Sunday, August 22, 2010

Encountering Giraffes

If you live in the metro Detroit area, you've probably seen some form of the ad campaign launched by the Detroit Zoo regarding its "Giraffe Encounter." The photos depict happy, smiley children standing face-to-face with nature's tallest creatures in the rare opportunity to feed a giraffe- who wouldn't want to do that? I pictured my children, 3-year-old Noah and 14-month-old Cecilia grinning brightly as they broke bread (or the giraffe equivalent) with their new giant friends. I could even picture the pictures I would take! Perhaps this would solve the annual Christmas photo card dilemma! What could be cuter than my two little monkeys happily feeding a giraffe? Perhaps I would caption the photo "Merry Christmas from our neck of the woods!" But first back to August, which is when my brother and 4-year-old niece decided to come to Michigan for a visit, and we knew what we had to do: Encounter Giraffes.

I had not yet taken my animals to the Detroit Zoo as it is quite large and I feared it might be too much for them (and me). But we had made several trips to the smaller, more manageable Potter Park Zoo in Lansing with varying levels of success. In general, Noah loves animals, as long as they don't get too close. Or make too much noise. Or sudden movements. So basically he likes pictures of animals in books. So he generally enjoys our trips to the zoo, but he's exactly begging for more. Cecilia on the other hand, would like to reach out and cover every animal she sees in copious amounts of baby slobber. She managed to maximize her budding vocabulary by efficiently dividing the animal kingdom into 2 categories: Bears and Ducks. Anything furry with a face (including, but not limited to bears, cats, dogs, bunnies, certain family members) is a "Bea," while hairless creatures (ducks, frogs, hippos, certain other family members) are in the Ducky species (pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable: /duk-EE/). She really seems to love going to the zoo, except for the whole being trapped in the stroller thing. But of course they will love the Giraffe Encounter, I reassured myself.

Coordinating this excursion took slightly less advance planning than the invasion of Normandy. My brother and I exchanged a series of emails, mostly trying to decipher the vague information given on the zoo's website. Between the two of us we have over a dozen years of higher education, yet we were still unable to figure out how to have a Giraffe Encounter. You'll note that the website doesn't actually indicate when the giraffes actually eat, only that 50 people/session will be allowed to feed them the special $5 "giraffe food item." Urban legend (other moms) had led me to believe we had to be at the zoo promptly when the gates opened if we wanted to secure the highly coveted tickets to Encounter Giraffes. But what if it turned out the giraffes weren't hungry? What if they sold out? I spent 45 minutes listening to hold muzak trying unsuccessfully to get those answers. The more I dug for information, the less clear it became, and the more crazed I began to feel. It might as well have been a Tickle Me Elmo on Christmas Eve. Oh, you better believe we would Encounter Giraffes.

Eventually, my brother was able to get an actual human on the phone who explained that the giraffes are fed at 11am and 1pm, and thus our battle plan emerged: my brother and niece who had a much shorter commute to the zoo, would get there right as the gates opened and purchase our Giraffe Encounter tickets. Noah, Cecilia and I would join them just as quickly as I could pack up all our diapers, wipes, sunscreen, hats, spare clothes, water bottles, sippy cups, snacks on 3 hours of sleep, as I was working late the night prior. As I loaded up the car and rallied my mini-troops from their slumber, I was no longer sure if we were heading to the zoo for a few hours or on a 10-day trek through the Himalayas. But none of that mattered: we had a date with destiny. I mean a Giraffe Encounter.

Upon arriving at the zoo we found my brother standing next to the Giraffe Encounter ticket booth, which was inexplicably empty. I felt panic and rage surge through my body: had we missed it? But my brother explained that when he tried to purchase a ticket he was told that on this particular day you didn't actually buy the Giraffe Encounter tickets from the Giraffe Encounter ticket booth (because, I assume that would make far too much sense). No, you had to instead find the Giraffe Encounter ticket salesperson wandering through the zoo, and purchase tickets from him/her which I could only imagine requires knowing the secret Giraffe Encounter handshake and perhaps a digital thumbprint or a retinal scan. Next time I will know to check WikiLeaks for any classified Giraffe Encounter documents before leaving for the zoo. But none of that mattered: we had our tickets for the 11am feeding, so only 2 hours separated us from Encountering Giraffes!

2 hours is just about what it takes to push a double stroller from the entrance of the Detroit Zoo to the point where you actually see an animal. Don't get me wrong, it is a lovely, wonderful zoo but it is big. Really, really big. And it was hot. Really, really hot. And the stroller was heavy. Really... well, you get the point. Still, Noah and his cousin seemed to enjoy seeing the animals, as much as toddlers with toddler-sized attention spans are capable of enjoying seeing far away creatures that were for the most part, asleep. Cecilia occasionally popped her little head out of the stroller to yell "BEA!" or "DUCKY!!!" depending on the particular exhibit. But 2 zoo hours are just about all 3 kids ages 4 and under can handle, and as the clock ticked closer to our Encounter time I began to worry they wouldn't make it. Still, we pushed on....

Finally, the appointed time arrived! We hurried over to take our places and Encounter Giraffes.... where we were told to wait some more. Turns out we were just in the Pre-Giraffe Encounter Holding Area (PGEHA), where at least the view was better. "Giraffes!" yelled Noah and his cousin in tandem. "Ducky!" Cecilia exclaimed.

We stood in line for what felt like hours, but was really only about 30 minutes. 30 minutes under the hot sun with 2 children boisterously jumping up and down, crying out, "Is it time to feed the giraffes? NOW is it time to feed the giraffes???" and one baby now restlessly squirming against the stroller restraints and impatiently imploring, "Ducky!" In a classic move from the amusement park/attraction handbook, we found ourselves forced to stand directly opposite the Giraffe Encounter souvenir booth, where every color and size of stuffed giraffe dangles directly at toddler eye level. Well played, zoo folk.

About 15 minutes into our stay in the PGEHA, a kind zoo docent came through the line to educate us on the Encounter that awaited. She shared with us that giraffes have powerful jaws and very long, purple tongues. Noah shared with her that when he goes poo-poo on the potty he can have 4 M&Ms. Cecilia dozed in and out of a fitful stroller nap, occasionally waking to mumble, "Ducky?"

Then it was our turn. Our long awaited Giraffe Encounter. I half expected to hear the Hallejulah chorus as we stepped to the platform, but instead heard "NEXT!" as we were jostled into place. Now I don't know if the giraffes woke up with indigestion that morning, or if they had a really big dinner the night before, or if they're hoping to get into a cute outfit this weekend. But I do know that each child in our group was handed 2 scrawny little leaves. If you look at the photos on the website, you'll note that the happy, smiley kids are feeding the giraffes entire branches, which I'm guessing takes a little more time for a giraffe to eat than a leaf. No disrespect to the zoo folks, but it seemed a bit ridiculous. While the money we paid to feed the giraffes doesn't grow on trees, leaves in fact do.

I didn't get to see my niece feed the giraffe as I was unbuckling Cecilia from her stroller in the 2.5 seconds during which it happened. When it was Noah's turn, he walked tentatively up to the giraffe and just as he extended his arm toward the giant creature he turned back toward me and said, "Look, Mama! I'm going to feed the giraffe!" Of course, that's when the giraffe saw the leaf coming (and was probably thinking, "A leaf? Are you serious?") and snatched it up, oblivious to the fact that Noah's back was turned. And before he had finished turning back toward the giraffe again, it had already snatched the second leaf out of his other hand. Giraffe Encounter over. Good thing I had time to snap this lovely photo:

"NEXT!" boomed the Giraffe Encounter person.

"But I want to feed the giraffes MORE!!!!" Noah screamed as we were unceremoniously ushered off the feeding platform.

"DUCKEEEEEEEE!" Cecilia shrieked with her tiny arms outstretched toward the giant object of her affection.

My brother and I looked at each other in disbelief. I was torn between laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and joining my toddler in a tantrum. But we dried our tears, focused our thoughts and conversation on all the fun we had had, and waved goodbye to the Giraffes we had (very briefly) Encountered. Hot, tired, hungry and covered in zoo residue, it was definitely time to go home.

As we drove home I got to thinking about what had just happened. It wasn't quite how I envisioned it, but maybe that was part of the problem. It wasn't the Encounter of a lifetime, but maybe it wasn't supposed to be. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. Which is why from now on I'll try to stick to what I call The ABC's of Young Child Encounters (with giraffes, museums, fairs, etc):

Accept the experience for what it is. If your toddler is happiest picking dandelions out of the grassy areas between the animal exhibits, do not label your outing as a failure.

Be realistic about what activity will be most appropriate, and thus most enjoyable for your children. You don't have to get in every educational, enriching experience before they hit age 4. You will have many, many years to expand their worlds, but a very small window during which you are the center of it. I'm pretty sure my kids are just as happy going with me to the pet store to buy cat food as they were going to the zoo.

Check your expectations, along with your grown-up cynicism at the door. The experience likely won't turn out exactly how you expect, but remember- your kids didn't have the same expectations.

Later that night I kissed Noah's smooth little cheek, tucked him in with his beloved Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, and told him I loved him. He hugged me tight and said "I love you too, Mama. And you know what? The giraffe licked me!!!" He broke into the sweetest giggle, which turned into a roar, which ended in the two of us laughing so hard I cried. What a day. To borrow a word from his sister, it was all just ducky.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rethinking the family shopping experience at Costco

There's a place we often go on Sundays. A place so big it seems to hold the entire world between its walls. A place that's so vast, you can't help be awed in its presence. A place so overwhelming that some believe miracles can be found. A place I'm simultaneously drawn to and yet fear. I'm talking of course about Costco.

Ah, Costco. Where else can you pick up a lawnmower, a new couch, and a rotisserie chicken all in one visit? Only at Costco do you find a tank of live lobsters just a stone's throw away from a 12-pack of men's boxer briefs. (I'm guessing that's as close as most men would like live lobsters to get to their underwear.) Costco, the place where you can supersize your entire life.

3 years ago when we left the mean streets of Royal Oak, MI behind for the tree-lined, idyllic looking enclave 40 miles to the west called Brighton, I never imagined warehouse shopping would become part of my life. Probably because I was too busy fantasizing about the Brighton Woman I would become. (Keep in mind, I was 7 months pregnant with our first child, so hormones no doubt played a role in these delusions). I imagined myself pushing the stroller down the city's quaint Main Street, joyfully combining errands with playdates at the park with all my new Brighton Mom Friends and their children. Yes, Brighton Mona would shop local to supplement the vast harvest of produce Brighton Mona would grow in her backyard garden (I'm not sure what Brighton Mona's plans were for winter?). Brighton Mona would tiptoe lightly down Brighton's streets, ever conscious of her carbon footprint. That was before Brighton Mona knew there was a Brighton Costco.

Fast forward 3 years and our actual Brighton Life is somewhat different from my prenatal fantasies. We're now a family of four and as for shopping on Main Street, I've learned that man, woman and toddlers really can not live on bread alone, not even if it's that delicious High-5 Fiber stuff from Great Harvest Bread Company, and not even when topped with an artisanal gouda from the local cheese market. We do in fact have a backyard garden which provides delicious summer produce for many of Brighton's finest bunnies, chipmunks and squirrels, who are kind enough to leave us the occasional shriveled zucchini or half-chewed tomato. And we shop at Costco.

To get to our local Costco you must first drive around the nation's first double roundabout, two treacherous traffic circles placed back-to-back which I usually refer to as "The Ring of Fire." Local city planners claim it moves traffic efficiently, but I believe it might be God's way of setting up a final pre-Costco roadblock, His way of asking "Do you REALLY want to go there?"

If the answer turns out to be "yes" and you survive your go around the 'bouts, you will gain access to the Promised Land (assuming you've paid your $45 membership dues) and blink several times as your eyes adjust to the environment. I find myself drawn like a moth to a flame by the dozens of giant, flashing, flashy, flat-panel TV screens right at the entrance. They are enormous but in the enormity that is Costco, it's easy to lose perspective when it comes to size. Inside Costco, a 72-inch flat panel doesn't appear all that big. Just wait until you get it home and it turns out to be larger than any wall, or any room, in your house. Same goes for the 50-pound bag of cat litter, the 2-gallon tub of hummus, the muffins that are the size of my head, and the oversize bottle of laundry detergent which nearly causes a dislocated shoulder every time I attempt to pour into the machine. Those "Take and Bake" pizzas sure look delicious, don't they? Too bad they don't fit into my oven. I think Costco needs a giant rearview mirror-like warning: "Objects in store are larger than they appear."

If warehouse shopping is hereditary I'm in big trouble because my mom is Costco-obsessed. My Egyptian parents, who live alone, have turned their 2-car garage into a mini-version of Costco itself. There is enough Gatorade to rehydrate the entire USA Track and Field team (all the more odd given the fact that my parents are in their 70s and not exactly exercise enthusiasts) and enough toilet paper to build a full-scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
And they're not alone- Costco-philia runs rampant in their social circle (translation: other Egyptians). The Egyptian men often go to Costco together or meet up there after church. There's a running joke that goes: "Why did (fill in the name of the Egyptian woman) cross the road?" "Because Costco was on the other side." Maybe it's an immigrant thing: they came to this country with nothing and thus are drawn toward a place that allows them to stockpile. Or maybe they just really like the free samples.

Last month we threw a double party for our kids whose birthdays are about 2 weeks apart. Having heard great things about Costco's bakery, we decided to give it a try for the cake. As I've mentioned before, our 3-year-old is a tad obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, and wanted a train on his cake. But Costco is not in the business of making a 3-year-old's dreams come true, so their cake designs are somewhat limited. We settled on a happy sun and flowers, which was probably appreciated by my 1-year-old daughter, who does not necessarily share her brothers railway passions.

Then there was the size: at Costco you have a choice of Giant, Gigantic, or Ginormous. We chose the smallest possible, which feeds 50 and costs $17.99. That is far cheaper than any other cake, we reasoned, even as we knew we only needed cake for about 25 people, several of whom have fewer than 4 teeth.

At the last minute, I felt bad about the lack of trains on the cake and stuck a ridiculous cardboard cutout into the frosting to assuage my personal guilt. Then, once the candles were extinguished and the party was over, we pawned off cake on everyone we knew. We ate leftover cake until cavities formed (does Costco offer a dental plan?) and we still ended up throwing out nearly half of it. Happy disposable birthday. Our "cheap" cake left me feeling... cheap.

Yes, we've made all the requisite financial calculations, and yes, we do indeed save money buy buying certain items in bulk, but I'm beginning to feel like we're selling a piece of our souls in the process.

Buying in bulk was supposed to free up all this time and money for us to spend on the things that really matter to us, but has it really? When we get back from Costco (a trip guaranteed to take at least 2 hours and $200) we spend at least another hour unloading the loot and dividing it into real people portions, which we still often find ourselves unable to use. I fear we are teaching our kids that more is better, just because it's more.

Once upon a time, families of four (and five, six, seven) got by just fine without 10-pound bags of Goldfish crackers. I'm all for saving a little money especially given the current state of the economy, but sometimes shopping Costco's crude, cold aisles, stripped of every consumer comfort leaves me feeling empty. We're a family, not a business venture and we don't need to "cut out the middle man" on every transaction.

I'm not quite ready to give up the membership for good (at least not until we're out of the diapers and wipes phase, since bulk is the ONLY way to go on those) but I think it's time we gave our Costco purchases more careful thought. No more blind devotion, no more bowing down before the altar of the almighty dollar. And maybe from now one we should go on Saturdays instead.