The Good of Small Things

The Tao of cooking states that a dish can only be as good as its ingredients. So I can sometimes spend an unreasonable amount of time in the produce section of the grocery store. A mountain of onions before me—some of them will taste good, others not.

Annoyingly, spending more money on the organic/local/virtuous variant is an effective way to avoid bad produce. For some reason, vegetables at my local Chain Industrial-Proletarian Grocery often taste terrible, so I often suck it up and head to Commie Cooperative or Chain Liberal-Neoliberal Market for produce with my NPR canvas tote bag in hand. Apparently some scientists’ research shows that the bump in flavor you perceive from organic/local stuff is imagined. I could see this being true but it seems to miss the point: the only reality in taste is the experience itself.

There is another thing I do when picking out produce: I always pick the smallest option. Ceteris paribus, smaller things always taste better than big things. While this sounds really stupid, I guarantee that it is true. It’s like each fruit or vegetable only has a certain amount of flavor, regardless of the size that it grows to be. Try eating a huge strawberry, which will taste just like sour celery, and then try the smallest strawberry, which is sure to be full of the pleasant ur-taste of strawberry. I feel like I read somewhere that produce cultivars are increasingly selected for greater size, at the expense of taste (Citation Needed). This is a real shame.

Thinking about this made me think about other things that are better off small, and I thought of quite a few things, to the extent that I feel that I’ve stumbled upon a fundamental cause for problems in our society: things are just too goddamned big.

Like the blank taste of a strawberry grown too large, the too large things in our society also inevitably suffer from emptiness and blankness. In almost every too large car whizzing down the highways, you can find four empty seats. Let’s take a look in one of these cars: in the cupholder is a crass Starbucks concoction in the Grande, Venti, or Il Duce size (“I like my coffee like I like my shirts—black“). (Car enthusiast apocrypha recounts how Volvo sales in the US languished until Volvo executives took off their Euro-goggles and noticed a horrible design flaw—their cars had no cup holders). These cars are necessary because everything is far away, because our cities are unnecessarily spread out, packed not with people, but with huge empty lots next to huge stores, and really a whole lot of empty space. I could go on about smartphones and clothes at the store being too big, but let’s stop here.

Bigness is a good marketing tactic because we are genetically inclined to find big things to be powerful and unassailable (probably). Big things seem tougher, more useful, more valuable. But this can lead us astray. A cautionary tale: remember that it was not the large powerful dinosaurs that survived the meteor, but rather the small and nimble mammals.

Unfortunately, on both the aggregate and individual levels, all actions are taken with the goal of expanding rather than contracting. Almost everyone I know works in the “expansion sector” of the economy, in one way or another. Organizations seek to grow in size, increase revenue and renoun, add features to the product, add products to the lineup. Individuals wish to accumulate money, and make their possessions larger and more numerous. Contraction in the pursuit of quality is not really a sexy topic to bring up. Organizations and individuals believe that scale will bring them security, and maybe this is true to a certain extent. But scale is expensive to maintain, and organizations and individuals find that their very scale forces them to take certain actions that they would otherwise prefer to avoid, or forgo certain opportunities. Inflexible organizations and individuals can be swallowed up by a changing landscape. Freedom of action is sacrificed for a really dubious notion of security.

I think the pressure to scale up can really burden a person down, increasingly containing a person from a wide open field, to a road, and finally to a railroad track, where direction is largely predetermined and choices, when they arise, manifest themselves as deciding between two things that are basically the same. If your imagination ever becomes too active and thinks that it might be fun to scale down, for a change, there is always a dour pessimist close by who promises a wild forest full of danger and hardship for anyone who dares to stray from the tracks. You will meet this person many times, in real life and in print, and you will realize that they themselves do not benefit from a world with no choice, and in fact suffer from it. But despite this, and because of this, they are offended by the very suggestion that things could be different. At least their suffering has meaning if it is required, but what meaning would it have if it were optional?

But in some ways the pessimists are right. When I dispose of my possessions and attachments and see that there is no longer a path before me, or that everything before me is a path, I am for the first time forced to confront that frightening truth: “I exist!”

2 thoughts on “The Good of Small Things”

  1. It is said by men worthy of belief (though Allah’s knowledge is greater) that in the first days there was a king of the isles of Babylonia who called together his architects and his priests and bade them build him a labyrinth so confused and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way. Most unseemly was the edifice that resulted, for it is the prerogative of God, not man, to strike confusion and inspire wonder. In time there came to the court a king of Arabs, and the king of Babylonia (to muck the simplicity of his guest) bade him enter the labyrinth, where the king of Arabs wandered, humiliated and confused, until the coming of the evening, when he implored God’s aid and found the door. His lips offered no complaint, though he said to the king of Babylonia that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance. Then he returned to Arabia with his captains and his wardens and he wreaked such havoc upon kingdoms of Babylonia, and with such great blessing by fortune, that he brought low his castles, crushed his people, and took the king of Babylonia himself captive. He tied him atop a swift-footed camel and led him into the desert. Three days they rode, and then he said to him, “O king of time and substance and cipher of the century! In Babylonia didst thou attempt to make me lose my way in a labyrinth of brass with many stairways, doors, and walls; now the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, nor walls to impede thy passage.”

    Then he untied the bonds of the king of Babylonia and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst. Glory to him who does not die.

    — Borges, “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”
    (that’s what your binary at the end reminded me of)

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