I am the designated grocery shopper in the Hines household. Laurel pretty much is the designated everything-else shopper, aside from such necessities of life as books, computers, and other techno gadgets. I take my duty seriously. I am not a creative grocery shopper. Hewing to our evolutionary designed sex roles, my mantra is: “Get everything on the list; do not get anything not on the list.”
Using every available dwindling ounce of testosterone in my aging body, each Wednesday I dedicate myself to hunting down the assigned items on the list. If I fail to catch a quarry, I am disappointed. I circle the name of that elusive prey and return to the hunting ground the next day, and the day after that if necessary, until the Hines larder has been filled.
Laurel is much more the archetypal female gatherer. She is happy wandering around a grocery store looking for new interesting things to pluck off the shelf and bring home to share. I find that modus operandi frustratingly imprecise. If you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know when you find it? Yet together our styles mesh nicely, as nature undoubtedly intended, a harmonious mix of yin and yang.
Moral dilemmas usually are absent from my shopping experience. But today I was drawn to reflect on the ethical rightness and wrongness of some everyday grocery store behaviors. Well, actually my first instance of moral angst came at a Commercial Street roadside farmer’s stand here in Salem.
I was attracted by a “Fresh Corn” sign and moved to fondle some recently harvested ears. As I usually do, and as I recall my mother telling me to do, I started to peel back part of the husk on a promising looking ear. Instantly the stand proprietor grabbed it out of my hand and said, “What size do you want? Big ones?” “Sure, what else?,” I replied. “How many?” “Oh, eight.” “OK. I’ll pick you out some nice ears.” Which he did.
Later, as I was paying for the corn and some other items, he said to his partner seemingly in passing (but likely for my benefit), “When that guy who just left comes back we should charge him for all the ears of corn he ruined that we’ll have to throw away.” “Ruined?” I asked. “Yeah, he kept picking up ear after ear, peeling the husk down to see what the kernels looked like. Then he put the corn back. We can’t sell it after that has happened.”
I was shocked. In a burst of honesty I told the guy what he likely already knew: “Well, I also am a habitual husk peeler. I didn’t know this was a bad thing to do.” “Oh, man,” I was told. “You wouldn’t believe how much corn grocery stores have to throw away. Women won’t buy corn if the husk has been peeled back. They figure that if someone else looked at the ear that closely and decided not to buy it, then they won’t buy it either.”
Lord, what a revelation! Images of hundreds of grocery store corn peelings flashed across my psyche, embellished with (likely false) memories of fruit and vegetable department staff surreptitiously eyeing me, wondering how many ears were going to have to be thrown in the dumpster that evening after I had finished trashing the corn display.
Then I began thinking about all the other grocery store moral dilemmas that I had rarely or never pondered until this roadside stand ethical wake-up call. Here are some samples:
Squeezing fruit. Yes, I do this too. I already knew the roadside stand folks didn’t like this, because in previous years a sign by the peaches said, “You squeeze it; you’ve bought it.” But most stores aren’t so direct. How many times have I picked up a nectarine or peach and said to myself, “Ick. There are bruises and dents on it. Better put it back.” And how did those bruises and dents get on the piece of fruit? By someone just like me wanting to see how firm it was. Do I need to know this? Doesn’t all fruit ripen to just the right degree in the summer if you wait a few days? Can’t I let my eyes do the choosing?
Disrespecting the “best used by” stocking system. Every week I buy a package of broccoli slaw. And every week I rummage through all the bags looking for the package with the latest “best used by” date. Invariably this bag is way at the back, since the store wants people to first buy the stuff that is going to be out of date the soonest. I understand this. I agree with the system’s logic. And I consciously subvert it. Even if I know that we are going to use up the “August 7” bag before then, I’ll buy an “August 14” bag if it is available.
What if everyone did this? Didn’t Sartre say that we have to choose each action we do as if we are choosing that every person in the world would do it?
Taking the last of something. This moral dilemma may be the best sign of my nearly perfect Buddha-nature that I clearly perceive but is dismayingly unrecognized by Laurel (perhaps because she thinks that a Buddha would empty the dishwasher more than 1 out of 10 times, and not demand that the press be notified when he performs this selfless act).
I agonize when I take the last of something that I know someone else is going to soon find gone, and be disappointed. And I really agonize if I take the last two of those things when I really only need one. We love the whole wheat round bread loaf at LifeSource Natural Foods that has seeds on top. So do lots of other people, obviously, because the whole wheat loaf sells out almost instantly, while the white bread hangs around for days after delivery.
Laurel sometimes will come home with three whole wheat loaves, two of which she puts in the freezer. “For when we can’t find a loaf,” she says. I am aghast, but I try not to appear overly judgmental, for this would be at odds with my Buddha nature, and, in public at least, I try to maintain my Bodhisattva appearance (could this be the last subtle sign of ego?). Yet I think to myself, “One of the reasons people can’t buy a loaf a week is because other people buy several loaves a week, even when they only need one.”
Ah, the more I thought about it, I concluded that all the dilemmas of human morality and ethics get played out in some fashion at the grocery store. The smallest act of shopping can reflect the grandest virtue or vice.
Today I almost failed to notice a display at Fred Meyer because it was virtually bare: “Organic grapes, 99 cents a pound; $2.00 off regular price.” $2.00 off!!! There were precisely five bags of grapes left. I put three in my cart, though I thought that Laurel and I could eat all five before the weekend was over.
As I walked away I glanced over my shoulder at the two bags left on the display. I felt good. The light of my Buddha nature shone a bit more brightly than before. Somewhere in Salem someone is eating two bags of cheap organic grapes because of me.
I should issue a press release. Well, I guess I have, with this posting.
[note to self: check Buddhist scriptures on question of whether realization of Buddha nature necessarily is preceded by loss of ego; rewrite scriptures as necessary].