I think that it all started during my collecting years, when I was sixteen and became obsessed with soda cans and their flashy and colorful logos, that to me hinted of so much more than just the sweet nectars they held inside. I treasured each of my finds with intensity, carefully rinsing their insides with hot tap water in my bathroom sink and turning them upside down to dry on the long strips of paper towel that I stole from our kitchen. Once dry I would line them up carefully, one next to the other on the top shelf of my room and spend hours staring at my growing and happy collection, imagining a magic life where none of my teenage blues could intrude.
And it just so happened that just when I’d exhausted the supermarket selection of soda cans, I came across the most wonderful and unexpected of all depositories for my treasures – the large and overlooked public trashcans at the park, where the many passerbies threw their emptied (and sometimes not so emptied) soda cans. Thrilled with my ingenious find, I spent many weekends digging into these public treasures, too excited with the variety of sticky soda cans that emerged from their smelly depths to mind the staring that went around me. I had discovered the art and joy of being a collector and of ‘breaking the rules’ to satisfy my passion.
Eventually, after many, many cans my tin passion subsided but was quickly replaced with a newer and riskier love. I think it was after my first Cheesecake Factory visit during my freshman year that I became enchanted with the mouth watering pictures and delicious descriptions in restaurant menus and began testing my luck at ‘sneaking’ these yummy treasures with me. After a while and a couple of these menus hanging on my kitchen wall, I had perfected my menu-sneaking strategy, always making sure that I took an extra large bag or sweater with me when I planned to dine out so that I could accidentally cover the menu and discretely slide it under the table. Thus I began ‘growing’ my new collection until most of my kitchen wall was covered with colorful pictures of food and I could spend hours staring at my private masterpieces in wonder. And as my boldness grew so did my attacks, and a few times I went for ‘riskier’ items such as a large glass goblet at a trendier restaurant and a couple of salt and pepper shakers here and there.
This passion lasted well into my thirties, probably helping quench my subconscious appetite for succulent meals that I in my ever-conscious slim-body motto seldom let myself indulge in. But finally after too many moves and too much dust and mold growing over my large pile of stored menus, I decided to lighten my load and gave them away – also thinking that I had finally overgrown this ‘sneaking’ impulse, and the thrill of getting away with my childish mischief.
But a couple of years ago, already well into my thirties, I caught myself feeling this renewed and inexplicable urge for making a grab at something theoretically ‘off limits’ and enjoying the silly thrill after each time I’d completed my petty crime. It was a difficult period in my life, when even though I was working for a glamorous consulting firm my salary was below market standards and I struggled to pay my bills. But despite my unhappiness, every Monday I marveled at the exquisite fresh flower arrangement that decorated the elegant lobby, each flower prettier than the other, and I dreamed of the day when I could always have fresh flowers like those decorating my home. And then one day I realized that I could, because if they had a new arrangement every Monday it meant that they threw the week old one on Fridays, so it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I ‘sneaked’ a couple of flowers every Friday to take home with me.
I can’t explain the happiness that filled me up every time that I, unlike the other smart and professional executives, defied the conventions and etiquette, reached out for my bunch of flowers, and bravely walked out, oblivious to the world around me.
Today I see that my five-year-old has developed this ‘sneaking thing’ early in life – he just loves to sneak toys out of his kindergarten without following the rules (he only needs to ask his teacher) and each time he does it I hesitate and am confronted with mixed feelings. On one side I know that I should do my duty and call his attention but on the other hand I feel so close to him, and his drive, and his joy at realizing that sometimes he’s clever enough to get away with it. And the one thing that he particularly loves sneaking are the birthday candles of other kid’s birthday cakes – every time there’s a birthday he comes running to show me his treasure, grinning proudly at his mischief and courage.
It reminds me of some of my first on-my-own shopping outings once I was formally employed and earning my own money, and how sometimes I just bought the expensive pistachios and goat cheese just because I could, and there was no one else around calling the shots. Or how during my undergrad years I ate bagels three times a day just because I was free to do so. The same rebellious impulse that made me many years later send a politically incorrect farewell to everyone in my company after I was fired.
I never got caught or arrested but I always pushed the limits, like speeding on the highway and then asking the judge if I could approach the bench just to explain why my pressing need to go to the bathroom made me go over the speed limit. Somehow I feel that these relatively benign mini acts of vandalism are closely related and inversely proportional to the small outbursts of freedom that we crave on a daily basis, that primal urge that is born with us and that cries as loud as it can, “I am therefore I can - and if I can’t at least I can pretend that I can.”