Monday, October 12, 2009

Cinnamon Pine Cones

Cinnamon-studded pine-cones. From the moment I walked in the Whole Foods vestibule, I had to have them.

It was the first chilly day of fall and drizzly, a superlethal combination in Pittsburgh, a place where chilly and drizzly days seem to come in threes, or sevens or thirteens. This fact seemed to be written on the faces of the people walking in the door, faces scrunched in the manner of those heading in for an unanesthetized root canal, a colonic, a firing squad.

I set one foot before the sacred door and my personal space is suddenly transformed from honking, exhaust, and flipping-off into some kind of magical emporium. The pinecones marked a sort of liminal space where the profanity of rush hour met the sacredness of the American consumer experience.

In all truthfulness, I used to dream about places like Whole Foods, with its immaculately arranged, glistening aisles of fruits, meat and snacks, when I served with the Peace Corps for two years in Africa. For about two years, everything I cooked was devised from a list of eight ingredients that did not need immediate refrigeration: tomatoes, onions, garlic, fish, rice, green mangos, yellow mangos and red mangos. I used to have very exciting, vivid dreams about devouring gooey lasagna, deep dish pizza, big bags of potato chips. When I got together with friends in the capital city, we would customarily down beers, packs of processed cheese and chocolate bars in that order. Shortly thereafter, we would crash our bikes into trees while riding home. But that’s a story for another time.

I believe the pinecones to be a metaphor for the American self-improvement experience

And we Americans live in such a dreadful culture of self-improvement.

Thinner. Richer. Smarter. Faster. More youthful. People on tv reality makeover shows are always dressing badly, hoarding junk, eating fried lard three meals a day. With a professional team and 5-10K they are transformed into something more culturally appropriate. They become homogenized, transformed into ONE OF US, subliminally bludgeoned with the idea that they are now morally or spiritually better for having become involved in the marketplace in a more savvy way.

At $4.99 the pineceones were, like, the biggest bargain of pretty much all time, self-acceptance for less than the cost of a pumpkin spice latte. With these pinecones, I would be good enough.

No professional teams or sassy host personalities. And no housework ever again. Like some sort of amulet or magic spell--no more worrying about mopping floors, vacuuming, taking out trash. No more being caught off-guard when unexpected visitors showed up. Just place them in a container, near a heat source, kick back, put your feet up, and be transported back to Thanksgiving at Grandma’s.

If cleanliness is godliness, I had earlier been headed to hell in a handbasket before those pinecones. I hang wet laundry from my fan, wear jeans seven days in a row, stack dirty dishes in the fridge to postpone washing them. I don’t clean my oven, and it is currently molting carbon like a lizard. My fridge was filled with healthy leafy greens-turned slush and an old cup of coffee flavored with a bit of leftover hot chocolate.

They are a sort of gateway drug to a never-can-be-good enough women’s domestic rat-race. In all honesty, I dislike how ads for cleaners, cleansers, and appliances are marketed mostly towards women. I am at odds with the concept of a traditional bridal shower where women present the bride-to-be with dishes, cooking pots and household items with the subtext that they belong to her and are her responsibility as such. If a newly married couple agrees to share life together, do they not share equally in the procurement of household items?

I have such respect for women in the 50s, who managed home, family and personal appearance without batting an eyelash, and frequently without much help. I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I cringe sometimes when I watch Mad Men.

But, back to the pinecones.

As I wondered along the perfectly arranged aisles, it hit me again. Damn, I could not feed myself, either. Was I getting enough antioxidants? Enough Omega-3? Enough vitamin C? Enough Vitamin B? Was my stuff hormone free? Pesticide free?

But, these cinnamon-studded pinecones fill me with a troubling sense of ambivalence, even though I am sitting right next to them, enjoying their aroma and avoiding what their aroma covers up--Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns.

As a famous man once said, if you worry about losing your soul, you still have a soul to lose.