Thursday, December 25, 2014

Treasure and Lagniappe

A guest blog entry I wrote for a cousin's blog:
A few weeks ago, I found a twenty dollar bill on the side of the road. I can now no longer walk by that spot without scanning the bushes nearby for another that might have somehow escaped. (This is not new with me - I still know a place where I found two pennies when I was four years old, and always look to see if there is more there, even today).

A month ago, I got praised at work. I keep doing what I got praised for, long after it is no longer needed.

I got a laugh at a joke. My wife will tell you that the worst thing possible is for me to get caught in THAT particular feedback loop. Likewise, I dare not go to the casino. I feed off of that reward hit in my brain, regardless of the cost to get there.  For all intents and purposes, 

I am that rat in the heroin experiment, pushing that lever long after the drug is no longer being dispensed.
A wandering rabbi once told his followers, "Wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also." That guy was talking about me, obviously.

I love treasure. I love the feeling of finding something special, and get an odd endorphin rush from it. And for someone who can't sit still long enough to staple the pages of his report together before running out the door, the idea of sitting motionless over top of a box of pea-sized gravel, going through it speck by speck would seem to be completely outside my comfort zone.
And yet...
One of my favorite activities is hunting gems and minerals. There is something just really cool about walking through a creek looking for petrified wood, agates, fossils, geodes, garnets, sapphires, diamonds, gold. It doesn't really matter what the local historic mine is, I am always willing to get wet, dirty, blistered, frozen, and risk abraded fingers, muscular soreness. and even snakebite for the opportunity to find that one special find. My summer highlights growing up all feature trips to Franklin NC with my Uncle Chip to find sapphires. The stones we found at Sheffield Mine (Home of the Honker!) still float around in the bottom of my drawer. The 90-carat mud-colored sapphire. The 10-carat brownish pink sapphire with perfect hexagonal crystal structure. The half-carat ruby....
That search for treasure is the essence of the perfect vacation for me. On the beach, I am forever looking for shark's teeth or devil's pocketbooks or scotch bonnets. In the Carolina mountains, it is garnets and smoky quartz crystals and beryl (I am SO itching to go to the Hiddenite mines in NC!). In Mississippi creeks, I look for fossilized sand dollars and petrified wood and geodes. I spent two lovely days at the Crater of Diamonds in Arkansas, and am still going through some of the gravel from that day (pea-sized gravel, speck by speck). I have been looking through the gravel for a year or more, and still have not found a diamond. And yet I stare, transfixed at the gravel, in the hopes that what appears to gray-brown undifferentiated rock will suddenly differentiate, revealing a tiny perfect yellow diamond in front of my eyes.
I even scheduled some sapphire mining time when I went fishing in Montana with my dad. (You can even get some gem-laden dirt sent to you at home for about 20 bucks).
Where your treasure is....
My fascination with treasure has gotten me to thinking about the rewards we give ourselves, and how we can use those rewards in a positive feedback loop. How can we use it as a tool for reinforcement of social behavior?  How can I use it to help me do the things I don’t want to do, but know are good for me?
Evacuated ahead of the hurricane? We're planning a street party for when we come back. Got every guy in your family to submit to a prostate exam? Celebrate good times with brown liquor. Completed that Memorandum for the Record? Rebel yell (either one). Run before work every day, reward myself with an ice cream cone on the way home?
The problem is that I am not sure that it is the same. If you prepare the reward ahead of time, it is different. I work at my desk for eight hours a day, I get a paycheck. I fill out the form, attach the UPC code, and six to eight weeks later I receive the rebate. If  I evacuate like I am asked, I get the reward that I was promised.
It seems just like a transaction.  A boring, dispassionate transaction.  Not the same as treasure hunting at all.
Don't get me wrong. That steady paycheck I get is a wonderful thing. I am decidedly upset if my expected bi-weekly funding source is disrupted. Not only that, my mortgage company doesn't like surprises like a maybe-you-get-paid-and-maybe-you-don't month. They encourage me to appreciate the beauty of a regular paycheck.
Nevertheless, it is not the reward that spurs me on. It is the unexpected appearance of something precious that sets me aquiver. Treasure...
So how do you introduce chaos into a reward system? How do you make a paycheck into a gift? Someone brings doughnuts to the office 'for no good reason', and I feel appreciated beyond what a small bump in salary (even one that is a weekly equivalent of that doughnut purchase) could accomplish.
I suspect that maybe the solution lies in a New Orleans tradition called lagniappe. Although the word is brought to the area from the highlands of Peru, it is something that is perfected here. You buy something, we give you a little something extra.
In New Orleans, it nearly always takes the form of food.  Buy a beer?  Have some red beans and rice.  Ate dinner in my restaurant? Have a white chocolate bread pudding.  Sadly, the tradition seems to be diminishing, but it is amazing how powerful a tool it is. 
I suspect that part of the reason that video games are popular is because of that feedback loop. Walking through the field on your way to the mysterious castle in the video game, and there are gemstones in the path. That is lagniappe.
The trick is to make it as random as possible.  Last week I received a lighter I ordered on ebay.  It was a silly purchase, but not nearly as silly as the resin fish head that was also included in the package.

Why would I need a resin fish head? What could I possibly use that for? No clue, but it is treasure, it is lagniappe, and I will definitely use again.
So it comes back to action on our part. I have read about the random acts of kindness, and how powerful they are, and I think that might be the treasure that you can provide to someone. Write a personalized note. Leave a plate of cookies on the office table. 
Why not look for opportunities to give lagniappe, especially to those who can least afford to give it back?  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

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