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The Business of Flowers

14 Feb

"A rose by any other name....."

I’m definitely on the bandwagon of buying organic, grass-fed, sustainably raised, fair trade, shade grown and probably every other socially progressive label that may ever be invented. But my buying habits usually go as far as what my family puts in their mouths―milk, eggs, beef; what they put close to themselves―organic cotton shirts, sheets, hats; or how we save fuel-carpooling and hybrid cars . But never have I given more than a fleeting thought to what we gaze at on our dining table, or inhale blissfully as we waltz by at the market―something that is especially popular this time of year―flowers.

I dove head first into the feature story of my favorite magazine, Smithsonian, this month. It detailed the “Secrets Behind your Flowers,” implying very directly that the majority of cut flowers we Americans so enjoy come from thousands of miles away. Columbia, South America holds sway over 70 percent of the U.S. market alone-that is A LOT of flowers!

As with many of our social concerns on importation, the flower industry has all the usual suspects: substandard labor laws, the use of pesticides and fungicides, harsh working conditions and often questionable loyalty to the thousands of employees it supports in developing countries. It is an unregulated market, but now consumer watchdogs are beginning to turn their attention to this lucrative industry.

My place here is not to point fingers, there are many others better suited to this task than I. Merely becoming aware of the issue and then acting in good conscience has been my goal. So, should we boycott another consumer item and refuse to purchase the lovely blooms we see at the store, amidst our gray and chilly winter backdrop? No. The story is actually more complicated than that.

The backbone of the flower industry is the people who work hard—from the farmers to flower assemblers to the drivers. Most of the workers (especially the farmers and assemblers) are women. Steady income from this work enables them to have autonomy and independence from fathers, husbands, and other male relatives. It empowers them to feel a sense of community and freedom. Something we here, in Californian paradise, take for granted.

If we suddenly shunned store-bought flowers, we would be putting people in a potentially worse situation. As I mentioned, regulators are starting to look more closely at growing and shipping practices and soon you will see certification labels on flowers in stores, much like you do on USDA labeled meat, fair trade coffee and non-hormone treated milk.

But you can also be a conscientious consumer, and ask at your local store―where are these flowers from? Will you be offering certified flowers in the near future?

And, if nothing else, when your loved one comes home tonight with flowers for you in his or her arms, give thanks not just to your thoughtful partner, but also offer a silent thought of gratitude to the person in a far distant land who nurtured a seedling into a beautiful bloom, packaged it and shipped it here, perfect and fragrant.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

For the original article in Smithsonian, you can read it here.

Monkey See, But Monkey Do Not Do

21 Jan

Everywhere I look around the town I live in, there are shuttered businesses, “for lease” signs in each window. I felt fairly ambivalent about the closures until recently, when it hit closer to home. Affluence is an understatement in my neck of the woods. We are a dichotomy of young families who live at or beyond our means and aging hippies who were smart enough to hold onto the hillside houses with incredible views they bought in the 60s.

I’m not a chick who shops-by any stretch of the imagination-hence the ambivalence about stores closing in my town. Well, with the continued economic slump, they are closing everywhere—we are no exception. I have two young children though and when I do shop, 98 percent is for them. We had a gem of a toy store in town called Monkey Business. It rocked! It was my go-to store for every neighbor kid’s birthday gift and the occasional token reward for my daughter’s potty-training triumphs.

And, then, like many before it, Monkey Business was no more. Ah, a sad day for my family. I learned to live without it, find my toys elsewhere and wallow in the cynicism of what has happened to our country’s financial health.

Then, the other day, I happened to pass the old toy store, without realizing it had been filled with something else. I walked into the store next to it, one that was a mecca for another kind of child—a pet store. I’d been inside before a few times, but it’s a pretty high-end pet store, and though I love my dog more than life itself, I couldn’t bring myself to ever buy much. But here I was, in the store because my dog couldn’t resist all the wonderful smells wafting out. It seemed different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I walked out without another thought about it.

And then it hit me…..the Monkey Business toy store space had been absorbed into the pet store space. The already large pet store was now twice its original size. I was surprised by how angry this made me. Why on earth did a high-end pet store need even more space and a sweet toy store for kids need to fall to the wayside? I’m sure the toy store lost its lease before the pet store took over, but still…….

Did I already mention how much I love my dog? Well, I do, he is an awesome “woman’s best friend!” But I’m still so put off by this revelation. I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. Everyone in our bay side village has a “child” of sorts, be it baby, dog, cat or some other cute, furry creature.

I think it bothers me most that we, as a community, value an expensive pet store over a unique and imagination-inspiring shop.

The customer is always right?

15 Jul

“Waitress, waitress, my food’s cold and I need some more water. Oh yeah, you forgot to bring me another fork.”

This is what I heard in my dazed reverie as I leaned against the kitchen sink. But you can replace waitress with mom. I shrugged off the shroud of sleep deprivation that has become my constant cloak these days and dashed to the refrigerator to retrieve the requested item.

I held a lot of jobs during school—from retail to personal trainer to staff writer at the school newspaper. But for whatever reason, I was never a waitress. I always chalked it up to my own shortcomings in diplomacy or perhaps never the right opportunity. Though I occasionally thought I was missing out on some teen-aged rite of passage by eschewing the food industry.

And then, I had kids….

Being a mom has proven to be the ultimate exercise in patience, especially when it comes to preparing and serving food. It is never served fast enough, or a loud, rude three-year-old tells you that she “wants oatmeal, NOT cereal.” (She did say cereal the first go-round.) And your baby pounds the highchair tray with her sippy cup which is matched by the annoying shout-chant emitting from her pouty, pink lips. Meanwhile, mommy rushes around feverishly trying to accommodate everyone’s demands no matter how irrational. Even the dog crouches in the corner waiting with baited breath and pleading eyes begging you to slurp the last of the kid’s cereal into his bowl.

After you bust your buns to make everyone a happy customer, what do you get for your efforts…..perhaps a nice fat tip, or a “thanks for keeping me well-fed?” Not so much. Not only are you slaving for the world’s most unsatisfied customers, there is no financial payoff to make up for your seemingly futile dash from kitchen to dining room. And you think to yourself, ok, I willingly chose to bear these precious little gems.

So I have to imagine that waitressing, while often called a thankless job, has to be better, or certainly easier, than the lot I’ve chosen. At least those customers don’t throw food on the ground or at you and screech as the top of their lungs just because they can. I know that I have many mommy waitress days ahead of me, and now maybe I can add waitress to my resume.

There is No “I” in Wean

23 Jun

When I was pregnant with my first child, I fought the idea of a lengthy breastfeeding regimen tooth and nail. From my mother-in-law, to the local grocery clerk, I was quick to assure them it would last three, maybe four months, tops. It was not so much the idea of tender, swollen boobs, or shirts soaked with la leche that got to me. No, it was the lack of control over calling the shots to my body and how much access this little creature would get to me. Boy, was THAT naïve.
However, much to my surprise (and secret pleasure) I enjoyed breastfeeding….further; I was actually good at it. In fact my daughter and I made a pretty good team! My genuine delight in feeding her was offset only by a subtle, yet, very present undercurrent of competition. As my friends began to drop off the nursing wagon at four, six, or nine months, post-natal, I was still going strong. I was beginning to emerge the sole survivor in the game of ladies who lactate. The added bonus was the shedding of many pounds of baby weight as I got closer to my baby’s first birthday. Nothing could stop me!
I had to eat my share of crow, though. I had told so many people that I was absolutely not going to do it past the first three months of my daughter’s life, that when those same people witnessed my ongoing and clearly obsessive desire to breastfeed, they laughed so hard you would have thought they were the ones with the leaky pelvic floor.
Alas, as we neared the one-year mark, my normally milk-mad baby began to lose interest. Everyone seemed to realize this except me. Our sweetly intimate nursing sessions became shorter and less-frequent. We got down to a once-a-day feeding at dinnertime. She’d latch on and then pull off immediately. I convinced myself that she was just full or tired. We were at the 13 month mark, but wasn’t it just yesterday that the lactation consultant was showing me the proper latch?
The real blow came when I tested out this theory by offering her a bottle of formula. She sucked it down greedily. Then I realized, a bit dejectedly, that she had outgrown the need for my milk. Thoughtfully, I realized that this was likely the first example of her exercising her will against mine and being able to move on. My daughter is now nearly four years old. The past several years have proven that insight again and again. We’ve crossed many bridges together, from taking her first steps, to learning how to button shirts, brush her hair and teeth and climb up the park’s jungle gym. Along the way, she’s needed me as a guide, but once she found her footing she knew when to turn and say, “Mommy, I can do it by myself.”

And I love her for it.