Sunday, November 29, 2009


A horde descended on places of commerce recently, and though it wasn’t a plague of locusts or an invasion of zombies, it was no less destructive. Those who survived congratulated themselves on surviving, and also for finding seventy percent off deals that would be the envy of their friends (unless those friends got seventy-five percent off elsewhere).

In the wake of the event were store shelves torn from their moorings, disheveled stacks of slacks and sweaters, minor flesh wounds such as dislocated digits caused by tug-‘o-wars for electronic gizmos, and an abundance of lessons for the younger citizens on how not to behave. Watch the news tonight, kids, maybe you’ll see mama fighting for your Christmas gifts. I loooooove this time of year!

Welcome to the world of competitive shopping.

The term Black Friday has multiple origins, but nowadays it refers primarily to the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. Stores used to mail print ads to bring shoppers out the day after Thanksgiving, and everything was going along normally, even in the midst of the capitalist machine.

Then, it went nuts. Stores started offering bigger discounts and nuttier hours. It wasn’t only a competition for those spending money they didn’t have, it became a rivalry between Toys R Dust and Best Byze. If one opened their doors at six a.m., another tried five. Four o’clock in the morning wasn’t unheard of, and was only surpassed by those willing to welcome customers at midnight before the turkey dinner was even digested.

Experts say this doesn’t increase sales, but it certainly makes for excitement. It shouldn’t be newsworthy, and yet there are the reporters and the cameras and, sadly, the coroners. On Black Friday ‘08, one unfortunate fellow was trampled in New York by a mob trying to enter a store where he was working, and two idiots shot themselves to death in California outside a store after fighting inside.

Okay, argue with me that the California lunacy wasn’t directly related to Black Friday, but hey, they were out in the crowded store, where stress was on sale right next to Disney Monopoly and cable knit sweaters. It could not have helped their mood. And you know, they might have been fighting over Transformer action figures. So there you go.

I deplore the mass hysteria and blame everyone involved, from the stores ill-equipped to deal with large crowds to the individuals who, together, become the large crowds, but I realize that the mass of people out shopping last Friday did so without calamity. Parking was difficult, lines were long, and frustration was likely simmering, but most shoppers probably expected it and dealt with it in an appropriate manner.

My son was out at midnight, with a friend who had money to spend. Kyle was low on funds, so he was just along for the ride. When he got home in the morning, he went to bed. Everything worked out. I stayed at home all day, didn’t spend a dime on anything, and everything worked out for me as well.

So next year, let the eager beavers rush out and spend their time and money as they see fit. Let the stores open early if they can find employees willing to work. And let us all keep our heads. Black Friday will always come to an end, and the TV economists will debate if it was a strong indicator for the retail sector, and I will still stay at home.

I have found a different event to celebrate for Turkey Day Friday, and that is called Buy Nothing Day. Proponents don’t advocate the end of the consumption-based economy, but they do say, “Hey, give yourself a break, don’t spend anything today and see how you feel!” To some degree it makes sense, because you do get to avoid a certain amount of the madness.

But my brother has a point when he says that folks on either side of the spectrum—to buy nothing or to buy everything in sight—are bombastic when they complain about their opposites. It is possible to be unpleasantly dogmatic about your position, and to skip over that whole “live and let live” philosophy. Which is odd in this supposed festive time of year.

To mock the housebound when standing in the checkout line, or to rant at the TV images of Black Friday shoppers from the comfort of your own home, is the same unpleasantness.

Either way, you destroy your soul in the process.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I used to be one of those people who jockeys for the “best” checkout line at the grocery store. I would approach stealthily, counting the heads I could see above the candy racks, but checking for short customers as well. It’s often the short ones that get you to commit to an aisle before you see them.

If the conveyor belt had a lot of little items on it, that would be a bad aisle. Loaded with larger items (24-pack toilet tissue, large bags of dog food, or, my personal favorite, cases of beer) I knew that the clerk would be able to move it along quickly. It was amazing how much time I would spend analyzing such a small part of my daily existence.

Now I’m a little more relaxed. I don’t purposely aim for the aisle with the doddering or chatty clerk who will slow everything down, or the customer who doesn't begin rummaging through his or her purse or pocket for the debit card until after the grand total is announced . . . I’m not a masochist.

But I pick an aisle and go with the flow. No switching to what appears to be greener pastures once I’ve committed. If things slow down I’ll just read the covers of the silly newspapers and magazines in the racks. Or I’ll wonder how they can charge a buck ninety-nine for my beloved Reese’s peanut butter cup two-pack.

I was subbing in a kindergarten class recently that reminded me of the grocery line competition that we all go through. Really. Bear with me for a moment. As we approached the cafeteria at lunchtime we found a conundrum worthy of the most impacted register at the local Safeway (or Raley’s, or Whole Foods, or the regional food store of your choice). The line was long and it wasn’t moving. There were no options in this, the only, hot lunch line. Trying to move around a slower moving class would have just been rude.

It was the first day of a new ID card system, where the students were expected to walk up to a large display and promptly find their card amongst hundreds. Fact 1: the cards were not grouped logically by class. Fact 2: the font used for the students’ names was tiny. Fact 3: these were five-year-olds I was trying to help. Fact 4: I was the last of four kindergarten classes to get in the line.

Final outcome, half our lunch period was spent waiting in line. Just like when I show up at the store at 5 p.m. to buy a carton of milk and some apples (okay, a six-pack of beer and a box of Bagel Bites) and everyone else has a cart full of a week’s worth of groceries.

On the positive side, by the time we got to the board many of the cards were already taken, so it was a little quicker for us. Still, the pupils were quite antsy. I wondered briefly if these small citizens would be the ones to grow up and bollix up the lines at my neighborhood grocery. We may have been teaching math and reading in class that day, but we certainly weren’t educating them on effective line management skills.

That sub assignment was exasperating, at least during lunch. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I did a four-day stint in 7th and 8th grade P.E. Those kids don’t even know the meaning of the word line. We tried to line up to take attendance but they hovered around like drunken bees. Every time I got eight or ten to stand still, eight or ten others would flit about with their friends.

“Line up!” I’d yell again. Some smart aleck would point out that they are each supposed to stand on one of forty numbers that were laid out in a five by eight grid on the black top. “Fine,” I’d say. “Number up!”

“Number up?” several muttered. Others were tiring and began sitting on their numbers.

“Stand up!” Complaints came from every corner, except for those pupils who had already wandered off. I’d lost control. Line up, number up, stand up, none of it was working, so I went with my standard response. The one that indicates I have lost all control.

“Shut up!”

They hadn’t lined, numbered, or stood, so of course they didn’t shut either. Finally, I did what any self-respecting substitute teacher would do: I handed the roster to a future Employee of the Month grocery store clerk and asked her to mark down anyone she couldn’t see.

She would learn some valuable inventory skills, and the knuckleheads would get some practice lining up for detention.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I have finally discovered what has led to the good fortune showered upon me during my lifetime. Years ago I thought it was marrying Kristin, a smart, hardworking girl who had great potential from salary and childbearing perspectives. Later it was working for Automatic Data Processing, with its stock options for upper management and the life skills it taught me, like how to fire people without feeling guilty.

Now I have figured out what has truly been my lucky charm, and it turns out I’ve been carrying it around since I was fifteen years old.

Yes, the 1977 version was a wispy and laughable amusement, but ever since I first let the hair between my nose and upper lip grow unimpeded, things have been going great.

Perhaps calling that eighth grade atrocity a mustache is being too generous, but it shows up in pictures from that era. So it was either a mustache or a shadow or a bit of dirt. Pardon my ego stroking if I’m sticking with the first option.

During my high school years I was led to believe that the whiskers were the key to girls. At least that’s what the guys with facial hair said. I did ask a few girls out, and a few said yes, but usually within a short period of time they would discover that there was really nothing of interest besides the mustache. Then the girls would go off to find another boy with perhaps a thicker, more luxuriant lip warmer.

Or maybe the other boys were more interesting. Could that be it?

I shaved on occasion, but that was just to knock down the weeds, so to speak. The first real removal of an honest-to-goodness mustache was at the end of my senior year, when I shaved off the whole thing along with my first attempt at a beard and, for some peculiar reason, put the trimmings in a box and presented it to one of the guidance counselors at school.

I’m sure she thought I was the creepiest guy to ever pass through those hallowed halls, but she always liked my older sister so she forgave me. I think.

During the ensuing thirty years or so, I have had a mustache and beard combo for probably 363 days out of every 365. I cut it all off every once in a while, but typically it begins growing back in a matter of hours. I don’t like what I see in the mirror when I have nothing to hide behind.

The American Mustache Institute (yes, there really is such an entity, dedicated to “fighting discrimination against mustached Americans”) has a veritable laundry list of great mustachioed men, their worldly accomplishments, and how having a mustache improves not only the life of the wearer, but the lives of all with whom he comes in contact. The AMI also recently reported that those of us with hair under our nose earn 4.3% more than the clean-shaven.

Hooray! This is why I have a mustache, to better fill my retirement accounts. I’ve heard that taller people make more than the vertically challenged (another notch in my favor), and reportedly people of my gender earn more than the opposite sex (although not in my house). Once again, everything was going my way. Then I read the bad news: the mustached fellows actually earn 8.2% more than those with a beard.

Egads! How horrible! Just when I thought I was doing all right, I learn that my beard is likely holding me back. If I had stuck with a ‘stache by itself, not only would I look like Tom Selleck or Hulk Hogan but I could have retired at 35. Why, or why, did I ever grow a beard?

Oh yeah, the reason that I maintain facial hair to this very day is that I am just too lazy to shave regularly, despite the fact that the AMI says I’d be richer with a chin that showed. They also taunt the bearded among us, claiming that we spend three percent of our income on beard combs and lice removal kits—a number that I dispute most vociferously.

It turns out that the American Mustache Institute, while defending the mustached against discrimination, actually discriminate against those of us with beards. They call my facial hair a “spousal compromise,” and claim that I am not man enough to go with just a mustache, a lip brow, a soup strainer.

Shame on you, AMI, we should be working toward unity and not fomenting discord, or making silly lists of mustache euphemisms (lip hugger, push broom, face sweater, hair snake, etc.). Everyone with facial hair should feel welcome in your little club.

Even the ladies.