Tag Archives: essays

Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

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Remember Whitney Houston? (A Tribute)

The book that I have been writing opens with a scene where the protagonist is attending a live performance of his favorite artist, when a nearby person’s cell phone rings with a digital snippet of “How Will I Know,” one of the many hits by Whitney Houston during her great career as superstar singer, a career that despite its accomplishments was still too short.  I had picked that song because I always liked it.

My favorite “How Will I Know” memory takes place at Lowe’s on a Saturday morning.   The song was playing over the loudspeaker, and I was trying to sing along.  But Whitney’s powerful yet playful voice kept getting interrupted by the same monotoned request for someone from plumbing to report to customer service.  I was on my way to complain to the disc jockey until I remembered that a very special woman in my life was waiting at home for a working shower head.

It seems like just yesterday I was riding the bus home from elementary school while “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” played on the radio.  And when Whitney sang the line “I wanna feel the heat with somebody,” I thought she was singing, “I wanna compete with somebody.”  Why would you want to dance with someone (who loves you) just to compete with them?  Was this a dance competition?  That I could not reconcile these lyrics only raised my assessment of Whitney Houston’s and her songwriters’ art.

And I will never forget the scene in “American Psycho” when the title character plays “The Greatest Love of All” for two lady friends, and one of them says, while laughing on ecstasy-laced chardonnay, “You actually listen to Whitney Houston?”  Of all the gruesome deaths in that movie, I was the least horrified by hers.

The real horrors, however, were saved for the real Whitney Houston.  For all her success, and all her failures, she should have listened to the American Psycho’s interpretation of her song:

“The Greatest Love of All” is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late to better ourselves.  

When I came home last night and heard the shocking news, I couldn’t help but think about what this did to the beginning of my book, which I had not shown to anyone except my wife.  Whether I keep the song reference in or not, I know that I will never be able to think about it the same way again.  Whitney’s music and talent will outlive the tragedy of her death, but will always remind me of the sadness of a life cut short.

Rest in peace, Whitney Houston.  You will be missed.

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Remember When People Didn’t Have Cameras in Their Cell Phones?

Gisele Bündchen’s classy retort to an even classier heckle as she left Lucas Oil Stadium last Sunday night, and Rob Gronkowski’s NKOTB impersonation at the Patriots’ post-Super Bowl non-party, are, by now, news as ancient as Julius Caesar’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-one when he was trailing the Teutons by only a field goal.  But if I may add to the over-analysis of these off-the-field distractions, I’d say that the question should not be whether they should have done what they did, or not.  Instead, the question should be: If people did not have cameras on their cell phones, are we even having this conversation?

I remember the days when you could fight with someone eating spaghetti on the subway without worrying that someone might be taking a video for posterity.   One day, in second grade, spaghetti was on the menu.  I wasn’t feeling the Italian cuisine that afternoon, and opted for a piece of pink construction paper instead.  I told a story while we dined and accidentally shot out a morsel of paper onto a classmate’s spaghetti, piled in the corner section of the divided Styrofoam plate.  I tried to buy her silence with some crayons, but she stood on principle and reported me to the closest member of that enigmatic sorority known as the lunch ladies.  Exiled to the front of the cafeteria, a punishment neither cruel nor unusual in those days, I wondered if anyone would ever forget what had happened.

How different would my life have been if someone had captured my shame on a cell phone?  I picture myself at a job interview, and the interviewer says to me, “Well, Mark, you’ve got impeccable credentials, the skills we need, and everyone on the hiring committee was impressed by your work with Shrinky Dinks.”  I smile and say, “Oh, thanks,” as if I was not expecting this praise.  “All that’s left is a quick check,” the interviewer says as he punches the keyboard, “to see there are any comprising videos of you.  Company policy, you understand, and I’m sure a mere formality for a candidate of your caliber.  We really can’t wait to welcome you aboar—”

He frowns at something on the screen.  “What’s this about a spaghetti incident?” he asks, and the next thing I know I’m back on Monster.com, looking for something that requires primate insurance.

But who cares about the person whose gaffe is captured for all time?  What really matters is the audience.  I can’t remember how I spent my time before I could spend sunny afternoons watching a slow loris holding an umbrella, or a report on the phenomenon known as planking, something I wish my grandparents were alive to see, so they would know that fighting World War II was worth it.

In the introduction to the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library 1985 edition of The  Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Padraic Colum writes, “In the place where the storyteller was the coming of night was marked as it was not in towns nor in modern houses….There had been a rhythm of the day and now there was a rhythm of the night….He was a storyteller because he was attuned to this rhythm and had in his memory the often repeated incidents that would fit it.”

Even in modern times, people used to be attuned to this rhythm of the day and rhythm of the night (especially after DeBarge released their 1985 hit “Rhythm of the Night”).  People would have to use their language skills to recreate, for example, a drunk wedding speech, or a clawing fight over the last copy of Soap Opera Digest at the supermarket checkout.

And all too often their storytelling abilities would come up short.  They would see the bored faces of their audience, the eyes scanning the background for celebrities, even celebrities washed up from reality shows of washed up celebrities, and would see that their language skills could not compete with video.  And they would resort to that phrase, that phrase we used to hear all time but not anymore, a phrase no longer needed in a world where story-worthy human shame can be captured by hand-held telephones, and history-changing retorts by supermodels and subway skirmishes can be relived again and again by anyone with an Internet connection and a cushy job; in short, a phrase that even I resorted to when mere words were not enough:  Guess you had to be there.

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Remember When Genre Was Genre: Digesting the Writer’s Digest Conference 2012 (Part 2)

All of the speakers at the Writer’s Digest Conference that I attended last weekend were excellent.  One of them who stands out in my mind is Donald Maass, who spoke about writing for the 21st Century.  I thought he was going to tell us to write about robots or the aging baby-boomers.  But he was talking more about the way to write a book rather than on a particular topic.

For example, Maass led us through some questions to ask ourselves about our novels.  What is something that would blow your novel sideways?  What is the main character’s one unshakeable belief?  How can we become dead Swedish authors?

He had us write down the one thing that we cannot bear to write down, one thing that we cannot say even to ourselves.  After checking that no one was looking over my shoulder, I jotted down my one thing and covered it hastily with my hand.  I saw what Maass was doing.  He was showing us how to bring emotion into our books, how to make the reader feel something.  What my novel needed, obviously, was for the main character to confront people who keep sitting there sniffling instead of blowing their noses.

Maass also made a prophecy; that cross-genre novels would be big in the 21st Century.  Like crossing paranormal with family epic.  Terrorist with romance.  Ketchup with mayonnaise (the last few are my examples).  In describing the book that people are looking for in the 21st Century, he kept using the words “high intensity” and “emotional,” and said that we should try to show a change occurring over many steps.

Maass’ talk was so electrifying that I was taking notes even before the audience members had finished telling their personal stories disguised as questions.  The notes were for a novel—a novel that was going to blow the doors off every library in the world.  A novel that would be open, face down, on nightstands everywhere.  A novel that would sit on everyone’s shelf from sea to shining sea.

And then I remembered that the novel of the 21st Century would be just electrons and computer code.

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Remember When You Could Buy Things Without Being Asked to Write a Review?

The other day I used a smart phone to buy movie tickets through Fandango.  I have never found it so convenient to buy the tickets and pick them up in plenty of time to sit through the half-hour of coming attractions, commercials, celebrity pleas for charity, and animated robot warning moviegoers to turn off their cell phones or trade them in for a small popcorn from the lobby.  And the movie I saw, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Special Effects and Marketing, was really quite good, and I thought I might even see it again once my ears stopped ringing.

But upon arriving home and sitting down to a hearty meal of cookies in the shape of Christmas trees, and sprinkled with coarse green sugar granules, a text message appeared on my smart phone, which occupied the other place setting at the table.  It was a message from the Fandango application:

“How did you like Sherlock Holmes?  Click here to go to Fandango and be your own reviewer!”

I politely declined the invitation to write a review for this Fandango, feigning a prior commitment to review movies on another website.  But the following morning, I was greeted with yet another text message from Fandango:

“It has been 12 hours since you saw Sherlock Holmes.  Surely by now you’ve formed an opinion.  Click here to write your own review!”

Again, I opted not to write a review, and figured that Fandango would get the hint.  But I figured wrong, for two days later there was yet another text message from Fandango, reminding me that it had been three days since I saw Sherlock Holmes, and that if I did not write a review soon the movie would no longer be fresh in my mind and I would risk being influenced by the review of others.

Since when did it become customary to ask someone to review something they just bought?  Fandango is not the only one.  It seems like every time I buy something online I am immediately asked to rate it, participate in a survey, or post my own review.  Not only do I have to pay money for the product and transmit my credit card information into the ether, but I have homework on top.  Isn’t the fact that I bought the darn thing enough to show that I liked it?  And if I really like the product, I will buy from the same vendor again.  That is, if I’m not too busy taking a survey.

I know what the answer will be: to obtain marketing research.  But why do the evil corporations need me to participate in a survey to obtain marketing research?  Isn’t that why they implanted that chip in my brain while I was getting my wisdom teeth pulled?

Before long, all purchases will be followed by offers to rate, survey, and review.  We will buy milk and be asked to rate the milk on the milk-producer’s website, or to like the milk’s Facebook page.  “Follow your 1% Non-Homogenized Milk on Twitter, and don’t miss any news!”

One might be able to support the reviewability of products if the reviews were helpful.  But the reviews leave me more confused than I was in the beginning.  I’ll look at the Amazon reviews for a digital camera.  One review will give the camera five out of five stars, and proclaim that it is “the best camera for pictures of people holding drinks in their hands.”  And another review, of the same camera, will give it only one star, and state that it is “the worst camera I’ve ever used; my family looks just as ugly as before.”  One reviewer will hate the camera because the viewfinder shakes too much.  Another will say, “Love that shaking!”

I suppose that some people like the reviews and surveys and ratings.  They like being a part of the collective consciousness of a Blu-Ray player or restaurant or toilet plunger.  Perhaps it is more than just market research.  Perhaps this new source of information—the consumer—is a new branch of literature, and will give us the same insight into the human condition as novels, poetry, and that song where you take someone’s name and add those “bo-banana-rama” lyrics to it.  Perhaps I’ve gotten this all wrong.

But this discussion will have to be tabled for another day.  For there is a man at my door, wearing a Fandango shirt, and holding a baseball bat.  And he does not look happy.

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Remember When People Were Quiet in Libraries?

Courtesy of adm/flickr

The first rule I ever learned about the library is that it is not pronounced “lie-berry.”  The second rule I ever learned about the library is that you’re supposed to be quiet.  This second rule was enforced by popular culture.  For example, the apparition in the library at the beginning of Ghostbusters does not say “Boo” or “Ebenezer Scrooge,” but “Shh,” holding its translucent index finger to its translucent lips.

And that has been my approach to libraries throughout my life.  No talking loudly, unless you want to get attacked by a ghost.  True, rules of society change.  At weddings, instead of throwing rice, people blow bubbles.  “You’re welcome” becomes “No problem.”  What was once a highlight-worthy tackle becomes a 15-yard penalty.  But I always thought that the library, the sanctuary of reason, would remain a quiet place.

But evidently that rule, too, is under assault by the rules committee.

Just this past Saturday, I visit my local library branch to see if the copy of Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Insurance Adjuster that I reserved has arrived.  It turns out I have to wait a few more weeks, so I take a seat in the club chair by the window with a copy of The Collected Clifford Books that I’m re-reading for my adult education class, “International Politics and Large Cartoon Dogs.”

I am not, however, alone in my nook.  The young man at the desk adjacent to my chair is wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers.  All young men these days wear hooded sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers.  His black fleece jacket and backpack are lounging on a chair next to his desk.  The backpack has black mesh outer pockets through which I can see pencils, pens, and an iPod suspended in a nest of thin white wires.

Something on his person vibrates and he answers his cell phone in a loud, clear voice.  “Hi…Yeah, I’m just trying to get this homework done…I don’t care about the grade anymore.  I just want to be done….”

I’m wishing he just wanted to be done with this telephone conversation.  I clear my throat loudly a few times but he does not turn around. A lot of people are sick these days, and perhaps he thinks that I am just another library patron who is a little under the weather.  I consider peeking out over the top of the desk, but in law school I was trained to be confrontational only for money.

So I move to another portion of the library.  There is a seating area on the second floor, over by the children’s reading room, where I can relax with my book and admire samples of finger painting from local artists.  I am once again engrossed in my reading when I am disturbed by three-year-old child who is lying face down on the floor, kicking and screaming into the carpet.  A woman I presume is the child’s mother is standing next to him, telling him that this is no way to protest the BCS ranking system.  I wish she would take the child away and channel its energetic fury into something productive, like a blog, but she makes no move.  I’m glad when I hear the child start to run out of breath, but then a librarian calls a number, and a new child steps up from the front of a long line of children, hands a small piece of paper to the librarian, and replaces the out-of-breath child on the floor and commences kicking and screaming with a fresh pair of lungs.

I make another lap around the library, searching for a quiet place.  At the back of the library there are some people talking as if they are contestants on a game show.  In the foyer there is someone playing Angry Birds with the sound on.  In every corner of the library I am assaulted by the noise of patrons who seem to have forgotten that one is supposed to be quiet in the library. 

I finally get up the nerve to complain to the head librarian.  And she tells me, in a voice better suited to the floor of the Senate, that the library has a “no shushing” policy.  Guess I missed that initiative in the last budget vote.

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Remember When You Couldn’t Buy Things Online?

When I send my mental archivist for some good ol’ Christmas memories from my childhood, she brings me back not caroling or egg nog or chestnuts warming on a hot plate that we picked up from QVC for three easy payments of $19.95, but rather images of long lines at Macy’s and Sears and a store called “A&S,” which I think stood for Aimless & Shameless.

My mother would drag my brother and I throughout the mall for the annual drag-a-thon, lugging a 30-gallon paper shopping bag with twisted rope handles that held our winter coats.  All that shopping, and the only shopping bag I remember is the bag with the coats.

And even more than waiting in line, I remember the carpets of those legendary department stores, beige and not too rough when you lay your face upon it, being mindful of the fallen staples and people walking around with sugar plum fairies and God knows what else dancing in their heads.  For following your mother around while she did her Christmas shopping was exhausting, particularly when we were not being energized by our usual line-up of televised cartoons and sit-coms.

One of the perks of being a kid is that you can lay down on the carpet of a department store and no one calls the security guard.  But it’s only department stores that seem to share this understanding.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art…not so much.

But waiting in long mega-lines that wrap around Saturn is, of course, part of my memories of shopping in physical stores with my physical legs and physical wallet.  I remember arriving at Macy’s one time with the intention of getting only a gift-card.  It was late afternoon and the tension level was at least a Code Orange.  I asked a security guard where the gift cards were, and he pointed to the register.  The gift cards were indeed at the register, and leading up to the register was one of the aforementioned mega-lines.  I asked the same security guard if it was really okay that I just step in front of all these people who had been waiting not-so-patiently, and he again pointed at the register, which I interpreted as a “yes.”

So I walked up to the register and grabbed a card, and started to address the cashier, and the man at the front of the line, holding four very large shopping bags bursting at the seams, said something to me that I cannot print here.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, waiving him off, “I’m just getting a gift card.”

When I got out the hospital I decided that it was perhaps time to do my shopping online.

My early forays into online consumerism were not success stories.  I ordered a black faux-leather swivel desk chair so I could pretend I was Dr. Evil.  But they sent me a burgundy chair instead.  I’m doubt you’ve tried it, but it is very hard to look evil in a burgundy chair.  So  I called up the online merchant and they said to put the chair outside my apartment and that it would be picked-up and replaced with the chair I ordered.

I did what they said and they sent me a new chair.  Unfortunately, the new chair was burgundy, too, and they had forgotten to pick up the old one.  So now I had had two burgundy chairs in my apartment, neither one of which I could use.  It looked like I was running a furniture store.

I’ve become much more adept and sophisticated since then.  Last year, I ordered for my wife a digital camera.  I typed in “digital camera” and the search engine returned so many results that I had to order more RAM for my computer to hold all the results.  Luckily for me, that too was available online.

When I was finally able to view the results I saw that I didn’t know very much about digital cameras.  Before I started my online search, I had thought that the only choice I had to make was the color.  Apparently the color is the last choice you have to make.

The choices come in layers.  First, what kind of a camera did I want?  There was a “Point & Shoot,” a “Compact System,” and a “Digital SLR.”  I looked around for a “Takes Pictures” kind of digital camera but I guess they had that one on backorder.

The second layer of choice is whether you want a standard, long-zoom, touch-screen, or waterproof camera.  I was hoping to find one that could be dropped from the viewing gallery of any of the world’s great museums and still work…but again that option was not listed.

Then the third and, at least for me and my eyeballs, final layer of choices were the specifications.  Megapixels, optical zoom, digital zoom, auto flash.  There was even something called “burst shooting” which I had thought was available only with machine guns.

I downloaded all of the specifications of the different cameras into a spreadsheet and compared them.  For days and nights I pored over the spreadsheets like an economist, trying to find the digital camera that would give my beloved the most Pareto-efficient picture possible along with a cute carrying case.  Most of the data fit neatly into linear models, except for the option that allowed a photograph to be directly uploaded to Facebook without exercise of judgment.

Soon it was December 20, the last day for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery while still getting the Super Savings shipping discount.  My hands were shaking too much to type so I called up the store directly.  And when I was I asked what I wanted to buy, I said, “A digital camera.”

“Oh, great, sir.  We have plenty of those.  What kind of digital camera would you like?”

This was it.  The moment of truth.  The moment when I put to use the superior knowledge that could be gained only from online shopping.  I took a deep breath.

“Um, a pink one,” I said.

Happy Online Shopping, Everyone!

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