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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Meryl Streep, Toilet Paper, and the Merits of Pretending

Yesterday I bought 24 rolls of Marcal Small Steps® totally recycled toilet paper because it was on sale for $4.99 plus tax at Staples.com — with free shipping if you got it sent to a store where you’d pick it up.

I don’t know where I’m going to store 24 rolls of toilet paper, but Marcal is hard to find, I’ve been buying it since before recycling was popular, and I’m loyal to the brand. Plus which, it’s a whole lot better than the more popular recycled brands.

It really bugs me that Marcal had to change its name to Small Steps® and redesign its packaging and probably fire all its marketing people and hire new ones to try to compete with the eco-newcomers. It really bugs me that Small Steps® still isn’t carried in organic markets. It is unbelievably annoying that you can do something for 60 years and, when what you’re doing finally becomes popular, you’re still unpopular.

Which brings me to Meryl Streep.

I like Meryl Streep a lot. I admire her talent and her apparently normal life, despite the fact that she is one of the most famous people in the world. I’ve always wondered how she did it. On May 18, in a wonderfully complex speech — that I’m about to use out of context for my own purposes — Ms. Streep spilled the beans: Very early in life, she told the class of 2010 at Barnard College, she became “an expert in pretending.”

“Pretending or acting is a very valuable life skill and we all do it,” she said. “All the time, we don’t want to be caught doing it, but nevertheless it’s part of the adaptations of our species. We change who we are to fit the exigencies of our time, and not just strategically, or to our own advantage, sometimes sympathetically, without our even knowing it for the betterment of the whole group.”

She goes on to recount how in high school, in order to be popular with boys, she studiously changed everything from the way she looked to her giggle to her behavior: “I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy, natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys.” She claims that when she got to college she reverted to her real bossy self, and hence, only pretended when she got paid for it. . . . But I doubt this is entirely true.

I suspect the ability to be who people needed her to be has something to do with Ms. Streep’s incredible success. The “business” of show business includes meetings, interviews, making friends, and not being too scary or alienating to those in a position to give you a job. It includes selling.

Which brings me back to toilet paper.

Last year when I noticed the new packaging, I tried to get an interview with the Marcal Small Steps® people, but after an initial enthusiastic response it was no-go. In my short exchange with a publicist, I deduced there had been a major shake-up, and the fact that I still can’t find their products in the three supermarkets near me tells me that they have yet to solve their distribution problems. I’ve even requested Small Steps® tissue at the local Food Emporium on numerous occasions, and the fact that they never order it tells me that the store has an alliance with a competing brand — which actually has plastic on the top of their box!

I believe the problem is an inability to pretend. For more than five decades, Marcal has been a quiet company in northern New Jersey, collecting used paper “from curbs in residential neighborhoods in cities and towns across America — from the small blue baskets in office buildings, unwanted junk mail, and waste from printers — all in an effort to do something good, to produce something that people need.” In 2009, when it changed its name to Small Steps®, it also launched itself on Facebook and Twitter, etc., and now it is trying to catch up to the companies who still use plastic but have presented themselves as eco-friendly. Marcal thought it was enough to just be who they were.

Apparently not.

I’ve always thought pretending was not a good thing. I’ve thought authenticity was best. But perhaps Ms. Streep is right. Perhaps pretending, being pleasing, non-threatening, and hip has its merits if doing so enables quality work or products to survive and become part of our culture.

. . . At least I’m pretending to believe that.
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