The month of May is the “done with” month, that time of year when we cross obligations off calendars and look ahead to summer. It’s been a long time since I walked the halls of higher education in pursuit of knowledge, and yet that chant echoes. “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ —” I know you remember the rest of it.
And yet, the pressures of May exist, even if we aren’t putting pencil to final exam paper. Work, family and community; the demands of each reach their peak during this season. My kids are out of high school now, but back then, much of the seasonal tension was tied to sporting events, particularly those falling on Tuesdays. For some reason, there was always an out-of-town tennis or track meet on Tuesdays.
That’s the day of the week when I exchange my computer for domestic pursuits. The grocery store and other errands fill in morning hours. The laundry room and steam iron occupy me into early evening. Yes, I iron clothes. Maybe it’s archaic, but it’s soothing. Ironing is my “zen” time.
With Tuesday tennis and track meets, housework time became cramped. Anything remotely “zen” was lost in the shuffle.
That’s when I noticed the similarity between bullfighting and grocery shopping. They are both art forms, in their own right.
May falls in the Zodiac when the Sun crosses the astrological constellation of Taurus — the bull — known for aggression. Novelist Ernest Hemingway had an obsession with the bull fight, or what he called, “Tauromania.” In Death in the Afternoon, he wrote, “[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 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 a 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 fellow shopper, “Yeah, that’s right. We don’t use corn cobs anymore, either.”
All actions are under exacting scrutiny from the moment I cross the gaping threshold. As a “regular,” in that I have shopped at this store over twenty years, 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. Some aren’t subtle, but taking note of manner of dress, shoes and stride, comment, “She’s on a mission today,” if I seem rushed.
Hemingway’s prized bull-fighters in his 1954 novel, The Sun Also Rises, “. . . never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line.” 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.Similarly, stocking up on provisions requires ritual, method and passionate emotion. There is a no-fail method to grocery shopping: 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. Next, head 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 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.
Except 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.
On that Tuesday in May, right in the middle of evaluating where I could find an elusive can of diced organic tomatoes without basil leaves, jalapeño peppers or salt — just plain tomatoes — my cell phone rang. Since I was engrossed in my search for the perfect can of diced tomatoes, I ignored the ring. It was followed by the “tweet!” of a text. Callers can wait, texters can’t. That’s my rule and most people needing to reach me “right now, Mom!” know it. The text was from my daughter’s tennis coach, inquiring whether Isabelle was riding on the team bus.
“Heck yes!” was my immediate thought. The team had to arrive at the competitor’s school an hour or more before the match began, and this particular school was forty-five minutes away. I hadn’t planned to arrive at the school until yellow balls started bouncing over the net. I didn’t want to drive Isabelle. I couldn’t anyway; I was up to my armpits in unpaid groceries which had to be taken home and stored away.
Texts were exchanged, and I learned that Isabelle had missed the team pictures and the bus was leaving in ten minutes. Panic ensued and I texted Isabelle, who gets high marks in the quick-responder category. She texted back immediately. She was still in class since the front office hadn’t dismissed her.
I stormed up and down the grocery store aisles, creating a flurry of texts, grabbing foodstuffs off the shelves and directing my daughter. She got out of class, tennis racquet in hand, and onto the bus. I, ever the skilled matador, remained cool, calm and collected, never raising 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. But the conversation via cellphone infuriated my checker, who angrily tossed pears down the conveyor belt, toppled bottled water onto fresh flowers and did everything she could to make me aware of her displeasure. I apologized between texts, explaining the difficult situation of trying to find my daughter and get her on that bus without dragging her on it myself, but it carried no weight. Today, I lacked aficion. There was no eye contact, no casual banter, 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 in the grasp of Tauromania.
I prefer days where I go through life like a matador, dealing with horns and hooves with grace and dexterity. But I know there will be days when Tauromania has me in its grasp. Those are the days when I go home, unpack my groceries and hide under a rock.
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