I could never land a job in retail, marketing, or sales. I’d make a sorry huckster; a failed auctioneer. I couldn’t sell dogma to my own cult. As a creative writing exercise, I once drafted a resume of my shortcomings to replace the one in which I try to sell myself; this new-fangled kind of Curriculum Vitae was totally authentic.
As a young girl, if I accompanied my mom to show rental properties to potential tenants, I instinctively pointed out the domiciles’ flaws.
“A nice place, but the linoleum is peeling,” I’d say. “The windows are big, but the view is of the dumpster.”
It’s not that criticism comes easily. When I read students’ poems and stories, my eye immediately scans – and finds – the gem. But when a friend or stranger loosens money from a wallet, I get woozy. Somebody else’s investment – literal or proverbial “buying in” – is a penny I can only repay with thoughts, but what if mine aren’t worth the expense?
In Isabel Allende’s short story “Two Words,” Belisa Crepusculario travels from village to village, selling language: “Her prices were fair. For five centavos she delivered verses from memory, for seven she improved the quality of dreams, for nine she wrote love letters, for twelve she invented insults for irreconcilable enemies. She also sold stories, not fantasies but long, true stories she recited at one telling, never skipping a word.”
In the end, Belisa writes a speech for the Colonel, who becomes a celebrated war hero after memorizing and reciting the script she writes. Eventually they fall in love. An entire country is saved, or so it seems, by Belisa’s sweet-smelling prose.
But when I sell words, I feel less like a character from the famous Chilean author’s The Stories of Eva Luna and more like my daughter Fern when she “sets up shop.” But even my children’s entrepreneurship makes me uneasy.
For example, when they hunker down with a card table on the driveway apron, to sell lemonade or painted rocks, I hide in the garage or pretend to be reading in a chair behind the bittersweet nightshade. Their Crystal-Light stained fingers are a telltale sign of how they stirred powder to liquid. Strands of grass are add-ins to the overflowing Dixie cups. When they’re feeling especially ambitious, they load up the Radio Flyer wagon and hawk beverages (and sometimes donut holes) driveway to driveway.
It’s best that I straggle behind them. Otherwise I’d apologize to every customer. “No pressure,” I’d say. “You don’t need to buy any.”
Even fundraisers give me a stomach ache. Please don’t make me sell those discount cards, pizzas, popcorn, or magazines. I love to donate; I just don’t love to collect.
And at Oakwood School now, kids are rewarded for good behavior with play money and visits to the classroom store. Frank and Fern are filled with ideas for business ventures. They’re going to sell their old junk in the front yard as soon as the snow melts!
When Fern joined Girl Scouts, the only part I dreaded was the cookie sales. Did she really aim to sell 355 boxes of Thin Mints and Caramel deLites?
Sales makes me feel like a pusher, a beggar. Self-reliance is some old American myth I cling to, even in the face of Thanks-A-Lots, “shortbread cookies dipped in rich fudge and topped with an embossed thank you message in one of five languages.” The headline on the cookie order sheet reads: “The Girl Scout Cookie Program is the largest girl-led entrepreneurial program in the world.”
When Fern managed to sell 109 boxes of cookies, only a third of her ambitious goal, she seemed satisfied, especially knowing she’d still get to sell more boxes during a two-hour stint at the Festival Foods cookie booth. Standing alongside the bright green rolling shelves, stocked with Lemonades and Shortbread, Fern’s eyes looked big and tempting as the Peanut Butter Patties – 130 calories per serving, two chocolate-dipped biscuits.
Shameless and unblushing, Fern addressed every passerby, even the grizzled old men and the lip-stick-caked ladies, limping and scowling behind their carts.
“Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?” She beamed, all cheeky and pleased.
In her green vest, she was the crossing guard of the grocery store vestibule. At least half of the passersby bought cookies, but the other half ignored her, grumbled, apologized and said, “I’ve already bought my share.” She didn’t mind at all. She refused to beg their pardon for the cost -- $4 a box; the calories; or the ingredients.
“Those are my favorites,” she said of anything with chocolate, and isn’t that what matters?
As we near the release of The Motherhood Affidavits, I give friends and acquaintances my disclaimer: “It’s a pretty dark book, just so you know.” If it were up to Fern, though, she’d say, “This book is filled with yummy goodness.” She’d mean it, and it would be true.
As her cookie booth time slot neared its end, she and her friend tallied 90 boxes, 45 each. Fern bounced into the parking lot, buoyed by her proceeds. She was a mover and a shaker. Carrying that extra box of Peanut Butter Patties didn’t weigh her down one bit.