Bananappeal by Greg Brown

In the early days of my life as a parent our pediatrician remarked offhandedly that if he had to choose a perfect food, it would be the banana. This was vindicating for me personally because I care for bananas a great deal, eating one every morning when we have them. It also reminded me of an old banana ad campaign from the 1990s built around the somewhat cumbersome slogan “Quite Possibly, the World’s Perfect Food.” (I have a deep and abiding affection for the lawyers who insisted on including “Quite Possibly.”)

And bananas are nearly perfect. They’re nutrient dense, delicious, filling, cheap, and (mostly) convenient to buy and eat. The noble banana is so perfect, in fact, that for a time it was popular for some Creationists, most notably perhaps Ray Comfort, to cite the banana as conclusive proof that evolution is false. Citing not only the banana’s legendary nutritious value but the fact that the banana fits perfectly in a human hand, has a built-in automatic color coding system, has a pull tab, and slides easily into a human mouth (Mr. Comfort’s illustration of this last point was particularly unsettling), the argument went that assuming such a convenient device occurred in nature completely by chance is as absurd as drawing the same conclusion about a soda can.

Much to the embarrassment of these theologians, but germane to the point I’m slowly picking my way toward, it was quickly pointed out to Mr. Comfort and his ilk that the banana the Good Lord gave us thousands of years ago looked nothing like the bright yellow fruits we find piled up in supermarkets, crying out for human consumption. The original banana was more stout, was full of inedible seeds, and couldn’t be eaten raw. It took centuries of selective cultivation by humans (and, yes, a few random genetic mutations) to produce the tasty energy bars on trees we know today. Mr. Comfort was correct that the banana betrays the existence of an intelligent designer, he just gave credit to the wrong one.

And as with all human achievements, the modern banana is not as perfect as it seems. Its nourishment is fragile, and its vagaries unpredictable, unfeeling and unforgiving. Yes, the green-yellow-brown color coding is convenient, but to date nobody has figured out how to reliably predict the beginning and end of the window of yellowness (I happen to prefer a tinge of green; there are those who prefer a bit of brown and those people are terrible), let alone widen it beyond whatever random number of fleeting seconds the banana decides in its impenetrable wisdom to offer. Many ancillary bits of human ingenuity have attempted to prolong ripeness; none have succeeded completely.

As with so many things, this banana challenge has been cast into sharper relief during the COVID plague. With groceries becoming unpredictable and requiring additional procedures to obtain, purchasing the correct number of bananas and selecting the most promising bananas have both become nearly impossible, to the fault of no one. As a result, as the person in my family primarily responsible for banana consumption, I often (but not always) watch helplessly as brown spots appear, and then grow into brown patches, until the smell of rotting banana becomes overwhelming and I have no choice but to overcome my bougie guilt and throw them away, often bringing them all the way to the outside trash can, because Good God that smell. And as I watch it happen I can’t help but feel the accusing eyes of the bananas themselves, staring at me from the fruit bowl as if to say This is your fault. You chose this.

And to a certain extent this is true. I choose other snacks instead of bananas sometimes and I could eat more bananas than I currently do. But there is a limit to what I can accept and when. I desire a discrete amount of banana-based nourishment and I’m physically and emotionally limited by those parameters. A commitment to eating all the bananas before they rot would sentence me to equal time writhing in agony in bed and on the toilet. But the narrow overlap between what I want, when I want it, what I’m prepared to accept, and what and when the bananas are prepared to offer is increasingly difficult to nail down.

But isn’t that true of everything? Relationships, family, career, friends, hobbies, even God himself, with his crummy banana starter kit? Must not everything we want and need, in the end, be wanted and needed on its own terms or denied to us altogether? And hasn’t the Plague made that elusive Lagrange Point between desire and availability harder to find for everything? Before quarantine many of us would have loved, for example, to have extra time at home, but now we’re faced with an inescapable homebound yellowness turning browner every day. Activities we took for granted, whether going to restaurants, traveling to see loved ones or loved things, museums, amusement parks, and so on and so forth were bright yellow for most of our lives, always available for the taking whenever we wanted them, and now sit dark green waiting for an unknown reopening or rotten brown in economic ruin.

The Trump Era had already forced us to confront the rotting cores of our institutions — we seemed to be on the verge of a Great Yellowing at the tail end of the Obama Administration before the 2016 election turned everything brown — and now the Plague, emboldened by layers and layers of government incompetence flowing down from the top, is bringing that reality ever closer to home, from the people and places we’ve taken for granted for years to the unreliable food supplies in our kitchens.

The good news, perhaps, is that we are still human, and we still have the means at our disposal to manage these mismatches, difficult though it may be. We can adjust our tastes to tolerate more greenness or brownness when necessary for the sake of nourishment. We can wait patiently for green things to ripen and create the right conditions for them to do so. And, yes, we can force ourselves to discard worthless or harmful things when they have rotted beyond salvation, even things that we once cherished.

But most importantly, perhaps, we can still cultivate. The better bananas of our nature are ours to grow. We need only plant the right seeds, and nourish them ourselves.

Lawyer and religion think-abouter.

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