Friday, December 29, 2006

Living in DC
December 23. Dupont Circle.
After my soap-buying excursion to Pentagon City, I decided to try and fix a Christmas Gift Problem I was having. And it occurred to me that Beadazzled, a store I never enter, might be able to help me out. Back in August, I bought my nephews some cool lanyards with silver axes and bulls from a shop in Santorini. “On the rim of an extinct volcano, near the fabled Lost City of Atlantis” I would tell them when they would inevitably look at me, puzzled, when they opened the gift. But on this day, when I took them out to look at them, I noticed the string portion was way too short – it wouldn’t fit over anyone’s head. There were two strings on each, which held copper beads and the silver axes or bull’s heads. At first I thought I would have to buy some longer cord and re-string them myself. Until I walked into Beadazzled.

The sales associate behind the counter took one look at them and said “Oh, these are easy to make longer. All you have to do is take each of these knots and pull…”

And somehow, the strings expanded. “Now they’ll fit!” he said.

“You don’t know how long I was tormented by this today,” I laughed. “You’ve definitely done your Christmas Good Deed!”

He laughed as handed me the lanyards, and said, “and you didn’t even have to spend any money!”

Note: the nephews actually liked the lanyards. Still, I included $25 with each. You can never be too careful.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Living in DC
Pentagon City, December 23. Purchasing soap at The Body Shop. One customer in front of me, attempting to contribute a gift certificate or a special percentage deal into her purchase. One “sales associate” at the checkout register. From the associate, a number of comments, the full text of which is unimportant. But the first words of each quote are:

“You need to…”
“You can’t use this…”
“You have to…”
“You don’t want to…”

This goes on for 15 seconds or so (which equals 5 minutes in store-waiting time). Then, a second “sales associate” steps in behind the next register, and joins in the explanation:

“What you need to know is…”
“She’s saying you have to go and pick out…”
“You have to buy $25 dollars worth of…”

We’re up to 30 seconds of this now (which equals 5.3 hours in store waiting time). I take control of my situation and hold out my debit card to this second associate. She looks at it, then takes it from me.

“Sorry,” she says.

I’m surprised the customer in front of me lasted as long as she did, with patience no less. I’m not too amazed that the sale went on and was made. As I walked out of the mall (with my soap), I thought of years ago, when I worked for a short time in retail. It was pretty miserable. The public can be so psychotic. You’re on your feet until your toes are numb. If it’s busy the line never ends. If it’s slow you have to straighten things up so that customers can knock them over once again. Definitely not an activity that’s going to play into the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Then I considered why companies allow their front lines to behave this way. I came up with:

1. These jobs are usually short-term, minimum wage.
2. The company handbook could be too thick, with too many rules and regulations governing what you wear and how the displays should look.
3. No training (or minimal, or ineffective) on “How To Greet The Customer Without Shutting Them Down Completely” and “How To Get The Customer To Do What You Want While Making It Seem That It’s Their Doing All Along.”

Basically, a mix of the dozen or so habits of highly effective people, the Tao Te Ching, and indicating with an open palm is what’s called for. But it was a couple of days before Christmas, and the mall was packed with people who weren’t shopping so much as needing a place to be with other people – more on that later, perhaps. And I’m sure those employees were turning off their brains, hoping that would make the time go by faster.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

More on Christmas Decay
Yesterday's post, about the Big Letdown After Christmas (and comparing it to the half-life of an extremely unstable atom) got me to thinking about what it was like for me, as a kid, the days after Christmas. I mainly remember being absolutely, totally bored, since there was no school, it was usually cold out, I was sick of my family and the gifts I received were either already built (car and monster models), read (books), listened to until new grooves were worn (vinyl), or eaten (candy, etc.) The tree in the living room suddenly became the Relative That Wouldn't Depart, its glass ornaments and lights somehow reminiscent of a tacky Vegas side street. My parents, who came of age during WWII (The Big One), were used to a certain level of drudgery, and so when December 26 dawned, all festivities were over. I don't remember doing anything that could have prolonged the celebration of the season, and New Year's Eve usually found me sick from a cold or an ear infection.

Sometimes it snowed, which meant sledding, which was fun - except with packed snow got past your mittens and lodged on the underside of your wrist, which got really really cold. We never went anywhere warm during the winter, but we did go skiing for a number of years, which was also fun. Mainly, though, the departure of Christmas meant at least three months of frigid temperatures, various illnesses, steady darkness, and a creeping exhaustion from too much December activity and empty calories.

This year, one of my nephews said, in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Eve, "This is the longest day of the year!" His dad (one of my brothers) and I told him all about Christmas 1965, emphasizing and exaggerating various deprivations we experienced (black and white TV, 4 TV stations, no seating at McDonald's, unsharpened pencils in our stockings, zero X-NintendoBox.) We told him how great he's got it, and said we could celebrate Christmas 1965 next year. But my nephew's heard this all before about other things in our past (which I take as my duty to tell him) and is unimpressed. Although I do think he's somewhat concerned we might actually show him what it was like Way Back When.

Things have definitely improved now. While I get 99% less presents on Christmas morning, I have options to survive the winter: Atlantis cruises, Fort Lauderdale, alcohol, money. Still, I think my nephews experience some of the letdown at this time of the year that I experienced. And I don't know if that's good or bad.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Half-Life of the Christmas Atom
If Christmas were on the Periodic Table of the Elements, I'm sure it would have an atomic weight somewhere past Uranium. The element is so unstable that it decays to a fraction of its weight in 1/2512 of a second. Check out this post from The Ripple Effect to see what I mean.

We need to do something about this holiday, which bombards us with all manner of exhortations to purchase, acquire and buy, and sells us on a vision of family and togetherness which is either unattainable by many households or makes others feel left out in the cold when it doesn't coincide with their belief systems. I don't know what to do exactly with this blend ritual and tradition begun over 2000 years ago. But something has to be done.

This year, three television ads drove the point home. They're probably the worst, most egregiously sentimental and ear-splittingly awful commercials ever to air on television:

1. Neighbors gather across street to see woman receive gift car with big red bow on top. I'm having trouble locating this online. But maybe it's better that way. I don't remember what car company it's for. I do know that every time I see this ad I wonder "why the hell would neighbors set up lawn chairs merely to watch somebody walk out their door to see a new car?"

2. Celene Dion Under Your Christmas Tree. This one is wrong on so many levels. Hear's one: I keep hearing, after the commercial's over, the dad say to the son "she's your Christmas present boy - have at her!"

3. BMW's screaming child. Corporate groupthink's finest hour. Who at BMW approved this? Does he or she still have a job? There's a new version airing now, the voiceover almost completely covering that heinous child's "enthusiasm." But it's too late. The damage has been done.

Oh the pain. The pain.

Sunday, December 24, 2006