If you were going to buy a tomato from the grocery store this winter, but the price was high, would you still buy it? What if the price was affordable but maybe the quality wasn’t top-notch? Would you buy that? But what if the sign said “slave-picked”? Is that where you draw the line? Of course it is. Who could rationalize buying a tomato that was slave-picked? Well, listen up: It is a fact that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or a food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, according to the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Meyers, FL. That’s quite a statement, and I read it in an article in the March 2009 issue of Gourmet Magazine, in Barry Estabrook’s series called “Politics of the Plate”. In his article Estabrook interviews growers, tomato workers, law-enforcement officials, packers, and others. The conclusion I made from reading the article? If I’m eating a tomato in the winter, I’m eating bad karma. In 2001, the Campaign for Fair Foods, started by a workers’ coalition in Florida, asked, among other things, that no worker be exploited in the picking of tomatoes. It took four years for the owner of numerous fast food restaurants including Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC, to sign on. Since 2007 McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, and Subway have joined. So far Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that’s signed on. It’s not perfect, and a lot of the growers in Florida have refused to join, but it’s a start. And meanwhile, in the winter, Estabrook suggests avoiding tomatoes from Florida or Mexico. I think I could avoid eating tomatoes for a few months. In fact, it’s probably the least I could do.
Something had been weighing on my mind all summer long, a problem that never strayed far. Because it was always present, I was often distracted by it. I would worry at it, think hard about it, look at it from every angle, get frustrated, and finally give up in disgust. For all my mental efforts, it hadn’t changed at all. That’s because it couldn’t change, ever. I don’t say that in a tone of surrender, but realism. We all have occasional problems like that, whether it’s a medical diagnosis, a change in job responsibility, or the move of a loved one. No matter how much we wish it weren’t so, it is. And it’s the wishing that gets us in trouble. And I’d been wishing all summer that things could be different, even though I knew they couldn’t be.
Then I had my first yoga class of the season. My yoga teacher is almost prescient for me when it comes to what she emphasizes in each class, and that night was no different. She suggested that we each think about something that was truly bothering us, remove it from our minds, and lay it down on the floor next to us. We could leave it there as long as we wanted, whether it was for a minute, for the duration of the class, or for longer. So I put my problem on the floor next to me. It sat there during the down dogs and the moon salutes, and I forgot about it so completely that I walked out without it. It’s been two weeks since the class and every time my mind wanders to the problem, I remind myself that it’s safely situated on the floor of my yoga class, and I don’t worry about it any more. I have moved on to thinking about the ramifications of the problem, without wishing the problem itself would disappear. But you don’t need to take a yoga class to take my teacher’s advice: that big nasty burden stopping you from going forward? Lay it down.
Years ago I was in a car, a friend at the wheel. We were on the highway, and we were speeding, maybe 20 mph over the limit. It didn’t seem overly fast to us, but a State cop pulled up alongside us, turned on his bullhorn, and said, “Slow down, Speed Racer”. Cracked us up. My friend sheepishly slowed down and told us a story. Once, he’d been speeding through a residential neighborhood and his wife abruptly and uncharacteristically told him to slow down. Surprised, he did and two blocks later a kid ran into the road directly ahead of him. He said if he’d still been speeding he would have hit the child. He’s never driven fast in residential neighborhoods since then.
Unfortunately while the story stuck with me, the lesson didn’t. However, I was recently pulled over for speeding myself. I was on my way to drop off my niece’s birthday present and as I left my house the thought popped into my head, “I should drive slower.” That probably had something to do with the speed trap that had been around the corner from my house for the past week. Well, my “slower” wasn’t slow enough, and I got caught in that speed trap. I apologized, told the officer I didn’t know how fast I was going or what the speed limit was (true), and that I was distracted and late for a birthday party (true). The giant gift bag in the front seat bolstered my argument. The officer gave me a warning, and then he said, “I’m sure you saw all the people zooming by you while you were sitting here. I tell this to all the local people. I live here too. I want the streets safe for the kids. If you go slow, everybody goes slow.”
Now I have become the annoying person I had spent my life cursing, that idiot ahead of me who’s barely going over the speed limit. That sap who lets everyone in and slows down at crosswalks and leads a long line of irate drivers down winding single-lane roads. That jerk who, when I finally pass him, will roll up to the same red light as me, the one I just slammed on my brakes for. And you know what? All the stress I used to get from driving has gone, floated out of my car and into the one behind me. I can see it there, in the face of the nut behind me, white-knuckled at the wheel, racing toward who knows what.
It’s a small book with a hot pink cover on which three bright yellow emoticons hover above the title, “ttyl”. Flip curiously to the inside cover and you discover the entire book is written as IM, the electronic communications of three fifteen-year-old girls, “best friends…who vow not to let school stupidness get them down…or split them apart.” The book jacket promises “a roller coaster ride of boy temptation, math torture, donut emergencies, and Queen Bee encounters…the humor, hangovers, and heartaches of high school, and the friendships that get you through it all.” It sounded so innocuous that the word “hangover” slipped right by me.
My 6th-grade daughter read “ttyl” at a friend’s house and later suggested that I read it because it was “very inappropriate”. I did. Here were some of the incidents in the book: a girl’s drunk father comments to her on the visible pubic hair of his son’s bikinied girlfriend; the girls acknowledge that one of the male teachers always stares at girls’ breasts; a rumor is discussed that one sophomore girl ejaculates when she reaches orgasm. This is all by page 11. But wait, there’s more: a girl discusses losing her virginity because “one of us has to go for it eventually so she can tell the others what it’s like”; a ménage a trios joke; the casual observance that most kids drink at parties, even the girls who “last year didn’t drink at all”, including two of the three main characters (the one who doesn’t drink “feels like a loser” about it); a girl is disappointed that her boyfriend is only a “snuggle king” and her friend suggests crotchless panties and a lap dance; the girls banter about Halloween costumes with oblique references to “nibble your carrot” and “itch his jock”; a girl admits that she went to a frat party, drank too much, disrobed from the waist up and danced on a table while kids threw money at her; and a girl lets a relationship with her 24-year-old teacher get completely out of control and finds herself in a hot tub with him.
Don’t get me wrong: the book was interesting. The author introduces ideas of peer pressure, sexual activity, social cliques, teen alcohol use, academic pressure, sexual harassment, parental alcoholism, and more, and she addresses each issue by the end of the book. Although I found the irrelevance of their parents in these girls’ lives rather sad, what I really didn’t like was that I don’t think the topics mentioned above are appropriate for my 11-year-old, and had I gone simply by the look of the book and the book jacket description, I would have been misled as to the content. And yet “ttyl” resides in the middle school library and in the section of the public library deemed appropriate for her age group. (Amazon lists the book for “ages 13-17” and “grades 8-10”, which is decidedly on the way out of middle school, not on the way in. And I’d like to be able to determine the appropriateness of a book for my child without having to invest an hour in Internet research or read it myself.) Oh, how I wish there were a Screen-It for books, but since there isn’t, I would advise parents to remember that just because your kids are reading, doesn’t always mean it’s okay.
Recently my daughter threw her whole eleven-year-old heart into a creative writing assignment. She wrote for hours, creating three interesting main characters, an overabundance of plot, and a lot of five-star vocabulary words. Switched tenses showed the passage of time, adjectives defined the mood, and tragedy struck more than once. It was a work of art.
She asked me to review her writing before she handed it in because she had greatly exceeded the limit of 4,000 words. I read the piece for basic accuracy in grammar and spelling and made a few changes, but mostly I cut parts that weren’t integral to the story. Accepting these edits was difficult for her, but we whittled it down to 4,021 words and she was happy. Off the printer with a flourish, tidily stapled and tucked into her homework folder, in her eyes the story all but glowed. She spent the next several days awaiting her teacher’s cries of delight.
The day my daughter received her corrected writing assignment from her teacher she didn’t mention it for several quiet hours. Finally she laid it on my desk and told me her teacher hated her piece. He had questioned her character development, claimed whole sections were jumbled, taken points off for having too many ideas, and he’d put questions marks everywhere! He didn’t understand anything!
I pointed out to her that while her teacher had questions and comments throughout, his overall perspective was that she had a lot of great ideas that may have worked better as a longer piece, and he’d given her an A. But I think what my daughter wanted was unconditional love of her work, the same love she had for it, and I was reminded how difficult it is when the objects of our unconditional love are criticized. It is hard to accept criticism, harder still to learn from it. It is what strengthens us in the end, but I think when we’re putting our work out for other people to read, secretly most writers are still eleven. Editors, be kind.
In addition to unearthing some crazy footwork, my tennis coach recently discovered that I’m a writer. “You should write a story about me,” he said. Although I don’t know a lot about his personal life, I had to agree. Why? Because everyone has a story. That petite middle-aged woman behind the copy desk at Staples? She earned a master’s degree in computer science before coming to the U.S., but it’s nothing but a piece of paper here. And the quiet woman with the Russian accent who helped you mail a package at FedEx? Law degree, not applicable in the U.S.
What about the young tattooed woman at Starbucks who seemed a little sullen this morning? You thought she had an attitude because your order was complicated, but maybe it was because her little brother’s in a wheelchair and a wheel fell off this morning. Or the cashier at the grocery store: maybe she’s grumpy because she didn’t think she’d be working when she was sixty-five, but her husband died of heart disease and her daughter’s disabled and life’s a grind.
Maybe not. It’s true some people are just nasty, miserable misanthropes, but most are basically friendly, and we should acknowledge that by acknowledging them. So whether you’re the parking garage attendant or the impatient guy in the Mercedes, say hello. Say please and thank you. Don’t ignore the chambermaid, the convention attendee, the janitor, the CEO, or the gas station attendant, because they’re all the same. They all have a story.
Remember that painfully shy girl in middle school who hid behind a curtain of long straight hair? Of course you don’t! Denise Waldron’s hair is shorter now and no one who knows her would call her shy. Her interest in writing piqued considerably when her 8th grade English teacher read a student’s work aloud and then announced it was Denise’s, and a fellow student looked at her wide-eyed and exclaimed, “YOU wrote that?” It didn’t hurt that he was cute and had never noticed her before. She still gets a thrill when she sees her writing published.
After years of writing programming code and technical documentation she quit her job and turned to what she calls “early childhood education”: raising children. Now the children are older and she has found the time to write for fun, and it is fun or she wouldn’t be doing it, because she’s very busy. She works for various non-profit groups in town, plays on a league tennis team, and participates in a conversational Spanish group where after three years she can understand almost everything and speak about as well as your average two-year-old. She’s interested in cooking, gardening, the environment, nutrition, and is an NPR junkie.
There are three signs tacked to Denise’s desk: “Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again”, “Ginger Rogers Did Everything Fred Astaire Did Only Backwards And In High Heels”, and “I’ll Try Being Nicer If You Try Being Smarter”. Denise has one completed novel, one on the way, and ideas for four more. Surprisingly, no agents have come to her door asking if she has any books she’d like published.