In the summer of 2005 Even Kleiman, the executive chef of Angeli Caffe and host of KCRW’s radio program "Good Food," ruined my life. In an act of recklessness bordering on the criminal, Kleiman featured Dr. Robert Small, professor of food and wine at Cal Poly University, Pomona, to discuss his “handcrafted” Dr. Bob's Ice Cream, some of which is made with Scharffen Berger chocolate. Dr. Bob, as he is called, brought some samples to the radio studio and Even Kleiman tasted them on the air, expressed her orgasmic delight, then proceeded to tell her viewers where Dr. Bob’s products could be found. Tragically, she informed her listeners that his ice cream is sold at the Redondo Beach Bristol Farms, about a mile from my house. My instincts told me that Kleiman’s praise of Dr. Bob’s ice cream was more than hype. I had to try some, the sooner the better, so before her show was over, I drove to the store in question and stocked up on Dr. Bob’s chocolate flavors, “The Works” and “Really Dark.” When I got home I skimmed the partially melted ice cream from the top and tasted it. Immediately, thousands of serotonin neurotransmitters buzzed inside my brain, tingled down my spine and raced all the way down to my big toes. My knees buckled. My head moved upwards. All you could see were the whites of my eyes.
While this euphoric chemical upheaval was going on inside of me, the phone rang. It was probably my wife, Carrie, making a long-distance call from Croatia, where she was spending a three-week vacation with her family. Because of the time differences between Croatia and California, there was only a small window in which we could talk to each other, but I could not answer the phone. Or rather I refused to answer it because it seemed sacrilegious to interrupt what I would later call my Dr. Bob’s Experience.
A half hour later my wife called again. This time I answered the phone but the entire conversation was not about the tender calamari she was having by her family’s seaside restaurant. It was about Dr. Bob’s ice cream. I urged Carrie to get home early, if at all possible, so that she could try some Dr. Bob’s before I ate it all. She had to have a taste of Dr. Bob’s ice cream, not just so that she would enjoy it, but so that, like me, her life could be gloriously “ruined.” In other words, nothing short of her having a religious experience would suffice in order to validate my own blissful encounter with my newly discovered ice cream.
Sharing the pleasure with my wife wasn’t enough. Soon I sent dozens of e-mails to friends and acquaintances about Dr. Bob’s. I told my students about it. I talked about it at parties. I warned people that eating Dr. Bob’s ice cream would render all other ice creams obsolete. I claimed that a single bite of Dr. Bob’s ice cream would provide the absolute template to measure all other types of ecstatic experiences. During a subsequent visit to Bristol Farms when the cashier bagged my Dr. Bob’s, she asked me if it was any good and I said, “Don’t eat it. Not unless you want to become a helpless addict to a food product that clogs the arteries and rots your teeth.”
People in line were moved by my “sales pitch” and they rushed to the ice cream section and had to try it because they wanted their lives, like mine, to be “ruined.” Further visits to Bristol Farms revealed that there were lower stocks of Dr. Bob’s. Often it was gone entirely. Dr. Bob’s had become a hit and while I was alarmed that there wasn’t as much for me as before I blabbed about it, I was deeply gratified that I was presumably responsible for Dr. Bob’s taking off the way it did. As the ice cream’s number-one advocate, I had become, in short, a proselytizer.
I am not referring to proselytizing in its limited definition in which people use their persuasive gifts and moral certitude in order to convert others to their faith. I am talking about the broader definition, the one that has emerged in our blog-soaked world where everyone can post their worldview, not to mention their daily burps, trifles, and naval-gazing musings, so that a more prevalent form of proselytizing has been born in which the proselytizer zealously, and I might say obsessively, touts something he deems worthy of everyone’s attention—an obscure rock band, an herbal remedy, a fiendishly-readable book, a subversively hip television comedy, to name a few examples—so that people will be “turned on” to the proselytizer’s newly-found treasure.
This compulsion to “convert” others is rooted firstly in egotism, the need to champion and affirm one’s tastes and opinions by watching others become equally enthusiastic and then to take credit for their pleasure and satisfaction. The proselytizer’s impulse to point others to the way or lead them to places of heavenly delight arises from his need to see himself as a sort of pioneer or a Prometheus figure who, because of his superior instincts and courage, forages in places most people will not or cannot go, steals fire from the gods and in a act of magnanimity shares the fire with his worthy cohorts of which he in a way lords over, gloating with satisfaction as he watches them embracing something he discovered, fashion, art, music, food, which, without him, they would have never had the privilege of enjoying.
Much of the proselytizer’s egotism is fueled by his need to see himself as an Ultimate Guide or Authority Figure who is constantly sought after by the media so that he may give the definitive analysis on his chosen specialty after which he gathers great delight from watching himself bloviating on television or seeing his words quoted in print or, for maximum ego gratification, listening to people in high places quote his expertise in order to bolster their credibility.
Secondly, the impulse to proselytize is rooted in loneliness. It is the unbearable feeling that comes with discovering a sublime pleasure or ecstasy and having no one to share that feeling with. Sharing this new discovery gives the proselytizer a sense of intimacy and community, which, due to his virulent egotism, is painfully lacking in his life. For it is in solitude that the proselytizer makes his discoveries, but it is only by casting his net into the marketplace of ideas and opinions that he has a chance of sharing those findings.
The proselytizer, however, can only enjoy so much mass appeal. A small but significant number of converts, equated with a cult following, is the proselytizer’s optimum number of enthusiasts, for the small but loyal clique attests to a certain intellectual elitism that confirms the proselytizer’s sense of uniqueness and genius. If too many people follow tow, then the authenticity and special quality of the discovery is cast into doubt. Therefore, when a mass following embraces the proselytizer’s findings, he sometimes feels compelled to abandon his crusade.
A cruel example of something I once loved being ruined by a mass following or overexposure occurred with the 1990 pop song, “Here the Story Ends,” written and performed by The Sundays. I was heading north to visit my family in the San Francisco Bay Area during the Easter vacation break when, passing along the Altamont Pass in Livermore, California at 3:34 P.M., I saw several majestic windmills atop the rolling green hills. This was the breakthrough point where my radio could finally receive more than country and fundamentalist AM signals. I tuned to San Francisco’s KRQR 106.7 FM and heard The Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler sing the band’s wistful single and stopped at the closest music store so that I could buy the CD. My family vacation then consisted of me calling people and telling them they had to buy The Sunday’s Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic CD. Five years later I was not prepared to hear “Here the Story Ends,” in Muzak form, inside a Bakersfield supermarket while I browsed through the yams and Maui onions.
Perhaps an entire book could be written about beautiful songs ruined once they’ve been converted into Muzak or used in television commercials. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was bastardized in the San Francisco Bay Area when in the early 1980s a local electronics store aired that song on a television ad for several years so that it was impossible to hear the song without associating it with a perky-voiced gentleman announcing an unbeatable stereo sale and free popcorn and baby-sitting while you shopped.
The commercialization of a private experience kills the proselytizer’s drive to share that experience with others. He must move on to some other worthy obsession that will remain elusive in the minds of the masses while finding appeal in smaller, niche audiences. Thus the proselytizer is constantly navigating a fine balance between broadening his following on the one hand and narrowing his following to a worthy, “educated” audience on the other.
Finally, the passion to proselytize is rooted in the need to find an Absolute and a sense of Transcendence so that the proselytizer can rhapsodize endlessly about a brand of sinfully rich ice cream, irresistibly creamy cashew butter, butter-soft comfortable walking shoes, or an especially sensitive radio in a way that sounds like he has just discovered a new religion. The use of religious hyperbole to tout his discovery makes the proselytizer a great marketer, a salesman who pitches Product as Salvation. Thus the proselytizer, when he is convincing, has much in common with Madison Avenue. When he’s not convincing however he is revealed for what he truly is, a longwinded crackpot who, in his obsessive quest to find the Ultimate Ice Cream, Transcendental Cashew Butter, or Radio Uber Alles has lost all sense of proportion and has become a sort of delusional Messiah figure trying in vain to convert others to his consuming chimeras and caprices.