.

The station manager never returned. She never asked me if I was okay and she never filed an accident report as she was supposed to. I heard the faint roar of sirens in the distance.

Suddenly, my boss was standing next to me. She, too, was on her way home. “Are you okay?” she asked. I didn’t know. “Can you get your shoe off?” I couldn’t. I explained how tightly it was wedged in the machinery. She tried to get it off but couldn’t. Another coworker arrived and together they were able to extricate my foot from my shoe. I checked my toes and all were still accounted for. I seemed to be fine. The sirens got closer. I told my boss she didn’t have to stay. Now my attention turned to the fate of my shoe. As many of my friends know, I’m a shoe whore. My wife calls me Imelda. I call it my collection. When I began retelling this story the state of my shoe was the first thing friends asked about.

I couldn’t see the street but the sirens got loud and suddenly stopped. Two firetrucks and an ambulance. Five firemen now stood at the top of the escalator while the gathering crowd looked down on me. One bystander, unable to get to the train, was robbed while walking to the next station. He tweeted it. It was a crumbling house of cards. I was centerstage, but The Curse was hitting us all.

My rescuers made their way down the escalator to assess my situation. My foot was fine. My shoe might be. And the station manager finally made an appearance with a pad of paper trying to look like she was working. She was still oblivious to my wellbeing. But the firemen were kind enough to ask.

My rescuer

Selfie with one of my rescuers. Why the hell am I smiling?

The one with the crowbar got my shoe out. Not a scratch despite the death grip the escalator had on it. My rescuers were quite taken with that. “High quality suede always holds up,” I commented. I asked for a celebratory photo.

I battled that curse for the rest of the evening and well into the next day when, on the last play of the game, Michigan State’s Watts-Jackson scooped up the ball on a failed Michigan punt and ran for the winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. I had won! I beat that old crone with her unwarranted curse.

I was finally back in control.

Emigrating to Oblivia

08 Aug 2015
August 8, 2015

I’m emigrating to Oblivia. I’m leaving this place and its work culture. I have spent too long trying to live with the tenets of our national work zeitgeist. It’s time to visualize my exit. No, I’m not retiring just yet (I’ve got two children to get through college). But I am thinking about it. Eighty years ago, on August 14, 1935, the same day the Social Security Administration was founded, Obliva became a bona fide and well-sought-out destination. Suddenly, retirement was closer to reality for millions. And, today, Americans count on a return on their withholdings to help fund their move. I’m excited about sliding into oblivion, I mean, emigrating to Oblivia.

It’s a state where your work accomplishments have been banished. For those who think work is their life, the move feels like exile: a place where no one cares whether you have a corner office or stock options. I never had either. But I always had another life as an artist and a writer. I’ve put these skills to good use in my day job and I’m taking them (and a few pens) with me when I go.

Recently, my daughter came home from her first paying job as a camp counselor. She was ecstatic, proclaiming her love for her work. I was blown away by her enthusiasm. “Oh, sweetie,” I said, “you’ve just begun your working days. You’re in the first stage of your working life, the idealist stage. In the idealist stage everything seems possible. It’s different from school and, as a bonus you’re paid. What could be better?” It was wonderful to witness my daughter’s exuberance. I never went through the idealist stage.

My first job was at McDonalds and my only duty was taking out the garbage. Not once did I come home waxing poetic about trash, only smelling of it. My first “real” job was working at the post office. And on my first day I was told to come in a 4:30 a.m. to sort mail. Five hours later, my new supervisor then handed me a full delivery route. My first 8-hour day turned into a 14-hour day. As I delivered the last of the mail, I was so tired and disgusted I started throwing letters on people’s front porches. Ah, the petulance of my youth, to say nothing of that federal offense. When I got back to the post office someone had called to complain and my supervisor reamed me out. I came home and told my father I was never going back. I will never forget his response: “You will go back and you will apologize. Then you will do what’s expected of you.” That day forged my work ethic. I never had a chance to experience the idealist stage. On my first day of work I went directly to the second level: the realist stage.

The Three Stages of Work

In this phase you realize there are people who think very differently than you. To succeed you will have to develop major interpersonal skills. You will discover hierarchy, the organizational chart that shows you’re at the bottom. To move up you will need to learn how to listen and do what you’re told. No eye rolling. It’s during these decades you discover coworkers who not only think differently than you, but believe your ideas are “dangerous” and actively work against you. And, they have no qualms about calling you out in a meeting or an all-staff email. If you’re like me, you will take classes on your own dime to learn how to deal with these difficult types. College doesn’t teach you this. To move up, you must learn how to strategically make waves, gathering allies as you do. Together, change may be possible.

When you get to be about 60, you will realize you’ve entered the final stage of your working life, the cynical stage. Let me say from the outset that turning into a cynic has its positive attributes. You come to accept that organizations, by their very nature, are conservative. Change does not come easily. And when it does, it’s often tumultuous. Resistance is often rampant. You wake up one day and ask yourself, “Why am I fighting so hard? What difference does all the sturm und drang I dredge up make?” And you ease up. You become thankful for small victories. And, most importantly, you start to let go. The other day I woke up and decided not to shave. No one noticed. Slowly and imperceptibly, I am slipping into Oblivia.

I have come to accept my cynicism. In fact, I’ve embraced the freedom that comes with it. I saw this metamorphosis happen to others, but never understood it until now. It’s liberating. It’s made my workdays so much better. It’s not that I no longer care. I work hard and I still come up with new ideas. But I have no illusions. I’ve learned to accept the realities of working without all the disappointments. The self-doubt of my early years has vanished. I love being old (except for my closer proximity to, well, “the end”). I know who I am. I know my strengths and what I suck at. And I have no problem accepting both. It helped to remember where I started. “Youth,” my father used to say, “is wasted on the young.” Not so, dear dad. Youth is only the first step. It is a time to be idealistic: to think you can change the world. Reality will set in later. Your early idealism will be buried, but not forever.

In Oblivia I will have all the knowledge I’ve accumulated in my work life while finally getting to experience the idealism that’s been in the closet all these years. I will love whatever I do and be rewarded because I will be my boss, my only employee, and my client. I will be writing my own performance review. Well, I think I’ll do away with performance reviews. They’re quite meaningless. And, in my new home they are against the law.

Long live Social Security and God Bless the blissful State of Oblivia!

Observant on Day One

17 Jul 2015
July 17, 2015
My parents and me

Observant at a very young age, I was particularly interested in my toes.

I am nothing if not observant. I had to be, growing up in an irrational house, where, at any moment, the sublime could morph into the profane —and where a loved one could literally change overnight. (Sadly, I don’t mean figuratively.) It’s no mistake I became a photographer, always looking for the inconsistencies in human behavior, ready for any turn of events, no matter how unlikely they may be. Irony and synchronicity are not lost on me. And, when I think about it, my attraction to these details was preordained.

My mother had one ovary. And her gynecologist told her she would never have children. This was before fertility clinics, surrogates, and in vitro fertilization. This was also as ill-informed as the mid 20th century could get. My parents tried for three years before my mother became pregnant. And, after nine months, I was born this day many years ago.

But, as my mother got in the elevator to go up to deliver me who should be there but the very doctor who told her she would never have children. I was there, but I didn’t see his reaction. Yet, somehow, it stayed with me.

A New Flag For Our Lawn

03 Jul 2015
July 3, 2015

I suggested some alternatives to the realtor who plants American flags on our lawns every 4th of July.

When it comes to our little plot of suburban heaven, we are outliers. We couldn’t care less about having a perfect lawn. No monthly weed treatments and I do all the mowing. Some years, to make its upkeep a little less mundane, I do creative mowing. The best thing you can say about our grass is it’s green. And, if you squint, it looks lush and, well, even greener.

Every year we get a new and different lawn. And, by that I mean a new and different species of weed takes over. We are beholden to the wind and rain for our greens. Sometimes it’s long and bushy, but this year we were lucky. It’s thick and low —great ground cover that only requires mowing every month or so. The grass doesn’t get taller; it gets denser. So, this morning, as a prequel to the July 4th holiday I got up early and started to mow. We live at an entrance to a 500 acre park and many will be parking their cars next to our house to hike in. I didn’t want to be the embarrassment of the neighborhood.

Halfway through this chore I saw a woman walking down the street planting small plastic American flags by each house’s driveway. I’ve known this woman for over ten years. She is one of our local realtors and, even though she has denied it, this is a well-known marketing scheme in real estate. Our first conversation about it was over the phone in 2003:

I introduced myself and asked if she had been the one to place the flag in our front yard. “Yes,” she admitted proudly. “That was me.” I began by asking her if she had considered asking homeowners if she could place the flag on our lawns. The notion of land ownership is also deeply imbedded in the American psyche. We fought a civil war over rules of ownership. I didn’t appreciate her assumption I would be pleased with the gift she left in front of my house. She told me it would have been difficult to ask each homeowner as she had placed over 700 flags throughout the area. I suggested this might be a reason to rethink her act of generosity.

She didn’t quite understand my initial dismay but, over the years we’ve come to respect each other. She emigrated many years ago from Greece and I can appreciate her perspective. Now, she never places a flag on our lawn without asking and I don’t force her to listen to my didactic lecture on the selling of American patriotism.

So, when I saw her this morning I stopped my mowing to chat. At first, I didn’t recognize her and thought another agent had taken over the flag placements for her. Just a new hairdo and change of color. I was glad to see her. Our yearly get-together has become a 4th of July tradition. And we caught up on the last year.

Suddenly, I had an idea. “You know what would have been great?” I said to her. “If you had placed rainbow flags up and down the street instead of American flags.” She didn’t understand so I made the connection. “It’s so timely and would make such a wonderful statement.” She said that they have to order the flags months in advance so she couldn’t have known to order different flags back then. I told her I was just kidding, well in a “can’t we dream” sort of way. “Oh, wait,” trying to think of a twist she could relate to. “You’re from Greece. What if you had put Greek flags up and down the street to make a statement about the country’s debt crisis?” “Well, Greek Independence Day is celebrated in March,” she replied. Why do people always take me so literally? But I had one last thought: “The finals of the Women’s World Soccer Cup are Sunday. What if you put American and Japanese flags on lawns to celebrate that?” “Would you let me put them on your lawn?” she asked. “Um, maybe.”

When it comes to our little plot of suburban America, we are outliers. Way outliers.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074