Friday, November 30, 2012

Phrase of the Day: SENDING A MESSAGE

Just last week, in certain department stores across America, the latest trend in Christmas season shopping insanity continued...and got even worse.  The Friday after Thanksgiving Day is known as Black Friday.  It is called such because that is the one day in which retailers are supposed to begin turning a profit for the year (being "in the black") after spending the year running at basically a deficit (being "in the red").  The term came about sometime in the early 1960s and gained wider usage in the following decade.

However, for the past several years, the black connotation given to that day has also come to mean something different: black, as in a black mark on society as a whole.  In addition to this blog entry's title, Sending a Message, some other words are key here -- greed, behavior, family, and necessity.

One of the basic precepts of going into business in the first place is to, hopefully, make a profit.  Even if your main thrust is to provide a service or certain products, you certainly don't intend to lose money.  That is how it should be, so keep in mind that I personally have no problem with any business turning a profit.  It seems to me, however, that the earlier and earlier start times for doors to open to shoppers is, in one sense, about greed.  Why stop at turning profits with closing on Thanksgiving Day and then opening up on Black Friday, when you can push the envelope further and further.  The longer you're open, the likelihood of greater profits.  

I can remember Black Fridays past from my childhood.  My mother and I would always go to the old Audubon Shopping Center -- a kind of really neat semi-outdoor mall -- and wait for Santa Claus to arrive.  He did, via helicopter, and he made his way through the throng of excited children (including me!) there to see him.  Then we'd go to one of the department stores that had a special area set up and we'd wait in line to see Santa, just as children and their parents do nowadays mostly in malls.  It never took place on Thanksgiving Day, always on Black Friday.  As I grew up -- and I'm counting from my teens now -- I neither felt, nor did I ever hear anyone else say, that being able to shop on Thanksgiving Day would be a great idea.  Thanksgiving Day was a least for most of us...and going shopping (except for something last minute at the food store) was the last thing on anyone's mind.  Period.

When the malls began to open on Black Friday an hour or two earlier than their usual weekday opening time, it seemed not too terribly big of a deal.  Around here, the 10:00 a.m. opening at the malls would be 8:00 a.m., maybe 9:00.  Then, a slight push up in the time kept happening.  When 7:00 a.m. was the opening time, my family and many of my friends thought that it was ridiculous.  However, the shoppers came.  When the opening time was 6:00 a.m., our collective "That's ridiculous" exhortation echoed again.  Again, the shoppers came.  It seemed like each year, or every two years, the opening time was a little earlier and a little earlier.  5:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. opening times bordered on the absurd.  Undeterred, the shoppers still came.  Lining up late at night or even camping out became more and more commonplace.

For a couple of years, there were no changes, but the next leap was on the horizon...and it was a big leap.  Last year, an opening time of midnight on Thanksgiving night was announced by several retailers.  The greed was multiplying.  It was disappointing, but the shoppers didn't disappoint retailers.  They came...and they came in droves. The insanity would not end there.

This year, for the first time ever, many of those same retailers (i.e. Wal-Mart, Sears, Toys R Us) opened up on Thanksgiving evening.  Some stores opened at 10:00 p.m.; some opened at 9:00 p.m.  Others opened at 8:00 p.m.  That's right, 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night.  The words "ridiculous" and "absurd" now seem woefully inadequate.  And, you guessed it, the shoppers stood in line and camped out so that they could storm the stores just like starving animals hunting prey...not like savvy consumers, but like starving animals. 

Why would I use such strong language?  Did I go shopping on a Black Friday and have a really bad experience?  No, I did not.  In fact, whenever I did go to a mall on a Black Friday -- which was extremely rare (rarer than rare, in fact) -- it was to pick up a couple Christmas cards and maybe some gift wrap.  Not only that, but I usually went sometime around 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., when most shoppers would be at the food court getting dinner.  The bulk of my Black Friday experience was watching the annual news reports of shoppers packing malls.  That whole fighting crowds scene, even before this Black Friday/Thanksgiving madness ever started, never seemed worth it to me.  That kind of behavior was, quite frankly, repulsive to me. 

That behavior has gotten worse each year.  Here are some examples from just this year alone.

In the rush of all this hullabaloo, the family has taken a real hit.  It's not just for those employees who have to work (employers telling you when you can have Thanksgiving with your family), but it's also for consumers (letting shopping dictate how you'll structure your holiday).  Looks like the score is Retailers 1, Families 0, with no change in sight.

Tacked on to all of this, and no less important, is the concept of necessity.  I gotta have this...I gotta have that...little Johnny's gotta have this...little Jane's gotta have that, and so on.  Gotta have?  Wow!  Really?  If pressed, many of these same folks would say that, of course, life would go on if they didn't buy this or that,  (Maybe they'd soften their language by saying they "really want it".)  "Want" would be more appropriate, but "gotta have" seems to be the prevalent nomenclature.  We have been told what is necessity -- come buy it from our stock -- and too many of us have bought that message.  The fundamental five -- air, water, food, shelter, clothing -- are necessities.  Period.  Anything else beyond that is superfluous.

We have given up our power as consumers -- yes, there is such a thing beyond raising a stink or filing a lawsuit -- in order to make stores our new recreational rooms, and to make cashiers and salespersons our new extended families.  Perhaps you know the famous line from the film 'Field of Dreams': "If you build it, they will come."  Maybe you know the line that became famous in the 1960s: "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?"  (There was a 1970 film of the same name, and the phrase was a line in The Monkees' song 'Zor and Zam'.)  Well, if you don't show up, the retailers will change.  Retailers follow consumer's patterns, but many act as though consumers must follow retailers' patterns.  So, if you don't show up, aside from apparently feeling less of a person for not going, do you really think that a year or two of consumers not showing up on Thanksgiving night wouldn't force retailers to go back to being closed on Thanksgiving Day and open on Black Friday?  If you don't think so, then they own you, plain and simple.

As far as I'm concerned, a necessity for this time of year is a paradigm shift.  Fast!

For the record, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with people buying gifts for loved ones, none at all.  My point is regarding how that has been tainted.  All of this is easy to blame on the retailers alone.  True, greed is a powerful motivator and that falls clearly on their collective shoulders, but there is another and equal part in all of this madness...consumers.  Keep showing up earlier and earlier when they are open earlier and earlier and watch what happens next year or the following.  If we didn't show up, they wouldn't open.  It is that simple! We are, and have been, sending a strong message: We are owned...we liked to be owned...we like to behave like wild animals...and we only value families as justifications for all of the above.

Somehow, I never thought that was supposed to be the message of this time of year.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Word of the Day: GRATEFUL

Well, here it is, Thanksgiving night.  The parades are over.  The dinners have been cooked and eaten, with leftovers being put in the refrigerator.  Tummies are full, if not overstuffed, and more than one belt has been loosened.  

In preparing for this blog entry, I was surprised to find out how many countries celebrate their form of Thanksgiving or some sort of "harvest festival", or mark it in other ways.  In addition to the United States, the list includes:
(Jour de l'Action de grâce)
Germany (Erntedankfest or Harvest Thanksgiving Festival)
Grenada (commemorating the anniversary of the 1983 U.S.-led invasion following the deposition and execution of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop)
Japan (Kinrō Kansha no Hi or Labor Thanksgiving Day)
Korea (Chuseok; a harvest festival based on the lunar calendar)
Liberia (commemorating its colonization by many former U.S. slaves)

The Netherlands (commemorating the hospitality extended to pilgrims on their way to the New World)
Norfolk Island (brought to the island by those working on U.S. whaling ships visiting there)

For many people here in the U.S., Thanksgiving is nothing more than a day off from work, except for those who work for certain retailers here in the U.S. (i.e. Sears, Target, Wal-Mart, etc.).  How working on Thanksgiving night, beginning at eight or nine o'clock, is justifiable would suffice to fill up another blog posting.  (Hint: I will be doing that soon.)  For those who do have the day off, it is a day to relax, hopefully, perhaps depending on who is cooking and for how many.  

One of my pet peeves is regarding Thanksgiving in relation to Christmas.  I am one of those people who do not want to hear Christmas music until after Thanksgiving.  A couple of radio stations in the area begin playing some Christmas tunes prior to Thanksgiving.  Yes, I also love Christmas songs, but I want to enjoy them for the Christmas holiday, not as an enticement to go out and buy things.  In fact, I actually heard one Christmas song being played before Halloween this year!  (Before Thanksgiving is bad enough, but before Halloween?)  Here's a cartoon that I saw a couple of years ago that captures my sentiments exactly in a humorous way:

Although not a religious holiday at its core, many churches here mark this day by highlighting the act of giving thanks or being in the state of gratitude.  Whether lived out religiously or not, being grateful is worthwhile...and, I would argue, necessary.  We have so much for which we should be grateful.  Then again, we do tend to focus on, and get all wrapped up in, all the negative in our lives.  Mind you, I am not discounting those who have things really hard  -- which does not include being furious that the jerk in front of you got the last one of the latest technological fad or some other on-sale item -- or that the burdens one carries on his/her shoulders don't matter at all.  My focus here is on those who have problems but see them as greater than what they are, as well as those who just simply have a lot on their plate (sans the Thanksgiving meal, that is).  Problems aplenty or problems overblown, being grateful is both a necessary state of mind and way to live one's life.

I, too, have fallen into the trap of letting focusing on the negative usurp gratitude's rightful place in one's life.  It is an easy and a common trap.  After spending literally decades of doing that, I have become better at not focusing on the negative, and the times I have noticed myself do that have been a welcome change.  I am on the right track, where I wasn't for far too long, and I am grateful for that.

See, there's one thing already!

Now, let me add to that one thing...because I can.  While this is not a comprehensive list, and I admit that my focus is not always clear from time to time regarding these, they are things for which I am truly grateful:
My (relative) health: There are those with chronic pain and/or other health issues I've never faced
A roof over my head: Not everyone can say that

Heating, cooling, hot water, electricity, clean and running water: Not everyone has these; many have none of these
I never go hungry: Too many go hungry and too many die because of it
A bed to sleep in: An easy one to overlook, while many people do not have that simple comfort

My parents: Without them, who knows what would have happened to me
My close friends: They offer me their laughter, their open ears, their open hearts, and their uniqueness

My acquaintances/people who share a particular similar interest: I would probably have no one with whom I could exchange ideas and similar experiences in relation to those interests
Those who have treated me unkindly or unfairly: They remind me of how not to be and keep me on the right path of being a good person
My life experiences, good and bad: While I hate the bad ones, they teach me and make me who I am

Like I said, this isn't a comprehensive list, but it's not a bad start, wouldn't you say?  When I look at these, I say to myself, "Wow, how could I forget these?"  Try making a list yourself and see what you come up with.  Be honest, don't make any items up, and don't scrimp.  If, after you finish, you say to yourself, anything along the lines of, "Yeah, but...", imagine your life without all of them!  I think your perspective might just change.

So, what would be on your grateful list?


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Word of the Day: ELECTION

[To my readers, I still have not recovered 100% from my shoulder injury, but it is well enough that typing at length is possible.  We are fine where I am in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and a nor'easter that hit just days ago, about a week after Sandy.  We had no damage and the electricity stayed on the entire time during Sandy, and just a little snow shower and sleet during the nor'easter.  I am grateful we fared well with the storms and glad to be back at the keyboard, commenting.]  

Two days ago, along with millions of other Americans, I went to the polls to vote in the general election.  Although born here in America, I am a late arrival to the act of voting; this was only my third general election.  In addition, I have voted in two mid-term elections (2006 and 2010) and local special elections.

I spent most of my life jaded with the election process and politics in general.  I was well aware of the political mantra of Every vote counts, but I refused to believe it.  I would say that the word that best described my sentiment was "irrelevant". 

My parents never voted -- they shared my same sentiment -- but I would always watch the election night results.  I first started in 1972, when Richard Nixon won re-election.  In the past several years, as well as when I was much younger, I went to bed before the election was decided and found out who won in the morning.  (Well, there was that pesky 2000 election that wasn't decided until over a month later!)

Speaking of the 2000 presidential election, the events that took place to decide that election, along with the policies and actions of then-President George W. Bush and his administration (i.e. 9/11, Iraq War, War on Terrorism, Hurricane Katrina response) were enough to persuade me to vote for the first time.  My first votes were cast in the 2004 general election.  I voted for John Kerry, and even though he didn't win, I continued to vote: in the 2006 mid-terms, the 2008 general election, the 2010 mid-terms, and this year's general election.

My non-voting parents always sided with the Democrats, and my voting record in the last two presidential elections shows I followed in their understanding: John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.  My feeling is that the Democrats are, to varying degrees, more for the working person, and the Republicans are more for businesses and the wealthy.  I admit my cynicism has remained in the form that what good for the common individual that either party does is not always high on their respective to-do lists.

However, in retrospect, I must also admit that my votes for Democratic presidential nominees were cast not so much as pro-Kerry or pro-Obama, but more anti-Bush and anti-Republican.  Of course, when someone votes for something, it inherently, by its nature, means it is subtextually a vote against something else.  What I was voting for was coming from a place inside of me that was based more in "not him" or "not them", rather than "for someone else".

Like many other Americans, I was told that a vote for someone other than a Democratic or Republican nominee -- a third-party candidate -- was a wasted vote.  Granted, third-party candidates, at least in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, rarely break or come close to 10% of the national vote, but is everyone who votes for a third-party candidate really throwing away their vote?  What if a voter agrees more with what the third-party candidate says than what the two major party candidates say?  The thinking is that they should ignore that and vote for one of the two major party candidates anyway.  Really?  So, car companies can offer several types of vehicles (and more than one type of the same vehicle), Starbucks can offer dozens of coffee choices, cable TV can offer hundreds of stations, and that's all okay...but serious consideration of a third-party candidate is not okay?  I have come to a place where I believe voting your conscience is key, while far too many others will say that voting one's own conscience might be ... irrelevant.

Freedom of choice is a very narrow concept politically.

A vote cast as "the lesser of two evils" is a wasted vote.  A vote cast as "I'm not crazy about this candidate, but I know I dislike the other candidate more" is a wasted vote.  Both are abdication of one's own responsibility as a voter.  Both say that your vote is the same as a game show consolation prize.  Not to mention that both are reflective of people's impressions of candidates, parties, and politics in general.  I won't add votes not cast, since I understand very well about feeling disenfranchised, and a vote cast for the wrong reasons is a wasted vote.  A vote not cast is simply a missed opportunity.

This year, for the first time, I voted third party.  It wasn't because I wanted to pick a lesser evil or because I disliked one major candidate less than the other.  It was because I wanted to take part in the voting process, but I was unhappy with the two main choices offered.  It was because I feel more candidates should be given a fair shot in elections.  It was because my vote is neither a consolation prize nor an abdication of responsibility.  

My vote was for Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein and her Vice-Presidential running mate Cheri Honkala.  Even though they finished fourth overall, with less than 1/2 of 1% of the vote, I still felt good about my vote.  I knew it was unlikely she, or any third-party candidate, would win, but I also knew that my vote, while among the few and far-between, stood for something more than dissatisfied resignation.  

And that is not a wasted vote.