Breakfast cereal is a cornerstone of childhood. It was for me anyway. My mother and I battled constantly about it. Like all other red-blooded American children I wanted a bowl of cereal designed to put as much sugar into my bloodstream per spoonful as the laws of physics permitted. I read Calvin & Hobbes and was crushed to discover that Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, Calvin’s breakfast of choice, were fictitious. Bill Waterson’s irony flew over my head along with my mother’s cooking spoon when I demanded Count Chocula for the nth time. To my mother’s credit, I never got it. We compromised. Which means she told me what cereal I was allowed and that’s what I ate. It was Honey Nut Cheerios. That was the confectionary limit of my permitted morning intake. I rebelled. I screamed that I hated Honey Nut Cheerios and never wanted to eat them again. I’d claim to go on strike. I’m not sure from what precisely. Neither was my mother, who would shrug and watch as moments after I went on strike I’d pour a glass of apple juice and fix myself a bowl of Cheerios, the episode forgotten with an immediacy that comes only with childhood and old age.
Summers were different. Summer vacation arrived and my treat was that I could have whatever breakfast cereal I wanted. It’s only now that I see the wisdom in this. There’s a considerable gap between loading a child with sugar and sending him into a classroom with twenty other kids and loading a child with sugar and sending him careening into endless sunny days with bikes, beaches, woods and adventure around every corner. The former would result in the disaster while the latter was necessary, the more sugar the better for those summer days. Physicists and engineers seeking perpetual motion machines and better fuel efficiency should look at the output of a ten year-old boy on the Delaware shore after an intake of two or three bowls of Cap'n Crunch. Or, more often than not, Honey Nut Cheerios. My prize won I discovered I actually liked the cereal that was good for me rather than the one that gave me a rare preview into what a comedown from class As would be like. Perhaps I was institutionalised, and like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption found my freedom to be too much, returning to the familiar in the face of it all.
Perhaps that’s a little melodramatic.
It amused my mother to no end though, that after the histrionics of school year breakfast I would gleefully return from the cereal aisle, wearing only a pair of Jams and a pair of flip-flops, and drop a box of my morning nemesis into her shopping trolley. As summer faded into September battle lines would be redrawn and the fights over breakfast bowls began again.
Trips back home come with little reminders of past behaviour. Every time I order fish, or a salad there’s a bemused comment about my dogmatic refusal to try new things in my youth. My parents marvel at the difference between then and now. I do too. I look at pictures of myself now and don’t recognise the face. In my head, my mirror image is that of my ten-year old self, brushing blonde locks out of my eyes while trying to ride my first 10 speed (grown-up) bike without killing myself. The scar on my eyebrow, the lines across my forehead, the ubiquitous stubble and bald head belong to someone else. I’m kicking and screaming again, not at the breakfast table but at the mirror, not out loud, but in my head.
The face in the mirror is me. I’m not riding my bike and I’m certainly not brushing my hair out of my face. I’m writing a book. I’m hosting wine tastings. I’m looking for a place to live in Edinburgh. I try to chat up beautiful women every once in awhile. Life is handing me the same breakfast compromise my mother did.
I was home for a few days. My nephews had been the week before and they left a half a box of their breakfast cereal. It was Honey Nut Cheerios. They tasted ace.