The 10 Days of Zappos

Bacon

Whilst in town today, I ran into… bacon.  I hadn’t the nerve to tell the bloke that I’m a vegan.

Friends

Some of my friends at work enjoying Halloween

Growing up in New York, I associated autumn with September, because that’s when the school year started, and with October, because that’s when we drove up to the cider press in New Paltz to look at the pumpkins and lug home bushels of apples for pies and applesauce.

In California, however, you have to reach November before it feels as if summer is really over.  Here and there, a few trees blush into fall color, as if embarrassed by being in such a minority.  There are plenty of pumpkin patches and corn mazes around, but somehow it all seems fake.  Once you’ve experienced autumn in New England or New York, autumn anywhere else seems pale by comparison.

Fortunately, November is the start of the holiday season, and this I can count on to bring me inexpressible joy.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are nearly upon us, lights and decorations are everywhere and I turn on the holiday music to make my spirits soar.  I’ve already been singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the shower for a month.  (The verse about “bring us some figgy pudding” never ceases to crack me up — I’m weird like that.)  Some gripe about the holiday season starting too soon, but I am one of those saps who wishes “peace on earth, good will toward men” would prevail every day of the year.

As we embark upon the holidays, my thoughts turn to all the retail and call center staff working holiday jobs for a little extra cash.  These are the women and men who are the heart of our holiday shopping expeditions, the very ones who make it possible for us to have all those brightly wrapped gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.  I know this kind of work can be brutal, and that harried shoppers who are running out of patience, time and money seldom take a moment to say “thank you.”  So here it is from Uncle Guacamole:  Thank you to all the stockers and cashiers and floor managers and warehouse workers on fork lifts and call center reps on the phones.  Love to every one of you.

And a particular shout out to the customer loyalty team at Zappos, burning up the phone lines in the old city hall in downtown Las Vegas.  These folks are dear to my heart because they know how to both feel and inspire joy all year long.  I am nearly 600 miles away in northern California, but I am with you in spirit.

Last June, I posted a love song for Zappos, in which I admitted that working for the company is my secret desire.  As with unrequited love everywhere, this starry-eyed swooner has learned to be an admirer from afar.

Among the reasons that Zappos continues to command my respect is the Zappos Family Core Values.  Accordingly, as we get started with NaBloPoMo, I will spend the next ten days celebrating these values, one at a time, in this space.  If this bores you into a coma, please return on Veterans Day, when the usual schedule of lunacy that is A Map of California will resume in all its twisted glory.

Zappos Core Value #1:  Deliver WOW Through Service

The word “wow” implies surprise, which in turn refers to the unusual — in this case, unexpected delight.  One may be tempted to say that getting to “wow” should not be too difficult in the realm of customer service, since most of our expectations are set so low.  Of course, you know what the problem is with low expectations:  They are a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It goes something like this . . .

Customer:  Retail employees are either rude or they just don’t care, so I’m going to be realistic and won’t expect much.  Just get me through this transaction and out the door as quickly as possible.

Retail Employee:  Customers are either rude or they’re just clueless, so I’m just going to do the zombie thing and get through my day on auto-pilot.  They don’t pay me enough for this!

See what I mean?  This is depressing.  Fortunately, when you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.  Even as small a gesture as a smile tends to surprise customers these days.

Now, to take it a step further (e-commerce edition):

Customer:  It’s the holiday season, so they always jack up the prices and I’m going to have to pay a lot more than I really should.  With holiday backups, who knows whether my order will arrive in time for Christmas.  When it gets here, the box will probably be smashed or torn open and my merchandise will either be damaged or will be the wrong item, color or size.

Call Center Employee:  Lady, I’m just doing my job.  I have no control over that stuff.  Gimme a break, will ya?

Sadly, I can’t blame the customer for having expectations that all too often ring true.  There is no excuse for the call center employee, however.  This is a classic case of not taking ownership of the situation, otherwise known as “passing the buck.”  It’s a terminal case of I-don’t-care.

My question to you is:  Why should a customer plunking down her hard-earned money patronize businesses offering this type of customer service?  Some may think that it’s just a fact of life, that there isn’t any alternative.  Happily, Zappos and likeminded companies have proven that there is another way.

To me, the “wow” factor starts with keeping your promises.  Everything advertised should be immediately available, and in the desired style, color and size.  It continues with a positive attitude:  Customer service representatives should have a smile in their voices, deep product knowledge, a willingness to go out of the way to be helpful, a positive attitude and unwavering courtesy.  Find a way to say “yes.”  Respect the customer and the customer may surprise you by respecting you.  Next, the business must come through by delivering the correct item at the correct price on time, or early if possible.  Little treats like a discount coupon for next time are helpful to further encourage repeat business.  Finally, when things go wrong, as they inevitably will at times, sincere apologies must be backed up with immediately making the situation right, whatever that may entail.  The company must take a personal interest in the customer’s satisfaction, whether that involves re-sending the item ordered and refunding the customer’s money, delivering the item in person or, as shown in the recent movie The Intern, providing the customer with the company owner’s personal cell phone number.  If you can make the customer say “Wow!,” not only will you have a customer for life, but your customer will tell everyone he or she knows about the wonderful service experienced.

I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to be a part of a work environment that treats the “wow” factor as status quo.  It has to be empowering to work in a place where, instead of being an exception, providing amazing service is all in a day’s work.  There is nothing unusual about it.

It is well known that happiness is contagious.  Why settle for grumpy employees and customers when it is just as easy to have cheerful employees and delighted customers?  When you enjoy what you’re doing and you have a desire to please, the love shines through and brightens the day of the customers you serve.  And coming to work becomes nothing short of pure joy.

Customer “service” is not just a convenient term for salespeople.  It really does mean that we are servants, whose goal must be to please the customer, not to blindly follow scripts or policy or just get through the day.  The most successful businesses, those who inspire true loyalty, are those who understand that we are here to do the will of the customer, not the other way around.

Of course, taking care of the employees is an important part of the formula.  You have to “wow” them, too, which means lots of fun and frivolity!  At Zappos, this includes things like free food, the ability to bring your dog to work, and a steady parade of ruckus and circus that makes coming to work fun. I guess I’m not alone.  Everyone probably wants to work there.

To reiterate, Uncle Guacamole’s four steps to delivering “wow” through service are:

  • Keep your promises
  • Maintain a positive attitude at all times
  • Find a way to say “yes”
  • Move heaven and earth to make it right, no gesture too grand

Happy holidays!

Tomorrow: Zappos Core Value # 2 – Embrace and Drive Change

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Great Pumpkin

Among the few things I still enjoy about Halloween is watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” on TV.  They usually run it a couple of times, but this year I had my wife record it on DVR so that I could watch it on the weekend when I knew I would have time to enjoy it properly.  I know that I could have watched in online, but it wouldn’t be the same experience as seeing it on a big screen TV with a bag of potato chips and a tall iced tea.  All in all, I suppose it’s become one of my guilty pleasures.

We are now just a couple of years away from the fiftieth anniversary of this classic show.  I wish Charles Schultz had lived long enough to witness that milestone.  Not many performances, live or animated, on the big or small screens, can boast of that magnitude of longevity.

I was pleased to learn that ABC continues to bring in ratings and advertising revenue from “Great Pumpkin” (although not from my wife and I, as we fast forwarded through the commercials, thank you very much).  Well, duh, if it were otherwise, the show would long ago have faded into history and ended up as the subject of an obscure trivia question on Jeopardy.

I noticed the hash tag in the corner of the screen and then read online that the show received a fair bit of traffic on Twitter.  I don’t think anyone could have imagined Twitter, the internet, DVRs or big screen TVs back when the show first aired in 1966.  I am pleased to see that the best of popular culture survives the tests of time and technology.  And I hope that, generations from now, the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the Baby Boomers continue to have the opportunity to usher in the holiday season with “Great Pumpkin” and still find it to be a treat rather than a trick.

A few of the lines in “Great Pumpkin” strike me as rather forward thinking and ahead of their time.  I am particularly thinking of the scene early in the show when Charlie Brown can’t believe that Linus is actually writing a letter to the Great Pumpkin again.  When Linus describes his beliefs regarding the Great Pumpkin rising out of the pumpkin patch and bringing toys to all the girls and boys, Charlie Brown shakes his head and mutters “must be denominational differences!”  Remember, this was written a good forty years before the concepts of political correctness and multiculturalism entered into the public consciousness and vocabulary.

I get a particular kick out of the way that every major character in the show nurses his or her own favorite fantasy.  We may feel sorry for Linus spending the night in the pumpkin patch and having his most fervent hopes dashed once again.  But what about Charlie Brown?  He, of course, is the perennial loser.  He believes that:

  • this will be the year that Lucy finally allows him to kick the football (before falling flat on his face yet again)
  • he will collect lots of goodies when he goes out trick or treating with all his friends (and then ends up with a bag full of rocks)
  • he has finally come up in the world in that, for the first time in his life, he has been invited to a party (before Lucy disabuses him of this foolish notion, noting that his name must have been erroneously taken from the “list of people not to invite”).

But what of little Sally, who remains (at least for a while) loyal to Linus, as both of them freeze out in the pumpkin patch?  Just as Linus believes in the Great Pumpkin, Sally believes in Linus (and thereby loses out on both candy and the Halloween party).

And what about Snoopy, the World War I flying ace, who believes that his doghouse is a Sopwith Camel and that he can chase down the Red Baron?  (At least until he is shot down behind enemy lines in France.)

Even Lucy, smarter than all of them combined and forever cast as the villain, opines that one’s Halloween costume should be diametrically opposed to one’s personality.  The joke, of course, is that she dresses up as a witch.

I like the way that Schultz has Linus compare and contrast the Great Pumpkin with Santa Claus.  Just because GP isn’t as well known as the jolly man in red, he muses, doesn’t mean that the flying squash is any less deserving of his loyalty.

Let’s hear it for equal opportunity cultural myths.

I can hardly wait for the airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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Ghosts of Halloweens Past

I have always been rather ambivalent about Halloween.

I tend to think of Halloween as primarily a kids’ holiday that, as a childless adult, doesn’t really have that much to do with me.

Then there’s the whole religious thing, both the Jewish one and the Christian one.  I get a good laugh reading novelist Adam Langer’s description of how kids in Hebrew school are told that this is a Christian holiday named for St. Halloween.  He’s kidding, of course, but if you’ve been through a Jewish religious education, this is funny in a bitter sort of way.

I remember being five and six years old and being allowed to go collect candy from a few old ladies who we knew on various floors of our walkup in the Bronx.  After that, however, I was supposed to be old enough to understand, via my Orthodox Jewish education, that trick or treating is just not something that Jews do.  We have Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover.  The goyim have Christmas, Easter and Halloween.  On Thanksgiving, all of us eat turkey, although “theirs” is a Butterball and “ours” is an Empire.

I had been an adult for a couple of decades before I began to understand the Christian objection to Halloween as a Pagan festival that glorifies a host of images related to the occult.

So if the Christians and the Jews are both opposed to Halloween, why do we still celebrate it?  Considering the objections of most of the United States’ major faiths, one would think that this holiday would have faded into obscurity long ago.

I think it comes back to the kids, to our nation’s insatiable sweet tooth and to the boost in the economy resulting from the purchase of everything from tacky Halloween costumes to candy corn to plastic jack-o’-lanterns.  I was in the Goodwill store today to make a donation, and they had all the racks set up neatly by category — angels, devils, witches, vampires, feather boas.  (Feather boas?)  The place was packed.

It’s always about money, isn’t it?  It’s not much different than the commercialization of Christmas, about which I expect to encounter much hand-wringing in the next couple of months.  No one seems to care who you worship these days, as long as we all worship money.  (Goodness, I am getting bitter in my old age!)

I suppose there is some part of me that longs for a more innocent time when there weren’t so many Christian radio stations decrying Halloween as a tool of Satan and when the Jewish and Christian kids of suburbia ran about the streets in packs, dressed as hobos, witches, black cats and pirates, all collecting Tootsie Rolls and Bit O’ Honeys along with pennies for UNICEF.  The days when we’d load up the station wagon and head up to Dressel Farms for donuts and cider fresh from the press, bringing home pumpkins to cart into our elementary school classrooms on the school bus.  The days when you could still hang a bunch of Indian corn on your door and light a candle inside a pumpkin shell on your front step without being a sinner.  Sure, things weren’t perfect.  We weren’t allowed to take any apples because they might have razor blades hidden inside.  But all the neighborhood kids stuck together and no one worried about being lured into a strange car and being kidnapped by a rapist.  We all ended up back at home, safe and sound, with a huge load of trick or treat candy that we fought over with our brothers and sisters even though the vast sugar haul would last us at least until Thanksgiving.

Back then, Halloween was still fun.  None of us were scared out of our wits by Freddie Kruger or bloody apparitions jumping out at us from the darkened interiors of “haunted houses.”

The only thing we had to be afraid of was our next dentist appointment.

Christmas in September

wreath

Hey!  All you last minute procrastinators had better get on the stick.  There are only 102 days left until Christmas.

Before you start pummeling me, allow me to assure you that there is evidence aplenty of the impending arrival of Santa.  In fact, word on the street is that the big man has put on mandatory overtime for the elves on account of the lateness of the hour.

I don’t know what it is that has led me to begin humming bell songs.  You know, the ones about jingle bells, silver bells, carol of the bells.  Ding dong.

At first, I thought it was just the festive atmosphere surrounding preparations for my grandniece’s upcoming birthday party that was getting to me.  She’ll be two years old, so this Christmas will be the first time she will really be able to appreciate all the hoopla.  Last December, she was barely a year old and I don’t think she was able to understand too much about what was going on.

I guess it’s probably the snow that did it.  Sure, here in northern California, the mercury has climbed over 100°F daily for weeks and all of us are dripping sweat and wilting like buds that are past their primes.  But I hear the Rocky Mountains had a pretty good snowstorm last week.  Fellow blogger Trouble Face Mom of Calgary, Alberta (yes, that’s Canada) thoroughly entertained me with her tale of how she dealt with three consecutive days of snow.  She was starting to get depressed, considering it’s only September and officially still summer.  So her family took the only logical course of action.  They put up the tree, roasted a turkey and had Christmas.

What really got to me, however, was a visit to Sam’s Club.  We needed to pick up hot dogs and buns for a church function.  But mostly, it was a water run.  You see, water is always on our minds these days.  Between the ongoing drought, the forest fires and the heat wave, some days water is all we think about.  And when we’re not thinkin’ it, we’re drinkin’ it.  The water here is contaminated, so we purify tap water and still have to buy bottled water.  Cases and cases of it.

I did a double take right after pushing a shopping cart into that cavernous warehouse.  There it was, right in front of the checkout registers.  Artificial trees all lit up in red and green and gold.  The regular green kind and the ones with fake white needles that are supposed to look as if they have been snowed upon.  Globular ornaments that looked like miniatures of the big balls from Wipeout.  Flocking.

You read me right.  Flocking, for heaven’s sake.  Faux snow.  In September.

I know, this is California, we need fake snow because we never get any of the genuine item.  I’d be happy to just get a little of our “poor man’s snow.”  You know, that wet stuff that drips from the eaves and causes (gasp) puddles.  I have it on good authority that the proper name of this substance is “rain.”  This is how I know:  There was a sign posted on the local frozen yogurt shop yesterday, offering a 10% discount on all froyo purchased when it is raining.  Believe me, they don’t have to worry about losing so much as a penny in receipts.

So yes, I do realize that we are supposed to have Thanksgiving and Halloween before José Feliciano begins singing “Feliz Navidad.”  The back to school sales are still going on and the stores are just now beginning to pull out the dusty boxes full of cardboard pumpkins and Indian corn.

My father insists that, back in the day, it was against the law to so much as mention the C word before Black Friday.  So you tell me what a ubiquitous box store is doing with the PVC and LED Tannenbaum displays in mid-September.  The least they could do is wait until after Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, don’t you think?

Well, there’s only one possible explanation for this madness.  Clearly, the stores are trying to remind us to get crackin’ before it’s too late.

After all, there are only 102 days left until Christmas.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUPGxVCIvrI

Bluehairs

blue hair

I have always understood “bluehairs” to be a pejorative term for old ladies.  From whence did this disparaging term arise?  Equating white hair with blue doesn’t make much sense to me.  Does this have something to do with poor hair coloring jobs performed by questionable salons upon the white hair of seniors?  And why doesn’t this disparaging term seem to apply to men?

In my quest for elucidation on the subject, I checked a few online dictionaries.  (My real dictionaries are languishing in boxes in my parents’ garage about 3½ hours’ drive down the interstate.  I miss my doorstop pals.)

dictionary

Webster’s online dictionary completely omits the terms “bluehair” and “bluehairs,” leading one to believe that the word is too controversial for that website’s conservative sensibilities.

Citing to Richard Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions (4th ed.), dictionary.reference.com provides no hint of word origin, simply defining the term as “an old lady, especially one whose hair is tinted blue.”  I still don’t understand why an old lady, or anyone for that matter, would want to tint his or her hair blue.

The Urban Dictionary offers multiple possible definitions of the term; one that provides a bit more insight is “an old person, but especially a slick, well-dressed retiree that still thinks that they have it going on.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.  Although I continue to remain ignorant regarding the connection between the color blue and the forelocks of our esteemed elders, I am starting to see that the disparaging nature of the term “bluehairs” has more to do with attitude than pigment.

Now, some of Urban Dictionary’s suggested usage examples refer to the term in the context of little old ladies with poor driving habits and stature that has shrunk to the point that only their blue hair is visible above the steering wheel.  That is a rather low blow, don’t you think?  It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out that our fear of aging has reduced us to the point of belittling those whose physical features so clearly exclude them from the American worshipful cult of youth.

Fear of aging is just one piece of the puzzle, however.  I can’t help thinking that perhaps the use of negative-sounding terms to describe senior citizens betrays a bit of “longevity envy.”  With everything from the environment to politics going to hell, we doubt that we ourselves will ever make it to the proud ranks of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.

word freak

In his book Word Freak (arguably the best book ever written about the subculture of tournament Scrabble), Stefan Fatsis bemoans the fact that, early in his Scrabble tournament career, he was soundly trounced again and again by the “blue hairs” of the circuit.  Fatsis’ use of the term could be interpreted as a way of feeling better about ourselves by resorting to put-downs of those with greater experience who give the lie to the conventional wisdom that younger is better.

Betty

When in the mood for some mindless entertainment, I have been known to check out Betty White’s TV show “Off Their Rockers” on NBC.  Here’s where we move into what I like to refer to as “longevity levity.”  Ms. White and her crew seek to turn the bluehair stereotype on its head by “punking” members of the younger generation who never see it coming.  Among her stock in trade is poking fun at the common misconception that those in their eighties and beyond have no interest in sex and would probably die of a heart attack should they ever attempt such a strenuous, risky maneuver.  My favorite bit is the one in which she asks a stranger to have sex with her right there in the street so that she can cross this item off her bucket list.  The look on the young man’s face (not to mention the fact that he actually considers it) is priceless.

I don’t know whether Betty White’s antics will succeed in turning around Americans’ attitudes toward the elderly.  Either way, it appears that the term “bluehairs” remains reserved for a special variety of “uncoolness” that we like to attribute to old folks.  But, as we know, all things eventually come full circuit.

blue anime

And sure enough, digging further, I discovered that having blue hair has become cool again!  One of the contributors to Urban Dictionary points out that having characters with blue hair is “a necessity in anime.”  But of course!  I had totally forgotten that blue hair (usually bright blue) is a standard of Japanese animation.  As my Bay Area niece and nephew (who are into such things) would quickly point out, no self-respecting Japanese graphic novel or comic is without at least one character with blue hair, and usually a heroine at that!

So, thanks to our wonderfully rich, constantly evolving English language, it seems that the term “bluehair” is gradually transitioning from an insult to a badge of honor.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s hard not to notice how blue hair (and green and pink and purple hair) has been gaining a foothold in popularity among the young.  Could it be (Heavens!) that the young are actually imitating the old?

These days, most of us barely take notice when a young woman or man with a blue streak in his or her hair, as well as a pierced lip, tongue and eyebrow, is seen walking down the street or pushing a shopping cart at Wal-Mart.  (The phrase “blue streak” deserves a blog post of its own.  Once used to indicate speed, as in something that goes by in a flash, it is now primarily associated with profanity, as in “swearing a blue streak.”)  I was once placed in the ignominious position of trying to keep a straight face as I conversed with a young woman who had her hair parted in the middle, with one side dyed entirely bright blue while the other side was flecked with streaks of deep red.  I have to stop being such a fuddy-duddy and recognize self-expression when I see it.  But it’s still hard not to laugh.

So when I walked into Starbucks on Thursday (after they once again got my drink order wrong in the drive-through), I barely registered an amused grin when I noticed that a woman sipping a latte at a table in the center of the store had bright blue spiky hair that might have been a bad attempt at imitating a cerulean Statue of Liberty.

As I waited for the barista to remake my decaf soy latte, I slowly registered the fact that the bluehair Lady Liberty wannabe was sharing her small table with a Renaissance maiden and Merlin, the magician.

I had forgotten that it was Halloween.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Uncle Guacamole

pumpkin

My mother called last night and asked whether I am depressed because I am unemployed.  I assured her that such is not the case, that it is so nice to relax and to be able to do what I want to do rather than what I have to do.  But you know how it is, mothers are always worried, so they are hard to convince.

I wish you had been here today, Mom.  Then perhaps you’d understand.

My niece has college classes very early on Wednesday mornings, so she saved some time by bringing her baby over here yesterday in the evening.  The little one was with us all night and most of the day today.  At one year old, she is a handful for my wife and mother-in-law to handle together.  It is a wonder that my niece, or any mother, can retain her sanity.  I have learned that, at this age, they require attention every minute.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again:  There is nothing like being surrounded by extended family.  Many humorous and maddeningly frustrating moments result, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  I just soak it all in and bask in the glow.

The baby takes a few steps here and there, but mostly she toddles back and forth and it is necessary to keep an eye on her at all times.  She is fond of opening and closing cabinets, hiding behind furniture, pulling on cords and knocking things over.  Today, we brought over her favorite toy, a doll-sized stroller that she likes to push about without a doll in it.  Her latest gift was a plush Eeyore that is supposed to be Halloween-themed, but looks to me as if it has antlers on its head.  I call it Rudolph the Red-Nosed Eeyore, and the little one loves to cuddle it.

Little Miss Trouble wanders between us, checking on who is willing to give her attention at any given moment.  All the while, we have Baby TV playing in the background.  If you are not familiar with this British-based Fox franchise, let me just say that after about five continuous hours, you feel like you’re getting soft in the head and your brains are turning to a soupy mush.  But the Bug wiggles her diapered bottom and dances to the music, so we get a lot of laughs and have no choice but to keep the baby shows playing.

Last week, I ended up sharing some guacamole with the Bug at a family get-together.  Then last night we had some overripe avocados, so I made a fresh batch.  Guess who crawled over for a taste.  Now my wife is trying to teach the baby to call me Uncle Guacamole.

Other than that, the day was uneventful, except for the time my wife was holding the baby in her lap when the Bug suddenly thrust her head backward into my wife’s face, nearly giving her a black eye.  Ouchie!

Oh, and then my niece came over with a friend and a pumpkin after her classes were done for the day.  They sat out on the walk with Little Miss Fussy and carved a pumpkin.  After that, we watched the little one so that my niece could take her mother out to dinner to butter her up.  It worked.  She returned with her septum pierced.

See, Mom?  You have nothing to worry about.  My cup runneth over with love. 

Daily Prompt: Or is the New I (The Whichness of What)

Today’s Daily Prompt challenges bloggers to go over to a favorite blog and pick out the fourth and fourteenth words to complete the phrase “___ is the new ___.”

I knew right away that I would cast my lot with A Clown on Fire and hope that one of the two critical words wasn’t an embarrassing swear.  (I still love you, Eric, even though you have an insufferable potty mouth.)

Well, didn’t I just draw the booby prize?  Apparently, “or” is the new “I.”

I could have laughed at the ridiculousness of this, proceeding to another blog post haste.  But that would be cheating, and what kind of example is that to set for my fellow bloggers?

My predicament is reminiscent of a story my father likes to tell of his elementary school days in New York City during World War II.  All the men were off fighting in the European and Pacific theaters and every teacher was of the female persuasion.  Most of them were “old biddies,” as Dad tells it, doddering meanies who, in better times, would have long since retired.

These were teachers who, turning red in the face when a student misbehaved, would shake the hapless kid by the shoulders and yell at the top of her lungs: “What sort of family do you come from?  What sort of parents do you have?  Were you raised in a barn??!!”

Now, my father reports that he enjoyed playing pranks and showing off his sassy mouth just a bit too much for the teachers’ refined tastes.  For example, when sternly told “Take your seat!,” he would lift the chair off the floor and, with an innocent expression, ask “where should I take it to?”  As you may imagine, his ability to engender mirth and merriment made him rather popular with his classmates.

Of course, there were consequences.  Among the worst of the punishments he experienced was being required to stay after school to write an essay on “the whichness of what.”

I have often wondered how I would attack such a task.  As “whichness” is itself a nonce word, I suppose it could be assigned any meaning desired, à la Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.  Perhaps influenced by the approach of Halloween, I rather think I would misspell the word as “witchness” and write a good old fashioned ghost story.

But I digress.  More important subjects beg our attention.  After all, or is the new I, you know.

“Or” is the epitome of choice, and choice is what we all want, isn’t it?  Not according to the current Ford Focus commercial, “And is Better.”  And here I was thinking that we resent having things forced on us, that we want to be the ones who get to choose.  Apparently, I am wrong.  We don’t want choice — we want it all!  To hell with “or;” we want “and!”

But what of the “I,” the ego, the self?  If, contrary to Ford’s assertion, or (not and) is the new I, then we have allowed the overwhelmingly desire for choice to completely take over our identity.  Instead of seeing ourselves as a teeming mass of family background, education, hopes, dreams and loves, we have given it all up for the privilege of choice.  Tell me not who you really are, instead tell me what your choices were and which you selected.

Personally, I’ve always seen myself as something of a rebel, at least when it comes to choices.  Forget Choices A, B, C or D.  Just mark me down as “none of the above.”

 

Christmas Comes Early in America

menorah tree

When my niece and her friend walked in the door a couple of nights ago, I could tell these young ladies were all giggly about something.  Turns out the friend had spontaneously started singing a Christmas carol, which got them all exuberant about the upcoming holiday season.  I expressed approval of such positive thoughts, but what stuck in my mind is:  We still have a couple of weeks to go until Halloween; isn’t it a bit early to be thinking about Christmas?

Apparently not.

cornucopia

Traditionally, the holiday season in the United States kicks off the day after Thanksgiving (known to retailers as Black Friday), the biggest shopping day of the year.  Just after midnight, the “door buster” sales begin, the success of which determines whether many businesses make it or break it for the entire year.  I never cease to be amused at the lines of people extending out from the doors of the big box stores, (im)patiently waiting all night (and sometimes comically consuming their Thanksgiving dinners) in their lawn chairs and sleeping bags.

As the years go by, however, it seems that the holiday season begins earlier and earlier, the rotten economy notwithstanding.  After all, the survival of retail sales is at stake, so every store will be sure to do its utmost to let the public know that Christmas is just around the corner, by golly.  Let’s get the children in a parent-annoying frenzy as early as possible.  All you kids out there, get off the freakin’ PlayStation and write your wanna-wanna and gotta-have lists for Santa immediately.  This will give you plenty of time to add to and lengthen your lists so that your parents and assorted relatives will have no choice but to buy, buy, buy and thereby save the American economy from going to wrack and ruin.

To me, the holiday season begins whenever I hear the first Christmas song while out in public.  Some years this happens over my car radio when some zealous DJ is suddenly overcome with a burst of holiday feeling.  One year it happened right after we sat down to eat at Outback Steakhouse, when the grating rock music they tend to play suddenly switched over to Madonna performing her version of “Santa Baby.”  Another year it happened while I was taking a dump in a Burger King men’s room and what should I hear over the public address system but the opening notes of “Silent Night” being crooned by Bing Crosby.

You never know where it will happen, but one thing is constant:  It always takes me by surprise.  And my first thought is always the same:  No, no, not yet!  It’s only October!  Can’t you people at least wait until November
1?  You know, the day after Halloween?

jack

And so, two days after my niece and her friend brought the issue to my attention, it happened.  The 2013 holiday season officially began on October 16 as I pushed a shopping cart through Wal-Mart.  This had nothing to do with the store’s choice of music-to-buy-by, either.  No, my wife and I were in the baby aisles looking for diapers for my grandniece when I had the bad luck to hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” blaring out of a Fisher-Price display.  Tag, I’m it!

Sigh.

You know what they say:  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

And so, conceding to the inevitable, I have Michael Bublé singing a jaunty version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” through my late night headphones.

Luckily for me, music closer to the holiday traditions of my own faith are more readily available now than ever.  And so I am thrilled and delighted to have discovered Matisyahu (the singing Chasid from Brooklyn) performing “Happy Hanukkah (I Wanna Give a Gift to You)” in his wonderful reggae style.  Thanks, Spotify (and YouTube).

And to you, all my readers, I say merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and, uh, trick or treat!  And to all a good night.