December 20, 2009
I love the holidays. The neural re-enforcement from childhood is of cinnamon, hot chocolate, giving gifts, pine needles, why wouldn’t my brain go into auto-bliss at the sound of the first Christmas carol? A brain does not care about political correctness, religious sensitivities or even social consequences when faced with a flood of norepenephrine and boosted alpha states as a Pavlovian response to these delicious stimuli.
With this in mind, I snap into Santa’s helper mode. I like to give things away – homemade mandarin marmalade, oranges, cookies, books and cookbooks. For those who don’t know about my career path, I have written two cookbooks and have a personal inventory with which I can do as I choose. So, in the spirit of the season of giving, I dropped a box of my vegetarian cookbooks in the back of my car this chilly Sunday morning, put the dogs in the back seat and headed for the farmer’s market with the intention of gifting passersby with cookbooks. Scott was working on the site and couldn’t join me.
The market was bustling with people buying vegetables, persimmons and citrus for their holiday meals and normal weekly fare. I chose a spot, pulled a book out and began offering the shoppers “Free Cookbooks!” The first thing I noticed is that people are wary of anyone giving something away. A quick glance out of the corner of the eye, “No thanks” and a quick shuffle away. There’s an obvious fear of either having to engage, or becoming obligated to some auxilliary thing, the freebie being the “hook”. But I continued, and a couple of people stopped. They were suspicious, but they stopped. A big smile spread on their face when they realized this was an actual gift, and, no, I didn’t want to carry on a deeper conversation or sell them anything. Huge smiles now.
Within 2 -3 minutes, however, the organizer of the Farmers Markets came by and informed me that I could not give the books away in a public place. “Why?” I asked. “Because it could hurt those who are paying for a vending space and selling their books” he said. “But there are no booksellers here” said I. “It doesn’t matter” said he.
Not one to leave it alone, I asked if I could perhaps give my books away over next to the Jews Against Zionism table on the outskirts of the market. Nice people, I knew they wouldn’t mind having a little company since they catch a lot of flack themselves. But the Market Boss said, “No, only political action groups are allowed to give free information away in public places.” I see. I could hand out some version of politically divisive, even hateful, political propaganda to vegetable shoppers, but not a good soup recipe. Makes sense.
So I decided to try again at our local Natural Foods Co-Op. It’s a grassroots organization, owned by it’s members, surely they would love the idea of a free vegetarian cookbook give-away during the holidays.
The first encounter was with a customer service rep. “Actually, you would need to have permission from the marketing department and I don’t know if she’s working today.”
“But I’m not marketing anything, I just want to give away some books for people to enjoy.” He kindly said in his ‘I won’t tell on you’ voice, “Well, go outside and do it then.”
I put my box of books on the ground next to me in the parking lot near the front entrance, again informing passerbys that I was giving away free cookbooks. Within a couple of minutes a security guard came up and told me to cease. He said that I would need a couple of permits from the Co-op since this was private property.
I considered pushing it a bit and telling him that these people were all my friends and one can certainly give gifts to friends on private property, right? I see people giving birthday gifts to each other here, at other restaurants and in public parks all the time. Instead, I picked my books up and left, but my heart actually hurt.
Generosity and goodwill constitute the backbone to the holiday season, be it Christmas, Hanukkah or Hajj. Arguably it should be all year round. While I know I set myself up for this in terms of my manic holiday hard-wiring, I find it depressing that we can’t express a little giving among our human brothers and sisters without an attorney at our side.
Epilogue: The next morning
The Co-op manager called this morning and said they would be happy to let me give away my books and I did not need to go through any procedure or red tape. He said it was wrong that I was turned away, especially since they used to sell that very same book in the store.
Big smiles, I’ll give them away on Wednesday, just in time for Christmas Mania!