Buying the Farm(ers Market)

Regular attendees of Sonoma’s Farmer’s Market might have noticed a few additions to the bucolic hustle and bustle of last Tuesday’s market. Besides the return of once-ubiquitous balladeer Nelson Mint to his perch at the rose garden (strumming and crooning about his recent incarceration in a tune entitled “I did it, so what?”) and the arrival of “wine recycling” troths provided by the Sonoma Sangria Company, there was at least one new vendor.

AgChemetic, Inc., the genetically modified foods juggernaut, raised more than a few eyebrows when it opened its booth to the public Tuesday evening. The Indiana-based company was not represented at the market as an official vendor, but did offer its wares from a nearby stall on the sidewalk.

“Farmer’s markets represent the latest vanguard of the free market economy,” remarked an on-site spokesperson, James Whitman. “One thing big agra companies do well is capitalism and farmer’s markets allow us to scale, direct-to-consumer, in ways that were heretofore unprecedented. Moreover, we can reach educated, upper middle class ‘influentials’ on their own turf, a market we seldom reach through discount grocers and urban outlets where our products have deepest penetration given the lack of so-called ‘healthful alternatives.’ We’re here to give you a taste of the variety from which you might have been insulated.”

Among AgChemetic’s offerings were tubes of “Vegemaxx,” a vegetable substitute made from beef as well as “AllKarb,” a substance completely devoid of protein and marketed with the slogan “Empty Calories mean Lighter Calories,” both of which Whitman describes as “big hits” in inner city school lunch programs.

Samples of a sausage product were prepared on an electric skillet, lanced with colored toothpicks and festooned with a label that read “Pork Larva” in an apparent effort to disassociate the process by which the breakfast staple is manufactured and bolster its appeal to the squeamish. Likewise, a display of “Moo Meats” featured beef pasted with a pairs of “googly eyes.” As Whitman japed, “Our beef program has vision beyond slaughter. Don’t you just want to cuddle up with one of these steaks? Kids love how they glow in the dark too.”

Not to be outdone by our local beekeepers, AgChemetic also proffered its own honey-flavored petroleum-syrup replete with “Styrocomb,” the patent pending “recyclable honeycomb replica.” The company also featured carrot sticks packaged in flip-top boxes reminiscent of cigarette packaging, which it alleged were popular with the teen market. In fine print, meant to emulate the “Surgeon General’s warning,” was the admission that the carrot sticks weren’t actually made from carrots, but rather an “artificially-colored starch compound.” To wit, the product was legally referred to as a “beta-carotene delivery mechanism,” with each serving representing 0.0002 percent of one’s recommended daily allowance of vitamin A (and that was from the artificial coloring).

“Sure, you are what you eat,” laughed Whitman. “but you’re also what you believe. And I believe that companies such as AgChemetic are doing our part to make sure the world is fed in a fiscally responsible fashion. I mean, good food isn’t a right, it’s a privilege isn’t it? And you deserve it for just being you.” He paused. “Now, who wants dessert?”

Air Conditioning = Consumer Conditioning

Shop 'til you drop dead.
Shop 'til you drop dead.

Neither my office nor my home presently has air conditioning Though, I?m avidly working to fix this, I?m presently forced to hide from the stifling heat and humidity of Sonoma?s summer wherever I can. Lately, this has been in the strange, outer reaches of my usual cultural experience ? namely, big box stores and the various air-conditioned cubbies contained therein. And if such places have caffeine and wi-fi, all the better, for then I may pretend that I?m ?working,? when in fact I?m merely hiding from global warming, sheltered in the very consumer culture that created it.

Yesterday, while stocking up on eco-nappies for the wee and, apparently, green bum which will be taking up my spare room for the next 18 years, I discovered a Starbucks hunkered in the corner of a Target store in Napa, CA. This particular installation of the coffee chain wasn?t like the Starbucks most often found indoors. That is to say it wasn?t prominently positioned as a sort of caffeine distributing foyer within, say, Safeway. There, a kind of marketing symbiosis occurs in which Starbucks is the beneficial bacteria spawning iced-lattes in the grocer?s large intestine. Rather, this tiny store within a store was exiled to the far southern wall, in what could be considered the ?purgatory? section of Target, otherwise known as the customer service center. I often end up in such areas because I can?t find my way out of a paper bag let alone a big box.

This time at least I knew I was in the right Target (Napa, inexplicably, has two), since my wife had driven me there and I?ve learned, finally, that she?s right about things like where to buy cheap diapers that will also spare the earth from the rotisserie of climate change. She had done her part by ideating the diaper plan; the kid will do his by pooping in the diapers. My part, I wanted to believe, was to bask in the bone-chilling A/C in the breezeway of a Starbuckette, while being stared down by an Argus of branded red bullseyes. Of course, the temperature is at refrigerator levels in these places ? like morgues ? lest the impulse to purchase decay like our bodies in the heat.

Theater of Protest

I’m a firm believer of the “use it or lose it” principle as regards exercising one’s First Amendment rights – so it is then with tremendous respect for civil protest that I was recently able to reflect upon some local expressions of free speech and likewise exercise my own free speech in the process. Of course, regular readers will assume this pious preamble is merely my way of putting the “me” in mea culpa before the deluge of letters to the editor arrive (as is your right).  I think of it more as a little “context by way of a curtain opener,” you know, like Dr. Frankenstein dutifully introducing his monster before the townspeople came at him with pitchforks.

This is how it goes: At a recent protest near the grounds of City Hall, one of the demonstrators declined to answer the questions of one of our reporters. What was at question was the nature of the protest itself, which was apparently unclear. Instead of providing an expository quote, the protestor provided the telephone number of someone, he explained, who could answer the query (apparently, that person was protesting by proxy). To our reporter’s chagrin, the number was wrong. It rang out to the answering machine of a theater group and exasperated, the reporter turned to me, seeing as I’ve done theater criticism in the past.

Perhaps I was unclear on the assignment, or my critical eye was blinded by my love of street theater. Suffice it to say, I trundled down to the Plaza and later filed my review.

Leading the performance was a character I will call Man No. 1, for the troupe apparently eschews traditional billing. Man No. 1 will be familiar to those who caught his recent turns in the short-lived run of “Smart Train,” Broadway and West Napa mainstay “Peace” and the much underappreciated “No on Prop 8.” Again he delivers a star performance, simultaneously barking into a bullhorn and toting a sign with great aplomb. The effect was mesmerizing, particularly as underscored by the bullhorn that rendered his speech unintelligible — a deft and ironic symbol for the futility of communicating in the face of oppression – indeed the deafening din of his own voice left him mute.

Such nuance recalls the eloquent pantomime of sequences in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” as when the mimes took to the tennis court for a rally only to have their imaginary ball roll out of bounds and to the foot of the wan photographer. Man No. 1 shares a spiritual kinship with this moment, such that one can almost discern within the actor’s garbled monologue the existential query “Tennis anyone?” Kudos to the director (also unnamed), who used similar moments throughout this production to say everything while effectively saying nothing. The rallying cry here is “I am mime, hear me roar – not!”

Speaking of sound design, here the production’s aural ambience is represented solely by the incessant thumping of a lone conga drum, was surely meant to represent the “heart of the people” and, given its uneven rhythm, we might surmise that this heart was broken.

What first strikes one about this particular troupe’s staging is the fact that since no one knows what was being protested one can only assume that the protest was a manifestation of dissent in its purest form –  unfettered by polemic or agenda, a resounding chorus of “No” to bring balance to the notion of an empirical, but equally obfuscated “Yes.” This yin and yang pas de deux is tantamount to opera in the key of karmic balance and whimsically set the (conceptual) stage for a brilliant if slightly flawed production. Four stars. Seating is limited because there are no chairs. Just this ass.

The Thermos Factor

My piggy bank.
My piggy bank.

I visited a colleague?s office the other morning and there, gleaming on his desk, was what I assumed was a new-fangled martini shaker. He must have noticed my raised eyebrow and quickly explained that the chrome-colored container was a thermos and not evidence that he prefers his breakfast shaken, not stirred.

My colleague explained that he had recently crunched the numbers on the so-called ?Latte Factor? and realized he was drinking over a $1,000 of caffeine outsourced to Starbucks per annum. Though this is great for Starbucks shareholders, it?s terribly wasteful for new businesses such as his and ? gulp ? mine, especially in a flailing economy.

Personal finance guru David Bach?s site, FinishRich.com, lays out some impressive numbers of what one might save by forgoing the one?s quotidian fix of brand name mud (nearly $100,000 given a few decades and some financial jujitsu). I?m admittedly more impressed by shiny objects and what they confer, however, than mere numbers. I remember when every eco-and-health-conscious person I knew upgraded their hard plastic water bottles to gleaming aluminum bottles during what my wife and her ilk refer to as ?the BPA scare of 2005.? Those who refused to relinquish their plastic bottles were stigmatized like smokers and were similarly treated to choruses of ?You?re going to get cancer.?

The trend toward vessels of gleaming steel seems to have overtaken thermoses as well. Long gone are the plastic lunchbox thermoses of my youth, emblazoned with the Six Million Dollar Man and various iterations of Star Wars. While I was ruining my savings potential, not to mention the environment, with lattes to-go, thermoses had apparently evolved into sleek columns of ergonomic product design. At about $20, the investment only takes a only 0.02% sip of the 100 grand you?ll save. That said, I?ve evolved into a cost-conscious creative entrepreneur too frugal to spend even a pittance of my projected coffee savings on a shiny thermos. To wit, I stole my wife?s old Stanley ?Alladdin? model industrial grade thermos ? a mortar shell-sized vessel that appears to be made of the same material as airliner ?black boxes.? After the nuclear holocaust it?s just going to be roaches and Stanley thermoses left to rebuild civilization. Stanley knows this, which accounts for their online product registry ? if somehow those records survive, so will some little part of you. Or at least your thermos. I?m going to engrave my name into mine for this very chance at posterity. Or perhaps I should hold out for the Stanley martini shaker-thermos combo?

Ad Firm’s Anti-Website

Hearken back to the late Jurassic period of the web (2000 AD), when branding one’s endeavors online meant hording all of one’s content under a single site loaded with logos and various means of “protecting” one’s digital assets. Fast forward to the social web when one’s branded digital assets are extended through various third-party providers and now live on and off one’s personal site through nifty embed codes and widgets. MarketingDaily’s Karl Greenberg has uncovered a mutation of this current trend in the form of North Carolina ad agency Boone Oakley whose url, booneoakley.com, simply redirects to a YouTube page and does away with the notion of a branded-site entirely.

Says David Oakley, Boone Oakley’s co-creative director:

“The agency vision thing in so many Web sites is such bullshit. We have never taken ourselves that seriously, so we like to poke fun at ourselves, and people find that refreshing; we have gotten some comments that it’s an ‘anti-website.'”

The anti-website has received over a 100,000 views since launched five days ago. Albeit, the traffic is being driven, in part, by blog-borne acolytes like myself who applaud the novelty of an agency site that cuts through the dross of self-promotion and simply presents the goods at a total cost of zero. More to the point, the move to a YouTube-only site has proven tantamount to something of a social media marketing campaign in itself. I, however, won’t be making such a move until I acquire enough Google stock to brand the video-sharing site Daedaltube (though that sort of defeats the purpose, methinks).