This supply chain stuff is getting real.
I write that sentence and then laugh at myself. Real, in a privileged first-world sense in which one’s trivial whims and tiny needs are not automatically, immediately accommodated. I have no idea what it feels like to not be able to get maintenance medicine or baby formula or a car part so you can drive to work. I am just cranky and indignant over nothing, the usual hangover from entitlement you did not fathom until it vanished.
Weird absences of critical recipe ingredients were merely annoying—until I saw an entire grocery section empty, just tiers of thin green Astroturf where the bananas should have bunched. How can there be no bananas? Yes, the grocer confirmed, we have no bananas. Even more than the great toilet tissue race, this glitch struck terror in my heart. I closed my eyes, envisioning a future in which we all queued up once every three months in a banana line….
Then Amazon notified me that our cold brew coffee subscriptions could not be filled. How was I supposed to start the day without my decaf chicory? Could Andrew even go on living without his Mexican vanilla?
Next, Chewy.com let us down, emailing that Willie’s prescription dog food—the stuff that had calmed his roiling tummy when every other dog food bounced—was unavailable. Now I really did panic. We could get the kibble but not the cans. Granted, he loathes the stuff, sniffs and walks away until hunger brings him back, but he arrived with a broken immune system, and this stuff has kept him healthy for a year, and—
I started cooking him breakfast instead. A big batch once a week of ground beef or turkey, with veggies and grains mixed in. Now he races to his bowl, licks up every drop, then runs to find his favorite stuffed horse and bring it to me in celebration. I cancel the canned food subscription altogether. In place of the chicory coffee, I make strong chai and like it better. When Andrew compliments something I have cooked, my stock reply begins, “Well, they were out of X, so I just—.” I grow more creative by the day.
This is not to diminish the dreaded clogging of the almighty supply chain. It can worsen inflation (why? because we are so desperate for stuff we will pay anything?) and cause serious economic quakes. Omicron is keeping manufacturers understaffed even in China, where increased contagion confounded even the strictest lockdown policies. Yet we continue to distract ourselves by ordering more and more Chinese-made goods. Dockworkers are striking; U.S. ports and infrastructure need mending; the shipping industry is run by a few increasingly wealthy firms.
As usual, we did this to ourselves. Americans were not always so greedy. That rapacious, bottomless want only filled us when we learned we could buy vast quantities of stuff cheap from Asia. Eventually, we outsourced our own manufacturing there, too. “The Cold War is over, and the Japanese won,” Sen. Paul Tsongas tossed out on a long ago campaign trail. No longer self-reliant, we leaned harder on the technology; eager for automation, we bragged that self-driving trucks were imminent—then whined when nobody entered the trucking field.
Now, the supply chain is a royal mess, and I find it refreshing. Subtract serious delays and shortages and economic ruin, and what you have left is a strikingly effective form of psychotherapy. We are nudged daily to change our consumption patterns, stay loose, relearn humility, cherish what we acquire.
Traveling in my early twenties, I was dismayed (I hope I hid it) to find that shops and pubs in London closed for a few hours every afternoon. What? I could not simply walk in whenever I liked? Sighing heavily, I learned to take long walks and naps—and I enjoyed the shops and pub far more when they finally reopened.
It is the rewards we cannot count on that intrigue us.
This is what my mother meant when she advised playing hard to get, I suppose, though I was never a fan of that particular game. It seemed wiser not to treat each other as desired commodities. Objects themselves, however, do become far more interesting when someone else wants them (hence the eBay auction) or when they are scarce (hence all those fake warnings that there are only a few left—until the merchandiser updates the count an hour later). Such gimmicks soon lose their efficacy, but real supply-chain delays that make us wait for months or even years? They focus the mind, change how it assigns value. The efficient and eco-friendly dish brush I could not replace, then finally found a year later in another color and had to order three at a time? I feel a thrill of satisfaction every time I wield it.
One-click buying, easy credit, a glut of stuff, a treasure hunt of links—consumer life was dizzying, and the landfills grow faster than the population. All that access made us greedy, demanding, inflexible, and unimaginative. Now that buying is a little harder, we have to think. No lavender shower gel? Wait, I have lavender essential oil; we can make our own. No cream cheese (no cream cheese?!)—what about mascarpone? Shipping is $25? What about I did not need the thing in the first place?
Come Valentine’s Day, it is a running joke how desperate straight husbands and boyfriends are to find a formula and follow it blindly. The gods of commerce thunder dire warnings if they do not spend money on their woman, and the acceptable gift categories are as narrow and treacherous as a mountain pass. If you squint, you can see millions of women, sweaty and dusty and stressed the rest of the year, clambering up their pedestal to wait, arms folded, for the annual offering.
Yet here is the rub: if a woman is sent the same roses or chocolates every year on Valentine’s Day, they lose their magic. This feels contradictory, because—though I loathe cut roses and forbade them decades ago—doing the same thing together every Valentine’s Day (eating at a greasy spoon with a jukebox) remains delightful. But that is the difference between a shared ritual and a pro forma token that is ordered automatically and delivered right on time. If the token will simply repeat every year without thought, you might as well start an Amazon subscription.
And brace yourself for that email saying the truffles cannot ship until March.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.