Producing Happiness

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Matt Trickey, a long-time employee at LifeSource Natural Foods, is known for his easy-going, friendly nature. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Trickey compares his job at LifeSource to the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Working as a cashier is one of Trickey's many duties at LifeSource. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

The role of food in society is one of Trickey's biggest interests. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

When my editor first talked to me about interviewing Matt Trickey of LifeSource Natural Foods, she asked me to find out why he was always in such a good mood: “He’s so cheerful! People want to know why.” If you shop at LifeSource, you likely know who I’m talking about — he’s the tall employee with glasses, usually working at the checkout area, who always has a smile on his face and a friendly word for each customer.

As I reflected on my editor’s question, I realized that it seemed odd to me, as if cheerfulness — especially cheerfulness on the job — were an anomaly in this cranky, angst-ridden age.

I meet with Trickey, 46, for a chat over cups of foamy latte. Talking with him is an engaging experience. The South Salem resident is vibrant and enthusiastic, and jumps from subject to subject like an energetic 3-year-old in a toy store. In the space of an hour, we discuss farming, natural foods, politics, food-as-politics, the meaning of life, the Grateful Dead, the value of hard work, Rainbow Gatherings and the secret to a good custard (lots and lots of stirring). For a start. Then I say to him: “People want to know why you are always in a good mood.” It sounds almost accusatory.

“I actually struggle with a hereditary predisposition to depression,” he acknowledges. “It manifests as a loss of motivation, a difficulty with enthusiasm.”

Observing Trickey at work, one would never guess at his internal difficulties. Every day, he strives to be as friendly and welcoming as possible. He is happy and upbeat; he finds talking and interacting with people stimulating and engaging; he loves the variety and fast pace of customer service and the challenge of solving problems. In addition, LifeSource provides him with a close-knit community, “like a family,” he says. (His wife, Marie, is also an employee.)

“Do you know the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood?” he asks. “That’s what LifeSource is to me.” (For those unfamiliar with the concept, Right Livelihood is a way to earn your living that does not transgress the ideals of love and compassion, and is an expression of your deepest self.)

Trickey works in a variety of positions at LifeSource — he is in charge of systems operation (“I do whatever it takes to keep things running,” he says), writes for the newsletter, is a member of the “PIC Team” (Persons In Charge of daily store operations) and works as a cashier, customer service rep and tech troubleshooter.

Trickey’s coworkers appreciate his good humor, his thoughtfulness and his ability to make a personal connection. “I think the expression ‘savoir-faire’ describes Matt the best,” says Lisa Lind, supervisor and front-end manager. “He is gracious, articulate and jubilant. Before I ever worked here, when I was a customer, I knew he was a great guy.”

Trickey is valued for his ability to handle difficult patrons. “They always send the people who are really mad to me,” he says. “People get frustrated when their expectations aren’t met, when they expect a product to be available and we don’t have it.”

I’m surprised that customers would become irate at LifeSource, a store that seems to attract an almost eerily positive and laid-back clientele. “People project a lot of insecurity onto food these days,” he says. “It helps that I try to have compassion for others and their beliefs.”

His method of dealing with customers’ concerns is to reflect their disappointment and do what he can to solve the problem without taking on their anger and frustration. “I figure people are responsible for their own feelings. Most customers are happy, and my experiences with the other kind have given me a sense of perspective.”

Trickey has worked at LifeSource since 2001, but has had several jobs in the natural food business: he once managed the kitchen at First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op in Corvallis, and, while attending Michigan State University, he cooked for the Travelers Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum (yes, really) near Lansing. “I love to cook. People put a lot of weight — their desire for longevity, for feeling better, for good health — on food. They are losing the fun of it.”

In his younger years, Trickey moved a lot, jumping from place to place, much like his mind leaps from subject to subject. He attended the legendary, alternative-lifestyle Rainbow Gatherings for a few years, but says he is “essentially conservative — I believe in hard work, self-worth, earning what you get.”

At times he worked as a house painter in Florida and a GIS (geographic information system) map editor for a utility company in Indiana, but his passion has always been for food and agriculture. He is one credit hour away from a degree in American Studies at MSU, where he focused his research on pre-European agricultural technology.

In 1996, Matt and his then-girlfriend Marie filled an old school bus with their possessions and moved from Michigan to Corvallis. “When we got there, it felt like home,” he says. Soon, they married and had their first child. They made several more moves before accompanying Marie’s parents to Salem in 2001. Trickey began working at LifeSource soon after.

In his leisure time, Trickey attends as many different kinds of musical performances as he can — classical, jazz (although he prefers to call it authentic American classical music), trap, punk, hip-hop. He loves string bands, raves, festivals, Kraftwerk, the Grateful Dead. “I like all kinds of music, anything that engages the mind,” he says. “I don’t want to lock into things. There is a whole world of wonderful art and creativity.”

Other times, Trickey works in his garden with his wife and two daughters — Maris, 14 and Nila, 8. “I have a vegetable garden because I want my kids to grow up knowing how it works. So many people are detached from the source of their food,” he says.

Trickey is fascinated in the complex workings of the local food infrastructure. “I learn something every day,” he says. “Have you heard of the Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project?” I have not. He enthusiastically explains how a group of farms and businesses are working to encourage the cultivation and local marketing of organically grown grains and dry beans “soil to table — all in the Willamette Valley.” We talk awhile about the importance of eating locally and seasonally.

“My involvement with food is my politics,” he says. “I believe in a value-driven economy, neighbors and community. What you eat, how you choose to spend your food dollars, is central.”

He rejects the notion that natural foods stores like LifeSource are only for the well-to-do. “We are not a rich person’s store. There are many people who are not wealthy, who come from cultures where people still cook — Latinos, Asians, Russian immigrants — who have a tradition of cooking, and they are willing to spend more money on food. When you invest the time and energy into cooking, you want it to taste good when you are done. So you want the best product to start with.”

Returning to the subject of happiness on the job, Trickey muses, “Customers do ask why I’m so positive; I can’t really tell them. I have lots of talents beyond those I use at the store. But my job gives me stimulation, engagement with people. It’s about nurturing — we are providing something people need. Most jobs are so isolating — I could never work on a computer all day.”

Leaning back, he turns philosophical. “The purpose of life is happiness. The hard part is how to get there. I just try to make my work a positive creation in the world.”

Laura Gildart Sauter writes a column on local farming for Salem Weekly and has had her short fiction and poetry published in obscure literary journals.

Diane Stevenson is a freelance photographer and videographer who specializes in shooting candid portraits and landscapes. On weekends you can find her pouring wine at Left Coast Cellars in Rickreall.