“The seeds of the dandelion you blow away”
Folklore has an interesting spin on determining whether or not you are loved. Instead of picking the petals off a daisy, try blowing the seeds off a dandelion globe. It’s said that if you can blow all the seeds off with one blow, then you are loved with a passionate love. If some seeds remain, then your lover has reservations about the relationship. If a lot of the seeds still remain on the globe, then you are not loved at all, or very little.
“Unusual Vegetables, Something New for this Year’s Garden,” Rodale Press Emmaus, PA.
Boyhood is a 2014 American coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Richard Linklater and starring Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke. The film was shot intermittently over an eleven-year period from May 2002 to October 2013, showing the growth of the young boy and his sister to adulthood.
Over the course of his or her lifetime, the average person will eat 60,000 pounds of food, the weight of six elephants.
The average American will drink over 3,000 gallons of soda. He will eat about 28 pigs, 2,000 chickens, 5,070 apples, and 2,340 pounds of lettuce. How much of that will he remember, and for how long, and how well?
The human memory is famously faulty; the brain remains mostly a mystery. We know that comfort foods make the pleasure centers in our brains light up the way drugs do. We know, because of a study conducted by Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, that by recalling a moment, you’re altering it slightly, like a mental game of Telephone—the more you conjure a memory, the less accurate it will be down the line. Scientists have implanted false memories in mice and grown memories in pieces of brain in test tubes. But we haven’t made many noteworthy strides in the thing that seems most relevant: how not to forget.
Unless committed to memory or written down, what we eat vanishes as soon as it’s consumed. That’s the point, after all. But because the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, in his first entry, “Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand,” we know that Samuel Pepys, in the 1600s, ate turkey. We know that, hundreds of years ago, Samuel Pepys’s wife burned her hand. We know, because she wrote it in her diary, that Anne Frank at one point ate fried potatoes for breakfast. She once ate porridge and “a hash made from kale that came out of the barrel.”
For breakfast on January 2, 2008, I ate oatmeal with pumpkin seeds and brown sugar and drank a cup of green tea.
I know because it’s the first entry in a food log I still keep today. I began it as an experiment in food as a mnemonic device. The idea was this: I’d write something objective every day that would cue my memories into the future—they’d serve as compasses by which to remember moments.
Andy Warhol kept what he called a “smell collection,” switching perfumes every three months so he could reminisce more lucidly on those months whenever he smelled that period’s particular scent. Food, I figured, took this even further. It involves multiple senses, and that’s why memories that surround food can come on so strong.
What I’d like to have is a perfect record of every day. I’ve long been obsessed with this impossibility, that every day be perfectly productive and perfectly remembered. What I remember from January 2, 2008 is that after eating the oatmeal I went to the post office, where an old woman was arguing with a postal worker about postage—she thought what she’d affixed to her envelope was enough and he didn’t.
I’m terrified of forgetting. My grandmother has battled Alzheimer’s for years now, and to watch someone battle Alzheimer’s—we say “battle,” as though there’s some way of winning—is terrifying. If I’m always thinking about dementia, my unscientific logic goes, it can’t happen to me (the way an earthquake comes when you don’t expect it, and so the best course of action is always to expect it). “Really, one might almost live one’s life over, if only one could make a sufficient effort of recollection” is a sentence I once underlined in John Banville’s The Sea (a book that I can’t remember much else about). But effort alone is not enough and isn’t particularly reasonable, anyway. A man named Robert Shields kept the world’s longest diary: he chronicled every five minutes of his life until a stroke in 2006 rendered him unable to. He wrote about microwaving foods, washing dishes, bathroom visits, writing itself. When he died in 2007, he left 37.5 million words behind—ninety-one boxes of paper. Reading his obituary, I wondered if Robert Shields ever managed to watch a movie straight through.
Last spring, as part of a NASA-funded study, a crew of three men and three women with “astronaut-like” characteristics spent four months in a geodesic dome in an abandoned quarry on the northern slope of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano.
For those four months, they lived and ate as though they were on Mars, only venturing outside to the surrounding Mars-like, volcanic terrain, in simulated space suits. Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) is a four-year project: a series of missions meant to simulate and study the challenges of long-term space travel, in anticipation of mankind’s eventual trip to Mars. This first mission’s focus was food.
Getting to Mars will take roughly six to nine months each way, depending on trajectory; the mission itself will likely span years. So the question becomes: How do you feed astronauts for so long? On “Mars,” the HI-SEAS crew alternated between two days of pre-prepared meals and two days of dome-cooked meals of shelf-stable ingredients. Researchers were interested in the answers to a number of behavioral issues: among them, the well-documented phenomenon of menu fatigue (when International Space Station astronauts grow weary of their packeted meals, they tend to lose weight). They wanted to see what patterns would evolve over time if a crew’s members were allowed dietary autonomy, and given the opportunity to cook for themselves (“an alternative approach to feeding crews of long term planetary outposts,” read the open call).
Everything was hyper-documented. Everything eaten was logged in painstaking detail: weighed, filmed, and evaluated. The crew filled in surveys before and after meals: queries into how hungry they were, their first impressions, their moods, how the food smelled, what its texture was, how it tasted. They documented their time spent cooking; their water usage; the quantity of leftovers, if any. The goal was to measure the effect of what they ate on their health and morale, along with other basic questions concerning resource use. How much water will it take to cook on Mars? How much water will it take to wash dishes? How much time is required; how much energy? How will everybody feel about it all?
The main food study had a big odor identification component to it: the crew took scratch-n-sniff tests, which Kate said she felt confident about at the mission’s start, and less certain about near the end. “The second-to-last test,” she said, “I would smell grass and feel really wistful.” Their noses were mapped with sonogram because, in space, the shape of your nose changes. And there were, on top of this, studies unrelated to food. They exercised in anti-microbial shirts (laundry doesn’t happen in space), evaluated their experiences hanging out with robot pets, and documented their sleep habits.
“We all had relationships outside that we were trying to maintain in some way,” Kate said. “Some were kind of new, some were tenuous, some were old and established, but they were all very difficult to maintain. A few things that could come off wrong in an e-mail could really bum you out for a long time.”
She told me about another crew member whose boyfriend didn’t email her at his usual time. This was roughly halfway through the mission. She started to get obsessed with the idea that maybe he got into a car accident. “Like seriously obsessed,” Kate said. “I was like, ‘I think your brain is telling you things that aren’t actually happening. Let’s just be calm about this,’ and she was like, ‘Okay, okay.’ But she couldn’t sleep that night. In the end he was just like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ I knew he would be fine, but I could see how she could think something serious had happened.”
“My wife sent me poems every day but for a couple days she didn’t,” Kate said. “Something was missing from those days, and I don’t think she could have realized how important they were. It was weird. Everything was bigger inside your head because you were living inside your head.”
When I look back on my meals from the past year, the food log does the job I intended more or less effectively.
I can remember, with some clarity, the particulars of given days: who I was with, how I was feeling, the subjects discussed. There was the night in October I stress-scarfed a head of romaine and peanut butter packed onto old, hard bread; the somehow not-sobering bratwurst and fries I ate on day two of a two-day hangover, while trying to keep things light with somebody to whom, the two nights before, I had aired more than I meant to. There was the night in January I cooked “rice, chicken stirfry with bell pepper and mushrooms, tomato-y Chinese broccoli, 1 bottle IPA” with my oldest, best friend, and we ate the stirfry and drank our beers slowly while commiserating about the most recent conversations we’d had with our mothers.
But reading the entries from 2008, that first year, does something else to me: it suffuses me with the same mortification as if I’d written down my most private thoughts (that reaction is what keeps me from maintaining a more conventional journal). There’s nothing especially incriminating about my diet, except maybe that I ate tortilla chips with unusual frequency, but the fact that it’s just food doesn’t spare me from the horror and head-shaking that comes with reading old diaries. Mentions of certain meals conjure specific memories, but mostly what I’m left with are the general feelings from that year. They weren’t happy ones. I was living in San Francisco at the time. A relationship was dissolving.
It seems to me that the success of a relationship depends on a shared trove of memories. Or not shared, necessarily, but not incompatible. That’s the trouble, I think, with parents and children: parents retain memories of their children that the children themselves don’t share. My father’s favorite meal is breakfast and his favorite breakfast restaurant is McDonald’s, and I remember—having just read Michael Pollan or watched Super Size Me—self-righteously not ordering my regular egg McMuffin one morning, and how that actually hurt him.
When a relationship goes south, it’s hard to pinpoint just where or how—especially after a prolonged period of it heading that direction. I was at a loss with this one. Going forward, I didn’t want not to be able to account for myself. If I could remember everything, I thought, I’d be better equipped; I’d be better able to make proper, comprehensive assessments—informed decisions. But my memory had proved itself unreliable, and I needed something better. Writing down food was a way to turn my life into facts: if I had all the facts, I could keep them straight. So the next time this happened I’d know exactly why—I’d have all the data at hand.
In the wake of that breakup there were stretches of days and weeks of identical breakfasts and identical dinners. Those days and weeks blend into one another, become indistinguishable, and who knows whether I was too sad to be imaginative or all the unimaginative food made me sadder.
“I’m always really curious about who you are in a different context. Who am I completely removed from Earth—or pretending to be removed from Earth? When you’re going further and further from this planet, with all its rules and everything you’ve ever known, what happens? Do you invent new rules? What matters to you when you don’t have constructs? Do you take the constructs with you? On an individual level it was an exploration of who I am in a different context, and on a larger scale, going to another planet is an exploration about what humanity is in a different context.”
What I remember is early that evening, drinking sparkling wine and spreading cream cheese on slices of a soft baguette from the fancy Key Biscayne Publix, then spooning grocery-store caviar onto it (“Lumpfish caviar and Prosecco, definitely, on the balcony”). I remember cooking dinner unhurriedly (“You were comparing prices for the seafood and I was impatient”)—the thinnest pasta I could find, shrimp and squid cooked in wine and lots of garlic—and eating it late (“You cooked something good, but I can’t remember what”) and then drinking a café Cubano even later (“It was so sweet it made our teeth hurt and then, for me at least, immediately precipitated a metabolic crisis”) and how, afterward, we all went to the empty beach and got in the water which was, on that warm summer day, not even cold (“It was just so beautiful after the rain”).
“And this wasn’t the same trip,” wrote that wrong-for-me then-boyfriend, “but remember when you and I walked all the way to that restaurant in Bill Baggs park, at the southern tip of the island, and we had that painfully sweet white sangria, and ceviche, and walked back and got tons of mosquito bites, but we didn’t care, and then we were on the beach somehow and we looked at the red lights on top of all the buildings, and across the channel at Miami Beach, and went in the hot Miami ocean, and most importantly it was National Fish Day?”
And it’s heartening to me that I do remember all that—had remembered without his prompting, or consulting the record (I have written down: “D: ceviche; awful sangria; fried plantains; shrimp paella.” “It is National fish day,” I wrote. “There was lightning all night!”). It’s heartening that my memory isn’t as unreliable as I worry it is. I remember it exactly as he describes: the too-sweet sangria at that restaurant on the water, how the two of us had giggled so hard over nothing and declared that day “National Fish Day,” finding him in the kitchen at four in the morning, dipping a sausage into mustard—me taking that other half of the sausage, dipping it into mustard—the two of us deciding to drive the six hours back to Gainesville, right then.
“That is a really happy memory,” he wrote to me. “That is my nicest memory from that year and from that whole period. I wish we could live it again, in some extra-dimensional parallel life.”
Three years ago I moved back to San Francisco, which was, for me, a new-old city.
I’d lived there twice before. The first time I lived there was a cold summer in 2006, during which I met that man I’d be broken up about a couple years later. And though that summer was before I started writing down the food, and before I truly learned how to cook for myself, I can still remember flashes: a dimly lit party and drinks with limes in them and how, ill-versed in flirting, I took the limes from his drink and put them into mine. I remember a night he cooked circular ravioli he’d bought from an expensive Italian grocery store, and zucchini he’d sliced into thin coins. I remembered him splashing Colt 45—leftover from a party—into the zucchini as it was cooking, and all of that charming me: the Colt 45, the expensive ravioli, this dinner of circles.
The second time I lived in San Francisco was the time our thing fell apart. This was where my terror had originated: where I remembered the limes and the ravioli, he remembered or felt the immediacy of something else, and neither of us was right or wrong to remember what we did—all memories, of course, are valid—but still, it sucked. And now I have a record reminding me of the nights I came home drunk and sad and, with nothing else in the house, sautéed kale; blanks on the days I ran hungry to Kezar Stadium from the Lower Haight, running lap after lap after lap to turn my brain off, stopping to read short stories at the bookstore on the way home, all to turn off the inevitable thinking, and at home, of course, the inevitable thinking.
I’m not sure what to make of this data—what conclusions, if any, to draw. What I know is that it accumulates and disappears and accumulates again. No matter how vigilantly we keep track—even if we spend four months in a geodesic dome on a remote volcano with nothing to do but keep track—we experience more than we have the capacity to remember; we eat more than we can retain; we feel more than we can possibly carry with us. And maybe forgetting isn’t so bad. I know there is the “small green apple” from the time we went to a moving sale and he bought bricks, and it was raining lightly, and as we were gathering the bricks we noticed an apple tree at the edge of the property with its branches overhanging into the yard, and we picked two small green apples that’d been washed by the rain, and wiped them off on our shirts. They surprised us by being sweet and tart and good. We put the cores in his car’s cup holders. There was the time he brought chocolate chips and two eggs and a Tupperware of milk to my apartment, and we baked cookies. There are the times he puts candy in my jacket’s small pockets—usually peppermints so ancient they’ve melted and re-hardened inside their wrappers—which I eat anyway, and then are gone, but not gone.
I was seventeen when I heard the countdown start
It started slowly, I thought it was my heart
But then I realised this time it was for real
There was no place to hide, I had to go out and feel
But there was time to kill, I walked my way round town
I tried to love the world but the world just got me down
So I looked for you in every street of every town
I wanna see your face, I wanna, I wanna see you now
And so it went, so it went for several years
I couldn’t stand it, it must be getting near
Oh no you just don’t know, no you just don’t understand
How many times I’ve seen you in the arms of some other man
I’ve got to meet you and find you and take you by the hand
My God, my God, you’ve gotta understand
That I was seventeen! I didn’t know a thing at all
I’ve got no reason, no reason at all
American males enter adulthood through a peculiar rite of passage – they spend most of their savings on a shiny piece of rock. They could invest the money in assets that will compound over time and someday provide a nest egg. Instead, they trade that money for a diamond ring, which isn’t much of an asset at all. As soon as you leave the jeweler with a diamond, it loses over 50% of its value.
Americans exchange diamond rings as part of the engagement process, because in 1938 De Beers decided that they would like us to. Prior to a stunningly successful marketing campaign 1938, Americans occasionally exchanged engagement rings, but wasn’t a pervasive occurrence. Not only is the demand for diamonds a marketing invention, but diamonds aren’t actually that rare. Only by carefully restricting the supply has De Beers kept the price of a diamond high.
Countless American dudes will attest that the societal obligation to furnish a diamond engagement ring is both stressful and expensive. But here’s the thing – this obligation only exists because the company that stands to profit from it willed it into existence.
In finance, there is concept called intrinsic value. An asset’s value is essentially driven by the (discounted) value of the future cash that asset will generate. For example, when Hertz buys a car, its value is the profit they get from renting it out and selling the car at the end of its life (the “terminal value”). For Hertz, a car is an investment. When you buy a car, unless you make money from it somehow, its value corresponds to its resale value. Since a car is a depreciating asset, the amount of value that the car loses over its lifetime is a very real expense you pay.
A diamond is a depreciating asset masquerading as an investment. There is a common misconception that jewelry and precious metals are assets that can store value, appreciate, and hedge against inflation. That’s not wholly untrue.
Gold and silver are commodities that can be purchased on financial markets. They can appreciate and hold value in times of inflation. You can even hoard gold under your bed and buy gold coins and bullion (albeit at a ~10% premium to market rates). If you want to hoard gold jewelry however, there is typically a 100-400% retail markup so that’s probably not a wise investment.
But with that caveat in mind, the market for gold is fairly liquid and gold is fungible – you can trade one large piece of gold for ten smalls ones like you can a ten dollar bill for a ten one dollar bills. These characteristics make it a feasible potential investment.
Diamonds, however, are not an investment. The market for them is neither liquid nor are they fungible.
As with televisions and mattresses, the diamond classification scheme is extremely complicated. Diamonds are not fungible and can’t be easily exchanged with each other. Diamond professionals use the 4 C’s when classifying and pricing diamonds: carats, color, cut, and clarity. Due to the complexity of these 4 dimensions, it’s hard to make apples to apples comparisons between diamonds.
But even when looking at the value of one stone, professionals seem like they’re just making up diamond prices
We like diamonds because Gerold M. Lauck told us to. Until the mid 20th century, diamond engagement rings were a small and dying industry in America. Nor had the concept really taken hold in Europe. Moreover, with Europe on the verge of war, it didn’t seem like a promising place to invest.
Not surprisingly, the American market for diamond engagement rings began to shrink during the Great Depression. Sales volume declined and the buyers that remained purchased increasingly smaller stones. But the US market for engagement rings was still 75% of De Beers’ sales. If De Beers was going to grow, it had to reverse the trend.
And so, in 1938, De Beers turned to Madison Avenue for help. They hired Gerold Lauck and the N. W. Ayer advertising agency, who commissioned a study with some astute observations. Men were the key to the market:
Since “young men buy over 90% of all engagement rings” it would be crucial to inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love. Similarly, young women had to be encouraged to view diamonds as an integral part of any romantic courtship.
However, there was a dilemma. Many smart and prosperous women didn’t want diamond engagement rings. They wanted to be different.
The millions of brides and brides-to-be are subjected to at least two important pressures that work against the diamond engagement ring. Among the more prosperous, there is the sophisticated urge to be different as a means of being smart…. the lower-income groups would like to show more for the money than they can find in the diamond they can afford…
Lauck needed to sell a product that people either did not want or could not afford. His solution would haunt men for generations. He advised that De Beers market diamonds as a status symbol:
”The substantial diamond gift can be made a more widely sought symbol of personal and family success — an expression of socio-economic achievement.”
“Promote the diamond as one material object which can reflect, in a very personal way, a man’s … success in life.”
The next time you look at a diamond, consider this. Nearly every American marriage begins with a diamond because a bunch of rich white men in the 1940s convinced everyone that its size determines your self worth. They created this convention – that unless a man purchases (an intrinsically useless) diamond, his life is a failure – while sitting in a room, racking their brains on how to sell diamonds that no one wanted.
With this insight, they began marketing diamonds as a symbol of status and love:
Movie idols, the paragons of romance for the mass audience, would be given diamonds to use as their symbols of indestructible love. In addition, the agency suggested offering stories and society photographs to selected magazines and newspapers which would reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. Stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman.
Fashion designers would talk on radio programs about the “trend towards diamonds” that Ayer planned to start. The Ayer plan also envisioned using the British royal family to help foster the romantic allure of diamonds.
The De Beers marketing machine continued to churn out the hits. They circulated marketing materials suggesting, apropos of nothing, that a man should spend one month’s salary on a diamond ring. It worked so well that De Beers arbitrarily decided to increase the suggestion to two months salary. That’s why you think that you need to spend two month’s salary on a ring – because the suppliers of the product said so.
Today, over 80% of women in the US receive diamond rings when they get engaged. The domination is complete.
What, you might ask, could top institutionalizing demand for a useless product out of thin air? Monopolizing the supply of diamonds for over a century to make that useless product extremely expensive. You see, diamonds aren’t really even that rare.
Before 1870, diamonds were very rare. They typically ended up in a Maharaja’s crown or a royal necklace. In 1870, enormous deposits of diamonds were discovered in Kimberley, South Africa. As diamonds flooded the market, the financiers of the mines realized they were making their own investments worthless. As they mined more and more diamonds, they became less scarce and their price dropped.
The diamond market may have bottomed out were it not for an enterprising individual by the name of Cecil Rhodes. He began buying up mines in order to control the output and keep the price of diamonds high. By 1888, Rhodes controlled the entire South African diamond supply, and in turn, essentially the entire world supply. One of the companies he acquired was eponymously named after its founders, the De Beers brothers.
Building a diamond monopoly isn’t easy work. It requires a balance of ruthlessly punishing and cooperating with competitors, as well as a very long term view. For example, in 1902, prospectors discovered a massive mine in South Africa that contained as many diamonds as all of De Beers’ mines combined. The owners initially refused to join the De Beers cartel, joining three years later after new owner Ernest Oppenheimer recognized that a competitive market for diamonds would be disastrous for the industry:
Common sense tells us that the only way to increase the value of diamonds is to make them scarce, that is to reduce production.
Here’s how De Beers has controlled the diamond supply chain for most of the last century. De Beers owns most of the diamond mines. For mines that they don’t own, they have historically bought out all the diamonds, intimidating or co-opting any that think of resisting their monopoly. They then transfer all the diamonds over to the Central Selling Organization (CSO), which they own.
The CSO sorts through the diamonds, puts them in boxes and presents them to the 250 partners that they sell to. The price of the diamonds and quantity of diamonds are non-negotiable – it’s take it or leave it. Refuse your boxes and you’re out of the diamond industry.
For most of the 20th century, this system has controlled 90% of the diamond trade and been solely responsible for the inflated price of diamonds. However, as Oppenheimer took over leadership at De Beers, he keenly assessed the primary operational risk that the company faced:
Our only risk is the sudden discovery of new mines, which human nature will work recklessly to the detriment of us all.
Because diamonds are “valuable”, there will always be the risk of entrepreneurs finding new sources of diamonds. Although controlling the discoverers of new mines often actually meant working with communists. In 1957, the Soviet Union discovered a massive deposit of diamonds in Siberia. Though the diamonds were a bit on the smallish side, De Beers still had to swoop in and buy all of them from the Soviets, lest they risk the supply being unleashed on the world market.
Later, in Australia, a large supply of colored diamonds was discovered. When the mine refused to join the syndicate, De Beers retaliated by unloading massive amounts of colored diamonds that were similar to the Australian ones to drive down their price. Similarly, in the 1970s, some Israeli members of the CSO started stockpiling the diamonds they were allocated rather than reselling them. This made it difficult for De Beers to control the market price and would eventually cause a deflation in diamond prices when the hoarders released their stockpile. Eventually, these offending members were banned from the CSO, essentially shutting them out from the diamond business.
In 2000, De Beers announced that they were relinquishing their monopoly on the diamond business. They even settled a US Antitrust lawsuit related to price fixing industrial diamonds to the tune of $10 million (How generous! What is that, the price of one investment banker’s engagement ring?).
Today, De Beers hold on the industry supply chain is less strong. And yet, price continue to rise as new deposits haven’t been found recently and demand for diamonds is increasing in India and China. For now, it’s less necessary that the company monopolize the supply chain because its lie that a diamond is a proxy for a man’s worth in life has infected the rest of the world.
The purpose of this post was to point out that diamond engagement rings are a lie – they’re an invention of Madison Avenue and De Beers. This post has completely glossed over the sheer amount of human suffering that we’ve caused by believing this lie: conflict diamonds funding wars, supporting apartheid for decades with our money, and pillaging the earth to find shiny carbon. And while we’re on the subject, why is it that women need to be asked and presented with a ring in order to get married? Why can’t they ask and do the presenting?
Diamonds are not actually scarce, make a terrible investment, and are purely valuable as a status symbol.
Diamonds, to put it delicately, are bullshit.