Price Points – In the Wrong Direction

Not that I need a pound bag of M&Ms to weigh 16 actual ounces (it’s now down to 10.70 oz.) or a half gallon of ice cream to weigh 64 ounces (rather than the 48 oz. it currently is) or the “family” size bag of Utz potato chips to measure more than its current/meager/non-typical-family size of 9.5 ounces (down from 14oz. that I remember), nevertheless; I do need to feel the love, and right now I don’t. I sort of understand price points and the business models ingrained to retain customer loyalty (price matters more than size, generally), but I am hard-pressed to ignore the fact that even though I’m spending the same amount of money as I always have, I’m not getting anywhere near the same amount of product as I always have.
Not that the few items I’ve listed here are staples (well, maybe not to you they aren’t), or the necessary building blocks of a healthy diet, they are pieces to a puzzle which characterizes some of my eating habits – and probably some of yours, too. After all, we are all victims of advertising messages which bombard us 24-7, on television, on radio, in print and on devices. In a way, we’re all sitting ducks targeted to quack accordingly because some entity/marketing strategist knows who we are, what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. It’s not exactly “Big Brother,” but it’s a bit more than “Little Sister.”
My brother, Richard and I grew up in the 50s. We ate cookies, candy and snack cakes until the cows came home, and we didn’t even live on a farm. Quite the opposite, we lived in suburbia, seven miles from Boston, according to the sign on Rte. 9. We ate dessert after breakfast, lunch and dinner and a few times in between: after school and before bedtime. Why? Because my mother had been non-stop advertised-to about the importance of calcium and the best way for children to get calcium was to drink eight glasses of milk per day to “build strong bones and healthy bodies.” And the only way to get us boys to drink that much milk was to feed us something for which milk was a kind of elixir: cookies, cakes, snack cakes, etc. So we ate and drink to our hearts content, but more importantly, we ate and drank to the development of our bones and bodies. And so it continues to this day, sort of, mostly. As my sister-in-law, Vanessa says and then laughs after listening to Richard and I talk about our dessert issues: “Boy, your mother did some job on you two.”
I’m exaggerating, a bit, with respect to our current daily consumption. I mean, who could keep up that pace? Moreover, given certain age/weight/cancer realities (particularly concerning yours truly), it would be totally, extraordinarily irresponsible to continue to snack-cake and cookie our way through the day. Still, the urge to splurge seems to hard-wired into our brains and when the moment is right, it might not be Cialis that we always think of. (Do you remember the Seinfeld episode when George was determined to combine sex and eating and brought a sandwich to bed? For the record, the thought has never crossed my mind.)
I imagine as you’ve read this column you’ve developed a sense that given the Lourie’s longstanding – and sitting commitment to such hedonistic pursuits, pennies, nickels, dimes or quarters on the dollar are unlikely to dissuade either one of us from our Santa-like appointed rounds. Still, we’re not idiots. We’re aware of the effects on our bodies if we devolve into the snack cake eating machines of our youth/adolescence. We’re not getting any younger nor are we likely getting any thinner or healthier. I’d like to think we’ve gotten smarter and more respectful of what foods go in and by association what money goes out. But as difficult as it is to turn an ocean liner around after it’s headed out to sea, so too is it difficult for yours truly to care less about what I’ve spent my entire life caring more about: dessert/sweets. However, I do anticipate a reaction to this most recent size reduction. As my mother, Celia, used to say: “It’s enough already.”

Woe Is Not Me

When I think about being diagnosed with lung cancer, I don’t think, why me. I might think, why not me, but I definitely think, now what. The idea/strategy being: moving forward, not recriminating or regretting backward. As Popeye the Sailor man so often said: “I y’am what I y’am.” Although I doubt he was talking about having lung cancer. How could he? He ate all that spinach, canned though it was. Besides, he’s a cartoon character.
And as much and as often as he ate it – and it always helped him overcome whatever predicament Brutus had put him in, is as little and infrequent as I ate it. Perhaps that was because my mother cooked vegetables in a pressure cooker so by the time I saw them on my plate, they no longer resembled a vegetable nor were they the least bit appetizing. To say the vegetables were limp and lifeless does a disservice to all things characterized as ‘limp and lifeless.’ In fact, I can still remember the first time I ate a vegetable that was not d.o.a. It was at my mother-in-law’s house; she was a wonderful cook. She made asparagus for this memorable meal and served it in a beautiful antique china serving dish. When the dish came my way, I stuck my fork in the asparagus to serve myself and heard a sound, a poof. I was taken aback, sort of. It was a sound I had never heard before. – from a vegetable. As I learned that night, it was the sound of a vegetable that had not been cooked beyond its edible life.
That’s not to imply that avoiding vegetables contributed to my diagnosis. Hardly. It simply says that vegetables were not a part of my childhood. Meat and potatoes were, as was my standard go-to meal: cream cheese and American cheese on bread. It was the sandwich of my youth and it has remained very much a part of my adulthood as well. It may not sound appetizing to you, to me, it represents all the comforts of home; heaven on Earth between two slices of bread or open-faced on a bagel or English muffin. Simple but oh so effective – and delicious.
Not to be totally oblivious to my underlying medical condition, I do realize that modifying my eating habits is a prudent and sensible consideration. However, I rationalize that need-to-feed with the explanation that, as a cancer patient (and anyone else, really), if I am to continue to attempt to thrive while I survive, I need to be happy, positive and relatively stress free. After all, this cancer business: characterized as “terminal” by my oncologist; chemotherapy – and its well-known side effects every five weeks, C.T. Scans quarterly, M.R.I.s every six months, P.E.T. and Bone scans every so often, face-to-face quarterly appointments with my oncologist and all the associated fears and anxiety surrounding this rather unpleasant experience, and you can imagine, even agree perhaps, that living in the trenches as us cancer patients do, we need help – in any number of ways; personal and professional.
And though I am mindful of what I eat, I don’t want to abuse the privilege of survival I’ve been given. I never want to take it for granted, especially considering my original “13 month to two-year” prognosis. By the same token, life is for living. As Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) said to “Red” (Morgan Freeman) in the movie “Shawshank Redemption:” “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Since I’m in no hurry to die, I need to find a balance in how I live. Being miserable because of what I can’t eat won’t work for me. I’m just not flexible/mature enough in my eating choices; never have been. I still eat like a child, but now I have a man-sized problem.
I imagine the longer I live with cancer, the more vigilant I have to be. Then again, if it ain’t broke, is there any reason to fix it? Do I leave well enough alone or do I try to grow up and eat my age, not my shoe size? I mean, I am eligible for Social Security.

New To Some, Old News To Others

For those of you unfamiliar with my column: in Burke, Springfield, Fairfax, Fairfax Station/Clifton/Lorton, Mount Vernon and Alexandria, welcome aboard the Kenny train. I have been writing a weekly column for Connection Newspapers since December 1997 appearing primarily in our “Tuesday papers,” as we call them: Vienna/Oakton, McLean, Great Falls, Reston, Oak Hill/Herndon, Arlington, Chantilly, Centre View and Potomac. The question has persisted among friends and family: Ken he continue to, as my older brother Richard jokes, “churn out this dribble?” Apparently so, if the last 19 and half years are any indication.

Back in the day when I first had to characterize my column for various local yearly Press Association editorial contests (of which I have won nearly a dozen awards), I would write “Everything in general about nothing in particular.” A great friend of mine, Edward Faine, himself an accomplished author — of children’s and jazz books, and a small press publisher as well, has described my columns as “Thoughtful humor and insightful commentary.” Perhaps between these two quotes you’ll get a sense of what you’re likely to get from my weekly wondering.

And so it continued until June 2009. That’s when I published my first column about a diagnostic process which had been ongoing since New Years Day which ultimately lead to a lung cancer diagnosis delivered to “Team Lourie” on Feb. 27, 2009 (you bet you remember the date). That column, entitled “Dying to Find Out, Sort Of,” chronicled the process, excruciating as it was/is that one often endures attempting to determine the cause of a medical problem; in my case, a pain in my left-side rib cage which a day or so later, migrated to my right-side and eventually took my breath away — almost literally, especially when inhaling and/or bending over. This difficulty forced me off the couch and into my car for a drive over to the Emergency Room. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, I wrote another column entitled “Dying to Tell You, Sort Of” which detailed the findings of the nearly eight weeks the process took to specify my diagnosis: stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Out of the blue, I had become “terminal,” as my oncologist described me, and given a “13 month to two-year” prognosis to boot. Surreal, which is a common description offered by many in similar situations, is how one feels after receiving news of this kind, and only begins to tell the tale of the change and evolution in the individual’s life living forward into treatment and subsequently beyond into the great unknown.

This ‘great unknown’ is mostly what I have written about and published ever since; “cancer columns” (original I know) is what I call them. Occasionally, I will write a non-cancer column, one a month or so, depending on my experiences. These columns will address non-cancer issues of the day, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Most recently topics have included the movie “The Exorcist:’ “Exercising a Demon,” paying for things with a credit card: “Credit the Card,” reacting to advertising for grass seed and riding mowers: “And So It Begins,” and buying in bulk: “Bulky Boy,” but never/well, almost never do I write about my wife, Dina; I have been warned.

Though the recurring theme of these columns is cancer, the content is rarely morbid or dare I say, self-indulgent, believe it or not. I try to make fun a very “unfun” set of circumstances. I’m still writing about life; now however, it’s life in the cancer lane, a road unlike any I had ever traveled before. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten through eight years and nearly three months of it relatively incident free, save for a week in the hospital three and a half years ago. And yes, I am still undergoing treatment.

I hope you readers will be semi amused at the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune upon which my columns are based. Please know: the significance of their content is not that it is me writing them, it is that cancer is being written about.

“Bulky Boy”

Is the nickname I gave Andrew, one of our male cats. It’s because he’s a bit portly, like his father, yours truly. However, Andrew’s nickname is not the impetus for this particular column. The impetus for this column is my tendency, as the primary (almost exclusive) buyer of miscellaneous household goods and to a lesser extent, services, to buy in bulk/quantity, not necessarily quality; although that’s a subject of a long-ago column and perhaps a future one as well — dare I cross that Rubicon again, and one that has earned me this identical nickname to Andrew.

As a cancer patient originally diagnosed as “terminal” — at age 54 and a half, eight-plus years ago, time becomes an integral/essential part of your life; what there is of it presently, what you have been told you have left of it and what you — in your wildest dreams, every day and every night, hope you actually get to do: live a relatively “normal” life expectancy.

Even though life has gone on years past my original “13-month to two-year” prognosis, I still struggle with the emotional yin and yang of whether I’m closer to the end or further from the beginning (date of diagnosis). And is so struggling, everyday decisions that might have a time element/time-sensitivity to them are complicated. Is it necessary to do it/buy it/obligate myself to it now when the benefit might be later? A later I might never see? If I’m trying to enjoy life in the present as much as possible to fend off the inevitable and relentless stress that a “terminal” cancer diagnosis imposes, then how does a future benefit help me now?

As a few examples and finally to the point of this column: buying in bulk. 240 dryer sheets — for two adults, one of whom works at home and doesn’t exactly get dressed for it; 90 tall kitchen trash bags — we use one bag a week, and that includes bagging the cat litter for five indoor cats; paper towels — enough quantity that we could likely wrap them around our entire house if we had to; toilet paper — is sacrosanct, one can never have enough in stock; and tissues/Kleenex — given how frequently my eight-years-of-post-chemotherapy nose runs — constantly, is also sacrosanct (although I can always use toilet paper, paper napkins or paper towels in the pinch; not exactly the same pinch as if the toilet paper inventory runs out, however). Naturally, these items are all nonperishable so their life expectancy is not a consideration. But since mine is, sometimes I think I need to buy them or else, because when I do need them it will be too late.

As for perishables, obviously it makes little sense to overbuy (expiration dates notwithstanding, except mine). I can’t eat all the food quickly enough anyway (another point of contention from a previous column), although I may try. But even I know, in my cancer-induced haze, that spending money now on an unpredictable future though penny-wise and beneficial in some emotional ways, might be pound-foolish. I need to feel good today – period, not feel good today about something I might benefit from tomorrow. I mean, how else am I even going to get to tomorrow? Don’t I need to filter out potentially harmful/debilitating mental and physical images/impacts and try to live as unencumbered as possible (to invoke one of my deceased father’s favorite words)? Cancer is already an uphill battle. If I don’t want to live the legendary life of Sisyphus, pushing a figurative rock up a hill, only to have it fall back down time and again, I need to find a way/strategy to both manage my budget and control my mind. Obviously, I want to live like I have a future, but not at the expense of my present. You can call me “Bulky Boy” all you want, but “crazy-kookie” not so much.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I can hear ye and I can see ye. And I don’t need life insurance to pay for the cost of my funeral, and neither do I need supplemental insurance to co-pay my Medicare coverage. These are both solicitations/direct mail pieces I’ve received in my mailbox in the last week. I can’t help but wonder why? Have I gotten older before my very eyes without regard to my actual age? Have I somehow become a qualified applicant without realizing the consequences of my living so many years beyond my original “13 month to two-year” prognosis? (I always place quotation marks around my prognosis as an indication of its having been said by my oncologist, and as a bit of a dig since here I sit and write eight years and two months post diagnosis.) Or do the people sending the direct mail pieces know something about me, my household and my neighborhood that I don’t?

Not that I really want to think too deeply about why I’ve been bombarded with these presumptive age-sensitive solicitations but, the piling-on effect of the past two weeks has stoked my embers. It’s not as if being targetmarketed burns me up or increases the temperature under my collar, but it does cause me to think and consider; always dangerous. As Moe Howard of The Three Stooges said to brother Curly in a typical two-reeler story line: “Every time you think you weaken the nation.”

I wouldn’t say the onslaught has been at all equivalent to the volume mailboxes see in the weeks leading up to an election, however. The materials I’ve received lately have felt more personal than the usual and customary ones that arrive before an election promoting a candidate, a cause or an amendment. Those political pieces merely wanted my vote. The pieces I’ve received of late wanted my life. Not literally of course. But they want me, not exactly a pound of flesh, but more than a piece of paper (computer entry, actually).

I haven’t had the opportunity as yet to speak with any of my neighbors to find out if the entire neighborhood was similarly solicited or was it just yours truly, the cancer patient whose survival has raised a marketing flag? I mean, with all the hacking/unauthorized access to phone numbers, addresses, bank accounts, Social Security numbers and private medical information, I don’t suppose it’s beyond a hacker’s reach to secure lists of “terminal” (I also put quotation marks around ‘terminal’ because again, it’s how my oncologist described me in late February 2009, and as yet another dig because I’ve lived so long beyond ‘terminal’) patients who quite frankly might be more open to/in need of and sensitive about certain conditions/situations/circumstances not necessarily characteristic of the general population.

Or maybe these direct mail pieces had nothing to do with me (I’m not a narcissist, really; just sort of writing for semi bemusement), but are simply modern-day equivalents of the old town cryer – without the bell? But with a similar goal: to reach as many people as possible, hopefully under favorable circumstances, not in the square, but rather in the privacy of their own homes.

Naturally, I tossed all of it. I didn’t take offense though, nor am I the least bit defensive about it having landed IN MY MAILBOX. It’s simply sound marketing. Find a neighborhood/zip code with the demographics that match your product and voila, a connection is made, supposedly. No connection here however, merely fodder once again for a column. (Besides, I have life insurance and I’m too young for a “med supp.”).