A family walk in the city

It’s rare that Caroline and I run errands together in the city. Usually when one of us goes out (and brings James along) it’s an occasion for the other to get some work done. But on Friday afternoon we were all eager to get out of the house so we set off together get ingredients for dinner that night: a cold pasta salad with shrimp, feta, olives and dill.

James resisted getting in his stroller, as he often does, and rather than cajole him we let him walk alongside us. He took my index finger in his hand and with Caroline pushing the empty stroller beside us we walked slowly down the block. At the first intersection the cross light was just turning yellow. Normally I would have zipped across at the last second, but that’s hard to do with James at my side. So we waited a minute and watched the cars go by. “Yellloow taxi cab,” James said excitedly as one and then another sped by.

There are all sorts of stories about the merits of going slow. One of my favorites is Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece. It’s a simply illustrated book. The main character is a circle with a dot for an eye and a pie-slice mouth. He rolls along looking for his missing piece and as he goes he sings a happy song:

Oh I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece 

I’m looking for my missin’ piece 

Hi-dee-hi, here I go

Lookin’ for my missin’ piece

The book is a series of minor adventures. He bumps into a stone wall, bakes in the sun, cools in the rain. The land is littered with pie-shaped pieces but none turn out to be his missing piece: one is too sharp, another is too small, one is too square, another is too surly and rejects him.

Finally the circle comes across a piece that looks just right. Their initial exchange still breaks my heart:

“Hi,” it said.
“Hi,” said the piece.
“Are you anybody else’s missing piece?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, maybe you want to be your own piece?”
“I can be someone’s and still be my own.”
“Well, maybe you don’t want to be mine.”
“Maybe I do.”
“Maybe we won’t fit…”

And they do fit. And because the circle is now complete he rolls along faster than ever before, so fast that he can’t stop to talk to his old friend the beetle or say hi to a butterfly. Worst of all, the addition of the new piece means that when he tries to sing, the words come out garbled because his mouth is now full of piece.

This leads to an epiphany. “‘Aha,'” it thought. “‘So that’s how it is!'” The circle places the new piece gently back down on the ground and then rolls on, slowly, without it, still singing his song. The simple idea conveyed by the book—that the things we want most are the things we cannot have—has stayed with me more powerfully than just about any story I’ve ever read.

The walk to the grocery store took twenty minutes, about twice as long as it usually does. Once inside James tried to knock over a tower of canned tomatoes, so I picked him up. Caroline got a cube of feta at the cheese counter and a carton of grape tomatoes. James watched her as she began to scoop oily kalamatas from a barrel into a shallow plastic container. “I wanna watch, I wanna watch,” he said in an urgent voice, straining to look over my shoulder to get a better look at what Caroline was doing. It occurred to me that if you’d never seen a barrel of olives before, as he hadn’t, then for a moment it might appear to be the most interesting thing in the world.

Everyday James sees a multitude of things which, for a moment at least, probably count as the most interesting thing he’s ever seen. Adults might go years without seeing anything that stirs us to wonder half as much as those olives stirred James. A recent New Yorker profile of a Baylor University neuroscientist explained how our increasing familiarity with the world relates to the fact that time seems to move faster as we grow older: “The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last…The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”

That sounds right to me. I remember a few years ago it was late-November before I’d noticed that the leaves had begun to fall from the oak tree outside my apartment. By that time the tree was nearly bare and I found myself thinking, “My God, I can’t believe it’s already Thanksgiving again.”

I don’t know the British Romantic poets from Adam, but recently I did stumble across a poem by William Wordsworth called “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” It’s about how wonder fades as we grow older. The first stanza:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Maybe there is no getting back the wonder of childhood, but after we’d finished our grocery shopping and returned home, it occurred to me that having a child helps. When I’m by myself I try to get where I’m going as fast as I can and I pay attention to just what’s necessary to carry out the task in front of me, but walking with James changes my pace and my perspective. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to inhabit James’ world all the time; I like being able to separate the wheat of experience from the chaff, and to use the room such sorting creates to think about, among other things, how different his world is from mine.

The amazing lives of bees

This morning my review of The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus runs in the Christian Science Monitor. It’s a very good book. Nordhaus spent a couple years with a migratory beekeeper named John Miller as he trucked his half-a-billion bees around the country and rented them out for weeks at a time to pollinate almond orchards, orange groves, and clover fields, etc. (As a result of monocultural crop planting local bee populations are rarely big enough to keep pace with agribusiness pollination needs.)

The best part of the book for me was learning more about bees. My prior knowledge was so limited that I hadn’t even put it together that “Clover Honey” means honey that was produced by bees who got their succor pollinating fields of clover. There are, as it turns out, nearly as many varietals of honey as there are types of flowers. Among them one of the most noxious and inedible is said to be honey produced from onion blossoms.

As I was reading The Beekeeper’s Lament I shared bee trivia with just about everyone I ran into. A couple of my favorite bee-related factoids made it into the review (including a quick recap of the astonishing one-and-only flight the queen bee makes outside the hive in her life). Here are a few that did not:

  • It takes 80,000 bees working all summer and visiting 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of honey
  • The average honeybee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey over the course of his six-week lifetime
  • Migratory bees pollinate $15 billion of crops every year, and make possible 1 in every 3 bites of food from each summer’s harvest. Given the importance of migratory beekeeping to food production, I was particularly surprised that pollinators-for-hire only became a big business in the late-1990s.
  • In 2002 the FDA banned all honey imports from China after Chinese beekeepers used a nasty pesticide to combat an outbreak of a bacterial disease called foulbrood. The ban didn’t work, though. The Chinese started routing all their honey through third-party countries like Vietnam and Australia. Honey from China is still illegal to import into the US, but Nordhaus writes, “Suppliers suspect that 50 percent or more of all imported honey has been transhipped from China through another country.”
  • Every January two-thirds of the nation’s bees are trucked to the Central Valley in California to pollinate almond trees.

Overheard: a conversation between a mom and her son

On Sunday night while I was waiting at the corner of 34th and 8th Avenue in Manhattan for the bus to Philadelphia I overheard a conversation between a mother and her son that reminded me of conversations I used to have with my mom.

The son was in college and had just finished for the summer. He had a thick beard and was dressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeve athletic shirt. The mom was in her late-forties, short, and neatly put together. She didn’t look young, but she didn’t yet show any signs of middle age.

The mom asked her son one question after another, mostly about his friends. “How’s so and so doing,” she’d say. Or she’d give him an update on some family friend. “Did you know that Jess Kasenbaum is going to medical school?”

The son’s answers were short and generic. “He’s doing fine,” or “Same as always,” or, “Oh, good for Jess.” The whole time he fiddled with his smart phone. In most conversations his responses would have been taken as a sign that he didn’t really want to talk. But the mom either didn’t get the hint or she chose to ignore it, and the son seemed content to go on giving half-answers.

The second aspect of their conversation that struck me was the son’s disposition: He acted like he knew a lot more than his mom did. At one point while we waited a homeless man walked the bus line handing out copies of The Onion that he’d unpacked from the newspaper box around the corner. The son said he’d already read that issue but he took a copy for his mom and, after a minute of digging in his backpack, handed the man what looked to be about 30 cents. “You’ll like this, it’s really funny,” he said to his mom, in the same tone that a parent might use to cajole his kid into eating vegetables: “Eat these, they’re good for you.”

I remembered feeling that same flush of cultural superiority towards my mom whenever I introduced her to new music, or explained what instant messaging was, or helped her read the NYC subway map.

The two of them talked about more serious topics, too. From what I could tell there’d been a divorce recently. “Your father wasn’t a good husband to me,” I overheard the mom saying. “He’d always walk two blocks ahead of me when we were in the city.”

This son looked up from his phone and said something I couldn’t quite make out. The mom spoke more loudly, less self-consciously than he did. I could hear her clearly when she said, “I miss the unity of being a family, that’s what I miss. But I don’t miss him at all, not for a minute.”

The son gave his mom some advice: “I hear people talking like this all the time, complaining about their problems instead of doing something about it.” It wasn’t the most generous thing he could have said but I had some sympathy for the son; it’s hard to know what to say when your parents bare themselves to you like that. As a kid you want to be able to say to your parents what they always said to you: everything’s going to be all right. It’s a lot harder to accept that some people live unhappy lives and that your parents might be among them.

Eventually the bus arrived. The mother and son boarded before I did and I didn’t see where they sat down. We drove south on the Jersey Turnpike; the glow of streetlamps raced through the interior of the bus. As I continued to think about the conversation I’d overheard I was surprised to find myself identifying more closely with the mother.

The son may have known many things his mom did not. He knew about The Onion. He told his mom to “calm down” when she started worrying about the bus being late. He had advice for how to deal with a divorce. But when it came to the single most important thing between them—how much she loved him—it seemed to me that the mother knew it completely and the son had no clue.

Reconnecting with children's books as an adult

I’ve got a short essay up this morning about the experience of reconnecting with children’s books I loved as a kid now that I’m reading them to my son:

The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.

I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks…

Kenyon Grads Reflect on DFW's 2005 Commencement Speech

Time Magazine calls David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech to the graduates of Kenyon College the best commencement speech ever given. I’ve been a fan since a friend emailed it to me a few years ago and since then I’ve returned to it a couple times a year and shared it with lots of friends. Recently I began to wonder: What did the speech seem like to the graduates who heard it live? To answer that question I interviewed graduates of the Kenyon Class of ’05. I have an essay out this morning describing what I found.

On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in way Wallace’s work is received and remembered. Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it’s an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption.