The month of May is the “done with” month, that time of year when we cross obligations off calendars and look ahead to the respite of summer. It’s been a long time since I walked the halls of higher education in pursuit of knowledge, and yet that chant echoes still in my mind. “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’. . .” —well, I know you remember the rest of it.
And yet, the pressures of May exist for us all, even if we aren’t the ones putting pencil to final exam paper. Work, family and community; the demands of each reach their height during this season. For me, at this stage of the game, much of the tension is tied to sporting events, particularly those falling on Tuesdays. Many of you are aware that Tuesday is “Zen Ironing,” the day of the week where I exchange my computer for domestic pursuits, with the grocery store and other errands filling in morning hours, often leaching into the afternoon. Holing up in the laundry room with board and steam iron occupies me into early evening, which is why friends gather and keep me company. Alcoholic beverages are optional, but encouraged, as tongues are loosened, ideas spun, thoughts flow.
Over the last ten years, because school track meets and tennis matches are always scheduled for spring Tuesdays, this day of domestic ease becomes contorted and anything remotely “zen” gets lost in the shuffle. Since I reserve the rest of the week for writing and community related activities, everything-Tuesday must be wrapped around the sporting events. It is at times like this when I notice the similarity between bullfighting and grocery shopping. They are both art forms, in their own right.
Ernest Hemingway had an obsession with the bull fight, or what he called, “tauromania.” I find it amusing that the month of May falls during the period in the Zodiac when the Sun crosses the astrological constellation of Taurus (the bull.) No small wonder then that we feel the tension associated with aggression this time of year.
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes that “‘[t]he only place where you could see life and death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring. . .’” because bull-fighting always brings death for the bull, often for the horses, and occasionally, even for the matador, no matter how great his skill. Hemingway admired the bull arena, for this visual opportunity offered to those not faint of heart.
A grocery store on a Tuesday during the month of May is the closest approximation to a bull ring I can think of. After all, what is not more akin to life and death than filling the refrigerator?
Similar to a bull ring, the place where we forage for sustenance, should we decide to cook rather than drive-thru, is a very public forum. The wire cage of our shopping cart leaves nothing to hide; the world can see exactly how we live and eat. How many times have you cast a roving eye into your aisle-neighbor’s cart, scanning, adding up the boxes of frozen pizza and cat food tins. How many times have you been tempted to remark to a similarly-engaged fellow shopper, “Yeah, that’s right. We don’t use corn cobs anymore, either.”
All of my actions are under exacting scrutiny from the moment I cross the gaping threshold. As a “regular,” in that I have shopped at this store going on twenty years now, the employees are familiar, and I am the matador, all eyes are upon me. “What is her mood today?” the clerks ask each other in whispers. My buddy, the checker Alfonso, is never so subtle, but takes note of manner of dress, shoes and stride without missing a beat, never failing to comment, “She’s on a mission today,” if I seem rushed.
Stocking up on provisions requires ritual, method and passionate emotion. Hemingway’s prized bull-fighters “never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line.” (The Sun Also Rises, p. 167) There was a correct way, the artistic way, of holding the cape, working closely to the bull, never faking risk, knowing it was there, showing the danger to the crowd. There is a no-fail method to grocery shopping as well: begin in Produce, evaluating specimens minutely, taking care to inspect, prod gently, observe new offerings. There is the possibility that an entire menu may change, based on availability of a necessary vegetable. The art form is honed to a sharp edge if the shopper can make substitutions without panic. Following the line, move over to the deli, evaluating, always. Then meats, breads, dry goods and so on, until the end, when dairy products are reached. Then, and only then, can the shopper proceed to checkout, finishing the dance with a smooth flourish.
There are those days, and every matador has them, where the produce is wilted or the desired vegetable cannot be had. Aisles are crowded with fellow matadors, tempers flare, bulls snort and paw the ground as the emotional temperature in the arena rises to boiling point when shelves so crowded with goods fail to yield results because that precise bottle of olive oil, the one advertised to transport the diner to Greece without adding to one’s hips, cannot be located.
This is all part and parcel of the shopping experience, the spectacle, the horror. If the matador is an aficionado, a person with the passion and desire to go home and create a meal, the grocery clerks will forgive all, because they know that you are a cook, that you shop at their store out of the pure enjoyment of the activity, that these are the steps which lead to creation.
Montoya could forgive anything of a bull-fighter who had aficion. He could forgive attacks of nerves, panic, bad unexplainable actions, all sorts of lapses. For one who had aficion he could forgive anything.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954.
There is one thing grocery clerks will never forgive, no matter how much aficion is written on your sleeve, or piled up in your basket, and that is the cell phone. It is a grievous sin. It is a mark of disengagement with the art form.
This reproach happened to me last week when, right in the middle of evaluating exactly where I could locate an elusive can of diced organic tomatoes which weren’t accompanied by basil leaves, jalapeño peppers or had no salt, my cell phone rang. Or rather, it launched plaintively into the first few measures of Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly. Since I was engrossed in my search for the perfect can of diced tomatoes, I ignored the ring, and was quickly spanked by the sound of “tweeett!”, which I knew required immediate attention. Callers can wait, texters can’t. At least, that’s my rule and most people needing to reach me “right now, Mom!” know that. The text was from Isabelle’s tennis coach.
“Is Isabelle riding with the tennis team on the bus?”
“Hell yes!” was my immediate thought. The team typically had to arrive at the visiting school at least an hour or more before the match began, and this particular school was forty-five minutes away. I had not intended to reach the school until yellow balls started bouncing over the net, and didn’t want to drive Isabelle. I couldn’t anyway; I was up to my armpits in groceries which still required payment and unpacking at home.
“Absolutely yes! Isn’t she there?”
I figured it was a good idea to be emphatic, to let the coach know what I was thinking. Within seconds, Coach replied:
“No. Do you know where she is? She’s missed the team pictures already and we’re leaving in ten minutes.”
Panic ensued and I texted Isabelle, who, luckily, gets high marks in the quick responder category and texted back immediately.
“The front office ‘neglected’ to dismiss me. I’m still in class.”
A flurry of texting later, during which I established the dire necessity of getting herself and tennis equipment out of the class and onto that bus if she wished to compete that day, and the situation had resolved. I, ever the skilled matador, remained cool, calm and collected, should I be observed by the grocery store public, never questioning how the alleged “neglect” could be possible, nor did I raise my voice. I didn’t have to; I could yell very effectively by sending texts on my cellphone.
It was a lengthy, although soundless conversation, except for the repeated “tweeeeeetttts” and “bluuuurrrppps” of incoming and outgoing messages. The fact of the conversation via cellphone infuriated my checker, who angrily tossed pears down the conveyor belt, toppled bottled water onto fresh flowers and did everything he could to make me aware of his displeasure. I apologized to him between texts, explaining the difficult situation of trying to find my daughter and get her on that bus without actually dragging her on it, but it carried no weight with him. Today, I lacked aficion. There was no eye contact, no casual banter and joke-telling, no “what are you making for dinner this week?” sort of give-and-take. Without the expected exchange of emotion, I was no longer the matador; I was a dead bull.
I prefer the days where I go through life like a matador, dealing with horns and hooves with grace and dexterity. I know there will be days when “Tauromania” has me in its grasp. Those are the days when I tend to go home, unpack my groceries, and hide under a rock.