Day 74: crisps and crayons

This week, the elder reached a milestone: he walked to the corner shop to buy something by himself. It was about 5pm. Some neighbors were coming over for a drink and I suddenly thought, ooh, let’s have crisps with our drinks. I was going to go myself to buy them but then I hesitated and asked the elder if he wanted to. His face lit up.

The corner store is across the street and just a few houses down from my new apartment. I can see the awning from my front door. Walking to the store involves crossing the street but nothing else tricky to navigate.

The elder set off and soon returned triumphantly bearing a packet of salted crisps. [1]

A couple of days later, when he came home from school, the first thing he asked was, “can I go buy chips again?”

“No!” I said. “No more chips!”

But then I remembered that we were out of milk.

“Actually …. OK … you can go buy chips if you also buy a half-gallon of milk.”

After giving him detailed instructions (“the organic kind, and not nonfat, OK?”) and some cash, he set off. As he was walking away the younger started to cry, “I want to go with him!” she sobbed.

I called the elder imploringly and he turned round and came back for her.

“All right,” I spoke sternly to the younger, “you have to do what he says. And you have to hold his hand crossing the street. OK?”

She nodded obediently.

I went back inside. “I’ve just let our four-year old walk to the shops supervised by our nine-year old,” I announced to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved. “Do you think that’s irresponsible?”

I don’t think it’s irresponsible,” he said. “But,” he added, “round here someone might report you to child protective services for that.”

I remember fairly clearly the first time I walked to the corner shop by myself. I think I was about six. I don’t remember what I bought, but I do remember that my Mum had only given me 50p with which to buy it, and, to my mortification, that turned out not to be enough, which I only discovered when I finally reached the front of the queue and the grandmotherly lady at the register rang me up. I had to leave my intended purchase behind and return home empty-handed (except for my 50p, that is.) I ran home crying, feeling crushed.

Perhaps this formative experience explains why I still have poor judgment when it comes to making purchases.

I recently did a big Amazon shop for essential supplies for the new place: more T-shirts for both kids; fridge magnets; crayons.

It was with the intention of buying this final necessity that I added this item to my Amazon shopping cart: “Tin Crayon Box, holds 64 crayons.”

I’ve included the link so that you can see for yourself that the image is of a box full of crayons.

I am here to tell you, readers, that this picture is profoundly misleading.

Come on, don’t tell me that you wouldn’t assume, looking at that image, that it is an image of a box filled with crayons, the presence of those crayons revealed by the smile shaped hole that appears under the word “Crayola”? Right? You’re with me, yes? Oh, come on.

But, in fact, the apparent smile-shaped hole is merely an image of a smile-shaped hole with crayons visible through it. I don’t mean that it’s an image because it’s a picture on the internet (which it is, obviously); I mean it’s also an image on the actual box. But still, even when I opened the brown cardboard Amazon package and observed with some surprise this trompe l’oeil effect on the outside of the box, I still didn’t get it, not till I opened the box with a gasp to discover NOTHING, nothing at all, inside.

I had purchased an empty tin box for storing crayons.

I was highly indignant and felt that I had been hoodwinked. However He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved said (while trying, unsuccessfully, to repress a smirk) that it was my fault for not reading the reviews. Sulkily, I went back online to read the reviews, to see if reading them would, in fact, have saved me from spending $10 on an empty tin box. And, indeed, readers, I must concede that he was correct; two of the seven reviews alluded to the fact that it was “only a tin box.” However, that was not the central insight I gleaned from reading the reviews.

No, the great insight I gleaned from reading the reviews was that there are two sorts of purchasers of this product. The first kind, who are the majority, 5 out of 7, 5 people to whom I am completely unable to relate, bought this product in full knowledge that it was an empty tin box. These purchasers were ridiculously pleased with their purchase. In their reviews, they said things like, “I looked high and low for this exact container and was really excited when I found it” and “this is a great tin.”

I find it unfathomable that one would buy an empty tin expressly for holding crayons on purpose.

But the second sort of purchaser, my kind of purchaser, is, if anything, even more baffling. Case in point: the reviewer who observed, scornfully, that the product was “only a tin box,” went on to declare, “Lesson learned. Will go and buy a box of 64 crayons tomorrow. What a rip off.”

What I find comic and also, embarrassingly, completely relatable about this reviewer’s comment is that the purchaser’s instinct is not to return the box. The purchaser’s instinct is, instead, to buy the 64 crayons that can then be used to fill the box. I imagine that this purchaser, like me, did not necessarily even want 64 crayons in the first place. Honestly? I think that 20 crayons would be an ample sufficiency (to use my late Uncle David’s brilliant phrase) for most households, mine included. But as soon as I realized the box was empty, my own thought, exactly like this reviewer, was, “fuck! Now I need to go and buy 64 crayons pronto!”

I feel like we’re back to Eeyore and his empty honey pot. Like Eeyore, the second sort of purchaser’s thoughts turn immediately to filling the container, because then it will no longer be an Extremely Disappointing Purchase but, rather, a perfectly serendipitous one. “Why, what luck! These 64 crayons I’ve just run out to buy fit perfectly in this empty box I happen to have!”

But maybe this is wrongheaded. Maybe, instead of rushing, panic-stricken to fill the box, we second sort of purchasers should slow down and allow ourselves to consider whether, as Heidegger puts it, sort of, “the empty space, this nothing of the empty crayon box, is what the crayon box is as the holding vessel.” That is to say, “the vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds” (from “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p.169).

Huh. So the receipt of the empty crayon box might be regarded as an opportunity to contemplate the void-that-holds and to think about what it doesn’t hold, and what it might or might not hold in the future. At the risk of belaboring a metaphor, I would think that there must be value in registering negative space without racing to fill it, whether that space is an empty box, a sparsely furnished flat, or an absent wedding ring.

Or, maybe I just need 64 crayons. Stat.


[1] When I was growing up we referred to these as “ready salted” crisps. Maybe that’s not how they’re labeled any more. But the name distinguished them from my favorite kind of crisps, the plain unsalted kind with the little blue sachet of salt nestled in the package. The idea was to rip open the (yes, slightly greasy) packet and salt your crisps to the precise level of saltiness you preferred. You would distribute the salt evenly over the crisps by holding the packet closed and shaking the bag. It was a nice ritual. I suspect this sounds terribly antiquated (“in my day after an eighteen-hour day down ‘t mill we salted our own crisps ….”).


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