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Sweet sweet

The fudgy vegan cake I once loved is distastefully treacly. The new chocolate-covered brownie bites that everyone raves about are vapid. The faux ice cream sandwich is so cloying, it’s hard to finish. What has happened to me?

I stopped eating added sugar, that’s what. About six months ago, Zeke and I made a dare that if one of us ate any, that one would have to (cue ominous music) do the dishes for a month. And, since we’re not saints, one day a month we’d have a sugar jubilee and eat whatever we want. It’s been interesting.

I was raised in the Midwest, where after lunch and dinner, something sweet was required for a meal to be complete. My parents are both paragons of moderation – impressively, unbelievably, almost disgustingly so – I’m talking one square of chocolate. The moderation gene was not passed on to me, and through the years I began considering larger and larger proportions of sweet things to be the little something at dinner’s end. Or lunch… or breakfast.

But now, on a cold day, there’s roasted acorn squash with cinnamon and a few raisins, steaming from the oven. Or if it’s hot, my man blends a banana, frozen blueberries, a handful of spinach, and enough soy milk to keep the blender from imploding, and the resultant purple shake is creamy, thick, and satisfying. Figs, apples, coconut – these are now desserts.

And on Sugar Day, flavor is key. The molasses cookie is like chewing syrup, nearly intolerable. But the pumpkin cookie is good, and the banana pie is better yet. Could it be that the taste of actual foods— pumpkin, almond, banana– is what makes something delicious?

Could be. Exhibit A would be diet products. As if it weren’t already obvious that they are an unsatisfying way to eat a lot of something that you try to convince yourself tastes just like something you shouldn’t eat a lot of. The 137-calorie pint of frozen protein dessert? Predictably, it’s going to food purgatory: the staff lounge. Exhibit B would be anything you’d find in a trick-or-treater’s pillowcase. The bite-sized lures of candy corporations taste false and overbearing to altered taste buds.

Perhaps I sound like an elitist food critic, but forgive me: I need to revel in actually having preferences regarding products containing sugar. Before, anything sweet tasted good and was worth consuming. Plants evolved sweetness to encourage animals to eat and propagate their seeds, after all. Sweetness meant safety, meant this isn’t poisonous. But in today’s food world, it may nearly be the opposite.

And perhaps I may sound like one of those health nuts who insist (er, lie) that raw broccoli with a sprinkling of brewer’s yeast is as palatable to them as whoopie pie. But on a sugar day, if I have two or three sugar-things, it’s undeniable: I begin to feel slightly nauseated. My pulse surges and bumps, confusing my body: What’s this? Is she running? Dancing? No, she’s sitting in the chair, blogging. What gives? I actually crave vegetables and water. Then there’s the sugar crash. A haze drops over my brain. There’s pasty film on my tongue. And a slightly greater inclination to be, um, a bitch. As much as being an occasional treat, Sugar Day reminds us why we do what we do for the rest of the month.

Of course, even sans sweets, I’m still irritable and twitchy at times. I can only imagine how much more serene I would be if I were a total Buddha, savoring every breath, movement, sight, word. I still charge through things, fixate on time and result, get impatient. But this is progress. Sweet, sweet progress.

Hygiene

In any Walgreens or supermarket, there are aisles and aisles of products labeled for personal hygiene. What is that, exactly? Hygiene: such a sanitary, boring word. Its roots, though, are not at all fussy. It’s from an ancient Greek phrase, hygieine techne, “the healthful art,” which grows from hygies, “healthy,” which meant simply living well, having a vigorous life. This was personified as the goddess Hygieia. Traditionally, she is pictured offering a drink of water to a snake, the symbol of healing. But here and now, Hygieia would be selling antiperspirant/deodorant and breath pills and would certainly keep a few paces between herself and any germ-ridden zoo animal. Hygiene has become a euphemism for don’t be stinky, a guilt trip used by the cleansing product industries.

But if we must have hygiene, even in its current incarnation, aren’t there more important kinds than personal? Raise the bar at least to public hygiene. Handwashing, for starters, but also courtesy, the awareness of each one’s status as not quite the center of the universe. And how about global hygiene, Hygieia’s holy strike against unbecoming mountaintop removal, smog, and oil puddles in the oceans? This would, of course, necessitate institutional, corporate, and governmental hygiene… those messy wars, those untidy balance sheets, those, shall we say, negatively aromatic correctional facilities. So someone bring some Mountain Rain Scented Wipes and let the healing begin.

Security man

If you worked for the Department of Homeland Security, would you walk around wearing all black, with a walkie talkie strapped to your belt, and the logo of the Department of Homeland Security silk-screened in silver on your ball cap, your lapel, your jacket sleeve, and the back of your jacket? When I ask you how’s it going, would you reply “Long as things stay quiet tonight, fine”? Is it the Department’s strategy to recruit out of shape and slightly overweight people to mosey through their days dressed like a SWAT team, thereby hoodwinking ever-watching enemies into believing that the Homeland is barren of truly scary defenders? Or would this be an impostor, perhaps a white-supremacist militia member, patrolling a grocery store in Montana where almost everyone’s white anyway… I want to know, but this is a story I’m not writing. It’s one with only empty space where the next words should be.

Sucked under the belt at the grocery store

(In order of increasing size.)

Stickers.
Dollar bills.
Deli meal tickets.
Coins.
Arguments made with eyes.
Packets of powdered Emergen-C.
Packets of seeds.
Focus.
Vacuum-packed bacon, 6 oz.
Portion of my palm.
Bunch of green onions in rubber band.
Weeks.

(Cell phones are unfortunately not yet thin enough to be sucked under.)

To let a quiet man be

The man seated in the deli was motionless. There was no plate or cup before him, nor newspaper nor wallet. His head was bowed. I went round with my broom and pan to glance from the corner of my eye, pretending to sweep crumbs. Yes, he is asleep. Sleeping in the deli after sunset on St. Patrick’s Day. I should tell a manager, I suppose, and do: “There’s a man sleeping in the deli.”

I expect action but she says, “Oh yes… he’s been there since six, I think.” She blinks. “He doesn’t seem to be drunk and he isn’t noisy, so we will let him stay.”

I am glad and tell her. How hard was that? How hard to let a quiet man sleep, here in a place of commerce on a night known for wildness? So easy. An easy kindness. Why not? Who would be hurt? Yet so few I know would let him be.

Germophilia

“Hope you feel better soon,” I tell Imma, handing her a receipt as she leaves. The next lady in line, inches away from releasing her purse onto the counter, suddenly frees herself from gravity and sucks her possessions and facial features upward. She leans away, but hisses with the air of someone leaning in: “Does she have The Flu?

“Oh no, just a sore throat I think,” I reply, from within a mask of cheer.

“Oo. Ooo,” she coos, peering at the counter as she would a fresh grave. “I’m a huge germophobe. I think I don’t want to set anything down here.”

“Well, ah, I’m sure I could wipe it down for you, or would you like some sanitizer?” I reach for my spray bottle and cloth, but her face remains frozen in arches.

“Um, I think I’ll just go to another desk.”

Her caution has saved her from the plague, she thinks. But who do you think touched the door handle, I want to ask her, or the pens? The delivery confirmation slips? Who stacked the brochures there for you? Who stocked the walls with boxes and stamps? Who coughed in the entry? Who sighed? Her lack of thoroughness in paranoia is disappointing. Why settle for neurosis? If one really wants to be positive of one’s hygiene, commit to psychosis. Witness the colorful festival of bacteria dancing on all surfaces, not just toilets and doorknobs. Acknowledge the legion of supremely creative viruses, struggling to evolve as all life forms do, all of us parasites thriving upon other beings to survive. Tremble at the ugly, though incomplete, truth: it’s a race to the death, and enemies dwell within necessary oxygen, food and drink, elimination. There is no escape.

The woman has settled at Shanelle’s counter. Shanelle hands her a book of stamps, perfectly concealing her sinus headache and congested nasal passages, smiling and nodding. Meanwhile, I greet my next customer, who twiddles his sniffly nose, then reaches forward kindly to shake my hand.

Invisibility

They don’t hide their quarreling from me as they would from a person of higher status. As a cashier—a servant—I am invisible until useful. Often, it is the woman who has charge of the transaction. She determines bags or boxes, she’s in charge of coupons, she knows if it should be check or credit card. If he’s late wandering the aisles, if he picks the wrong broth, or packs ice cream with basil, she reproaches, and I become useful: I should affirm her glance, which says: Men! And very occasionally, a man will belittle his wife before me. He’s exasperated that she thinks you use an ink pen to sign the tiny screen. His seeking glance says: Isn’t my wife stupid? Both glances are ugly, but his, being more particular, is somehow uglier. Either way, I gaze intently into my scale as if it were a tiny portal to the old invisibility.

Items found in re-used grocery bags

Half-eaten string cheese.

Popcorn.

Potting soil once rich, now disappointed.

Human hair. Subsets:
Curly. Grey. Brunette.

Dog hair, mixed.

Earwig. Subsets:
Dead. Alive.

Mystery substance sticking sides of bag together. (No further investigation conducted.)

Tears.

Orchid bloom.

Snow.

Shadow of cat.

Hole of mouse.

Sigh.

The monologist

I push open the bathroom door to hear a woman’s voice from the far stall, mid-stream in a phone conversation. It is a business call, evidently, which rules out the exceptions I make for women calling the hospital upon discovering they are in labor, women calling the police to nab an abusive boyfriend outside, and women who are in fact secret agents remotely dismantling bombs ticking in amusement parks. I take a seat in the adjacent stall.

“…So I will be taking 35% for my expenses,” the voice announces. “No, yes I will… because I have uninsured medical costs, and I need a new laptop, and the car is toast. It’s only fair. Here’s the thing, Suzanne…” The voice rises with a note of urgency. I begin to whiz as loudly as possible. “My higher power and I need to get my monologues out. That’s just what we need to do this year.” Ah, people who use My higher power says as an abbreviation for Give me what I want. I trumpet my nose into a tissue, hack, and flush. “…And I met this lady who is a professional dancer, and she’s from New York City. New York City.” Another flush, just to make sure, as I leave the stall. “And she has so much more experience and knowledge. She’s going to help me cut them so I could fit five in an evening, not four. This is going to be a really big year for me…”

I wash up, then activate the blow dryer for a thorough thirty seconds, but she is still not done telling Suzanne what she requires and why, so I leave, ceding the chance to see how she justifies herself as she exits her impromptu office. The rest of her words will echo off the tile, unappreciated by any captive, full-bladdered audience members.