My six-year-old, the one with the yogurt, and his sister, and my wife and I are finishing up the morning routines and about to rally for a family outing because it is the weekend and we are a happy family unit so we Do Meaningful Things Together.
Last week, the honors teacher at the kids’ elementary school sent a Remind home telling us that the “local sewage wastewater treatment facility was having an open house” and all the families in the school honors program should probably want to attend. So we want to.
I am going because I heard there is a pretty nice lunch provided. I am undisturbed at the notion of taking a tour of room after room filled with vats of human waste and then enjoying an in-house buffet set out on the fold-up card table pulled from the sewer plant janitor’s closet.
I tell the kids, “Today, we get to use the word ‘poop’ as much as we want. It’s unrestricted, the use of poop, all day.” I also tell them that we don’t need to use the restrooms at the sewage treatment facility — “you just go where ever you happen to be standing and it’s OK. They just wash all your poop and pee into a big tub at the end of the day.”
It’s a long drive, made longer by the fact that I first take us to the wrong sewage treatment plant. How many of these things are there? My wife gives a little side-eye and is about to throw in the towel on this adventure but I emphatically state, “We are going to the sewage wastewater treatment facility.”
Finally, sometime much later, the four of us arrive. I can’t find the visitor parking lot and, after blowing through the security hut, I am waived down by a guard.
I admit I made efforts to coif my hair and look totally cool for friends and hang bros whom I expected to run into at the sewage wastewater treatment plant open house. Despite this, I can see in the security guard’s eye that he knows I am not a wastewater local. “The open house is next week.”
“SON OF A …OK, kids, we’re getting ice cream”
“I want poop flavor!”
The drive home is punctuated by endless, “are we there yet” questions as I weave through up-and-coming neighborhoods, walled in by the illegal verticals of new high-end condos blocking out my view of the sky.
The wife and I let our eyes linger a bit too long on the trendy brunch spots we read about but never have the free time to partake. We see the trendy junk stores which are full of antique lamps and ironic kitchen signs sold to you at a fivefold mark up but which advertise with such cool understated decor you can’t help but be drawn in. And once you see the hip sales friends wearing outrageous outfits that raise so many questions, what choice do you have but to linger and buy? It’s pricey, sure, but the salve of those places is in getting to spend money on yourself, without children constantly tugging on your arm I WANT GUM, I WANT POKEMON, I WANT THIS BLUE THING “that’s a box of tampons, son” I WANT TWO!
We weave the minivan through the urban cyclists and young ladies in yoga pants bobbing along endlessly walking dogs and construction cranes and orange traffic cones, past so many shops full of people poking around when suddenly I realize we have no small-batch coffees in our cup holders or Lulumon deliveries to look forward to. I apologize to my wife for making her suffer through such an indignity.
In an economy built on an expectation that we be constant consumers, it feels awkward to go somewhere and not buy anything. We took a family drive and bought nothing. I felt naked.
I grow nostalgic for shopping in person for things we need instead of simply lugging in the constant stream of porch deliveries of Amazon groceries and boxes of clothes and books and home goods bought when we meant to browse the weather online.
I imagine there should be a chute out the backside of the house to process all the incoming and outgoing items, but no. We just cram it all into nooks until one day it will collapse on me. Death Certificate: Killed by a pile of umbrella hats.
Emerging from within me comes the need to Explain to The Children About The Old Days. My mind leaves my body, floating at the roof of the minivan cabin. Intellectually, I know this is wrong, but I can’t stop my body from starting an instructional lecture.
“Kids, in the old days, people used to shop by telling a friendly supply and tackle shop owner what they wanted. He stood behind a counter, all the groceries behind him. His clerk fetched everything and brought it all out in brown paper wrapping, even took your things to your buggy. A buggy is like an old car, see? Everyone would smile and you’d turn over a doubloon or satchel of apples or youngest child of labor age as payment and move along.”
“Dad did they have bathrooms or did everyone poop on the floor like we’re gonna do if you ever get your calendar right?”
“Oh, ha, they had bathrooms. Outback. Called them outhouses. Now, in today’s stores, we meander through aisles of colorful products, and we clip coupons and strategize double buys to get extra savings, loading up oversized carts with six-packs hanging off the rails, while kids and sales tug at us through the cue-defining ‘impulse buy’ mazes. Very stressful. Very stressful. They didn’t use to have those. You used to just buy what you needed, not what they told you.”
Who I am talking to at this point is beyond me. My mental spirit observes that the kids are singing and my wife is scrolling her phone. But my body cannot stop.
“Did you kids know that we’re monitored by facial recognition video software to gauge our reactions to product placement in grocery stores? We self-checkout, if you are under thirty. The line to deal with a human is thirty and older. We self bag. We comply and buy.”
My wall of sound ceases. No one notices that the dad lecture has ended, the ghost of Norman Rockwell having passed away from me.
I’ve still got the Internet on my mind, the biggest salesperson of them all, bent and molded to sell, to get clicks, to increase engagement, place ads, and convert subscriptions.
The Internet was supposed to liberate humanity with a vast exchange of ideas. it was supposed to level the playing field in governance, education, and self-expression to allow billions of humans to freely participate in a fundamental human advancement.
It has instead been harnessed by mega-corporations to be a giant transaction engine, used primarily to deliver one of the oldest, most time-worn cons of all: the exchange of money for the illusion of happiness.
My thoughts are broken up by my wife’s request that we stop to buy something. This is a reasonable request, accepted without question.
We pull over at a local bakery. Their products are treasures, and I think they have the best chocolate chip cookies in the city. They offer couple’s cooking classes. They have “Jewish pizza,” a personal favorite.
Finally, back at home, the kids get rowdy. With their screens off, they default to kicking each other. My wife looks my way for discipline, asking me of my son, “What do I do with him now?” I dunno. I threaten to take away his allowance for the week, which means he can’t buy gum or Pokemon cards. He stops kicking his sister. It’s a power move.
We bought a new parenting book. From what I’ve read so far, every tactic I’ve deployed on instinct has been wrong. I read a section aloud to my wife and she said, “oh that’s exactly you!” I continued to explain it was an example of how badly things turn out when you use the wrong techniques.
It’s now after dinner. My children abandoned their plates and my wife has chased one of them up into the shower. My daughter drew a picture of me.
I sit at the table, alone, staring at the image, wondering how to make sense of our place as cogs in the wheel of constant consumerism. I lean over for my espresso, past the half-eaten slice of white lily cake and the empty rocks glass, pondering. I realize I’ve never owned a bow tie. I thumb open my Amazon app and start browsing.