Sunday, March 27, 2016

Narrative-Enhanced Food

Last week I read a grant proposal for funding to start a maple syrup production operation to generate profits that would be used to support programs that benefit children and families in need. Theoretically, I love this proposal, but I keep getting stuck in the income projections in the business plan. Projected revenue is based on the sticker price of $20 per 12-oz. bottle of syrup. Ouch. This would have to be the Mercedes of syrups. They argue that they can sell the syrup at this price because it will be beautifully packaged with a unique, heartwarming story about the history of sugar maples. A story with that sticker price would have to be so heartwarming that once it warms the heart, the heart stays warmed, through snow, sleet, dark-of-night, and environmental meltdown.

I am so dedicated to eating high-quality food that I will actually pay a fair amount for organic, chemical-free maple syrup, but even I don’t pay more than $7 for a 12-oz. bottle. The only circumstance under which I would pay $20 for a 12-oz. bottle of maple syrup would be if world peace came in the box with the syrup. Although, I confess, the idea of getting a terrific story with the syrup would definitely sweeten (couldn’t resist) the deal. If every bottle of syrup were to contain the tale of the centuries-old history of sugar maple trees, complete with dragons, leprechauns, good fairies (only they would spell it faerries to sound olden), and a brilliant and funny girl of lowly birth on an epic quest, then I would probably pay $10 for it. If the story also included the astonishing and mysterious retreat into seclusion of a bombastic, racist, egocentric, violent, ignorant presidential candidate (with a self-proclaimed shockingly large member, larger than anyone else’s member), then I might actually pay $20.

I almost never pay $20 for a full-length hardcover novel, even if it comes with food. I get my books from the library (thanks ever so much Ben Franklin) or the monthly library used book sale (for 50¢ each), or I borrow them from friends. Perhaps I would consider paying $20 for a bottle of syrup if the accompanying syrup story wins the National Book Award and the hold queue at the library for the syrup story is more than 200 people long. However, correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t think a bottle of syrup is eligible for the National Book Award.

Many factors come into play in people’s decisions about what is a reasonable price for a food item. We often say “I can’t afford that,” but that’s not exactly accurate. A lot of the time when we say “I can’t afford that” what we mean is “I have other priorities.” We constantly make choices. Some people pay $10 a day for a fancy coffee but they won’t buy organic apples because they are too expensive. That’s a decision about priorities. I choose to spend more money on food than most people because it’s important to me to eat real, clean food (organic, nontoxic, chemical-free), but I do balance that with cost. In order to buy the beautiful, healthy food I love, I’m willing to spend less money on other things, such as, for instance, clothes, flowering plants, travel, and brand new hardcover novels. I have no problem paying $3 for an organic mango that has a luminous golden glow. I want to put that mango into my body so it becomes part of my cell structure. I would invest my money in buying that mango rather than, say, buying shoes.

Perhaps the maple syrup folks are actually onto something. This could be a tectonic shift in marketing. Marking up food prices because the food comes with a dynamite story particularly intrigues me because that combines two of my greatest loves. I might actually pay to hear the stories food has to tell. I would pay quite a bit for oranges that tell the meaning of life or cucumbers that come with a visionary description of the seventh generation that reveals that they are OK. Hmm. Interesting. I imagine that food producers could jack up the prices on high-quality food by increasing the value of the product with narrative add-ons.  Asparagus that comes with tales of the hidden messages of the deep forest. “Beans that speak the truth.” “The voices of the ancestors in every egg.” “Sauerkraut with god in every bite.” Bananas with a synopsis of War and Peace. Strawberries packaged with One Hundred Years of Solitude. This kale is crispy and tangy, has strong antioxidant properties that prevent cancer, and it whispers Shakespeare’s sonnets. These flights of fancy are the unfortunate consequence of a former English graduate student becoming a nutritionist and then reading maple syrup grant proposals.

The add-on marketing strategy has broader implications. Imagine selling a jar of coconut oil that can tap dance, a piece of cheese that will do your workout routine for you at the gym, or a salad that sings The Song of the Dirt (yeah, I made that song up). Honestly, I have never met an organic blueberry I didn’t like, and all blueberries have to do is continue to taste delicious for me to pay dearly for them. I whirl organic blueberries in my breakfast smoothie every morning, and they energize me for the day. That’s just me. Perhaps a blueberry marketeer would need to find something more than great taste and good health to sell blueberries to other people. Which leads me to my image for today’s reflection. Caption? How about, “What does a blueberry have to do around here to get some attention?” 

Sunday, March 20, 2016


When the perky checker at the Natural Foods Coop thanked me for bagging my groceries last Thursday, I replied, “You’re welcome, but I’m not bagging to be helpful, I’m doing it because I’m obsessive compulsive.” She thought I was funny so I didn’t tell her I was serious. The checkers usually thank me for bagging, and I usually reply “you’re welcome.” This time I fessed up. Perhaps there would be no cataclysmic ramifications if a bagger failed to put my vitamins next to the toilet paper, or (heaven help me) bagged red peppers in the same bag with the eggs. But you never know. I have my own ideas about how I want my groceries bagged. I cannot tolerate illogical bagging. I have a vendetta against dangerous bagging. Thus far, I have stuck to bagging my own groceries and have not attempted to bag other people’s groceries. This could change. You will know it’s about to change if I sew myself a cape with an image of a celery stalk on it.

If grocery stores even provide training to baggers, I doubt it includes instructions about how to bag groceries. Instead, it apparently involves instructions to ask every patron how their day is going. Some baggers do a better job than others, but I suspect that has to do with intelligence. Good baggers are probably actually undergraduates studying electrical engineering who got a job bagging groceries to earn money to buy textbooks and wire. Most baggers don’t do such a bad job, although I have occasionally had a renegade bagger fling items into the bags as if the apocalypse will descend any minute. It takes talent to puncture the box of dishwasher soap, drop the pears on the floor, spill onion powder in the bottom of the bag, or knock the lid off the container of peanut butter. The problem is more often that baggers don’t do it the way I want it done. I don’t want apples or bananas on the bottom of the bag because they bruise. Crackers, kale, and eggs obviously (you would think) go on top. Frozen foods go in the same bag with dairy products and meat to keep these perishables cold. (No, I do not want the fish placed in a separate little plastic bag. I brought all my own cloth bags. What does that tell you? Duh.) Produce goes together in the same bag. Combine heavy objects with light objects to evenly distribute the weight (no, I don’t need a scale to figure this out, why do they? – it’s not rocket science). Etcetera. And leave the cashews out, I’m eating them. Obviously.

Never underestimate the importance of proper bagging. Once, a bagger put too many mango lemonade jars into one of my canvas bags. She loaded the bags into my cart, I paid for the groceries, and then I discovered sticky orange liquid pouring from my cart and puddling on the floor, splattering as it dripped. Baggers and checkers, suited up and fully equipped with an impressive assortment of colorful cleaning aids, descended on my cart, as if it was the site of a nuclear reactor core meltdown. They removed the broken jar, whisked the remaining undamaged jars out of the bag and wrapped them individually in plastic bags (since they were covered in sticky juice), and put the soaked canvas bag into several layers of more plastic bags. I had brought my own bags to avoid using plastic bags, which contribute to the continent of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. As a result of the spill, I wound up taking home enough plastic to form my own personal island composed of microscopic synthetic granules.

During the clean-up, the lady behind me in line commented, “That smells yummy. What was in that jar?” I told her it was mango lemonade. My words spread down the checkout line like a blessing whispered from the Temple Mount and repeated by the multitudes; as if it was the answer to the question of why humans exist on the planet, the words “mango lemonade” were murmured reverently from one person to the next. It smelled so good that everyone wanted a piece of it. The customers behind me in the line told the checker to wait a second, and they went to get their own jars of mango lemonade. A sudden run on mango lemonade ensued. I enjoyed the delicious scent all the way home because my shopping bag was drenched in it. But it was a canvas bag, so I ran it through the laundry. Good as new.

These days the checkers thank me for bagging, but not so long ago the checkers thanked me just for bringing my own bags, which I have done since the first Nixon Administration (when common sense was illegal and I risked arrest for attempting to protect the environment). Earlier in this century, checkers routinely thanked anyone who brought their own bags, and when they thanked me for bringing my own bags, I would say, “I’ve been bringing my own bags since before you were born.” Some of my canvas bags are older than most of the checkers. You can tell how old those bags are because they say Vote for McGovern. I have brought my own bags and bagged my groceries in them since the days when I could buy a week’s worth of food for fifteen dollars. In those days, the checkers insisted that I bag my groceries myself because they didn’t know how canvas bags worked and they feared that if they opened those alien devices they might explode. Nowadays, where I live, everyone brings their own bags because plastic grocery bags have been outlawed. A few bandit plastic grocery bag gangs still roam the wilds of North County. But for the most part, one never sees a plastic grocery bag in this county anymore. People can buy a paper bag or fiber bag (often, unfortunately, plastic-coated for reinforcement) at the check stand. It amazes me to see everyone bringing their own bags, since I was on my own with this for such a long time.

Many people consider having to bring their own bags to the store a tremendous nuisance on par with having to deal with those daily robocalls from Bridgette at cardholder services. I have a few words for people who don’t like bringing their own bags. Listen up, plastic bags never fully decompose. They just turn into smaller pieces of plastic. The most common type of plastic shopping bag is made of polyethylene, a petroleum-derived polymer that microorganisms do not recognize as food and so it technically can’t biodegrade. Even though it can’t biodegrade, it does break down (when subject to ultraviolet radiation from the sun), and becomes microscopic plastic granules, which never decompose either, and instead build up in our environment and our bodies. Truly, plastic bags never die, they only get smaller and smaller until you can’t put anything into them and they put something into you instead. Taking my canvas bags to the store is just one of the many little things I have done all my life for the sake of the planet. One of those little things that adds up if everyone does them. I do these environmentally friendly things for survival, not for kicks. I do these things for the grandchildren. Oops, I’m on the 100% post-consumer waste recyclable cardboard soapbox.

Once, when my two older children were very young, I took them on a cabin-camping trip at the Coast with their preschool. Ron drove up to the camping area after work, arriving at night after we had gone to sleep. This was in the days before cell phones and I had no way to reach him to tell him which cabin his family was sleeping in. The cabins in that area looked alike. I hung one of my canvas shopping bags on the outside of the door handle, hoping he would recognize it as a sign. It worked. Trying to figure out which cabin we were in, he swept the beam of his flashlight across the area and saw the bag. It had the words I shop at the Coop emblazoned in green letters on it. He knew instantly that he would find his environmentally-friendly, sustainable, holistic, super-natural, control-freak, grocery-bagging, obsessive-compulsive wife behind door number three.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


A few years ago, a guy named Jerry called me about writing a grant to help him start a hot roasted peanut stand business. He explained with excitement that he would hire blind people and deaf people to sell hot roasted peanuts on street corners, “you know, to do them a favor by giving them a job.” Jerry seemed to think that blind people and deaf people are incapable of doing anything better with their lives than selling peanuts on street corners, which would be a step up from holding out a donations can. I asked him if he knew any deaf or blind people. He said he did not, but that he didn’t think he would have trouble finding some. When I told Ron about this, he said I should have shouted at Jerry, “Are you nuts?!” Ironically, Jerry’s call interrupted me while I was writing a huge federal grant for funding for a project to train and place mentally ill disabled individuals in mainstream jobs; and I was writing about the Supported Employment Model, an evidence-based approach built on research that demonstrates that given adequate extra support, severely disabled people can make a significant contribution in the workplace, earn a competitive wage, and establish a satisfying career path. Bad timing, Jerry. What’s worse about this exchange was that Jerry, carried away on his inspiration, proposed that I write the grant for free since it was such a worthy cause. I mean, how could I resist, huh? I suggested that he befriend a deaf person or a blind person, told him I don’t work for peanuts, and hung up.

This past week I received an email from the editor of a nutrition e-zine who invited me to write an article on a topic of interest to me. I emailed her back and asked how much she would pay me and how many words long the article should be. She responded, “We don’t pay for articles, but you would benefit from exposure to our 18,000 readers and we would drive traffic to your website.” Website traffic? Exposure? Is that like flashing my breasts to strangers? Writers hear about this “exposure” stuff a lot. The world is full of people, particularly those desperate for web content, who think that writers salivate at the opportunity to wave a few words at a perhaps substantial and perhaps phantom audience. These people seem to think that writers will work for free because we just love writing so much that we don’t care whether or not we get paid to do it. Sadly, there are a lot of writers who do write for free, and many of them are good writers. Fie on you freebie writers. You ruin the game for all of us. You have been coerced by a society that devalues our craft.

Last week, in addition to my correspondence with the editor who invited me to write for exposure, I also had a bit of a run-in about payment arise on a grant writing job. I quoted a client a price for a project and she balked. So I said I understood that I was out of her price range and we should call it a day. But then she convinced me to do part of the work for a reduced price and we made an agreement. I did the work according to the agreement. When I turned in the deliverables, she expressed surprise that I had not done more than what we agreed upon. Did she think I would get hooked on her amazing grant proposal and therefore donate my time to the cause? What part of “I do this for a living” does she not understand? I told her if she wanted me to do more work, she would need to sign a contract to pay me for my time. She is thinking it over. Hey, Jerry, pass her the peanuts.

Sometimes I write grants for folks and we don’t get a dime (good grants, too) and sometimes I write grants and we hit the jackpot. I always tell my clients “If you don’t buy a ticket then you definitely won’t win.” Last year I had a banner year, wrote a lot of successful grants. The crown jewel was my work for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, which paid me generously to write two grants, both were awarded, and I secured $12 million for the agency. My fee was excellent for me and a mere plume of spray in the ocean of what I earned for them.

A few years ago, a clown called to talk me into writing a grant for him for free for a clowning project. Who can say “no” to a guy with blue hair and a big red nose? So cute. I said “no.” There’s a great joke in that somewhere, like “How many grant writers does it take to cram 35 clowns into a Honda Civic?” Answer:  Two—one to write the grant to buy the car and one to play Send in the Clowns plaintively on the violin. I have turned down work on quite a few grant writing projects because they didn’t pay enough or they were projects I just couldn’t get into. For instance, I consistently refuse to write family planning grants to teach abstinence to teenagers, not because these projects don’t pay, but because I can’t imagine writing a persuasive argument on this topic. Are you kidding me? The main function of adolescence is pretty much to explore sex. This is not rocket science. It has to do with hormones. But some people will label any fact that they don’t like “bad science.” I could write a grant to teach teenagers about safe sex, but I couldn’t write convincingly about abstinence. Not even for the exposure. If I turned down big bucks for writing abstinence grants then I’m certainly not going to leap at the opportunity to get paid nothing to write grants for cramming clowns into cars.

I discovered a few months ago that it is customary for academic journals published by university departments to pay nothing for articles. Apparently they have no problem convincing grad students and college instructors to write articles for them just for fun. I find this baffling. Considering how much it costs to send a child to college, it astonishes me that universities do not budget for these academic journals published by their various departments to pay writers who produce content for them. I’m still processing this. I wonder if college instructors are eager to demonstrate to their students how much fun it is to write papers by writing for these journals. Are they proving a point? Or are they just high on printer cartridge ink or something?

Dear Editor:  Would you ask your plumber to fix a problem with your toilet for free? Or your accountant to prepare your taxes for free? Or a doctor to remove erasers from your toddler’s nose for free? Of course not. Then why do you ask writers to write for you for free? Writing is a profession. I am a professional writer. I write in exchange for money so I can pay my bills. News flash. The grocery store wants cash in exchange for cheese. I like to eat cheese. I write, you pay me for my work, I use the money to buy cheese. I eat my cheese and you publish my article. This is a simple concept. I’m not an economist, but I think this might be an example of how a monetary system works. Since it’s not likely that the NEA will grant me a fellowship to buy cheese, I must depend on whatever income I can eke out from this underrated, undervalued profession to survive.

If you read this far, thanks for listening. You are a super-supportive audience. I’m going to sign off now and go write fiction. I have an idea for a short story about a dystopian future in which an evil e-zine editor hunts down and rounds up clowns and forces them into abstinence, they go blind masturbating, and a guy named Jerry rescues them from a life of despair and exposure by hiring them to sell hot roasted peanuts on street corners. In the end, the clowns’ sight is miraculously restored so they cram into a Honda Civic and ride off into the sunset on a mission to drive traffic to websites. **Spoiler Alert.** They get to have sex again but they find this difficult with so many of them in the car. Just out of curiosity, how much do you think this story might be worth on the open market? Message me privately to avoid exposure.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

With Age Comes

Change is good, right? It shakes things up, gets the creative juices flowing, and stimulates new thinking. We get into routines, habits, and ruts, and limit ourselves without even realizing it. Last week, in an outlandishly daring move, I bought a different brand of dark chocolate. I love my usual brand, but why not try something new? My new chocolate made me fall in love with dark chocolate all over again. I didn’t think chocolate could get any better, but it did. My choice to make a change took me to a good place. I support change, but the changes we encounter involuntarily as we age can often take us to challenging and difficult places. Our best line of defense is humor.

If nothing else, the aging process is chock full of surprises. Young people really can’t comprehend the experience of waking up in the morning to discover that your knee won’t bend even though it bent just fine when you went to bed last night. Is there a curse on your mattress that made it suck all the flexibility out of that knee overnight, or what? Maybe it’s a sleep-number mattress setting you didn’t notice:  #202 Knee Gives Out. Why did that knee get so lucky and not the other one? Or waking up to discover that you can’t see out of one eye. You sit up in bed and think “that’s interesting.” You feel to make sure the eye is still there, to make sure that the devil mattress didn’t suck out the whole eye. Because you never know. Old age is fraught with magical realism.

One day we are innocently chugging along, oblivious to the changes occurring inside our bodies as our parts wear out, and the next day we pass out on the treadmill during a stress test ordered by the cardiologist with the result that we are informed that we need a pacemaker. So then we ask ourselves, when did my body forget how to regulate my heart beat? Other questions arise. When did I lose the ability to fall sleep? Why do I hear crickets in my ear? How could I possibly have left my elbow at a restaurant? Is my new obsession with Marx Brothers films a side effect of my blood pressure meds? Did my dishwasher suddenly start leaking after I had that periodontal deep cleaning, or is that my imagination? Do I still have an imagination? I might have left my imagination at the restaurant with my elbow.

The people I know who have lived the longest say that the hardest thing about getting old is that their peers die off. If you live long enough, you wind up being the last one standing, and all the people with whom you go back and back and back are gone. That’s why it’s important to keep making new friends who are younger people. Those of us with children and grandchildren are fortunate to have built-in access to people with whom we can populate our lives who are more likely to outlive us. The greatest challenge is remembering the names of these new young friends. I hear that a phone app is in development that will allow you to point your phone at a person and it will establish face recognition and tell you the person’s name. This app would also be very helpful in assisting old people with figuring out if they actually know someone or not to begin with. Maybe they could invent an app that would let you know if you would like to know a person or not. You could then point your phone at someone and it would say helpful things like “yup, she makes the best strawberry jam and gives it to people at Christmas, you want to know her” or “nope, you don’t know this guy and you don’t want to know him, he collects Civil War cannons.”

They say that with old age comes wisdom, and that as you age, people show you more respect and listen to you more. But I imagine that you lose credibility when you can’t remember the person’s name to give them advice, especially if the person is your nephew whom you’ve known since his birth. I think that change keeps us on our toes so that we improve cognitive function and have a better chance of remembering names. So by switching to a new brand of chocolate, I keep myself on my toes and increase my capacity to remember where I parked my car, who this man is who sleeps in my bed with me, or why I put an avocado in the mailbox.

As we age, the world becomes a more mysterious and astonishing place. Increasingly, events defy explanation and objects escape understanding. I am amazed by those old folks who have steered clear of using computers (I know a few who don’t have a computer), fearful that if they turn on a computer it will steal their soul and blow up their house. At the same time, I can’t imagine what new-fangled next level of technology will evolve and baffle me if I live to be very, very old. It’s true that I don’t have a smart phone, which is perhaps the equivalent of my elderly friends who don’t own computers. Some of us still pay monthly bills by mail. I even have a friend who drives to the electrical company office to hand in monthly payment to save on the cost of a stamp. I read an article last week about the fact that in the near future checks will become obsolete and everything will be paid electronically. Won’t that leave people more vulnerable to identity theft? I’m not so worried for myself, since my identity is pretty worn out so I doubt anyone would want it, but what about young people with fresh identities? I would be tempted to steal an identity with good knees.

The elders I admire the most are the ones who keep laughing. Having the people we love, and have shared our lives with, die off is not funny. So we take some time for grief and then, as my father says, “enough of that.” Otherwise, we might as well follow them to the other side right now. But we are still here to enjoy life’s more magical and brilliant moments, and to have a laugh at the absurdity and the humor in all of it. Trying to stay positive. That’s my mantra. I want a phone app that tells me a person’s name and then whether or not they have a good sense of humor. I want a funny-seeking phone app. I could also use an app that tells me if there’s organic dark chocolate in the vicinity and, if so, where it’s at.

[One of the old folks in my life who keeps me laughing the most is my husband Ron and today is his birthday. Happy birthday, my love. So happy to still have you with me on this side of the great divide.]

This is the new chocolate I tried and fell in love with this week.