The Desolation of Hair

I once met a bearded woman. Not a circus freak mind you, nor a Grimm’s fairy tale crone, but an ordinary young woman sitting in the same library-quiet room as myself. She wore faded jeans, a clean blouse, women’s loafers, wire-rimmed glasses. Her brown hair fell long and straight as sails in a calm. She had a calm honest smile and carried herself as a woman might, meaning she did not overtly stare at others, laugh loudly, or spread her legs apart when sitting the way a man might. Overall she gave the impression of a woman who expended the minimal amount of effort necessary to present herself as female in our society so she could live her life unperturbed by other people’s expectations. Except that she had a beard.

Her cheeks were bare, but from her chin hung a goatish beard about eight inches long. The hairs were soft and wispy, not quite thick enough to hide the contour of her face underneath. When she was thoughtful, she would run a finger idly through those hairs and twirl them around into curls, much like a younger girl might have done with a ponytail. She looked like the fresh-faced model from a 1950’s beauty cream poster, blissfully unaware that some graffiti artist had scribbled a beard on her.

Shocked may be too strong a word for how I reacted. I was certainly perturbed. I know I flushed with embarrassment. Exactly why I was embarrassed and for whom wasn’t clear, but that is what it means to be young, and I was quite young at the time, not yet twenty-five. This woman was not doing anything, she was merely sitting and thinking with the confidence of one whom presumes, without question, her right to sit and think in public. But her very existence, now that it was known to me, required an adjustment on my part. It required my brain to expand its understanding of the world. I now lived in a slightly bigger, more diverse world, a world where a woman could not only grow a beard, but choose to keep it.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. I wasn’t at peace with it. It felt wrong in that vague, undefined way that pineapple on pizza feels wrong. At the same time I was keenly aware that “how I felt about it” really didn’t matter to anyone but me. It was my burden to carry or drop as I chose, though if I wanted to be a jerk about it, I could try to make it other people’s burden too. I did not choose to do so.

Aside: This is supposed to be a frivolous little blog post, but I’m going to stick a little moral here in the middle, so you can all feel like this is time well spent and not simply another distraction from those responsibilities you are currently shirking.

I know people who are racist or sexist or homophobic. They have ideas of what the world should be like that don’t mesh with the way the world actually is. I’m OK with their personal cognitive dissonance as long as they accept it as their problem. But unfortunately most of them don’t. They decide that the world has to change, not them, and that is what causes all the trouble in the world. End aside.

It took me about an hour, more or less, to get over it. I even think I was able to do it without too much staring. OK, I decided. My world now contains woman who can and do grow beards. Cool. Different. Personally, I find it unattractive, but I feel the same way about nose rings and plucked eyebrows. To each their own. By the end of the hour, I was feeling pretty mellow about the whole thing except for one lingering dissatisfaction. I felt like I ought to shave off my own beard.

It was a thick, untrimmed, bristly thing which rounded out my “missed-the-hippies-by-a-decade-or-two” fashion statement. I have no pictures at hand, but it was a horrible beard. I grew it in high school and let is grow feral. I’m sure it delayed my first kiss for years. I’m also sure my Mom begged me to get rid of it. It seems like the kind of thing she would beg me to do, but I did not pay a lot of attention to what my Mom said back then. Even when she was reading me the riot act in her best rattle-the-windows voice, I had learned to cringe convincingly without actually paying attention to the words. Which must be a genetic trait, because my own pre-adolescent children have already mastered it.

I was too insufferably proud of my beard to consider shaving it off. Most of my high school friends could not grow a full beard, whereas mine had appeared virtually overnight. [For those of you born after the internet: “virtually” here means my beard grew very quickly. I do not mean it grew in a computer simulation.] Yet I’m not sure where the pride came from. It wasn’t as if there was any effort or sacrifice involved. Most of the “work” of growing it happened while I was sleeping, something I could have done just as easily in a coma, though I have never tested this hypothesis. There is a persistent myth that hair cells will continue to grow for hours after death, which I thought was rather cool. Of course, only a teenage boy would find pride in an achievement that a corpse could equal.

But the truth was, I had grown a beard in high school to hide my weak chin and soften my over-large nose. So years later, when I saw this woman confidently sporting a beard, contrary to all modern cultural expectations, it occurred to me that I had no reason to be proud of a beard I had only grown to hide my perceived defects. If I had had half the quiet confidence this woman displayed, I would have shaved my own beard off.

But I did not. I simply stopped being so insufferably proud of it. And from time to time I mowed the hairs down to a uniform length and shaved a neat edge to it on my throat, because everything I knew about personal grooming, I learned from mowing the lawn.

I didn’t actually get around to shaving it off completely for a several years, and when it happened, it was not a planned event, though neither was it the whim of a moment. The circumstances were unforeseeable and out of my control, but once set in motion, unstoppable. It was like watching a car accident from a distance. You know exactly what is going to happen, but you are powerless to stop it. You can only decide whether or not to watch.

I was in my mid-late twenties, and I had a girlfriend. She had very beautiful, long, reddish-blond hair which ensnared me. When she was excited, it would shift like water and reflect light in waves. When she was shy, she would lean her head forward and her hair would fall around her face like a curtain closing, with one eye peaking out coyly. And when she was close to me, her hair smelled exactly the way flowers ought to smell. You may tell me that it was simply the expensive salon shampoo that made her smell this way, but I was convinced it was her personal biological alchemy. She took pains to keep her hair clean and brushed and shiny despite the grueling schedule of an overworked science graduate student with a daily bicycle commute.

And then one day, without warning, she took me to a hairstyle convention in town, so I could watch while her hair was cut by a professional in front of a crowd of hair stylists, fashion writers, and personal care product salespeople.

May the sadistic wench who cut her hair burn in hell.

It has been twenty-plus years since that day, and I cannot express what a relief it is to unburden myself of these words. I can say it now loud and clear. May she burn … in … HELL. (The stylist, not my girlfriend).

I could not have said it then. Our relationship was going through a rocky stage, and any negative comment about her very, very short haircut would have been unappreciated. I believe she was making a statement. Or a plea. Or even a test. Whatever it was, I was expected to understand without having it spelled out for me. But I did not understand. I guess I was not a good speller. The best I could manage was, WTF?

I knew a response was expected, but anything I might have said would not have been honest, supportive, and convincing. Maybe I could have managed two out of three.

So instead, I shaved all the hair from my head. Except my eyebrows. Which turned out to be an acceptable, non-verbal response. At least, it seemed to have a mollifying effect on our relationship. Everyone else, however, began to treat me like a cancer patient, which was not comfortable. It makes one feel fraudulent and despicable. I grew back my beard back as soon as I could (and my girlfriend grew her hair back as well), and I did not think of shaving it off for another twenty years, just in time for my mid-life crisis.

A word about mid-life crisis.

We think that attention-deficit disorder is a condition that some are born with and others are not, but I believe we raise boys to be deficit in attention. We teach them to go out and explore and experiment and achieve. The big, astounding, complex world of possibilities becomes a huge candy shop. We want to be crab fishermen, zamboni drivers, gentlemen pirates, oil drill rig operators, sandwich shop owners, wartime medics, and third world dictators, and we try it all. We take a bite of everything the world has to offer and move on to something else. Eventually we reach an age when the tide of testosterone ebbs, revealing a beach littered with the half-chewed remains of our cupidity. We see all the unrealized potentials we didn’t pursue to any conclusion. The crazy, spinning, kaleidoscope of the world stops spinning, and we realize that it was never spinning to begin with, that it was ourselves spinning in circles, chasing our own tails.

That moment of clarity is what our culture calls “mid-life crisis.”

And what did I see with my new mid-life clarity?

I saw that I was terribly bald.

By which I do not mean completely bald. To be completely bald would not have been as terrible. My head looked like some cow with a particularly rasping tongue had licked me from forehead to crown and then decided that perhaps grass was a better choice after all. I had also lost hair from my shins, of all places, which turns out to be a common aging effect with the awesome name of “anterolateral leg alopecia.” To add insult to injury, certain hairs began over-compensating. I discovered a two-inch silk thread growing from the edge of one ear and there were several small enthusiastic patches on the side of my skull that grew faster than their neighbors, erupting like crab grass as though some ripe thought had fermented just underneath. And my eyebrows became positively feral.

Admittedly baldness can be an attractive trait. I understand it is useful if you are selling ammonia cleaning products or recruiting fascist vandals. ButI was doing neither, and anyway, you have to be completely bald for either of these pursuits. It was time to do what men my age do and take a number one razor to my head.

I expected to return to my cancer patient look but no. Somehow in the years since my angst-ridden twenties, I had grown a chin. My nose had shrunk a little. I had started cleaning my glasses and you could see my blue eyes. I looked younger, healthier, perhaps even intelligent. The ugly duckling finally turned into, not a swan exactly, but let’s say a rare and curious blackbird.

Which leaves me to wonder. Is this how I had looked all along? Was my younger self too lacking in confidence to look in the mirror and see what was actually there? I don’t know the answer, but sometimes, when I’m in a crowd, I like to sit and think about it, my fingers idly stroking my clean-shaven chin.

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Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer

Synopsis: Nicolas Valiarde has a complicated life. To the world he presents himself as a high society recluse and art dealer. In reality, he is the mastermind thief, Donatien, who has stolen several priceless objects while staying barely one step ahead of the formidable Inspector Ronsarde and his companion Dr. Halle. Nicolas manages this by being very smart, very careful, and very rich in compatriots: his lover Madeline, an actress of no mean talent; his friend Reynard, a former cavalry officer who disgraceful exit from service was arranged by a mutual enemy; the powerful wizard Arisilde, whose opium addiction has reduced him to a shade of his former glory; and a crew of loyal criminals in his employ.

The story opens with Nicolas and his crew stealing a vault of gold from the cellars of a noble household while a large ball is taking place over their heads. The gold is meant to be planted elsewhere to incriminate his enemy, the lord framed Nicolas’ patron, Edouard, years earlier on the charge of necromancy. And though Edouard was exonerated of the charge, it is a posthumous exoneration after his execution. The lord who arranged these events is never convicted nor publicly suspected. Which is why Nicolas wants him so badly. 

But it turns out Nicolas is not the only thief prowling the cellars that same evening, and his path unfortunately crosses with that of a very powerful foe who cannot be ignored.

Review: Martha Wells writes fantasy action/adventure novels in the style of her accidental namesake H. G. Wells, but she does so with the sensibilities of a modern author writing to a modern audience.

The Death of the Necromancer takes place in a city something like 19th century London – the resemblances between Inspector Ronsarde and Sherlock Holmes are hardly accidental, and the very strong, independent character of Madeline must work within the limitations of societal gender roles – and yet it is also a world in which wizardry and fayre combine with gaslights, revolvers, and horse-drawn carriages to create the perfect fantasy milieu. Not quite steam punk, not quite Victorian or Gothic romance, not at all LARP thief epic or zombie horror tale, this story borrows from all to create something new and unique.

When the book opens, Nicolas is in the middle of a complicated plot to bring down his nemesis, but this motive must be set aside to fulfill a more compelling filial duty. His new opponent is using a device, invented by his patron, to commit unspeakable crimes, and Nicolas must stop him. It is not so much that Nicolas possesses moral scruples (or so he believes) as that he is greatly angered by this foul appropriation of his patron’s great work. Nicolas is the iconic gentleman thief, but he possesses no predilection for magic, which puts him at a severe disadvantage. He will need all his considerable talents not only to combat this dark magician, but merely to stay alive. It won’t be enough. He will require the help of his friends, especially his partner Madeline, and a few unexpected allies who show up from time to time.

There book is pure adventure story with humor, suspense, and several surprises that you will not see coming. I would recommend it for any lover of speculative fantasy fiction. While there are shades of romance, there is no explicit sex, though parents be warned before giving this your child. As the title suggests, there are reanimated dead people and just enough gore that I would think twice from recommending the book to a child. This is not a horror book by any means, and the author wisely refrains as much as possible from lurid, grotesque detail. You will not likely get nightmares from The Death of the Necromancer, but you can expect several sleepless nights staying up late reading.

Movie Review: Earth To Echo

Synopsis: Three 13-year olds, misfits at school, are about to have their tight friendship broken up. The neighborhood is slated for demolition for a new highway and everyone is moving away. The day before they all move, weird things start happening to their cell phones, and they figure out that the images on their phones are a map to a location 20 miles away in the Nevada desert. They decide to spend a final evening together, following the map on their bikes. They discover a piece of metallic junk under a high-voltage transmission wire which turns out to house an alien (fortunately small, benign, cute, resembling a small owl) in need of help. They spend the entire night on a quest to help this tiny creature, never quite sure if they are good Samaritans helping a lost traveler or unwitting accomplices to a potential disaster that could kill everyone in their neighborhood. Along the way they pick up a fourth companion, the pretty girl from school who lives in another world from them and yet isn’t really so different. They also have to avoid sinister construction workers who are not whom they appear to be.

Review: I spent the good part of an hour looking for a movie that my family could watch together. My children are 12 and 9 years old, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find good quality movies that meet everyone’s differing needs and tastes. We did not want nightmare-inducing graphic images, nor cloying feel-good family flics, nor overdone or underdone animation, nor inferior 20th century special effects that my jaded children already despise. We picked this one because it interested the children and we knew nothing about it except some cool CGI in the previews. However my hopes weren’t high. Movie buffs will recognize many of the familiar tropes in the above synopsis that I recognized, and I expected something very derivative. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.

The plot sounds like a mash up of Spielberg alien movies – Close Encounters and E.T., with a touch of cinema verité (ala Blair Witch Project). The main device of the movie is that it is a self-narrated video project made by one of the 13-year-old boys. I fully expected ninety minutes of bizarre camera angles, blurring racing shots, poor film editing, and voice-over explications for whatever could not be shown visually at an objective angle. But none of that happens. The device works, in part because modern camera technology has evolved to the point that it is entirely believable a thirteen year old could have several mountable, high-quality cameras including a Google Glass type contraption. It also works because the story is never forced to fit this device, nor made to take a back seat to special effects.

The plot is kept simple so the filmmakers could focus on telling an adventure story and growing the characters with detail. There are no special effects in the first ten or twenty minutes of the movie; we simply get to know these quirky, charming, flawed, and very real children with little or no impending sense of science fiction on the horizon. By the time the adventure takes off, you care about them and don’t need the action or the CGI to keep you hooked. In fact, the special effects are generally underdone, and slowly ramped up, which prevents the film from breaking out of its hyper-real, documentary quality. Even as machines come apart, float through the air, and piece together again, you have the sense that it is real.

Thematically the film deals with children on the cusp of adolescence wanting some power over their lives, which admittedly is not everyone’s cup of tea. However the movie is never boring or tiresome, and the pace keeps you distracted from questions like, “Why haven’t the camera batteries run out?”or “Why don’t these kids look like they’ve been up all night long?” It was suspenseful without being stressful (important for my children), emotional without being maudlin, and often unexpectedly funny, all of which is supported, rather than hindered, by the device of self-filming.

Most refreshing to me is that the children act their age at all times, and the story is told entirely from their vantage point. Perhaps having a 12 year old in my house helped, but the movie brought back memories of that raging hormonal, emotional, scary time of life. The adults are real adults who talk down to children, indulge them, worry about them, dismiss them, and constantly underestimate them.

This is not a work of literature. It is a fun romp, and the writers did a great job of fleshing out the story while cutting out any fat. At ninety minutes, it won’t take up your entire evening, and my only criticism is that it will certainly raise my daughter’s expectations of getting her own cell phone sometime soon.

Wishing well

When anyone in the family has a problem, sooner or later it will appear on my desk where even my myopic eye cannot miss it. It will sit there waiting for resolution, or at least judgment, from Papa who is somehow the last hope of all things broken. Springs and screws, bits of plastic, receipts for unbudgeted expenses, fund raising flyers, notes from the teacher, small vibrating toys lacking batteries. Like coins in a wishing well, such valuable items are sacrificed to the bottomless well of my To Do list in the hopes that something good and deserving may result.

Don’t You Dare

In some dark hour of the night, I woke to the creepy sensation of fingers gently stroking the hairs on my forearm. I twitched and weakly pushed the hand away while whining a four note, “Nnnnhhh.”

This four-note phrase is a secret marital passkey code meaning, “you are doing something very irritating that is waking me up, and I insist on returning the favor.” I use it mostly for those times when my sleeping wife manages to dig her big toenails into my plantar fascia. Involuntarily, of course, or so she insists.

“Papa?”

Ah. Not the wife. Rose, the sleep walking child. The wife must be deeply asleep because normally Rose wakes her first.

Now her brother Samuel, he can wake the whole house just opening a door. I don’t know what it is about that boy, but he manages to do just about everything louder than his sister – talking, walking, hugging, eating. He makes more noise just breathing than she does, and she has asthma. About the only thing she does louder is drinking. She gulps water with a rhythmic, gulping and sucking sound, like large stones dropping into a pond, like a malfunctioning suction pump, like Gollum clearing his throat.

“Papa?”

Ah. Still there. Did I fall asleep again? I must be having trouble waking up. If she would only remember to pee before going to bed this wouldn’t happen.

“Papa,” and she brushed my arm hairs again. Did I mention that’s really annoying when you’re trying to sleep? I must not have to her, because she keeps doing it. “Papa, I had a really, really bad dream.”

Wait a minute.

That was a complete, grammatically-correct sentence. Perhaps she is not sleep walking after all?

“And … and I don’t feel so good.”

Nothing says, “Wake up, now!” to a parent like a sick child hovering over your unprotected face. Suddenly I was bolt upright in bed. So was Dawn (the faker).

“Uh, how’s your tummy, sweetie?”

“Fine. But my head hurts. And I feel cold.”

Soon she was in bed, nestled up against her Mama, or “Mama Llama” when she’s playful, or “Emmy” when she is feeling loving , which then branched off into “Your Emmynence,” when she has been asked to fetch something. At first, we were all drifting back to sleep, but Dawn decided Rose felt warm. I got the thermometer.

A hundred point eight.

“Congratulations, Rose. No school tomorrow. Er … I mean, today. Whatever.”

“But Papa,” and her lament was a sleepy drawl. “We have dance practice tomorrow, and I was told I can’t miss any between now and competition. It’s only a week away.”

“I’m pretty sure they’ll give you an exception. But I’ll call the studio in the morning and leave a message.”

In the morning, Rose slept in while Samuel grumbled about the unfairness of having to go to school when “she” got to stay home. We all knew which “she” he was referring to. When Rose woke up, she made a nest of fleece blankets, pillows, and library books on her floor and then spent nine of the next ten hours there.

I called the dance studio and left a message.

“Hello, this is Rose’s father calling. She has a sore throat and a 100.8 fever, but she’s worried that if she misses practice she won’t get to compete next week. Can you give us a call back and reassure her?”

They don’t open until 3:00 PM. At 3:05 PM, my phone rang.

“Mr. Rose’s Dad? This is Darcy at the studio. Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but we have a hundred girls getting ready for dance competition next week. Don’t you dare bring Rose to class tonight.”

“What? You don’t want us driving through the tornado watch zone so she can infect the entire studio?”

“Bless her heart and tell her we hope she gets better soon.”

I tell Rose she’s officially blessed, at least her heart is, and she should just focus on getting well.

She smiles. “Papa, can you wake me when its time for dinner?” But even though she grunts at me when I shake her arm, Rose doesn’t appear at dinner until it is almost over, and then she doesn’t eat much. More tylenol, a cool bath for her fever, some reading out loud (“Harry Potter”) and cuddling in bed with Emmy. She is not a teenager quite yet.

Fairy Tale

Two nights ago at dinner, my children asked me to tell them a story from my childhood:

Once upon a time, in the ancient days of the last millennium [about 1980], your father was a young scholar and an adviser in the court of King Grandpa and Queen Grandma. This was long before the advent of The Home Depot and King Grandpa, the wise and powerful ruler of the kingdom of Our House, sat smoking his pipe and gazing at the lands beyond his castle window where the evil Wood Lot, and its legions of Saplings, had been staging forays against the back yard lawn, slowly and imperceptibly encroaching on his sovereign demesne. He decided to make war on the Saplings, before the Queen his wife could find him and give him something useful to do. He called two of his sons, selecting them from his brood of princes for their lack of self-preservation and exceptional nearness to hand.

First they ransacked the royal armory and soon rode forth to battle with a ladder, an extension cord, and a rusty hack saw. King Grandpa propped his ladder against a twenty foot tall Sapling and, hoisting his coil of extension cord, he mounted the ladder halfway up the slender trunk. He made one end of it fast to the tree and, tossing the other end to your Uncle, he directed him to pull with all his might and slacketh not. He then incited your other Uncle, commanding him to attack the base of the trunk with the rusty hack saw forthwith. Then King Grandpa, hurling invective from the top of the ladder, pushed against the trunk from the top of the ladder with might and main.

The ensuing and colorful invective, floating through the loopholes of the keep, attracted the attention of Her Majesty the Queen. From her perch in the royal tower, Queen Grandma looked forth and witnessed the battle from a window, whereupon she immediately summoned her royal adviser [your father] to her side.

“You called, Your Majesty,” said the brown-nosing adviser.

“Adviser,” she said, “my eyesight is not what it once was. Cast your glance out the window and pray tell me who are yonder stooges in the back yard?”

“Why, your majesty … it is, er, the King, your husband … and my brothers.”

The Queen pursed her lips and frowned. “I thought as much. And what are yonder addle-pates attempting to do? Slay themselves and bankrupt the kingdom with hospital bills?”

“Verily, madam, it would seem so. However,” said the adviser, taking a more careful look, “I have knowledge of that particular hack saw, dulled from years of quarrying garden bricks in the carport. It is my considered opinion that yon hacksawing is far more likely to start a friction fire than to make that Spaling deviate one inch from its angle of ascent.”

“Ah,” said the royal queen, “I didst wonder which of my faithful servants had been vandalizing the garden bricks and trodding red dust into the house. Be certain, adviser, we shall speak of this another time. For now, please sally forth and say to yonder idiots that the Queen commands they cease and desist before our neighbors spy them and we become a source of mirth in Glen Court, and their minstrels make mockery of us.”

King Grandpa and his vassals returned  from battle, having failed to fell a single enemy, and yet strangely ebullient. When asked, the king made it known that it had never been his purpose to decimate a single tree, but rather to impart wisdom to his princes by his fine example. And it became a saying in the kingdom thereafter, that you should always tackle a job by yourself first, to truly understand the value of the professional you later hired to fix the mess you made.

Why I No Longer Eat “Organic”

My wife is a tea drinker. More than that, she is a tea enthusiast, having collected teapots, infusers, cozies, sweeteners, and boxes and boxes of bagged and loose tea. Black tea, white tea, green tea, leaded and unleaded. It is from her that I learned that “herbal tea” is an oxymoron. If it doesn’t contain Camellia sinensis then it is not properly tea, but rather a tisane. Which she also drinks.

The responsibilities of parenthood have curtailed her various hobbies – long leisurely baths, margaritas with Mexican food, and, inevitably, tea chats with the girls. Our tea stock has dwindled to a mere two dozen boxes, and most of the teapots are still lovingly bubble-wrapped inside cardboard boxes from the last move. Abandoned mugs of once-hot tea, gone cold with neglect, litter the house. She is philosophic about this change in her life. Isn’t this why God created microwave ovens?

She does not mention it, but I am certainly a disappointment to her. I have always found tea to be a pointless exercise. What is the purpose of a beverage whose unadulterated taste ranges from weak to bitter?

Linus: How do you like the chocolate tea I made for you?
Lucy: It’s terrible! It’s too weak! It tastes like some warm water that has had a brown crayon dipped in it!
Linus: You’re right. I’ll go put in another crayon.

Not many days ago, she was complaining that her recent favorite – Good Earth(R) Original Sweet & Spicy(TM) Herbal Tea Blend – had fallen drastically in her esteem. Instead of inflating the sinuses with a pleasant, aromatic cloud, this tea developed an insipidity beyond the saving grace of any number of crayons. She went through three boxes of it to affirm that it wasn’t the unlucky chance of a bad batch.

Perhaps they had tinkered with the formula in an attempt to make it “new and improved?” She read the package label carefully and found no such evidence of formula tampering. On the other hand, she did discover a fascinating new magic trick!

Observe, side one (note the area circled in red):

 

Sounds pretty good, right? Now watch the magic trick. Flip the box over and …

Presto! Instant artificial flavor. Just add hot water.

I must have some youthful idealism left, because I am still astonished when someone lies directly in my face like this.

What is the socially appropriate thing to do? My social conscience says to call them on it. There was even a phone number right on the box. Customer service representatives were standing by waiting to wish me a nice day.

I dialed the number and a plummy English butler seated me in a virtual receiving room. “The Good Earth guide will be with you shortly,” I was politely informed, thought I was not offered any tea, real or virtual.

The guide did not keep me waiting long. His greeting was only slightly less civil than the butler, marred by an early morning stupor that flattened his intonation to a dull, metallic monotone. Perhaps Good Earth does not offer tea to its employees, either.

I stated the purpose of my visit, to wit, that his packaging contained a blatant prevarication upon the label. His stiff-backed and unhesitating admittance of guilt indicated that I was not the first to ask. Yes, there was a “misprint” on the packaging. The product did contain artificial flavor, in particular, a proprietary blend of spices.

“But wait. Spices are natural, aren’t they?” I asked. “Why ‘artificial flavor’ instead of ‘natural flavor?'”

Well, he was not at liberty to divulge the proprietary ingredients in the proprietary spice blend, but if there was a concern about a specific ingredient, I could have a doctor call to discuss it with them. And I should be “sure to have a nice day.”


My title promised a fascinating lecture on organics. Why on earth am I talking about tea?

To me, the story of Good Earth is a representative tale. The company started importing tea in 1972 in California. They sold organic blends, but not exclusively. It was a successful company with a popular product, and so it grew. A lot. Good Earth Tea is now available in Walmarts and Costcos across the country. A modern business fairytale. Like Cinderella, they soundly trounced the step-sister competition and won a prince, in this case, Tetley US Holdings Limited, a subsidiary of Tata Global Beverages, who owns them heart and soul.

This is now the de facto state of organics in America. What started as a boiling Movement now simmers on the back burner as a Consumer Option. Who turned down the heat on the stove? It’s an interesting story I’ve been trying to piece together.

We tend to forget that for the majority of human history, all agriculture  was organic, though it wasn’t called that. The term “organic” was popularized by J. I. Rodale in the 1930’s. It was a new name for the old way of farming, before petroleum, herbicides, pesticides, preservatives, patented flavors, international shipping, chemistry and industry rewrote the rules and forced us to come up with a separate name for “that thing we did for thousands of years and which we are no longer doing.”

By the time I  got involved in the 1980’s, the organic movement had been bicycling along the back roads of American agriculture for fifty years, while industrial farming took off on the Eisenhower interstate highway system. At that time, there were organic co-ops selling local produce and adding color to artsy midtowns and college campuses around the nation, but they were hardly a blip on the economic radar.

Except perhaps for tourism. Locals would bring their visiting relatives by the co-op to gawk at our fruit smoothies, our kale and bean burritos, and whatever it was we smoked back then. Most of us don’t remember. We were “the granola people” – fruits, nuts, and flakes – on display for the masses.

But about the time the world population tipped 5 billion, our quietly asserted message of health and environmental sustainability hit a chord. Articles were written suggesting links between chemical agriculture and a whole hosts of health and environmental ills. Word spread on the internet, itself a nascent, democratic means of communication. Sales of organic products began to take off. And we caught the attention of the global food industry.

To a certain extent, I mean that literally. We (some of us anyway) went looking for them.

Why? My understanding is that some organic growers wanted to grow bigger. It wasn’t enough to save the family farm anymore. They needed to save the world. What if we could convert a million acres of industrial farmland to organic production? How much less pesticides and herbicides would ends up in our lakes, streams, and air?

And they needed to make money. They were tired grubbing in the dirt for miniscule profits.

But in either case, the economic reality was, and is, if you want to grow, you need capital investment. So they began to court investors. But there was a problem. Up until this point, the organic movement was a loose confederation of local, home grown communities linking farmer, grocer, and consumer. Each region had its own organic standard and its own certification agency and process. This worked just fine for the growers, sellers, and consumers, most of whom were happy to get whatever was locally available. But an entrepreneur who wanted to sell a product nationally couldn’t reasonably meet hundreds of different organic standards.

So, along with some national food companies, who wanted a piece of the pie themselves, they lobbied the USDA for a national organic standard.

INTERLUDE: BEING A PARABLE OF GLOBAL FOOD INDUSTRY VS. ORGANIC AGRICULTURE

Imagine you are the general manager of large grocery store and you are always looking for ways to increase your income. Nostalgia brings to mind the idyllic lemonade stands of your youth, long before the Facebook, Ipods, and computer games saved our children from the dangerous streets. You decide to add a new revenue stream to your business – vending machines that sells cans of manufactured lemonade. It’s a steady profit, not huge, but requiring little effort and time on your part. You put your son in charge of the machines, hoping the lure of making money rubs off on him.

Then one morning as you are parking your Hummer in your store’s parking lot, you notice across the six lanes of traffic a real, honest-to-God, lemonade stand. A woman in colorful, retro, peasant garb fusses over the pitchers. She has bags of lemons, sacks of sugar, drums of fresh rain water, and she squeezes the lemons by hand with a cheerful intensity of purpose. The inefficiency boggles your mind and you think she is really a little too old to be playing games. You shake your head and walk into work.

Later in the day, once the sun and heat have cranked up, you hear the familiar sound of someone banging on the drinks machine trying to get some free change out of it. You yell for your son to shoo them off (this is part of his job), but he does not answer. Grumbling, you head outside to do it yourself but your attention is diverted by a large crowd of people across the street waiting to buy lemonade.

It takes the faux-peasant woman five minutes to make a glass of lemonade mostly because she chats with every customer. People don’t seem to mind the wait; they are smiling.

And then out of the crowd of people emerges your son. He is also smiling, and he is wiping the corner of his mouth with his index finger and licking it. He looks up and sees your thundering, disapproving glare, and meekly crosses the street (at the traffic light. He is a safety conscious lad).

“What are you doing, son?” you ask when he returns.

“It’s a new brand of lemonade,” he answers. “I thought I’d try it out. Check out the competition. She calls it ‘Homemade.’ It’s a subsidiary of …”

“So you bought a glass?”

“No, you only give me a dollar for an allowance, and it costs $4 a glass.”

“Four dollars!” You are astounded.

“Yeah. But she gave me a free sample. Oh, and also a brochure.”

He rummages in his pockets and pulls out a crumpled ditto-sheet, the sticky-sweet smell of sugar and lemons rising from it. Although it doesn’t mention your business or the lemonade brand by name, it references several scientific studies showing how the artificial ingredients in canned lemonade puts holes in your brain tissue, how the cheap high-fructose corn syrup corrupts your insulin chakras, how the lemon plantations are devastating the rain swamps of Ichupatu and exiling indigenous people to the slums of Porto Barbar, and how the profits are invested in various and nefarious political juntas.

“Well,” you bluster, trying to keep your anger in check, “at that price, she won’t get much business!”

Your son tactfully makes no comment about the growing crowd across the street.

Sweat breaks out on your forehead.  You sputter, “So how long has she been in business, right under our nose?”

“Oh, she’s been around forever. She started the business when she eight years old. Things have just … picked up lately.”

Your stomach hurts. You begin to wring your hands. You mutter, “This is terrible. This could severely damage our profit margin. We will have to do something about this. But what?”

“Well, she did mention that she was dreaming of expanding her business, perhaps a franchise. Maybe we could sell her product?”

“Are you serious?”

“Why not? It’s not like she has a trademark on the name or anything.”

Your hands cease wringing. “Trademark?” you repeat. Your eyebrows raise knowingly. A light bulb has gone off above your head. You nod and smile deliciously. “Son, I think you may be on to something there.”

“Thanks Dad. Hey, could I borrow three dollars?”


The USDA, who is a friend to Big Ag if nothing else, was most obliging. It not only proposed a national organic standard, it included language that made it a crime to label a product “organic” unless it met the federal standard AND had been certified organic by one of the expensive, government-approved certification agencies.

Ta-da: trademark is now ours.

Overnight, thousands of organic farmers became just plain farmers. The only ones who got to use the word “organic” were the ones lucky or smart enough to have named their business, “Bob’s Organic Produce.”

Do I sound like I’m verging on some anti-government, Tea Party platform? “Why is the Federal Guv’ment regulating these small businesses to death. This is outrageous. Someone get me Ron Paul’s phone number!” Well, it really isn’t that simple. For example, during this process, the government strove for rather weak standards and the organic industry fought for tougher standards – the only time in American history that an industry has asked for stricter regulation from the government. Why? Two reasons that I can find. The first is because consumers wouldn’t buy it. No one was going to pay a premium for organic food that wasn’t organic. Second, most of the organic entrepreneurs pushing for standards hadn’t sold out their values.

However most of these entrepreneurs have since sold out their businesses. The organic brands I knew twenty years ago are now all owned by international food companies. It is nearly impossible to find organic products today that are not owned by national or international companies who also produce and sell industrial food. And they sell a lot more industrial than organic.

Unsurprisingly, these companies play down any superiority that might damage their non-organic product lines. For example, they insist that organic food has no nutritional superiority to industrially produced food. In their PR world view, “organic” is merely a deluxe model of what they already sell. Replace the word “organic” with “blue,” and it would hardly matter. If people decided they wanted blue food, these companies would create genetically modified blue bacon and color their milk and oranges with patented blue food dye. They would demand a national standard of “blue” to control competition. And they would insist that blue food is really no more or less healthy than any other product they sell.

Go ahead. Ask it. You know you want to.

SO WHAT?

What’s the problem with this, really? If the product is USDA certified organic and people buy it, aren’t we putting less chemicals into the ground, water, and air as a result? Isn’t that a good thing?

Definitely, yes.

I don’t want to argue that point. My point is something different. I’ve hinted at it already (have a cup of tea?).

The organic movement championed an ethic that embraced broader values and concerns than just chemicals and nutrition. It included stewardship of the environment, ethical treatment of animals, and building relationships in communities. Unsurprisingly, the modern USDA organic certification program doesn’t address these issues. Quite the opposite. By stacking the deck for large-scale agriculture, which is the current USDA priority, it actively works against these values.

Some examples. In today’s world, those organic tomatoes you bought in December were probably shipped from Argentina using plenty of crude oil. That organic lettuce from California was packed in non-recyclable plastic bags inflated with greenhouse gases (CO2) to keep it fresh. The organic milk you drink came from cows that never walked in pasture or stood in daylight, and their manure, rather than being composted and recycled into the soil, is sluiced into pits where the pathogens can float down into the water supply when it rains.

Meanwhile, the small scale organic farmers, who were miraculously saving their family farms in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are now going bankrupt. They cannot compete against price-gouging agribusinesses who can undercut prices with slimmer margins and afford to pay the inflated certification fees demanded by USDA approved certifiers. And the farm animals that were grazing in fields are now back in confined “organic” feedlots, and being butchered in cruel “disassembly” lines that we are not allowed to see for fear we might choose to stop buying meat if we knew.

When’s the last time you saw a farm animal (for meat, not a pet) grazing in a field?

So while I would love to eat only organic, the best most of us we can do is USDA Organic (R). And the cherry on top? The USDA organic label only ensures that 95% of the ingredients in a package are organic. What about the other 5%? Who knows? There is a separate “100% USDA organic” label for purists, but I have yet to see it on any product in a grocery.

There are still farmers out there who raise their food “old school organic,” grown and sold locally without chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, pollution, erosion, tilling, petroleum, or cruelty. More than half of my family’s food budget goes to them. I would like to say we are doing our small part to save the water, the air, and the soil, that we are helping to provide jobs in our community rather than line the pockets of CEOs and investors. That’s all true, but the real reason? Homegrown, fresh, organic food tastes SOOO much better. We are eating like kings.

Shh. It’s our little secret.